The Light Room
(Riverhead Books, 2023)
“Our toddler is now at an age where she’s likely to feel a sensitivity to Small Objects,” Kate Zambreno writes in The Light Room, her new memoir about caring for her two small daughters early in the COVID pandemic and amidst the ongoing disaster of climate change. With schools shut down, she develops an obsession with child development and progressive education methods—it is from Maria Montessori that she learns that children go through many “Sensitivity Periods.”
Zambreno shares her daughter’s sensitivity to small objects. The Light Room finds Zambreno negotiating the relationship between “the small and the cosmic,” as she tells the college students she teaches in a nature writing class, now held on Zoom. She tells them that nature is in the walks they take in their neighborhoods, in the weather. She seeks out the beauty of “a city pastoral, which for me is Prospect Park,” proposing a mode of being in nature, and of nature writing, that is close to home, entwined with the domestic and the daily. “I wonder,” she writes, contemplating the artist Joseph Cornell, often thought of as a tragic figure, living with his “wheelchair-bound brother and overbearing mother” in Queens, “why a small life is always read as a terrible life.”
Cornell’s most famous works are his shadow boxes, small assemblages in glass-fronted wooden boxes “where ordinary objects and nostalgic toys—clay pipes and blue marbles and tiny cordial glasses and painted rolling balls—suddenly become kinetic and magic when assembled.” Collage and assemblage are a particular fascination of Zambreno’s. She and her daughter look at photos of David Wojnarowicz’s Magic Box—the box, found under Wojnarowicz’s bed after his death, was a collection of small objects, charms and dried flowers and figurines. She also looks to Derek Jarman, who, as he was dying of complications due to AIDS, moved to a cottage “in Dungeness, Kent … The eerie landscape has long been regarded as something like a post-apocalyptic setting … its location next to the brutal-looking Nuclear Power Station Dungeness B, with its threat of nuclear accident.” Zambreno writes that “there is even beauty in picking up the rubbish scattered over the shore, the glint of glass and pottery, military and fishing relics, which [Jarman] then makes into towering rust-colored sculptures…an eeriness, after Mark Fisher’s definition, that comes from being partially emptied of the human, yet everywhere haunted by its destructions.” Her fascination with the way “these artists made collecting and organizing their own art form, grappling with objects from the past by organizing them into new constellations,” is one way of thinking about the meaning that can be made out of small things. Zambreno’s book, itself, is assembled from fragments.
Many of the items in Wojnarowicz’s box—“plastic insects and bugs,” “two plastic cowboys”—resemble the language objects Zambreno gathers for her daughters, another idea borrowed from the Montessori tradition. “The idea,” she explains, “was to collect small objects, at least one for every letter, hopefully several, in order to teach first-stage phonics.” A sensitivity to small things is crucial even to language—crucial to the way we make meaning at all.
Zambreno is concerned with things that don’t last—flowers, sunlight, the bubbles her daughter and Cornell both love, which she calls “ephemeral, much like childhood itself”—and things that are preserved—her dead mother’s journal, trash made into art, photographs and memories. This is to say, she is concerned with the experience of time. She writes of her younger daughter’s cold: “Strings of snot pulled from her nose. Almost pleasurable, the elasticity. Like time, it stretches.”
Zambreno’s struggle to make sense of time is borne out even in the syntax; she writes in a permanent present tense that presses against her need to relate the past. “Soon we enter the season of rain. We dress our [daughter] in Muddy Buddys and rain pants … As I write this, less than a year later,” she writes, the past pushing into the present, or the present giving way to the past, “she has already outgrown them.”
Time, too, is a kind of collage; it accretes and layers, and meaning can be found in the way traces of the past pile up. “My daughters,” Zambreno writes, watching them play in the park, “could be my sister and me as children.” Zambreno describes this sense of layered time as “a history feeling,” recalling Svetlana Boym’s description of nostalgia as “a historical emotion” in her book The Future of Nostalgia. Boym writes of a “reflective nostalgia,” oriented towards longing; it “cherishes shattered fragments of memory,” it loves “ruins, eclectic constructions,” and this attitude allows not a recreation of the past but a sense of history as “an atmosphere, a space for reflection on the passage of time.” Boym describes reflective nostalgia as “ironic, inconclusive and fragmentary,” also a good description of the art Zambreno writes about and Zambreno’s work itself.
The collections which Zambreno documents, like the collection she creates in this book, are efforts to save pieces of the past, and so are also about mourning. Watching the film Wojnarowicz made after his friend Peter Hujar’s death, layering images of Hujar with images of nature, she writes, “I’ve realized that for Wojnarowicz, these fragments were less about a finished work and more about the private ritual, a longing to contemplate beauty and joy amid individual and collective crisis, including the loss felt by ecological spoilage and changes in the landscape.” This is what Zambreno does, in her own way. She layers her contemplations of beauty and joy—in nature, in those she loves, in art—and grief, personal and collective.
“Marginalia of a given epoque doesn’t simply become its memorabilia,” writes Boym. Instead, “it might contain the kernels of the future.” In The Light Room, Zambreno offers a catalogue of these kernels, these moments of beauty and flashes of joy. There are things here, she suggests, worth grieving. There are things here worth saving.