Why Did I Say Yes
I read Chantal Akerman’s book My Mother Laughs in June and in July returned to it for help writing a personal ad. I wanted to use the part where she thinks about buying C. some caramel flans and remembers that they passed them from mouth to mouth.
It is my contention that to love poems, and I mean to sleep with them, means giving up the ability to ever write a satisfactory personal ad. I do love poems. I love slantness. And to be outta time. And messiness. I loved reading about how Akerman packs for a trip—the morning of, throwing everything in, unfolded, not encasing her shoes in plastic, just letting them jostle around with the rest, having to have her forgotten meds sent to her destination by friends. I am a poet who can no longer write poems. I blame it on my own meds, but I don’t think that’s exactly the cause.
The other thing I wanted to say in my ad: “let’s live out a day in a room!” It is the most intimate thing, to exist in a space together. Not a grand one. Maybe a kitchen. Or on two chairs in a den. In My Mother Laughs there are pictures of a window screen after the rain, pushed open from the inside out, with a view of some trees. Another of a view of a city block from a window covered in partially open venetian blinds. A pair of photos shows a room with twin lamps and a bed covered in a dark orange spread. These must be stills from her movies though it does not say.
I worried about her, in that dark apartment where she lived with her young lover C. There is no view and things do not go well.
And she has decalage: jet lag. Yes she lives in Paris and NYC. And visits her mother in Brussels. No matter where she is physically, she is also with her mother in Brussels. So Ackerman has her life but it is not a whole one in any place.
When I think of physical places where I have felt okay, where okayness has emanated from me, I think of Los Angeles and particularly of Silverlake. There was an apartment we almost rented in Silverlake. The view, my god, from its windows. I would have been okay for years. We didn’t get it. We ended up in the valley in an airless first floor with mirrors where plaster should have been. I always wondered if we would have stayed together if we had gotten the Silverlake apartment, with okayness emanating from me and into me through the windows.
All to say that if my psyche were the guiding concern, I would live in the hills of LA or maybe on the west coast of Ireland. But I cannot, because my mother lives in Rhode Island.
There’s the story of Sophie Calle and her father sitting and drinking at their family gravesite, a story I’ve always liked and wanted to replicate. I’ve no family plot but I would like to have a picnic by my grandmother’s grave. I considered putting an invitation like this in the ad, but did not. That gravesite is sacred to me, and as such I’d rather be there alone.
What else is sacred, off the top of my head, is that Balzac is his own human comedy for writing ninety novels trying to explain the human comedy. What is sacred is how hard it is to bereave one’s self of chronology. No, how we are bereaved by chronology. What is sacred is poems, though I hate most of them.
What is also sacred is laughter, though I tried to explain this to a near-friend, and what I said to her is, “for me, laughing is always better than crying,” and she seemed, without speaking, to disagree to such a degree that she was not able to continue our conversation.
So I continued it for both of us. Laughter is better, I said. “Better”—smarter, more layered, splendidly paradoxically more involuntary and yet at the same time more intellectualized: the miraculous ability of the laugher to step back and see and feel the marvelous incongruity of the situation—or to see and feel the futility, or the familiarity—the ironic distance that explodes in the body.
Then I laughed at my inability to adequately express myself.
Then I didn’t know what else to say to her. I didn’t know what to say. I don’t know what to say still. (It would take a book!) (Balzac: “amirite tho?”) So I kept laughing. It brought me back to time. So there is the kind of laughing that brings one back to chronology. I always want to talk about laughing but the best contemporary treatise on laughter has probably already been written. It’s by Mairead Byrne and here’s the whole thing:
You have to laugh
You have to laugh
You have to laugh
She says it thirty-four times. I keep giving her book away because it’s so good but I remember counting. Thirty-four.
The Rodin sculpture of Balzac—the naked one: he has huge arms, crossed like a serious man, and a swollen stomach. Shoulders back. He reeks of epic literature. He is the Father of European Realism. Believe you me, there are Categories of Artistic Greatness I could list here for Akerman. On the cover of My Mother Laughs is the author: a slight person. Shirt collar twisted. She writes, “I also love to write what happens even if nothing happens.” There is nothing swollen about Akerman. She may have bad posture but she is braver than any hero in whose honor a statue has been erected. Many would, when met with an opposing army, fight. Who among us would have the courage to, unbidden, sit across the kitchen table from our failing mother, and look at her, and listen to her?
She talks of her mother’s decline, of C. hitting her, of deaths and impending deaths, of her and her C’s infancies, of her mother’s silence around her time in the camps, all these things with…integrity. As in, she sees the whole thing. She keeps seeing all the parts. Of the failed relationship with C. in the Harlem apartment she also says, “sometimes we were happy. And that counts for something. And that sometimes the light crossed the walls.”
Is her ability to see around the pain and acknowledge its counterweight a kind of wisdom? Ugh, not a good question. My Mother Laughs would never have used counterweight, pain, or wisdom. Those words speak too loudly and they weigh too much. And there was nothing in how I asked the question that worked to temper those words.
I have a painting in my house that a friend made. I had seen it in her studio on an early and cold fall morning. The following summer she brought it, wrapped, to my house and leaned it against a chair. When she left and I unwrapped it I was embarrassed. I did not know which way was up. Which way had it hung in her studio? But no, it had been on the floor, and we had stepped around it. I picked a way to hang it. I worried that my friend would come and see that the painting was upside down and be hurt that I did not even understand that simple thing about her work, which end is up. But a few months ago I noticed that there are paint drips on it, some headed toward my floor and some toward my ceiling. My friend seemed to have painted it so that both ends could be up.
Another example of Akerman’s temperance, talking of a bad doctor who misdiagnosed her mother: “In the end, this doctor was an idiot but like I read somewhere, the idiots are also victims.”
The third time I read the book, I died at the end of each question for which there is no question mark. On the second page Akerman talks about how as a baby she wouldn’t take her mother’s milk, that her mother “saw her baby withering away and it was terrible.” Finally they found a milk she could drink and Akerman writes, “What would have happened if not.” And her mother laughs. I love a period at the end of a sentence that is a question. I know it’s not a new thing. Gertrude Stein was so good at it. But I feel like Stein was laughing at the end of every markless question. And it’s not that Akerman never uses questions marks in this book. She only skips them when the implied answer is death. At the end of the markless questions, it’s not Akerman laughing but her mother.
When she talks of suicide at one point she says that ultimately, she couldn’t do it while her mother was still alive. (When her mother is in the hospital doing poorly, Akerman watches her breathing as she sleeps and notices the effort the body is making to keep the heart pumping and instead of saying ‘don’t let go,’ she says, “don’t let me go…”)
Imagining her mother gone she asks, “What would keep me alive.”
“Could I live for sleeping getting up eating going to bed.”
Or returning to the apartment she shared with C. after their breakup:
“And I told myself it’s better. I didn’t like it, it just hurts. But did I not like it. Did I like it. Do I like it.”
Or at a friend’s funeral someone says to her,
“You’ll continue, right.” Akerman knows he meant would she continue to make films: “Very quickly I said yes, yes. And I turned around. Why did I have to continue. Why did I say yes, yes so quickly.”
Last night I had a dream I was in a lecture hall. At the podium a formidable woman who I think was Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. She periodically invited other formidable women up to speak too. One was Chantal. I was in the audience and, typically, confused by the material and envious of the gravitas these women possessed. At some point I began talking to a man in the back of the hall, a real person I knew from high school, and yet also an amalgam of several men I have been with. The real person once asked me to the high school formal right before chemistry class. I quickly said yes. But yes was not what I wanted and that night I was in agony. The next day I took it back. That spring I did not go to the dance with anyone. I sat behind my house on a patch of grass near the wood pile in the late afternoon sun. I had some iced tea made from powder and a book beside me. This was the moment that friends were having their pictures taken in dresses. I had thrust myself outside of the flow of high school life and I felt very happy and closed my eyes so that I could look at the sun through my eyelids.
The period after a question here is no, nothing, the void, death. The period is very near to the writer of this book.
But the writer of this book is also very near to living humans and their laughing. “My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight.” That’s Italo Calvino. Akerman and her sister laugh at their impossible mother: “But we need to laugh. And even laugh hysterically. Or else this whole blanket of sentimentality will unfurl out over us and we won’t know what to do with it, but it’s heavy.” Or the family laughs at the sister’s dog, is happy to laugh at the little Pomeranian while the mom is maybe dying in the hospital. They have tears in their eyes and they’re laughing. This is a laughing to get back to lightness, or, as Akerman puts it elsewhere, “laughing on a volcano.” So there is that, and there is laughing to get back to chronology.
And there is another kind. It is the way the mother laughs. I think it’s laughing not on but inside the volcano. Her mother has had heart surgery. She has fallen out of bed. She has only a few hairs left on her head and she is, often it seems, going about her day laughing. There is a scene in Akerman’s first film, Saute Ma Ville, which shows a woman cleaning wildly and cheerfully, knowing she will kill herself (and/or knowing she will blow up the conventions of what it means to be a woman in a particular time and place), and anyway at the end it shows her putting her head down on the stove about to strike a match. But before that, she, the woman played by Akerman, is eating spaghetti and giggling. It’s her last meal and she’s giddy inside the volcano. I think that’s also the laughter of Akerman’s mother, who is a Holocaust survivor. Neither woman at any point uses that phrase or says the word Holocaust. The most direct line may be, “My mother told me one day, coming out of there my heart was dead.”
In the translator’s note, Corinna Copp talks about the word decalage:
There’s a word in My Mother Laughs that almost slipped by me. Decalage appears twice in the book, and is pretty casual among French speakers, translating roughly to ‘jet lag.’ I might have translated it this way and moved on.
She does not though. In one instance, she translates decalage as “time difference.” A gap in time. And what causes it besides trans-Atlantic flights? Akerman says of her mother “She often laughs in the midst of her groaning. She enjoys it.” Does she enjoy the groaning or the laughter? As my friend said a few years ago, “I’m just going to keep saying Both/And until I die.” The slash is the gap, the time difference. The mother enjoys the laughter and the groaning. And she is, beautifully, deriding her own suffering.
I remember sitting in a diner in Boston with a man who had such a beautiful face—and so young, now I think, from here—we both said, over French fries—I can’t remember who had said it first—that books had saved us. We had survived because of books is what we both said. Then we laughed. I remembered he and I reading White Noise out loud to each other on a beach and laughing at Hitler Studies. We laughed so much during the Airborne Toxic Event that we had to finish the chapter silently to ourselves. He read me the Pip chapter in Moby Dick aloud by the Charles River one October morning—and when he read this line about Pip leaping from the boat, “But we are all in the hands of the Gods; and Pip jumped again,” he laughed so hard that I saw, finally (meaning is tardily says Stein), oh—he’s in pain. Years later I read that he had died in his office on a Friday afternoon. This is the kind of relationship I am seeking.
The book I happened to read before My Mother Laughs was Time Lived, Without Its Flow by the poet Denise Riley. The Riley book is also about a kind of decalage. She says that people who say time “stopped” after a death are wrong. Her son dies, and Riley enters some kind of arrested time, cut off from the temporal flow. Apart from the fact of the son’s death, the book has no biographical details. It is a meditation on this kind of time, of suffering that puts one outside the flow…
Akerman too is outside the flow. My Mother Laughs is itself atemporal, in a way. Certainly it’s achronological. But also it’s stuck—the same conversations, the same worries. Most of the first section is in a present tense that colors everything: “I listen to her laugh. She laughs over nothing. This nothing is a lot. Sometimes she even laughs in the morning. She wakes up tired but she wakes up and takes on the day.” I can’t place where this is in time—maybe after her mother’s heart surgery? The effect of this strange present tense though is that these early scenes then are ongoing. A film played on a loop.
Her mother died one year after she finished this book. Akerman let herself die a year after her mother. And yet it might be said that her mother is at her funeral. Because sometimes the present tense is in her mother’s voice. Her mother narrates some of the book, and the voices switch sometimes within the same paragraph. Akerman is watching her mother but oh yes her mother is watching her. Sometimes the text is such that you have to read it both ways.
In this scene, either the mother walks into the room and asks her daughter if she finished the book she’s writing or else the daughter walks into the room and asks her mother if she’s finished the book she’s reading:
“I ask, did you finish your book. No is the answer.
No, I can’t, my eyes hurt. My vision is blurry.
I should never have asked if she finished her book. I should have expected something like this.
I hover there a few seconds and return to my hiding. Then even hidden, I sense her presence, tell myself it’s no use hiding. Might as well go back to the room where she can be found most often asleep, or half asleep. But just thinking about it, my heart sinks.
My heart sinks, a few tears. I wipe them away.
I go back there like it’s a funeral.”
To think of how my mother might speak of me, in her head.
To write a piece in which my mother narrates an encounter she has with me.
To consider the concern my mother has for me, her adult child, and to consider my mother’s effort and bewilderment at how to talk to or relate to me.
—These things would be unbearable, not able to be borne—it is hard to carry oneself, or to be birthed, into the next moment when you are inside a particular kind of pain in this one.
“You can’t, it seems, takes the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity,” writes Denise Riley.
Is this why I disbelieve the intention of a note that a suicide writes? Having been the recipient of only one, I cannot say for certain, but in that case I believed and believe that if the writer could have written it, he still possessed, in Riley’s words, a feeling of futurity.
I go back there like it’s a funeral. I go back. Akerman going down the hall to her mother’s funeral and her mother going down the hall to her daughter’s funeral.
This so-called work of grief is turning out to be a shatteringly exhausting apprehension of the needed work of living. It demands to be fully lived, while the labour of living it is physically exhausting—like virulent jetlag, but surging up in waves.—Denise Riley
Have not left my neighborhood in days but I am jetlagged. It seems that I might be the kind of person who either needs a dog or needs to smoke cigarettes. I am tired of reading books, mostly autobiographies, where the person will casually leave the house, nay, find the wherewithal to leave the house, in the need to walk the dog or purchase more cigarettes. Like Chantal Akerman, who would leave the apartment to go get cigarettes from the corner store, a routine, a ritual that she liked, and how I envy the purpose, the shape that a dog or cigarettes gives to a day. Akerman says, “The point in the day that I love, in which I feel like I have a life, is when I take a brisk walk to buy cigarettes,” and I think, Yes. All of my routines when I am depressed involve sugar, and sugar is kept in cupboards and there’s no reason to leave the house. The cupboard is always open, unlike the corner store. I see that I’m clearly partial to the cigarette option. I don’t want another living thing in my life that needs me. Of course, I live with my mother and could never smoke in the house.
Akerman, Chantal. My Mother Laughs. Translated by Corina Copp. The Song Cave, 2019.
Byrne, Mairéad. "You Have to Laugh." The Best of (What's Left of) Heaven. Publishing Genius Press, 2019.
Calvino, Italo. "Lightness." Six Lectures for the Next Millennium. Vintage, 1993.
Riley, Denise. Time Lived, Without Its Flow. Picador, 2012.