ECW Press, Toronto, 2022
Reviewed by Kate Rogers
Angst, denial and self-mocking humour struggle with each other in Stuart Ross’s poem-diary-essay about learning to live with grief. The poem-entries take us through the speaker’s inner process as he grapples with loss. It is certainly true that the longer we live, the more loss we face. Loss of a place, loss of a career after retirement, loss of beloved pets, and of course—that greatest source of grief—loss of people we love: parents, siblings, spouses/partners and friends.
But how do hamburgers figure into this 139-page reflection on grief? That’s where the humour comes in. Ross inserts hamburgers throughout his meditations—hamburgers as surreal as the Claes Oldenburg hamburger sculpture (1985-86) and Andy Warhol’s Pop art video installation of himself eating a hamburger, which I saw side by side at the AGO during the mid-eighties. Warhol’s hamburger symbolized the universality and leveling of fast food eaten by both presidents and street cleaners. Stuart Ross’s hamburger motif in The Book of Grief and Hamburgers emphasizes his efforts to distract himself from what he calls his “Sad Sack” response. The speaker’s struggles to come to terms with grief in The Book of Grief and Hamburgers point to the universal challenges we face; reading about those struggles can help us come to terms with our own.
To my mind, the speaker in The Book of Grief and Hamburgers has plenty of legitimate reasons to grieve. Written during the second wave of the COVID pandemic soon after the sudden death of Ross’s surviving brother, in the midst of the slow decline of a beloved mentor poet-friend, The Book of Grief and Hamburgers see-saws between grief and denial in a manner to which many of us can probably relate. The loss of someone close confronts us with our own mortality, so we find ways to distract ourselves. Hamburgers are Ross’s way to do that.
The book begins with a nonsense poem in which hamburgers take the place of a variety of expressions, some clichés: “Four score and seven / hamburgers were how many.” And “Not with a bang, but a hamburger” appear in the poem. Ross explains that hamburgers “crept into” his poetry in his late teens in response to reading the work of established poets. “Other poets put an angel in their poems to make them better–,” Ross explains, “sometimes the tongues of men and angels.” He says the word hamburger in his poems “makes a heavy poem lighter. You can lift it more easily.”
Ross admits that his own discomfort with serious subjects leads him to use hamburgers as a device in his poems. “Look,” he says, “I am talking about hamburgers instead of talking about grief.” Then, instead of avoiding grief, Ross goes on to explore how grief feels in the body: “I have felt pain in my chest and at the same time an unfulfillable longing… I am a man of sixty-one and tears often trickle down my cheeks.” Ross tells us that he doesn’t know whether to call these sensations anger, frustration, sadness or yearning. Then he asks, “Do you like pickles on your hamburger?”
In the book Ross shares his life long struggles with insomnia and depression—two conditions many people live with in secret, afraid of judgement. He acknowledges that anti-depressants helped for a while, but made everything taste “like tin.” I respect his honesty in making such a public statement about depression. Such an admission may help others by revealing the common depths of human suffering.
While he deals with more recent losses, Ross also looks backwards at the death of his mother, whom he continues to miss more than twenty years after her passing. He admits, “For years I didn’t understand how my mother could still be so sad about her mother’s death so many years later.”
Much of life is a lesson on learning to live with grief. The humour and courageous honesty of The Book of Grief and Hamburgers offers relief to any of us who have struggled with despair during the pandemic and the exponential growth of grief as we age.
Stuart Ross is the author of more than 20 books of fiction, poetry and essays. He received the 2019 Harbourfront Festival Prize and the 2017 Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Poetry, among other notable prizes. Stuart will be reading some of his poems as a featured poet at the Words on a Wire (WOW) poetry reading, Saturday September 17, 2 PM, at the Northumberland Festival of the Arts, Victoria Hall, Cobourg.
Reviewer Kate Rogers is a poet-essayist who divides her time between Cobourg, Toronto and South Algonquin Township. She is one of several volunteers supporting the WOW event who will also read their work at WOW.
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