We here at Essay Daily (not that daily, but maybe weekly, soon!) would like to include more voices here. Here's a new review from Erica Jones.
Nonfiction Essay Review of “Bricklaying” by Laura Brown-Lavoie
as published in the Seneca Review, volume 39/1, Spring 2009
First I must say that I will not get it all, will not tell it all. But that’s okay; I feel fairly certain that neither did Laura Brown-Lavoie and while that may sound like an insult it is meant as a compliment. Brown-Lavoie’s essay, like Walt Whitman, is large. It contains multitudes. Although the text itself is relatively short—six pages that embrace the use of white space, of shifting margins—the essay expands beyond these parameters, creating multitudes of texts, of ideas, that are as much dependent on how the essay is read, on what the reader brings to the essay, as they are on Brown-Lavoie’s intentions when creating this text. Drawing from sources as varied as the Bible, the Grimm brother’s fairy tales, Barack Obama’s political campaigns and writings, and many others, Brown-Lavoie forces together musings on multiple subjects, often cutting off one topic mid sentence and picking up on another, again in the middle of the thought. These transitions are sometimes seemingly seamless, as when she ends one paragraph with “A good writer lures everyone upstairs to his pleasure den with the promise of eternal spring,” and begins the next paragraph (after a white space enclosed in a series of square brackets) with “while a bad one snatches so many balloons that he looks down to find that his toes have left the ground and not a soul has grabbed onto his shoelaces for the ride.”
Other times, although the grammatical sense of the sentence that bridges the white space is maintained, there is an obvious shift in subject that problematizes the reader’s desire for a clear linear understanding of meaning. Moving from Rapunzel back to Genesis, Brown-Lavoie writes “Then she let her hair drop twenty yards, and the sorceress would climb up on it. A few years later,” and again, there is white space enclosed in square brackets before we pick up with “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.” We know, because we have read Rapunzel, have had the story told to us with drooping eyelids years and years ago, that the Lord did not, in fact, enter in to the story, at least not so literally. And maybe we heard, with plaid skirts and doodled margins, the story of the tower of Babel, and are fairly certain that no sorceress climbed sixty feet of hair to a kidnapped would-be princess. By pushing these pieces together, Brown-Lavoie encourages us to understand our old stories, our old beliefs, in new ways.
If there were to be one story that works as a through line for the essay, it would be that of the tower of Babel, wherein humankind dared to create a tower so great to glorify its own name, and God punished humankind by scattering them across the world, and dividing their common language so that all of humankind could no longer understand each other. And this division seems to be, in many ways, what Brown-Lavoie is addressing. She speaks of “We” of “I” of “You,” of language barriers, even when we speak the same language, of “a common enemy” a “common oppressor,” of hope, of race, of country, of a “we” that is two and a “we” that is all and a “we” that is some but not others. She speaks of elephants and donkeys and races politically, geographically and visually defined. She also speaks of creation, of creators both mystical and human, of creations that are the world and of creations that are a story, a painting, a poem. She speaks of things that I have not yet discovered, and so I say again that I will not get it all, will not tell it all. And I say again that neither did she. Because what Brown-Lavoie does not do in “Bricklaying” is tell you what to think, or what is right. She does not define, but instead presents, and allows the reader to create a multitude of meaning through the ways that the ideas interact with each other outside of the page and inside the mind.