WRITING ABSENCE Notes on Grief, Fragments, and Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter

Reviewed: Book of Mutter by Kate Zambreno

Published by: Semiotext(e), The MIT Press, March 2017


  1. “What does it mean to write about what is not there. To write absence,” Kate Zambreno writes in Book of Mutter, her meditation on loss and mourning.

The slim book of bristling fragments is heavy but moves swiftly, as if laid down in one long fever dream. Memories flow forward and backward to Zambreno’s mother sick, dying, dead, remembered, and regretted. Interspersed with these personal remembrances are stories of artists, of failures, of collecting and hoarding, of shedding selves and starting anew.

Reflections on her mother are followed by thoughts on Louise Bourgeois’s Cell and Maman sculptures, Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary, Henry Darger’s obsessive art and weather journals, and Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. Zambreno doubles back on an earlier thought and adds to it or refutes it. She offers the feeling of a mind grappling with loss and the way it selects details and scenes and fragments that reaffirm grief. The writing is about searching loss and the text embodies it.


  1. 2. Book of Mutter almost didn’t happen. Zambreno worked on it for thirteen years. Not continuously, but in the way a project is always present, always nagging. She had mentioned not publishing it, setting it aside. She had worked on it for years and yet it didn’t feel complete, might never feel complete. Perhaps the project itself was one built on failure. Trying to capture a mind circling death and its hollow center, absence.

Working on a project for as long as Zambreno did means rewriting, excising, researching, discarding, and reconstituting. It means versions that evolve as the material expands and contracts, as grief itself changes, and time plays its tricks.


  1. Zambreno quotes Louise Bourgeois’s mantra for making art: I DO I UNDO I REDO. Of course, it’s Zambreno’s mantra and method too. Book of Mutter is compact and pared down. The danger of this method is that writing can be overworked. Carving away the nonessential can bring a terrible crisis: What matters? Writing about death can bring about an existential crisis. Writing about grief can be worked to death. But Mutter feels alive. It pulses with the vibrancy of its search. But search for what: Redemption? Consolation? Transcendence? The search itself?


  1. “I have always wanted too much,” Zambreno writes. And she still wants too much. Too-muchness is the momentum that drives the work, a circling of ideas. She seems to begin again and again. She establishes a line of thought and then questions, contradicts, and interrogates her own assumptions and conclusions. She is a philosopher/metaphysician writing detective stories. She knows whodunnit. She wants to know why and searches for motives, building a case from the clues.


  1. The book is just over 200 pages with blocks and lines of text, some which read like anecdotes, some like prose poems surrounded by plenty of white space. The book uses transitions, juxtapositions, and shifts of time and place. The spaces and selectivity of details and memories and the collecting and making and unmaking are the story. Fragmentation may be the best form for addressing loss. The stop-starts, leaps, revisions, circular thinking, and obsession mimic grief.


  1. Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector wrangled with the book that would ultimately become the slim volume Aqua Viva for years. Her trusted friend Olga Borelli helped edit it to completion. Borelli described the process in Clarice Lispector: Sketch for a Possible Portrait: “Because there is a logic in life, in events, as there is in a book. They follow one another, they must. Since if I took a fragment and wanted to move it further ahead there wouldn’t be anywhere to put it. It was like a puzzle.” Much like life.


  1. In Nox, her collage poem for her dead brother, Anne Carson writes, “I had a need to gather up the shards of his story and make it into something containable. So it’s a lament in the sense of an attempt to contain a person after they’re no longer reachable.”

Art fails to contain the love, the resentment, the suffering. They slip away. Photographer Nan Goldin once noted, “I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough. In fact, my pictures show me how much I’ve lost.”


  1. Rather than trying to control a narrative, Zambreno’s aim is closer to artist Alec Soth’s statement that “when I make a portrait what I’m really photographing is the space between the sitter and myself.”


  1. In an interview, author Andrés Neuman said, “When someone important disappears from your life, your memory begins to tremble like a light bulb that flickers on and off.” Mutter pulses with this flickering. This is its light.


  1. Zambreno’s mother shape-shifts across art and time: Her mother as a vagabond, as the eponymous housewife set adrift in Barbara Loden’s 1970 film Wanda, as Robin Vote in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. A list of her mother’s loves and wishes, and then: “Have I forgotten to record my mother’s essential kindness?’


  1. What does it mean to write about what is not there. To write absence. It means this book. It means to circle and circle and never land, to trace and retrace, to be haunted and haunting, to know what failure is and let it, like death, become a part of you.


Nate Lippens is the author of the chapbook Mince (Bridge Productions, 2016). His writing has most recently appeared in Hobart and SAND Journal.

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