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Water, Mater, and Other Matters: A Review of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water

“It’s hard to know what to think of a life when you find yourself kneedeep,” writes Lidia Yuknavitch in The Chronology of Water, recounting a harrowing event: a stillbirth, her daughter’s, this admission offering a kind of uncertainty—a feeling or stance suffused throughout her reminiscences—this uncertainty expressed, ironically, through a commanding and heavily tooled prose which is, at turns, pungently evocative and stingingly provocative, offering a seeming oxymoron, a paradox, in fact: strong vulnerability (the strength of this vulnerability so overwhelming that I put the book aside after this first chapter, for a time, which might be a strong enough recommendation to read this powerful memoir), where Yuknavitch constantly questions her own capacity to remember, or rather, the accuracy of whatever it is that she has dredged up from the past to be remembered:

When I look back, things are underwater, and when I pick them out and bring them to the surface they float around my idiotic attempts to drag them to land. I wonder what memory is, anyway. What writers are doing when they scratch at it.

Emerging from clouds of subjectivity, the autobiographical work, especially the deservedly maligned contemporary memoir, often reveals itself to be just another fanciful fabrication; where soul-searching is ensnared by self-importance and its concomitant indulgences; where veracity often slips through history’s interstices toward some mysterious sea of “emotional truth”; where elusive, and often illusory, feelings about people and events are interpreted then constructed, artificially, to create a detailed story that rises and falls toward a satisfying, but ultimately false, conclusion. Life is not a story, well, at least not the kind of story that follows conventional dramatic structure, where rising action leads toward a climax, the climax tapering away, only to end with an outstanding revelation, resolution, or catastrophe. As Yuknavitch asserts:

Your life doesn’t happen in any kind of order. Events don’t have cause and effect relationships the way you wish they did. It’s all a series of fragments and repetitions and pattern formations. Language and water have this in common.

Yes, The Chronology of Water, is, in fact, achronological, recountings jumping in and out of sequence, defying the idea that life is anything but a series of accidents, happy and (more likely and more often) otherwise. Imagine a swatch of a pointillist painting enlarged, each colorful dot magnified, the spaces between them made more evident, that expansion complicating the formation of a distinct image, where the gaps are suddenly as important as the patterning, and you might get a sense of how this memoir is composed.

For Yuknavitch, “[l]anguage is a metaphor for experience. It’s as arbitrary as the mass of chaotic images we call memory—but we can put it into lines to narrativize over fear.” Realizing that she remembers things in “retinal flashes” and “[w]ithout order,” Yuknavitch acknowledges language’s unreliability, but also recognizes that as defective and unreliable as it is—especially when it comes to capturing just about anything we might think of as knowable—that language can also navigate distinct reference and absence, certainty and memory gaps, addressing, perhaps, language’s capacity to both illumine and obscure.

Yuknavitch is thoroughly aware that recollections, when captured in language, are at best a fiction:

People are often asking me if the things in my short fictions really happened to me. I always think this is the same question to ask of a life—did this really happen to me? The body doesn’t lie. But when we bring language to the body, isn’t it always already an act of fiction? With its delightfully designed composition and color saturations and graphic patterns? Its style and vantage points? Its insistence on the mind’s powerful force of recollection in the face of the raw and brutal fact that the only witness was the body?

But even with her doubts about language, Yuknavitch believes that “[w]ords, like selves, are worth it,” later acknowledging that “[e]verything that matters to [her] is a word,” words being able to “carry oceans on their small backs.”

In “Ithaca,” the penultimate chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses (a chapter characterized by its schematic use of questions and answers), the narrator asks: “What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier returning to the range, admire?” The answer, which acts, on the surface, much like an encyclopedia entry, instantiates, through its circuitous streams of descriptions of various bodies of water and trajectories, how water in its myriad forms behaves, presenting and enacting through syntactic choices the very materiality of the subject at hand. After reading The Chronology of Water you will find many examples of what in water Lidia Yuknavitch, a “waterlover” herself, admires, finding that she, too, uses artfully managed syntax, as well as overarching narrative patterning, to celebrate water, its fluidity, its mutability, its clarity as well as its obscurity, its movement, its capacity to liberate, reminding us to “[w]ade in all waters.”

Yuknavitch uses the full resources of language to challenge the tyranny of language, what she, in a nod to Fredric Jameson, calls the “prison house of language,” where you find her “swimming in words,” employing a range of rhetorical forms, like anaphora (a much favored form for Yuknavitch in her memoir): “strum me to death, strum me clean, strum me calm, strum me into a woman he’d write a song for…”; symploce: “How I hated it. How I wish I could kill it…how I loved it”; truncated simile: “Her lips a rosebud”; asyndeton: “first second third trimester, quickening, lightening, labor, expecting, fetal heartbeat, uterus, embryo, womb, contractions, crowning, cervical dilation, vaginal canal, breathe—that’s it, little short breaths, transition, push”; polysyndeton, (with a truncated simile): “My shirt off and my tits white moons and my head rocked back and my hair crazy”; epistrophe: “Open wound girls. Swinging fist girls”; onomatopoeia: “letting out this sad little breathy MAAAARRRR sound”; chiasmus: “In our forest we gave art to life, and life to art made us” (italics mine); verbing of nouns: “Frankensteined” and “umbrellad”; expressive compounds: hyphenated: “never-went-to-college”; and unhyphenated: “jesusfuckingchristknot,” “wordhouse,” “bloodword,” “bonesong,” “yourselfstory,” “yearchild,” “seahouse,” “boyfish,” “heatsurge,” and ”mansavior” (two consecutive chapters end with such compounds: “lifedeath” and “screamsong”); but also employing so-called streams of consciousness techniques with their familiar associative leaps in syntax and punctuation:

Wind on my face my palms sting my knees hurt pressing backwards speed and speedspeedspeedspeed holding my breath and my skin tingling like it does up in trees terrible spiders crawling my skin like up high at the grand canyon my head too hot turnturnturnturnturn I am turning I am braking I can’t feel my feet I can’t feel my legs I can’t feel my arms I can’t feel my hands my head my heart my father’s voice yelling good girl my father running down the hill my father who did this who pushed me my eyes closing my limbs going limp my letting go me letting go so sleepy so light floating floating objects speed eyes closed violent hitting objects crashing nothing.

Passages like the one above evince the mimetic qualities of language: language, in some kind of syntactic transubstantiation, becoming water. The frequency of water as a metaphor suggests that Yuknavitch, like Thales of Miletus, a pre-Socratic philosopher, might believe that water is the archê, the originating principle, that everything came and comes from water, suggesting, too, that water’s nature is to flow, Yuknavitch fearlessly surrendering to that flow, to its liberty, to its vastness and its inviolability, to its potency and, ultimately, to its unknowable mysteries.

  • John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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