Life of a Star
Burning Deck Press, 2010
Anxiety suffuses much of Life of a Star, Jane Unrue’s lapidary bloodletting, and much of it is borne from the narrator’s bemoaning of language’s limitations, memory’s imprecision, romance’s sudden changes, and the seeming impossibility of love. The novella, composed of luminous, evocative fragments, is much like a mosaic wall, albeit a ruined one, missing patches of tiles, where the viewer must fill in the necessary blanks. Incredibly perceptive and imaginative, the unnamed narrator elliptically relays her brief moment in the limelight, her strained “encounters” with a lover, her attempted suicide, and her difficulties with finding a language to seam the mangled threads of her life together into some kind of whole:
No matter how I try to focus motivation, limiting associations, drilling each part of a sentence individually, not too emphatically, it’s always stumped me why so many of my very most tender and authentic memories are tangled up with over-practiced words and stiff, exaggerated moves. For instance, any recollection of a figure standing next to me is so unbearably entwined within the lifting of my hands as if to block the morning light out, that I’m left to pick through words and objects, moments of remembrance, for the slightest hint of anything that I can even begin to recognize as someone close enough to reach.
It’s a despair familiar to any writer who, continually exploring the vast resources of language, still finds him- or herself incapable of generating the proper vocabulary, syntax, and narratological framework to encompass the baffling complexity of psychological and emotional experience, of pain in all its forms. Emotionally off-kilter, the narrator isn’t satisfied with what she sees, feels, and thinks unless her experiences are given some kind of form or contained in a concrete way. She’s utterly self-conscious and spilling over with doubt: “It seems I have no feelings I can call my own.” Finding “artificiality in mere words,” she feels she must “live words.” Wandering naked in an idyllic scene, she distances herself from her surroundings by wondering how to contain it, capture it, control it: “It was the kind of scene to paint on onion skin, and then to wrap around a lantern, turn it slowly, see the bridge slide into view and out, and my naked body coming, going too.” Oscillating in time, the narrative also sometimes shatters into incomplete sentences, mirroring the narrator’s own fractured perception of both her past and present. And many of these fragments are intruded upon by other voices:
The color of my eyes is something people might not well recall. And though petite, at times
Look how her—!
She’s not even one little bit—!
Unrue’s performance is quite arresting, here. Her poetic renderings of consciousness are expertly handled: she carefully maps her narrator’s vacillations and her confused outlook on life; and she harnesses the flotsam and jetsam of external things: the observations and judgments from other people she’s collected over the course of her troubled life. The narrator, embroidering, sewing, and stitching in the midst of her reveries is, at times, overwhelmed by her fanciful surroundings and the gravity of her personal history. Her own expressive inventorying serves as a way of bringing sense to the senselessness in her life: “To be alive requires that we build a catalogue of like-like images and stolen words and phrases, things we can put to use.”
Immersed in these wrenching scenes, where Unrue’s melancholic lyricism overflows, it’s easy to feel like her narrator who, after reminiscing about kissing her lover says, “This was a moment when the image and the words collide, the kind of moment people live for.” At one point, the narrator, embroidering, compiles a wish list of all the things she needs for her craft. This list could also serve as the best summation of how this novella was put together for it, too, is a “catalogue of patterns, stitches, backgrounds, combinations and suggestions, useful bits and pieces, images.” Unrue’s imaginative precision gives way to indeterminacy, clarity to tentativeness, cohesion to dislocation. The events and images in this world are delivered in a sensuous prose that harkens back to Carole Maso, another accomplished master whose prose belies great intelligence, insight, and a willingness to submit to the seductive power of the sentence. Think of Life of a Star, then, as an illuminated viewfinder, one where parallax, ambiguity, blur, and discontinuity may impede immediate recognition, but one which still impresses through the sheer power of its startling imagery and commanding poetics, its accretion of clues and repetitions. In the end, all of the fragmentary, floating images in Life of a Star finally cohere into an enigmatic portrait of a burned out visionary, an object lesson on the fleetingness of desire, of the perpetuity of pain, on the doubtful, but nevertheless worthwhile, possibility that language may bring meaning to life, or, at the very least, help one to endure its vicissitudes.
JOHN MADERA edits the forum Big Other and journal The Chapbook Review.