January 7, 2022

 

from “The White Album”

in The White Album

by Joan Didion

“The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be ‘interesting’ to know which.”—Joan Didion

 

I thought we would start off the new year with a paragraph by Joan Didion, the remarkable essayist and chronicler of American life who died in December. Our selection is from “The White Album” one of the finest essays of the late twentieth century which conveyed in unforgettable prose the sense of chaos that ensued when social norms broke down in that tumultuous decade. I do not entirely agree with her damning portrait of the era—I spent the years she wrote about studying in a small, southern college far from the spotlight and welcomed many of the changes—but she, as Jerzy Kosinski wrote, was “always at the center” and felt the blast of the times full-on. You can read her complete essay here.

Paragraph of the Week

 

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be “interesting” to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest's clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

 

—Joan Didion 1970

Commentary

 

In “The White Album” a stranger walked into Joan Didion’s house, and when she asked what he wanted he saw her husband and said “Chicken Delight,” though they had ordered none. A female detective who called herself a “Dickless Tracy” ominously mentioned she had “very close friends in law enforcement” that Didion might want to meet. She watched Jim Morrison light a match and lower it to the groin of his “black vinyl pants.” She learned that “John and Michelle Phillips, on their way to the hospital for the birth of their daughter Chynna, had the limo detour into Hollywood in order to pick up a friend.” She was there when Huey Newton said “America is becoming a very young nation” and talked shop about the book business with Eldridge Cleaver in prison after being “visually frisked before coming inside.” On the day that President Kennedy was shot she bought a dress that was later ruined when Roman Polanski spilled wine on it. When Sharon Tate Polanski was murdered, she noted sadly “that no one was surprised.” She helped Linda Kasabian pick out a dress, “Size 9 Petite,” at I. Magnin for her trial in the Manson case and talked with her about children. She was named “Woman of the Year” by the Los Angeles Times at the same time she was diagnosed as a “depressive” who “feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed to failure.” She famously writes in the first sentence of her essay that “we tell storied in order to live,” because it should matter whether the naked woman on the ledge is a sinner, protester, victim, or an exhibitionist but by the end of the sixties and an “authentically senseless chain” of encounters, the naked woman on the ledge shed her story and, in the “shifting phantasmagoria” of the writer’s experiences, became another sensational and meaningless image. “I was only interested in the picture of her in my mind,” Didion writes, “her hair incandescent in the floodlights, her bare toes curled inward on the stone ledge.”--THE

 

January 14, 2022

 

 

 

“Autumn Again”

in Contemporary Haibun Online April 2014

by Robert Root

a familiar path leads to fresh discoveries

 

The haibun is a form perfectly suited to The Humble Essayist when he is feeling a bit lyrical. It is prose, often a single paragraph, with a haiku mixed in, usually after the paragraph. Like The Humble Essayist’s weekly feature, it is a paragraph with a built-in commentary.

 

In English the haiku part of the haibun sometimes follows the five-seven-five syllable count of the traditional haiku, but not always. The prose section is often a description which the haiku uses as a point of departure to a fresh insight or deeper understanding. The seventeenth century Japanese poet Bashō invented the form for his classic Narrow Road to the Interior, and you can find our paragraph and commentary on it in the archives here.

 

I would like to explore the form with several features distributed over this year. Our first is by Robert Root, the author of more than twenty books of nonfiction, who writes and publishes haibun. In this one, a familiar path leads to a discovery. Watch as the autumnal colors give way to a surprise that is also, perhaps, a harbinger of the season to come.

—THE

Autumn Again

Autumn again, two scrawny trees near the street already leafless, others full leafed in red and orange and yellow. The leaves that cover the bike path through the woods crackle beneath my tires; I still whir through patches of deep shade but see deeper into the open understory. On the approach to the underpass all the milkweeds have burst, the shrubs have darkened, the grasses turned brown. The river flows low and sluggish under the bridge and the tire tracks leading to the canoe access are dry and bare. Already autumn again, and the path I ride, the path I have so often walked, the leafed and leafless trees, the underpass, the hill toward the street and the curve away from the canoe access into scattered oaks and hickories, are as familiar to me now as if I have always known them. Seasons have passed and changed and passed and changed and I coast through them now without curiosity, without expectation, calmed by constancy, certain of what awaits around each bend.

 

Familiar bike path
nothing new except—
albino squirrel

—Robert Root

 

January 21, 2022

from Paper Concert: A Conversation in the Round

by Amy Wright

 

“…all of them refract the light of the unknowable mystery of the self.”

—Amy Wright

 

Paper Concert is a conversation of essayists and other artists and thinkers, on the nature of self, art, and community. Based on interviews Amy Wright did as nonfiction editor with Zone 3 magazine, it is meant to be an exploratory, rather than definitive, conversation among essayists and other writers. To me, the book is unique not only in its scope which is wide ranging but in its method: a dialogue, communal and associative, in which many writers get their say and none gets the last word. No single paragraph of the week can do justice to this ambitious work filled with so many intriguing voices, and I have certainly not captured it here, so I intend for us to come back to this provocative collection throughout the year, trying various approaches.

 

The paragraph I have chosen to feature this week comes from Wright’s opening essay which introduces her project.

Paragraph of the Week

The essaying goes on, but this essay anchors a central thread of dialogue over a dizzying divide. It weaves a decade-plus's worth of questions and answers from a range of discussions I've had with artists, activists, scientists, philosophers, physicians, priests, musicians, and other representatives of the human population. Some of them are famous, some will be, some should be—but all of them refract the light of the unknowable mystery of the self. Sometimes they turned the tables and interviewed me, carrying our conversation into the realm of true dialogue. It was always dialogue I sought—of the kind Dickinson inspired, across time and space—from the Greek dia logos, the reason we come together.

—Amy Wright

Commentary

 

I agree with Stephen Corey, the former editor of The Georgia Review, who spotted the genius of this work early and published large sections of it, that the greatest strength of Paper Concert lies in its “multi-voiced explorations” because “we want to but cannot hold them all easily in the mind.”  The questions are provocative and the answers prickly, funny, thoughtful, and wise by turns, and taken together, they tease us out of thought. And yet, for me, patterns emerge and themes recur. First, all of us draw on the labor, inspiration, and support of others to create ourselves and do our work. At the same time, we require boundaries in order to be free to be ourselves and discover our unique vision of life. Engaging others, setting boundaries, and finding freedom in an ever-changing world—that is the heart of that matter here. The results of our labors are beautiful, mysterious, and evanescent. The governing metaphor for the project is the spider that throws a thread wide and builds a magnificent structure which blows away the next day. In an evolving world where no single answer will do, we may not know heaven itself, but, as Wright explains with a nod to Emily Dickinson, “artists, activists, scientists, philosophers, physicians, priests, musicians, and other representatives of the human population” daily provide “the chart.”

January 28, 2022

 

from “How It Feels To Be Colored Me”

by Zora Neale Hurston

 

“Howdy-do-well-I-thank-you-where-you-goin’?”—Zora Neale Hurston

 

Zora Neale Hurston was an American author, anthropologist, and filmmaker. In her writing she portrayed racial struggles in the American South and published research on hoodoo. She is best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. She also wrote essays and published “How It Feels To Be Colored Me” in the magazine World Tomorrow in 1928. You can read the entire essay here.

Paragraph of the Week

 

But I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negro-hood who hold that nature somehow has given them a low-down dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.

–Zora Neale Hurston

Commentary

 

When she was a girl living in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, Zora Neale Hurston would greet cars passing through from her front porch by saying “Howdy-do-well-I-thank-you-where-you-goin’?” and dancing “ the parse-me-la.” Slavery was only sixty years in the past, but for her the “terrible struggle” for freedom said “‘On the line!’ The Reconstruction said ‘Get set!’; and the generation before said ‘Go!’” She refused “to look behind and weep.” When she is in a sea of white faces she never loses sight of her identity: “I am a dark rock surged upon, overswept by a creamy sea. I am surged upon and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.” When she dances she is “in the jungle and living in the jungle way. My face is painted red and yellow, and my body is painted blue. My pulse is throbbing like a war drum. I want to slaughter something—give pain, give death to what, I do not know.” She is “the cosmic Zora,” and belongs to no race or time, “the eternal feminine with its string of beads.” She takes an oyster knife to life. Discrimination against her does not make her angry. It “astonishes” her. “How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company!” she writes. “It’s beyond me.”—THE

 

February 4, 2022

 

 

 

 

from Orwell’s Roses

by Rebecca Solnit

 

 

“Essayist Rebecca Solnit makes a strong case for George Orwell as the writer who speaks most clearly to our time.”—THE

 

Essayist Rebecca Solnit has written on a variety of subjects, including feminism, the environment, politics, place, and art. Her newest collection is Orwell’s Roses. “What a book!” Bill McKibben writes. “It is a privilege for the rest of us to listen in as our finest contemporary essayist engages in deep conversation across time with perhaps the greatest essayist in the history of the language.” Our Paragraph of the Week comes from this remarkable book.

The Paragraph of the Week

The gesture of planting the roses and launching the garden could mean a thousand things, but for now let it mean a collaboration with the world of and work of plants, the establishment and tending of a few more carbon-sequestering, oxygen-producing organisms, the desire to be agrarian, settled, to bet on a future in which the roses and trees would bloom for years and the latter would bear fruit in decades to come or even, as he wrote, a century hence. To garden is to make whole again what has been shattered: the relationships in which you are both producer and consumer, in which you reap the bounty of the earth directly, in which you understand fully how something came into being. It may not be significant in scale, but even if it's a windowsill geranium high above a city street, it can be significant in meaning.

—Rebecca Solnit

Commentary

 

Essayist Rebecca Solnit makes a strong case for George Orwell as the writer who speaks most clearly to our time. Early in his career, Orwell as a journalist entered coal mines to expose the wretched conditions of miners, including children, crawling deep underground in filth with a single day off on Sunday to take a bath--all to fuel a carbon-dependent economy. He fought against fascism in the Spanish war until he was shot in the neck and nearly died. He defended socialism “in which people love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another.” He opposed Stalin’s totalitarian war on science which worsened famine and his war on truth which “forced ordinary persons to become liars themselves,” a tyranny leading to the deaths of at least 20 million citizens. In his essay “Politics and the English Language” he rightly saw that since totalitarianism is impossible without lies, it is, as Solnit writes, “significantly a language problem…that can be fought to some extent with language” which explains his emphasis on clarity and directness in writing and his withering satire in Nineteen Eighty-Four of “Thought Police” and “Newspeak.” Surely all of this sounds familiar to us today as the world tumbles toward authoritarianism and environmental collapse, but Solnit also points out that even his darkest work has much natural beauty at its core, including the “Golden Country” based on his farm on the Isle of Jura in Scotland where he lived while writing Nineteen Eighty-Four and the rose hips that Solnit identifies as the novel’s symbol of ordinary beauty. He loved plants and based much of his thinking on the power of nature to heal what humans plunder and destroy, knowing that to “garden is to make whole again what has been shattered.”—THE

 
 

February 11, 2020

from “The Prevention of Literature”

in Polemic, January 1946

by George Orwell

 

“In any totalitarian society that survives for more than a couple of generations, it is probable that prose literature, of the kind that has existed during the past four hundred years, must actually come to an end.”—George Orwell

 

Last week we featured a paragraph in Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit. This week we follow up with a paragraph by journalist, essayist, and novelist George Orwell himself. Our Paragraph of the Week is from his essay “The Prevention of Literature” which, like so much of Orwell’s writing, speaks to our time. Its subject is the importance of freedom of expression for literary writers as well as journalists in totalitarian societies. You can read the essay in full at the Orwell Foundation website here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

The journalist is unfree, and is conscious of unfreedom, when he is forced to write lies or suppress what seems to him important news; the imaginative writer is unfree when he has to falsify his subjective feelings, which from his point of view are facts. He may distort and caricature reality in order to make his meaning clearer, but he cannot misrepresent the scenery of his own mind; he cannot say with any conviction that he likes what he dislikes, or believes what he disbelieves. If he is forced to do so, the only result is that his creative faculties will dry up. Nor can he solve the problem by keeping away from controversial topics. There is no such thing as a genuinely non-political literature, and least of all in an age like our own, when fears, hatreds, and loyalties of a directly political kind are near to the surface of everyone’s consciousness. Even a single taboo can have an all-round crippling effect upon the mind, because there is always the danger that any thought which is freely followed up may lead to the forbidden thought. It follows that the atmosphere of totalitarianism is deadly to any kind of prose writer, though a poet, at any rate a lyric poet, might possibly find it breathable. And in any totalitarian society that survives for more than a couple of generations, it is probable that prose literature, of the kind that has existed during the past four hundred years, must actually come to an end.

 

—George Orwell

Commentary

The arguments about free expression that George Orwell takes on in this essay are ones we struggle with today. Why should writers of literary fiction and personal nonfiction— literature “in the wider sense” as opposed to journalism—be affected by the rise of authoritarianism? He frames the issue this way: “Is every writer a politician, and is every book necessarily a work of straightforward ‘reportage?’” Surely the writers of personal prose can, even under the tightest dictatorship, remain free inside their own minds and distill or disguise their unorthodox ideas in such a way that the authorities will not recognize them? His answer to these questions is that all writers—with the odd exception of poets—are susceptible to tyranny: journalists must follow the facts but writers of literature are equally bound to be true to their “subjective feelings” which to them are “facts.” These authors may alter or caricature reality, but they “cannot misrepresent the scenery” of their minds which puts them at risk in an autocratic society when they tell their truths. If they do falsify feelings their “creative faculties will dry up.” In this way, “the atmosphere of totalitarianism is deadly to any kind of prose writer.” Orwell seems to be speaking directly to us when he writes that “there is no such thing as a genuinely non-political literature, and least of all in an age like our own, when fears, hatreds, and loyalties of a directly political kind are near to the surface of everyone’s consciousness.” To accept even one taboo is a betrayal of the self because any discovery by the writer might lead to “the forbidden subject.” If this mindset is allowed to persist for several generations, all literature is at risk—even, in my view, poetry where thoughts can go anywhere. Banning books in schools and libraries is the first step, and it has already begun.

 

—THE

 

February 18, 2022

 

from “Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America”

by Richard Nelson

in American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

edited by Bill McKibben

 

“From a human standpoint [the doe] seems profoundly alone, terribly vulnerable—which of course she is—and this fills me with compassion.”—Richard Nelson

 

Richard Nelson was an American cultural anthropologist and writer. He spent many years living in Interior Alaska with indigenous people, focusing primarily on the indigenous cultures of Alaska and, more generally, the relationships between people and nature. He is the author of Make Prayers to the Raven, The Island Within, Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America, and Patriotism and the American Land. The featured paragraph is from “Heart and Blood: Living with Deer” which I found in the anthology American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau edited by Bill McKibben. In it he describes a doe giving birth to a fawn.

Paragraph of the Week

 

The doe paces awkwardly back and forth on her patch of bare ground, then lies down again, keeping very still. Head raised, she glances around constantly as if she's tense and disquieted. From a human standpoint she seems profoundly alone, terribly vulnerable—which of course she is—and this fills me with compassion. A woman in her situation would be surrounded by midwives and companions, or nurses and doctors; she'd be supported, encouraged, touched, consoled, attended, assisted. I would sit with the deer and protect her from harm, if only I could displace her fear. But she can know only the predator inside me, not the watcher.

 

—Richard Nelson

Commentary

 

While heading out across Haida Strait in Alaska with his dog Keta, a dream of Richard Nelson’s is fulfilled: He sees a wild deer give birth. When he comes across the doe lying in grass he hunches down and places an arm on Keta to calm her and later secures her with a short rope. Watching in a cold drizzle and shivering in the wind, he resists “a nearly overpowering urge to move, warm up, sneak closer to her.” At this point, as the doe stands and lies down again, he realizes how alone she is and contrasts her with women giving birth “surrounded by midwives and companions, or nurses and doctors,” but knows he cannot comfort her without frightening her away. “She can only know the predator inside me,” he writes, “not the watcher.” So, he doesn’t move. After more than an hour the doe rolls in the grass lifts her leg, arches her back, and looks behind, and “out from beneath the flared white tail slips something long and wet and shiny and very dark.” The brown mass “gathers itself together” moving in jerks and “becomes a fawn—a tiny, throbbing, trembling, living fleck of earth” as the doe begins licking her.

 

—THE

 

March 4, 2022

 

 

from Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir of a Day

by Sonya Huber

 

“Essayist Sonya Huber found her unique voice while writing the essay ‘Pain Woman Takes Your Keys’ and now has written an entire book manipulating, modifying, and modulating it.”—THE

 

The Paragraph of the Week is from Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir of a Day, the newest book by Sonya Huber. She is also the author of three books of creative nonfiction: Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and the essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys: Essays on Pain and Imagination. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, and other journals. She teaches at Fairfield University and directs Fairfield’s Low-Residency MFA Program. You can read our earlier feature on “Pain Woman Takes Your Keys” here.

The Paragraph of the Week

When I give my talk, I have to ramp up into my public persona. I'm such a dork. How much bullshit it is, me pretending I know anything. (Welcome to the tunnel of doom. We'll be done soon.) It makes me want to cry, the fact that I pretend I know, that there's any kind of hope or order in the universe, that anything can lead to anything else, pretending there's hope in writing. I should tweet with another link to the webinar registration, do my schtick, which has morphed into being super-nice and using a lot of exclamation points and heart emojis, maybe to hide the fact that I'm a cynical depressed asshole. If I weren't me but I followed me on Twitter or knew me, I'd probably hate me, me and my enthusiasm, who gave you the right to talk about anything—like you know anything at all. This is what my hometown of New Lenox, Illinois, thinks of me, hahahaha they never think of me. Hometown taunts: You think you're better than us because you went to a fancy private college out of state. So why do I have these vestigial voices, why do I bully myself. Why save that hate and why do I keep such a candle for the Midwest? I preserve this voice inside me because I think if I'm ready, it can never surprise me. Jesus Fucking Christ, JFC thank you Zoloft. Honestly what would I have done without Zoloft since age 20? All the crying. JFC JFK KFC: an evil incantation to summon America. I tweeted that because it cracked me up, and it was not as appreciated by Twitter as I thought it deserved, but that's Twitter.

—Sonya Huber

Commentary

Essayist Sonya Huber found her unique voice while writing the essay “Pain Woman Loses Her Keys” and now has written an entire book manipulating, modifying, and modulating it. Some readers will no doubt object because it is by turns petulant, whiney, weary, painfully self-deprecating, earnest, sincere, and obscene, but I love it because of the authenticity, commitment to justice, and swelling heart behind it. I love it because it is so strange. I love it because it shatters her old voice in order to see herself “in each of the glinting pieces.” Or, more accurately, I love it because, as she wrote in “Pain Woman,” it combines all of her voices—“Academia Woman, the Editorial/ Demonstration Pissed-Off Woman, Dreamy Essayist Fragment Girl, and Hayseed/ Punk Rock Girl”  into the “fugue-state reflection” of a woman in constant pain—both physically and for her country and world. In The Paragraph of the Week we see it on full display as her public persona gives way to a verbal cascade that many of us feel when making a presentation. It sounds dorky, scatological, tearful, hopeless, confessional, anxious, and more. Why does she torment herself she asks, (and us, we might add) with these bullying “vestigial voices?” She suspects it is to fortify herself (and us) against being surprised by more pain, but it offers surprises of another kind as when her silly Zoloft-induced voice takes over and “Jesus Fucking Christ” becomes “JFC JFK KFC” which she realizes is “an evil incantation to summon America,” and (for her and us) a brilliant surprise. What I love most is the way this mix of voices can modulate to convey different moods. The book covers one anxious day when she was on trial for a protest. In the morning it is generally assured and confident, with “Academia Woman” corralling, but not controlling, her rowdier sisters; during the protest “Hayseed/ Punk Rock Girl and Editorial/Demonstration Pissed-Off Woman” predominate though they are often shouted down by other vestigial bullies; and at night—in a paean to her son and mother—the other voices are tucked in bed as “Dreamy Essayist Fragment Girl” lulls her to sleep. These voices are really about “the mind of a person having an amazingly normal web of thoughts, like those symphonies going on inside all of us all of the time,” she explains, “the beautiful invisible kaleidoscopes” she “always wanted to write.” Yes, beautiful.

—THE

 

March 11, 2022

 

 

 

from American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation

by Sarah Wells

 

Sarah M. Wells is the author of the memoir American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation as well as a novella-length essay The Valley of Achor. She has also published three devotional books and three collections of poetry.

Sarah has long been a friend of The Humble Essayist. She was in on its creation and can be found in several spots in the archives. She lives with her family in a house near a field in Ashland, Ohio. 

Paragraph of the Week

 

We walked the shadowy boardwalk by the river, water raging below, highway racing above, branches low and full of leaves as if the entire world and its threats cocooned our relationship. We were two people choosing to love, two people pressing a force field out around ourselves. The darkness was interrupted by the occasional headlight and streetlight. He stopped in the shadows and knelt down on one knee, and I knew what he would ask before he did, so I said, Yes, finally, Yes, yes, I will!

 

—Sarah Wells

Commentary

 

The subtitle of Sarah Wells’ American Honey is “A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation” and she means, of course, resisting the distractions that any marriage is subject to, in particular the temptation of adultery. But the other kind of field also comes up often in the book. “I take my daughter, Lydia, out on my brother’s four-wheeler through my grandmother’s field across the street from my parents’ home,” she writes. “It’s another summer evening, the long kind.”  Or, “I raced my brother on snowmobiles through that same field, adrenaline rushing, snow dusting up behind us, cold air and snowmobile exhaust filling my lungs through the scarf over my face.” Or, Dad gunned “the accelerator of the snowmobile through the fields with me clinging to his coat toasty in my snowsuit and helmet.” Or, “the geese stop in this field during migration every year; it’s as if they make a point of visiting on their way south, honk and call to one another from either end of the V every evening, this is the place, stop here, it is beautiful, remember?” Or, “I come to visit, my mom and the kids and I walk the length of the field where Grandma rode her horse between her house on the corner and her grandmother’s home.” Or, “cousins and nieces and nephews still forage the yard and the fields and the woods, looking for and finding all kinds of trinkets, all kinds of treasure.” Or, “I ran past Mom and the shiny, clean trucks in the driveway, past the vegetable garden and the edge of the field of corn just beginning to shoot up from the topsoil (not quite knee high by the Fourth of July), past my aunt and grandma weeding between tomatoes, and headed toward my dad’s shop.” The field that is her guide and companion expands, protects, deepens, and transforms over time. Yes, Wells’ book is full of temptations—but the “force-field” she felt when her husband proposed to her ground her marriage and keep it whole. “We moved mulch and dirt and fieldstones,” she writes. “We transplanted rhododendrons and roses. We take the landscape we’re given and transform it.” She calls such love “the home field advantage.”

 

—THE

March 18, 2022

 

 

from Country Music: Selected Early Poems

by  Charles Wright

 

And so, being unable to find peace within myself...”

                                           T’u Lung

 

 

The paragraph of the week is the prose poem "Aubade" by Charles Wright, the first poem in Country Music, his selected early poems.  In it, he gazes at the sunrise over Govino Bay anticipating the arrival of a miracle. For the commentary I use a paragraph from The Travels of Mingliaotse written by T’u Lung a sixteenth century government official who, discouraged by life, left his position and gave up all of his possessions to wander northward through ancient China. Wright chose the passage by T'u Lung as the epigraph for his fourth collection of poetry, China Trace, but when he published Country Music he placed the paragraph at the end of the book suggesting that it applied to all of his early writings. Wright's prose poem and T’u Lung's paragraph, bookend the poet's early work and set the agenda for his entire career as a devotee of landscapes. 

Saint Spiridion, mentioned in Wright's poem, was known as a wonder worker. When he argued that a piece of pottery in his hand was, like the Trinity, three in one—fire, water, and clay—the shard reportedly burst into flame, water puddled at his feet, and only dust remained.—THE

Paragraph of the Week:

 

Aubade

 

Over Govino Bay, looking up from the water's edge, the landscape resembles nothing so much as the hills above Genova, valleying into the sea, washing down olive, cypress and excessive arbutus into the slow snapping of the plane trees where I, surrendering to the pulse beat of a silence so faint that it seems to come from another country, watch the sun rise over Albania, waiting—calmly, unquestioning—for Saint Spiridion of Holy Memory to arise, leave his silver casket and emerge, wearing the embroidered slippers, from his grove of miracles above the hill.

 

—Charles Wright

Commentary:

 

I would like to house my spirit within my body, to nourish my virtue by mildness, and to travel in ether by becoming a void. But I cannot do it yet...And so, being unable to find peace within myself, I made use of the external surroundings to calm my spirit, and being unable to find delight within my heart, I borrowed a landscape to please it. Therefore, strange were my travels."

 

— T'u Lung (T'u Ch'ihshui)

Translated by Lin Yutang

 
 

March 25, 2022

 

 

 

 

From “Nest”

By Jan Shoemaker

In River Teeth Fall 2021

 

“Jan Shoemaker is not good at ‘laissez-faire living.’”—THE

 

Jan Shoemaker is the author of Flesh and Stones: Field Notes from a Finite World and the poetry collection The Reliquary Earth. Her work has appeared in many magazines and journals and we featured a paragraph from Flesh and Stones in 2016 which you can read in the archives here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

My own walk was pokey and investigatory, rather than rigorous, and it brought us three new birds’ nests, offerings extended by November’s bare limbs that reached out and practically dropped them in my pockets. Once they’ve been abandoned, I can’t resist these nests, placed just so like exquisite small poems in the trees—it's as if Emily Dickinson had tippled a path through her agoraphobia (and that death business) and decorated the whole woods. On my best day, I have nothing like their eloquence, and I carry them home reverently to tuck into bookshelves again, now that our Inn of Curiosities—a cabinet we bought to get the detritus off our end tables—is full. I placed a cardinal's nest near Anna's loom: inspiration for the rug she was weaving.

 

—Jan Shoemaker

Commentary

 

Jan Shoemaker is not good at “laissez-faire living.”  After her husband contracted Parkinson’s, the neurologist told the couple that he had “no idea what’s going to happen,” and Shoemaker, “definitely not friends with No Idea,” pelted him with questions. Should we sell our house? Get something smaller? Should we at least take out a wall and enlarge the bathroom downstairs, maybe put in a shower in case? She is trying to do better. She knows that she must push this “stone” of needing to be in control off of the “valve” in her heart. When her mother slid into the “chaos of decline” she remembers herself as too quick with corrections—“that isn't a car; it's a pill”—when she should have been simply loving her and vows to do better. But so much seems out of control: pandemic, political chaos, and now aging. “I try to envision what I want this house to be during the years that lie ahead, which promise some bright but also some very dark moments.” So she gathers nests, and thinks about homes as poems not imperial fortresses, and admits love is messy in a world where the “chances to serve love are not, after all, infinite.”

 

—THE

April 1, 2022

 

from “Animal Bodies”

in Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties

by Suzanne Roberts

 

“I imagine the fine kitten whiskers, the nose searching for air, then going still.”

—Suzanne Roberts

 

Suzanne Roberts is a travel writer, memoirist, and poet. Her books include the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award-winning Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, the award-winning memoir in travel essays Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel, a new collection of lyrical essays, Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties , and four collections of poetry. The Paragraph of the Week is from the title essay of Animal Bodies.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

My mother's mother drowned kittens in a bucket in the kitchen. She made my mother—a little girl—help her. Mother told me she still remembered her favorite, a black-and-white one she had named Windy and the way Windy struggled for air, the way her pink nose pushed for the surface of the water, the way my grandmother shoved her small face under until the kitten went limp. Even though I wasn't there, I imagine the fine kitten whiskers, the nose searching for air, then going still. My grandmother also killed Henrietta, the chicken, and Peter, the rabbit—animals my mother believed were her pets.

 

—Suzanne Roberts

Commentary

 

The essay “Animal Bodies” is about not eating meat. Writer Suzanne Roberts gave up eating meat twice, once for a long time when as a child she learned that meat comes from the muscles of animals like her pets and again, briefly, as an adult when she learned how intelligent pigs are and looked into their human-like eyes. The rest of the time—most of her adult life—she has eaten meat though she thinks it is wrong. She hesitates to call herself a hypocrite because she does not see herself as someone who is playing a part contrary to stated beliefs. “It isn’t merely that I am stating beliefs here,” she writes, she feels the wrong. “I really don’t think we should eat animals.” Maybe it’s a paradox, she speculates, or maybe, like Whitman, we contain multitudes and contradiction is in our nature. What she does know is that eating meat when the conscience dictates otherwise takes a hidden toll. When her mother as a girl drowned kittens—including her favorite, Windy—and watched her mother kill animals she considered pets for food, she still ate meat, but hated water. “She couldn’t stand with her head under the shower spray, so she washed her hair in the sink, leaning back, so her face stayed dry.”

 

—THE

 
 

April 8, 2022

 

from “Sound Travels Through and Around Barriers”

in Paper Concert: A Conversation in the Round

by Amy Wright

 

“Will you provide a sonic translation of the giant ash that falls while you are listening to the forest?”

—Amy Wright

 

It’s time to return to Paper Concert for another feature. Paper Concert is a conversation of essayists and other artists and thinkers, on the nature of self, art, and community.  Based on interviews Amy Wright did as nonfiction editor with Zone 3 magazine, it is meant to be an exploratory, rather than definitive, conversation. To me, the book is unique not only in its scope which is wide-ranging, but in its method: a communal and associative dialogue in which many writers get their say and none gets the last word. No single paragraph of the week can do justice to this ambitious work filled with so many intriguing voices, although I tried to write a commentary in January. This week I’ll take a different approach, featuring another paragraph by Wright followed this time by a list of her interview questions in lieu of commentary in an attempt to give a sense of the range here. I intend for us to come back to this provocative collection throughout the year, trying various approaches to convey its beauty and power.

 

The paragraph I have chosen comes from Wright’s introductory essay for her section called “Sound Travels Through and Around Barriers.” The commentary is a collage of selected questions she asked various writers on the subject. To learn their answers to her intriguing questions you will have to read Paper Concert.

Paragraph of the Week

 

As a child I felt I belonged to the natural world. I was of it, among the mating calls of tree frogs, crickets, and katydids that thickened the screens we opened on summer nights. Congresses of geese honked into alignment, just as my younger brother and I shouted from the backyard to find each other. Bulls bellowed their dominion behind plank wooden fences, while we fought over toys—until periodical cicadas scattered shot into rounds that silenced all of us. Thunder cracked over limestone bluffs that exposed geographical strata as textured as these sonic layers, which would have crashed into cacophony if not for the prolonged rest notes held by the mountains. Even as a child I knew this score unfolded not in 4/4 time but in 1/1.2 billion. I could hear only a minute fraction of the whole composition, but it encouraged me to keep listening.

—Amy Wright

Questions

 

Have you had any memorable encounters with a particular insect? Your biography describes you as a radical faerie. What does that descriptor mean to you? My favorite description in The Songs of Trees are your translations of birdsongs such as “the pileated woodpecker as an old man in no hurry to nail loose boards.” Will you provide a sonic translation of the giant ash that falls while you are listening to the forest? Will you speak to how the ear, almost of its own accord, wends toward something? You have written that “one thinks with the ear.” What trains the ear? Can we talk about what goes unsaid in your work? How does time enter art? You say “I am as cynical as they come, and as believing.” What keeps your willingness to believe alive? What justifies your optimism?

—Amy Wright

 

[David Haskell is the author of the sonic translation of the pileated woodpecker, Rod Smith of the phrase on the ear, and Gerald Stern of the sentence about belief and cynicism.]

 

April 15, 2022

 

 

 

from The Circus Train

by Judith Kitchen

in River Teeth

 

“It is not a debate about the facts that the writer needs, but stories that are, she contends, ‘the products of my perceptions.’ They last a lifetime and ‘do not fade.’”

—THE

 

River Teeth magazine has published an essay of mine in its newest issue celebrating Judith Kitchen’s masterful novella-length essay, The Circus Train. Judith was not only a superb writer and critic, she was also a friend, so the essay is personal as well as analytical. To mark the occasion I include an excerpt from her work and a paragraph of my critical commentary. You can read the entire essay in River Teeth, volume 23:2 which you can order from the magazine's website here. If you have access to Project Muse, you can read the issue of River Teeth on-line here.

 

Paragraph of the Week

Don’t. Don’t keep arguing with me, refusing what I just said, resisting my interpretations. You always try to give others their due. You posit excuses for them. Or reasons. I don’t care about the reasons. I only care that…that they are what I say they are. The product of my perceptions. So don't go on defending them against my stories. My stories are real. They carry themselves along the months, then years. They move slowly, horse and buggy time, and their colors do not fade. So, simply, don't. Open yourself to my version of my life—because it will eventually explain everything. Will lead to the cookie jar that holds my ashes. Open yourself up to what it feels like to be burdened with memory, and insight. Or if not insight, then critique. Commentary. So, quite simply, don't.

—Judith Kitchen

Commentary

 

Judith Kitchen was not only an elegant writer of lyric prose, she was also an astute literary critic, and in The Circus Train she is often of these two minds, the “I” of the writer talking back angrily to the “you” of the critic. It is not a debate about the facts that the writer needs, but stories that are, she contends, “the products of my perceptions.” They last a lifetime and “do not fade.” They are real and she can take them to “the cookie jar” that will one day hold her ashes. Contradictory or not, her memories are what she must be true to. And yet, she needs the critic too and asks, calm now by the end of the paragraph, that the two of them do this task together and share “what it feels like to be burdened with memory.” In addition to personal perception the writer knows she requires “insight,” “critique,” or “commentary,” whatever word best describes what the critic in her has to offer though in the end memory, no matter how flawed, is the final arbiter. It is her method for remembering her way “back into imagination.” The goal is not to recreate a past event or capture memories, but to turn, through an alchemy of words and perceptions, event into mystery.

 

—THE

April 21, 2022

 

from Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony

by Lewis Thomas

 

“Lewis Thomas imagines the places he loves, from San Francisco to the Alpine Moloja Pass, destroyed by thermonuclear war and can no longer take comfort in the ‘familiar cycle of living and dying’ that the music had once evoked for him.”—THE  

 

Given the harrowing world situation, including the looming threat of thermonuclear war, I thought it would be appropriate to reprise our feature from 2017 on the essay “Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony” by Lewis Thomas. In it he ponders the difference between thoughts of human mortality and far graver thoughts of annihilation. As usual, the personal essay reminds us that we are not alone with our fears and anxieties.

Lewis Thomas was a physician and writer whose articles regularly appeared in magazines such as The New Yorker, Scientific American, Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s.  He was the author of a number of collections of essays:  The Lives of a Cell, The Medusa and the Snail, and The Youngest Science.  The Paragraph of the Week comes from his collection Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Now I hear it differently. I cannot listen to the last movement of the Mahler Ninth without the door-smashing intrusion of a huge new thought: death everywhere, the dying of everything, the end of humanity. The easy sadness expressed with such gentleness and delicacy by that repeated phrase on faded strings, over and over again, no longer comes to me as old, familiar news of the cycle of living and dying. All through the last notes my mind swarms with images of a world in which the thermonuclear bombs have begun to explode, in New York and San Francisco, in Moscow and Leningrad, in Paris, in Paris, in Paris. In Oxford and Cambridge, in Edinburgh. I cannot push away the thought of a cloud of radioactivity drifting along the Engadin, from the Moloja Pass to Ftan, killing off the part of the earth I love more than any other part.

 

—Lewis Thomas

Commentary

 

At the end of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony listeners barely hold onto life through “spider-web strands of music,” Leonard Bernstein famously said. Those threads of sound, “as close as music can come to expressing silence itself,” gave comfort to Lewis Thomas when thoughts of  mortality “transiently knocked” him down as a young man.  “Now,” he explains in Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony published in the last decade of his life, “I hear it differently.” The “door-smashing intrusion of a huge new thought” shatters the near silence of the music.  “All through the last notes my mind swarms with images of a world in which the thermonuclear bombs have begun to explode.” He imagines the places he loves, from San Francisco to the Alpine Moloja Pass, destroyed and can no longer take comfort in the “familiar cycle of living and dying” that the music had once evoked for him.  He understands why a younger generation, my generation now old and on the brink of nuclear disaster, “would begin thinking up new kinds of sounds, different from any music heard before,” abandoning high art for rock and roll, and literature for cacophony.  “I would,” he says, sympathizing with the youth culture of the sixties that he otherwise disdains, “be twisting and turning to rid myself of human language.”

 

—THE

 
 

April 29, 2022

 

from “Into the Void”

by Ruth Franklin

in The New Yorker, September 13, 2021

 

“The dividing line between reality and imagination is not marked; it is only after several paragraphs or pages that we realize we have crossed it.”—Ruth Franklin

 

I had originally intended to feature a paragraph from When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut, which he calls “a work of fiction based on fact,” but after reading the book decided that this site dedicated to personal nonfiction was not really the appropriate forum for a book that includes so much fiction.  I was drawn, nonetheless, to the idea of using nonfiction mixed with fiction to write a book about mysteries such as black holes and the uncertainty principle and the scientists who struggled to understand them.  So, I decided to choose a paragraph from Ruth Franklin’s essay-review of the book that appeared in the New Yorker. Franklin is the author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography in 2016. She read Labatut with Google at her side to discover those places where the author veered from the truth and thought about what that literary move means. She suggests that fiction embedded in nonfiction may function somewhat like the uncertainty built into the universe, but raises questions about whether the technique is dangerous. Her paragraph follows a section on the way black holes create distortions in space and time.

 

You can read her complete review here

The Paragraph of the Week

 

The gravitational pull of fiction in this book works in a similar fashion. The dividing line between reality and imagination is not marked; it is only after several paragraphs or pages that we realize we have crossed it. We know, for instance, that Heisenberg did indeed travel to Helgoland in 1925, seeking relief from his allergy to pollen (“the microscopic particles that were torturing him”), and there reached his understanding of the behavior of elementary particles, discovering a way to describe the location of an electron and its interaction with other particles. But did the frenzy of his intellectual energy combine with fever to generate nightmares in which the Sufi mystic Hafez appeared in his bedroom, offered him a wineglass filled with blood, and masturbated in front of him before receiving oral sex from Goethe? We assume not, but the boundary is obscured by the gothic fervor of Labatut’s narration, in which even mundane details are relayed with heavy melodrama: Heisenberg’s allergies transform him into a “monster,” his lips swollen “like a rotten peach with the skin ready to come off.”

—Ruth Franklin

Commentary

 

Ruth Franklin admits that the “sheer cunning with which Labatut embellishes and augments reality” is liberating, enlarging our sense of “fiction’s capabilities.” She points to a section of the book about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as a justification for such fictional distortions. In a universe where “quantum objects have no intrinsic properties” and “an electron does not occupy a fixed location” facts shimmer and fade, past, present, and future lose their meaning, and “fiction becomes as plausible as history as a method for describing the actions and events of people’s lives.” She admits that “fiction, as much as physics, is the domain of the multiverse,” but does so grudgingly because there is “something questionable, even nightmarish” about the results of this kind of fabrication of the events of real life, and for this point, I give her the last word: “If fiction and fact are indistinguishable in any meaningful way, how are we to find language for those things we know to be true? In the era of fake news, more and more people feel entitled to ‘make our own reality,’ as Karl Rove put it. In the current American political climate, even scientific fact—the very material with which Labatut spins his web—is subject to grossly counter-rational denial. Is it responsible for a fiction writer, or a writer of history, to pay so little attention to the line between the two?”

—THE

 

May 13, 2022

from “One Way Street”

in Reflections

by Walter Benjamin

“What would have become a portent of disaster he binds bodily to the moment, making himself the factotum of his body.”—Walter Benjamin

 

Walter Benjamin  was an early twentieth century philosophercultural critic, and essayist. An eclectic thinker, combining elements of German idealismRomanticismMarxism, and Jewish mysticism, Benjamin made enduring and influential contributions to aesthetic theoryliterary criticism, and historical materialism. A German Jew, he killed himself at Portbou on the French–Spanish border while fleeing the Nazis mistakenly thinking he would be forbidden to cross to safety.

 

A selection of his essays was collected and translated to English by Edmund Jephcott in the volume Reflections. The Paragraph of the Week, taken from the essay “One Way Street” in that volume, celebrates in memorable language the value of embracing the present moment fully.

 

The Paragraph of the Week

 

… The moment is the Caudine Yoke beneath which fate must bow to the body. To turn the threatening future into a fulfilled now, the only desirable telepathic miracle, is a work of bodily presence of mind. Primitive epochs, when such demeanor was part of man's daily husbandry, provided him, in the naked body, with the most reliable instrument of divination. Even the ancients knew of this true practice, and Scipio stumbling as he set foot on Carthaginian soil, cried out, spreading his arms wide as he fell, the watchword of victory, "Teneo te, terra Africana!” What would have become a portent of disaster he binds bodily to the moment, making himself the factotum of his body. In just such mastery the ancient ascetic exercises of fasting, chastity, and vigil have for all time celebrated their greatest victories. Each morning the day lies like a fresh shirt on our bed; this incomparably fine, incomparably tightly woven tissue of pure prediction fits us perfectly. The happiness of the next twenty-four hours depends on our ability, on waking, to pick it up.

 

—Walter Benjamin

 

Commentary

 

I agree with Susan Sontag that each sentence by Walter Benjamin “had to say everything, before the inward gaze of total concentration dissolved the subject before his eyes,” and seeing the topic at hand shrivel while we watch makes for difficult but usually rewarding reading. In this partial paragraph Benjamin describes the way that the richest fulfillment of the future is achieved by living entirely in the present moment using odd but memorable figures of speech. Romans were led into a trap known as the Caudine Yoke by Samnites because they created elaborate strategies to predict the future without looking closely enough at the present threat. Scipio, by contrast, may have taken ancient Carthage in the strategic battle of Ilipia, but he claimed it bodily when “he spread his arms wide,” saying “I take you Africa!” before tumbling comically to the ground. But the most striking and straightforward image, shedding classical references and needing no gloss, is the last, a paean to the power of living in the present: “Each morning the day lies like a fresh shirt on our bed; this incomparably fine, incomparably tightly woven tissue of pure prediction fits us perfectly. The happiness of the next twenty-four hours depends on our ability, on waking, to pick it up.”

 

—THE