Monday, December 24, 2012

Dec 24: Heather Price-Wright on Josalyn Knapic

I was going to write about Josalyn Knapic’s “Sea of Trees” from DIAGRAM 12.5 before this became a week of way too many sad thoughts. For me, this is always such a season – advent, especially if you work or, as most of us do, wade in the field of mental illness, is homicide season and, even more so, suicide season. So "Sea of Trees," with its dark obsessions and its ghostly branches and its compass-distorting forest floors, and of course its hanging bodies, already was the only essay I could think about, the only one that encapsulated so much of what I obsess over this time of year – silence, roots, lostness, foundness, death. After the events of late last week, which I will not dwell on here, this essay became even more of a refuge, even more of a dark place to hold my thoughts of too many deaths. It is an essay for winter, an essay for mourning. It is an essay that investigates the kinds of whys I don't know how to ask yet, and for that, this week, I thank it.
    One of the things that so impresses me about this essay is that, despite being, as much as anything else, about suicide, despite being fairly macabre and failing to shy away from the physical artifacts of suicide, the "backpacks, duffle bags, hairspray, hair mousse, combs, scissors, sunglasses, receipts, plastic bags, and soda cans" left behind by the now-hanging bodies, the bodies themselves, it does not venture into territory that is too black to bear. It circles death, it acknowledges it, it sniffs around at death and tells death's story, in its way, but it does not fetishize death or the dead or the choice they've made. I tend to hate essays about suicide for this reason – they glamorize the act, they wish for it a little bit. Knapic steers clear of these clichés of the topic, coming at suicide sideways and, when she gets there, with a researcher's eye rather than that of a jealous onlooker.
    And so we begin with obsession, perfect for the subject of suicide, so self-obsessed an act, but not obsession with death. "This was when I had my obsession with trees," Knapic writes. "This obsession is fairly new, and with all fairly new obsessions everything that is in the slightest relation has to be bought, to be had, to be remembered." Remembered in particular, and also obsessed over throughout the essay, is a line of verse, which Knapic discovers is from James Shea’s Star in the Eye, a snippet from his “Death Poems”: “Then he said, Go, / sit outside / until you see the trees / have throats.” It’s no wonder this line stuck with Knapic so completely; it’s an earworm, a brainworm, of a line, and, wonderfully, a perfect portal into an essay dense with both the bare throats of trees and the souls of the dead.
    Knapic moves between telling of the forest Aokigahara, the “Sea of Trees” itself, which is the most popular suicide spot in Japan and second most popular in the world, and investigating other obsessions – Shea’s “Death Poems,” her trees, both collected and merely observed. “The grounding. This is why I stare at them,” she writes. “I stare at them in longing from the elevated train, a window overlooking the park, I stare while I wait to cross the street. Why must I feel so rootless?”
    This rootlessness drives the essay. It is what keeps Knapic returning to the trees in Aokigahara, and to the people compelled there by their own lack of a strong connection to the planet they’ll only briefly have called home, those possessors of physical belongings, knapsacks, shoes, who will leave them on the indifferent forest floor and hang from the indifferent branches. It is what brings Knapic home again and again to verse, that rooting force, that line she writes “everywhere I would mark something as divine, for continuous retrospection, definition.”
    In Knapic’s search for definition, we, her readers, along for the ride, both learn and feel so much. The essay’s research is broad and deep, and Knapic’s investigation turns over too many disturbing and fascinating details to explicate here. There is the “self-help” book, The Complete Manual of Suicide, which has sold more than a million copies and which is often found “on the forest floor next to a body.” There are the signs, sad little government attempts to turn away pilgrims to the Sea of Trees, with inscriptions like, “Think of your loved ones! Life is precious! Please reconsider!” As Knapic notes, “These are the only communication from officials, from police to stop the growing number of suicides.”  Of course, we can’t know the efficacy of such signs, but the sense we get here is: not much. There are the YouTube videos of the forest Knapic watches and describes, the perfect stillness of the forest, where the trees block even the wind from disturbing their branches, the way one visitor likens moving through the forest to the Blair Witch Project. Each of these details courses through me, adding to the weight, the density of the essay, the sense that I have entered into something physical, someplace I will stay until I know everything, until I see the trees have throats, to see the souls of the dead rise up from their bodies among the trees and be freed. Is this what I am waiting for? Reading this essay in a state of mind already so permeated with death, am I asking Knapic to release the dead? Am I asking for their names, their selves, their own throats, singing or wailing?
    The essay ends in a place I find slippery, uncertain. “The answer is found in the bodies,” Knapic writes. The questions are many, but chiefly, whether the trees, their throats, “would be barely whispering or screaming amongst the hanging dead in their branches.” I wonder, though, what do the bodies have to tell us about the trees, the trees about the bodies? Are they brought together in this final act, bodies becoming a part of the landscape like branches and leaves, trees complicit in the bodies’ final act? Knapic, too, seems to question how united these two players are, whether the forest is responsible for the bodies, whether the trees catch and hold their souls. How entwined have the two become?
    All I know is that, in terms of entwined, I cannot extricate myself from the Sea of Trees once I have been there. I am drawn, like the visitors in the YouTube videos, who whisper, “I’m scared. I don’t want to be here right now,” but continue walking through the forest. I am driven by Knapic’s obsession and my own, quickly developing, with her essay and with her subjects, and I wonder – this darkened advent, I can’t help it – about the stuck souls thickening the forest, thickening the whole world.


Heather Price-Wright is the assistant nonfiction editor at DIAGRAM. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Qualia and ARDOR. She blogs every so often at and lives in Brooklyn.

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