In the summer of 2011, I spent every afternoon Google-mapping the Chicago neighborhood where I grew up. I pulled the shades down, turned the air conditioner up, and typed the intersections that define Back of the Yards—named for its proximity to the Union Stockyards—into the search box. I was in the early stage of a nervous breakdown, obsessively attempting to revivify the past, the only place where, I believed, continuity existed. Fifty-First and Loomis was my embarkation point: the intersection where our family doctor’s office was located. An unfilled prescription, from 1965, that I’d found in my deceased mother’s jewelry box provided the office’s address. My mother and I had had a contentious relationship, but that summer I fantasized about opening her grave and throwing her skeletal arms around me—“I thought even the bones would do,” to quote Plath. I used the objects from the jewelry box (grocery lists, a Revlon “Moondrops” powder compact, old Sears charge cards, blue crystal rosaries, a Coty lipstick) to reconstruct her existence, and finding that prescription was like finding the key to a long-locked door.
Going to the doctor had been a kind of family outing—every three months, to get my grandmother’s diabetes checked—and I wasn’t sure if I had dreamed those odd excursions to that tiny office. My mother would go downstairs to get my grandmother dressed: clean hairnet; heavy girdle and thick support pantyhose; rhinestone brooch; nice dress instead of a stained shift; black orthopedic shoes instead of house slippers; and dentures, from the glass on the bathroom sink. Then she’d run upstairs to get my sister and me ready, dabbing Chantilly perfume on our wrists.
Uncle Stas would drive us there, my sister and I in the backseat with our grandmother between us, our mother in the front, arguing in Polish with Stas during the five-minute (yes, five-minute) drive. Now, as I looked at the office on Google Maps, I saw that the front door and windows were boarded up and noticed a bright, transparent smudge in the doorway. I knew that the smudge was the result of the camera having been in motion when the photo was taken, but I felt that that smudge was my soul: intense remembering had projected it back there, and it had been captured between the boards over the waiting-room windows, behind which my sister still sat next to my mother, pointing at ads for Catalina swimwear in the big Look magazine open on their laps, next to my grandmother with her legs crossed primly at the ankles, clutching her purse, next to my uncle grinding his cigarette out in a tall, metal ashtray stand.
I’d felt slightly ashamed of my retrieval attempts. Wasn’t I just wasting time and beating myself up over the bad relationship I’d had with my mother? And how would this indulgence in nostalgia benefit me as a writer? With forty years’ experience as a poet, I was pretty adept at translating difficult experiences into language, but where would I go with this one? It seemed that the only way to go was toward memoir, though I’ve never really been a fan. (Yet another grandmother story?) Still, I felt compelled to follow the trail of images (into darkness, it seemed), and my intuition—still functioning despite the roadblock of anxiety—kept calling to me to pay attention.
Had Blinding, Mircea Cărtărescu’s apotheosis of remembering, been available in English back then (as it is now, newly translated by Sean Cotter), I would have found in it a guidebook—a grimoire, really—for the journey. The book begins as a multilayered memory-mapping of the narrator’s Bucharest childhood but becomes something much larger and more complex. For starters, Blinding is the first volume, subtitled “The Left Wing,” of a 1,352-page trilogy. Together, the three books form an image of a butterfly: two wings and the abdomen, the left wing having a feminine nature corresponding to one’s mother, the right wing a masculine one corresponding to the father. In discursive sections interposed between the forward-moving (though dreamlike) plot, the narrator, also named Mircea, soliloquizes on the idea that all of us bear, in our bodily frames, the indelible stamp of our dual origin, existing “between past and future like the vermiform body of a butterfly, in between its two wings”; and, he writes, “one gesture in childhood takes up more time and space than ten years of adulthood.”
How revelatory it felt to read that. I’d recoiled from describing in both my poetry and my fiction the two-flat on Racine Avenue that my great-grandfather had built after he’d arrived from Poland in 1908 and where my grandmother, my mother, and I had all grown up, even though moments lived there years and years ago were still clear and present, even magical. I had steadfast memories, for instance, of my dad prying open a heavy sewer cover, oddly located next to the steps on our side of the house, and the two of us gazing into the moving waters as a dead lady in a wedding gown floated by. Or rifling through my grandmother’s dresser in her dark, musty bedroom and finding a small box containing an object so strange I risked revealing my illicit activities to find out what it was (according to her, a thorn from the Crown of Thorns: “I was so sick, Polish priest give me”). Or watching (did I dream this?) as she made a rainbow appear over an old wooden bowl full of rainwater collected for three weeks from between a trio of evergreens in the front yard. How could I flow those images into form, and keep their odd resonances?
Mircea, the narrator, provides just such a model for mapping the remembered/dreamed geography of childhood:
I had moved to the block on Stefan cel Mare when I was five, and the immensity of its stairways, hallways and floors had given me, for some years, a vast and strange terrain to explore. I went back there many times, in reality and dreams, or better put, within a continuum of reality-hallucination-dream, without ever knowing why the vision of that long block, with eight stairways, with the mosaic of its panoramic window façade, with magical stores on the ground floor: furniture, appliances, TV repair—always filled me with such emotion. I could never look at that part of the street with a quiet eye.
Reading that, you might think Blinding is a memoir. It does partake of some features of memoir, but its method of remembrance is chimeric. Its many linked stories, for example, are the imagined memoirs of characters other than the narrator, in particular Mircea’s mother, Maria. She is an artus figure in this feminine “wing” of the trilogy: her story narrates, contains, and launches the stories of other characters; she is both a ghostly and wholly palpable presence. When I saw Cărtărescu at a release event for the English translation, he mentioned that wherever he lacked information about his mother, he envisioned it. In an early section, the narrator Mircea “en-visions” his mother, via her dentures, on a twilit Bucharest street:
“Ah, Mamma,” I whispered in the crazed silence. I stared at the dentures for a few more minutes in the darkening light, until the dusk turned as scarlet as blood in veins, and the dental appliance began to glow with an interior light, as though a gentle fluorescent gas had filled the curved rubber gums. And then my mother formed, like a phantom, around her dentures.
Scenes like this make it easy to believe that words working in the service of imagination can make the dead live again.
I prefer Blinding’s Romanian title, Orbitor, because it contains the word orb, which suggests what both the narrator Mircea and I are doing: lingering, in our memories, around an earthly place (Mircea in Bucharest, me in Back of the Yards), just as an orb—a term used by ghost hunters to indicate a spirit—might be observed doing. The Romanian title is also suggestive of the way the mind’s eye instinctively gravitates toward certain places, like a planet around the sun:
Everything is strange, because everything is from long ago, and because everything is in that place where you can’t tell dreams from memory, and because these large zones of the world were not, at the time, pulled apart from each other. And to experience the strangeness, to feel an emotion, to be petrified before a fantastical image always means one and the same thing: to regress, to turn around, to descend back into the archaic quick of your mind, to look with the eyes of a human larva, to think something that is not a thought with a brain that is not yet a brain, and which melts into a quick of rending pleasure which we, in growing, leave behind.
If the invention of writing changed storytelling forever (rendering memory unnecessary), then a written work in which poetry gives rhythm to action (to paraphrase Rimbaud) can return readers—and writers—to a place where memory’s instructive and restorative functions can be learned and utilized. For me, that bright smudge in the doorway might have been my soul yearning for a look into the past, but it also might have been me trying to scry a way into a kind of writing that begins in memory but opens out into something much larger and more sophisticated, something both ordinary and extraordinary—like childhood itself.
I remember one hot, bright day from the summer of 1969: the wind had shifted direction and a breeze bearing the hideous stink from the stockyards blew toward our house. My mother, her hair in pin curls under a polyester babushka, flew down the porch stairs, screaming for my sister and I to help her pull the sheets off the line and hang them in the basement (she preferred they’d smell like the damp basement rather than dead flesh). We protested because we were busy playing “moon landing”: our red wagon was the lunar exploration module and the yard was the moon’s surface. But I noticed that if we stood between the sheets and looked up, squinting, as Ma whipped them off the line, the sun, directly above us, would flash in colored lightning streaks. And if we closed our eyes tight, we’d see negative images of the sheets and the trees behind our eyelids. We were no help that day, but that night, in our beds, we talked endlessly about our discovery: that ordinary things like bedsheets and sunlight and eyes (and as I later learned, unfilled prescriptions) can be keys to extraordinary places.
Sharon Mesmer’s most recent poetry collections are Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books) and The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose Press). A selection of her flarf poems appears in the second edition of Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. She teaches creative writing at NYU and the New School.