Book Bits, Book of the Month

I Had a Brother Once: A Poetic Ritual for a Sibling’s Grief

“if you are making 
up the ritual as you go, 
is it a ritual? if the loss is 
a hole that cannot be filled, 
is the remainder of your 
life the ritual?”

– Adam Mansbach

Just as his book Go The F**k to Sleep was gaining radical traction as a global bestseller in 2011, Adam Mansbach’s life was devastated with the suicide of his brother in May of that same year. It took him eight years to finally be able to sit down and tell the story of his brother’s death, which he drafted in three weeks in the form of an epic poem. The result, I Had a Brother Once, is an elegiac and honest account of the devastation of suicide, the senselessness of grief, and the imperatives and difficulties of narrative when a loved one’s life is on the page. In this excerpt, Mansbach talks about the struggle of ‘keeping the wheel straight,’ of writing without making things legible or structured, of not imposing ‘a frame, a double helix of / narrative to snake through / the spine, to be the spine.’ Reaching out for ritual, alienated from the traditions of his Jewish ancestry, he wonders what it means to be untethered from tradition and to need to invent one’s own ritual in the face of grief.
For an in-depth interview with Adam Mansbach about his new book, click here.

the second time i was in 
motion, walking through the 
back room, the front room, 
out into the heatwave night. 
i wasn’t crying yet but i also 
couldn’t speak or think. 
my father’s sentence was 
unrecognizable, a cluster of 
words spinning in a void. 
the notion that it was all 
a mistake flashed through me 
& fell instantly to ash. 
no parent would say such 
a thing about his child 
to his child if there was any 
hope. & here begins a different 
kind of struggle, on this 
page, akin to keeping the 
steering wheel perfectly 
straight, a struggle not 
to crane out of this shot, not 
to add voiceover, not 
to do the one thing i am 
trained to, which is make 
things legible, impose 
structure & plot, motivation, 
a frame, a double helix of 
narrative to snake through 
the spine, to be the spine. 
here i am, here we are, 
not fifty feet from the news 
of my brother’s suicide & 
already i can feel a tug at 
the reins. i don’t know if 
naming these things can 
sap their power or if it 
constitutes a sacrifice 
at their altar, an invitation 
to the impulse i am trying 
to disperse. what are 
the rules of this endeavor, 
am i supposed to unfold 
the moments of this night 
like an origami crane, 
crease by crease, is that 
the penance or the healing, 
the ritual, a march toward 
or away from what? penance 
for what? if you are making 
up the ritual as you go, 
is it a ritual? if the loss is 
a hole that cannot be filled, 
is the remainder of your 
life the ritual? are rituals 
supposed to fill the hole or 
deepen it until you can 
crawl out the other side, 
& who am i that i have to ask?
my mother’s mother’s 
father’s parents were the 
children of famed rabbis, 
they came here & founded 
a jewish community 
in burlington vermont by 
paying other jews to keep 
the sabbath, making them whole 
& a minyan by handing out 
the wages they would have 
lost in observing the holy day, 
& here i am not even a hundred 
& fifty years later, acting as if 
the books my people carried 
& died for are unknown to me. 
here i am freighted by nothing, 
reinventing the wheel, reinventing 
the rack. daring to believe 
that perhaps you only realize 
a ritual was one after 
you complete it, inscribe the 
final character. a tear falls 
on the page, becomes 
the final period or some 
stupid maudlin shit like that. 

Adam Mansbach
From: I Had a Brother Once
Copyright © 2021 by Giants of Science, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by One World, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

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