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guest musings: Pops on Brooke Williams at Village Books

Pops again, on Brooke Williams’ recent visit to Village Books. Background: I think Pops and I both know Brooke exclusively from The Story of My Heart.

Brooke Williams is the kind of old guy you would enjoy having visit at your house: wryly humorous, self-deprecating, a creative thinker; an academic to a fault, but in an earnest, generous, unassertive way.

He is touring now in support of his new book, Open Midnight: Where Wilderness & Ancestors Meet. He & Terry Tempest Williams are recently back from touring China, a trip he describes as changing his perspective significantly by resetting his sense of time: their millennial scale of the past contrasts so much with an American sense of history, problems, solutions. Yet, he also describes meeting a group of Chinese nature activists who freely quoted from Abbey, Snyder, Thoreau, TTW & more – drawing lessons from these “recent” thinkers and finding analogues in their own centuries-old philosophers.

Yes, climate change & Trump were an explicit context for many of his comments. He described wondering “how do we find new answers, new ways to be in the world?”

In discussing his book he talked mostly about the writing process, how thoughts & information came to him, how the book came together, with only brief illustrative readings. It was a casual, entertaining, cogent & developed presentation, without being “canned” in any sense. His book includes imaginings – “things I made up” – so he expressed relief that the editor accepted his insistence it be listed as non-fiction. This was an impressive element of his talk, returned to often. I admit some initial skepticism with the idea of made-up non-fiction; but with his book-story, I am more than persuaded. More likely, this is a fine example of creative non-fiction at its most creative. He had wonderful examples of finding facts in his research, which aligned so closely in a pattern that filling in the gaps with reasoned imagining made perfect sense.

By making his book a journey of discovery, the process is part of his story; so the imaginings become part of the “true” narrative, even when that includes feeling the hand of an ancestor on his shoulder. Another way: it is an organic part of the reading process that we embellish or interpret with our own experience & knowledge. Williams is simply – and transparently – offering his own view as a first-cut in this effort. What memoir does not include some of the subject’s imaginings?! That said, there are certainly spiritual & meditative elements to his story; i.e. he explores the literal possibility of “genetic connection to a place.” A full reading of the book would no doubt hold further challenges.

Before ending, he crossed over a line for me, where the arts purport to offer solutions to real-world problems based on such imaginings & speculation. For Williams, and many others, this means changing consciousness of how we view the world, in order to change the course of history. There is plenty of skilled non-fiction available describing the breadth of human knowledge on such questions, without having to resort to extremes of imagination; Harari’s Sapiens is a foremost recent example, albeit imperfect. I am thankful the arts provide comforting form to our feelings & fears, especially in hard times. I cannot go further than that; for more, I take heart in the sciences.

The role of the arts is also posed by comparative essays I found recently from Scott Russell Sanders & Bob Pyle, writing separately about the very same forest in Oregon. Sanders described an obligation for the arts, based on unique human intellect, to contemplate & interpret the natural world; in contrast, Pyle’s chipper humility on the very subject, and deference to his counterparts in the sciences, is refreshing. As usual, Pyle’s eye on our world is such good tonic for over-seriousness by & about our species.

I think you’re continuing to make progress, Pops, toward understanding what this “creative nonfiction” nonsense is that your daughter is studying. (Note: I use ‘nonfiction,’ but I don’t know that your ‘non-fiction’ is wrong.) I came into this field with a fairly righteous feeling for what should be called true, or nonfiction. But it has become more clear to me that what the author imagines is part of her truth. Her memories, even if others deny them, are truly her memories–although I think she owes it to her reader to acknowledge others’ denials. Full disclosure, I say, for what is remembered and what is known and what is imagined; but all of that can be CNF. As for the roll of art in solving real-world problems, I think there’s room for any number of strategies and solutions, but none is for everyone. And I’d certainly hope/expect that Brooke would agree with you on the value of science. I guess without reading his book neither of us can know how far that concept goes or how offended we’d be, and I didn’t hear the talk. I do think that art can not only offer comfort, but real changes of heart, in how we relate to the world and each other. A Google search will give you various articles, for example, on the value of fiction in teaching empathy and improving real relationships–in other words, how taking in art makes people better at living as people. So I think there’s more there than simple comfort (or symptom relief). But art does not replace science.

Thanks for another thoughtful discussion.

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.

I Just Lately Started Buying Wings: Missives from the Other Side of Silence by Kim Dana Kupperman

Where I recall feeling both impressed and flummoxed by The Last of Her, this earlier essay collection feels more accessible to me. The Last of Her is a story about Kim’s mother (or about Kim’s investigating her mother), a single cohesive storyline – not that there aren’t other storylines as well! But I Just Lately Started Buying Wings is a collection that ranges widely in subject. Allowing each essay to tackle its own beast has a different result. Somehow I felt more comfortable with this book, more like I was able to grasp the whole. All of this sounds more like a criticism of The Last of Her than I want it to be; I enjoyed reading that book and am wowed by the writing and the organization within; it’s just that I didn’t finish feeling like I understood everything that went on. I enjoyed both reading experiences, but felt more settled, contained within this one. I wonder if reading them in the order they were published – this one first – would have helped.

I Just Lately Started Buying Wings is a lovely series of meditations. I want to call it comforting, which is a strange adjective to choose, since many of its subjects are uncomfortable or painful ones: deaths of family members, romantic and marital strife, domestic violence, nuclear fallout (literally), personal uncertainties. But Kim Kupperman’s approach to these is so easy to relate to, so honest and open, and so thoughtful. She made me feel supported as (I felt) we entered these tough places together.

I read the title essay, a very short one at just two pages, a year or so ago, when I was considering attending WVWC’s MFA program. (One of the toughest pieces of advice I got in considering programs was to read the work of faculty members. If each program has an average of 8 faculty and they’ve published an average of 3 books each, and I’m starting with a long list of 15 schools, I’m supposed to read 360 books? So a nice short essay here and there…) It stuck with me. First, the lovely title, “I Just Lately Started Buying Wings”… it has such a dreamy sound, so many figurative possibilities; but it turns out it’s a direct quotation, spoken by a woman applying the prosaic, literal meaning. She’s just recently started buying chicken wings; she used to stick to breasts and short thighs. This turn, from lyric to literal, is the kind of surprise I savor.

Not that the symbolic wing is ignored, though. In this collection, I found that wings were a major theme: “Wings over Moscow,” most obviously, deals with a number of wings (airplanes, birds), but other essays as well see dropped wings, grounded airplanes, a father compared to Daedalus, “the maker of wings.” In the closing essay, Kim’s mother leaves secret treasures for her young daughter to discover: a list of these items includes a moth wing, and a blackbird feather. Secrets or silence (as in the subtitle) form another leitmotif. Likewise the body, meaning the physical: Kim’s own, and the bodies of three immediate family members (mother, father, brother) she cared for after death. Lovers, and the women and children she tries to help at a shelter for victims of domestic violence. When she seeks her grandmother’s mysterious personal history,

I sense in this silence my grandmother’s decision to sever herself from a body politic she adored but could not bear. Perhaps it is from her that I inherited this yearning to return, which might explain why, when she died, I wanted so badly to go back to her homeland. I was coming into my body–breasts budding, hips widening–as her physical familiarity and its comfort ceased to exist.

Note the two different uses of ‘body,’ and think about the meanings of ‘bear,’ as in the “body politic she adored but could not bear”: think about a woman bearing children, which this grandmother did, by definition.

This kind of recurring theme or image defines the book as a whole, as well as nearly every individual essay. This is the kind of trick I am strongly drawn to (I’m remembering Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land). There is much to praise here, in sentence-level writing, as Kim shifts from the starkly sensual to the lyrical and back again. She has a razor-sharp eye for detail, an uncanny gift for noticing and recalling the physical world, something I’m not so great at. But what I’m most excited about, most wonder at, is the tying together of theme and image within and across essays. It never feels forced: these are the things that make sense together, and also they match.

Kim Kupperman clearly has several strengths. I think she must see the essay form as flexible and beautiful and serious. She observes the world with great attention. She is thoughtful, and opens herself to criticism (for example in the hospital scene when her father is dying and his survivors are fighting). She has an ear for language and an eye for parallels. I can’t wait to get to know her better: her writing, her editing (I’m looking forward to her small press’s anthology You), and hopefully her teaching.


Rating: 9 segments of orange.

reread: The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

Shortened version: it was excellent and moving, again. (Original review here.)

I will repeat myself (from Wednesday’s review of The Art of Memoir) that one of Mary Karr’s greatest strengths is her voice. Her personality sings or laughs or screams off the page, vernacular and colorful, wise and confused, approachable and authentic and believable. Her story is wild. If it weren’t told in such convincing fashion and with such human wonder by its narrator–in other words, if I tried to tell you here about some of the things that happened to young Mary, less artfully–you wouldn’t believe it. But in this memoir, you do.

Karr grew up in a little east Texas coastal refinery town (here under a fictional name), with a short spell spent in Colorado. Her family was troubled, and gave the neighbors some entertainment (or opportunity for self-righteous head-shaking). But this is not a simple story of hardship and woe. The Karrs are also fiercely loving and loyal, with a capacity for humor. Karr’s narrative voice seeks answers and knows how to criticize, but she loves her flawed people; she’s not out to get them. (This is one of the key tips of The Art of Memoir: write out of love, not hate. Additionally, though this sounds even harder, “as Hubert Selby told Jerry Stahl, ‘If you’re writing about somebody you hate, do it with great love.'”)

From a craft perspective, I suppose I will start by examining the rich inner world Karr relates here, as for example on pages 148-157. In this eventful chapter, Karr’s mother creates a massive bonfire of most of her children’s–that is, Mary and her sister’s–belongings, before threatening their lives with a butcher knife. This scene is described in great detail, meticulously, so that it takes pages for moments to pass. Alongside the scene we get little Mary’s coping mechanism: her imagination supplying parallel events to explain or counter those she is witnessing. There is a backwards-looking perspective provided by the adult Mary writing these lines, but also much of young Mary’s real-time daydreaming. There are flashbacks. It’s an extraordinary sequence, and she uses a similar strategy elsewhere, in other such horrifying, dramatic, traumatic scenes. I know one reader who finds the lengthy, meticulous description of trauma difficult; but I think it’s actually a remarkable way to put us in the scene, as well as paint the child’s surreal experience. (Also, it’s difficult. But there is no way to read about rape that is not difficult. It should be difficult.)

My remarks here just scratch the surface of what The Liars’ Club has to offer. I’m a little confounded by the reviewers who didn’t love this memoir. The “best” criticism I saw was by a reader who believes that memoirs should teach a high moral lesson or reveal an important, famous person’s life. This book perhaps does neither, but I disagree with the premise; and so, thankfully, does Mary Karr.


Rating: 8 electric can openers.

A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews

I’ve been hearing about this one for years, I think first in South Toward Home. While it was already on my semester reading list, I was prompted to put it next in line when I read in Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir: “[A Childhood] is underrated–virtually unknown–except among the aficionados of the form.” So there. (My reading of The Art of Memoir was interrupted, so its review will follow this one. Preview: I like it.)

This is a memoir of a very short period, when the author is five and six years old, with just a few oblique references to his later life. During these two years, the child Crews becomes aware of himself in the world; he suffers serious injury and illness; his mother leaves his ‘father’ with her two sons, and after a few reunions, splits from him forever; and Crews learns that this was not his biological father, but the brother of that man, who is dead. In his reflections, what motivates the writing of this book is that Crews is haunted by the absence of his late biological father, and by a lack of ties to his home place of rural Georgia.

Both story and prose are tough, muscular, macho, unadorned, laden with violence and hardship; there are lovely lines concealed within, but Crews is most concerned with chronicling his scars. It is a raw and affecting book, and attempting a ‘biography of a place’ through a memoir of just two years is an intriguing strategy. I am fascinated by this idea, that two years of a child’s life can serve to profile a place.

I really appreciate Crews’s voice. This element (combined, obviously, with place and class) reminded me again and again of Rick Bragg. Bragg’s The Prince of Frogtown is on my reading list this semester as well; I hope I get to it in time. Of course I was also drawn (as with Sanders) to Crews’s preoccupation with place, where he’s from and what that means. Another kindred in this way, although his style (and the story he has to tell) differs greatly from my own. Crews is another author that plays with a fluid ‘truth’, which Mary Karr commented on as well: she forgives this favorite memoir because the more imaginative sections are obvious enough to pick out. Those are some of the sensational bits. But really, Crews lets his story stand for itself. His childhood will read as shocking to some of us; but it also reads as very real.


Rating: 8 slisures of grapefruit.

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

I gulped down The Chronology of Water like I was drunk on it.

This extraordinary memoir, fragmented and unchronological, charts the life of a former competitive swimmer who experienced many traumas: addiction, abuse, loss of a child, failed relationships, deaths. Water is the overarching metaphor, and references to water, swimming, drowning, and wetness are everywhere. Other recurring images or themes include twins/twinning, fire, hair, death, and sexuality. (Much sex.)

While Yuknavitch’s story is filled with headline-level events and excitements, her prose is every bit as compelling: poetic, rich with imagery and metaphor, but also often swinging back to a very conversational tone. Although the events of her story are terribly tragic, she offers hope, without ending with trite redemption. And she keeps her reader rapt.

As a student, I found this work interesting for both sentence-level prose style and overall organization. I made careful note of where the water/wet references and language sprang up: in fact, I highlighted all such words and phrases, making this the first book I’ve marked up since somebody last made me, in high school. Very few pages went without highlighting, and it was interesting to see where the page really lit up, and where it didn’t. I was also interested in how she uses neologisms, anthimeria and repetition to express a sense of wonder, discovery, and otherworldliness. These moods suit her subjects, for example, drug-induced states, sexual discovery, and extreme grief.

I don’t want to say too much. This is a startling work, and you should dip into it yourself.


Rating: 9 less than merry pranksters.

Writing from the Center by Scott Russell Sanders

I already admired Scott Russell Sanders for two essays I’d previously read a la carte: “Buckeye” and “The Inheritance of Tools.” Among other things, I love that both these essays do concentrate on “things,” that is, concrete physical objects that hold meaning. Also, his prose is lovely; he is thoughtful, and methodical in recording his thought processes; and he is concerned with the significance of place, and people’s ties to place. This last I mostly knew by reputation before reading this collection.

Sanders was already well-established and prolific when he released this essay collection, which has sort of a retrospective gaze. Essays focus on place, and the need for people (and writers) to be centered in place, and the author’s own underrated place, the Midwest. There is also some focus on humans’ role in a larger network of biological relationships, and a writer’s life and work, including literary studies. The opening essay “Buckeye” is the clear standout; I also really enjoyed “Writing from the Center” and “Letter to a Reader,” which come at the end. Some of the middle of the book faded out a little for me, though.

Writing from the Center moved a little slowly for me, in fact. There is much to praise here, but it’s quiet and ruminative, and I sometimes struggled to stay engaged, especially because many of the essays seemed to hit the same notes (same subjects, same points, same rhythms) again and again. There is an accumulative effect that is worthwhile, though. Sanders’s prose is quiet, straightforward, articulate but unadorned.

Of course I share Sanders’s concern with place and with staying put (Staying Put is another title of his I need to look into, in fact). It’s a little odd that I didn’t find this one more compelling, as I appreciated his points so much. He can do some extraordinarily beautiful writing. I loved this line:

A few turkey vultures perch on one of the crossbeams, their wings splayed to catch the early sun, like a row of black shirts hung out to dry.

I saw parallels from Kathleen Dean Moore’s “Stalking Seals” through Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels” through the otters in Sanders’s “Voyageurs.” And I made notes of the best points about place: these may be jumping-off points for my own writing.

I may have just been in a reading funk when I hit this book. But I think it’s also true that the pacing and the prose are measured and meditative, and that several of these essays address the same points. This may be a liability when putting together a collection of related works.

The next two books I read for school electrified me, by contrast. Those reviews are up soon: Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water and Harry Crews’s A Childhood: The Biography of a Place.


Rating: 7 quasars.
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