Under the Cover: Grief and Poetry in Grey All Over

Content warning: mention of suicide attempt, death of a family member, grief Andrea Actis’s Grey All Over (Brick Books) is an autoconceptual study of traumatic grief, white working-class identity, false prophets, and whole seriousness. In her compelling debut, Andrea assembles a decade’s worth of found materials and conversations to examine not only a close and complicated father-daughter bond but the empathetic and critical capacities of poetry itself. Below, Andrea gives us a glimpse into the relationship she shared with her father in life and after his death, and tells us about writing Grey All Over.


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This is a photo my mom took on September 1, 1997, just minutes before my dad and I left Toronto for Edmonton, where we’d end up living for six months at a place called the Jockey Motel. I loved my dad but I hated this car. I hated getting dropped off at school in this car and I hated driving it across town, unlicensed and terrified, when my dad wasn’t sober enough to get us to the internet café we liked to spend our evenings at. When Edmonton didn’t work out, my dad drove us in this car to Vancouver and dropped me off at a mansion in Shaughnessy with some relatives on my mom’s side who’d offered to house and support me for a year. I hated the mansion even more than I hated the car. I loved my dad and I hated the mansion. I hated that while living in the mansion I could never talk freely about my dad despite how close we remained—in constant touch over ICQ while he suicidally unravelled in a trailer in Nanaimo (“…and somehow the gun didn’t go off,” he once messaged me). I hated my dad but could never hate my dad.

This is one of the dozens of emails I sent to my dad (greyallover@yahoo.com) after he’d died in December 2007. Here I’m writing to him from Providence, Rhode Island, where I guess it can get hot enough in late May for a person to need to bind packages of frozen vegetables to their head. I’m apologizing for somehow using and/or misrepresenting him in a conversation the evening before and as usual am asking him for guidance and fortitude in relation to my writing. I’m in my third year of a PhD program at this point, trying to finish an essay for my upcoming qualifying exam on “some of the driving ideological and formal oppositions—typically critiqued as ‘binarisms’ and substituted in recent decades with paradigms ranging from the dynastic to the tropological to the pluralistic—that persist in the history, the present, and, as my taking of its temperature will suggest, the probable future of Anglo-American poetry, poetics, and poetic criticism.” Who the hell am I and why are my sentences so long? I still often ask myself.

A person is never not trying everything they possibly can to refigure and resolve their own traumatic contradictions.

This is a spread from Grey All Over that reproduces two key quotations plus the table of contents from the dissertation I finally finished in 2017 (which for its own epigraph borrowed the second verse from The Kinks’ “Death of a Clown,” one of my and my dad’s favourite songs). I’ve been describing Grey All Over as the personal-political-spiritual-aesthetic distillate of my dissertation, which looked at competing definitions and embodiments of “seriousness” and eventually unfolded as a deconstruction of whiteness in the space of contemporary poetry.

Assembled almost entirely out of found materials and transcribed conversations, Grey All Over commits to what I believe is a good version of objectivity—the kind that, as science historians Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have written, “preserves the artifact or variation that would have been erased in the name of truth.” One can always reject “truth” while still practicing a total devotion to what the writer Laura (Riding) Jackson called a “style of truth”—just as one can reject “poetry” while continuing, as she did, to write poems. One can always reject their dad while continuing, eternally, to love their dad.

My dad, Jeff, and his childhood best friend practise their own style of truth in an email correspondence I’ve included, with Dave’s permission, in Grey All Over. Helping him reconstruct the details of a mysterious encounter they experienced together one August evening in 1963, Dave writes to my dad, “I don’t think this moonface guy actually did anything to us as much as the whole experience made everything we ever learned or were taught seem a little, well, two dimensional or bland or incomplete by comparison.”

Like Dave and Jeff, I preserve the artifact or variation in my experience to reveal how intuition and belatedness, wholeness and limitedness, work together to make a person who they are in relation to themselves and others. With Grey All Over, I come as close as I know how to finally telling “the whole story” of the history of my loving, hating, and grieving my dad. It’s a practical exercise in my kind of seriousness and in holding myself accountable to both the surplus and the lack in the history of how I’ve thought about everything else.

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Andrea Actis was born in Toronto but for most of her life has lived in Vancouver on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. She teaches writing and literature at Capilano University and from 2015 to 2017 edited The Capilano Review. Grey All Over is her first book.

Thursday, May 13 / 5:30pm PST
Flywheel Reading Series with Larissa Lai and Christy Ann Conlin

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Thanks so much to Andrea for sharing the story behind her book and providing the photos. Grey All Over is available here on All Lit Up.