The first time I remember seeing my mother was in 1976, when I was eleven years old. It isn’t a firsthand memory, more of what Barthes might call a memory container. I can date the photograph due to a calendar on the wall, one of those cheap calendars a company would once issue to its customers. The calendar is displaying November 1956. Neither of the photograph’s subjects, my mother and father, know that in eight years time I will born in a country five thousand miles away. Maybe I should say my mother is a photograph. I have no memory of her beyond a dozen or so such photographs.
In Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter she quotes from Henry Darger’s biography, “The central fact of his life is that his mother died when he was young.” This statement troubles me, gets under my skin. A few weeks ago the woman who sometimes substituted as my mother died, so I’ve been looking back. I love this book about Zambreno’s mother in the same way I watched with fascination the mothers of my childhood friends.
Zambreno writes, “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 behind.” How do we find a form to confess our guilt, to express our grief and anguish? Book of Mutter is Zambreno’s attempt to address that question, a desire to question her memories of her mother, to make reparation and, in an her attempt to forget, an act of creative restoration.
What is fascinating is the shades that Zambreno choses, and rejects, for her confrontation with her memories. Bristling with epigrams from Barthes, Book of Mutter is also animated by a broad range of spirit guides from Henry Darger to Louise Bourgeois to Peter Handke and Theresa Hak.
As with William Maxwell’s book, as with any book, I read Book of Mutter with all sorts of personal and idiosyncratic reflections. There are no ideal readers for a book about a mother’s life and death. Objectivity is an illusion. Whether this book has allowed Zambreno to leave behind her memories only she can answer, but her mother is recognised by being forever captured inside this graceful and haunting book.
All I can say is that this post, and your own personal reflection, has given me much food for thought. I think that I must read this book (I have bookmarked it). Having recently lost my mother I suspect it will be a vital read.
At this point, I cannot even begin to articulate my grief. The complexities of our relationship (which was close) are inextricably bound to my own long standing issues of body and identity. But one of the significant factors that long coloured my abiding sense of failure is the loss of someone I never knew. My mother’s first child was stillborn. My lost sister is a spectre who has haunted my entire existence—my mother once told me that the only time the gender of one of her children mattered was with my birth, she had lost one daughter and longed for another. I watched with fascination the sisters of my childhood friends wondering if, had Catherine lived, I would have learned from her how to be the girl I couldn’t find inside myself.
Incidentally, my mother never, in all her years, showed me anything but a completely unconditional love. It seems impossible to find that for one’s self.
Joe, without wanting to give too much away about Kate Zambreno’s book, I’d say you’ll find this compelling on several levels. It is quite brilliant. If I read anything better this year, it’ll be a good year’s reading.
Noted. It comes out here in less than a month. Looking forward to it.
Pingback: Kate Zambreno: Book of Mutter | Time’s Flow Stemmed | word pond