HR Hegnauer - Who is Sir? A pivot of language for an old man with a life of curious stories; a ghost, a mirage, a woman in Turkey. And a slice of the contemporary with its sickness, aging, death, its wars and commodities
HR Hegnauer, Sir, Portable Press at Yo-yo Labs, 2013
Excerpts on Feminist Wire
Who is Sir? A pivot of language for an old man with a life of curious stories; a ghost, a mirage, a woman in Turkey. And a slice of the contemporary with its sickness, aging, death, its wars and commodities. HR Hegnauer has created an epistolary identity of engaged and hybridized increments from her own youthful living and details of others and their entwined poetries and presences. It is a highly performative text of depth, mind grammar, and beautiful gesture, inhabited by vivid characters and voices that change and charge the room. Bravo!— Anne Waldman
There is a certain liminality that haunts the architecture of HR Hegnauer’s first full-length book, Sir. The word liminal comes from the latin limen meaning threshold—a point of entry, a door. And when I allow the book to unfurl itself in my mind’s eye, I see separate rooms—a room of life and a room of death, a room of male and a room of female. There are so many rooms. And then I see the walls between the rooms melting. As the walls melt the threshold expands. Soon enough, the entire architecture is apart of the threshold; I don’t know when I’ve left one room and entered another.
In this vein the narrator, Hannah, writes: “I cannot always remember what it is like to stand next to another human anymore. By this I mean, what is it like to stand next to every room in their body” (36). So, there are these rooms. There are the haunted rooms of the body. There are the haunted rooms after the death of Sir, where time becomes a dissolving threshold. There are also the hauntings of bodies and the hauntings of objects. These are the thresholds, melting.
There are strange role reversals that happen like a haunting…like a melting. Like when Sir observes a man “flip his stolen car and drag his face along the freeway guardrail” and calls out to the man, “Sir, sir can you hear me?!…Dude, help me out of here! He kept yelling at us.” (16). The liminality between the bodies of the two men, between their cries, between Sir’s past, present and future, all blur in disaster. And of course there is the dissolving threshold between Hannah’s memory and experience, as this incapacitated body in need of help echoes in different iterations throughout the book.
As Sir attempts to serve as an archive for both the living dead and the dead who live on, Hannah also seems suspect of this act—the corpus is also a corpse. Perhaps this is most clear when Hannah describes the experience of working as a book designer. When zooming in and looking at the letters closely she says, “They looked something like miniature living corpses on their deathbeds” (41).
Still, fascinatingly, Hannah decides that she doesn’t want to be reincarnated as a human; she wants to be reincarnated as the word and.
And never knows any limits to its body; and knows no limits because it’s incapable of ever even thinking about no. That’s just not possible. I have to write the human narrative, but can only theorize about and because that is not my reality. What a sham. And has it made, Sir; it gets to be everything; it’s better than god or the world or love or anything (these things are just too human). I can only describe it by saying, and. And in my next life, I want to be an and, not a human. I just want to live amongst the other ands.And actually, and is perfect. And is a threshold. And has no walls and and knows no walls. It is only inclusive. And there is so much more to this book than thresholds and hauntings and and. HR’s writing is so subtly strange that one could almost miss the wonderful weirdness of her ideas by getting swept up in the compelling story of Sir, Mrs. Alice and Hannah. But then her writing will stop you. And suddenly you will pick the book back up and you will read it again. And you’ll think, I can’t wait to read more of her. - Ivy Johnson
I am trying on narration, and this is what it feels like: a pocket of
red string. —HR Hegnauer, Sir, page 78.
HR Hegnauer’s Sir (Portable Press at Yo-yo labs, 2013) reminds the reader of the importance of paying attention, of noting everything as it happens, of—as the book opens—not missing anything. Page one closes with: “Don’t worry, I told her, I wouldn’t.”(3) This first prose passage’s ending deftly announces the craft of the author, the shift from the expected “I won’t” to “I wouldn’t” complicating the immediacy and distance of the text and of the position of the narrator in the sections to come. Here, the narrator extends that promise to not miss anything from the moment it was made through a desire and failure to make that promise true to all futures—not just that she will not but would not miss anything at a or at any moment already slipping away.
This book is about slippage. First off the slippage between one genre of writing and another—as Sir is a kind of narrative in poetic journal form which turns into a series of epistles in the latter half. It is being composed by a fictionalized version of the author herself as narrator. Like a novel, autobiography or journal, it has characters that are part of this author-narrator’s life—primarily Mrs Alice, an old woman in her eighties who has dementia, and Sir, the husband of Alice. The author notes at the end of the book that these two characters are based on her own grandparents. It is also about the body slipping away, or even coming into being—physical vs. potential spiritual or ghost or even intellectual presence. It is also about the slippage of what one recalls. The memory being then not being there—as the narrator states, “Sir, I started this because of being afraid of not remembering.” (53) It is also about the way language does and cannot contain. About recollection and how dementia and Alzheimer’s and time whittle away at our perception of the past and present until it even whittles away at the connections between letters, thus our ability to communicate whatever might be recalled or might still be contained in us. It is a blank page we are returned to—as the opening book epigraph by William Carlos Williams states “and no whiteness (lost) is so white as the memory of whiteness .” which is echoed thirty pages later when we are told that Mrs Alice, suffering from late stage dementia, “essentially has no more sentences” (30). But these phrases also reveal that the sentence and thus language—both making words emerge off of the white page and forming them into speech as spoken sentences—is part of being alive.
Formally, Sir is 80 pages of short 1-4 paragraph long prose sections (with a few exceptions of 6 paragraph sections in part two) of which the first 40 pages are recollections and moments given like jotted down journal entries or anecdotes and the second 40 pages are letters addressed to Sir after Sir’s death. In the first half, the author-narrator goes from a kind of crisp, accentuated space of naiveté to a more adult sense of the body able to grasp—but not wanting to—the realities of the world, or the losses, around her. It is peppered with clever humor, at once evoking a laugh and sucker-punching us with a darker underside—such as in a section where she and Sir witness a car crash. As the person inside is dying, a policeman comes up to her and states the reason why the victim is still able to hang on:
One uniformed-man came up to me, and said, The only reason why this man is still alive is because he’s so methed-out. Let this be a lesson to you. I didn’t know what this meant: methed-out. I looked at the man’s badge and nodded. Yes, I understand. I thought to myself, Remember this. This must be a safe place—this methed-out place. (16)
But as a memory in a good poem usually serves more than one purpose, exists as more than simple journalled expression, and is more than a shared anecdote between friends, this passage serves more than to share that moment—it unveils the flaws in how logic itself functions. It is a kind of test of cause and effect, witness of event and lesson stated. From another perspective, from the reader’s and from—the reader presumes—the current perspective of the author, that moment shows how the mind connects two points in a flawed manner, fluidly, naturally, in a way that the process of logic encourages. It invites readers to reconsider and resee how lessons are learned, how perspectives and opinions they have held or now hold, based on experience and moments lived, have emerged.
In the second set of prose poems, the letter-poems, the narrator is calling out for a response, writing to the deceased. One might think of this as calling into the abyss, asking the now physically departed Sir for conversation, as that part of the book opens: “Dear Sir, //Can I still write you little letters even though you’re dead now?//Please say yes.”(43) Deceptively simple, it is gestures like italicizing the “yes” here that demonstrate the complexity underlying this seemingly naked surface. The italics place the yes in the mouth of the ghost, already separating it from the voice of the narrator, as if the narrator hasn’t just given Sir voice, permission to respond, to haunt her, but manifested him there. These forty pages are far more nakedly reaching out to the other, any other, for an answer.
Gestures such as the italicization here or the verb choice of “wouldn’t” instead of “would” mentioned at the start of this review are an attempt to use the small grammatical and typographic choices available in text to add layers. As concerns the typography, the author has announced more than once that her job is as a book designer, and, on the page preceding this, she had a moment where the letters became “tiny humans lying on their backs with their arms crossed over their chests” (41) who seemed to be “suffocating”. She wondered whether giving a little space around each letter might keep them from being smothered by others, might allow each letter to live and breathe and thrive just as the narrator herself seeks for herself a way to live and breathe and thrive despite a growing anxiety that eventually she will miss something, forget, lose those around her and have to go on even though—as the final poem in the book reveals—she finds herself sleeping alone again. As she reveals on page 83, “I had forgotten how cold it can get in bed at night when you’re only one human”.
Thus Sir is at once deeply personal—about the body and family and loss—and also deeply literary—about text, making of language, and creation in the face of loss. Perhaps it is also about creation as a sustaining force, the “and” that is connection, the “body both foreign and local at the same time” (36) as Hegnaur writes: “It’s the same way I feel about how the word and is different from the word human. And I think if everyone could just be a little more and, we’d all be a lot better off.” (36) Though this book which in so many ways seems so bright, so full of potential, is also always announcing the inevitable loss of the self and the other, it may also be representing the response to the question that reverberates throughout the book: “What is the difference between grief and lamentation?”(38) Thus showing us that grief is personal, perhaps short lived, but that lamentation, the lament, the calling out for or back for, is a lament for what is impossible to change—that the body has limits, or that: “I understand now that this is what happens when a human tries to become an and: the language won’t let us.” (37) Language, in the end, is what imprisons and perhaps can release. It is perhaps language that is the limit of the body. Certainly, Sir poses these questions and opens that reflection in the reader. As such, Sir is a book well worth reading and reflecting upon. It is not caught up in superficial aesthetic debates that are part of much of contemporary poetics, but is formally manifesting on and through its pages something that fundamentally ties the body of the writer and the language of the writing together in and through time. As such, and as a first collection by a young author, I can only imagine what great things this book promises that have yet to emerge from HR Hegnauer. I, for one, feel lucky to have been allowed to share in the experiences and complex layerings of loss, joy and reflection that make up this gorgeous collection, Sir. - Jennifer K Dick
Dear Mrs. Alice,
May I call you that? Are you comfortable operating from a space of Mrs., a dear Mrs.? In increments, I have come to the point where I must flee to your psyche. I know this is problematic because you have not given me a map to get there, but I cannot read maps now anyhow. I won’t miss anything. I promise. Yet, I am prepared for when we fail, how we fail and when we cannot be just a little more and.
While I know that with each body in this space, we lose a little air, but do not fear, I have protection. Sir left it for me in the form of a jacket or cloak, I cannot clearly remember, but it blankets us, brightens our colors, and it is precious. With this in mind, let us go there, to this pivot of mirage. First, know the difference between grief and lamentation or don’t. Next, give up on the notion that you can emit time. Learn, to spell Hannah backwards, and be prepared for the sentiment that words go inside books to die.
Now that we have established some ground rules, I feel comfortable moving forward. Do you? “I had a flash-back to my mother leaving for work in the morning when/ I was still a little girl, and she would always say to me, kiss me like a fool.” I know it is too depressing to put this grief on you over and over again. I know that it gets difficult when a tear is confused and won’t exit the corner of your eye, but I want us to focus on the migration. That migration of death; not through a grandfather clock, but rather a migration through that little whistle, that little stroke of air that sounds between the teeth and tongue.
If we are to get there, we need to be cancerous. “The cancer. It / doesn’t care where or how it started, and it doesn’t care where or how / it’s going wherever it’s going, but it knows it will get there.” Sir, would have wanted it this way. This cancer does not distinguish between local and foreign bodies, so please be prepared. Be prepared for this distinction. Be prepared to be a little more and, and we will be better off. - Daniel Cantrick
Jacket2 review, by Ariel Goldberg & Rachel LevitskyThe Poetry Foundation, Favorite Book of 2013 selected by Mairead CasePoetry Society of America, New American Poets Feature selected by Eric Baus
AUTHOR STATEMENTI’ve been writing through what a memory can be and how to preserve it; how to keep it, lose it, and retrieve it again. SIR is an attempt at thinking about what it means to be a human alongside another human — how to grieve the loss of memory at the same time as the loss of life, while trying to keep in mind that we are living right now. I am indebted to my grandparents who have inspired the characters of Sir & Mrs. Alice.
Sir happens where the thresholds between the living, the dead, and the demented become progressively less clear. To remember that we are not above being human; that we are only humans trying to live amongst humans. I see this project as a form of archive. Of course, all writing is an archive, but to archive a story of dementia is inherently contradictory, and an archive of the ethereal is in some ways inconceivable. Then Sir asks the reader, can we archive the inconceivable contradictions? Will you try with me to not miss anything?
There are also underlying questions around the body’s relationship to gender, but to ask these questions are not the main purpose of the project. I have found, however, that it is unavoidable. I think of gender as a dead place, a failed place. And in part, I am writing an elegy towards gender.
During the writing of Sir, I would often ask myself Robert Gluck’s question What kind of representation least deforms its subject? I naturally come to a place of language, art, and media, but first, I come to this question in regards to my own human body. How might I represent myself so that I least deform my thoughts? Much of this project is concerned with dementia, and I believe that the form should attempt this idea, too. Some vignettes are long and clear while others are brief; when one story ends abruptly, it may be followed by something a decade later. I have been careful to not exploit these stories, yet at the same time, to not make them any more beautiful or desirable than as they exist. I want them to feel human, and of course, that is not always a desirable thing to be. But as Sir says to the narrator, Walk steady now, I’ve tried to place myself here as the author.
I cannot always remember what it is like to stand next to another human anymore. By this I mean, what it is like to stand next to every room in their body.
I like to drink my earl grey tea just after I’ve brushed my teeth because it tastes extra fresh like this — like it’s from the produce department or something. No one knows this anymore. Every year, I Photoshop my college ID to keep it current, and then I go to the opera where it makes my body feel both foreign and local at the same, and I like this contradiction. It’s the same way I feel when I write about how the word and is different from the word human. And I think that if everyone could just be a little more and, we’d all be a lot better off.
I want to know these things about another human.
The house that I’m now living in has a television, which is the first time I’ve lived with a television since I was in high school and lived at home. I’ve now learned from Oprah what forgiveness means. She said that to forgive someone means that you’ve realized you do not wish you were any different than you are right now. This does not mean that you must love what is to be forgiven… Or it went something like this… There were no colors. This never happened.
I understand now that this is what happens when a human tries to become an and: the language won’t let us.
I’m writing these stories in reverse now because I can’t remember how to emit time anymore. I wanted to curse Sir. Don’t you know she’s got no memory!? But the one from sixty years ago is like a glass of water only even more clear: it doesn’t even have that distorted part at the lip: the part where you can’t tell how tall something is. The problem is is that her sentences have to exist right now. This is what the limit of her body is.
Sometimes I think about what it is like to live in Colorado now for the first time in three generations, and I wonder if the memory of the body might be genetic.
Mrs. Alice, what are the limits of the body?
This is… This is…
And then that was it. It was like she had forgotten how to make a sentence anymore. This is what? What is this? Or was it, This is, period. I’m so afraid of this. I want to make these sentences. And I want to make them sixty years from now, too.
I work most days as a book designer, and two nights ago, I was working on a text about phenomena when I noticed that something strange was happening with the letters. I zoomed in and in and more and again. I saw each letter up closely, and I saw that they were breathing — literally and slowly. Maybe you don’t believe me, but I saw this vividly. It was like the letters were made of tiny humans lying on their backs with their arms crossed over their chests. They looked something like miniature living corpses on their deathbeds. It seemed that they might be suffocating one another — being so closely piled. So I gave space around each letter and word and line and margin, and then I zoomed back in and in and more closely still, and again, and they had stopped. Entirely. There was no more breathing — not even slowly, not even a little.
From inside of my dream, Sir asked me if I was dreaming. I said, I don’t think so. He said, you know, this is where the word goes when it’s ready to die. It goes inside the book, and it holds itself here.
The next morning, I got a phone call that the author had died.
Can I still write you little letters even though you’re dead now?
Please say yes.
“In SIR, the ideas of death and memory are inseparable. The body/not-body and who knows what when and how they know it are stitches that bind. To touch, to be bound…” — Michael Sikkema
“HR Hegnauer’s Sir is a gorgeous, heart-breakingly honest tale (or non-tale?–“perhaps this is grief in its most idyllic form”) that feels (even after multiple reads and an experience of hearing the book recited) like a radical compassion-site–not the usual dyad compassion of one figure to another solely, somehow Sir’s compassion is compassion within a stratum of compassion. It loops in itself tenderly. It tends to and attends…” — j/j hastain