Opening space: Light Reading by Stephan Delbos

One of the pleasures of reading contemporary poetry is, for me, the varieties of experience allowed, and the ways each poet and each collection is unique. Most of the poets I read have come to my attention through social media, either via direct interaction, contact with translators, or as publications of publishers I trust. It is not that I don’t have time for classic poets, I have shelves full of poetry collections, but I’m most interested in calling attention, in my own modest way, to newer, short, single author volumes.

I came to know of Prague-based writer, Stephan Delbos several years ago when I read his co- translation of Czech surrealist poet Vítěslav Nezval’s The Absolute Gravedigger. But his first full-length collection, Light Reading is my first introduction to his own distinctive verse.

Delbos is a minimalist. Upon opening this handsomely presented volume, the first thing you notice is that placement is critical; words seem hang suspended in empty space. The word “light” in the title of the book and its first section, refers to both tone and openness. The poems are spare, often exceptionally so. One is simply a semi-colon, some a word or two, others a few scant stanzas, but in each instance, the words act in concert with a title set at the lower righthand corner of the page. It is the title that completes the image, renders the impact—offering insight, or humour, or both. Notes at the back of the book illuminate the sources of many of these pieces, adding another level of meaning. But to attempt reproduce any of these fleeting poems can be no more than an approximation given the limitations of  online space. Here are three:

 

.                                                                                 if only
.                                                                                 all life
.                                                                                 were so
.                                                                                 simple
                                                                               here
.                                                                                 hang
.                                                                                 your
                                                                               shells
                                                                               shadows
.                                                                                 shame

 

§.                                                                  §On Coatracks

*

.                                    impossibly

.                                                             yes

 

.                                                                                       §Luck

*

.                                                                              in tiny pieces
                                                                            tiny parts

.                                                                               i whose
.                                                                               bruises

.                                                                               broke pillows

.                                                                               sleep under
.                                                                               paper sheets

 

.                                                             §Fragments (Keepsake)

*

The poems of the second section, “Bagatelles for Typewriter,” take the form of poetic riffs on the French term meaning a “trifle,” typically associated with short musical compositions. Dedicated to a variety of figures—political, literary, philosophical, musical—paired with an instrument or two, these poems have the widest sweep, but the imagery is still spare, restrained, and carefully modulated. Here the poet pays tribute to Václav Havel, slips through the streets of Prague, and explores avenues filled with memories, sounds and language. These are the longest pieces in the collection, and yet few fill more than a single page and physical arrangement and space—or silence—is, as in the earlier section, an essential element, imbuing each composition with its own volume and rhythmic energy. Delbos, who has written plays about jazz trumpeter Chet Baker and Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, demonstrates an inherent musicality in these poetic bagatelles. Take, for example, the opening of “Bagatelle for Throat Singers, Baton & Player Piano”:

I am a terrible Buddhist
.                                                  my love you are a magnificent adversary
on the anniversary of
.                                                   our first nervous kiss on a sidewalk where
garbage cans held fish
                                                 -bones, failed ficuses, Orangina bottles,
our alcohol the pilot
                                                  light of love; this was supposed to be
about enlightenment,
.                                                    the impossible tightrope possibility.

The third and final part of Light Reading, “Arrangements,” consists of a series of ten sets of ten poetry prompts. The first of these begins:

      1. A poem in terza rima
      2. A poem of 18 lines
      3. A poem containing the phrase coin slot
      4. A poem rhyming beguile and tinfoil
      5. A poem with two mirrored meanings

while another (<V>) prescribes:

      1. A poem that cannot hear itself think
      2. A poem getting on my last nerve
      3. A poem huffing oxygen
      4. A poem title is the last line
      5. A poem with seven monorhymed lines
      6. A poem curing emphysema

In reading this collection I had the feeling that these poems, these condensed, precise evocations of the possibilities—and limitations of language—seemed to be coming into being on the page, speaking to ghosts, alluding to the unutterable, to the moment captured in the empty spaces. Unconfined, open-ended and illuminating, Light Reading is a work that leaves plenty of room for exploration. And enjoyment.

Light Reading by Stephan Delbos is published by Blaze Vox Books.

For whom do we hold our memories? Singer in the Night by Olja Savičević

Early in the wonderfully original Singer in the Night, the narrator asks:

And what’s left for death if you forget everything before it? Is there anything left to die? When things turn the wrong way round and oblivion precedes death instead of death oblivion?

Although the protagonist is under forty, such oblivion is a serious concern, one that plagues her daily. But it fails to dampen her spirit or her resolve to complete the mission she has set for herself as her brain becomes increasingly clouded.

And what a story she has to share while she still can!

If Olja Savičević’s debut novel, Farewell Cowboy combined an effervescent protagonist, spaghetti Westerns, and an unresolved adolescent suicide to create a powerful portrait of a contemporary reality in her native Split not featured in tourist brochures, her most recent effort, newly released from Istros Books, is even more eccentric—with a wider, more devastating aim. Born in 1974, Savičević  is seen to be part of what is often called, in the region, a “lost generation.” Growing up in Yugoslavia, she was part of a cohort taught to believe they belonged to one united country that was theirs to live in and love, that war was something consigned to history lessons. The notion they would ever see such conditions in their own lifetimes was unimaginable. But by the time these children of the 1970s reached early adulthood they had witnessed the brutal destruction of their nation through years of bloody conflict. Many had fought, willingly or otherwise, lost friends, deserted, or ended up migrating in search of better fortunes abroad. As they waited for life to return to some kind of fabled normalcy, they would live and love and try to build lives in the newly defined, divided and demoralized reality unfolding around them.

Singer in the Night opens with a letter from a certain Nightingale, an open missive addressed to all of his neighbours. It is a passionate evocation of the wonders of the street, city and country they share—Dinko Šimunović Street in Split, Croatia—and in it he indicates that he will be leaving.  The narrative that follows begins in a rather disoriented fashion, it will take a little while to get your bearings, but what is even more evident from the outset, is that the narrator herself is having difficulty keeping track of events, of past and present, and of the passage of time. She is given to more than a little dramatic recapitulation and ever seems to be backtracking to catch up with her own story. But it’s best to just sit back and see where the ride takes you. As reader you are in the hands of—or rather in the passenger seat of a gold Mazda convertible with—the gloriously eccentric Clementine, who is, she will tell you, an orange blonde, all glamour on the outside, but, “a black orange, inside. Full of hell.” And the letter writer named Nightingale, commonly known as Gale, is the object of her pursuit.

Clementine’s search for this man—her former husband—begins properly on Šimunović, a street located in district 3, a borough of high rises raised and designed under socialism, as yet  untouched in a city that presents itself to the world as a commercial seaside holiday resort. She herself had been lured away from that place and her first marriage years earlier by the promise of a more exciting life in Zagreb. She was already becoming known as a soap opera scriptwriter and, although her reputation grew in the capital, a comradely second marriage failed to kindle the sparks of romance of the unrivaled youthful passion she had once experienced with Gale. They had kept in touch, but over time, their contact had been reduced to the occasional text message and then, finally, silence. Returning now after experiencing a serious physical trauma, with an urgent desire to try to track him down, she finds that he has been gone for over a year. Apparently he had attempted to address a period of loud lovemaking that was disturbing his nighttime work on a commissioned cartoon strip with a comic campaign of letters. His neighbours, however, were not amused. They gathered the offending materials and called the police. There was no charge that could be laid, but it seems that a defeated Gale had decided to retreat. But to where?

While Clementine had achieved fame and fortune in the unlikely career of soap opera scriptwriter, providing distraction for the masses if you like, Gale had chosen a more political and far less lucrative artistic avenue for personal expression. He was in his ex-wife’s view, a “street poet,” a lyricist who started in a fairly conventional manner but craved a broader canvas for his verse:

They were interesting poems, authentic, but he felt that he needed a new means of expression, for him paper was slow, dull and uncommunicative, while the Internet is garrulous, polluted and cacophonous, those are places that don’t offer space for development, that’s what he thought. He wrote poems with a felt-tip on walls, by night, on peeling façades, in lifts, toilets, on rubbish skips, in subways. He drew. He discovered spray paint. An excellent concept, always fashionable, he liked spray.

Her Nightingale had become a graffiti artist.

Still moored at the marina in Split, Clementine finds the boat they had shared when they were together, and inside, a box containing copies of Gale’s letters. Each penned under a different, sometimes outrageous, identity, these missives will form the skeletal structure of the narrative that follows. They provide a series of cues to keep a narrator who is losing her memory on track. More or less. What is allowed to unfold is an unusual account of love, friendship and adventure that speaks volumes to the complicated dynamics of life in the former Yugoslavia. Savičević knows exactly what she is doing.

The former soap opera script writer records—and she is literally recording for fear of forgetting—her experiences and recollections in an idiosyncratic retrospective style, with frequent parenthetical asides and clarifications. The tone is quirky, conversational, and entertaining. After a brief stop at Gale’s mother’s home, Clementine’s journey into her uncertain future (and fading past) takes her to rural Bosnia, toward the home of Helanka, the striking completely hairless woman who was, for a time in youth, a close friend. They had met toward the end of the war when young people would gather, as young people do even in uneasy times, seeking fun and possible romance (or at least sex):

Today (twenty years ago) everyone is on the Quay and the Quay is everything. This is the first sun after the winter and every one avoids staying inside the town walls – the best cafés inside the walls are run by dykes, they hang together and get each other jobs – that’s the theory. They’ve found some way of coping with the half-people involved in protection rackets round the cafés. They are the only ones who can do that, survive, and they are probably used to everything in order to subsist, so thought Helanka, my friend who knew everything. (Everyone was a bit crazy for her and her freedom, and she also had an appearance that opened the doors of the marginalised and marginal groups to her.)

It through Helanka that she first meets Gale and, these two decades later, it is her hope that he may have passed by on his way to wherever he has gone.

When she arrives, it turns out that Helanka is away. Her daughters, nicknamed Billy Goat and Arrow, and the odd elderly couple keeping an eye on them, welcome her into their weird world while she waits for her friend’s return. As time goes on, it becomes unclear if our poor narrator has dropped the threads of her own story altogether.

The strength of this inventive novel lies its extraordinary characters and the opportunities they and their stories offer to speak to greater realities in the former Yugoslavia, sharply, but with wit and humour. Clementine sees her professional success against the issues of ethnic and cultural diversity. She notes the surprising benefit of soap operas to Croatian language preservation and promotion:

Without any ambition, we had achieved more for Croatian culture than the Ministry of Culture had over the previous twenty or so years. [Her producer] was truly triumphant. I was awarded a medal, the president presented it to me, there’s a photo. A critic in one of the daily newspapers, the same one who had coined ‘orangeade’, compared me to the great Croatian writer, Marija Jurić Zagorka, – he called me the serial Zagorka of our times. My saccharine passages became sentimental journeys, and pathos became the new emotionality.

Speaking through the characters—including a dog, God, and a ghost—to whom his letters are attributed, Gale is given the freedom to talk directly and bluntly. The lovers keeping the street awake at night are never his real target. They are his excuse. As a young man he fought in the war for a time and then, after a break to complete his schooling, deserted. Through the voice of  a veteran who remembers the ignominy of the war experience and vows to desert if another battle comes while he is still young enough to serve, he poetically sets forth a hope for the future:

At some stage, when school text books will contain the words There is nothing heroic about war, when newspapers publish headlines saying There is nothing heroic about war, when television announcers say There is nothing heroic about war, when generals come out in public with the military secret There is nothing heroic about war, when people proclaim from pulpits and minarets There is nothing heroic about war, when a war veteran whispers to his beloved as they lie naked as children There is nothing heroic, or romantic, about war, when directors produce a Hollywood film entitled There is nothing heroic about war (because a troop of fools in a real war come off better than a troop of wise men), then it really will be, after such a long time, important news.

And the soldiers will, willy-nilly, take off their boots and emerge from war, to carry on constructing a civilian life. Wherever they are.

The unusual occurrences that mark this journey toward oblivion, whether drawn from Clementine’s past or her slowly dissolving present, play out very different kind of drama on the page, one with echoes, often disturbing and surreal, of a past that can’t be buried or neatly laid to rest. By turns strange and exhilarating, tender and ultimately very sad, Singer in the Night is much more than an absurd adventure with a larger-than-life heroine desperately seeking her first husband as her memory is slipping into the distance behind her; it is a sharp, multi-faceted commentary on the world Olja Savičević and her contemporaries inherited. While the tale becomes increasingly distorted on one level, in Clementine’s account of the war, its immediate aftermath, and the confusions and divisions that persisted, a much deeper, darker reality sits. And the fact that she is losing her memory is more than a personal tragedy, it is symptomatic of a larger national and regional tragedy. For, in the words of George Santayana, so frequently paraphrased, Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

 Singer in the Night by Olja Savičević is translated by Celia Hawkesworth, and published by Istros Books.

Given to thinking: Naked Thoughts by Róbert Gál

The impossible, until it proves possible, will always appear for a time to be wrong or inappropriate . The inappropriate, until it proves wrong, will always appear for a time to be possible. (XXII)

The aphorism is a literary form with a long history, reaching back to Classical philosophy. Over the centuries, the form—a sharp, memorable image speaking to some broader facticity—has appeared in literature, folklore, and scientific and political discourse. It is not enough to be witty and concise, an aphorism must also contain a truth, insight, or a piece of wisdom. It is much easier to describe than to create. But, for many, the aphorism, with a risk of appearing too clever or cliché, has no place in serious writing. What, then, is serious writing? Aphorisms, when well-crafted, hold a lasting appeal and, I would argue, that in a day when truths are suspect, the form is perhaps even more essential as an accessible opening for melancholy reflection.

And so, to my friend Róbert Gál. The Slovak writer has been proclaimed a modern master of the aphorism, a rather heavy mantle that he has worn with modesty for more than a decade. The form finds its way into all of his work, often providing more than a little poetic heavy lifting along the way. Now, with the release of Naked Thoughts from Black Sun Lit, Gál’s unadorned—yes, naked—gift for the form is on full display, presented against some of his idiosyncratic poetic prose.

Divided into five short sections, or three sets of numbered aphorisms set apart by two stylistically distinct interludes, Naked Thoughts begins, not unlike Gál’s recently released fictional work Agnomia, with the question of beginnings and endings. He appears to be setting a grounding principle—Life is a book of record, the first page of which is a stigma—and offering unsettling images of pathways, progress and temporal relativity. Toward the end of the long first entry he says: “To travel in time is pure recreation; to travel through space is an instinct born of a neurotic imbalance.” Where one finds oneself in the process of tracing the thoughts to follow, if in fact one finds oneself anywhere at all, is not prescribed.

While some of his ponderings in the “naked thoughts” segments are slightly longer, slipping into expected philosophical terrain, the brief—frequently sarcastic, wise, even beautiful—entries are, as one might expect, the ones that tend to stand out. These are aphorisms, after all:

He who seeks solutions has knots on his mind. (X)

The best school of life is a life misspent. (XXXIII)

To give life meaning means to make something of it deliberately—and thereby go against it. (XXXVIII)

Unspeaking silence supplies an act with its substance. (XLV)

or

Love is like scales at rest. It weighs nothing, but it carries weight. (LVIII)

The second and fourth sections, in contrast to the numbered aphorisms, are more poetic in form—in the first instance fragmentary, the latter primarily as a set of very short prose pieces—and yet, similar themes and ideas continue to percolate in these breaks. The first of these interludes, titled “in the bosom of indifferent virtues” which features an epigraph from Antonin Artaud, is perhaps the more curiously intriguing. It consists of three sets of fragments, some complete aphorisms, others incomplete thoughts, that have a subtle theatrical resonance. One begins:

She takes her dreams as the one thing that’s sure. And even though this certainty is not of negation, she does occasionally shake her head in doubt.

Within breaks in happiness.

Tacit contiguity.

He writes the terrible out of his system, she the beautiful out of hers.

The pros and cons of one con.

A failure is a first draft. And a first draft needs no motives.

This is a small book, a slender, pocket-sized volume, but it is not insubstantial. A thoughtfulness, an attentive sense of thinking out loud welcomes the reader into the meditative experience. Rhetorical inquiries, lexical truisms, wry musings, pointed barbs, and sly juxtapositions play out across the pages. Originally published in Slovak in 2014, translated by David Short, and featuring with the spare designs of Viktor Kopasz, this is the type of book that welcomes rereading, opening up fresh insights with each visit. Sometimes serious, sometimes light, Róbert Gál has the right feel and touch for this type of writing. His experience and comfort with the form is fully evident here in these “naked thoughts.” And, what is the harm in encouraging a little thinking? After all:

The only fear of one who is given to thinking is that he will see the light. (III)

Summoning the celestial: The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in their Heaven by Raoul Schrott

If absence makes the heart grow stronger, absence tinged with the uncertainty of love returned can lead the heart and the imagination to wander into realms beyond the merely mortal. To contemplate romantic perfection. To be filled with a longing for something that may no longer exist. To attempt to counter the earthly with the heavenly. To trust in angels.

The wonderfully titled The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in their Heaven is essentially a series of missives from a lovelorn poet to a mysterious red-haired beauty from whom he has been separated by time, distance and, perhaps, some recklessness on his part. He is writing from County Cork in the south of Ireland, a place which is not his home, where he is exiled, or has exiled himself, sending into the nightly blackness a chain of love letters ever so loosely disguised as a sensual, passionate and mildly profane angelology accompanied by miniaturized hagiographies. Originally published in German in 2001, this extraordinary work by Austrian writer Raoul Schrott, with its arresting illustrations by Italian artist Arnold Mario Dall’O, is now available from the inimitable Seagull Books in Karen Leeder’s delicately rendered translation. Fictional, but not a conventional novel, essayistic, but meditative in style, this book is an engaging blend of philosophy, mythology, the classical sciences, saintly heroism, and earthbound human romantic longing.

Our narrator begins, as one would expect, with Dionysius the Areopagite—not the saint, but the fifth century Syrian Neoplatonist who, writing in the name and style of his sanctified predecessor was the first to craft a hierarchy of angels and demons, a celestial stepladder to God for dark times.  Within Pseudo-Dionysius’ model of an angel-sustained universe, he locates himself and his own angelic entity:

For Earth he chose only a single one, which he placed in the lower arc of my ribs where I can feel it now, hard as a little planet. I carry it with me (even now in the train it keeps to its orbit) and sometimes I can see it before me: its mouth, black brows and a storm of red hair over its freckles, an incarnation of St. Elmo’s fire.

Captive and captivated, he writes as if possessed, bringing the Aurora Borealis, Samuel Johnson, Greek and Babylonian mythology and more into his musings as he tries to make sense of his fate, this spell of infatuation under which he is labouring. His thoughts never stray far from his beloved even though his letters have yet to elicit a response. He is continues his conversation into the silence, remembering their moments together. It is not entirely clear how much he really has to build on, how much they ever had, a quality that amplifies the sense of yearning:

Then as I sat next to you in the great hall, I heard you more than saw you beside me; I listened to you; wings folding shut. Do I bore you with all these sophistries and sentimentalities? It is only because the post takes so damned long, because I don’t know whether you will ever respond, not how; because I must eke out the little that I have to create a picture of you: little stones for a mosaic. The angels help me lay it out.

As he wanders the past and waits in the present, meditating on the nature of the role of angels in the affairs of humans, especially his own, our poet paints an image of a windswept remoteness, an isolation actual and emotional. He references local towns, harbours and natural features, like the aptly named Mount Gabriel. The ocean is never far away, and water is a major presence in his memories, his sense of loss, and much of the mythology he calls on. His heartache is pervasive, and achingly beautiful:

I walk through the grass; it brushes against my shoes. All is still, and I wish your voice was with me now, whispered and low so that only I could hear it. Instead the moon starts off on a soliloquy. Where it stands, stubbornly apart, is the southwest and somewhere behind is where you are, as if only I had to concentrate to see that far, peer over the curvature of the earth. But where you are it is an hour later, I only wish I knew how to catch up that hour.

Because the distance that haunts him is temporal, in more than one sense of the word, trusting the angels, even if as he admits, he does not believe in them, has a certain logic. A comfort.

Turning to John Scotus Eriugena, the ninth century Irish theologian, best known for translating and commenting on Pseudo-Dionysius, the narrator reflects on the inverted balance existing between humans and their heavenly counterparts:

the angel finds its form within humankind through the spirit (intellectus) of the angel that is in the man; and man comes into being in the angel through the spirit of humankind within him and so on and so forth for all eternity without a single Amen being granted to us in Eriugenia’s scholastic permutations. We are nothing but the imaginings of angels; and angels exist only in our thoughts: that is our paradox not theirs.

He has entrusted his love and his beloved to the care of angels, to hold her for him in their thoughts. And yet, as her own distinction from the angels becomes less clear in his letters, one has to wonder how much she has begun to exist only in his thoughts. If she, in her epistolary silence is possibly not thinking of him, what existential questions does that raise? For him? For any of us who has ever loved hopelessly another who will never return our affection? At heart, he knows, it seems.

And: no, I am not writing for writing’s sake; no, if my letters were in any way beautiful, there were so only on account of you; no, they are not complete in themselves; all they do is beg for the answer and conceal best they can the question (they tiptoe in stealth as I know they are trespassing on your territory). No, your cheeks were so warm that it felt as if I could have woken up next to you; no, there is nothing that could possibly dis-appoint you from the rank of the angels; no, the Amores will never run out of arrows, although I make a rather unholy Sebastian; and no, the angels will not wear themselves out with words; writing to you brought at least a few hours relief, then you started up again humming in my ears.

The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in Their Heavens reads like an extended meditative conversational prose poem, a playful interplay between earth and the heavens, grounded in the inescapable humanness of romantic love. The rich illustrations and micro biographies of the lives and martyrdom of the saints accompanying the text work together to form a running commentary on the interrelationship between love, spirituality, literature and art. This book could almost be, if one didn’t know better, the work of the angels themselves.

The interlinked processes of reading and writing grief: Thoughts on Book of Mutter by Kate Zambreno

To read Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter, is akin to making your way through a strangely familiar space that resembles a gallery, a diary, and a hall of mirrors all at once. It is, in its shifting fragmented form, unlike any conventional grief memoir. But then, as anyone who has lost a close family member—parent, child, partner—knows, there is nothing conventional about grief. The dynamics of shared histories, hopes and fears are complex. This colours, troubles and blurs the edges of the mourning process. Grieving is as much about our own lives, past and present, as it about honouring or making peace with our relationship with the person who is gone. We are the ones who need to be able integrate a complex of emotions and continue living.

Spanning thirteen years, from 2003 to 2016, Book of Mutter is Zambreno’s thoughtful, pained, uncertain attempt to come to terms with her mother’s death. Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary and Camera Lucida, works that attempt to articulate—initially in the immediate moment and later in the context of the photograph—the deep sense of grief he felt after the loss of his beloved mother, form a sort of natural undercurrent that arises regularly throughout the text. They are the only two books on grief that I read in the months following my own parents’ closely timed deaths in July 2016. I had already read, and thought often of Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams which also appears here, but as for this book which came out in early 2017, I was not ready, at the time, to approach it. My own losses were too fresh.

As it happens, waiting was wise. Not only have I been open to reading grief in recent months, I am actively working to write about the loss of my own mother and how that is bound to the grief, anger and guilt that haunts my own sense of self. Although the circumstances, stories, and intentions guiding my own project could not be more different, Kate Zambreno’s book is filled with kindling—thoughts, ideas and reflections that sparked some sharp insights into my own achingly conflicted emotions and I have pages of scribbled notes to show for it. But that’s for another writing project yet to come. The point is, that reading and writing about grief, is not about finding exact images of yourself and resolving loss on anyone else’s terms, it is about being open to inspiration to guide your own mourning process, whatever that may ultimately look like.

Zambreno’s relationship with her mother is rife with contradictions, frequent tensions and conflicts. Her mother’s independent existence apart from her, prior to her own existence and as she grows up, is an enigma that death calls her to try to give sense to. The only access is through memory—a “house of memories”—and it is the fear of facing what this may unearth that holds her back:

My mother is the text. I cannot enter her.

Your mother was not herself in those last few months…
But who was she?

This resonates with me as someone whose own memory project was interrupted by my mother’s death, closing the door to a house of memories I was suddenly afraid to open. And yet writing is, for many people, the only access to understanding and release. Barthes and Handke both embarked on early missions to write grief, private or public, and both, I would suggest, found release elusive in these immediate efforts.

But thirteen years?

The process takes the time it demands, and then some. But the desire for closure, as impossible as that may be, is a natural instinct—one that holds a curious allure for writers who work toward that line, sentence, thought where a poem, story or essay naturally ends. But, of course, the strongest endings are those that hang in the air unaltered. Allowing for that in the act of literary creation is one thing—living it is quite another. The desire to be able to gather up all the loose ends of a life so as to let them go looms large. Zambreno describes her own intention clearly as an attempt:

To put these memories in a book, so as to be released from it. These thirteen years of it. Like a sacrificial offering. To bury it in the ground. Writing as a way not to remember but to forget. Or if not to forget, to attempt to leave it behind.

All the offerings for the dead
so they remain buried.

Book of Mutter can be read as a daughter’s incantation, an attempt to grant meaning to her mother’s life, illness, and the curious spaces she leaves behind. It resembles a literary scrapbook or a passage in and out of the rooms in a large house where mnemonic images drawn from life, literature, art, and history provoke reflections. It is a fitful journey. Zambreno’s guides are idiosyncratic, their very strangeness allowing for the unique tone of this remarkable work. Key among them are Henry Darger and Louise Bourgeois. Darger is the famous “outsider artist” who was orphaned at an early age and spent his childhood institutionalized. As an adult he maintained a solitary existence, attending Mass daily and supporting himself as a hospital custodian. It was not until he was forced to leave his Chicago apartment at the end of his life that a trove of illustrations and extensive typed manuscripts was uncovered. His stories and drawings depict detailed, elaborate fantasies—alternately whimsical and horrific—featuring children. Bourgeois was a French-American sculptor and installation artist. Works from her Cells projects, each a series of large scale installations featuring scenes and vignettes created with found objects and enclosed in wire mesh cages, provide recurring counterpoints for Zambreno as she assembles her own memory project. Disturbing insights into the creation of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film, The Passion of Saint Joan, reflections on post-mortem photography, and the fate of Mary Todd Lincoln are also woven into the text along with input from a variety of literary voices.

The resulting oddly eclectic assemblage reflects, perhaps, the extended passage of time that marks the realization of this book. Zambreno is writing in fits and starts, as she seeks to articulate so many unresolved emotions and observations. By placing her not uncommon experiences against a backdrop that is unusual (as in, not the standard grief and loss tapestry), the surreal strangeness and absolute uniqueness of the grieving experience is captured. This is a book that is at once measured and raw. In her account she moves back and forth between memories of her own often difficult relationship with her mother and the profound absence and guilt she feels, her widowed father’s attempts to fill the vacated space in his life, and an often brutal portrayal of her mother’s illness, decline and madness.

The fractured quality of the text echoes the way loss refuses to conform, refuses to work itself out neatly. How can it? Although my own relationship with my mother was quite different than the one Zambreno describes, it was not and is not free of tangled sentiments that I have often wished we could have talked about. We were close. We spoke on the phone every week and she died in her eighties, weary yet peacefully ready to leave, however there are many moments in Book of Mutter, especially in the first half, that have illuminated, by contrast, questions I’ve been struggling with. Turned them around. And that is why we read grief. And why many of us feel a need to attempt to write it. Not to find answers. But to be moved to ask questions and follow where they lead. In recent months I have read some very good books about grief and loss, accounts that blend personal experience with time-honoured, accepted understanding of the grieving process. Which is fine, but this book with its uneven, awkward genesis across more than a decade is one that I skirted so widely when it appeared (and to be honest every time I saw it staring at me from the bookstore shelf with its peculiar cover that I now know to be one of Louise Bourgeois’ Cells), has unintentionally offered a clue I needed to move forward in my own writing at exactly the right time.

And yet it remains an unfinished text. I am now reading the newly released Appendix Project, a collection of essays and talks that Zambreno wrote in the year following the release of Book of Mutter—coincidentally the first year of her own daughter’s life. It is a rich and valuable continuation of her meditation on writing grief and living with the ghosts and reverberations of an evolving and ongoing process that does not end with a final edit and the publication of a book.  What she once hoped to box up and bury is anything but.

Book of Mutter and Appendix Project by Kate Zambreno are published by Semiotext(e).

Distant and immediate intimacy in Felicity Plunkett’s Vanishing Point: A personal response

I want to say that the strength of Felicity Plunkett’s award winning debut collection, Vanishing Point, lies in the singular beauty of the images evoked. That sounds, perhaps, too, trite. I am, as I always confess when I set out to write about poetry, not a poet. And yet, that is what held my attention throughout the reading, even in the most unlikely moments. Many of the poems in Vanishing Point traverse the an unexpected terrain, drawing on the annals of history, science, medicine, and film production while others touch delicately on the familiar moments of life. However, all move with an intimacy that unsettles and reassures in one breath.

The collection opens with “Journey of the Dead Man”, a dreamlike vision that juxtaposes the words of the Hindu god Shiva invoked by Robert Oppenheimer in his remembrance of the first nuclear testing in the desert of New Mexico, with the Jewish notion of sitting shiva after death to offer a powerful poetic commentary on destruction and mourning—one that rises, in its closing passage, to a shattering conclusion:

Stand in the desert, your hands
open, the shards flaking away,
and call the name of Shiva.
Omega: let there be an end to it.
Death be not proud now I am become you.
Cover me with your furious limbs
and shatter me when our eyes engage.
Remember you are dust,
and unto dust shall you return.

This is a very assured collection; Plunkett’s verse weds a poised formality with a lyric passion and perceptivity that may well appeal to readers who are resistant to poetry. Her poems are accessible, but offer a curious mix of tenderness and tenacity. Recurring themes, grounded in embodied emotion and experience, provide a certain, if not always comforting,  continuity, while flakes, in many different forms and contexts—flakes of skin, flakes of snow, flakes of paint, the flaking away of a dream—form a unifying motif, one that speaks to the transient quality of desire, memory, life. Such transience, is often conveyed in familiar terms, such as in “Restraint,” which begins:

Soft now on their wooden clavicles
each of your frocks once knew its place.

The speaker goes on to call to mind memories of a mother’s loving dedication to the tasks of rural domestic life before returning to the dresses:

Now I run my hands through
mended cotton, starched linen
stiff skirts, blouses still holding a remembered body
and my touch awakens mothball mint and lavender—
those ghostly scents.

The reminiscence then moves on to the more ambivalent questions of life, with all its joys and disappointments, carried unspoken in the living, and now left to linger in the air.

Vanishing Point is very much a book of passages, of uncertain pasts and uneasy futures. Within this tapestry, birth and death, are closely wound threads explored most vividly in the closing section of the book—from the overview of the medical and philosophical understanding of female reproductive capacity, traced in the delightful “A Knitted History of the Uterus” to the fragmented processes of pregnancy, delivery, and the vulnerability of the body. The imagery, again, is often striking, as in “The Negative Cutter”, a multi-part piece which incorporates quotes from a text on film editing to expose the accepted performance of diagnosis, treatment, and grief:

DISCONTINUITY EDITING
Any alternative system of joining shots together using techniques unacceptable within continuity editing principles. Possibilities would include mismatching of temporal and spatial relations, violations of the axis of action, and concentration on graphic relationships.

Clowns rehearse outside the next caravan.
You crush words hard against your teeth.
They fly out of your mouth like shots
or you spit them, blooded and cutting,
fretted and strung with beads of shiny feeling.
You are drowning inside yourself, alone.
Anger jerks out of you, or unstopped crying that falls fluent
the way it does in dreams: salty, benedictory.
The skirt of your feelings, stuck in the car door,
flaps at passersby without your knowing.

This collection has a strong feminine awareness, but paired with a curiosity  and a measure of physical disengagement. The female bodied experience extends beyond the specific to the universal—inviting a distant and immediate intimacy. Or at least that is how I responded. Vanishing Point was published in 2009 and, a few years earlier, some of the material might have triggered a particular discomfort for me. But I come to it now as a transgender male reader and writer finally beginning to reclaim aspects of his female past  after nearly two decades of estrangement from a perceived reality incompatible with the coherent history of a man, including the birth of two children. Whether it is the benefit of sufficient remove or the growing need to be able to embrace a whole life lived, I don’t know, but it is fortuitous that I picked up this wise and wonderful book at this time.

Vanishing Point by Felicity Plunkett is published by University of Queensland Press.

“The streets were never really mine”: Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri

Although he claims to feel no nostalgia, the narrator of Amit Chaudhuri’s most recent novel, Friend of My Youth, carries a wistful melancholy that can really be understood in no other way. It comes through in his discomfort and his attempt to articulate a mixed affection for and estrangement from the city in which he grew up—Bombay. Chaudhuri has woven a close line between his own life and the experiences and qualities he grants his characters before, but here he blurs it completely, even playfully. His protagonist is an author named Amit Chaudhuri, who is in the city to promote his latest release, The Immortals. If this is, on some level, a metafictional mechanism to reflect on the question of the relationship between an author and his narrator, it is exercised in such a light-handed, controlled, mildly self-deprecating manner, that it never risks becoming distracting or annoying. Chaudhuri is a restrained, thoughtful writer, and Friend of My Youth offers so much more. Set against the urban gridwork and landmarks of South Mumbai, a city, at the time, still recovering from the horror of the 2008 terrorist attack on the Taj Mahal Hotel, it is a quietly insistent meditation on the ways we try to make sense of our own personal and geographic histories over time.

From the beginning, the narrator confesses to an ambivalence toward his former hometown:

I feel a sense of purposelessness—is it the ennui of the book tour or book-related visit? Not entirely. No, it pertains to Bombay, to being returned to a city where one performed a function, reluctantly. Reluctance is fundamental. You don’t plunge into growing up; it happens in spite of you. Then, one day, it’s done: you’re ‘grown up’. You go away. Back now in the city of my growing up, there’s nothing more that can happen to me. I embrace a false busyness. I suppose I’m living life. Without necessarily meaning to. It doesn’t occur to me that the visit is part of my life. I believe I’ll resume life after it’s done.

But, although he has been back to the city many times in the decades since his family had moved back to their native Calcutta, and he himself had gone on to study and teach in the UK, there has always been one grounding constant—a friend from his school days, Ramu. On this occasion he learns that Ramu, whose life has been defined by drug addiction, is in intensive rehab and cannot be visited. Their friendship is strange, an attraction of opposites, one who would go on to achieve a degree of literary success and middle-class normalcy, the other troubled and stalled, unable to completely shake his demons, now in his fifties, still living in his family home with his sister. Theirs is an often awkward camaraderie, bound to a small geographical space in a city that has, over time, expanded exponentially beyond the confines of what has become known as South Mumbai. When Ramu is not there, Amit discovers that without this particular conduit to his past, whose eyes he had relied on, he is forced to encounter Bombay anew, even alone.

As the narrator traces his way through the city, a reflective uncertainty, a searching for words, underlines his thoughts. The prominent, well-known landmarks are laden with the hallmarks of his own idiosyncratic life history, from the restless eagerness to leave in adolescence and youth, to the regular returning, each opening shades of a city he knows he never really knew. How much, he wonders, was his inability to really see the city he grew up in rooted in a conviction that his origins as a Bengali prevented him and his family from ever full belonging, and encouraged his belief that his destiny lay elsewhere. If you feel, at heart, that you do not own a city, how can you truly see it?

So he is trying to make sense of his relationship to the city—and through that, to the shifting currents of memory and nostalgia that continue to haunt us all as we grow older. Ramu’s absence looms large. Who we believe we are is always, to some extent, measured and understood against the trajectories, real or imagined, of others.

I know I’ll see Ramu again. But it’s as if I won’t see him again. I’m thrown off-balance—but also surprised. I didn’t know I’d react like this. Ramu isn’t the only close friend I have. But it’s as if my sojourn in Bombay depends on him. ‘Depends’ is the wrong word: I haven’t come here because of him, to delve into his whereabouts. But the surprise I’ve mentioned is related to my astonishment at being here. ‘Astonishment’ denotes how you might start seeing things you hadn’t noticed earlier, but it could also mean becoming aware that you won’t see them again.  As I turn into Pherozeshah Mehta Road and then left into the long stretch of DN Road, I know I won’t see Bombay again. That is, I will see Bombay again, but not the Bombay I’m looking at now.

Toward the end of the book, two subsequent visits do bring Ramu back into Amit’s life, neither resolving nor further alienating his connection to the city. There is something oddly comforting in their unlikely location-specific friendship, one that speaks to the ineffable qualities of our own connections to the people and places that we leave, but can’t quite leave behind. This is a novel as much about loss and aging, as it is about recognizing that there are connections that perhaps we never really had, no matter how much time we spent with them.

I took this book to India with me, planning to read it in advance of my own recent visit to Bombay but, as it happened I did not open it until about a month after my return. Although familiarity with the city is by no means necessary, even a brief encounter will add an extra dimension because this is a novel so clearly linked to space. For those who know the city well, it will be potentially an even richer experience. I spent three days in the Fort area of South Bombay, visiting a few of the common tourist sites like Gateway of India and Marine Drive and attending several events at the Kala Ghoda Festival literary venue, the fabulous garden of the David Sassoon Library. I used Horniman Circle and Flora Fountain as guideposts and got lost in Churchgate, not realizing I was entering a train station (in my defense, the entry said “underpass” and I assumed I would avoid crossing one of the city’s notoriously congested roadways). All of these features or locations appear and it was fun to be able to immediately bring them to my imagination—mind you, without the emotional gravity with which Chaudhuri so effectively paints them.

Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri is published by Faber & Faber in the UK and New York Review of Books in North America.