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Joyelle McSweeney’s Death Styles guttingly manifests the time-estranging effects of maternal grief. 

Written in the aftermath of the death of the poet’s thirteen-day-old daughter, the voice—with gripping intensity and dark humor—gives in to the stretches and perversions wrought by the black hole made by a life and a future pulled back into the raw material that futures are made from. There are slippages in the unpunctuated lines where the speaker’s mind seems to get sucked back and forth in time: “We put gel in her hair / for the EEG / then decided to scrap the test / so she died with her black hair gunky / I hate that / where were we when / I hate that / where were we when / I don’t hold her” (“8.11.20”) and these moments slot the reader into the quandary outlined in the book’s afterward: the need to reconcile grief’s desperate reach backward in time with survival’s need to travel forward.   

As a motif that surprises each time it resurfaces with a strange new characterization, clocks and watches recur throughout the collection. In “8.24.20”, the lines: “the little guy with the clawhammer / alarms the clockface so delirium tremendously / he cannot advance the plot” call up the way meaning is either extracted from or injected into narrative (depending on your faith in the process) via consequence, and of that E.M. Forster assertion that “The king died and then the queen died” is not a plot until you add “of grief.” In the prose poem, “8.13.20,” the speaker recounts, “After the baby dies you are all struck with lice. Your daughter asks you, Why do I have lice? You answer, Dunno, why anything, why did the baby die, as you comb away the lice.” These lines hurt to read, in part, because they disallow causal significance, refute narrative satisfaction.  

But clear in the wrenching back-slips, the anguish which warps regimented time (and the language within it: alter top, lie detester), is the effort toward a more capacious sense of the present, if not through the arc or chronology of plot, then through the flexible parameters and exigencies of sound and syntax. In “8.25.20”, the past traumatically re-exerts itself in the sonic repetition, as if having passed through a hole knifed in the present: “As luckier women / stagger the halls held up by balloons / oh get me a beret / to hold my brain in / the creek gotta rise / in the birth canal / in the parking structure / in the retaining wall / in the hospital planter / let something rise / then let it fall…” Simultaneously, the dependent clause launched by As keeps us reaching forward in the sentence, even as it extends, groping hopefully for that solid ground of a stand-alone idea that doesn’t need what came before to make sense. The poems in Death Styles turn a crank that ratchets a moment open, wider and wider, to offer a remarkable, material illustration of grief and of the enormous capacity of what the present can hold.   

Rosalie Moffett is the author of the poetry collections Making a Living (Milkweed Editions, 2025), Nervous System (Ecco, 2019), which was chosen by Monica Youn for the National Poetry Series Prize and listed by the New York Times as a New and Notable book, and June in Eden (OSU Press, 2017). She has been awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and her work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, POETRY Magazine, New England Review, and Kenyon Review, among others. She is an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern Indiana, and the senior poetry editor for the Southern Indiana Review.   

Joyelle McSweeney is a Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.  A recipient of a 2022 Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry, McSweeney’s published works span poetry, prose, drama, translation, and criticism. Her debut volume The Red Bird (2001) inaugurated the Fence Modern Poets Series; her verse play Dead Youth, or the Leaks (2012) inaugurated the Leslie Scalapino Prize for Innovative Women Playwrights; and her most recent double-collection, her co-translation with Jack Jung, Don Mee Choi, and Sawako Nakayasu of Yi Sang’s Selected Works received numerous recognitions, including the 2021 MLA Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of Literary Work.  

Monthly reviews of books written by Indiana authors are made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities. Opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the reviewer, not any affiliated entity.