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

Friday, August 28, 2020

Syntax Club: "XL.-XLIII. Photographs: Origin of Time; Jeats; The Meek; I am a Beast"

 Syntax Club: Autobiography of Red

As any Syntax Club readers may have noticed, I've been away from the project for a bit due to being repeatedly, violently unseated from the saddle of "responsible, organized, productive life" by an opponent known as "attempting to provide remote instruction to high school students during a pandemic". We only have a few sections left--keep an eye out for those over the next week.

Please see here for previous installments of Syntax Club; feel free to post comments and thoughts and sentences you love here on the site or Twitter; if you try an exercise feel free to Tweet some of your results using the #SyntaxClub tag.


--How is this work essayistic, or possibly of value to essayists?
--What is distinctive, noteworthy, excellent, or interesting about the sentences in this work?


Geryon takes a series of photographs: one of four people sitting at a table, one of his pant leg, one of a couple of burros, one of a cooked guinea pig arranged on a platter; while up in the mountains of Huaraz Geryon gets incredibly high and experiences a profound sense of isolation & a desire for intimacy; while traversing the mountainous region Geryon also experiences a good deal of hemorrhoid pain; after a brief interaction with the military police the whole crew is invited over to the soldier's bunkhouse for lunch, where they learn that the nearby volcano is active & hear a folktale about bakers using magma as fire for their ovens.


Volcanoes! Finally! Are we to the point where some of that stuff starts to resolve?

Almost, my friends! We will see Geryon and a volcano together up close and personal very soon.

Is Geryon a good photographer?

Hard to tell from the information available, but it seems to me like he has at least some talent for the discipline.

Should we read the "Photograph:..." sections as snapshots? How does these sections or moments vary from the ones that were thematically titled ("Justice") or more narratively driven ("Sex Question")?

These final sections are more charged than many of the previous ones--their density, their luminosity, their thematic implications start to skyrocket as we get closer to the novel's end, so there's probably a value in thinking of them as literary photographs in a way that the earlier sections maybe weren't. Carson also plays around with the "Photographs:..." device a little bit though, as we will see in a few days when we finish out the novel.


It is a photograph of four people sitting around a table with hands in front of them. (136)

In this, the final stretch of the novel-in-verse, we get to see more of Geryon in action as a photographer--though interestingly, we spend almost no time watching him directly engage in the process of photography. Rather, 6 out of the final 7 sections start by giving us a photograph's title & a short description before leaping into a scene around or adjacent to the creation of the photograph. There's a willful flatness to the way each is introduced: it is a photograph of..., and there's some interesting movement going on (should we read these moments of Geryon's life as photos, as snapshots?). The sections addressed in today's post seem straightforwardly to reference literal photographs the character took, but that relationship gets a little more complicated as we move forward. It's an interesting parallel sequence in part because of how Carson plays around with the implications of the structure.

& I also love the strangeness of position at work: around a table with hands in front of them, not their hands but just hands. Strangeness makes sense, of course, given that Geryon was extremely high for this sequence.

Coldness was planing the sides off his vision leaving a narrow canal down which
the shock--Geryon sat
on the floor suddenly. (136)

Two things I noticed: first, the classic use of the em-dash for an abrupt or sudden break in the relationship between syntax and psychology (a relationship we might sometimes take for granted, living in an environment in which a kind of close, psychologically-embedded 3rd person narration is standard, normal, familiar, default). We get a syntactical replication of sides planing off and vision narrowing down through the absence of punctuation (no comma joining vision and leaving) while the sheer length of the line draws us deeper down, deeper into that same canal--but then the sudden, abrupt movement (tacked on with the dash) shocks us out and back to a more distant viewpoint.

Secondly, the abstracted agency of coldness is a fascinating choice; Carson nominalizes the adjective cold as coldness (the more rarefied, theoretical framing for the sensation, maybe) rather than rendering it as the cold which was planing the sides off his vision. Would be interesting to see somebody with more linguistic chops than me do a kind of miniature corpus analysis on how she plays with and slides around categories (adjectives as nouns, nouns as adjectives, possessives turned into adjectives, etc etc etc).

I am too naked,
he thought. This thought seemed profound.
And I want to be in love with someone. This too fell on him deeply. (136)

A very amusing sequence of register shifts here, alternating between direct reports of Geryon's expansive, celestial, very very high internal monologue and a narrative position both empathetic, understanding, and a little wry about the profound nature of those deep thoughts.

Wrongness came like a lone finger
chopping through the room and he ducked. (136)

Wrongness is another interesting abstraction, equally active and menacing as the coldness we saw above. I love the rhythm and pace of the two actions, and how that manifests syntactically. The feeling of wrongness (mostly like pot-driven anxiety or dread, at least in part) is rendered through a full, fleshy clause with a prepositional phrase and a simile embedded within--it draws out the sentence and with it the sensation itself. But then the actual physical action is short, simple, sudden: just a pronoun and a verb. I imagine this is a nice encapsulation of the experience our stoned mythic protagonist is having.

Each time the car bounces him up and down Geryon utters a little red cry. (137)
Geryon's hot apple icepicks
all the way up his anus to his spine. (137)

Geryon's hemorrhoids are an amusing detail for sure, but I also love the strangeness of the description to these two bits. Red cry swiftly reminds us that we're dealing with a mythic subject who has previously been established as ontologically co-extensive (at least in part) with a particular adjective, but there's an endearing pathos to this mythic dimension coming up again in the context of his searing hemorrhoids.

A few lines later we get hot apple icepicks all the way up his anus to his spine, which is another example of Carson's talent for odd-yet-exact description (inflamed rectal veins as a hot apple is frankly an amazing conceit). Icepicks is also an interesting move in that it takes an object and converts it into a verb which is used metaphorically to describe something relatively far removed from the original object's intended action (it would be more boring if something were to icepick all the way up a glacier, yeah? but as a metaphor for hemorrhoids--now we're talking!).
A greasy grin passes around the soldiers. (139)

Struck here by the use of passes around to in reference to a single grin. Of course, all of the soldiers are breaking out into grins more or less at once, as a collective, but Carson chooses to render the visual experience of that as a single thing being shared collectively. An interesting way of emphasizing how a collective or group can operate in some ways as a single beast.

In the cooling left eye of the guinea pig
they all stand reflected
pulling out their chairs and shaking hands. The eye empties. (140)

We've seen this type of reflected shot before, during a memory of Geryon coming home from a high school dance and cleaning up the kitchen while eyeing himself in the kettle. The heavy emphasis on eye here recalls that as well as all the photography stuff (a lens is a kind of eye, after all), but that last line where the eye empties is also setting us up for some action later down the road.



Take a noun, preferably an object or tool, and turn it into a verb (see: icepick becoming icepicks). Use it in a context (metaphoric, most likely) far removed from the original contexts of the object (see: the things icepicking are hemorrhoids).

Screwing with Communal Actions

Re-cast individual behavior in a group such that the individual behavior achieves a kind of collective quality (see: rather than the soldiers individually grinning a grin passed around the group).

Wry Register Shifts

Alternate between sentences reporting thoughts (your own, somebody else's, an imaginary interlocutors, whatever you like) and sentences with essayistic or narrative commentary on those thoughts (see: that sequence where Geryon is stoned and feeling things deeply and in a profound way).

Adjective, Noun, and -ness

When describing a force that can exist in either adjective or noun form (see: cold as adjective versus the cold, dark as adjective verse the dark) substitute in a nominalized form ending in -ness (coldness, darkness, etc) and see how that changes the sense of the passage.


Will Slattery helps curate things here on Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Syntax Club: "XXXVIII. Car"; "XXXIX. Huaraz"

 Syntax Club: Autobiography of Red

As any Syntax Club readers may have noticed, I've been away from the project for a bit due to being repeatedly, violently unseated from the saddle of "responsible, organized, productive life" by an opponent known as "attempting to provide remote instruction to high school students during a pandemic". We only have a few sections left--keep an eye out for those over the next week.

Please see here for previous installments of Syntax Club; feel free to post comments and thoughts and sentences you love here on the site or Twitter; if you try an exercise feel free to Tweet some of your results using the #SyntaxClub tag.


--How is this work essayistic, or possibly of value to essayists?
--What is distinctive, noteworthy, excellent, or interesting about the sentences in this work?


Geryon and crew head off from Lima to visit Huaraz in the high Andes; Geryon spends most of the ride engrossed with the edge of Herakles' face, engrossed in the cloud of familiar distance between them; once ensconced in the mountains the boys find themselves struck by the sharp relations of their new elevation; Geryon fears that he may be disappearing but that the photographs were worth it, at least in part because raising a camera to one's face has effects no one can calculate in advance.


The relationship between Geryon and Herakles seems both intense, overwhelming, perma-bonded and also insubstantial, clouded, ephemeral. What's the relationship between intimacy and distance at work here? And does that relate to our central photography metaphors?

Carson has a book on eros as a kind of absence, or gap, or lack (hence why it is so frequently cast as a bittersweet, driving force in classical works). I suspect something similar is at work here: Geryon is undeniably latched on to this boy, like it or not, but the cloud between them (which Geryon is aware he shouldn't return to) is a kind of abyss or gulf: not diveable, not navigable, not resolvable. Interesting too that here Geryon is focused in this section on edges and relations, which suggests a certain lack of interpersonal connection, or continuity, or something maybe.

Is all this volcano stuff going to resolve into something more concrete eventually? It's kind of hard to keep track of all the balls Carson throws in the air, especially while we also attempt some kind of essayistic-something.

The increasingly frequent (almost annoyingly so) volcano conceits do start to resolve very soon, I promise!

Geryon was in the back seat watching the edge of Herakles' face. (131)

A beautifully effective line which captures the relative emotional position of Geryon in physical terms: behind the object of his desire, watching it but unable to be watched in turn, lingering around the edge. Though now that I think on it more it strikes me that faces don't actually have firm edges per se--more of a folding in, not a clear and sharp boundary demarcation. 

He had dreamed of thorns. A forest of huge blackish-brown thorn trees
where creatures that looked
like young dinosaurs (yet they were strangely lovely) went crashing
through underbrush and tore
their hides which bell behind them in long red strips. (131)

Tons of fast, energetic movement to this dream sequence. The initial object of focus is set up in clear, simple, colorful language which gives way to agents within it (the dino-like creatures), we get a brief interlude or intrusion from a voice (Carson's? Geryon's? the ghost of Stesichoros'?) pointing out how lovely the creatures are before they rip themselves apart and render themselves only as smatterings of color, as long red strips--which brings us back to the initial focus, the thorns.

Geryon watched children in spotless uniforms with pointy white collars
emerge from the cardboard houses
and make their way along the edge of the highways laughing jumping holding
their bookbags high. Then Lima ended. (132)

Alternating syntax length (long->short) made all the more intense by the asyndeton which gives us a single stream of verbs: laughing jumping holding their bookbags high. The effect is set up to mirror Geryon's gaze in the backseat, plowing by all these faces before they plunge out of the city.

Even when they were lovers
he had never known what Herakles was thinking. Once in a while he would say
Penny for your thoughts!
and it always turned out to be some odd thing like a bumper sticker or a dish
he'd eaten in a Chinese restaurant years ago.
What Geryon was thinking Herakles never asked. In the space between them
developed a dangerous cloud. (132)

In addition to the characterization being amusing, there's a strong but subtle parallelism at work here: Geryon had never known while Herakles had never asked what the other was thinking. The seeming vacuity or flatness of Herakles' responses (bumper sticker, Chinese food) is framed by a parallel structure emphasizing the disparity of their positions. Interestingly, the movement of this jumps backwards quite suddenly, giving us a broader view: what lies between them is not just vacuous but dangerous--some kind of cloud.

It seemed
that darkness had descended but then the car rounded a curve and the sky
rushed open before them--
bowl of gold where the last moments of sunset were exploding--then another curve
and blackness snuffed out all. (133)

Dropping in a particularly lush piece of description (bowl of gold) via em-dashes at precisely the moment a character would have observed or experience the thing being described is a neat way of working in some imagery.

It is very high. The altitude will set your heart humping. The town is held in a ring
of bare sandrock mountains
but to the north rises one sudden angular fist of total snow. (134)

Sudden angular fist of total snow deserves praise for its richness, its imaginative easiness, but also the unexpected movement of its internal logic. Also: has our you returned to the text now?

It rises in sharp relations
of light towards the first of snow. (134)

Sharp relations of light is lovely in three ways: it provides an excellent visual image of the street; it recalls and reinforces the language of photography, the discipline practiced by our artist-protagonist; and it also reinforces the shape and tenor of the romantic & sexual pairing (now more of a triad, maybe).

I am disappearing, he thought
but the photographs were worth it.
A volcano is not a mountain like others. Raising a camera to one's face has effects
no one can calculate in advance. (135)

A lot of essaystic movement here, mostly a function of the pivot to metaphor and aphorism in the last two lines. We start with a character reflecting on a situation and then step back to a narrating (or essaying) position which provides simple, understated fact (a volcano is not a mountain like others) and uses that as a springboard for an aphoristic gesture (raising a camera--though we're talking about more than just literal camera here, aren't we?).


Dash Embedding

Append or embed a particular intense or lush moment of imagery into the middle of a sentence via em-dashes (see: the bowl of gold as they are driving).

Parallel Positions

Highlight a contrast in the positions (intellectual, emotional, discursive, whatever) of two or more subjects through a parallel structure (see: Geryon had never known while Herakles had never asked).

Will Slattery helps curate things here on Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Dear Me: Not a Letter to Kim Adrian by Dorian Rolston

[See also our upcoming Essay Daily salon event with Kim Adrian on 8/31/20!]

The latest book from Kim Adrian, Dear Knausgaard, reminded me of why I love the epistolary mode—so much so that I initially considered writing her a letter, then thought better of it.
     It’s risky. You’d be here, as readers, looking over my shoulder as I write, while simultaneously opening up the envelope as the intended recipient, both feeling how I agonize over how my words will be received and receiving them. It’s only worth the price of admission if the voyeuristic thrill (No, don’t say that…) isn’t compromised by identifying, in part, as the addressed (How could you say that to me…), and yet it’s nearly impossible for us to be held in suspense and shocked at the same time. That, anyway, is the special pleasure of belles-lettres, if done right, a to/from frisson that makes you want to cry out in French! Dear reader, how I wish I could have satisfied! If, as Barthes says, in one of the many well-timed interjections throughout Adrian’s book, “For some perverts the sentence is a body” (his emphasis), then a sentence meant for someone—some body—else is a perversion that, well, pardon my French.
     Of course, we know she’s not actually going to send the letters to the Knausgaard residence, where for some reason I imagine them being ever-so-carefully parted by sterling silver letter opener. That would be a violation of the epistolary essay sub-genre, what Lopate calls “essays in disguise,” which going back to Seneca the Younger “were probably intended from the start for publication rather than for their ostensible recipient.” But Adrian finds a way around this problem of unreality, in a postscript to her letter of March 11, 2019, allowing us to suspend disbelief nonetheless: 

P.S. It’s fun pretending I’m writing you letters. But obviously these are not really letters--not entirely, not exclusively. They are also sections of a book. And recently I find myself worrying that you, Knausgaard, might someday find occasion to read this book, and that possibility is beginning to make me nervous. 

Indeed, it’s the professional hazard of any method actor, a commitment to character so strong you eventually can’t tell the difference between character and actor, who you are and who you appear to be. The single person/a, “Knausgaard,” fits perfectly with the man in question, whose hyperrealism is what makes My Struggle an unbelievable story actually worth suing him over. If Adrian is a little uneasy about that blurring, it’s only for our benefit: allowing us to see the mere prop (the letters) as the bonafide object (the book).
     More, this gets to the heart of what books are and are about: readers and writers in relationship (the other three Rs?). In Somebody Telling Somebody Else, James Phelan argues that most all great literature has an aspect of being written by the reader, whose reactions to the text, as anticipated by the writer, shape the text itself. He calls this a “crossover effect,” and basically, as I understand it, the implication is that a writer’s attempt during composition to enter into the experience of the reader allows the reader, albeit imaginatively (no astral projection required), to cross over into the text, such that what they eventually end up reading is, in part, a product of what they hoped (or feared) they would. Perhaps your hopes (or fears, I hope) are unmet in this very review; that doesn’t mean I haven’t been straining to hear your voice in every keystroke. That every book isn’t also a letter to its reader.
     The 2017 entry in the Theory and Interpretation of Narrative series, co-edited by Phelan himself, was pushed into my hands by another editor for review, though I never got around to it. Like an unopened letter from a former lover, it’s been sitting on my shelf, enclosing contents I dread but can’t seem to let go of. I’m glad I didn’t get rid of it in the recent move, as I did My Struggle (vols. 1 & 2), which I found intimidating (perhaps for the very “rugged, Christ-like features” Adrian laments on every cover). Now, taking a peek at the back, I see the blurb touting the crossover theory as it applies to everyone from Joan (Didion) to Jane (Austen) to John (O’Hara) to Joseph (Conrad). Wondering if it’s just a hard-J thing, I flip to page 33, more or less at random, where James (Phelan) explains emphatically: “the implied author relies (consciously or intuitively) on the authorial audience’s unfolding responses to the narrative progression as he or she constructs new parts of the text.” 
     And if all that sounds too complicated, and there’s much else Aristotelian poetics-wise besides (I couldn’t help but look), let’s turn back to Adrian to see that theory in action, played out. As her epigraph from Knausgaard himself states: “Between the selfless writer and the selfless reader, literature is shaped.”
     Confession: after reading the first “Dear Mr. Knausgaard,” of February 20, 2019, I skipped ahead to see how long he’d remain a “Mr.” I felt like a Peeping Tom, in the already somewhat illicit PDF of an Advance Review Copy. Squinting and scrolling, scrolling and squinting at the thumbnails in my sidebar window, I searched for the missing title, the naked name. As Barthes (again) says, “As soon as I name, I am named,” and maybe I wanted to be similarly undressed in the addressing. Apparently that’s one way the voyeur satisfies himself, according to the so-called lovemap theory, by mapping his ideal amorous encounter onto the other at an impossible distance, creating intimacy (presumably) through remoteness.
     Not three weeks later (that March 11 letter again):

It was starting to feel a little coy, my calling you “Mr. Knausgaard.” But it’s a tricky question. What should I call you? I’ve settled, for the moment, on “Knausgaard,” since that’s how I refer to you in conversation. Though to tell the truth I’m not a hundred percent sure what I actually mean when I say “you” in these missives. 

Though it may’ve been popularized by The Who, in that hit single of 1978 inspired by a drunken run-in with a cop (“Who the fuck are you?”), the question is particularly fraught in an epistolary context. As the fifth-generation Posts explain on the institute website, where Emily’s etiquette (and evidently a family dynasty of decorum) is maintained, whether “you’re writing to someone you’ve never met face to face [sic]” or “if you’ve only spoken with the person over the phone” makes a huge difference. No doubt, both of these things could be true of one and the same interlocutor, as it’s quite possible, even likely, you’ve never met the person you’re on the phone with--especially during COVID, when such are the people we only ever meet. But would you then be writing them a letter? (Tell me who are you, because I really wanna know…) Writing to anyone, especially someone—some body—you don’t know all that well, is a delicate matter. Perhaps these are letters, not unlike Adrian’s own, that might belong on the Posts’ list of “Letters Best Left Unwritten,'' somewhere between the “Woe-is-me” and “Gossip.”
     Such were my own reservations, anyway, about responding to her in kind, my own “Dear Adrian” to Adrian--whose response to Knausgaard was, already, a response to a response, if we buy the crossover theory saying that even such a solipsistic masterpiece as My Struggle responds to what the reader wants. That, coupled with the fact that I’d met Adrian under almost identical circumstances to her meeting Knausgaard, setting up a pretty untenable rhetorical situation…
     We were at the NonfictioNOW conference in Phoenix, 2018 (she’d met Knausgaard at the 2017 in Reykjavik). Adrian was on a panel called “Writing the Hermit Crab Essay,” which I was eager to see. I knew about borrowed forms and about the lowly hermit crab as metaphor for the essayist (homeless, but cunning), having once been witness to an essayist quite literally dragging himself with one arm sideways across the ground, by way of demonstrating his method. Not that I wouldn’t have paid good money to see that show again, but I was really there to see Adrian.
     I was a big fan. Though I hadn’t read The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet, which had just come out, I was already in love with the abecedary-sounding form. (The very building blocks of our language, borrowed!) And though I didn’t have my copy of Sock with me, which it only then occurred to me to have her sign, I remembered that it now belonged to an ex who knits, which made me feel faintly positive about that former relationship--if only by association with Adrian, which, if nothing else, made me an even bigger fan. So when I saw her at the coffee station I took my chances.
     The panel was about to start. I was growing increasingly anxious, not only about potentially meeting Adrian but about holding her up--no less, en route to the very panel I was there to see her on. The details from here on are a little fuzzy, perhaps a function of some trauma-blocking mechanism in my brain, which saves me from crippling lifelong embarrassment (and thankfully kicks in every time I write). I doubt that I genuinely needed to refill my coffee, as I seem to remember letting out a stream of brown liquid from the dispenser that splashed over the brim, mildly scalding. Now jittery with nerves and caffeine, and clutching my cup with a burning death grip, I blurted out the only thing I could think of, which happened to be what was on her nametag but in the form of a question: “Kim Adrian?”
     A spectacular Who-like riff playing in my head (Who, who, who, who?) on the subject of personal identity notwithstanding, I was at a loss as to even what to call her. And if it was this awkward in person, imagine the letter (August 3):

It’s very difficult, as I’ve mentioned, to keep you, Karl Ove Knausgaard, the world-famous author, separate from you, my imaginary friend KOK, separate from you, whoever you are, I mean the person behind the persona, the one I suspect I wouldn’t like too much, the one I think I wouldn’t trust.

“KOK,” to point out the obvious, is just Karl Ove Knausgaard’s initials, an acronym of the man (a mancronym). As such, I originally mispronounced it “cock,” instead of “coke,” Adrian’s actual way of saying it. I don’t know what this says about me; looking back through the early letters for signs of being sexually primed, I can’t find any, unless you count her calling him “Sebald with sex appeal” sexual priming. Perhaps it’s just an undercurrent I picked up on, like with the woman sitting next to Adrian in that packed auditorium in Reykjavik who couldn’t help “pressing her left thigh against my right thigh,” though even here Adrian couldn’t be sure “if it was sexual, or maybe passive-aggressive, or perhaps completely unintentional.”
     And I had some baggage in this Dept. of Writing Writers. Once, in grad school, I sent Albert Goldbarth a postcard. Goldbarth is a notorious luddite and doesn’t own a computer, and though he has an email address he never checks it (making the contents of which the stuff of essayistic lore). I was told that he always responds to a postcard, or to most handwritten correspondence anyway, and so I wasn’t prepared to be, apparently, the only one not to get a response. Now it occurs to me why this might have been.
     The postcard was a photograph I took, meant as glossy homage to his recent Adventures of Form and Content. That dos-a-dos binding, harkening back to the bygone era of Ace Doubles, suggesting something of a Mobius strip, where no matter which end you started with you always ended up in the middle, bending all tenses into the present--that was what I hoped to pay homage to with my polaroid. But taken as it was on my Holga 135, an ’80s point-and-shoot capable of more or less artsy smears of things, this blurred-out 3x5 definitely left some room for interpretation.
     Half aglow, half in shadow, the rendering (such as it was) was of a light fixture I’d accidentally snapped. That shadow may have been my finger over the lens. Nonetheless, the dark/light duality captured, for me, something of the two-faced nature in all of us, inherent in all things, or at least in Goldbarth’s Adventures. Though it’s also possible to sexualize the image: yin-yanged, with very unclear boundaries, I wouldn’t blame Goldbarth for taking offense at what may appear a crazed fan’s obscene gesture, not-so-subtly toward what he refers to as a book “69’d.” All of which to say, I was done with writing writers.

Like the actor who demurs, “Now enough about me—I want to know what you think of me,” this review can’t keep the book under review in view, only its reviewer. By way of comparison (and more to the point), consider Adrian’s first impression of Knausgaard, recalled with no fuzziness whatsoever, aside from polite mention of a potentially faulty memory that, in effect, lends her even greater credibility (March 5):

You were introduced, at some length by, if I remember correctly, the Norwegian ambassador to Iceland, who called you by your full name, which sounded so great--the “Karl” smashing into the “Ove,” and the “Knausgaard” nothing at all the way I say it, with my American accent, but a weird mash-up of angular and singsong sounds. You then hulked up to the podium, all six-foot whatever of you...

That verb, “to hulk,” gets me every time. Muscular yet tender, it describes the lumbering gait of “all six-foot whatever of you” with an appreciation for how things actually look at a distance, not with that voyeuristic hunger of mine above but only an open gaze, open to what is. As if to be in audience were already to be close to him, Adrian sees the interrelationship of fans and the famous. All I can get close to—then, at the coffee station in Phoenix, as now—is myself. Dear me.
     It may be in keeping with the spirit of the AFTERWORDS series of which it is a part, “reinventing literary criticism,” according to the Fiction Advocate website, “by opening it up.” But it’s precisely for this reason I can’t pin it down, this spirit I can’t find any prior evidence of. If she’s borrowing a form, Adrian returns it, so far as I can tell, utterly unrecognizable, either dissolved or reinvented in that fancy Benjaminian sense. Even Benjamin himself is defamiliarized in the text, as his quote about boredom and “the dream bird” is the first she acknowledges, as if pulling him through an invisible curtain all other canonical figures (Barthes, Proust, etc.) remain behind (April 16):

As is the case with so many of Benjamin’s more eccentric assertions, this one seems to mean many things at once. I bring it up now because one of those things applies to My Struggle, in the sense that there are hundreds of pages in your novel--maybe even the majority of pages--in which the prose can accurately be described as boring in precisely this way: a procreative way. I mean, plodding as it is, something comes alive.

I suppose this brings me, then, to my thesis for this review, which Adrian herself unknowingly supplied: plodding as it is, something comes alive. In a series of unsent letters that the writer knew from the start she’d never send, more of a procedural than anything else, Adrian somehow manages to make this plodding come alive, hatch the experience egg of her dream bird. I don’t know how she does it.
     Emerson couldn’t do it, except on accident. In his July 21, 1855 letter to Whitman, in response to Leaves of Grass (or, more Knausgaardian, My Celebration), Emerson offers a stiff “Dear Sir” to the author of the work he considers nothing less than “the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that American has yet contributed.” (And no complimentary close, not even a mere “Sincerely”? What would the Posts say!) Only when he then saw his own words emblazoned on the spine of the next edition, in gold lettering capitalized as if a subtitle, did things come alive: “I Greet You at the Beginning of A Great Career.” Thus was born--hatched--the first book blurb, entirely through no fault of his own.
     Or Rilke: in his letter of February 17, 1903, the first of ten to the young Mr. Cappus, an officer cadet having second thoughts about his chosen profession (the old pen vs. sword chestnut). Though Letters to a Young Poet, like that to a young Whitman, wasn’t intended for publication, you can’t help but think the author saw it coming. “Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism” might as well be every critic’s mantra (just as Beckett’s “Fail better!” became the rally cry for the business world), and on some level we hear him speaking through Mr. Cappus to all of us. How else to explain the curious typographical “error,” in my Stephen Mitchell translation (sans publisher, San Bernardino, CA), of a space between “unsay” and “able”? An unsayable so spaced, so shot through with light, it enacts its own meaning? Unsay able!
     Perhaps it’s just the “happy accidents” Bob Ross made famous that we’re after. Note that we have a hand in them, as surely as Ross has a hand in making little trees happy. Here, take a look at the bottom of page 143, right after Adrian’s discussion of—or interrupting, rather—Knausgaard’s book-length essay on Hitler, in Book 6. Apropos nothing but the end of her book, of Knausgaard’s, of material to work with, an accident happens, as much to Adrian as it is a function of her attempt to make anything else at all happen (July 13):

Just now (this is neither here nor there: I only thought you might be interested) there’s a rabbit in our backyard stretched out in the overgrown grass beneath a dark green plastic stool, the top of which has faded from years of sun exposure.

I won’t bother to copy out the glorious rest; that’s yours to discover. Suffice it to say there’s an echo of Dickinson, who once saw a bird similarly--both tiny, irrepressible creatures taking a drink or a nibble from nearby grass (“easily within reach” and “convenient,” respectively), both shining brilliantly upon their departure from the page (“actually incandescent” and “off Banks of Noon”). Both a dream—bird, rabbit--hatching some boredom-induced revelation, making the familiar alien. “Because underneath all those ordinary scenes of your sort of ordinary life,” Adrian says, there’s something else: “some kind of flexible metaphysical web.”
     An old poetry professor of mine used to call these moments, with something of a smirk, “Your lizard brain sneaking up on you.” She used to sit on an exercise ball in her barely moved-into office, a haphazard setup so unlivable I wonder if I didn’t dream it, and bounce as I read, bouncing till I said something only she knows what worth. Then, still. In pencil she’d draw a faint, tremulous circle around the word, the webby word, worlded. Though I don’t know what, if anything, she’d circle this August 24, 2020, the book’s release date, I can’t help but suspect it’s something similarly out of the corner of my eye—there, that dragonfly. See it’s on the tip of that branch, an old poplar, blown back by the wind only to regain its balance to the uproarious applause of leaves.

Monday, August 17, 2020

You Can Spot it by the Way its Surface Quivers and Shines: Rachel Marston on Shena McAuliffe's Gas, Light, Electricity

“You can spot it by the way its surface quivers and shines, but usually you don’t notice until you step on it and it gives way beneath you.” So Shena McAuliffe describes quicksand early in her essay collection Gas, Light, Electricity. The description also serves to illuminate thematic and formal concerns at the heart of her collection, essays that pierce the ripe heart of loss and carefully examine how the stories we tell and the ways in which we tell them may prove as unstable as quicksand.
     The long first essay, “Endnotes to a Seizure,” traces the dissolution of the narrator’s relationship through her partner’s affair and meditations on seizures and illness, occasioned by the relationship’s end and a hiking trip with friends. The narrative moves forward and back in time, starting with the revelation of the affair, the narrator waiting for the you of the beloved to return home to their shared apartment. The essay then shifts by two months to “Escalante Canyon, in Southern Utah, where the river made the best trail, running between red rock walls and sky,” where the narrator explores the landscape of her new state and begins to reflect on her loss. On the drive back to Salt Lake, the narrator and her friends encounter of a man having a seizure in a fast food restaurant. This encounter awakens the narrator’s sympathy, but also her careful attention to language and how it shapes the world. The word seizure is taken up in its multiple meanings, (to seize as in the act of having a seizure but also to have something taken from you) and explored in its many metaphorical possibilities.
     At times, the connection between the memoir and the seizure sections feels tenuous, an act, perhaps, of narrative evasion, but this is deliberate. These sections, full of research about seizures and other kinds of illness, like the early diagnosis of female hysteria, are a way for the narrator and the reader to find respite from the terrible knowledge of betrayal, to mimic the gaps in knowing that the narrator experiences, while weaving a rich tapestry of understanding. These sections demonstrate how the narrator’s unquenchable thirst for knowing and for language, for finding alternate ways of making sense of this betrayal, are not just part of the story, but the story itself. McAuliffe writes (italics in the original), “This is not the story I want (to write, to own, to inhabit)” (13). This assertion, early in the collection, reaffirms the narrator’s (and our) need to construct and reconstruct the stories of our lives and those around us. She continues to describe what the narrative should include to make it more effective as a story, such as more description of the landscape or the friendship among the three women hiking. The narrator then writes, “But not this rolling around of language and definition. The musing and sorting. These tumbled bits.”
     McAuliffe knows, in this assertion, that the “tumbled bits” are at the heart of this essay and the collection, but also acknowledges the narrator’s and the reader’s desire for narrative certainty and simplicity. The narrator wants a way to say, this, this here, that is the story. But in the narrator’s questioning, in this essay and the others, McAuliffe shows that only in digression, that only through multiple paths, the play inherent in the meaning of words, can we really begin to understand this world.
     The language of the collection is lyrical, finely attuned to image, but always in service of helping us see more closely, even in the exposure of images impossibilities of conveying idea. But the care in evoking the sensory world highlights the energy created in the gaps of language, meaning, and experience, such as in the description of Emory Blagdon, from “The Healing Machine,” as he searches for healing properties in the world around him: “He considered the sensitivity of a piece of pie, the crust separated from itself, the juices rising . . . . in everything a sensate buzz” (54). McAuliffe imbues each essay with a “sensate buzz” asking us to taste with the narrator the raspberry gleaned on a walk (“As a Bitch Paces Round Her Tender Whelps…”), understand the texture of a head scarred by a scalping (“This Human Skin”), and to visualize elements used to divine the future, as in the opening of “By Soot, By Flour, By Beetle Track”: 

In stars. In flour. In clouds. In palms. In the bend of a myrtle branch. We squint to glimpse the future. We read and misread. We swallow the tea and study the leaves at the bottom of the cup. If the cheese coagulates just so the marriage will fall apart, but what difference does it make if there is nothing we can do to stop it? And if we foresee it, will we not make it so? (137)

Each of these lyrical moments spreads forth its roots, inviting the reader into the branching out, each image a possible trajectory. In this way, McAuliffe is akin to the early naturalists, cataloging and recording the world for us to see and examine carefully. Her delight in research, whether from the collection of facts to integrating footnotes, is carefully transmitted to the reader. Whether through information on types of poison, Marceline Jones and the story of Jonestown, artisanal wells and rust belt urban blight, or the history of neon and light, McAuliffe reminds us that what we know as fact is rarely objective or complete. In this way, her work exemplifies Deleuze and Guattari’s exploration of rhizomatic structures which “shatter the linear unity of the word, even of language, only to posit a cyclic unity of the sentence, text, or knowledge.” Each essay demonstrates how our understanding of any subject is shaped by our relationship to it in time, space, and memory.
     McAuliffe’s essays revel in the possibilities of multiple narrative threads and (re)imagining both present and past, but with (in this post-fact age) careful acknowledgement of what is imagined, what is to be questioned, and when the narrator is not to be trusted. In the source note at the end of “The Healing Machine,” McAuliffe writes, “I am an unreliable source, making various assumptions and projections, imagining scenes and conversations based on small factual details” (60). And in the final essay of the collection, “Of Gas, Light, and Electricity,” also in a footnote, she queries, “So how can I revise this (hi)story for accuracy?” (210). She invites us to embrace the uncertainty, the fragile state of the in-between, and in so doing find a space where, like “[i]n these fleeting minutes between night and day, everything is magical” (219).