Soon afterward, I was seduced by Alberto Rios’ poem/lyric essay, “Some Extensions on the Sovereignty of Science,” in which he writes, as a sort of ars poetica/essaica,
When something explodes, for example,
Nobody is confused about what to do—you look toward it.
Loud is a magnet. But the laws of magnetism are more complex.
One might just as well try this: When something explodes,
Turn exactly opposite from it and see what there is to see.
The loud will take care of itself, and everyone will be able to say
What happened in that direction. But who is looking
The other way? Nature, that magician and author of loud sounds,
Zookeeper and cook, electrician and provocateur—
Maybe these events are Nature’s sleight of hand, and the real
Thing that’s happening is in the other hand,
Or behind or above or below or inside us.Is Rios effectively admitting that, in trying to write a piece about the death of his father and his attendant grief, he had to “turn away from the explosion,” that very scrap of subject matter about which he wanted to write, in order to record what was going on in the opposite direction—the stuff lurking in the margins? Did he feel compelled to draw a chalk outline around his main subject, to grapple to uncover the right blend of chalk necessary to evoke the body? (He uncovered, incidentally, terminal moraines, the smallest muscle in the human body lurking in the ear, and the Duesenberg).
When recently reengaging The Best American Essays 2001, I tried, as a reader, to turn away from the explosion, the text, to stare into the margins, and then beyond the margins. To, eventually, turn the page, where I found, of course, more text, each subsequent essay girdled by the one preceding it, each serving as the marginalia to the other. What follows is an essay of record, a collection of lines evoking sentences of primary text costumed in marginalia’s clothes. The essay is comprised of one line from each of the essays included in BAE 2001, in order. The first sentence is from the first essay, the second from the second, and so on. The last line is from Kathleen Norris’ introduction, and the brackets are mine. I hope it serves as a celebration. I’m not quite sure into what this accumulates, but here are words, absurd conversation, chalk-on-chalk…
On the Cadavre Exquis Rotting in the Margins
At two, most of my excess body hair had fallen off like scales, except for a triangular swatch above my fanny, and a single silky stripe from my ribs to my pudendum. Prayer is personal. Fuck the criminal codes. Fanny recalled how they set out from Tahiti, where they had been living in contented isolation, and set their sails for Hawaii. We get what we need. Mind you, until recently my own family has never been much good at mourning. My father, who spent his first twenty years after college at the butcher block in his father’s grocery store, and then in his own, was a valuable resource. These were big men, compared with the agile, wiry horse hands who ran beside their charges during the performance and rode them back and forth like a rodeo string between the railroad yards and the circus lot, morning and night. The new religion outdraws the old. Nobody is there to notice whether you stand straight or slouch, or how you suck your stomach in. This is my afternoon for hearing voices, it seems. “Men will be men.” Midnights for Edgar Allen Poe seemed less a time than a territory, a place of woefully distant vistas, as if he were stargazing from the bottom of a well. And I bought into it, failing to see until now that it concealed a deeper resistance that he had no words for. “Come into the light of things,” he teased, “Let nature be your teacher.” After this momentous transgression, I quickly reverted to a Morasha girl-camper persona. My God, I say aloud, it’s the sand. The euphony of the name belies its malevolence. Of course, there are storms, too, when the whole house rocks and the waves upbeat on the underside of the deck boards, and sometimes wind, and the wind sizzles, and you had better be on the ocean’s side then, or you would be afraid. So my life has gone through youth and middle age. It had a creamy stripe down the back from which four tufts of brownish hairs stood up like a liner’s funnels, and longer sheaves of hairs stuck out in front of it and to the rear. Art bled and bled. The past teaches us that images of terror—used responsibly—can foster a climate in which terror is no longer tolerated. I count myself among the latter group. The objective was to form a human pyramid with our bodies, and to succeed, each player wanted to be able to escape the bottom and remain on top. Then the great lens swiveled severely up and about, the beach now offering itself to my gaze, more lovely in similitude than it actually was: brown and silver, long and lonely, bordered by an unstable line of foam from the streaks of the blue-gray sea which in their pale and silent motions, were streaks of life, streaks of time. [See?]…celibate people can make good friends.
Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of the nonfiction books The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, Pot Farm, and Barolo, the poetry books The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop, and 2 chapbooks. He teaches at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of Passages North. This winter, he tempered his gin with two droplets (per 750ml) of tincture of odiferous whitefish liver. For health.