From the very beginning, readers are conditioned to focus on the words that appear on the page, their semantic meaning and the larger architecture of plot and theme to which they give rise. It is not often that writers ask us to look away from the text proper, to consider what is possible within the margins of a literary work, or even within the small spaces between the words themselves. Yet three recent books of lyric nonfiction envision this negative space as an opportunity to leave some things unsaid within the work, suggesting possibilities more powerfully than exposition ever could. Julie Marie Wade’s Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend, and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts each utilize negative space in a slightly different way but to similar ends, allowing these silences to speak as vitally as the words themselves. What’s more, the gaps in a literary text no longer signify absence; rather, they allow us to see the narrative in sharper relief. And when the story becomes dark, these small apertures begin to let the light through.
Julie Marie Wade’s Wishbone describes, through sudden leaps in temporality, the anatomy of a wedding gone terribly (and inevitably) wrong. The bride leaves her groom standing at the altar, all of the other men waiting in their tuxes, the women impatient in their hats and gloves. The narrative circles around this alluringly absent center, all the while weaving together vastly different registers and rhetorical modes. Through family histories, letters, lines of poetry, and dictionary definitions, Wade skillfully calls our attention to the ways that language and rhetoric have limited what is possible within our thinking about femininity.
Yet it is what happens in the space between the various components of this linguistic and temporal collage that is most vital to the impact of the book. In a recent interview, John D’Agata explains that lyric essays often “depend on gaps…[they are] suggestive rather than exhaustive.” This notion of negative space as suggestion and possibility, rather than absence, is useful for approaching Wade’s sudden shifts in time, narrative, and register within this collection. Throughout the first chapter, for example, she juxtaposes lines of verse with narrative prose, creating a provocative tension between interior and exterior, memory and actuality, self and world. Consider this passage:
Her fear palpable, the nuggets of her knuckles chattered.
If only we hadn’t eaten so much fish…The mercury you know, the madness.
If only we hadn’t sent you to Catholic school…Too much time unsupervised with the Sisters.
If only… If only…
Here Wade offers a shift between not only fact and conjecture but also between interior (“If only… If only…”) and exterior (“the nuggets of her knuckles chattered”). The white space between them, of course, suggests disparity, the impossibility of reconciling one’s inner life with what one must present to the world. At the same time, the leap that Wade makes here also implies proximity, the porous nature of the boundaries between thought and more visible expressions of emotion. In much the same way we are made to witness “fear” made “palpable,” Wade traces the origins of this bodily trembling and “chattering,” using this moment of rupture to show that one’s innermost experiences almost always manifest in the body’s tremulous movements. What’s more, the aperture in the text, the gap immediately before the interior monologue, is revealed (“If only… If only…”), becomes a liminal space in which the relationship between affect and the observable world, and between self and other, is entirely subject to change.
As the book unfolds, the reader is borne not only from inner experience to the immediately observable but also back and forth in time. Here, too, the ruptures between narratives, between moments in Wade’s personal history, are liminal spaces. Just as the relationship between affect and the body, between interior and exterior, are subject to revision in these apertures, the terms of lyric address are revealed as entirely changeable. In many ways, it is this shifting between forms of address, and between selves, that is most telling. For example, Wade writes at the end of her essay “Meditation 26,”
My mother took off her sunglasses, wiped them dry. She stood in the gold light, facing my direction. It was then I began to raise my hand, as if to wave, as if to urge her on. But something stopped me. Something hard and unwilling in me froze. I started through the window, cheeks wet with tears. How to say this—we saw each other, we did not see each other.
Wade continues to explore the myriad ways that affect manifests in the body. In much the same way that fear shows through in the previously cited passage, we are made to observe the narrator halting, for reasons that have not yet even surfaced in her consciousness. Yet we are also shown a very particular mode of description, in which the exterior is treated as symptomatic, a point of entry to knowledge about the subject’s innermost experiences. As we cross the threshold to the next essay, the epistemological approach taken in the previous passage is called into question by an older, more aware self. She writes in the opening paragraph of the next essay,
Love º in º a º Mist
(Nigella damascene) Annual garden flower. Delicate blossoms, usually blue and white. “Self-sows” regularly. Once established, it can be difficult to remove. Common name derives from the nestling of flowering buds in lacy involucre…
Here the exterior is no longer symptomatic of one’s interior life; rather, all the world is a projection. Through careful juxtaposition, Wade makes clear the parallels between the life of the flower and the narrator’s own situation, suggesting that one chooses to describe certain phenomena, and to recount particular details of an experience, for a reason one may or may not be fully aware of. Wade deftly conveys these ambitious epistemological claims not through exposition but through her use of tone and juxtaposition. By pairing this seemingly detached botanical writing with the subjective prose of the previous section, we are made to see the impossibility of escaping our own consciousness. Indeed, this movement between personal narrative and a detached and clinical botanist’s notebook suggests not incommensurability but proximity.
In The Guardians, negative space offers a similar paradox, its opportunities for imaginative work often suggesting proximity between ideas, or at least the semblance of closeness. Throughout the book, Manguso recounts the death of a close friend by suicide, following grief on its tangential orbits through time, space, and narrative. Presented in a series of discrete prose episodes, the work also bears the reader across various rhetorical modes, ranging from the sublime to the journalistic. Rarely does Manguso forge connections between them; instead, she uses these shifts in tone to create startling and provocative juxtapositions. Like Wade, Manguso uses these moments of rupture to suggest, to invite, and to implicate. Yet her approach is distinctive in that she uses the white space between episodes, and between shifts in voice, to enact and complicate the task of the elegy. The small gaps in the narrative become the place where memory lives, and the reader is frequently involved in sustaining and tending to that memory.
Consider this passage:
He liked whitefish. He liked drinking Manhattans.
He timed his jump in front of the train, and that’s the end of the story.
The space between sentences proves to be nearly as meaningful as the words themselves. As Manguso offers us disparate and disconnected facts (for example, “He liked whitefish” and “He liked drinking Manhattans”), the aperture between them becomes an invitation, a doorway through which the reader is beckoned. We are prompted to reconcile these seemingly random, and at times disconnected, pieces of information. Over and over again, the reader inevitably fails at this task.
And so the apparent proximity between these disparate pieces of language (for example, “He liked drinking Manhattans” and “He timed his jump”) is revealed as an illusion, a seemingly small distance that it is impossible to traverse. The style of the writing itself becomes a metaphor for grief. As the reader tries and tries again to imagine the person who could house these dissimilar truths and experiences, she is made to grieve with the narrator, particularly as she, too, is faced with the insurmountable task of making meaning and weaving narrative from perceptions, memories, and experiences that are impossible to reconcile with one another.
The reader is made to see the simultaneous inevitability and impossibility of creating narrative from tragedy, of imagining meaning and design in one’s most difficult experiences. It is this thematic concern that drives the larger structure of the book. As Manguso shifts from one discrete episode to the next, little is offered by way of transition, a strategy that ultimately implicates the reader in this persistent desire for a master narrative of one’s experiences. We are rendered suddenly and painfully aware of our own expository impulses. Manguso writes,
During our first year together, after every quarrel, my husband and I examined and speculated on the relationships of people we knew, describing lovingly to each other their myriad flaws. Now we’re almost able to see our own.
Exactly one year after Harris’s funeral, on the elevated track the wrong train screamed murderously by and didn’t stop.
Manguso creates a purposeful disconnect, the seeming disparity between sections serving as a metaphor for the ambulatory nature of grief. In much the same way that the narrative wanders through various buildings and corridors, Manguso implies that grief itself is impossible to track in its movement through the various facets of a life. Grief not only gives rise to narrative, but it is woven into the stories of love, acceptance, and human connection that form the core of one’s identity. By transitioning so quickly from a discussion of marriage to the scene of her friend’s death by suicide, Manguso calls our attention to the ease with which grief infiltrates our existence in other narratives, other houses, other rooms. The journalistic style of the second section, with its tone of detached observation, suggests the inevitability of this movement of mourning into other seemingly unrelated aspects of one’s life. Grief and its elliptical orbits become pure fact rather than remaining in the realm of the subjective.
Like Wade and Manguso, Nelson uses negative space and rupture to explore the nature of memory, consciousness, and the self. The book narrates Nelson’s marriage to artist and transgender activist Harry Dodge, remaining firmly grounded in postmodern theory all the while. Frequently eschewing formal citations in passages that engage the work of other thinkers and critics, Nelson instead mentions their names in the margins of the text. The reader is left to consider which observations are being credited to others, and to extricate Nelson’s response. Yet one soon discovers the impossibility of this task, as thought itself is a conversation. In many ways, the marginal spaces of the book become a metaphor for the self as socially constructed, a locus for found text, appropriated material, and the detritus of culture. We are made to see, through Nelson’s use of negative space, the ever-porous nature of the boundaries between self and other.
Nelson writes, for instance,
I collect these moments. I know they hold a key. It doesn’t matter to me if the key must remain perched in a lock, incipient.
And in the margins, we see: “Naomi Ginsburg, to Allen.” The intellectual tradition we have inherited hovers persistently around the narrator’s most intimate experiences. Even when alone, she is part of an ongoing conversation, a dialogue with the various literary and cultural texts she has encountered. The citation’s ambiguity, then, proves to be purposeful, as it becomes impossible to extricate self from other, subject from object, viewer from viewed. What’s more, Nelson does not convey this idea through the content of the work; rather, she allows negative space to make this ambitious argument about the nature of the self.
In many ways, it is the space between the citation and the text proper that is the most thought provoking. Nelson seems at first to reaffirm the boundaries between self and other. The literary and cultural texts that she cites are always at some degree of remove, held at arm’s length from the narrator’s innermost experiences. Yet Nelson constantly calls our attention to the artifice of these supposed boundaries, reminding us that the space between self and other, the aperture that divides subject from object, is merely an illusion. Though seeming at first to be separate texts, entirely disconnected from one another, one observes the myriad ways that Naomi Ginsburg’s words (the key that appears in her personal correspondence with Allen, which is later transposed to a passage in “Kaddish”) offer the narrator a vehicle for conveying her own affect and experiences. Even more importantly, the fact that this same image travels from correspondence to poem to lyric essay suggests that all of consciousness is communal, every thought an act of theft.
With that in mind, the white space, the separation between thought and other, is revealed as merely a material boundary that does not extend to thought or conscious experience. Throughout The Argonauts, citation and the space that separates it from the text serve a similar function, calling our attention to boundaries, only to reveal them as illusory, imagined, conjectural. It is the space between words that makes this argument, frequently complicating the narrative while also allowing us to see it more clearly.
The gate unlatched, a snow-covered field extending before us. The field is unbroken in its whiteness, without so much as a footmark.
So much of the time, what seems empty, devoid of content, is revealed as entirely necessary, as much as the fence separating oneself from another, or one house from the next.
These three books remind us to look again at the apertures, the spaces between things. These books help us to hear the silences between words, the small breaks in the music.
More than anything, these books remind us what it means to listen.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty books of poetry. Her awards include two Yaddo residencies, a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, and a Visiting Artist Fellowship from the American Academy in Rome, as well as grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University's Kittredge Fund. Her poems and essays appear in the Gettysburg Review, New American Writing, Mid-American Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. She is currently working toward both a PhD in literature at SUNY–Buffalo and an MFA in poetry at New York University.
Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures
by Julie Marie Wade
Bywater Books, 2014
$14.95 paperback; ISBN: 978-1612940557
The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend
by Sarah Manguso
$17.00 paperback; ISBN: 978-1250024152
by Maggie Nelson
Graywolf Press, 2015
$23.00 hardback; ISBN: 978-1-55597-707-8