Monday, December 30, 2013

Something New, Something Old: Nature As Witness in Angela Pelster's "Limber" and Michael Lesy's "Wisconsin Death Trip"

I am compelled to begin this post with any number of tree-related puns: something about “stretching one’s limbs” or “apples not falling far from the tree.” I could do better, of course.  Write about the deep roots of family trees and trees with families, and how even if you know nothing of trees, the book is sure to grow on you.  (Get it?). 

(Leaf it to me to end a paragraph with a tree pun.)  ((Get it again?))  

All this silly wordplay is the fault of Angela Pelster, whose spellbinding forthcoming essay collection, Limber, explores humanity’s intersection with the silent sentinels that grace our backyards. How easy it is to forget that trees even exist? We climb them, chop them, and once a year, even haul them into our homes under the guise of “Christmas spirit”; yet despite our interactions among them, they remain mostly invisible—at least until Pelster contextualizes their lives alongside our own.

Pelster writes of trees as if writing an unwritten chapter of our own biographies, linking our shared roots (last pun, I swear), so that we might better understand that human history is only a fraction of all history. Since Aristotle, we humans have proved famously adept at featuring ourselves at the center of our universe, though as Pelster reminds, by doing so, perhaps we’ve been barking up the wrong [pun omitted].

And now, for something old: Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, a book that since its inception in 1973 has successfully defied all classifications aside from “cult classic”—a distinction its surely earned. Who, after all, but a dedicated fan base could fall in love with Lesy’s curated newspaper reports on the ravages of disease and mental illness inflicted upon a small Wisconsin town in the late 19th century? Coupled alongside Lesy’s macabre newspaper reports are photographer Charles Van Schaick’s equally macabre black and white photos, each of which depicts the strangeness of this particular time and place in our forgotten history. In many ways, Michael Lesy is the anti-Laura Ingalls Wilder. While both write of little houses on the prairie, Lesy’s houses are filled with arson, diphtheria and suicide attempts—providing a portrait of a landscape we’ve rarely seen.

For the modern reader, these true accounts of the madness and illness that racked the town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin serve as a moving testament to the hardships of the era. But the written accounts are only half the story. Van Schaick’s photos of the townspeople—both living and dead—serve as visual proof for the otherwise unbelievable narrative: that back before the days of baseball and apple pie, small town America’s greatest past time was dying tragically or going insane.

What was the cause of the townspeople’s madness? Something in the water, or the air, or the trees? So far removed from the events themselves, today’s readers can try to pin the madness on a pine tree, or contaminated water, or the North Woods’ everlasting winters. But no answer will ever suffice.  The horror resides not in the events themselves, but in the knowledge that the trees remain the only witnesses to the destruction, and they’re not talking.     

While Pelster implores us to open our eyes to what stands before us, Lesy asks us to gaze upon what lingers behind us as well. It’s as if the books offer conflicting truths on nature: If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, you will someday die. But even if somebody does hear it, you will someday die anyway. Both authors remind us that the nature of nature is that it cares little for us, but we—the sentient beings in the relationship—should know to care for it.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

ADVENT 12/25: Lia Purpura



Lia Purpura


I’m a dot. My dog’s a white dot. Together we’re caught and held in the police helicopter’s red searchlight. My dog’s a very patient dot. As I stop to think, she sits and waits. I’m remembering a doctor’s appointment at two o’clock tomorrow afternoon; by way of a stand of tall, scrappy trees, the pines along the Via Appia; and who knows why, but a woman, last week, trapped at a podium giving a bad talk to a bored audience. She didn’t seem to know it was bad. But I did. (Everyone knew. Embarrassment on behalf of another – a classic dot-trap.) Then, right here in the parking lot, distant laughter overlays; whine of brakes slowly slowing, like a long, last pull on a fat wine sack; squirrels in leaves; hollow pop of hydraulics from the construction site. Bright, loud civilization-sounds and the pictures they conjure pin a dot down. Hold her in place. Two circular smears side by side in torn-up ground (just to my left on a little rise), made by an earth-moving thing like a backhoe: an infinity sign, should a dot want a companion. If a dot is open to companions, then in they rain: tree branch arrows; fallen, blackened chewing gum stars.

A dot is a point by which life is confirmed. A sign that the parking lot’s not a wasteland. And here comes the copter’s red beam again. That god-like eye looking for me. Alone, I don’t indicate “teeming” or “throngs” like biotic stuff might: those ever-tempting Sea Monkeys advertised in the backs of Archie comics, so happy, so lusciously drawn (what kind of person makes a living by disappointing kids?) Opening a dusty packet, you’d find a spoonful of dehydrated, comma-sized Monkeys; after a few days, they’d fatten up and wiggle around in their jar of warm water -- but never grow faces. After a week, the  Kingdom was a colloidal mess, and not a single Monkey was visible. A lesson learned, their inventor might say, justifying, or the illustrator would, drawing all those pink, chubby cheeks, distinguishing the princess sea monkey (eyelashes, dimples) from the guaranteed one-per-pack prince with crown and sceptor. All with human-webby feet. “A Sea Monkey family!” “So eager to please they can even be trained!” (Actually, they were eager to eat, so when you tapped in a dose of dusty food, they’d flagella right to it. Even a brine shrimp knows which way is up. When the food ran out – at about the time you were fully sad -- the Monkeys were done for.)
     What a comet trail “biotic” made! One single flare from a single dot mind – and all this came forth.

A dot’s not going to disappoint. From far away, it’s still countable, bodied -- roseate, if the helicopter’s flying at dawn. Empurpled if caught in the gloaming, before the beam sharpens against true night and reddens the dot into super clarity.

I’m not doing a “dots in pop culture” review here, nostalgically musing on Candy Dots, connect-the-dots books, Dot the nickname, etc., but rather, sticking with the original premise: from air, I’m a dot. My dog’s a white dot. Nothing much until brought into focus. And since it’s a police helicopter, somewhere up there are delicate crosshairs -- inset in goggles, or dashboard-mounted. A set of crosshairs where I might be centered in lenses so powerful, that actual hair (even a nimbus like mine) can be tuned in precisely. That red beam could be aimed right through my dog’s tail, which curls like the handle of an old tea cup. Or exactly like the tail of a milch cow pitcher. We have one at home that’s all white.  My grandmother’s beautiful porcelain one was shaded with brown spots and looked like a real hide. Her cow wore a bronze bell around its neck that tinked when I poured milk into my cocoa. Which I did often, to make the cow more alive still.

That cow’s a dot I hover over -- in mind, because my uncle now has it. It isn’t gone; it just requires an aerial view. The past often does. Danger does, too: skulking, milling, suspicious dots a police helicopter doubles back on. Bigger dot too close to smaller? Smaller dot going under? Copter flying lower to check: Big dot throttling smaller dot? Dots in train yards, circling cars? Single running dot with . . . what? TV? Dot hauling sack of dot belongings -- across tracks, across fields, to dot camp under highway?

At the end of our walk, standing and thinking (my dog’s off playing and out of the scene) I might just be a splotch of paint where the the lot-lining went wrong. A patch of old snow. An ice puddle. A gull, head tucked, black eyes averted. But the pilot’s trained in dot discernment, to align sites, to read shadows, movement, and light, so as to reveal a dot’s identity. It’s like using binoculars to find a bird. Which is way more interesting than birds-at-a-distance. Just last week, I turned a dot into an eagle, though tuning it in with my magnified eye didn’t make it “brave” or “fierce”. It was hanging out with other eagles at the head of the Conowingo Dam, where, as soon as the hydro-electric starts up, the fish get shocked, and the pickings are easy. The birds simply dip in and pull out a meal. That’s not particularly heroic behavior. Or ferocious, independent, adventurous. An eagle holding a fish fast to a rock (how soft the tufts where leg and body meet!) the precise stab and tear, then the pulling of a long, fresh strip of meat: that’s not a symbol of anything. Just hunger met. And the way the bird swallows, head up and gulping, meat in the gullet slowly moving, the warmth I imagine filling the bird, the body sated, finishing, resting – all this just intimate.

For a moment, I’m what the copter’s after, what its red eye is tracking. I try to project nonchalant dot behavior. Soon, though, it’s clear; I’m not what they want. I’m what the dot they’re looking for wants.
     I’m a dot’s dot. A target, a bullseye.
     To a dot on the lam, I’m a mark.
     For dot spotters, a blip.
     Still, since they’ve lingered a bit, they’ve seen my curious stance, my head inclined, the way I bent down very slowly toward a low rustling: a vole leaving its nearby vole home; a vole out for a meal. They’ve watched me watch a vole eating something. How it used its nose and precise, tiny claws, and dug and paused and looked around. There’s the little trail it made. There’s a skirmish mark in dirt where it wrestled with and got a grip on an apple core and ate a few bites. I’m completely on the up and up. Nothing illegal. Just out vole-spotting.  Learning something about vole life.
     Steal with your eyes, my grandmother said.
That’s what I’m doing.
Though I didn’t see this elegy coming.


Lia Purpura is the author of seven collections of essays, poems and translations, most recently, Rough Likeness (essays) and King Baby (poems). Her honors include a  Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, National Endowment for the Arts and Fulbright Fellowships, three Pushcart prizes, the Associated Writing Programs Award in Nonfiction, and the Beatrice Hawley, and Ohio State University Press awards in poetry.  Recent work appears in Agni, Field, The Georgia Review, Orion, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Best American Essays, and elsewhere.  She is Writer in Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, a member of the core faculty at the Rainier Writing Workshop, and teaches at writing programs around the country, including, most recently, the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference. She lives in Baltimore, MD.


This essay is reprinted here by permission of The Normal School, where it first appeared.


We hope you've enjoyed our advent calendar programming this year. After today we go back to our regular schedule, being featured posts on Mondays, editor posts (most) Wednesdays, and ad hoc posts whenever we get around to them. Thanks for reading & essaying this year. If you'd like to pitch us an idea for an Essay Daily piece, the email's on the right. —Editors

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

ADVENT 12/24: Spring Ulmer on The White Gaze

Hilton Als’ essay “GWTW”—a preface to Without Sanctuary, a collection of photographs of North American lynchings—resurfaced in my consciousness as I was watching Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave in the theater the other evening. I had gone to see the film so as to participate in a roundtable discussion at the university where I teach. I was with a colleague at the theater and after the film let out she spoke loudly and without affect in a bathroom filled with weepy white women. I too had been emotionally wrenched by the film. I was one of those weepy white women. Nor was I in the mood to eat or drink, but I accompanied my colleague, Cherise, to the theater’s café. There we spoke about the film: she about decisions McQueen made at the expense of black women’s bodies, especially his decision to include in the first scene the throwing of a desirous woman onto Northup and to jump cut this with a flashback to an amorous scene with his wife, and me about the “war on terror” and what it means to look at images of torture, be they photographic representations of the real, or filmic, quasi-fictional representations of the real.

Much has already been made of the liberties McQueen took translating Solomon Northup’s autobiography to the screen. There are the discrepancies between the book and the film that include the first sexual encounter Northup has (that McQueen has said he added to the film to show “a bit of tenderness ... Then after she’s climaxes, she’s back … in hell”); the stabbing of the slave who attempts to thwart a slaver on his way to rape a female slave on board the ship (that, according Northup’s account, didn’t happen—the slave wasn’t stabbed, he died of small pox), and Patsey’s begging Northup to kill her (which again, according to Northup’s account didn’t happen; it was Mistress Epps who bribed Northup to kill Patsey). There is also the fact that the artifice in the film is only one of a series of removes, beginning with the question of representational accuracy (the incidents have all been corroborated) of Northup’s dictated autobiography, written down and arranged by David Wilson, a white lawyer from Glens Falls, New York, who—as a writer of local history—fit Northup’s tale within a certain narrative structure and tone with appendices. But McQueen’s refusal to treat slavery as a fictional genre and instead to insist upon its truth by, for the most part, truthfully filmicly rendering Northup’s autobiographical story demands viewers of his film face the music: this is real, it happened, this film is not entertainment.

It is because McQueen’s film is a representation of the real that Hilton Als’ question (which he raises in “GWTW”) of why anyone would want to look at images of lynching revisited my conscious the other evening at the theater. In “GWTW,” Als questions the “usefulness” of the collection of lynching photographs in Without Sanctuary (which was edited largely by white editors). Looking at the images in the book, Als identifies with the lynched and with being watched, a subject of the white gaze. But who, Als asks in this essay, do white people identify with while looking at these images: “The maimed, the tortured, the dead or the white people…”? This is an important question.

What happens if I turn Als’s “GWTW” questions—questions posed within an essay Als calls “a soundtrack to these pictures, which, viewed together, make up America’s first disaster movie”—to my own experience watching McQueen’s film? Previous films, such as Gone With the Wind, Als points out, get people to “ignore their history.” McQueen’s film doesn’t do this. In fact, there in the theater café, I struggled to make sense of the experience of my own weepy whiteness. With whom did I identify in the film? I was surprised by my answer: I identified with everyone—all the actors and actresses, and I also identified with those doing the shooting and even with McQueen and Northup and David Wilson. What does such extreme white mimicry do for anyone? I know the dangers of such mimicry; I know that it can make me self-identify as non-white and in doing so help me blissfully and wrongly forget what my whiteness buys and grants. But might such empathy also teach me (a once white, fourteen-year-old auditioning on my high school stage by playing all the parts to a script that was by no means a monologue) something? Might this over-identification be a form of self-punishment that a white person must pass through in order to emerge a still blind, but floundering, apprenticing anti-racist?

Perhaps. But definitely, beyond identifying, a white person must also account for his or her gaze as a perpetrator or bystander of lynchings and beatings and other tortures—regardless whether watching the real or representations of the real, as one is complicit regardless. So the question becomes: how do I stand it? How can I just sit there watching torture happen? I still remember a story I was told when I was a young girl abroad about an old Western that was shown in Tibet and how a Tibetan who had never before seen a moving picture shot the cowboy in the film. Literally shot the screen. This conflation of truth and fiction is the essence of McQueen’s film. This is why I find myself wrestling with the feeling that I now have to do something. This is the film’s usefulness to me; it impels me to act.

Before I get to what I must do, let me rewind to the fictionalized scene in which a recently caught slave on board the ship with Northup attempts to thwart a slaver on his way to rape another slave, and is stabbed. This man’s body is then cast overboard, as it was in real life when a man named Robert died of small pox. “Robert was taken ill,” Northup states in his memoir. “It was soon announced that he had the small-pox. He continued to grow worse, and four days previous to our arrival in New-Orleans he died. One of the sailors sewed him in his blanket, with a large stone from the ballast at his feet, and then laying him on a hatchway, and elevating it with tackles above the railing, the inanimate body of poor Robert was consigned to the white waters of the gulf.” Watching the body—or in this filmic representation whatever prop was used—sink, I couldn’t help but think of the sea burial the U.S. military gave Osama bin Laden, after the U.S. Navy SEALS murdered the man without solid evidence that proved beyond doubt he was linked to the 9/11 bombings. ‘Evidence’ is the key word here, in that evidence is still lacking, no trial was given, and none will be had (as if a person of color could trust such due process in any white man’s court). Evidence is also what photographs of the real and films based on reality expose or invoke. Without Sanctuary and 12 Years a Slave serve as evidence, proving the horrible injustice historically done unto persons of color largely by white persons. And it is worth mentioning again that while watching 12 Years a Slave, I couldn’t help but think of how the U.S. military continues to exploit, torture, and kill persons of color—be they Yemeni Americans, African Americans, Libyans, Iraqis, Afghanis, Somalis, you name it—in the most unjust of ways.

A few years ago Howard E. Wasdin came out with a book (with Stephen Templin) SEAL Team Six about his U.S. Navy SEAL days in which he makes killing sound like taking a picture: an exercise in determining the distance of oneself from one’s subject. “I calculated the exact distances to certain buildings,” Wasdin writes. “There are two primary considerations when making a sniper shot, windage and elevation. Because there was no significant wind that could throw my shot left or right, I didn’t have to compensate for it…. I still didn’t know if I’d hit the target or not. It’s not like the movies, where the shot disintegrates the target. In reality the bullet goes through the body so fast that sometimes people don’t even realize they’ve been shot…” Wasdin’s distance is not as technical as it is clinical; how does one become such a calculating murderer, and then live freely to brag about it?

It was the SEAL Team Six who shot bin Laden through the head. And speaking of evidence: no pictures of bin Laden’s murder were ever released to the public. “Obama Says He Won’t Release Photos of Bin Laden’s Corpse” read the title of one news article. “We don’t trot this stuff out as trophies,” the President told CBS. Evidence, in this case, is not trophy; it is what holds a nation accountable for its crimes against humanity. Regardless who looks at such images and for what reasons, these images are of use beyond the trophy, as these images also accuse. History sides with those who have been wronged. This is why I look at images of torture. They remind me, as do memoirs written by the tortured and enslaved that the human condition needs constant abolitionist, anti-imperialist attention.

Consider briefly Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s 466-page memoir, recently published in part by  Slahi—who the CIA, the FBI, and military intelligence have not been able to connect with any links to terrorism and who is still imprisoned at Guantanamo—writes of being subjected to months of 20-hour-a-day interrogations. He writes of detainees being hanged by the hands: “The punishment for talking was hanging the detainee by his hands with the feet barely touching the ground…. Most of the detainees tried to talk while hanging, which makes the guards double their punishment….” He writes of being sexually tortured: “As soon as I stood up, the two [redacted] took off their blouses and started to talk all kinds of dirty stuff you can imagine. Both [redacted] stuck on me literally from the front, and the other older [redacted] stuck on my back, rubbing [redacted] whole body on mine. At the same time they were talking dirty to me, and playing with my sexual parts…from noon or before until 10 p.m.…” And he writes of being subjected to a mock rendition: “Suddenly a commando team of three soldiers and a German shepherd broke into our interrogation room. [Redacted] punched me violently, which made me fall face down on the floor, and the second guy kept punching me everywhere, mainly on my face and my ribs. Both were masked from head to toe…. My first thought was, they mistook me for somebody else. My second thought was to try to look around, but one of the guards was squeezing my face against the floor. I saw the dog fighting to get loose…. 
          “‘Blindfold the motherfucker! He’s trying to look—’ One of them hit me hard across the face and quickly put goggles on my eyes, earmuffs on my ears, and a small bag over my head. They tightened the chains around my ankles and my wrists; afterward I started to bleed. All I could hear was [Redacted] cursing, ‘F-ing this and F-ing that.’
          “I thought they were going to execute me.”
Someone then sprayed ammonia in Slahi’s nose to keep him from passing out, and, after being trucked to a beach, an escort team placed him in a high-speed boat and took him for a three-hour ride around the Caribbean, then fastened him to a chair, and as Slahi writes, “stuffed the air between my clothes and me with ice cubes from my neck to my ankles, and whenever the ice melted they put in new hard ice cubes. Moreover, every once in a while, one of the guards smashed me, most of the time in the face. The ice served both for pain and for wiping out the bruises I had from that afternoon. Everything seemed to be perfectly prepared. Historically, dictators during medieval and pre-medieval times used this method to let the victim die slowly. The other method of hitting the victim while blindfolded in inconsistent intervals of time was used by Nazis during WWII. There is nothing more terrorizing than making somebody expect a smash every single heartbeat.”

I excerpt Slahi’s memoir at length, because it needs placing next to Als’ “GWTW” and McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave as a real document that testifies to the ongoingness of North American perpetrated injustices. War reporter Michael Hirsh puts it this way: On the most simplistic level the film [12 Years a Slave] is the ultimate antidote to Gone with the Wind and the persistent pretensions of an American South that, despite 150 years of fitful racial progress, still tends to glorify its irredeemably shameful past in culture, word, and song. But the real meaning of the film [12 Years a Slave] transcends the problem of slavery and the undercurrent of racism that continues to afflict our country today… The larger theme, rendered with great artistry, is what happens when a helpless people is subjugated by a greater force with no accountability. It is, in other words, not just about what it’s like to be a slave but also what it’s like to be part of an often brutal occupation by a superpower.” If a war apologist like Hirsh can see history repeating itself, then perhaps I am preaching to the choir. If not, please make more of an effort to be less entertained by this film. We need a present society that is watchful—not one that gazes fearfully and hatefully, without seeing or feeling.

How to be more present, more mindful? Of ourselves, of others? For others?” Zadie Smith asks, while reviewing several books by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Tao Lin’s Taipei. In this same review Smith mentions the claim “that Americans viewed twelve times as many Web pages about Miley Cyrus as about the gas attack in Syria,” and then implicates herself by confessing, “I read plenty about Miley Cyrus, on my iPhone, late at night. And you wake up and you hate yourself….” In this review she also tries to identify with the corpse in a drawing by Luca Signorelli (circa 1450–1523) Man Carrying Corpse on His Shoulders. “Not only does my imagination quail at the prospect of imagining myself a corpse,” Smith writes, “even my eyes cannot be faithful to the corpse for long, drawn back instead to the monumental vigor. To the back and buttocks, the calves, the arms. Across the chasms of gender, color, history, and muscle definition, I am the man and the man is me. Oh, I can very easily imagine carrying a corpse! See myself hulking it some distance…” Corpses, she writes, “spring flower-like in budded clusters whenever a bomb goes off in the marketplaces of Iraq and Afghanistan.” A corpse isn’t what Smith wants to imagine she will become, but if she must imagine becoming one, then, she says, she is overcome by the want to live a worthy life and to begin to do so by throwing away her iPhone. But really, this review, “Man vs. Corpse,” is about realism, the banal, and how Ove Knausgaard and Lin rely not on metaphor, beauty, or drama, but are “fully present” authors who document life in every detail, blow-by-blow, without affect, “as if the writing and the living are happening simultaneously” and even though nothing happens in these authors’ books, the banal struggle is both intolerable and beautiful because it is real.

In many respects Slahi’s memoir of torture, Als’ “GWTW,” and McQueen’s filmic portrayal of Northup’s slave narrative are similarly intolerable, “fully present,” and can I say beautiful documents. I will argue, however, that these documents are even more real than the fictional and artistic works Smith describes (and which appeal to the crowd with whom Smith hangs: Hal Foster and the elite of New York’s art and literary scene). Often these days, when I’m struggling to write, I find myself wondering out loud whether I should abandon the essayistic and nonfiction genre for a fictional one. It would be easier, I argue. But whenever I think about what would happen to the material with which I work, material that is so hot it regularly burns my psyche, I throw myself back at the world of the real. I cannot abandon Slahi. Northup’s tale is real and the truth of McQueen’s video cannot be escaped. Fiction equals distance, and distance I sense, at least in this context, keeps us less than present.

And so, let me end by erasing the distance between writing about other representations of the real and the reality I live: like Slahi, I am childless and this is my weakest point. Slahi’s torturers found this weakness and exploited it by placing photographs of cribs around the interrogation room and mocking his lack of manliness. I have been attempting to adopt from Africa, and struggling with the process—primarily with what it means to be white and pay money so as to facilitate an adoption of a person of color. Such agreements formed the beginnings of colonialism and slavery. In McQueen’s video, we witness the selling of children, the splitting of them from their mother Eliza, and Eliza’s subsequent unraveling. We witness Northup’s anger at Eliza’s tears, and her accusation of his own hard-heartedness. In Northup’s memoir, Eliza’s grief is equally unnerving: “…never have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured, and unbounded grief, as when Eliza was parted from her child. She broke from her place in the line of women, and rushing down where Emily was standing, caught her in her arms. The child, sensible of some impending danger, instinctively fastened her hands around her mother’s neck, and nestled her little head upon her bosom. Freeman sternly ordered her to be quiet, but she did not heed him. He caught her by the arm and pulled her rudely, but she only clung the closer to the child. Then, with a volley of great oaths, he struck her such a heartless blow, that she staggered backward, and was like to fall. Oh! how piteously then did she beseech and beg and pray that they might not be separated. Why could they not be purchased together? Why not let her have one of her dear children? ‘Mercy, mercy, master!’ she cried, falling on her knees. ‘Please, master, buy Emily. I can never work any if she is taken from me: I will die.’”
        Northup then writes that Eliza never sees or hears of her children again. “Day nor night, however, were they ever absent from her memory,” he adds. “In the cotton field, in the cabin, always and everywhere, she was talking of them—often to them, as if they were actually present.”

When I speak on the phone with my friend April and she pushes me to articulate why I am so conflicted about the adoption process, I feel my white self prickling. Why am I so set on parenting a child of color? This is her question. It is actually her mother’s question. I do not know how to answer. Is it a hatred of my own race, a racist glorification of another, white guilt, historical violence unconsciously repeated, economic constraints (as children of color cost less to adopt than white children)? Why do I identify with, see myself within the photographs of children of color on the waiting children photolistings? What is it I see? In them? In these texts?

The fact is that I am, like Eliza when she speaks to her missing children as if they are there with her, attempting to escape from my own reality. I do not want to be childless and I do not want to own my whiteness; I want to fling it like a mask into the bushes. Am I really the white mistress, Mistress Epps, so jealous she cuts the face of Patsey—the slave who picks more than 500 pounds of cotton a day—and then urges her husband (who rapes and slaps Patsey at night) to whip Patsey until she’s too bloody to stand? And, in Northup’s account, bribes Northup to kill Patsey? If I am her, I have to die. “I keep coming back to being wrong,” I tell April.
            “Sure,” she says, “we’re all wrong, but we’re loved and we can always try to be better.”
            Does this mean Mistress Epps can learn? She’s dead, but simply asking myself this question does something to me. It frees me a little. “You have to forgive yourself,” April is saying. “You have to do this before any little body comes into your life.”
            “Nobody’s going to come into my life,” I respond defensively, fatalistically, but I’m thinking: forgive Mistress Epps? It seems entirely impossible, but I know that civil rights and anti-apartheid movements were built on nothing less.
            I have to forgive all the slights, all those failings brought on by my whiteness, where I have been blind and hurt others, and selfish and hurt others, and I have to open myself, accept this troubled white self. I have to read and watch and feel the horrific lust and fear and hatred inside those with power and acknowledge it all within myself. If Smith can identify with a corpse, then I can identify with the slave owner’s wife, the lyncher.

At a certain point in “GWTW,” Als states that he will never again write such a piece as one that forces him to acknowledge the triteness of language, the way he has become a cliché—“another colored person writing about a nigger’s life.” For a long while, Als admits, he rejected black nationalism’s limits—that is until he realized that such limits were imposed not by black nationalism but by white supremacy. Perhaps the thing I can do, the most useful thing at this moment, albeit cliché, is to turn the gaze away from the lynching and honestly level my eyes at myself. Who am I sitting here, typing on this snow-bound evening in Pennsylvania? Who am I but white hands on a black keyboard, shit inside me, needing to be expelled, legs crossed, pumped from an Insanity workout I loathe? I want to turn the attention away from me to the dog behind me, her mass curled beneath a felt blanket. I want not to sit here, uncomfortably, in the midst of my banal comforts, my loneliness, my silence, my whiteness. I want not to be held responsible for the death of a sick child I wanted to adopt but lost to the evils of a religious right adoption agency on whose door I knocked unknowingly. I want not to stand in underwear in a 49 degree box and shiver for hours only to be later tortured with heavy metal and then mocked for having wanted to mother a child of color, and for having tried to escape my own reality through the reality of my progeny and through others’ detailed descriptions of their pain filled lives. The truth is that I should be held accountable, just as no one should die or be tortured at the hands of a racist state.
And so the question becomes: how do I hold myself accountable as a childless, 41-year-old, single white woman who still yearns to become a mom? The desire for a child of my own has been the fiercest desire I’ve experienced in my adult life. It was born as a desire to birth a child with a white man I was dating. This was ten long years ago, and since then I’ve played step-mother to a biracial teen. What all does this mean? It means that it was never my sole intent to adopt a child of color. It is what I began to orient myself toward as I set foot within the adoption/foster care network that is rife with racial tensions and cultural misunderstandings. A classic example of the government’s problematic role playing guardian to children is heartbreakingly rendered by Rachel Aviv in her New Yorker article “Where Is Your Mother?” Aviv writes of Niveen Ismail, an Egyptian Muslim who speaks Arabic and loses her son to a North American adoptive family through a harrowing process that can only be described as racist. Found alone in an apartment in his crib, her three-year-old son was taken from Ismail, and although she completes every single required parenting class and continually visits him in foster care, she is deemed unfit—as, in one case, it was said she spoils her son, rather than disciplining him; something she counters is cultural and harkens back to how she was raised, and in another instance leaves her son with a social worker on a balcony without informing the social worker that she is in charge of supervising the boy. After her son is adopted, Ismail continues to try to prove her competence, and then, feeling she has no further chance at parenting him herself, petitions the court to place her son with a Muslim, Arabic-speaking family, but the Judge denies her request.

How to hold adoption and child-welfare legislation more accountable for race, class, and cultural concerns? How to hold this white self accountable—especially in light of past NAACP legislation that decreed white parents unable to respectfully rear children of color in North America? Is the answer to give up, remain childless? to adopt white? to refuse love and respect to a child of color? 

Ultimately, of course, the answer is to fight for reforms that side with the powerless, to fight against poverty and disease, and for affordable care, education, and human and environmental rights for all persons. But I won’t let myself off the hook. What do I do in the interim? I have learned a hellish amount about how unregulated adoptions can be, and I comforted myself for a while with knowing that the African child I wanted to adopt was ill and needed medicine she isn’t getting to prolong her life, and that by adopting her I might be able to grant her a healthy life. I comforted myself with knowing that I already loved her, and that she was old enough to have agency, to articulate whether or not she might want to live with me, even if she wouldn’t know what leaving her country and her home meant. I went to visit her and this further endeared me to her, but country regulations protesting heinous North American re-homing practices and a crooked agency have since stopped this adoptive process. I comforted myself, as well, by enrolling in a Hague-accredited program, one that I thought different than the rest with more checks in place. Years have passed. The more time goes by, the more I know that something isn’t right, that adoption has become at worst a global market, and at best a racist attempt to cover up our own domestic challenges. This said, do I still hope beyond hope that I can find the loop-hole, the right way to be white, the right way to become a parent, and the right way to raise a child—most likely (given my circumstances and the world’s) a child of color? Yes, I do hope. Even in the most depressive state, I need to hope that I can learn, hope that I can be a better person, hope that I will be—regardless what happens—able to face racisms with poise, even as they exist within my deepest core, and expel them. I say this and I also feel ashamed; ashamed to be so white and hopeful, ashamed to have no idea what I am really doing.


Spring Ulmer grew up in Vermont. She attended The Cooper Union School of Art, worked as a photojournalist and reporter in eastern Kentucky, and holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Arizona. Ulmer’s honors include grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the Kentucky Arts Council, and the Andrea Frank Foundation. In 1998, she was an artist-in-residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts. She recently returned from Rwanda where she helped build a school for orphans of the 1994 genocide. She lives in Iowa City. Her manuscript, Benjamin's Spectacles, was chosen by Sonia Sanchez for the Kore Press First Book Award 2007.

Monday, December 23, 2013

ADVENT 12/23: John T. Price: On Hoagland, Animal Obsession, and the Courage of Simile

On Hoagland, Animal Obsession, and the Courage of Simile

John T. Price


Early in my training as a nature essayist, I was taught to avoid certain kinds of simile like the plague. I was told that to imply, either directly or indirectly, that members of another species are like something or someone else, or that they think or feel as humans do (otherwise known as anthropomorphizing), invited a dangerous disrespect for the needs of that species as distinct from our own. That was true, as well, for entire ecosystems such as the prairie wilderness of my home region, which was described by early white explorers as being “like” a desert or “like” an ocean, anything but itself, and thus ultimately destroyed to be “like” yet another something—an Eastern forest, a corn field, a suburb, a wind farm, a vein of ethanol. Now most of that prairie wilderness is like, well, nothing at all.
     Despite this, I have repeatedly violated the simile rule, especially when it comes to animals. I blame Edward Hoagland’s “The Courage of Turtles.” From the first time I read that essay in my early twenties, it disarmed me, broke down boundaries, decimated the nature writing rulebook, and set me off on wild tangents that at first invited, but ultimately defied easy understanding—just as, according to Hoagland, good essays should. “Essays don’t usually boil down to a summary, as articles do,” he wrote in “What I Think, What I Am.” They are, instead, “a combination of personality and originality and energetic loose ends that stand up like the nap on a piece of wool and can’t be brushed flat.”
     “The Courage of Turtles” has this kind of nap, and no matter how many times I read it or teach it, which is a lot, I can never quite comb it flat, though I continue to try.
     It was first published on December 12, 1968, in The Village Voice, but that meant nothing to me when I first discovered it as a graduate student in the late 1980s. What mattered to me then was that it was about turtles. At the time, my future wife and I shared custody of an eastern box turtle named Methuselah, so I was moved right away by Hoagland’s description of how turtles and other wildlife were displaced (or killed) when a pond near his boyhood home was bulldozed to make it flow “like an English brook.”  I had been feeling a little guilty about purchasing a turtle at a pet store, but felt momentarily vindicated by this sad story and by Hoagland’s claim that turtles “manage to contain the rest of the animal world.” Saving them, as he suggested, could thus become a major “case of virtue rewarded,” and he used a ton of similes to compare turtles to, among other vulnerable creatures, giraffes, war-horses, hippos, penguins, puppies, elephants, turkeys, and cow moose. I would have only added that turtles are also like hermit crabs, full of surprises, such as the day when Methuselah appeared to be excreting all of his internal organs out his backside—a huge, wet tube of purple, pink, and amber. Panicked, I called the vet who, after conducting additional research, informed me that Methuselah was simply experiencing “arousal.”  Prior to that, I had not considered turtle sexuality as anything more interesting than two rocks knocking together.  Now I thought of it as being like the colors of a sunset or a tropical flower or a clown hat.    
     This is the kind of wild tangent I’m talking about when I talk about reading “The Courage of Turtles”—I mean, who needs it? I did, apparently. As a Midwestern nature writer, living in a state where there is less than one-tenth of one-percent of native habitats remaining, I was just beginning to understand that I would have to do a lot with a little, and Hoagland’s essay was a good model. The list of my own animal obsessions was fairly short at the time, and decidedly non-native, but his piece encouraged me to take stock. The earliest was tigers—a fascination shared, as it happens, by Hoagland. “We have wiped tigers off the earth,” he wrote in “The Problem of the Golden Rule,” “and yet our children hear as much about the symbolism of tigers as children did in the old days.” I was one of those children. My maternal grandparents called me “Tiger,” and gave me all kinds of tiger stuff, such as a tiger sleeping bag and tiger slippers and tiger pajamas and tiger posters that I used to paper my bedroom walls. I was a small, physically awkward kid who mostly hung out alone in his room, so I suppose tigers symbolized everything I wasn’t: power, confidence, beauty, grace. During that same period, my grandparents regularly took me to the now defunct restaurant chain, Sambo’s, where wall murals depicting the Lil’ Sambo story taught me that tigers could also be a little like racism.
     I often wonder if that early obsession with tigers led to my more recent obsession with mountain lions, which are returning to their home territory here in the Loess Hills of western Iowa, and facing a tough time of it. Hoagland wrote about his own obsession with the species in “Hailing the Elusory Mountain Lion,” and why I don’t teach that essay more often, I can’t say. Perhaps it’s because my experiences with animals here in the Midwest have, for most of my life, been less about respecting their wild freedom, than the ethical conundrums associated with creatures over which we have complete control. Cows and pigs, for instance. Also, domestic pets—that kind of power relationship with animals (as Hoagland’s essay testifies) offers up its own distinct set of responsibilities, personal associations, and similes. In kindergarten, for instance, I owned a couple of painted turtles, Jack and Jill, but was forced to “set them free” in a nearby stream, on the verge of winter, because my mother had heard on the radio that turtles can be like Salmonella. Most of the hamsters I owned escaped and ended up dead in the old coal room in our basement, which, I guess, was like some kind of elephant graveyard for hamsters. In first grade, I fell in love with a calico guinea pig named Peppermint Patty, but then my teacher convinced my parents that it would be fun and informative to mate Patty with her own monstrous white guinea pig, which she kept in the classroom. Patty and her pups died during birth not long before my only brother died during birth, which became its own unfortunate simile. Perhaps because of this, I temporarily moved away from relationships with flesh-and-blood animals and, in the fourth grade, became infatuated with a rubber spider monkey purchased at a dime store. I named him Chico, safety-pinned him to my shoulder, and wore him to school for a couple of days. There I learned that spider monkeys were a lot like public humiliation, which felt like just another kind of death.
     As a grown up nature writer, I have, like Hoagland, explored obsessive relationships with numerous wild and domestic creatures in my published work. These include bison, mice, pheasants, squirrels, praying mantids, falcons, Triops, daddy long-legs, woodchucks, moles, elk, brown recluse spiders, prairie dogs, monarch butterflies, roaches, hummingbirds, robins, frogs, and children. I am currently obsessed with peacocks. In writing about these creatures, I have rationalized that my anthropomorphizing and liberal use of simile are less about arrogant assumptions, and more about trying to create in the reader what Hoagland refers to in “What I Think, What I Am” as “a golden empathy”—though he claims such empathy is primarily the stuff of fiction, not the essay. Or maybe what Buddhists call Sunyata, the interconnection of all things, which implies not only complete dependence on other life forms, but also the necessity of humility, even in the wake of what we think at first is knowledge. While arguing that “our lonliness” makes us avid essay readers, Hoagland claims that essays themselves “belong to the animal kingdom.” As such, they often elude easy capture or containment, which is how it should be when a nature essay—or an ecosystem—is working well. Inside such a place, on the page or on the earth, people think they are chasing down one kind of animal, one kind of knowledge, but then an almost-connection leads them to another and another, until the meaning and responsibility for that meaning lands back in the collective lap of our own species, in our own historical ways with one another.
     This is part of the brilliance of “The Courage of Turtles,” as I’ve experienced it, but I didn’t fully appreciate that until I was preparing to teach it in one of my first writing classes as a T.A. I was once again puzzling over the ending, where Hoagland describes an aquatic terrapin he rescued, but ultimately found “exasperating” because it exhibited “none of the hearty, accepting qualities of wood turtles.” In a well-meaning, but botched “born free” moment, Hoagland tosses the terrapin off a New York pier, only to realize that the water was too deep, the currents too strong, and that the turtle would likely die.  The essay concludes: “But since, short of diving in after him, there was nothing I could do, I walked away.”
     This scene, when I initially read it, seemed a powerful statement about the human relationship to the natural world. Here was an example of the dangerous limits of our knowledge, and the even more dangerous limits of our ability to risk true identification with other living beings, because of what it might require of us. The danger of simile, perhaps. But then, probably because I was about to teach the piece and felt some additional pressure to be thorough, I reconsidered the publication date, 1968, and an entirely new set of associations presented themselves. I went back through and took note of Hoagland’s description of a captive turtle as having a “swollen face like a napalm victim’s,” and also this description of the turtles fleeing Mud Pond: “Creeping up the brooks to sad, constricted marshes, burdened as they are with that box on their back, they’re walking into a setup where all their enemies move thirty times faster than they. It’s like the nightmare most of us have whimpered through, where we are weighted down disastrously while trying to flee; fleeing our home ground, we try to run.” Later, when I shared these observations with my students, I had the luxury of watching them conclude on their own and fairly quickly that this essay was not just about turtles, but maybe also about the Viet Nam War and empathy for its victims, civilian and military. This was 1989 or so, and some of their family members were veterans of that war, or, like me, had heard people talk about those they knew, even loved, who’d been emotionally or physically injured or left mentally ill or killed. After further discussion, some of the students concluded that the final scene might also be suggesting that the American government would, in the interests of protecting itself, walk away from Viet Nam and those it was supposedly going to “free.” Those it had, at the very least, promised to protect. Including our returning soldiers.
     In this way, we discovered that an essay—on top of all its other admirable qualities—could be a lot like prophecy. 
     But time, like nature, cannot be contained, and my teaching experiences with “The Courage of Turtles” have roamed dramatically in that last twenty-five years. Nowadays, when I mention 1968 and napalm and ask my students for their associations, far fewer of them volunteer anything specific about Viet Nam. This inevitably disappoints me, but this disappointment, because I invite and expect it, is likely nothing more than cheap compensation for growing older. The history lesson I now feel compelled to deliver, though important in its own way, too often allows me the delusion that the large-scale, murderous forms of hubris I knew in my youth, during that war-time, are in some essential way different from those known by my young students in this war-time. Setting up such a generational hierarchy becomes, for their aging professor, yet another case of virtue rewarded, a chance to “free” them from their own ignorance. That supposedly heroic effort leaves less time to examine the still urgent, uncompromising fact that we remain at our most dangerous when we think we know what’s best for another being, when we make assumptions or create expectations about how they should best live or feel or mate or believe or know. Whether that being is another species, or another person sitting across a classroom or half-way across the globe. 
    Still, I can’t help myself. Case in point, my current obsession with writing about peacocks. Or rather, a particular male peacock that has been seen running around our heavily wooded neighborhood with a gang of wild turkeys. He was first spotted a couple of years ago by my then nine-year-old son, Spencer, crossing the road in front of our minivan—a strutting riot of blue and green amid the dull colors of his adopted tribe. The peacock and turkeys have been spotted many times together since then, by many people, and on certain spring mornings, his high pitched screech has shattered the otherwise trickling, Zen-like music of the song birds leaking in our bedroom windows. His call sometimes sounds like a child screaming for help, and in the stunned silence that usually follows, I often wonder if he is, in fact, in need of help. Should I do something? Call someone? I can’t resist wondering if that bird feels vulnerable or lonely, or perhaps rebellious or courageous. Does it take courage for a peacock to run with a gang of turkeys, to attempt to be like a turkey? Is he a living example of the courage of simile, the grammatical expression of the desires and actions of a creature who needs, for whatever reason, to overcome his isolation and connect with another species, another being—to be like another, and therefore, in some way, become another? To make their needs his own? Or if those needs are beyond understanding, to at least make their fate his own. To finally, and without hesitation, dive in.
    The questions and challenges presented by this kind of “golden empathy” seem as relevant today, as they were in 1968 or, say, the day Jesus was born. But will future readers of my peacock story see it that way? I’m a bit worried about that, about future readers, because I’m not sure I’ll have any. If I do, I kind of both love and hate to think about somebody teaching my essay and saying something like, “Yes, it may seem to be a vapid piece about a peacock, but look at the publication date—2013! What does that year in America mean to you, class? It was, of course, the year of the government shut-down, the closing of our national parks, the botched Obamacare website, and the death of Andy Griffith—but also the Boston Marathon bombing and the devastating tornadoes in Oklahoma and our endless wars in the Middle East! It’s all there in Price’s essay, if you look closely.”
    Will anyone care enough to look that closely and see all of these things? If so, will they also see through the camouflage of historical relevancy to what Hoagland has designated as the true subject of all essays: “the fascination of the mind”? Will they see—do I want them to see—that the real reason the author first became fascinated with that singular peacock is that it seemed funny and out of place and in its pathetic self-deception, almost, but not quite, graceful? And that the year 2013 was, among other things, the year when the author, moving toward 50, was especially appreciative of all things funny, out of place, pathetic, and almost-but-not-quite graceful.
     Sort of like him.         


John T. Price is the author of three nature memoirs--Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father (Shambhala, 2013), Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships (Da Capo, 2008), and Not Just Any Land: A Personal and Literary Journey into the American Grasslands (U. of Nebraska Press, 2004)--and editor of The Tallgrass Prairie Reader, forthcoming next spring from the U. of Iowa Press. He lives with his family in western Iowa and teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he directs the English Department's Creative Nonfiction Writing Program. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

ADVENT 12/22: Alison Hawthorne Deming on Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes Brings Light to A Thanaphobe’s Conundrum


Alison Hawthorne Deming


I admit I’ve been obsessed with death since 2011 when my brother and mother died within six months of each. I shepherded each of them through that backcountry and, while they are gone to whatever version of nothing exists beyond biology’s terminal station, I remain here at the desk with death as a closer companion. It seems to sit on my shoulder demanding my attention. If I get through a day without thinking about death (my death, to be specific) I feel exhilarated. As soon as I notice this joy, death carps at me as if I have been unfaithful. I’m not sure that I fear death more after their departures. I just have a more familiar, more intimate, relationship with it.

So, the thanaphobe’s conundrum: is it better to fear death or not fear it? As if one could choose. I‘ll be more honest. I’ve been obsessed with death since I was seven and it first slipped into my childhood bedroom to make my heart race like a runaway horse. It could happen now. Or now. Or now. Unlikely. Maybe now. With my genetic legacy, I have good shot at getting past 100. And I plan to be in love with life all the way. So how can I be so attached to death while being so committed to life? I am a bigamist.

Enter Julian Barnes with a wry grin on his seasoned face, holding a copy of his two-hundred-and-fifty page essay on death, Nothing to be Frightened Of. Emphasis on “nothing.” While the deaths of his parents may have triggered the writing, the book is not a memoir, not an attempt to tell their stories or his story. Barnes does not trust memory. That is why he is first a novelist. Much safer to make things up than purport to know or divine what has happened. No. The book is decidedly an essay, a long ramble of a beast without a single chapter break—okay there are space breaks—in which Barnes is bent not on recreating his parents but “trying figure out how dead they are.” This is an essayist’s intent. Those who dismiss the work because it does not contain enough self-revelation miss the point. It is how death reverberates in the artist’s mind that matters here. What does death have to do with the faithless artistic sensibility?

After all, Barnes is a man who never visits the graves of his family members but frequently seeks out those of writers and artists. Artists are his ancestors. He tracks his inclinations to Montaigne in whom he sees that “modern thinking about death begins.” The family member who plays the most prevalent role in the book is his brother, who teaches ancient philosophy and proves to be an admirable conversational partner in the book, allowing for Plato and Aristotle and Cicero to pop up as elements of a chat with his bro, rather than as pedantic asides. What have the philosophers and writers had to teach about death in all the years of their sense making?

Of asides, something must be said, because Barnes is a sentence maker par excellence, juxtaposing a deliciously subordinated beauty next to a clipped fragment. And his conversational asides are among the quirky cadences that I find very seductive in this work--an essayist essaying his own method as he goes:
Platonists believed that, after death, things started looking up. Epicureans, on the other hand, believed that, after death, there was nothing. Cicero, apparently (I use “apparently” in the sense of “my brother also told me”), combined the two traditions into a cheery Antique either/ or: “After death, either we feel better or we feel nothing.”
But I have gotten ahead of myself. Barnes became an atheist as a teenager and an agnostic at sixty. His inquiry has to do with what the faithless are to do with their thanophobia or lack thereof. He opens the book: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” And there you have the man: assertive and vulnerable, heady and witty. And such good company in his essaying that I end up feeling, yes, sure, life is dire, but it is also funny, which is a good cure for self-pity. I learn that Sibelius had the routine of joining friends at table where they were required to talk about death. Rachmaninoff, who suffered dreadful death terrors, was cured apparently by a sack of pistachio nuts. Flaubert wrote of aspiration for “gazing down at the black pit at one’s feet, and remaining calm.” Daudet died at the dinner table after a spoonful of soup and chatter about his latest play—then poof. Stravinksy went to see Ravel’s body before it was placed in the coffin. What music did he hear, I wonder, in those moments, composer to composer in the great silence? And so the trivia that is far from trivial mounts up in this book, carrying its learning lightly and yet earnestly.

Humor, I’ve read, is defense mechanism, and probably one of our more mature ones. It beats denial. Perhaps both life and death are funnier without religion. In any case, as Barnes says, art and religion shadow each other, though I am in the Barnes camp in feeling that art sheds the light and sometimes the light-heartedness that make death-awareness bearable. Nothing to be Frightened Of does not resolve any of the thanaphobe’s conundrums. Is it better to be conscious of your dying or not conscious of your dying? Who cares. You don’t get to choose. But this grand essay brings the twin lights of mindfulness and playfulness to bear on the matter and that seems to me an apt gift for advent.


Alison Hawthorne Deming is the author of four books of poetry and four books of essays with Zoologies: On Animals and The Human Spirit coming out in 2014. She teaches at the University of Arizona.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

ADVENT 12/21: Marya Hornbacher on What an Essay is Not

Misc. Things an Essay is Not


Marya Hornbacher



I get concerned with things like whether writing exists, seriously. I do. I worry that if the time/space continuum is a necessary illusion, then everything that happens here in this fold of apparent time (3:53) and in this cube of supposed space (dining room table, dying poinsettia, behemoth black cat) is an illusion as well. I will check this with my friend the mathematician. She sent me a poem about existence the other day. She will know.

So the question of whether this essay exists, since it only exists in the form of pixels of light, is really up in the air; which I mean to tell you is not reassuring at all.

Consciousness is a whole nother concern, and I cannot be bothered to parse that one today.


I used to write poems.

Once—I can’t remember the circumstances exactly—an old friend of mine happened to be in the city in which I happened to be, and so he dropped by for a drink. We discussed poems for what seemed a very long time, until long past the time when I wished for him to leave, and it became apparent he was not planning to leave at all, so I crawled into bed and left him sitting on the floor, reading my poems and talking to himself.

When I woke up, the room was a sea of strewn pages. I stood blinking, ankle deep in poems and notes. Every page was bilingual, multivalent, polyphonic, two-headed, forked of hoof and tongue: there was the neat typeface of the poem, the orderly progression of stanzas and lines; and laid over the poem was his childlike scrawl. He’d written something—a letter, it looked like, or a manifesto, a screed, a tirade, a memo, a joke, or for all I know it too was a poem, and the failure of imagination was mine.

Whatever it was, it was now written, had gotten itself said, and he was asleep. I found him curled like a homunculus in a wash of paper, his lips and fingers blue with ink. He must have been gnawing a pen.


Poetry was a violent first love.

It consumed me as first loves will do. I wrote nothing but poems, I itched for them. I twitched and ached. I begged off everything else I might have been doing (laundry, lovers, sleep) to go be with the poem again, the poem I was writing, which was of neither substance nor import. It was about I can’t remember what. It was about anything that went through my head. Minutiae, marginalia, whatnots and infinitesimal changes, small shadings and nuances and variant degrees of light. Very little escaped the poem; it had the pull of a centrifuge, and sucked in everything that flew past in the sphere of my tiny cosmos, swallowing me, the desk, the ashtray, the yellow notepads, the pens.


What makes an essay an essay and not something else?

For example: not a poem? Is an essay determined by the true or false? Is it determined by the use of language, the lyric or the un-? Is it determined by whether the author is given license to meander around plotlessly in her own mind? In whatsoever language she might please? Is it determined by structure; is it as simple as the broken line?

What, for example, is this? Is this an attempt at an essay? Does that make an essay in itself, because it tries to become what it is or means to be? Or is this a stripping of an essay down to its constituent parts and trying to build something new? Like the collapsing mustard yellow 1970s Volvo that sits in every northern California driveway, where someone is always intending to strip it for parts and rebuild it and drive it again, but they never do.

(My plan for now: to take this essay and strip the relevant sections from it and make a new essay that is the thing itself. But perhaps this is actually the essay I mean.)

And then there is the question of what an essay can be. Can an essay be a list? Ask Sontag. Can an essay be in verse? This one I dispute: I think a poem is a poem and prosody is prose: but that might just be me being pigheaded and rigid about what constitutes a line. In my head, lines should wrap around and not be broken. If one breaks them, it looks like a poem, and so it is, or it is so to me.

What then of “poetic” prose, or “prosaic” poetry? Narrative poetry, lyric assays? What of poetics? (What is poetics, anyway?  Or, what are they, I guess.)


Once a friend told me in passing to read a book called The Poetics of Space, and I went and got a copy, curled and soft, at the used bookstore, and I have never read it, but the title gives me enormous pleasure (the perfect rhythm, the concept itself: a poetry of space, a language for the articulation and mapping out of space) and so it has been on my shelf for twenty years, and I know one day I will read it and I don’t know which day: it may be like the day I woke up at one a.m., my clock reversed, and I began to map the shape and nature of night. As if a map of this was a necessary thing, work that held meaning, the work almost of a life. I couldn’t have foreseen the day, and I cannot know when I will read the book, the future not being under my purview.


Suppose an essay inheres in the line, the length of it. The lack of stanza or break. Then the process of making an essay from an old poem is simply a matter of piecing together of lines at the break, until they are unbroken & run on endlessly, never even pausing except for breath, caesuras of breath no longer than a beat.

Here is a line from an old poem. It has been repurposed: I pieced together the lines with tape. Now it is a line from an essay. Next: I will put it in a novel, and call it a lie, even though it is true.

The chattering spit and hiss of the old metal heater, like the yowl and chatter of a cat in heat.


Or, suppose the substance of essay, as opposed to poem, is story, even if the story is the story of the lifespan of a thought.

Here is a story about a line:

The only worthwhile line I wrote that year—not even one whole poem, just a fragment, a shard of a pot or a jar—was this: “the window open in winter”—

I wrote that the year I lived up in the hills of Santa Rosa in the house with no kitchen floor, when I was staying up late reading Marina Tsetalyeva. I read poems all night and learned something about them, though I still don’t know what. 


And here is an extremely small essay on a story about a line:

In truth, it’s not a particularly striking line, but it was read and repeated as if it mattered by someone many years later, and for all I know that is the only reason I remember the line: because it is not a line anymore, it’s a story. It is connected umbilically to the belly of the character that person has become. For that matter, it’s not even my line anymore. It’s his. He will, for my purposes, trail it wherever he goes.


Suppose the difference between poetry and nonfiction prose lies in language, particularly in the language of the specific, the material, the tactile or imagistic real:

Is there any kind of categorical difference between a poem or an essay that takes place in midair, as opposed to one that editors will say is “grounded in story?” Which I think as much means is grounded in narrative, or on the actual ground: the human experience of having one’s feet attached to a spinning rock in space such that one does not fly off.


I put together a book in this fashion: I make and unmake piles of paper, stacks of chapters, scenes, and miscellaneous passages, and arrange and rearrange them on the long table in my office, which is under the painting of the gas station at night—>

Why tell you that? About the painting? I don’t know. Why not? But what’s the purpose of it? Twofold, I think:
1) it is an image on which I want you to be able to hang your hat, one I use to give you a sense of where you are and what that place looks like, because essays often lack a sense of place; they seem to me often to be taking place in midair, in the voice of someone I can’t see; and
2) because I myself think in images, and since the essay is allowed to be in some measure a tracing of the author’s thought—their departure from a point, their traversing of some thought space, and their arrival at a destination of some kind—I think I am allowed to show you the way that space looks, and what objects are in it, so you too can see what I am seeing; which are images lodged in space.


Where does an essay come from, as opposed to a poem, or fiction, or theology, or limericks, or tirades for or against?

What it feels like here in this particular body: the easiest poems come crashing out the front of my head, always present, incessant, asserting themselves and spilling all over the page. The hard poems come from deeper, somewhere central to the core brain, and the best come from digging in the brainstem at the base of my skull.

Prose, I tell you, I must hop in a skiff and go sailing down into the belly of the beast, myself, the whale.

Anyway, not all that one finds in the guts is “personal.” It’s often just what we know deeper down, by the instinct we have for stories and words. And, lacking any real language for how the body works and why the mind knows, I have resorted to “guts,” “brain,” and “skiff.”


Is the process of poeming different than the process of assaying? What kind of thought process differentiates the making of the two? What kind of contents, what structuring of the whole?

A story—and an essay, is what I’m saying—can be found from stories that exist. In the personal essay, one takes the license of using stories one knows, that are in some way their stories—not stories about them, necessarily; but stories close to them, contained in the dusty suitcase of stories we all drag around with us wherever we go, whether we ever take them out and tell them or not.

Then essaying in that instance might be the gathering of parts & trying to find an order, according to one or another organizing principle: whether a principle one thinks may inhere in the pieces, a mathematics one cannot see but senses might be there; or a principle one decides upon and imposes whether it’s the right one or not.


Usually my essays begin as one thing and then divide into two, like a cell, and then sometimes divide into four: the process is that of pulling them apart, undoing their helix, or really more like pulling apart the striations of a rock. Green rock with green, orange-red rock in the heap of things that are orange-red.

It begs the question of why one must go around pulling interconnected things apart: extricating things that feel inextricable, that originate as single things (a wash of thoughts and words), but for the purposes of the essay must be reorganized into categorically differentiated things.

Suppose that is what an essay is: that’s what differentiates it from simply a wash of words and thoughts, or prevents it from being one giant essay, the work of a life.

Because one does pull the essay, no matter how many later essays it becomes, from the larger morass of thought: all the crap that runs through your brain while you write and think about the essay, you’ve got a river flowing past & you are carefully pulling out the trash that goes by, making a pile of it, and calling it a discrete thing. Which it is; it is a discrete thing, a thing that resembles other like things, like a Platonic form. It is the Platonic form Essay.

Or it is the Platonic form Trash, or the form Flotsam or Jetsam, or both.

Because think of all the things this essay is not about! You can’t imagine how much I had to shove out of the way to get at the bits of essay this essay became.

For example, an old tidbit of the opening of a book went sailing past a moment ago: “Here is Roger. Roger is a sociopath.” Which is about a man who really was one. That is from a book on a thing that was true. The book as such does not yet exist: it exists only as a piece of paper that I wrote on while I was, for reasons I shall not go into right now, in Jamaica, sitting by a window with a billowing white curtain breathing in—

—YOU SEE WHAT I MEAN? All that cannot be included! All that I must excise!


An essay is what is left from the original wash of thought, all you have excised or extracted from that wash (picking trash and foam from a river), or if you prefer: you are attempting to do the thing Michelangelo said he did, when asked how he made David: He said he just got rid of everything that wasn’t David. So in an essay or any attempt to communicate in words, one tries take away everything we would say that is not the thing we mean to say.

Philosophically, that’s just ripped off negative theology: a concept of God based on all that God is not.

Then how does one determine the essay from all the rest?


Suppose the difference between them is a matter of fiction and fact.

Fact in poetry always serves the ends of language, image, the middle of the thing, and claims to be another kind of truth, the essence of the thing, the thing itself.

What ends does fact (such as it can be) serve in nonfiction prose?



Is a personal essay, or any kind of use of an I in nonfiction, some kind of demand that you “look at me”? Because in fact that is often not what I, as a writer, want you, as a reader, to do. Rather, I often want you to inhabit me, to slip on the suit of my skin and the rubbery mask of my face and look out through these eyeholes so you can see what I see, because—this is much more obvious than people seem willing to let it be—I like what I see and how I am seeing, and find it intriguing not because it is my way of seeing but because the act and experience of seeing is inherently interesting, and I think you will like it and find it interesting as well, and I want to hand over the kaleidoscope, the mind’s collage of shifting color and light and all forms of perception, sensate experience, abstract thought—and say, “Here, look.” Hold up my I and you will not see a version of me. You will see a way of seeing that is simply a shifting of perspective; it is like or it is unlike your own. Either way, the seeing affirms something, affirms the question of whether or not we even exist.



I knew someone who hunted deer. A man, back then a boy, now lost somewhere in some fold in space and time, in a parallel universe where his life goes on and mine does as well, and I can no longer remember how our paths ever met or found me in the dingy but warm and well-lit flat while outside in the dark the rain came down. It was summer. No, fall. He brought out the wine, put blues on the stereo, of course. There was a little lamp on the table—a diner table, now that I think of it, with red sparkling plastic seats. The lamp had a little shade, cast a penumbra of shadow on the table, or maybe did not. The vagaries of memory, etc. We drank. I knew nothing about blues, but did not let on.

The foregoing is all I remember of a poem I wrote years ago, fifteen? It is easy enough to break a poem into pieces and cobble it together as prose. You need only start with a story, go back to the story that sparked the poem, go past the fictions of narrative poem, back to the story’s seed. You may need to shift person, and sometimes tense. This particular poem (a fiction) was written in 2nd person, in an epistolary form that had possessed me at the time, written to a “you.”

Years later I ran into the boy—by then a man—but somehow absurd, in a blue sport coat, hair short and usual, at a reading at a conference in Chicago or D.C. I was reading, and sensed his fury palpably in the room. It bewildered me—it had been years—it was anyway only a night. Feeling irritable and defensive, I thought for a moment of reading the old poem but realized that it was never really about, or a letter to, him. There was no such you.

That is the fallacy of 2nd person. It is the betrayal of them, of the truth. You steal the event when you leave, and then you write it down. That is the first betrayal. The second is this: You pretend you are speaking to the person, as if the poem is for them. But in truth you throw your voice past them , the person of whom you speak—you look past the person, crane your neck to see what lies beyond them, the putative object (and in this case subject, which in second person is always the case) of your words. The letter is supposed to be to them. But you are speaking in truth to the reader, that other “you.” That you breathes down the neck of the person himself. You never really loved the man, of course, the actual self—who I suppose in his own writings is crafted and shaped into the first person, a singular fiction, an I. In my work, though, he remains you, and he remains the second person: beyond him is the You to whom I speak.

That larger you is ever present for every writer, lurking beyond the real. Anyone who writes for someone other than themselves—the latter a fictional practice, I often think—writes to that other you. Every original person, the object, the subject of the poem or prose, is betrayed when I steal their story to use in my own. This is why people are irritated when you write about them in nonfiction (which is one’s best attempt to pull what is true from what is story, like picking the meat off a carcass until it is bones). They don’t like to see themselves represented. No one really wants to see how they are seen by another’s eyes. It is like listening to a recording of one’s own voice. Strange, entirely unfamiliar, a different person, and one is disoriented by that: one wonders which, the unfamiliar voice played back, or themselves as they hear themselves inside the echo chamber of their skull, is fact.


Then what about the invention of the 2nd person for the purposes of this essay?

(Which are what? What makes an essay serve its purpose?)

You are its purpose. The occasion of the essay is you.


One of the things that bothers me most about online writing, particularly prose writing, particularly essays, is that the written thing (essay, thing, what have you) cannot be written on. As in, written upon, on the thing itself, you cannot write upon das Deng an Sich, you cannot scrawl upon it unless you have that little Kindle stylus which I do not and which anyway does not write anything that cannot immediately be deleted, erased, gobbled up by space. When I am writing for an online thing, I have the persistent, spooky sense that I am not really writing words that will reach any extant sensate being, any second person, any greater Other, ANY YOU, because where the hell are you? Are you in a chair? Are you on a stair? Are you reading in a plane? Are you reading on a train? I do not like it Sam I am, I do not like the fact that I can’t really know if you are there and I am here. Because and let’s be clear about this, while I “know” in some sense that I am “here” (at least the illusion of me has the illusion that I am here in this illusory space, see the foregoing table, poinsettia, cat), I don’t in any substantive way know you are there; I assume you. You are implied. I feel a little awkward about this.

The effects of your presence or absence cannot be felt in advance: I have no way of knowing in this fold of time whether or not, in different or later or further away fold, one pretty randomly labeled Saturday 21st 2013, you and this essay are present in the same approximate cubit of space; and furthermore, I do not know if you are intersecting there, or if you are paying one another no mind.

You are like dark matter in deep space. You are inferred from your effects.


To write, to write on. I came here to write an essay and to write on an essay, and I confess I find it frustrating that you cannot write on whatever I write, should you be so inclined. If inclined, I ask that you please print out, write on, argue with, tear up, burn, flush, or eat the pages I have written, or I shall feel as if we have nearly intersected somewhere in virtual space but never actually seen one another eye to eye, not even for a blink.

Which is to say, I am shouting into the void. What you’re doing, I can’t rightly say.

Then curl up in the pages. Chew a pen. Blue-fingered, blue-lipped, fall asleep.


Marya Hornbacher is an award-winning journalist, essayist, and the bestselling author of five books, including the New York Times Bestseller Madness, the Pulitzer Prize finalist Wasted, and the New York Times Editor’s Choice The Center of Winter. Her work is published in eighteen languages and is taught in universities around the world. Her most recent nonfiction appears in Gulf Coast, Fourth Genre, and Vestoj. Shortlisted for the 2012 Pushcart Prize in both poetry and prose and the recipient of a host of awards and fellowships for her work, Hornbacher’s writing across genres appears regularly in literary and journalistic publications. She teaches at Northwestern University and is currently at work on her sixth book.