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A Most Fantastic Philosophy: An Interview with Rilke Prize Winner Katie Peterson 

Interview conducted by Jessica Murray 

Jessica Murray (JM): Congratulations on winning the Rilke Prize. The Accounts is a beautiful book. Can you tell us a little bit about its origins, how it takes up questions of mourning and elegy? 

Katie Peterson (KP): I wrote the book because I lost my mother, and because I lost my mother, my world changed. In the first days following her death I remember being in my familiar world—specifically, the house where I was raised—and feeling as if something basic in the structure of reality had altered. So, the poems began in a feeling less personal than oddly, strangely, conceptual. Some intuition about reality seized me, some sense of its own disaster being present inside of it. It occurred to me as a form of panic, like being present in constant catastrophe. Maybe this finds itself reflected in the hurtling and sometimes headlong syntax of some of the poems, especially those in the middle section, which tries to narrate the last days of my mother’s life. The elegy, as a poetic form, tries to turn the mourner back into a self, reintegrated with reality: the elegy seeks to mourn, but also to find a more permanent way of remembering the dead as a way of living with loss. Our gravestones and anniversaries are for visits but not for residencies. We speak of “normal” grief and “complicated” grief and the idea is that normal mourning has an end and that “complicated” mourning perhaps goes too far, continues too long. But the mourner quite often does not wish for mourning to end. I didn’t and don’t, in the sense that in mourning you declare that your lost beloved cannot be replaced. Losing my mother was not the same as losing a beautiful thing. It was more like losing a beautiful way of understanding, a most fantastic philosophy. And in this way, her loss felt as much the ruin of a civilization as the loss of a person. The charge of elegist is to repair the world; the challenge is that the world cannot be fixed, and must be made new.


JM: It’s interesting that there are more “arguments” than “elegies” in the collection. In what way is this book about accounts, rather than anything else?

KP: The book’s title comes from the idea of “making an account” of something, or someone: telling a story, or a version of a story of something. The theorist Judith Butler has taken up this idea in the 21st century in her book, Giving an Account of Oneself, but the process of “making an account” goes farther back, to Plato and certainly in spiritual and philosophical discourse, before that. I know the phrase from teaching Socratic dialogues. The idea of it became useful when I observed, during my mother’s death, how various languages for what was happening had equal purchase on the event. A spiritual language, a psychological language, and a medical language all claimed their version of death made “sense.” How was I to decide? Was I even to decide? My fixation on this—and the seeming impossibility of integrating those languages led to the writing of the book’s title poem. Much of the rest of the book also dramatizes the tension between different accounts of the same person or event—when a person dies, people hold onto their various truths. And the same goes for any autobiographical account: when you make an account of yourself, you often find yourself entangled in other people’s versions of you. The book’s “Arguments” about absurdly large concepts (Heaven, Responsibility) pair competing voices. I call them “Arguments” because they have two sides, but they are not necessarily two sides of the same argument. They replicate, in a sense, my mind in those years: alternating between some operatic, confessional, emotional cry and a dark restraint. The middle voice—what might be reasonable under the circumstances—has been cut out. But as the voices proceed in concert, they switch places and change and both provide inscrutable explanations.

JM: One particularly moving passage from “The Accounts” does integrate to some degree this confluence of languages:

IV.

In the last account, the explosions
are too small to be seen, and oxygen
takes both thirst and hunger away
as it ceases to find a home in the lungs,
and the patient, having ceased to feel, ceases
to breathe, as the heart shuts down
before the brain and shuts
the dreaming down, the settling on a nest
of images, not feeling any form of distress.
The pathways to distress are blocked,
but the senses doubled, the ears know
the house more than they ever did,
whose clothes occupy the dryer,
which voice accomp