A review of Undying: A Love Story by Michel Faber

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

A Love Story
By Michel Faber
Hardcover, 144pages, $24.99, ISBN: 9781782118541, Aug 2016

I often wonder how people who don’t write are able to deal with grief and loss. It’s not only the therapeutic aspects of working through grief with words, but the poison of grief seems to me to be mitigated by finding, as all good writing must, the universal in the personal.  It isn’t that writing lessens the pain, but it tends to provide a scaffolding of support among all grieving people – and I suspect that’s most of us – that almost defies the loss. That’s exactly what Faber’s new book of poetry, Undying, does. The book is all about the illness and death of his wife Eva from multiple myeloma, an aggressive form of cancer that attacks the plasma. Faber’s grief is like a river that runs through the book, sometimes coming across as confused, sad, and angry, but never maudlin. Instead, grief becomes the starting point for a celebration of life. It’s not just Eva, and the many aspects of her life and death that are discovered through this work. It’s also about what it means to live in the face of such an inevitable and untimely death.

The book is split into two parts. The first focuses on Eva’s illness and goes right up to the point when she dies and her body is removed. The outcome is inevitable, and most of the poems are written after Eva has already died, but the poems in this section are charged with longing, hope, celebration, disappointment, and above all, the exhaustion that comes from continual fight. There’s an almost domestic quality to way these poems charter the ordinary struggle of six years of treatment, chemotherapy and stem-cell transplants, through fear, hope, and remission:

After dessert, we order coffee.
Let everything settle.
Your paraproteins
Are immeasurably small.
You have achieved zero.
Which is to say, the cancer in your marrow
Is now so shrunken and discreet
That numbers cannot quantify it. (“Remission”)

The poems continue to find and recreate Eva in a variety of ways. A series of artifacts come to represent her, from a lock ink black and curly hair, to a Polish feast of żurek and pancake, an x-ray scan, slippers, a dress, or a blood stained wig:

Your illness was a vast
terrain, but somehow
again and again
we found you. (“The Second-Last Time”)

Eva’s body becomes an uncharted terrain as the poet explores the terrible and beautiful aspects of how the disease begins to transform it. Even hives take on a kind of awful sensuality:

Excited peaks of plasma.
Red, purple, some with areolas.
Your flesh is riotous with the pleasure
of predatory cells. (“Nipples”)

There’s a clear novelistic progression that drives the work along quickly, moving in temporal progression.  Eva, addressed as “you” in most of the poems,  becomes a richly formed and delicate character. Not even in the worst ravages of the disease, is she presented as sad or weak. Faber doesn’t flinch from the horror of Eva’s inevitable death, nor does he glorify it—it’s unfair, ugly and wrong, but there is a kind of tender joy in having been there, in having known this kind of emotional intensity, and in giving himself up to such an intimate process:

We wait for your cells to decay,
one by one.
We wait for each nerve to succumb,
nerve by nerve.
Observe, minute by minute,
millimeter by millimeter,
the tumours take
what they do not deserve. (“Or,If Only”)

The second part of the book comes after Eva dies. Eva is still the subject and the poems are still written to her in third person – eg “we’ll spend the night apart”, “The planning of your death”, “you loved to dance”, but this time Eva’s absence becomes a palpable force through the work, replacing the blood, gore, and intensity of the carer role of the first half. The poems in the second half of the book are an attempt to make a life that has some kind of meaning with such a deep embedded absence. The poems aren’t all tender and soft. One of the most powerful poems in the book is rich with black humour and a deep, raw anger:

Wait for me while I break
down the boardroom door
and drag the high and mighty fucker
out of his conference with Eternity,
his summit on the Mysteries Of Life,
and get him to explain to me
why it was so necessary
to torture and humiliate
and finally exterminate
my wife. (“Don’t hesitate to Ask”)

Though a sense of loss certainly pervades the book, as the title suggests, there is something uplifting, even euphoric in this collection. Undying indeed becomes a defiance of death. By exploring the nature of this one great loss—something so intensely personal, Faber touches on the universal nature of humanity. Undying reaches deep into the heart of what is left behind after such a life, and such a love, and comes up triumphant:

You’re dead. I know. And it is not for me
to show you death is not the end.
but you left lucencies of grace
secreted in the world,
still glowing. (“Lucencies (2)”)