KR OnlineReview

What Keeps Me In?: Selfhood in Sarah Blackman’s Mother Box

Tuscaloosa, AL: FC2, 2013. 214 pages. $16.95.
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The subtitle of Sarah Blackman’s Mother Box: and Other Tales—evoking as it does Arabian nights, anthropomorphic animals, and high seas adventures—promises that the twelve pieces collected therein will present something out of the ordinary. And, from the first page of the collection, it is clear that these tales will fulfill that promise: “Of course, she was the sort of person who had a lot of secrets. Her secrets were how she understood it was herself and not, say, a peanut or a broken-bottomed chair.” As that quote hints, however, these adventures will take place in unfamiliar internal spaces, rather than in dark woods or distant lands.

The word “tale” is related to the word “tell,” and was preferred—over the more widely used “story” or the Borgesian “fiction”—by Edgar Allan Poe and E. T. A. Hoffmann, among others. “Tale” is Anglo-Saxon, and thus pagan, while both “story” and “fiction” are Latinate, reaching English along with Christianity. In English, there will always be that hint of barbarianism to the tale: whether it is a fairy tale or a tale of “the grotesque and arabesque,” as Poe’s were, the reader (or the listener) is, for the length of the telling, returned to the pagan world. One has only to think of the difference between Yule—with its log, goat, and boar—and Christmas—with its virgin birth—to understand that the pagan has a different connection to nature than does the Christian.

The “girl” of “A White Hat on His Head, Two Wooden Legs” sees this difference in the meeting of the forest, where she was born, and the town, where she now lives:

In the town, the layers of the observable world were stacked neatly atop each other. In the forest, they had been fanned in mossy overlap. In the town, to truly see, one had to decipher the logic by which the thing had been hidden. In the forest, like on the pages of her book, what was there was laid open in the moment of its working. Nothing was hidden, only unobserved. The forest didn’t care how it was apprehended, is what the girl finally concluded. The town hummed with the constant invention of its self.

It is tempting to think of this dichotomizing as a reinventing of the Hobbesian “noble savage,” or, more simply, as an argument against the artifice necessary to civilizing the human animal, but in context it is more sinister, as befits a tale. One of the things hidden by the logic of the town is the fact that this girl violently and repeatedly beats “the boy,” a behavior born in the forest, and that same logic dictates that she become a school-teacher, caring for small children by day and reducing her partner to a bloody mess by night. These are not fables, parables, or allegories, and these characters are not closer to nature for having a different relationship to it: Nothing here is so simple. The “mossy overlap” of Mother Box‘s forest is just as fraught as the neatly stacked layers of its towns.

That Blackman can “decipher the logic by which the thing had been hidden” is one of the most satisfying aspects of these tales, especially because the thing that has been hidden in Mother Box lies at the heart of what it means to be human. The body’s relationship to the idea of the self is often neglected by our philosophy, and this is where Blackman’s choice of subject—mothers—seems shrewdest, because that relationship is most evident when the body undergoes rapid change.

Everywhere in Mother Box there are bodies changing, bodies changed. The pregnant protagonist of “Listen,” for instance, comes to view her body as some kind of terrible golem: “She felt as if she was wearing herself—her wrist like a bracelet, her collarbone molded on her chest like a band of sculpted silver and somewhere beneath the jeweled pendant of her heart,” and “imagines her body going on and on without her . . . and she left alone in her dark room, incidental.” If the Cartesian soul exists for this character, it clearly isn’t worth exalting. She—all that makes her herself—is only “incidental” to her body, at best a byproduct of it, like the smells it gives off. In contrast, the narrator of “A White Hat on His Head, Two Wooden Legs” tells us: “As she was wild, her own body had never been a conveyance for her. She was her body and so incapable of imagining an alternative to what she had just done or what it was she might do next.” No dualism there. But this same character, so tied to her body, will have left it behind and become a bird by the end of the story. Which might seem like a fairy tale ending—a wild girl returned to the wild after living an artificially circumscribed life in the town—but if she is her body, she can’t be herself without it. Instead of feeling a sense of closure and resolution we feel uneasy with this ending, as with many of the endings in Mother Box. If Blackman’s characters are not becoming part of the nature that surrounds them (“A White Hat on His Head, Two Wooden Legs”), they are romancing it (“A Category of Glamour”), being overtaken by it (“Many Things, Including This”), running away from it (“Listen”), or being raised by it (“Mother Box”), all physical, even sensual, responses to that most fundamental of questions: What am I?

But I’m in danger, I think, of distorting one of the things I like best about this collection: these twelve tales are not cerebrations on these or any other topics, they are tales, attuned both to the sounds they make and to the attention they demand. It is a triumph when a sentiment as banal as “One must travel around and pick things up and put them down again” nevertheless sounds profound; or when a sentiment as bizarre as “She would be a body and next, who knew?, a house” seems undeniable and even inevitable. This can only be a result of Blackman’s carefully measured prose. And when it comes to storytelling and the enrapture of her audience, Blackman again excels. Consider, for instance, the eerie “Many Things, Including This,” or “Conversation,” or “The Dinner Party,” all tales that kept this reader turning pages, eager to dispel the dread that hangs over them and to find out what happens next.

Descartes’s division of the human into soul and body is seductive as an idea precisely because it replicates some essential aspect of the brain’s workings. Thought is removed from the world: a pang is appreciably different from a calculation, so, clearly, we think, one must come from one place, and the other from another. Our minds are all internal and integral, unknowable and inscrutable, while our bodies, like the natural world, can be observed and dissected. Thus, most investigations of the self start (and end) with this Cartesian soul—the body is not the same order of mystery as the mind for such thinkers, and so it simply doesn’t enter into their equations. But Mother Box starts its investigations from the other pole, reminding us that our bodies are also the sites where what we consider ourselves—whatever that might be—meets what we must consider not ourselves, whether we call that “the world” or “Nature” or something else. As one of Blackman’s characters puts it, “What keeps me in?” The answer is consonant with the definition of self. Yet things get much more complicated when we consider motherhood, the creation of new selves—there, as nowhere else, the line between self and other blurs. That Blackman chooses to investigate this through the form of the tale is only fitting: where the word “story” is derived from a Greek word meaning “knowing, erudition”—very clearly a cerebral product—”tale,” coming from “tell,” requires a body. If the body is changed, the story may remain the same, but the tale will renew itself. In the tales of Mother Box, the body is shown to be as worthy a conundrum as the mind or the soul.

Gabriel Blackwell is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men (CCM, 2013). With Matthew Olzmann, he is the editor of The Collagist.