Sunday, January 31, 2010

My Favorite Essay of 2010 (so far...)

My wife and I woke after noon this Sunday. Made New Orleans coffee. Set a French fry omelet to puff in the oven. Sat in our easy chairs, the hard winter creeping through the windowcracks—the ghosts of all who’ve fallen through thin ice. And read. She: The Missouri Review, Me: The Iowa Review, tattooing ourselves further into the flesh of delicious nerdhood. I started the best essay I’ve read so far this year. I take comfort in the fact that John D’Agata loved it too. Because I like John D’Agata. And I like affirmation from people I like. On page 21 of The Iowa Review 39:3 lurks Karen Hays’ “Dear Martlet,” another essay that reminds us of the genre’s capabilities and, dare I say, ultraviolet bounds. The essay does nothing short of providing us with, in the language of spent rhetorical flourish (because nothing else will work, really), new ways of seeing. Whether viewing the world, damn-near literally, through the eyes of an infant or bee, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut about this piece as I read it. It was an immediate love affair, requiring no digestion, through digestion only works in its favor. I kept interrupting my wife’s reading, to recite paragraphs of Hays’ piece aloud. Soon, my wife was hooked, and I couldn’t stop reading aloud until the piece was finished. Then, I took a shower and felt, well, reborn.

The piece works as science writing, prose poetry, biography, memoir, treatise on parenthood, folklore, food writing, art appreciation, dream analysis, and so much more than that. In tracing a fascination with the physical and mental ways in which we approach, see, and make sense of the world, and how those ways affect and encourage one another, “Dear Martlet” instructs us to be exhilarated with the world again in its infinite complexity, and simple beauties. The piece traces and speculates on the life and obsessions of Swedish botanist (and ecologist, taxonomist, zoologist, physician...), Carl Linnaeus, interrupting the discussion for the related obsessions of the author, culled from extensive and careful research, and from her own life. As a reader, we are allowed to see as the bee (“A purely red flower, say a spring tulip, would look black to a bee, but with a purple UV glow invisible to most the bull’s eyes hidden in Black-Eyed Susans, and the nectar guides that radiate like landing strips from the centers of certain lilies. Those come-hithers are for the bees.”), and as Monet, as the infant, as Linnaeus, the swallow, the sleeping mind locked in dream and the sunlight that actually obliterates it like “the photographed faces of loved ones and lost youth.”

Like Alison Hawthorne Deming’s The Monarchs and the films of Charlie Kaufman, “Dear Martlet,” teaches us about being alive and about life itself—the push pull relationship of the worlds outside and inside us. It is about so much more, and nothing less. And I know such vagueness is not the stuff of a “money review,” but to enumerate the addictive specifics of the piece would require pageless typographical diarrhea. This is a crazy-articulate essay to inspire crazier-inarticulateness. According to the contributor notes, Hays “is a geologist at work on her first collection of essays.” I can’t wait for more. Until then, I’ll take comfort in blaming her for cold coffee and a burnt omelet.

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