Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Life Writing / Life Editing / A Photo Album

I've been putting the second volume of Dementia Blog together. Different from the first--this book will not run backwards, the formal choices are more various, there will be another title--it is still a work of accretion. Hence my primary job is to cut, pare down, edit, take out. As my method was to write in the present, rather than to wait for distance to parse events, weigh and sift them (and so to alter them), the act of editing is frightening. Not as frightening as Lian Lederman's removal of photos from her design drafts of Sarith Peou's
Corpse Watching, which felt to her like a formal re-enactment of genocide, but scary nonetheless. The cuts are not to words, commas, periods, the material of the sentence, but to (the) life itself. Or so it feels. Even when the cut is to a section about traveling toward the book's subject--moving from Honolulu to Virginia in an airplane, within its forced community of souls--rather than about its subject, the ("paper") cut bleeds a bit.

My blurb for Memory Wing, by Bill Lavender: "The poet's mother lives, dies in an Alzheimer's wing. The poet takes wing, remembering more because his mother remembers so little. He takes his past—and some of hers—under his wing. There is no waiting in the wings here; everything's laid out on memory's stage, surreal as the Roman memory exercises ordained. The poet may be left wing, but he steps out from under the wing of Arkansas, Blake-light tragedy, and Dante, into the elegiac present, where parents cede to children and in all their dreams come responsibilities and evasions. The OED's 12th definition best defines wing as ”part of a spectral line where the intensity tails off to nothing at either side of it,” but that fails to describe the utter intensity of the flight between points in Bill Lavender's book. This non-fiction epic poem flies through past, present, and hallucinated futures at the speed of unpunctuated sound."

If a parent's Alzheimer's perversely activates memory in a child (adult) who retains it, then editing memory is a process of deliberate erasure, if not for the author, then for the reader. A pre-forgetting. It's the silence that was not there then. My mother's silences covered her strongest emotions. Anger, mostly, but also grief. Another family member does not (cannot?) say a word or phrase to mark her passing. This editing of the transcript that is my life-script pains me, though I know better than to expect words, sound, acknowledgment. Repression is a form of proleptic editing.
If I will not say it, it will not have happened. It cannot hurt if I don't say it.

The power of acknowledgment and its obverse, the power of refusing or failing to acknowledge. Love may not be blind, but power is. Sensing a failure to control events, one refuses to acknowledge their power, and that replaces control with an imitation of it. If the imagined bear scares the child, T.S. Eliot quotes Bradley as writing, then her feeling depends not a whit on whether or not the bear is real. Now we have terrorists to fill that need.

Aaron Belz posts a quote about "fighting for joy" on his facebook page, his blog. I quarrel with the word "fighting," if not his sense that green shoots erupt from stumps, that it's crucial they come from there. We cannot get to joy through editing in advance, must edit after the fact, then grieve what has been (necessarily) lost from our manuscript. Gardeners are the fiercest of editors. "I kill things all the time," said Gaye Chan of her garden. Wanting to detach myself from the language of "fighting" and "killing," I wonder how to reconceive of editing as an activity that makes spaces rather than takes them.

The OED's 12th definition of "wing" contains the word "intensity." Intensities between empty spaces. Life-editing accentuates these intensities, while acknowledging the power of the spaces before and after. Leaving a rest between intensities amplifies them.

Editing as training for grieving. (Brenda Iijima mentioned Scalapino's gerunds yesterday.) I put poems in order to make a journal issue or to form a book. Yesterday I put black and white photographs of my mother in an album. They're from the 1940s and 1950s. Some of the photographs have penciled notes on the back, like "Rome" or like "this is where I work," but I do not know the chronology of my mother's life well enough to place the photographs "in order." They are the pictorial equivalent of new sentences, discrete (or in batches--there are a slew of photographs of Al Jolson as a white man eating lunch, lighting my mother's cigarette), set apart from each other physically, emotionally.

My mother stands in a graveyard; the graves are freshly dug, crosses are propped behind them against a wall. She is looking at the graves with a couple of men in uniform. In another photograph one of the men has his arm around my mother; both of them smile for the camera, graves still open behind them. A tiny photograph of a brick building. In front of it is a tent, men carrying two by fours, a large metal container. The tent is only partially open. On the back, in handwriting not my mother's, but signed with her nickname: "THE ARMY AND THEIR SILLY IDEAS. ANYONE KNOWS THAT THERE'S NO DANGER OF FIRE IN CLEANING STOVES, BUT WE'VE GOTTA CLEAN THEM IN A TENT." --SMOKEY

I can edit my life with some authority; hers remains mysterious, even if that WAS her voice on the back of a nondescript photograph of men standing beside a tent beside a brick building.

At Bookends in Kailua the other day I noticed a clutch of small red-covered books, pages edged in cheap gold leaf. None of these volumes contained a copyright page or listed a publisher's name, but each purported to offer the best of a great poet's work. There was one devoted to Wordsworth, yes, but the book that caught my attention was one that collected the best of Shelly [sic]. Ah, bird on wing thou never wert!

1 comment:

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

I liked reading especially about editing the new Dementia book!