“It is hard work to be dead,” writes Paul Lisicky, referring to his mom. “She should have been in training for this, instead of putting her feet up in front of the TV, eating crackers.” It is hard work to be alive, too, made harder by the loss of a mother. After “leaving the man to fall sideways into the space where I’d been,” however, Lisicky knows how to live within and without memory. Unlike your run-of-the-mill guidebook to Zen, with exercises to betwixt the mind, Lisicky’s words carve the way to consciousness by embracing memory while showing how it is also possible not to let the force of recollection undo the mind.
Published by Four Way Books, Lisicky’s gently beautiful Unbuilt Projects is a prose collection that collects thoughts and undoes them in equal measure. It sidesteps the arc of linear narrative in favor of the reality of how we live, which is in bursts that fuse imagination and reality: a mother loses track of her offspring, a man becomes his beloved dog.
As Lisicky lies on the massage table becoming his beloved dog Arden, he is also petting Arden at the same time. This happens throughout the collection. The main man is both the focus of the action and the action itself. He is the dog feeling the rub and the man doing the rubbing. Such bliss to be a dog shedding fur! “It’s enough to know what you felt like, even if I won’t a minute from now, when I put my clothes back on.”
The Unbuilt Projects of the title have as their undying theme the emotional weight of our lives. Indeed, emotions form the entire scaffolding of the book. We are projects to be undone, projects, though never perfected, yet to be completed. That completion? Death, of course. Lisicky writes: “And he still didn’t want an ending.” Not to his own life, certainly not to his mother’s.
As ongoing projects, emotions are projected onto the mother, onto the dog. In the same piece mentioned above, “On the Table,” Lisicky writes lovingly of the wagging quadruped:
Then just when I’ve resigned myself to a life in which I’ll never again lose my composure, even though I’ve written a few books that have more to do with early Laura Nyro and probably Courtney Love than the person I’ve become, I say to myself, ah what it means to grow older. And that makes me remember you—you!—and how much you liked human hands rubbing your paws and muzzle and tail.
We might mourn for those days when we lost composure, or for those days when we thought Courtney Love was human, but now, as adults, we face the passage of time, the passage of our mothers.
As Lisicky’s mother slips further into dementia, his language, if it is not unfeeling to write, becomes even more musical. There’s a score for his mother’s consciousness, lived in a car; there’s another for her dream state, lived in the kitchen. Both mother and son possess the courage for tears, in that car, and for connection, in that kitchen. There’s a rhythm to merged consciousness, and Lisicky focuses that rhythm on his mother’s loss of sentience.
The nurse, whom I haven’t made eye contact with, because I’ve been trying not to hate that another-old-white-woman-to-put-up-with tone of hers, stops. Literally. As if she can actually hear the footsteps down to surgery. And lifts her face. As the two of us laugh away our shock, which is to say the truth the living can never get behind.
“You’re not dying,” the nurse and I say now, almost at the same time. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Not today.”
We’re grinning now, in the manner of old friends, our relationship stronger for having passed a trinket back and forth, and seen it shine, and known, between us, how much it needed to be put away.
“Old friends” refers to Lisicky and the nurse—and to Lisicky and his mom—and this musical trio, with son at the center, soon makes a quartet as two relationships form because the son is made one part of each duet. The “bracelet” is none other than a medical plastic wrist marker, familiar to all those who have had mothers admitted to the hospital and felt that slimy band and hoped that it might come off. For some, it never comes off. Others save those medical bracelets so long, they become no longer a trinket, turning brown around the edges.
Lisicky doesn’t fall into the trap of saving physical things; he saves memories, remaking them in words so that we recognize ourselves in the “not dying” and see, once again, how “shock” brings us back to life.
Paul Lisicky’s Unbuilt Projects builds an architectural draft for the living. The collection delves into those spaces where we live, tracing inside those walls, those in-between places behind the drywall where memories lodge and come undone.