“Aether,” as those of a certain age, as I am, may remember, “was used in medicine in the past to prevent patients from feeling pain during operations.” It has also been defined as “the material that fills the region of the universe above the terrestrial sphere.”
The lyric essay form that Catherine Graham has chosen to explore both types of aether suits her material very well. There’s a lightness on the page with the short lines of poetry interspersed with paragraphs of prose that is very much appreciated given the emotional weightiness of the narrator’s story.
The narrator writes of the death of her parents “during my undergraduate years” and of having cancer. She also refers to relationships she’s had with men as well as with a troublesome grandmother.
The narrator alternates point of view: “Your parents die and you become a writer. / I shall go on.” That sounds as if it is a voice from the aether, letting the only child, bereft of her parents, know she will manage on her own.
After surgery for breast cancer, the narrator says: “Before my coming out of aether, I talked to my mother.” She means the mother who passed away many years before.
The word “quarry” appears often, as the narrator’s novel of that name “has been rejected by every publisher / your agent contacted.” There is also the actual quarry where she has lived, and a metaphorical one: “Grief is a pit, a quarry.” Sometimes she realizes “the quarry holds a path of treasure jewels. It glitters forward.”
A therapist offers advice throughout the book, such as: “It’s dangerous not to verbalize / what we don’t talk about,” says my therapist. / “Secrets promote damage. They can’t be processed.”
The narrator has chosen not to keep secrets so that her acknowledgements and realizations are like the jewels of the quarry. She says that her parents “didn’t read much / but they both read people. / He, their words. / She, the silences between the words. / Mix them together: poetry.”
The memories are non-chronological, as are our own memories of the past. The narrator tells people who ask her that her writing comes from grief: “The loss of my parents.” Later, she admits to herself: The story of my parents is bigger than me – / their lives through their deaths have become my life.”
“And a poet survives coming out of aether,” the narrator says near the end of the book.
While the poet’s journey may have come out of the aether, and all the visitations and memories that entails, there’s a groundedness in that acknowledgment of survival. Readers can be reassured by the end of the book that it is possible to travel from reverie to revelations and a form of wholeness.