“Engraft You New:” A Review of Kristen Case’s Principles of Economics

On her Twitter profile, Kristen Case has a pinned tweet that announces the availability of her second collection of poems, Principles of Economics, on Amazon. She warns readers that the title, which her collection shares with a textbook co-authored by her late father, has confounded Amazon’s recommendation algorithm – it’s suggested as both a book of poems and a textbook, and at prices ranging from $17 to $700. 

This confusion is more than just fodder for a fun conversation about tech companies’ inability to parse genre distinctions. The shared title is just one of the ways Case explores the tension, after a loss, between the desire to evoke the departed by creating an exhaustive archive of their memory, and the permission to let that memory gradually decay – which, of course, can feel like a lifelong echo of the first loss, salt in its wound. Guided by poets including Shakespeare, Homer, and Milton, Principles of Economics asks: can we stave off or transform grief by creating a faithful copy of the departed, by remembering everything in the manner of Borges’s Funes? Or is acknowledging our inability to preserve everything the very act that allows the dead to inhabit meaningful spaces in the world of the living? 

In “Elegy,” a prose poem early in the collection, Case points at the possibility of “both” as an answer. Exhaustive memory and its decay are linked possibilities, she suggests. The frustrations and burdens of both stem from the fact that they concern the dead, but inhabit the living. “(…Why all these blank spaces when elsewhere perfect recall, the feeling, for example of your hair at all lengths, your hand holding a cigarette, your smell in sleep)…How are these circuits still running now broken from the body of your breathing?” she writes. We remember things we never tried to remember, but not others we hold sacred. These uncontrollable memories can seem to assume a spirit separate from the body we mourn – an impersonator, a dybbuk. 

A page later, Case acknowledges that a mourner’s urge to remember completely, the wish to “gorge mind with the minutia of digestion,/ slow time to track the movement/of the world through the coil of your body” would “break memory” — that human memory, in fact, isn’t built for such mechanical recall. And yet, grieving, we can imagine and crave that power, which exists in a kind of subjunctive, as if the person were still with us. 

But what if we relaxed away from that urge to completeness? Case challenges. What of memory’s potential have we missed by thinking of it in terms of metaphors of reproduction? What more might we be able to hear, see, feel of the dead by attending fully to their disappearance?

In “Decay,” a poem that takes deep breaths of white space after the collection’s opening dense pages, Case adds to the grammar of her language of grief: “Decay/is the space required/for each note’s release/ into the shimmering  surround/ of what isn’t.” The nod to the language of music brightens her rhetoric, and returns later in the book. Here, I thought of the moment after a pianist has finished playing a piece and before the applause begins, when the audience seems to hold dear not just the experience of the music, but also its disappearance. In an experienced classical music crowd, no one dares clap before those first silent seconds have passed – they are both part of the music and the repositories of its first memory. Such moments also exist, Case reminds us, in the slow unbecoming of a person, and we must listen for them, make room for them, even if we are the ones disappearing. “Do not/disparage the small/ sound come through/ your throat, it is/your own     beyond/ possession, in most/ unmaking,/ the whole body of your/unbecoming/ringing with it.” 

Having defined her methodology, so to speak, throughout the collection Case touches these four troubled keys of remembrance — completeness, erasure, decay, and resonance – as if, by both challenging and combining them, she can make of her grief a music that best approximates the person she has lost. 

In the title poem, Case tests this: she carries out an experiment in remembrance by reading and annotating her father’s textbook, putting it in conversation with her own narrative of him and with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15. Doing so, she participates in a tradition of poetic annotation practiced by Tyehimba Jess, Lee Sharkey, Natasha Trethewey, and many others who work with intertexts and/or archives. But here the texts don’t play either dialectical or expository roles for one another. Instead, the poem forms both a three-part contrapuntal and a Frankenstein-esque evocation of Case’s father: 

“When I perceive that men as plants increase, 

But the reality of the stolen time was easily observable. Watch, 

he would say. 

The study of timekeeping is known as horology. 

Cheered and checked even by the selfsame sky, 

That which we forgo when we make a choice or 

decision is called the opportunity costof that decision. 

Just watch 

the second hand.” 

Rather than only annotating or explicating her father’s words, Case lets the boundaries between their voices blur. She lip syncs as him – she plays his double. Eventually, at the poem’s end, her narrative voice drops out completely. It’s no coincidence that Shakespeare plays their interlocutor, especially as the sonnet’s final couplet provides the words to the spell that Case might wish to cast, and which she enacts in the poem: “And all in war of time for love of you/As he takes from you, I engraft you new.” The textbook has the final word, casting doubt, once again, on the poet/mourner’s conjuring powers: “Give three examples of the fallacy of composition.

But whatever Case’s interrogation of her uses of memory, she knows that by writing, she does “engraft you new.” She recreates as she remembers, each poem working against decay even as it documents and embraces it. In “Diminuendo,” one of her many formally inventive poems, Case returns to music as a fabric for understanding how decay might be a component rather than an enemy of memory. Here three columns interplay like vertical staves of music, their motives migrating from one column to another: her father’s smoking, the tremor in his hands, Chopin and his Ballade no. 4, after which the poem is written. 

After listening to that piece for days, Case writes, “when…[it] first buries itself in me it is/only as the/embryo of a melody,/ five notes suddenly/an atmosphere/carried with me, suddenly/everywhere…How this sequence of notes repeats itself not in sound but in remembered sound.” She marvels at the way our bodies hold onto what music does to time: expanding it, filling it infinitely with detail. We grasp this infinity somehow, can contain it, even though a piece played, like a death, is an event that happens once and then is over. 

By her final poem, Case has arrived at a Shakespearean reconciliation of sorts: that to write loss, to inscribe anything, seems to be to “rend interior space,” to compromise the intimacy of memory. But “There is no interior, only space,” she writes. “Beauty is a wound.” Finally, to remember imperfectly, to write what one remembers, isn’t a betrayal, but rather a way of making room for memory’s afterlife: one co-created by the grieving living and the lost.