there is no label on the spine of this book

warm and weave, jiyen lee
Finished watching today Alan Berliner’s brilliant documentary, about Edwin Honig, “First Cousin, Once Removed,” which has my mind spinning.

I should have known (or perhaps I did? Memory, aha) Edwin Honig from my student days. During the first half of the documentary I wished desperately that I had with the regret that comes from being so near yet so far from the stars. How artfully Berliner presents us with this rather frightening portrait of an elderly man suffering from acute Alzheimers from whom he deftly yet ever so lovingly and gently coaxes ephemera of such beauty, weaving it all in with his past, the joys, the tragedies.

“Poet, Translator, Knight,” he was, and is still in the frame of the film (Honig died soon after), at times making the seemingly nonsensical coos and cackles of birds and at others uttering words that only a poet might, that only a man who dreams awake might form. He plays with Berliner’s son with unfettered joy and listens and watches as Berliner describes for him some of the people and events of his past, even of the words he wrote, which are for him like hearing tales from long ago of strangers. The glimmer in his eye makes us wonder how much he does remember, how much he may choose to forget. Berliner reminds us that Alzheimers is progressive, but not linear.

The first half of the film made you ache for him, treasure him. It is a reminder of the riches that often lie dormant in a mind, in a body which might not reflect its early brilliance but still remain within, somewhere.

But like all of those we place on pedestals, this man knighted by the King of Spain and the president of Portugal, this voice of Lorca and Pessoa, this beloved teacher and mentor and above all creator who left a legacy of works that will live long beyond us all, was, as are we all, flawed and complex and as equally dark as he was light. The agony of watching  his children, his wife, speak of his cruelty shocks us, makes this almost childlike man who seems so vulnerable seem less so, or more so, for in the end we are all naked and stripped of our pasts, our presents. Have they forgiven him? Can they? Their scars remain, no doubt.

Today as part of a reading for a class I’m following on historical fiction I read Larissa MacFarquhar’s piece on Hilary Mantel in The New Yorker. She speaks of the writer’s (and I would venture to say reader’s) relationship to his or her characters, of the distance that exists between the historical character vs. that with a purely fictional one, the deeper intimacy that binds the writer to the characters he or she creates. “But,” she says, speaking of the character crafted from history, “there is also more equality between them, and more longing; when he dies, real mourning is possible.”

When we read of those we did not know whether in biographies or historical fiction, when we watch documentaries and gain a second-hand knowledge which we accept as truth, we form connections that feel real. Our attachment to them is sincere, yet we are in fact relating to an image of the person, an interpretation. Berliner himself recognized this, saying “Edwin was a translator. In many ways, I am translating Edwin. Memory itself, is the translator of life. It’s how we time travel. It’s how we move fluidly and effortlessly from the past to the present, toward and into an imagined, projected, hoped-for future.”

Stephen Elliott in his weekly missive for the Daily Rumpus, often teeters on that wall between fiction and reality, and has no issue with his meanderings between the warp and weft of each: “You should know,” he says, if you don’t, that not everything in these emails is true. Like when I wrote about how it was raining and I was talking to the poet in this amazing storm. It wasn’t actually raining. I am not going to be pinned by facts. This is not a memoir. This is not the New York Times. There is no label on the spine of this book telling us where it belongs on our shelves. We don’t even know what this is.”

We don’t even know what this is.

Toward the beginning of Berliner’s film, Honig says “I know that there is a past, and I know that I lived in it. I know that I gave it up to live only in the present.”

(image above, “Warp and Weave” by Jiyen Lee, via


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