Friday, December 19, 2014

12/19 Alison Deming on penguins, John Berger, and Bad Noah

“In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, Noah’s Ark was the first ordered assembly of animals and man. The assembly now is over.”           
                                                                        --John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?”

I recently visited the Minnesota Zoo on book tour for Zoologies and had the pleasure of seeing their African penguins at play with human children. These penguins are native to the coast of South Africa where they hunt squid and sardines in cold waters that well up from Antarctica.  But 80% of their population has disappeared in the last fifty years.  The usual suspects: oil spills, habitat loss, diminishing fish in the sea because of changing climate.  So here they are on display in an icy tableaux with a glass wall that extends down to ground level, the water just about deep enough for a six-year old human to stand head to toe with it. But the kids aren’t standing.  They are running from one end of the wall to the other, darting, bobbing, popping up, squatting down, and on the other side of the glass penguins are racing eye to eye with them, arcing up and down, spinning back and forth, never missing an improvised change. Everyone is having a blast.  These are not dulled out zoo captives.  Well, captive, they are.  But much has transpired in zoo culture in recent decades to provide enrichment for animals—bowling balls for elephants to play with, trout for bears to catch from their very own flowing streams, and companion dogs for cheetahs. In Minnesota children are enrichment for penguins.  What excites me is that the looking goes in both directions, both species magnetized by the other.

In John Berger’s 1977 essay “Why Look at Animals?” (a chapter in his superb 1980 collection About Looking) it is one-sided looking that renders the zoo experience so disappointing.  Adults take children to the zoo to observe and study the animal. To touch some archaic wildness that the animals arouse in us.  But the animals are sleeping or pacing or, Berger writes, “their dependence and isolation have so conditioned their responses that they treat any event which takes place around them—usually it is in front of them, where the public is—as marginal.”

Perhaps no one knows the diminishment of the animal better than their keepers who witness the dulling of animal energies under the force of their artificial habitats.  Hence the zeal of zoo people to improve the lot of their captives with enrichment strategies.  Yes, Berger is still right that animals in zoos “constitute a living monument to their own disappearance.”  The zoo today is less the representation of colonizing impulses over nature than it is a rehab facility for the victims of colonization.  The new role of the best zoos is to protect the genetic viability of threatened and endangered species through Species Survival Plans.  Researchers at the Minnesota Zoo have helped through captive breeding to reintroduce the magnificent trumpeter swan into the wild in that region, and they’re working to help a tiny butterfly named the Dakota skipper to adapt to climate change.

Where Berger most gets my admiration is in his yoking the history of our treatment of animals to the capacity for totalitarianism and varied expressions of “enforced marginalization—ghettos, shanty towns, prisons, madhouse, concentration camps.” He speaks of the “disposal of the only class who, throughout history, has remained familiar with the animals and maintained the wisdom which accompanies that familiarity: the middle and small peasant.”  The culture of capitalism has been rolling like a bulldozer over these people for centuries and so it continues.  He speaks of (well, he doesn’t say this, but he leads me to do so) the exiling of the animals as a first straw on the camel’s back that leads to totalitarianism.

Berger is a Marxist, an art critic, novelist, painter and poet.  He left England decades ago to live in the French Alps, where he has documented the lives of migrant workers and farmers living in small villages and their displacement into urban poverty. The documentation has been in the form of riveting novels, sparsely drawn essays of anecdotal observation, and eloquent essays of persuasive thinking.  He is one of those writers a person falls in love with because to be in the company of his mind is a kind of erotic joy.  When Berger won the Booker Prize in 1972 he gave half the money the Black Panther Party in England and kept the other half to fund his research on migrant workers.

Stories like these have a lineage: they were told by John Clare in 18th century England as the peasants were driven from their ancestral lands and by the populist poet known as Patativa in 20th century Brazil as they too suffered this fate. Maybe Gilgamesh is a way station in this tradition as it renders into the song the psychic wound of the separation of the human and animal worlds.  When the Wildman can no longer drink with the animals, when they flee from him, he knows he is lost and his new work is to seek a destiny.

Genesis tries to get at this schism in the story of Noah, though you’d never know it from Darren Aronofsky’s ridiculous video game version of the tale. If ever in history or legend there was a man who stood to understand the importance of animals to the material and spiritual well-being of people, not to mention to ecosystems, it was Noah. Alas, poor Noah rendered as warrior by Russell Crowe can’t hear the word of God without taking hallucinogens and even then his only real occupation is ceaseless battle with himself and others. You’d think spending centuries on a ship loaded with all the animals in the world—and doing so at the command of the force he perceived to be the most powerful in the universe—would lead a man toward either empathy or science. What a laboratory the ark would have been!  What a call to stewardship and the need to learn what each creature needed to survive. But, no, the animals are knocked out with magical vapors as soon as they board the ship and they are not heard from or noticed again. And Noah hates humanity so much he wants to kill the new-born child who represents a possible future for humanity.  The real story remains to be told.  Exeunt.

ALISON DEMING's most recent book is Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit.  She is Agnese Nelms Haury Chair of Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona. She lives in Tucson and on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, Canada.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

For the essay lovers' holiday gift list, picks from Kristen Radtke

Demon Camp
by Jen Percy - A gorgeously sustained book-length essay about soldier’s struggles with PTSD and the lengths some will go to exercise their (sometimes-literal) demons, Percy is a fierce and unsentimental writer.

Ultrasonic by Steven Church - The latest collection of essays from the editor of the always-cool literary magazine The Normal School, Ultrasonic is an investigation of sound and how it impacts our experiences and emotional responses.

Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich - Funny, beautifully drawn and overwhelmingly relatable, Ulinich’s latest graphic novel is essayistic in its digressive rendering of family, love and dating.

Thrown by Kerry Howley - Full disclosure: I worked publicity on this book, but my admiration for Howley’s work far proceeded our professional relationship. This is one of the smartest book-length essays I’ve read in years.

On Immunity by Eula Biss - An obvious heavy-hitter this year, and for good reason. Biss continues to be one of the most measured and meticulously reasoned essayists in America.

12/18: Eva Saulitis on The Art of the Personal (Cancer) Essay

I heard it first from the editor of my last book, when I talked to her about what I was working on now.  I told her I was writing a lot about my cancer, in daily, reflective, flash-non-fiction bursts, and thinking about a memoir.  I was adding most days to a computer file labeled unimaginatively, “Cancer Thoughts.”  It all started as therapy, a blog suggested by my counselor, a way to write my way out of breast cancer’s psychological aftermath.  After my initial diagnosis, in 2010, having undergone eight months of harsh treatments in an attempt to eradicate the disease, I found myself episodically (and literally) weak in the knees with fear, unable to shake the experience, to move on, to confidently wear the badge of “survivor” or to sport a jaunty pink-beribboned sun visor.  “I want you to start keeping a daily blog,” my counselor said.  All through my treatment, she (a writer herself) had strong-armed me to write, mostly poetry.  I’d resisted; during the worst traumas of my life, I’ve retreated into silence.  But the daily blog assignment worked in unexpected ways, from the first post.  To the dismay of my husband, I named the blog Alaskan in Cancerland (he wanted us both out, not in, Cancerland, and fast) and shared the link with a few friends and relatives.  For years a writer of long essays, I found myself compressing each entry to 500 words or less, without pre-meditation.  From the first post, I fell into the craft of essay—my first love in terms of form.  The fact of the blog helped in this, meant someone else was out there, reading my words. 

It wasn’t hard to keep up my commitment.  It became obsessive; it was therapeutic; it became a spiritual practice, one of transforming rawness and anxiety into something else; it became a striving toward art.  What in lived experience had been scattershot terror arising amidst a constant anxious hum transformed into meditative essays with an emotional and metaphoric arc.  My triggers were mundane, often descriptive details of the view out my window.  A flickering of insight arose out of close attention to the everyday world.  I kept this up through two years of recovery and the return of the cancer in 2013 as Stage 4.  I wrote a book-length poem sequence during that time, but always, the flash essays kept coming, a kind of discursive conversation side-by-side with the moments (prayers, I called them) conveyed line-by-line, image by image, in the poems.  Friends who read the posts kept asking, “Is there a book in there?”  And I imagined there must be, but I had no sense of what form it might take, especially after my editor weighed in. 

She told me that there’s a “glut” of cancer memoirs on the market; I’d have to find another angle.  So I searched for what that might mean. I read a few literary cancer memoirs and essays to check out the lay of the allegedly glutted land.  A very few suggested that there might be ways of reframing the notion of a “cancer memoir,” which, I came to learn, had its non-market-minded detractors. 

A Google search revealed a critique on a website called Vice:  “Cancer Memoirs Are Breaking Out Like the Plague” by Brendan O’Neill, written in late 2012.  O’Neill’s rant focuses his ire and disgust upon the culture (aka, readers):  “Ours is a morbid era, obsessed with disease, and we implicitly incite the sick to tell us everything, to keep nothing bottled up.”  Which justifies “the pornography of death” he sees in this trend.  As someone who experiences the isolation of and silence around terminal illness, I found his assessment of our culture puzzling.  His first example is Christopher Hitchens, whose essay collection Mortality appeared earlier this year, after his death from complications of esophageal cancer.  It’s a compilation of essays he’d written for a Vanity Fair column called Topic of Cancer.  While I wouldn’t put pornography past Hitchens, the idea of him being, even in his last travail, incited by anyone (much less some vague, voyeuristic readership) to do anything against his will is laughable.  What would have incited Hitchens was implied censorship, someone telling the sick writer to shut up and suffer his physical indignities in silence and decorum.  Which is ironic when you consider that one of the topics Hitchens wrote of, devastatingly, was his fear of cancer robbing him of his voice, his ability to banter and argue out loud.  His speaking and writing voices were, for him, intimately related, a fascinating notion. Another persistent seam through the essays was his atheism, his refusal to make a death-bed conversion.  As he had all through his life, he kept up his philosophical arguments with himself and with his interlocutors.  Here was one individual and one idiosyncratic approach to death.  He spared no details, but that’s not what kept me reading.  I was certainly no cancer voyeur.  The last thing someone with metastatic cancer wants to indulge in is lurid spectatorship of someone else’s physical ordeal.  But what of O’Neill’s proposition: healthy readers hungry for gruesome details of grave illness? 

Sure, it’s conceivable there’s a readership out there, people who’d go out of their way to gobble down narratives focused on bodily degradation, whether it be cancer or rape or addiction.  But it seems a stretch to think they’re the norm of literary non-fiction readers, who come to the genre seeking so much more.  It’s absurd to think such a readership could drive serious essayists and cultural critics like Hitchens and Susan Gubar and poets like Christian Wiman and experimentalists like Joshua Cody and lyric essayists like Judith Kitchen, who write of their cancers (and around and through and beyond their cancers) to feed their appetites.  I doubt they’d buy Mortality, or Judith Kitchen’s The Circus Train, or the book I want to focus on, Christian Wiman’s book-length essay My Bright Abyss

All of them, Mortality and My Bright Abyss and The Circus Train, are composed of essays or essay fragments; they are not memoirs.  It could be that the essay form (and the essay collection) is a subconscious way writers turn away from an audience of potential voyeurs or from charges of cancer exhibitionism (read confessionalism, read navel—or in this case tumor—gazing).  But I believe it’s more, an essential way for the writer to rise out of his or her particular cancer narrative.  Perhaps the essay collection or the extended essay, as a form, as a genre descended from Montaigne, resists the narrative just enough for such a writer.  An essay collection can subvert narrative drive and chronology and reliance on scene in order to advance ideas, to circle and dive around the apparent subject matter of cancer in order to approach something else, something larger.  It can, like The Circus Train, dive wildly in and out of time, without regard to chronology or story line.  Literary non-fiction readers demand both brute honesty and artfulness, both complexity and experimentation in writing out of bodily or psychological travail.  They demand what, for instance, Joshua Cody achieves in his wild, inventive, irreverent cancer memoir [Sic], as described by Gregory Cowles in the New York Times:  “The resulting G-force of sex and death and insanity — and also, improbably, of music and math and modernist poetry — is the only evidence you need that for all its seeming formlessness, '[Sic]' is in fact as artfully constructed as a Tarantino film.”

In contrast, in a 2010 review of three cancer-related books, also in the Times, Dana Jenning writes: “The authors of these three new cancer memoirs, knowingly or not, employ narrative strategies that distract us from the potentially important stories they have to tell. They use literary flourishes and the tools of journalism as a kind of placebo to avoid delivering the strong medicine the reader craves. When it comes to cancer books, we need the thing itself, not the window dressing.”  But do we?    

Being a writer (and reader) with metastatic cancer, I seek literature that addresses my preoccupations—which are not, at heart, those of side-effects or disease outcomes, but those of the great unknowns—death and dying and how one might approach them with something more creative and enervating than raw terror.  I don’t need “the thing itself,” but what spins outward from “the thing” that is cancer and its ravages.  I actually crave the window dressing, and the window, and the view past the window.  This is what turns story—even a cancer story—into art.  I crave the architecture the writer builds to support metaphor, to carefully place that particular window in that particular wall, with that angle of light, and that view.  I crave the weaving of life and passion with death.  That is what Christian Wiman achieves in My Bright Abyss.  I can cruise the cancer chat rooms if I want to know how to negotiate my small cancer narrative, the daily round of “and then, and then.” I don’t need a memoir or an essay for that.  What I seek is the larger narrative the writer/cancer sufferer participates in: the conversation of life and death that transcends any particular diagnosis, and any particular historical moment. 

In his preface to My Bright Abyss, Wiman describes the essayist’s art perfectly, in a justification for the short piece (not included in the collection) “Love Bade Me Welcome”:  “And the essay itself?  It was about despair: losing the ability to write, falling in love, receiving a diagnosis of an incurable cancer, having my heart ripped apart by what, slowly and in spite of all my modern secular instincts, I learned to call God.  It was my entire existence crammed into eight pages.” 

Despite what we’re taught in workshops, the best personal essays are, on some level, our “entire existence crammed” into a limited number of pages.  Not in terms of content, but it terms of voice and force, the layers of thinking, writing and living one has accumulated.  (It strikes me that, experiencing a diagnosis of mortal illness, or perhaps I should say, the moment just after, one’s entire existence is crammed into, hones down to, one life-altering intake of breath).  Everything we are, have been, everything we’ve experienced, comes to bear upon the current writing problem, doesn’t it?  And each new essay builds upon it, like a process of geological deposition.  As Wiman puts it, that first essay he published, though addressing multiple levels of experience, demanded another essay, and then another, and eventually a collection of essays, and a collection of poems, and a completely new direction for his writing and his life.

Love, God, and death, Wiman’s primary subjects, are the perennial subjects of literature; it’s a very long conversation.  In earlier times, writers faced death in different ways, but the basic questions, those of love, divinity and heartbreak, remain unchanged.  The presence of a specific illness in literature isn’t secondary to the presence of death in literature; it’s a reflection of one’s times, of one’s social class, and of all the metaphorical weight placed upon the diseases that run through our culture, from the plague to TB to AIDs to cancer to radiation poisoning to ebola.  A prevalent way we face death in our culture is cancer.  The word fills us with dread, and so into that metaphoric container we pour all our dreads.  Though its incidence is slowly falling in the US, still twelve percent of women (and a much smaller percentage of men) will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in their lifetimes, and 20-30% of those people will eventually receive a metastatic, or terminal, diagnosis.  Cancer is the #2 cause of death in the US.  AIDs was a metaphor of the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Cancer is a metaphor of now—the era of climate change, rampant development, runaway capitalism, content gone viral—tied as it is to genetic mutation, to our own cells gone haywire.  The question of why there are so many cancer-related memoirs and essays goes way beyond the knee-jerk claim of ours being a voyeuristic society, just as the appearance of childhood sexual abuse in the literature in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s was far more than a way to feed base urges.  Writers respond to the times in which they live.  Essayists provide an alternative view, and a more complex one, to the vehicles of pop culture: the reality TV show, the talk show, the pink ribbon campaign, the self-help book, the advertising industry which wraps its toxic products in pink “for the cause” (including, this last October, “breast cancer awareness month,” a pink, fracking drill bit).  But no matter the times, death is present, in whatever garb it comes.  How a person faces the “wild darkness,” in Harold Brodkey’s parlance, is instructive to us all.

In the preface to My Bright Abyss, Wiman explains the presence of cancer in what is predominantly (and on the surface) a collection of spiritual essays.  We can hear him squirm, perhaps anticipating critics like O’Neill, when he writes: “Initially I thought this book wouldn’t even mention my illness . . . I wanted to avoid any appearance of special pleading, wanted to strip away the personal and get at ulterior truths.”  But he realizes that “every act and thought . . . occurred in that shadow,” the shadow of cancer.  “Without the impetus of serious illness, my work would not have taken the particular form it has.”  And always, we approach “ulterior truths” and gain credibility through lived experience. 

Wiman’s form (like Judith Kitchen’s), as he describes it, is “fragmentary and episodic,” as well as “very much a mosaic, not a continuous argument or narrative,” which reflects the course of his illness, a waxing and waning.  The white space between each short meditative section signifies time, some unwritten personal and time-bound narrative, and then the arrival of another reflective space.  The narrative of cancer, the treatment regimen, the anxiety, the suffering, largely exists out of sight, within those white spaces.  A person with a terminal cancer lives acutely in time, and often, that living borders on the unbearable.  We seek ways to transcend time, by slowing down certain moments in a practice of attention, and through art-making.  The episodic contemplative moment is a way an individual transcends time—mind and spirit lifting out of the physical, the quotidian, if only for the space of a paragraph.  A daily meditative or prayer practice also mimics the structure of Wiman’s book.  Prayer or meditation exist—or allow us the illusion that we can exist—if only momentarily—out of ordinary clock-time.  And yet that lived experience, grappling with it on or off the page, the pain and existential struggle, life at the edge of the unbearable, are the impetus that drives the writer to transcend his or her givens and the limits of imagination.

The mosaic structure of My Bright Abyss allows Wiman to approach his questions from a variety of voices, tenses and rhetorical stances, allowing for an argument to take place with the self, and with God, on the page, and allowing the reader to be invited to participate.  Two sections in the first chapter begin with that conditional “if,” as Wiman puts forth some proposition he then must ground-truth, overturn, revise, or elaborate upon.  Here the opening phrases of each section making up the opening essay:

My God my bright abyss [poem fragment]

In truth, though, what I crave at this point in my life

When I was young, twelve years old or so

If you return to the faith of your childhood after long wandering

On the radio I hear a famous novelist

I don’t mean to suggest that the attitude of stoic acceptance is not

If God is a salve applied to unbearable psychic wounds

Be careful.  Be certain that your expression of regret about your inability

It is this last complacency to which artists of our time are especially susceptible

Christianity itself is this—

When I think of the years when I had no faith

When I assented to the faith that was latent within me

They do not happen now, the sandstorms of my childhood

Lord, I can approach you only by means of

These phrases suggest not memoir, but a spiritual argument with the self.  Cancer and mortality hover at the edges of this opening, are an occasion, that “triggering town” Richard Hugo terms the inciting event that launches a poem, that is oftentimes erased from the final version.  In Wiman’s case, cancer diagnosis so urgently drives spiritual grappling that it cannot be erased.  Yet it isn’t until the second chapter, page 25, that illness enters as actual narrative thread:  “Not long after I learned that I was sick, in the dim time of travel, multiple doctors, and endless tests, when it seemed I might be in danger of dying very soon, I began to meet every Friday afternoon with the pastor of the church just around the corner from where my wife and I lived.”  Then he describes the “arguments” about faith their conversations became, the arguments that continued in his head and on the page.  Here is that ghost narrative of the book, appearing and reappearing the way the death of Peter Matthiesen’s wife from cancer threads lightly (but so memorably and impactfully when it enters), through The Snow Leopard, which is, at its heart, a spiritual pilgrimage—not a grief—memoir.

        *        *        *        *        *

In the loose draft of what is not supposed to be a cancer memoir, I wrote yesterday of the multiple narratives by which I live since my metastatic diagnosis.  There is the quotidian, time-bound narrative, which might be a living-through of side-effects following a chemotherapy infusion, the daily march from nausea to pain, or it might be the stress of delayed treatment, or the unbearable waiting for test results.  And there is another narrative, in which a particular moment appears to rise out of time, and suggest a larger story holding the pedestrian story within it.  It might be a memory, or a present-tense incident.  This narrative allows me to step away and see myself almost as a character in an ongoing dream.  The questions that have haunted me all my life populate this dream with perplexing characters and scenarios; they create metaphor I write my way toward unraveling.  Recently, it was coming upon an abandoned and crippled calf on a hike along sea-cliffs bordering a cow pasture and wondering what it meant.  When we resist relying on the tension of the first type of narrative (Will her cancer go into remission?  Will her marriage survive this?), we must acknowledge a deeper tension, which is, in the simplest sense, “How does this one human being face her mortality, how does she deal with ultimate loss of everything, how does she manage her burning love of life on earth?” 

Wiman points the way, both in form and content.  In his case, the spiritual narrative carries the greatest weight, receives the most space in the book, far more than the cancer narrative.  Any reader hooked on the cancer narrative will either be seduced into the spiritual questioning or put the book aside.  Whether you are a believer or not, My Bright Abyss is a book that can be read again and again, because the deeper questions that drive it cannot be resolved within its 178 pages.  The reader enters the meditative space of each short section in order to think, to consider, rather than to discover “what’s next.”  They are not so much mini-sermons as queryings, a spiritual seeker’s notebook.  One short segment takes a stab at truth, and the next might overturn or modify it, as the writer’s thoughts evolve, or as life throws up new crises.  I constantly found myself applying ideas Wiman proposes about faith to the craft of essay-writing itself:  “It is why every single expression of faith is provisional—because life carries us always forward to a place where the faith we’d fought so hard to articulate to ourselves must now be reformulated, and because faith in God is, finally, faith in change.”  And so is faith in art.  It is why essayists and poets tumble the same questions in poem after essay, gradually wearing away the outer layers, revealing complexity rather that rehashing what’s been said before.  “Nothing was ever settled,” writes Wiman about his conversations with the pastor.  It’s why as readers, we return again and again to certain writers, to certain works.  We return to illness memoir or essay not for the story of the illness (that is fixed; events are not contingent) but for how it’s told, what it asks of us, and continues to ask of us, after it is closed.  Wiman devotes many pages to the notion of God as contingency (an argument he works through with himself, with readers as witnesses and participants).  A work of art is contingency as well: changing from reader to reader, from reading to reading.  In this way, writing, for Wiman, and for some of us, is a form of prayer—not a careful rote utterance, but a teeth-gnashing, authentic search for meaning in the face of annihilation.

Wiman’s essays become for me a consideration of the nature of prose and of the essay form.  Why would a poet turn to prose at this juncture?  No one can ever answer the question of why a particular subject or moment leads a writer to prose or poetry.  For Wiman, I believe, the self-consciousness of his lifelong art—the question of audience and form, and what he calls, in this book, and in his previous essay collection, “ambition”, is circumvented.  He’s lived his life channeling ambition through poetry; through prose his drive turns inward.  He allows himself to muse on the page.  Beneath this musing is urgency, grappling with a question that is life-and-death for him.     

Scott Russell Sanders, writing in the Washington Post, describes the way that My Bright Abyss differs from other “cancer narratives:”  “it uses grave illness to focus on the question that lurks beneath much, if not all, religion: “What do you do, what do you say, what in the world are you going to believe in when you are dying?”  Sanders, who is an essayist, suggests the impulse that drives Wiman, and the rhetorical stance he assumes, is not the narrative, not the proposition, and not the argument.  It is the question.  That is what undergirds the personal essay, and why, in the end, My Bright Abyss is not an essay collection (though it is divided into stand-alone chapters) and not a spiritual treatise and not an illness memoir but a book-length personal essay, like Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby.

“Forged out of pain, like most masterpieces,” says writer Eliza Griswold of Wiman’s essays.  The key word is “forged.”  The forge, a kind of hearth, heats metals to a temperature where they can be shaped.  “Work hardening” can no longer occur.  The unforged experience of cancer (or any trauma) can easily ossify into chronological narrative, a litany of increasing indignities, and the act of essaying resists this tendency, through the power of the reflective “I,” which can draw from multiple lines of inquiry, and view events from various lenses.  In this malleable state, the raw material is transferred to the smithy’s anvil to be hammered into shape.  In the “slack tub,” the piece is rapidly cooled in a large body of water.  The forge of Christian Wiman’s cancer experience is his grappling with Christianity, and the forge of his faith is his cancer.  He’s a modern-day Job, whose body and life God smites, challenging his fair-weather faith.  In Wiman’s essays there’s degradation of the body, there’s suffering, and also transcendence.  But one doesn’t ultimately prevail over the other.  As it was for Job, it’s the degradation of the body that triggers the ultimate questioning the essayist thrives upon, and though the body may not survive cancer, the ultimate questioning will.  As Judith Kitchen puts it, “I failed myself often, failed others as well.  Failure too will fade.  But words did not forsake me as they made their precarious way from the writer’s mind to mine.”  Words can survive one’s life and one’s moment.  “How to live?” was Montaigne’s question, and it’s Wiman’s question.  Wiman adds, however, another: “What do I believe?”  So he essays forth:  “So I set out to answer that question . . . “

The title essay, which opens the book, is born out of a failed poem:

My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this:

I love that colon opening out to nothing, to white space, at the limit of a writer’s knowing.  I love what it says about the art of essaying, and about the moment when all one’s givens collapse, all one’s notions of a future, all one’s assumptions about the past.  The essays that follow attempt to forge ahead into the place the poem would not go, where the writer could not go before.  The last essay returns to this stanza; in fact it is the book’s closing sentence; through the chapters, it becomes an answer to itself, both the book’s question and its reply.

Rereading this book one year later, and a year and a half after the return of my cancer, I come to the chapter called “God’s Truth is Life,” and I underline and underline and mark passages with parentheses and stars.  I realize that the value of an illness-derived work of essaying is driven by vital necessity, not by ideas of a market or an audience.  There is, I find, a gift in my editor’s steering me away from writing a cancer memoir.  In the absence of external direction or deadline or plan, I did what my agent told me to do when I asked him if he saw a book in my cancer writing: “Right now,” he said, “don’t think about that.  Don’t think about publication.  Just write what you’re writing, write what you’re driven to write.  Don’t think and don’t stop.”  Barring any encouragement (besides that of my blog-followers, mostly friends and relatives and other cancer sufferers) that would feed into ego, I kept going, and I keep going still, not out of ambition, but out of imperative, the need to understand what it is I believe, about life, about death, about spirit, about earth, about the meaning of putting words down on a page.  Writing (I mean the writing of others) feeds writing, and Wiman’s feeds mine (along with Cody’s, and Kitchen’s, and Hitchens’, and Gubar’s and Brodkey’s).  These writers drive me on, not because they offer any comforting narrative, any model of heroism or bravery, any miracle, any answer, any arrival at final certainty, but the opposite:  they remind of me how hard the work is, how challenging, how many-faceted, braided, contingent and complex.  A grad school mentor once told me, “You know, it only gets harder, this essay-writing thing,” and I responded, without thinking, “I want it to get harder.” An essayist spins outward from circumstance, creating a sometimes violent whirlwind that attempts to draw in all the resources one individual has accumulated over a lifetime, bringing them to bear upon the narratives we live by, enlarging them. Essayists like Wiman and Kitchen, memoirists like Cody, offer a method, a way of entering experience that is, in the end, not about cancer, and not about death (what do I—what does anyone breathing—know about death, after all?), but about living in death’s sight.  They renew my faith in the essay as a form, a vehicle, a spiritual practice, a way of life, an art. 

Eva Saulitis' most recent book is Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas. Her essay collection, Leaving Resurrection, was a finalist for the Foreward Book Award and the Tupelo Press Non-Fiction Prize. A new poetry collection, Prayer in Wind, will be out in early 2015. Her essays have appeared most recently in Orion, OnEarth, Ecotone, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Catamaran Literary Reader. She teaches in the low-residency MFA program of the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Essay Gift List picks from Ned Stuckey-French

I've got three book suggestions: one new, one pretty new in paperback, and one classic that I think essay lovers should have.

New - Steven Church, Ultrasonic: Essays (New Orleans: Lavendar Ink, 2014)
ISBN 978-1935084-70-9
180 pages: $12.95

Steven Church is a great essayist and editor. He turns an idea or image over and over, looking at it through stunning, beautiful prose and innovative forms until you see it in a new way, or several new ways.

New in Paper - Ned Stuckey-French, The American Essay in the American Century (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, paperback new in 2013).
Paperback   $25.00  272 pages
ISBN:     978-0-8262-2015-8

Well, I'm shamelessly plugging my own damn book so I'll at least have the decency (if I have any left) to let someone else say something about it: "I gobbled The American Essay in the American Century down and thought it was brilliant – the freshest, most insightful and creative contribution I’ve seen in a long time to the field. …Ned Stuckey-French has pulled off a tremendous feat." - Philip Lopate,1979.aspx?skuid=1286

E. B. White, One Man's Meat (Thomaston, ME: Tillbury House Publishers, 1997).
296 pages
978-0-88448-192-8 Paperback $16.95

This American classic was published first in 1942 and revised by White in 1944; in 1997, Tillbury House released this exquisite reprint with a new forward by White's stepson, Roger Angell. Written during the period when White left The New Yorker to write longer, more personal, more politically engaged essays for a monthly column in Harper's, these pieces explore life in small town Maine just prior to and during World War II. The book changed not only the direction of White's career, but that of the American essay as well. Of this period in his life, White later wrote: "Once in everyone’s life there is apt to be a period when he is fully awake, instead of half asleep.  I think of those five years in Maine as the time when this happened to me.  Confronted by new challenges, surrounded by new acquaintances—including the characters in the barnyard, who were later to reappear in Charlotte's Web—I was suddenly seeing, feeling, and listening as a child sees, feels, and listens.  It was one of those rare interludes that can never be repeated, a time of enchantment."

You can support small, alternative, and university presses by ordering these books directly from the publishers at the links listed above.

12/17: Kirk Wisland on those Ghosts of Christmas Past—Elvis & Ebeneezer

There were two icons who loomed larger than life in my childhood Christmases. Not Santa. Not Jesus.

Elvis and Ebeneezer. Presley and Scrooge.

The weekend after Thanksgiving heralded the return of the King. Specifically Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas, one of my most cherished LPs, one that was dusted off and brought out of seasonal hibernation each year during the decorating of the Christmas tree. This record featured prominently—and probably annoyingly so for my far less Elvis-enthusiastic family—during the four weeks of Christmas buildup.

The album was thrown together after a two-day recording session in May of 1971, producing Elvis versions of traditional holiday songs like The First Noel and Silver Bells, augmented with some early seventies orchestral pop. The first side of the album was the tradition and religion side—O Come All Ye Faithful and Winter Wonderland. But I always started on the second side, drawn to that early 70s sound. Specifically I eyed the clear line that marked track four—Merry Christmas Baby—and carefully brought the needle down in that scratchy silent groove, a sonic astronaut meticulously setting down his landing pod on the moon.

As a kid I thought Merry Christmas Baby was the funniest damn thing I’d heard, the opening ultra-mellow blues riff bringing forth a wide smile. I said merry merry Christmas baby…you suuuuuuuuurrre diiiiiiiiid treat me nice. I knew there was something naughty and maybe even sacrilegious about a seven-minute slow funk-blues jam masquerading as Christmas music—a sound that was all sweaty smoky Memphis blues shack, peals of electric guitar and swampy harmonica howls backing the come-on vocals—Well I want to kiss you baaaayyy-be while you’re standing underneath your mistletoe…

Ironically, as I write this now I am suffused with an endless iTunes loop of Elvis holiday cheer, courtesy of the album If Every Day Was Like Christmas, a digital compilation of my favorite 70s Christmas Elvis mashed up with his earlier 50s Christmas album. And one song from those earlier Christmas sessions jumps out at me—Santa’s Back in Town—because lord help me it’s even dirtier than Merry Christmas Baby. Santa’s Back in Town features that standard early-Elvis slinky rock and roll piano stomp, that raw sexual energy percolating up from underneath. The song crescendos with Elvis howling Santa Claus is comin’ down your chiiiiiiiiiiiiiiimmmmmmney tonight with a seasonally-inappropriate carnality that conjures up a future Robert Plant circa Whole Lotta Love. Each time I hear this song I can’t help thinking (and saying out loud) that this is really a Chippendales stripper song. Some guy out there at a December bachelorette party, or a risqué holiday fest, is ripping off his Velcro Santa suit to this song right now. Or should be.

My other favorite track off the 70s side of Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas was If I Get Home on Christmas Day, an elegant paean to a returning love. This is perfect early seventies orchestral pop—Elvis at his operatic best, a mellow hippie-infused funk rhythm section, gentle tremolo guitar, lush strings and horns, all building to a repeated soaring chorus featuring the ethereal Imperials Quartet as angelic backing choir. I’ll take you in my arms and beg a stay…if I get home on Chrisssssssst-mas Daaaaaaaayyy. The song is saturated with a hopeful yearning melancholy I couldn’t understand as a child, an adult sensibility inflected with the shadows of Presley’s dissolving marriage. But instinctually I knew that some day I would understand—If I Get Home operating as a kind of future imagining, a message in a bottle from a far-off adulthood, one that triggered strange tremors in my chest each time those angels joined in that soaring chorus.

Tucked away in the always-snowy pre-climate change Minnesota of my youth, I knew that I would in fact be home for Christmas Day, because I was tethered to my parents. Three decades later this song still resonates, still brings a momentary flutter in my chest, the adult understanding communing with and amplifying that childhood premonition. Particularly during this second Christmas of my married life, when my wife and I have to choose which direction to head from our temporary Ohio home—West to Minneapolis or Southwest to Houston. This year I will not be home on Christmas Day.


The other recurring Christmas tradition of my childhood was our jaunt to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis to see their annual production of A Christmas Carol. I saw this play every year from early childhood through my teens. I knew these scenes, these ghosts—a benign jovial Past, an indifferent Present, and the outright terrifying Future, whose skeletal hand jutted from his dark robe as he rose up through the floor of the stage, announced by the crack and flash of a theatrical storm.

After an absence of nearly a decade, Dickens’ classic briefly recolonized my holiday season during my stint as bartender at the Guthrie Theater in the late 1990s. I half-heard the opening act of each performance, those familiar lines like seasonal memory-muzak as I set up my bar station before suffering through tip-desert matinees of school kids and elderly folks draining Cokes from my soda gun.

But by the time I saw A Christmas Carol last year, Ebeneezer and his visiting ghosts had been absent from my life for fifteen years, minus the occasional sighting of George C. Scott in his Scrooge nightshirt during holiday TV-surfing.

As the play unfolded in front of me I once again found myself communing with childhood premonitions. The time-worn scenes and sounds hit me with the force of adulthood, particularly Scrooge’s trip with Christmas Past. A boy of nine or fifteen has no concept yet of true regret. Even as a twenty-six year old Guthrie bartender I didn’t fully grasp the inherent melancholy of watching a younger self from the perch of the present—I was on the verge of a great regret but still too young and stupid to see it coming. But fifteen years later I understood, watching Scrooge plead impotently with his younger, stubborn self. By our fifth decade most of us have accumulated a significant regret or two, whether or not we have been living right.

As essayists and memoirists we carry memory with us like a cloud of dust, seeing the present and imagining the future through the hazy particles of the past. While an admirable attempt at being “in the moment,” this communing with history is an off-kilter version of that elusive Zen, in which the writer posthumously occupies the expired moment. Prying into the past always ripens us for a bout of melancholy, glimpses of those alternate lives unlived.

These thoughts lurked in my mind as I watched another pair of actors reprise the roles of Ebeneezer and his spirit guide. I merged with the rest of the audience, wishing in silent unison for a different outcome this one time, for that message from a future self to somehow breach the deaf certainties of stubborn youth. And the timeless truth of Dickens settled over me—we are the Ghost of Christmas Past. Or maybe the Ghost of Christmas Past is just the essayist’s alter-ego, leading the writer inevitably back to those younger selves.

The holiday season is for communing with family and homelands, those places and people of our past, present, and—we hope—future. A time to take stock of our travails—and a breather for those of us who toil in academia. So let us tip back some Egg Nog (whiskey optional), and sing along with seasonally-inappropriate Elvis funk-blues Christmas jams. Let us commiserate with the Ghost of Christmas Present while hoping for a benevolent Ghost of Christmas Future.

Kirk Wisland's wordsmith-ery can be found in other places, helpfully compiled here. He currently writes and teaches in the Creative Writing PhD program at Ohio University, in lovely Athens, Ohio.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Essay Gift List picks from Craig Reinbold & BJ Hollars

BJ Hollars:

1.)  Sarah Gorham's Study in Perfect: A perfectly prepared study in perfection.
2.) Angela Pelster's Limber: A re-introduction to the natural world.


Craig Reinbold:

It'd be pretty hard to gift this in the traditional sense, under the tree or in a stocking, but whatever, seriously, Radiolab.

Due to the weirdness of my job, which keeps me almost constantly busy, but busy mostly just cutting and pasting numbers from one screen to another, during the last year, I’ve listened to a lot of Radiolab. A friend of mine recently told me he wants to love this show as much as I do, but he can’t stand how much the hosts interject themselves into what would otherwise be reputable reportage. But that’s the stuff of it! I wanted to say, but didn’t, because this was only a half-formed thought in my head then: You see, those two guys—Abumrad & Krulwich—with their ping-pong repartee, are the schizophrenic essayist’s persona in action. They are the essayist on the page (or airwaves), and their reaching out to examine and contemplate the world only to come back to the personal, digging into science and philosophy and the stuff of others' lives and their own lives in order to ask and maybe answer questions about ourselves, never knowing where the most vital insight will be uncovered—all of that—that shit’s totally essay. Or maybe it’s just essayistic, but maybe that’s six one way half a dozen the other? In any case, I can't get enough.

Also: The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Boton, though it’s also neither new or really an essay, except in the broadest sense. Still, it’s great, and I’m a fan of its unabashed mission to improve lives, as suggested by its shelving designation—in bold letters on the upper left-hand corner of the back cover: SELF-HELP/PHILOSOPHY. The best essays, or at least my favorite, could be shelved similarly, under SELF-HELP/ESSAY.

12/16: Allie Leach on Ferguson, St. Louis, and Judy Garland singing 'bout Christmas

I was born in Ferguson, Missouri. I was only three when my family moved away from the now infamous town, so I don’t remember too much, besides what I’ve seen in pictures: my Dad smiling widely, hugging me down a slide in Jefferson Wabash Park. Licking an ice cream cone from Turner’s Frozen Custard. Splashing around with my sister Mary in our plastic elephant swimming pool. All happy memories. My family moved westward, further from the city, like the rest of my relatives, like many other white families. The schools were better, they’d say. It’s safer out there, they’d say. Even though I didn’t live in Ferguson for very long, I still feel some ownership: that’s my hometown. There’s a sense of nostalgic pride that comes with having a hometown. I want to protect it, like I would a young child who’s fallen down. And yet, simultaneously, I feel other mixed emotions: anger, sadness, embarrassment. Before the shooting in Ferguson, I never told people that I was from Ferguson. I never told people I was from Ballwin, either. Ballwin—a suburb about 45 minutes west of downtown St. Louis—was where I truly grew up, and where my parents still live. Whenever anyone asked where I was from, it was always St. Louis. Or sometimes: St. Louie. Or, if I wanted to strike up some pseudo street-cred by quoting the rapper Nelly: St. Lou-way. Where the gun play rings all day. That lyric strikes a bitter chord in light of what’s happened now.

When I go home for Christmas every year, my family holes up in our little ranch-style home—the house I grew up in—and watches a medley of Christmas movies. We watch the usual ones, the ones that I imagine many other families like mine and not like mine watch together, too. You probably already know which ones I’m talking about: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, A Muppet’s Christmas Carol, and White Christmas.

Another movie that we always watch—which most people probably wouldn’t consider a Christmas movie, though I do—is Meet me in St. Louis. Perhaps it’s because Christmas reminds me of home. But Christmas is a minor actress herself in this movie, when Esther Smith (played by Judy Garland) sings, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to her much younger sister, Trudy. The songwriter, Hugh Martin, didn’t intend or even foresee that the song would become so synonymous with Christmas. In fact, the original lyrics weren’t supposed to be as warm and optimistic as the lyrics that many people can sing from memory. Check out these original lyrics below, which pertained more to the specific scene from the movie, when the father of the Smith clan tells them that they’ll be leaving their beloved hometown to move to New York:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Pop that champagne cork
Next year we may all be living in New York
No good times like the olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us no more
But at least we all will be together
If the Lord allows
From now on, we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now

Wah-waaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh. Am I right? What a downer of a song. But these lyrics are more honest and true to what the characters were feeling in the movie. When Martin presented these lyrics to the MGM executives, they were reluctant: “Couldn’t it be more uplifting?” And so Martin changed the lyrics to this, to the song that we know today:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yule-tide gay
From now on our troubles will be miles away

Here were are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us, gather near to us once more

Through the years we all will be together, if the Fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now

A complete shift, a completely different song. Through these lyrics, Esther tries to soothe Trudy, tries to convince her that even though the family is forced against their will to move, that everything will be alright. That it’s Christmas, and they’re all together, and everything will be okay. That leaving St. Louis for New York won’t be so bad. Trudy’s not convinced. In the midst of Esther’s cooing vibrato, she runs outside crying and screaming and smashes up the snowmen in their backyard with a stick. Unlike Esther, she can’t hide the pain and anger she’s feeling.

It’s been a long time since I’ve visited Ferguson. My family drove past our home once or twice when I was younger, just to see what it looked like, how it had changed. I remember my Mom saying that the new owners needed to trim the bushes back, because you could barely see the house. This Christmas, I want to go back to Ferguson for different reasons. I want to see what it looks like in the aftermath. What’s been destroyed? What’s burned down? What’s been broken? I want to talk to families in the neighborhood where I grew up, where Michael Brown grew up. I want to know how far away my old house was from his home. As much as I want to relate, I know that the lyrics to my Christmas experience will be the sugar cookie version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” while the Brown family’s experience will probably mirror that of the former version. The more painful and honest version. I’m lucky and privileged and white. And I’m not sure what to do with all that.

Allie Leach’s work has appeared in Hot Metal Bridge, South Loop Review, DIAGRAM, and Tucson Weekly, among other places. She lives and teaches in Tucson.