“Memories and Songs”: The Work of Mourning in I Knew Two Métis Women

I knew two metisGregory Scofield’s I Knew Two Métis Women mourns the loss of a mother and an aunt. The title itself, in its use of the past tense, alerts the reader to the book’s function as eulogy. The series of poems that follow re-tell the lives of two people Scofield loved, tracing the moments that make up his memories of them. Many of these moments are inflected by country music lyrics, which appear at multiple points throughout the work. What do these songs mean? Sigmund Freud’s thoughts on the work of mourning provides one way to answer this question.

According to Freud, the work of mourning enables a survivor to deal with grief through a process of exaggerated remembering. The individual resuscitates the lost (usually deceased) other by generating an imaginary presence in the psyche that substitutes for the actual absence of the loved one. The work of mourning comes to an end when the survivor is able to successfully integrate the other’s absence into his or her reality. This is essentially the purpose of the “talking cure”: actualizing a trauma in discourse so it can be properly understood by the survivor.

Melancholia, on the other hand, occurs when the libido is not detached from the object and the trauma of loss is played out over and over again as the psyche fails to make sense of it. Unable to deal with the loss at a conscious level the survivor represses it. However, he/she is unable to neutralize the trauma and it manifests itself in repeated parapraxis (expressions of the unconscious). These “symptoms” become the psyche’s unconscious way of dealing with event. Through repetition on an unconscious level the psyche attempts to “understand” the loss. It is the job of the analyst to read the symptom as a product of some deeper problem.

Turning back to Two Métis Women, music in these poems is a way to mourn and revivify the dead. In “The Last Time Lillian Cardinal Came to Visit,” Aunty remembers her “old-time chum” by “play[ing] every scratched record / in the house, / strumming up all the ghosts” (43-44). Because of their intimate connections to his mother and aunt (who both played and listened to them), the songs become avatars, or, “imaginary” presences that stands in for the women. Indeed, a tiny, almost translucent guitar marks every one of these pages, a constant reminder of the two women (both guitar players) behind the narrator’s words and an indication of a successful act of mourning: loss being integrated into the symbolic fabric.

If mourning can be connected to the guitars that Dorothy and Georgina tune and strum to revitalize old Hank Williams tunes, melancholia can be attached to the records that wobble and scratch out Kitty Wells and the Carter Family. In “T. For,” for example, music is not a manifest expression of meaning, but a rut in the memory that incites a re-enactment of a particular scene. Scofield writes that “the needle would catch, / slide into / its well-worn groove, / refusing to budge” (39) before going on to repeat the lyrics of the Jimmie Rodgers tune that starts this poem, with his own modifications. As such, music serves as a site of melancholy, a reminder of the events that the narrator is unable to properly integrate into his story.

However, if we are talking about a repressed memory, we must be talking about someone other than the narrator’s mother or aunt, since both of them dominate this text. Indeed, the memory played out to the song in this poem (Jimmie Rodgers “Blue Yodel No. 1) alludes to the narrator’s father, a figure that has been properly exorcised from this story. In Scofield’s version of the song, which is cited at length at the beginning of the poem, the lyrics are as follows: “If you don’t want me daddy / You sure don’t have to call, / If you don’t want me daddy / You sure don’t have to call” (40). In its repetition, its “refusing to budge,” “Blue Yodel No. 1” –which has here been conveniently modified here by the poet to allow us a glimpse at its latent content, as represented to a traumatized narrator–should be read as symptom, or the narrator’s unconscious attempt to “master” the loss of a father figure.

In sum, the music in I Knew Two Métis Women does not supplement meaning, but rather structures the traumatic kernel around which this text turns, like a record on a record player. The narrator’s inability to deal with the loss of his father leads him to repeat these “memories and songs” (111) again and again in an attempt to make sense of his absence. What we are reading in these pages is a symptom of a larger trauma, which the narrator of the poems struggles to integrate into the symbolic fabric of his poetics.

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