There’s something wobbly and rare that happens in Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade’s Telephone: Essays in Two Voices, the latest winner of the CSU Poetry Center Essay Prize, which has produced some badass books in its first few years by the likes of Lily Hoang, James Allen Hall, Shaelyn Smith, and Amy Long.
I’m thinking about how primal the self often seems to be in the contemporary American essay, how we prize the contours of the self and its slinky thinkiness, how that is the thing that I’m really interested in when I read anyone’s essay, and that’s what we’re usually talking about when we talk about essaying and annoy the non-essayists among us. I mean, it’s not the subject (though it’s sometimes the subject): it’s the architecture that the I dances around the subject: how the I is transformed by it, or vice versa, and probably both.
So I was prepared to be skeptical of an essay collection composed by two Is, though I’m not really sure why. I like both Brenda Miller’s and Julie Marie Wade’s work. And in other media, duets are often standouts. I’m all about collaboration in my editorial work and increasingly my teaching. But when it comes to the I, I guess I’m not so sure I’m ready to give that up.
Maybe I’ve just read some bad experiments in deselfitization before? I find that when you lose the I in a book or in an essay I just get less interested in most cases. It’s like when a graphic novel trades language (which is the only thing I really care about, it turns out) for image: it’s not a good trade, at least not for me. I want both.
Wade and Miller tell us in the “Authors’ Note” that “We have chosen not to label the speaker in each section so that our individual voices surrender into a more collective, and communal, authorship.” So when I read that I’m all totally like ugh, no.
I’m not that good a reader, though. I don’t really want to play that game. So even if Miller and Wade choose not to identify who is speaking or manifesting in each section, I naturally start to assign certain bits by what autobiography I know from each writer (I know neither well but having read their individual nonfiction you start to get an idea). I couldn’t stop myself. But it’s not always easy to do that, or maybe I don’t care enough to follow through all the way on it, so after a while I had to mostly give it up.
And after I gave it up, the feeling I started to get was a productive uncertainty, in which I began to care less who was talking or writing or thinking, and the two began to just spin around each other. I thought of the metaphor of the thaumatrope, where you have a card attached to a string or stick, and on one side is an empty cage, and on the other side is a bird, and when you spin the card, even though you know it’s two images, you see only the one image: a bird in a cage:
But it’s not quite that. Neither writer abdicates the I: many of these sections are intensely personal or autobiographical. They often let the I extend some thinking. The book doesn’t collapse the two Is into one another, a single collective I. It’s not a we: it’s two Is. They’re just not identified. The Is do start to correspond (their method clearly involves closely reading the other and often following an associative link from one writer’s piece to the next. At least I think they’re alternating. It’s to the authors’ credit that after a while I couldn’t really tell). Through that practice of closely listening to the thing the other wrote, they start to approach each other as we go deeper. This effect is amplified because as I have to give up on trying to figure out who’s memory is whose, so both Is contain both of their memories. The I isn’t collapsed, but it is expanded.
Maybe the better metaphor is the area between two things that create a field of force between them. I’m thinking magnets here, how there are spaces in between the two in which one is subject to both pulls, variably. And at the equilibrium point between the two one floats perfectly between them, pulled in neither direction at all. It is a kind of freedom that’s accomplished in moments like this, and as a reader I felt very strangely free.
Oddly, it’s often form that helps make me feel a little more at home with this freedom. Well, that shouldn’t be surprising: those who love form know form is freedom. And Wade's and Miller's essays are presented in short sections, sometimes titled, sometimes not. Sometimes those sections are alphabetized, as in an index or a catalog, and I was particularly drawn to those, because the reliability of the repeating form lets us focus on the form rather than the questions of I.
They tend to be collected or categorized by a category (“Heat Index”’s sample subsections: Bikram, Blush, Boiling Point, Can’t take the, Dead, etc.). The category becomes the thing that each section references or riffs on (“Of Madison County” or “Over Troubled Water,” for instance, from “Bridges: a Catalog”). There’s a pleasing associative logic that plays out in these particular essays that yokes the subtitle to the title, and we make the leap with them each time (we hope), and doing so we’re drawn closer to the Is, I mean the I, I mean it’s becoming a we now, isn’t it, with our having to do a little bit of assembly as readers, and, damn, that’s a fine trick.
I felt it most sharply in the more form-forward essays, but this leaping we’re doing is also a function of the interplay between the two Is throughout the book, as in the game of telephone that gives the book its title, so we read it everywhere.
By the time I was halfway into the book, I realized I’d given up on I, at least the kind of I work that I was used to essays doing. Was I cured? Suddenly free from its tyranny? I doubt it, but I noticed that my natural urge to resolve the I had vanished in the reading process. What had replaced it? An admiration for the play between the two. And it’s not just wit, either, that I’m admiring, though I do greatly value wit in art. Wit and chemistry, I guess. Maybe all wit in this context is chemistry? But it’s also a real commitment to the methodology: after all, so much of the way literature is rewarded and counted in academia and in the larger literary world is as a solo act. I thought of conversation—not just the telephone kind of conversation, but something closer and more intimate. It’s more like the podcast kind of synergy, where two (or more rarely three) voices and minds together and their collective work is what makes the conversation come to life. Consider I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead (from the essay world) or Reply All (before one of the hosts left) or even Car Talk, which shows up in one of the essays in this book, and is built on the expertise and affection of both brothers. It was sad when that ended because one of them could no longer do it.
By the time I got to the last epistolary essay, the epilogue, it was jarring to all of a sudden see the names and the methodology so clearly identified: here, after all, was Julie writing to Brenda and signing her name, and vice versa. It felt a little like a reveal, but also an acknowledgment of a different kind of intimacy, this one practiced in the summer of 2020, right amid our covid isolation, where writing to each other really did feel novel and necessary. Maybe in that enforced soloing we needed to assert the communicative nature of our prose? That essay, if it’s an essay—I’m not sure if it’s an essay—does feel like it’s operating differently than the others as a result. It didn’t give me the same kind of floating feeling that the others did, but then you have to get out of the book somehow. I realized, after writing this all on my own, that the better methodology would have been to correspond with one of my many witty collaborators in a game of telephone about Telephone, but I guess I haven’t learned my lesson yet. I guess it'll take another couple books from this double I, which I'll look forward to.
Ander Monson's next book is Predator: a Memoir, coming out in September 2022 from Graywolf.