‘To tarry with life in this world’: New professor examines the work of mourning

By Leah Silvieus ’21 M.A.R.

It’s not unusual for scholars to be asked why they spend years of their lives devoted to a certain subject area. However, Adrián Emmanuel Hernández-Acosta, recently appointed Assistant Professor of Religion and Literature in the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School, seems to get this question more than most.

“I wonder if there isn’t something about the topic of mourning that invites or even piques curiosity,” Hernández-Acosta says. “As an esteemed colleague recently asked, ‘Why are you so obsessed with death?’”

There is often an implicit assumption embedded in this question—that those most pre-disposed to studying loss must have acute or chronic experiences of death. However, what makes his area of study so intellectually and spiritually rich for Hernández-Acosta is not the question of why certain people are interested in death but why more aren’t.

“If anything singularly motivates my study of mortuary poetics, it is a sense of inadequacy in the commonly available responses to mourning that we give ourselves and each other as scholars, as ministers, as living beings who value life in our very awareness of its finitude,” he says.

Death, in a way, is radically democratic, Hernández-Acosta observes. Not everyone who might live will live, but everyone who lives will die. However, even though everyone dies, not everyone experiences death and dying in the same way, he says.

“The experience of death and dying is affected as much by personal circumstance as it is by dynamic structures of power that run along various lines of difference,” Hernández-Acosta says. “This has implications for the questions we ask: Who gets to write about reckoning with death? From what position in a network of power relations do they write? Whose deaths are recounted? How? To what ends?

These questions are the focus of a course he is teaching this semester, Epic Laments: Expressions of Sorrow in Ancient and Contemporary Caribbean Literatures. Course texts include Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid’s 1997 memoir about her brother dying from complications with AIDS, queer Cuban writer Virgilio Piñera’s 1948 play about murderous transitions of political power, and Trinidadian writer M. Nourbese Philip’s 2008 poem about the limits of language itself in telling a story of enslaved Africans thrown overboard at sea. Another course, An Introduction to African Diaspora Religions, includes a curated playlist titled “After Ritual Space” which he incorporates into his lectures and discussions.

Sample tracks from Hernández-Acosta’s course: View the playlist and listen to the tracks.

“Much of my research and teaching is perhaps best summarized as care for the work of mourning, which is always also the work of interpretation,” he says.

In addition to his teaching, Hernández-Acosta is currently working on two books. The first book, tentatively titled Furies: Poetic Mediations in the Wake of Death, analyzes how two queer Cuban poets from the 1940s—José Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera—critically drew on Greco-Roman myth to argue with each other over poetry’s aesthetic, ethical, and political mediation of life in the wake of death. The second book develops the first book’s introduction into mortuary poetics and examines texts by Dominican and Puerto Rican writers alongside Cuban ones and includes visual art, cinema, and music alongside the literary sources. He is also already planning for a third book in which he examines his own thinking on poetics through the religions and arts that circulate through the Caribbean within a much broader history of poetics. The impetus for that project, he says, comes from his pedagogical orientation toward teaching: to think not only within or about the Caribbean, but through the Caribbean about the broader world that formed it and which it has formed in turn.

Although Hernández-Acosta’s wasn’t consciously aware, his vocational training began very early in life as he first learned to read and write Spanish in Tuesday night prayer service and Bible study in the migrant, working-class Pentecostal church in New York his maternal grandfather pastored after moving from Puerto Rico in 1978.

“Ever the precocious grandchild of the pastor, I would volunteer to read aloud the biblical passages to be discussed,” Hernández-Acosta says. “Congregants’ endearing laughter at my mispronunciations taught me how to correctly observe accent marks in Spanish, while their lively debates were first lessons in textual interpretation.”

Although Hernández-Acosta majored in religion and music as an undergraduate at Tufts University, he started on a pre-med track, driven by an interest in neuroscience of mental illness after his maternal grandfather, the pastor, developed dementia. However, despite having excelled in high school biology, chemistry, and calculus, his first-year grades suffered. As a first-generation college student, he was not aware of all the resources available or how to access them.

After leaving the pre-med track, he took courses in a wide range of subject areas, including child development, psychology, philosophy, political science, and international relations, but he spent most of his undergraduate years on Romance languages, music, and religion. He stumbled on his first course in religion, a historical-critical introduction to the New Testament, because it fulfilled his humanities requirement.

“I thought the course would be a breeze. Little did I know,” he says. “That course challenged me in fundamental ways and set me on the path I’m on today.”

Musically, Hernández-Acosta primarily focused on cultural studies of popular music, jazz theory, and vocal performance, and his senior recital was a set of covers of jazz, funk, and rock compositions from the 1950s to the 1980s.

“Only in hindsight have I come to understand my own formal study and performance of music during those years as a continuation of the musical life first sustained in church,” he says. “Although I was studying and performing music that is considered secular, I was doing so in a way that I think resonates with those interested in sacred music. Attention to technique and tradition is not given for itself but in the service of an experience that however fleeting and with no guarantees indelibly touches you. I bring this sensibility to bear on all my research and teaching in religion and the arts.”

After his undergraduate studies, Hernández-Acosta earned an M.Div., an M.A. in the Spanish and Latin America track of Romance Languages and Literatures, and a Ph.D. in the Study of Religion, all from Harvard.  His work also been influenced by his experiences outside of the academy, especially his service as hospital chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital. During his time there, a housing-insecure, middle-aged woman receiving long-term, in-patient care in the psychiatric wing would ask the chaplaincy department to bring her a paperback Bible into which she could write her thoughts each morning.

“By the end of the day, rushed notes filled each page in every possible crevice of blank space,” Hernández-Acosta says. “She literally jotted herself down in the margins of a text that was here long before her and that will be here long after her, thereby dramatizing the not uncomplicated beauty of living, of studying human life at the intersections of religion, literature, gender, psychic life, critical theory, and material culture. She made me ask what it means to read a text, what it means to consume and be consumed by a text, especially in conditions of estrangement and prolonged distress.”

To return to the question that Hernández-Acosta so often receives— why so much focus on death? The answer is somewhat counter-intuitive. At the heart of the focus on death is actually the drive toward life.

“I consider my study of mortuary poetics,” he says, “as itself an attempt at loyalty, however limited in its own way, to the call to tarry, to tarry with the dead and dying, which is to say, to tarry with life in this world.”

Leah Silvieus is a poet and writer working at the intersection of religion and literature. She is author of the poetry collection Arabilis (Sundress Publications) and is the co-editor with Lee Herrick of the anthology The World I Leave You: Asian American Poets on Faith and Spirit (Orison Books).

April 2, 2024