Language is the limitless body
Tracking erasure in HR Hegnauer's "Sir"
Note: This is our (should we say "my"?) first post on a published manuscript. A book-length volume, Sir was published this past summer (2013) by Brenda Iijima's Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, which also published an earlier chapbook version of the book, also called Sir, in May 2011. All quotes come from the recent volume.
“I understand now that this is what happens when a human and: the language won’t let us.”
In HR Hegnauer’s Sir, the grandfather, known as Sir, buys cotton candy in the early morning on a school trip, for all the children he chaperones. Far later the narrator's girlfriend sneaks this same Sir a Snickers bar while he is on life support. These are the un-secreted worlds, memories as bodies to lay down next to. Both actions of desire against the reign of the forbidden. “And then there was the embarrassment of remembering, yes, I do have a body.” This being alive is treated like a shocking headline about no one you know.
In Sir, the Ma’am vs Sir address is about having language or not having language in the case where having language happens in the reverberation of its failure, that rupture is here is what makes body tangible, a thing simultaneously within and without, not Sir and half Ma’am.
"But more often I’m called sir, and if I’m feeling extra confident, I like to respond, I am not a sir! I said this to an airport security officer in Denver when I was on my way to Sir’s funeral, and I got patted down twice: first by a man and then by a woman.
There is a funny reoccurrence of driving the wrong way on to a highway, of entering an exit, which is similar to the gender nonconformity of the narrator.
"I like when people call me ma’am because it gives me hope that genders might be fluid. It becomes a special occasion for me, and I celebrate it by marking it on my calendar.
The interpellation of "ma'am," is a "special occasion" because usually they are placed on the "sir" side of the gender binary. My experience is opposite to the narrator's, and I wonder if that was set up, in the tone, so that all the memories could stay close to them, only theirs. (E.g. I don't like being ma'am, and I don't think it attests to the fluidity of gender, I think it's a bogus word. But…I also never had such a fantastic relationship to my grandparents because we always had language between us.)
Sir is an anthem to language as something real in its necessary failure. It is precisely the slippage, the lacunae, the error, that enables language cathexis within the real of the young narrator: ma'am is ironic evidence that there is a body, a young vulnerable not yet aware of the ways of the world body, a trans body (vs a male body). Present. Presenté!
Memories then (present or not, for this is also a book about dementia) are mood swings, extremes of carefulness to full-fledged desperation all towards Sir: "I'm very sorry, Sir, but I think I might have lost part of you." How many times have we had that thought: "I'm putting this here. This isn't good enough! Is this good enough?" There is something high pitched about doubt, almost unbearable to read because we are getting too close: "when the notebook is full, I duct tape it closed."
Continuing from the image the image of a [mood, playground] swing here. Unstill, back and forth, never returning to the exact location from which it departed. Sir is obsessed with time and event, about memory's impossible task of holding, not missing anything, as a means of tracking how they—time and event—conspire in particular moments to make language and knowledge. These events turned language accumulate in the body to make a collective personhood, an "and." My favorite is the story about the meth addict. It begins just after the narrator explains why at 15 they had already been driving …
"for two years now — ever since that awful accident that Sir and Mrs. Alice and I witnessed along the backside of the armory outside of Oakland. That was the moment when all the wheels turned, and I became their driver. We watched a man flip his stolen car and drag his face along the freeway guardrail, through the windshield, across the shoulder, and towards the woods. Sir called to the man’s upside down body, Sir, sir can you hear me?! ... Dude, help me out of here! He kept yelling this at us. Dude, pull me out! Then an ambulance came. A fire truck came. The police came, and then another fire truck came, and they all kept saying, he’s so methed-out. This guy’s methed-out. one uniformed-man came up to me, and said, The only reason why this man is still alive is because he’s so methed-out. Let this be a lesson to you. I didn’t know what this meant: methed-out. I looked at the man’s badge and nodded. Yes, I understand. I thought to myself, Remember this. This must be a safe place — this methed-out place."
It is here, in the place where language makes a place outside of reality through reality (in this case maybe by reality I mean event) that the body is both within and beyond the "limit of the body" a trope or refrain from Akilah Oliver via Agamben through which Hegnauer frames this book length series of prose poems (or are they vignettes?).
I thought the most interesting letter to the ghost of Sir to be a description of receiving all the "real" letters the narrator wrote to Sir, which includes maybe ten years of letters, and there were also emails with Sir. I liked that at one point Sir asks for less elaborate emails from the narrator.
And this line really spoke to me: "I just spent five days in a room that looked like the inside of a purse" because it felt like it was also a guide. I could be inside the bag of a brain of this childhood to late twenties memories. And the desire to wash it away, the burden of the details, one request to the ghost of Sir, "Please, help me hallucinate a clear tide."
I think a lot of new writing now-a-days attempts to track time, slow it down, pause it, so that it might be read, recorded, made "real" in the absence of the material of letters, printed photos, sentimental journeys etc. Sir expresses desire for tangibility within the landscape of the ephemeral.
It should be also noted that this is a performance text and that HR Hegnauer, like Evan Kennedy, "reads" their books from an internal page in the body. You can listen to HR reading at the book release party for the chapbook right HERE.
HR is also featured in a short amateur youtube video called There Will Be Three that Rachel (Levitsky) made for a panel with Dana Teen Lomax, Sueyeon Juliette Lee and Cara Benson on the "Errant Future" for &Now in 2011.