Leap into the Water: On Nance Van Winckel’s Sister Zero

In Nance Van Winckel’s latest collection, a book of experimental short prose essays entitled Sister Zero, she delves into the realm of memory to search for answers. The back cover offers the premise of the backstory: “a woman who never wanted children suddenly becomes a mother to her nine-year-old nephew after her sister commits suicide at age thirty-four. Fifteen years later, the boy will also kill himself and in almost the exact same manner.” The author traces these biographical facts through her memories, recalling the people her sister and nephew were before their deaths. But what the back of the book doesn’t reveal is that the immersion into these scenes will not be linear or completely coherent—within her mind, the lines blur between fact and fiction, between the idealized versions of identity people construct and those accurate representations which can often be too difficult to confront objectively. This book considers the influences of various characters: the author’s mother, her sister, and her nephew, using those foils to interrogate the self, asking: what do I remember, and were there clues as to what was to come? 

In the segment “In Charge of Nothing,” the author reflects: “Swirling too: the soft mutterings of child selves—mine, hers, his—and whose was whose? The all-voices circled as one indecipherable whisper. 

Can a person suddenly know nothing? And be glad of it?” 

In this collection, nothing is certain other than the eventual series of events, and part of what makes this book so unique and poignant is the choice Van Winckel made to write her memories as flash nonfiction essays, arranging the segments in such a way that causes the reader to feel like they’re swimming through time—but the journey is not that of cruising a lazy river on an inflated tube. Instead, each essay feels like you’re cannonballing into a specific moment in her memory, plunging into a depth that many might be too afraid to confront. From there, you sink deeper into the scene, being guided by Van Winckel as she further interrogates the experience herself. 

Or, you might rise, floating on your back, ears submerged just beneath the surface, a place where noise is muffled, as the other half of your face is out of the water, staring at the undeniable intensity of the sun. However, by the end of an essay, you climb back to the edge of the pool, pull yourself out as the author does. You do all of this just to turn the page and fling yourself into the water once again, waiting to follow the author’s cue of to sink or to swim. And throughout the collection, she is honest about her lack of omniscience. In “On Two Green Noodles,” we see the author and her sister in a pool, the latter expressing: 

I miss the sun.” She slid into the water, keeping her face skyward, her ears under water. 

I watched her wiggle lower. Into the good water. Blue above and below. The kind blue. 

It was all almost over. 

I, for one, had not a clue. 

That this unpredictable waterlike time-weaving technique is so exceptional is a testament to Van Winckel’s skills as a multigenre writer. An author of nine books of poetry and five collections of fiction, she is also a visual artist who creates erasure pieces and collages which blend literary and visual realms to impact a viewer on multiple fronts. The tactile composition of this book, her first nonfiction work, is a reflection of that artistic fluidity. In an interview with her publisher, Slant Books, Van Winckel shared that while working on this collection, she was also learning the art of mosaic tiling—a process of taking something broken and honing the edges. Putting an essay down once it was finished, the sharp parts smoothed, she would move on to the next, working on this book in segments for over a decade. 

In the essay “Recycling,” she writes, 

I stare back at the stares and wonder if my sister’s sidelong smirk or my nephew’s cast-down glance convey clues I missed years ago but will suddenly sense as today’s twilight falls upon the late-breaking now. [. . .] As I chuck in the small weight of our brief histories, somebody blinks a last time into a cold blue wall. Stacks of us. Clutter of us. We came. We went. In a flurry our gazes cross and weave and drop. 

As readers, we sift through the clutter along with Van Winckel, searching for revelations as she does. But maybe revelation isn’t the right word. This book is comprised of discoveries, but they often appear in the smallest image or emotion uncovered in her memories, one a different author could have easily overlooked or been unable to articulate its significance. The word I want to use instead is punctum. 

Roland Barthes coined the terms studium and punctum in his 1980 book, Camera Lucida, which interrogates the essence of photography. If you care about considering the psychological impacts of an image on a viewer, go read this chapter in that book. If not, I will try to make the summary of the terms brief. 

Studium: Barthes writes that it is by this word that he is “interested in so many photographs, whether [he] receive[s] them as political testimony or enjoy[s] them as good historical scenes: for it is culturally (this connotation is present in studium) that [he] participate[s] in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions.” This is what’s happening in a literal, cultural historic sense within the photograph, what I often like to consider the context of the moment frozen in time. 

Punctum: Barthes writes that this “second element will break (or punctuate) the [studium].” The punctum “rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces [him]. A Latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument: the word suits [him] all the better in that it also refers to the notion of punctuation, and because the photographs [he is] speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive points; precisely, these marks, these wounds are so many points”.

Barthes concludes, “This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole—and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is the accident which pricks [him] (but also bruises [him], is poignant to [him])”.

Van Winckel’s book is a cohesive combination of the two terms. In the expression of studium, her memoir contains various cultural elements which solidify its place in time, and some of these larger events have recurring relevance in the greater narrative. Further, each chapter begins with collages she created, combinations of random images and words with pages from the Official Guide to the 1964 World’s Fair, which was a foundational outing for the author and her late sister. As she reflects on her sister and nephew, there are other peripheral events of note as she matures and becomes self-aware, constructing her identity from more than just the influence of her family. And all along, Mister Ed, the horse from the old television show, guides the reader through episodes that morph into ethereal dreamscapes at the end of each section. In the segment “Mister Ed Harping On Again about Jonah,” Van Winckel writes, 

Ed wants us to imagine Jonah, just imagine him sitting atop his host’s heart, feeling its pulse beneath his buttocks, that whole whale of splayed-out suburbs leaning precariously in on what beats. 

Among the entrails, minnows dip and dart like wrens—soundlessly daring as they dive into slow dissolve. 

Back home, stopped in a shade between two olive trees, Jonah had received the order. Maybe anyone standing so still feels that absorbed . . . as in a long final kiss. 

Though Ed insists the words weren’t beautiful. Never were. You have to stand up and spit sand to repeat them. Stare into the hammering heart. Bang, bang, the red debt.

So, yes, the studium exists in this work. But in a photo, it is the punctum a person remembers. Stare at a picture for a few minutes, then close your eyes. What is burned into the back of your eyelids? A minute later, what detail remains, that emotional center that cannot be forgotten? This book is a collection of “wounds,” as Barthes described it, essays “punctuated [and] speckled with these sensitive points.” 

These punctums prove to be disruptions to the linear, factual truth of Van Winckel’s life. And rather than shying away from those wounds, she internalizes those moments of “sting, speck, cut, little hole, [. . .] cast of the dice.” But her diving into the deep end of these bruises and pricks is no accident, and each investigation is carefully composed. As I mentioned above, with each piece, she blends together the worlds of concise narrative, image, and emotion, proving that she can do in half a page what many would need an entire chapter to uncover. 

Sister Zero proves that some things cannot be rushed, as Van Winckel sought to construct the perfect combination of narrative and poetic image, using these tools to grind down glass until reaching an emotional punctum center, one that might be a heartbreaking admission rather than a clear solution or path to lead out from the ache and misdirection of these memories. Further, the descriptions of these recollections retain the close attention to language and sound that Van Winckel possesses as a poet. In “What Oh What to Wear,” the author considered what to wear to her sister’s funeral. She writes,

 Not the ladybug earrings and certainly not the teal heels even though they travel well. [. . .] Consider the mourners more. Give them the unctuousness of grey hose, the cliché of black pumps. In this sweater I too much resemble her. Should I save the pennies from her loafers to cover my own eyes? Which of us does that damn? 

The silk scarf isn’t purple enough to rewind the pleas, the please. Won’t these pearls let me tell the one who says, “Oh, she looks like she’s sleeping so peacefully,” No she does not. I have seen her sleeping and she never looked like that, with each of the hands I once clung to now clinging only to one another . . . from here through the rest of time. 

Mourners, more. Sweater, loafer. Pleas, please, peacefully. This same sonic echoing happened with blue and clue in the quote above from “On Two Green Noodles.” These repetitions create an almost haunting effect as we move from one rhyme to the next, getting the feeling I’ve heard this word or sound before, but it was different. Yet, it has returned, and I am compelled to listen and consider the similarities. Thanks to her years of experience as a poet, Van Winckel knows how to build tension and reinforce meaning through her ability to craft rhyme patterns using specific language. 

One of the pinnacle events of this book occurs in “Spokane Firestorm, 1991.” Van Winckel writes: 

And both of us—shirtless now, 25 years later, and stepping from a cool lake into warm sunlight—laugh and shake our heads, remembering. A quarter century in embers behind us. Is what was coming finally here? A shrug, a smile, a little happy—what took these so long? To get here? To find us? 

And so, my verdict: if you are willing to follow Nance Van Winckel into places like a firestorm, no matter where her chosen moment in time might lead, and open yourself to what these moments reveal about the speaker, as well as what they might ignite in you, then read this book. Do more than read it. Fling yourself into the water, cannonballing and sinking until you reach that punctum you cannot look away from and cannot dare to forget.