Monday, June 12, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Finding Home" (on Rebecca Goodman's Aftersight)

finding home
by Douglas Messerli

Rebecca Goodman Aftersight (New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2015).

Rebecca Goodman’s most recent book, Aftersight, is correctly described on its back cover by writer Stacey Levine, as a “disassembled keen,” a dirge or death song. Yet this highly poetized writing is also a fascinating psychological portrait of mourning, and essay on how those left behind must learn to cope without the missing loved one. 

     From the very first page of this work, in fact, we know we have entered a world of blurred identities in which a narrator is unable to separate herself from the subject of her work, her mother, Suzanne. “She went out into the streets looking for poetry. She never spoke again.”  Is the “she” the mother or the poet herself; obviously the narrator is speaking, so it must be the mother who lost herself in the voyage with illness and death. And in the very next line, we imagine a kind of burial “She lay beneath the tree until spring.”

     But even here we wonder whether the “she” being described is, metaphorically-speaking, the mourner or the mother. For very soon after the narrative observes: “When the fire consumed the woman, she couldn’t watch.” Was the mother cremated, or is this burning woman another image the narrator has half-observed which, as she puts it, replaces “the image of her mother?”

     And who is the “he” who promises to explain “the meaning of her dreams” in the morning, her mother’s husband or the narrator’s own husband speaking to her? Even the act of calling her father results in complete displacement, “the number dialed another number, another father.”

     In short, we have immediately been thrown in a world without boundaries: mother becomes daughter, father becomes husband, which, in turn, become other women, other men. Indeed, in the very next section of this book divided into small multiple gnomic intervals, the writer observes: “The world exists between the meaning of being.” Without the being other, we can surmise, there is no meaning; as the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe put it, “things fall apart.” When a part of the self disappears, so too does that self begin to disintegrate. As the author philosophizes: “Entire structures rest on the provision of self.”

      For me, the power of the small poetic fiction—a fiction of a very real death—emanates from Goodman’s Stein-like maxims which help to make sense of what is clearly, in her now fragile world, without sense, without meaning. For example:

                 The first day is more difficult than the next. Or should I
                 say the first day is more difficult than the last. The why
                 of nothing is never an aspect of becoming.


I’m not so sure I completely agree (thinking back upon my difficult father and his death, I was much more able to cope in the first few weeks than I am perhaps today, when I still have dreams of him, some negative, others quite loving), but it is through these assertive statements that the author is able to gradually regain meaning, to build up an understanding of something after which, apparently for months, she had difficulty in even surviving in a world in which, suddenly, “speech is meaningless and returns to the time when all thought reverts back to having been,” when the self cannot even comprehend its own being. Yet even here, we see the mourner gaining strength in the maxim: “Nowhere is a place we imagine.”

       Past, present, and future, such as it might possibly be imagined, becomes blurred, just as does the mother and daughter. The daughter reverts to meaningless acts of the past, taking down and playing a flute that she had as a child; reencountering the avocado trees, the flowers, and other elements of nature that her mother so loved; recalling and recooking her mother’s remarkable recipes; even cleaning up, which she often did with her mother, after dinner parties—attempting, in short, to relive some of the experiences that made her mother so remarkable when alive. But even here, it is difficult to bring things back to life: “The garden speaks to you. Not in the way you had hoped. In the way you have been given.”

      Even “the tomatoes [are] not as red today as they were yesterday.” Color fades; “the orange was less than orange….” “All existed now through the amber liquid that vision takes on in the hope that seeing is the moment of understanding.” But death, the author suggests, does not permit understanding, and the vision is also blurred.

      As outsiders, of course, Goodman’s readers must forebear with her, forgive her sometimes endless sorrows and attempt to refocus them on their own lost loved ones or simply to imagine what it might feel like to lose someone whom they so deeply love. I think, accordingly, that this is not a book for very young readers who have not yet experienced death. To remedy this, somewhat, Goodman transforms the tale from a story about herself into a kind of folk-tale or even fairy tale:

             He said he would banish all the mirrors in the kingdom. Beyond
             the aspect of reflection the image would not reveal itself….
                  He hid the mirrors. He covered them. He refused to relinquish
             the code that would allow them to reappear. She kept asking for
             that memory. The numbers the dates the symbols. Where had he
             hidden them—those sentences that spoke of recovery. Charged
             with the energy of subtle frenzy. She searched for them. In every
             corner of every space. In sleep she dreamt about them. Those
             frail images—the surface of belief.


Employing the Jewish tradition of covering all the mirrors in one’s house after a death, Goodman transforms her experiences into a kind of mythic story that also represents her attempts to heal herself. By trying to find the mirrors, she displays her own desire to come back to see the world as it is reflected upon us.

     And in the very next section, we begin to see a kind of magical recovery, projected upon a fictional “him.”

              In the village. The first words that came to him. Walking down
              the street. Early spring, Birds. Sage. Lemons. Words came to
              him fragments. Today. Only today. What could this mean.


     If the center does not quite hold for long, peace and meaning come gradually through language, the very language of Goodman’s book, and does begin to restore the narrative voice back to life. By the end of Book 2—itself a kind of colloquy of short maxims and fragmented observations—the “hero” has begun to sleep and move forward:

               Begin, sleep, he says. even when dreams replace your nights.
               even when dreams replace you. written agreements in the
               courtyard. blossom. 

               How do you leave the space you’ve walked in.


The answer to that implied question is “to carry the voice,” to speak a language that “is no longer the image of i.”

     By the third section, finally, “the garden renews itself.” As she lays in the garden reading the book, the narrator finally invites the reader to “join her. sit. hold the book.”  The private sorrow has turned into a public act. And Goodman embraces the reader, asking him to “remember the girl. turn the page. look at the image. feel the page,” to even answer her question, “what must the girl do.”

     This gifted author ends her work in a long prose poem titled “Night Garden,” answering, like Molly Boom, “yes,” to the voyage into darkness, a kind of dream garden “full of green.” She can now truly “go home.” But her final sentence suggests the dilemma of her long voyage through sorrow, “Where, I ask.”

      Perhaps it is not accidental, that during and soon after the writing of this book, she and her husband moved from Los Angeles into a new house in the town in which she and her family had long lived, Orange, California.

Los Angeles, June 10, 2017          

Howard and I knew the mother of whom Rebecca Goodman writes, Suzanne—not particularly well, but enough to have experienced her joyous personality and the good food she cooked. On several occasions we joined Rebecca, her husband Martin, Rebecca’s father and other family members at Jewish holidays, and utterly enjoyed their company. After Suzanne’s death, I got to know Rebecca’s father quite well when I spent nights with him at local Orange restaurants and the Nakell home during the weeks I taught, replacing Martin, suffering from operations for Parkinson’s Disease, at Chapman University. I love even today his witty observations and our shared admiration for Bombay gin. In many respects, I now feel to have been part of Rebecca’s loving family.