Emma Bee Bernstein

Eulogy for Emma

Beauty is momentary in the mind—
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.

The body dies; the body's beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of Winter, done repenting.
                                    – Wallace Stevens

The day dark is when you I cannot see.

What happened to Emma is unfathomably unfair and excruciatingly painful. Nothing I can say here will go beyond those two obdurate facts.

Emma was surrounded by love and returned that love; and she gave her love generously, even recklessly, as those of us know who were lucky enough to have bathed in her angelic glow. But love failed, love was insufficient to save her against the demons inside her that grabbed hold of her hand and would not let go, no matter how fiercely she fought against them. We know Emma was always fierce so let it not go unacknowledged that in her last moments she struggled fiercely and with all her soul against something more powerful than she had ever known. Emma showed the same courage in her last days as she did throughout her life; the courage that made her seem to herself invincible and to us indomitable – a blazing force of nature, a fiery comet that lit up our lives, burning so bright it sometimes blinded, sometimes scalded, burning until suddenly, catastrophically, the ball of fire that she was expired.

Dark is the day when you I cannot see.

Emma’s courage illuminates her being even as it leaves us dumbfounded that she could have come to this end. Only those who have come close to something like what enveloped Emma in the instant of her death can know how much she must have suffered in the moment – so that all the care of those who loved her was vanished from her thoughts and was banished from her heart. We rightly rage against her death and against her for failing us, for leaving us, we who had such hopes for her and who had hitched the meaning of our lives on hers. Or then we search for some meaning in a life cut short, a life of infinite potential, as all lives have at such an age. But finding conscious purpose in her death is to wrest meaning from its annihilation, adding psychic insult to traumatic tragedy. For Emma’s death was an act of total despair beyond her control, precipitated by a concussion she had from a disastrous car wreck in late July of this year.

There is no consolation for her death – only going on in the face of it, if and as we can.

Dark the day when you I cannot see.

So many of the letters we have received start by saying there are no words sufficient for a tragedy of this kind. I keep thinking – if that sentiment is too widely shared, it’s going to put us poets our of business (what little business there is for us). The problem is not that words are inadequate but that such a terrifying turn as this leaves us speechless, is unspeakable, or let’s say puts us on the border of sense and senselessness, cry and communication. For us – Susan and Felix and me – all the words we have been offered have been welcome and appreciated, as water to those in a desert, even, maybe especially, those words that begin by saying there are no words …

People say you know who your friends are at a time like this but what has happened to us goes beyond that; as we were sinking deep into oceans of sorrows, we were buoyed up by a collective force, a community, of poets and artists and family, that seems determined not to let us sink. So many have been there for us, even now when we have lost a sense of our own being there.

A father’s grief, a mother’s tears are all in vain. Because the thing we both most feared came true. Emma is gone. All the ways we try to come to terms with that always end the same; even to think of coming to terms with this is obscene.

Nothing we think or say or feel will bring Emma back again, she who was the center of our days and now haunts our nights.

Dark is, the day, when you I cannot see.

Felix says we must think not of Emma’s death but her life, and he is right.

The meaning of Emma’s life cannot be measured by its end, but by the quality of its being. Still, if it was in my power, I would exchange that quality for time, to have her here again. Nothing can ever compensate for her absence.

The day dark is when you I cannot see.

I wish I could use some black magic, fueled by all our grief, and bring Emma back. I wish, like, Orpheus, I could go now to the underworld to call her back to life, as my trip to Venice now seems like a journey to Hades, travelling alone by boat to a dream-like world of water and labyrinthine streets in a vain effort to rescue her. And yet every day I think there must be a way, that of all people, Emma, like the Houdini she was, would find a way; only to have such idle waves of compulsive thoughts smashed on the shores of reality.

Dark, dark the day when you I cannot see.

In 2005, Emma created a site-specific conceptual photography project in which she placed large hand-printed photographs – unframed and vulnerable to the weather, which ultimately damaged them – in different parts of the University of Chicago campus, so that the viewer would encounter them in familiar yet unexpected places. The photos, like her short life, were a gift, but a gift not to have and hold but to come upon, so that the encounter would change your relation to where you met it (or where it met you), just as our encounter with Emma changes our relation to where we met her or where she met us. Stanley Cavell wrote her an email in response to this work – “you show,” he wrote her,  “that human ingenuity not only takes away impressions but leaves their impressions present where they have called, a persistent present, immortal in its transience, forever part of history that this happened there then that way.”

The day dark is when you I cannot see.

People say that losing a child is one of the worst thing that can happen to a person. Surely, Emma’s death is, by leaps and bounds, the most catastrophic thing that has happened to me. But grief knows no hierarchies. For the mourner, the pain of loss has no respect for whether a death is more or less appropriate, timely or untimely, natural or unnatural. But I also know that worse by far than the pain of Emma’s death, unbearable as it to bear, would have been to be deprived of the pulsing, piercing, radiant light that was her life; a light in which I woke each day, richer; a light which I feel, even know, warming my chill bones.

Tennyson writes in “In Memoriam” –

              I envy not in any moods
              The captive void of noble rage,
              The linnet born within the cage,
              That never knew the summer woods:
              I hold it true, whate'er befall;
              I feel it, when I sorrow most;
             'Tis better to have loved and lost
              Than never to have loved at all.

Emma was a gift, one that we could not possess or contain, but one for which I forever will be grateful. She transformed my life as she constantly informed me; she remade my ideas, animated my writing, was my great companion in conversation, in life, in art, as she was for Susan and Felix. Her spirit is in everything we are, do, and will do.

The day dark is when you I cannot see.

We have been overwhelmed with letters and calls and conversations in praise of Emma. But for us, if Emma had done nothing in her life, our grief would be no less; if Emma had died in some other way, our grief would be no less; if she were less beautiful than she was, our grief would be no less.

Grief knows no hierarchies.

If we can feel sometimes, as Emma told us so many times, that we did for all we could for her, to protect, support, and encourage her, all we knew how, our grief is not abated, because as parents anything short of her living is a cruel failure to which we will never reconcile ourselves.

Once more we sang: "They do not die
Nor lose their mortal sympathy,
Nor change to us, although they change …”

But Emma’s life was filled with astonishing vivacity, intellectual adventure, and artistic accomplishment. Emma was an enthusiastic participant and leader in all the things she did, from her early schools and friendships, to her beloved Camp Kinderland, to her days at Friends Seminary.

Emma loved to travel – first going to Italy – in high school and later returning there two more times, but also spending a semester in India and travelling throughout Europe.

And she loved her work for museums – first at the Brooklyn Museum as a tour guide and later at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smart Museum, the Renaissance Society, and the Art Institute in Chicago, and most recently as a teaching artist at the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Chicago. She was in Venice, Italy, this past month working as an intern at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, where she had just presented a seminar on GirlDrive and her photography and where she died. The Guggenheim closed the day following her death in her honor.

Emma was also a fabulously lively writer who thought profoundly about aesthetics, especially the presumed conflict of art and fashion, a binary she worked ferociously to undermine. When she was 13, at her Bat Mitzvah, she argued with the rabbi about the existence of God; after that, no comfortable thought was safe against her probing questions and her stubborn brilliance. At the University of Chicago she was the photography editor and photographer for the student newspaper and then later for a new magazine of erotica (which she far preferred).  She wrote a senior thesis on fashion, art, and masquerade but beyond that produced a major body of photographs that put her ideas into action. The photographs are astonishingly good, conceptually and aesthetically.  She graduated from University of Chicago with a BA with honors in Art History and Visual Arts in 2007. And in the time since, published essays on a new generation of feminists, spoke on several panels, and exhibited her work in New York and Chicago

Her photographs were one part of GirlDrive, her fundamental focus for the past year. She and  Nona Willis Aronowitz  got a book contract from Seal Press for this inspiring project of social activism and feminism in/as a road trip. The book plans and web site ripple with an infectious liberation and exuberant charm. GirlDrive includes Emma’s marvelously inventive portrait photographs along with interviews and reflections and writings by Nona, to which Emma also contributed. Yet Emma has already begun interviewing artists for Henry Hills’s epic film Emma’s Dilemma, which she began working on when she was 12 years old. Emma’s Dilemma includes filmed interviews with dozens of artists, in which the  young Emma asks startling and unexpected questions, disarming even the most canny and guarded interview subjects.

During her final weeks, she was working on a book for Belladonna, the women’s poetry series in New York. She had finished the basic work for the book and was looking forward to a February event, where she was to appear with Marjorie Perloff and Susan. That book will be out soon and perhaps we will find a way to celebrate her, her politics, and her commitment at the Belladonna event in February.
I last saw her in Venice a few weeks ago. During her days off we went to museums and museum, church after church, Emma dwelling on each painting or fresco, ecstatic about the magnificence of each work, explaining to me the genius of Tintoretto’s chiaroscuro and Max Ernst’s birds.

No one who met her, from the high school kids she tutored in Chicago, to the campers she counseled, to her U Chicago professors, to her many intimate friends and her extended family, forgot her. She lived a full life compressed into her 23 years.

Swinburne writes –

There is no help, for all these things are so,
And all the world is bitter as a tear.
She shall not hear us if we sing hereof, 
Nor see love's ways, how sore they are and steep.

Dickinson says that “after great pain” comes

            … the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow--
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

But we will not, cannot let go, not now, not yet.

….neither the angels in Heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever our souls from the soul
Of the beautiful Emma Bee:--


—Charles Bernstein, 31-XII-08