Monday, August 11, 2014

Jay Ponteri on Charles D'Ambrosio's "Loitering: New & Collected Essays"

In Loitering: New & Collected Essays (forthcoming from Tin House Books), Charles D’Ambrosio crowds around relationships, people, and cultures that are marginalized or in ruins or that have totally disappeared. His prose has an old-timey Jamesian expansiveness that only brightens his illuminations of the discarded. D’Ambrosio visits an “eco-village” outside of Austin that is part sculpture, part dream, part ecological dwelling; a Christian-themed haunted house outside of Dallas; an orphanage in Svirstroy, Russia; the industrial ruins of old Chicago; the uncool and remote Seattle of his childhood; the rain-soaked Washington coast of the Pacific Ocean. He hops freight trains; shops for a modular home (read: trailer park home); lives in a faux-antique furniture warehouse; spends the night in snow caves in Philipsburg, Montana. D’Ambrosio’s work values the experience of keeping oneself at a slight distance from things. There’s freedom and clarity of mind, and loneliness too. The prose follows meandering lines of thought that are, by turns, capaciously philosophical and dreamy. The prose brings great pleasure. He considers the history of American hot rods, the simple-mindedness of local TV reportage, sibling relationships in large families, some of the spookier elements of the Christian right, the metaphors of Richard Brautigan, a poem by Richard Hugo, Mary Kay Letourneau and TRUE love, the history of bricks. Some of these spaces exist only in memory. Memory carries loss. Memory carries love. Memory carries loss of love, and yearning for new love. As the prose hovers over forlorn and forgotten cultures, reticent cultures, D’Ambrosio confronts his own various experiences of loneliness arising from isolation and familial grief—namely, his estrangement from his father, his youngest brother’s suicide, and his other brother’s failed suicide attempt and schizophrenia. D’Ambrosio’s feelings of self-plunder quickly give way to wonder for hidden landscapes and objects worn and forgotten, those nearing but not yet in disrepair, not yet disappeared. Have a look-see at this passage from “Orphans” in which the prose describes the landscape around the Russian orphanage D’Ambrosio visits:

Maybe more than the building itself, the land around the orphanage and the elaborate network of footpaths create for the kids a sense of place. There are trails through the birch and pine, across fields where, every spring, the kids burn leaves and work the ash into the soil and plant potatoes, trails that lead to the river, to the school, to the village, to ponds and creeks and springs flowing up from beneath the ground with cool drinkable water, trails that are a story in themselves, worn by wandering feet over fifty years, worn by joy and hope and habit and need, trails like a sentence spoken, each a whisper about the surrounding world, a dialogue with doubt or desire that’s ultimately answered by a destination. Many of the children have either no history or a severely foreshortened sense of the past, but these trails, worked into the grass or through the forests by others before them, send the kids off to play in a shared world—shared not just in physical space, but down through time. It must in some humble way ease the isolation, like Crusoe finding a footprint in the sand. (204-205)

Exhale. ( awaits your pre-order.) It takes lots of footsteps, perhaps generations of footsteps to and fro, to make a decent footpath. The footpath, older than paved and dirt roads, older than the wheel of a wheelbarrow, is part dwelling space and part transitory space. A worn space is not a broken one as it so often seems in America. In fact, a well-inhabited space or building or landscape is more inviting (to this reader) than the crisply boring, thin new construction, which D’Ambrosio refers to as America’s “clinical rectitude.” The close, extended descriptions of these foot trails surrounding the orphanage give way to meditation on attachment and detachment in relation to space-time, on the long sentence, on the intimacy and loneliness of language. By the time you reach the sentence’s period, you feel as if you have traveled, by foot of course, through numerous variegated topographies within a single stretch of earth. It does not go without saying that Charles D’Ambrosio is one of the best living sentence writers our language has. More on that later. For those of us on the growing Essay Team (our nickname is the Lobes!), the publication of Loitering—which includes the essays (and more!) from D’Ambrosio’s 2004 AMAZING, cult-classic, nearly-impossible-to-find collection, Orphans—reaches the level of Significant Event, worthy of thousands of pre-orders and all of us enthusiastically lining up, probably in the rain, at 8:58 am outside the West Burnside Powell’s on Tuesday morning of the scheduled release date, November 11, 2014. D’Ambrosio writes cogently about the essay form in the book’s preface:

A good essay seemed to question itself in a way that a novel or short story did not—or perhaps it was simply that the personal essay left its questions on the page, there for everyone to see; it was a forum for self-doubt, for an attempt whose outcome wasn’t assured. That one mind would speak so candidly to another mind held a special appeal to me at a time when I didn’t know I had such a thing. (13)

Here’s another passage I love, two pages later:

My instinctive and entirely private ambition was to capture the conflicted mind in motion, or, to borrow a phrase from Cioran, to represent failure on the move, so leaving a certain wrongness on the page was fine by me. The inevitable errors and imperfections made the trouble I encountered tactile, bringing the texture of the story in a way that being cautiously right never could. In fact, as much as I wrote and rewrote many of these pieces, often in a contrary moods, the goal of those revisions was to get the thing to read like a rough draft, cutting sonorities of thought and style that seemed dishonest, fighting against the insane clarity of public discourse, or in the more personal pieces, scraping away until I renewed my sympathies for raw subjects that time and habit had turned sclerotic. (15-16)

Am I right? Should I keep on going with the long quotes? (I’m NOT AFRAID of The Long Quote!) What do I need to do to convince you, dear reader, to pre-order Loitering right this moment? The word “sclerotic” is defined as “rigid and unresponsive,” and perhaps one antidote to human unresponsiveness is to engage this very prose form—GO LOBES!—that asks writer and reader alike to practice a kind of swiftly divergent thinking; that is to say, the essay form aims to reveal and carry the contradictions of the mind and heart, to express them in a single impossible breath. We slide and wind, we drip and drop towards the sentence’s culminating clause, that final moment of thought (or dream or perception) like the sky’s release of a carrier pigeon to its landing perch. The outcome of essay, the result of revealing contradiction of mind and heart, is to unknow. What we think we know we unknow. We stand like a wobbly bur in a position of not knowing and make ourselves available, suddenly, to animal wonder. The psychic space of the child—check. Burs catch on the fur of passing animals and the clothes of people. The hooks or teeth can be iridescent and plangent. The present tense is operative in that what we think we know stands right next to unknowing and not knowing. It’s not either / or—it’s both. Both passages I have written out from D’Ambrosio’s preface here have that quality of naming something precisely that I, dutifully close reader and Critical Praiser, felt but couldn’t name myself. “That one mind would speak so candidly to another mind held a special appeal to me at a time when I didn’t know I had such a thing.” This expresses the intimacy I feel when I read a beautiful essay and when I attempt to write my own. What’s passing through MY mind and heart might indeed pass through YOURS, which, in turn, creates a REAL feeling in me of (illusory) visibility of the divided self, that communion between two strangers, writer and reader, me and you, the strength inherent in the acknowledgement of human weakness flowing from one being to another—this is a different sort of footpath. Like a great big bear hug except with thoughts made from words? Did you know that Montaigne’s first complete sentence to his Maman roughly translate into English as My mind is elsewhere? (OK, I made that up.) In “American Newness,” the narrator tours a factory and show-lot that makes and sells modular homes (read: trailer park homes). D’Ambrosio cannot help but see through the bad construction, through the finished surfaces failing to exude an admixture of solid building, personal safety, and familial attachment:

In house #16 you’ve got a pastoral leitmotif in the prints on the walls and the folksy bric-a-brac on the shelves. I linger longest here. Outside I hear real church bells ring, dull and somewhat muffled through dense (R-41) insulation. It’s as though the bell is being clapped with a cotton tongue. Through the window I see a wedding party. I feel like a voyeur watching the bride and groom, inverting the business of a Peeping Tom. I have to sneak up on regular life. As much as rote irony informs my take on this, I’ve been imagining living in these homes, where I’d plunk one down, etc. What would I be able to see out my front window? A wedding! In the master bedroom down the hall the unwrinkled bed is empty, clean, without misery or past. Happy love has no history and this bed is its home. I’d like to come back some night and fuck in one of these modular homes. The perfection is inviting but really I just want to soil the sheets. I want to bring exhaustion into the equation. All these houses are waiting for the future to come and haunt them. (142)

One of the methods the essayist makes use of is paragraphing. D’Ambrosio builds idiosyncratic, varied, beautifully imbalanced, pillowy paragraphs. The paragraph here is not so much a space to organize content—for the content is the mind in search of something that can or cannot be named—but a space (a page space) for fresh, swift thought, for the mind to work through something, to divide itself and then examine its divided parts. The paragraph HOLDS shifts in feeling, register, mode, and perspective. Here, we move from lushly compact description (narrative) to self-conscious, critical reflection (“…inverting the business of Peeping Tom.”) to self-examination to lyric philosophical inquiry (“Happy love has no history and this bed is its home”) to dream (“…I just want to soil the sheets.”) back to inquiry. The narrator suddenly encounters his own complicity, his own wish for the dream the fine folks in Woodland, Washington are making, or failing to make, and that failure is good enough for most of us. We choose the illusion of strength over the difficulty of encountering real strength within. The ironic stance sits alongside its shadow of sincerity. The paragraph carries the mind’s ongoing, ever-changing consciousness. Let’s welcome to my prose-lette Mary Ruefle, who, in her essay “On Beginnings,” says:

Some languages are so constructed—English among them—that we each only really speak one sentence in our lifetime. That sentence begins with your first words, toddling around the kitchen, and ends with your last words right before you step into the limousine, or in a nursing home, the night-duty attendant vaguely on hand. Or, if you are blessed, they are heard by someone who knows you and loves you and will be sorry to hear the sentence end. (4)

It might seem like the sentence contains or carries thought, perhaps true, but sentence and thought shape each other, that is to say, in writing and speech, thought materializes through the sentence. Sentence reveals thought. Sentence forms thought. Without sentence, thought is barely formed, ephemeral, a seemingly endless tape of word, sensorium, feeling. The essay is that page space for prowling searching quivering turning thought, for received thought that seems to rise out of the void, that discovers and holds contradictions of a single consciousness, made manifest in the sentence at hand. Like the best essayists—like Montaigne, like Virginia Woolf, like Robert Walser, like Anne Carson—D’Ambrosio uses the sentence as a rod for freshly shifting thought. In “Orphans” D’Ambrosio considers the bartering in which these kids frequently engage:

In the enormity of their dislocation, the kids arrived for each other, always. They were there, they were present, and bartering was the deal that confirmed it. It made me sad, these transactions, these dirty little hands reaching and finding, the coincidence of wants, taking place inside a huge broken promise. Born into a world where their wants went unmet, where their time was taken away, they found reassuring coincidence in bartering. In those little moments I felt like I was seeing the kids isolated—lovingly so—in currents that were crushing them. (218-219)

Contradictions emerge within grammatical units. “I felt like I was seeing the kids isolated—lovingly so—in currents that were crushing them.” The adverbial phrase “lovingly so” redresses, thus complicates, the reader’s sense of what it means to feel isolated. Our human bodies reach out, in the face of isolation or anger or or pain, towards love, and towards loving touch. Another way to put it: isolation both fences one off from and nudges one towards love. Perhaps what’s so “crushing” is love thwarted before it finds its destination. Like an jetliner that taxis but doesn’t take flight. And what else doth isolation crush? The spirit. One’s capacity for attachment. One’s ability to love and be loved by another human. Look me in the eye and tell me I’m satisfied. Often human sorrow arises from loneliness, from not having anybody to whom you can apologize for your trespasses. The isolation D’Ambrosio observes is both crushing and lovely, and that contradiction surfaces inside the sentence. The prose toggles seamlessly, weirdly, with advertent hesitancy and contradiction, between personal and public. In “This is Whaling,” D’Ambrosio frames his considerations of whaling—of appetite and hunger, of species perpetuation, of violence wrought by humans—around his own decision to let go of the possibility of fatherhood:

As the extant capable male in my family I either perpetuate our name or wipe it off the earth forever. The hints about what I should do haven’t been so awfully subtle that even a mental clodhopper like myself can’t catch the drift. Nature in me has come up empty, and so be it. I figure it took thousands of years to make Irish and Italians of my grandparents; America undid that in a scant generation. We’ve come to nothing—so soon? Shine On, Perishing Republic! I’m not sure I want to be the dead end of it all but then again how would I really feel with my seed trailing after me, wanting things. (83)

In “Winning” D’Ambrosio meditates on the making of bricks, the ruins of old Chicago, his Uncle’s bar, gambling, all of this amidst his own burgeoning transience. “One More Paradise” describes Biosquat, an eco-village outside Austin.

In the distance you could hear the constant hum of cars, and while Biosquat’s ambitions are somewhat Edenic, at present it still retains the mood and look of a vacant lot; it has a spurned and forgotten quality, as if the world had, without warning or explanation, fallen in love with someone else. (178)

The lot exists, nears disuse. The narrator seems to savor this long (or brief) moment between forgotten and broken. I am reminded of my favorite short story by D’Ambrosio, “Drummond and Son,” in which, Drummond—once the son, now the father—runs a typewriter shop in downtown Seattle all the while caring for his schizophrenic son. For its customers, the shop functions as a nostalgic space, but for Drummond his work as typewriter mechanic and as caretaker of a mentally-ill adult son is serious, ordinary, laborious business. Drummond is careful, methodical, and patient. He adheres to precision. He wholeheartedly believes he can fix what is broken. Typewriters are still very much alive for him. “Maybe nostalgia is a species of the ideal, a dream of the last interior, where all commotion of a life is finally rewarded with rest, drained of history” (150). D’Ambrosio reveres what we leave behind, the ruins of our lives, of the things we make that outlive us, or if they don’t, they live inside our memories. His thoughts and perceptions fasten on these left-behind things. He finds wonder around and inside of them. He fills his (and the reader’s) being with the poignancy of this wonder. In the essay “Any Resemblance To Anyone Living,” previously uncollected, D’Ambrosio considers his process of writing the short story, “Drummond and Son”:

Certain images presided over the writing—of a wall of typewriters, each with a blank white sheet of bond rolled in the platen, an image that haunted me like a dream for three years before I wrote the story; of a man in a worn blue smock hunched at his bench while his grown son says the rosary, and particularly the silence between them, the invasion of small sounds, of the tools, the glass beads, the rain against the window; of the love that exists in old objects, and how those objects, loved over time, might teach an otherwise inarticulate man to be steady and strong and loving toward all broken things, including his son. Perhaps that’s what the story is about. (315)

D’Ambrosio’s sentences pong between concrete details that convey emotional complexity and incisive articulations of abstract ideas. It’s as if the reader gets to witness Charles D’Ambrosio the storyteller conversing in narrative signals to Charles D’Ambrosio the thinker. The concrete stares out into the unspoken just as the abstract expresses contradictory stances—and both deepen the reader’s sense of mystery. This rightly asymmetric conversation between concrete and abstract does not elucidate answers so much as draw the reader towards questions. Here’s one of my favorite examples of that play between concrete and abstract. In “Orphans,” D’Ambrosio describes the physical building of the orphanage in Svirtstroy:

Things inside were so worn and rubbed and handled by living beings that the interior had lost a lot of its rectangularity, and was replaced, instead, by a roundedness, a kind of inner burrowed shape arrived at by working the materials from within, like the nest of a wren. I found this fascinating, and loved discovering the touches of it, combing the place for evidence of the tide of children, the softening action of them against hard surfaces and correct angles favored by the original architects. (206)

His fingers reach for those well-handled worn-down things, finding tenderness in a rougher way of being, which, in turn, gives way to a dream of love, of the inner life becoming visible to others (“…inner burrowed shape arrived at by working the materials from within…”). The children play safely, joyfully inside their rugged nest. At moments D’Ambrosio’s prose exhibits a Walserian quality of child-like wonder, and at other moments it is capable of articulating difficult, complex truths, the kind you might find in Susan Sontag’s prose. And isn’t that what we want more than anything, a representation of a complete personality? One that is varied, that shines light and casts shadows, that criticizes and loves openly, that can bring the world inside of himself while revealing (thus reaching out) that inner life to others. How does one do this? I don’t know. I believe strongly, blindly, that the form of the essay provides the most direct route to consciousness, to music, to that mind-to-mind footpath. Granted, I accept fiction writers and poets might disagree with me on that point. What many of these essays show is the man on the outside looking in, reaching for what lies inside—love, visibility, protection, vulnerability—and finding only himself reaching inside himself. In this way, the narrator’s journeys have a silvery Sisyphean quality but without the futility, without the defeat. The ends of paragraphs, of essays, seem to awaken inside a dreamy, sonically charged, contradictory insight turning us towards a satisfying confusion. The collection’s master essay is “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg.” D’Ambrosio does a close reading of Richard Hugo’s poem of the same title out of which grows a patiently prowling meditation on all things that fall and hit bottom: humans, a town, poetry, poets Joseph Brodsky and Csezlaw Milosz, Hugo himself, the World Trade Center Towers. The falling part can be terrifying and destructive to self and to others and exhilarating too as you pull free from whatever pushed you off the ledge in the first place. Our tenuous ties between space and time seem to loosen and distort. One elongates, the other compresses. D’Ambrosio meditates on a photo of a man falling from the WTC’s South Tower:

The picture also brings us to a prison, one without a shortage of space; in fact, there’s a horrifying excess, a terrible liberation, with time in short supply. (332-333)

This, albeit, is an extraordinary fall whereas Hugo’s poem describes more ordinary yet equally destructive falling.

Mining towns in Montana or Kentucky that have collapsed over the course of a century have suffered a descent as murderous as a moment in New York, but history has hidden those deaths and numbed the witnesses and litanized their loss under the rubric of progress. (354)

Our lives unravel, we fall down. We come to encounter some aspect of our identity that feels fixed but is NOT. It destroys and divides and detaches from feeling and disconnects us from love. We must throw off this aspect of ourselves, we must leave it behind the present moment of our lives to fade away in memory, in mine and yours, and that throwing off can feel pretty violent only because we feel as if we’re throwing off our entire selves. When we understand we can leave behind something other than our whole selves, we begin to ascend, and meaning follows. Right here at the bottom. Where we have no other choice but to feel the pain of our fall. Allowing ourselves to feel this pain and to recognize it as an act of our own doing may help us to realize we can feel something other than pain too. Feelings are transient and at best make way for more varied feeling but turning away from feeling dangerously fixes one into place. Imagine the man who stays on the ledge, paralyzed. He can’t come back inside nor can he jump off. Falling and hitting bottom gives way to clarification and profundity, to ascension, and what lifts poet and prose writer even further is the making of the poem, of the sentence. Poet Bruce Weigl: “Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.” We are amidst delicate and indelicate creation. We are being gifted here, and Charles D’Ambrosio enjoys the gift he gives us, enjoys pushing that rock up the hill again and again, no matter its endless destination.

Jay Ponteri directs the undergraduate creative writing program at Marylhurst University and show:tell, The Workshop for Teen Writers & Artists. He has recently published work in Ghost Proposal and Forklift, Ohio. His essay "Listen to This" was a notable mention in 2010 Best American Essays. His memoir, Wedlocked, published by Hawthorne Books, received the 2014 Oregon Book Award in creative nonfiction. His chapbook Darkmouth Strikes Again has just been published by Future Tense Books. He has prose forthcoming in Silk Road Review.


  1. This may be the most generous review I've ever read--both in substance and length. I will buy the book damnit. From Powells, even.

  2. I love this, particularly: " Sentence reveals thought. Sentence forms thought. Without sentence, thought is barely formed, ephemeral, a seemingly endless tape of word, sensorium, feeling."