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.

Losing my story (or my capacity to tell it)

For the longest time I have entertained a writing project. Memoirish, I described it. I put time and money aside to facilitate this activity. I’ve been going through the money, but have little to show for my time. It has been more than a year since I’ve written anything serious of a personal nature beyond a few small prose pieces or random blog posts. I’ve written about writing and not writing and all manner of writerly insecurity. I regularly hear from people who, much to my surprise, enjoy what I do write, appreciate what I share. Yesterday, after submitting an overdue review, for better or worse, I told myself that I must finally get serious about trying to pull together a more significant effort.

Yet, I woke up today fearing that I can no longer tell my story. The only story I have to tell and I cannot share it. The cost is too great.I don’t know how others do it. Detail their personal lives, their vulnerabilities, their victories. Perhaps there is a part of ego that has no filter, a point of pride that longs to disclose. But that’s not me. In real life, I’ve come to understand that my existence can only begin to affect some measure of authenticity if I refrain from attempting to have full expression of all that I am. All that I have been. It’s one thing to write. I have published a few raw and honest pieces that have been well received, that can be searched online, and I am happy with each one. And here at home, for the past three years, I have been more intentionally out and involved in LGBTQ and affirming spaces in a way I never dared before. However, more often than not, I’m left feeling defeated. It’s all okay, it seems, until I try to have my voice heard. My history validated. My pain respected.

I would to dream that writing could heal the loss and grief I carry. Yet, too much loss and too little gain makes for a story no one would want to read. Life stories are supposed to show recovery, strength, hope. But that’s wishful thinking. Real life itself just goes on. I am afraid that attempting to write now would only reveal the anger and despair that I can’t get past.

This is not to say that there have not been many positives in recent years. I’ve a network of good friends across the globe. I’ve travelled to some amazing places. I still love writing—reviewing, interviewing, and editing. I am producing work that I am truly proud of. And I’m not ashamed of who I am. But I think I have reached the limit of what I want to explore on a deeply personal level in writing.

Perhaps some stories are better left untold. Some transmythologies are better left uncontested. And some lives are more coherently lived by keeping the closet doors at least partially closed.

This weekend I realized that, in no uncertain terms, it is one thing to be “accepted” as long as you don’t talk about yourself, or your life, in any way that others do not want to hear. This simple truth has finally extinguished my intention to continue this memoirish fantasy.

I wish I was a poet.

Sometimes I think poetry offers the only hope that one could touch the truth but keep the self intact.

A poetic Pentecost: At the Burning Abyss by Franz Fühmann

I am not certain what has become of the person who first alerted me to the poetry of Georg Trakl, but it wasn’t very long ago and came backward through an interest in Celan. Then, over the last few years, Seagull Books released three volumes containing all of Trakl’s poems including significant variants and early versions, in new translations by James Reidel. I read and wrote about them all even though I had no particular confidence in myself as a reviewer of poetry. I’ve also explored other translations and biographical accounts of the troubled Austrian poet’s short life. So when I became aware of At the Burning Abyss: Experiencing the Georg Trakl Poem by Franz Fühmann, my interest was piqued. Finally, to be fully prepared, I recently read Fühmann’s autobiographical story cycle, The Jew Car.

I thought I was ready.

But no, nothing could have fully prepared me for the experience of experiencing At the Burning Abyss.

Fühmann was an important literary figure in postwar East Germany; a gifted, versatile writer who was no stranger to either reading poetry or fledgling efforts to write it when he first encountered Trakl. It was early May, 1945, just prior to the surrender of the Wehrmacht. As a young soldier in the German army, Fühmann had been granted a few days sick-leave following a stay in the hospital, and was taking advantage of the opportunity to visit his family. As bleak as things looked for Germany at the time, a reckless hope was still smoldering. Sitting with his father after dinner on the evening before he was due to leave for Dresden, he opened the volume he’d chanced to pick up in a used bookstore on his way home. One poem in particular, ominously titled “Downfall,” resonated:

Over the white pond
The wild birds have taken flight.
In the evening an icy wind blows from our stars.

Over our graves
The night bends its broken brow.
Under oak trees we sway on a silver barge.

The city’s white walls ring for ever.
Under vaults of thorns
O my brother we blind clock-hands climb towards midnight.

He knew nothing of Trakl but a conversation with his father that night revealed that the latter had served alongside “daft old Georgie” in the early days of the First World War. But beyond recollections of an eccentric character, Fühmann learned no more about the poet for many years. He would never see his father again, and his poetry book would soon be abandoned along with his coat and backpack a few days later. But the verse had worked its way into his consciousness and would keep him company and inspire his own desperate scribblings during his years in a Soviet POW camp in the Caucasus.

The Franz Fühmann who emerged from captivity in 1949 was a born again Socialist. He had seen the error of his ways, faced the reality of the horrors of Aushwitz, and rejected the false tenants of Nazi ideology on which he had been raised and indoctrinated. The final story in The Jew Car depicts the arrival of his fictional alter-ego in East Germany, his train journey into a new homeland marked with the composition of a suitably ambitious piece of Socialist-inspired realist poetry. However, his reunion with the decidedly anti-realist imagery of Trakl would occur before long.

Slowly, and steadily, the poems will challenge everything that he thinks he knows about reading and writing poetry, ultimately challenging his Socialist idealism and his own self-awareness.

At several points in At the Burning Abyss, Fühmann reminds his reader that the he is not writing an autobiography, insisting that he is engaged in a meditation on the experience of reading Trakl. However, this experience acts as a fundamental force within his own biography and cannot be read apart from it. His account of his personal response to Trakl is presented in first person singular against a broader examination of how a poem, and a couple of select pieces in particular, can and should be understood. This second thread is conducted as an extended first person plural conversation with the reader. His questions and concerns become our questions and concerns, we are invited to seek answers together.

He wants to know how the poem works on the unconscious, what gives it meaning, and what allows it to work across time and place. At the core of his examination is a conviction that the experience of a poem is necessarily subjective; that:

… a poem does not become a poem because it fulfils certain formal rules, but because a reader constitutes it. Until then it merely appears to belong to the genre of poetry, a dead form, interesting only once the interest in the poem as an artwork awakens.

The reader may take decades or even a century to appear, but if he does not, the poem does not come into being as poetry: there is no objective poetic form that legitimizes something a priori as a poem in the sense of an artwork.

This is then, a highly idiosyncratic engagement with the Trakl poem, but one that assures the reader that his own personal engagement with a poem, any poem, has its own validity. One should not be afraid of understanding wrong, or relating to something others eschew as unworthy. For, as he quotes Rilke in the opening sentence of the book: “poems are not feelings…they are experiences.”

For Fühmann, “Downfall” is the first Trakl poem that strikes him, across two decades from the time of composition, to capture the very moment in which he came to it. The blind clock-hands toward midnight climbing recur and echo throughout the text, joined in time, by other lines from other poems that become refrains, driving and troubling the attempt to resolve the dissonance that grows the further he explores Trakl’s poetry and life.

In his reading, an indication that the Trakl poem might reflect Decadence triggers his initial crisis of faith, if you will. Anxiously, Fühmann opens his text and lands, randomly on a poem filled with shocking imagery—“Night Romance.” He finds a “dreaming boy” with a “face decaying in the moon,” a murderer, a dead man, and a “nun with lacerated flesh” praying “naked before Christ’s travails.” All the features of decadence assembled and yet, somehow, the verses hold an undeniable appeal. Thinking of other poems, Fühmann’s anxiety increases:

What was this morass on which I’d lost my way?

And so it goes. The discussion turns to meaning. How literally can images be understood? Much of the focus turns on the poem “Decay,” but Fühmann insists that Trakl’s entire oeuvre can be seen as one great poem, so the discussion has broad application. Images of decay in all its aspects frequent his poetry, as do “autumn, “evening,” and “garden.” What weight can be applied to the startling images that appear, and to what extent is an exact explanation—a resolution of poetic riddles—possible or even desirable? If a mystery can be answered, is it answerable universally or for the reader alone? And, what role does the poet have in relation to the misery he or she records?

Of course, the questions, Fühmann raises are directly related to the threat Trakl poses to his schooling in the Socialist poetic form encouraged within the GDR. There is no place for mystery—a poem should be understood “at first go.” To rid himself of this contrary influence, Fühmann tries to destroy his Trakl books, but find himself unable to do so. He looks for comfort elsewhere, translating Vitězslav Nezval into German, for example, and finds himself sliding headlong in Surrealism! He seeks refuge in alcohol. For a long while, he struggles to mediate the conflict between the literature (and the grounding ideology) to which he is committed and this Austrian poet about whom, apart from his father’s cryptic recollections, he knows little. Having long professed to having little interest in the writer’s life, he suddenly desires to know all he can.

Shocked by his first encounter with Trakl’s awkward visage inside the covers of the slender biography he finds, Fühmann makes his way through the book in a single, fevered night. He is drawn into the account of “an unliveable life: an existence that fell to poetry.—An existence that fell to drugs and incest; a fall into decay, a plunge into suicide; a life at the zenith of European poetry.” What follows then, is a biography within this memoir, which includes the complete text of the sole eyewitness account of Trakl’s final days in a Krakow hospital.

Continuing to alternate between the analysis of what poetry can tell us about its author and, more critically, what it reveals about ourselves, Fühmann’s personal journey of self-discovery moves forward with an intensity that is powerful, irresistible and fundamentally human. The experience of the Trakl poem changes him and allows him to heal in a way doctrine never could. The reader can feel his pain and his passion, appreciate his conflicts and share his exhilaration when everything finally falls into place. “I believe in poetry,” he says, “because it works like fate—provided you stand within its magic circle.”

Well said, indeed.

At the Burning Abyss by Franz Fühmann, is translated with great dedication and affection by Isabel Fargo Cole, and published by Seagull Books.

Another winter solstice: A dark year ends brightly

2017 has been a difficult year for many, personally and globally. It has become my custom to stop on this day—the shortest of the year, 7 hours, 54 minutes to be exact—and tally an account of sorts for the year just passed. That typically also includes some variation on a “books of the year” theme. This time I will refrain from the attempt to gather a formal list, but will work in some of my literary highlights.

My year began on a very low note.  2016 had been a year marked by significant creative achievement tempered by great personal loss. With the advent of the new year, I was awash in a mix of complicated emotions. Toward the end of February, probate was finally granted on my father’s will and I received the first part of my inheritance. This relieved the serious financial concerns that had been haunting me for months, but paradoxically, I felt worse than ever. As a wave of loneliness, threatened to completely overwhelm me, I sat down and composed a short blog post that, much to my surprise, garnered more views on the first day than any post I’ve ever made. Clearly I was not alone in my loneliness.

I don’t think I can say that post changed my life, but it represents the beginning of an awareness of the extent of the very real community that can develop online. Most tangibly it led to an invitation from fellow blogger Tony Messenger to take part in the annual extreme walk for charity he organizes in central Australia. And of course, because nothing is as perfect as we would like, I picked up an extreme cold somewhere between Calgary and Alice Springs, so I didn’t walk very much (or very fast), but to have almost two weeks out in the heart of the desert was an experience I’ll never forget. And the beginning of a deeper level of grieving for my parents. At the moment, much of the journey is, like so many of my photo files, unprocessed.

These things take time.

And, having travelled halfway around the globe, I had to at least stop into Melbourne and Sydney and catch up with some Twitter and online friends along the way. Every encounter was wonderful, and contributed to shrinking a large, lonely world a little, even if just for a few hours.

Brighton Beach, Melbourne
Glebe, Sydney
Sydney icon

Over the course of the summer, my brothers and I managed to get our parents’ home fixed up and ready to go on the market. They lived on an acreage outside a small village in a region of the province where the real estate market had been dormant for over a year due to the depressed oil industry. However, things were just starting to turn when we listed the house in late July. Within a week we accepted an offer. Now there are still some estate matters to clear up (and lots more stuff to dispose of), but with a measure of closure we can all start to move forward.

My highlight of the autumn was my city’s annual reader’s festival, Wordfest. I volunteered as a driver for the first time and had a blast. One has an opportunity to engage with authors in a completely different way when driving them around town. And this year’s event featured a strong line-up of Indigenous writers and an excellent poetry cabaret. But by far, my singular thrill was an opportunity to witness the phenomenal M. NourbeSe Philip performing from her experimental epic Zong! I had several opportunities to speak to her privately, and she was generous, supportive, and enthusiastic about my own writing project.

However, when I think back over 2017, I feel like I have been less productive as a writer. I would like to think that the work has been germinating… In truth, 2016 saw the publication of a couple of pieces that had been fermenting for a few years. This year it has been harder to find the focus, but I feel that shifting. I also limited critical writing off my blog, again an energy and concentration issue, but I am very pleased with the reviews I did publish. I’ve also been editing more, an invisible but very highly rewarding activity. And I’m excited to see where my new role with 3:AM Magazine will take me in the year ahead.

And so, at last, to the year in reading. I read many great books—and acquired many more that I’ve not yet gotten to—but here are some of the highlights:

This year I read, for the first time, several writers I have been meaning to get to for a while—Fleur Jaeggy, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Gerald Murnane—and I was in no instance disappointed.

I collected and read an embarrassing amount of poetry. These are a few of the collections I’ve been spending time with:

And somehow I’ve ended up with a healthy selection of contemporary Australian poets (with a few more still on the way):

Meanwhile, a couple of Canadian Indigenous writers really caught me off guard and I have since gathered earlier works by each to catch up on:

As a memoirist (or memoirish writer), I paid special attention to a variety of excellent (and different) memoirs:

And although I can say with confidence that almost every book I read this year was published by an independent publisher, I took special pleasure in supporting some very small indie outfits:

I also like to think that reading should be both intelligent and fun,so with that in mind, these are a few books that really surprised and delighted me:

And finally, I loved every single book released by Two Lines Press in 2017, including two of my absolute favourites novels of the year:

Last, but not least, 2017 is the year I became rather obsessed with French author Michel Leiris. I read the first part of his autobiography, Scratches, which I will write about soon, and purchased the next two parts (the last part has not yet been translated), along with his essays, fiction and correspondences. But, by far, the most demanding and rewarding reading experience I had all year was his monumental journal Phantom Africa. (With the exception of most of the poetry, I wrote about every book pictured here on my blog or for other online magazines. Links can be found on my Review Index 2017 page.)

Now, as the year is coming to a close, I am, of course, still reading. I’m also writing, and looking forward to an upcoming trip to India where I hope to be able get even more writing done. But the true reason this winter solstice is brighter than those of the past few years is that, as of tomorrow, my son who is just about to turn twenty-eight, will have been sober for two weeks. After eight years of heavy drinking and all of the discord, danger, and stress that loving an alcoholic entails this is something I feared I’d never see. I don’t know why he suddenly stopped. I have not asked. I am simply being supportive and hoping that this is the beginning of a new future for him.

So, at least for the moment, it’s all good. I hope everyone else finds a little goodness in the days ahead.