March 15, 2010

'Losing' exhibit shows grief's faces

Kevin Young

“…The sound of men scraping and scraping what I can’t quite see, spreading the cool concrete over you by hand. And it takes long, so long, like death — like we once thought life…” —From “Burial [No Woman No Cry]” by Kevin Young

The elegy, a poet’s lament for the dead, can take many forms. Some drip with despair. Others offer consolation by directly confronting loss. Still others cheer life, even in its darkest hour.

The multiple faces of the elegy will be on display at “The Art of Losing” exhibition opening today at the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) on the 10th floor of Woodruff Library. The exhibition consists of 46 pieces — first-edition books, journal entries and artwork that serve to illuminate grief’s private journey.

“Poetry is able to confront loss in such a direct, powerful, lyrical, instantaneous way that few other forms can,” says Kevin Young, co-curator of the exhibition and Atticus Haygood Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory.

The exhibition coincides with the March 16 release of Young’s anthology of the same name, which includes poems by Young, Elizabeth Alexander, e.e. cummings, Seamus Heaney, Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton and Emory Pulitzer-winner Natasha Trethewey. Trethewey, professor of English and Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry, will be joining Young to read selections from the anthology at the Decatur Library March 18.

The exhibition features several works reprinted in “The Art of Losing” anthology and mirrors its six-part structure, beginning with “Reckoning” and concluding with “Redemption.”

Highlights include a letter written by John Berryman to fellow poet Vernon Watkins after witnessing the death of their friend, celebrated Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas. The exhibition marks the first public appearance of the letter, written in 1953 and recently acquired by Young in his role as curator of literary collections and the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at MARBL.

Also on display is a limited edition printing of Pulitzer-Prize winner Paul Muldoon’s poem, “Incantata,” written for his ex-lover, Mary Farl Powers. The poem is accompanied by one in a series of Muldoon’s abstract potato-print paintings. A first-edition copy of Langston Hughes’ rarest book, “Dear Lovely Death,” is included with a journal entry from publisher and philanthropist Amy Spingarn, reflecting on Hughes’ life.

“While these elegies are very personal, they convey a shared sense of the experience of grief and loss,” says exhibition co-curator Elizabeth Chase, MARBL’s coordinator for research services and a doctoral student in English. “They chart the ebb and flow of the experience. It’s not an absolutely linear progression.”

Adds Young: “This is a very reflective and contemplative exhibition, but joyous in the end. Elegies are written for the living, in a way. I hope these poems offer some sustenance.”

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Related Information

  • The “Art of Losing” exhibition runs until Dec. 28 and is free and open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday-Saturday. MARBL is located on the 10th floor of the Woodruff Library.
  • Young Awarded Prestigious Fellowship