MAY 17, 2019
And without a mother you have only, I think: a reader.
— Kate Zambreno
LIKE AN INFLAMED APPENDIX, the dull, ongoing, and incessant pain of grief feels unnecessary, excessive, like something that needs to be cut out of you, but unlike an appendix, it cannot be surgically removed. The bleating pain of grief feels too much to contain: it wants to spill over life’s contents, to be shared, to be halved, to be understood. As grief has no timeline, no end date, there is also no end to the spillover it can produce. Kate Zambreno’s 2017 Book of Mutter was the culmination of a 13-year project to write about the death of her mother. A mixture of memoir, essay, and poetry, the form of the work mimicked the way grief presents — a collection of research and personal recollections, a scrapbook of grief. The fusion of autobiography and research is not new to Zambreno’s work: her 2012 book Heroines she created similarly, and it certainly didn’t release all the thoughts on grief she had. Written in part to house the excess from Book of Mutter, as well as to have something to present at talks where she was asked to read from the previous title when she didn’t wish to, Zambreno’s new work, Appendix Project: Talks and Essays, is a revelatory project of excavation and understanding.
As a sequel of sorts to Book of Mutter, Appendix Project extends much of the investigation into grief writing and other kinds of artistic exploration while following a more traditional essay form. The 11 talks are gathered as appendices, labeled A to K, and mixed into Zambreno’s research are events in her current life, predominantly her entrance into motherhood, and themes of aging; creative friendships, such as with writer Sofia Samatar; and her writing and teaching life. Where previously we had a book of “Mutter,” the German for mother, or, a barely audible vocal expression, a pattern of speech that can only be discerned in places, we now have “Project,” a word that lends itself much more to an academic or structured piece of writing. Like the gloss to an old English poem, the appendices provide further insight into Zambreno’s motivations.
Appendix Project is dedicated to her daughter, Leonora or Leo, born since Book of Mutter’s publication, and for the returning Zambreno reader, this recalls a particularly poignant line in the previous text: “I had a desire to get pregnant when my mother was dying.” An absence that needed to be filled, there is now a new life to replace the lost one. Zambreno had filled her books with lost mothers before, her 2011 novel Green Girl was a fictionalized account of the desire for escape after a mother’s death, but this is her first experience of motherhood from the other side of the fence. Now charged with the care for another human, she feels her own mortality more strongly. The recklessness and self-destructive nature of Green Girl’s tragic heroine gives way to a need to be present and supportive for this defenseless new human.
Leo is as much a part of this project as the mother was of the last, which provides a certain hope within the pain. And yet there is the bittersweetness of having a child after the loss of a parent — Leo will never meet her grandmother. The second appendix, “Appendix B: Withholding,” begins with a meditation on photography and ghosts, and ends with Zambreno reading her daughter Goodnight Moon. Roland Barthes, a fellow writer of mourning who Zambreno discusses at length, wrote also of photography and its ability to produce such intense emotions in the still-living in Camera Lucida. He is particularly fixated on an image of his mother, age five. Zambreno muses: “The ghostliness of such an image — the photographed young have their whole lives ahead of them, and also, they are already dead.”
I was recently asked for an image of my mother, as she is being awarded a posthumous prize. I realized I have none; they are all in storage in New Zealand, where I grew up. The organizer was incredulous that I didn’t even have one, however any time I want to be in the presence of ghosts I can Google image search her name. My first poetry chapbook was written after an image of her I had never seen in her lifetime, but found later on Google.
“I am interested in thinking of mourning as a period that is potentially rich and verdant. I am also interested in thinking of writing as following after ghosts.” Leo can only access her grandmother through the stories and images of others, as I could only access mine. In Goodnight Moon, Zambreno notices the grandmother bunny is absent until she mysteriously appears, which prompts Zambreno to wonder if this grandmother is too a ghost.
Leo’s presence allows a levity and playfulness to what can be emotionally taxing investigations into mourning. “Appendix F: Accumulations” contains a catalog of all the art in front of which Zambreno has breastfed. In a rare moment of humor, Zambreno recalls nursing in front of the Harry Dodge video at the New Museum’s gender show: “I figured if there were so many penises in that room it was okay to have my breast peek out through my leather jacket.” This catalog also provides an account of how adverse society remains to the simple and natural act of feeding our young. “Appendix G: Stills/Faces” begins at Zambreno’s 40th birthday, the one where women are traditionally supposed to enter middle age and be of a lot less interest to society, most especially if they have yet to achieve some pre-approved milestone. Zambreno comforts herself in Marguerite Duras’s Wikipedia page, “I read that she wrote Hiroshima mon Amour and The Ravishing of Lol Stein in her mid-forties, and this makes me feel calmer.” It makes me feel calmer to read this also. Preoccupations with age and productivity mirror the obsessive nature of grief, and there are many artists Zambreno returns to for reassurance throughout her work.
The state of grief is not only a state of pain, but also of loneliness. The griever is not only experiencing a loss, but often it feels as though she is alone in the world in this emotion. Grief skews perception, eschews logic. A reminder that others know what you’re experiencing is often an antidote to this loneliness. Hence Zambreno’s return to Barthes, Louise Bourgeois, and the other grief artists scattered through Book of Mutter. Bourgeois’s Cells’s red threads, referencing her mother’s tapestries, weave their way through the remainder of “Appendix F.” “Appendix A: Variations of Morning,” begins with painter On Kawara’s Today series in which he painted nearly 3,000 paintings only displaying the day’s date, reminding his public of his continued existence. A process of obsession, much like gathering the thoughts of loss as in Barthes’s Mourning Diary, which closes the appendix, or Zambreno’s own Mutter.
The book “exists as a devotional object,” she writes. The devotion is to preserve the ghost from fading into obscurity, even if such a project matters little to anyone but the griever. Zambreno makes it matter by imbuing as much craft and philosophical thought into her scrapbooks as needed to create a literary work beyond the obsession. In an interview in Brooklyn Rail, Zambreno talks of the unwillingness to let go of the dead loved one: “I published Book of Mutter because I needed it to be finished and because I think it was done, formally, and if I continued to fuck with it because of a desire to still meditate upon its themes I was going to overdo it.” The tone of the book, she feels, is wearied — detached but obsessive. If so, then the tone of Appendix Project is much more measured, the obsessions taking a more explainable form: they link together as topics of talks, rather than random thoughts plaguing the brain.
While Appendix Project, like much of Zambreno’s work, defies a swift categorization, it is perhaps best digested as intended, as a gloss, or extension, of her Book of Mutter. “If I understand it right, this is what I’m doing here — performing a copy within a copy, a strange and uncertain essay about a strange or uncertain essay,” Zambreno writes. Like Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, I read both of Zambreno’s devotional objects in a state of grief myself. I cannot imagine the experience of reading these works without that understanding of sentiment, although I would hope the experience would deepen the empathy for what it feels like to lose someone infinitely important to you. While there are moments of such painful intensity in Zambreno’s grief works that I couldn’t continue reading without first pausing to expel my obsessive, pained thoughts on a page, the work of reading them certainly made me feel less lonely.