Saved by Rocks – the Poetics and Prose of Lidia Yuknavitch

American author Lidia Yuknavitch

American author Lidia Yuknavitch

….we are the poem, we have come miles of life, we have survived this far to tell you, go on, go on.

Lidia Yuknavitch from The Chronology of Water – A Memoir, Hawthorne Books, 2010

I owe the topic of this blog post to my friend and wonderful poet Rosemary Griebel. A month or so ago she listed her list of summer reading. On it was a book I didn’t know – The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch. So I bought it. It was a memoir published in 2010. Not your everyday memoir. Bigger than big, raunchy, explicit, graphic and in its heart-breaking details of her life, which include addiction, family dysfunction. the stillborn birth of a daughter and marriage breakdowns, it is also radiant with hope and beauty.

While many commentators are grappling with the sexual depictions in Yuknavitch’s books (especially in her latest novel) it was the grief she describes in her memoir from the still-born birth of her daughter that gut punched me. And then the chapter, Metaphor, rocked me (pun intended) where images of rocks become her way of trying to convey the visceral experience of her grieving.

But truly, in the end, it is Yuknavitch’s use of poetic language that mesmerizes me. Here, from an interview with the editor and publisher of Hawthorne Books included at the end of her memoir, is Yuknavitch’s take on poetry:

Poetic language – and by that I mean the language of image, sound, rhythm, color, sensation-is probably the closest we bring language to experience – poetic language takes you to the edge of sense and deep into sensation. So after I name my primal grief, the death of my daughter the day she was born, it felt precise to move directly to poetic language. The metaphor of collecting rocks is more “true” to me to the experience of grieving than to say, I was intolerably sad. It feels precise to draw that metaphor of collecting rocks out, to extend it as long as possible, to let the reader feel the space of grief in the house the way I did. It’s my hope that at least one person will find resonance in that extended language space.

I want you to hear how it feels to be me inside a sentence. Even if some of the sentences seem to lose their meaning. I want the rhythm, the image, the cry to remain with your body. You could probably go through this book and literally chart the moments of emotional intensity by watching where the language – to quote Dickinson-goes strange.

(To read Yuknavich’s chapter titled Metaphor  in her memoir see below.)

No sooner had I read the memoir when stories of Yuknavitch seemed to chase after me. (I didn’t realize she has just published her second novel, The Small Backs of Children,which is getting a lot of press.) First from Literary Hub click here  and most recently the New Yorker click here. And then, when my daughter started to describe a book so disturbing and beautiful, she was reading it with timeouts – to catch her breath – I knew what it had to be. I was right:  it was The Chronology of Water.

In her interview with Literary Hub Yuknavitch addresses the polarities in her work:

I think it’s important to learn to face the fact that the brutal and the beautiful always co-exist, often right next to one another. I want to get better at facing what we have done to the world and to each other. I want to get better at deploying direct action with compassion. I suspect that writing books is partly how I’ll find my way… because writing books releases me from the tyranny of how things are and catapults me into imagination, the more real place, the place where anything remains possible.

In the New Yorker article Yuknatvitch adds this:

I am trying to put things into the world that alchemize the dark and turn it to something beautiful.

When I read this I was reminded instantly of a quote by Rainer Maria Rilke in a letter to a friend describing the themes of his Duino Elegies:

Whoever does not, sometime or other, give his full consent, his full and joyous consent, to the dreadfulness of life, can never take possession of the unutterable abundance and power of our existence; can only walk on its edge, and one day, when the judgement is given, will have been neither alive nor dead.”

Rainer Maria Rilke to Countess Margot Sizzo-Norris-Crouy, April 12th, 1923 from the Duino Elegies & The Sonnets to Orpheus, trans, Stephen Mitchell, Vintage Books, 2009

Yuknatvitch by this definition is frighteningly and wonderfully alive. While Yuknavitch’s graphic sexual descriptions, especially in her latest novel, are not my cup of tea, this small chapter in her memoir is something I will drink from for a long time:


I’M GOING TO TELL YOU SOMETHING THAT HELPS. NOT IN the usual way; this isn’t in any textbooks or guidebooks. It has nothing to do with self-help or breathing or stirrups or speculums – god knows that territory has been done to death with its terminologies and systems – first second third trimester, quickening, lightening, labor, expecting, fetal heartbeat, uterus, embryo, womb, contractions, crowning, cervical dilation, vaginal canal, breathe – that’s it, little short breaths, transition, push.

But what I want to tell you is away from this story. The truth of it is, the story of a woman having a baby is the fiction we make it. More precisely, a woman with bulging life in her belly represents – is a metaphor for making a story. A story we can all live with. The fertilization, the gestation, the containment, the production of a story.

So let me give you a tip. Something you can use in relation to this grand narrativity, this epic status, something you can live with when the time comes.

Collect rocks.

That’s all. But not just any rocks. You are an intelligent woman so you look for the unimaginable inside the ordinary. Go to places you would not ordinarily go alone – riverbanks. Deep woods. The part of the ocean shore where peoples’ gazes disappear. Wade in all waters. When you find a group of rocks, you must stare at them a long while before you choose, let your eyes adjust, use what you know of the long wait waiting. Let your imagination change what you know. Suddenly a gray rock becomes ashen or clouded with dream. A ring round a rock is luck. To find a red rock is to discover earthblood. Blue rocks make you believe in them. Patterns and flecks on rocks are bits of different countries and terrains, speckled questions. Conglomerates are the movement of land in the freedom of water, smoothed into a small thing you can hold in your hand, rub against your face. Sandstone is soothing and lucid. Shale, of course, is rational. Find pleasure in these ordinary palm worlds. Help yourself prepare for a life. Recognize when there are no words for the pain, when there are no words for the joy, there are rocks. Fill all the clear drinking glasses in your house with rocks, no matter what your husband or lover thinks. Gather rocks in small piles on the counters, the tables, the windowsills. Divide rocks by color, texture, size, shape. Collect some larger stones, place them along the floor of your living room, never mind what the guests think, build an intricate labyrinth of inanimates. Move around your rocks like a curl of water. Begin to detect smells and sounds to different varieties of rock. Give names to some, not geological, but of your own making. Memorize their presence, know if one is missing or out of place. Bathe them in water once each week. Carry a different one in your pocket every day. Move away from normal but don’t notice it. Move towards excess but don’t care. Own more rocks than clothing, than dishes, than books. Lie down next to them on the floor, put the smaller ones in your mouth occasionally. Sometimes, feel lithic, or petrified, or rupestral instead of tired, irritable, depressed. At night, alone, naked, place one green, one red, one ashen on different parts of your body. Tell no one.


After months of collecting, when your house is full and swollen, when you begin to experience contractions and dilation, after you check the color of the too red blood, after you use a timepiece to record the seconds, minutes, after you begin to regulate your breathing and abandon your thinking to the story you have been told about this, and, after your baby is born dead in the morning – which you cannot find in the story you were told – after you think of the words “born” and “dead” next to one another, turn to the rocks. Turn to the rocks and hear seas echoed from as far away as the Ukraine. Smell kelp and taste salt; feel that underwater animals have brushed near you. Remember parts of your body are scattered in water all over the earth. Know land is made from you. Lie all the baby clothes that have been given to you as scripts or gifts on the floor in lines. Sit with the tiny clothes and your rocks and think of nothing at all. Have endless patterns and repetitions accompanying your thoughtlessness, as if to say let go of that other more linear story, with its beginning, middle, and end, with its transcendent end, let go, we are the poem, we have come miles of life, we have survived this far to tell you, go on, go on.

You will see you have an underlying tone and plot to your life underneath the one you’ve been told. Circular and image bound. Something near tragic, near unbearable, but contained by your irreducible imagination -who would have thought of it but you – your ability to metamorphose like organic material in contact with changing elements. The rocks. They carry the chronology of water. All things simultaneously living and dead in your hands.

Lidia Yuknavitch from the Chronology of Water, ibid



  1. Liz
    Posted August 27, 2015 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    “Recognize when there are no words for the pain, when there are no words for the joy, there are rocks..”
    Richard, I feel a new affinity tonight for all the rocks I have collected and tucked away in drawers and other places. Time to let them breathe.
    Thank you

  2. Richard
    Posted September 1, 2015 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for highlighting this line! Lifesavers take many forms! Even a rock. Loyal reader # 1. Blessings, Richard

  3. Christin Lore Weber
    Posted August 28, 2015 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing Yuknavitch’s work. I’m off to buy her book, but I must wait a bit for my heart to calm down.

  4. Richard
    Posted September 1, 2015 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Christen! So glad this struck home. All best, Richard

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