THE FOREWORD to Anne Germanacos’s determinedly modernist novel/prose poem/shoring of fragments TRIBUTE by editor Hilary Plum reminds one of T. S. Eliot’s introduction to Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood: in both cases the idea is that the reader needs some preparation, warning, or grounding before encountering such a strange and unique work of literature. Eliot saw in Barnes’s novel a prose that was relentlessly and vigorously alive, a novel so good that only readers of poetry could truly appreciate its significance. TRIBUTE demands a similar poetic aptitude from its reader, its prose broken into short sections, at most a few sentences, or as little as a short line, separated one from the next by a single dot (•).
The form, Plum tells us, is defined by continuous shape-shifting, by “exhilarating motion.” Germanacos’s is a “restless relationship to form […] born of that most essential restlessness: desire.” Yet it is just as easy to praise this book from the opposite direction. Its form is, in fact, wonderfully constant, slow, thoughtful, spacious, and completely at ease. The experience of reading this book is not a dizzying whirlwind of transcendent movement but a calming recurrence of immanent presence. The form, in short, is tribute paid between writer and reader: a gentle and forgiving prose that invites one to pore over a single page, or take in the entire book in a sitting.
In terms of plot, there is not a whole lot. The dramatic tension of this work is perhaps best expressed in the line, “In order to be able to take my husband’s cock in my mouth my mother will first have to die.” Death and desire are the two major themes in TRIBUTE, and they are constantly enmeshed. Yet it is hard also not to read this line as a tongue- (or cock-) in-cheek riff on Freud’s theories of mourning and melancholia. TRIBUTE opens with an epigraph from H.D.’s Tribute to Freud, and the libidinous pater of psychoanalysis haunts the unfolding text. Germanacos’s psychoanalytic forays are complex, and one thinks of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s discussion of the infant’s loss of the mother’s breast — in this first experience of loss, they argue, the child compensates by filling the void left by the nipple with words and self-expression, ultimately leading to an affirmation of identity. Or Julia Kristeva, who provides a more violent take on the loss of the mother, arguing that matricide is indeed a cultural rite of passage. Women in particular must steel themselves to both kill and replace their mothers, Kristeva claims, but once again, Germanacos is both serious and playful, at one point calling her mother’s ass “a little flat.” In this process, the work of art is a girl’s best friend, translating loss into a form that surpasses the reality of lived experience.
Such psychoanalytic readings of TRIBUTE are endlessly suggestive, yet one gets the sense that Germanacos knows all of this already (her analyst is the first to call after her mother’s passing), and they serve more as background than focus. Psychoanalysis might indeed have all the neat answers that explain why x object comes to replace y object, but such theories could not seem more trivial when faced with the bold rendering of loss found in TRIBUTE. The climactic section, “KADDISH,” in particular is a masterful combination of terror, humor, triviality, and profound feeling. The Mourner’s Kaddish is not simply a process that one completes before returning to reality (as in Freud’s mourning) but a prayer that is repeated and returned to throughout the mourner’s lifetime. “You think grief will take you away from yourself,” Germanacos writes, “but it just gives you more. That’s the scary part, how much you there may actually be.” This repetition and recurrence marks not melancholia but the movement of text in TRIBUTE, a point that is reinforced literally by the visual dot (•) carefully separating the lines of text, forcing the reader to pause, to halt the eye’s relentless saccades before, inevitably, moving on. Tribute, in this sense, is no longer a nominal payment made to secure peace, but an active and ongoing offering that Germanacos’s writing continually renews.
Of the other themes dealt with in TRIBUTE, perhaps the least satisfying is the section on “POLITICS,” where travelogue meets rough geopolitical speculations. Jerusalem gets treated in minute details of cuisine and fragrance, while Palestine is referred to as “camels and Arab villages.” Later the conflict is spliced through meditations on similarity and difference. Sage 15-year-olds discover that “we’re almost the same,” while hopeful adults say, “Let’s not call it peace, let’s call it normal.” Through these debates Germanacos waltzes, thinking about sex, wearing black pearl earrings and Lanvin shoes. The political realm, in short, seems to reveal some limitations of the highly personal form pursued in TRIBUTE. One can’t help thinking about the famous critiques of modernist stream of consciousness: a form that elevates the individual bourgeois intellectual while reducing others to an unthinking crowd. A more poignant reflection comes through Germanacos’s engagement with the Arabic language itself, where the word “minute” (the same in Arabic and Hebrew) becomes a healing mantra as her mother agonizes in the final throes of death.
Where Germanacos leaves the modernists behind — or perhaps approaches that best loved of them, James Joyce — is in the way she thoroughly humanizes herself. Indeed, some of the best moments of TRIBUTE come in frank discussions of bodily needs, moments of selfishness, and personal failings. For all of its avant-gardeconceits, TRIBUTE is grounded by the thoroughly banal everydayness of life, aimless trips to Trader Joe’s and all. As such its guiding reference may be less “Imagisme”and more Twitter feed, an endless refreshing of moments that add up to make a life. The book is a beautiful reminder that there is no perfect behavior in the face of loss, political struggle, or intimate relationships, and Germanacos records the rough edges of life faithfully and with a levity that is ultimately the saving grace of this lovely book. (“A sow’s clitoris is inside her vagina. Lucky Girl!”) She even ribs her own writing style throughout, mocking her own pretensions and writerly persona, “I may someday have to go back to writing something more conventional but until I do, I won’t.” One hopes that wherever her writing takes her next, she will maintain the sensitivity to image, sound, and feeling that makes TRIBUTE so delightfully alive with the power to heal, salve, and offer peace to the reader.