By Victor D. Infante
There are two ways to read Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s poetic memoir, “How To Love the Empty Air,” released earlier this year on Write Bloody Publishing, and the path you take toward approaching the book depends largely on your experiences. If you are the lucky sort who has not faced devastating loss, the book will likely be an act of anthropology. You will marvel at her craft and wit, how even in the midst of depression she manages to snap words together in such a way as to make them remarkable and brisk: “I have grown to love performing/that poem I wrote about you, because/for that moment I can stand in a room full/of people who don’t know you’re dead.”
That is a place Aptowicz brings the reader that even those who’ve lost little can comprehend, at least on some level. There is a bite to her phrasing that heightens the feeling of vulnerability, of wanting to pretend the world was one thing when you know it’s another. But if you are a person who has lost much, who has dealt with death on a deeply personal level, then Aptowicz’s words are a punch to the stomach, a sharp reminder of the tiny fictions one perpetuates each day to get to sundown without weeping. The shock of familiarity is terrifying.
Which is not to insinuate this is solely a book about loss: it’s also a book about joy, and that is in some ways a far more difficult proposition. In some ways, writing about joy often feels like bragging, as though one should somehow feel ashamed of the blessings in one’s life. The entire first half of “Empty Air” is dedicated to this sort of hardscrabble happiness, of work actually being rewarded and finding love along the way. “During my tour of the Clampitt House,” she writes in “Lenox II,” of a writing residency she undertook in Austin, “I keep bursting into tears … I know the last four residents were men./They probably didn’t/start weeping when they saw/the book-strewn kitchen nook/or the well-used fire place.” Aptowicz here is embarrassed by emotion, but it’s the unfiltered honesty of that emotion that makes both the poem and the book so readable.
Indeed, it should be noted that Aptowicz does something positively unseemly in the book’s first half, which is expose the stitching of a working writer’s life, the tenuous leap from residency to grant to publication which defines so many writers’ stress-filled, project-to-project existence. It is not a path for everyone, not even every great writer, and Aptowicz manages to to capture it without being inside-baseball boring or over-aggrandizing. It’s a life, and moreover, it’s her life, and she presents it with the unfussiness of how other writers might describe the day-to-day routine of a classroom, a newsroom, a heroin addiction or whatever other paths writers commonly take, presenting its pleasures and pitfalls and moments of loneliness.
The book begins with Aptowicz’s move to Austin, from New York City, and a blank canvas which she begins to fill, piece by piece. She has friends and enjoys success, she finds love, and throughout it all, she presents her mother as a constant presence. The book opens with the poem, “My Mother Does Not Give Advice,” followed quickly with “On Trying To Accept That I’m Not Moving Back To NYC.” This juxtaposition – echoed in the subsequent poems – establishes the closeness of the author’s relationship with her mother, and a certain ambivalence as she connects the feeling of leaving New York behind with leaving her mother behind, and while her conscious mind knows that’s not true, the poems allow the very human kernel of guilt to sprout, even as – with each success presented – it’s her mother with whom she shares her joy, creating a sort of emotional circuit which sparks off the page.
“I am so proud of you, she tells me,” in “Mother’s Day, 2015,” “taking me hand, you should enjoy what you’ve worked so hard for./And I know this, she adds, with a squeeze, you have earned/every happiness you’ve got coming to you. Every. Last. One.”
When Aptowicz pivots toward her mother’s death, it’s jarring, the way death often is in real life. It becomes a sudden, unassailable fact, and it touches everything. The narrative that continues from that moment until the book’s end is recognizable. The same characters recur, the love becomes a marriage, the book continues to sell, but Aptowicz manages to convey an omnipresent taste of ashes.
“This grief,” she writes in “Three Months After,” “who is your husband,/the thing you curl into every night,/falling asleep in its arms, who/wakes up early to make you/your cold thankless breakfast.”
One can only imagine what this excavation of the thoroughly shattered heart looks like to those who have not lived this sort of loss, but of you are the sort of person who reads with ghosts staring at the typography over your shoulder, then this is a familiar sort of pain, and you know it will never really disappear, but instead will ebb and flow like a tide pulled by some unseen moon. Aptowicz traces those tides with alacrity, and as the book winds down to its final poems – “June Wedding,” “Poem That Went Nowhere,” “Roll Call” and “Sleeping In Late With My Mother” – she illustrates the twin, seemingly contradictory truths of loss: that moving on is also acknowledging that someone will always be a part of who you are. She does this with and unblemished sense of humanity and a lack of pretension. Everything feels authentic as one reads, each note of sentiment and emotion undeniably earned.