An Inheritance of Lost Mothers

May 5, 2017 | 4 books mentioned 7 min read

1. Observe. Akerman.
coverIn Book of Mutter, Kate Zambreno writes of how she remembers her mother always cleaning, scrubbing the floor on hands and knees, the house her domain and her garden her reprieve. At the end of her life, when time was short, her mother laments how she had slaved for her family. Was cleaning a form of exorcism for her? Perhaps. Zambreno draws a parallel between domestic labor and the endless task of doing and undoing in art-making with a nod to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman as an example that encompasses both. It’s a three-hour film of a woman tending the kitchen, feeding her son, taking occasional gentleman callers — the housewife in her element as durational performance. Zambreno writes:

To be a housewife in the old mold, was to live by the rule of erasure. One day’s operating around pretending nothing occurred, no mark made. Ordering one’s life by rooms.

But also: Akerman refuted this role too. In her first film Saute Ma Ville (Blow Up My Town), she’s a young girl unskilled at domestic labors, making a mess in the kitchen, attempting to mop but absolutely not adept, pouring wine and eating spaghetti alone, humming to herself. A misfit in the kitchen, who lights the stove and lays down her head on the burner. The screen goes dark as it explodes. It’s an exorcism of domestic labors, a deathblow to housewifery, a desire to not just to walk away but to blow it all up.

cover Despite this domestic dismantling at the beginning of her career, Akerman continued to return to the home in her work. Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie, primarily unfolds within the confines of her aging mother’s apartment, with the exception of scenes of landscape interspersed: trees flailing in the wind, the camera moving through seemingly endless barrenness. The film is a tribute to Akerman’s mother and her habitual space of existence. Through Akerman’s own restlessness and itinerancy, we see how she is anchored by her mother’s presence.

And so it’s important that Akerman films their Skype conversations. Her mother asks why she does this and Akerman responds, “I want to show there’s no distance in the world.” The film is a way to negate their inevitable distance approaching through death, to hold on, to make the present permanent.

The film captures the gradual but marked progression of Akerman’s mother’s physical decline over months, perhaps years. It captures their patois of shared intimacies and inside jokes, their mutual adoration, as her mother loses autonomy. Soon she can’t eat by herself or swallow her food. By the end she’s barely able to stay awake. Akerman with no home but her mother makes this chronicle of her physical decline even more devastating to witness.

At one point Akerman sets up the camera in a way that the image evokes a Mark Rothko with its swaths of color juxtaposed. There’s a wall, the door, and the sliver of room between, through which her mother’s body moves unaware of the camera’s eye. We hold onto this movement, watchful and meditative.

The end of the film is marked by a silence. The apartment empty, dark, hollow.

Akerman’s mother died shortly after the end of filming.

Months after the film’s release, Akerman committed suicide.

2. Absence. Rothko.
It is April, I am visiting the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. I am not sure why but I thought the chapel was a gallery and that the canvases would be more like those commissioned for the Four Seasons in his later period — the deep red hues fiery enough to envelop if not consume, the color of Henri Matisse’s decadent “Red Studio,” a color that inspired Rothko to become a painter.

But the chapel is a chapel and the 14 paintings here are a variation on black, muted, somber, meditative. They draw in the viewer in a more subtle way. It takes a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the chapel’s dimness — a pall pale in comparison to the tropical scene of palm trees, vivid blue sky, shrill bird calls, just beyond the doors.

The colors reveal themselves slowly — black in shades of charcoal gray soon take on distinct hues — muted purples and deep greens. The triptych hung at the back of the chapel begins to undulate as I gaze: gray skies, purple storm, dust clouds and through them a tower, disintegration, falling away. It’s not entirely different than looking into Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Nets,” the sense of dissolution and the eternal — all and nothingness.

I come to the chapel twice. The first time a meditative man sits in the center of the chapel, with a notebook before him. His body revolves from painting to painting in a clockwise fashion.

The next day I return and the man who had been in the center the day before now sits on a bench and periodically raises his arms, his legs. I sit on a cushion on the floor, with my back to the door, and I stare into the triptych again. Sitting here conjures a dream I had the night before: I’m standing in Lake Michigan, with water all I see before me, rising and choppy with storm, engulfment. The water drawn in the same hues as the paintings. I sense the possibility of drowning. But also, a raft.

Rothko conjures thoughts of my mother and of her absence. My mother is alive and yet I have struggled all my life with her absence, her depression, and mine, my fears of leaving her alone with her sadness even as a child. In some way it’s an inheritance of lost mothers — I the inheritor of her loneliness, as her mother was institutionalized when she was a young child. An affinity for Rothko is one of the few appreciations I’ve shared with my mother in my adult life. I think of this staring into the vast openness of the painting, the canvas like a black hole, falling into absence.

cover My aunt and mother visited me once during my years living in Brooklyn, and we went to see RedJohn Logan’s play about Rothko’s life and work. I’ve come to equate Rothko’s later years with this play, this color that I was expecting to see here in the chapel. In the play, Rothko tells his assistant, “There’s only thing I fear in life…One day the black will swallow the red.” Perhaps it’s fitting that I’ve forgotten the black in favor of the red: the red was the play, the red was my mother so alive that night, touched by Rothko’s idealism and passion, his arrogance and melancholy, his discipline and rage. We both recognized some aspect of my father in his character, with mutual love and disdain. My mother was so present. It dawns on me now with distance that this darkness, this black of Rothko is also her, and more familiar than red.

3. Exorcism. Zambreno.
Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter is an elegy, an archive, a palimpsest of fragmented memory. The book is built around the absence of her mother, who died from lung cancer more than 10 years ago. Its writing is an act of exorcism, ostensibly, but as I read further, I realize it’s also a conjuring, a wish to make her mother’s absence present.

“What does it mean to write what is not here? To write an absence,” she wonders. She wrestles with the desire to conjure and in doing so, to purge; she struggles with its impossibility. It’s like walking through a series of empty rooms, once occupied, in an attempt to reinstate the former occupants. How to move forward? It’s a Beckettian dilemma: “…I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

When she writes “I would like to see the house on fire. The crowded theater of my mind,” she evokes Akerman’s doing so. She aligns her project with Louise Bourgeois’s Cells, specifically her “Cell (Choisy),” pictured on the cover of Book of Mutter: a white model of Bourgeois’s childhood home, set behind a fence, with a guillotine blade hanging just above — the severance imminent.  She quotes Bourgeois speaking of her artistic process:

To have really gone through an exorcism, in order to liberate myself from the past, I have to reconstruct it, ponder about it, make a statue out of it and get rid of it through sculpture.

This book is a repository of Akerman’s pondering and conjuring, which it seems becomes a process of accretion and erasure, not to rid but to write and to conjure again: “Over a decade now, my multiple attempts at reconstruction…”

It’s as if the book’s language has broken with the weight of sorrow. Just as when Zambreno first recalls her mother’s white dress worn to her graduation and can’t bring herself to write that this is the dress her mother is buried in, as if in doing so she would kill her again.

cover If Book of Mutter is darkness, intimate, fragile, poignant, a book of grappling with her mother’s death, it’s Zambreno’s first book, O Fallen Angel, that’s the exorcism, fiery with intellect and passion. A grotesque American Gothic — filled with vitriol for capitalism, for suburban comforts, for American solipsism. It’s a takedown of the Midwest archetype, reproductive futurism. and the hegemony of Mommy, dimwitted, fat-assed, always well-meaning. Mommy here is guillotined by cruelty and in this fairytale — she deserves it.

But from the beginning, Book of Mutter is already undone. The text is fragmented, blown open as the author struggles to articulate absence, to write a book with its central figure missing. We encounter Zambreno’s mother through pieces, assemblage — the contents of her purse (tissues, tobacco); the altar of her bathroom cabinet (Clinique lipsticks, powders, Vaselines); the photos (her mother in the floppy hat, with her ex-husband, “someone else’s wife”); their matching outfits.

The objects are talismans, just as her lists of female artists are potential surrogates. To find a narrative through art, through others, is one way to both elevate her mother and to share this loss, to make it closer to comprehensible. Like Sylvia Plath, like Anne Sexton, her mother a tragic figure. Like Roland Barthes, like Henry Darger, motherless, she mourns. Like Bourgeois, she attempts to break from it. But in the end nothing is “like” her mother’s death, nothing compares, nothing is or can replace her mother. It’s her loss, her grief, her own and tremendous. And yet, as author she also becomes a réalisatrice playing and replaying, flipping through her archive of memories, orchestrating —  like watching films again and again — attempting to extract an essence.

Zambreno casts her mother as lead, mysterious beauty, with cigarette, Coach purse, floppy hat. If she’s present here in literature, it seems there is the potential of moving on.

And all the while Zambreno asks, is this exorcism, like her mother’s cleaning, an endless pursuit? As readers we witness her interrogation of the art as she’s making, her purging alongside her memory’s refrain. It’s a mutual understanding she’s leading us through, an unearthing of how to continue while unable to. From Darger and Bourgeois she asks this too:

Was art for both of them — a form of exorcism, to be able to channel and control, their abandonment, their past?” A form of survival.

is the author of the novel, The Enhancers, forthcoming in fall 2022 from Meekling Press. She’s published two poetry chapbooks, and her stories and essays have appeared in Fence, New York Tyrant, Tin House, and Make Lit, among other publications. Read more of her work here:

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