Three months before Cave’s son died, writer Naja Marie Aidt lost her 25-year-old son in an eerily similar manner. At his home in Copenhagen, Denmark, he took hallucinogenic mushrooms and, suffering a bad trip, threw himself out of a fifth-story window and onto the street. Aidt’s memoir When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back also reckons with the way her sense of time changed after the death of her child. Aidt puts herself in conversation with other writers and artists who have experienced that same temporal disorientation. She evokes the English poet Denise Riley, who wrote about the unexpected loss of her son, “A sudden death, for the ones left behind, does such violence to the experienced ‘flow’ of time that it stops, and then slowly wells up into a large pool.” Aidt also echoes the French poet Jacques Roubaud, who, after the death of his wife, wrote, “in your loss of time I found all of myself included.” And she speaks with many who have, like her, found it difficult to formulate meaning after a devastating loss has called into question any reason for creating or being. “Now that you can no longer be in chronological time,” Aidt writes, “neither can we.”
Aidt was born in Greenland, raised in Copenhagen, and now lives in Brooklyn. She is the author of 12 collections of poetry, a novel, and three short story collections, including Baboon, which won the Nordic Council Literature Prize. When Death Takes Something is the second book of Aidt’s that Denise Newman has translated, and together they again bring a stunning evocation of life. When Death Takes Something is told in fragmented vignettes. Each piece contains its own flourish while also participating in a chorus of grief. “Loss is a basic condition for all of us,” Aidt said in a recent conversation at the Louisiana Literature festival. “It’s an experience we’ll all have or have had. Life’s fragility is ever-present; we just don’t think about it when all is well.”
She says that after her son’s death, in her inability to write, she turned to the enormous body of bereavement literature. The French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé lost his eight-year-old boy to an illness he himself carried and then transmitted to him. Mallarmé wrote many unpublished fragments that were unearthed after his death, little scraps of poetry such as, “no more life for / me / and I feel / I am lying in the grave beside you,” and “I think about how / rotten your body is / now / How destroyed / How fragile / How dead.” At the Louisiana Literature festival, Aidt said,
Contrary to a lot of other bereavement literature, they were written during the raw grief. They are absolutely incomplete in a way. They’re fragmented. He doesn't bother to write capital letters or finish sentences. That’s exactly what I experienced, so for me, Mallarmé’s texts became a perfect mirror for me and my texts.
Aidt’s memoir is like broken glass, the shattered pieces singular in their form but each glistening, ready to cut.
Joan Didion, Socrates, and Emily Dickinson are some of the other compatriots in loss to whom Aidt turns. Aidt also evokes Cicero, who changed the trajectory of his life after the death of his daughter Tullia in 45 BCE. “The loss hit him harder than anything in his life,” Aidt writes. “But it also set in motion his literary production. […] He threw himself into philosophy as a cure for pain.” She writes about the Polish poet Jan Kochanowski, who wrote 19 elegies in 1580 about the loss of his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Urszulka. “It was the first time in Polish literature, in fact, in all of Eastern European literature, that a poet focused on earthly life. Poetry was for kings, heroes, the gods […] Today, Kochanowski is acknowledged for practically inventing Polish poetry.”
In one vignette, Aidt tells of seeing the video installation The Visitors by the Icelandic artist and musician Ragnar Kjartansson at a gallery in Chelsea, New York. This was in 2013, before the accident, and she wandered through the exhibit with Carl. The Visitors features nine films of musicians performing together but in separate spaces in an old farmhouse in the Hudson Valley. It is both a cohesive work and a shattered mosaic, offering endless modes of experience. The same can be said of Aidt’s book. After his death, Aidt finds Carl’s writings — his poems, his jottings, his drafts of his application to film school in Copenhagen. These add another voice to the chorus. “The process of taking the raw material through to refined edits is incredible because the work changes form many times as the puzzle pieces fall into place,” Carl writes. “Like writing poetry,” Aidt reflects.
The same cut-up effect, which pursues elements of sound and rhythm, which erases chronology, is pronounced throughout the Cave documentary. In the opening of One More Time with Feeling, a film crew interviews Cave’s collaborator Warren Ellis in the back of a moving car, and Ellis is talking about the eeriness, the soothsayer-like quality, of pieces of the album that had been written before Cave’s son died. The opening lines of the album, for example: “You fell from the sky / crash landed in a field.” Then the audio shakes and the shot shudders and someone asks, “Can we stop right there? We have to re-calibrate. This is out of focus.”
Parts of the documentary feature Cave and his band performing the sweeping songs that make up Skeleton Tree, ad-libbing lyrics and letting the music evolve as they play and record. The camera tracks, rotates, and stops on each musician in their private space within a public space, their isolated experience within a collective one. Like Aidt, Cave finds traction in conversation and collaboration. In one scene, he talks about the process of collective improvisation and performance, and he says that the melodies he sings are stretched into wholly different, unpredictable directions by his band.
In When Death Takes Something, Aidt points out that the grief canon is large because it goes back more than 4,000 years, all the way to Gilgamesh, the earliest known surviving work of literature. Gilgamesh begins with the death of the title character’s friend Enkidu:
O Enkidu, what is this sleep that has seized you,
that has darkened your face and stopped your breath?
But Enkidu did not answer. Gilgamesh
touched his heart, but it did not beat.
Gilgamesh proceeds to examine the body of his dead friend, directionless, and then drags himself sick with grief through the world in pursuit of immortality.
Grief is overwhelming and isolating. For a time, it stripped Aidt, Cave, and others who have experienced sudden tragedy of their ability to think about anything other than the paralyzing present moment. Aidt writes about the long stretch after Carl’s death when she just watched the sun rise and set from the same dark spot in her apartment.
I THINK WITH CONTEMPT ABOUT PEOPLE WHO WRITE ABOUT DEATH AS THOUGH FLIRTING WITH DEATH PAINTING DEATH DEATH WALKS BESIDE US […] IT IS REAL IT IS A WALL IT MAKES ME FURIOUS FULL OF HATE I AM FURIOUS OVER BEING ISOLATED IN MY SORROW.
But Aidt finds a way to go out into the world again. In September 2015, she traveled the United States alone on a two-week book tour. “The anonymity of being a traveler suited me,” Aidt writes, “no one knew me, and no one knew of my grief.”
Sometimes, even in deepest grief, the pain seems manageable. Aidt evokes C. S. Lewis, who found himself occasionally emerging from the throes of grief after the loss of his wife:
There are moments, most unexpectedly, when something inside me tries to assure me that I don’t really mind so much, not so very much, after all. Love is not the whole of a man’s life. I was happy before I ever met H. I’ve plenty of what are called “resources.” People get over these things. Come, I shan’t do so badly. One is ashamed to listen to this voice but it seems for a little to be making out a good case. Then comes a sudden jab of red-hot memory and all this “commonsense” vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace.
When Cave reflects on the future in One More Time with Feeling, he says, “Something I wanted to say is that everything is not okay, but, it’s also okay.” He says it painfully, experiencing it. “Things go on, and you know, if anyone’s interested the records go on. And, we’re still doing what we do. … And, in that respect things continue.”
One More Time with Feeling and When Death Takes Something both find traction in tangibility, in the way the material world gives us a place to lay our heavy heads. Aidt’s rendering of her son and the space he left in her heart is poetry, and she gives grand, paralyzing emotions their weight by continually turning to the material world. At Carl’s gravesite, she writes of the plant life: “[W]hite lilacs, white roses, mirabelle plum branches, scilla. There were forget-me-nots and gooseberry branches, cherry blossoms and a bouquet of lilies of the valley.” Or, in a diary entry a year after his death: “I went for a walk in the park this morning. A white mist hung over the lawns. Birds sang.”
When Death Takes Something is subtitled “Carl’s Book,” and in addition to meditating on loss, Aidt also beautifully pays homage to her son’s life. In one vignette, she remembers taking Carl at nine years old to Frøya, a small island off the coast of Norway. Aidt had four children, and this solitary adventure with Carl was unusual and radiant. Aidt writes, “I took a picture of you: You lying on the ground, surrounded by blueberries and lingonberries. The sun is shining. Your eyes are shining.” Aidt remembers staying one night together with Carl at a little hotel on the island:
When we ate dinner together that evening, we asked each other questions about our childhoods. It was as if we didn't know much about each other. As if we’d never had the opportunity to have a private conversation. There was never any time. We were like strangers trying to get to know each other. But it was a lovely conversation, very civilized and respectful. You asked me about my childhood. I asked you about yours. You said that the divorce was hard on you, and that you missed your father a lot. I was well aware of this. I admired that you could tell me about it. You sat across from me eating french fries. We sat outside with a view of a small harbor. It was cold, but we both preferred to sit outside.
But along with the beauty of the material world is its horror. “I read the descriptions of your dead, mutilated body,” Aidt writes. “[B]oth legs broken, several fractures in the pelvis, fractures in the pubic bone on the left side, severe bleeding in the brain, the base of the brain is pressed down against the large opening at the skull’s base…” The evocation of Carl’s battered body is upsetting in its specificity, but it helpfully reminds most readers of their distance from trauma this sudden and profound.
While life keeps going for Cave and Aidt, while they have even found ways to keep creating, they are forever attached to their loss. For them, there is a permanent, vibrating tension between the present moment and the traumatic event. “I read all about it and then once again, because I want to understand each and every detail about what has happened to you,” Aidt writes. “Of course I must know what happened to you. You are my child.”
As Cave sings on Skeleton Tree, “You’re still in me, baby. I need you.”
Nathan Scott McNamara also contributes to Literary Hub, The Atlantic, The Millions, the Washington Post, Electric Literature, and more.