“Our first breast-feeding friendly piece,” tweeted an editor of The White Review when “Appendix F,” one of the eleven appendices collected in Kate Zambreno’s Appendix Project, was published online. Printed as a thin column, it is easy to scroll and read one-handed, while breastfeeding. The acknowledgement of the mother-child dyad is a theme that underlies Zambreno’s recent work: “Appendix F” positions the nursing mother and child “on a bench in front of the El Greco ‘Holy Family’ at the Met,” “outside the bubblegum phallic Franz West sculpture at MASS MoCA” and “in front of a Harry Dodge video at the New Museum’s gender show.” While never the explicit focus of Appendix Project, the talks and essays gathered here are shot through with references to the practice of raising a young child. There’s a sense of gentle provocation here—inserting a screen into the mother-child dyad, juxtaposing the maternal function, or, say, the breastfeeding toddler, with a variety of artworks—one that figures the maternal subject as a central concern in an area where she has long been beside, or outside, the point. And, a suggestion that the “pram in the hall” is no longer an impediment to the creative act but potentially responsible for creating the conditions for writing.
Appendix Project succeeds Zambreno’s Book of Mutter (Semiotext(e), 2017), a searing book-length essay that seeks to work through, or to write from within, her grieving for the loss of her mother. A book that is loosely constructed on Louise Bourgeois’ Cells, and a book that is itself an act of mourning. These appendices, or subsidiary texts, labeled from A-K, were written as a means of not reading from Book of Mutter when giving talks about it. To not read from it and instead to write a series of further texts that engage with and reopen the subject matter of the previous book. It’s a Barthesian stance that resists the text as monument, or monolith, and instead, to use Zambreno’s words, “gestures towards its incompleteness and ongoingness.” Roland Barthes is a pertinent figure in this book, which was written while rereading his Mourning Diary: it thinks through grief by thinking through Barthes’ grief for his own mother and the modes and methods with which he wrote about it. Resisting the text as monument, yes, and it’s a position that also seems to push back against the closure expected of the mourner. This book remarks, then, on the continuity of grief, “how grief works over time. How time can be distance, but also sudden closeness, how the awareness of her death becomes suddenly alive, much like a wound.”
Crucial to Appendix Project is the author’s shift from position of daughter to that of mother: the mother is no longer other but now also self. As such, it prompts a re-examination of the figure of the Mother, of Zambreno’s own mother and of other artists and writers who mothered. Of Louise Bourgeois, Zambreno writes, “but how she too was a mother, how so much of the mother grows and needles into her work.” Much of Bourgeois’ work is made with needle and thread, and trying to find that confluence between mother and self, perhaps it is that, a needling, a needling of self into mother and mother back into self, as if needle and thread might stitch the two together, make of them one. Was it Barthes who said, “the writer is someone who plays with [their] mother’s body,” and Maggie Nelson who reorganized this, pointing out that “sometimes the writer is also the mother”? This is the kind of reangling that is at play here.
“I want to find a grammar and tense for grief,” Zambreno writes. (And this could be a thesis statement for the two books, one that recognizes the authorial position as one of wanting and searching.) In my own work I am looking for a grammar and tense for motherhood, and in Appendix Project the two come together sharply. How the fragmentation of language (grammar) and reshaping of time (tense) occasioned by grieving mirror those occasioned by early motherhood. “[T]his altered state, I have been realizing, this raw and porous tenderness, is closest to grief. How unreal everything feels. How blissful at the same time.” Elsewhere, Zambreno has described motherhood as she does here grief, as “devastation,” the thorough laying waste to the known-self or the known-world perhaps, and certainly the laying waste to time as previously configured. “Appendix A, Variations of Morning,” a reflection, via On Kawara’s date paintings, on the (misrecorded) date of her mother’s death, which coincides with the date of the talk she is due to give, the very talk in the process of being written as we read, occupies time as it variously stretches, squashes, and shatters, and as it moves between the writer’s present and the reader’s present. Time is arrhythmic, and yet it simultaneously holds a continuity: a linear progression is measured in the book by the growth and coming into language of the young child.
Grief and motherhood—the closing-in of horizons, the sleep deprivation, the disintegration of time—both give to “an aphasic openness.” A “filter,” a “glaze,” or a “gauze” is cast over one’s days. This foreshortening doesn’t stifle but, as the texts suggest, gives to writing, or, as per Barthes, “is necessary in order to write.” There are echoes of another French thinker here: Hélène Cixous has written of the myopia crucial to her writing, cowering from the “broad raw visions of the day,” she attends to “what is hidden among the visible.” “My nearsightedness is the secret of my clairvoyance.” The words are Cixous’ but could equally be Zambreno’s, writing from within the nearsightedness of grief and motherhood, seeing through a gauzy veil, channeling voice—“something divine about the elasticity of such talk, perhaps.” The conditions for writing turn to the conditions for speaking in “Appendix E, Diseuse.” Diseuse, flickering between disease and disuse, is from the French, and here borrowed from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, giving she who speaks, or speaks out, a female monologist. It is an appropriate term for the voice in this essay, which is not unlike Virginia Woolf’s “meandering streams,” but is also always tending towards Cha’s “Bared noise, groan, bits torn from words.” The quote from Dictee an echo of the child’s own coming into language, her learning “to shape the sounds into words.” So the essay meanders from muttering to the shriek of the oloyga, it dwells on the physicality of language, its sonic structure, on verbal continence and incontinence, on the gendering of sound, and on the editing of the self into coherence while “always that threat […] of hysteria.”
An appendix is also an organ of the body. Might we then think of these texts as organs of the body contained within a book with spine, headers, and footers? Or, with the architecture of a house, the paragraphs rooms, or cells as in Book of Mutter. “Can one walk around a paragraph?” Zambreno asks. While they are spaces, and spacious, yes, the texts are of the order of the notebook, the bodies and rooms constructed are sketches or outlines, sometimes “fuzzy,” “dissolving.” They are digressive spaces, spaces for dwelling in, and dwelling on. And the writing tends towards doodling, a circling around and hitting upon and drifting off elsewhere. The digression here stands in direct counterpoint to the sparseness of Book of Mutter and also to the ebullient wordiness of Heroines, Zambreno’s earlier essay on the wives and mistresses of modernism (Semiotext(e), 2012).
While my tendency is to read the book through a maternal lens, the book is not in fact about motherhood but a collection of essays on time and grief, on art and literature, on the act of writing, on memory and the uncanny. It’s a book that works as a series of stand-alone pieces, but that is also cumulative, the essays layer one onto another, as if writing could “follow a sort of verticality, sentences and thoughts held in suspension.” What I glean from these texts, I realize, writing this, is less in terms of information, but in terms of the ways it nudges the reader towards other ways of seeing and occasions discreet shifts in my own patterns of thinking.
Olivia Heal is a creative-critical PhD Researcher at the University of East Anglia, UK. She is currently writing a book about motherhood. Her short fiction has appeared in a number of journals including The White Review, gorse, and The Stinging Fly. Her translation of an extract of Marius Daniel Popescu’s La Symphonie du loup was anthologized in Best European Fiction 2016 (Dalkey Archive).
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