In the Slender Margin, by Eve Joseph: Review

Patrick Crean Editions/HarperCollins Publishers

My grandparents’ love was in full bloom during their final years together. My grandmother died making coffee one morning, when she was just 61. She had been very sick, with a cancer that spread through her body, but what took her in the end was a mushy apple strudel. She choked, taking her final breath in her own home. Years after the fact, my grandfather told me that they had made a kind of plan — he couldn’t stand to see her in pain, and she didn’t want to die in the hospital. After the cancer had advanced to a certain point, he was going to help usher her out of this world. That some strudel intervened to end her suffering (and prevent him from breaking the law) was eventually taken, in my family, as evidence of both God’s whimsy and His mercy.

We all have stories we tell to instill some meaning into the incomprehensible end. My grandfather once told me that in the weeks after his wife died, he would hear three knocks every night; “Knock Three Times (If You Love Me)” was a major pop hit in 1970, around the time my grandparents bought the home that would shelter them for the rest of their lives. In her new book, In the Slender Margin, Eve Joseph meditates on just these kinds of stories, the narratives and metaphors we spin to keep the light going after the candle’s been snuffed out.

Having worked in a Victoria, B.C., hospice for two decades, Joseph has an unusually intimate relationship with death. Her meditations take her, and us, into the many rooms death inevitably visits. The darkness is never quite made light, but in her careful prose her encounters with the dead, dying and mourning take on a kind of grace. Blending elements of memoir, reporting, and bookish contemplation, In the Slender Margin is an intricate and beautiful essay on approaching that good night we all go into, gently or otherwise. Joseph folds in references to diverse spiritual practices, pop culture and psychology, poetry and art, all in the service of taking us deeper, and more thoughtfully through the process of grieving — be it for strangers, loved ones, or even our selves.

Structuring her book around different elements of the end, Joseph brings the full weight of her own grief to consideration of funeral rites, metaphors of passage, legacy and that most unreliable faculty, memory. Her brother died as a young man when she was a girl. The friendships he had developed with poets, most notably George Bowering, have allowed his memory to live on in poems, in metaphor. Joseph, an award-winning poet herself, argues that poetry is the language of the dying: “If poetry is how we speak to the dead, and if metaphor is the language that waits for us at the end, it is poets who help us understand death, because they are using that language now.”

This book is full of that language, but here the metaphors and euphemisms feel more accurate than the facts. Unlike, for example, David Sheilds’ The Truth About Life Is that One Day You’ll Be Dead, which also offers an essayistic meditation on the final fact of life through memoir stitched to a multiplicity of high and low cultural references, or Mary Roach’s Stiff, which cavalierly concerns the hard science of cadavers, Joseph’s prose unfolds in a significantly gentler mode. Never just the facts of mortality (although there are plenty of those), nothing coldly clinical — the poet instead traces the shape of both the absent body and its spirit, always present even if unaccounted for.

The presence of absence, the many shades of grief, its weight and texture: This is the hand dealt to the departed, which is to say to us, the living. The cards may be the same, but we all play them differently. Toward the very end of one’s life, a person might see signs or experience phenomena that remains invisible to those of us more firmly footed in the world of the living. “To be with the dying,” Joseph writes, “is to wade into mystery.” She shares anecdotes about the things people do just before they die, like wonder if they have enough gas, or if they’re going to miss the train; people preparing for one last trip. One dying man sees a woman sitting on the couch, knitting needles in hand, patient and waiting. He asks Joseph if that means it’s time to go. She looks over and sees nothing, no discernible apparition on the couch. She tells him to take his time, the visitor brought her knitting, after all. It’s a charmingly warm story, so in keeping with the tone of the book. Joseph’s lack of judgment, her willingness to listen to the world of loss, and to invent for us an intimate language for grief makes death a site of wonder as much as pain.