Thursday, September 7, 2017



The Book of Mutter by Kate Zambreno
(Semiotext(e), 2017)

And, of course, when I first saw the title I laughed.  That is me thinking.  “ Okay, yeah.  I mutter. “   And I mumble and slur and grumble.  All the puns and takes on that slight under the breath speech habit that can influence meaning and thought. 

A cover of a Louise Bourgeois sculpture I recognize featuring a guillotine hanging over her house was also a ‘come along’ to this one who loves the mind of Ms. Bourgeois.

Added heartbeat on back cover reference to one Henry Darger, perhaps  one of the most, if not the, mind boggling graphic artists ever there was in the USA.

What was this book I found sitting on top of a shelf of New Fiction (it could be on Poetry shelf too) at local library with a Staff Recommended poster attached? 

Long story (and it is a good one) short this is my top read of the year…to date.  As it is written and as the text flows and  what matters is her mother (the mutter is german).  So as it turn out it is somewhat  memoir and more.  A lot more.  And just up front it is tops for me among the many recollections read in past days……perhaps because of how, here,  the memory is framed in present rather than remembered due to some sort of emotional or traumatic or exotic influence.

So here (hear) is a bit of the opening entry of the memoir:  “…I have this memory.  I think I dream about it sometimes.  I am 18 years old.”   She goes on to describe a rather weird job she took thru a university employment office.  What struck me, first of all, is thru the irony and off setting,  Zambreno lets us know this is not your usual ‘memory text’.  Then she states that she has dreamt about this memory, or thinks she has dreamt about it.   Just a great way to let the reader know from the get go that she is gonna put some spin and twist to what she is going to be about.  Refreshing to see her questioning memory and then attaching to dream (what is that anyway..past, present, future, real, subconscious etc and et al).  So the humor is that as well.  You can imagine the voice…”I think I dream about it……..sometimes.”  Point well taken.  Later she adds to this by saying:  “Writing as a way not to remember but to forget.  Or if not to forget, to attempt to leave behind.”  Here too she directly relates these thoughts to her mom.

Aside:  the ‘format’ of the books seems like a journal with short 10-20 lines per page, a few photos’.

As the book moves thru the lives of Zambreno and her mother, several referential  characters also come to join.  Roland Barthes, as mentioned, Louise Bourgeois, Joan of Arc, the artist Henry Darger (“The central fact of his life is that his mother died when he was young.”)  Darger is buried in the same cemetery as Zambreno’s mom in suburban Chicagoland.  The guillotine hanging over the house on the cover………..what Bourgeois meant and what Zambreno finds connected.  (Personally…the guillotine hanging over my childhood home in suburban Chicagoland was:  “You just wait until your father gets home!”  You knew that was going to hurt.)

And then there are, there is, something about how exactly the author does describe her mom, who is, after all, central to the book: “ My father did not want to include any photographs of my mother smoking.  Or in her bathing suit.  Although in the summer my mother was always in a bathing suit, that pink one-piece, showing off her slim figure, tanning.  Mowing the lawn, a cigarette dangling from her lips.”  And Zambreno does include photos of her mom in this book.  And  also this textual photo, if you will, in memory as a detail, exactly what Dad didn’t want…the cigarette, the skin, the tan, the slim figure…and mowing the fucking lawn while smoking!  Just for emphasis. 
And Henry know who he was…..the fantastic graphic novels of about the child-slave rebellion by the Vivian Girls….amazon little girls with male genitals, each with a dainty little penis under her skirt….and why? Or rather why not?  Besides being buried in the same cemetery as her mom, he, Darger was also, like the author’s father, a Civil War buff…obsessed they were both about it.  And Zambreno writes about them both, not in some relative way to her growing up but as an adult who studied Darger;s work at the museum in Chicago and visited Civil War sites with her dad.  She is giving us, the reader,  a part of her life, in detail, and how that relates to Drager and Bourgeois and Barthes and others ………. take from it what you will.

It’s not that there are not details in this book, there are.  “When my mother got sick and everything spiraled into shit—when she was locked up in the mental ward , under restraints, wasting away from chemo, still enraged, my sister told me about a woman she read about who after her cancer diagnosis torched her house.”  This is a great example of Kate Zambreno’s skill …here she gives the reader great detail and information and description and then…lets another person lead her into a image of grief that is as strong as the detail of her mom’s destruction.  As it is it shall be.  And who wouldn’t, cancer or no, not want to burn down that house we lived in as a ‘mother’ or that house we “ grew up”  in for better or worse. 

So much more to speak of or about…………but and yeah it is a cop out……I recommend to you to find the book.  It may take a while.  It took Zambreno or rather, she took 13 years to write the book and it is over 200 pages long, including “notes on sources”.  It is a beautiful book to read and ponder and think about and respond too.  It is as much poetry as anything, if you let it be.  What more is or can it be you can imagine yourself.  To enjoy. 

Thank you Kate Zambreno.


Jim McCrary: Lives in Lawrence, Ks.  Latest print publication from Shirt Pocket Press a chapbook A Yearbook - 1941-2017.  Online poems in Otolith Southern Summer Edition, Mark Young Editor. Collections include This Here, Theenk Books and All That from Money Penny Books.   Other chapbooks include:  Po Doom, M Ental Texts, Being Frida Kahlo, Oh Miss Mary, Hotter Than and Now and Coon Creek.  He spent this summer working on a collection of 'sonnets' believing that what the hell...why not?   

Here's Jim's "irritated muse" who grouses, "You woke me up because Tabios wanted a photo?!"

No comments:

Post a Comment