Thursday, February 26, 2015

John Proctor on listening to Steven Church's Ultrasonic

“In this book, essays become sounding lines, explorations, probes and tests, each one a map of what lies below the surface; and the form is meant to mimic the way our thinking sometimes moves between points of engagement—navigating in the dark by means of echolocation, bouncing from one idea to another, searching and seeing through sound.” 
Author’s Note to Ultrasonic

I’ve always wanted, though I didn’t always know I wanted, to write more like a song than a story. I’m tempted to say Steven Church does this, but on second thought this explanation might be looking at these essays from the wrong end of the earpiece: I think he writes like I listen to a song.

Take, for example, “Seven Fathoms Down.” This might be the essay that most thoroughly elucidates Church’s note on his technique for these essays. In seven parts, each ostensibly going deeper into Church’s mind as it circles its subject(s)—which might be the derivation of the word “cockle,” or sound-based synesthesis, or the life cycle of the catfish, or the word “fathom” itself—Church comes to a realization of sorts as his “subject,” a drowned boy Church saw dredged from the bottom of a lake in his childhood, is just beginning to resound:

I believe most of us are fishing for ghosts—those spectral ideas about life and death that hover at the edge of our consciousness or just beneath the surface of our waking life. Sight promises knowledge; but perhaps it’s only by closing our eyes and listening, by echo-navigating through the landscape of memory that we can explore the unseen terrain below.

I hear—I mean read—sentences like this, and the sensation is a lot like the one I get singing along to my favorite songs: the words, at that moment at least, are mine. I might even steal them, paraphrase them, forget who originally wrote them, but they will continue to resound in my own voice.


That thing about always wanting to write like a song? Not entirely true. When I started calling myself a writer, I thought of the word as synonymous with storyteller. And when I started calling myself a nonfiction writer, I wanted to shoehorn this newish conception of myself into the rules (as I saw them) of storytelling—progress, conflict, rising action, resolution. But the essays found myself loving are different. They circle or weave, or go for walks or stand in place. They do flips between literal and figurative, concrete and allegorical, small human and humanity-at-large. Whereas telling a story, to paraphrase Nabokov, is essentially a process of world-making, essaying is a process of weaving oneself into the existing world.

In “It Begins with a Knock at the Door,” by far the most overtly narrative piece in Ultrasonic, Church essays this weaving of himself into the lives of his neighbors while also calling himself on his moves, both as a person and as a writer:

[I] knew nothing of these people as real people. [I] only imagined, speculated, predicted what couldn’t be predicted about them as characters…They needed [my] help not because [I] was funny or good at storytelling, certainly not because they need [my] sympathy or jokes or essays, but because [I] was big enough to pull Larry out of a bathtub.

I didn’t want the story to end this way. When I told it later to friends or family I often didn’t get this far, never making it to the part where there is no easy resolution, or where the resolution seems all too predictable and sad…We all wanted to believe that everything was the same, believe that the story never changed and was always funny and weird and safe…We all enjoyed the luxury of humorous distance.

…[B]ut I had no control over this scene or the larger story, no agency through imagination, because it was all impossibly, uncontrollably, and tragically true.

To me, as an essayist and a lover of essays, these asides from the story, these refrains from the action and the plot, are more engrossing than the story itself, perhaps because, in talking to himself, Church is letting me in on his process of mythmaking, his role in the creation of the story he tells on the page and the one he tells and retells out loud. I think of my own stories, and the differences between the way I tell them to friends who share a part in them, or to students to elucidate a point, or to strangers in writing.

I spent my childhood thinking both myth and song sprung forth from a mysterious part of someone else—never myself—and that was part of the joy I took in them: the aura of other people’s experience. In pulling himself out of the process, in establishing his own culpability in the straining of truth into personal mythology, Church does something that I find very hard to do as a writer: he is critic of his own story, even in the process of telling it.


I’ve been trying for years to locate the person who said, and of course I’m paraphrasing, Writers write to stop time. Maybe it was Frank Conroy—that would make such perfect sense—though I’ve for years attributed it in my mind to Bob Dylan. In any case, many of Church’s Ultrasonic essays don’t just stop time, they romp through it. The most obvious example is probably “Auscultation,” an essay divided not into parts but into chambers, sending its narrative threads—the invention and development of the stethoscope, the entrapment of miners in a coal mine shaft in Utah in 2007, the fetal development of Church’s daughter—pulsing through them.

The development and birth of Church’s daughter in fact could be cited as one of the main narrative threads—or perhaps chords?—connecting many of the essays within the book’s covers. A father of two girls, I found myself humming the universal refrain of worry, circumspection, and paradigm-shifting that the birth of a child produces.

I also have to confess: I read Ultrasonic while deep into the process of collecting my own essays into my first book. I’m pretty sure this made me more attuned to its style, its form (both within the essays and within the collection of them), the words themselves; in other words, I read it to teach me, to nourish me as a writer. But I couldn’t help being entrapped in Church’s sound-web, empathizing with him as a person at least as much as I did with him as a writer.


I apologize, both to Steven Church and to his current and potential readers, if this review has become just as much about me as it is about his book of essays. I can only say that I felt, reading Ultrasonic, like his essays were as much about me as they were about him.

I should say here that I went to the same high school Church did—he was a senior when I was a sophomore—though we never knew each other then. I discovered his work when Patrick Madden read something I was writing about being thoroughly traumatized by Eighties nuclear-holocaust miniseries The Day After as a child, and said I should read Church’s The Day After The Day After. Reading it reiterated a foundational principle for me as a writer: that my own experience isn’t that exceptional, that the words I write, the stories I tell, are not unique as words or stories; someone has told them before or will after me, and (in Church’s case with The Day After The Day After) probably better. I’m refraining from quoting Ecclesiastes here.

Even now, I’m surprised to think that I went through high school without knowing Church. I thought I knew everyone. Actually, I knew very few people, but I did know of them, from poring over the yearbook and the school newspaper, taking in as many of the names and faces and stories in our gigantic school that would fit into my hormone-addled mind. I did know his brother Matt, or at least I knew of him. Matt was in my grade, and I seem to remember envying him. He seemed, to me then, at ease with himself, and most of the people we both knew seemed at ease around him. A good guy.

Matt’s death his freshman year of college is the subject his brother Steven circles around in “Crown and Shoulder,” using the two bookends of the title as sounding lines to find himself and the reader at the shoulder of the highway in Indiana where his brother’s car, full of friends, ran headlong into a tree. I read this essay within days of reading Charles D’Ambrosio’s “Documents,” in which D’Ambrosio sketches a tragic outline of one brother’s suicide, another’s mental illness, and his father’s breakdown through the letters they either sent or left him. I keep thinking, even now, How many sentences of personal essays are littered with the bones of dead brothers?

This question, for me, is not entirely critical. One essay I wrote last year that I’m currently revising is ostensibly about my collegiate running career, but it is really about my brother Jeremy, who was found hanging from a bedsheet when he was ten years old, and my father’s grief at Jeremy’s death, and my other brother Brian’s grief at the loss of his own first, stillborn son.

In “Crown and Shoulder,” Church says, “When I say to grieve, I mean my response to the intransitive, to die…And I mean the object, the intransitive form of the verb. I grieve his death.” He also says, “I don’t really know the exact cause of his death.” I still haven’t found the words to describe my feeling towards my brother’s death, or even to give an accurate account of it. I use the passive voice to describe the way he died—he was found hanging, rather than hanged himself—as I don’t want to imply agency. The local obituary listed his death as a suicide, but ten-year-olds don’t kill themselves, do they? I saddle the death of my other brother’s son to it, implying in my mind some sort of family curse that I don’t think my father or my brother Brian would agree to or appreciate.

I’ve been planning on going back to that essay, circling around the hours and days and months and years of my brother’s death, and the echoes that still ring down through my fragmented family. I’m going to finally do that next month.

Now this month.

Immediately after I finish this.

John Proctor lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, two daughters, and Chihuahua. He’s written memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them, which he tends now to collect under the generic term “essay.” His work has been published in The Normal School, The Austin Review, DIAGRAM, Superstition Review, Underwater New York, Defunct, New Madrid, Numero Cinq, McSweeney’s, Trouser Press, New York Cool, and the Gotham Gazette, and is forthcoming in The Weeklings. He serves as Online Editor for Hunger Mountain Journal of the Arts and Dad for All Seasons columnist for the blog A Child Grows in Brooklyn, and teaches writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can find him online at

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