Thursday, December 17, 2015

Stephanie G’Schwind on the BAE 2009, edited by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver introduces the 2009 volume, not surprisingly, by talking about what an essay is. She turns to Emerson, her favorite essayist, noting that his writings “do not thoroughly answer the questions so many of us ask, but often enough such questions cannot be reasoned out entirely.” I like that. An essay doesn’t have to answer the question it asks. Maybe it doesn’t even ask a question. (I usually find essays that don’t have answers are the most interesting.) Some of the essays Oliver has selected provide possible answers; some don’t, happy to embrace beautiful, heartbreaking uncertainty. Oliver also imagines the essay as “a party to which all subjects are invited: humor, pathos remembrance, declaration, emotions, religious belief, the natural world.” The essays collected here reflect such a party, a rich gathering of subjects and writers, questions raised, questions considered.

Among the many standouts for me:

Speaking directly from and to 2009—when we were reeling from the housing crisis and attending economic meltdown—Michael Lewis’s “The Mansion: A Subprime Parable” is a delight. Lewis invites us into the obscenely enormous mansion he and his family rented in New Orleans for a few months: “The living room wasn’t a kind of ballroom: it was a ballroom, with $80,000 worth of gold on the ceiling. The bedrooms were the size of giant living rooms. The changing rooms and closets and bathrooms were the size of bedrooms.” It’s a site of unapologetic excess and gives him the perfect setting in which to ponder the origins of the housing crisis. A likely contributing factor, though surely not THE answer: “Americans feel a deep urge to live in houses that are bigger than they can afford.” And we watch as the Lewis family experiments with satisfying that urge, ultimately to be expelled from the house after a series of strange mishaps (and the finite contours of Lewis’s checkbook). It’s a terrific read, especially for those of us who’ve always wondered just what’s inside the mansions of the ultra-wealthy.

I especially admire Janna Malamud Smith’s “Shipwrecked” for its demonstration of literature’s power to provide metaphor for, give shape to, and thus bear us through difficult experiences. Smith writes of suddenly, unexpectedly recalling Robinson Crusoe in the aftermath of her mother’s death: the feeling of being shipwrecked, abandoned, of plundering the remaining possessions as she must contend with clearing out her mother’s apartment. In her introduction, Oliver writes: “[Essays] are like letters from a stranger that you cannot bear to throw away. They haunt you; they strengthen you.” Which resonates with me as I now borrow Smith’s Crusoe metaphor, some twenty-five years after my father’s death, still dreaming the recurring dream in which my father has not in fact died, but has nonetheless discovered his house empty, as I have plundered and disposed of everything, spent the inheritance. I am truly both haunted and strengthened by this essay.

I’m also very fond of Jerald Walker’s “The Mechanics of Being,” which I included in an anthology I edited and published in 2014, Man in the Moon: Essays on Fathers and Fatherhood. In this essay, Walker tells the story of his father’s blindness, brought on by a childhood injury; his parents’ marriage, separation, and reconciliation; and his frustration with trying to write a novel about his father, realizing that he had missed the essence of his father’s “core and sum of . . . existence.” Here, I think, is an example of what Oliver is talking about when she says that an essay can offer “soul-felt truth”—received while listening to his father’s eulogy—“from the individual perspective of someone deft in the craft of expression,” which Walker clearly is. 

And I particularly love Gregory Orr’s “Return to Haynesville.” So much is packed into the very first paragraph, just eight sentences long: when and where he was born; the defining tragedy of his childhood—of his life—in which he accidentally killed his younger brother, an event he identifies as his life’s beginning; and the event he identifies as his life’s possible ending, being kidnapped by vigilantes in 1965. Now, I am an editor and thus strive to be a patient reader. I practice yoga to, among other reasons, become even more patient. But I confess that I adore a paragraph like this, one that requires no patience, that wastes no time and is nearly a complete story in itself. How can you not want to keep reading? I am immediately ravenous for this essay.

Orr takes us to 1965, when he is eighteen, and the circumstances that lead him to the Deep South to work in the civil rights movement, amid the recent and gruesome murders of fellow rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. Following a section break, we realize we’re in a story within a story: Orr is now forty years older and taking a trip, with two companions, back to Haynesville, Alabama, to the site of his kidnapping, to the “tiny town that has been so long lodged like a sliver in [his] memory.” He tells his passengers how he and several other rights workers were detained and tortured for several days, before he was released and then subsequently kidnapped by two plain-clothed, gun-wielding men who threaten to kill him but instead take him to the Haynesville jail, where he is kept, without charge, for eight days, then finally released, thoroughly traumatized. As he tells the story—becoming “so caught up . . . that I’ll lose all sense of my companions and of time and distance passing”—he realizes that soon his narrative and the actual place are going to intersect, “as though the story and the highway were a single, fused flowing.” Oliver seems to have this essay in mind when she writes, “The essay is full of personal discoveries, experiences, disclosures, a revelation of the ‘examined’ self.” Having returned to the site of his trauma and discovered that it has no longer has power over him, he is overcome: “a single word comes to me: joy.” Here is the revelation: “Joy is my body’s primal response to the enormity of the gift it has been given—a whole life! A whole life was there waiting for me the day I left this town.” This essay will stay with, haunt, and intrigue me for a very long time.

Stephanie G’Schwind is the editor-in-chief and nonfiction editor of Colorado Review, as well as the director of the Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University. She is also the editor of Man in the Moon: Essays on Fathers and Fatherhood (CLP, 2014).

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