This is part of a combined review for I Had a Brother Once: A Poem, A Memoir.
In the similar heart-breaking epic style as Edward Hirsch’s elegiac poem Gabriel, two recently published book-length poems — Adam Mansbach’s I Had a Brother Once and Jill Bialosky’s Asylum—are both painfully tragic explorations of grief following a family member’s suicide. Mansbach and Bialosky both rely on their Jewish faith and Jewish history to interpret and make sense of their siblings’ suicides, despite this ultimately being an impossible task. Survivors’ guilt and the question of “What if?” haunts both of them, as their ignorance regarding their siblings’ depression and feelings of isolation is a recurring nightmare.
Mansbach’s book is labeled both poem and memoir, as he lyrically weaves together the busy happenings of his own successful professional life with the horror and shock of his brother’s suicide, which he kept private for a long time, even while on tour for his best-selling adult picture book, Go the F**K to Sleep. He worries that someone will find out about his brother’s death and confront him about it, peeling away a protective mask that he wears when being a public writer and entertainer. Mansbach writes, “break[ing] down on camera is not / in anybody’s interest” and “what would my friends think, / i wondered, watching me…what would i think of myself / if the mask did not at least slip?” Mansbach writes about his feelings of selfishness, sadness, anger, and confusion surrounding his brother’s death and his struggles separating his public persona from his private mourning.
The metaphor of the mask, both as a coping mechanism for survivors of suicide victims and for those suffering and hiding their depression, recurs throughout Mansbach’s book and is also mentioned in Bialosky’s book. When writing about the process of going through her sister’s possessions after her death, Bialosky writes,
A drawer of junk jewelry, combs & brushes,
sweatshirts, made-of-honor dress wrapped in cello—
phane & stored like shadows in the closet…
…a life mask made of strips
of papier-mâché as if to mock
the dead’s eternal masquerade.
Where Mansbach’s poem is more narrative and directly addresses reactions to grief, Bialosky’s poem is more lyrically driven, combining images within nature, excerpts from historical documents, and a stream-of-consciousness style that creates associations between ideas and images that at first seem unrelated. Asylum, which is divided into five sections that each have small “lyrics” within them, proves that when grief transforms us, we look for patterns to make sense of the world. In nature and through yoga, Bialosky finds inspiration and relief. Several times, she quotes yoga instructors who encourage her to “breathe through [her] struggle” and use the tree pose as a way to metaphorically root herself to the ground and be in the present moment. Bialosky weaves this spiritual meditation with historical and scientific facts ranging from descriptions of carbon monoxide poisoning to a list of terms used by various mainstream religions in response to suicide within their cultures. These excerpts help Bialosky place her sister’s suicide within a larger societal conversation about why suicide happens and how it forever impacts family members.
Both writers evoke the Holocaust in ways that help them contextualize their siblings’ suicides within the larger Jewish experience of existential crises, along with the horrific images of gas-induced deaths. Bialosky quotes Paul Celan, a Holocaust survivor and poet who succumbed to suicide, throughout her book as a way to create links in Jewish history between moments of collective and personal trauma. Some of her lyrics on nature evoke the connectedness between the natural world and the spiritual world as a way of understanding her experience, while also peppering in statements about suicides during and after the Holocaust. In a short prose lyric, Bialosky begins, “Beneath the soil is an underground system of roots, a connected family that shares their nutrients. If a tree or plant is under duress, sometimes the giving of nutrients from one to the other will bring a sick tree back to life.” Mansbach’s regrets reveal themselves in a similar manner to Bialosky, though more conversationally and confessionally:
…in my head that’s where
he always is, sitting in his car
with me screaming don’t do it
from the back seat like some
spirit cursed to be unheard…
…asking why of all things
did it have to be gas.
Mansbach’s poem explores silence and the difficulty of being honest about traumatic experiences. He struggles explaining to his young daughter what happened to “this uncle she / cannot remember.” He tries to “…take his / picture out, show her, / try to open the blinds, / let in some air, some light.” He doesn’t want his brother’s suicide to be a mystery; he doesn’t want to be the type of father who cannot open up to his daughter and tell her the truth. He doesn’t want depression to be silenced and not written about.
Both writers scatter rhetorical questions throughout their poems, questioning how to mourn, how to move on, how to create rituals of healing. Toward the middle of her book, Bialosky writes, “What if it is those who survive who never rest?” This question feels like the center of both of these writers’ books, highlighting their struggles with regret and how to have meaningful relationships with friends, their children, their spouses, other family members, and ultimately, with themselves as they navigate the aftermath of suicide.
Jamie Wendt is the author of the poetry collection Fruit of the Earth (Main Street Rag, 2018), which won the 2019 National Federation of Press Women Book Award in Poetry. Her manuscript, Laughing in Yiddish, was a finalist for the 2022 Philip Levine Prize in Poetry. Her poems and essays have been published in various literary journals and anthologies, including Feminine Rising, Green Mountains Review, Lilith, Jet Fuel Review, the Forward, Poetica Magazine, and others. She contributes book reviews to Jewish Book Council as well as to other publications, including Literary Mama and Mom Egg Review. She has received an Honorable Mention Pushcart Prize and was nominated for Best Spiritual Literature. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska Omaha. She is a middle school Humanities teacher and lives in Chicago with her husband and two kids.