Sunday, December 10, 2017

Dec 10th, Sonja Livingston: Towards Solstice

Toward Solstice: Ten Unexpected Sources of Light (An Instagram Essay)

We are pretty good at recognizing sources of light. There are candles and stars and light bulbs. There’s the switch on our phones to make them into flashlights, and the moon hanging like a lantern overhead. But this year is darker than most, so we must be vigorous in our search for light. What follows are ten images taken over the past two weeks. Some are sweet or hopeful, while others are unusual—even strange and hard to account for—but which, nonetheless, struck me as sources of light.

#1:      Two Deer

To the right side of my car, motion. In the stream below the highway, two deer slip through the water and into the woods. I’m driving through the part of New York that’s so far south it’s practically Pennsylvania. The sun is just starting to rise and hasn’t yet burned the fog from the fields. The deer are quick as silver, and the stream too, is silver. The trees and grasses are white with new winter. I think: This is what breath looks like.

#2       Night Stand Fossils

I take the fossils into my hands some days. Not because they’re shells and conjure images of the beach, though it’s not bad to warm yourself with memory. But I am thinking of another sort of memory, of the earth, the soil, and what persists. Though it is inland, the bluffs along the York River are studded with shark teeth and scallops and coral. I went there this spring and found the Chesapecten jeffersonius and spiral Turritellas in the sand. Millions of years have passed since the whale heaved her blue hulk over the ancient sea that is now Virginia, but her fossilized bone is still there. It astounds me, this fact. That I can reach out and touch the delicate cream-colored spiral and know time.

#3       Morning Sky, 390 South

Line of traffic, line of pines, and the sun bigger than all of us.

#4       10,000 Maniacs

They sounded so preachy in the late 1980s, which was hard to take. Sound was the main thing then, the flight of guitar strings, the voice’s ability to make beauty, to soar above mismatched living room furniture and chemistry exams and grungy church basements. How time changes things. I’ve been playing Blind Man’s Zoo on repeat in my car and can’t get enough of young Natalie singing her heart out over poverty, pollution, and war. I’ve grown nostalgic for voices that tell the truth, I suppose, find myself buoyed by someone singing straight out about how off course we’ve flown.

#5                   Ginkgo leaves

On the ground in Richmond. The leaves fell on the same weekend the decorations came out and put the artificial strings of light to shame.

#6       Poor Box, Albion

The poor box in a place where I was once poor, a town not very far from where the 10,000 Maniacs
first recorded. What? You think. This is not a source of light. But look closely. See the way the brass has worn? Notice the slot that’s been pried with a tool and torn into as someone tried to twist their way inside. Perhaps this is sad to you, this attempted theft of goodwill. Maybe it seems desperate and a symbol of all that’s wrong with the world. But I see something else in the battered poor box. Perhaps it’s because I was the overly polite and patient variety of poor that I find it heartening that the poor are not always content to wait.

#7       Mandarins

I mean the fancy variety, with the leaves on. The sort you’d need to break into a poor box for. But the splurge is worth it. Because of the perfect taste and smell of the peel, yes. But also because the leaves get you that much closer to the tree.

#8       Turkey-Day

It’s not that the young woman in my class with the voice like soft cloth slaughtered the turkeys, it’s that she did not flinch at the sight of red flesh hanging garish from their beaks or the spread of their feathers or the up-close spill of blood. More than that, it’s the way that when another student invited others over for Thanksgiving (If you need somewhere to go…), the gentle soul who’d shocked us by killing the birds said: I have two turkeys in the back of my car, let me give you one. For a reason I can’t quite name but suspect has to do with honesty, the young woman—who’d faced a thing we had not, who had been violent and was suddenly rendered badass—stood before us, somehow, impossibly, even more tender than before.


#9       Love Songs

Is the young man strumming his guitar near the English building looking for attention? Is he a tad too earnest as he looks to the sky and croons? Perhaps. But he stands there, singing Stay, as the rest of us shuffle by, on our way to and from our final classes, to and from our cars, to and from our offices and grocery stores and the next place we’ve told ourselves we need to be.


#10                 Snow, Lamppost

Just a few inches, but they came out of nowhere, and this is Virginia, so people are scrambling for milk and bread inside the store. And because this is a fine store in a fine neighborhood, there will be goat cheese in their carts. There will be pancetta and extra bottles of wine. And because this is the South, no one will cut another person off as they reach for the last jar of tapenade. No one will say anything but, Drive safe now. But no matter the imported Swedish cookies, newly ground coffee, and last loaves of freshly baked bread, all the light we could ever need is swirling around outside.


Sonja Livingston's most recent book, Ladies Night at the Dreamland, combines history and imagination to illuminate the lives of women from America’s recent and distant past. She’s the author of the recent essay collection, Queen of the Fall, and the memoir, Ghostbread, which won an AWP Award in Nonfiction. Her writing has been honored with a New York Arts Fellowship, an Iowa Review Award, and Arts & Letters Essay Prize, and grants from Vermont Studio Center and The Deming Fund for Women. Sonja teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Dec 9: Stephen Benz on Ambrose Bierce

“Strange and Beautiful”: Ambrose Bierce on the Battle of Shiloh
In the visitor center of Shiloh National Military Park, an interpretive display identifies renowned participants in the Battle of Shiloh, the first large-scale battle of the American Civil War. John Wesley Powell lost an arm at Shiloh but still went on to chart the Green and Colorado rivers by boat, becoming the first to navigate through the Grand Canyon. Also present at Shiloh was Henry Morton Stanley, a Welshman fighting for the Confederacy; after the war he would become a journalist and famously search for and find Dr. Livingstone in Africa. James A. Garfield, who in 1881 would become the twentieth U.S. president (and the second to be assassinated), was on the scene as well. Curiously, the display does not mention Ambrose Bierce, an odd omission given Bierce’s stature in American letters and the significance of the Civil War in his works. In fact, no American writer saw more of the Civil War than Bierce, who was just nineteen years old when he fought at Shiloh. Subsequently, he participated in several other major battles and was severely wounded toward the end of the war. He was even, briefly, a prisoner of war. Later, as a writer, he would revisit his experiences in a series of short stories (including the well-known “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”). Besides fiction about the war, Bierce wrote several essays that deserve greater attention and recognition, not only for their content but also for their contribution to the essay as a genre. First and foremost among these essays is “What I Saw of Shiloh,” written nearly thirty years after the battle.
Last summer, I went to Shiloh specifically because of Bierce. I wanted to see the topography of his compelling but under-recognized essay, a powerful piece that details the horrors of war and explores the psychological state of soldiers in battle. Located one hundred miles east of Memphis in rural southwestern Tennessee, Shiloh is more remote and isolated than most Civil War battlegrounds. Still, a fair number of people visit, including the usual enthusiasts of warfare, the kind of folks—mostly men—who carefully study the visitor center’s relief maps and dioramas to analyze troop movements and battery placements. Since I was more interested in Bierce than in military strategy, I did not follow the tour group setting out to visit the battleground. Instead, I wandered off on my own, looking for places associated with the 9th Indiana Infantry, Bierce’s regiment.
What makes Bierce’s Shiloh essay on Shiloh so good? Start with the basics: description. Trained as a military topographer, Bierce developed advanced observational skills, not only for the details of terrain but also for military activity, weather, and something less tangible—the “feel” or mood of a scene. He was often sent out as a scout, and the stories and essays he wrote years later are packed with the kind of details that a scout might include in a report. Here, for example, is Bierce’s description of the moment when his regiment arrived at the scene of the battle, which was already in progress:

There were broad flushings in the sky, against which the branches showed black. Sudden flames burst out here and there, singly and in dozens. Fleeting streaks of fire crossed over to us by way of welcome. These expired in blinding flashes and fierce little rolls of smoke, attended with the peculiar metallic ring of bursting shells, and followed by the musical humming of fragments as they stuck into the ground on every side, making us wince, but doing little harm. The air was full of noises. To the right and the left the musketry rattled smartly and petulantly; directly in front it sighed and growled. . . . There were deep shaking explosions and smart shocks; the whisper of stray bullets and the hurtle of conical shells; the rush of round shot. ...Occasionally, against the glare behind the trees, could be seen moving black figures . ...They seemed to me ludicrously like the figures of demons in old allegorical prints of hell.

The newly arrived Bierce encountered a chaotic nighttime scene—“a confused mass of humanity” that included the wounded, the dead, and those desperate to escape the battle—“the cowards...defeated, beaten, cowed” who “were deaf to duty and dead to shame.” Pushing past “this abominable mob,” Bierce’s regiment marched through the darkness to find their assigned place in the line.
I followed them, walking through woodlands until I came to the place where the 9th Indiana had encamped for the miserable, rainy night of April 6. (Signboards placed around the military park indicate which regiments were stationed where and when.) “A thunderstorm broke upon us with great violence,” Bierce wrote. “The rain, which for hours had been a dull drizzle, fell with a copiousness that stifled us; we moved in running water up to our ankles.” Here and there, he saw the bodies of the dead and severely wounded: “Their clothes were soaken; their hair dank; their white faces, dimly discernible, were clammy and cold.” Bierce heard the wounded calling out for water. He also saw “large tents, dimly lighted with candles”—the medical stations. “These tents were constantly receiving the wounded, yet were never full; they were continually ejecting the dead, yet were never empty.”
Another description, this of the scene Bierce witnessed as the second day of the battle dawned: “Here and there were small pools—mere discs of rainwater with a tinge of blood. Riven and torn with cannon shot, the trunks of the trees protruded bunches of splinters like hands, the fingers above the wound interlacing with those below. Large branches had been lopped, and hung their green heads to the ground...or swung critically in their netting of vines, as in a hammock. Many had been cut clean off and their masses of foliage seriously impeded the progress of the troops. ...Angular bits of iron, concavo-convex, sticking in the sides of muddy depressions, showed where shells had exploded in their furrows. Knapsacks, canteens, haversacks distended with soaken and swollen biscuits, gaping to disgorge, blankets beaten into the soil by the rain, rifles with bent barrels or splintered stocks, waist belts, hats and the omnipresent sardine-box—all the wretched debris of the battle still littered the spongy earth as far as one could see, in every direction. Dead horse were everywhere; a few disabled caissons, or limbers, reclining on one elbow, as it were; ammunition wagons standing disconsolate behind four or six sprawling mules.”
      The passage displays all the qualities that we expect in a compelling description: evocative images, effective word choice, sonic echoes, specificity, implied empathy, a catalog of objects that prompt an emotional response—something akin to Eliot's objective correlative. Detailed description alone does not make for a great essay, of course. What else distinguishes Bierce’s work? At certain points in the essay, the narrator (and with him the reader) enters into the moment, almost experiencing it in real-time, not just physically but psychologically as well. The effect—call it the “rhetoric of psychological presence”—is displayed in the essay’s most startling—and troubling—passage, an encounter with a hopelessly wounded soldier: “He lay face upward,” Bierce writes, “taking in his breath in convulsive, rattling snorts, and blowing it out in sputters of froth which crawled creamily down his cheeks, piling itself alongside his neck and ears. A bullet had clipped a groove in his skull, above the temple; from this the brain protruded in bosses, dropping off in flakes and strings. I had not previously known one could get on, even in this unsatisfactory fashion, with so little brain. One of my men, whom I knew for a womanish fellow, asked if he should put his bayonet through him. Inexpressibly shocked by the cold-blooded proposal, I told I thought not; it was unusual, and too many were looking.”
Beyond detailed observation and startling word choice, this passage is remarkable for the way that Bierce implies a range of complex and contradictory battlefield emotions, condensed in just a few lines—condensed so that it corresponds to the short passage of time, the handful of seconds it took to experience these emotions. Following the intense description of the dying man, Bierce shifts gears with a shockingly crass comment: “I had not previously known one could get on, even in this unsatisfactory fashion, with so little brain.” Readers of Bierce’s work might recognize here the acerbic, vicious tone that “Bitter Bierce,” as he came to be known, developed as a newspaper columnist in San Francisco. To this point in the essay, however, there has been very little of this trademark Bierce tone, such that the example comes out of the blue and at a seemingly inopportune moment—a crude, inhumane wisecrack of the kind that detectives deliver over corpses in hardboiled crime fiction.
Bierce seems to cross a line here, indecency and bad taste becoming sheer meanness. Is there any possible justification for it? I think so. Looking at the passage as a whole, parsing the passage and noting the emotional swings, it’s possible to see this comment as representative of a certain kind of gallows humor common in battle conditions, the kind of thing that is said out of shock in the presence of gruesome sights. It’s a sort of coping mechanism helping to deflect the terror. Combat soldiers are certainly familiar with this kind of talk, as evidenced in the work of Heller, Mailer, O’Brien, et al. What’s interesting about Bierce’s presentation is that he doesn’t assign the crassness to someone else. He doesn’t couch it or preface it or water it down. He owns it and drops it in the text cold, raw, and unadorned—even if it doesn’t present himself in a favorable light. Readers hear it and react just as they would while standing there over the horrific sight and hearing someone nervously say something crude and in poor taste. At inopportune times we sometimes have the urge to laugh or joke; when confronted with the shock and stress of a horrific battle, Bierce’s narrator does the same. Now, granted, Bierce is writing this some twenty-nine years after the fact and could therefore be expected to refrain from spur-of-the-moment crudities; but throughout the essay he is insistently trying to get back to his feelings in 1862, the feelings he had at the spur of the moment. His presentation here conveys the young soldier’s response in the heat of battle, and it does so without any hedging or qualification. We as readers thus experience the moment more authentically.
There’s more. Hardly do we process our own shock at the image of the soldier and our dismay at the narrator’s bad joke when there’s a new development: “One of my men, whom I knew for a womanish fellow, asked if he should put his bayonet through him.” The moment of gallows humor now yields abruptly to a sobering ethical dilemma: Should the suffering soldier, for whom there is no hope, be put out of misery? It’s a question that soldiers on the battlefield are apt to face, especially during the Civil War when medical knowledge and technology were not advanced enough to help the severely wounded. Several years later, Bierce would return to this theme in a short story, “A Coup de Grace,” which appears to be set at Shiloh. In fiction, Bierce’s protagonist decides to administer a coup de grace—“blessed release, the rite of uttermost compassion”—to a fellow soldier dying in agony. In the nonfictional memoir, however, he could not countenance the thought, let alone the act. He was “inexpressibly shocked by the cold-blooded proposal.” So now we have another huge emotional swing within the brief moment that the scene takes place.
Immediately, Bierce—who only seconds before had responded to the grotesque sight of the suffering soldier with a crass joke—is taken aback by the “cold-blooded” suggestion of a mercy killing. It’s a strange reversal of sensibilities, but perhaps an accurate depiction of the roiled emotions and confused—even contradictory—thought processes of soldiers under the stress of war. Perhaps it is the suggestion of using the bayonet rather than a bullet that makes the proposal seems so outrageous. In any case, Bierce, as sergeant in charge—must make a quick decision, and he decides no, a mercy killing would not be right. His reason? “It was unusual, and too many were looking.” He does not appeal to morality in rationalizing his decision, but rather to social norms and the presence of witnesses (who might testify or report). The decision is pragmatic. Once again, in the manner of Montaigne, Bierce does not shy away from presenting his thoughts and actions, however questionable, for the audience’s scrutiny. Nor does he hide his faults or try to rationalize them. Rather, he seems more interested in capturing the emotional shifts, the psychology of a complicated and fraught moment.
At some point during one of the lulls, while his regiment was out of action, Bierce decided to venture on his own “down into the valley of death and gratify a reprehensible curiosity.” In the midst of so much mayhem and destruction, Bierce wanted to see for himself the very worst of it (perhaps this was the kind of curiosity and desire for first-hand experience that would lead him a few years later into journalism). At Shiloh, the worst of it was a deep ravine where on the first day of battle a regiment from Illinois “had been surrounded and refusing to surrender was destroyed.” Finding himself near this ravine, Bierce took leave of his regiment to tour the aftermath of the slaughter.
It seems like an unusual thing for someone to do in the midst of a sanguinary battle after a long night without sleep and a day without food under a constant barrage of rifle and cannon fire. Nevertheless, during this brief respite, Bierce descended into the ravine, “the valley of death.” What piqued his morbid interest was the manner of death for many of the soldiers whose corpses he encountered. Something had happened in the ravine that, Bierce tells us, happened at many battles during the Civil War: the dead leaves of the forest floor caught fire “and roasted the fallen men.” As Bierce explored the ravine, he kicked through an ankle-deep layer of ashes. There were bullet-riddled trees and charred stumps. He came upon bodies “half buried in ashes,” contorted bodies whose “postures of agony...told of the tormenting flame.” The lucky ones met with “sudden death by the bullet.” The unlucky included “scores of wounded who might have recovered” but who “perished in slow torture” as the flames advanced through the ravine. After examining the hideous corpses, Bierce turned away in disgust and with a cold, harsh, discordant comment dismissed the dead: “Faugh! I cannot catalogue the charms of these gallant gentlemen who had got what they enlisted for.” The abrupt switch to present tense suggests that this is the observation of the writer Ambrose Bierce recalling the scene in 1881 rather than the thoughts of Ambrose Bierce the young soldier on the scene in 1862. The older “Bitter Bierce,” renowned for his cynicism and sardonic wit, seems to say that young men who choose to become soldiers are signing on for their own deaths.
Shortly after this incident, Bierce’s platoon found itself in the middle of the action. Many were wounded or killed—“a very pretty line of dead continually growing,” as Bierce described it, again employing his trademark sarcasm. At this point, Bierce and comrades were exposed without protection, “lying flat on our faces.” Meanwhile, the big guns of the artillery were pounding away, and the common foot soldiers were forced “to lie inglorious beneath showers of shrapnel darting divergent from the unassailable sky.” Reduced to a passive role, they could do nothing, Bierce said, but “clench our teeth and shrink helpless” while the deafening cannons did all the work. This was not the glory of war, as romanticized notions would have it; this was sheer terror, the human sublimated to the mechanistic. Hours passed before Bierce’s regiment escaped this helpless circumstance and fell back to the skirmish line. “For fifteen hours we had been wet to the skin,” Bierce recalled. His comrades were “chilled, sleepy, hungry and disappointed—profoundly disgusted with the inglorious path to which they had been condemned. ...The spirit had gone out of them.”
But there was still one more encounter to go: an enemy assault and another scene of noise and confusion, “a tempest of hissing lead that made us stagger under its very weight.” Then, suddenly, silence. Just as the battle had reached its moment of fiercest intensity—or so it seemed to Bierce—it abruptly ended. The Confederate soldiers were in retreat. Bierce looked around and saw new players on the field: stretcher-bearers, surgeons, and chaplains. Their appearance meant that “the battle was indeed at an end.”
I walked around the Shiloh site for a few hours, visiting the places where Bierce’s regiment had been, including a field near a ravine that could well have been the ravine where Bierce had come upon the holocaust scene that he so vividly described. Paths and traces of erstwhile roads took me through dense thickets and across fields. In many places the woods were particularly thick, and I broke through spider webs as I went. Now and then I had to brush off ticks. There were monuments and markers everywhere—pyramidal stacks of cannonballs with the names of commanders, obelisks honoring brigades, boards and signs indicating the locations of the various regiments, detailing where they bivouacked, where they charged, where they held a skirmish line. Some signs and granite markers indicated the sites of mass graves containing hundreds of bodies stacked several layers deep. There must be several hundred monuments scattered across the vast Shiloh site.
My walking tour took in the battleground’s principal landmarks: Bloody Pond, the Hornet’s Nest, scenes of death and devastation. Some landmarks were less ominously named—the Cloud Field, the Peach Orchard—but no less brutal and bloody during those two long days in April, 1862. The Peach Orchard was notable because it had been in full bloom—an incongruously lovely sight during the battle. Although he passed nearby, Bierce did not mention the orchard or the blossoms, perhaps because by the second day all the blossoms had fallen in the gunfire and the trees themselves were scarred and blasted.
Following the road in a roundabout loop back toward the visitor center, I stopped at the place where the Shiloh Meeting House had once stood, the log Methodist church that had given the battle its name. In his essay, Bierce commented on the irony of “a Christian name to a wholesale cutting of Christian throats by Christian hands.” Ironic, but not surprising, Bierce said, given the “the frequency of its recurrence in the history of our species.” This is the tone of voice most often associated with Bierce—caustic, acerbic, dismissive of religion, mordantly witty. This tone appears here and there in the essay—as in the crude comment on the dying soldier with “so little brain” or the scorn heaped on the “gallant gentlemen who had got what they enlisted for.” Such sarcasm is expected of Bierce, American literature’s avowed smart ass.
But, surprisingly, this trademark tone rarely appears in “What I Saw of Shiloh.” At the start of the essay, Bierce seems to distance himself from the writerly persona he had deliberately fashioned for himself in the San Francisco periodicals where his work had usually appeared. “This is a simple story of a battle,” he begins the essay, “such a tale as may be told by a soldier who is no writer.” With this opening declaration, Bierce indicated that he was trying to recover the frame of mind he had had as a young man—long before he became a writer—when he was just learning how to be a soldier, still somewhat inexperienced and even a bit naïve. When the Shiloh campaign began, he was already battle-tested, but Shiloh was still a baptism by fire for him in that it was a battle on a scale well beyond his previous experience (and well beyond that of any of Shiloh’s participants, including the most seasoned generals). The narrative attempts to recover the mindset of the young man who could hear a call to battle as “exhilarating.” For such a young man, “The bugle’s call goes to the heart as wine and stirs the blood like the kisses of a beautiful woman. Who that has heard it calling to him above the grumble of great guns can forget the wild intoxication of its music?” The naïve excitement voiced here at the beginning of the essay dissolves bit by bit as the narrator enters the fray and observes and experiences the horrors of war. It should be said that Bierce is somewhat ahead of his time in calling attention to these horrors and foregrounding them over the trite imagery and familiar platitudes of courage, honor, and glory. Skeptical of those abstract notions, Bierce won’t allow his readers to hold onto their quaint notions about war and chivalry—this at a time when such notions were commonplace. Read this way, the essay succeeds in taking the reader through the stages of transition from innocence to experience.
Given this thrust to the essay, it is somewhat perplexing to read the conclusion to the essay—essentially a postscript that Bierce added to a reprinting of the essay nearly eighteen years after its original appearance. This postscript is intensely nostalgic, the nostalgia expressed in purple passages that recall “when all the world was beautiful and strange.” Bierce imagines that a “magic spell” has brought back the sights, sounds, and smells of the camps and battlefields he knew as a youth—“the dim valleys of Wonderland.” It was a time, he sighs, “when there was something new under the sun.” Bierce finds that he yearns to go back to those exhilarating days. This desire puzzles him because he knows full well that “evil,” “desolation,” and the “monstrous inharmony of death” are the true characteristics of the war. Even so, he finds it hard to recall “the danger and death and horrors of the time” and all too easy to recall “all that was gracious and picturesque.” Now writing as an old man, thirty-six years after the battle and eighteen years after his first written recollection of it, Bierce thinks of “moon-gilded magnolias” and mockingbird songs and bright-burning constellations in the midnight sky. Even the memory of rifle shots stirs his blood.
Approaching sixty, he has discovered that old age is nothing but “drear and somber scenes.” If he could, he says, he would go back to those days and willingly die in battle—as by rights he should have: “I will willingly surrender an other [sic] life than the one that I should have thrown away at Shiloh.” Thus he brings his memoir of Shiloh to a second conclusion, one that does not quite fit with the rest of the essay.
Bierce did not die at Shiloh. He went on to fight more battles for three more years in the Union Army, several times narrowly escaping death. But he survived it all, and the naïve enthusiastic youth transformed into a jaded, cynical writer who would not brook “hypocrisy, cant, and all sham” or the pretentions, stupidity, misprisions, and corruption of the powerful. For the rest of his life, he would “endeavor to see things as they are, not as they ought to be.” That transformation occurred not in “the dim valleys of Wonderland” but on the real battlefields of the Civil War, most particularly at Shiloh.
Given the importance of Shiloh to Bierce’s life and career—and given Bierce’s extraordinary account of the battle—it is perplexing that his participation goes unmentioned in the Shiloh visitor center. I asked the park ranger manning the desk about it. He knew of Bierce and his role at Shiloh, but he couldn’t say why Bierce was absent from the display. “Some sort of oversight,” he shrugged.
In fact, Bierce is strangely absent—or only faintly present—in histories of Shiloh and the Civil War. Given the power and precision of his descriptions, his witnessing of major battles (Shiloh, Chickamauga), and his psychological insights into war, his work is particularly ripe for quotation. Yet several histories of Shiloh and Chickamauga do not even mention Bierce despite quoting numerous other participants. A few histories of Shiloh (such as Winston Groom’s) mention Bierce only in passing and include a few brief quotations. Bierce does not even make an appearance in Ken Burns’s long documentary film—magisterial and comprehensive though the film appears to be. Burns uses quotations liberally throughout the film, yet does not include the American writer with the deepest experience of the war. If you wonder how Stephen Crane—author of the most celebrated Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage—compares to Bierce—well, there’s no comparison. Crane was not even born until after the Civil War was over. Red Badge is a masterful work of the imagination, but it is not based on experience. Indeed, Crane probably took inspiration (and details) from Bierce; of Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Crane said “nothing better exists.” As for his reputation among readers, Bierce is best known not for his Civil War writings (with the possible exception of “Owl Creek,” which at one time was a staple of high school English) but for his amusing and sardonic “Devil’s Dictionary.”
Before leaving Shiloh, I walked around the national cemetery established on the battleground shortly after the war. Row after row of white stones mark the resting places of the dead—nearly 4,000 graves on twenty-two acres. Most stones are nameless, identification limited to regiments or states of origin. From what I could tell, the graves all (or mostly) belong to Union soldiers. Along the walkway some markers memorialize the dead in cliché-ridden verse, the kind that Bierce would have mocked: “Rest on, embalmed and sainted dead,/ Dear as the blood ye gave/ No impious footstep her shall tread/ the herbage of your grave.” I think Bierce would have scoffed at those last two lines in particular and then proceeded to step impiously on the herbage.
The statistics for the Shiloh battle are grim. Nearly 24,000 casualties during the two-day affair, more than the total number of American casualties for the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the War with Mexico combined. Shiloh accounted for more than twice the number of total casualties in the Civil War up to that point. The ferocity of the battle is hard to imagine when you visit the site today. The place is tranquil and even drowsy in the summer heat. Unlike other Civil War battlegrounds, Shiloh is isolated and the area has almost no tourist infrastructure. The military park is beautifully preserved; little has changed in the intervening years. The woods are still dense, the fields are still lush, and on a summer’s day the air hums with insect noise and birdsong—a peaceful place to sit in the shade of a tree, dozing a bit on a warm, languid afternoon, with the Tennessee River flowing past and the gravestones gleaming in the sunlight.
If you read Bierce’s essay, however, you’ll know what the superficial calm conceals.
Along with two books of travel essays—Guatemalan Journey (University of Texas Press) and Green Dreams: Travels in Central America (Lonely Planet)—Stephen Benz has published essays in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, TriQuarterly, and other journals. Two of his essays have been selected for Best American Travel Writing (2003, 2015). Formerly a writer for Tropic, the Sunday magazine of the Miami Herald, he now teaches professional writing at the University of New Mexico. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Dec 7: Marcia Aldrich, A Life in Lists: Anne Panning’s “On Personal Frictions & Discontinuities, Or, How Reading Montaigne Temporarily Messed with My Mind”

A Life in Lists: 
Anne Panning’s “On Personal Frictions & Discontinuities,
Or, How Reading Montaigne Temporarily Messed with My Mind”

Marcia Aldrich


Just after graduating from college, I shared an apartment with my friend in Greenwich Village. Some months after I had moved out, she sent me a list she had found, probably stuck in a book, a list I had written during that memorable summer. She didn’t throw it out, which many would do. It’s safe to say most people would have heaved the ragged sheet in the trash believing that’s where it belonged, after all, it was a list and most lists are disposable, without meaning, for they are written for a specific purpose like enumerating groceries to buy for the week and once the items are purchased and checked off the list, the list has no further purpose, no further life. But even the most practical of lists serves as a document of our lives: Joan Didion included her packing list in The White Album because it illuminated her life as a traveling writer sent on assignment. Lists tell stories, but usually after the lists have been consumed—there’s nothing in the lists that slow us down and make them something else, something more. Their value has been exhausted.
     But Marian, a graduate student in film studies with a keen eye, saw something else in my list which made her save it, something beyond giving a glimpse into what I ate. Here is the list:

  1. Throw out papers. (Speaks to how I accumulate “papers.” My impulse is to hold onto things I should be letting go of.)
  2. Quit. (Again, it doesn’t specify what I should quit—my job, smoking, biting my nails? It could be any of the above because I’m frequently harassing myself to quit something forthwith.)
  3. STRAIGHTEN OUT BANK ACCOUNTS—all words capitalized to dramatize the importance and dire need for my attention. (Speaks to my ineptitude handling my financial affairs.)
  4. Put screens in windows. Laugh more. (Written on the same line. Was there a connection between these two-- should I laugh more while putting in screens? Or is this a mini-essay, combining the mundane that needs to be done with the larger life long goal that will never be done?)
  5. Organize poems. (An item that appears on all lists and is related to throw out papers.)
  6. Buy donuts. (A one-time thing. Or maybe not. Wanting to buy donuts was one of the activities I thought I should quit and documents my deep love for donuts.)
  7. Be successful. (Sure, just tell me how, please.)
  8. Buy toothpaste and have a more positive attitude. (Another mini-essay?)
  9. Lose 10 pounds. (On every list ever written. In response to anxiety about an upcoming event, say a job interview or a reading, drastic measures are required, and 20 pounds must be lost. The list never says, “You’re fine as you are.” If it did say that, it would be the end of list-making.)
  10. Change your life. (This imperative comes straight from the final lines of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”—for here there is no place/ that doesn’t see you. You must change your life.)

This received list of my own composing and torn from my life, was my first realization of the possibilities of the list as a literary form. My list operates a little like a found poem. I wrote it, but I didn’t know what I had written. It’s shape and order were accidental, the way a found poem can accidentally be revealing and artistically repurposed and reframed like Marcel Duchamp’s titling a toilet "Fountain." A ready-made. Or William Carlos Williams’ famous poem, "This is Just to Say," repurposing a note of apology to his wife as a poem.
     The list essay has all kinds of connections to the found poem, the catalogue, the ready-made in the history of art and its success depends upon finding the right balance between the accidental and the conscious, between the spontaneous springing from life and the artistic ordering, and between the mundane elements of life—the toilet, the grapes, the donuts—and the profound—fountains, apologies, desire, control.
     The list essay is a form of self-portraiture, a way to come at the self through the back door rather than straight on. Revisiting my own list, I see how much it revealed about me without that being its intention.


When I began teaching writing classes in the genre of creative nonfiction, students didn’t know what they had signed up for. They thought they’d be writing five-paragraph essays anchored in topic sentences and with a point. Strenuously schooled against writing in their own voice, when introduced to the importance of the self in creative nonfiction, they worried about self-absorption and narcissism. In the opening week, we read familiar introductions to the genre by Phillip Lopate, Bret Lott, and Scott Russell Sanders, among others, all of whom stressed the importance of the writer’s perspective, nature, personality, experience and eccentricities in writing creative nonfiction. The effect of the readings did not reassure my students but magnified their anxiety over the all essential I—they didn’t think they were interesting enough to engage a reader.
     Rather than plunging directly into writing a personal essay, I introduced the list as a cultural artifact to break the ice. We discussed the differences between writing a list as a to do list, and writing a list as a self-portrait, as a form of communication and expression. I developed list exercises —one of the most successful was based on Matias Viegener’s 2500 Random Things About Me, published by Les Figures Press. The assemblage is composed of lists of 25 random things about him written daily for 100 days on Facebook. We wrote our own list of 25 random things about ourselves and then shared them. Of course, the lists the students wrote were funny and surprising and quirky and revealing, just what you’d hope a self-portrait would be. We had snuck up on self-portraiture, finding enlargement in the small, and creating character without really trying.
     After sufficient warm-up exercises, I introduced Anne Panning’s “On Personal Frictions & Discontinuities, Or, How Reading Montaigne Temporarily Messed with My Mind,” a much more complicated list essay that I had read in Fugue 40, the “play” issue. Panning’s list essay departs in at least two dramatic ways from the lists we had been looking at: first she frames her list with a highly wrought, literary title, referencing the father of the essay Montaigne and signaling a post-modernist love of fragments, and second she introduces categories into the mix. Instead of a single columned list, Panning creates categories and then “answers” them. Like a call and response. It’s a brilliant complication on the list essay form akin to adding a second hand to the piano all the while keeping the effortless effects of an improvisation. And here it is:

“On Personal Frictions & Discontinuities, Or, How Reading Montaigne Temporarily Messed with My Mind”
Anne Panning 
Postnasal drip: chronic 
Frequent shortage: optimism 
Chewing style: rapid, right leaning 
Gamble: PhD English, Creative Writing
Number of false teeth: 1 
Vitriolic proclivity: “motherfucker" 
Annual waste: eggnog 
Danger: Volunteers of America thrift store 
Prayer: please may I never be paralyzed 
Sob level: 8 
Deodorant: Lady Speed Stick, powder fresh 
Drudgery: coffeemaker duty 
What’s overboard: bacon-wrapped scallops 
Collectibles: miniature Japanese food erasers 
Inevitable spiel: I hate when you invite someone to an event and they say they will ‘try’ to come. Have the balls to say, I won’t be there. Sorry. Jesus Christ! 
Reservations: for 2 at The Madison hotel, Washington D.C. 
Frequency of eyebrow plucking: approximately every 3 weeks 
Good luck: frequent (though seldom monetary) 
Dubious ambition: to live in the apartment above Rexall Drug in my hometown 
Head circumference: 22 inches 
Abomination: flavored coffees 
Emotional terrorism: Salvation Army bell ringers 
Cottage industry: haircuts in the kitchen 
A steal: nude racer back bra from JCPenney (pre security cameras) 
Perpetual revenge: running on treadmill 
Number of Levis worn so far in this lifetime: 24 
Lament: mechanical pencil, empty 
Heartache: Shriner’s circus 
Vanishing act: The Philippines, circa 1989, Caba Beach 
Dying wish: Mom  

Before embarking on our list essay using Panning’s essay as a model, I wrote Anne to ask her a few questions about the essay’s composition. Panning was solicited by Fugue for their “play” issue while at a retreat. One of the books there was Montaigne’s essays with titles beginning “On . . . . such and such” and this gave her the idea to “play” with things that were “both serious and completely trivial.” Her mother and father had both died recently and she said she felt this “incredible grief even as (she) was writing this supposedly playful piece.” She pointed to the last line— “Dying wish: Mom” -- as an example of how her grief had unexpectedly bled into the list. Panning writes: “In the weirdest most indirect way, this piece was about grief . . . . and how trivial what we all worry about really is. I mean, eyebrow plucking? Who the hell cares when your mom has just died? I also think of this as a capsule autobiography. A life in lists. Pieces of who we are that make up the whole. I also think it tells a lot about what we hide and what we won’t say about ourselves.”
     Students have joined me in thinking this is a terrific flash essay. It’s fun to read because its unpredictable movements catch you off guard. She doesn’t censor herself. One moment we’re laughing in agreement—doesn’t everyone think the Salvation Army bell ringers are unsettling but until Panning’s essay we never saw them as emotional terrorism which they surely are. The next moment we’re overcome by the darker currents of the essay—the things that have been lost—Shriner’s circus, past times Panning didn’t want to lose, the death of her mother. This tiny essay is rich with a range of emotions and personality—her irreverent spirit, her small-town sensibility, her love of small things, her fierce loving self and her ability to mourn. It inspires writing, let me tell you. My students have loved being asked to create their own categories. They’ve brought them to class and we’ve shared them on the blackboard, old-fashioned style, written in different colored chalk. Then we’ve looked at all the lists of categories sprawled on the board, identified the keepers, circling them, and then gone home and made our second and final list of categories with permission to use any category the class generated. A real common market of categories. And last, we answered our categories as Panning did and ordered the list. Then once again we brought in our lists, put them up on the board and make the final revisions—what goes and what stays, what order, what title and the list essay as self-portrait was born.
     Suffice it to say, Panning’s essay is a miracle of form. And suffice it to say my students have written some of their most gripping and surprising, most flesh and blood, most real work in the form of a list essay emboldened by Anne Panning.


Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women, published by The University of Georgia Press. [] Her email is

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Dec 6, Sarah Minor: Recovering from Descent

Over the past six years I’ve met many folkswriters, and the other kind of personwho I call beloved dissenters

At least one of them has shared the table in each of my seminars. Others have sat across sweating beers, scrunched a warm shoulder against mine on a connecting flight, or stood beside me, a little dehydrated, facing the endless margins of a gallery wall in Cleveland, Ohio, where I now live. Visual writing is my jam and they don’t like it.

What beloved dissenters also share is that most have become cherished friends and allies, meaning they’ve provided me with the circumstance to think about where and how visual texts are received and when they might be doing it right.

My beloved dissenters tell me that good essays should “stand alone.” They argue that visual media makes a text pretty for no reason. For them, the visual stuff is trying to do what language could achieve in the hands of a better writer. Text is text, and writing… writing. Anything else is lacquer on a cracked table.

This fall, in Cleveland, I began teaching nonfiction to students of Art and Design, and I was startled to find more beloved dissenters among them who had the same concerns but the opposite argument. My graphic designers said visual essays have too much text. My painters said duh—shape makes meaning, and everyone said an image can’t be pretty without reason.

On this advent, I give you, my beloved dissenters, Jennifer Wortman’s “Worst Case Scenario." It’s an essay that is accessible and, I'll even say, intuitive to viewers who read in many ways. It's a visual text that's doing much more for its audience than acting pretty, and worth a quick read to avoid the spoilers ahead.

“Worst Case Scenario” is what I’d call a concrete essay following in the lineage of concrete poets, except that it achieves much of what they did not. In the essay, Wortman describes the time her husband fell thirty-five feet down a large gap while rock climbing. Because he had carefully studied worst-case scenarios from a handbook entitled the same, he survived the fall by turning his body “into the shape of a V” and landing on his sacrum, though he doesn’t remember doing this.

Before falling, Wortman’s husband says that after death he would like to return as a bird: “He’d always wanted to fly.” A human body falling through the air in the shape of a V, sacrum-down, makes the shape of a bird in flight the way a child would draw it, the most basic bird we recognize—the shape of his afterlife. 

The text of Wortman’s essay makes the shape of two tall rocks, with the word “C a s e” suspended upright between them, perhaps “falling” the way her husband did. But if we imagine that Wortman’s title is the body passing between rocks—a husband’s body—then that body is falling in the wrong way. It is experiencing the worst-case scenario and not contorting itself according to the handbook—not taking the shape of a V. 

Wortman could have designed this title to say “body,” or “fall” or even “husband,” but she designed it to say “case,” as if she is imagining what would have happened had her husband fallen upright. So Wortman’s concrete image is in fact delivering the opposite narrative than her text does. It suspends the tension of the essay visually, and asks us to consider the deeper implication that her husband should not have survived.

Early concrete poets like Lewis Carroll and Stéphane Mallarmé often titled their work after the shape of their designs like in “A Mouse’s Tale” or “La Cravate" (The Tie). 

Wortman's essay pays homage to this tradition, but complicates the craft of concrete texts through the way her shapes convey their own meaning. In “Worst Case Scenario,” the connection between title and design is not so immediate. Instead, Wortman’s text works together with her design to extend the tension of a scenario in a way that neither image nor text could alone.   

Each time I come to the end of this essay, I read the last line. And then I re-read it again: “Lying beside him, I laughed.”

Here, I think, what kind of lie? I wonder what Wortman is keeping behind her laugh. Her deft use of space has me attentive to her details—the way this word might be signaling a kind of doubling that makes meaning by extension (Tail/Tale) but in the manner that Wortman's text and design shift our experience of a narrative when they work together.

"Worst Case Scenario" is worthy of recovering not simply because of how often visual writing gets passed over in magazines and anthologies where our best essays are celebrated, but because through it Wortman is recovering a long tradition by asking it to work harder.

By now you know that Sarah Minor is a pusher of visual writing. She's also an Assistant Professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art. 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Dec 5, Lela Scott MacNeil: Betty Fussell is Too Excited to Shut Up

“Food is not a subject in the way that the great subjects of literature like War, Love, Death, Sex, Power, Betrayal, or Honor are subjects.”

This is how Betty Fussell begins her essay, “Eating My Words.”

It might seem a strange place to begin an essay on the importance of food in writing, but she’s not wrong. Writing about food is usually relegated to the lower rungs of literature, as evidenced by the fact that those who write it are called “food writers,” instead of just “writers.” Food writing is most often seen as disposable, the stuff of glossy magazines, an answer to the question “what should I eat for dinner?” and nothing more.

As Fussell says, “While everything eats, not everything speaks,” a truism we avoid because “we don’t fancy our table companions or our dining conditions.”

Which is to say, “We don’t like to be reminded that if dung were not caviar to the dung beetle, the earth would be covered in shit. Nor do we like to be reminded that we are steak tartare to worms. We want to be exempt, special, excused.”

This is nothing new. The Bible brands foodies as enemies of Christ. From Philippians 3:19, “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and their glory is in their shame. Their minds are set on earthly things.”

Fussell directs our gaze to this enduring association when she quotes Elias Canetti as he asks if it wouldn’t be better to have one hole for food and another for words, “Or does this intimate mixing of all our utterances with the lips, teeth, tongue, throat, all those parts of the mouth that serve the business of eating—does this mixing tell us that we can never be nobler and better than we are?”

Since the dawn of history, this has been a goal of men, to transcend the squalor of the physical through religion, science, art, or philosophy. It’s no accident that such a path is not laid out for women. Because Persephone couldn’t resist those pomegranate seeds, nor Eve that apple, the body of woman is fated, in the words of Simone de Beauvoir, to be perceived not as “the radiation of a subjective personality, but as a thing sunk deeply in its own immanence."

Fussell’s essay offers us a way out of this trap. She calls the single orifice for words and food “a brilliant subversion of human pretense,” and prompts us to reframe Canetti’s question: “Does not this intimate mixing suggest that the human animal is forever a bewildering compound of body parts and spirit sensors, a belcher of hymns, an angel that farts, and that wise eaters and speakers will savor the mixture?”

For Fussell, writing about food is the surest way to heal the wound of separation between the animal and the intellectual, inflicted by men for millennia.

Growing up in the chaos of a home where my paraplegic father was always about to die, the dinner table was the only place I remember us all together, happy. Most of the time my parents didn’t like each other, but they always loved to cook together. My father in his wheelchair, meticulously slicing garlic with a weather-beaten knife. My mother laughing at the stove over some fantastical sauce she had just invented.

Yet even for me, a woman whose only childhood safe space was the dinner table, it’s taken my whole life to work up the courage to really eat, much less write about food. Sometime around the age of fifteen I discovered that starving myself could grant me a magical power over men, and in the nineties, that was still the only kind of power young women were allowed to pursue. It would take me eighteen more years to unlearn the habit of viewing food purely as a way to exercise mastery over my body.

It definitely helped to stop sleeping with men and start sleeping with women. The aluminum foil tingle of Sichuan peppercorns helped too, as did the herby tang of a dirty Sapphire martini with hand stuffed blue cheese olives, and the perfect bitter char on a Neapolitan pizza crust.

And what joy that my personal gastronomical awakening has coincided with a monumental surge in the interest in and availability of excellent food. Recent years have transformed the role of chef from invisible, underpaid laborer to that of a cultural god.

Are we surprised that these “gods” are almost always white men?

When Time magazine put together its “Gods of Food” issue, they featured three men on the cover and almost no women inside. Editor Howard Chua-Eoan said, “There was no attempt to exclude women, we just went with the basic realities of what was going on and who was being talked about.” Forgetting, apparently, that he is one of the people doing the talking.

In Eater, Megan McCarron connects the dots between the misogyny of the food world and the desire to create distance between women as cooks and men as chefs. According to the sociologists Deborah Harris and Patti Guiffre, this desire stems from a sense of “precarious masculinity.” The media reinforces this sense by writing profile after gushing profile defining men as innovative geniuses striving to revolutionize the way we eat, while women are presented as caregivers, relying mostly on instinct, and happy to nurture their families for free.

And indeed it was through the role of housewife that Fussell found her way into food. She taught Shakespeare at Rutgers until her husband forced her to abandon her academic aspirations to become a mother. So she threw her intellectual energies towards throwing legendary dinner parties.

She was forty by the time she started writing what she called “real words.” It took her that long, because her husband felt she had no talent, that her writing was a waste of time. But, she said, “I was too excited to shut up.”

And thank god she didn’t. She would go on to help build the modern American food movement alongside James Beard, although she doesn’t have his household name. She was an early evangelist of Alice Waters’ famed Chez Panisse, helping to cement Waters as one of the few women superstar chefs, and disproving the myth that the media can’t have a role in smashing the food world’s patriarchy. Says Waters of the first time Fussell visited her restaurant, “Betty got it right away. She saw pretty clearly what we were doing at the restaurant and she understood that the story wasn’t just about the food on the plate, but the bigger picture of how we were looking for the roots of taste and trying to figure out how to honor those roots while also making them relevant to the times we were living in.”

Of course Fussell got it right away. To her, food was never just anything. As she says in “Eating my Words,” “Food always condenses a happening, a plot, which unfolds like any enacted drama in the spotlit present, surrounded by shadows of the past.” Fussell has known all along what I am just starting to realize. Food is more than one of the Great Subjects of Literature. It's everything.


Lela Scott MacNeil was born in Los Alamos, same as the atomic bomb. She teaches creative writing at The Writers Studio. Her work has been published in Essay Daily, Gertrude, and in the Springsteen inspired noir anthology Trouble in the Heartland. She’s already planning her next meal.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Dec 4, Clinton Crockett Peters: Cannibalizing the Work of Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas

Placenta steak anyone?
            I tend to see chopping the world into dueling camps as a sign of old-school hierarchical thinking, which has roots in colonialism (us vs. them), as well as old-God religion (sky vs. earth), not an often compassionate nor practical way to think given the swirling pea soup we live in, where chunks bob up and then down and melt and congeal into new chunks. I tend to see the world as all-soup, though not homogenous as in a Royal we soup but perhaps existential and very much biological. And it occurs to me now that my division of chunks and soup is itself a bifurcation, and that besides the childish problem of over-simplification, a speaker declaring a binary is, often, encamped with a side, and thus I believe I am performing something of the problem I began the paragraph set against.
            But if I could slip into binary thinking for another paragraph, I believe that two different people will react to the question above about placenta steak: one may grimace and make assumptions based, perhaps, on a subconscious reverence of the life-bearing organ overriding the sensual possibilities of placental fine dining. The other voice may likely be over the gag reflex and believe itself immune to the shock value, and may even give a justified eye roll. But even in this bifurcation, I would like to posit a third (a trifecta!) camp of reactions, those who are at least willing to taste-taste or may have already done so. If you are here, like me, you may find delicious reading in Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s “Of Cannibals” in the mouth agape-stellar collection After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essay (University of Georgia Press 2015), edited by Essay Daily friends David Lazar and Patrick Madden. If you, like me, are in the third camp, you may have been the life-biology student dissecting your high school classmates’ fetal pigs when the teacher was dozing or monitoring halls as a favor to squeamish friends and because you simply wanted to see what was inside. Perhaps you’re a doctor. And perhaps you will be spell-bound, and frothing at the pages of Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegass savory writing, both in “Of Cannibals” and in her book Don’t Come Back (Ohio State Press, 2017), out this year.
            But it’s the essay that I want to talk about, though I’ll allude to the book too. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s writing, if I may be summative, is aloof, removed, poised, some might even say sociopathic in the way it dissects, literally and literarily, death, memory, family, and once-living tissue. Because I know Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas I’ll say that while she is spontaneous and quirky (she once sent me Krampus cards for the holidays and didn’t sign them and I set about worrying for a week over who would possibly do that) I would not armchair-psychologist-diagnose her with sociopathy (high praise there, hey Lina?).
            But if you’re also like me and wondered if surgeons must be spiced with sociopathy to do their jobs, (as maybe writers are), and wondered what that’s like, there’s something refreshing in Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s cold, steel-blade candor.
            In “Of Cannibals,” Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s narrator works at the University of Iowa hospital system, one of a stream of odd jobs she’s had to support herself through school, or, as she puts it in her tongue-in-cheek clinical tone, “a haphazard arrangement of resume-confusing short-term employment experiences” (43). She rises from custodian to office clerk to placenta carver because, as her boss says, “It’s more, if you can, you can” and less med school and training. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas can stand the sight of placentae and their reduction to meat and so gets promoted to scalpel-wielding researcher.
            While at her job we find that, “A heart is a mystical shape, lungs have a sort of nobility. Kidneys are hilarious, and the liver is long-suffering, but placentae are bulbous and grotesque. Red-dead and dead-red. A scarlet jellyfish with one thick white tentacle protruding from its center” (47). Readers are then offered many rhapsodizes like these on placentae, a placenta which is an objectively strange and fascinating thing, an organ that’s not an organ, a part of a woman’s body that isn’t always, the stuff of life that becomes the stuff of smoothy recipes. It is the one part of humanity that we are approved to consume. The epigraph leading off “Of Cannibals” is from the essay’s original source, Montaigne: “Notice what you eat, and you will find in it the taste of your own flesh.”
            And it is not just organs that Cabeza-Vanegas dissects, it’s also people, including her boss, described thus: “She looked at me with a face that seemed to dare the universe to impress her. Lines around eyes as if drawn on the sand, wide and tired and entirely accustomed to the smell and spill of human flesh on a white countertop” (44).
            I would like to suggest that the last phrase, “on a white countertop,” is in part an essence to understanding Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s work. It’s that extra bit of concrete detail, a description stretched to its breaking, something she does often with scene-setting, character-building, and metaphor. It also creates a downbeat after so many alliterative “s” sounds in “accustomed,” “smell,” “spill” and “flesh,” alliteration that needs closing down. Also, it’s a nice pairing of the abstract and philosophical (daring the universe) with the earthy and fleshy. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas jumps from the big to the small, the abstract to the particular, the hissing alliterative to staccato consonance. The movements strike me similar not necessarily in style but in gear shift speed to Annie Proulx in Shipping News or Lidia Yuknavitch in Chronology of Water.
            And continue that overly reductive thing of comparing one author’s unique work to others, I would say there are hints in Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s work to Meghan Daum's sarcasm and edginess, Zadie Smith’s smiling undercurrents of sadness, David Foster Wallace’s potty-humor and maximalism, Maggie Nelson's lyrical, clinical aloofness, and Loren Eiseley's cold, million-year stare. Hedonists for language and sentence play will gnaw into her work.
            Here’s a passage I quite enjoyed:
“The placenta is the most incredible un-alive thing I’ve ever held in my own two hands. Within twelve weeks of hearing the chemical call of procreation it has calculated the length of blood canals, the width of uterine walls, the number of tenants to host and feed and keep and grow. It stitches itself up between the walls and corridors of a fertile body—opens its own way, pulls its own boot-straps, parts its own seas. It is its own god, it makes itself in its own image and then expels itself from uterine paradise onto dirt floors, metal basins, soiled sheets, and splattered shoes. Ending, in this case, in my blue Styrofoam bucket” 45)

            I’m a sucker for lists, and the beats that surround the repetitive “and,” as well as the narrative of something seemingly inert and without agency like a placenta. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas is breathing life into the discarded organ; she is raising it through language from Styrofoam bucket to god (and back again). It’s a remarkable achievement.
            Which makes me want to shift to Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s book, Don’t Come Back, a fascinatingly touchy, dark biopic that Augusten Burroughs was trying to pull off in Running With Scissors before settling for sensationalist bullshit. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas goes darker and lets the reader make judgements instead of hamfistedly spoon-feeding and (to borrow Margo Jefferson’s phrase from Negroland) arranging angers at their most becoming angles. In Don’t Come Back, the title taken from what the narrator’s mother whispered to Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas as she emigrated from Colombia for school in America, Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas allows sympathy to arise from cast-off remarks and self-deprecation, complexity to shimmer on the surface, and the easy morality of so many memoirs to shut the fuck up.
            The content is bracing. In her work, Colombian military men perish in helicopters en route to picnics on verdant peaks with beautiful women. The mother character plays with her children by teaching them how to dissect their recently deceased pet hamster with a box cutter. There is an atmospheric hint of constant danger, a robust specificity of morbidness: “My grandmother sits in the patio, crying over a dying animal on her lap, then the animal stirs under her hand, empties itself through its mouth and paints her feet red” (23).
            The narrator works our empathy cords (never clunkily) with undercurrents of isolation and non-belonging, with scenes such as “random” screening by TSA agents as a Colombian flying within America (side note: the one time I flew with Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas she was “randomly” screened by TSA). But perhaps most surprising and refreshing of all, like “Of Cannibals” and Montaigne himself, Don’t Come Back is consistently playful, hinting at multiple layers of meaning while never taking itself too seriously (“My older sister kicked me hard in the stomach and I fell over yelling, ‘You’ve castrated me!’ Because I didn’t know what it meant, but sort of knew what it meant.” (121)).
            Here’s one passage that I found startling in Don’t Come Back (in “Catching Moths”): 
              “Another man, another time —in Bogotá—came up to me once and showed me every wet, cavity-riddled tooth in his mouth. He was hard to miss, a man made of dust and scab and dirt with black streaks running down his face as if he were sweating engine grease. I watched him kick his way through cars at the intersection, spit on street vendors, and yell at the women selling umbrellas to suck his cock. He covered half the sidewalk with his gait and parted crowds like Moses did seas…. I should’ve looked away, because this is what you do, but I didn’t. I met his eyes and he fixed on me like he’d been waiting for me all day long. He crossed the street again, grabbed his penis through his pants and rushed toward me… The pink of his tongue and the sound of him snapping his mouth shut millimeters from my nose, like the moment when I finally caught a moth midflight and opened my hands to find bits of wings and specks of gray blood.
              I didn’t blink, didn’t flinch. I just stood still, as if all human interactions were interchangeable and of equal value, and I watched him walk away, spitting and kicking and groping.” (41-2)

            There is a surprising (to me) effort towards humanity, a resistance to wallowing in uncomplex victimhood, a hesitance towards fear, and a reliance on open eyes and lyrical association. This, to me, reads almost like inscrutable yet commonsense gods’ eye.
            I chaff when reviewers or blurbs call a book “brave,” partially because it’s a cliché and partially because most writers aren’t coal miners or maquiladora workers. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s writing is, I’ll say, threatening, because it stands apart in its own cold, not-naval-but-entrails-gazing edge. It does a lot of things you would honestly tell writers not to do. For instance, don’t resort to images of private parts or fecal humor. Resist excessive run-ons, wordiness, and maximalism (T.C. Boyle has written enough!). Resist concealing your “I” narrator (“readers want to know how this affected you!”). Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas seems not to hear and lets her eye and ear and nose and other organs wander on the page. Curious readers nibble along like pilot fish. 
            If I could sum up her work in a phrase, I’d call Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas a Montaigne autopsying a cadaver. She questions, but pushes farther than where I would have thought curiosity was allowed to roam: “On the night of the worst beating, while blood ran from his chin, across his face and into the dirt, did he get bored?” (59). Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas reads as anti-easy morality, or maybe even anti-moralism. Which abstractly seems more questionable than when you’re in the throes of reading because her work is so captivating. As someone who is a freewill skeptic (a conversation for another essay), I admire how Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas recognizes the chemicals that are the human spark and how they ricochet in beautiful and sometimes ugly and violent ways. This is an easier philosophical view to have if youre Wordsworth beholding the gorgeous, sublime valley around Tintern Abbey. Its much harder and more admirable to my eye when you look at violence and child abuse and death and piece together the reality that created this puzzle. And when “why?” isnt tinged with preconceived judgments and moral expectations, Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas tells us, youll get a more accurate, more nuanced response.
            There is something else that keeps drawing me back to Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s work and to the “Of Cannibals” essay: it’s that the essay seems environmental. If you’ve been left out of the last decade of ecocritical conversations, this may strike you as a surprising thought (what? There’re no trees in this essay!) No, but there’s tons of mice being sliced and diced and a view of humans as dirt and discarded flesh. Flesh and dirt, by the way, like mice, are often seen by people as lowly things, yet dirt is a living organism that supports all terrestrial life. When I say humans are dirt and cast-away meat, I don’t mean to devalue humanity, but rather lift up the microorganisms and organic material that we trample yet depend on.
            To get eco-lit-critty for a moment, I believe that Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s essay performs a move that the ecocritic Stacy Alaimo has called “Trans-Corporeality.” As Alaimo explains in her book Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self and in an essay fairly easy to find on the net, “Trans-Corporeal Feminisms and the Ethical Space of Nature.,” trans-corporeality is, “The time-space where human corporeality, in all its material fleshiness, is inseparable from ‘natureor ‘environment.” The point with this kind of scholarship isn’t a Kumbaya sense of the Circle of Life, no. The point is to flatten out the destructive dichotomy of nature and human culture, often maintained, interestingly, by nature writers who write “nature” as “out there.” Alaimo suggests humans are tied to their surroundings in a real dirt and blood and microbe way, not a mystical one. Not one that only privileged British poets standing on verdant hillsides can experience. This is not always a friendly cohabitation. Humans die, attract viruses, are assaulted by biological brethren. The stuff that surrounds us acts and is not passive. Soil, one of the lowliest things in our imaginations, is actually a life, a conglomeration of lives, each microbe separate yet as one trying to stay strong. Which really, and I think Ferreira Cabeza-Vengas recognizes this, is what human bodies are.
            A lot of people who I talk to about environmental writing, even environmental writers, don’t like thinking of humans as dirt possibly because they’ve been cultured into binary and hierarchical thinking, the same kind of logic, feminists and de-colonialists have long pointed out, that is as work in spreading injustice and creating adverse social dynamics for populations who are not in power. To see humans as dirt and blood is, in my view (and this may be a bit utopic), a way to get over ourselves, to see us as biological beings in a material soup, responsible for that soup that we are a part of. Which is not to say we’re all the same nor equal, but that we’re all, well, pretty soupy. Especially when we’re born and when we die.

            It occurs to me, as much as I wish Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers was a more lyrical book, with more metaphor and a deeper narratorial presence, it is a good companion piece to Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s cannibal essay. The narrator in “Of Cannibals” is a construction as is Roach’s, of course, but it’s a more performatively messier one (or, to use Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s term, “blood-thirsty”), which I find refreshing. Too many essay and memoir narrators seem to walk about on pages, either mostly invisible, curious, god-like apparitions, or hugging themselves, letting their insides leak through only so a reader knows how much they might be hurting. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas lets her innards drop to the floor of the dingy clinic in Iowa and dares the reader to examine and maybe take a bite. Because on some level, and here I’ll speak for myself, I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be a cannibal.

Clinton Crockett Peters is the author of Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology, forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press. He has been awarded prizes from ShenandoahNorth American ReviewCrab Orchard ReviewColumbia Journal, and the Society for Professional Journalists. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow, and is ABD pursuing a PhD in English/creative writing at the University of North Texas. His work also appears in OrionSouthern ReviewFourth GenreThe RumpusHotel AmerikaCatapult, and elsewhere.