Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews A Year in the Life of Death: Poems Inspired by the Obituary Pages of The New York Times by Shawn Levy. (University of Hell Press)
The concept for Shawn Levy’s A Year in the Life of Death is simple: use the New York Times’ obituary pages to spark a book of poems. Using this as his inspiration, Shawn Levy had the notion to write a poem a day for a year. It’s a fun—albeit a little morbid—idea, but when he first decided to take this project on, he had no idea what 2016 (with a little bleed from the end of 2015 through the beginning of 2017) had in store for him.
A lot of titans died that year—way more than normal. In fact, in January of 2017, the Times answered this very question about the deaths of notables, saying, “there was an unusually high proliferation of them in 2016.” From Nancy Reagan to Muhammad Ali, David Bowie to Arnold Palmer, Prince to Janet Reno, we saw their obits and Levy explores their legacies along with people you might only know by their achievements, like the man who put the “@” in your email address and the nurse who kissed the sailor in that famous VJ Day photograph. Levy distills these lives down to their essence—whether that’s what they were known for or the aura that surrounded their lives—and then passes us poems that crack open what these people meant to us.
A Year in the Life of Death is set up by importance (as in the hierarchy of how these obits were presented in the pages of the Times), moving from “Page One” to “Below the Fold” and then off to categories like “The Arts,” “Sports,” and so on. But breaking this mold at the very beginning, Levy starts the whole thing off with a single-poem section called “Invocation.” The subject of this poem is Adele Mailer, an artist who was married to Norman Mailer. It’s an intriguing poem because it delves into what a horrid partner (and, by extension, person) Norman Mailer was. How he literally stabbed her in the back and then told the people trying to help her to “Let the bitch die.” When he died his obit was on A-1. When Adele Mailer died, she was placed on B-11 with him both in the headline and in the photo. This poem is meant to raise Adele up for her own achievements, as opposed to being touted as Norman’s “muse.”
Not a goddess but a human,
Needing no man for your value,
Inspiring with your resilient
Refusal to be erased
This is a great way to start the collection because, on the one hand, it focuses on someone who had to spend years of her life in the shadow of an abuser, but it also subtly shifts our expectations for how obits are presented, informing us that the “Page One” deaths hold cultural significance because of their impact, but that doesn’t mean we need to lionize them. Basically, I feel like this is the moment Levy tells us to be prepared for some honesty, which is great because a book that only honors the dead would be boring.
Despite this warning, I fell prey to thinking the first half of this book would be better because it had all the “famous” people. This is where we’re getting Prince (a powerful poem that parallels Levy’s own experiences with grief), Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (an extremely touching portrait), and Justice Antonin Scalia (a brilliant sidestep of a poem using well-known quotes). Basically, in my mind, I knew the collective impact these people had on our society. I knew their names, and, for some reason, that made me believe I’d enjoy them more.
Levy injects so much of himself and his experience into these poems to the point where the obits act as a catalyst for compelling insight into our larger world.
After I’d gotten to the back half of the book, reading into those lesser-known names, I found myself more engaged. A big part of this is because I was reading about people without the preconceived notions I had when it came to people like David Bowie or Arnold Palmer. I was freed of myself and started getting better insights into these lives and the impact they had on our world. Levy hooks us with the icons in the beginning and then ramps it up as the book unfolds, which, in retrospect, seems like the perfect way to write this book.
A Year in the Life of Death is a cool idea, and really that’s all that I would have needed for this book of poetry, but Levy takes it a step further. He injects so much of himself and his experience into these poems to the point where the obits act as a catalyst for compelling insight into our larger world. Each of the subjects included in this collection influenced our world in a substantial way, and by examining their impact it inherently provides us with a deeper study into our collective society. It’s clear that Levy’s passion guided and elevated this work.
Available now in paperback and eBook everywhere books are sold. Or buy directly from the publisher.
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