Wednesday, December 7, 2016

12/7: Sarah Sheesley, Exhibition of Marvels: On Eliot Weinberger’s The Ghosts of Birds

Adam and Eve attempt suicide. An owl is stung to death by invasive bees. A 6th century wife dreams her hands are hot as fire. George W. Bush visits the Great Wall of China. These are just a sampling of the historical fragments strung together by Eliot Weinberger in The Ghosts of Birds. His new essay collection (New Directions, 2016) brings together a continuation of the lyric, near-mystical, fact-laden “serial essay” begun in An Elemental Thing (2007) with other, slightly more conventional essays that veer away from the archeological record and more towards contemporary, political and literary musings—always with sharp, subtle wit hinged on juxtaposition of past and present. Its idiosyncratic structure and array of material beg the question of how this can be categorized—what is a serial essay, then how does a reader make sense of such a smorgasbord—what does it all mean, and can we get more?

An essay collection, it seems, can be almost anything including a mix of songs, lists, letters and poems. A book of stories can be autobiographical. A poetry collection can be written in prose. Legends retold as a historical artifact can be called nonfiction. The question of how a serial essay functions, its taxonomy, how its individual essays and overall form are organized to construct meaning may be moot and labyrinthine, but worth asking in an attempt to build conversation, if only to end up puzzling over a writer’s game.

The most direct interpretation of a serial essay is obvious—a sequence of discrete essays that follow a particular logic and succession. But in reading The Ghosts of Birds, it’s difficult to find that logical structure—troublesome until it the clean prose and mesmerizing facts erase concern for structure, letting themes and questions rise to the surface. Alternative definitions of a series feel more appropriate, like the geological use of the word, “a range of strata corresponding to an epoch in time; the rocks deposited during a specified epoch,” or the series as related to electronics, “a number of conductors connected end to end…so that the same current flows through each.” (OED) The series offered by Weinberger is one of sediment and electricity.

There are commonalities in form between the essays—fragments, highly specific details, poetic line breaks, a multiplicity and breakdown of storytelling over time. In an interview with the Quarterly Conversation after An Elemental Thing, Weinberger explains his approach as applying the form of the open-ended serial poem to the essay, “that is, it’s open-ended (doesn’t end); the subject matter keeps changing from section to section, but many images and phrases even repeat.” For example the opening piece in The Ghosts of Birds compiles various renditions of the fall of Adam and Eve, setting the stage for repeated questioning of beginnings and ends, and poses the question of not what is the real story, but how are stories made, and how does that change the way we understand them—and ourselves.

Weinberger manages all this while largely avoiding the authorial “I,” leaving most conclusions up to associative and cumulative effect rather than an explanatory narrator, reminding the reader of his presence by manipulating tone. For instance, he describes the fate of the serpent who tempted Eve as being blown away by God until landing “on the seashore in India,” where seashore rather than coast or sand adds a subtle comic note. Or describing Adam and Eve as, “like characters in an existentialist novel, they attempt suicide, flinging themselves off a cliff.” This lightheartedness does a lot for his readability.

The second part of the book shifts in tone and project, but keeps Weinberger’s distinct voice. These essays move from the “elemental” into a survey of cities, walls and structure—physical and cultural. This shift towards political history and cultural criticism is no surprise if you’re familiar with Weinberger’s career as a political commentator (largely outside the US), and slightly jarring if you’re used to the more trance-like experience of An Elemental Thing and Part I of this collection.

Despite requiring more concentration, both sections are equally fascinating. “Bush the Postmodernist,” a review of George W. Bush’s autobiography is as funny and painful as it sounds. “Khubilai Khan at the Met” overlays an exhibition at the Met with an in depth account of the facts about Khan and his domain, both critiquing the story told by the exhibit’s curator and celebrating obscure historical objects. Layered onto that is the fact that The Ghosts of Birds is it’s own kind of curatorial project, creating, clarifying, warping our sense of the world we inhabit. While it’s tempting to categorize these essays as collage or a kind of literary remix from an unknown archive á la David Shields’ Reality Hunger, it differs considerably, as Weinberger has explained his method as meticulous re-writing of every sentence, a process more reminiscent of translation.

Some of these later essays maintain the fragmentation introduced in the serial Part I whereas others learn towards the erudite exposition. “The Wall” collects various records of events at the Berlin Wall, with girls pulling up their shirts and soldiers being commended for their successes (excellent motorcycle maintenance and “class-appropriate manner”) and reprimanded for their failings (drawing shapes in the snow and lacking in “ideological clarity”). The concluding essays were originally published as book introductions and require a well-read and dedicated audience. For this reader at least, they were more challenging, but Weinberger still scored bonus points for his appreciation of ichthyology and a mention of the befuddling and beautiful Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo, which everyone should read.

Comparisons can and have been made to W.G. Sebald, whose books like The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn are often called long essays, and have a mysterious open-ended lyric quality, telling historical narratives of unknown origin and reliability. Lydia Davis’s Can’t and Won’t comes to mind, who like Weinberger, is a translator and writer of crisp genre bending prose and mix of stories, lists, letters and translations.

Other contemporary experimental-poetic-political-philosophical essay collections could be literary cousins, such as Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts or her more lyric Bluets, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and some of Anne Carson’s prose. These heavy hitters are not the only ones by any means, but may be responsible for what seems like boost in popularity for the genre (if you want to bother calling it that) of experimental creative nonfiction. Others are popping up at small presses—timely and resonant, and after bubbling at the intersection of poetry and prose for ages.

Weinberger’s quirky and careful construction of stories, fragments and argument is refreshing in world where online news (and “news”) is heavy on opinion, short-sightedness and redundancy. As the proliferation of information seems infinite, in a culture where experts and scientists are no longer trusted, and the real story is always elusive, there is an opening for playful and poetic approaches to sense-making—using facts as building blocks to assemble with poetic logic to draw us more gently, more magically towards an understanding of our world and it’s mix of inexplicable beauty, loss and comedy. The Ghosts of Birds, redirects us from the present moment, casts enough of a spell to create focus—however briefly, and asks us to place ourselves the larger scope of history.

Sarah Sheesley is Detroit based writer. She holds an MFA from the University of New Mexico in creative writing where she also served as managing editor and nonfiction editor for Blue Mesa Review. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles ReviewThe Rumpus, and Edible Santa Fe.

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