After the Death of Shostakovich Père
PANK Books, 2018
It seems creative nonfiction has become an extremely effective medium for exploring grief. This would make sense given how creative nonfiction exists (in one aspect) as a heightened kind of memoir or personal essay. It is certainly a genre of writing encompassing more but in Maya Sonenberg’s After the Death of Shostakovich Pere, readers are given an intimate exploration and expression of mourning. Sonenberg’s long essay or chapbook revolves around her father’s stroke and death ruminating on how the gravity of her father’s creativity shaped her and still influences her as a kind of eidolon.
Musing on Shotakovich’s Suite for Two Pianos, Borges’ Labyrinths, her father’s journals on his own paintings, Sonenberg isn’t looking to eulogize or exorcise the spectre of her father nor is it concerned with grief or sadness. Rather, After the Death of Shostakovich Pere is an inquiry into residual effect, how the impermanence of our mortal self through its intimate connections evokes an ethereal permanence existing by virtue of the art made (photographs, music, fiction, paintings, diaries, and memoir).
We see this when Sonenberg reconstructs her father tracing him in sharp and innocuous detail:
My father’s singing voice was sweet and he could whistle just about any tune. In high school, he played baseball and won a jitterbug contest. He once missed a birthday party. The only thing he knew how to cook was eggs. He built a dollhouse for me with working lights–I saw the battery and wires but it was still magical–somehow he’d found the tiniest lightbulbs. He and his sister played in the synagogue where his father worked as an accountant, running in and our of all the rooms upstairs, opening and closing many doors. He once threw a deck of cards towards me in frustration, a splay of anger. He made painting after painting, sculpture after sculpture, print after print. He organized dozens of political protests, taught dozens of classes, guiding other toward art.
This litany (an act that is always religious) is ritual but also “paltry recollections” leading Sonenberg to ask “are they just scraps and ashes?” Clearly, they are not. In relating to readers this outline of her father (and in the course of it sketches of herself at a variety of times), she extends presence. The telling leaves us moved not just by the images of her and her father but also internally resonating with a varied sense of mortality. Such is the experience Sonenberg has approaching her father’s journals as well as her own, “When I found the notebook again, I could dip into it. Just briefly. With trepidation. Like stepping into very cold ocean water.” She feels and generates waves.
After the Death of Shostakovich Pere is no kind of portrait or eulogy. It is, rather, an evocation, a plea to stimulate memory turning the now absent into the now present. However, it is a work knowing what is called forth is elliptical, a shade of what was. Such a meditation is a mourning meant to leave you unsettled with “The Kaddish: not a word of consolation./Not to define/In the end/in any drawing/the game played out/what/True/it is/Incomplete/all about/Dismantled.”
About the Author
Maya Sonenberg is the author of the story collections Cartographies (winner of the Drue Heinz Prize for Literature) and Voices from the Blue Hotel. 26 Abductions, a chapbook of her prose and drawings was published in 2015 by The Cupboard. Other fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Fairy Tale Review, Web Conjunctions, DIAGRAM, New Ohio Review, The Literarian, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Hotel Amerika, and numerous other journals, both in print and online. Her writing has received grants from the Washington State Arts Commission and King County 4Culture. She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Washington.