Book cover Peckham Resisting ElegyPeckham, Joel: Resisting Elegy: On Grief and Recovery

Illinois, Academy Chicago Publishers, 2011

by Heidemarie Z. Weidner

Where does a story begin? How does it develop and end? Joel Peckham asks these tough questions in Resisting Elegy: On Grief and Recovery, a collection of six essays in which he tries to come to terms with the sudden death of his first wife Susan and their son Cyrus. He argues that Gustav Freytag’s neat triangle of beginning, middle, and end defies how life writes its own stories. Their beginnings are unclear, their development is messy and convoluted, and their endings are anything but neat and predictable. Likewise Peckham’s stories, which reflect honestly, and often shockingly, on a couple’s difficult marriage, their cultural differences, and Peckham’s rejection of the outside world’s expectations for his grief and recovery. Nevertheless, these essays also affirm the love that once existed, and they show a man who “has to be knocked silly” (C.S. Lewis qtd 7) to discover the truth about himself.
Death, Peckham writes, while “resisting elegy,” does not clear the slate for a troubled marriage, a marriage for which the couple had cultivated the public image of togetherness, particularly whenever Susan, Peckham’s wife, and he appeared as artists, for as artists they had always treasured and supported each other. In truth, “both had strong misgivings that the marriage was a mistake(19), and they realized that former “intimacy ha[d] given way to the bitterness of a long drifting apart(10).  Both saw a Fulbright assignment in Jordan as their last chance to save their lives together.
Peckham acknowledges accusations from within: anger, confusion, fury, and guilt over the accident that, he at times believes, his “falling out of love with Susan, her falling out of love with [him], had set in motion(29).  Gradually, however, he refuses to be pressed into the mold of traditional expectations: the mourning widower, reborn celibate, surrounded by the possessions of those lost, and dedicated to the happiness of the surviving son.  “Don’t tell me how to grieve(48), he writes back bitterly to a friend who berates him for not visiting his wife’s and son’s graves oceans away. He can’t match what he thinks or feels with what he should think or feel. Other people’s stories can only be true if he, too, can be true to them. Thus he must create a new story as truthful as possible.
In the end, death does not wipe out the alienation felt in a marriage dissolving; instead, it retains the love once shared. What remain are regrets, the “sources of real grief and real pain(68), but with them comes, first dimly, then ever more clearly, the acceptance of a life that is able to let go, piece by piece, what once was: “It is a different year and I am with a different woman(107).