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Reading Caponegro: “The Daughter’s Lamentation”

Lamentation in Art: Giotto's "Lamentation over Jesus" 1305-6

The first story in Mary Caponegro’s book we are reading for February is “The Daughter’s Lamentation.” Caponegro follows the word to its root, as this “story” is more lamentation; that is a song, poem or piece of music that laments–expresses grief or regret.

The daughter, unnamed, is a women who has returned to her family house on the largest of the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York. She is the only “loyal sibling” to her father, a widower and architect of some renown. The woman spends a good part of the story recounting her childhood: her sad and weary mother, as well as the pedantic father who took the family all over the world to look at architectural wonders, including Stonehenge, the Pyramids and the Eiffel Tower. Early on she says, “It is customary, is it not, in times of loss or instability, to cultivate an intimacy with memories?” (12)  But there is a tint she cannot take from these memories and  Caponegro subtly builds a menace into the story. Throughout she also recollects her early history as a ballerina and soon images from that past pop up: “…one is always leaping up from or into the arms of a man who sex is trapped in a stocking, like the squeezed face of a thief.” (15) Something else is going on as the story seesaws between paragraphs about the now quiet and decaying house on the lake the father built (and his loneliness in old age as he roosts there) and a childhood with a man part bully and part something much more terrifying.

In front of the Eiffel Tower she never lost “the tactile memory of the pad of his thumb pressing firmly the lace that edged my louse, against my clavicle…as if to there imprint its pattern.” (18) Later in this paragraph, one of the most wondrous in the story, she describes a doctor’s stethoscope probing her chest in search of a rhythm: “I thought perhaps detecting Father’s thumbprints over me, each time a little farther down.” (18) This and other sections make it close to clear that some sort of sexual abuse also took place, though to Caponegro’s credit she comes at these questions obliquely, through a tirelessly lyrical menage of language.

Throughout the woman protests and directly addresses the man who has ruled over her life (she never married) asking, “What do you in fact infer from the Sicilian temples whose vast columns tower over the sea?” (19) Finally, the woman is also trying to come to terms with her father’s eventual death and burial, at turns imagining that with the house he had built his own Tarquinian tomb (fresco example of one below),

as well as the final imagining of him sinking into the lake’s “vitreous abyss.” How will she go on? The picture is bleak as she says that she “must atone for others’ sins.”

It’s a story that seems to have been constructed with as much care as some of the temples and structures alluded to, with whole worlds of thought living in sentences, heavy clusters of images arising like patches of blackberries in the depths of the bush.

What did others think? How near or far did you feel the abuse, if at all?

19 thoughts on “Reading Caponegro: “The Daughter’s Lamentation”

  1. “The Daughter’s Lamentation” plays with a number of ideas, the first being stasis versus movement, and instability versus stability, revealed in the father’s need to moor himself to a house after leading a nomadic life, and in the daughter’s positing how it may be “customary…in times of loss or instability, to cultivate an intimacy with memories,” and how in “these instances, we tend to create structures that reinforce familiarity” (12). An investigation about how the body engages with architecture ensues, as does a meditation on how the body is altered while learning ballet, the product of which is described by the daughter as a “stilted corporeal narrative” (15), these altered bodies describing “invisible buildings” (15). She has anxiety about the ramshackle house her father had designed and perhaps built, offering her body to improve, or, instead, to distract from its imperfections, imperfections which “are but symptoms of the monumental underlying problems that beset the modest-appearing structure” (12). She goes on to wonder: “Might I then catch the door before it makes the sound he cares so little for, offer an appendage as a hinge of sorts? I’d stay the door with a hand or foot before it had a chance to slam…” (12). The house mirrors the father’s own breakdown, and, in the daughter’s view, he actually seems to have become symbiotically linked to the house:

    He seems to revel in or be resigned, at any rate, to the rawness of the space. Nearly an entire wall is glass, and the body of water, viewed from the former’s transparency, often gives the appearance of glass, and across the former, my father, in a perplexingly unamphibious manner, swims: propels himself against its smooth surface, and I follow him anxiously (as if he were a child and I powerless but nonetheless protective parent), utterly transfixed by his trajectory, for I have no notion whatsoever why he does not fall. Fortunately no one passes outside—for no one ever visits—because it might be shocking to behold the manner in which his arms and legs work the surface as if he were another sort of creature entirely, lacking only wings, ore were performing some very private—indeed, primordial—function publicly, groping with the body as if his entire corpus were undifferentiated as separate trunks or limbs (13-14).

    The mind versus the body dynamic is another tension, evident in the daughter’s observation that the father lives “inside cerebral exercise but gives [his] body none” (16).

    Caponegro deftly portrays the father’s betrayal, how he had abused her, in the passage where he’s described pressing the lace against her clavicle, his thumbs later continuing to move “a little farther down” (18), as well as depicting both her doctor and mother’s complicity. Can we read this line as a metaphorizing of the rape? “Mother, there was a time when the dry ice—when the stalactite squinched my honeycomb” (20). Perhaps we can read the daughter’s criticism of how “bridges, roads, and by extension, buildings, are the marks man thrusts into the unsuspecting wilderness” (23), as a castigating of her father’s violation of her:

    This is craft: intrusion masked as intuition, this is clever alteration such that man can make himself creator in the guise of God to lay these marks upon the earth, thus persuading a perceiver they belong there (23).

    The daughter’s reflections on space and the difficulty she has navigating within them, her reflections on buildings and the act of building and her place within buildings, especially the ones built by her father, remind me of some aspects of Heidegger’s “Building Dwelling Thinking,” wherein he complicates the idea of what it means to dwell and to build, of what buildings and dwellings are. Heidegger also gets into some rather murky and practically hermetic thinking, in my mind, about divinities and whatnot, but I think this essay is a fine exploration of some of the things that Caponegro is investigating in her story. I also thought of Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space while reading “The Daughter’s Lamentation,” particularly his ideas about “the poetics of the house,” his questions about how “secret rooms, rooms that have disappeared, become abodes for an unforgettable past.” Other pertinent quotes from The Poetics of Space:

    “For a knowledge of intimacy, localization in the spaces of our intimacy is more urgent than determination of dates.”

    “If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”

    The first quote seems particularly apt in relation to the daughter’s attempt to situate herself less in time but instead in space. And the latter quote I think stands in deep contrast to the daughter’s reverie, where her attempt to “dream in peace,” that is, to find protection, to find a place in which to heal her wounds, utterly fails.

    1. Great John.

      In the Bookworm interview, she talks about how Hawkes gave her the freedom to tackle these kinds of subjects (sex, rape).

      Your pointing out of this:

      “Might I then catch the door before it makes the sound he cares so little for, offer an appendage as a hinge of sorts? I’d stay the door with a hand or foot before it had a chance to slam…”

      Makes me think she is still shattered, trying to protect the father that never protected her. She has grounded her life back at the Finger Lakes and it’s unlikely she will come to anything after he dies.

      Thematically, I see a tie to Gass’s “Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s” with Architecture being the stand in for poetry. I also hear many Gass echoes in her writing, alliterative and then short sentences as well.

      1. Yes, Hawkes and Gass are there, as are James and Woolf, all mixed together in an altogether unusual blend, especially in those moments when the flights of fancy become ever more fanciful.

        I’m looking for Gass’s uncollected essay “The Architecture of the Sentence,” which originally appeared in print was available online somewhere, but I can’t seem to find it. I think it might give some further insights about Caponegro’s sentences in this story, both in form and in content.

  2. I liked this a lot. John refers to the Poetics of Space, and as the story practically demands, I found myself thinking along similar lines: the spaces we construct, walls we throw up and strong steel protections to keep others out or more so ourselves from our other selves. I felt wander-y, in a good way, like I could wander the halls of this story and get lost in the dream–but then the dream become nightmarish and the spaces suddenly confining and the sad end confirms her father the architect built a trap rather than a retreat. She as much as he has become immobile.

  3. On the subject of the abuse, Caponegro seemed to be revealing more than she actually was in the text; it seemed if the daughter were to rummage a little deeper in the claustrophobic attic, she would uncover hideous evidence of some sort. The menacing, surprising presence of her father in the house and the nightmarish ballet imagery of negated sexuality suggest trauma. Her loyalty to him seems involuntary. She muses on “his body’s unique suction” that causes her to stay, to serve, to absorb an unspoken guilt.

    1. Hi Lincoln,

      What do you think she might find in the attic? Perhaps there is some intimation of some underlying menace in the discomfort she feels about the ballet dancer’s bulge: the “fanciful lump in his stocking (dainty, tumescent, absurd, grotesque)”.

  4. What a mysterious, intricate story…as Amber already pointed out, the story itself is sort of like a structure that you wander, get lost in, and so forth. And in that sense there’s something really cool about the fact that the daughter seems to have inherited her father’s proclivity for architecture in creating this prismatically-shifting house of language. I really liked her father’s description of the Campidoglio, which “can only be appreciated by the peripatetic spectator…an oval in a trapezoid seen by one ascending the magnificent sweeping axis…” etc., which seems to be mirrored in the idea that this piece itself embodies an architecture which can only be perceived in the act of reading. I too thought of Bachelard, as well as Poe’s House of Usher, and House of Leaves in reading this. I love the impossibility of the house that’s described and the comparisons between ballet and architecture, and the way in which the narrator’s ballet is visible only in casual gestures and poses.

    A couple of questions I had. I was wondering what people made of the image of the father that John quoted above, the swimming in a “perplexingly unamphibious manner” against the sheer glass wall against the lake. A striking image and one of the only ones where we see him moving in the story. Also, I am missing what Caponegro means when she writes “Octopus, I mispronounced that orifice of glass, exchanging consonants…”

    1. Hey Tim,

      I think she’s referring to the famed Oculus in the Pantheon in Rome. And the quote is “Octopus, I mispronounced that mesmerizing orifice, exchanging consonants…” (20)

      The Oculus in the dome of the Pantheon, Rome

      1. Right on, John. I actually read the version that appeared as “The Further Complexities of Intimacy” in Conjunctions:21, because I got the wrong Caponegro book. It’s always fascinating to see how authors revise for book publication–in this case, giving the story a new name, adding the idea of “lamentation,” and using the original story title for the collection itself.

        1. Hmm, interesting, indeed. I love comparing stories as they appeared in journals with how they appear when finally collected.

          Since I always look at a book’s front matter, I also noticed how “The Daughter’s Lamentation,” originally appeared as “The Complexities of Intimacy,” and that “The Mother’s Mirror” appeared as ““The Further Complexities of Intimacy.” In fact, four of the five stories appeared under different titles.

          I wonder whether the oculus Caponegro was originally referring to was the one at Monticello, which was made of glass. Or maybe it was some other place. But I’d have to check the context, and alas, I’m missing both of those two issues in my Conjunctions collection.

          1. Oddly enough the book mixes them up–“Mirror” is in fact “The Complexities of Intimacy,” preceding “Further”/”Lamentation” by four issues of the journal. Not that it matters really, just a curious inversion.

  5. “Must you vitiate this beauty with distortion?” the father asks her, silencing one of her two mentions of her own poetical inclinations. His friends laugh at another childhood poem of hers. So another artistic avenue of hers is squashed.

    And we haven’t even talked about the frozen shoes…

    This would and will be a great piece of prose to read aloud.

    I also noted her comma-heavy sentences that I have seen in Henry James as of late.

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