That Stars Might Sing

Richard Howard is a poet and translator. He teaches in the School of the Arts at Columbia University

I must acknowledge an interest, or rather a dismay, in discussing this “family memoir,” for from experience and from observation I have come to regard the American Nuclear Family in the last 50 years as the enemy of individual determination, of personal autonomy--in short, as a disease. I feel I need to make this declaration because my views may well go against the grain, as it were, of Marsha Recknagel’s vivid and affectionate memoir.

The speaker in “If Nights Could Talk” is still in thrall to “family values,” though she clearly recognizes her own victimization by them. It is a recognition enforced by years of psychoanalysis and by the post-analytical conflicts that are the major subject of her fine study. Against her family’s wishes, against her own better judgment and against every received wisdom or policy, the author, a woman in her 40s, unmarried and indeed uncoupled though immensely available to the claims of love, adopts her 16-year-old nephew, a boy altogether devastated by extreme forms of abusive attention and neglect, and recounts here the ultimately triumphant consequences of what Ford Madox Ford would call her “rash act,” an undertaking performed for reasons unacknowledged to herself. Indeed Recknagel is perpetuating a family mythology by the very victory she has scored over it, though it is a revisionist notion of family that she is concerned to invent, just as Gide, and after him Gent, in their various subversions devised new images of the nest, the nestlings and the nurture thereof.

Recknagel is immensely conscious of the Southern gothic resonance of her dysfunctional Louisiana brood, in herself as well as in her mother and siblings and in the wild child she has determined to raise or at least to tilt upward. That consciousness is indeed sharpened by her yearning to be a writer (though not until she has remade a family in her own image). She has prepared herself for authorship by reading, by academic disciplines; she has even--as she tells us many times--achieved her doctorate by a dissertation on Lillian Hellman, drawn to this prevaricating Southern woman whose creation of the Hubbards in “The Little Foxes” is analogous to, though perhaps somewhat less poisonous than, her own generation of vipers. I believe I am not giving away the secret of the family plot, as we say about cemeteries, if I observe that Recknagel brings her narrative to its promised end precisely as she succeeds--by immense patience and imaginative succor--in bringing her nephew to his own self-willed viability. Her memoir’s “form” is something of a cliffhanger, and we reach the summit with a sense of parallel exertions in rearing (her efforts to adopt her nephew against her family’s will) and writing (her efforts to achieve a narrative of some responsibility).


Recknagel has all the equipment we have learned to expect of the practitioner of Southern Family Romance: humor exasperated to grotesquerie (she is frequently being as literal as she knows how, though the point is she doesn’t know how--”I realized I wanted an instant husband--just add alcohol and stir”), perforating insights into the tumbledown rococo of Sibling Rivalry (the name, I’ve always thought, of a decrepit mansion not far from the author’s native Shreveport, quite similar to Blanche DuBois’ Belle Rve, n’est-ce pas? ); and (utterly transcending the native assets of her genre), metaphors of sense-memory, which are a kind of miracle: “old stories, secrets the family of an alcoholic keep hidden from everyone else until they don’t seem true any more, seem more like something one heard faintly a long time ago, or came from a book read during a bout with the flu, feverish hallucinatory secrets never meant to be spoken out loud under oath in front of one’s mother.”

The pleasures of reading Recknagel are manifold, then, especially that darkest of delights, the discovery that telling what you know is the exposure of a life-enhancing secret--in other words, that nights can talk. This book is the talk of many nights and a heroic exposure of many secrets, the lore of one more unhappy family extremely unhappy in its own way. Furthermore, it responsibly accounts for the heroic rescue of two members of that family--dismembered and quite literally remembered.