Ropes across the abyss: How Shostakovich Changed My Mind by Stephen Johnson

The opening pages of music broadcaster and composer Stephen Johnson’s How Shostakovich Changed My Mind detail what is clearly one of the most moving interview experiences of his career. He is in the St Petersburg apartment of Viktor Kozlov, one of the few surviving members of the orchestra that performed the triumphant debut of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in 1942. He describes, with the clarinetist’s assistance,  how that performance was pulled together against all odds. Leningrad, as it was known at the time, was under siege, and Stalin not only wanted an opportunity to galvanize the beleaguered citizens, he wanted to send a message to Hitler who was waiting within earshot to celebrate victory. As an artist within a system that could turn against him in a heartbeat, the burden on Shostakovich to deliver a suitable masterpiece was immense. In the end, it was a rousing success. He managed to speak directly to the people’s emotions, and give them a reason to feel united in a time of war. The invigorated audience responded with an ovation reported to have lasted over an hour.

But here was something else too: that puzzling conundrum I had noted so often when pondering the appeal of Shostakovich’s music, but which now struck me with heightened force. In the Leningrad Symphony, Shostakovich had held a mirror up to horror, and reflected that horror back to those whom it had all but destroyed—and in response they had roared their approval, their delight, their gratitude to the composer for giving form to their feelings.

When Kozlov’s account of the event was complete, Johnson asked him a most formulaic question. He wanted to know how that same music made him feel when he heard it today, completely unprepared for the response. Both the elderly musician and his wife burst into tears—it was a question beyond any possible answer.

It is this ineffable power of music to reach into the deep emotional spaces in our lives where words often prove ineffectual, to give voice to that which we ourselves cannot express—especially in times of anxiety and distress—that becomes the very personal focus of this most fascinating book. Part musical biography, part memoir, part psychology and philosophy, this book-length essay draws its greatest strength from Johnson’s passionate affection for and deep connection to the music of Dimitri Shostakovich. His association with the composer’s repertoire reaches back to his own difficult adolescence when, ignorant of the world of rock ’n roll, he sought comfort in the Shostakovich’s thundering chords. Blessed with an acute musical memory, he was able to carry fully orchestrated movements in his mind in a manner he compares to a romantic teenage infatuation, during the times when his mercurial and unstable mother’s volatile behaviour made life otherwise unbearable. This uncanny musical aptitude serves him well as a writer. His ability to breathe life into complex orchestrated passages and open up the key elements at play in major works, is likely to inspire readers to download or stream the pieces under discussion, or pull dusty records or CDs from their shelves. It is not necessary to engage an aural experience in the reading, but it does tend to be difficult to resist the inclination to do so.

As one might imagine, given the unusual title, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind is an intimate account of the intersection of music with the personal drama, and trauma, of life lived. Johnson draws on literary, philosophical, neurological and psychological resources as he explores the connection between music and the brain, an area of growing interest and investigation, but he anchors his inquiry in the story of Shostakovich’s life and work during some of the most tumultuous events of the twentieth century—a thoroughly fascinating account in its own right—while tracing out his own particular relationship to this music and the role it played , not only in adolescence, but in his own adult challenges with bipolar disorder.

Shostakovich’s music can be wildly moody, shifting abruptly from lighthearted to savage to slow and achingly sombre. But it is not without structure. In listening carefully, Johnson became attuned, early on, to the thematic connections that he describes as ropes stretched across the composer’s own abyss, a bridge of sorts. It is a fundamentally important discovery for someone with a mood disorder—a condition I also understand too well:

As a bipolar sufferer, I know what it is to experience manic flight. At its worst it has been truly frightening, like a bad, drug-induced trip. Even when I’m not manic, I’m aware of how my conversation can go off on sudden tangents. Some of my friends have found it entertaining; others have found it bewildering, even alarming. It certainly alarmed my mother although she could be as dizzyingly tangential as anyone I’ve ever known. It was another aspect of my behaviour that provoked my father into panic-stricken attempts to close me down. I became seriously concerned about my own ‘intoxicating and leapfrogging’ thought processes—until, that is, I came to know Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. As I found Shostakovich’s connecting ropes and pulled them taut, it was though he personally was reassuring me. The exhilaration I felt was not dangerous; it was controlled, expertly rounded off by this extraordinary music.

If Shostakovich reached one troubled and alienated youth, it is not this particular music alone that holds the key. Johnson muses if he had been exposed to rock music he might well have found similar comforts and a peer group to share it with as well. But it matters not. The magic, if you like, lies in a link between music and listener, through a mechanism folded into the evolutionary structure of our brains. One that has the power to ease isolation, to unify, and to move both the individual and the crowd from “the ‘I’ to the ‘we’” as witnessed on that August night in Leningrad in 1942.

Moving deftly between the artistic, the scientific, and the autobiographical, this extended essay, never gets bogged down or off track. It makes no effort to be exhaustive, after all, at the core of the book is the relationship between the music of one very enigmatic Russian composer and the author whose life has been influenced, possibly even saved by it. Johnson’s own story unfolds like a well-crafted symphony itself, building through layers, in and out of the various streams of his narrative, to reach the point at which he was caught at the opposite end of the bipolar dance—in such an agonizing state of despair that suicide seemed the only way out. Again, he captures well the reaction of others to this side of the manic-depressive experience. In his darkened, unreliable state of mind, he came to believe that ending his life would not only ease what had somehow become an unbearable emotional pain, but would free up his wife Kate to get on with her life without the burden he felt he was invariably placing on her:

Depressives can be immensely frustrating for those who live with them. They tend to go around in the same anxious, obsessive circles endlessly; to the worried onlooker, it can seem that they actually don’t want to be helped; and they can be horribly irritable. For my part, I had still to learn that exasperation is more often a sign of love than its absence.

It was, ultimately, a fortuitous sequence of events that led him to his therapist’s office when he had intended to cancel; a lucky mistake that enabled an emotional breakthrough—or breakdown—that would turn the tide. However, Johnson can’t help but wonder if Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet had played even a small role on his road to recovery.

A year earlier, he had been given an assignment to prepare liner notes for a new recording of the popular Quartet, a task that had necessitated close engagement with a work composed when Shostakovich himself had been suicidal. He wonders if the writing and playing of the piece in which the composer famously places himself—or notes corresponding to his initials—as the central motif, had made him change his mind about killing himself, or whether it was simply the fact that a friend had intervened and removed the vial of sleeping pills he’d had on hand. And there’s the challenge: Music can do many things in times of emotional distress—reaching us in our darkened state with an image that is more accurate than the bleak self-portrait we cling to. However:

it cannot, in the broader sense, ‘see’ us. It can prepare us for the moment when we are seen; it can function as a life-raft in the most terrifying seas—for years, if necessary. But the moment of salvage needs a real living other, to see us and to know us, to signal to us that we are still worthy of rescue. Music could not do that for me, not quite—but it brought me very close.

How Shostakovich Changed My Mind is a rich account of the life and work of one of the most important composers of the twentieth century, a wide ranging discussion of the ability of music to provide expression and meaning in times of joy and sorrow, and, most importantly, a personal memoir of how music can serve as a means to navigate madness, especially in those times when, from inside, all one knows is that something is not right. This is a book for a wide audience, but for myself, as someone who also suffers from bipolar disorder, it has given me a lot to think about and reflect on looking back at my own relationship to music—and this illness—over the years.

How Shostakovich Changed My Mind by Stephen Johnson is published by Nottinghill Editions in the UK and distributed by NYRB in North America. Shostakovich: A Journey Into the Light, the 2011 BBC radio documentary that sets the groundwork for this book can be found online here.

 

The book that comes after the book is done: Appendix Project by Kate Zambreno

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).

Chanelling memories through verse: Edwardsville by Heart by Kólá Túbòsún

So memory returns
of the many demons from
which hope had sprung
that brought me here,
for which the journey
into this promise of a life
was some act of fleeing,
to which America
was both a saving grace
and distance a respite
in shawl and shield.

— from “Stepping Out: at Cougar Village”

When a Fulbright Scholarship brought a young Nigerian student to the American Midwest in 2009, the culture (not to mention climate) shock must have been considerable. But linguist and writer Kólá Túbòsún survived his first winter and returned to the University of Southern Illinois Edwardsville to complete graduate studies between 2010 and 2012. The town, as he advises in the Preface to his first collection of poetry, was a place which was, in the time he lived there, an open and tolerant community, welcoming to refugees and immigrants from distant shores. However, the scars of colonial expansion and the after-effects of slavery were not that far behind, and, now, with a mistrust of the other on the rise, one can only wonder how that mood is shifting. But that is not the immediate concern of Edwardsville by Heart. This book is one man’s poetic journey back through a particular period in place and time, mediated by memory.

Although Túbòsún does describe his process of composition in the introduction, in the reading I had the impression that the experiences he recounts in this memoir/travelogue were recorded during his time Stateside. The poems, which cover early encounters with a strange environment, visits to local historical sites, and tales of friends, lovers and mentors all have the feel of a diary, a recording of events as they happened. But in truth only one or two were actually composed in America although the idea of somehow capturing his time there did percolate. These poems were written over a six-week period in 2017, while the poet’s wife was away and he was at home chasing after their toddler.  At last the memories he had carried with him could be sorted, developed, and given voice.

There is a sense in which this collection speaks to a very specific place, experienced with an outsider’s eye, and a student’s youthful enthusiasm. The image of America that comes through is a remarkably positive one. Did Túbòsún arrive at a sweet point, or is this an effect of the nostalgia of youth? The poems of the first section, “The Visitor” capture a sense of wide-eyed openness to a new environment and, as the quote above suggests, to the freedom—romantic and academic—that distance from home affords. But as the poet recalls his first months in the US, and his first encounters with winter cold (recalling practicing with a freezer back home in Nigeria) he does not shy away from the reality of the racial profiling he encounters, accepting it with a disarmingly casual tone.

When his circle of experience widens to encompass cities like St. Louis (the first visit being a visit to a hospital ER as unlicensed driver transporting an injured friend) the tension and threats of violence become more of a concern. Friends warn him to avoid the city, but it is difficult to deny a peculiar pull:

But E.B.R. lived there,
I thought. Redmond the poet
shuttled poetry from here,
black as Ethiopian coffee beans,
to Lagos and Ìbàdàn
in my undergraduate days, with
a smile on his oak-hued face,
a deep crack in the velvet
voice in which his verses rolled
into colours that rhymed
with grace, Civil Rights lore
in quartets of memory.

—from “East St. Louis”

Moving through poems that recall his times in the classroom, at house parties, on road trips with friends, Túbòsún negotiates a balance between African and American classmates and friends and there is a sharp sense that being away from home is part of a necessary process of coming into an ability to understand and articulate his own language and identity. As a student of linguistics it is only natural that this otherness shapes and informs his academic experiences. This process colours the third section “Teacher, Student,” witnessed for instance in a poem like “Being Yorùbá”:

How do you teach a state of being?
You don’t. You teach instead tone,
do-re-mi like music on the tongue,
and greetings and norms; clothing,
and where caps bend on the head;
dance moves to restless beats that
skilled bàtá drummers replay
when you taunt them with
a semblance of competence.

Later, as his travels and adventures take him further from his temporary American home, he finds that his Nigerianness not only informs his encounters, but cannot be escaped. He is always a visitor.

Edwardsville by Heart is a quiet, reflective book. The fact that this collection was, for the most part, birthed through the filter of temporal and geographic distance, the clarity of the memories preserved and presented is remarkable. Rather than muted details or blurred recollections, we are offered an uncluttered vision—emotionally contained and all the more powerful as a consequence. Strongly grounded in place, time and experience, these poems do not shy away from the brewing politics and social dynamics at play in the part of the American Midwest where the poet found himself. But above all it is, as Túbòsún himself admits, his Edwardsville. And he freely opens it to us with this, his first book.

Edwardsville by Heart by Kólá Túbòsún is published by Wisdom’s Bottom Press. 

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).

Ever a son and a father: To Grieve by Will Daddario

“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.”

To Grieve by Will Daddario is available from Ugly Duckling Presse.

Tainted by wanderlust: A Stranger’s Pose by Emmanuel Iduma

Those days on the road, I wrote with a pencil. The faint inscriptions of provisional memories made my notebooks seem like fallow territory. I would spend hours before bed recording variations of my experience, keeping no version of myself from the page. Yet, even if that were possible, it saddened me to write each day without a clear vision of whom I addressed. How long would it take for letters of my alphabet to form an impression, moving from reading eye to sensuous heart?

Of late I am drawn to curious projects that bring together memory, image, and environment— projects that blur the parameters of literary classification, where memoir, photo essay, travelogue and storytelling blend. To books like Nigerian writer and art critic Emmanuel Iduma’s enigmatic The Stranger’s Pose. Described in his Acknowledgements as an “imaginative gesture” extended to “the many lives that entered mine,” this collection of seventy-seven segments (or chapters?) has its basis in actual trips through several African countries that the author made, either on his own, or with a varying group of photographers, writers and visual artists as part of the Invisible  Borders Trans-African Photographers’ Organization. However, by allowing his reflections to form in the “twilight worlds between experience and memory, fiction and criticism” and presenting them with a curated selection of black and white images, in many of which he is the staged and central figure, Iduma invites the reader to join him on a lyrical journey, one that is at once elusive and absorbing.

There is, about halfway through the book, a map tracing out a pathway from Addis Ababa, westward through Nigeria, onward to pass up through Senegal, Mauritania and into Morocco. A simple scattering of place names, white text on a black background, connected by curving dotted lines. A geography of dreams. The recollections and remembrances that link these far flung cities tumble forth without chronological or spatial connection, but they do not exist in an emotional or political vacuum. Border crossings can be fraught, stories of the fates of migrants fleeing north toward Europe are shared, religious and ethnic tensions simmer, and language barriers hinder communication and require dependence on translators.

Our restless wanderer is a contemporary African flaneur. An openness to experience infuses his reflections. He is acutely sensitive to the human tableaux he observes, to the eccentricities of the photographers and artists he seeks out, and to the resonances of the stories he is told. He is attentive to the body language and facial expressions he encounters, both in images and in person. At the state library in Enugu, which resembles a dusty study hall more than anything, he finds an extensive archive of newspapers dating back to the 1960s. Inspired to seek out accounts of the events immediately preceding the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa in November 1995, he traces the daily photographic record  in The Guardian, examining the subtle indications of shifting emotion in the grainy images. Watching a stranger on a bus in Addis Ababa practice smiling at his reflection in the  window, he turns to notice that, in the glass, his own countenance could be taken for unhappy. Turning back his eyes meet the other man’s and now, in his face, feels he recognizes himself:

But faces aren’t mirrors. Suppose we look long enough at others to discover their secret impulses, could we understand our own in the process?

His intention throughout is to capture his thoughts and experiences. We are never simply travelling in the present tense. Every journey we take stirs memories from the past, and extends into an unknown future. Travel reframes the idea of home in many different ways. And Iduma, of course, is a writer. As such, this is not a voyage without literary guideposts. Amos Tutuola, Ben Okri, Breyten Breytenbach, Italo Calvino, Isabelle Eberhardt, John Berger and more are called on to contribute tales to this extended meditation.

The segments that comprise this book range from a few sentences to several pages. Some describe encounters and experiences, some revisit childhood memories, some imagine stories. He describes dreams and writes notes to some of his travelling companions, looking back at their shared moments. And sometimes he simply describes a photograph which, incidentally, may or may not be included in the book. The camera is a mediator, in individual interactions and as a transformational exercise. Relatively few of the photographs are actually taken by the author himself (thus none are reproduced in this review) and the ones in which he appears form an especially interesting counternarrative.

One hand holds my shoes; the other is raised, a few inches from my face. I approach a fenced mosque, with my shadow falling across its entrance. One part of the gate is shut, leaving space for a single entrant. The walls and the fence are brownish, just like the sandy ground, but with a darker hue. On the highest deck, three-horn speakers point in different directions: frontwards, leftwards and rightwards. A man glances towards the exit. I doubt he sees me. But he is looking in the direction of the photographer.

The image we are shown, exactly as described, is black and white, the surfaces of mosque stark in the harsh light. How, one must ask, does Iduma fit into these photographs, tall and striking, often dressed in white, walking or standing against storefronts, alleys, and walls? He is the stranger posed —itinerant, restive, trailed by a sense of displacement, heartbreak, and loss. When asked in an interview what he hoped a reader might take away from this book, he replied:

Below each encounter something trembles under the surface, inarticulate. I wrote the book thinking of anonymity as a method, in order to speak to an audience besides those whose stories I was retelling, and whose lives I was conjuring. I hope the reader might be able to meet me at the intersection of my life and those I write about.

It is this ineffable quality that comes through and makes A Stranger’s Pose such an affecting experience. In a line with the work of Teju Cole who writes the Foreword, and yet with its own distinct style and voice, this is a book for anyone who welcomes the idea of navigating the invisible borders that lie between travel, memoir, fiction and photo essay.

A Stranger’s Pose by Emmanuel Iduma is published by Cassava Republic Press.

The poetry of grief: Loss Sings by James E. Montgomery

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.