A few weeks ago I read (twice) a strange and beautiful and melancholy novel, I Have Blinded Myself Writing This by Jess Stoner (who is, despite having never met her, a friend of mine). I want to call this book a novella, or even a hybrid poem/novella, because while the book itself has the physical weight of a novel, what is written on the pages is a wonderful mix of style and metaphor that fits nicely with the idea of a prose poem.
Here is the story—a young woman has an unusual disease; if she is cut or injured in any way she loses a memory. Not all of her memories, but one, or maybe sometimes, several. The memory literally “seeps” out of her, whether the injury is internal (bruise) or external (wound). She is married to a man named Teddy and eventually she has a child. There is also a smaller story of the death of her brother, an event she has more than once forgotten. The book is about her marriage and her motherhood, but all within the context of her disease and how being in a relationship with someone like this—someone who might forget you if she gets a papercut—might cause some stress, might even make it impossible to trust her. Also, once the baby is born, the narrator worries continually that she will forget she has a child.
I’ve read much of Stoner’s writing before, her short fiction and poetry, and what I love about her work is its focus on science (in I Have Blinded Myself that focus is medical and philosophical) and how she turns that focus into sheer emotional projection. More than projection, I should call it emotional speculation. The book is more question than story, although the thread of story is still very strong.
The brain changes when we make a memory. It’s supposed to be burned into. But there isn’t heat in the brain from this branding, from those electrical impulses that supposedly happen. So what of the engram, that hypothetical permanent change in the brain that should show a memory’s existence?
If we can’t observe where a memory was, how can we ever hope to find where it went?
The book is spare in a way, in the sense that it could be read in a few hours, but it begs for slow reading and leaves the impression of a much longer book. I actually started reading at my usual breakneck pace, got through about forty pages and realized that I had to go back and start again. Not because I wasn’t following exactly, but because this book deserved careful, slow and quiet reading. My second and third reading were done at leisure, and I found that most pages were best read several times over.
I use the word “melancholy” to describe I Have Blinded Myself Writing This because while the book gives off this feeling of sorrow, it’s also very contemplative. There are bursts of frustration and rage, but the overarching feeling is one of introspection and deliberation. While the narrator worries that her daughter will have the same disease, she’s also already accepted that she has, that she needs to be prepared for what this constant memory loss will be like for her as well. The book’s look at parenthood, filtered through this idea of memory, is extremely touching, very raw.
One of the book’s central questions is asked in different ways again and again, in various poetic formulations, but eventually Stoner lets her narrator ask her question directly.
It is good to remember?
Or it is a tragedy.
I love the punctuation here – the question on the statement and the period on the next line, which you think will be a question but is actually a resigned statement.
As the book moves toward its ending, the narrative becomes more and more disjointed. Not incoherent, but there are more fragments of text and more white space. The narrator is beginning to unravel. The larger feeling of melancholy begins to give way to despair and anger. Stoner keeps this section of the book short and I read it several times, wanting to understand what was happening but also to just let myself experience the shift in emotion.
I found the ending interesting in that it pulls toward a real point of resolution, and yet it resists the idea at the same time. I think I know what has happened to this narrator and Teddy and their daughter, but I’m not completely certain. There are no details, there is only poetry and the questions raised by the text that precedes. It’s wonderfully done.
Let me finish with another excerpt, one of many that I marked:
What if we didn’t build monuments in memory of, but we returned to making quilts, knowing the texture of those worn fingertips stitched what now keeps us warm. What if we didn’t keep memories underneath the sink, where we thought other people would never think to look, but burned them and then we could remember the burning but we wouldn’t have the thing, just the heat of what it was, which everyone tells us will wane.