The Memory Collectors by Kim Neville

A poignant exploration of relationships offers a deep dive into the strong bonds that can form between people and everyday objects.

Kim Neville’s first novel The Memory Collectors is a feat of character and plot, as well as an intriguing consideration of the enormous significance objects and places can hold for different people.

In an opening prologue, the reader meets Evelyn, a child who loves working with her father in his antiques and restorations shop; it is a glimpse of idyllic family life. The novel then flashes forward to its central timeline: Ev is a young adult in Vancouver, socially isolated, making a living by picking through recycle bins and alley discards for items to sell at the Chinatown Night Market. Her relationship with her little sister Noemi is fractured. Their family experienced a tragedy that for much of the book remains unclear.

And then there is Harriet, an older woman with a hoarding problem and a mysterious connection to Ev. They share an ability to read an object’s emotional associations by touch or proximity, but they have very different feelings about this gift, or curse. Ev hides from things she thinks of as “stained,” living in new and undecorated spaces, and moving often as her own feelings settle in. Harriet collects the things she thinks of as “bright,” filling the spaces around her with borrowed emotions until she makes her neighbors ill with “the soft, scrambled buzz of thousands of stains.” Harriet hopes to use her collection to heal, with Ev’s help. But Ev may know better just how dangerous a brooch or a balsawood glider can be.

Ev is a heart-rending protagonist, paralyzed by her oversensitivity to the accrued memories and emotions of others. Because of her ability and her shadowed past, she keeps to herself, but still yearns for connection. Harriet’s isolation is different but parallel, as “the grubby, greedy, Gollum part of her” threatens to take over. A perceptive artist named Owen has something to offer each of them; he doesn’t feel objects as they do, but he might be better with people than either one. Ev’s sister is a troubled and troubling youth with secrets of her own. These characters form the rich heart of this tender, electric novel, which is also expertly plotted, with rising tension and danger, and carefully dispensed details from Ev’s murky family history.

The Memory Collectors is a remarkable piece of magical realism, imaginative and vivid in its specificity. Seemingly trivial items offer enormous symbolic opportunities. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, this story and its vibrant characters will stay with the reader long after the pages have closed.


This review originally ran in an abbreviated form as a *starred review* in the March 19, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.


Rating: 8 jade elephants.

Hair by Scott Lowe

Man, this Object Lessons series has been really up-and-down for me. I’ve found some transcendent books (Sock, Souvenir), but also some that failed to impress. And now this: Hair pretty much kept me angry throughout. I really thought it would be a DNF, but I just kept reading. I think I was curious to see if it would get better or if this was really it. Also, these books are short.

Scott Lowe turns out to be interested in social customs, and religion in particular, at the expense of science, or the uses of hair as object, for example. And these Object Lessons are explorations of objects from whatever angles (generally multiple ones); no foul here, but if I’d realized that Hair was a relatively single-lens study, and that that lens was religion, I might have passed. This is not my greatest criticism, but it makes the whole thing a little less appealing.

My problem was that Lowe tries to be funny, and his humor I frequently found misplaced if not offensive. Did Bloomsbury read this book before they printed it?? I found him funny one time, and made 10 notes where his treatment of race, gender, and non-Western cultures upset me (in 125 pages). I wish I could get this time back. Luckily, only 125 pages.

For the record, I’ll give a few examples. Lowe takes the time to deconstruct the myth that Jesus had long hair. But does not address the fact that Jesus was not white, and thus his hair would not have looked the way it’s frequently depicted in our culture, no matter the length? The House of David’s long-haired men’s baseball team played (as spectacle) against a short-haired lesbian women’s team, and “probably the cleverest part is that the lesbians would openly cheat, spiking and elbowing the Israelite team and engaging in outrageous dirty tricks, with the calculated effect of turning the crowds’ emotions… [toward] the House of David team to sympathetic support. It must have been great theater”! What fun, hating on the lesbians together, har har! Also women with beards are good for a laugh. Women should be uncomfortable with their furs as sex appeal (but no mention of men’s roles in this whole setup). Juxtaposition of “we moderns” against the behaviors of “a friend from Ghana, who was raised in a modern, educated Christian family.” (Nobody caught this in editing?) And probably the number one reason I read this book to the end: I was in a sustained state of disbelief that Lowe was just not going to handle the remarkable world of Black Americans’ hair. “Rather than address African hair in general,” he deals with Rastafari and Nation of Islam in a whopping 7 pages, and brushes his hands together and moves on.

I’ll try another few of these, I guess: when they’re good, they’re so good! But I’ve been frustrated a few times now. And I’m paying for each volume. You’re on notice, Bloomsbury.


Rating: 2 angry-face emojis here.

Scattered at Sea by Amy Gerstler

Quick housekeeping announcement: it seems to be time to return to a three-day-a-week schedule here, at least for a while. I’ve got so many reviews to share with you! See you back here this Wednesday.


Thanks, Vince, for the perfect recommendation.

Amy Gerstler reminds me of Amy Leach, in the best ways. Her poems are pleasingly filled with objects, with stuff, as forecast by her epigraph, from Lao Tzu: “He who obtains has little. He who scatters has much.” While well-grounded in real things, these poems are simultaneously concerned with spiritual and conceptual themes, too. I appreciated the organization into five sections: Kissing; Womanishness; Dust of Heirs, Dust of Ancestors; What I Did With Your Ashes; Only at Certain Sacred Locations. I felt each section hung together recognizably. (This already represents more success than I sometimes find with a poetry collection.) I loved as well Gerstler’s versatile tone – she can make me laugh and cry, and snort at her irreverence, and sit quietly with her reverence, all within a few lines. This was an easy, rewarding read.

That title, What I Did With Your Ashes: awesome. So suggestive in so many directions. I love it.

And the collection’s title, too: Scattered at Sea makes several suggestions to me. I think of scattering ashes, of marine life, of detritus, of wide dispersal across seven seas, and of scattered minds. The cover art (which extends to the title page[s]) suggests again that mess of stuff that always pleases me so. When I travel into poetry, I’m always a little less comfortable, but the stuff-n-things comfort me.

I like that these poems occasionally rhyme. It feels like each rhyme is more effective for its rarity – kind of like in prose, actually.

I propose that the poem “Disclaimer” is a reverse hermit crab, in the sense that Suzanna Paola and Brenda Miller define a hermit crab essay: one that takes the form of a different kind of text, like an essay in the form of an instruction manual or doctor’s notes or recipe. This is a poem in form, but its content feels taken from a different form. I liked how that lit up my brain.

Here are a few of my favorites lines.

On waking, if seized by an urge to munch shrubs,
give in.

Chew dew-bejeweled weeds till they complain

…as I sip this morning’s cocktail, an eye-opener
after last night’s revels: bitters mixed with curds of cloud.

Now the whole inscrutable crew has lost my vote.

One should give light to the whole world,
And when that gets tiring, lie down on various gregarious grasses.

And besides those quoted above, some of my favorite poems include “Fall On Your Knees,” “Ancestor Psalm,” “Extracts From the Consoler’s Handbook,” “He Sleeps Every Afternoon,” “Miraculous,” and “Sassafras.” I am waiting to discuss with Vince my questions about “Childlessness,” which has two stanzas that feel very different, almost opposite each other. Is there a name for that? It leaves in question the narrator’s final stance on childlessness. I often appreciate such ambiguities.

I can see myself continuing to reread and study this one. Scattered at Sea is a good fit for me; full credit, Vince.


Rating: 8 sexual identities glittery as tinsel.

reread: Still Life With Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty

This is my third review of this book – sorry if you’re getting bored! – and I’m probably close to ten times reading it, what with it being near the center of both my critical essay and my graduate seminar. Obviously a favorite. This time, I am motivated by Jessie van Eerden’s seminar, “Valley of Dry Bones: Bringing Non-Narrative Prose to Life” (see also Monday’s post). Because I’m traveling and almost all my books are in storage, I bought a fresh copy. (As I’m graduated and attending these seminars not for credit but for fun, Jessie encouraged me to skip the reread, but really.) It was a joyous adventure to mark up a clean copy: you may recall I rarely mark up books at all, but this one is special, and I went for it. I’m pretty sure my markings are very different this time around, which is an interesting story. When I have the two side-by-side one day, I will certainly compare them, which may make for a fourth blog post! Welcome to pagesofjulia, the Still Life With Oysters and Lemon blog… (First two posts here and here.)

This is an increasingly perfect book, at least for this reader, and as is the case with books like this, every read deepens it for me. On my first reading, I definitely didn’t get the full impact; I know the second was significantly more rewarding, but each time since, I see more through-lines and subtle echoes, and I am more appreciative of the lovely language and imagery. The narrator has just given a man a ride home:

On the front porch of the unpainted wooden shotgun house, his ancient wife sat reading her Bible aloud, Praise the Lord after every passage, and as Chris led me inside, she said, Chris, don’t you go gettin’ in that liquor in there, and though he said, Why no, Esther, I won’t do that, he led me right to the big Victorian armoire that concealed his treasure: beautiful glass jars of his own plum brandy, whole fruit preserved in pickled sleep, and poured each of us a shot of the most delicious brandy I’ve ever known, before or since, dusky, fiery, perfect.

And these lines have long been a special place for me in the book, but this is the first time they made me cry. A page later,

jars of plum brandy, whole fruit turning in their sleep like infants in the womb.

Whole fruit turning.

I marked many phrases like this, just a few words that made my heart sing: “floors sloped with fun-house abandon,” “what tugs at my sleeve and my sleep,” “that’s what we are, facts,” “not the thing itself but the way of seeing,” “if bodies could flower out.” “I feel possessed by the things of the day.” “There is nothing anywhere just like this.”

I marveled more than ever at the bodily, physical, intimate nature of all of Doty’s observations. I wondered, did I really never notice this before, how the “sexual presence, physicality, bodiliness” he ascribes to still life paintings of seashells is also inherent in everything else his eyes touch? Paul’s jacket, “shiny and blue-black,” and his black shoes “gleaming with droplets; his shoulder pushes against mine.” The men in the sauna, “these beautiful physical presences, all this skin, framed here–like works of art–by the little doorways.”

I noted again the repetition of a line of Cavafy’s poetry – “They must still be around somewhere, those old things.” But perhaps for the first time I saw its echo in the scent Doty recognizes in his mother-in-law’s house: “Is it still out there, in the houses of old women somewhere?”

I recalled but never before noted how perfect this description is:

An unfinished violin, of bird’s-eye maple, in two parts–the top carved out as a single piece, complete, and the violin-shaped block of uncarved wood that would have been the fiddle’s bottom half, the two parts together purchased for a dollar, and feeling, in the hand, like music emerging out of silence, or sculpture coming out of stone. A perpetual wooden emblem: something forever coming into being.

And I appreciated anew the (I will call it) theory of art he lays out, in saying that old things that belonged to someone else (the things you buy at an estate auction), or still life paintings, are beautiful because of what’s invested in these objects – stories, emotions – even when we don’t know what those stories or emotions are. It reminds me of Hemingway’s iceberg metaphor, or the idea that a novelist must know her characters’ backstories even when those backstories never enter the story on the page; the reader will feel them.

Also, having just suffered the loss of a friend, I was comforted in some small way by these lines:

Not that grief vanishes–far from it– but that it begins in time to coexist with pleasure; sorrow sits right beside the rediscovery of what is to be cherished in experience. Just when you think you’re done.

In short, it seems I concentrated on words and sentences this time around, having gotten more or less comfortable with the larger narrative (such as it is) and philosophies presented by the book as a whole. (Recall that this book is really a longform essay at just 70 pages.) I have struggled with the latter, with those philosophies, over multiple readings. This time I just let it feel good to read words and sentences.

I am terribly excited for Jessie to teach from this book. I’ve never had an outside guide to it before, and the subject of Jessie’s seminar is so close to my heart, and she feels so simpatico with my thinking and feeling in general; this will be a real treat. Reading this book is always a real treat. Also, I’m finally going to get around to reading Doty’s other memoirs, I swear it…


Rating: for me, a perfect 10 quinces.

Shipping Container by Craig Martin

Another in the Object Lessons series, and I was rather excited about this one, because boxes and containerization are among my obsessions. But alas, Shipping Container let me down.

It starts out with promise: Craig Martin sits writing in a shipping container, “looking out over the dramatic landscape of Loch Long” in Scotland. I was pleased to encounter, on page 5, Donald Judd’s box-inspired and boxlike artwork (having just recently seen some Judd out in the West Texas desert) – somehow this coincidence felt both surprising and nearly inevitable. I was charmed to consider the statement that “things control our behavior, mediating how we travel from A to B, or open a door for example.” When Martin muses about the container as building component, its crossover uses, and its wide-reaching implications for shipping, globalization, and economics, I lean forward with interest.

Unfortunately, he quickly leaves dramatic landscapes and crossovers behind in favor of research, acronyms, and jargon-heavy theory (economic, strategic, logistical, tactical, and yawn). For this reader, there’s nothing wrong with research or acronyms, and not much wrong with theory, as long as it’s leavened with some of that dramatic landscape… or personality… or narrative. I kept reading, hoping that Martin would shift gears and reward me with something interesting, some whimsy, some surprise. But no.

He has a tendency to use 40 words where ten would do, as when he describes some of the finer points of smuggling: “Crucially, it is the ability to conceal such practices that is paramount. As described earlier, the use of false floors in containers is intended to make the container appear absolutely normal, should it ever be opened by Customs or security officials. Evidence of tampering is decisive, particularly the attempts by smugglers to conceal evidence of interference with containers themselves.” In other words, smugglers like to hide the fact that they are smuggling. I got impatient.

An overlong chapter on smuggling and security ends with the observation: “the ISO shipping container is an incredibly convenient box in which to move things, be they legal or not.” I spared you the first 28 words of that sentence, and look how neatly it concludes. Those 19 words, in fact, could sum up not only the chapter but the book.

You can see I got a bit prickly about Shipping Container. What I loved most about Sock and Souvenir was how widely they ranged over their subjects, how they let the simple sock or souvenir mean so many different things – how they surprised me. Here, I found a dry discussion of the shipping industry over time, with a few tantalizing tidbits at the very end about “cargotecture,” or shipping containers as building material again. (Me, I’ve seen container homes; drank beer in a container brewery; and used to race at a velodrome that stored its track bikes in containers onsite. This is not a new or surprising use of shipping containers. The surprise, if anything, was that this phenomenon didn’t receive more coverage.) I’m sorry to be so negative, but I haven’t much good to say. I wish I’d put this one down without finishing it, as I did Matthew Battles’s Tree. Not every Object Lesson is for me. Your mileage may vary.


Rating: 3 internecine discussions.

Hood by Alison Kinney

This is the third that I’ve read in the Object Lessons series (Sock, Souvenir).

Kinney examines the hood’s sinister appearances in history: worn by executioners, torturers, and (not by choice) their victims; worn by the Ku Klux Klan; given as an excuse for the murder of Trayvon Martin. This last – the hoodie – was, for me, the most obvious application of ‘hood’ and the one I was most expecting (to what extent this was suggested by the cover, I can’t say), and none of these focal points surprised me. I was a little surprised to learn that the executioner and the torturer did not wear hoods til pretty modern times – our attribution of the hood to the medieval bad guys is a modern error (or, perhaps, a calculated strategy). But I was more surprised that Kinney’s hood is so consistently an image of violence. She mentions the hoods worn by professors, judges, and academics – the honorable hood – but only as a point of contrast.

In the opening pages, Kinney lists the hood’s uses: by “judges, athletes, rappers, torturers, politicians, and toddlers… to attend school, commute… go to war or protests, take a hike, walk the dog, ride the Maid of the Mist, or visit our grannies in the woods… coaches, firefighters, fishers, boxers, beekeepers, and Mark Zuckerberg… skaters, cosplayers, fetishests, presidents, and the entire Knowles-Carter family.” She apologizes: “Sorry, but you’ll have to wait for the sequel to get car hoods, stove hoods, and Mount Hood.” This promise of exhaustivity is not carried through, however. I recall Sock, wherein Kim Adrian reached back to the origins – the invention of the sock. That part of the hood’s story is missing here. I guess Sock and Souvenir had conditioned me to expect a really broad, start-to-finish, far-reaching treatment, and that’s not what Hood does. Hood focuses on injustice, violence, death, and abuses of power. It’s an important story; I’m not necessarily against Kinney’s approach, but it’s not what I’d been expecting.

The other way in which this book differs from the others I’ve read is that Kinney, as narrator, as researcher, and as holder of opinions, was lacking from her narrative. It has long been a reading preference of mine to find the author in her work; in nonfiction, I find it essentially dishonest to act like an impartial observer or researcher, because there’s no such thing. In this book, in particular, because Kinney takes decided political stances on a variety of issues, I really felt the hole left by her absence. Let it be said that I agree with her politics. But I regret that she didn’t reveal something of herself in stating them. I think it would have strengthened the book.

I’m interested to learn that the Object Lessons series takes more varied forms than those I’ve already encountered. I think I prefer the other model: the exhaustive, whimsical, present-narrator one. But Hood has much to offer, including a strong indictment of capital punishment, a chilling glimpse into Abu Ghraib, and a discussion of the black bloc of protesters at the Seattle WTO meeting and beyond.


Rating: 7 images.

Souvenir by Rolf Potts

Another from Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series to follow Sock, which so delighted me.

And this book only deepens my feelings about objects, and about this series. Perhaps what I love most about Souvenir–even more than the enormous wealth of history, theory, and cultural trappings Potts has researched and illuminated for me–is its meta-ness, the fact that it’s about objects functioning wholly as objects, as ciphers or representatives of more. This little book has inspired me immensely.

Potts, a travel writer, brings his own souvenirs and their stories to this study. He begins by defining ‘souvenir’ for the book’s purposes: “objects that are collected for personal reasons during the course of a journey.” Academic researchers, he writes, have split souvenirs into five categories. “Piece-of-the-rock” items are physical fragments of the travel destination or experience itself: rocks, sticks, flowers; ticket stubs and emptied bottles that were purchased full. “Local products” are just that; and these first two categories pre-date a tourism industry creating them purpose-made. Next, “pictorial images” (postcards, posters); “markers” (“which includes T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other products branded to the location”); and “symbolic shorthand,” which refers to recognizable images: the Eiffel Tower, Seattle’s Space Needle, the Astrodome.

Potts moves through categories and experiences and controversies: for example, soldiers bringing home souvenirs of war (including body parts and stolen antiquities), or the commercialization of disaster (New York’s September 11 Museum did not receive federal funding, and so raised money by selling 9/11-themed umbrellas, key chains, tote bags, and cheese plates). He examines the concept of authenticity, and how we grade it. Is a terra-cotta jug equally authentic when made for a tourist market as when made for carrying water? What if the materials, methods and final product are identical but for intended use? In other words, what and who confers authenticity? He relates tales of villages that put on an act of “primitive” “authenticity” for the tourists (wearing traditional clothing and carrying spears for the photographs), then return to blue jeans and television sets once the tourists have moved on. Which of these more authentic: the appearance that agrees with a Westerner’s preconceived notion, or the way modern African villagers really live?

I really appreciated thinking about an object’s transition from souvenir to museum piece, from private and associative meanings to public and interpretive ones, in which (I offer) something is lost and something is gained. And you know I especially enjoyed the concept of Wunderkammern (German, ‘wonder chambers’), small museum-like rooms maintained by individuals. This puts a word to an idea I’ve been writing about, obsessing over, and building for myself over the last semester.

I get carried away listing the ideas that sparked my mind. Postcard as “part object, part information.” Attribution of authenticity as a form of cultural appropriation, with all the usual arguments to be made: that culture is nothing but an accumulation of appropriations. Different cultural definitions of what a souvenir is, is about, is for: that the Japanese fulfill established expectations with souvenirs, that they seek not creativity, not “authenticity” in the way that many Westerners define it, but the performance of a formula: green-tea-flavored sweets from Kyoto, apple-flavored pastries from Aomori. My imagination is alive.

For years, I brought a dear friend pieces of the natural landscape when I visited beaches all over the world: a shell from Scheveningen, sand from southern California, rocks from Bellingham Bay. I used to work with a woman who collected feminine hygiene products from various countries and cultures, marveling at the variety of ways we deal with menstrual blood. Knowing these friends’ preferences made them easy to “shop” for. When I collect souvenirs, for myself or for others like this, as gifts, I note (as Potts has), that in the end it’s about the story that the thing reminds me of, much more than it is about the thing itself. Certainly, we can do workaday shopping while traveling: at an outdoors shop in Ireland I bought a sleeping bag and some hiking pants that are just those utilitarian things, although I don’t forget where I got them, either. But these are not “pure” souvenirs. Pure souvenirs are about narrative. “Everyone who collects souvenirs ends up creating these object-narratives, which resonate with private meanings no written autobiography could ever achieve.”

I can already see that I’m in danger of investing in every book in this series.

Like Sock, Souvenir is a mixture of personal essay (Potts’s own travels, his own souvenirs and stories), history, anthropology, and so much more. The object-as-object subject here was especially close to my own heart, although I venture that Potts indulged in a little less poetry and whimsy than Adrian did. At any rate, I’m in love, and hungry for more. I can’t recommend highly enough these tiny little books that open enormous worlds, through everyday things.


Rating: 9 masks.

Sock by Kim Adrian


Note: I am away for my residency period at school for two weeks or so. This is a previously scheduled post. I will respond to comments, but not as quickly as usual. Thanks for your patience, and thanks as always for stopping by.


Sock! What a treat! I know I just posted some predictions for best books of the year, but we have a new contender. This was a wildly fun, engrossing little volume.

Sock is part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, which appeals to me for reasons I assume are obvious now, after this increasingly object-obsessive semester. When I found out about the series, I exercised restraint and purchased only three books: Sock, Hood, and Souvenir.

Kim Adrian’s task here was to write about the sock. What is a sock, what is its job in the world, where did it come from, what is its significance? You know, just the basics. It’s a remarkable ambition in the first place, for any object (others in the series include Burger, Shopping Mall, Eye Chart, Tree, Cigarette Lighter… as well as the less object-like Silence and Doctor). To quote one of the book’s blurbs:

The Object Lessons series achieves something very close to magic: the books take ordinary–even banal–objects and animate them with a rich history of invention, political struggle, science, and popular mythology. Filled with fascinating details and conveyed in sharp, accessible prose, the books make the everyday world come to life. Be warned: once you’ve read a few of these, you’ll start walking around your house, picking up random objects, and musing aloud: ‘I wonder what the story is behind this thing?’ (Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From and How We Got to Now.)

I couldn’t have said it better myself, so I didn’t.

So, the sock. Adrian’s table of contents offers an introduction and three sections: “Socks and evolution,” “Socks and desire,” “Socks and industry,” followed by a postscript: “Instructions for darning a sock.” (The back-of-book blurb begins, “Kim Adrian’s Sock is the darndest thing,” and that gave me FITS.) Adrian acknowledges the weirdness of her project. She can’t really account for her interest in socks, except that they are “intimate and essentially domestic,” and the domestic has always appealed to her. She usually writes about personal subjects, she tells us (“personal essays, memoir, that sort of thing”), and figured socks would fit in, because they are personal, in the sense that we wear them against our skin and they smell of us; but in fact this was a wildly wide-ranging research project. To paraphrase Johnson’s blurb, above, this book wanders through human anatomy and evolution, world history, politics, sex, and industry. If Adrian is fixated on domesticity, I am fascinated by trivia, such as (on page 9) the fact that we get our understanding of when humans first began wearing clothing from the study of lice. Textiles are perishable; but the evolution of specialized lice species, and their development into head lice, pubic lice, and body lice respectively, allows archaeologists to track textile development. This fact made me exclaim joyfully aloud, and I got to read the passage to a roomful of brewery employees. We were in a sensory class about the history of yeast species, so it’s all related, after all.

Adrian moves on to human anatomy and our unique position as vertically aligned bipedal creatures, its effect on our sexual practices and the way we walk, balance, the importance of the big toe, and much more. Skeletal structure has much to do with socks. Then there is the history, of course, of socks: from hay stuffed in a shoe-like cage, to woven foot wrappings, to fitted and knitted socks. She touches on the Industrial Revolution, delayed by Queen Elizabeth’s denial of a certain patent, which if granted, Adrian speculates, might have moved that Revolution up by some two centuries, and “what strange wormhole of alternate reality we might have tumbled down” in that case! Next we have sock and foot fetishes (the latter properly not a fetishism but a partialism), and sex; Jung and Freud, and the art of Egon Schiele, an Austrian Expressionist who left the feet off many human subjects but put socks on his trees. Finally, the sock industry takes us into concepts of fast fashion and slow fashion (a sort of throwback movement that depends on surpluses of both time and money). Here Adrian returns to an earlier concern with knitting socks, something she’s tried and not much succeeded at; she has great respect for those who do knit socks. Then the promised primer on darning.

All this in under 120 pages, and every moment of it was a delight to read, in Adrian’s mildly self-deprecating, often humorous, but absolutely serious-about-socks prose.

Some of my personal highlights on this wild ride included learning that Ned Ludd–he of the Luddite Rebellion–was a stocking maker, and started his movement by smashing two stocking frames in Nottingham. Did y’all know that? Also Adrian’s attention to words: ‘mundane’ (as in socks) comes from the French mondaine, or ‘of this world,’ and links us back to ‘pedestrian,’ as in Latin ped, as in foot. And ‘prosaic’ from ‘prose’ comes from Latin provorsus, which is pro– (forward) and vorsus (turned), as in oriented in forward-facing fashion, as in walking. Can’t make this stuff up, folks. Or, did you know that our feet possess even more nerve endings than our genitals?

I feel like I’ve written half as many words now as Adrian put into her whole book, this slim little marvel of trivia and attention to the overlooked. I am reminded of Mark Doty’s devout study of small details, his appreciation that “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.” In other words, this book was a near-religious experience for me. I can’t wait to read more Object Lessons.

I can’t believe I’m doing it for the third time this year already, but here we are…


Rating: 10 stitches.

Object Lessons by Eavan Boland

I recall studying a poem in high school by Eavan Boland titled “The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me.” As I approached this semester’s critical essay, one of the talented faculty in my program, Diane Gilliam, recommended this work of prose, for my topic on objects. Diane’s words, to the best of my memory, were, “Every woman artist needs to read this book.” I’m so glad I did; especially when I got to page 231, where “The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me” makes an appearance, as the only poem of her own that Boland chooses to feature. Synchronicity.

Object Lessons is an examination of the conflict Boland has experienced between her self as poet and her self as woman, with the overlay of Irishness on it all. She leaves Ireland at age five, to a London that largely rejects her kind, to return to her home country in her teens and to study poetry at Trinity in Dublin, a charged literary atmosphere. It takes some time for this young person, still discovering herself as a woman, a sexual creature, and a person of a nation, not to mention as a poet, to see the holes in the legacy she has inherited: there is no place for her in this history. “It was not exactly or even chiefly that the recurrences of my world–a child’s face, the dial of a washing machine–were absent from the tradition [of the poet’s life], although they were. It was not even so much that I was a woman. It was that being a woman, I had entered into a life for which poetry has no name.” Names are important. “Every art is inscribed with them. Every life depends on them.” Further, about the poet-versus-woman tension: “For anyone who is drawn into either of these lives, the pressure is there to betray the other: to disown or simplify, to resolve an inherent tension by making a false design from the ethical capabilities of one life or the visionary possibilities of the other.”

Over the course of this book, she lays out the problems she found and her own best efforts at solving them, a job she acknowledges is unfinished. But she hopes that a book like this helps future women poets, by giving them a starting point, something else to point to. Heartbreakingly, by contrast, she relates that the first woman poet she knew of as a young woman was Sylvia Plath, and that name she knew first as a suicide, not a poet at all.

I was also very interested in the way this memoir started: with the missing, imagined, scantily sketched biography of her grandmother. The narrator explores the history, the meager records of the woman; she imagines; and she travels to view a grave and a hospital. It’s a lovely study, the story of someone absent, and a consideration of what we get from an ancestor we can’t really know.

Boland has plenty of good thoughts about place, sense of place, and nation as aspect of our selves and our writing selves. She makes much of the Irish poetic tradition to conflate the feminine and the national. Her musings can get pretty cerebral and abstract, so this memoir took some slow, thoughtful reading; but I think it’s worth the time. Also, I am very interested in Boland’s assertion that she structured the book like a poem: “in turnings and returnings.” I have more thinking to do.


Rating: 7 high heels tipped with steel.

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.
<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: