A Little History of Whatever: Mind the Gap
"Now what can you make from nothing?” —Lightsey Darst
"The mind connects one thing to another. And it seems to do it, it doesn’t demand that it have all the little explanations filled in between.” — Joanne Kyger
"The obligation I impose on myself to account for everything I see (exhibitions, films, plays), and everything I experience that matters becomes perhaps a sort of madness.” —Hervé Guibert
Inevitably, when writing about what happens in our lives, we leave gaps. Memory falters or our perspective is skewed or conditioned to notice one thing over another or, quite simply, some parts are boring. But how, in a document like a journal, that is theoretically meant to act as a record, do we relate to or even justify these gaps?
For a poet like Darst, creating a gap creates an opportunity for play. She writes “I note another thought to look forward to,” or “make a list of essays I want to write” and no thought follows, no list of essays. The effect on the reader is two-fold: one, we see we are not privy to every detail of Darst’s speaker, her life, her thoughts—she distances us from the particular trivia of the moment; two, we are invited into the space of play—knowing what we think we know of Darst’s speaker, what kind of essays would she want to write? What kinds of essays would we want her to write so we could read them? We are included in the act of creation here not simply witnessing the performance of it.
Darst is also very clear that she is in control of the flow of not only information in, but also reader’s experience of Thousands. She writes, “Delete the catharsis. / Do you need it? Yes of course. But do you deserve it?” We see here that she is more than aware of how gaps can work for her, how even the emphasis of what is not there through what is acts to shape our reading.
And ultimately that is what gap-making is, a shaping, a revision. She writes, “Cut tangles on revision.” And “Oh I know it’s sentimental, I’ll take it out later.” Revision is grooming of the unruly mess of living in the first quotation. We can see a kind of “pure” journaling as tangled, as complicated—a journal is the written equivalent of going to sleep chewing gum and waking up with that gum so deeply entangled in your hair your only option is to cut it out. Sometimes those tangles are things like the sentimentality we see in the second quotation. Other times, it seems, that the specificity of location we see throughout Darst is a kind of tangle, one that has been cut out and put in the margin, too important to remove completely, but too tangled, perhaps in emotion or detail, to include in the tightly controlled world of Thousands.
And it seems she wonders sometimes about her approach. “It’s not as it should be— / these fragments etc.” She illuminated further in another poem, “Is this what they mean by archive? What self-editing duty, if any, do I have? Self-police. // I will remove the cartilage so the joint folds up smaller. // I will take out all the certainty.” When does reshaping become unfaithful? When do we lose the certainty of the life lived? Is it the responsibility of the poet to even see these as goals? This (un)faithfulness? This (un)certainty?
Well let’s get back to Kyger because her journals, perhaps, will lead us to see what the raw material looks like and how it operates.
Now to be clear, Cedar Sigo says when he agreed to edit There You Are, he was “given a large stack of Joanne Kyger interviews and then asked to cut a continuous shape for them.” So immediately we can see that the book as a whole is not to be used as an exhaustive reference for Kyger’s work—Sigo still has to grapple with Darst’s cutting out of tangles. But, in a metonymous way, There You Are can act as a representative sampling of the work.
Kyger’s notes so often are an attempt to embody the facts of the moment before they pass with time. “Memory of the immediate present lasts only a few days before the selection process sets in,” she says, “so get it while it’s hot.”
But why bother? As a Buddhist, or at the very least someone sympathetic to Buddhist ideals, why wouldn’t Kyger simply let the moment pass? Why would she seem to grasp it so tightly, an act that seems to contradict the principle of nonattachment?
Perhaps it’s because she understands something about the ways in which moments never actually leave us. She states very simply, “My attention to writing is a daily practice, which then builds an accumulative narrative of chronology.” This becomes especially interesting when we take into account the following quote: “So the practice of writing down what’s “going on” is a way of keeping history, memory of the immediate moment intact.” So she tells us these notations about the small quotidian accumulate into a larger history—from tiny acorns do mighty oak trees grow.
So this gathering of what Kyger calls “pieces of mood” becomes less a project to establish a truth of the moment than one to fill out the subtle causes and myriad foundations of history. In this way, even her slightest trivial notations take on great importance even taking into account the inevitable gaps left by both Kyger herself, unable to write every second of every day, and Sigo while shaping the record of these moments into a cohesive whole, “a continuous shape.” After all, what is a shape if not a collection of gaps?
Which leads us to Guibert, perhaps the king of gaps even as he tries his best to create something massive and seamless.
Formally, Mausoleum of Lovers is a huge collection of gaps. By having so many fragments Guibert constructs something both heavy and airy all at once. The more edges the more gaps. It feels as if Guibert both curates what is included, but also includes what he finds. It’s an emotional quilt of sorts, painstakingly put together from scraps.
Guibert is aware of this reality when contemplating the novel he has been meaning to write that seems to have ultimately melded with the project of the journals. “What to do? Undo everything, reconstitute an implacable chronology? For the books to be nothing in him but passages from the journal?” But what would an implacable chronology look like but these journals? Could there be anything more relentless than Guibert’s critical observations of his world, of the people in it? So much care is given to strangers and loved ones and even his internal emotional landscape, one wonders what else could possibly be added.
What we find, I think, is that gaps, insofar as they form a shape, could be added. Guibert writes, “For the book: the interlacing of two strata of memory; the immediate, partial, and finicky memory of the journal; the vague and synthetic memory of the story at work.” We see a few interesting dichotomies here: ”immediate”/”finicky” vs. “vague,” “partial” vs. “synthetic” and “journal” vs. “story.”
Let’s start with the basic dichotomy between “journal” and “story” (under the umbrella of which I will include poems in this case). I think we can all agree that there is a difference in experience between reading a journal and a story. Ultimately I think it comes down to what Darst and Sigo both said about revision and shape; a story is shaped, or artfully gapped if you will. A reader assumes a story is getting at something, that it has the shape, like a tool, to accomplish its task. A journal on the other hand is organic and therefore has a sort of moral diffusion, its shape more gesture than diagram.
With this in mind, I’m really intrigued by the idea that vagueness is somehow in opposition to immediacy, and that immediacy is somehow allied with finickiness. The attention to detail, the fussiness of the moment in a journal is usually flattened out into the vagueness of story. This seems somehow untrue on first glance. Aren’t stories more specific? Many who have taken writing workshops might have heard the phrase “significant, concrete detail” used to describe ways of making stories more immediate and to help them move forward. But what happens when you focus on one detail is that you leave a world of gaps around it. The world of the story takes on the shape of the detail. When it comes to journals however, one is attempting to take the million immediate and overwhelming shapes of the moment and to get them down on the page as one world.
Now this is obviously impossible. That’s why, for Guibert, the journal is “partial.” There is no way to get every detail of one’s day into a journal. You’d never write anything but the journal if that was the case. For Guibert, if the project of the journal fails all he is left with is story. Now the power of story is that it integrates gaps into its structure, the very structure of its world and the things in it. These gaps form around the core of the story, the synthesized whole of narrative.
If we follow Guibert’s line of thinking, a story is a perfectly cut cubic zirconia and the journal as an uncut diamond. If you’ll follow me on this, we see in our three examples three different stages of a diamond. In Kyger we have the rawest version, a stone pulled straight from the ground by Sigo’s mining. In Guibert we see a stone in the jeweler’s vice, the jeweler leaning over it, appraising it from each angle, trying to find the way it could best be cut. Finally with Darst we come to a cut and polished stone—freed from the tangles of a rough exterior, it catches the light in ways it couldn’t before, it fascinates.
Ultimately though, they each are a kind of gap-making. Being pulled from the earth of experience is the first gap. The intention to cut and to shape is the second gap. The cutting and polishing is the third.
So as we all continue on in our writing, there’s something to be said for allowing the gaps, whether we are writing in a journal or individual poems or whatever. It is unavoidable, but it is also how we get to something valuable, something so intriguing even light can’t escape it.
Trevor Ketner holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota. They have been or will be published in Best New Poets, Day One, Ninth Letter, West Branch, Pleiades, The Offing, Lambda Literary, Devil’s Lake, Boxcar Poetry Review, Memorious, and elsewhere. Their essays and reviews can be found in The Kenyon Review, Boston Review, The Rumpus, and The Bind. Their chapbook Major Arcana: Minneapolis won the 2017 Burnside Review Chapbook Contest judged by Diane Seuss and will be published in 2018. They live in Manhattan with their husband Cormac.