This Angel On My Chest by Leslie Pietrzyk is a powerful collection of short stories varying in length but equally worthy of high praise. Pietrzyk uses this collection to assess the territory of grief from an external perspective. The gap in time between the writing of this collection and the act of initial grief adds layered intrigue and a robust sense of introspection that warrants deeper thinking by the reader with regards to the manner in which grief morphs, ebbs and flows. Pietrzyk takes the reader through the leaps and bounds of grief through an emphasis on progression beyond a singular, or isolated, temporality.
These are ten things that only you know now:
He joked that he would die young. You imagined ninety-nine to
your hundred. But by “young” he meant sixty-five, fifty-five. What
“young” ended up meaning was thirty-five.
In the memory book the funeral home gave you (actually, that
you paid for; nothing there was free, not even delivering the flowers
to a nursing home the next day, which cost sixty-five dollars, but
you were too used up to care)…… You were there when
he had the heart attack. (1)
Something I appreciated deeply within this collection is the bold honesty, the tenacious frankness that disturbs the reader’s innate preconceptions and ruminations on death and grief. Grief is molded to be something brighter, more effervescent despite that rogue unknown finality that warps every living being’s mind. This collection is an example of how a cacophonous creative energy intoxicating can arise out of the deepest, darkest doldrums of human sentiment.
With careful, astute attention paid to the contrast between growth and directness alongside sentimentality and emotive diction, Pietrzyk’s stories are centered on the sudden death of her husband some 26 years ago. This emphasis on a core narrative while exploring other facets of this all-consuming grief gives a broad sense of comfort to Pietrzyk’s writing. Namely, the comfort that washes over us as grief begins to melt into the past and instead, memories, hard etched into the fleshy walls of our mind remain.
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EXPERIMENT: Tell a true story to an audience gathered in a
bar. Tell something so personal and so true that you’re spattering
your ripped-out guts on the dirty floor, so personal and so true that
your naked, beating heart lies exposed for everyone to gawk at and
poke. Tell the truth. Tell the truth for real. Put it out there. You can
do it. That’s what you tell yourself, because you’re pretty sure you
can’t do it. (49)
Pietrzyk makes use of more experimental formatting amid the traditional presentation of some stories to give added depth to these emotive short stories. This embedding of diverse structure serves to affirm the tenacious nature of Pietrzyk’s writing, but more directly, the way in which grief begins to unspool as the reach of time begins to extend, lengthening and distorting our once-felt grief until it becomes something new, something changed but ever present still. These short stories share a commonality that makes their reading feel as if they were sequenced to read as one cohesive whole. With elegiac elements and a strong grasp of emotionally engaging narrative and craft, Pietrzyk centers the reader and gives breath to narratives with core focuses long past, but not forgotten to the ravages of time.
Who believes in heaven? If he listened to
me . . . don’t look, I said, I said, don’t look don’t don’t, no . . . no.
If he didn’t want to make it right. If he hadn’t told me. If Louise.
If. Damn it, who thinks a kid is dead? (And who is relieved when she is,
relieved?) Eight years old, and a tiny gravestone. Michael is dead.
I didn’t wish for that. (That, or for her to be—) Just—maybe, just—
(Yes, you did.) Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, us
fucking sinners like me, now and at the hour of our death, amen.
From the subsequently harsh ramifications of her husband’s death in “Ten Things” to an eventual shift to moving on, Pietrzyk’s words are unapologetic. I appreciated the often-juxtaposing nature of the prose within this collection as it asks the reader to question and think beyond merely passively accepting Pietrzyk’s narratives and the characters within them. In so doing, Pietrzyk deserves to be commended further for her insistence and the manner in which her words meet the challenge of grief and its expression. Never backing down. By using different points of view, varying perspectives and exhibiting a keenness to dissect this sentiment, Pietrzyk’s stories form a magnum opus of true significance.
As a whole, This Angel On My Chest may be focused on the death of Pietrzyk’s husband but it becomes so much more as the reader treks through Pietrzyk’s stories. This collection makes the reader feel more at peace with the unknown and less angry, less frustrated. Instead Pietrzyk both directly and indirectly challenges the reader to question and ruminate in the silence of the unknown. An absolutely wondrous read that should be on your reading list!