Monday, September 21, 2020

These Are Them: Towards a Transparent Nonfiction Workshop After Theophrastus of Eressos’ “These Are Them” by Courtney Kersten


The following looks to Theophrastus of Eressos' essay "These Are Them" (circa 100 B.C.E). John D'Agata describes “These Are Them” in The Lost Origins of the Essay (Graywolf 2009) as a collection of "clipped and snarky portraits of flawed societal types." These descriptions include figures like "the Garrulous Man" who "sits down beside perfect strangers and begins to immediately rattle off his wife's good and bad points" and "the Absentminded Man" who "Sends get-well cards to men who've died." D'Agata notes in his introduction that these "short, distinctive, circumstantial vignettes . . . give us glimpses of life in fourth-century Athens" and show Eressos as a "grumpy, natty...prude." I would add that such portraits also show us Eressos’ capacity for humor. The following embraces the form and farcicality of Theophrastus' work.

This is the Privileged Person that Uses the Precarity of the "Writer's Life" or Graduate School to Appear as Though They Have Struggled

They read your essay that recounts your family scraping by during the 1950s—burlap sacks for clothing and dinners of summer's canned tomatoes for days—and talk about when they got their MFA in Iowa as similar to this kind of poverty. Before workshop, they describe the free bread they got at the co-op as such a lucky break—how else were they gonna use up that organic bruschetta topping? In the essay that mentions ketchup sandwiches and adding water to milk and the glee at two whole dollars to spend at the garage sale, they ask why the hell someone would eat a ketchup sandwich—didn't you have any pesto or turkey? The rest of us read their work. We read about that time in Brooklyn when they slid on the subway steps and their coffee flew into the air and landed on them as a turning point in their lives. We write in the margins, tell me more—what do you mean shame "felt so new" to you? Why? They drive away from the workshop in an Audi; their wedding announcement was in the New York Times; and when you read their comments on your piece, there are question marks around the phrase "We didn't have a maid."

This is the Jerk*

They poked a Bic pen through their t-shirt an hour before workshop to create three nonchalant-looking holes. They put the t-shirt on and gaze into the mirror. They are transcendent. They don't care about workshop. They care about it so little they're wearing this crappy curated shirt. They stomp into the room twenty minutes early, already disgusted by the occasion. They sip coffee or an energy drink because how else are they gonna get through this bullshit? Everyone who enters immediately leaves—someone has to pee, two people decide to get a drink, someone else forgot to print something. The Jerk sits alone, ruminating, and checks their reflection in the window. When it's time to talk, they curl up in their chair and scowl. They rub their eyebrows. They sigh. They talk about the possibilities of the work only in terms of how it failed. It could’ve been such a poignant coming-of-age story, but it seems as though this speaker got stuck somewhere around the sixth grade. The piece could’ve been so lyrical, so innovative—if only it wasn’t such a clear rip off of Pale Fire. They point out the grammatical issues; the rushed ending, the half-hearted attempt at introspection. During the break, when someone asks them what the hell happened to their shirt—why are there a bunch of pen marks? They tell them that they don't give a shit. It's just a shirt—too busy these days to care. They've been sending queries all day. Queries to agents. Two of the e-mails bounced, but four are already interested. They are the last to leave the workshop. No one sticks around to chat.

*The Jerk may also be the Person Who Has Already Read Everything

This is the Aesthete

They twirl their pencil and sketch their neighbor's jawline in the notebook. The essay they share is a sixteen-page litany in the style of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things" about, accordingly, their favorite things. Someone muses about the role of Nazis in The Sound of Music. They ask, "Does this essay have anything to do with that?” Someone else asks how Maria both mirrors and transgresses patriarchal expectations for women as caretakers. A third person interjects— "This essay is about rampant materialism. It's a goddamn capitalistic farce! A sixteen-page litany of 'My Favorite Things?!' It's brilliant." The Aesthete cries, "No! No—I want none of these things. None of these things are my favorite things." They perch their feet on the table, cross their arms, and moan, "Can't we just appreciate the alliteration/metaphor/[insert literary device] on page three without talking about all this other crap?!"

You write an essay about your cousin's struggle with leukemia and grief’s inexpressibility. They write in the margin, "So much gloomy-gloom. What about sonics?" with a sad face.

This is the Doula/Beekeeper/Stonemason

They work with blood, beeswax, and ashlar. They wear costumes of netting and gloves. They speak a language of breath and stone slapping. They are hearty and harmless. They derail conversations. They baffle. Your essay is about your former career as a social worker in Detroit. But you didn't realize that your essay is actually about the intricacies of the third trimester and Braxton Hicks contractions. The Doula stares at you from across the table, "Can you feel the contractions—the moments of pressure—throughout this piece? I want to see this verbalized, written on the page, the contractions that I'm feeling as a reader so that I can breathe with you . . ." You don't understand what this means. Your piece isn't about birth, but the way the Doula is talking about it, you wonder if your essay could be about it. Maybe you never realized that's what you've been circling this whole time? The Doula continues to talk, but you're no longer listening. You swear that they read what you wrote. They're so sincere—there's no possible way they're just bluffing their way through the workshop. Right?

Or, perhaps, your essay braids a story about an ex-lover together with that time you took a pottery workshop, but, oh—wait, your work is actually about the risk of autumn and spring when your beehive is at risk of bear visitation. We all learn about proper fencing and placement in proximity to the woods, but we hear nothing of what this person thinks about your essay. Do they speak in metaphor? They must be. You convince yourself it's up to you to decode their comments. The stonemason seems to talk about your piece, but only about its arrangement—how the fragments fit together, how they could fit better. They talk about hammers and cleavage of stone. Cement and mortar. In the days after your workshop, you begin to think of yourself as pebble flaked. You wonder if you were born en caul. You forget all about that thing you wrote.

This is the Person Who Has Already Read Everything*

Freud? Phhht. Hardt and Negri? Read that in high school. Deleuze and Guattari? They are all about the rhizome. If it's not theory, then they've read the entirety of Montaigne's work. They drop references en français. Maybe they're pseudo-scholars of the Japanese zuihitsu. They tell you your work—collage-like and fragmented—reminds you of it. You ask them what that means. Zuihitsu? Never heard of it. They don't explain. They talk about Sei Shōnagon's The Pillow Book and Yoshida Kenkō's Tsurezuregusa. Everyone nods along. You nod along too. You've heard of The Pillow Book, but you have no idea who Kenkō is. You make a note to look it up later but never do. They talk about Hazlitt and Lamb and Sir Thomas Browne as if they're neighbors that come over for tea. They drone on about the work of Baltasar Gracián. They talk about someone else's work in relationship to Giorgio Agamben's homo sacre. Then they say Fred Moten’s name. Just his name. Fred. Moten. Then they're talking about Lacan. No one knows what they're saying. Some people are nodding. Some might be doodling. Someone raises their hand and changes the subject.

*They may be oblivious and innocuous. They may also be a Jerk.

The Person Who Never Believes You

They're usually late. They've always got a gyro from the place down the street that they unwrap while someone else is speaking. They spill salt on the table. They tell you what they liked and didn't like. They loved the part about the border guards smoking weed, but they hated the part about reconciliation between friends. That never happens, they say. They tell you that they liked the part about the Pomeranian dog running through Peru's streets but that they just didn't get the part about skinny dipping. Who does that anymore? They don't believe that your grandfather was really a rogue cop or that your spouse cheated you out of your income tax or that you ever felt berated. "I mean, I know it's nonfiction," they say. "But really? That's not what I would've done…" They leave their garbage on the table. You see them later that night reading Isaac Asimov at the bar.

This is Me

In my first workshop, I was the occasional high-falutin' Jerk. I've also been the Doula/etc. who projects their expertise onto whatever they're reading (though, for me, it's astrology that I see in the most un-astrological texts). I'm never the Aesthete, and I'm never the Person Who Has Already Read Everything because I haven't read everything (or, really, most things). These days, I'm usually uncertain, my comments phrased as questions, my inflection rising at the end of my sentences as I search the room for nods to validate my commentary. I am often tentative—the possibilities of a text darting in often different directions that I hesitate to direct. I'm never late.

I did not grow up in a family of writers or artists. The family above that ate canned tomatoes for days are my ancestors. I grew up in a blue-collar, rural world where such artistic conversations were the stuff of folks far fancier than us. When I entered an MFA program, I knew that the workshop was an opportunity to have multiple people read and comment on one person's work. But I also felt I was entering an unknown space with mysterious performances of expertise and power. I felt there was a language I had to speak that I never learned. The goals and politics of workshop were never made evident. Perhaps, to others, it was transparent, but I was too removed from the academy to understand. I often felt like a caricature—the Country Bumpkin, the Kid from the Sticks Who Doesn't Know Shit.

Of course, such rural caricatures aren't fashionable in the workshop. In effect, I found other roles. I was a Jerk in an attempt to speak the language. I blathered about astrology because I didn't know what else to say. Without permission or confidence to speak authentically, I had to inhabit someone else.

This is the Transparent Workshop

Eressos' "These Are Them" is an essay of observation. Eressos does not concern himself with revolution or critique. The figures he describes are without commentary. Yet, when Eressos stepped away from his, to use D'Agata's phrase again, "clipped and snarky portraits," did they propel him to reflect on himself? Or cause him to delve into how such "flawed" individuals came to be? Did he want to reach out to his characters and say, tell me why you're poking holes in your shirt with a Bic pen?

Maybe in his diary or bedroom scribblings, he wrote about the intersections between self, society, and his portraits. Perhaps he mused on how they came to be. What would such musings have revealed? What if his descriptions had been taken one step further from cynicism into analysis and action? I ask because I am interested in something that lies beyond the Aesthete or the Jerk. I long for what I call the transparent workshop.

After years of sitting in workshops both within and beyond the academy and observing my peers and myself in these spaces, I have wondered how to focus a group of distinct individuals to serve both the writer whose work is on the table but everyone else in the room as well. I have also seen how the dynamics of our biases, traumas, and uncertainties influence the workshop space—regardless of the work being critiqued. While the locus of exposure may seem to be on the shoulders of the writer, there is also vulnerability inherent in critique. Our subjectivities influence the way we read and respond to work. Systems of power and domination replicate themselves in the workshop space. The workshop often existing within the academy's realm also presents overwhelming barriers to those without historical access. As I have reflected on these (albeit absurd) portraits, I have thought about making transparent what is often unsaid in the workshop and wondered how such transparency would impact our behavior.

By "transparent," I mean a space where the workshop's history as a place of marginalization, silencing, and performances of power is laid bare. I am interested in a space where we can strategize and grapple with how to move the workshop towards a space that embraces and protects the vulnerability inherent in sharing creative work. Questions tug at me as I write these words—how? What if? But what about—? Yet I fear I have chosen the wrong essayist as my muse to answer such questions. I have written the wrong essay. Perhaps what I have wanted all along are the characters that have yet to be conjured. Maybe I begin with what I know to move into what I do not know.

What I do know is this: the transparent workshop would be one where I could share an essay such as this—one that ends on the crux of where it wants to be—and know such incompleteness would be embraced rather than ridiculed. I know that the transparent workshop would be a space of collaboration, vulnerability, and support. It would be something that could not be caricatured so easily.


Courtney Kersten is the author of Daughter in Retrograde (University of Wisconsin Press 2018). She is a PhD Candidate in Literature at UC-Santa Cruz and is currently at work on a hybrid-biography about the late superstar astrologer of the 1970s Linda Goodman.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Making an Echo: the essay writer as receiver and transmitter in the works of Nathalie Léger by Jay Ponteri

French writer Nathalie Léger has written a triptych of books, and thankfully, Dorothy Project has published English translations of all three works. In 2017, the press published A Suite for Barbara Loden (translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon), and this week they have released Exposition (translated by Amanda Demarco) and The White Dress (translated by Natasha Lehrer). This is a gift to the English-reading world! This is a gift to the Essay Team Members! Go Attempters!

In each book, Léger considers the work and life of a woman artist. In Exposition she explores the life and photographic works of Countess de Castiglione (1837-1899), an Italian woman who moved to Paris where she lived and worked till her death. Suite for Barbara Loden tells the story of American actress and director, Barbara Loden and her 1970 Independent film Wanda. The third book, White Dress, considers the Italian performance artist Pippa Bacca who wears a wedding dress and films herself hitchhiking around the vestiges of war-torn Europe (“Venice, Gorizia, Ljubljana, Banja, Luka, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Sofia, Burgas, Istanbul.”), meeting up with midwives and washing their feet, all in an effort to practice and promote peace. At the very end of the trip, a man picks up Bacca then kidnaps, rapes, and murders her, so Léger’s juxtaposing Bacca’s loving intentions with male sociopathic violence. What begins to materialize in the first work (Exposition) and takes up more space as the three books unfold is Léger’s relationship to her mother and, more specifically, to her mother’s disappointments around her marriage. The three books are slim, the length of novellas, and as in the form of the novella, paraphrasing Debra Spark's cogent lecture on the novella, the dramatic focus is tightened, which then encourages vertical expansion, a kind of philosophical depth that exhibits nicely through Léger’s prose style of ornate, stretchy compression. 

Amid patriarchal cultures—crossing three centuries—diminishing and limiting female experience, these women make innovative and revelatory, healing in Pippa Bacca’s case, art works. Léger is an archivist, so she is often in search of documents, interviews, memoirs and diaries of those who once knew these women, their photographs and films, and of people who knew these people. In Suite for Barbara Loden: “I know from experience that to gain access to the dead you must enter this mausoleum that’s filled with papers and objects, a sealed place, full to bursting yet completely empty, where there is barely room for you to stand upright.” It is bursting with voices, language, discernible and invisible gestures that exist in past, present, and future realms. The emptiness of the room allows Léger to listen more closely to what she has yet to hear. She visits the spaces, some ruins, others disappeared, these women once inhabited, from Countess of Castiglione’s building at Place Vendome and the Tuileries, both in Paris, to the now abandoned Holy Land theme park in which Loden filmed a beautifully strange extended scene. 

One essential way we relate to the beings surrounding us—relation is the volley of connection-disconnection, of touch and hold and retreat—is to listen to their stories by retelling them. To better convey this process, I shall borrow from the language of radio. Nathalie Léger is both receiver and transmitter. She works from a decentered space, unplanned and deeply perceptive, wide open ear h(ear)ts—alive shells, as Emily Kendal Frey says—making the prose capable of expressing an inclusive and meaningful relational awareness. Léger is not a nonfiction writer who explores the lives and works of others as a means to catalyze her own self-exploration. She’s using the present moment of composition to conjure these women, to slip inside their skins, to relate to and with them, collaborate with them, live with and apart from them. She’s conducting a haunting in which us readers become the ghosts. She’s connecting to these women by inhabiting her curiosity for their inner lives. Her relationships to these women are predicated on receptivity and reciprocity, on understanding filled with cacophonous contradictions and blended nuance and unanswerable questions. 

She positions herself as a receiver-transmitter. She opens her being to those around her, within and beyond her perceptual field, not with the hope of “finding herself” or “encountering the other,” but to fill herself with layers of connection. A spider spins a single thread of silk into a structure we call a web. A receiver takes in radio waves and converts this information into audible forms. The writing, her thinking on the page, Léger’s consciousness (also the consciousnesses of Lehrer, Demarco, and Menon!) transmits this multiplex of waves changing forms. Exposition opens up with a brief section that could be construed as a receiver-transmitter manifesto for Léger’s compositional process: 

Surrender, premeditate nothing, want nothing, neither discern, nor dissect nor stare, but rather shift, dodge, lose focus—and slowing down—consider only the material that presents itself, in its disorder and even in its order. (7)

This is the essay noggin. This is, to quote poet Matt Hart, writing at attention. An archivist and curator, Léger has been charged to pick through a museum’s collection to find a piece about which to write, but what comes to her already exists within her private library: a catalogue of photographs of the Countess of Castiglione. She’s not just writing “about” this woman; she’s writing to absorb this woman:  

It was by coincidence, at the top of a small wooden staircase in the dilapidated bookshop of a provincial town, that I came across her. I was dumbfounded, but not by the image alone. A woman charging across the cover of a catalog. La Comtesse de Castiglione par elle-même. I was chilled by the evil of her gaze, petrified by the violence of this figure bursting forth. I thought without comprehending: “Myself by her against me” in a fit of mental mumbling that abated somewhat later when I overheard a woman on the 95 bus tell another woman a long, doleful story of jealousy. Just as she was getting off, she said, “You understand, my problem isn’t him, it’s her, it’s the other woman.” On the winding path of femininity, the loose stone you stumble over is another woman (l’autre—that’s what we called the woman my father left my mother for—Lautre became her name, a name that allowed her no identity of her own, connecting only to her function; Lautre, illegitimate, not the mother; Lautre, whatever she might do, you hate her, you want her). (8-9)

“Myself by her…,” her standing in for me—not the opposite, me standing in for her—which suggests Léger’s impulse is to position herself at the edges, not to disappear, to better hear, to be in community with, to receive and transmit all of its tangled pathways. This passage displays Leger’s associative thinking, how swiftly she shifts prose modes, swinging from anecdote to meditation to different anecdote to language inquiry. What emerges—the material that presents itself at the paragraph’s end—is the other woman, the not-her-mother from the narrator’s childhood, her mother too, a present absence. Léger has no endpoint in mind. Her intention is to commune with. 

I have been thinking a lot about how we relate to one another, how relationships form, strengthen, weaken, rebound, fall apart, lie dormant, recombine, all at once or something else. So much of my own struggle originates from this conditioned mindset, prevalent in white supremacist culture, that relationships are meant to fulfill my needs, my wants, which are, problematically so, fixed to the stories I tell myself about myself. And part of growing up, part of making whiteness visible, means redefining relationships to integrate the needs of the whole community. Another way to put it—in a strengthening and thriving bond, something happens beyond my own needs and wants that breathes in awareness of the larger community that holds in place that bond, that my connections to others link to the needs of the larger community, needs for growth and inclusion, for breath and beat. This awareness can be cultivated, I believe, by repositioning oneself as a receiver-transmitter. 

In Suite for Barbara Loden, Léger receives-transmits an entire web of relationships: her relationship to Barbara Loden, Loden’s relationship to her character Wanda, Wanda’s relationship to the real-life woman who inspired Loden, Alma H. Malone. And you also have Loden’s relationship to her husband and film director Elia Kazan along with the others Loden and her creative works have impacted. Here is a fragment describing French writer Marguerite Duras speaking to widower Kazan: 

During a conversation in the lounge of one of the grand Parisian hotels, after Barbara Loden has died, Duras said to Kazan, “Wanda is a film about somebody. Have you ever made a film about somebody? When I say somebody, I mean somebody whom you’ve singled out, whom you can see for who they are, detached from the social context in which you first came across them. I think there is always some trace of something in yourself that society can’t touch, something inviolable, impenetrable, determining.” She added: “There is an immediate and definite coincidence between Barbara Loden and Wanda.” (68-69)

Léger’s prose seeks out these connections of coincidence. A relationship may not have apparent causality, but perhaps it seeks that causality through its unfolding, through discrete acts of reciprocity and their accretion over time. Any act of reciprocity in love begins with receptivity and receiving the stories of others propels retelling. The fragment itself—a description of Duras’s relating with both Kazan and Loden, presence and absence—enacts this by holding then exhibiting to the reader this connectivity. 

In this second book of the triptych, Léger’s relating, almost simultaneously, with Loden and her character Wanda, relating with Loden’s relating to Wanda, relating with Wanda’s correspondences with Alma. What captures Loden’s imagination to begin with is a newspaper story about Alma H. Malone who, after being sentenced to prison for helping a man kidnap a bank manager then together commit a bank robbery, thanks the judge. 

Interviewed when the film came out, after it had been awarded the International Critics Award at the 1970 Venice Film Festival, Barbara would say how deeply affected she had been by the story of this woman—what pain, what hopelessness could make a person desire to be put away? How could imprisonment be relief? (10)


Our relationships do not build in isolation of but in accordance with one another. Relationships that include understanding and shared feelings necessitate reciprocity, give and take, receptivity that combines sacrifice or setting aside the individual’s needs and wants. These are the behaviors that help move any community to a space in which mutual aid and truth supplant selfishness and self-delusion. Léger engages a compositional process that combines rooted receptivity with intensive transparency.  (Imagine living in a cool basement with walls of windows through which dollops of sunlight and moonshine angle.) This is difficult, rightly so, to pinpoint as a writing tool, but perhaps we can call it making the echo. Daniela Naomi Molnar sent me this passage from the book, What Color Is The Sacred?, by the anthropologist Michael Taussig:

And if in this magical use of language there lies the power of fusing the speaker with the things spoken about, there exists nevertheless the equal and opposite force of repulsion and fear—the fear of losing oneself in the object, such loss being essential, as I see it, to scientific method. Empathy, we can call it, but also immersion with Otherness that makes you prone to metamorphoses of that Self you hold so dear. Walter Benjamin referred to this as the workings of what he called “the mimetic faculty,” meaning that desire, need, and even capacity to become Other, a capacity he saw as at the root of language as much as dance. (100)

With ferocity and pathos, Léger enters into a standing-with relationship with these other women only to realize she’s been in touch with herself the entire time. This feels to me like the natural movement of the most revelatory art criticism—to move close to the work, to ride along then pierce the work’s textured surface into its mysterious netherworld then looping back out (through innards) towards these words you hear out there in the private distance only to find them coming from your own mouth. With all of these women—Countess of Castiglione, Barbara Loden and Wanda (and Alma H Malone), and Pippa Bacca—Léger comes to know them as women who lived rich lives, artists’ lives, intensely felt. 

What does it even mean to be a receptive writer? How can one listen and speak at the same time? Brandon Shimoda, via G-chat, comes to the rescue, sending me this passage by Anne Anlin Cheng in her book The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief. Cheng’s in consideration of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée:

Since listening remains one of the only physical activities of the human body that occurs simultaneously inside and outside the body, we might understand listening here to be initiating a boundary contestation. The sound that penetrates the infant is also the sound after which the infant fashions him / herself; the moment of shattering retroactively constitutes the possibility of boundary not experienced before. The infant mimes the sound he/she hears and, in the act of mimicry, experiences him/herself as at once possible and other—what Lacan calls the loss of self to self. Coming to listening and the speech condition coming-to-being. The speaking subject serves as, and is conditioned by, the dictaphonic structure, a voice relay: “She allows others. In place of her… [t]he others each occupying her” (3). So there is no speaking subject as such that is not already an echo. (162)

Léger works through a dictaphonic structure. She’s listening closely to what’s passing through her, to the visual works she’s encountering, to other archival materials, and she transmits through her own voice an echo. She makes an echo. She allows the world to fill her and speaks. She writes from a porous and adaptive space, highly perceptive, her ear just as central as her capacity—which is profound—to write with specificity and nuance. Here I present to thee three prose blocks from Suite for Barbara Loden, the first one describing a scene (in present tense) from Loden’s incredible film Wanda:

She sits up and gently strokes his forehead until he cries out. She pales, but I only wanted to be nice. Silence. It’s two in the morning, the exhaustion from the lack of sleep is palpable, but more than anything we sense the weariness, the bitter taste of not being loved. She scratches her arm just for something to do. In the middle of the night he tells her to go out for burgers, no garbage, no onions, no butter on the bun! He hits her when she gets back, reproaching her for not getting what he asked for, etc. There is nothing easily recognizable between them; neither lust nor passion, no exchange, no offering. In this hotel room, with its green walls and flowery curtains, on this bed with sheets rumpled from heat and mutual incomprehension, a hackneyed scene of humiliation and submission is being played out, the silent withdrawal of one into another.

Once upon a time the man I loved reproached me for my apparent passivity with other men. We were in the kitchen having breakfast: he told me that he was afraid of that habit particular to women in general and me in particular, in his opinion,  of being either unable or unwilling to resist uninvited male desire, of the madness of giving in whatever they asked of us. He couldn’t understand how hard it is to say no, to be confronted with the desire of another and to reject it—how hard it is and possibly how pointless. How could he not understand the sometimes overwhelming necessity of yielding to the other’s desire to give yourself a better chance of escaping it! 

Sylvia Plath writes in her  journal: “For instance, I could hold my nose, close my eyes, and jump  blindly into the waters of some man’s insides, submerging myself until his purpose becomes my purpose, his life, my life, and so on. One fine day I would float to the surface, quite drowned, and supremely happy with my newfound selfless self.” (40-41)

Léger’s description of the film is concrete and spare. When she adds to this description her ideas, she remains close to the textual surface. This allows her to delve into the drama’s ineffable underworld—“There is nothing easily recognizable between them; neither lust nor passion, no exchange, no offering.”—and her own anecdote shows not so much her projecting herself into Wanda’s situation but relating to Wanda, expressing empathy and, at the same time, adding depth to the conversation, adding another piece of herself to their collaboration while returning to this place of listening, naturally extended by her quotation sans commentary of Plath’s experience. The blank spaces clear space for us readers to join the collaboration, to feel the echo pass through our chests. 

Léger’s using words that listen to other words, a kind of paradox all of us writers have to navigate. For a writer to find the depths, one must find a way to tune up and turn up and amplify a variety of listening modes. We have to stop being the experts of our own hearts because this expertise is simply an illusion. Our hearts beat in accord with one another.

Right now might be the moment to announce that as a reader of lots of creative nonfiction, no books have excited me more than this triptych by Léger. Sebald’s sequence—Vertigo, Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants, and Austerlitz—comes to mind. As do Lia Purpura’s books and Jenny Boully’s books. Leger’s three books are master works that deserve multiple readings.

In the first two books—Exposition and Suite for Barbara Loden—Léger’s relationship to her mother materializes gently and accretes in sporadic, revelatory fragments in dispersed correspondence with her reception of the lives of Countess of Castiglione and Barbara Loden while in the third book, The White Dress, Léger’s consideration of her mother’s marriage that ends in betrayal and divorce is given much more space and dramatic weight. Her understanding of her mother’s unhappiness hinges upon her receiving-transmitting Pippa Bacca’s life and works. The two seem to enter Léger’s mind’s bloodstream at the same time, which she allows. By describing Pippa Bacca’s desire for  kindness and service and spiritual connection in the aftermath of (and run-up to) violence, Léger comes to more fully receive her mother’s story. Here is a passage in which the consideration of Bacca’s work bends to consideration of Léger’s mom:

In the images that remain of this journey she often appears haloed by light: it was the white of her enormous gown, backlit, it was the entire purpose of her journey, an idealistic cloud, the urge to repair, the desire to spread goodness, not goodness itself, but the idea of goodness—and it is unclear that it was enough, or rather what is clear is specifically that it was not enough, but perhaps conversely goodness cannot be anything but an idea, and it is impossible that this idea matters a great deal, it may be that it is not always necessary for facts to confirm an idea for the idea to be true, and the opposite may also be true. I would have liked to discuss all this with my mother in the blue evening mist that was descending on the garden as, through the thicket of perfumed trees and half-closed shutters, the distant lights of the living room gave off the blinding illusion of happiness. I would be wrong, moreover, to say that it was Pippa’s goodness that drew me to her story. It was not her intentions that interested me, nor the grandeur of her project, nor her candour, her grace or her foolishness, it was what she wanted, by making this journey, to mend something that was out of all proportion, and that she did not make it. (37-39)

There’s so much to say about this book. There are narrative threads so surprising towards which I don’t want to even gesture so as not to spoil anybody’s reading experience. Any creative nonfiction writer serious about collage work should pore  over all of these books. Léger has evolved the collage form of the essay by placing total  trust in the methods the form offers to the writer—especially associative thinking, the use of dream (dream as a form of persuasion), and trust in fragmentation, specifically in the way fragments accrete meaning through varying degrees of incompletion and interdependence. 

Perhaps the best way, the most suitable way to end my reception-transmission is to think about—and praise—the translators. It makes total sense to me that multiple women are translating Léger, that the creation of Léger’s voice in English translation is a collaboration dependent upon relational awareness, that this work, any work of translation, means achieving the deepest reception of the work in a single language and expressing that reception in a second language. Natasha Lehrer, Amanda Demarco, and Cécile Menon together capture in English Léger’s deft combination of lyric prowess with incisive intelligence and crisp storytelling. The prose, like Sebald’s, slides mid-sentence from one mode to another, one register to another, one contradiction to another. Here is Lehrer’s translation of Léger’s description written in French prose of her dream of Pippa Bacca’s journey. Here is art as relational growth. It seems right to leave the reader with this passage:

So she left. Broad swathes of sky made way for the density of cities. There would have been moments of dazzling joy. Some mornings, absolute confidence in everything, a perfect grip on the world; and others, muffled disaster, the landscape so vast, the breadth of the sky disorienting. Joy will have passed over things, the light breath of happiness. The world is made of abandoned feelings, sweaty bodies, derelict concrete with a soundtrack embedded in its cells, ruins, stories, an inventory of functions, the sun leaking, dirty, insinuating itself inside the whole collapsing lot of it. Now the sound of the flawless thrust of a twin engine high in the sky, a note, a shuddering, and sometimes the rattling of stones. Ruined hangars merging with piled-up cars, layers of scrap, alignments broken up, continuity thrown off course, rails, runners, sloping lines of spray-painted concrete, a flood of writing caught in the dragnet of cities, blocks, cellars, river banks, then it contracts, the suburban house, the pathetic luxury of the bungalow, a back garden, the sudden appearance of an orchard, then more wasteland, burnt grass, the sudden muffling of a tunnel, it passes, you can make out the ghost of a blurred parking lot as it speeds by, the clammy concrete underbelly  streaked with garbage, then the unexpected geometry of a field of rape, and again a road as it  slices through the chilly spring, the shaft of a lamppost emerging from a thicket, a slope of dormant grass, suddenly the orb  of  the sky looms over a man walking, alert, his shadow growing smaller, we are not going to make it, we’re going to keep going round in circles, we will walk the length of the sky, stumble on the pebbles  where the light is fading, we will keep turning, drift, weep. There will have been the tiny syncopation, the  hollow around the stones, the dissonance when everything is in harmony. There will have been ecstasy, foolish to say it, pitiless. There will  have been effort, boredom, the desire to return. There you have it. The journey in a nutshell. (32-34)


Tuesday, September 8, 2020

“Essays Help Me Draw A Deeper Breath:” Aimee Nezhukumatathil in conversation with Kathryn Gougelet on World of Wonders

I was drawn to Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s forthcoming book of essays World of Wonders first from its stunning cover, which is bursting with illustrations of creatures who seem prepared to disclose to readers all sorts of secrets from their various worlds. Indeed, as the summer of 2020 continued its chaotic and violent trajectory, wonder felt like a feeling that I wanted more of, and that maybe other readers wanted more of, too. And who better to teach us about this feeling than Aimee Nezhukumatathil? Her work even before this collection is brimming with curiosity and delight for the natural world, as well as an astute sense for how social inequalities influence both access to the outdoors and a longer tradition of environmental writing. World of Wonders charts a path for readers across a broad range of possibilities for what wonder can be—a political force, a deep curiosity; joy, solastalgia, astonishment. Readers: for a wonder teacher, we couldn’t be in better hands. As I began to read the collection, it became clear early on that Aimee has honed the essay as a vehicle for deftly moving across time, across affect, across place, and across wonder’s many valences. I interviewed Aimee over email this month about a variety of topical and craft questions that arose as I read the book. I hope that her responses give you a sense for the wisdom and joy that you’ll find in the pages of this collection, and that, by the end, you’ll find yourself needing the book as much as I did. If so, buy it from Milkweed Books. —Kathryn Gougelet