Thea Prieto | Longreads | February 2019 | 9 minutes (2,399 words)
“I got annihilated as a natural, as the real deal, as her truest, most important poem, her Lie Box. But she stuffed some torn-up papyrus in a crocodile; she taught me how to look for shards of a vase with a few words on it and piece together a story.”
—Sophia Shalmiyev, Mother Winter
When Anne Carson translated every tantalizingly incomplete snippet of Sappho’s poetry in If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, she was continuing a centuries-long project: the excavation of our poetic fossils. In Carson’s translation, Sappo’s fragments are littered with empty brackets, which box off the blank spaces where words used to be, giving a reader the translator’s experience of “the free space of imaginal adventure… the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes.” These ancient relics of love and longing contain voids that can nowadays only be filled in, painstakingly, by imaginative poets and scholars; or by archaeologists lucky enough to exhume new slivers of Sappho’s poetry from antique garbage: cartonnage in mummy cases, packing for vases, or stuffing in mummified crocodile carcasses. “There can be no periods at the end of Sappho’s translations,” writes Sophia Shalmiyev in her debut memoir Mother Winter, “because she is forever unfinished business to us.”
In Mother Winter (Simon & Schuster, 2019), Shalmiyev describes many women who are yet unfinished business, most poignantly her own estranged mother. In 1978, in Leningrad — once and now again called Saint Petersburg — Shalmiyev was born to a Russian mother and an Azerbaijani father. Widespread anti-Semitism drove her father to emigrate to America with his daughter, leaving Shalmiyev’s alcoholic mother, Elena, behind. From age eleven onward, Shalmiyev traveled new and unsafe worlds, navigating different cultures and subcultures, searching motherless for words to define her grief. Mother Winter is the result of her searching, a language of loss and longing that depicts in lyrical, fragmented vignettes her painful journeys, examining what it means to fill absences with words, like stuffing a crocodile with fragments of poetry.
Years ago, I was taught in a creative writing workshop that holes or voids cannot themselves be described. Rather, a writer is forced to define the perimeter around the emptiness, to express what is missing by elaborating on what begins and ends at the brink of the void. This idea — on one hand, inspiring constraint-based writing, and on the other, suggesting a terrain for human creativity and loss — offers one way to contemplate the nature of grief. As the characters in Georges Perec’s A Void (a novel written entirely without the letter “e”) endlessly address the grammatical hole in their world with an alternative, proximal language, so do the implications of the void telescope outward into a global cacophony. This obsessiveness with the unreachable, the unanswerable, says much about grief and its language: dialogues that reveal themselves inevitably as monologues clawing for human connection.
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Shalmiyev’s memoir is structured by the logic of its obsession; a spiraling, pattern-seeking obsession that speeds up as it approaches the emptiness, the hole left by Elena’s absence. The number four, for example, reverberates throughout Mother Winter; early on, while thinking about the works of Ian Svenonius, the lead singer of the ’90s radical punk band Nation of Ulysses and author of Psychic Soviet and Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group, Shalmiyev is reminded of Svenonius’s claim that four is a magical, subversive number, the ideal number for a rock group. Svenonius’ magical four mixes with his Marxism to stir up thoughts on The Gang of Four, the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party who were in power during the Cultural Revolution. From there, the narrative hopscotches back to music: the band Gang of Four released their song “Damaged Goods” the same year Shalmiyev was born. And, four years after the song’s release, Shalmiyev knows she was one of four people sitting together in a Leningrad apartment — four women representing four generations of “firstborn girls, a nesting Matryoshka doll of a great-grandmother, a grandmother, a mother, and her daughter — tiny, last, solid wood inside.”
Inevitably, any stray thought, even the innocuous number four, points back to Shalymiyev’s childhood in Leningrad, to her mother, circling ever closer to Elena and the void: the four saints in the Russian Orthodox Church (Faith, Hope, Charity, and their mother Sophia-the-Martyr), the four mothers in the Jewish religion (Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel), Shalymiyev’s own four pregnancies, even the fact that “Girl is a four-letter word.”
‘Odyssey’ now refers to an epic journey in many languages but its origin, Odysseus’s name, means ‘trouble.’
Travel writing also preoccupies Shalmiyev’s fragmented story, although unlike the number four, the gravitational pull of travel writing is something Shalmiyev tries to resist: “I do not like travel writing, the doing or the reading. My own eye-rolls around women’s precarious safety and nauseating domesticity spat and cursed at within a lucid dream-state is like the seasickness of trauma.” And yet, Shalmiyev declares Dorothy Richardson her “patron saint of women on the hunt for adventure.” Richardson was one of the earliest modernist novelists to use stream of consciousness as a narrative technique; she emphasized, in her writings and in her own life, the importance of journeys, especially journeys of self-awareness. In Pilgrimage, a sequence of thirteen semi-autobiographical novels, Richardson examined the unique nature of female experiences; her goal was to create a feminine realism parallel to the then-as-now prevalent masculine realism. In 1923, Virginia Woolf described Richardson’s writing as “the psychological sentence of the feminine gender… of a more elastic fibre than the old, capable of stretching to the extreme, of suspending the frailest particles, of enveloping the vaguest shapes.”
Richardson gives Shalmiyev an inroad, a path for traveling and writing about travel, that is true to her own experience. In Mother Winter, Shalmiyev is nauseous with trauma at the idea of travel writing; she points out that “odyssey” now refers to an epic journey in many languages but its origin, Odysseus’s name, means “trouble.” As opposed to James Joyce’s more mainstream Ulysses, Richardson’s stream of consciousness narratives, as well as the glimpsed dispatches in Renate Adler’s novels Speedboat and Pitch Dark (“sketching a scene here, a restaurant there, impressions of people elsewhere”), are the only narratives in motion Shalmiyev can stomach. “If place is language, then without countries we would be a new kind of poetry,” writes Shalmiyev, as she tacks along the coast of her memories, voyaging into the uncharted territory of her own personal trauma; her deep-seated discomfort with travel writing, and her association of travel and motion with loss, arise from a childhood dominated by the effects of cultural displacement and the pain of separation from her mother. Journeying inward, Shalmiyev follows the trauma like an unblinking star, like a fixed point on her compass.
By seeking connection with other women, real or fictional, but especially women artists, Shalmiyev seeks her mother. “Like [Pippi Longstocking],” she writes of her childhood, “I liked to pretend that my mother was watching over me, that she and my father had a higher calling in life — I imagined her as a great painter and him as a tortured poet — that they were benevolent creatures, remote and mysterious in order to serve a larger purpose in society.” Shalmiyev even imagines herself and her mother as the subjects of Paul Cézanne’s painting Girl at the Piano, which depicts a young girl playing piano with her mother sewing by her side. Shalmiyev writes, “This painting was what I practiced telling people you were really like underneath,” though she later acknowledges that Elena was a very different mother than the one she dreamed of, one who never went to see Girl at the Piano with her in Leningrad. As she grows up, Shalmiyev fills the void of Elena’s absence with women role models who embody and teach an alternative, messier kind of motherhood than the one longed for by Pippi.
A few of Mother Winter‘s key mother-characters directly mirror Elena, possessing some of her traits, such as Marguerite Duras, whose author photo from The Lover reminds Shalmiyev of her mother; Frances Elena Farmer, an American actress made infamous by her sensationalized social life and involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital, who shares Shalmiyev’s mother’s name and notoriety; and Penny Arcade, riot grrrl performance artist, playwright, and actress who Shalmiyev met in Olympia, Washington, on Arcade’s Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! show and whom Shalmiyev names “a mother by proxy to so many lost girls.” Also put forth as alternative mothers are Anaïs Nin, diarist, essayist, and writer of short stories and erotica, who “gave birth to her diaries instead of children” and who Shalmiyev designates her “scarcity and mercy role model”; Chris Kraus, writer and filmmaker of such works as the epistolary I Love Dick; Karen Finley, artist and activist whose work often features nudity and profanity; Anne Cécile Desclos, who wrote the popular and graphic sadomasochistic novel Story of O (1954) under the pseudonym Pauline Réage when her lover and employer claimed women were incapable of writing erotica; and Catherine Millet, who wrote The Sexual Life of Catherine M. (2001), which Edmund White called “the most explicit book about sex ever written by a woman.” These are women of “the motherless future, the auxiliary mothers future,” writes Shalmiyev, who tells us she is always drawn to “the hot feminist artist, the conundrum of the Valley girl genius.” Shalmiyev sought out these women to mother her — and to prepare her to become a mother herself.
‘Mother Winter’ … imagines a motherhood that is both personal and communal, transcending time and loss.
Mother Winter, then, entertains two strands of thinking, two kinds of mothering: Shalmiyev’s thoughts on her lost mother spiraling inward, and her own mothering of others swirling outward. Mother Winter is itself an act of mothering, a reach towards Shalmiyev’s two children who ask “Did you ever have a mother?” and the many girls Shalmiyev hears about on the radio who have been kidnapped, raped, brutalized, and murdered. “What it often takes for the world to think that girls are important is a bullet in that freedom-loving, precocious brain,” writes Shalmiyev, disgusted that “a yearning horde of competent adults” will only take care of girls, cheer them on for their intelligence and specialness, once their lives are “made precious by tragedy.” In retaliation, Shalmiyev goes to bat for these girls, and even for women who have assaulted or murdered others: Aileen Wuornos, who killed seven men whom Wuornos claimed had tried to rape her and whose life inspired the 2003 film Monster; Valerie Solanas, a radical feminist and author of SCUM Manifesto, who shot and wounded Andy Warhol and Mario Amaya in 1968; and Amy Fisher, writer and pornography artist who shot the wife of her lover. “Wounded girls — some ripped open for you to see clearly, some hidden and left in the ditches of a battlefield we don’t care to notice,” writes Shalmiyev. Inevitably, her mothering even extends to Elena by way of other women, like Cat Marnell, author of How to Murder Your Life: “You do not understand how much [Marnell] makes me think of my mother, how much I wish to protect her. The men stealing her fire and torching her like she is boneless.”
A grief-fueled role reversal of parent and child: that is how the two strands of thought in Mother Winter weave back together, reuniting Shalmiyev and Elena in their motherhood. After his mother’s death, Roland Barthes wrote of his loss in a letter later published in his Journal de deuil, or Mourning Diary:
“The (awesome but not painful) idea was that she had not been everything to me. Otherwise I would never have written a work. Since my taking care of her for six months long, she actually had become everything for me, and I totally forgot of ever hav[ing] written anything at all. I was nothing more than hopelessly hers. Before that she had made herself transparent so that I could write… Mixing-up of roles. For months long I had been her mother. I felt like I had lost a daughter.”
In later years, Shalmiyev writes Barthes “became obsessed with a photo of his mother as a young girl… the only image worthy of memorialization. This old woman lives on best as someone’s daughter.” Shalmiyev likewise memorializes Elena as both mother and daughter, sharing the roles — and she goes further, allowing displaced women of the past and present to be remembered, cared for, mothered within the scope of their broken relationship. “Mother is a circle — a complete and perfect hole,” she writes, and so is Mother Winter, a narrative that imagines a motherhood that is both personal and communal, transcending time and loss.
It is believed by historians that Sappho lived and wrote in the 7th century B.C., though two pieces of her poetry were discovered as recently as 2014: the fragments now known as “The Brothers Poem” and “The Kypris Poem.” The poems describe familial and unrequited love, reinforcing what we already know of Sappho’s life: she was born and lived on the island of Lesbos; she was a poet, singer, and an accomplished musician; she ran an academy for girls, which was devoted to Aphrodite and Eros; and she sang openly of platonic and romantic love for men and women. “Your basic hot rock star,” writes Shalmiyev of Sappho.
The vignettes in Shalmiyev’s Mother Winter likewise portray a fragmented and unrequited love, a yearning denied linear certainty by the passage of time. “Sappho is believed to have been writing a feminized version of The Iliad,” writes Shalmiyev, who during her own odyssey and cultural displacement wrote on “note cards, completely uncategorized and strewn about in maybe ten different purses, on two desks, inside books, old files, and nightstands.” These “orphan drafts”, as she calls them, might be hidden in old bags or notebooks, “each fragment, bandage-like, papier-mâché, peeling on and off to smear balm and apply fresh swaths of gauze, dressing [Elena] like a mummy.” Through the process of collecting, of memorializing, Shalmiyev mourns her mother: “not in her death, of which I have no knowledge, but in what she did and did not provide me in life.”
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Thea Prieto writes and edits for Poets & Writers, Propeller Magazine, Portland Review, and The Gravity of the Thing. Her writing also appears in print or online at Entropy Magazine, Yalobusha Review, The Masters Review, and elsewhere.
Editor: Dana Snitzky