- The Negotiation of Remembrance in “Across the Wide Missouri”
Damballah, published in 1981 by John Wideman, is a text with numerous screening thresholds that cannot be crossed without due preparation. In fact, for the uninitiated reader, the assemblage of letters constituting the book’s title corresponds to no previously encountered meaning. The title’s opaqueness thus performatively announces the central issue of the book: how can memory be transcribed into words and given readable form. The sign “Damballah” only serves to visually and phonetically trace a rich curve with vowels and consonants alternating in a ternary mode and in which there is an oscillation between the matte sonority of the occlusives and vocalic clarity. We may be sensitive to the melodious and even tactile properties of the word. But more than this, its pronunciation prepares us to enter a territory of the unknown, the meaning of which escapes us.
Once past the title, the reader discovers a letter addressed to Robby, the author’s imprisoned brother. It defines every story as a letter, “stories are letters” (269), 1 and the author adds, “long overdue letters from me to you” (270). The redoubling that occurs in the adjective “overdue” concretely underscores a central issue of these texts. More than simply letters, these texts bear the burden of lateness and delay, the debt of time. This temporal problematic recurs later when the title word is defined. Damballah the Serpent-God constitutes a unifying father figure belonging to the prelapsarian world: he embodies peace but also remembrance. To invoke him, as well as the other gods of the pantheon to which he belongs, is to conjure up the past in a unifying gesture: “To invoke them (these divinities) today is to stretch one’s hand back to that time and to gather up all history into a solid, contemporary ground beneath one’s feet” (272). Pronouncing the word “Damballah” amounts to laying the foundations of an overarching memorial project. 2
The multiple screening thresholds—the last consisting in an incomplete genealogical tree, the tacit compact of a flexible autobiography—reveal the secret and dangerous nature of the writing to come. The aim of the collection, indicated by these way stations, is that of a temporal revolution, involving the reconciliation of yesterday and today by means of the conjoining hinge of memory. But these thresholds are also intended to fill the function of a user’s manual and suggest that going through these stories requires a particular reading economy comprising pauses and connections, each step forward marking a new stage in the written restructuring of the debt to memory. This necessary internal rhythm to the reading of the stories may perhaps explain why the author considers Damballah a novel rather than a collection. [End Page 727]
“Across the Wide Missouri” is found two-thirds into the collection and is embedded in a very specific context, placed between “The Songs of Reba Love Jackson” and “Rashad.” Each of these framing stories deals with an artistic medium other than writing. The first is concerned with the comfort brought by a friend’s voice, its soothing, melodious modulations that extend beyond the limits of words. The second evokes a strange piece of embroidery. The object, ordered from a local craftsman by an American soldier stationed in Vietnam during the war, is supposed to represent the soldier’s daughter. On his return home, the soldier’s relatives come to understand that the embroidery quite probably represents the weaver’s own child. The two girls are thus superposed and now indissociable. “Across the Wide Missouri” is located in between these stories—that is, between music and image—and, like them, also makes reference to another form of representation, the eponymous film. The recourse to music and pictures underlines the help necessary to tell a story and signals the shortcomings of writing as a mode of preserving memories. These deficiencies herald the central issue of this essay.
“Across the Wide Missouri” opens on a selective description of images from a movie—those that the narrator still recalls—thus underscoring an essential motif of Wideman’s writing: memory and its handling. What can one remember? How should painful...