Thursday, December 10, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar: Dec 10, Darcy Jay Gagnon, The Blue Jay Dances to Brian Eno: Louise Erdrich and Creative Journal as Kankyō Ongaku

When I think of my golden era for authors who made me interested in modern writing, I predominately think of Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich. These are both writers that are masters of narrative, just experimental enough in structure, and wholly lacking in pretentiousness; all excellent qualities for the blossoming reader. Even today, they are the two writers whose books most decorate my shelves. 

For this reason, I was excited to finally delve into Erdrich’s The Blue Jay’s Dance, her only memoir and book of nonfiction, which I had heard from many sources as “very good.” I was particularly excited because, when I think of Erdrich, I think of narrative, something that I struggle with in my own writing so obviously want to know more about it. Not long ago I heard her read a selection of her most recent novel, in which she dramatizes a high school volleyball match (influenced by watching her daughter play), and I was amazed at the way she could, for page after page and without break or tangent, keep me engaged about the play-by-play of a sport I care little about, with characters I know nothing about, and all through the most subtle tensions of language. She simply allowed the drama of the sport to be the drama, to not get in the way of it, even if there wasn’t anything necessarily more-or-less spectacular about this one amateur volleyball game as opposed to any other. I believe Erdrich is a skilled writer in that her sentences are spectacular and you can’t necessarily figure out why. I’m reminded of how Kevin Parker from the band Tame Impala said that 90% of the time he spends on a song is just engineering drum sounds, making the loud drum noises seem quiet.

So, I was surprised when I opened Blue Jay to find that it was not only broken into page length fragments, but lyric fragments at that. Is this a lyric essay, I hoped? Is this a lyric essay, I feared? For, after a few years of editing for a literary journal, I’ve come to secretly hate the fragmented lyric essay, and how much that needed and sometimes difficult reflection is so often replaced by a section break or a jarring juxtaposition. When asked about traditional narrative versus fragmented essay structures at a panel this year, Kyoko Mori advised that fragments work best when they aren’t being used to evade or hide from the blunt truths and realities that are necessary to understand the topics we approach, and blunt truths and realities are something I so often attribute to Erdrich’s fiction as well.

But Blue Jay isn’t a lyrical essay, or at least I wouldn’t call it that. It’s a journal, and blatantly so, blending a series of her pregnancies loosely into 12 months, from winter pregnancy into the first year of infant motherhood. “I finished this book for our daughters,” begins the first line of Erdrich’s dedication, “because I hope these pages will claim for them and for others too, what it is to be a parent—an experience shattering, ridiculous, earthbound, deeply warm, rich, profound.” 

I’ve been thinking a lot about journals as art ever since I began writing a biography of Matsuo Bashō, who’s most celebrated work is a travel diary which, like Erdrich’s memoir, is a refined collection of day-to-day thoughts or encounters, where the only “narrative tension” is the passage of time—beginning of journey to end; winter to winter. I’ll get more into that later, but mostly I’ve been thinking about how a medium that is so quintessentially meant for the self (or in the case of Erdrich, her daughters as well)—the journal, the diary, whatever— can be allowed to inform others in an artistic or meaningful way. For example, at the publication I work for, one of my most frequent comments on personal essay that come through our slush pile is “this essay seemed very valuable for the writer, but as a reader, I’m not sure this has anything to do with us.” It is the dreaded question of the “stakes for the reader,” a term that is becoming as cliché as “aboutness” and “liminal spaces.” When I think about personal essay in particular, there is something disingenuous about even approaching the thought of how we make the pursuit of understanding our personal strife sexy for a reader, one that brushes up against marketability in a kind of disgusting way. But can art be art without an audience? So, I ask if journals can be art in the same way that I ask if therapy can be art.

But I think there is more motive to this memoir than appears. Since it is written over the course of multiple pregnancies, for Erdrich, there must be something urgent and necessary about the pre- and post-labor state of mind that she felt compelled to trace, record, or study. For her sake, for her daughters’, or for all of ours.

And there is something primal about that, which, without saying, captures the instinctive, heightened awareness following childbirth. Not to say that Erdrich isn’t capable of lyricism, but this memoir seems to be nothing but the senses, and when it’s not, it’s nothing but the unfiltered emotions. For instance, she takes us with her through a tour de la gastronomie with dish after dish of anise and fennel-based recipes during one of Erdrich’s particular liquorish cravings. Or the way she describes her racing heart while snug beneath a crawlspace after chasing a stray cat beneath her house, feeling womblike and fragile as a simple shifting of the house would be enough to shatter her ribcage: “On the edge of sickening panic, I had never been in a space so tight, one thought pressed in: If I heard the house creak, if it settled very suddenly upon my back, my last crushed thought would be, ‘Shit! I don’t even like cats.’” This is true journaling in the sense that it captures what early motherhood is for this person without saying “this is what early motherhood is.”

To that extent, a majority of these vignettes are not about the self at all, except for the assumption that the self is present as the perceiver. As if she is at Tinker Creek, a vast majority of this memoir is a report on the nature around her New England home, and not even the extravagant kind of nature. Woodchucks and stray cats and birds and birds and birds. While I would describe the application of the senses in this book as “raw” in that it is earnest, there is also a distinct ambience about it that—even though I think of Erdrich as a quintessentially American writer—again draws me back to Asia, this time in music instead of literature. 

To be more specific, when I think of the ambience of this book, I think about the Japanese term Kankyō Ongaku, which literally translates to “environmental music.” Don’t be deceived by that translation though, because it does not specifically mean “music about the environment” as much as it means, music to evoke an environment or, rather, to fill one. Other sub-genres or ways of describing Kankyō Ongaku are “furniture music” or “sightseeing music.”

Spencer Doran, who curated a Grammy-nominated collection of Kankyō Ongaku music, traces the popularity of the predominately 80’s Japanese genre to British composer Brian Eno, who famously composed the classic ambient album Music for Airports. “For Eno,” Doran writes in the liner notes to Kankyō Ongaku, “ambient music offered a restructuring of the hierarchical top-down relationship between composer and listener known in the western classical tradition, offering instead a dispersed horizontal form of listening that, like [Eric Satie, classical French composer, and his ‘furniture music,’] folded more easily into the contours of daily life.” Eno, of course, was inspired by composer John Cage, who was inspired by the Zen Buddhism courses he took with D. T. Suzuki at Columbia, a dogma that draws on the ambient noises of the Japanese suikinkutsu (deer scare) or temple bells, which are early examples of environment music from the Edo period. Even today, my partner’s parents, who are devout Buddhists, have tiny speakers in every room that play loops of chanting or chimes.

This idea of music for, or to fill, spaces bled into Japanese architecture in the 80s and literature. In particular, I think about Takashi Hiraide’s novel The Guest Cat. Like with Francis, the on-again-off-again stray in Erdrich’s memoir, Hiraide’s work of “fiction” (which is fiction only in the sense that it is not poetry) operates as a series of a journal entries over a loosely determined period of time, chronicling a poet and his wife as a neighbor’s cat quietly invades their daily life while he reflects on his relationship to the apartment they rent and the neighborhood they live in. Like Blue Jay, it is more interested in being earnest than dramatic, and like the Kankyō Ongaku of the period, offers a space to inhabit less than the story to be told.

Back to Bashō, who taught an idea of karumi or “lightness” in poetry. Bashō’s chief English language biographer, Makoto Ueda, says “[karumi] points toward a simple, plain beauty that emerges when the poet finds [their] theme in familiar things and expresses it in artless language.” When asked about how to evoke lightness in poetry, Basho responded, “Watch what children do,” and “Eat vegetable soup.”

If the art of essaying is to try and understand a truth, Erdrich goes full karumi in her ability to craft seemingly artless sentences. “Groundwater seeps through the moss brown basement walls. I pull a wild kitten from the loose rocks,” Erdrich finishes in a vignette about New England houses.

“Her love is wholly of the child, pure in its essence as a children are in their direct passions. Children do not love wisely, but perhaps they love the best of well.” Erdrich writes about her daughter.

A five-page recipe for perogies from an ancestor, in full, dropped without any commentary or stylization.

Watch what children do, Basho says.

Eat vegetable soup.

* * * 

Finally, this brings us, kicking, screaming perhaps, to the conversation of metaphor. When we discussed this memoir at my book group, I posed simple question. What are the prominent metaphors Erdrich has introduced? Together, we struggled and strained. There is, of course, Francis, the stray cat who appears in about as much of the book as Erdrich’s children, but to try to force a comparison between these two unlike things—ferocity, independence, I am woman hear me roar— felt cheap and maybe not the point. Same with the blue jay and its dance. And the woodchuck. And the houses of New Hampshire.

That’s not to say that Erdrich doesn’t use the device of metaphor in her writing (though even that feels spare), it’s that there is little in her memoir that is metaphorical, to abuse the recent meme from Parasite.

I think about T. Fleischmann’s lecture against metaphor in their book-length essay Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through, in which they recount an encounter with a child they passed on the street:

’…The kid yells out after me, ‘Hey! I live in a house with a door!’ The kid says it with a lot of confidence and a lot of happiness, really wanting me to know this. And I turn around and say, ‘Hey, me too!’ and we both laugh and then I walk down the block.

Isn’t that so beautiful? ‘Hey, I live in a house with a door.’ I’m hungry for truth and kids are just spouting facts up and down the street.

And then,

I had shared some information about the world and then the kid wanted to share some information about the world, and if I get all loopidy-loo about what the kid said, I’m probably missing the whole message, which is just ‘Hey, I live in a house with a door.’ And really…isn’t some information about being alive beautiful enough? That we dry forks and touch hair and throw away a sock?

I think, like what Mori says about narrative and how, like fragments, metaphor is best used when it is meant to illuminate an idea for which there may not be words possible, and therefore, only juxtaposition will suffice. In other words, to form new connections, rather than use metaphor to shield us from saying a thing we are too afraid, bored, or lazy to say.

Since we are perhaps only a secondary audience to Erdrich, her daughters being the first, the idea of earnestness, clarity, and that rawness, without subversion, is what is necessary and most at stake. It is as if she asks, while writing in her journal about the daily birds in the yard, who needs comparison when we can have all this.


Darcy Jay Gagnon is a writer based out of Washington D.C., an MFA graduate from George Mason University, and an assistant nonfiction features at The Rumpus. He is presently working on a lyric biography of Matsuo Basho, but also writes about music and birds. You can find his other work at The Rumpus, Entropy, and here.

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