by JESSICA Q. STARK
Stefania Heim, Hour Book (Ahsahta Press, 2019), pp. 80
This review originally appeared in the Fall 2019 print issue of Carolina Quarterly.
Someone funny once told me that babies cry when they are born because of the realization that they would have to endure living a human life again. With the gift of reincarnation comes the impossible task of living out all those hours once more. Stefania Heim’s latest poetry collection Hour Book, selected by Jennifer Moxley for the 2018 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, considers the tender tedium of time’s passage in our lives. Time stamps serve as the titles for many of Heim’s lyrical vignettes, which explore time as a simultaneously vital and limiting framework for thinking through lived experience. Fraught interactions with time unfold as moments accumulate: a narrator marks time, steals time, makes time, loses time, dismisses time and the expectations of its productivity. Heim’s attention to time reexamines how the particularity and overlap of complex subject-positions (e.g. being a mother, mourner, worker, writer) shape how we keep, consider, and pass the human concept of time.
In the latter half of the collection, Heim writes, “Hour Book, our book. ‘H’ in Italian is a tool, not a sound. My mother slips the ‘h’ in only where it doesn’t belong. Our book, our book.” Related to its framing title, Heim weaves tension between the errancy of the personal and time’s formal logics of everyday life. The phonetic likeness of “hour / our” in the collection’s title marks slippage between time and relationality. Simultaneously, the book is both a literal manifestation of the authors’ hours spent writing it, as well as the result of several networks of belonging etched in its pages. Our book / our book. Hours become ours. Naturally, Heim’s children flit into the collection throughout its pages, whose presence often call attention to the absurd task of time-keeping and a mother’s natural errancy in time’s fastidiousness. In “10:41pm” she writes,
“In this place of concentrated
association, time is coded
for prescribed communal
use. Now eat. Now rest. And
when the sun has set walk
slowly up and down the roads
winding houses. Walk
to where the lights
stop and the darkness is sudden.”
Like the misplaced “h” sound, Hour Book refashions time for a “[p]olitics of perpetual off-ness. Pleasure of secret and arbitrary control.” Not only is Hour Book an amalgamation of recorded hours, but of something ungovernably intimate, domestic, and persistently mobile against the calculation of time’s expectations.
Antithetical to time as a purely negative constraint, Hour Book also highlights the arbitrary reassurance that marking time provides. In “3:49pm” Heim writes: “Driving, / I am equally discomfited by a car close behind as by / the absence of cars. Without markers / I do not trust that the road is fixed.” Without the organization of time, we can lose our place, we might feel lost from one another and ourselves. All social connection relies, in part, on the formal logics of time. In this way, our obsession with time becomes indelibly involved in the certainty of death and finitude, the crease in knowing that certain kinds of time in one’s life will eventually cease. The lives of the others. One’s own time. Life’s “stages.” Relatedly, the narrator notes that time is the most frequently used noun in the English language. Heim calls attention to the fact that we are utterly obsessed with time—we nearly worship it. Time takes on a devotional tribute to record-keeping throughout Hour Book. Time as a form of recognition can deliver a discrete snapshot of moments that are continually, helplessly passing us by. She writes, “It seems a great gift to know how long something takes.” Here, the idea of time as a controlling conceit offers a salve against chaos, death, and disconnection.
Many moments in Hour Book mark a kind of time that is specific to child-rearing, which underscores the shift in a parent’s general relationship to time. The texture of time in these instances is hurried, precious—allotting longing to time and its elusiveness. Heim writes:
“‘The proprioceptive text strives to accurately reflect the condition of the writer at the moment of writing.’ The sounds of old men pontificating from the apartment upstairs. But which theory accounts for the distortions of unexpected solitude? What I wish for—time—suffocates when it comes. Makes me manic in my dissections.”
With a humorous undertone, these lines demand that writing about writing should also apply to this writer’s life and her time as inflected by familial obligations. In other moments of Hour Book, amid the clamor of old men pontificating, Heim juxtaposes child-rearing with nods to writers like Henry David Thoreau, Frank O’Hara, and Marcel Proust; writers not particularly known for writing on or about maternity. The quiet revolution of these combinations invokes a leakage of fixed subject-positions. Or, in other words: What does it mean to simultaneously be both a mother and a writer? A scholar and a poet? A daughter and a mother? And how can these positions intrude on one another in interesting ways? Of her child, Heim writes in “12:52pm:”
“… There is
a child here who is mine, not
sleeping in the hour I’ve allotted
for that purpose. She keeps
things I don’t point to first.”
Inadequate time-keeping complicates one’s ability to organize or predict time’s passage. Heim’s family asserts itself at the helm of Hour Book’s errant record-keeping. Although understated, the implications of such are not subtle. Heim calls for thoughtful space (“our book”) for the contours of her life in the archives of her research. Moreover, as in the quote above, there emerges in this book a kind of neglected magic in child-rearing’s tedium. In the simple accumulation of things unnoticed lies a frustration with the cold calculation of time’s constraints, and how much cannot be contained within its record-keeping.
During the beginning of Hour Book, Heim quotes from E.P. Thompson’s “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism,” “[t]he mother of young children has an imperfect sense of time and attends to other human tides.” Heim returns to parts of this quotation from different perspectives later. As Heim demonstrates, an imperfect relationship with time allows for a “re-synch gut / feeling to day,” or a heightened awareness for what lies outside of linear time and conventional forms of “productivity” and work. She writes:
we know by our senses. Disgraceful sterility
of love as guts.”
Heim’s attention to the gut, or guts, relates to a resistant thread to linguistic accuracy in the collection. In the English language we preserve imprecise words like “guts” to describe feeling, intuition, and the multitude of things that cannot be verified, time-stamped, or seen. In the very “record” of these hours lies an inexplicable silence, a stillness, that frustrates the easy logic of linear time and “productivity” under capitalism. Love as guts does not have a better descriptor—it is not rational by conventional standards of work or measurements of accumulation. We know it by the senses in the way that a clock cannot really tell us the specificity of a moment to an individual, a child, or a family. Heim’s roving forms in Hour Book reflect this resistance as well; a time-stamped entry is left intentionally blank in one poem, and the writing traverses the boundaries between poetry and the essay form throughout the book. In these wild intonations lies Heim’s attention to what lies beyond time as a reasoning device and its naïve calculations. Again, Heim carefully thumbs an intimate slippage of logic, a “[p]olitics of perpetual off-ness.”
In Hour Book, Heim highlights a necessary attention to how our daily lives are structured by innumerable, formal constraints and how, to put it simply, one stays alive in spite of or perhaps even because of these constraints. This is a book about motherhood, but it is also a book that explores the ways in which people attempt and fail to compartmentalize the varying roles we must play in life. Once at a party or maybe at a reading someone gushed to me about how in fashion “mom poetry” is right now. I flinched for a number of reasons. One of them is this: the ghost of maternity has spent so much (wasted) time being supposedly “out” of view in poetry. And noting recent, “heightened” attention to poems dealing with maternity assumes that poets ever truly separated it from the center of so much else in many writers’ lived experiences. Heim’s work unravels the dividing lines between writing, motherhood, poetic lineage, and time’s inflections on varying subject-positions to reveal with critical attention the ways that we survive and vitally hold one another in the world. Hour Book demonstrates that, as much as we are obsessed with systems of governance—time, linear memory, lineage—we continually find unexpected ways to liberate ourselves from their regulatory expectations. How this bend of human perception, its poetry, allows for a way out of the ruse of time’s mechanical perfections.