The sky has closed in around us today. It is warm, but the world feels wrung out and weary as the decade draws to a close. I am aware of an abiding sense of quiet sorrow, Weltschmerz. This time of year is always difficult. Christmas has become a melancholic, meditative season for me. It has been this way since my parents passed away more than three years ago. I have learned to embrace a degree of aloneness as a time to recalibrate. But this year the “Joy to the World” spirit my religious upbringing taught me to embrace seems especially anachronistic. It seems there is so much hatred coursing through veins of this tired planet.
On a personal level, the passage from last December to this one has been marked by a little more mental instability than I’ve experienced in recent years. Twice I needed medication adjustments while in therapy I began to make some progress opening up channels into exploring grief and trauma. But progress is slow and subject to diversions and setbacks.
In an effort to cope with a variety of stresses at home I sought to escape. Run away, perhaps. To India. Twice. And now I’m back at home anxiously watching political unrest threaten to explode there; worried about my friends and a country I have grown to care about, and worried about the way hatred has been allowed to grow and spread so freely through democratic nations across the globe. Even my own country, still modest compared to its loud neighbour to the south, is not immune. Ignorance of history, distrust of science, and intolerance of difference are fueling fires that won’t be easily extinguished.
Tonight as I decorated my Christmas tree with the many angels my mother collected for as long as I can remember, I tried to call on her presence and only ended up missing her more. Were she here she would be as worried as I am. No, I’m afraid she would despair even more despite the fact she was a believer in a way I have never been able to be.
So, as winter settles in here in the northern hemisphere, all I can do—what I must do—is to try to hold to some faith (even if I am uncertain where it is rooted) that the lengthening days will hold a little promise that things will get better going forward. For all of us. Everywhere.
An odd thing happened when I was reading Kate Zambreno’s remarkable Book of Mutter, her fragmented meditation on grief and loss—a mix of memoir and literary and artistic criticism—that took her more than a decade to write. I sensed a strain in her relationship with her mother, reading it against my own circumstances. Of course there were huge differences between our lives and the ages at which we lost our mothers, but it seemed that even after such a long gestation period, her effort to work through her complicated emotions was still uncertain and unresolved. And, why not? Is grief ever really resolved?
Appendix Project, the unintentional follow up or companion piece to Book of Mutter, is a collection of lectures and essays composed during the year following the original book’s publication. It offers Zambreno a unique opportunity to continue a process that, to her surprise, was not put to rest with the final edits and release of a text she had already dedicated so much of her writing energy to. What more could be said? A lot it turns out. And the result is a more intimate, thoroughly engaging meditation on the impossibility of ever fully writing through grief, the limits of language, and the intensified emotional connection to her mother that she discovers through her own experience of motherhood. The entries gathered into Appendix Project trace the first year of Zambreno’s daughter’s life, and as such, her mother’s absence is filtered, re-imagined and given greater dimension through the presence of her child. In becoming a parent herself, her understanding of her mother as a mother has been altered.
What I never anticipated is how much being pregnant, and having a baby, would change the nature of time for me, and how that would interfere with the mourning of my mother, which I thought was finished, since the book I wrote about her was finished… My baby is almost four months old, but I feel she was just born, and that she’s been alive forever. I am 39 years old, but I have never felt more the past year like I was a child, have never felt more strongly the absence of being a daughter, of having a mother.
More haphazard, natural and organic than the book that proceeds it, this series of talks and reflections is not simply an addendum to Book of Mutter, or an alternative to reading from the book at public events, rather it grows over the course of its evolution into an intimate investigation into the act of remembering and attempting to put into words that which cannot be readily defined, confined, contained and released. There are many spaces where language is inadequate, where writing to process experience is not only irresistible but often impossible. Drawing on—that is, thinking and writing through—the work of artists and writers like Barthes, W.G. Sebald, On Kawara, Anne Carson, Bhanu Kapil, Marguerite Duras, Louise Bourgeois, Peter Handke and many more, Zambreno is not just continuing to think and re-think her own work, she is opening up avenues of inquiry and contemplation for any intuitive reader or writer to follow to their own ends. To read Appendix Project is akin to listening to its author thinking aloud as she reads the works others, reflects on motherhood, and returns to reconsider the elements of Book of Mutter that, over its long journey to a finished form, were either abandoned or edited out.
During the course of preparing the pieces that come to comprise Appendix Project, Zambreno resists the idea that they will be published as a book, knowing at the same time that she is engaged in a project. Others suggest that she should just repeat her these lectures, considering the time it takes to put them together, but there is an important temporal element at play, an ongoingness that is essential:
It feels like a necessary act, at this point where I am as a writer, and also as a published author, to re-engage in a passionate way in the ephemeral and daily practice of the writer, a way of returning back to the semi-privacy of writing—the different forms this might take—the letter, the notebook, and the talk. A talk however, Barthes notes, is not quite a performance. A talk is an outline for writing and speaking, a means to prepare and vocalize one’s thoughts.
Herein lies the key, at least for me, to the success of this project. As Zambreno sorts her thoughts out in the course of these lectures and essays, an attentive reader/writer can find their own launching points to questions that they may be dealing with. Reading Book of Mutter set me off on long stretches of writing in my notebook as passages I encountered facilitated unlikely connections I might not have made otherwise. It was often less what was said than the way something was said that caused me to think: how is that different for me? The fruits of my very idiosyncratic reading led to an understanding of my own queered relationship with my mother that I had never appreciated. I have since written about that in an essay posted here on my blog on Mother’s Day. My reading of Appendix Project, which I had little desire to rush, has likewise opened up further channels of exploration for my own writing—this time broader because the scope is broader—and some of this meandering has become key to another piece I have recently written for publication next year.
My point in bringing in my own reactions here, without fleshing out any of the details of the connections I made because they are relevant only to me, is by way of saying that this is not a book I can stand back from and review with the critical displacement required. Well I could, but that is not what excites me about this work. What makes this form of intelligent, personalized critical essay writing so powerful when it works (and it does not always work, especially when it slides into the overly self-indulgent and solipsistic) is that it can send readers (or listeners when presented as a lecture) to consider their own intersection with the topics discussed. Certainly grief and addressing the loss of a mother are central themes, but other losses—childhood, language, land, even sanity—can be subject to the same challenges of understanding and expression. My copy of Appendix Project is decorated in marginalia spinning off in a multitude of directions. And I have a stack of books Zambreno dips into—some old favourites, others yet unread—now sitting close at hand, not to mention a few more titles added to my wish list.
Finally, it’s worth asking whether familiarity with Book of Mutter will provide context for this collection of lectures and essays, and of course it won’t hurt, but this really more a book about everything that book (or perhaps any book) does not contain—what was removed, what was never there, what may never adequately be captured in any written text. They are really very different works, in form and intention. Book of Mutter, if unconventional, is still a highly structured work of mourning that, in the end, left me feeling a little disconnected. Appendix Project fills in those gaps and much more. And as such it is an exceptionally original, intelligent, and generous work in its own right.
Appendix Project by Kate Zambreno is published by Semiotext(e).
This Mother’s Day marks the third that I have faced alone since my mother’s passing in 2016. Last year was painful; this year, the passage between her birthday on May 2nd and today has been even more difficult. I have been angry, frustrated, agitated, depressed. Beset with a loneliness that is bone-deep, existential, wordless. I debated whether I should even attempt to express it because my specific pain is coloured not only by my loss of a beloved parent, my own mother, but because, although I face the world as a male person, understood as a man even to those who know otherwise, I am also a mother. Mother’s Day opens itself to women who have longed for motherhood (including those born male) or taken on motherlike roles in a wide variety of contexts, but holds no space for a mother like me. Even my own children tend to overlook my desire for just a moment’s recognition.
The only person who fully understood, honoured and respected this incongruous aspect of my being in the world was my own mother. And she is gone.
Up until the week she died, my mother called me, like clockwork, every Saturday night at 7:00 pm. I’m not sure when this pattern was established, but it extended back for decades. We were so very close. I listened to her joys and trials; she listened to mine. But there was never a exchange more difficult than my call, almost twenty years ago, to tell her that, after nearly forty years of trying to make myself into the woman she naturally assumed I was, I could no longer fight a persistent agonizing sense that I was not really female. My thirties had been, she was well aware, a decade of peculiar turmoil; that behind the birth of two children and a dutiful effort to craft a home that resembled the one I’d grown up in, something darker was brewing. I was increasingly, obviously miserable. I had experienced a serious manic psychosis and spent the better part of a month on the psychiatric ward. But nothing could have prepared her for my revelation. I had never shown the slightest masculine tendencies or interests and “transgender” was only just beginning to become a topic of conversation. However if gender roles and experiences—including pregnancy and childbirth— could a woman make, I could have managed to quell the dysphoria. I could not.
My mother, bless her, responded to the news that I was planning to divorce and transition to a life as male, with the promise that she would always love me unconditionally. She asked for no more than a few weeks to adjust to the idea. She became my advocate, quietly, faithfully, unstintingly. If she had her own doubts and grief over the loss of her daughter, she never let me know. And I never got the chance to ask. It was a subject left unaddressed in death.
My mother died from complications of osteoporosis and, as we learned in the final days of her life, post-polio syndrome. In eighty-two years the markers of exposure to that disease had never been detected, but together these conditions had gradually reduced her body to a hunched, frail, crippled cage. Until the very last month, when the lack of adequate oxygen exchange began to impair her thinking processes, she remained alert, intelligent and fresh. When I spoke to her, her age was ambiguous, eternal. Every time I saw her in person, I would be shocked anew. She spent her final years trapped in a delicate, fragile frame that constrained the spirit of a woman who had been so active and physically vital most of her life.
Her body betrayed her.
My mother’s death, followed eleven days later by my father’s death from the complications of a head-on collision, unravelled my reality in ways I am only beginning to fully appreciate. My parents spent their final years in a cottage in the woods outside a small village about two hours northwest of the city I live in. It was the final destination of lives that had started in large urban centres—New York and Toronto—and ended in a place in which they had few, if any connections. To everyone who knew them in this ultimate location, I was the oldest son. To most of the distant and scattered friends and relations I was tasked with notifying of their passing, I was their only daughter. For my brothers, never entirely at ease navigating the decade and a half between my two opposed public identities, I will always be a sister.
For my own two children, I am the parent who transcends and defies gender, who struggled to raise them alone from the ages of eight and eleven, with little financial and emotional support, with one identity at home, but hidden, vague and uncertainly defined to the outside world. I referred to myself as their parent, only explicitly defining the biological reality when medical or educational situations commanded more specific terms. To do so was to invite the question of how much my issues were or were not impacting my son or daughter who each had their own challenges. No one ever asked how the practical emotional distance of their father played a role. I looked like a father and it is difficult for others, even if they are fully aware of my past to hold mother as a reality in the existence and life of someone who looks like a man. I was, more often than not, reduced to that oddity that, even today, is poorly appreciated—a single male parent.
I would be asked: Where is their real parent? Who? Their mother? What could I say? She’s dead? And yet, I resisted revealing my identity unnecessarily. I have long known single fathers, not widowed but left with the care and responsibility while mothers moved on, and I felt it was important to call attention to the fact that not all single parents are women. I also feared negative fallout. As a closeted transgender person I stood in isolation.
Yet raising children through their difficult adolescent years gave my life meaning, value. My own parents stood by me, pitched in, built strong and vital relationships with their grandchildren while the other side of their family, maintained a distance. Only their stepmother, their father’s new wife, made an effort. As I built a new identity and a new history as a man in the world, my children and my parents provided essential continuity. They allowed me to feel whole, to carry motherhood and manhood as part of who I was.
Who I was.
The last few years have not been so easy. The artificiality of this assumed completeness was shattered when I became ill and lost my job. The scaffolding provided by my short-lived career, the years I spent working in social services fully and completely accepted as male, was stripped away leaving me defenseless. By this time, my children were in their twenties, both dealing with their own serious issues, and I had no friends, community or support to fall back on.
In retrospect, the sharp jolt into recognition of the limitations of transition to address the longstanding dislocation of gender dysphoria, has been a blessing. I could have continued to imagine that my artificial existence was sufficient for some time, but in truth, cracks in my carefully tended armour were showing long before the tentacles of mania pried them open. Career success was only a passing indication of achievement. My failure to make friends or forge a sexual identity spoke much more acutely to the truth that I could live as a man, but would never really be a man. Yet, as transgender, my own experience—past and present—is never echoed in the endless stream of gender different narratives that have become so ubiquitous in queer and public discourse. My personal efforts to find comfort, community or safety in LGBTQ space have been a dismal tribute to the heartache of finding oneself doubly alienated among the alienated. I sometimes feel like I have never fit in anywhere.
So I sought to find myself where I had no reason or expectation of fitting in. Where I once sought to ensure protection by building walls between myself and the world, I now seek escape. Through reading, writing , and travel. South Africa. Australia. India.
And again, India.
My mother only lived to know of the first of these journeys, one that in my complete ignorance about the risks of long haul sedentary travel, very nearly cost me my life—blood clot to pulmonary embolism to cardiac arrest—saved against incredible odds, by my son who found me and started CPR. But I know she would never have discouraged my continued travel. In her lifetime she managed to visit Cairo with a friend and Russia and New Zealand with my father, but had she not been constrained by an increasingly brittle body and an increasingly eccentric and intransigent husband, she would have travelled longer and farther. Perhaps I have inherited some of my restlessness from her.
That restlessness is growing. I have never felt “at home” in the city where I have lived for most of my life. I was not born here. I have no roots or connections here. Both of my brothers are married to women with deep histories in this part of the country. But my ex was of the first generation born to migrants, refugees. My own mother was a migrant and, back only two generations of a family of refugees herself. I feel this eternal disconnect enhanced by the embodied dislocation I feel as someone who has navigated womanhood and manhood, but belonged to neither. In this present #MeToo era I am even more adrift. I am torn between a genuine empathy for men—informed by living as a male person in society keenly aware of the ways testosterone has altered my mental and emotional engagement with the world—and the feeling that my own experiences as a girl and woman have lost their currency. I look like a middle-aged white man and that is all that I am allowed to speak to. There isn’t even a language which can adequately address my dual life and my role as a parent. Transgender men who opt to have a child at the beginning of the transitional process engage a queer parenthood that is unlikely to ever be labelled “motherhood” as language now tends to be gender neutralized, distorted. Which is fine for them, but it silences and disowns the reality of my, admittedly less common, hybridized experience.
I want to speak for no one but myself. I do not regret the decision to transition, I am entirely comfortable with the face I see in the mirror. I am male and enjoy a hormonal rightness that grants me a certain completeness. The body, well that is another possibly unsolvable matter. However, of late I find myself wanting to claw back some sense of dignity for my early, pre-transition life. It isn’t easy. It is unsettling, even with my most generous and supportive friends— those who fully accept me but have only known me with this present name, this current appearance. And very often it angers transgender activists because it defies the accepted discourse. I can’t help but fear that the only person who might have ever come close to truly understanding, who might have been able to walk with me through this unending, evolving, shifting, and ever ill-defined journey is no longer here. My mother contained all that I am—all that I have ever been, and all that I ever will be. My absolute alpha and omega. Her love was whole, at times skeptical perhaps, but expansive and complete.
And for that reason, on this Mother’s Day, I miss her with all my heart and soul.
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).
“What is loss,” asks Matthew Goulish in his introduction to Will Daddario’s chapbook To Grieve, “but an instance of the extreme ephemeral, for which one finds oneself unprepared, for which could never prepare? Is it accurate to say that loss makes its day extraordinary? It’s the ordinary we lose, as it transforms it into a treasure.” Writing grief is one way of tracing out a pathway back to some semblance of, if not the old “ordinary,” a new normal. For oneself, firstly and, in the sharing of the experience, for others who may, in time, require a trail of signs and symbols as they chart their own paths.
In this short, emotionally measured essay, part of the Dossier Series from Ugly Duckling Presse, Daddario unspools the knotted threads of grief that followed the fifteen-month period that began with the sudden death of his father, counted a number of significant losses—his grandmother, a close friend and a beloved pet—and ended with the stillbirth of his son, Finlay, his first child. As he navigated a course through the flood of emotions, he turned, as a writer and a scholar, not just to the writing of others, but to the very structure of language itself. If grief, as he tells us, “does not reside within you but, rather, exists outside” and works its way into your system no matter how you might endeavour to hold it at a distance, the cliché expressions that are offered to describe the process often fall hollow, yet the feelings seem to be bound these same cliches, so the articulation of the experience of grieving, invites the search for a new vocabulary. Turning to a range of literary, spiritual, and poetic resources, Daddario seeks guidance to “re-write the script of depression” that settled in on him in the months after his series of losses. The resulting journey is one that is both idiosyncratic and universal.
In their individual and shared efforts (“together alone” and “alone together”) to make sense of their son’s death, Daddario and his wife Joanne take a cue from Barthes’ Mourning Diary and record reflections on scraps of paper and gather them in a jar. On Finlay’s first birthday, they read through them. A selection of these collected thoughts, lends a loose frame to this broader exploration of grief. The weight of the emptiness that has descended into their lives is resonant in these fragments of immediate, unmediated grief, forming a counterpoint to Daddario’s more carefully and logically paced analysis of this early period of mourning observed and recounted from a place of some greater distance along. The true beauty of this short book lies not so much in any radical revisioning of grief, but in the poetic voice the grieving son and father gives to a process that can linger, seemingly suspended, at the edges of our lives in the aftermath of loss, leaving us to wonder: How long does this take?
Grief neither takes nor gives. It rushes in from the outside and inaugurates a new temporal existence that will be unique to each person or group who grieves. Another lesson of grief arises here: grief makes time, in the sense that you must now make a calendar for yourself that honours the nature of your existence. Rather than asking “how long will it take,” you can try this: what time will grief make, and what will you make within grief’s duration?
To Grieve is a thoughtful and intelligent meditation. It is also a heartrending tribute, as both a son and a father, to a father, an infant son and, before the final draft was complete, a stepfather as well. As love expands, so does grief. As I’ve mentioned before, in 2016 I lost both of my parents within eleven days of one another, followed a little over a month later by the suicide of one of my dearest friends. These deaths sit within the context of other ungrieved losses I’ve carried. Thus, it is impossible to read about grief as someone still in the midst of grieving a complex network of cicumstances, without taking one’s own pulse along the way. I did, and many of my responses are personal, sketched into my notebook. Proof, if any is needed, that this gentle chapbook is a worthy addition to the literature of, in Daddario’s own terms, grieving and “re-membering.”
Grief and loss has its own language, one that cannot be forced, one that is found waiting when the mourner ready. That is the experience recounted in the 32nd addition to The Cahier Series, a collection of short meditations published by the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris in association with Sylph Editions. Each volume pairs an author and an illustrator or artist, and examines some aspect of the intersection of writing and translation, allowing a broad scope within which such ideas can be understood and explored. As such, each cahier opens a door to a different way of engaging the world.
James E. Montgomery’s Loss Sings is a deeply personal essay that owes its genesis to tragedy. On 24 August 2014, the distinguished Professor of Arabic’s seventeen-year-old son was struck by a car when walking with some friends in the city of Cambridge. He suffered what were described as “life-altering injuries.” The driver was uninsured. Suddenly his family’s world was forever altered as an entirely new set of realities, concerns, and anxieties came into play. The young man with a promising future now faced a life of serious physical disability, marked by increasing pain, decreased mobility, and the need for ongoing care. As surgery, rehabilitation, and the detailed record keeping required for legal purposes began to shape Montgomery’s life, he discovered an unexpected appreciation for a cycle of Arabic laments that had long left him unmoved and indifferent. In the early months after his son’s accident, a personal translation project involving these poems emerged. Three years later he recorded his reflections on his son’s injury and his thoughts on memory and the articulation of loss in a series of dated diary entries. Presented together with a selection of his newly translated verses, the present cahier was born.
The poems at the centre of this fascinating account, are the threnodies of the seventh-century Arabic poet Tumāḍir bint ‘Amr, known to posterity as al-Khansā, a woman who composed and sang hymns to the loss of her two brothers in battle—more than a hundred wailing odes that were memorized and passed on for two centuries before they were committed to writing. Although Montgomery had taught these well-known elegies for three decades, through significant losses and traumas of his own including a close proximity to the surreal horror of the attack on the World Trade Towers, he had found them repetitive and cliched. It took his son’s injury to unlock their power. As a parent with a seriously injured child, the rules of order were suddenly rewritten. He realized that his son’s need for assistance would increase as his own physical abilities declined, and when an unexpected potential health problem of his own arose, his concerns for the future intensified.
Memory is a strange place. It is unreliable, pliant, liable – mercifully so. It makes so many mistakes, gets so much wrong. An event like the one I am describing rips to shreds the veil of the commonplace and the mundane, and memory is charged with the task of remembering the future, of recalling the unusual; for such events reveal to us that the future is little more than a memory.
What unfolds over the course of less than forty pages is a multi-stranded meditation on grief, loss, and the relationship between trauma and memory. As Montgomery notes, the confusion that commonly strikes in the aftermath of trauma is a response to the confrontation of previously trusted memory with a “new reality, an unalterable experience.” He recognizes a close analogy in literary translation. In order for a translator to recreate a literary work in another language, decisions must be made about what can be left out as much as what one wishes to retain. With poetry in particular, he says, it may be the only means of transmitting what is irreducibly poetic, and as such, literary translation is “more akin to trauma than it is to memory.” As trauma leaves one at odds to make sense of the world, often bound to a silence that swallows up attempts to give voice to grief, the mourner is forced to navigate a “no-man’s land” between one remembered reality and a new one. Literary translation echoes this process, and through the act of translating al-Khansā’s poetry in particular, Montgomery is able to articulate his own experience of grief and loss through an understanding and appreciation of the very elements that once irked him in these classical Arabic laments.
We are all likely well aware of the kind of cliché, stock phrases, and time-worm comforts that are offered as a solace in times of loss. When faced with profound grief ourselves, there is often a sense that common statements fall short of the magnitude of our emotions. Yet we reach for them—in condolences, eulogies, obituaries. Or worse, for fear of sounding banal we say nothing. It takes the near loss of his son for Montgomery to finally feel the power of these clichés, in the personal and the poetic:
Experience, memory, artifice and art are confronted by the absence of comfort, and earlier versions of a poet’s selves are rehearsed and re-inscribed in memory – but the brute truth of the mundanity of death is the age-old cliché about clichés, namely that, like death, they are too true.
The seventh-century warrior society to which al-Khansā belonged was bound by intense devotion to the cult of the ancestor. Death in battle demanded both vengeance and epic memorial. The latter was the responsibility of women, and her sequence of Arabic keenings—songs of loss— are the most extensive, powerful and poetically inventive to have survived to the present. Her poems are defiant. She will allow no accommodation of her loss over time, her grief stands still, “(h)er doleful, disembodied voice, entombed forever in the inanimate sarcophagus of metre, rhyme, and language.”
Night is long, denies sleep. . I am crippled
by the news— . Ibn ‘Amr is dead.
I will cry my shock. . Why shouldn’t I?
Time is fickle, . Disaster shock.
Eyes, weep . for my dear brother!
Today, the world . feels my pain.
Montgomery’s reflections on his own experiences with loss and the parallels he sees in translation speak clearly to lived grief and trauma. The yearning, aching threnodies of al-Khansā woven throughout, call from the distant past with a pain and longing that is recognizable, real, especially for anyone who is, as I am, still caught in the lingering aftermath of a series of significant losses. But throughout my engagement with this book there was one thought that I could not shake, a possible understanding that the author himself is perhaps not fully aware of. He admits that he is not entirely certain why these ancient Arabic laments finally reached into him when they did.
I worked for years with the survivors of acquired brain injury and their families. I recall one family in particular whose son was injured in a single vehicle rollover in his late teens. His parents admitted at the intake, to a double sense of grief—for their son’s ever-altered future, and for their loss of an image of their own anticipated freedom on the cusp of their youngest child’s pending adult independence. Two futures and their attendant memories altered in an instant. Yet this kind of grief—the grief of survival—is not easily mediated. When the parents attempted to attend a grief support group in their community they were pushed away. “What do you have to grieve?” they were asked, “You still have your son.” There is no accepted ritual or memorial for this kind of loss. With each step through rehabilitation, fighting for funding, worrying about an undefined but infinitely more precarious future, a song of loss sung anew every day. It does not surprise me in the least that a sequence of laments that hold so fast to grief, repeating, reinforcing and seeking voice in the comfort of cliché would break through at this time in Montgomery’s life.
How fortunate that he was able to hear them and feel inclined to guide these verses across the distances of language and time to share with us. Paired with abstract illustrations in black and shades of grey by artist Alison Watt, this small volume speaks to the universality of loss and the longing to find expression through the stories, myths and poems we turn to in times of trauma.
As 2019 opens, my world is so much brighter than it has been for a long time—a strange sentiment given all the obvious and ominous shadows hanging over this sorry planet—but when you have been carrying darkness deep within and even the smallest moments of hope seem impossible, the lifting of that weight is near miraculous. The difficulties and challenges do not evaporate, but a renewed sense that they can be faced moving forward is the most wonderful feeling. On the Solstice I wrote about my recent medication adjustment and the subsequent easing of a depression that I had failed to recognize, being so tightly wound in its grasp that I was struggling to even find the will to continue living. Consumed by bitterness, anger, and grief I’d become a morbid, unpleasant soul by the end of November, unloading my misanthropic self-hatred on a few trusted close friends, near and far. Now, with the unrepentant zeal of the born-again, I cannot stop marvelling at the sheer joy of not feeling miserable—it is not a delirious happiness, but damn, it does feel good. Or as a friend who nearly lost himself to a bout of depression described the transition: I went from cowering in a corner wanting to die to crying at a stoplight overcome by the sheer beauty, intensity, and brilliance of the green light.
This past holiday season—the third since the loss of both of my parents and the suicide of a dear friend, and the fourth since my own very close encounter with death—feels like a turning of sorts. Or a recognition that we are ever turning and looking back over our lives, applying narrative arcs, seeking meaning and closure. However, this time, I refuse to be swayed by the temptation to believe this is even possible, let alone helpful. I’ve long doubted the narrative imperative, in fiction and memoir alike, and yet in our own lives we long for tidy, complete stories with meaning and message, and are continually upended every time life pulls the carpet from beneath our feet and we are forced to rewrite the script.
The major difference this year is that I have started to see my mother, in my dreams and my imagination. Always colourful and carefully coordinated, ageless and aged, believer and doubter, guardian angel and true friend. For long time, apart from a brief interlude when I was the desert of central Australia, my mother has remained a dull thickness in the core of my being. A mass of anger and guilt and self-pity. It’s easing. I feel sadness. I find myself crying. I know that I am finally beginning to grieve. It hurts so good. And I have a sense that this loosening, this opening up, is essential to releasing the blockages I’ve encountered in my own writing projects.
So with the new year ahead, I’ll begin with the resolution that marked every journal kept during decades of looking for a voice, an identity, and then, having found it, having to slip into a closet—This year I will write. Of course, I have advantages. I am no longer unpublished. I am part of an environment as a reader, writer and editor where I am fortunate to engage with inspiring and encouraging people. And I have formed some true, valuable, real friendships with people who accept the whole, weird me. These people, some of whom I have never met face to face, have sustained me through this darkness. A few with saintly patience and grace, I’m afraid. I hope that going forward I will become a calmer, more open listener, a better friend myself. And alert to the pain of others, like so many seemingly random twitter connections who heard me call out into cyberspace in my darker moments and responded with a good word or expression of concern.
My intended reading, moving into 2019, includes a few essay collections, a couple of photo essays, some long-deferred grief reading like Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter, and lots more poetry. With a month in India now just over four weeks away, I’ve also got some work by Indian writers in my TBR pile, and some books I’m reading in advance of a really exciting event I’ll be taking part in in Kolkata (more about that to come).
As I mentioned before, I became seriously concerned about my well-being last November, when I found myself so physically drained and emotionally exhausted that I was wondering if I could manage to get through my trip to India at all. I had been planning a return all year and, at last, with the tickets booked, I was overwhelmed by the prospect of going. The day after I finally allowed myself to accept my psychiatrist’s suggestion that I was under something more than the seasonal blues, I dragged myself down to Mountain Equipment Co-op and bought a new lightweight travel bag. And I haven’t looked back since! My agenda for my stay is still taking shape, with room for impulse and adventure. I look forward to spending time with friends, some I have met, and some I feel like I’ve known forever even though we’ve yet to meet. I will be flying in and out of Bangalore with plans to go to Kochi and a desire to visit Mumbai, and beyond that, who knows? I am less of a tourist attraction hunter and more of a flaneur on the road. My attraction to India has grown more out of friendship and literary connections than anything else. Its neither romantic nor idealized, but as I said in my RIC photo essay:
I’m drawn to travel in uneven places. In scarred and wounded spaces I recognize myself. Complex, interrupted histories mirror my own.
Returning to Calcutta for the third week of February will feel like coming home to a creative space I cherish, this time with the added lucky coincidence that my stay will overlap with the poetry residency of Franca Mancinelli, the Italian poet whose wonderful The Little Book of Passage made my end of year list, and she will be staying about a five minute walk from where I’m likely to be! I expect a busy week in the City of Joy because all year I’ve been mapping out places I want to revisit and those I have yet to explore. With a camera and notebook in hand.
The greatest thing I hope to bring into 2019 is an openness to experience without prescribed expectations. Some very exciting threads are coming into view—writers, reading, artistic opportunities that need to be followed to see where they lead. There is also a lot of personal work to be done on my grief, loss, and identity issues, be it fodder or foundation for future writing… well, only time will tell.
Best wishes for all in the year ahead. Personal, national and global storms are inevitable. A good word, a good book, and, as I’m learning, a little light can go a long way. With luck we can all sustain at least a glimmer of that light through the months ahead.