Sunday, May 29, 2011

Mine the gap: anatomy of a lyric memoir

In my former life as a journalist, we had a saying: Gathering string. It meant going out and collecting unconnected facts and figures that led to other facts and figures that led to others, and still others ... all of which would lead to something more, a story that revealed something new or captured an interesting slice of life.

We accumulated. We hoarded our bits of string and twigs for the future, collecting more than we knew we would really need.

Then one day, we decided we had gathered enough. It was time to turn that string into a story.

But what if the string we sought could not be found, no matter how hard we searched? What if the facts and figures were wiped away by death, silence, forgetting?

In her 2006 memoir A Family of Strangers, the late Deborah Tall pulled off the seemingly impossible. She tracked down every piece of string she could, found that it barely fit inside a thimble ... and made it sing anyway. And what of the material not available to her, the material irretrievably lost? She turned those into the gaps that held the book together.

Tall made the reader see those gaps, feel them, sink into and ache over them. Gaps in pictures. Gaps in time. She turned the gaps into glue, and into a sort of leavening, like the air pockets in bread. The gaps gave the words she wrote weight and texture--metaphorically, lyrically.

Tall riveted her focus, and kept the reader riveted, on the gaps, the holes of knowledge that kept growing even as she learned more about her previously unknown family. From the first page she did this, when she listed "What I Know," as a child of the Cold War:

"That my father is an orphan. That he has no surviving family."

Holes of family, of legacy.

"That he vanishes for months at a time during the Cold War to Greenland, Alaska, and England to work ont he Ballistic Missile Early Warning System--radar to protect us from the Russians."

Empty spaces caused by absence, by loved ones called elsewhere.

"That it is his business to know the future, what catastrophe might be imminent."

Not a gap, exactly, but giving more weight to what follows--

"that he knows more of the future than the past."

--gaps of history, knowledge, security.

The following page is even sparser. Five sentences, each no longer than five words, separated by white space, surrounded by white space. Here, spareness takes precedence over spelling everything out. The reader knows enough not to be confused, yet is left wondering enough to keep reading.

The spaces and gaps in Tall's book speak to absence, loss and silence. They call attention to what is not or cannot be known. They also point like arrows to what is stated, the lyrical fragments which, at their starkest, take on the feel of epitaph.

Often, in her book, the chemical reaction between white space and words creates a sense of claustrophobia, of airlessness. It also helps to underscore the places where Tall chooses to linger. At one point, she focuses on a Van Gogh reproduction hanging in her family's house, a portrait that vaguely reminds her of her father. In the last line, she speculates: "Maybe it reminded [my mother] of the man who used to sing." That line hangs alone in space, like the painting itself. And it gives the reader time to remember that several pages earlier, Tall had mentioned that her father had been part of a big band before he stopped singing for good.

Tall might as well have been describing her own book when she joined John D'Agata in writing for the Seneca Review: "Given its genre mixing, the lyric essay often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically--its import visible ony when one stands back and sees it whole."

They continued: "Loyal to that original sense of essay as a test or a quest ... the lyric essay sets off on an uncharted course through interlocking webs of ideas, circumstance and language--a pursuit with no foreknown conclusion .... While it is ruminative, it leaves pieces of experience undigested and tacit, inviting the reader's participatory interpretation."

In just this way--by leaving some things unsaid, leaving gaps, inviting the reader to make sense of them--white space plays a crucial role in the lyric quality of Tall's book. The white space keeps out sentimentality while engaging the reader's own feelings through association and image. The voice of her book is just what she says a lyrical voice should be: "reticent, almost coy, aware of the compliment it pays the reader by dint of understatement."

Yet the voice shifts according to the demands of her material. About midway through the book, Tall relates her discovery of the man who witnessed her grandfather's arrival in America, and who pinpoints her ancestral home: Ladyzin, Ukraine. The facts alone hold power here, so she writes the section straight. A couple of pages later, she allows herself to delve poetically into history. She has learned that "Pales," or bounded territory, spawned the expression "beyond the pale." Further down, in what amounts to an embedded poem, she turns the idea on its head:

"Beyond the pale, this is a long-throated echo.

It has no address, no surname.
It keeps chickens
Its cow grows thin and dies.
Once a year, it makes pancakes, lights candles."

The lyric essay, according to Tall, should "give us a fresh way to make music of the world" and to "reconcoct meaning from the bombardments of experience." Her book is an object lesson in how to achieve this.

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