Yuknavitch works in a distinctly Maximalist style. It’s not ironic. It’s not thin. It’s not coy. This book-length essay is sinewy and savage. And you may take umbrage with me calling The Chronology of Water an essay. Go ahead, take umbrage. It’s pushed as a memoir, after all, and has all the trappings of a mainstream story of loss and survival: Olympic hopeful swimmer escapes abusive family, loses it all when she becomes mired in her own self-destructive tendencies, ultimately finding transcendence in love and literature. There’s trauma, drugs, lots of sex—everything a voyeur could want. That’s not what excites me about this book.
Most everyone I know has a sad story to tell, but none of them thought to write it like this. Although marketed as a memoir, it moves like a collection of linked essays. The larger, numbered sections, and especially the shorter, named works within those sections, are essays. They begin in impulse and end where you don’t expect; they assay and contradict; they deviate and are deviant. Earlier, I said the book demands a kind of attention to physicality, and I’m coming back to that now. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that our current literature represents puritanical notions of sexuality. Certainly, the hegemonic standards have been set, but there are plenty of writers who’ve thwarted them powerfully. Yet, I find Yuknavitch’s frankness about the emotional and physical experience of being a woman (in sex, in athletic competition, in childbirth) surprising. Not because it offends my sensibilities, but because it affirms them. Consider the first paragraph of the book:
The day my daughter was stillborn, after I held the future pink and rose-lipped in my shivering arms, lifeless tender, covering her face in tears and kisses, after they handed my dead girl to my sister who kissed her, then to my first husband who kissed her, then to my mother who could not bear to hold her, then out of the hospital room door, tiny lifeless swaddled thing, the nurse gave me tranquilizers and a soap and sponge. She guided me to a special shower. The shower had a chair and the spray came down lightly, warm. She said, That feels good, doesn’t it. The water. She said, you are still bleeding quite a bit. Just let it. Ripped from vagina to rectum, sewn closed. Falling water on a body.Yuknavitch writes about her emotional-physical self in a manner that is both lyric and direct, and later in the book, in more sexually explicit passages, with a frankness that might be called pornographic. It’s a quality that I admire, and reminds be vaguely of Irigaray’s “This Sex Which is Not One,” meant to call into question and make uncomfortable phallic-based Freudian theories by writing with intense anatomical focus about the autoerotic attributes of female genitalia. Completely different genre and aim, of course, but both are refreshingly unflinching in their representations of femaleness. They both write about being a woman as if no one ever told them not to—or, more accurately, they were told not to a lot and did so anyway, with great verve. So, okay, I like the exhibitive aspects of the work too. You caught me: I’m as voyeuristic as anyone. But in this case there is a marriage of exhibition and voice that makes the interested voyeur feel not so bad about it. This writing is outrageous and nervy, yet finely calibrated, and amidst the candid heartbreak there is enough style and humor to place her firmly in the position of narrator, and so, the voyeur of herself. In part, she does this by drawing our attention to the way she writes. She tells us early on that she remembers things in “retinal flashes,” that she won’t be giving us the conventional narrative structure: “It’s all a series of fragments and repetitions and pattern formations. Language and water have this in common” (28). I love this book because it’s made of water. And because a book made of water seems more honest to me.
I’m not talking about “honesty” as part of the long-suffering debate over the ethics of creative nonfiction, so rooted in what I see as an essentialist’s naive faith in the possibility of incontestable knowledge—which is not to say there’s no such thing as fact, or that our lives aren’t structured by traditional narrative (they absolutely are), just that so little of human experience can be verified. And when the creative impulse is to capture nonfiction of the internal—nonfiction about imagination, dreams, lies, mistakes, betrayal, superstition, about the messiness of being a subjective and contradictory self—I want the structure to also be at least a little bit messy. I want associative leaps, repetition, back-tracking, fragments, red-herrings, a different kind of sense-making than traditional narrative. I want a way of writing that feels closer to perception and memory. Or probably I just want a literature that’s closer to my way of perceiving and remembering. Since this is all interpretation, and interpretation is always symbolic of one’s own mind, let me be more direct:
I used to love to swim. When I was a girl and it was summer, my father often took us (my sisters, my brother and I) to the Columbia River which is a wide, deep body of water always attenuated with mud and oil (a beautiful rainbow covering, the way I saw it then) from the city run-off and its strong churning currents. It’s a river banked with gray, gritty sand—not the smooth, white seashell erosion of ocean shorelines, but a sand more like ground peppercorn. I liked to dig in it. When I got tired of digging, I’d swim out in the river as far as I could go, out past the buoys, because it was forbidden and the danger of an undertow, still just a word in my mind, excited me.
There was a spot in the river where the buoys separating the swimming area from the wilder water was a row of floating logs loosely chained in place, soft, splintery, warm as bodies in the sun, and one day I swam out to them. Believing myself otter-like, I made a game of spinning them and clutching on while they spun to let them roll me into the water, then out, then in again, keeping my eyes shut tight. The faster I could spin them, the better momentum for throwing me into the water, so I worked hard on that last spin, really revved it up, and when I belly-flopped onto it, I hit the water hard. Disoriented and blind, instead of swimming up, I went down down down until the cold made me open my eyes in the mud-dark infinite. My breath was running out and I didn’t know which way my head was pointing. I panicked and swam harder, but still not far enough, or in the wrong direction, I didn’t know which—all I knew was that I was completely out of air, trying to breath in and out the only stale breath I still had in my lungs, which seemed to push around inside me like a trapped ghost. It was the first time in my life that I realized I had a real shot at dying. Not the stories of heaven, but the actual corporeal manifestation of death: my body, a corpse. I thought of the first water-pose my father taught me: the Dead Man’s Float.
Then I thought of my father on the shore with his eyes closed beneath the sun, burning his skin darker with coconut oil, working up a beer sweat. Some nights I still dream my father is driving us toward the river, my sisters and I grown but weary like children in the heat, our thighs sticking to the vinyl of our metallic blue Chevy, windows down, the breath of sand-dust and green-water lost in traffic when he turns at a light, parks in front of a theatre, sends us in single-file before him, buys us tickets and popcorn, but stands in the aisle smoking, a silhouette of refusal and ash. Where he was then (wherever he is now) he couldn’t help me. Underwater, I became very still, thinking on that Dead Man, and let my buoyancy turn me around, lead me up until I could perceive a faint, refracted light above me. Since I’m not writing this posthumously, you can guess what happened next: I surfaced, choked on air, grasped at anything, found myself on the wild side drifting toward wherever the river lead, then kicked furiously until I reached the logs to catch my breath, then continued until I pulled myself whimpering and exhausted to the gritty shore. Dizzy, my eyes not quite able to adjust to the sunlight—everything blurred in overexposure—I lay there breathing, too afraid to cry, until the sun dried the water. Until I began to sweat.
Catharsis. Aristotle understood artistic power as medicinal, generating a kind of innocent emotional purgation in one who allows herself to be affected. It presupposes a natural tendency, an innate desire for aesthetic reenactment of experience, even, and perhaps especially, experience that is terrible—for viewing the wreck from a safe distance. So, as voyeurs of artistic expression, we are always voyeurs of ourselves. Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water does not, ultimately, tell us what we didn’t already know, it’s just more conscious and gorgeous in the way it tells us: our memories are fragmented, our lives are broken. Lying there on the shore that day, I couldn’t remember exactly what I knew about baptism, but I thought I understood more clearly what it meant. It meant there was a darkness in everyone and you had to delve down into it, where the sun looks broken and a ghost knocks inside your chest. That you have to emerge from the darkness to know the sun. That you have to lie beneath it, let it fill you with fever. Because fever is the dark water pouring out of you. You sweat it out to feel whole again.
Danielle Cadena Deulen is a poet and essayist. Her collection of poems, Lovely Asunder (U. of Arkansas Press, 2011), won the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize and the Utah Book Award. Her memoir, The Riots (U. of Georgia Press, 2011), won the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction as well as the GLCA New Writers Award. Formerly, she was a Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She currently lives in Ohio where she teaches in the graduate and undergraduate creative writing programs at the University of Cincinnati. Her site is at danielledeulen.net.