Riley Jones

Half Mystery, Half Everything I Am Not: On Fernanda Laguna and Cecilia Pavón's Autobiographical Poetics

What does it mean to write autobiography, or, what does it mean to write autobiographically? I’m interested in the tension between the desire to read art autobiographically and the desire to discount autobiographical reading as reductive to great art. It is obvious to me that this is not a neutral tension—certain work, specifically the work of writers deemed ‘minor’ or seen as located along particular (visible) lines of identity, cannot often escape autobiographical readings. Whereas writing produced from the socially centered perspective does not register as autobiographical. None of this is new or novel, though I’m interested in thinking about what it means to compose work that begs for autobiographical reading, writing that cannot fairly be made sense of without acknowledging its co-dependence on a particular, subjective, daily, and, at least in part, material life.

Poetry, especially the lyric, is located in interesting relation to the project of telling both shared and personal history. Not existing between non-fiction and fiction, but an example of an other, third mode of writing, poetry presents a model of life. Not as story, but as performative speculation: life negotiated and re-negotiated in an accumulating but immediate present. While autobiography as genre might suggest that ‘life’ progresses towards its ultimate ‘meaning,’ autobiography in poetry might suggest a model of life manifesting in its unstable entirety as one comes into immediate contact with it. Rather than being taken for granted, a real question taken up by the lyric is: what is life?

In their winding, personal, searching poems translated to English by Stuart Krimko and collected in the volume Belleza y Felicidad: Selected Writings published by Sand Paper Press in 2015, Argentinian writers, friends, and creative collaborators Fernanda Laguna and Cecelia Pavón circle this question. If they come to an answer, it is by documenting both their living by way of writing and their writing by way of living. Their project, which includes but ultimately transcends the constructing of poems, suggests alternative considerations for ‘the autobiographical’ in writing: Laguna and Pavón’s insistence on representing and renegotiating autobiographical material in their poems refigures how we make sense of ‘autobiography’ in the first place. Not as a compositional mode or lens culminating in a particular effect (a reader’s recognition of a writer’s life), but as a byproduct of the attempt in art to know what is meant by, and what is contained in, the unknowable object of life.

I’m interested in the ways that this thing, life, is oriented in relation to its ending, or culmination, differently for Laguna and Pavón. In their writing, life’s eventual end is rendered less as a process under linear development and more as a force animating the present. For both poets, there exists the looming, though importantly, neutral presence of the end of life contained within life’s present and seemingly inconsequential moment. In “From Housewife to Mom in a House” Laguna writes,

            I have 6 hours to sleep
            and in these 6 hours
            are all the hours that have existed, and that will ever exist.
            In these 6 hours the dinosaurs appeared,
            migrated and were wiped out.
            And the human being has done it all, all of it and all it will do (105-107)

One does not approach the end of life, but lives from it. Similarly, Pavón writes in “The Festival of Tears,”

            Seeing fire in the sky and feeling the force
            of thousands of centuries pausing for a
            single second in a single place.
            The place was called ‘The End’
            and it was also called ‘I’ (215)

Here, ‘the end’ of life, or of time, is bound up in the self’s coming into being as it coheres around the ‘I,’ not a singular or culminating process but an event under constant rearticulation. For both writers, the end of life is not located in the far-off future but is regularly carried out in the persisting now of life, containing, in addition to its limit (or by nature of its limit) everything that will exist or that will be done.

This seems, importantly, counter to the usual assumptions about life implied by the conventions or expectations of autobiography—that to have the quality of ‘entirety,’ the distance between life’s initiation and its ending must be conceptualized as existing as far from each other as possible. The function of conventional autobiography might be to retrospectively perform this temporal distancing for a reader, distending the moment of an end from its beginning: to give the feeling of a life’s duration in the compressed form of writing.

If life’s endings are allowed to be not singular and final, but rather, recursively present, then the assumptions and outcomes of autobiography shift as well. Both Laguna and Pavón come up against the expectations of autobiographical self-documentation, considering their own work in relation to the project of ‘realism.’ In “Automatic Reflections,” Laguna writes,

I’m going to change—right now! Now.
In this very moment I change.
I should write a novel—now!
Realist, heterosexual, and with a plot.
I turn off the music to stop my emotions from flying all over.
That’s what I should do and I’m doing it.

This is my next step
trying to write everything in third person
which is more complicated than first...
because first
I feel is easier,
it’s like writing in my diary. 
It’s writing what I feel
which is fantasy
because my feelings aren’t very well-defined. (85)

For Laguna, the realist novel seems to represent an unsavory but more respected mode, not only of writing, but of presenting life in writing. At odds equally with diary writing and fantasy, which are, for Laguna, cooperative projects, the realist novel, distanced from the self, becomes an idealized mode for communicating a true account of life.

Regarding ‘the novel’ as a medium for personal history is not as counterintuitive as it would seem, despite traditional warnings against applying autobiographical reading to fiction. What Laguna seems to point to is a developing understanding of the possibilities of the novel: a shift from mode-of-representing collective life in general, through fictive abstraction, to mode-of-representing a personal life in particular.

Here, I think of the emergence of the New Narrative movement in America beginning in the 1970s, and subsequent novels like Dodie Bellamy’s The Letters of Mina Harker (2004), and Chris Kraus’s Aliens & Anorexia (2000). In both novels, narrativized accounts of artistic practice and personal life lean into the fantastical and diaristic. Both Bellamy and Kraus seem to share similar investments with the work of Laguna and Pavón, who frequently offer accounts of their artistic lives alongside accounts of their material daily lives, blurring the two together in the process. Work like Bellamy’s and Kraus’s might be thought of as paving the way for the ‘autofiction’ we know today—an intervention on the novel form in which autobiography and the realist novel blur, rejecting the third person, but not plot and narrative (at least, not completely).

Laguna and Pavón are interested in a similar, potentially feminist, intervention on form. An intervention that might be grounded in a philosophy asserting that biography is inseparable from creative production. In this insistence on the diaristic mode of autobiography, there is a vehement refusal of the devaluation of the feminine in writing.

To insist on the diaristic is to insist on the relevance of the daily to autobiography. Not only is life’s origin located in the immediate ‘now,’ but this ‘now’ contains everything. An everything that is channeled through an encounter with the daily, rather than the sublime: Pavón in “To Fernanda,”

            The neighborhood was sad
            And thousands of arms took to space
            And opened furrows in dimensions
            With which I fooled myself,
            “the infinite exists,” “the infinite exists,”
            The only phrase written in my brain,
            And it was being written again. (203)

One of the many things I’m moved by in Laguna and Pavón’s work is its insistence on poetry, on writing “with no plot,” on the lyric as a unique vehicle for rendering a life (237). As Laguna writes in “Fights,”

Poem what are you doing with me?
Where are you taking me?

I’ve abandoned reason
and traded it in
for your rhythmic mind.
Damn you poetry
I won’t fight against you,
we’ll make love
among the corpses.” (143)

For her, though she should write the realist novel, poetry asserts itself. For Pavón the impulse towards the lyric is something to be fought for:

I want to be a poet
poet, poet, poet
poet, poet, poet
not a novelist,
not an essayist:
A poet.
It’s all I want to be in life
since I was five years old. (235)

I wonder what the absence of plot in poetry, which might find order instead in “emotions... flying all over,” reveals about life and our ability to mark its occurrence (85).

A lyric model of life rejects the distance of its origins in a past moment and its totality in a future one, without rejecting the acting of the past or future on life’s manifestation in the now. In their writing, there is a permeating idea that life is unfixed and that the process of living leaves traces on our recognition of it.  A lyric model of life asserts a reality not foregrounded on essential or total existence, but a reality constituted through moments of felt encounter. Something like: ‘I know my life is real because I can feel it.’ Pavón writes in “Last Poems of Winter,”

        Is God the one who has given us this
        or am I the one who measured it out
        with my good intentions
                 and my good habits?
                 The green of the shrubs, the roughness of the palm trees
                 within a few square meters everything in the city
                 Internalized. (221)

It is not new to question the assumed relationship between life and writing, to imagine between life and writing a co-constitutive relationship in which life makes writing possible and writing makes life possible. This model has an element of the fantastic though in the moment of writing and in the moment of living it feels true. For Laguna and Pavón, as it is for me, it is an ecstatic feeling of coincidence or accident. It is an encounter with the total mystery and impossibility of the self in which ‘self-recognition’ is recognizing that one is “half mystery / half everything [one] is not” (127).

We might typically assume that to write autobiographically indicates a desire to crystallize the self into a knowable and static identity. For Laguna and Pavón, the desire to write, or the desire to be a poet, instead points to a mysterious potential, one possible to achieve because it escapes its own intents. Laguna writes: “Essences / are repulsive to me. / I like poetry / and no one is born to be a poet. / Not even verses are born to be poetry” (139). That Laguna is a visual artist in addition to a writer feels important here, and suggests that while poetry insists upon itself, or while one may insist upon poetry, life does not reach an end or culmination of meaning in poetry.

Life was not born to be poetry, just as Laguna suggests poetry itself was not born to be poetry. That poetry exists at all is not its achievement but its failure. A generative failure, in which the desire to know the truth of one’s life can be given form, as the truth sought retains its necessary, life-giving, unknowability. Pavón writes in “Nine Kinds of Crying,”

            Now that I draw closer to the creeping vines
            I better understand the garden
            To ride out on a surfboard over the dunes,
            To see snakes and lizards,
            To dream of dogs without heads.
            After childhood one moves
            Through intergalactic terrains
            Of illumination
            The real mystery is who lives there,
            what are the houses made of
            who is the DJ. (225)

To engage mystery not by evading but by approaching particulars: demonstrating curiosity about who populates life, what materials compose it, might be a way both to know life, and to orient it toward pleasure. Each moment of life contains all of life. But what we choose to pay attention to, what we question, determines the point of contact between the self and life.

I wonder if it is possible to think about autobiography as a map, not of life’s progression towards completion, but of those points of contact. For both Laguna and Pavón, the moments we make contact with not only our own lives, but with another’s life, are especially potent. Laguna writes in “Salvador Bahía, She and I,”

            I suppose
            I remembered
            I love most in this world
            because I thought
            right away
            that when I saw her,
            she and I
            would go
            on an endless vacation
            to the beaches of paradise

            She and I
            But later Gabriela and Cecilia
            would come too. (45)

Poetry is not only a tool for mapping encounters with life, but imagining it. It feels important, here, to return to the title of this collection, which was also the name of Laguna and Pavón’s storefront and gallery in Buenos Aires where the two hosted a small press and grew a prominent community arts space: Belleza y Felicidad. Beauty and Happiness.

As their poems posit, and their community practices confirm, the places where lives come into contact with each other become charged sites of proliferative potential for life and for writing, both individual and collective. Laguna and Pavón’s attempts to account for those sites of encounter in the poem seem to emphasize what the poem cannot contain, what the poem might be an improvised placeholder for until the fantasy can be actualized. Pavón writes,

            Poets never know what they’re writing,
            and here I am, trying to write well
            but it’s never going to happen,
            and besides Dear Faith, if you appear in the form of something
            I don’t believe that form will be a poem. (257)

I do not, in the moment that I am writing this, know what living is, or if it is possible. Still, as Laguna writes, “I can’t stop being something” (133). In this moment, I do not know that I want to live. However, I do feel that I want it. Reading Laguna and Pavón, I can feel it. Maybe that feeling is faith.

Riley Jones is a poet from western Massachusetts.