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Reading Caponegro: “The Mother’s Mirror”

The more I delve into Caponegro’s art, the more I see an anthropologist at work–a Joycean scientist who curls bright, unexpected words (like “obnubilating”) around common and uncommon questions of heritage, soul and civilization. Anthropologist but also philosopher–a Plato with the vocabulary of Keats. Consider this sentence of “The Mother’s Mirror,” a story of a family, but more an investigation into how the family keeps itself apart (written in first person plural, an incredibly apt tense for Caponegro’s investigation):

Perhaps we keep our disappointment to ourself or perhaps we voice it, and once articulated, it is all too seductive to make a ritual of the words, as if they were beads of a rosary and we gathered by each repetition indulgences instead of alienation. (32)

It’s not often a sentence has four words in a row that start with vowels, yet this one does and ends in a unique alliterative and assonantal dance. As far as the thrust of the argument, this is an example of the narrator (and throughout the narrator speaks out of the mother’s concerns) trying to find a reason why the family turned out the way it did–why certain things bother them and why they build resentments and create secret lives, often having to do with sex.

This short fever pitch of prose ends with a five-page set piece in a bathroom where the family (mother, father and children) find themselves in a psycho-sexual circus where all go to pleasure themselves except the mother, who like the woman in the first story is worn down, ground into her own reality of aging.

15 thoughts on “Reading Caponegro: “The Mother’s Mirror”

  1. Still gathering my thoughts about “The Mother’s Mirror,” but wanted to say that Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” is another great example of a story that uses first person plural, though in Faulkner’s story a whole town, rather than the single person (albeit one who might indeed be a multiplicity, at least in her own mind) in Caponegro’s story, speaks.

  2. Yes, as Greg stated, Caponegro, in her stories, unlocks her word-hoard, providing discerning readers (who relish the use of carefully considered unusual words and opaque references, who don’t mind running to the dictionary upon encountering an unfamiliar word, or who will jot down those words to check out later and will use contextual clues as a guide toward comprehension) with much to chew on. Caponegro’s work gives lie to the idea that you have to work with an etiolated lexicon. And what a wonderful word “obnubilating” (37), in fact, is, especially when placed in context of the story, where its literal meaning serves as an apt modifier of “mist,” but, especially because its unfamiliarity results in intimating, to my eye and ear, the word “nubile,” which isn’t literally part of the word’s meaning, of course, but which is still somehow suggested, especially in the midst of the sensual setting in which it appears.

    Caponegro’s attentiveness to word choice makes me wonder if the story’s initial clustering of f-words (not including, of course, the f-word), like “familiarity,” and its immediate interpolation: “familiar” (with its evocation of another f-word: “family”) was deliberate, especially when we see it played out in the next paragraph, where “forehead of our firstborn,” and “former” and “furtively” are showcased, not to mention the third paragraph’s flurry of f’s: “flesh of our flesh, our firstborn son” (31).

    Caponegro’s use of the first person plural was a masterstroke, since it perfectly capture’s this woman’s dissociative state; and when the mother says, “Thus, after actual or imagined encounters…” we’re given a signal that she may not be able to distinguish between fantasy or reality. (Referring to a “vision” (37), she says she wishes she could “peel away the membrane separating beauty from beholder” (38).) And this fragmented sense of self, of the sense of self as a multiplicity results in some crazed observations:

    Just take a look at yourselves, we want to cry; just for once would you look at yourselves, to the persons of our household who seemed at one time to take more pride in their appearance, to be more refined in their behavior, more courteous, more appreciative of ourself? For recently it seems that when an individual is needed for any task, be it rising wearily to make his coffee, or driving to the pharmacy for yet another urgent errand, or cleaning out debris in the garage, it is the hand attached to our already strained shoulder which rises automatically to volunteer (34).

    The mother’s stiff observations of mundane activities, like her son’s gargling, which she describes as “the sound produced by our firstborn when in his throat he does the internal acrobatics of suspending flavored liquid with the intention of freshening his breath” (34), are examples of her detachment. By the time we find her almost about to burst out laughing at the sound of her son’s gargling, you can almost imagine her singing, “They’re coming to take me away, ha, ha!”

    The story’s final two paragraphs are the most harrowing:

    We have fallen into paradise through the most mundane of circumstances. How lovely to think of the effortless transformations! We cannot wait to view our own, which surely, by osmosis, must occur. With a facecloth from the linen closet we wipe the mirror of steam, quickly, before it has a chance to form again. We will smile at the image of ourself, with lips like those we see on these exalted faces, lips resembling summer fruit. How wondrous is the world and its discoveries!

    But the mouth that looks back at us from the defogged reflective surface is, on the contrary, brittle, and the nostrils above, thin and severe. We whimper to see the wrinkles, even more numerous than we had imagined, the deeply furrowed brow, and the puffiness of the lids that can only mask the icy candor of our once quite striking blue eyes (40).

    Dissolving the membrane between fantasy and reality momentarily gives the mother pleasure, until she wipes away the steam on the mirror, which might be thought of as an analogue to the “obnubilating mist,” resulting in her realizing that the world, for her, is not wondrous but troublous, where rather than wondering she whimpers.

    The story is a deft rendering of a hyper-intelligent woman whose years of self-denial (one example of which is how she delays using the bathroom, the word “micturition” (37) another example of her virtually clinical detachment) and role-playing has resulted not in self-erasure but self-multiplication.

    Another story I thought of while reading “The Mother’s Mirror was William Gass’s story “The Order of Insects” since it, too, contradicts the stereotype of the empty-headed housewife, and the woman in Gass’s story might be suffering from a disorder of her own, signaled by her obsessive behavior, and by her admission: “I no longer own my own imagination” (167). I can imagine Caponegro’s narrator saying, like Gass’s narrator does about her own life:

    I live in a scatter of blocks and children’s voices. The chores are my clock, and time is every other moment interrupted. I had always thought that love knew nothing of order and that life itself was turmoil and confusion (170).

    And doesn’t the mother in Caponegro’s narrator also, in the end, look into “the dark soul of the world” (168)?

  3. Again, quite a story…from the opening paragraph I thought I was in an essay, insofar as it couches all of its observations and even its dramatic moves in a “we” that wants to reach beyond its circle of characters and speak to the complexities of intimacy more broadly, though it slips into storyhood soon enough. I wonder if its language is more “obnubilating” or penetrates through the mists and scrims that run through the story. John and Greg, you called it well to emphasize that word, which is a kind of pivot point in the story and definitely plays on “nubile”–everyone in this mist is rendered nubile…there’s something almost presexual about the visions that she has, though. I mean, just prior to this vision she’s caught her husband masturbating off in the corner, an act he’s so engrossed in that her catching him does little to slow him down. I found the actions in that mist to be intriguing, far less predictable than some orgy would’ve been–you’ve got the unfamiliar child building a tower out of soap, you’ve got the daughter and her boyfriend shaving one another (which I guess implies they are post-pubescent but still seems relatively innocent), then clipping one another’s toenails, and the husband himself, “having completed his goal” beforehand, is swinging and doing chin-ups on the shower bar. And it’s as though the teenagers are regressing to a less lusty, hormone-driven stage of being, the daughter stripping herself of makeup, the son, “for the first time since adolescence…not slouching.”

    1. The shower episode, a kind of maniacally paradisiacal (they are, after all, “un-self-conscious in their nakedness” (38)) vision, is definitely bizarre; and I agree with you, Tim, about how innocent it all appears, well, at least on the surface. Before this point, we find the mother already incredibly fragmented, and here she finally trespasses the so-called border between the real and the irreal. I think this fugue state might have been triggered by the pain she felt withholding her urine and also upon its bloody release.

    2. Good calls Tim. I tinkered with quoting the entire masturbation paragraph – the first thing I thought of was Leopold Bloom masturbating to Gerty McDowell in Ulysses, chapter 13.

      Caponegro doesn’t write ABOUT a psychotic break, the sentences she puts forth contains the breakage as it happens.

      In this great interview (http://www.cairn.info/accueil.php/rss/revue-francaise-d-etudes-americaines-2002-4-page-16.htm) she says, “My tendency toward abstraction may be felt by some conventional readers to hold them at a distance, but I hope the psychological intensity compensates for this.”

  4. Guys, great reading. You get at just about all the qualities that distinguish this artist — in particular, the way she can assert the primacy of language over disturbing human material that most of us leave in the dark, believing it beyond the reach of words.

    So, perhaps I can best serve these posts by as a foil, someone voicing doubt, pointing out possible flaws. In that capacity (a pose, no question), the question I’d raise hangs over the whole collection.

    Can’t these stories, then, be criticized for their detachment from the practical? Money & its discontents drives so much of human struggle, yet these COMPLEXITIES, as if to renounce the name, hardly includes them.

    Caponegro dwells on such rarified circumstances, & concentrates on such subtle psychological shadings. That house which dominates the first story, for instance: it must’ve cost a lot for starters, & cost still more to maintain. The story depends on family tensions, but a reader will find next to nothing suggesting that finances & career are part of those tensions. This when an architect like the father would more likely than not spend most of his day fretting over his next assignment (& what it would pay), & over his place in the firm & his firm’s place in the pecking order of the craft, nationally.

    The same sort of question can be raised about “Mother’s Mirror.” Don’t economics have a lot to do — if not everything to do — w/ domestic estrangement & the children’s ensuing need to act out? Is ecstasy really ever so innocent, divorced from power & who can pay? James Joyce has come up repeatedly in these posts, but Joyce’s art, on every page, registers awareness of social & financial pressures. He can’t construct a scene, or not till the WAKE, anyway, without pricing every item in the room & noting who’s the lord & who’s the chattel.

    As BIG OTHER’s reading proceeds, I’d like to see this issue addressed: the social value, let’s call it, of so highly refined an artist, concerned by verbal textures, perhaps to the extent of neglecting the hard knocks of cash, class, & status.

    1. Thanks, John,

      I wonder, though, if all stories, all art, in fact, can be criticized for their detachment from the practical; and, of course, there are many who offer just that idea, whether as criticism or simply as a definition of what art is, whether from philistines or not. In fact, the notion need not even be crassly put. Take for instance, Theseus’s speech to Hippolyta in A Midsummer’s Night Dream:

      More strange than true: I never may believe
      These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
      Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
      Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
      More than cool reason ever comprehends.
      The lunatic, the lover and the poet
      Are of imagination all compact:
      One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
      That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
      Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
      The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
      Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
      And as imagination bodies forth
      The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
      Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
      A local habitation and a name.
      Such tricks hath strong imagination,
      That if it would but apprehend some joy,
      It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
      Or in the night, imagining some fear,
      How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

      But to say that art serves no practical purposes is, of course, not only gross simplification, but also wrong, as any worthy anthropologist will tell you.

      Your critique, and I understand it as a foil, as a pose you’re striking, is familiar to me from my reading of Samuel Delany’s About Writing, where in his introduction, “Emblems of Talent” (an essay I think should be required reading for any writer, if only for the reason that he sets the bar so high), he rather boldly declares: “One way or the other, directly or indirectly, good fiction tends to be money” (56). In a kind of reverse echo of what you’ve stated above, that is, that “[m]oney & its discontents drives so much of human struggle,” Delany elaborates:

      Whether directly or indirectly, most fiction is about the effects of having it or of not having it, the tensions caused between people used to having more of it or less of it, or even, sometimes, the money it takes to write the fiction itself, if not to live it. Supremely, it’s about the delusions the having of it or the not having of it force us to assume in order to go on. Like Robert Graves’s famous and equally true statement about poetry, however (“all true poetry is about love, death, or the changing of seasons”), the generality ends up undercutting its interest. Like Graves’s statement, one either recognizes its truth or one doesn’t. Both need to be acknowledged. Neither needs to be dwelled on.

      Probably I am drawn to such overgeneralizations—“All true poetry is about love, death, or the changing of seasons,” “All good fiction tends to be money”—because I am not a poet, and not (primarily) a writer of realist fiction. Thus I like statements that do a lot of critical housekeeping for me—possibly, certain poets or fiction writers might argue, too much to be useful.

      “All good fiction tends to be money” probably appeals to me because, while I acknowledge the necessity of the economic register in the rich presentation of social life (like Forster’s necessity for some story if we are to recognize the text as fiction at all), the economic is, nevertheless, not the most interesting thing to me as a reader personally (in the same way that story is not the most interesting thing either Forster or to me). But stories that never address money or the process by which we acquire it—if not directly then indirectly—are usually stillborn.

      As far as all fiction being about money, the good news is that over the last three hundred years or so many indirect strategies have been developed to indicate the money that controls the fiction that often the reader—sometimes even the writer—is not aware of the way the monetary grounding that functions to elicit the fictive “truth effect” is actually present in her or his tales. Still I think it’s better to know than to gamble on its happening. When the writer doesn’t know, and can’t provide such information directly or indirectly, allowing the reader to sense the economic underpinning of the tale through the representation of work or otherwise, the fiction usually registers on the reader as thin or lacking in staying power (56-57).

      Delany then goes on to say that the above are “only guidelines,” and that “[t]here “are no rules. The truth is, fiction can be about anything” (57).

      Rather than argue against Delany’s overgeneralization, albeit a self-aware one, (which would be my inclination, but which would, more importantly, take us away from conversation about Caponegro’s story), let’s take these “guidelines” at face value, and then see whether Caponegro’s story falls short, whether it comes to the reader “stillborn.” And I can quickly say that no, she doesn’t. In fact, it is Caponegro’s elaborate rendering of the house, her “indirect strategies,” as Delany would call it, which made you realize that the house “must’ve cost a lot for starters, & cost still more to maintain.” Does Caponegro need to provide a budget plan for the building of the house and the cost of its materials and labor, and also the cost of its maintenance, in order for us to have a sense of the economics involved? Caponegro’s many references to her father’s profession conjure all kinds of economic shadings without any kind of tally sheet, as do all of the descriptions of the family’s travels and possessions, as does the very stylized language with which she relates the story, not to mention the father’s quoted comments (syntax, semantics, and pragmatics are suggest many things, including status, education, culture, etc.)

      I’d say that this story doesn’t depend, as you write, on family tensions. Rather, they are one of its components. If Caponegro’s story depends on anything, it’s language, this coming from someone who would argue that the one thing that almost any piece of writing, good or bad, depends on is language. I also disagree that this reader “will find next to nothing suggesting that finances & career are part of those tensions.” The list of things that you mention that her father, the architect, would “fret” over may not be entirely addressed, but this isn’t, after all, a story about the father, but about the daughter, and her reflections on a particular facet or some facets about her relationship with her father, and is also about other things. Why is it necessary for this story to worry over the minutiae of the father’s experience that you’re describing: the “fretting over his next assignment (& what it would pay), & over his place in the firm & his firm’s place in the pecking order of the craft, nationally”? That isn’t Caponegro’s project. That story is not the father’s lamentation, after all.

  5. Wow, I have probably nothing to add after the fantastic close readings you all have offered. But (as a woman?) I maybe had a tiny bit different reaction to the story–instead of seeing the sexual pieces as pleasure to the narrator for being sexual, I see them being,as I think Tim called it, almost pre-sexual, indicators of sexual innocence and discovery, of going back to the newness of the world. The narrator is utterly tired of her world-weary, demanding, inconsiderate family (making this confession by including all of us makes us co-confessors and profoundly uncomfortable about it, given what we are *supposed* to feel toward our families.) When the family turns into a bunch of pleasure-seeking, delighted Adam and Eves, she, too feels refreshed and sudden love for them once more. But looking in the mirror, she realizes she cannot join them, for she sees the world-weary worn look she must wear in the rest of the family’s eyes. As the mother, she is still responsible. She is alone in being denied pleasure.

  6. John M., thanks for such a thoughtful response. Now, since I don’t want my playing Devil’s advocate to take up too much space on any one story, I want the question I raise to hang over consideration of the book generally, I’ll only note that the question’s pertinent. Caponegro herself raised these issues, home & family, affection & disconnection. Thus, if her stories ignore a major contributing factors to those concerns, the factor someone like Karl Marx would say determines all human endeavor — well, then what does she offer instead, regarding these COMPLEXITIES?

    1. Thanks, John. Well, I’m arguing that Caponegro’s stories aren’t ignoring economics at all. That said, I’ll add that while it isn’t a primary concern in her work as it is in the work of Henry James, let’s say (and this is strictly in comparison), Caponegro still demonstrates an awareness of “[m]oney & its discontents,” as you describe it, through, to use a term by Delany above, “indirect strategies.”

      I’m not an expert on Marx, but I have a hard time believing that he would say that economics “determines all human endeavor.” Money doesn’t make everything in the world go round, and it certainly isn’t the driving force between every major human undertaking. Was money the driving force behind Emily Dickinson’s writing of poetry, a major human endeavor if there ever was one? While I can certainly see how economic factors enabled the leisure in which to write the poems, it’s hard to see how money was a major determinant as regards to the creative impulse, let alone to the content of her poems.

      Let’s say someone finds out that they have cancer. It would be a major endeavor to beat it. It’s unlikely money would ever be the determining factor behind the major amount of energy, stamina, willpower, etc. it would take toward reaching this very difficult goal. Now, of course, economics plays greatly into how successful one is in achieving this goal (tests, medicine, doctoral care, hospitalization, etc. all have to be paid for), but it certainly isn’t the major factor that contributes to the desire to beat it.

  7. I was just thumbing through poems by Elizabeth Bishop and found this bit in “Sandpiper,” which seemed to describe that pivotal moment in “The Mother’s Mirror”: “The world is a mist. And then the world is / minute and vast and clear.”

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