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Transfer of Qualities by Martha Ronk

What an extraordinary, slim little book. Many thanks to my classmate Andrew, who I think was the one to recommend it for my critical essay topic about objects.

Martha Ronk is a poet, so insert my usual hesitation about making intelligent commentary on a genre I’m not terribly comfortable with. This book is organized in three parts: Objects, People, and Transferred Stories (in the table of contents) or Transferred Fictions (within the text). That last discrepancy, I assume, is an editing error; but I kind of enjoy having the two options to choose from. On the other hand, my copy transposes a number of pages in the middle of the book: clearly an error, and a very annoying one, and I keep getting books with missing pages or transposed pages or whole sections replaced by duplicate sections; what gives? Anyway–I did have all the pages, and thank goodness, because they are good pages.

The section “Objects” is further subdivided into “Various Objects,” “The Book,” “Photograms,” and “Collecting,” and the first subsection is all prose poems, a breed of poetry I feel more at home with: just one or two paragraphs of lyric observations, and right up my alley, topically. I loved “A Glass Bowl” and “A Lost Thing” especially. As the book continues, prose poems give way to short essays, but there remains a dreamy note of not-quite-reality, and an attention to lyricism, rhythm, and sound. These words deserve to be read aloud.

Can I get away with sharing one of these prose poems here? If I choose a very short one? This is “The Cup,” the very first item of the book.

The cup on the shelf above eyelevel, the reach to get it for the first morning glass of water, the running of the water now clear after the silty water yesterday, the large dragonfly drowning in the cup, now in the bottom of the sink, and the sudden understanding of the whirr that edged the room last night, the unlocatable whirr that stops and starts and finally falls still as the lights are put out and what is left is the neighborhood barking, unidentified sounds pushed to the edge of consciousness, the sudden storm in the middle somewhere, and the knowledge that there must be a reason for what is now silence, a reason lodged in the absent muted clatter, as in the sudden morning appearance of venational wings, each the size of a thumb, folded inside the cup from the top shelf.

Go ahead, read it aloud.

Ronk quotes heavily from other writers, most especially Henry James (blurbs call James the “patron saint” or the “major genie” of this work). She studies various objects that move her, and a number of these are works of art–sculptures, paintings–making this partly a work of ekphrasis, recalling Doty (again and again). She has a piece called “An Obsession with Objects”–yes, I see you seeing me. She slips in Lolita and Posada (I look up at the Posada print on my wall), as well as her mother’s death and her own study of kung fu and fear of mortality; but it is the objects, always, at the center. The title concept is the transfer of qualities between objects, people, and places, an evocative thing to consider, especially for a person with my obsessions. She has a special care for bowls, and for blank space, for the air contained in bowls and other voids. I love it.

I found lots to love, to quote, and to save for future work, both critical and creative. At just seventy-nine pages, this book came as a small but powerful gift to me, not unlike (again) Still Life With Oysters and Lemon (also by a poet–hm). If you share my interest in “stuff,” by all means, make this a point.

Rating: 9 frames.

part two of two-part review: Earth Works by Scott Russell Sanders

Following up on part one.

Thanks for bearing with my lengthy review. I’m picking back up with a brief (!) list of a few of my favorite essays, in order of appearance in this collection.

  • “Doing Time in the Thirteenth Chair,” about being an alternate juror in a small-time drug-dealing case starring a confidential informer
  • “The Inheritance of Tools,” previously mentioned, about his late father’s legacy in the form of tools, literal and figurative
  • “Staying Put,” about attaching oneself to place, weathering the storm
  • “Letter to a Reader,” a life history, as man and as writer
  • “Buckeye,” my longtime favorite of his, more father’s legacy in objects
  • “The Common Life,” about what is basic and good in life, like making bread with loved ones
  • “Mountain Music,” about a fight with his teenage son that opens his eyes to a mistake he’s made (and inspires an essay collection)
  • “Silence,” an interesting one to appeal to me because it references faith and religion, topics that usually make me twitchy; about the Quakers’ silent worship
  • “A Private History of Awe,” about the things he finds moving in the world
  • “Buffalo Eddy,” a visit to a sacred place that inspires related musings, in a structure I appreciate: linking of concepts reminiscent of Eula Biss
  • “Mind in the Forest,” similar contemplation based in place.

There were other essays that gave me trouble, too. “The Uses of Muscle” makes some efforts (“I have a much greater appreciation now for the bodily strength of women”) but ultimately returns repeatedly to ideas of men using their muscles, or not, and the societal concerns with each possibility: “Fortunately for the peace of society, many boys play sports…” “How might boys and young men–or, for that matter, men of any age–use their muscles for something besides recreation or mischief?” You know this made me grumble. “Honoring the Ordinary” responded to certain critiques of the memoir genre in a manner I found a little broad and simplistic, but I should forgive this because Sanders’s audience for such writing was presumably a mainstream less tuned in than I am to this topic. But then the notes say that it was composed for a conference on the art of the memoir, so, hm. (On the other hand, both the early “The Singular First Person” and the later “Letter to a Reader” do a better job with this subject, in my opinion.)

If I nitpick, it is only because this essay collection engaged me so. The overall impression is excellent; if there are essays here I need to interrogate, it’s only because the whole is so impressive that I hold Sanders to a high standard. From another writer, “The Men We Carry In Our Minds” would have turned me away entirely, and I wouldn’t have finished the book.

Do I still have your attention? May I share a few favorite lines, for final good measure?

From “The Inheritance of Tools”:

I look at my claw hammer, the distillation of a hundred generations of carpenters, and consider that it holds up well beside those other classics–Greek vases, Gregorian chants, Don Quixote, barbed fish hooks, candles, spoons.

I ardently love a list, and Sanders is good at them. He chooses his items for alliteration, juxtaposition, sounds, and themes, with both poetry and meaning-making in few syllables. This concept of classics is one of the finest lists in this collection.

From “Staying Put”:

How can you value other places if you do not have one of your own? If you are not yourself placed, then you wander the world like a sightseer, a collector of sensations, with no gauge for measuring what you see. Local knowledge is the grounding for global knowledge.

From “Wayland”:

There is more to be seen at any crossroads than one can see in a lifetime of looking.

This for me recalls Annie Dillard, or Terry Tempest Williams, down on hands and knees, really looking into the grass where a casual looker would say there was nothing.

My encounters in Wayland shaped me first as I lived through them, then again as I recalled them during my visit, and now as I write them down.

In “Honoring the Ordinary,” I was struck by a concept which matches one from Still Life With Oysters and Lemon. Referencing his own earlier book, A Private History of Awe, Sanders writes,

I wished to honor ordinary experience, not by making it seem exotic, but by peeling away the rind of familiarity that keeps us from seeing the true power and beauty and wonder and terror of it.

Doty writes:

These [still life] paintings reside in domestic, physical, fleshly space… it is so startling… that everything in this up-close, bodily space is delineated with such clarity. We’re accustomed to not seeing what is so near to us; we do not need to look at things that are at hand, because they are at hand every day. That is what makes home so safe and so appealing, that we do not need to look at it. Novelty recedes, in the face of the daily, and we’re free to relax, to drift, to focus inward. But in still life the familiar is limned with an almost hallucinatory clarity, nothing glanced over or elided, nothing subordinate to the impression of the whole.

(Bold emphasis is mine, italics are his.) When I come across the corresponding line in Sanders, then, I’m struck not only by the sentiment, such a neat parallel to Doty’s, but also by the turn of phrase, the rind of familiarity, so evocative of Doty’s beloved lemons and their luxuriant, sensual peels.

From “Buffalo Eddy”:

We cannot know what moved those vanished artists to carve their language into stone, but I imagine it is akin to the impulse that will move Bill to write a poem about our visit to Buffalo Eddy and will prompt me to write this essay. Such writing is like breathing, an exhaling that follows inhaling, as natural as that.

That is as lovely and natural an ending as any for my thoughts here. Forgive my quibbles. Sanders is on the whole an essayist to admire and emulate. I appreciate his subject matter and the frank, humble, wondering nature of his prose: a man after E.B. White, even, with perhaps more gravity and less humorous witticism. I’m a fan.

Rating: 7 crows.

part one of two-part review: Earth Works by Scott Russell Sanders

For other Sanders work, see Pops’s review of Staying Put and my review of Writing From the Center.

At this point in my semester, I’m beginning to work on a first draft of the third semester project in my MFA program: a critical essay, or longform investigation of the strategies of writers I admire that might inform my own work. (For more about the critical essay, you can take a look at pages 42-44 of the student handbook here, and follow this tag.) My essay topic is the use of stuff, things, or material objects (new tag!) as a way in to a subject or a character. With this topic in mind, I approached this most recent (2012) collection of Scott Russell Sanders’s work especially interested in a few essays in particular. I’d intended to only sample from the rest; but I couldn’t put it down.

Earth Works is a must-have collection for the Sanders fan. He carefully selected the 30 essays here, including nine that have never before been collected. I’ve read some of these before, but remained mesmerized by both content and style regardless of my familiarity. Sort of like with that Beard essay I so revere, “Buckeye” remains a feat to appreciate on every reading, even six or eight readings in.

A brief preface places these essays in some context in Sanders’s life and aims, and then they unfurl, in mostly chronological order by date of composition (some exceptions for the sake of juxtaposing topics), and with few revisions to their original published form (“for better or worse”). I really appreciate that the first essay, composed in 1987, is “The Singular First Person”: it lays out Sanders’s perspective about the personal essay, its form and purposes. It’s a smart way to start, because it offers some idea of what he thinks he’s up to, and therefore some promise of what is to come. A humble man speculates on what he finds in the world, in the hopes of asking big questions: “Who am I? What sense can I make of this inner tumult? How should I live? Does the universe have a purpose? Do we? What finally and deeply matters? What is true, and how can we know?” (From a later essay, “Letter to a Reader.”) Sanders is concerned with nature and the natural world, but resists the term “nature writer” (as did Edward Abbey), because he is most concerned with interconnectedness: human beings with one another, with the natural world of which we are mere part. He wonders about spirituality, about our place in the cosmos, about the sadness of consumerism and war, the destruction of the Earth; but he has a great love for the world, too, and allows that to shine through.

This reading, my deepest exploration of his work, confirms for me that Sanders is one of my favorite essayists. He marries content that is meaningful and sympathetic to me with style that is both lovely to read, and nearly invisible. As I’ve said before, the best writing often doesn’t even feel crafted, but that’s when you know it was hardest to craft. These essays are good examples of that idea.

I came for three essays in particular, as I said. “The Inheritance of Tools” uses stuff or things to get at a character: Sanders recalls his father through the tools that father passed on to him, along with the knowledge of how to use them; this essay is a way of processing his grief on his father’s death. “Under the Influence” is about the same father, but in this essay, the father is an alcoholic, who causes his family great pain. The two fit interestingly together because they’re about the same man from two very different perspectives. Finally, “Buckeye” continues the grieving for the beloved father, through a series of objects, beginning with the title buckeyes but traveling through other material things. Because all three attempt to profile a parent, and deal with the relationship between writer and parent, and because two of them do so through objects, they offer a number of things to me. For the purpose of the critical essay, I’ve also got my hands on a talk Sanders gave in 1990 at the University of Iowa, about the crafting of “The Inheritance of Tools” and “Under the Influence.”

As I said, these were not the only standout essays for me, and I kept reading for the pleasure of it beyond the three essays I’d intended to study. It wasn’t all good times, either, though. An early (1984) essay, “The Men We Carry In Our Minds,” made me angry. Sanders means well, and he is good to the women in his life (wife and daughter) in many ways. He considers himself a feminist. This essay means well, too, but it makes some major blunders, when he concludes that his own upbringing in relatively impoverished, working-class conditions make the challenges he’s faced the same as those faced by women. I am taken back to an excellent article I read years ago, titled “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person.” The idea here is that you can be really poor and still enjoy privilege as a white person, because at least your race isn’t contributing to the limitations or constraints you face. The same principle could be applied to Sanders’s arguments. You might have been poor, you might have been limited, but you didn’t face the glass ceiling, the sexual harassment, the wage gap, the rape culture, or the insidious, invisible assumptions of incompetence that women did and do face. Concluding that you thoroughly understand the predicament of women when you don’t is arguably more problematic than not attempting to understand in the first place; congratulating oneself and turning away is troubling, because it makes you something of a false ally. His blindness to this problem gave me a lot of trouble. The HuffPost article was published in 2014, and Sanders’s essay, again, in 1984. But since he’s reprinted it in 2012 without feeling a need for further comment, I think he still needs to go read the HuffPost piece.

I won’t forget the blind spots exposed in this essay. But it’s to the great credit of the rest of this book that I still love it. Because there is indeed much to love here, not least the previously uncollected work near the end–I really enjoyed seeing Sanders articulate his appreciation for Emerson, Thoreau, and Wendell Berry, among others. I had already sent a copy of this book to my father before I got to these essays, but they made me glad again that I’d sent it to him.

Come back to me next Wednesday and I’ll do more raving, and slightly more quibbling, with this long and rich book.

Still Life With Oysters and Lemons by Mark Doty

This is one of a few rereads and re-reviews, as I work my way into this semester’s project: my critical essay about the use of material things in Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemons, Terry Tempest Williams’s Pieces of White Shell, and a handful of Scott Russell Sanders’s essays. Original review here.

I annotated this book last semester for its use of objects. This time around, I’m interested in contrasting its strategy for using things with Terry Tempest Williams’s in Pieces of White Shell.

Where PoWS is a collection of essays or stories, SLWOL is a single essay, just seventy pages. Williams offers a collection of objects and devoted a chapter to each, where each object (or grouping of objects) allows her a way in to discuss the topics she needs to discuss. Doty’s work is initially ekphrastic: he is engaged in a lengthy, unhurried meditation on a single painting, and along the way meanders through a wide variety of places, buildings, objects, and other paintings. Doty refers to the habitual attendees of auctions, a tribe in which he includes himself, as “curators of objects, some of which would outlast us” (33); Williams is employed as museum curator during the narrative present of her book. Both books are concerned with material things, and use those things as a way in to larger topics, or allow them to stand in for less concrete concepts. But they do it both in very different ways and to very different effects, in part because the two writers are pursuing very different subjects.

Williams explores a body of knowledge and mythology that is outside herself (Navajo culture and myth, and a scientific approach–geography, biology–to a specific place) in order to better understand her world, including her Mormon background and her relationship with people and nature; she works to put forward a philosophy gleaned and developed from these sources. Doty wants to develop a worldview as well, of the dualities that engage his curiosity: intimacy versus independence, home versus travel. (He writes in The Art of Description about the usefulness of polarity: “the pull of forces in opposition to one another makes writing feel alive, because it feels more like life to us than any singular focus does; reality, we understand, is a field in which more than one attraction, more than one strong tug, is always at work.”) He does this by examining the objects that draw his attention, and the nature of that attention. Thus, he’s not studying a still life painting so much as studying its effect on him, although a study of the painting is involved in a study of its effects.

In this way, Williams and Doty’s use of objects necessarily differs. Williams chooses the objects that head her chapters for their associative value. The Storyteller is a useful object because it opens the door to discuss storytellers she’s known, and the cultural value of storytelling. (The reader takes her word for it that these are also the objects actually on her desk, but whether chosen for the desk or for the book, still chosen.) Doty doesn’t choose objects so much as they choose him. He’s not using the painting, or the blue-and-white platter with antlered deer on it, or the peppermints, because of what they let him talk about. He is rather driven to use those objects because they have acted upon him, and it’s that acting-upon that he writes about in this book.

He also writes at several points about the narrative contained in objects: “I loved best the [auctions] that took place at people’s houses, for then the narrative of a life was most available” (31). The things he’s purchased “are informed for me, permanently, by the narrative of the auction, an experience of participation” (33). Obviously a nonfiction writer interested in composing a larger story through objects, perks up her ears at these mentions of narrative. However, I think perhaps Doty is even more interested in that “experience of participation.” Williams’s approach is more like narrative-through-representative-object (objects for their associative powers), where Doty’s is more the experience of interacting with objects, as the central narrative.

If there were a thesis question at the heart of this book, it might be, “Why do these things make me feel what they make me feel?” The title painting leads him into a lengthy discussion, revisited throughout the book, of how lemons represent intimacy. I’m not sure I would ever have gotten, myself, to a conclusion that lemons represent intimacy; but I’m deeply involved in Doty’s thought process. In the end, this book is not centrally about Doty’s life, any more than PoWS is about Williams’s. Rather, this book is about how Doty looks at (literal, material) things, and by extension how we all look at things.

Rating: upgraded to 9 quinces on this go-round.

Pieces of White Shell by Terry Tempest Williams

This is one of a few rereads and re-reviews, as I work my way into this semester’s project: my critical essay about the use of material things in Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemons, Terry Tempest Williams’s Pieces of White Shell, and a handful of Scott Russell Sanders’s essays. Original review here.

The importance of this book to me can hardly be overstated, as I’ve read it many times since my childhood. It offers many possible annotation subjects: the dreamy quality of the stories Williams tells; the line between fact and fiction; the liberal use of other writers’ words to compile her own impressions; the interplay between Mormon and Navajo traditions; her study of storytelling as communication and education across generations. But here I am most interested in her use of objects as an organizing principle.

Williams’s chapters are organized by the items she keeps in a leather pouch on her desk at the Utah Museum of Natural History, where she works as museum curator. The prologue opens: “Out of my pouch falls a sprig of sage.” This prologue is different from the rest of the book in that it is set in Williams’s family home and tradition, while the rest of the book stays with the Navajo and her work life. Sage backgrounds her home. Chapter one, “Curator,” presents the pouch. Its first two paragraphs read,

I am a collector. On my desk sits a small leather pouch, weatherbeaten, full of mementos of the desert. I have carried it with me everywhere in Navajoland. It is my link with the Diné, as they call themselves. I am shy. The people are shy. The objects inside give us courage to speak.

I shake the objects out of their pouch and spread them across my desk. What stories they tell: a sprig of sage; rocks, sand, and seeds; turquoise, obsidian, coral; pieces of white shell; yucca; a bouquet of feathers bound by yarn; coyote fur; a bone from Black Mountain; deerskin; wool; a potshard and some corn pollen. Wait–something is missing. I shake the pouch four more times and from the bottom of the bag rolls out the Storyteller, a clay figurine from Jemez.

This list of objects forms the rest of the chapter titles. The prologue is subtitled “A Sprig of Sage,” and the rest following chapter 1, “Curator,” proceed: “Rocks, Sand, and Seeds,” “Turquoise, Obsidian, and Coral,” etc. down the list. “Storyteller” is followed by “Home,” and then an epilogue, acknowledgements, notes, and bibliography. With just a few exceptions, the pouch’s contents neatly form the table of contents. As a writer who has always struggled with titles, this neatness appeals to me.

Within each chapter, the object or objects offer entry into stories, folklore, natural history, and personal musings. The connections between object and story are often tenuous: they make sense to Williams, and she is content to leave them sketched. My first impression is that she follows her mind where it wanders without much explicit mapping of those wanderings for her reader. Let me look closer at how each chapter title describes its contents.

The sprig of sage is the Utah landscape that Williams and her family and her Mormon culture belong to; it leads her to family stories. The rocks, sand, and seeds are the geography of Navajoland (the Colorado Plateau), and this chapter lets her tell the story of that land both through the science of geography and through Navajo mythology. Turquoise, obsidian, and coral are colors: of the desert, and of Navajo mythology again. Pieces of white shell are vestiges of the ocean that once covered Navajoland, and this leads her to an old world and old traditions, again accessed in part through myth. Yucca is soap, tradition, and the traditional ceremony surrounding a Navajo woman’s first menses.

A bouquet of feathers bound by yarn is classic Terry Tempest Williams: her obsession with birds, and their place in the myth and culture and ecology of the region. Here she tells stories of communing with a great horned owl, and of attending a powwow. Coyote fur is also obvious, allowing a way in to Coyote/Trickster stories. A bone from Black Mountain is a storytelling opportunity: Williams picks up a bone and dreams, imagines herself shrinking to Flea and listening in on the storytelling of the animals on the mountain. The chapter ends with a lesson about the nature of storytelling.

Deerskin begins the reentry of Williams’s own family, as her father’s and brothers’ hunting traditions meet the Navajo Deerhunting Way. Wool is a connection to the Navajos’ sheepherding tradition. A potshard and some corn pollen lets Williams imagine her way into the ancient world of the Anasazi, the Navajos’ precursors in the region. The Storyteller reminds her of two women in particular that she’s known; the reader recognizes that Williams is herself a storyteller, as well, with all the ritual and roles associated. The outlier final chapter, “Home,” re-grounds Williams back in the present, in her office at the Utah Museum of Natural History.

I can see now that these objects each lead Williams into history, myth, place, and culture, associatively. In fact, it’s a more consistent, standard strategy than it immediately appeared to me–almost a formula, but with a feeling more intuitive and natural than that implies.

Within chapters there is an organization to admire, too. Many chapters both start and end with an image, or with the object itself, circular. This keeps the reader grounded in the objects and the images and associations they call up. It is part of what makes my overall impression of this book as both simple and profound: the pattern brings the reader back around, always, so that she remembers the objects that brought us here. Williams deals in concepts that ask her reader to stop and think, but she grounds them in easily grasped things. The chapter titled “A Bouquet of Feathers Bound by Yarn” begins with the word “birds” and ends with “birds burst into song”; the title phrase occurs in both the next-to-first and next-to-last sentences.

As a writer intimidated by both titles and the conclusion and tying-up of essays, this structure appeals to me very much as a strategy to make my own work easier to organize. I appreciate that the effect on me as reader was not of a formula but of an artful form. I think there may be a shortcut here for me. In my critical essay, there are several aspects of Pieces of White Shell that I hope to mine for my own work: overall organization of a collection, the theming of individual chapters or essays, and things standing in for stories or concepts, as ways in.

Rating: 9 coyotes return.

“The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard

At the gracious request of Uriah Pariah, here is a my response to an essay I admire greatly, and more and more every time I read it. “The Fourth State of Matter” appears in Jo Ann Beard’s collection The Boys of My Youth, and you can read it here.

NOTE: This review includes spoilers, and I feel strongly about the reader’s first experience with this essay being a blind read. If you don’t know what it’s about, please STOP now and go read it yourself first before continuing with my lesser words.

I think this post has to include the story of how I came to this essay in the first place. It was assigned reading in Suzanne Paola’s Intro to Creative Nonfiction Writing class at Western Washington University, an undergrad course I took in my early 30s a few years ago, surrounded by people not old enough to legally purchase beer (itself a weird time). Suzanne is a gift to the world and to this art form, but that’s another story. I read the essay she’d assigned without knowing anything about it. So my experience was innocent, like most of the readers (I assume) who first encountered it in The New Yorker in 1996. I have since been assigned the same essay several times, and have read it additional times for “pleasure” (though that’s not quite the right word) and study. I’ll never have that first read again, but it still gets better every time. I wish the same for you.

So, on first read, this is what presented itself to me: the narrator has an old dog, a collie, who is nearing death, in the most sympathetic, almost apologetic fashion. Jo Ann sleeps in fits and starts, between cleaning up after the collie’s incontinence. She has squirrels in her spare bedroom, and her husband has just left her. It’s a rough time. Then we go to work with Jo Ann, and meet her quite likable colleague, Chris. They are quite different–he is a space physicist, she is the managing editor of the space physics journal and vague on the science–but have a genial relationship, so comfortable that I instantly relate, even envy them a little.

This essay is a braid, and a very fine example of that form, but sort of subtle too, because the various braids (and there are several: dying dog, squirrels, estranged husband, work relationships with Chris and others) all come from the same timeline, the present tense of the essay. It’s not clear at first whether they will work as braided fibers or a single story, although I think they come out in a braid, and like the finest such essays, they are tied up together at the end, so that there is a moment of reveal: the reader’s aha, when she sees how tragically these narrative threads are all in fact one.

Because what this essay is “really” about is the 1991 shooting at the University of Iowa, when a graduate student killed five and maimed a sixth before shooting himself. Jo Ann knew the shooter and several of his victims, including her dear friend Chris.

This “real” material comes on slowly, then suddenly. There are foreshadowing moments of darkness, but when the first bullet flies the reader still feels a shock. It felt very realistic to me in this way: it felt like the faculty and students on campus might have felt that day.

Jo Ann goes home in shock. She takes care of the collie dog. She has already had an old friend take care of the squirrels in the spare bedroom. She is surrounded by friends who want to help her, although they don’t know how; her estranged ex-husband (not a sympathetic character) comes around and bumbles some more. Again, the telling feels like what she might have experienced in the living of it. The essay ends on a heartbreakingly beautiful elegiac note, and we are bereft: that this fine piece of art is over, and that lives have been lost, along with the squirrels and the not-quite-yet-dead-but-still-dying beloved dog.

One of the things that struck me most on my first reading was how much the dog affected me. Because, be clear, five people were murdered and followed by one suicide, then another; an additional victim was left paralyzed; a major university was deeply wounded. But the dog. My own old dog has been getting older and less cogent for years now–he’s still going, amazingly, but even when I first read this essay, I could feel his mortality. When we discussed “The Fourth State of Matter” in that undergraduate class, I was a little surprised to learn that nearly everyone had this story, though, about a beloved old dog, dead or dying. Of course, I quickly saw what nonsense it was to think that I had a monopoly on this. It’s a pretty universal feeling. We love our dogs.

Also, though, the essay starts with the dog. Beard’s first line reads, “The collie wakes me about three times a night, summoning me from a great distance as I row my boat through a dim, complicated dream.” My personal impression of this essay is that the collie dog–who goes unnamed, lending her even more of the universal, the ur-dog, the archetypical beloved–stands in for everything else that is lost. The youth and innocent partying of the squirrels, the broken love of the husband, the lives (Chris, who Jo Ann was close to, but also Bob, who she disliked and fought with constantly)–all of this, for me, is contained in the dog. For me, it’s a near-perfect essay, if not perfect. I haven’t even mentioned all the single lines that are crystalline, funny and perfect, as well. Go read it, again.

There have been criticisms. For one thing, Beard plays loose with the facts in characterizing the shooter, Gang Lu, attributing thoughts and feelings to him, supplying some of the content of letters he left behind explaining his actions. On first reading, I gave her the benefit of the doubt, thinking that maybe enough of those letters (for example) had been released to the public to allow her to know what she claims to know in this essay, but that is not the case. I’m so much on board with this essay that I no longer care. Funny, I’m a stickler for truth in nonfiction, until my heart has been won, and then I don’t care anymore. (See also Albert Goldbarth’s “Fuller.”)

Then there is the question of how we write about violence, about trauma, and about other people’s losses. This was the subject of Katie Fallon’s seminar at my recent residency, for which I was most recently assigned this essay, among other lovely pieces of writing. The class was divided, although “The Fourth State of Matter” was not at the center of our discussion–we mostly focused on Brian Doyle’s “Leap,” another piece I dearly love, although my peers are not all in agreement about it. We wonder, with pieces like these, about exploiting trauma, about glorifying violence, about whether to number the gunman in the death count, about when a story is “ours” to write about. We all have different reactions to these questions, and that’s not really what this blog post is meant to be about, but I will say about “The Fourth State of Matter” that I think Beard stays well on the side of writing about her own personal experience of this tragedy. She may not be all in the clear on the question of fact-in-nonfiction, but I think she’s fairly safe on exploiting violence. Again, because she makes it about a dog, some squirrels, and a dear friend. Or, as the original commenter put it when he requested this post: “it’s the fact that it was her story to tell, and a true one at that, that lends it its ultimate power.” That’s why nonfiction, my friend.

Uriah Pariah, thank you for asking me to write this. Hope it’s been helpful.

I already said it when putting together my best-of-2017 post:

Rating: 10 faces of love.

residency readings, part II

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond. (As this post was written pre-residency, I’m using a future tense for seminars that have by now taken place.)

Continuing Wednesday‘s post…

I already reviewed Eric Waggoner’s assigned book, Line by Line. In a word, I didn’t find it a very interesting cover-to-cover read! More of a reference book.

Jeremy Jones‘s packet was, I felt, an ideal example of pre-residency reading. For one thing, I appreciate that it was brief! (I was asked to read some 400+ pages for this residency, including my peers’ work that required in-depth response, and watch three movies and view additional material online.) But also, I felt that the selection of works he assigned were an excellent overview to his topic, and read like an introduction to his seminar. This packet, for a seminar on “writing about other people,” includes essays on the topic from a more academic, instructive point of view as well as personal reports by writers with experience writing about close friends and family, and the fallout. The final piece is Jeremy’s own, and I am looking forward to his promise to “talk through changes [he] made and reactions the ‘subject’ had about drafts and the final product.”

I enjoyed that Richard Schmitt’s package was much like him: pithy and to the point. He assigned three enjoyable short stories by Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, and Ernest Hemingway, respectively. Richard’s seminar is about “the art of leverage,” or power shifts in narrative, and these three stories look like great examples of that. I can’t wait. Also, I love anyone who requires me to reread Hemingway.

Rebecca Gayle Howell is teaching a seminar on “the documentary imaginary,” and I have no idea at time of writing what that means. She assigned three movies, three websites, and several readings. (You’ve already seen the movies reviewed here.) As I moved from Deliverance to The True Meaning of Pictures, I noted my clear preference (not for the first time) for literal and explicated narratives. I’m thinking about the discomfort that poetry brings me, because I can’t understand exactly what the poet meant at all times; where I love a memoir or an essay in which the narrative voice tells me precisely what she’s up to. In the same way, I guess Deliverance as an assigned viewing offered lots of possibilities for what we’d be discussing in class. But The True Meaning said what it was about. It discussed what it wanted to discuss, right there on the page, if you will. I felt much more comfortable with that content. Sherman’s March was a different experience, as I’ve already said.

The readings that Howell assigned were intriguing. Let me repeat, at the time of writing these lines, I remain confused about the topic of her seminar. Some of this confusion has got to come from the fact that I am in the minority in this program (whose tagline is “write in the heart of Appalachia”) as an outsider to the Appalachian region. I read the first three chapters of a novel called Mothering on Perilous (what a title!!), and I enjoyed them enough to wish I had time to read the rest, although I knew no more than when I’d started about Howell’s seminar. And then I read an essay called “McElwee’s Confessions,” which I commented on briefly in the comments section of my review of Sherman’s March. This essay is an appreciation of McElwee’s work, and while it did not convince me, it does help me to acknowledge–somewhat grudgingly–that there is more to it than I found in the one film. The essay’s author is familiar with the whole body of McElwee’s work, which I’m sure helps. And not everything is for everybody.

Finally, Howell assigned three websites for viewing: an audio interview with James Dickey (poet and author of Deliverance the novel); a gallery of Doris Ulmann’s photography; and the project “Looking at Appalachia.” That last captivated me. I highly recommend taking a good chunk of time to look through these photographs. The concept is dear to my heart, something like what I was up to at Defining Place, which has gone dormant. “Looking at Appalachia” is my new favorite thing.

Finally, Vicki Phillips’ assignment of Jane McCafferty’s brief “Thank You for the Music” was a touching read. I’m still trying to decide which of the graduate seminars to attend in that final slot, and this lovely little story made it that much harder.

Obviously it was a full and enriching experience just preparing for all these classes. And nothing here reflects the fact that I also spent time preparing for workshop: I read about 20 pages each of four of my peers’ work, and submitted about 20 pages of my own, and during residency we’ll be doing in-depth small-group discussion of those pieces (and exchanging written responses and marginalia). It is an intense time, in every sense. Thank you for being patient with me. As of now, I’m back home and readjusting to home and work life, getting to know my little dogs again and doing laundry–and, of course, getting to work on assignments for the semester. I look forward to hearing from you and reengaging. Life is ever a whirlwind. Again, thanks for your patience.

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