The Mystery of a Girl
A grieving mother turns to poetry in search of truth
By Jasmine Goh
Sign Language for the Death of Reason
I first read Loss Adjustment (2019), Linda Collins' reflections of her 17-year-old daughter Victoria McLeod's suicide, in early 2020. It was the start of the pandemic that would change life as we knew it – and in a time of collective grief, Loss Adjustment stood out as a deeply personal and moving memoir, articulating with great precision and vulnerability a mother's journey of loss.
In Sign Language for the Death of Reason, Collins taps on the same material as she does in Loss Adjustment – the poignant yet haunting journals that Victoria left behind. Adopting Toni Morrison's words in her essay The Site of Memory, Victoria's journals are akin to an archaeological site that first surfaces, such that they become a "route to a reconstruction of a world, to an exploration of an interior life that was not written and to the revelation of a kind of truth."
And poetry expands the imaginative boundaries. Collins turns to poetry for its ability to "honour [Victoria's] depth of empathy and feeling" and, through the lyricism of poetry, to arrive at a place where "fiction and fact intersect to create words with new feelings greater than the sum of their parts." Here, Collins glimpses into Victoria's journals, into her private spaces, into all that Victoria has left behind – to arrive at some truth, to rebuild the world that Victoria saw. All with the power of imagination, with the prowess of words.
Faithful to the trajectory of grief, the poems in Sign Language take on no distinct narrative or clear chronology, transcending space and time. The opening poem 'Grief Love' immediately confronts the reader with the central issue that Collins grapples with, to which no response can fully comfort:
The space that Victoria once filled becomes a door through which Collins now steps through, as she surveys the world that Victoria no longer sees. In a room of childhood memorabilia, every small fragment and corner now holds meaning, through which Collins (and the reader) trawls, craving to understand. In the piece 'Trees Were Her Friends', extracted from a short story written by Victoria at the tender age of 14, Victoria writes of a seven-year-old girl who has the ability to communicate with spirits, a small showing of the rich and creative inner life that Victoria possessed:
Like how the character Wisteria was able to speak to spirits, the desire to understand the departed permeates the collection. In 'The Mystery of a Girl', the death of the young girl is a mystery to be unravelled. In another found poem titled 'Victoria's Bookcase: Nancy Drew Stories', the list of Nancy Drew titles further reads as clues to be decoded. Sure enough, some of these poems read as searches for answers, as Collins cradling and examining the words that Victoria has left in her journal entries, as pieces to be moved into their rightful place.
Proffering a kaleidoscopic lens to grief, Collins, in an act of re-visioning her relationship with her daughter, positions herself in the shoes of a persona that could be Victoria, filling the omissions and gaps in memory. In 'Cool Kids Cruel Kids', she steps into the shoes of a child and imagines herself through the eyes of a teenager, the childlike, affectionate tone echoing through hollow chambers of regret:
In the same poem, the persona's heart pendant gifted by a friend transforms into a "fake heart / around my neck like a noose". Victoria was a victim of bullying, and in Loss Adjustment, Collins laments her failing to pick up the signs sooner. In a melancholic final poem to the first section of the collection, Collins pictures Victoria's final flight amongst the green blanket of trees and birds, asking: "Did you imagine leaf-tipped bark arms reaching to carry you to the next world?" And with a heart-breaking regret, "I wish I had been there to tuck you in."
Desire and yearning haunt these poems; even in the pieces that consider the quotidian, loss suffuses each line. Collins remembers gentler times in 'Where We Had Holidays', she recalls a "once happy place" – a wooden deck facing the seaside in Ōtago, where she once watched the sunset and boatmen catching fish in the evening light. As she considers the wildlife that surrounded them, she reflects on the inevitable cycles of life and death of the natural world, and the beauty of uninterrupted time:
And yet, there is a musicality, and an almost-delight to some of the poems. The glory of the lyric is that it does what Collins was unable to do in Loss Adjustment, to be playful with language, to let her thoughts transfigure on the page, to allow her words to sing. In the piece 'All My Olives', Collins plays with the word "olive", its sound and meaning – "O live. Oh leave. Oh love. All if. All live. All love." The words rolling off tongue, each iteration a step in joyful reinterpretation. In 'Praxia', after Sylvia Plath's Ariel, Collins borrows language from Plath as she imagines a different life for Victoria, for herself:
When one experiences loss this sudden and whole, closure is complex. Victoria's voice folds into every page and poem of the collection, and the reader marvels at the depth of her ruminations, the melancholy of her stories, her creativity and talent. But to Collins, it goes even further. Victoria is immortalised on the page – her "spine a book", as "Today / we converse in nature's language", speaking "as a newborn, and even before all our befores" ('Most Days'). There is an inextricable cord between mother and child. Through poetry and re-visioning, Victoria becomes tangible and real, her voice reaching across the void of death, lingering.
Yet, while the line between death and life is blurred, it is still very much impermeable. In 'Lavender', a prose piece, the writer rebels against the archetype of the mournful mother with a fierce bitterness, almost rage: "I have opinions now. She shouldn't have died. If only she had told us she couldn't speak up at school." There is no one right response to loss or clear trajectory in grief, and Collins is unashamed of that (rightly so).
Victoria's online journals anchors much of Sign Language. The concluding poem 'Printed on Recycled Paper' are fragments that tie the collection's discrete poems into a bow – dipping its toes through the different motifs explored in the collection – and finally, ending with the poignant, childlike voice once more: "(Luv ya Mama)."
Floating through a dreamlike world that is forever changed, Sign Language explores the tumultuous journey through the tussle between reason and yearning in the aftermath of tragedy, to reach for and reimagine the truth. There is no linearity in coping with loss; closure is an unceasing myth. There is a language which Collins has learned, not by choice, one that those of us acquainted with grief are able to speak to and respond with. So many of us experience loss and tragedy of some form, and poetry may be too slow to save. But it can speak of the immensities of the human experience. And there is some saving truth in that.
So we read of Victoria's life and memory. And we bear witness; we remember.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 4 Oct 2022