Memoir often serves as a vehicle for a writer—a way to recall or reconfigure a period of time or a memory. For Kristin Keane, these recollections in An Encyclopedia of Bending Time allow her to rebuild her late mother’s image, and to thin the new space between them. Grief is omnipresent here. Grief is a living, breathing thing. Keane, currently living in San Francisco, is a doctoral fellow at Stanford University, and the author of the novella Luminaries from Omnidawn Publishing. This work, from Barrelhouse Books, is her debut full-length book.
The memoir takes the form that we see teased in the title—short encyclopedia entries make up the entirety of the book, and each entry is intrinsically linked, sometimes in peculiar ways, with the entry for “FOG” telling us to “see also HOME DEPOT.” This means that the memoir feels curated, and the language is sparing; Keane is a master of knowing when to dive into pathos, and when to rein the emotion back in, in favor of science, history, or cultural critique.
The main thread of the text is the loss of Keane’s mother. We see her entirely through Keane’s lens, and the book itself is written to the mother, in the second person perspective. This puts us in Keane’s shoes throughout, and the constant ache of grief she feels is tangible. She examines the loss in a few ways, but notably she talks of this concept of bending time, a hope that she could somehow manipulate time so that it becomes less linear and a time where the mother lives and dies, and exists beyond death, all share the same timeline. This power would allow Keane to reclaim her beloved mother and remove the loss that is upending her life.
One of my favorite elements of this book is not just the structure it borrows, but the internal logic of the entries, and how often they refer to pop culture or history. For example, Keane draws comparisons throughout to episodes of the early 90s television show Quantum Leap, which features Scott Bakula as Dr. Sam Beckett, a spacetime-jumping physicist. She also considers parallels in Alice in Wonderland, a book that was beloved by herself and her sister, who she refers to as “J.” Of Quantum Leap, she writes: “Revisiting the episodes is a vehicle. It is also a way to turn away from the missing; to drop myself into an imaginative plane where anything is possible.” In reexamining the shows that informed her as a child, Keane is able to take the pain she is experiencing and consider how she might rewrite her own story, just as Beckett in Quantum Leap is able to rewrite or correct history.
The image of an octopus reoccurs throughout the book, and even appears on the gorgeous cover, designed by Shanna Compton over at Bloof Books. Keane imagines an unseen octopus in an old photograph of her mother at the beach, a time before she herself existed, and she comes back to this image of the octopus, time and again, fixated on it; and the image of the beach too. As noted, Kristin borrows from history, most notably from some of the most profound and celebrated thinkers of our time (and before it). Entries on Albert Einstein, Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud, and Plutarch demonstrate Keane’s own understanding of time, grief, and logic. Plutarch, on experiencing the death of his son wonders: “if a ship with entirely replaced parts would remain the same ship.” Keane wonders the same for her loss—in the absence of her mother, has she become an entirely new person? When she stands on the same beach that her mother was photographed, is she standing on the same beach, or has all of the sand and water been renewed? As she notes in her entry for Kant, “Reality is what the mind has constructed,” and Keane has the capability to form her own conception of reality. This invites new possibilities to us, especially we who turn to this memoir to reckon with our own loss. She suggests parallel worlds, and we begin to imagine the same. In one, her mother remarries and moves away, becoming a gardener; in another, Quantum Leap’s Beckett resurrects her mother and brings her home.
While Keane contemplates breaking down the timeline as she knows it, she is also confronted with a doubling of herself—the day after her mother’s death, somebody steals her identity and begins racking up a multitude of debts in her name. Despite this betrayal, Keane begins to identify with this thief, who she dubs the Mystery Kristin Keane, and uses her own conception of this shadowy figure to talk out her crises. This unlikely faux-friendship pulls us through the memoir in a different, compelling way, one that particularly kept me on the page.
An Encyclopedia of Bending Time is a work of longing, with a poetic sensibility despite its encyclopedic conventions. Keane writes often of endings or denouements, but like encyclopedias, there is never truly an end to the work being done here. This is a project of reimagination, or reworking—toward the close of the book, Keane writes: “I think I’ve lost the order of things, even though order is the only thing I am trying to keep.” The real delight of this book is relinquishing control and seeing what can be made of life when all that has been accepted as logic, is released. This incandescent book should be read as an act of catharsis—Keane’s encyclopedia is one of heartbreak and grief, yes, but one of renewal too.
An Encyclopedia of Bending Time, by Kristin Keane. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Barrelhouse Books, April 2022. $18.00, paper.
Shannon Wolf is a British writer and teacher, living in Denver, Colorado. Her debut full-length poetry collection Green Card Girl is forthcoming from Fernwood Press. She received a joint MA-MFA in Poetry at McNeese State University and also has degrees from Lancaster University and the University of Chichester. She is the Co-Curator of the Poets in Pajamas Reading Series. Her poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction (which can also be found under the name Shannon Bushby) have appeared in or are forthcoming from Bending Genres, The Forge, No Contact Mag, and HAD, among others. You can find her on social media @helloshanwolf.