Entwining Presence and Language: A Review of HR Hegnauer’s Sir, by Jennifer K Dick
Portable Press at Yo-yo labs, 2013
Entwining Presence and Language: A Review of HR Hegnauer’s Sir
I am trying on narration, and this is what it feels like: a pocket of
—HR Hegnauer, Sir, page 78.
HR Hegnauer’s Sir (Portable Press at Yo-yo labs, 2013) reminds the reader of the importance of paying attention, of noting everything as it happens, of—as the book opens—not missing anything. Page one closes with: “Don’t worry, I told her, I wouldn’t.”(3) This first prose passage’s ending deftly announces the craft of the author, the shift from the expected “I won’t” to “I wouldn’t” complicating the immediacy and distance of the text and of the position of the narrator in the sections to come. Here, the narrator extends that promise to not miss anything from the moment it was made through a desire and failure to make that promise true to all futures—not just that she will not but would not miss anything at a or at any moment already slipping away.
This book is about slippage. First off the slippage between one genre of writing and another—as Sir is a kind of narrative in poetic journal form which turns into a series of epistles in the latter half. It is being composed by a fictionalized version of the author herself as narrator. Like a novel, autobiography or journal, it has characters that are part of this author-narrator’s life—primarily Mrs Alice, an old woman in her eighties who has dementia, and Sir, the husband of Alice. The author notes at the end of the book that these two characters are based on her own grandparents. It is also about the body slipping away, or even coming into being—physical vs. potential spiritual or ghost or even intellectual presence. It is also about the slippage of what one recalls. The memory being then not being there—as the narrator states, “Sir, I started this because of being afraid of not remembering.” (53) It is also about the way language does and cannot contain. About recollection and how dementia and Alzheimer’s and time whittle away at our perception of the past and present until it even whittles away at the connections between letters, thus our ability to communicate whatever might be recalled or might still be contained in us. It is a blank page we are returned to—as the opening book epigraph by William Carlos Williams states “and no whiteness (lost) is so white as the memory of whiteness .” which is echoed thirty pages later when we are told that Mrs Alice, suffering from late stage dementia, “essentially has no more sentences” (30). But these phrases also reveal that the sentence and thus language—both making words emerge off of the white page and forming them into speech as spoken sentences—is part of being alive.
Formally, Sir is 80 pages of short 1-4 paragraph long prose sections (with a few exceptions of 6 paragraph sections in part two) of which the first 40 pages are recollections and moments given like jotted down journal entries or anecdotes and the second 40 pages are letters addressed to Sir after Sir’s death. In the first half, the author-narrator goes from a kind of crisp, accentuated space of naiveté to a more adult sense of the body able to grasp—but not wanting to—the realities of the world, or the losses, around her. It is peppered with clever humor, at once evoking a laugh and sucker-punching us with a darker underside—such as in a section where she and Sir witness a car crash. As the person inside is dying, a policeman comes up to her and states the reason why the victim is still able to hang on:
One uniformed-man came up to me, and said, The only reason why this man is still alive is because he’s so methed-out. Let this be a lesson to you. I didn’t know what this meant: methed-out. I looked at the man’s badge and nodded. Yes, I understand. I thought to myself, Remember this. This must be a safe place—this methed-out place. (16)
But as a memory in a good poem usually serves more than one purpose, exists as more than simple journalled expression, and is more than a shared anecdote between friends, this passage serves more than to share that moment—it unveils the flaws in how logic itself functions. It is a kind of test of cause and effect, witness of event and lesson stated. From another perspective, from the reader’s and from—the reader presumes—the current perspective of the author, that moment shows how the mind connects two points in a flawed manner, fluidly, naturally, in a way that the process of logic encourages. It invites readers to reconsider and resee how lessons are learned, how perspectives and opinions they have held or now hold, based on experience and moments lived, have emerged.
In the second set of prose poems, the letter-poems, the narrator is calling out for a response, writing to the deceased. One might think of this as calling into the abyss, asking the now physically departed Sir for conversation, as that part of the book opens: “Dear Sir, //Can I still write you little letters even though you’re dead now?//Please say yes.”(43) Deceptively simple, it is gestures like italicizing the “yes” here that demonstrate the complexity underlying this seemingly naked surface. The italics place the yes in the mouth of the ghost, already separating it from the voice of the narrator, as if the narrator hasn’t just given Sir voice, permission to respond, to haunt her, but manifested him there. These forty pages are far more nakedly reaching out to the other, any other, for an answer.
Gestures such as the italicization here or the verb choice of “wouldn’t” instead of “would” mentioned at the start of this review are an attempt to use the small grammatical and typographic choices available in text to add layers. As concerns the typography, the author has announced more than once that her job is as a book designer, and, on the page preceding this, she had a moment where the letters became “tiny humans lying on their backs with their arms crossed over their chests” (41) who seemed to be “suffocating”. She wondered whether giving a little space around each letter might keep them from being smothered by others, might allow each letter to live and breathe and thrive just as the narrator herself seeks for herself a way to live and breathe and thrive despite a growing anxiety that eventually she will miss something, forget, lose those around her and have to go on even though—as the final poem in the book reveals—she finds herself sleeping alone again. As she reveals on page 83, “I had forgotten how cold it can get in bed at night when you’re only one human”.
Thus Sir is at once deeply personal—about the body and family and loss—and also deeply literary—about text, making of language, and creation in the face of loss. Perhaps it is also about creation as a sustaining force, the “and” that is connection, the “body both foreign and local at the same time” (36) as Hegnaur writes: “It’s the same way I feel about how the word and is different from the word human. And I think if everyone could just be a little more and, we’d all be a lot better off.” (36) Though this book which in so many ways seems so bright, so full of potential, is also always announcing the inevitable loss of the self and the other, it may also be representing the response to the question that reverberates throughout the book: “What is the difference between grief and lamentation?”(38) Thus showing us that grief is personal, perhaps short lived, but that lamentation, the lament, the calling out for or back for, is a lament for what is impossible to change—that the body has limits, or that: “I understand now that this is what happens when a human tries to become an and: the language won’t let us.” (37) Language, in the end, is what imprisons and perhaps can release. It is perhaps language that is the limit of the body. Certainly, Sir poses these questions and opens that reflection in the reader. As such, Sir is a book well worth reading and reflecting upon. It is not caught up in superficial aesthetic debates that are part of much of contemporary poetics, but is formally manifesting on and through its pages something that fundamentally ties the body of the writer and the language of the writing together in and through time. As such, and as a first collection by a young author, I can only imagine what great things this book promises that have yet to emerge from HR Hegnauer. I, for one, feel lucky to have been allowed to share in the experiences and complex layerings of loss, joy and reflection that make up this gorgeous collection, Sir.
Jennifer K Dick is the author of Circuits (2013), Fluorescence (2004) & Enclosures (2007) as well as 4 chapbooks--most recently Conversion (Estepa Editions, France with artwork by Kate Van Houten, 2013). Jennifer lives in France where she teaches at UHA. She co-curates the Ivy Writers Paris bilingual reading series & the Ecrire L'Art mini-residency for French authors at la Kunsthalle Mulhouse. A poetry editor for VERSAL magazine, Jennifer also writes a poetics column for Tears in the Fence (UK). Her blog, with recent poetry and critical writing links, is http://jenniferkdick.blogspot.fr/