Right? Yes? Did you feel a cliff fall away at your feet? Or an invisible architecture materialize before your eyes? Here you were, standing in it all along?
To me, the ending has the lightning bolt feeling of truth-revealed (is that right? do these conflicts go back and back and back? what other codes have I failed to crack, have I not even recognized as codes?). But it also has the drama and dread of a new myth coalescing. We feel the subversive delight of telling stories about the world, an effort both to describe and manipulate. This is Weinberger’s particular genius in the essay: finding the nexus between natural and cultural history, and then creating that fusion in his own telling.
Camouflaged like the plain, small wren, his stealthy project begins with wren data—habitat, diet, statistics. We suspect we will be able to write a school report about wrens by the essay’s conclusion. But the “live almost anywhere” and “eat almost anything” are almost comically vague, and, by the end of the paragraph, we’re in the painting of a beard and then a human skull (“but he didn’t explain how”). We remain in the human skull as Weinberger mines the anthropological history of the wrens. Cross dressing Wren Boys, the campy exaggerations of the wren processionals, martyrs yoking wrens to their tableaux—we feel the weight of humankind coming to bear on the miniscule skull, the hollow wing bones of a wren. Wrens go deep, indeed.
The book in which “Wrens” appears, An Elemental Thing, is bewildering and transporting, moving like water through centuries and continents. At times it’s as if I’m reading a new language, the vocabulary of which I understand in the light of day, but the arrangement/geist/residue of which I only understand when I’m asleep. And that is an essentially private experience—no one wants to hear your dreams. Except that Weinberger is writing about cultures, history, the movements of ideas through space and time, through syntax and metaphor, ritual and art. So, let’s be good company and tell me what you think. Meet in the passage grave of the comments section below?
Amy Benson is the author of The Sparkling-Eyed Boy (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) and co-founder of the First Person Plural Harlem reading series. Recent work has appeared in BOMB, Boston Review, Triquarterly, New England Review, Seneca Review, and DIAGRAM, among other journals. She teaches writing at Columbia University.
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A thing of beauty - the essay and your essaying. "Wrens" made me think of Sebald's "Rings of Saturn," in "Brevity" format. I will add "An Elemental Thing" to my list of must-reads...ReplyDelete
Thanks, Kirk-- I'm glad you liked it. Some readers I've handed it to have been...underwhelmed, hence the need for company. I'm cheered!ReplyDelete
I'm also a big fan of Weinberger--that book and the one before it. I always have a hard time articulating exactly what he does or why it connects with me, perhaps because of such legerdemain (strange word, that, on using it).ReplyDelete