ISSUE 17: MAY 2012

Cole Swensen
Stacy at Home

When I think of Stacy, I think of water and of her way with it, how completely at home she was in its suspension and its depth. That quality of “at-homeness” seems emblematic of her entire relationship to the world—she was utterly comfortable with the suspensions it demands and with its uncanny depths. She had the rare ability to remain metaphorically at sea, comfortable there in that wide-open uncertainty. She had what Keats called negative capability, and she had it in abundance—she made uncertainty and doubt occasions for invention and exploration.

Negotiating such fluid media as water and uncertainty demands that the self be fluid as well. And that, also, was Stacy all over. She could instantly adapt to anything, from a new culture to a change in plans; she had a natural suppleness that made her one with her favorite element.

It is striking then that her writing, while showing a great, even forceful, fluidity, was adamantly not one with its milieu—she always made sure that it was au rebours as the French would say—against the grain. Funny, snappy, her work was designed to rake things up in a rare blend of sociological-political-philosophical determination. Always more of an engagement than a critique, it relentlessly addressed the immediate moment, but through intricate channels. Sometimes those channels were historical—her book Conference for instance, subtly addresses the ongoing tensions between Islamic and Judeo-Christian cultures by using a 12th century Sufi epic poem by Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds, as a backdrop to a lively, staccato repartee among shifting voices. The voices are contemporary, are extremely present, and yet are rooted in earlier centuries. And her recent book Cake Part similarly uses a vamped-up version of Marie Antoinette and her court to look at the mechanics of excess in contemporary political culture.

Stacy didn’t use history as decoration; she used it to construct and then to plumb those unsettling depths in which she felt so comfortable, and she knew her history well from research and study. She had been working on Arabic for the past several years, and she spent hours in the Bibliothèque nationale and other research facilities. This attention to the actual record allows another level of the uncanny to enter her work, the uncanny of declared fact. Fact is always uncanny because there’s always an unapproachable incommensurability between an object or event and the words used to describe it. Stacy zeroed in on exactly this uncomfortable zone in which language always falls short of the world, but somehow, at the same time, constructs that world. In her marvelous book Paramour, she did this particularly well—so vigorous, so rangy, it points to the role that language plays in constructing human relationships and even the humans that engage in them, showing the gap between any two people as in ways an echo of that between language and the world.

Stacy not only pointed to that gap; she leapt right into the middle of it by writing in a language not her “own.” The very phrase, so common, brings up the issue of belonging, and reveals language in one of its most slippery acts, one of its most self-preserving moods, for in fact, a language cannot be our own, does not belong to us; instead, we belong to it. And as we belong to it, that possession has come about either because we’ve been taken over by the language or because we have given ourselves to it. To embrace language as an artistic material may be in large part a matter of shifting from being taken over to giving oneself over. By writing in French, Stacy gave herself to another language, and in so doing, gave herself to language as a whole and as a force; for while those of us who write in a single language (by far the majority) form a constantly opening bond with that language, those rare people who give themselves to more than one break open that bond and erode the distinctions between and among them all.

It is in writing that one gives oneself most thoroughly and completely to a language, for while speaking is undoubtedly and necessarily creative, it engages time in a very different way than writing does. Speaking engages real time, while writing rewrites time, as well as everything else, through the cyclical return occasioned by the rewriting embedded in the writing process. The constant work and working over that writing entails means that one is working on and working over the raw material (the language) as well.

Stacy leapt into this whole collision of mode and code in choosing to write directly in French. And as is so often the case in her work, and in her life, she used humor, and a humor based on the incongruous, to negotiate gracefully some passages that would otherwise have been pretty much impassible. Her humor is based on affection and knowledge, which is to say, it’s based on intimacy. For instance, on page 47 of La Vie de Chester Steven Wiener écrite par sa femme, we read: “Un jour, alors que toute la famille Wiener partait pour des vacances de ski dans leur nouvelle Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme (couleur bordeaux), en approchant un péage sur le Cross-Bronx Expressway . . .” The humor here, always warm, always delicate, is based in tiny distinctions and nuances occasioned by word choice; it’s humor based in the differentials of language itself, differentials that give rise to lively incongruencies—the very fact of the Cross-Bronx Expressway appearing in French! and the utterly American Oldsmobile becoming simultaneously so very French in its “bordeaux.” Throughout this book and its sequel, Une année à New York avec Chester, Stacy achieved this constant, subtle becoming, in which things and people are always gently exceeding themselves, becoming other, becoming more. It’s a movement that marked every aspect of her daily life as well—she used cultural difference to move and think and write as no other American was doing, while changing, but not deviating from, her own cultural core.

The same intimacy that she used to bring humor to subjects as close as Chet’s biography, she also brought to her dealings with subjects quite distant from her, using it to pull them into her, and to pull them into the reader. Suddenly, the usual distances are collapsed, and we feel a loving tenderness for the most unlikely things—football diagrams, for instance! (Cheerleader’s Guide to the World)

But this is all a matter of the work, which somehow both is and importantly is not the person. And yet I find I return to it, and that I see Stacy through it, as a kind of refuge, not from experience, but from the memory of experience, which is always so achingly amiss, always such an adamant confession of absence, always sending you back in search of the precise physicality of experience, a physicality, that, though utterly effaced, cannot be erased. This is, of course, Proust’s 5,000 page point, and reminds me of one of the first times I got to talk to Stacy at length—it must have been around 1990, late one night when she and Chet and I were walking back across Paris from some event or other, and she just happened to mention that she’d been mapping out, mentally, casually, all of Proust’s landmarks across Paris, and would I like a tour? I was to learn over the years that this was very, very Stacy—to do things thoroughly and to do things physically—to take books back out into the real world, to make literature remake the world around us in the most concrete way. It remade Paris for me, gave me a Paris I otherwise wouldn’t have had access to because it was her Paris, not Proust’s, but a conglomeration of real spaces and literary constructions put together by her foreigner’s exteriorizing eye and her fellow-writer’s empathetic “inside” understanding of the relationship between writing and place.

In the past few years, she’d been working on an interesting project that took things the other direction; she’d been collecting sounds and splicing them into tapes that constituted an audio literature all its own. I remember her and Sabine Macher setting out from Reid Hall one afternoon because Sabine had found a place where you could get “some really good sounds.” Stacy played one the tapes back for me one day, and it was true—the intervention caused by isolating and intermixing the sounds made the most daily things—the traffic, the laughter, the fountains of central Paris—come out sculptural and arresting. Again, Stacy had given me one of my favorite places in a bright, new form.

I’m often struck by the fact that much of what we remember comes in snapshots—Stacy standing outside the Village Voice bookstore the first time I ever met her, Stacy walking up to the big pond in the Tuileries, where I’m waiting for her, Stacy passing me a joint one night on the rooftop of the Abbaye de Royaumont . . . And of course, as the lens was my eye, I’m not in the picture, which constitutes the disconcerting instability of memory—the constant haunting question: was I really there? and what did I really see?

I saw Stacy beside me each and every time. I want and I believe in a perpendicular time, a continuum that shot through each of those moments, and, indeed, shoots through every moment, taking that moment out of time and onward, alone, making it into the eternity that it is. And the fact that I have so many of them, in extension, with Stacy, with her right beside me, or in front of me—this is a kind of time I can keep on living.