Poetic autoethnography

“The power of autoethnography,” writes Ron Pelias (2021), lies in its ability as a “method for maneuvering your way through” (p. 100). In his book Lessons on aging and dying: A poetic autoethnography, published in the Writing lives: Ethnographic narrative series by Routledge, Pelias maneuvers through the complexities and uneasiness of aging and facing death. As one of my brothers is wont to say, with each passing year each of our “runways is getting shorter.” We’ll all die. With that in mind, Pelias’ book encourages us to think about that, whatever our age.

Pelias organizes his reflections on aging and dying as a series of 73 poems, most with a short comment. These are arranged into three units—Beginnings, From here to there, and Endings. The book encourages readers to take these as “personal curiosities, speculative suspicions, momentary realizations, farcical departures, worst-case scenarios, embarrassing fears, therapeutic encounters, helpful frameworks, experiential truths, hopeful conjectures, and inevitable destinations” (p. ix). There is much to ponder in this short volume, and I was reminded of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s (1930-2015) admonition to the Australian public in 1971: “Life wasn’t meant to be easy.” Pelias’ book faced the messiness of being human head-on.

What is poetic autoethnography? In this book, the poems are Pelias’ personal narratives “staged as poetic confessions” (p. xi). Some might query the value of personal confessions or “lessons” for understanding aging and dying. In fact, the poems represent various biological changes that we all face as we age (e.g., physical illness and decline), psychological challenges (e.g., depression and anxiety), and sociocultural phenomena related to aging (e.g., ageism, caregiving, end-of-life planning) (p. x). There are so many issues to contemplate in this short volume:

  • the flight of time (Lesson 3, Thieves)
  • our changing bodies (Lesson 5, The old naked man standing in front of the mirror examines the ruins)
  • how opportunities narrow upon retirement (Lesson 26, Reminders)
  • anticipation of caregiving (Lesson 50, Training for elder care)
  • summing up one’s life and legacy (Lesson 66, Obituary)

As in Pelias’ other writing (2004), the poems in this book speak directly to the heart, challenging readers to consider the journeys we all take as we age, how we might think about these, and how we handle caregiving and death. I found these poems to be evocative, reflective, vulnerable, and boldly revealing of human sensitivities. As a reader, the poems evoked memories of deceased family members, along with reflections on my own aging and mortality. Pelias’ contemplation of the cliché “time slips away” (“I think they stole it. I can’t find it/anywhere, not in all this stuff/cluttering my house, accumulated/by crazed consumption as if that/were my job…” “…My time/ has been taken by the time thieves/who do their work in a flash”) was only one of the poems that caused me to think more about how I live, and left me questioning with Pelias “what I’ve done with my time; what, if anything, matters” (p. 5).

As a whole, the book prompts conversations about caregiving, ageism, identity, and how we care for ourselves and others. Once again, Pelias has given us lots to think about. Thank you Ron.

Kathy Roulston

References

Pelias, R. J. (2004). A methodology of the heart: Evoking academic and daily life. AltaMira Press.

Pelias, R. J. (2021). Lessons on aging and dying: A poetic autoethnography. Routledge.

2 thoughts on “Poetic autoethnography

  1. As my sisters and I edge closer to our final chapters of lives well-lived, lately we’ve been sharing snippets of chapters that I’m sure would with Pelias shares in his poems. I can’t wait to read it!! I think I’ll get four copies so we can read it together.

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