Haunt/Hearth: Kristine Langley Mahler’s A Calendar is a Snakeskin

Kristine Langley Mahler’s A Calendar is a Snakeskin is a practice in meaning-making, one that invites the reader into their own processes of self-reflection. This book is mysterious and generative in the questions it raises, but also generous, sharing some of the writer’s intimate moments navigating motherhood, grief, loneliness. Mahler is a writer looking for home.

A Calendar is a Snakeskin is composed of diaristic and witchly flash, written across one year of dreams, synchronicities, ghosts, family discussions, and through these motifs, investigating belonging. The book is broken up into three (ghost)sections: Ghostwatch, Ghostchoke, and Ghostheart. There is resonance structurally with Hélène Cixous’s Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, which names the three schools of writing thought as the School of the Dead, the School of Dreams, and the School of Roots. Mahler being the director of Split/Lip Press and talking about that throughout this book too, in many ways, A Calendar is a Snakeskin is its own examination of writing practice, and how writing is inextricable from spirit, from the metaphysical nature of the world around us. Each section of Calendar approaches titles differently, Ghostwatch offering distinct titles for each flash piece, Ghostchoke marking each flash piece with a “-O-” (the O itself suggesting almost the opening of a throat,) and Ghostheart just beginning each page with an asterisk. These transitions align with narrative momentum in the book, where we begin to see the layering of signs, the returning to symbols such as snakes, bears, milky quartz to gather meaning, until we find almost a collapse in the orbiting, a mobile of stars falling towards open hands. Structurally, the book is a swirling inwards, a kind of navel-gazing that moves back outwards to illuminate the world around the writer. 

“I feared that I would damage others with my brittleness if I did not teach my heart how to contract and expand, to hold two homes at once.” (12)

Written primarily from New Mexico and Nebraska, with references to North Carolina (those threes again with the N’s!) as a childhood home, Mahler finds many entry points to understanding what home can mean, and how that meaning changes over time. 

One of Calendar’s greatest strengths is its lyricism, how the images of the text bring more meaning to an astrological framework: the molten core of the Earth creating the moon, the wild chamomile picked in the ancestral homeland of Québec, snake symbolism “older than the Garden of Eden.” Mahler brings in her own entry point to spirituality through Catholicism too:

“It was easy for me to stay Catholic as an adult because as a child I’d collected saints like promises–all those meanings preassigned on the liturgical calendar, never a day without someone willing to offer their bonus blessings on my behalf.” (49)

The urgent self-interrogation is resonant in a time where writing communities and beyond are always discussing and in practice with interconnectedness. She says, “I must horrify my ancestors.” That’s an important aspect of Calendar too– when we talk about interconnectedness, in Mahler’s writing we aren’t only talking about the living. Mahler reaches backwards to remember neighbors who have passed, grandparents and great grandparents, the stewards of the land before her. It calls back through memory, while being grounded by the rhythm of dailiness. 

Sweet moments of motherhood are mixed with a constant questioning about Mahler’s relationship to time: is she prioritizing her children or the girl-self she used to be? There is one scene where Mahler shares a shooting star sighting with her daughter, and they go to tell another daughter, who then gets to see a second shooting star. (50) At its most vibrant, this book has a whimsy that is contagious, and that feeds this practice of meaning-making. In a burst of synthesis, Mahler writes:

“…when I had actually encountered a bear at nineteen in Montana, I was afraid I no longer knew myself. I dreamt about the bear for nineteen more years, a talisman representing the times I ignored my self in favor of the self I wanted to project.” (38)

But this book isn’t without meditations on bitterness, mundanity, boredom. One of the conflicts that emerges in the later sections of the book is a feeling of isolation from the author’s siblings. They were planning to buy houses near each other in Mahler’s home away from home, New Mexico. There is also visceral discomfort shared, notably the ghost choke scene in the second section, when Mahler describes a panic attack that keeps her from being able to swallow. “…it is only after I prepare for the thing I fear most that my subconscious slackens its hold, opens the throat.” (74) So in writing this, is Mahler preparing for the worst? Looking at moments of isolation and longing in order to come back and choose connectedness.

There is a reach towards the ecstatic in the answer to all these symbols, questions, and everyday struggles. The last flash piece in the book (spoilers!) is a rush of recalled scenes, synapses firing, astrological resonances. But many answers emerge throughout the writing, an ecstatic move beyond the self such as:

“Passing down desires and fears from grandmother to granddaughter, the mother the conduit. I am a medium, after all; my eggs were formed while I grew in my own mother’s womb. My mother built my body with the experiences that shaped her before she turned twenty-four, her recoils and her longings.” (69)

Ultimately, Mahler hones in on generational connection to make home. She mines the strangeness of her everyday for faithfulness. She turns back towards her family, the last word of the book being, “home.” Out with Autofocus Lit, A Calendar is a Snakeskin promises romantic and shadowy perspective on the patterns of our lived lives. It is an atmospheric read for the coming blustery months. 

Sara Mae is a high fem writer raised on the Chesapeake Bay.They are a 2023 Big Ears Music Festival Artist Scholar and a 2022 Tinhouse Summer Workshops Attendee. They were a finalist for the 2023 Loraine Williams Prize and will be published in the Georgia Review. Their work also appears in or is forthcoming from FENCE, Waxwing, The Offing, and elsewhere. They write shimmery rock music as The Noisy. They received their MFA from UT Knoxville, and currently write for the music journal post-trash.