Book Review: The Day of Shelly’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief

The Day of Shelly's Death by Renato Rosaldo

The Day of Shelly’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief by Renato Resaldo is one man’s account of the death of his wife while in the Philippines. Resaldo is a graduate of Harvard and professor emeritus at Stanford. He currently teaches at New York University. Rosaldo is a a leading cultural anthropologist with several published books including Ilongot Headhunting: 1883-1974: A Study in Society and History published in 1980. He was conducting further field research when he lost his wife in an accident. His wife, Shelly, also an anthropologist studied the Ilongots. They were working together in country with their two sons in 1981 when she became victim to a tragic accident.

The Day is a book the center mostly on a single event and a single day. The day Resaldo lost his wife: October 11, 1981. The collection of poems are moving and heartfelt. Resaldo not only tells his story but tells the story through the eyes of others who were involved both before and after the event. He recalls the coin toss that fateful day. One of their children was sick and he and Shelly tossed a coin to see who would stay back with the children. He stayed. The pedal taxi driver who who offered him a ride as a gift when he heard that Shelly died. There is a poem where his children tell their experience. The cliff where Shelly fell also writes of the experience. Resaldo writes all these views and puts them into free verse. The verse is not always free flowing, but seems halting at times, like someone talking through a very emotional event. It is, but it is also reflecting the poetry writing years later. The Philippine natives speak as English is their second language. This is also captured very well in the poetry with with noun and verb agreement and placement. Resaldo does an excellent job capturing the environment and the people; that should come as no surprise for a leading anthropologist.

Each chapter begins with a simple introduction followed by the poems. The second part of the book is an essay called “Notes on Poetry and Ethnography” in which Resaldo explains why and how he came to write the poems. In addition the reader will gain some education on ethnography and how it is used in the book.

This collection may not give the flow and feel of traditional poetry; it is not Wordworth or Keats. It does, however, accomplish what poetry is meant to accomplish: It recreates the day. The feelings of the author. The feelings of the people directly and indirectly involved in the event. It creates powerful experiences using words and makes the reader experience these emotions. All in all an outstanding work and a tribute.

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