To a child, the letters of the alphabet are a doorway to the written word. Another type of letter represents an exchange, a one-sided conversation from the writer to the reader. Laynie Browne’s The Desires of Letters notes that letters also document and keep track of things, whether it is memories or the identification of bombs dropped on Iraq. Browne’s book is a catalogue of the world for her children before they are even aware of the world around them. It describes their childhoods with the backdrop of the Iraqi war not intruding, but breathing quietly in the distance like some macabre relative not invited to sit at the dinner table. The book is a series of letters, in the loosest definition, addressed to real, fictional, and unidentified recipients. Browne states: “One shouldn’t desire letters.” But what should the mother desire, an impossibility like a world not at war or filled with atrocities.
Browne follows a form first penned by Bernadette Mayer in The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters (West Stockbridge, MA: Hard Press, 1994). Mayer’s book experiments with using the letter not only to document the nine months of her last pregnancy, but also as a way to create poetry that forms an exchange between intimates where the reader is the interloper trying to piece together the exact narrative. As each letter is addressed to a different anonymous recipient, the narrative is consistently interrupted leaving the reader to wonder who it is that is desirous to please and who the “others” are in the conversation. Browne adopts Mayer’s form, but her book is a furthering of the conversation. It’s not an attempt to rehash Mayer’s experiment as much as it is a nod to the lineage Mayer’s work inspires much in the same way that Browne acknowledges several matriarchal (and some patriarchal) influences throughout her book. The book illustrates that the topic is still viable: mothers are still struggling to write, writers are struggling to mother, and everyone is at odds over these notions of desire and pleasing others.
While Mayer’s book experiments with reader expectations and prescribed notions of pregnancy and mothering, Browne’s book plays with reassembling texts and making sense of the violent world that her children occupy. There are frequent references to invisible work whether it is mothering or writing poetry; there is an urgent need to draw attention to the absurd notion that important jobs are given the least value:
She appeared to be Autumn as she opened the door. The way she stooped or stopped or carried or tied a child or a parcel crying, the door opening or closing, the wish not spoken in the tunnel, the present in the eye of the child who didn’t want to put down his drum or his rehearsed refusals his unrehearsed opening and closing of the door. (144)
The letter symbolically is a place of containment; it is the placeholder for the mother’s hurried and often interrupted thoughts. It mimics exchange, but the real exchange occurs between the reader and writer. The irony is that a letter presupposes some response while the text, in most cases, elicits no such return. Instead the letters serve another purpose. They literally provide a ground for the writer to extract her sources, mix and reconnect them, and ultimately to create with language some shield to defend against the madness of the world around her. The benign day to day mothering of small children represents one form of madness, but the larger threat comes from the violence of the war abroad: “The teacher said, for everything that is in the world is also in you, the Senate’s actions, the unborn victims, the presidential nominee, the pregnant women, the terrorists in flight school” (181).
In a reversal of classic texts, the war takes a backseat while the mother and her little ones occupy center stage. Mayer’s groundbreaking work intended this response, one in which writers would continue to celebrate the invisible duties that women perform while not ignoring, but simply relegating war to what it truly is: a terror that threatens the precious livelihood of the family. Browne arms herself with handfuls of letters, ready to fight the battles of modern life with the tools of those gone before her, from Dr. Seuss to Hildegard of Bingen and from Gertrude Stein to Bernadette Mayer: “The desires of letters is to impress upon the reader a purpose or sentiment, to convey information, to draw a picture, to persuade (89).” Browne achieves all of these purposes, but more importantly she continues the conversation from one generation of writers to the next in the spirit of carving out some sanity and hope in a world gone wrong.
Megan Burns has a MFA from Naropa University and edits the poetry magazine, Solid Quarter (solidquarter.blogspot.com). She has been most recently published in Jacket Magazine, Callaloo, New Laurel Review, YAWP Journal, and the Big Bridge New Orleans Anthology. Her poetry and prose reviews have been published in Tarpaulin Sky, Gently Read Lit, Big Bridge, and Rain Taxi. Her book Memorial + Sight Lines was published in 2008 by Lavender Ink. She has two chapbooks, Frida Kahlo: I am the poem (2004) and Framing a Song (2010) from Trembling Pillow Press. She lives in New Orleans where she and her husband, poet Dave Brinks, run the weekly 17 Poets! reading series (www.17poets.com).