By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Photo by Debra DiPaolo|
IN MARY RAKOW'S THE MEMORY ROOM, THE PROTAGONIST, Barbara, while stuck in a stalled elevator, suffers an emotional collapse far out of proportion to the actual danger. In the weeks following this episode, long-suppressed moments of her childhood come back to her in life-threatening (and certainly sanity-threatening) jolts.
The daughter of two mentally ill parents, a sadistic mother and an intermittently psychotic father, Barbara has so far navigated through life by overachieving and gardening, and to good result: She's a professor at a seminary, has a boyfriend, a circle of loving friends, the respect of her colleagues. Barbara may be ideally positioned to face the intolerable and incomprehensible facts of her past, with the help of a sensitive psychologist. Yet even with all this support, it's a harrowing process, the result of which is always in question.
The Memory Room has been called a novel in verse, but that hardly indicates its actual form, which is not metered, rhymed or in stanzas. It's a more useful description of the sensibility at work: Rakow writes with a poet's consideration of the page, and seeds her narrative with the poetry of others, notably Paul Celan as well as passages from Psalms. The result is an idiosyncratic, often beautiful tour de force.
Rakow was born in Berkeley, attended Cal and UC Riverside, and received a doctorate from Boston University. An adult convert to Catholicism, she took her master's degree in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School. The mother of three, Rakow lives in Manhattan Beach with her husband, Joel. She began writing The Memory Room in her early 40s, much of it as a member of Kate Braverman's writing group, Hard Words.
L.A. WEEKLY:Your background is primarily theological and academic -- was it literary as well?
MARY RAKOW:It was literary only to the extent of having, since childhood, a consistent exposure to the Bible in its King James Version. I did not read fiction or poetry until my mid-40s, after I started writing. I never aspired to "be a writer," and I still don't. I want to make sense of my world. For 10 years that meant, for me, gardening. Real, daily, serious, contemplative gardening as a way to empty myself.
Surely, though, you have literary influences.
I am still thinking about the Bible as I knew it -- two columns side by side on the page with the numbered chapters and verses, the names of each of the books contained ä in the Bible, the table of contents. These are forms and certainly not the forms of the original texts, the scrolls. Seeing written words organized in this way probably had an effect.
Also, the Bible, without apology and without effort, combines poetry, prose, law, narrative, biography. So it feels very natural to me to have between two covers of a single book, multiple books, multiple voices and multiple forms. You have Levitical law, gospel, psalm, creation myth, the anger of the prophets, all in one book. It never occurred to me that this would be a problem or that it was new or unique or creative or anything. I wrote The Memory Roomso that what was on the page embodied what I felt inside and didn't ask myself these questions.
The Memory Room has been described as "a book in verse," but I would say that the novel's accessible, energetic prose is such that it incorporates and accommodates verse. How did you come up with this form?
I consciously changed the form, several times and quite radically, based on my sense of the world. This meant I had to change how the page looked so that when I looked at it there was no lying going on. For example . . . when I heard of these two young boys, a toddler and an infant, thrown over the bridge into the Los Angeles River in broad daylight, I could no longer write from one margin across the page to the right. It felt like a lie. I thought, Is this how the world is? Is this what I can say to that surviving toddler? And the resounding answer was, immediately and radically, No. From that point on, for several years, I wrote in what I called "dots" -- two or three lines of text running across the top inch of the otherwise all-white page. I wrote thousands of these and eventually grouped them by color. I tied the piles with ribbon. Red, blue, yellow, black, white, green, blue, indicating their emotional timbre. I relied on these emotional tones when I had to begin ordering my dots into the convention of, you know, Page 1, Page 2.
My ordering of the colored dots was like musical composition. Hearing the sounds, the tones, what should come next, soundwise, emotionwise. With music I can think in a linear way and was able to order my thousands of fragments by thinking symphonically, as one who has a full orchestra at one's disposal. Earlier in the writing, I felt the text as a solo piece for cello. Then I felt it as a concerto -- you know, solo instrument, perhaps again cello, with small orchestra. It was only with the Celan and the Psalm texts I felt I had the full orchestra.