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One Big Self by C.D. Wright

One Big Self is a poetry collection inspired by, and meant to record, visits to three Louisiana prisons. C.D. Wright accompanied photographer Deborah Luster on a few of the latter’s trips, and the poems in this collection borrow heavily from the speech of inmates–their vernacular, their direct quotations and their concerns–as well as from signage and other found text. Some of the words on the page are Wright’s, but some are collected. Themes include family ties; the trauma and damage caused by incarceration; and the boom of the for-profit prison industry. Of course much of the subject matter refers to violence, crime, faith, and local culture.

Especially because these are offered to me as persona poems, I am very curious to know how much is transcribed directly as found speech and how much it has been manipulated. Unlike the other persona poems I’ve just read (Patricia Smith’s “Skinhead,” Shara McCallum’s “Calypso,” Ted Hughes’ “Hawk Roosting”), these do not read to me as being about one persona per poem, but rather the collective–the persona of the incarcerated mother, say–by a series of individual contributions. This concept is in the book’s title, One Big Self.

It’s hard for me to see from here who said what. Sometimes individual lines are attributed, but often I’m left wondering. Which lines are quotations, which paraphrases? Why skip the quotation marks, which would have made clear where the speaker stops and the poet begins? And what does each choice contribute–the inmate’s words, against those of other inmates, or against Wright’s?

Sometimes the references or language hint towards Wright. This is my bias at work: when I have to look up a word or a name, I suspect that it’s a decorated poet and not a prison inmate speaking. I looked up terms like cicatrix; the Heisenberg principle; Gramsci; Fila Brasileiro; metonymy; Cioran. Cultural references like these, that go outside of Angola, Louisiana, feel external to the personas in focus here. On the other hand, certain repeated phrases fit our expectations of the setting and scenario: “She was a slab of a woman.” “That’s the tattoo that says Real Men Eat Pussy.” Mostly, I’m guessing whose speech is whose. And perhaps this guessing game, this blurring of the lines between poet/recorder and inmate, is what’s really being got at by Wright’s project, and by her title, “one big self.”

I can only close by repeating my usual lines about poetry. This was pleasant and thought-provoking to read. I like it. I don’t understand it.


Rating: 7 plastic soapdishes.

“A Sketch of the Past” by Virginia Woolf

This essay, which I read from the collection Moments of Being, consists of nearly 100 pages of Woolf’s recollections of childhood, recorded journal-entry-style in 1939-40. It introduces Woolf’s concept of “moments of being” and of “non-being,” the latter being the cotton wool in between the important stuff of life/memory. Interesting for organization (or lack thereof); for the layering of time, then and now; and for Woolf’s list-making. It was also unfinished at the time of her death, and somewhat lacking in narrative structure. The editors of this collection make some points about it not being up to VW’s standards for publication, but as this is the first I’ve read of her work, I can’t comment on how not-up-to-standards I find it.

“A Sketch of the Past” is a series of memories of Woolf’s childhood, related when the author is nearly sixty. She begins by worrying over the format of these memoirs, then throwing up her hands to begin with “the first memory.” The form ends up being a sort of journal, with dated entries and a few comments on current events (the coming war). This layered-time effect allows commentary on both the past and the writing-present.

Woolf’s “moments of being” stand in contrast to what she calls “moments of non-being.” I understand these to be the memorable or remembered moments versus those not remembered, or not memorable–which are not necessarily the same thing. Woolf asks, “Why have I forgotten so many things that must have been, one would have thought, more memorable than what I do remember? … Often… I have been baffled by this same problem; that is, how to describe what I call in my private shorthand — ‘non-being.’ Every day includes much more non-being than being.” She likens non-being to cotton wool, or the everyday padding of what is remembered (or, what she wants to write about). She then goes on to call her moments of being “scaffolding in the background” of the real work of her storytelling: these are people, or characters. (The idea of moments of being, or characters, as the central work of storytelling is another concept for potential annotation.) “A Sketch of the Past” proceeds to study characters: Woolf’s mother, father, and a few siblings.

For school, I wrote an annotation on Woolf’s list-making. Several lengthy lists help to accrue either scenes, descriptions or themes in Woolf’s remembering. Certainly, details are part of how she enlivens her storytelling (the flowers on the mother’s dress and the yellow blinds in the nursery, both on the essay’s first page). Sometimes it is the solitary nature of a detail that gives it its power, as with Mr Wolstenholme, who “when he ate plum tart he spurted the juice through his nose so that it made a purple stain on his grey moustache”–it is the nature of this man that “he had only one characteristic,” she says, even as she names others. This cue to the singularity of this detail, along with its vibrant colors and specificity, strengthens it. But when such details are presented in list form, I find them compelling in new ways, greater than the sum of the listed parts.

At the sentence and paragraph level (or list level!) I found things to admire here. But a somewhat archaic style and lack of narrative arc, a certain rambling quality, made this essay hard for me to engage with. I’m not especially excited about this author, lauded though she be.

Final verdict? I am new to Woolf but at this point I find her inarguably skilled, but not terribly to my tastes at present.


Rating: 6 anemones.

guest review: Staying Put by Scott Russell Sanders, from Pops

Here’s Pops (with a few of my comments throughout).

I recently finished this one, convinced by the title itself as well as your suggestion. In a voice familiar from your description in reviewing Writing From the Center (published just after this book), this is a collection of eight essays evoking the title’s theme, but linked by very personal stories grounded in Midwest roots in two linked places: his Northeast Ohio childhood & southern Indiana adulthood. Narrative lines here intertwine with those in essays published elsewhere, including “Buckeye.”

Generally your observations from Writing, tinged with ambivalence, apply here: variation in pacing & appeal; often intimate & reflective, sometimes tryingly so; repetitive, yet often just overlapping in thought; little here is profound, yet much resonates; and yes, a few essays stand out among the others. Why such disquiet in reading Sanders? Here’s one idea: he writes, with virtually no filters, of deeply personal thoughts & feelings; every detail cannot be as primary to me as it is to him. To glean from what he offers, one need be patient, appreciate such candor & courage, and have an affinity for his life’s odyssey. In the end, he won me over.

His book’s theme of committing heart & soul to a deeply-known place is familiar: Gary Snyder often used the title’s very words (though not mentioned as such by Sanders.) Wendell Berry has invoked Snyder’s words while advising, “stop somewhere, just stop.” Both writers’ sentiments are mentioned in these essays by other references. Stegner’s framing of “boomers & stickers” lurks in the background as I read here. Similarly, surely, for many other writers; Sanders savors recruiting a good number to his cause.

I want to comment briefly on four of these eight essays by reference first to a recent Sanders book. Earth Works (2012) is another gathering of selected essays; in that, it is more like Writing than the theme-based Staying Put, but with many more essays than Writing, of course spanning more of his life’s work. I will be seeking out this latest collection next. I find the essay form fits Sanders well; and a reader can take one at a time, at whatever pace necessary – a good way to digest Sanders.

I had noted two essays in Staying Put that I particularly liked; if I were to stretch that to four, it would match the same four selected in Earth Works (credit to me? or the editor? or both?).

You’re saying, I think, that four were selected from Staying for inclusion in Earth? And that they’re your favorite four from this collection?

In my list, “After the Flood” first stands out for its poignant child’s-eye witnessing of environmental tragedy, one of many life events that recur in his writings due to their persistent impact.

“Settling Down” (which is curiously – and appropriately – re-titled “Staying Put” in the collection) is where he explicitly expounds on the book’s theme, with consideration from multiple perspectives and assistance from those other noted writers.

“Wayland” is a wonderful survey of seven important boyhood lessons, each elicited by a specific physical childhood place as he visits each in adulthood, on a single walk and all within a quarter mile radius. (Teaser, but not spoiler, the seven lessons are: death, life, beasts, food, mind, sex & God.)

“House and Home” is a literal interpretation of the formulation place=home=house, as he describes connections to his house: physical, organic, spiritual, familial. For many, this would seem superficial, overly materialistic; he makes it quite something otherwise.

In contrast, my sentiments lean more towards a fifth essay, “The Force of Moving Water.” On a grand scale, he considers the physical place defined by the Ohio River watershed, which encompasses and connects his heritage in both Ohio & Indiana. (It also includes WV Wesleyan College, on the Buckhannon River, tributary of the Monongahela River, which feeds the Ohio.)

I am delighted to know that WVWC makes an appearance in this collection!

This essay suggests (confirmed so far in my reading of Sanders here & elsewhere) his persistence in using water as metaphor as well as essential element in knowing any place. Whether implicit or oblique, water, streams, watersheds arise for him in many contexts.

This doesn’t surprise me, Pops, given what I think is your special interest in watersheds generally.

I particularly appreciate his thorough study of the Ohio watershed, this recognition of understanding watershed as a vital dimension of “wide & deep” consideration of place. And it is a splendid demonstration of Sanders’ seriousness meditating on place, from myriad vantage points.

The other three Staying Put essays are: “Earth’s Body,” wherein he cogitates on his tortured obsession with both God and relentless bouts of depression. “Ground Notes,” which borders too closely on old-school “what is reality” rumination. “Telling the Holy” is a useful consideration of the power of stories, myth, religion; spiritual, primordial & necessary. (I should probably read that one again.)

Is he a “nature writer”? In the preface to Earth Works he provides a helpful answer:

I am sometimes asked if I am a “nature” writer, as if paying attention to our membership in the web of life were a specialized interest, like following sports or fashion or cuisine. What I am is an Earth writer: I’m interested in life on this planet—all life. Since I know most about my own species, I think mostly about human affairs, but I do so while seeking to understand how our kind arises from and affects the living world.

Sanders has numerous essays in Orion magazine; several are available online here; I read three of them:

“Stillness” – absorbed in self again: a wide-ranging tussle with privilege, conscience, God, spirituality, human scourge, family; emerging with optimism.

“Mind in the Forest” (also in Earth Works) – a writing retreat meditating in an Oregon old-growth research forest.

“Breaking the Spell of Money” – a largely predictable, thoroughly moral argument against capitalism from a well-meaning artist, self-declared “not an economist.” Enough said?

These last two essays convince me I like the younger, self-absorbed Sanders; the elder, in presuming to analyze the world for causes & solutions (especially economics!), disappoints too much.

Thanks, Pops, for as always a thoughtful and very thorough critique. I would like to read this one someday, although I don’t know if this is the semester. Your comments about the essay form are well taken–that some of us are suited to one format over another. He is maybe best suited to the essay, and best taken this way, too!

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

In preparation for Devon McNamara’s seminar at the recent residency, I reread Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in the copy I bought for an undergraduate class some 15 years ago. Some things don’t change. I still love Shakespeare’s comedy, and he remains relevant.

So many Shakespearean tropes here. The shipwreck, the twins, the gender-bending, the misplaced affections. Stranded in Illyria, separated from her brother who she presumes dead, Viola dresses up as a young man to serve the duke Orsino. He assigns her to court, on his behalf, the grieving countess Olivia. Orsino loves Olivia; as a boy “Cesario” Viola courts Olivia for Orsino’s sake; Viola loves Orsino; Olivia promptly falls for Cesario. Meanwhile, Viola’s brother Sebastian presumes her dead, even as Olivia mistakes him for Viola/Cesario. Confused yet? That’s natural. So are the characters of this lively play, but it all ends well* with a double-wedding, of course. Extra comedy is provided by Sir Toby Belch (great name) and his friend Sir Andrew, and Olivia’s Fool, and their fun at the expense of her self-important servant Malvolio (another great name). And wouldn’t you know it, this play is being produced at this summer’s Shakespeare Festival in my hometown, which I hate to miss.

*Not all ends well, though. Even as the heroes dance away to wed, Malvolio is embarrassed and offended, and even though we’ve enjoyed seeing him made fun of we feel badly to see this ill treatment. And Sebastian marries to the disappointment of one Antonio who has loved him throughout. Shakespeare’s tragedies tend to include some comedy; and his comedies do generally allow that all do not live happily ever after.

No major insights here, but Shakespeare is always worth your time, and this one is a good representative choice.


Rating: 8 banks of violets.

For the insight: Devon McNamara’s statement (paraphrased from my notes) that Shakespeare’s major concern was always the relationship between parents and children, upon which all other relationships depend. That is something to ponder, for those of us writing about our parents.

Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays by Paul Kingsnorth

This disillusioned environmentalist’s thoughtful, poetic call to a different approach to action and way of thinking is both sobering and refreshing.


Paul Kingsnorth (The Wake; Beast), co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project writers’ network, has published impassioned essays, poetry and literature with an environmentalist perspective for decades. That perspective is changing, however, as environmental degradation continues and the green movement tends toward high-tech strategies and “sustainability” that Kingsnorth finds uninspired. Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays is his answer to a changing world. These collected works are nearly all previously published, but together they offer a new outlook. Kingsnorth is grieving, angry and disillusioned, and his essays are by turns reflective and resolute.

“The story winding itself through this book is the breaking of the link between people and places, between the past and the present, between instinct and reason, and all the consequences that have ensued and will ensue.” As a writer, Kingsnorth is concerned with the ability of stories to change how we live, and with the ability to change our stories. “We imagine what it would be like to be this character, to live in this time, to be in this situation, and if we can’t do that well, our books won’t work. If we can do that well, why can’t we make the same imaginative leap and take ourselves out of our humanity?” One theme is a need for humans to see themselves as a single part of a larger system, rather than the controlling or most important factor. “The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it,” but, Kingsnorth argues, we should.

His writing can be fanciful and joyous as well as tormented. Kingsnorth writes with undeniable love: for the planet, for locations and histories, and for people. Confessions is centered in his native England but voices global concerns. Essays handle the role of technology in culture; the importance of people’s ties to place; the difficulty of embracing immigration and immigrants without losing local cultures; and the reasons for the decline of the environmental movement. While Kingsnorth writes with persuasive logic and authority on a variety of topics, he is perhaps most lyrically impressive when rooted in the local, physical world, for example when scything his hayfields in rural Ireland, or searching for carved green men in ancient Norman churches. Given his passion for place, this is unsurprising.

Neatly organized into three sections–Collapse, Withdrawal and Connection–and with an informing introduction and call-to-action epilogue, this collection serves well as an introduction to Kingsnorth’s philosophy and writing style. It also allows his more seasoned readers to chart his changing views. The overall effect is necessarily grim, but often remarkably uplifting as well. In a world on the brink of collapse, Kingsnorth offers humor, compassion, humility and wisdom.


This review originally ran in the June 30, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 bison.

Maximum Shelf: Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India by Kief Hillsbery

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 22, 2017.


Kief Hillsbery grew up with the legend of his great-grandfather’s great-uncle Nigel, who had “gone out to India” and never returned to his family’s home in Coventry, England. According to the many stories, he’d left the British East India Company abruptly and gone to live in Kathmandu; he’d been killed by a tiger; he’d been involved with shady dealings regarding a famous diamond. From childhood, Hillsbery always had “a clear sense that [the family] disapproved of Nigel and the vague notion that there was more to his story.”

In Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India, Hillsbery describes his decades-long, on-and-off exploration into Nigel’s life and death. It is an absorbing story, told with an eye for suspense and the odd, engrossing detail. Nigel’s story does not lack for weird and glittery hints; it takes a deft hand to explore them with interest and not sensationalism, but Hillsbery is up to the task. His lovely descriptions bring to life a country that is worlds of difference from Nigel’s English home. Sagar Island offers “houses like palaces, rising in their shining stucco masses from flowerbeds filled with imported English blooms on the undulating riverbank, their verandas spacious, their pillars lofty, their profiles Athenian.” Hillsbery is astonished to find a rhododendron forest just where his family’s stories placed one. “India,” he writes, “is full of surprises.”

Nigel set out for Calcutta in 1841 as a 20-year-old clerk for the East India Company. In 1975, Hillsbery was himself 20, headed for a college year abroad in Nepal, when his mother gifted him a sheaf of papers: all that remained of Uncle Nigel’s letters home, most incomplete and in various stages of decay. She wanted her son to be the first in the family to track down Nigel’s grave and pay his respects. The young man figured he would visit a cemetery or two and do his duty. But in fact he would embark upon years of research and travel through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal.

Alternating chapters detail the author’s own travels and Nigel’s, the latter re-created using personal correspondence and official records from the 1840s. Necessarily, Empire Made also delves into British and Indian politics, and the nuanced racial and class-based prejudices and pressures that characterized the British East India Company for centuries. The background history that contextualizes this story can be convoluted, but Hillsbery wrestles this “historical quicksand” gamely, and his digressions enrich the sense of strange wonderment that characterizes this historical investigation. Readers will come away with a general sense of British-Indian relations, while focusing on the mystery of Nigel’s fate.

Hillsbery’s narrative neatly braids the threads of the two protagonists’ parallel travels. Nigel Halleck’s family background and education links into the narrator’s interest in mountaineering, and in Nepalese culture and language. With a distant idea about the enigma of a lost great-uncle, the young Hillsbery takes one and then another detour from his own travels to investigate a cemetery, a shrine, a memorial. He listens to the tales told by locals “with Chaucerian relish” of past visitors, and he learns to check Nigel’s letters as he travels, searching for references to each stop along his own way so that he can follow leads as they arise. This research on the move begins to yield new information, if only in hints.

Over the years and miles, Hillsbery uncovers a theory that Nigel was a deep-cover British secret agent; that he was connected to an important family, the Saddozais, by his close friendship with the Afghan prince Sa’adat ul-Mulk; that he was involved in some under-the-table dealings with the famous Koh-i-noor diamond. But beyond these dramatic stories, Hillsbery finds quieter details that link his own life story more closely to Nigel’s than he could have ever expected.

Empire Made nears its end when Hillsbery visits a seeress. Stumped by Nigel’s unexplained movements and his inexplicable retreat to a Hindu palace in Kathmandu, he submits to a friend’s recommendation to supernatural assistance: “Her rates were reasonable, and I could always write about it.” This woman’s cryptic statements, and Hillsbery’s later realizations about two pieces of information he’d uncovered, eventually help him to reach certain conclusions about Nigel’s life. These conclusions are not supernatural, but worldly. In the end, this epic story of travel, research, family mystery and centuries-long colonial effort ends with uncertainty; but Hillsbery’s voice in closing does find satisfaction in what he’s learned.


Rating: 7 rhododendrons.

Come back Friday for my interview with Kief Hillsbery.

Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice, ed. by Francisco X. Alarcón and Odilia Galván Rodríguez

Back to residency today, and so here is one of the assigned readings, for a seminar entitled “Boy Breaking Glass: Political and Protest Poetry,” taught by Mary Carroll-Hackett. (She assigned a good-sized packet of poetry and articles, additionally.)

You know that poetry often mystifies me. I struggle to release my need to understand or dissect every line and choice; but I’m getting better at that (and of course I’m in school to help me understand such choices). This collection was easier than usual for me to get behind. For one thing, it begins with a lovely foreword by Juan Filpe Herrera, and introduction by editors Alarcón and Rodríguez. These gave clarity, context and passion to the poems that follow; they made clear the backstory that yielded these works, and made their point matter to me. In a word: this collection began when nine Latino students chained themselves to the Arizona State Capitol building in 2010, in protest of Arizona’s SB 1070, the “reasonable suspicion” bill. The students’ civil disobedience was followed immediately by a poem Alarcón wrote in response; and then by the Facebook page, “Poets Responding to SB 2070,” which in turn gave birth to a spreading protest poetry movement. This book is one of the many results of that movement.

The poems selected for this collection were voted on by poet-moderators; their authors are diverse in geography and ethnic/national backgrounds; some are new and emerging writers and others are well-established. Most of the book’s contents are printed in English. Some are in both Spanish and English (and one, in Irish, Spanish and English). A minority are printed only in Spanish, so those of us less than fluent in that language will miss a few pieces, or struggle over them. I appreciated this as an effect, though.

I feel less confident about my ability to write about these poems’ content. I don’t generally review poetry. But I found this reading engaging: politically moving, thought-provoking, stimulating, and comprehensible in a way poetry isn’t always for me. I’d recommend this book to anyone, for its artistic value as well as for its political worth. That’s all I have to offer today; Poetry of Resistance has it all.


Rating: 7 poems become bread or water.
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