INTERVIEW: Chris Agee
For Chris Agee artistic success meant Next to Nothing after the death of his daughter, but the habit of poetry supported him through his loss
Click here to listen to Chris Agee read the title poem from Next to Nothing.
The poetry collection Next to Nothing has been highly praised by international critics and was short-listed for the prestigious Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. Yet author Chris Agee, who also edits the Irish Pages, says: ‘I can never look at the book as a success. It is not a success. It is the record of a total catastrophe.’
Next to Nothing is a poetic memorial to Agee’s daughter Miriam, whose unexpected death at the age of four in 2001 devastated the poet and his family. The language he uses to describe this period is that of disaster and survival: aftermath, imprisonment, resistance, apocalypse.
‘It’s like a concentration camp,’ Agee says of grief,
sitting back on the couch in the Irish Pages offices. He’s a tall man, somehow taller than expected, and talks easily of the artistic and intellectual elements of his collection. It is only when talking directly of his daughter that the voice still catches roughly in his throat. ‘One day they let you out and there you are on the road in your big, grey coat of grief. I’ve been walking that road for six years and the camp, the grief, is always still there behind me.’
Talking to Agee you sense that he would never choose to leave that road. He is unexpectedly steely at the suggestion that writing poetry was a form of therapy.
‘The underlying idea of therapy is that it can make things better. In the case of the loss of our beautiful daughter it couldn’t be made better. So I rejected therapy, and I reject the notion that [writing Next to Nothing] was a therapeutic exercise.’
So what was it?
At the time he was writing the poems, Agee says he had no clear idea about what he was doing or why, he was just falling back on ‘the habit of artistry’. In retrospect, however, he says that the narrative of the collection follows the stages of bereavement. And that he was resisting them with each poem that he wrote.
‘I look at it as a kind of rear-guard action, a kind of resistance to what had happened: resistance to the complete annihilation of our daughter, resistance of feeling as memorial and memorial as feeling … I look at it now as a sort of rearguard retreat, resistance to the inner Dunkirk of complete defeat and in this case the defeat is a kind of acceptance of loss.’
The title poem of the collection captures that resistance as Agee fiercely rejects a friend’s ill-chosen words of comfort, the Sufi maxim that ‘suffering is a divine gift’.
‘It is a natural human instinct to believe that by speaking to someone you can paint something in a brighter way,’ Agee explains. ‘The natural reaction in the bereaved is rejection: you cannot put a positive gloss on this.’
For Agee the rejection of what he calls the ‘clichés of bereavement’ extended to religion. ‘I had started out as a believer twenty years ago, in a sort of general spiritual sense. The experience of loss, of asking why it had happened and what is the purpose of life, of living life in the spirit of death, made me question all metaphysical assertions, all theological assertions.’
Agee explores those questions in a number of the poems in Next to Nothing in ‘a magpie type of way’. He references Sufism, Christian imagery, Judaism and even elements of ritual drawn from all and no particular tradition.
He describes the experience as standing in a spiritual memory palace, based on the Diocletian ruins in Croatia, where the winds of believers blew in through the East Gate and non-belief through the West Gate.
‘I was attracted to some of the consolations of traditional belief, and yet I resisted them and sometimes resented them.’ In the end Agee decided that he knew 'next to nothing', taking comfort in an agnostic's right to stay on the fence.
‘On that level the book is a meditation on agnosticism,’ he explains.
There are a lot of levels in Next to Nothing. It functions simultaneously as a map of grief, his own and others, an apologia of the politics of bereavement and a meditation on religion. In another book it would have seemed cluttered, too many ideas.
Here it works. The elements are unobtrusive and arise organically from the poet’s experience of grief and the changes it wrought in him. Agee’s interest in Croatia and Bosnia predates his daughter’s death, but in Next to Nothing his new understanding of bereavement gives him an insight he didn’t have before.
‘Bereavement makes you realize how many people in the world are bereaved,’ Agee says. A cup of tea sits going cold on the table. ‘The natural progression from one's own bereavement to empathy with others also has a world political dimension. You slowly realize that how much political anger, in the Middle East, in Ireland and the Balkans, is a function of loss.’
For Agee, however, the collection’s primary purpose is to serve as icon to his daughter. It is the negative space of his grief, mapping out Miriam through her absences. It is his memorial to her.
He admits that releasing the book to the public sphere, to the critics, wasn’t an easy thing to do. Something that he only realized in retrospect. 'At the time I just did it, deployed what was integral to me as a poet in the changed, traumatized circumstances.'
It was something that he had discussed with his wife Noreen, who he calls his ‘best critic’, before the decision was made. Both of them were aware that once the book was released it became an art object in the eyes of the world. Something that would be reviewed and talked about and that he would have to talk about and read from.
Their decision was that Agee would give the book a set period of time.
‘After that I will not read from the book again. I will not discuss it. There will be a time I close the book on the book.’
It’s a firm statement, perhaps even one Agee looks forward to making. To him, for all its success the book is still: 'Next to nothing. It is dust on a butterfly’s wings. The butterfly being the life in question.’