Remembering a friend on World Mental Heath Day

When I started this blog in 2014, I was reeling in the aftermath of a major manic episode. One that effectively cost me my career. My early posts were angry, fueled by the shame and trauma of having endured such a public breakdown, and the complete insensitivity of my employer, a situation compounded by the fact that I had worked in the disability and mental health field and had never denied my own mental health history. But when I needed someone to step in and guide me to medical care there was no one.

On this day it would be good to stand up and say: Yes, I’m a survivor. Truth is, I’m lucky. I respond well to a long standing medical treatment (if I’m not so reckless as to believe I don’t need it) and I was able to coast for about seventeen years between breakdowns and, after losing everything in my mid-fifties, finally access solid supportive psychiatric and psychological care.

Over the past year I have needed that support twice when stability waned.

That’s actually a rather dismal situation, truth be told, but like I said, I am lucky, I respond well to medication and compared to many other people with bipolar disorder, I’ve been able to function well—most of the time. My son has faced much greater obstacles.

But today I want to talk about Ulla.

When I appeared online as a rough ghost, I quickly became connected with a group of fellow bloggers dealing with mental health challenges. Ulla, who went by the name Blahpolar was funny, outrageous, tragic, and queer. She lived in South Africa, a country I had long been interested in, and she was a huge fan of Canadian literature. We bonded almost instantly. We could joke and riff off each other as if we’d been friends forever. A little more than a year after we met online, I flew to South Africa and spent a week with her in the Eastern Cape Province. We were as comfortable together in person as we had been online.

But Ulla was struggling.

She had had a rough life. Her illness had only been diagnosed recently, at age forty-five. But the damage ran deep, complicated by so many factors. And yet she was one of the most  gifted writers and wonderful people I ever met.

By the time I got to know her she was unable to work, living on saving s in a small house she’d inherited from her mother, in a remote seaside community. But the blackness was closing in fast, even at the time we met. Every rand stretched, she tried everything she could afford to fight it off.  No treatment—not even shock therapy—seemed to have any effect.

She survived the first suicide attempt. Succeeded the second time, a little over three years ago now.

I say “succeeded” because it is selfish of me to insist that a woman of forty-six, who has waged many long and bitter battles, does not have the right to say: I cannot live this way. But it breaks my heart that she is gone, and angers me that in the end, she had to die alone.

Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows was her favourite book. A bold plea for assisted death for those with severe depression who see no other option.

Who has the right to weigh another’s pain?

Unaware that World Mental Heath Day was approaching, I pulled out the elegy I wrote for her the other night and tried to read it through. When I composed it, three months after her death, I was numb. My parents had died less than two months before her and all those losses were deeply intertwined. They are only breaking loose now.

I can’t get through this piece right any more. A sob rises in my chest just thinking about it. But on his day I wish to share it once again.

It is the best way to honour my friend Ulla. And everyone else who has reached the point where they felt no option but to join “that nocturnal tribe.” One should not wish that on anyone, but we cannot judge them. Least of all those of us who have known some measure of the pain depression and bipolar can bring. We can only try to ensure that support, understanding, and services are available for those who need it.

So, once again, for Ulla Kelly, And I Will Tell You Something.

In search of my own poetic voice: A few thoughts about writing poetry with a link to my work at Poetry at Sangam

a shiver of unease
runs its course across
my shoulders, shudders
down a rocky spine
to dissipate
through fissures
in this sleeping
mountain
mine

Over the past couple of years I have, often in defiance, insisted on writing about the poetry I read. At the same time, my focus in reading poetry has shifted, taking in more contemporary poets, as well as experimental and translated works. But I know nothing about formal analysis, and even less about how one might set out to write a poem. But I’ve not let that stop me from attempting the odd poetic effort, even if I always feel like I’m writing into the dark. Stumbling into it sideways.

This month I have the honour of having several of my poems included with some truly fine poets and translators in the latest issue of Poetry at Sangam. My contribution includes a photo essay originally published at RIC Journal, a piece I wrote after I returned from central Australia. I’d gone to hike the Larapinta Trail and arrived with a brutal head cold brewing, so hiking was limited, but in that magnificent ancient land I sensed the presence of my mother in a dream for the first time after her death the year before. This piece recounts that experience.

My three new poems, all touch on authenticity, the body, and gender identity—pretty typical terrain for me, but one that I am beginning to feel may be best explored in a poetic realm as I move toward other subjects in essay form because, as I explain in my introduction:

Poetry, fractured prose, and fables have begun to play a greater role in my writing repertoire by offering a space for me to explore the raw, the visceral, the discordant elements of my being from a distance. It still arises from my own emotional journey, sometimes riding close to the arc of my narrative reality, but I can be abstract, ambiguous or disassociated from the speaker or the subject as much as I want or need to be. Many of my poetic efforts gestate over long periods of time, moving in and out of first person, falling apart and coming back together as need be. But in the end, it is all trial and error. I don’t really know anything about writing poetry at all.

My full introduction and links to my poems can be found here. And be sure to check out the rest of this wonderful issue at the same time.

With thanks to my dear friend, Priya Sarukkai Chabria.

Too old to write? Indulging in a little writerly insecurity.

From time to time I’ll see a flurry of comments cross my social media pathways, complaining and commiserating about rejections and the frustration that comes from having one’s literary labours unappreciated routinely. I have also received a few rejections myself of course, but the more unfortunate reality is that I have rarely written and completed anything worth submitting unsolicited to any publication—and certainly nothing that would come close to resembling a manuscript to set loose in the world in search of a publisher. For critical work I always pitch first, but even then my rate of production has dwindled to exactly two reviews last year and one this year which has yet to see the light. Add a few small somewhat poetic efforts and a commissioned essay for a book that is supposed to come out sometime next year and that’s about the sum extent of my writing outside this space.

So, while I have submitted and pitched little, I have certainly written a lot of rejection letters since joining 3:AM Magazine almost two years ago. At certain times of the year, and this is one, I shudder every time Gmail pings on my iPad because the submissions and pitches roll in at a steady rate. I debate acceptances and agonize over rejections. I do enjoy editing, and I think I am a good and respectful editor, but because I edit for a publication that defines its own rules by essentially refusing to have any hard and fast guidelines, I have often opted to take on ambitious younger writers with what I think is a cool and original idea—maybe one they’d be hard pressed to sell elsewhere—even if it means that a lot of time may need to go into making that idea come to life. If I worked on a clock it would be reckless to allow accept such projects. But I’m not, so what is costing?

Quite honestly, I’m afraid it’s beginning to cost any pretensions to a writing life I my have ever entertained. I’ve never seen writing as a way to make a living, all the more power to those who need to, but at this point in my life it’s about trying to tell a story. My own.

However, I am beginning to wonder for whom and for what.

In early March I came home from a wonderful month in India with a notebook full of essay ideas. I felt I had turned an important corner in my own journey of self-acceptance. I carried a renewed sense of personal value. Within weeks a crisis erupted at 3:AM which was not only a very stressful lesson in the speed at which intolerance—in multiple directions—can spiral out of control and the damage it causes. I stayed on but with a greatly increased workload. Add to that, a difficult spring spiralling through grief, revisited traumas, family stress, and mental health challenges, and, at this point, all of those essay ideas sit exactly as I left them. Unexplored.

The one thing I am pleased with is this blog (or literary site as I call it when I want to sound serious). I’m not super prolific and my reading rate has been dismally slow, but I have written a couple of longer essayish meditations and, although I no longer review everything I read, I tend to treat the reviews a do write with more critical attention—equivalent to what I might seek to publish elsewhere. I am aware that I have a significant readership and that many of these reviews, especially if publishers pick them up and link to them, attract traffic and readership as well, if not better, than many lit sites. I am extraordinarily selective when I do accept a book for review and I feel no obligation to finish or write about a book that’s not working for me on some level—which is not to say one has to love a book to engage with it on a critical level, but there must be something of interest to talk about in a meaningful way. However, that’s another debate altogether. It’s my space, here I set the rules.

I can even engage in a little self-indulgent navel gazing like this when I need to.

Thing is, to go back to where I started, I not only see writers measuring their lives in accumulated rejections, I also see writers within my little network publishing. Books, maybe, which I don’t begrudge anyone, but also on literary sites and journals—and sometimes at a regular pace. Which leads me to think other writers have a collection of finished, or nearly finished, stories, essays, and poems sitting in file folders, virtual or otherwise, or being tossed to the vagaries of unpredictable editors like myself at all times. Or they write constantly.

This past June I started a daily writing practice with the encouragement of a dear friend and mentor, Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books. The first night I write a few prosaic words to myself about goals. The second night I emptied a couple of pages of anger and frustration until I nearly made myself physically ill. I’ve written about grief and loss, rehearsed a number of blog posts and essay fragments (like this one you are reading now), and at times I have used it as a journal to record my thoughts, activities, and goals. When all inspiration fails I have switched to the Devanagari keyboard and sputtered away in my rudimentary Hindi. I have revisited my entries several times, retracing my way through the accumulated pages, gathering words and ideas for use elsewhere; reminding myself how far I have travelled emotionally these past few months.

But still I am left with the questions: Why am I writing? Who am I writing for? What am I writing towards?

I can’t help but wonder if I am simply too old to start anything significant. Have I missed this train? Or rather is there just too much baggage now packed into nearly six decades and two gendered lives to unpack and make sense of? What if I do unpack it and find barely a story worth telling? Or worse, a story I cannot tell because I don’t know where it lies anymore. I am increasingly aware, as our world becomes ever more polarized on every axis—as we hunker down in our little glass houses with a pile of stones at the ready—that I look like a middle-aged white man (and I’ll admit it’s a handy façade on occasion) even if the actual truth of my being is so much more complicated and even ticks a few of the popular diversity boxes quite readily, should I want to define myself in such terms.  But, in the end, all the labels I could wear are simply part of complex real life lived.

Just like anyone else’s.

Writing the body: A link to a new poem published at Burning House Press

I have published very little work outside my blog over the past year. For a long time I  struggling with a serious writer’s block, something I have addressed here before. That had started to ease considerably while I was in India earlier this year, but when I came back, a period of editorial upheaval at 3:AM Magazine left me with increased editing responsibilities that have consumed much of my time and creative energies and, well, here we are.

Lately I have made an effort to claw some of that time back. I have contributed an essay for a book, pitched a critical piece I’m very excited about and even published a poem—my third piece to appear at Burning House Press.

This poem, “No (New) Man’s Land,” actually had its genesis in an earlier imperfect form, perhaps two years ago. I recently pulled it out again and worried over it until I was happy with the results and sent it in for consideration for this month’s theme: “Secrets&Lies.” It always thrills me to publish a poem or poem-like piece because I am an accidental poet. Occasionally I will go through a fit of scribbling down bits of random verse which then take years to ferment and maybe grow into a poem.

Here I am, once again, writing the body—a subject that is never far from my personal essay writing. “Your Body Will Betray You,” my first published piece, continues to attract a lot of attention three years after it was first published, and even if I would now use somewhat different language, I am proud of that odd little essay. But writing the body, especially when one is as dysmorphic as I am, is a vulnerable process. Catharsis is transitory. I’m finding that poetry offers a way to step back, pare the language, distort the imagery and grant a little distance to a story that is still entirely and inevitably mine. Employing third person (something that was a disastrous misstep in early stages of writing “Your Body Will Betray You”) can also make all the difference for me. That is what I chose to do with this new piece.

“No (New) Man’s Land” can be found here. With thanks to Robert Frede Kenter.

Are you afraid? In memoriam

In the last years, like a bird. Delicate, frail, angel wings slowly folding in embrace. Each time I saw her, after time away, the gentle shaking, the pale whitened hair startled me anew.

So tired. But still sharp.

Wise, but weary. Fragile, breakable, skin like frosted glass. Always able to ease, with a word, every worry I laid on her.

Three years ago today, my mother left us. Slipped away, ready to move on. Calm. Welcoming peaceful release from the simple struggle to breathe.

Gathered round her bed, we asked: Are you afraid?

No.

A thousand times, whispered:  I love you.

With a kiss to the forehead

I don’t know, for myself, the faith she held. Can’t quite imagine what it must have been like to feel assured she was leaving to join her parents, her sister, my sister, her God.

As she passed into to the night in one ICU, across town my father slept unknowing on another hospital ward. Eleven days later he would join her. Once he learned that she was gone, he no longer had the need to fight.

Perhaps he was afraid to be left behind.

Mourning aside, these past few days have been difficult.

My son confessed what I’d already suspected. After three months sober, he was drinking. Again.

Truth is the periods of sobriety have been but islands in a decade-long battle. Six or seven months total over the past nineteen.

His grandmother lived to see none of these passages of hope. She would have been heartened with every dry spell, distressed with every setback.

She worried about us all. As mothers do.

Her spirit lingers, but I miss hearing her voice.

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).

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).