Writing New Time:
My Mother Laughs by Chantal Akerman trans. Corina Copp

by Bianca Rae Messinger

“When a person is trapped in a cycle of debt, it can also affect their subjectivity and temporal orientation to the world by making it difficult for them to imagine and plan for the future. What psychic toll does this have on residents? How does it feel to be routinely degraded and exploited by the police?” (1)

What happens when a poem feels trapped in time? What sort of a relationship develops between reader and poet. Poetry occupies a unique positionality, being able to perform narrative while also opening up space for an exploration of the event, past, present or otherwise. I think of Scalapino’s work with time, she writes, “A segment in the poem is the actual act or event itself---occurring long after it occurred;...The self is unraveled as an example in investigating particular historical events, which are potentially infinite.” (2) In this way the poem is not itself a mimesis of the event but acts as a performance of the event. It is a place where time can be occupied in a different manner than the source event, the historical event. In this translation of My Mother Laughs Akerman via Corina Copp shows us how an investigation of time leads to this unravelling of the self. She shows us where the lesbian self might exist temporally. She shows us that writing across time is a work of friendship, love and trauma.

What strikes me as most pertinent, most necessary, is how My Mother Laughs treats time almost with a flippant disregard, as all of Akerman's work deals with the passage of time, and how that might present itself in a text. Akerman’s desire in her work was for people “to feel the experience of time passing” (170). The moments that cut up this "passage of time" are amorous ones, maternal ones, joyous ones. There is no other way to escape the grasp of time. How do we make a life for ourselves? "The only thing that saves is writing" (27). Akerman’s mother’s own relationship to time is one where time stays stagnant until the concentration camps appear, until a discussion of trauma breaks through the veneer of what “normal time” might feel like.

In this way there may be no corollary for a book such as this one. To even call it a book seems like the wrong word. To call it a diary is also the wrong word. I am almost tempted to call it a self-help book, something like On How to Survive Time. And yet there is nothing didactic here. There is the exploration of trauma, how abuse can come from a misunderstanding of time. How does lesbianism relate to time? How do we live in such an absurd regimentation? There is never enough of it - to attempt to contain that amount of love within such a world as time seems foolhardy if not extremely dangerous.

There is something in the way Akerman writes that forces us to put it down, and walk around, let the dishes accumulate, peel an orange, find it is moldy, give up on peeling an orange, let the cat out on to the porch and her little belly swing back and forth as she prances in the grass. My Mother Laughs relates to Akerman's films in the sense that it shows us just how many actions we do - what it looks like to be in time, what focus and more importantly, what pleasure we can find in it when it appears so frightening, when time is treated with such violence. 

Yet this book is as much about time as it is about relationships. What I find most interesting in translation is both the linguistic relationship but also the acknowledgement that it is in fact a personal relationship. It is a moment of intimacy. It is as much about an obsession between two people as it is an obsession between languages. Perhaps this is similar to the way writers rewrite or obsess over each other, to how Duncan writes of HD, Mackey of Duncan, and on and on. There is something freeing in the ability or in the acknowledgement that this process, this creative process, is not a singular one. That is it comes from family and memory. As far as translation is concerned we might say that in the impossibility for reconciliation that exists between source and target there is a sort of saving grace of friendship, that a relationship can be the underlying catalyst between the two languages. This reality is present both within Copp and Akerman, and Akerman (mother) and Akerman (daughter).

Perhaps this is a way of saying that we truly have no idea what love is. Love between writers and poets and filmmakers but also love between daughters and mothers. Perhaps love can be a way of overcoming time. How one can spend their life discovering it and still have no idea:

"I’ve known M for a long time and it’s taken me a long time to understand how much I loved her.
We loved each other, we split up, I’ve forgotten why, and we love each other.
When we walk, even our shadows love each other.” (169)

In this same way the relationship Akerman creates with the reader is similar, one breaks up narrative then goes back to it, goes back to an image, then comes back to the text - narrative appears when it is needed. This is perhaps another way to survive time, not to worry about accessibility but to rely on the faith that memory will always be there, is already being there before one remembers it. Akerman jumps from time to time from Mexico to Belgium, from a depressed New York to a shadowy Paris.

Yet this book also shows the dangers of living within different times, that the task of feeling the passage of time is a difficult one. One cannot live amidst "décalage" - whose ambiguity as a term Copp notes in her translator’s note - but yet the effects of maternity, illness, gender on the body cause Akerman to move not just between time zones but to be caught on some shore of time. Copp does not opt for the more routine “jet lag” but instead goes with “time difference” (116). While perhaps less colloquial as a phrase, in this way we are placed into Akerman’s time zone. Where time is perhaps ruled more by feeling and relationships than it is by space. Time does not resolve. Akerman’s placement within temporality is an uneasy one, for a body like hers.

More importantly, Akerman shows us that intimacy forces us to move between time zones. In reading My Mother Laughs I was forced to rewatch Je, Tu, Il, Elle, to remember what watching it felt like. What different time zones are operating here? There is the zone of the self, Akerman alone in her apartment, it snows, days pass, she eats sugar, time slows down. It slows down to individual time, individual pleasures. Then we travel - movement being as much a part of Akerman’s work as time. A young Akerman arrives at her lover’s house, and after some deliberation she and her make love. Yet this remarkably short scene feels exceedingly long, searching for time within each other, even in youth, or especially in youth, searching for a space for queer bodies to not fear time, to exist within it. In My Mother Laughs the abuse that Akerman suffers is not only bodily but temporal. Her abusive ex-girlfriend “C” closes off Akerman’s avenues for exploring time, “I even had to watch my laughing...a laugh that was light and meaningless apart from the pleasure of the moment, nothing more (108).” It is as if laughter brings her out of time, and her partner’s own inability to accept this performance of affect leads to crisis. Those great laughs remind us of other laughs, of other times, and safe us from the despair of being stuck within “straight” time. 

This gesture is present too in works such as Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day and Studying Hunger. The affect contained within a day multiplies outward, the day or month as a unit cannot be contained within this structure. Akerman opens her own book with, “I wrote all of this and now I no longer like what I’ve written. It was before,” (1). In witnessing time one begins to see how memory works, to account for trauma:

One day still in Mexico, one of the rare days we took [my mother] out, when already she had no more need for her oxygen mask, we took her out because they were screening my latest film, she didn’t hear anything in the film as her hearing aid was hurting her but she saw the images, most importantly she saw that after the film I went up onstage and answered some questions, and it was a warm day. When she finally got into the car with the help of her grandson, who carried her, I was already seated in the middle, she said to me my girls, my girls have everything. I didn’t have anything except the camps. That was the first time she said that. Otherwise she always said she was content and that it was wonderful, and suddenly this.
And I told myself once again, this time she’s telling the truth, not the truth but her truth, and it was terrible. (157-8)

In accounting for time, her mother’s trauma of growing up in the concentration camps rises to the surface. We are able to witness how an investigation of time as a medium can be a canvas for memory. The self unravels.

Mayer describes her work with memory as an “emotional science project” (3) and in a way Akerman’s use of time and documentation, “accumulation” approximates Mayer’s work. My Mother Laughs is not a book about film as much as it is a book about what film can do. How the documentation of one’s mother, as No Home Movie does as well, can show us the relationship between trauma, time and gender. When Akerman’s mother sees her onstage, this mirroring effect, her world and her past become visible. In documenting the passage of time and the passage of emotions we see a different sort of narrative structure arising, one that might better be called a poetry.

And yet the book ends in a moment of peace. There is, in psychoanalytic terms, perhaps a breakthrough. We come to her mother’s truth, the expression of her truth, her real truth. The “transference” that Copp describes in her note, is in direct relationship to Akerman’s desire for the view to feel time, “we’ve been calibrated by her durational camera, its constructed flashes of hypnotic space. I might argue that her immense influence is in our bodies now” (171). And maybe then we can make a “New Time,” we can take up Scalapino’s call to look at the event as a canvas, as a moment for transmission. To show how a poetic can inhabit and maybe begin to account for queer time.

My Mother Laughs, by Chantal Akerman trans. by Corina Copp, The Song Cave, New York, 2019

(1) Wang, Jackie Carceral Capitalism Semiotexte, MIT Press, 2018
(2) “NOTE ON MY WRITING,” that they were at the beach -- aleotropic series Green Integer, 1992
(3) Studying Hunger, Adventures in Poetry, 1975

Bianca Rae Messinger is a poet and translator living in Iowa City, IA. She is the author of the digital chapbook The Love of God (Inpatient Press, 2016) and The Land Was V There (89+/LUMA, 2014). Her translation of Juana Isola’s You Need a Long Table Behind a Pile of Firewood to Have Lunch with Your Children in Ray Bans was published by Monster House Press in 2018. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa. 

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