With the legacy of [PANK] Magazine in mind, I jumped at the chance to read a book from their [PANK] Little Book Series. Maya Sonenberg’s After the Death of Shostakovich Père brilliantly and methodically acts as a library of lyrical prose, and it lives up to [Pank]’s mission of publishing experimental work for “adventurous readers” ([PANK]).
Sonenberg is a librarian of sorts in this collection of four pieces—all of which come together to create a symphony that explores art, music, family, history, memory, and most prominently, the loss of a father. It is actually pretty impressive how Sonenberg can fit so much into a thirty-five page book. The speaker contextualizes her own father’s death with the death of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s father by looping similarities and memories along with a love for music. The epigraph by Donald Barthelme explains that the father “is dead only in a sense,” and this is important for the reader to keep in mind as the speaker weaves together stories and historical information regarding a renowned composer.
In the first section titled “Prelude,” Sonenberg begins her four-part exploration by contextualizing the death of her father and the death of the father of Dmitri Shostakovich—the way Sonenberg moves musically from one to the other is seamless and fascinating. Additionally, she describes how she remembers music in her life and how it impacted her experience in the following passage: “In subsequent summers, in Maine, we went to many chamber music concerts in the perfect box of a room that is Kneisel Hall: violins, cello, viola, piano, and the sound of mosquitoes buzzing. Yes, I know this sounds idyllic.” When we imagine these summers, we can see how music was such a force in the speaker’s life, and we will later see how her father is an equally strong force in how she experiences the human condition. We should not see music as background noise, but instead we should see it as a character in itself. The concerts help us connect to Shostakovich, who in turn connects us back to the father. Music, then, also acts as the cartilage between the sections and subjects.
Sonenberg creates a catalog of musical prose by also using language poetically. In the following passage, she uses anaphora to create a rhythm to recall the past:
In Aspen that summer, my father stopped wearing white button-down shirts and ties and suit jackets. In Aspen that summer, Paul Blackburn recited poems against the war in Vietnam. In Aspen that summer, in the middle of one night, my father took a 50 pound bag of flour up the mountain and spilled out an enormous peace sign, so that Secretary of Defense McNamara would see it during his visit the following day.
The layers of recollections and stories and historical contexts engage the reader not only by sound, but also by creating a larger world. We also learn how the speaker’s father engages with society politically, which is significant to the speaker. So many of the memories come together to become the father himself, accruing like tiny pieces of personality until the reader knows the father in some way. Additionally, Sonenberg scatters pictures of her father throughout the book—doing so is another way the manuscript becomes a library of memory and history.
In the second section titled “Danse Fantastique,” Sonenberg also engages the reader’s visual sense by including line breaks and an eventual overall breakdown of form. With that in mind, the strength of the second section also comes from the presentation of the father—reminding us what it is like when someone’s music come to an end. Sonenberg writes, “My father walked with a cane, then a walker, then not at all.” This quote is one of many that help us see the process of losing a father, but not in the way where the focus is on grief or elegy. Instead, the focus is on the process and the moments or memories themselves. Sonenberg also contextualizes these thoughts with a story by Jorge Luis Borges, and in doing so builds the world of the manuscript even further.
The third and fourth sections, “Nocturne” and “Finale” respectively, end the book, and the fascinating quality about “Nocturne” is that it seems to differ from the other sections—even to the point where we aren’t sure if the speaker is the same—but the link comes when the speaker ponders the presence of the father’s ghost, which is a move that Sonenberg pulls off well. “Finale” resumes the form and content of the first and second sections; additionally, the section illuminates an idea that stems from the father’s artwork:
My father’s post-stroke paintings: the swirling colors. Neon candy. Vomitus. Seeing them, I grasped at the idea of process rather than product (they were just so bad):
a way to fill time
to create, not just receive
This passage does not mystify or make the father’s paintings larger than life; rather, the passage is real and honest, and Sonenberg gives the reader something to ponder: the significance of process. I would even venture to say that this is a metaphor for life and death, but I guess we could say that about anything if we examine it close enough. Still, this moment is strong and well-written by Sonenberg.
Sonenberg’s After the Death of Shostakovich Père is a thoughtful and intellectual exploration housing stories, memories, histories, and music—a small but significant library that pushes the reader to think beyond simple cliché when considering the loss of a father. I consulted website after website when reading this book to better understand the connections made to Shostakovich, and this is a testament to Sonenberg’s strong intertextuality and the notion that we are all connected in some way, whether it be family or music or art or simply the human condition itself.
Adam Crittenden holds an MFA in poetry from New Mexico State University where he was awarded an Academy of American Poets Prize. His writing has appeared in Barrelhouse, Bayou Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Barn Owl Review, Whiskey Island, and other journals. Blood Eagle is his first full-length book of poetry and is available from Gold Wake Press. Currently, he teaches writing in Albuquerque at Central New Mexico Community College.