Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Grace Period

8 Jul

GraceThe title of Aaron Kunin’s Grace Period: Notebooks, 1998-2007 (Letter Machine Editions, 2013) provides a more or less straightforward explanation of what readers will encounter between the covers of this book: the contents of a writer’s notebooks over the course of a decade.

Early in the collection, in what can be read as a meta-critical observation of his work, Kunin writes:

My teachers were indulgent of the chaos of my thoughts. (Luckily?)
Would it have been better if they had held me to a standard that I could not recognize (or value)?
—Better to preserve your thoughts in their original chaos. (49)

And it would appear that Grace Period does just that: it preserves the “original chaos” of the author’s thoughts as they move from one fragment to the next, documenting the patterns of a mind at work.

Stated differently, the form of Kunin’s notebooks, and thus his mind, are “bits and pieces of useless information” which he collects: “touches of knowledge” that he isolates “from the impurities” of the “environment” surrounding them (79).

Of course the “uselessness” of these touches of knowledge that Kunin collects is relative. On the one hand, they are “Ancient emotional material for [his] poems” (260) and, therefore, quite useful; on the other hand, while “His method makes it easy to collect material for poems,” it does not make it any easier “to assemble them” (274), calling into question their efficacy.

Kunin’s meditations, though, are more than meta-critical observations. He attends to subject matter as diverse as awkwardness, food, conversation, dreams, love, community, and poetry. Yet one of the more fascinating objects of contemplation is the author’s handwriting. Throughout the book, he creates “graphological portraits” that focus on the nature of his penmanship. For instance:

He often went over letters to add feature that hadn’t come out clearly on the first pass. This tended to give the letters a worried aspect; there were lines all around them, pouring out of them, and deep creases in the places where the lines joined, as though they had been losing sleep.

The halo of uncertainty around each of your letters.

The mantle of shyness that your writing wears. (8)

While this portrait offers a psychological self-analysis of and via his handwriting, it also emphasizes the materiality of Grace Period and the absence of the original artifacts. Which begs the question: how do the material circumstances of one’s composition dictate what one composes? And, what do we gain and what do we lose from a printed version of his notebooks? Later, Kunin emphasizes this point when he writes:

Try to look like you’re working.
Seated in odd positions, or standing and pacing.
Ah, he’s writing; this looks like work.
If only the notebook were in larger format.
What can he be working on. Such tiny pages, etc.
Nothing that could be shown easily since no one could read his little writing. (218)

Focusing on his material conditions yet again, Kunin laments the fact that the notebooks are not of a “larger format.” This constraint forces him to write in a “little” hand, which, no doubt, contributes to the fact that he composes primarily in the aforementioned “bits and pieces.”

But just as compelling as the material considerations, Kunin wants to “look like [he’s] working,” which highlights the performative nature of his writing. To this extent, Grace Period is a public display of the writer’s private thoughts for the sake of intellectual and creative showmanship, wherein materiality becomes performance, and composition (or form) an actor.

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