Sleeping Letters Review TLS October 2020

TLS

Terrible loss, long aftermath
A memoir of death and the Anglican Eucharist
By David Collard

Marie-Elsa Roche Bragg is an ordained Anglican priest and this profoundly moving memoir, in poetry and prose, was written during two silent retreats in an unspecified mountain region. Beautifully rendered childhood memories feature in a series of letters to her father and late mother, who took her own life when the author was six years old.

The letters are also, she says, addressed to herself and, “with brutal honesty”, to God. But though they are certainly, and fearlessly, honest there’s no evidence of brutality here, rather a generous and receptive intelligence navigating the terrible loss and its long aftermath in an act of recovery and rehabilitation, an attempt to restore, however briefly, her absent mother’s gaze.

The handful of recovered moments before her mother’s death are piercing:

“We sat in the kitchen across the small wooden table from each other. She cried like banks bursting, then silence; like winds blowing through her shoulders, chest bouncing, then long shallow breaths. She ruptured and I watched, still, emotionless. “You must stop crying.”

Early childhood memories are re­created with precision and delicacy:

“We’d let the light roll us out of bed, no curtains, and go without cleaning our teeth, scrambling over rock and itchy brush, ochre staining our shins, finding a steady rhythm once our breath was deep into a steady pant. We clambered like mountain goats, a slice of view between tree, between breath, our bodies waving across boulders like wind in grass.”

Bragg’s mother’s native Provence and her father’s home county of Cumbria are recalled and explored with a child’s sense of wonder at the natural world. The different landscapes prompt memories of French and English forebears, and particularly of the strong women on both sides: the grandmothers, godmothers, aunts and their friends. In Provence, a healing Icarus is believed to have spent years as a hermit in the caves around Mount Ventoux and Mount Lure, and the myth of his fall, repeatedly cited, leads the author to reflect that the “broken, split, tainted pain” of life may be “the inevitable price of the sun”.

The main section – just 100 pages long – includes a series of prose- poems based on the structure of the Anglican Eucharist and is followed first by “The Hours”, eight poems named after the pre-Reformation canonical hours (Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers and Compline), a series that captures the stillness that follows the service. While one is reminded of T. S. Eliot as the austere embodiment of the Anglican faith in poetry, Bragg has the gift of empathy, and touches our hearts by showing us her own.

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