Monday, August 29, 2016

Int'l Essayists: Colin Hosten - Home and Back Again, with V.S. Naipaul

Home and Back Again: The Immigrant Perspective
A Conversation with V.S. Naipaul

It seems deceptively trivial for essays by and about non-American writers to be anchored by themes of immigration, home, and belonging. We may not be from here, but here, especially as it might be similar to or different from there, still consumes us. To be fair, though, it’s not just us: the majority of our readers in the U.S. are, after all, American. The idea of belonging, what it means to have a place to call one’s own, is one that transcends nationality and ethnicity. We all know there’s no place like home. And perhaps that is why we turn to the non-American writer time and again to help us explore such themes in literature. Immigrants tend to have a particular eye and sensibility for parsing the vicissitudes of place. We often live in two places at once: the place where we exist physically, and the one we conjure in our mind’s eye whenever someone asks, “No, where are you from?” which itself may not be real place that exists in the known universe, but rather some contortion of the space between where we live and where we were born. You can observe this dichotomy among every stripe of immigrant in the U.S., even the Canadian, but it is especially poignant when this sense of duality is also reflected in the language. The immigrant speaks English—very articulately, at that—at work, at school, among friends and neighbors, then switches to her native tongue inside the house, with family, on the phone with relatives. A sometimes unconscious code-switch that acts like an instantaneous teleportation device.

When I left Trinidad at eighteen to go to school in Atlanta, I had only a vague, if persistent, sense that I would not be returning “home” anytime soon; yet I still found myself seeking solace in literature that echoed the sounds and expressions of my homeland. English is the official language of Trinidad in the same way that it is an official language of Wales; it’s difficult to follow along if you’re not from there. The particular flavor of the local accent and dialect is even more tricky to capture in writing, which is part of what makes V.S. Naipaul such a singular writer. He is not the only one to tell compelling stories using Trinidadian patois, but for me, he was the first, particularly striking at age eleven, when my literary explorations had thitherto revolved around foreign people living in foreign places, to read the seminal book Miguel Street and recognize in characters such as Bogart, Eddoes, and Titus Hoyt, people I might encounter around the corner.

I returned to Miguel Street many times in college, but found that sense of recognition increasingly complicated by a more sophisticated literary awareness that made it harder to separate Naipaul the writer from Naipaul the person. He has a somewhat complex legacy in Trinidad; he is arguably one of the most accomplished writers of the twentieth century, our lone Nobel laureate in Literature (some lay claim to Derek Walcott, who, though born in St. Lucia, lived in Trinidad, and married a Trinidadian). Yet Naipaul himself has all but disowned Trinidad as the land of his birth, professing fealty instead to England, where he migrated after leaving Trinidad at the age of eighteen, like I did. (We won’t even get into some of his more colorful statements regarding gender here.) They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes; perhaps you shouldn’t read their promotional interviews either. Suffice it to say that reading Naipaul now left me feeling more disconnected. I couldn’t understand how someone who wrote so beautifully could say such ugly things.

I found some of the answers I was looking for in his nonfiction, which I didn’t discover until well into adulthood. The Middle Passage in particular, his essential travelogue about Trinidad and the West Indies, reminded me of a series of essays I wrote in graduate school about my own ambivalence about where I’m from. The first essay in that series, called “Homeland,” begins with the line, “I don’t think I can ever go home again,” and charts my ongoing attempt to reconcile my existence as a citizen who feels more at home in another country. One of the first people Naipaul introduces in The Middle Passage is a man named Mr. Mackay, who laments, “You can’t blame some people for not wanting to call themselves West Indians.” Perhaps, in this regard, I could find some common ground with Naipaul after all. Trinidad is a unique and beautiful island, perched three miles off the coast of Venezuela at the southern tip of the West Indian archipelago. The country is rich in diverse culture, food, music, festivals. The beaches admittedly aren’t the best in the Caribbean, but they’re still magnificent, and its location so close to the mainland (besides propping up the oil and natural gas industry) creates a vibrant set of flora and fauna that sustains a small but growing ecotourism business. Locals joke that God must live somewhere on the island for it to be so charmed. I don’t know about God, but certainly many of his followers do, which in part made it a hostile place to grow up as a gay man. Partly because of its colonial history, partly because of its religiously conservative culture, and partly because it is still figuring itself out as a relatively young republic—the end result is that I fled the island and made a new home for myself in Connecticut, where I can be married to the man I love without fear of legal or other reprisal.

That’s my rationale, anyway—what about Naipaul? How does he account for the severity of the statements he has made and written about the island of his birth? In The Middle Passage, Naipaul has captured some of the finer notes of the angst, anguish, and ambivalence almost every immigrant experiences at some point in trying to reconcile the old country with the new, so why don’t we just ask him, and let him answer in his own words:

CH: You use an epigraph in The Middle Passage from James Anthony Froude, who writes, “There are no people [in the West Indies] in the true sense of the word, with a character and purpose of their own.” Do you agree with some of your critics that you have been unnecessarily harsh in your depiction of the West Indies?
VSN: Nothing was created in the British West Indies, no civilization as in Spanish America, no great revolution as in Haiti or the American colonies. There were only plantations, prosperity, decline, neglect: the size of the islands called for nothing else.
CH: But is that all there is to it? Is there any historical context can help us understand the present?
VSN: How can the history of this West Indian futility be written? What tone shall the historian adopt? Shall he be as academic as Sir Alan Burns, … setting West Indian brutality in the context of European brutality? … The history of the islands can never be satisfactorily told. Brutality is not the only difficulty. History is built around achievement and creation, and nothing was created in the West Indies.
CH: You were created in the West Indies, in Trinidad. Can you find nothing in Trinidad’s history worth exploring?
VSN: Outside the Royal Victoria Institute in Port of Spain an anchor, still in good condition, stands embedded in concrete, and a sign says this might be the anchor Columbus lost during his rough passage into the Gulf of Paria. So much, one might say, for the history of Trinidad for nearly three hundred years after its discovery…. In Trinidad society never hardened around the institution of slavery as it had done in the other West Indian islands; there was no memory of bitterly suppressed revolts.
CH: You’re referring to the fact that Trinidad was colonized by the British shortly before they ended the slave trade, which accounts for the influx of “immigrant” workers from India, China, and the Middle East.
VSN: In the immigrant society, memories growing dim, there was no guiding taste. As you rose you evolved your own standards, and they were usually those of modernity.
CH: Modernity?
VSN: Trinidad considers itself, and is acknowledged by the other West Indian territories to be, modern. It has night clubs, restaurants, air conditioned bars, supermarkets, soda fountains, drive-in cinemas, and a drive-in bank. But modernity in Trinidad means a little more. It means constant alertness, a willingness to change, a readiness to accept anything which films, magazines, and comic strips appear to indicate as American…. To be modern is to ignore local products and to use those advertised in American magazines. The excellent coffee which is grown in Trinidad is used only by the very poor and a few middle-class English expatriates. Everyone else drinks Nescafe or Maxwell House or Chase and Sanborn, which is more expensive but is advertised in magazines and therefore acceptable.
CH: Does this, then, create a double standard? You are admonished for criticizing local culture, yet locals flock to foreign products whenever they can?
VSN: For a long time in Trinidad there has been a campaign against poems about daffodils—daffodils in particular—because daffodils are not flowers Trinidad schoolchildren know…. To the Trinidadian mind, however, no absurdity attaches to the presence of being American in Trinidad; and while much energy has been spent in the campaign against Wordsworth, no one has spoken out against the fantasy which Trinidadians live out every day of their lives.
CH: Which fantasy is that?
VSN: The Negro in the New World was, until recently, unwilling to look at his past. It seemed to him natural that he should be in the West Indies, that he should speak French or English or Dutch, dress in the European manner or in adaptation of it, and share the European’s religion and food. Travel-writers who didn’t know better spoke of him as a “native,” and he accepted this…. Africa was forgotten…. This was the greatest damage done to the Negro by slavery. It taught him self-contempt. It set him the ideals of white civilization and made him despise every other…. Twenty million Africans made the middle passage, and scarcely an African name remains in the New World…
“The creole slaves,” says a writer of 1805, “looked upon the newly imported Africans with scorn, and sustained in their turn that of the mulattoes, whose complexions were browner; while all were kept at a distance from the intercourse of the whites.”
CH: Should Trinidadians examine their own prejudices before becoming self-righteous about yours?
VSN: Grenada, immemorially, has been as funny a word in Trinidad as Wigan is in England…. The attitudes to immigrants are the same the world over—the stories about West Indians in England (“twenty-four to a room”) are exactly matched by the stories about Grenadians and others in Trinidad. 
Modernity in Trinidad, then, turns out to be the extreme susceptibility of people who are unsure of themselves and, having no taste or style of their own, are eager for instruction.
CH: This is not endemic to Trinidad or the West Indies, is it?
VSN: West Indians are English-speaking and when confronted with the foreigner display the language arrogance of all English-speaking people.

Naipaul’s responses bear the characteristic cleverness and authority of someone who sees himself as rational and impartial. His writing is self-aware, precise, allowing the readers to infuse their own judgments, humor, irony. He is above the moral whims of other human beings. Or is he?

CH: You’ve written than on your return to the island in 1960, as soon as the ship docked at the quay, you began to feel an “old fear” rise up.
VSN: I was distressed, not so much by the familiarity, as by the feeling of continuation. The years I had spent abroad fell away and I could not be sure which was the reality in my life: the first eighteen years in Trinidad or the later years in England.
CH: What was so distressing? What were you afraid of?
VSN: I had never examined this fear of Trinidad. I had never wished to…. I knew Trinidad to be unimportant, uncreative, cynical. The only professions were those of law and medicine, because there was no need for any other; and the most successful people were commission agents, bank managers, and members of the distributive trades. Power was recognized, but dignity was allowed to no one. Every person of eminence was held to be crooked and contemptible. We lived in a society which denied itself heroes.
CH: And you, the writer, were not considered a hero…
VSN: Such skills were not required by a society which produced nothing, never had to prove its worth, and was never called upon to be efficient. And such people had to be cut down to size or, to use the Trinidadian expression, be made to “boil down.” Generosity—the admiration of equal for equal—was therefore unknown; it was a quality I knew only from books and found only in England.
CH: The island enjoys a burgeoning literary scene today—do you think there is newfound space and regard for writing as a vocation?
VSN: Living in a borrowed culture, the West Indian, more than most, needs writers to tell him who he is and where he stands. Here the West Indian writers have failed. Most have so far only reflected and flattered the prejudices of their race or colour groups…. To the initiated, one whole side of West Indian writing has little to do with literature, and much to do with the race war.
CH: Again, this seems harsh. Aren’t you implicating yourself as a writer with that indictment?
VSN: No writer can be blamed for reflecting his society. If the West Indian writer is to be blamed, it is because, by accepting and promoting the unimpressive race-and-colour values of his group, he has not only failed to diagnose the sickness of his society but has aggravated it.
CH: You’ve written extensively about race relations in Trinidad, indicating that you identify more with your Indian ancestors than with the island of your birth. How much did that factor in to you wanting to leave?
VSN: We were of various races, religious, sets, and cliques; and we had somehow found ourselves on the same small island. Nothing bound us together except this common residence. There was no nationalist feeling; there could be none. There was no profound anti-imperialist feeling; indeed, it was only our Britishness, our belonging to the British Empire, which gave us any identity.
CH: Is that why so many Trinidadians flocked to England in the 1950s and ’60s?
VSN: Pursuing the Christian-Hellenic tradition, the West Indian… never seriously doubted the validity of the prejudices of the culture to which he aspired. In the French territories he aimed at Frenchness, in the Dutch territories at Dutchness; in the English territories he aimed at simple whiteness and modernity, Englishness being impossible.
CH: Yet you identify as English now…
VSN: With the emphasis on America, English things are regarded as old-fashioned and provincial.
CH: Well, it can come off a little stodgy compared to the warm, tropical climate in Trinidad…
VSN: Columbus… had discovered, he wrote Ferdinand and Isabella, the approaches of the terrestrial paradise.
CH: And what did you discover, on your return trip in 1960?
VSN: It seemed to me that I was seeing the landscape for the first time. I had hated the sun and the unchanging seasons. I had believed that the foliage had no variety and could never understand how the world “tropical” held romance for so many. Now I was taken by the common coconut tree, the cliché of the Caribbean…. I had never liked the sugarcane fields. Flat, treeless, and hot, they stood for everything I had hated about the tropics and the West Indies… Now, in the uneven land of Central and South Trinidad, I saw that even sugar cane could be beautiful.

His descriptions cut to the heart of a longing I have not quite been able to express since leaving my homeland. Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…

CH: Absence, it seems, can make the heart grow fonder…
VSN: Everyone has to learn to see the West Indies tropics for himself.
CH: Could you ever go back, now that you’ve learned to see it for yourself?
VSN: Trinidad was and remains a materialist immigrant society, continually growing and changing, never settling into any pattern, always retaining the atmosphere of a history of enduring brutality, in the absence of a history; yet not an expanding society but a colonial society, ruled autocratically if benevolently, with the further limitations of its small size and remoteness. All this has combined to give its special character, its ebullience and irresponsibility. And more: a tolerance which is more than tolerance: an indifference to virtue as well as vice. The Land of the Calypso is not a copywriter’s phrase…. If curiosity is a characteristic of the cosmopolitan, the cosmopolitanism on which Trinidad prides itself is fraudulent.
CH: You don’t believe the island has made any genuine progress?
VSN: This sophisticated play-acting is part of that Trinidad taste for fantasy, which finds its full bacchanalian expression on the two days of Carnival.
CH: In Carnival, at least, there is a legitimate claim to a festival that sets a world standard?
VSN: It is only in the calypso that the Trinidadian touches reality. The calypso is a purely local form. No song composed outside of Trinidad is a calypso. The calypso deals with local incidents, local attitudes, and it does so in a local language. The pure calypso, the best calypso, is incomprehensible to the outsider. Wit and verbal conceits are fundamental; without them no song, however good the music, however well sung, can be judged a calypso. A hundred foolish travel-writers and a hundred “calypsonians” in all parts of the world have debased the form, which is now generally dismissed abroad as nothing more than a catchy tune with a primitive jingle in broken English… For this bastardization Trinidadians are as much to blame as anyone. Just as they take pleasure in their American modernity, so they take pleasure in living up to the ideals of the tourist brochure. They know that they are presented to the world as the land of calypso and steel band. They are determined that the world shall not be disappointed; and their talent for self-caricature is profound. The Americans expect native costumes and native dances; Trinidad will discover both. Few words are used more frequently in Trinidad than “culture.” Culture is spoken of as something quite separate from day-to-day existence… It is like a special native dish, something like a callaloo. Culture is a dance—not the dance that people do when more than three of them get together—but the one put on in native costume on stage…. Culture is, in short, a night-club turn. And nothing pleases Trinidadians so much as to see their culture being applauded by white American tourists in night-clubs.

I have to admit that some of this “culture” played a part in my leaving the island, specifically the culture of homophobia. This is where I think I can begin to understand Naipaul’s stoic stance, even as I sympathize with the reactive indignation of my fellow countrymen.

CH: You’ve written about “the need to escape” Trinidad, something I felt keenly as a gay teenager. Whenever I get nostalgic—about the food, the weather, the landscape, my family—I remember that I would not be able to live my life as a married, gay man there. It can be at once frustrating and heartbreaking, feeling that you can never really go home.
VSN: There is no set way in Trinidad of doing anything. Every house can be a folly. There is no set way of dressing or cooking or entertaining. Everyone can live with whoever he can get wherever he can afford. Ostracism is meaningless; the sanctions of any clique can be ignored. It is in this way, and not in the way of the travel brochure, that the Trinidadian is a cosmopolitan. He is adaptable; he is cynical; having no rigid social conventions of his own, he is amused by the conventions of others. He is a natural anarchist… If the Trinidadian has no standards of morality he is without the greater corruption of sanctimoniousness, and can never make pleas for intolerance in the name of piety…. Everything that makes the Trinidadian an unreliable, exploitable citizen makes him a quick, civilized person whose values are always human ones, whose standards are only those of wit and style.
CH: I will say I’ve seen great strides toward more inclusiveness in the past twenty years. I think legislative progress will continue to be slow and labored, but general attitudes have become much more accepting and understanding of difference.
VSN: Change must come from the top. Capital punishment and corporal punishment, incitements to brutality, must be abolished. The civil service must be rejuvenated…. The need to be efficient will change some of these attitudes. An efficient civil service is in some ways a considerate civil service.

I feel as though I understand the man on a more nuanced level now. Does his prose sting a little to those who may not want to reflect on its meaning? Sure. Is the sting of him being right, at least on some level, even more discomfiting? Absolutely.

CH: Thank you. You get your share of flak for being outspoken against Trinidad, yet there are so many citizens like you, like me, who have left the island with no intent to return. We live, as immigrants tend to, a dual life, our minds existing in a place where our feet were not born, so that we sometimes feel unanchored, unsure of even whether the life we live now exists in the same universe as the one we left behind.
VSN: Port of Spain is the noisiest city in the world. Yet it is forbidden to talk…. In a private home as soon as anyone starts to talk the radio is turned on. It must be loud, loud. If there are more than three, dancing will begin. Sweat-sweat-dance-dance-sweat. Loud, loud, louder. If the radio isn’t loud enough, a passing steel band will be invited in. Jump-jump-sweat-sweat-jump…. In the street people conduct conversations at a range of twenty yards or more; and even when they are close to you their voices have a vibrating-fork edge. You will realize this only after you have left Trinidad: the voices in British Guiana will sound unnaturally low, and for the first day or so whenever anyone talks to you, you will lean forward conspiratorially, for what is being whispered is, you feel, very secret. In the meantime, dance, dance, shout above the shuffle. If you are silent the noise will rise to a roar about you. You cannot shout loud enough. Your words seem to be issuing from behind you. You have been here only an hour, but you feel exhausted. Your head is bursting. It is only eleven; the party is just warming up. You are being rude, but you must go. 
You drive up the new Lady Young Road, and the diminishing noise makes it seem cooler. You get to the top and look out at the city glittering below you, amber and exploding blue on black, the ships in the harbour in the background, the orange flames issuing from the oil derricks far out in the Gulf of Paria. For a moment it is silent. Then, above the crickets, whose stridulation you hadn’t noticed, you begin to hear the city: the dogs, the steel bands…. All through the night the dogs will go on, in a thousand inextricably snarled barking relays, rising and falling, from street to street and back again, from one end of the city to another. And you will wonder how you stood it for eighteen years, and whether it was always like this.

Colin Hosten is an expatriate writer, because that sounds fancier than immigrant. His work has appeared most recently in The Essay Review, OUT Magazine, and Spry Literary Journal. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, he currently lives with his husband in Connecticut, where he is a children’s book editor and a lecturer in the undergraduate writing program at Fairfield University. See more at Find him on Twitter @colinhosten.

Craig Reinbold is a regular contributor to Essay Daily and is curating this Int'l Essayists column. He would love any suggestions, thoughts, comments: @craigreinbold @essayingdaily

Monday, August 22, 2016

James M. Chesbro on Arrivals and Invitations

Inescapable Booming: On Arrivals and Invitations

The mind, the mind—it’s probably not what first comes to mind when one thinks about the personal essay, but it’s certainly on the mind of essayists who write about it.
-Carl H. Klaus

Sam lived across the street from our first house. His arrival in my imagination this morning, as I woke before the three children to write, surprised me, since we moved a few years ago and now live across the street from woods. For some reason, when I was trying to decide what to write about, my eyes wanted to find him leaning against a tree, smoking a cigarette. I was debating whether to begin something new or go back to an essay I started about my father when I lived in our old house, where, between sentences, my eyes often rested on Sam washing the school bus he drove, or edging his lawn, or standing under his portico wearing black slippers, gray sweatpants, and an undershirt, exhaling smoke. I’m so often going back to drafts of material about my deceased father that perhaps this morning’s unexpected delivery of memories of my former neighbor constitutes the kind of material most worthy of essaying, as it elevates the chances for revelations. Or, maybe Sam sprouted to the surface of my mind like a fallen acorn that bursts in the earth after so much rain because I had recently read Steven Church’s essay “It Begins with a Knock” from his collection Ultrasonic, where he recounted the times he “got a true window into” the lives of his elderly neighbor, Myrtle, and her boy friend, Larry, and sought to “figure out how to see myself again in the reflection.” Like Myrtle, Sam was in his seventies. And if I wanted to ruminate from a fresh perspective, how much differently must my life have looked for Sam when he peered out his windows into mine. We were different races, different generations, and came from different parts of the country. I sought periods of quiet to write when my babies and toddler slept, while Sam was alone most of the time. Perhaps my mind wanted to locate Sam again because essayists need to populate the landscape of reflection with people. Insights are abstractions, after all, and they arrive for the reader through the engaging concrete forms of characters, outfitted in the recognizable attire of lived experience.

Sam invited me into his home once. He met me in the street, under the motionless oak tree branches in front of his house, like he had done many times, except I could tell something was wrong by the hurried way he spoke. “You know any carpenters? Do you have a handyman I could call?”

“I don’t really have one, no.” I said. “Why? What’s up?”

Sam turned and waved me in the direction of his front door. “Let me show you,” he said.

I wiped my feet on the welcome mat and gazed briefly up the stairs that bisected the two main rooms. The smell of smoke lingered in the rugs, couches, and cloth-covered chairs. The wood floorboards creaked under our footfalls through the small dining room where stacked mail and newspapers sat on a table next to two candleholders.

“Here’s where they tried to get in,” he said when we reached the kitchen. “Busted right through the doorjamb.”

Earlier in the day, Sam said, our neighbor, Janice, saw two men walking in the Rooster River, which wasn’t so much a river as a weed-filled creek that wound its way through the neighborhood and under roads. The men must have fled once Sam’s alarm went off. We both stood there, staring at the cracked wood and the broken glass at our feet.

“I gotta get this secured by tonight,” he said. Turning to look at me, with hands on hips he added, “And it’s already getting late.”

I imagined the two men in the creek, hunched over between the cover of tall weeds, stepping around puddles, making plans with deep whispers of intention. After a snowfall, men would bang on the door and offer to clear the steps, sidewalk, and driveway. Hungry for a buck. Their hunger rapping the door, the clank, clank, clank of the knocker reverberating against the doorjamb, through the wood frames of our walls. I never opened the glass storm door at their clanking, the desperation on their faces turning to anger at my shaking head. It was those faces that came to mind when Sam mentioned the men in the creek.

Untrodden stretches of snow delivered a semblance of isolation, even though we lived on just .11 acres of land, with houses on all sides. A calf-high snowfall offered temporary stillness, and the illusion of remoteness, of open landscapes, of privacy and safety—until the rapping at the door. The oldest child found me in the kitchen. “Dad,” was all he said, his face searched mine to make sense of the sudden violent sound. In our house, snow days meant working from home, while children watched cartoons and ate pancakes in fleece pajamas. To others, however, the clanking was a relief, a way out of the driveway and onto plowed roads.

Sam always hired the first knockers. As a retired man in his seventies, whose sons would be my age if they had been alive, he needed help. He drove a school bus. Between shifts, during the pleasant months, he groomed his lawn and the hedges, and planted flowers. He watered and snipped them. He washed his school bus. He wiped each window with glass cleaner. He smoked on his stoop.

Meanwhile, I wrote on the couch in our living room, or at the dining room table, or, before our second child came, in the empty bedroom upstairs, and always with a full view of Sam’s white colonial with black shutters. While writing about my father, who died when I was twenty-four, sometimes, between sentences, I wondered how old Sam’s two sons had been when they passed away, both of them dying on the Fourth of July, in separate years. Sam’s life invited me to consider my own from new perspectives, though I don’t think I thought about that too much when I lived across from him. The clanking at my door was an intrusion for me, and a relief to him. He heard the shouts and cries of our children carrying out our windows, while his children were framed in the silent pictures they displayed. In our old neighborhood, one man set off 4th of July fireworks that rivaled the display presented by the city. Parked cars packed our blocks as families filled the sidewalks, walking to the show carrying lawn chairs. When my son was twenty-two months old, he sat on my knee, looking out his bedroom window, his eyes finding the exploding colors, above the rooftops. I saw Sam across the street, standing in front of his house, his head tilted toward the flashes in the night. For some, of course, holidays are an occasion of grief, rather than celebration. I wonder now how Sam and his wife, Beverly, could endure such an anniversary—the inescapable booming.

As I wrote about my father, searching for ideas, for moments that carry with them the emotional surge worthy of essaying, like the swift current of rain running over tall weeds through the creek after storms, I never considered Sam a potential character for nonfiction prose. And yet here was a man who roamed in many rooms of the human condition. A devoted man who once told me he and his wife slept in separate bedrooms. She liked the air conditioning, and he liked it hot. The more humid, the more he felt like he was back home, in the South, in the heat. “I followed her up here, though,” Sam told me. “She’s my old lady, and I support her.” He drove the school bus every weekday morning, even in the summer. His wife came home around seven p.m., and left for work after him in the morning. I suppose they ate together, before she went out in the evening to visit her mother in the assisted living home. Sam’s wife visited her mother every night. “Like I said,” Sam added after sharing her schedule, “she’s my old lady, and I support her.”

Every day, he walked along the sidewalk inspecting the finely edged lines of his lawn. After he inspected his work, plucked the dead stems from the geranium and watered the ferns, then what? What to do after washing and drying the school bus he drove, after sweeping out the dirt from the aisle left by other people’s children? His wife wouldn’t be home until seven. After he watched the news, did the trimmed shrubs and edged lawn bring some order to the long, lonely hours as he exhaled under his portico, missing the heat of his home town, all those lost years with his sons?

“The essayist attempts to surround a something—a subject, a mood, a problematic irritation—by coming at it from all angles,” writes Phillip Lopate in his introduction to the seminal anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, “wheeling and diving like a hawk, each seemingly digressive spiral actually taking us closer to the heart of the matter.” What I like about reading essays is a humble voice speaking with a sincerity that isn’t socially constructive on the sidewalks of our everyday interactions. How peculiar of Sam’s figure to appear in my imagination, leaning against a tree, across the street in the woods from my current home. I never had the temerity to ask Sam any meaningful questions about his life. The time Sam told me about his sons’s deaths, both occurring on the Fourth of July, in separate years, I told him I was sorry. He told me how many years it had been without them. And I can’t remember his exact response.

But remembering Sam, here, in the exercise of this essay, floods me with a humility I didn’t expect to experience when memories of our interactions began circling in my mind. We had child-locks on every cabinet, drawer, and door handle. Plastic outlet covers protected curious little pointer fingers from electricity. Gates barricaded the crawling, stumbling, diaper-wearing young ones from tumbling down the stairs. Remembering Sam and all those years in his childless fatherhood defuses the interior bemoaning that occurs when I grow tiresome of the children’s needs. Essayists are after an unanticipated thought, a new way of looking at a familiar subject, provoked by the desire to illuminate what it means to be human. We are truth seekers, but we can’t force our way in. For the truth belongs to everyone. That’s why we write for an audience, populating reflections with the scenes we were invited to see.

This year James M. Chesbro’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, The Collagist, Pilgrim, Zone 3, River Teeth online, and Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @Jamie_Chesbro

Monday, August 15, 2016

David LeGault: Against The Future (As Told By the Compilation Album NOW)

1. Janet “Together Again”

Likely, you are already familiar with the Now That’s What I Call Music! Anthology series: a staple of the world of radio sugar nonsense, a callback to the days of buying albums of singles instead of picking our songs a la carte. Starting in the United Kingdom, the series has sold over 100 million albums, the most successful being Now That’s What I Call Music! 44. In the copy seen above, the first in the American series, Janet Jackson’s name has inexplicably been shortened to, simply, Janet.

2. Backstreet Boys “As Long As You Love Me”

I love the idea of collection: the ways in which meaning accrues once you get enough of something. We find significance in ordering—whether that be alphabetically, chronologically, by height or weight or assigned at random. There’s a joy in completion; every piece or number that cannot be found becomes a higher value for X. Nowhere is this more obvious to me than at my current job at a used book and music store: my assembly of the Now compilations becoming something of an obsession.

3. Fastball “The Way”

The job has been nothing if not a series of collections, of ways I’ve searched for meaning in otherwise meaningless work: I have filled photo albums with pictures and ephemera used as book marks, have filled bookshelves in my home with bizarre movie novelizations. The book of essays I’ve recently completed was narratively predicated upon my collecting of 100 identical copies of an album I had never listened to before. Despite the absurdity of such an undertaking, the amount of time involved (over three years) gave the project a ridiculous amount of weight. When I finally reached my total—when I finally permitted myself to listen to the album—the experience felt spiritual.

4. Harvey Danger “Flagpole Sitta”

What I know is that time and effort imbue a grander sense of meaning or purpose, at least as it comes to art. Timelessness supersedes timeliness.

5. Spice Girls “Say You’ll Be There”

Perhaps that’s what draws me to this new collection: this Tower of Now. Individually, these albums are merely snapshots: an indication of what was popular in the month they were published. Absent from dates it’s hard even to give them the sort of meaning we find in the Best American Series (which, while still gives a snapshot, attaches itself to some historical/cultural context by the very nature of being assembled annually as opposed to Now’s arbitrary release schedule). Only by looking at the transition from Now 1 to 2 to 3 do we understand the shifting of pop sensibilities, only through this arrangement can we find context: a sense of where we’re coming from, a sense of where we’re heading.

6. K-Ci and JoJo “All My Life”

I find myself reading a lot of Think Pieces: opinion pieces that overwhelm my Twitter feed with links from Slate or Salon or their ilk. Perhaps it’s this nightmare of an election, perhaps these links are more easily consumed on my phone when I should be working, but I find that this sort of writing has taken over my reading life. To my detriment.

7. All Saints “Never Ever” (Single Edit)

I am wondering about how Think Pieces function. In essence, they are (at least from a base, mechanical perspective) functioning in the same vein as the Essay: there is an emphasis on developed voice or persona, on thoughtful consideration, on building scene or tension. Does the difference have to do with the conclusions made (or not made), the venue in which they are shared and distributed?

8. Tonic “If You Could Only See”

Despite the disposable nature of the NOW series, NOW 1 holds up surprisingly well, has a sense of timelessness that the other iterations lack. Perhaps it is my own subjectivity and bias, but of the entire album, only “If You Could Only See” does not register. I remember every other song and band, but Tonic could not be immediately placed, seeming almost accidental among this cataloging of late 90’s music: we capture the pure pop scene, the alt-rock world with Radiohead, even the brief swing revival as made by Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and countless other iterations of embarrassingly named daddy bands. Now 1 does miss the late 90’s Latin craze as lead by Ricky Martin, Mark Anthony, et al, and oddly enough, despite hit singles spanning the first three or four years of the series, Ricky Martin does not appear on any of the Now anthologies.

9. Hanson “Mmm Bop”

Is it the predictive nature of the Think Piece that makes it so disposable, is it something unique to its form? Although there are innumerable examples of essays written in past or present-tense, I was hard pressed to find any essays that went as far as to predict future events. The only example I could readily find was Thomas Lynch’s collection The Undertaking, where several essays speak to the way he’d like his death to be, when he’d like it to be. But as these are desires and not true predictions, even this example seems weak. Does the very nature of making a prediction decrease a work’s long-term value: that it’s either proven right or wrong before we move on? Is this the same reason we treat most science and speculative fiction as somehow less literary, of less long-term value?

10. Cherry Poppin’ Daddies “Zoot Suit Riot”

Perhaps I’m so consumed with the future and its tense because—in the time between me writing this and you reading it—I am leaving my job of the last five years, moving to Prague where I will be teaching AP English courses to the children of missionaries for the next two years.

11. Imajin “Shorty (You Keep Playing With My Mind)”

My favorite essays come from a place of uncertainty, of questions without clear answers. The lack of certainty causes a dramatic tension, even melodrama in the case of foreboding where our lack of future knowledge equates with danger, with narrative excitement. Predictions—not even certainty but the confidence of it—kills the art and the artifice: it puts it on a different plain of practical knowledge. Something about that wrecks the experience.

12. Brian McKnight “Anytime”

And I come to you now from that place of uncertainty. Within the next two weeks I will be on a plane with my wife and two small children without knowing where we’ll be living, not to mention the language, the city, or basically anyone at all. I will be teaching a course I have never taught with no real preparation. Which is to say that I am looking for answers: demanding resolution even as I try to pack my life into three suitcases, as I leave a job I’ve hated that has still given me a sense of consistency, as I hold onto an earnest belief that place and self are intertwined—that by moving halfway around the world I can perhaps become somebody else.

13. Aqua “Barbie Girl”

Now is indiscriminate in its love: it cares for one-hit wonders as much as the seasoned pop sensations. Perhaps it has to do with the series’ origins overseas, but there is a heavy European influence across the Now spectrum, arguably a stronger influence than your typical top 40 station. It might be my own ignorance to the pop music scene—my musical hipster tendencies or insularity—but I’m amazed at how many of these one hit wonders are still actively touring: Aqua has released an album within the past several years; Lou Bega still has a full touring schedule in Belgium; The Venga Boys still like to party. I like to believe this all points toward our future tense: that because we don’t see or hear of something does not mean that it’s dead, that a quiet future is still a future.

14. Radiohead “Karma Police”

We could write an entire book on the song ordering philosophy of albums (perhaps even more so the mixed tape), but Now can’t be bothered with this conversation. And why should it? Chronology gives us that sense of order and time, alphabetization would be arbitrary but at least intentional. Now does not attempt to open with a hook, put its top single at #3 or close with a big ballad. Now is not constrained in the way typical albums are constrained: there was a period of time where they could release new albums monthly and has never a lacked for material or people willing to buy it. It is pure consumerism.

15. Everclear “I Will Buy You a New Life”

What matters here is how we put our own sense of order on top of it, how the tracks themselves become a way of ordering our minds, our anxieties, our grasps at significance. It is still arbitrary, but as we let the constraints push against us, we begin to whittle out their meaning.

16. Lenny Kravitz “Fly Away”

And what order can we put against the future, how to assemble or constrain that which we do not know?

17. Marcy Playground “Sex & Candy”

Which is to say that my two weeks of notice have been put in, that I tentatively have a flight out of the country set for August 15th. That despite my excitement, I am deeply bothered by the fact that I haven’t yet found a copy of Now 2 to complete the 1-20 run I’ve been attempting to assemble. That collecting matters. That individually these items make little sense, but like gravity their meaning accrues as the items accrue. That looking at the past takes on this same sense of collection and arrangement, that the future has its place, but perhaps that place is not yet here.

David LeGault's recent work appears in The Spectacle and Passages North, among other journal and anthologies. He will be living in the Czech Republic for the next two years, where he will start writing a book on the Sedlec Ossuary.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Malcontent Disagrees with Jeffrey Toobin in the NYTBR

Nonfiction Writer Jeffrey Toobin 

Hates A Genre He’s Never Read

Christopher Cokinos writing as THE MALCONTENT


“I am confident,” Jeffrey Toobin, CNN commentator and nonfiction author, recently told the New York Times, “that my streak of never having read a work of science fiction will remain intact.” He loves to read contemporary literary journalists, though.
     Well. Good for him?
     There are three problems here. First, Toobin is disrespecting a genre that many, myself included, would defend as the most crucial literature of our time—science fiction—without having read any of it; he’s doing so as a writer in a genre that itself still has its share of detractors—nonfiction; and in his recent interview he’s pretty clear that he reads mostly contemporary nonfiction—which I think is increasingly a bad idea, especially for younger writers.
     Fourth problem: He likes books on golf. I’ll let that pass.
     Bragging that you’ve never read a single work in a capacious genre (and I suspect he has read some science fiction but just didn’t think of it as such) is like bragging that you’ve never eaten nor will you ever eat, oh, “European food” or “Asian food” or “food with red colors in it” as though that were admirable, which it isn’t, and somehow discerning, which it isn’t, given that within those vast culinary categories there are cuisines that differ sometimes radically. Perhaps sampling some would lead you to care for one or the other, as well as help deconstruct the broad category you invoked to guide your dinners. Critics Sherryl Vint and Mark Bould argue that “there is no such thing as science fiction,” that genre is a process not a fixed entity. There are some difficulties with this argument but it does go some way in making clear that assumptions about what constitutes a genre can be problematic. Toobin doesn’t make his assumptions clear. He just drops his look-at-me bomb.
     Were Toobin to read Alan Dean Foster’s novelizations of the animated Star Trek (vastly under-rated show, by the way) and then read (as he might have?) Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, he would begin to taste the difference. Maybe? Ice cream vs. tofu lasagna?
     While I’m mentioning Atwood, she famously derided the genre she works in as “talking squids in outer space.” Funny. Partly true, if one were reading the worst of the pulp era (1930s to 1950s), with work like A.E. van Vogt’s “Black Destroyer,” which, if you want a sample of what pulp SF was all about, is a pretty good one. I think there can be pleasure in reading work that is “bad” by “literary” standards, and read historically it teaches you a few things about the era in which it was written. So there’s that. And there’s Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” As true of science fiction as it is of television punditry. (Theodore Sturgeon, science fiction writer, tired of defending the genre against people who only cited the worst work they could find.) Here’s where I’m not galled by Atwood. She writes the stuff. She knows it. Ditto, Sturgeon.
     Curiously, Toobin admits that he likes some writers in some genres—John le Carré (spies) and Scott Turow (lawyers). Which is fine, if not terribly surprising. What’s surprising is that he can admit, if not embrace, some genre writing but then brag about at once ignoring and judging another one entirely. So Toobin is only partly being a snob. True snobbery would be having read, oh, two novels in the 90-percent-is-crap category and dismissing a genre that includes Doris Lessing. Toobin’s just being a jerk.
     I could mount an argument here that science fiction is the most crucial literature of our time, that since the Industrial Revolution, no other genre has grappled more consistently or imaginatively than SF with the species-wide questions that confront us in the Anthropocene, questions of climate engineering, human enhancement, artificial intelligence, exploration, othering—much more, all with, in the past few decades, an increased and necessary attention to questions of race, gender and social justice. Pick up any random mainstream realist novel and you probably wouldn’t know that the Earth is increasingly hot and depauperate. I’ll spare you the long version.
     The other genre that grapples most readily with these questions, though I think now less successfully than SF, is a subset of nonfiction clunkily called “nature writing.” It, like the larger creative nonfiction genre of which is a part, continues to be a stepchild in the literary world. I have had poets and fiction writers stop talking to me when I said I wrote nonfiction. One of them said, “You mean journalism, right?” Oh dear. Sometimes, yes. And good journalism can be good literature. Toobin has written some himself. But my point is this: Toobin’s dismissal of science fiction is, ironically, the same kind of gesture that many nonfiction writers suffer at the hands of our sisters and brothers in the higher arts who don’t actually read us. “Oh, nonfiction, like uh, memoir?” Right.
     Then there’s the question of reading mostly within the genre you yourself work in—and confining that to contemporary work. Borges (he wrote science fiction too) once said something like “read what you like,” which I do, and which has been a freeing bit of advice to stop feeling overwhelmed with guilt about not reading enough. I can save my guilt for more important things, like life, like things I can learn from. You can’t learn much from feeling like you haven’t read enough. So if Toobin mostly wants to read fellow literary journalists, a few novels here and there and books on golf, I really don’t give a fuck.
     Here’s the thing—and it’s really important for younger writers to know this—it’s hard to write fresh if you haven’t read old. Borges was right, but I’m grateful I was forced to read widely in college, and I don’t mean only in literature courses. Histories of the Holocaust. Marxist economics. Combat reporting. Film criticism. Literary theory. In English classes, I rode the current of survey courses—alas, chronological lit surveys are increasingly unfashionable—and am forever grateful to have read Homer, Euripides, Robert Francis, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Gwendolyn Brooks. What contemporary writers I read were confined to shelf-reading journals in the library and reading submissions as an intern at Indiana Review; there I discovered poets: Robert Bly, William Stafford, James Wright. Adrienne Rich, Michael Harper, Jane Miller.
     The poet Robinson Jeffers wrote that he read the modernists when he was trying to find his voice. He decided to not be modernist. From then on, he read old and mostly ignored literary fashion. It’s important for writers, especially those trying to find their voice, to read voraciously. Not one book of poetry over winter break, grasshopper, but 10. To not only know the contemporary figures of the genre they are working in—and the genres around them—but, mostly, and most importantly, to know those who came before. While everyone is reading Claudia Rankine, does anyone remember Claude McKay? They’ve read the Latest Associational Work of Genre-Bending but would die of boredom reading the English essayists of the 18th century.
     So if Jeffrey Toobin mostly reads his fellow contemporary literary journalists, whatever. I certainly would recommend that nonfiction writers entranced with lyric modes learn how to write a story sometime, so reading Toobin or Susan Orlean would be, you know, a good idea. But don’t let that become the only way you read: who is in the New York Times Book Review, who is in McSweeney’s...that should not be the bulk of your reading. I recommend reading a bunch of anthologies, Homer, The Epic of Gilgamesh, some histories of the Industrial Revolution (everything since is just an iteration of that), a history or two of philosophy and, along with some of the great writers of the literary mainstream—from H.D. to Toni Morrison, from Thoreau to Robert Hayden—and, you know what, why not read some goddamned science fiction, which has been written by Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jack London, Italo Calvino, E.M. Forster, Alice Sheldon, William Burroughs, Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel Delaney, Octavia Butler, Kurt Vonnegut, J.G. Ballard, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ray Bradbury, Stanislaw Lem, Haruki Murakami, Pamela Zoline, Joan Vinge, Carol Emshwiller, Ted Chiang, Paolo Bacigalupi, Rachel Carson—yay, that Rachel Carson. She begins Silent Spring with a science-fiction story.
     In the meantime, Jeffrey Toobin: Just please stop pretending that you can write off other writers in a genre you don’t read, like that’s some thing, like that makes you the shit in your pithy interview: two-fingered eyeball gesture between me and a photo of Jeffrey Toobin.


Christopher Cokinos is co-editor, with Eric Magrane, of the recently released anthology The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide, and has work recent or forthcoming in the Los Angeles Times, december, and Sierra Nevada Review. Next year he'll be a Public Outreach Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center at Ludwig Maximillian University in Munich.


The Malcontent is a cranky, pseudonymous (unless the writer chooses to disclose her name) black hat column of Essay Daily.

Herein we invite writers to put on their black hats and write against the things that we all seem to love. In our private, cranky hearts, we wonder how much good universal praise does anyone. 

Want to pitch us a malcontent piece? Find Will or Ander at the emails on the right.

As Edward Abbey puts it in Desert Solitaire: “Nobody particularly enjoys the role of troublemaker. But when most writers are unwilling to take chances, afraid to stick their necks out on any issue, then a few have to take on the burden of all and do more than their share.”

Monday, August 8, 2016

Jay Ponteri: I Recommend to You Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property

Dear reader, I present to you the first sentence of the MASTERFUL title essay of Mary Ruefle’s new book My Private Property (Wave Books, 2016): “It is sad, is it not, that no one today displays any interest in the art of shrunken heads” (51). The narrator goes on to display her interest in the sacred rite performed by various indigenous tribes of Africa and South America of shrinking the heads of those recently deceased into keepsakes. And here my shrinking head is reminded of the unique quality of the language arts: to present what lies inside on the outside, to show what’s inside one’s head to others who cannot see inside this head, to others trapped inside their own heads shrinking and expanding usually at the same time. There is so much to say about Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property, and believe me it’s tempting, sans word-count limit from the folks at Essay Daily, to say everything about Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property, and of course I can’t say everything about Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property because I’m a human being, which makes saying everything impossible (thankfully so), so I’ll say some things. I’m NOT reviewing Mary Ruefle’s new book My Private Property—I’m recommending you purchase it right this moment. The moment you are convinced this book is for you, stop reading this elongated recommendation, open a new window in your browser and type in the web address then purchase away. I consider myself a critical enthusiast, a nuanced, excitable thinker-praiser, a writer making use of this electronic page space to express my wonder, my reverence for the prose of Mary Ruefle. I’m listening to the band LOW as I write this. As I revise this I’m listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s song “Tuesday’s Gone.” As I revise this I’m listening to Red Red Meat’s “Oxtail.” As I revise this I’m listening to Uncle Tupelo. If you’re looking for me to say profound things about Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property, if you’re looking for me to tease out the book’s flaws, to consider this book of prose in light of Mary Ruefle’s past writings and makings, if you want me to categorize what kind of prose Mary Ruefle writes—is it lyric essay, prose poem, memoir, or story?—if you want me to articulate critical thoughts about how the prose of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Stein, Walser, Kafka, Anne Frank, and Sebald (among others) might have informed Mary Ruefle’s prose, then, dear reader, walk out into the cool night, tilt upwards your mellow lobe, and stare at the cosmos. Feel all the (im)perceptible ways you connect to everything and nothing, feel the edges of your body as it encounters everything other. In short—stand alone in the world even though you are, in fact, in relation to the world.

I might speak about what Mary Ruefle said, 16 months ago, during a question-and-answer talk at Portland State. The interviewer asked her about how metaphor works or maybe the question was about her process, how she writes, I can’t recall. In response Ruefle said—paraphrasing here—writing is like peeing in that one’s head fills and fills with thoughts, dreams, sensorium, fills to capacity till she then empties it all onto the page as one pees to empty the bladder. She writes to feel the relief of being emptied, the relief of feeling emptied. (“A thought is silent talking to yourself in your head. But you can still hear it. This is the number-one difference.”) Mary Ruefle’s peeing analogy, poem writing as swift bodily emptying, seems connected to the act of writing prose—writing sentences all the way to the end of the page’s right margin—perhaps providing, to paraphrase the poet David Lehman, the fastest route from heart-head to the page. The speed of release relieves, lightens the bodily load. Then the feeling of feeling emptied, one kind of freedom. This book offers 41 prose pieces filled with thoughts, dreams, stories, and memories that have passed through Mary Ruefle’s head—her private property—onto the page. (“Am I vain to think of my head as a book? Am I not transcribing the book of my head as I write?”) I might speak about how any empty cup will do. I might speak about “a three-hour-away town.” I might speak about Mary Ruefle being one of our great unparagraphers, i.e., a writer who writes within a single block of prose till completion (whatever that means), only making use of white space around and inside the letters and between and around the words and that precedes the first word and follows the last. Here an avid, livid inclusion guides compositional method; the prose reads on the page as crowded, capacious consciousness. I try to spill out as much of what passes through my consciousness onto the page, and the thought of organizing this lovely spillage into manageable, focused chunks for readers often seems like trying to kill not only thought but heart too. The operative word here is spill, which means in its intransitive form to flow, run, or fall out over one place into another. Writing feels like an expansion or unfurling of self, not a diminution of self—for that I can go to the bank or the next faculty meeting. Simply put: one moves the mess of contradictory thoughts feelings dreams perceptions sounds from one’s head to the page. Things fall out of our bodies and the able writer must let them. Here is what an unparagraph looks like on the page.

Here is how an unparagraph reads—this also from the title prose piece, “My Private Property,” where (as aforementioned) Ruefle considers the tradition of head shrinking in Amazonian and African tribes:
Among these millions of words time passes, and in time slavery passes, if only on paper, a page shuffled among thousands of pages, and then there are two words, rubber and ivory, that break off from the others and river around the world in the form of automobile tires and piano keys. But commerce and culture quickly take us down a corridor leading to more automobile tires and piano keys, and their equivalent—money— and I want to go the way of shrunken heads, and dolls, soft rubbery flesh and ivory-like porcelain, skin and bones, faces and masks. At sixteen, I was not much the other side of dolldom, so it is little wonder that there in the Congo Museum I fell in love with a shrunken head. Of course, the head was not Amazonian but African. I don’t know how the art evolved on that continent, but genius flourishes everywhere, it has always been so and will always be so, and there will always be people who believe otherwise. As I said, a shrunken head is as close to a real doll as one could ever come, and in this sense it is both a child’s toy and an adult toy—it’s another person after all—and I was not then, or am I now, immune to the charms of having someone else to play with. He was dangling from an invisible thread, much as a spider does, from the top of a glass case taller than I was. He was the size of an orange. He was particular and unique and human and utterly real, a man with eyes and eyelashes and hair (apparently the Africans do not close the eyes of their dolls). It was only later that I learned that the hair and eyelashes do not shrink with the flesh of the face, and so the shrunken often have the luxurious eyelashes of a child, and the hair is much longer than the face, though often cut, so great is the human impulse toward proportion. But my man had long, uncut hair, and as it was 1969 I didn’t think anything of it; all the men I liked had long, uncut hair. His skin had the sheen of an eggplant—it must have been oiled—and all the purples of that fruit were in it; his nose was broad and flat, his eyes deeply set, unnaturally so, and beautifully shining, but so many years have passed I cannot be sure of what was there and what was not, though I returned to look at him countless times; he was, after a while, what I came to look at, and at some point I began to commune with him. Yes, I gave life to an inanimate object, but can a human head ever really be said to be an inanimate object? He was not a skull, he was not decomposing, he was not mangled in any way. He had been, and was, a person. I don’t remember what it was we communed about, but he possessed me as I possessed him, and to possess the head of a beloved, no less than the head of an enemy, is the greatest sickness on earth. I could enter the museum blindfolded and turn exactly the right corners, one after another, to find myself standing before him at eye-level. I shall never forget his expression: he looked startled. No other words come to mind. And though I could not see myself, I must have looked startled, too. We stood facing each other the way, when you come upon a deer unexpectedly, you both freeze for a moment, mutually startled, and in that exchange there seems to be but one glance, as if you and the other are sharing the same pair of eyes. The years passed. I left the city, I never returned, the signage in the museum changed, of that I am sure, but the impression left upon me by the shrunken head has never changed, so that I now wonder why human beings do not incorporate the art of shrinking heads into their burial rites. I am serious. (57-59)
I might speak about how this very unparagraph enlarges the narrator’s head in its revelation of contradiction and equivocation (“Yes, I gave life to an inanimate object, but can a human head ever really be said to be an inanimate object?”), dream, digression, inquiry, perception of self in relation to others, perception of others too (“His skin had the sheen of an eggplant—it must have been oiled—and all the purples of that fruit were in it; his nose was broad and flat, his eyes deeply set, unnaturally so, and beautifully shining…”), the mind untidily, disproportionately making use of all the soul modes to chase an answer it wants / wants-not (same thing) to find. “…and to possess the head of a beloved, no less than the head of an enemy, is the greatest sickness on earth…” This is what we reader heads like to do—not so much possess other heads but see what’s going through others’ heads, to perhaps feel less lonely, more human, more vulnerable. In an unparagraph, the prose and everything it reveals become porous, move in more closely together, heightening the writer’s capacity to more fully realize origins and impacts and to make connections between seemingly disparate elements while teasing out contradictions among similar elements, the body absorbing knowledge through cozy cohabitation. Stuff 17 human bodies into a VW Bug and you’ll figure out some things. The narrator here communes with this shrunken head as the reader communes with the narrator’s expanding unparagraphing head. Two parallel realms of being conjoin—two glances become one. The unparagraph holds inside and outside the writer a highly instinctual, relational space. I might suggest you read Matt Hart’s wondrous essay titled “Mary Ruefle’s Astonishments” appearing in the forthcoming Despite the Possible: Fifteen Women Poets, edited by Mary Biddinger and John Gallaher. I might speak about the memory-based-essay prose here, e.g., pieces like “Milkshake,” “Recollections of My Christmas Tree,” and “Lullaby,” among others, how the most compelling memory-based prose is about memory itself, how Mary Ruefle’s prose enacts, on the page, the experience of memory, more specifically, how the mind unfolds memory, collapsing time and space, how one’s psychic state, emotional and physical needs / wants, losses / sorrows, around the present moment of composition, make use of memory the way a body makes use of food, and how a memory of one’s body, of others’ bodies doesn’t restore the body in decline as much as regain the body by extending the body to immaterial realms, and this spiritual extension is momentary, present in both the writer’s experience in composition and the reader’s reception of words in representation of this other being’s consciousness, one mind being absorbed into another, one body receiving the language body of another. Here in “Recollections of My Christmas Tree,” the narrator recalls childhood Christmas decorations:
My mother put an electric candle in each window, they were ivory-colored plastic, and at the end of each taper, near the bulb, fake drips of wax were molded; I loved the drips the most, it meant that the candles looked real to people looking at them from the outside. What I didn’t know then was that these decorations evolved from the Jewish menorah, the Hebrew Festival of Lights. I don’t think my mother knew that either, but if she did she never mentioned it. And I certainly never contemplated the resemblance of a sleigh to a cradle. The runners of the sleigh are what makes the cradle rock. Once there was a very eccentric man, in the nineteenth century in upstate New York, and when he was in his fifties he had a carpenter build him a cradle. I saw it in a museum, the biggest cradle ever made, and every night he slept in it, and when he entered his last illness he stayed in the cradle day and night, feeling the sensual throes of the cradle while somebody nursed and rocked him. I mean in the sense of caring for him. (31-32)
Memories nest inside memories. Mary Ruefle places her trust in the present moment of composition, in the mind’s deep freedom on and off the page to discover those memories nesting inside others. The dream of this man sleeping in his cradle in his last days nests inside the narrator’s memory of seeing in a museum the largest cradle in the world nests inside her memory of her mom’s artificial tapers made to appear real from inside and outside the house. Memories of her mom’s holiday decorations, even the prose itself, cradle and rock the narrator, and I also mean in the sense of her own words caring for her. I could so easily write 1,000 words about “Pause,” an unabashed, revelatory prose-let considering the experience of menopause emotionally, physically, and spiritually, sans self-helpy uplift. (“Reading this, or any other thing ever written about menopause, will not help you in any way, for how you respond to menopause is not up to you, it is up to your body…”) The narrator juxtaposes the aging body’s invisibility to the highly self-visible inner experience of unraveling. The “pause” Mary Ruefle speaks of is not so much a pause in sexual action or procreation but in one’s orientation of self to the world back to the self:
No matter how attractive or unattractive you are, you have been used to having others look you over when you stood at the bus stop or at the chemist’s to buy tampons. They have looked you over to access how attractive or unattractive you are, so no matter what the case, you were looked at. Those days are over; now others look straight through you, you are completely invisible to them, you have become a ghost. (20-21)
Her tone of voice mixes directness and incredulity and reverence. I also might describe her tone as sincere and raucous, as denuding and generous.
Of course in the meantime you have destroyed your life and it has to be completely remade and there is a great deal of grief and regret and nostalgia and all of that, but even so you are free, free to sit on the bank and throw stones and feel thankful for the few years or one or two decades left to you in which you can be yourself, even if a great many other women ended their lives, even if the reason they ended their lives is reported as having been for reasons having nothing to do with menopause, which is thankfully behind you as you would never want to be a girl again for any reason at all, you have discovered that being invisible is the biggest secret on earth, the most wondrous gift anyone could have ever given you. (22-23)
I could say so much about this directness in Mary Ruefle’s prose, how she does not tell it slant, a phrase used often these days to describe lyric essay. Yes, telling it slant, or working more indirectly through image and metaphor, through more neutral, clipped prose, sans transitional language or overt explanation to reveal the divided consciousness, is one way to essay, and, gentle reader, member of the essay team, here is another way: the direct method, better described by Alberto Giacometti in James Lord’s A Giacometti Portrait, in response to being asked if Giacometti’s ever done portraiture in profile:
Yes. One or two. But a profile isn’t half as difficult. The center of it is the ear, and ears don’t interest me. When you look at a person, or think of how he looks, it’s always full face. (63)
Using the direct method the writer does not shy away from attempting to name then explore the core matter as she understands it. The writer unabashedly names feelings, mind-states, sources, ailments, doohickeys while seeing the limitations of naming, questioning the naming too. The writer often acknowledges the present moment of composition, the act of writing as an experience of making something. The writer sets aside any delays in revelation, does not circumnavigate, does not purposefully omit or misdirect or understate or make use of conceit. (“The center of it is the ear, and ears don’t interest me.”) The tone shifts out of neutral to more emotive registers. Directness errs on the side of inclusion, the side of too much stuff, the side of antiquing and donut shops and winter soups and quilting. Mary Ruefle’s directness in “Pause” expresses her vulnerability, creates and strengthens intimacy between narrator and reader, in turn, giving way to more revelation of the contradictory selves dividing the whole body. Here is an “always-full-face” moment towards the end of “Pause” in which the narrator addresses the reader:
If you are young and you are reading this, perhaps you will understand the gleam in the eye of any woman who is sixty, seventy, eighty, or ninety; she cannot take you seriously (sorry) for you are but a girl to her, despite your babies and shoes and lovemaking and all of that. You are just a girl playing at life.

You are just a girl on the edge of a great forest. You should be frightened but instead you are eating a lovely meal, or you are cooking one, or you are running to the florist or you are opening a box of flowers that has just arrived at your door—and none of these things is done in the great spirit that they will later be done in. (23)
I might say Mary Ruefle “tells it slant” too—e.g., read the prose piece “Like a scarf,” the story of a yellow scarf, which begins as the image part of a metaphor for an affair then blows beyond the act of comparison through the actual lives of many lovers. The story has the feel of collective dreaming, unfathomable human connectivity. I might say inside my body Mary Ruefle’s prose often converses with the prose of Robert Walser. I might say I gladly carry inside my mortal body (in decline) an ongoing conversation between the prose works of Mary Ruefle and Robert Walser that feels eternal. I might say our finite bodies carry all sorts of rosy infinitesimals.

I might say us dreamers have gotten ahold of the essay form. I might speak about how Mary Ruefle’s prose explores the varied experience of singular feeling, feelings within feeling, braiding feelings, feeling slipping into other feelings, feelings inflecting feeling, feeling chasing feeling. We do not forget to feel what we feel; we push away feeling what we feel. In Mary Ruefle’s lecture, “On Fear,” she considers, among other things, Christian Mystic and Theologian, Julian of Norwich’s four categories of dread, e.g., animal fear, anticipatory dread of pain (“…and that, folks, covers nine-tenths of the world’s surface…”), doubt or despair, and holy dread born reverence or awe. In My Private Property, Mary Ruefle, a mystic herself I’m convinced, includes 11 untitled pieces imagining, examining (same thing in Ruefle’s prose) the different colors of sadness. Here is one in its entirety:
Yellow sadness is the surprise sadness. It is the sadness of naps and eggs, swan’s down, sachet powder and moist towelettes. It is the citrus of sadness, and all things round and whole and dying like the sun possess this sadness, which is the sadness of the first place; it is the sadness of explosion and expansion, a blast furnace in Duluth that rises over the night skyline to fall reflected in the waters of Lake Superior, it is a superior joy and a superior sadness, that of revolting doors and turnstiles, it is the confusing sadness of the never-ending and the evanescent, it is the sadness of the jester in every pack of cards, the sadness of a poet pointing to a flower and saying what is that when what that is is a violet; yellow sadness is the ceiling fresco painted by Andrea Mantegna in the Castello di San Giorgio in Mantova, Italy, in the fifteenth century, wherein we look up to see we are being looked down upon, looked down upon in laughter and mirth, it is the sadness of that. (80)
Within “yellow,” sadness enlivens, sweetens; while in “blue,” sadness arises from phenomena one can perceive but not grasp or apprehend (“…it has receded into a niche that cannot be dusted for it is beyond your reach…”), i.e., the sadness of impossible things, and “green” is the sadness of growth, of life burgeoning, that growth immediately announcing its inevitable decline, eventual death, and loss for others who remain (“…it is the funereal silence of bones beneath the green carpet of evenly cut grass upon which the bride and groom walk in joy…”). White sadness is the sadness of the echo, the ghost. Brown sadness “…is the simple sadness. It is the sadness of huge, upright stones… Huge, upright stones surround the other sadnesses, and protect them…” and to complicate matters in the way we writers like to do, on the very last page appears this author’s note: “In each of the color pieces, if you substitute the word happiness for the word sadness, nothing changes.” Taken together the color pieces form tremendous, upright word-stones protecting the human experience of various feeling.

I might talk about how Mary Ruefle’s prose makes you laugh aloud, and, in the same beat, breaks your heart. I might talk about a lecture Mary Ruefle gave about the imagination, how she announced at the beginning she’d only take questions before delivering her lecture then after she spoke her last word, she pushed play on a boombox, and as we all listened to “Imagine” by John Lennon, she packed up her stuff then walked out of the room, so by the time the song ended she was no longer in the room, and we, the audience, remained, applauding her even though she wasn’t in the room to receive our applause, which made me realize we were applauding not her but her lecture, the thing she gave to us, the thing left inside us, and in this way we were applauding ourselves and one another. I might speak about how her work draws the reader’s attention to the work and not the one who makes the work, that not one of us is more important than what we make. Dear Mary Ruefle, I stand in place (in a cafe in Portland, Oregon) and applaud thee wildly. O I might speak about E.M. Forster’s Marabar Caves, Emily Bronte’s (later, Anne Carson’s) moors, Fitzgerald’s valley of ashes. Inside of my mortal body a book unfinished, set free in numinous realms of possibility, skates along the infinite. I mean to say, incompletion is forever. I might speak about the body that eventually learns to seek inside oneself. I might speak about the way Mary Ruefle’s prose casts strange, idiosyncratic phenomena as ordinary matter (the first sentence of “Pause”: “I recently came across an old cryalog that I kept during the month of April in 1998…”) while suffusing ordinariness with its proper amounts of agitation and strangeness, as in the piece, “Observations On The Ground”:
Beside burying the dead in the ground, we bury our garbage, also called trash. Man- made mountains of garbage are pushed together using heavy equipment and then pushed down to the ground. The site of this burial is called a landfill. The site of the dead buried in boxes is called a cemetery. In both cases the ground is being filled. A dead body in a box can be lowered into the ground using heavy equipment, but we do not consider it trash. When the dead are not in boxes and there is a man-made mountain of them we use heavy equipment to bury them together, like trash. (7-8) 
To defamiliarize is to sensitize, to heighten presence in the moment, to bring us back to wonder for the variegated surfaces of the world, most of which we do not make, have no control over. I could write an entire book on Mary Ruefle’s title piece, “My Private Property,” how reading this essay offers us, as readers, the feel of infinitude, that the prose itself seems without end just as my review of Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property—no, my review of my thoughts upon reading Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property—seems without end, how the form of the essay, in its desire to discover about-ness through language, encourages imbalanced, unending consciousness, encourages expanding cogitation, association, dream, shlemiel, schlemazel, voices of others streaming inside yours, existential inquiry, mom, is that your sweet voice I hear?, yellow scarves blowing across an empty plaza, hasenpfeffer incorporated, backing one’s thoughts into every nook and cranny, every niche—O if only I could think a single thought in every pocket of inhabitable Earth yet why would I want to inhabit every bit of space, this a problem the narrator considers in “My Private Property.” In this piece about the rite (and art) of shrinking heads everything seems to shrink or swell to the extent shrinking becomes a form of swelling and swelling a form of shrinking. Sometimes one strips away layers in order to make a larger space inside oneself, to trace interior avenues to their outer edges, to find where the self ends and others begin, to follow the echo to the instance of full fade. A dish towel hung on the rack to dry. Spatula on the counter top. Breakfast bowls drying in the drainer. Paul Harvey’s voice on AM Radio and suddenly our essay emerges inside my grandma’s kitchen, a sauce cooking on the stove as my grandma stands at the window, pulling back the yellow curtains she sewed herself to watch the squirrel and crow play. One can commune with other consciousnesses, but one can’t possess another consciousness, and in response to this human refusal, one lashes out at others, makes a trophy of another person’s former head now shrunken to the size of an orange while another writes an essay that swells and swells, which another then reads and ends up becoming. Writing these very words, I continue to shrink my head onto the page while you, patient reader, swell with these words and nobody, not the writer nor the reader, possesses those words—the page holds them momentarily, and the pages of “My Private Property” hold Mary Ruefle’s thoughts about Amazonian heads, African heads, explorer’s heads, a mother’s head too:
No, my mother’s head, sadly, could not have been shrunk, by even the greatest artist, and yet her head has always figured into my daydream of having twelve shrunken heads, each one belonging to someone who has passed through my life, touching me in deep and unforgettable ways, and I would keep my dozen heads in an egg carton made especially for them, twelve beloved heads kept safe and together. I would never let them mold or rot, I would not let the mice near them, their fate would be to remain exactly as they were in life, exactly as they are, albeit orange-sized and portable, and from time to time I would take them out and look at them and be startled, and I think of the widow who fainted at the sight of her husband’s head, and I think if I could hold the head of a single beloved in my hand I would indeed feel faint, but I think I also would get used to it, I would grow calm and be moved in the tenderest ways, just the sight of them there in my hand, resting gently and safely (a shrunken head cannot be broken) with such tiny and shining eyes, why, resting gently and safely with such tiny and shining eyes it would be as if they were but babies, returning to live again, and I could touch their faces. I am ashamed to think of the baby heads as my private property, but I do. It has been said that inside the human head is to be found the only freedom that exists for all, but very often that freedom grows lonely and bored and frightened and yearns to join another head, very often owning one head is not enough, owning your own head gives rise to the desire for the head of another, out of the perfectly natural desire for love and communion. But out of greed, out of the desire for control and power, grows a monster, the desire to own as many heads as possible. None of us are immune—who doesn’t want more clients, patients, customers, readers—but desire can swell to inhuman proportions. Thus the King of Belgium declared a vast territory as his private property, and all heads within it, including (unbeknownst to him) all the shrunken heads, heads shrunk after a week’s worth of artful work. I don’t really know anything about heads, though I spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about them, and more time than ever since seeing a shrink. I am not even sure I own my own head, but my innermost fantasy is to own twelve beloved heads nestled in an egg carton, to comfort me in moments of dearth in exchange for my infinite love. How can I call myself benevolent? I want, as my personal private property, twelve human heads. I have often thought god needs prayers to remind himself he is important, and still matters. Without our interceding glances, what would he be but a shrunken head on the end of a thread in a museum of ideas? Sometimes I think there is no place left for me to go but back to the Congo Museum, that horrific monument of smashed lies and beautiful things, and stand face-to-face before a face I can barely remember but do, and pray to that shriveled thing that when I die, as I must, let someone preserve me as I was then, that first day, ignorant, innocent, at my most beautiful, and overcome by another. It occurs to me I wanted to die that day. Why else would I have skipped school and wandered off alone and found a friend among the dead? One who thrilled me to life? O my pantheon of shrunken heads, struck like new-laid eggs in a carton, comfort me when my rivers are high, comfort me when my waters are gone, for I can almost hear you breathing. (63-65)
The narrator’s desire to touch the head that once lived and once died then returns to life—isn’t this like communion, taking into one’s own body the body and blood of another who sacrificed his life—the return of the dead happens inside us, inside the living—and even though I have not observed any speaker / narrator in Mary Ruefle’s poems, prose, or erasures cultivate illusions of eternal life, there is something very human about pinpointing this moment of encountering the return through touch: “…why, resting gently and safely with such tiny and shining eyes it would be as if they were but babies, returning to live again, and I could touch their faces.” The essay that feels never-ending makes use of little-to-no white space—in this case, the unparagraph—long and lushly tangled, loose sentences, a.k.a., peripatetic or walking syntax, association, and repetition and sonic patterning and variance in place of conventional transitional signals that often cue the reader to the essay’s structural flow. Imagine driving through downtown with signs without arrows, numbers, or words. All you know is you’re somewhere headed some place. This particular essay that feels never-ending is a dream of return—the return a form of the never-ending—of touching that return, O boomerang, and surely like all touch, this touch passes but is without end as the essay is ongoing and this piece in its feeling of ongoingness seems to me reminiscent of the prose works of Tommy Bernhard, Ginny Wolff, Robbi Walser, Max Sebald, the music compositions of John Cage, Sonic Youth (namely their four SYR records), Radiohead, My Bloody Valentine, among others. One is not trying to reach some exact insight that illumines why and how the writer chases various lines of meaning—one chases thoughts knowing she will never reach a destination, knowing the destination is the motion of thought manifest in expression, the peeing, the speed of release, the feeling of emptying one’s body, one’s thoughts onto the page. Where I used to think, Stay in this moment of composition one beat longer, I now think, Stay in this moment of composition indefinitely, one of many ways to beat back that only ending we can never beat back: death. The essay as elaboration of the body into the spiritual realm. I might speak about the yellow English walking suit Robert Walser wore on his long walks through the Swiss and German countrysides. I might speak about the essay as a form of nesting consciousness, the nest built from word-, phrase-, and sentence-branches and twigs nesting all the word-birds and word-worms, a safe shelter for ongoing consciousness and human feeling inside of which nests these lines from Olena Kalytiak Davis’s poem “a letter home”:
greetings from my bubblebath
well, by that i mean this, my day
whenever i say “bathtub” read “day”
read away!
whenever i say “poem,”
which i won’t, read “stay"
inside of which nests this prose piece by Mary Ruefle entitled “Snow”:
When I am inside having sex while it snows I want to be thinking about the birds too, and I want my love to love thinking about the birds as much as much as I do, for it is snowing and we are having sex under or on top of the blankets and the birds cannot be that far away, deep in the stillness and silence of the snow, their breasts still have color, their hearts are beating, they breathe in and out while it snows all around them… (14-15)
which you should just go read right this moment (can be found in The Most of It, Wave Books). Perhaps I might end this review or essay or whatever it is (Dream? Consciousness as yellow scarf a-flight? Fitted bed sheets of unfolding and folding thoughts?) with the last sentence from “Lucky”: “I slept dreamless as a baby, and when I awoke I was naked as a baby, and alone, and afraid.” Or perhaps I might end this essay by admitting I can’t figure out in this moment of composition where Mary Ruefle’s thoughts end and mine begin, which for me is the point, or perhaps I might end with the final passage from “To a Magazine”:
Forgive me if I have put your thoughts into words. It was the least I could do for such a comrade, whose orphaned sighs reach me in my squat hut (42).
Books from which I quoted
My Private Property by Mary Ruefle
A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord
Madness, Rack, & Honey: Collected Lectures by Mary Ruefle
The Most of It by Mary Ruefle
Shattered Sonnets, Love Cards, and Other Off and Back Handed Importunities by Olena Kalytiak Davis


Jay Ponteri directs the undergraduate creative writing program at Marylhurst University. His memoir, Wedlocked, was published by Hawthorne Books, April 2013, and it received the 2014 Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. His chapbook of short prose, Darkmouth Strikes Again, was published by Future Tense Books, summer 2014. His essay “Listen to this” was mentioned as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2010 , and more recently, “On Navel Gazing” was mentioned as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2015. He has published prose in Essay Daily, Seattle Review, Salamander, and Forklift, Ohio, among others, and this essay from his manuscript LOBE just appeared in Knee-Jerk Magazine: