Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Adam Kullberg on Nicole Walker’s “Where the Wild Things Are”

           One night a few years ago, my then-roommate’s puppy, Lucy, slunk into the darkness just beyond the security lights of our back porch. It was cold out that night, the moon hidden behind the clouds. My roommate and I were smoking on the porch, watching each puff spread out over the branches of a banana-leafed tree above our heads.
            This is how we spent most nights that fall, and the dog did this often, this disappearing act, so we didn’t call her back. Even when we heard the rustling of leaves, that stop-go…stop-go… of her paws, that insistent sniffing—telltale signs of something being hunted—even then, we didn’t call her back.
            Why would we? To us Lucy was just a slobbering, excitable, clever puppy who was always happy to see a new face. She spent most of her time curled up on the couch or in our laps. And she had never actually caught anything before. It was the chase, we imagined, that kept things interesting.
            And then, there it was: the muffled pursuit; the high-pitched squeal; the bones snapping, a quick poppopoppop; and the dense silence that followed.
            My roommate and I looked wild-eyed to each other—we thought something must have attacked her, hurt her—and we ran across the yard in time to meet Lucy emerging back into the security light. Her jaws bloody. Her feet matted with dirt. Her long, slender body tense as a branch against the wind. And her tail wagging.

            This memory came back to me after recently re-reading Nicole Walker’s essay, “Where the Wild Things Are”—forthcoming in her collection, Quench Your Thirst With Salt, winner of the 2011 Creative Nonfiction Book Award from Zone 3 Press. I thought of that night not only because parts of the essay focus on wolves and a wolf-like dog named “Cleo” (Lucy was an Alaskan Malamute, one step away from full wolf), but also because Walker deals with the primal instincts, the baser desires, the darker fantasies that reside within all of us. Even sometimes shape us.
            For Lucy, it was the predator’s desire to hunt, to kill—evident the next morning, when we followed her back to the spot beside the fence where she had chased the squirrel down, broken its neck. Until it happened, I would never have believed Lucy could ever kill another living creature. But there it was, splayed out in the backyard. My irrefutable evidence.
            For Nicole Walker in “Where the Wild Things Are,” the evidence is not so readily apparent. Spurred by the discovery that her first child will be a daughter, Walker goes on a quest to peel her fears—specifically, a) “the threat of nature becoming completely obliterated and all things wild, especially predators, made extinct;” and b) “some ‘pervert’ molesting my daughter”—open like an onion, layer by layer.
            In the opening section, she says:

Whether or not having kids means you have to make some hard and fast rules or whether or not dams need to be built, you must first determine what the baseline for normal is, what kind of soil you’re working with. When you’re formed of muddled soils yourself, it’s hard to begin to distinguish. But you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. You must first have a threshold before you can charge trespass. You have to know what’s real ground and not just a fantasy of packed sand. It’s up to you to investigate the strata.

            Walker’s “strata” is a collage of titled, linked sections that form the overall structure of her essay. In doing so, she is also able to embody a mosaic of different identities– female/male, child/adult, animal/human, mother/daughter, predator/prey—throughout the sections, switching deftly between real and imagined perspectives in order to expose the peripheral boundaries of her individual fears and desires: their roots, their perpetrators, their limitations. Mixing in factual, anecdotal, and research-based evidence, often within scenes, Walker manages to adeptly navigate the essay’s winding tapestry while always returning back to the source—herself and her own fears—which she uses as a concrete foundation for her broader philosophical inquiries at the ends of certain sections.
            For example, her first major revelation occurs at the end of section two, “Formations,” where she explains that our fears in the Western world have transformed, in this age of comfort, into fears not of nature as a force—starvation, drowning, exposure, predators, and so on—but of the nature/s within ourselves and within others. We now fear not what the world does to us, but what we are capable of doing to it, and to each other.

As we sit inside the comfort of our homes, in the warmth of our blankets and the crispness of our sheets, we lie in bed fearing not nature, but nature perverted. And the more that nature is twisted to suit our desire, the more perverted our natures become.

            Mind you, Walker is not preaching here, and she is not afraid to acknowledge the shortcomings in her own nature, admitting, “In the mix of acting and being acted upon, it’s impossible to even distinguish what is natural and what is a perversion of that nature,” and, “Maybe everything is normal to some degree.”
            This self-awareness and up-front honesty is particularly valuable to the reader, establishing early-on that there would be no obvious, easy answers; rather, we are put in the position of a voyeur, sometimes uncomfortably so, watching Walker as she grapples with the duality of fear and hope that comes with bringing a daughter into a world in which “perverted” natures seem to drive endless cycles of abuse, fear, and predation—even, in some ways, within Walker herself:

I don’t mean to brand my baby a victim. She’s not. She’s strong. But unlike Erik who can believe he can, I don’t believe I’ll be able to protect her, to watch out for her every step of the way. At some point, she’ll be on her own. I will give her the tools I can and then wish her luck when the man in the van pulls up alongside her as she rides her bike. Or, more likely, when the boy next-door comes over to help her fix that bike. Alone. In the garage. Or her cousin wants to play truth or dare. Or her brother wants to move his room downstairs, next to hers. Or the man across the street asks her to come help him find his kitten. How do I teach her to draw the line when talking to strangers when I don’t know where to draw it myself?
Walker continues her struggle to draw this line for herself and the reader for a few more pages. And it is only after she discovers her neighbor across the street is included on a sexual predator website–when her fears literally return home—when Walker decides that, perhaps, these dark desires, fantasies, and fears are simply inescapable, part of our human nature. Perhaps there is no neat solution, no line between good and evil, no separating dark and light.
            “We can’t protect our children from everything, maybe anything,” Walker admits in the second half of the essay. “Being particularly vigilant, erecting every foreseeable barrier against one kind of danger just allows other kinds of danger to swamp right in.”
            But what of this “other kind” of danger? Walker reveals this final, more immediate danger is the constant dualities we each establish for ourselves and others—us & them; good & evil; bad & good; fantasy & reality; wolf & sheep; predator & prey; wild & tame; etc.—which shape the way we view the meanings behind our actions, the world around us, and the actions of others. She explains that when we consider one part of our internal or external nature “wild” and another “tame,” one necessary and the other unnecessary, we communicate an imbalance within the self, preventing us from ever feeling complete, safe, as our natural selves:

But change is natural. Nature, both human and wild, responds to change with equilibrium. The change that happens to what you do to nature is what happens to the nature in you. The more we try to keep the wild outside, the more the wild seems to creep, in fiercer and in divided form, inside.

As the essay closes, Walker seeks to, instead of clarify, blur these arbitrary lines that have been set between prey and predator, victim and villain, good and bad. After entering the minds of two imaginary characters in a graphic rape scene, and after considering the plight of both the lamb and the wolf side-by-side, she does what others (myself included) often cannot in writing: acknowledges her inability to judge or lay blame, saying “There are natures out of our control. Even inside our own.”

            When I first picked up “Where the Wild Things Are,” I imagined it would be about controlling fear through breathing exercises. Nice, warm affirmations to live by. Something like that. But now, of course, I know that Walker has a braver goal in mind for herself and her readers: accepting the fact that we will always live with certain fears, certain desires. They are, and have always been, necessary for our survival. And we can either ignore these fears and desires completely, allowing them to grow within us—or we can face the truth of ourselves, put an ultrasound to our inner lives and see what murky beginnings lie inside of each of us. August Wilson said it best: “Confront the dark parts of yourself. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.”


Adam E. Kullberg is currently a nonfiction candidate in the MFA program at the University of Arizona, where he serves as a nonfiction editor at Sonora Review.

1 comment:

  1. Loved this post, Adam. And can't wait to read Nicole's new book!