Click on the author's name or scroll through.
Joan Didion, Robert Root, Amy Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Rebecca Solnit, George Orwell, Richard Nelson, Sonya Huber, Sarah Wells, Charles Wright, Jan Shoemaker, Suzanne Roberts, Amy Wright (2), Judith Kitchen, Lewis Thomas, Ruth Franklin on Benjamin Labatut, Walter Benjamin, Sven Birkerts, Jane Hirshfield, Henry David Thoreau, E. B. White, Jill McCabe Johnson, James Baldwin/Teju Cole, Mark Cox, Lucy Grealy, John Ashbery, Rachel Carson, M. F. K. Fisher, Jill Christman, Ned Stuckey-French, Chelsea Biondolillo, Michel de Montaigne.
January 6, 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
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
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.
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—
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
March 18, 2022
from Country Music: Selected Early Poems
by Charles Wright
“And so, being unable to find peace within myself...”
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:
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.
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
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 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.”
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 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.
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.”
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?”
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.
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?
[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.’”
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 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.
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.
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.”
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 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?”
May 13, 2022
from “One Way Street”
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 philosopher, cultural critic, and essayist. An eclectic thinker, combining elements of German idealism, Romanticism, Marxism, and Jewish mysticism, Benjamin made enduring and influential contributions to aesthetic theory, literary 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.
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.”
May 20, 2022
from “Brave Face”
in The Contemporary American Essay
by Sven Birkerts
“We all have our inwardness, of course, but Lucy had it right there, available, on tap. It was her genius.” —Sven Birkerts
Sven Birkerts is best known as the author of The Gutenberg Elegies. His many books and essays examine the fraught interrelationship between reading culture and electronic culture, but in this essay that I came across in Phillip Lopate's anthology The Contemporary American Essay he writes about his friend, Lucy Grealy, a gifted writer who struggled with "the fact of her facial disfigurement from cancer" when she was young and died from a drug overdose, possibly a suicide. For Birkerts, her death raises questions about inner and outer beauty.
The Paragraph of the Week
I find that I do dwell a great deal on the idea—the question—of beauty these days, and Lucy is very often the pretext and whetstone for my thoughts. Contemplating her—the person and her work, the face and the sensibility it both shaped and shielded—I keep registering the age-old opposition between "appearance" and "essence." With Lucy, far more readily than with most people I've known, I felt a quick passage from the one to the other. We all have our inwardness, of course, but Lucy had it right there, available, on tap. It was her genius. Maybe it was also her way of getting people quickly past the outer negotiation.
The disfigurement of Lucy Grealy’s face from surgery when she was nine years old both “shaped and shielded” her sensibility, but according to her friend Sven Berkirts, a refined sensibility was not enough. Her death from a drug overdose, not only raises questions about beauty; it raises what he calls the “redemption question.” She was a gifted writer, one “attuned to the nuances of her perceptions,” writes Birkerts, and “true to the promptings of her associations.” In life, as well, she could make “a quick passage” from “appearance” to “essence,” as if inner beauty were “on tap,” a by-product he suspects of a lifetime of guiding others quickly past her outward appearance. “It was her genius.” Why, then, is this truly beautiful inner life not enough? That is the redemption question. We cling to the myth that inwardness can protect us from otherwise unbearable circumstances, and its failure shocks us. “When she died,” Birkerts writes, “we lost, along with the person, some of the consolation of that myth,” though probably not forever. “Most of us will renew it elsewhere and in others,” he writes. “It is that essential.”
May 27, 2022
“Haibun: A Mountain Rowboat”
in Come Thief
by Jane Hirshfield
“Horses dream. You can see this move through their ears. ”
It’s time, I think, for another haibun, the mixture of prose and poetry from ancient China and the sister form to the humble essayist feature: a paragraph with commentary. The difference—and it is large—is that the commentary for haibun is a brief poem, a haiku. This week’s feature is from Jane Hirshfield, the author of nine collections of poetry, including Come, Thief where this haibun can be found. Rather than squeeze her haibun into our usual side-by-side page format, we kept it as the author wrote it with the paragraph followed by the poem.
The Humble Essayist will take the month of June off to play, but we will be back on July 1 with our annual Fourth of July tribute to Henry David Thoreau. I will leave Jane Hirschfield’s lovely haibun in place till we meet again. It rewards rereading, and of course you can also check out any writers you've missed in the archives.
Most haibun are, like this one, subdued: walking up a mountain, climbing wooden stairs, the patient horse—all those greens and browns. The surprise is a primary color that persists like a dream even as the work of our conscious lives slips away.
HAIBUN: A MOUNTAIN ROWBOAT
by Jane Hirshfield
Go for a walk on the mountain. The trail, up many wooden stairs, passes some houses. In front of one, an old man is building a boat. All summer I have watched this mountain rowboat. Like a horse in its stall, patiently waiting for evening hay, it rests on its wooden cradle. Finally, today, it is being painted: a clear Baltic blue. Horses dream. You can see this move through their ears. But the hopes of an old man spill, as waking life does, through the hands.
amid summer trees
blue boat high on a mountain
its paint scent drying
July 1, 2022
by Henry David Thoreau
“I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat...”
—Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau began his masterpiece, Walden, on the Fourth of July, and each year around that date we celebrate with a feature on him. It is also the birthdate of our 246-year old American democracy and of this humble website which is now entering into its eighth year. In this year’s feature I use a well-known paragraph from Thoreau's essay “Economy” to ponder my website’s name.
The Paragraph of the Week
...In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me. Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students. As for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply to them. I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits.
—Henry David Thoreau
I have often wondered why I call this website The Humble Essayist since I am not a particularly humble person and thoroughly subscribe to Thoreau’s idea that “it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.” After seventy-three years of living with him it is true that I do not know anyone else as well as myself, though, humans being inscrutable, I only have a dim notion of who he is. It is the last part of this paragraph in Walden, though, that seems clarifying. It is a “distant land” that we must travel for one person to reach another if we are honest about our unfathomable selves. So, is it arrogant to make the attempt? Some that we reach may be malleable, the “poor students” of life who stretch to fill our clothes as they grow into them. Others who are more stubbornly themselves must pick and choose what fits. But when we write honestly about ourselves, we strip down to our secret lives in the humble faith that we can connect and “none will stretch the seams” in trying on our words.
July 8, 2022
from “Once More to the Lake”
in One Man’s Meat
by E. B. White
‘This paragraph has been waiting for me a long time.”—THE
Each year around the birthday of E. B. White we feature a paragraph from his classic essay “Once More to the Lake.” We have done eight of them by now and you can easily find them by going to the Archives and searching on White. One theme that has emerged from this exercise is that the essay grows in meaning for me with each revisiting, and this year is no exception as I turn to a paragraph that I have read many times with care and attention, but this time found myself in it. In general I try to avoid eisegesis—the reading of one's own life into a text—but this paragraph took me there. You can read White's entire essay here.
The Paragraph of the Week
We had a good week at the camp. The bass were biting well and the sun shone endlessly, day after day. We would be tired at night and lie down in the accumulated heat of the little bedrooms after the long hot day and the breeze would stir almost imperceptibly outside and the smell of the swamp drift in through the rusty screens. Sleep would come easily and in the morning the red squirrel would be on the roof, tapping out his gay routine. I kept remembering everything, lying in bed in the mornings—the small steamboat that had a long rounded stern like the lip of a Ubangi, and how quietly she ran on the moonlight sails, when the older boys played their mandolins and the girls sang and we ate doughnuts dipped in sugar, and how sweet the music was on the water in the shining night, and what it had felt like to think about girls then. After breakfast we would go up to the store and the things were in the same place—the minnows in a bottle, the plugs and spinners disarranged and pawed over by the youngsters from the boys' camp, the Fig Newtons and the Beeman's gum. Outside, the road was tarred and cars stood in front of the store. Inside, all was just as it had always been, except there was more Coca-Cola and not so much Moxie and root beer and birch beer and sarsaparilla. We would walk out with the bottle of pop apiece and sometimes the pop would backfire up our noses and hurt. We explored the streams, quietly, where the turtles slid off the sunny logs and dug their way into the soft bottom; and we lay on the town wharf and fed worms to the tame bass. Everywhere we went I had trouble making out which was I, the one walking at my side, the one walking in my pants.
—E. B. White
This paragraph has been waiting for me a long time. Sometimes paragraphs do that, blinking coyly through many rereadings until we are ready to hear them ring true to our lives. As I read White’s words I too began “remembering everything” though my list is different. I heard clatter and tapping on the deck of our beach house as a boy, but it was on the Inter-Coastal Waterway of the Jersey shore, not a lake, and the squirrels were gray. We had music too, but teenagers in my memories played guitars not mandolins, and we all sang, boys and girls. Our music was sweet too on the water, but it was the ocean in bright sunlight, not a moonlit pond. A girl I remember sat in the sand beside me and taught me to play “Homeward Bound” saying “like this” while touching my hand to help with the fingering. I was fourteen or fifteen and like White I too think back to what it felt like then to think about girls. I worked off the books in a deli as a dishwasher in stifling heat, and a college-aged waitress whom I had a crush on would sneak cheese cake and let me eat in the freezer when the boss was not looking. As soon as work was done, I ran to the beach, stripped down to my swim trunks, and collapsed into the waves. None of us had surf boards, but we body surfed every day feeling the surge of water all along our torsos and legs and laughing as our faces emerged out of the surf. I’ve never tasted Moxie and we didn’t have Fig Newtons or Beemans, but we drank Slurpee’s in the 7-Eleven to cool off in air-conditioning that our houses lacked. On rainy days we listened to records on small portables and read books in each other’s bedrooms with the door ajar. At night we hitchhiked into the center of town where the Warf Rats sang for change and played “Windy and Warm” just like Doc Watson, and now as I read this paragraph by E. B. White that has been waiting all these years for me to talk back, I see that a paragraph as well as a place can take us back: the author walking beside me talking about the boy inhabiting him as I step into my own, very different, younger self.
July 15, 2022
“Thoughts & Prayers”
by Jill McCabe Johnson
“On behalf of the people for the people we’d like to express/ our deepest condolences...”
—Jill McCabe Johnson
“Thoughts & Prayers” by Jill McCabe Johnson targets an American political system unwilling to protect its people from guns. It is a poem, but it is also unmistakably a paragraph and it uses the pedestrian nature of that literary form to undo the banal excuses lawmakers give for their cowardice. It is haunting.
“If a paragraph is defined as one or more sentences unified by a dominant mood or thought,” the editors of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics explain, “then poetry, like prose, can be seen as moving forward in units that can be called paragraphs.” They call a single paragraph in poetry that lacks regular stanzaic form a “verse paragraph.” The feature this week is a perfect example.
Jill McCabe Johnson is the author of the poetry books Revolutions We'd Hoped We'd Outgrown, and Diary of the One Swelling Sea. She is also the author of the nonfiction chapbook Borderlines and the poetry chapbook Pendulum.
[Note: The line breaks are not properly formatted on the mobile phone version of this feature, though it is pretty clear where they are. Readers who want to see the original formatting can find it on the desktop version.]
The Paragraph of the Week
Thoughts & Prayers
On behalf of the people for the people we’d like to express
our deepest condolences. For the victims and the families
of the victims we send our thoughts and prayers.
Thoughts & prayers to the victims and the families
after such tragic loss we’d like to express on behalf of our
deepest we send condolences in this moment of grief.
In this moment our thoughts & prayers are with you
all, sending to the students for their heartbreaking
losses the victims & their families our deepest
expression on behalf of the beautiful souls in this difficult
may they rest time in peace those felled by another mass
moment of silence and in our grief we wanted you to know
we’re pulling for you stay strong may your memories
comfort you we’ll light a candle you’ll always be
in our hearts we’ll never forget the victims and their
families we’d like to express our deepest for your pain
and prayers may they rest in heartbreaking moments
as we mourn these losses to unnecessary so unnecessary
violence only the good our nation die young & we grieve
with you you’ll always be you’ll never be forgotten
passed away on earth as it is in heaven give us our daily
thoughts & prayers on behalf of victims & their loved ones
for the bereaved the survivors expecting changes legislation
it’s too soon too disrespectful guns don’t kill people
people kill people so take care take cover arm yourselves
we’re rooting for you we’re sorry so very sorry
in the name of the father & the son & the holy
gun peace be with you & also with you forever & ever amen
—Jill McCabe Johnson
We at The Humble Essayist are always interested in those ways that the paragraph and poetry intersect. Whether it is the haibun which mixes the two forms or the prose poem which simply claims poetic territory for the lowly literary genre that this website celebrates. But in “Thoughts & Prayers” we are reminded that the verse paragraph is a form too, one which sets aside stanza breaks on the way to drive home a single, and in this case unforgettable, point. The tired excuses from American legislators who do almost nothing about guns that rip into the bodies of our children are, through a jumbling of syntax, revealed to be an incoherent smokescreen for cowardice. “After such tragic loss we’d like to express on behalf of our deepest,” Jill McCabe Johnson writes illustrating the shallowness of our leaders’ expressions of the tragic. “On behalf of the beautiful souls in this difficult may they rest time in peace” stirs by its inanity our unrest and shatters any sense of peace. “You’ll always be in our hearts” strung together with other bromides simply says you never were. “Guns don’t kill people people kill people so take care” she writes and quickly adds “take cover arm yourself.” Mimicking prose, her verse paragraph is wall of words fit for placards and posters and suited to parody and sardonic satire. What better way for a poem to grab readers to its weeping face?
July 22, 2022
from “Stranger in the Village”
by James Baldwin
in Notes of a Native Son
from “Black Body”
in Known and Strange Things
by Teju Cole
“I am black like him…and have to find the language for all of what that means to me and to the people who look at me.”—Teju Cole
We at The Humble Essayist love it when two writers seem to talk to one another, but in “Black Body” Teju Cole feels such an intimate connection to writer James Baldwin that he calls his paragraph a “moment of identification.” Cole begins to tick off qualities they share: "I am black like him; and I am slender; and have a gap in my front teeth...and I was once a fervid teenage preacher." He digs deeper and discovers more, but as the essay evolves, Cole also finds—and explores—differences between himself and his “ancestor.” He rejects the sense of black cultural inferiority that haunts Baldwin. “I disagree not with his particular sorrow, but with the self-abnegation that pinned him to it.” Cole would not trade Yoruba language poetry for Shakespeare’s sonnets or the Brandenburg concertos for the koras of Mali. “I’m happy to own it all,” he writes. You can hear the cultural confidence in his voice —his “carefree confidence” he calls it—but such assuredness is born in Baldwin’s “particular sorrow” and the black body they share.
Our first paragraph, The Paragraph of the Week, is from James Baldwin responding to children in Switzerland, who have never seen a black man before, shouting “Neger! Neger!” as he walked the streets. The second paragraph, “The Moment of Identification,” is commentary is from Teju Cole about his experience in the same town.
The Paragraph of the Week
It must be admitted that in the beginning I was far too shocked to have any real reaction. In so far as I reacted at all, I reacted by trying to be pleasant—it being a great part of the American Negro's education (long before he goes to school) that he must make people “like” him. This smile-and-the-world-smiles-with-you routine worked about as well in this situation as it had in the situation for which it was designed, which is to say that it did not work at all. No one, after all, can be liked whose human weight and complexity cannot be, or has not been, admitted. My smile was simply another unheard-of phenomenon which allowed them to see my teeth—they did not, really, see my smile and I began to think that, should I take to snarling, no one would notice any difference. All of the physical characteristics of the Negro which had caused me, in America, a very different and almost forgotten pain were nothing less than miraculous-or infernal-in the eyes of the village people. Some thought my hair was the color of tar, that it had the texture of wire, or the texture of cotton. It was jocularly suggested that I might let it all grow long and make myself a winter coat. If I sat in the sun for more than five minutes some daring creature was certain to come along and gingerly put his fingers on my hair, as though he were afraid of an electric shock, or put his hand on my hand, astonished that the color did not rub off. In all of this, in which it must be conceded there was the charm of genuine wonder and in which there was certainly no element of intentional unkindness, there was yet no suggestion that I was human: I was simply a living wonder.
The “Moment of Identification”
I took a room at the Hotel Mercure Bristol the night I arrived. I opened the windows to a dark view in which nothing was visible, but I knew that in the darkness loomed the Daubenhorn mountain. I ran a hot bath and lay neck-deep in the water with my old paperback copy of Notes of a Native Son. The tinny sound from my laptop was Bessie Smith singing “I'm Wild About That Thing,” a filthy blues number and a masterpiece of plausible deniability: “Don't hold it baby when I cry / I Give me every bit of it, else I'd die.” She could be singing about a trombone. And it was there in the bath, with his words and her voice, that I had my body-double moment: here I was in Leukerbad, with Bessie Smith singing across the years from 1929; and I am black like him; and I am slender; and have a gap in my front teeth; and am not especially tall (no, write it: short); and am cool on the page and animated in person, except when it is the other way around; and I was once a fervid teenage preacher (Baldwin: "Nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and the glory that I sometimes felt when, in the middle of a sermon, I knew that I was somehow, by some miracle, really carrying, as they said, 'the Word'—when the church and I were one"); and I, too, left the church; and I call New York home even when not living there; and feel myself in all places, from New York City to rural Switzerland, the custodian of a black body, and have to find the language for all of what that means to me and to the people who look at me. The ancestor had briefly taken possession of the descendant. It was a moment of identification. In that Swiss village in the days that followed, that moment guided me.
July 29. 2022
from “Hard Labor”
by Mark Cox
“It is not empathy that drives us to the writing desk daily, but our own loneliness. And here is where it gets tricky. ”—THE
My wife and I made our way to “Books and Beans” in Little Switzerland at Milepost 334 on The Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville, N.C. As far as I can tell, Little Switzerland is a bend in the road with a hotel, a restaurant, and a marvelous bookstore with an amazing view of the Blue Ridge mountains. It was there that I by pure luck stumbled upon Readiness, a book of prose poems by Mark Cox. The book is divided into two parts. The first called “The Springs” contains unsentimental, deeply moving accounts of family life in rural North Carolina, and the title poem of that section about a mental image from youth that the author spends a lifetime unravelling simply shook me, as one also haunted by a few images like that from my childhood that I wrote a book trying to understand. Someday I’ll feature that prose poem on The Humble Essayist. The second section called “Readiness” is largely about being the adult that the Cox of the earlier section has become. In it are a handful of poems about the loneliness that any writer, even those blessed with loved ones, bears as a gift and a burden. Our Paragraph of the Week is one of these poems.
The Paragraph of the Week
You can say that it is about the breath we all share, the test of life we all face, that it is about empathy and the loving observation of those with whom we inhabit this earth, but, please, let us admit, at root, it is about one's own loneliness. We writers, we are in exile from a country far inside ourselves, that we cannot return to, ever, and we are making our way in a new world, among strangers we must come to care about for the first time. Pavese was bone lonely there, watching others live their lives; this was his labor, that he was not living fully and in the same way. We know this, at bottom, about ourselves. Though we fight it dutifully with our initiatives and our outreach. It is our solitary natures that drive programs into the schools and communities. But then it has ever been so. You can speak of noble aspirations, you can speak of a literature that binds a people together, but really, you are just a slave to your distances, your solitude being a deeper wound. You walk the streets, those about you intent on their futures. You alone seem to be watching it all happen. People look only where they walk, consult their phones, inhabit their reflections in subway windows, always between places. There is, in this life with others, always the sense of unfinished business. They pass each other on the sidewalk without so much as brushing clothes, making their way home to secret lives of romance or subterfuge or desperation or evil. You never really know. But for today it is enough to have noticed the woman in the tan suit and olive blouse with breasts so much like a girl you loved once, now dead of cancer. It is enough to have seen her make her way from one street corner to the next, swaying in the way that women do and to have felt for a moment an old hunger, gentled by time, but fully present and to have remembered loving and being loved, if only for the instant it took for her to dissolve into the multitude around you.
I like to think that this business of writing literature is about intimate communication, and of course I feel it here in this lovely prose poem by Mark Cox. I know he and I share an “old hunger, gentled by time” and, as I read about it, I feel closer to him as a human being. Seeing into his soul is too strong, probably, but feeling his hand on my shoulder as I read his words and looking me in the eye as he utters an intimate truth on a page we share—well, that’s there and surely it is enough. But I am also drawn to and convinced by his assertion that it is not empathy that drives us to the writing desk daily, but our own loneliness. And here is where it gets tricky. Sometimes we are as lonely as a character in a Cesare Pavese novel, but that is not the kind of loneliness that drives Pavese the writer. Writers are lonely, Cox explains, because “we are in exile from a country far inside ourselves, that we cannot return to, ever, and we are making our way in a new world, among strangers we must come to care about for the first time.” We are trapped between an interior world where we can never live and the world itself where we bide our time. In another prose poem, “The Page,” he writes: “I am blessed to have this art, this ritual, mornings which begins each day centering what is most myself.” And where is that center? Between wordlessness and word? Between word and world? He intentionally keeps that vague, but on his perch somewhere between art and life, he becomes who he “was authored to be,” and he can never get away. “I knew thirty-seven years ago, that this separateness was never going to pass, no matter who I slept with: I would always wake up alone, insular, struggling with my own boundaries.” At one point he admits, sadly, he probably married his art, “far from any home” and “adrift,” though he is allowed glimpses of that other life: “the woman in the tan suit and olive blouse with breasts so much like a girl you loved once,” who is “fully present” as a person if only for an instant, but disappears the moment she steps into his art.
August 5, 2022
in Autobiography of a Face
by Lucy Grealy
“Society is no help. It tells us again and again that we can most be ourselves by acting and looking like someone else...”
On May 20, we featured an essay by Sven Birkerts on Lucy Grealy, and I realized that we had never featured Grealy herself on this page, even though I admired Autobiography of a Face long before The Humble Essayist was around. This week in an attempt to rectify the omission we feature a paragraph from her remarkable and, despite my inattention, unforgettable memoir.
Paragraph of the Week
I used to think truth was eternal, that once I knew, once I saw, it would be with me forever, a constant by which everything else could be measured. I know now that this isn't so, that most truths are inherently unretainable, that we have to work hard all our lives to remember the most basic things. Society is no help. It tells us again and again that we can most be ourselves by acting and looking like someone else, only to leave our original faces behind to turn into ghosts that will inevitably resent and haunt us. As I sat there in the café, it suddenly occurred to me that it is no mistake when sometimes in films and literature the dead know they are dead only after being offered that most irrefutable proof—they can no longer see themselves in the mirror.
Throughout Autobiography of a Face Lucy Grealy writes in prose that is always clear and precise about how it feels to be shunned by others or humiliated by those who latch on or use her, but ultimately reject her as a lover because of her appearance. A childhood cancer destroyed her jaw, and she suffered countless painful and disappointing procedures in an attempt to repair it. In this paragraph she goes beyond her feelings to explain what it means to live in a way that alters not only her physical appearance, which she no longer recognizes in a mirror, but her identity in a society that “tells us again and again that we can most be ourselves by acting and looking like someone else.” For others to love her she must endlessly change who she is, but in doing so she no longer recognizes herself in the mirror or as a person. She wears a false self who cannot love or be loved and is haunted and resented by a true self who never appears.
August 12, 2022
in The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem: from Baudelaire to Anne Carson
by John Ashbery
“When the work is finished the writer’s heart has lost its home. The kite escapes its box.”
The poet John Ashbery died in September 2017. The prose poem, “Homeless Heart,” published near the end of his life, brought some of him back for me, but only some, which is implied in the poem. It is our paragraph of the week. I found it in The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem edited by Jeremy Noel-Todd.
The Paragraph of the Week
When I think of finishing the work, when I think of the finished work, a great sadness overtakes me, a sadness paradoxically like joy. The circumstances of doing put away, the being of it takes possession, like a tenant in a rented house. Where are you now, homeless heart? Caught in a hinge, or secreted behind drywall, like your nameless predecessors now that they have been given names? Best not to dwell on our situation; but to dwell in it is deeply refreshing. Like a sideboard covered with decanters and fruit. As a box kite is to a kite. The inside of stumbling. The way to breath. The caricature on the blackboard.
When the work is finished the writer’s heart has lost its home. The kite escapes its box. The self may hang up in the hinge and haunt the drywall, but is otherwise gone. The sadness feels like joy, the joy like sadness. But when the writer is gone—as John Ashbery has gone from us—what then? It is true that the work of famous poets like him live on in readers, an endless string of tenants, which is a renewable source of joy. Even little-known writers no doubt harbor the notion that the work, separate from them at last, will blossom with a second life like the opus of Emily Dickinson, no longer encumbered by shyness and unmarketability. Yes, even they may be found under the bootsoles of future readers. If so, the heart is still there with its borrowed joy, but a heart has gone out of it, and for the famous and the unknown alike that is a sadness worth noting.
August 19, 2022
from “The Marginal World”
in The Edge of the Sea
by Rachel Carson
“The little crab alone with the sea became a symbol that stood for life itself—for the delicate, destructible, yet incredibly vital force that somehow holds its place amid the harsh realities of the inorganic world.”
We have much more to do to reduce global warming, but this week we have reason to sing! Congress passed the new Inflation Reduction Act which contains the most comprehensive climate provisions ever, by any country in the world. Rachel Carson will do the honors—who better to take the lead than a lyric poet in prose—but I could have turned to any number of writers from Henry Thoreau and Annie Dillard to Bill McKibbon and Camille T. Dungy. All have appeared in The Humble Essayist. After all, the essay is the genre for celebrating the natural world and lamenting the damage we have done to it.
Before Rachel Carson wrote her most influential work, Silent Spring, which launched the modern environmental movement, she compiled a sea trilogy which explored the mysteries of the oceanic world. Our Paragraph of the Week comes from the opening chapter of the final volume of the trilogy, The Edge of the Sea. It is called “The Marginal World.”
The Paragraph of the Week
The shore at night is a different world, in which the very darkness that hides the distractions of daylight brings into sharper focus the elemental realities. Once, exploring the night beach, I surprised a small ghost crab in the searching beam of my torch. He was lying in a pit he had dug just above the surf, as though watching the sea and waiting. The blackness of the night possessed water, air, and beach. It was the darkness of an older world, before Man. There was no sound but the all-enveloping, primeval sounds of wind blowing over water and sand, and of waves crashing on the beach. There was no other visible life—just one small crab near the sea. I have seen hundreds of ghost crabs in other settings, but suddenly I was filled with the odd sensation that for the first time I knew the creature in its own world—that I understood, as never before, the essence of its being. In that moment time was suspended; the world to which I belonged did not exist and I might have been an onlooker from outer space. The little crab alone with the sea became a symbol that stood for life itself—for the delicate, destructible, yet incredibly vital force that somehow holds its place amid the harsh realities of the inorganic world.
The ghost crab is not alone at the sea’s edge as a symbol for “for the delicate, destructible, yet incredibly vital force that somehow holds its place amid the harsh realities of the inorganic world.” In the opening chapter of The Edge of the Sea, Rachel Carson also finds a tide pool cave glistening with pale, apricot-colored colonies of soft coral and an elfin starfish suspended by a thread above crystalline waters as if watching its ephemeral reflection. Deeper in the water she casts her light on the “pendent flowers of the hydroid Tubularia that stirred to life with each incoming tide. At the roots of trees many feet above the sea, she discovers small snails called “mangrove periwinkles” that over the course of millennia have “adjusted themselves to life out of water” and only occasionally returned to the sea. “There is a common thread that links these scenes and memories,” Carson explains. It is implied in “the spectacle of life in all its varied manifestations as it has appeared, evolved, and sometimes died out,” and “underlying the beauty of the spectacle there is meaning and significance.” She never tells us what that meaning is because it is beyond words. It “haunts and ever eludes us,” she writes in this book which is her inventory of familiar and strange creatures she finds at the edge of the ocean, “and in its very pursuit we approach the mystery of life itself.”
August 26, 2022
from “The Measure of My Powers”
in The Art of Eating
by M. F. K. Fisher
“I saw food as something beautiful to be shared with people instead of as a thrice-daily necessity.”—M.F.K. Fisher
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was an American food writer who published 27 books over her lifetime. Fisher believed that eating well was one of the “arts of life” and explored the way a meal could draw out the best in us. Our Paragraph of the Week is from “The Measure of My Powers” in The Art of Eating. It ponders a childhood memory of a family meal when she was traveling thmrough California for the first time with her father and sister.
The Paragraph of the Week
Now the hills are cut through with superhighways, and I can't say whether we sat that night in Mint Canyon or Bouquet, and the three of us are in some ways even more than twenty-five years older than we were then. And still the warm round peach pie and the cool yellow cream we ate together that August night live in our hearts' palates, succulent, secret, delicious.
—M. F. K Fisher
What made this meal when Fisher was a child so memorable? Not the food. She remembers the peach pie dessert and even the “old-fashioned bluish” Mason jar “like Mexican glass” that it was served in, but the meal itself is lost to memory. No, it is the sharing of it with her sister and her father, the three of them together on a trip for the first time without her mother, discovering “new notes in the mysterious music of parenthood and childhood.” She writes: “That night I not only saw my Father for the first time as a person. I saw the golden hills and the live oaks as clearly as I have ever seen them since; and I saw the dimples in my little sister’s fat hands in a way that still moves me because of that first time; and I saw food as something beautiful to be shared with people instead of as a thrice-daily necessity.” Such a meal offers sustenance—“succulent, secret, delicious”—for the “heart’s palates.”
September 2, 2022
from “Naked Underneath Our Clothes”
in If This Were Fiction: A Love Story in Essays
by Jill Christman
“And then I would listen.”—Jill Christman
Jill Christman’s new collection of essays has arrived, a funny, heartfelt, and challenging book called If This Were Fiction which is also A Love Story in Essays. Jill was an early supporter of The Humble Essayist and some of our best features were of parts of this book which first appeared in magazines and chapbooks. Follow these links to features on “The Avocado” and “Spinning” by her, but if you do, be sure to come back using the home tab to read today’s feature.
Our paragraph this week comes from the essay “Naked Under Our Clothes” which describes a pretty terrible class when Christman first started teaching writing in college. The text was Jo Ann Beard’s essay “Out There” about “being pursued by a homicidal pervert from a backwoods gas station who tries to run her off the road.” Several students think Beard is exaggerating, and one of them, nicknamed “Curls,” says Beard deserved the harassment because she went into the gas station braless.
Christman angrily lectures the class: “Listen. To. Me,” she says correctly but imperiously. “I should be able to walk down McKinley Avenue naked, completely naked, and be safe.” Her voice is shaky and the room silent except for her breathing. “I can feel my fury moving around inside my body like a physical presence,” she writes, “an undersized Tazmanian devil using my intestines as a hamster run.” Her anger is compounded by the embarrassing fact that, unknown to her, her skirt has slipped below her pelvis revealing her silky, caramel-colored tights.
Now as a seasoned college professor with twenty years of experience, Christman, who is one of our great teachers, imagines in our Paragraph of the Week what she would do with such a class. One more thing: Christman is fond of following a long paragraph with a short one for emphasis. So our paragraph has a lagniappe.
The Paragraph of the Week
If I could return to that room with those young writers, to that moment right after Curls said what she said—“Maybe if it did actually happen, she deserved it”—I would hear the question and I would hold her gaze. I would keep my face open to receive whatever else she needed to say, whatever else she needed to tell us all. I would move to pull up a desk to sit down—“Ooop! My skirt was falling down! Y’all should have said something!” Then I would laugh and adjust my clothing. The students would be relieved, and we'd screech the little desk feet across the floor to tighten our horseshoe into a circle. “Okay,” I would say—without edge, without anger, leaving my lesson plan behind. “Why? Let’s talk about what's here that makes us want to distrust and cast judgment on Beard.”
And then I would listen.
“What makes us want to distrust and cast judgement on Beard?” Of course that is the right question, but notice what Christman reveals about excellent teaching to get to it. First, she hears Curls’ accusation and holds her gaze, keeping “her face open,” willing to take in whatever else the student has to say to her and to the others in the room. She dismisses the wardrobe malfunction with a quick joke indicating that she, the teacher, is not the center of attention here, putting the class at ease. She pulls the horseshoe of desks with the teacher at the top into a close circle so that the discussion—not the teacher nor any single one of them—is the focus. They are in it together, all voices welcome. Leaving the lesson plan behind is crucial because it says that what is happening now is more important than what she could have anticipated without them in the room. “Why?” she asks, a query that is another invitation to openness, before she asks her specific question about their mistrust of the author using “us” and “our” to take the pressure off of Beard and put the onus on everyone in the room, including herself.
And then she listens.
September 9, 2022
from “Thank You, John Gnagy”
in One by One, the Stars
by Ned Stuckey-French
“We clicked ‘play’ and it all flooded back.”—Ned Stuckey-French
One by One, the Stars brings the personal essays of Ned Stuckey-French, who died in the summer of 2019, together in one, posthumous volume for the first time. I never knew him which is odd. We had so much in common. We both wrote essays, attended the same conferences, and moved in the same circles. He loved encyclopedias like The Book of Knowledge, and I wrote a memoir called The Book of Knowledge and Wonder with that encyclopedia as the unifying symbol. We both were born and grew up on the Midwest with fathers in the Ag business and autodidactic mothers who aspired to be artists. When we were boys, our parents fought bitterly and loudly, and we escaped family in the end by going to college.
And, when I was a boy growing up in the early 1960s, I, like him, “convinced my mother to order a Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw Art Kit that included a tablet, pencils, charcoal, kneaded eraser, and guidebook.”—THE
The Paragraph of the Week
I never became an artist, but I like to draw and so does my ten-year-old daughter, Phoebe. Recently, when she and I were poking around on YouTube, I remembered Gnagy, searched his name, and, though he died in 1981, there he was once again. We clicked “play” and it all flooded back. Strauss's bouncy “Kunstlerleben,” or “Artist's Life,” is still the opening theme. Gnagy is wearing his plaid shirt, goatee, and ready smile. Today's scene of a boy sledding might look complicated, he says, but it isn't. If you can draw four simple forms—the ball, cone, cube and cylinder—you can draw anything.
I used to think that my mother’s suicide when I was eleven fueled my passion for art and writing, but Ned Stuckey-French’s brief essay on Jon Gnagy reminded me that my mother was alive and beside me watching TV when that match was struck. Like Stuckey-French, I watched something new—“a clown, a snow scene, or an ocean liner at dock”—grow on the screen each week as Gnagy’s “hands flew” and “shapes and outlines turned magically into pictures.” The instruction may have been formulaic, but that is not important. What matters is the longing it whetted. My eyes—my life—lit up, and my mother was right there at my side, as Stuckey French was beside his ten-year- old daughter, Phoebe. Entranced, my mother and I felt the ancient, human longing to shape, to create, to see into the heart of things well before her death. Yes, right beside me. I feel her there now.
September 16, 2022
from “How to Skin a Bird”
in The Skinned Bird
by Chelsea Biondolillo
“Rest your finger there for a moment,” Chelsea Biondolillo explains in The Skinned Bird. “Feel the bone your blade will follow.”—THE
The Skinned Bird by Chelsea Biondolillo is a braided memoir-in-essays containing thematic and beautiful ruptures and leaps. What makes the collection work is the controlling symbol of the stages that birds go through to learn how to sing. That frame is filled with the crystalline rendering of each fragment of her own song about a family marked by loss, breakup, flight, ugliness, love, and occasional joy. And then there are those sentences! Her paragraphs tend to be short so The Paragraph of the Week, which is thematically central, is short too, but we try make up for that in the commentary with ample quotations from her book. The featured paragraph is from the essay “How to Skin a Bird,” which you can access here, and you can find the interview with Amy Wright at Zone 3 here, but please read our whole feature first. It will whet your appetite.
The Paragraph of the Week
Use as many pins as you need to hold the specimen in exactly the position you want on the board. The head should be facing forward or slightly up, the wings tightly folded, right leg over left, and tail feathers spread just to the width of the body. With proper preparation, it will keep this shape through decades of routine handling.
“Rest your finger there for a moment,” Chelsea Biondolillo explains in “How to Skin a Bird.” “Feel the bone your blade will follow.” Later in the essay she says, “he showed me his cupped palm full of wedding rings. My mother’s was not there.” In a different essay, looking at family portraits, she writes “my mother, her husband, their daughter, and I smile as though we are something complete.” In another: “How can I create a taxonomy of all my dark fascinations?” On her tattooed wedding ring after the divorce: “There are days when that is a balloon that can carry me away and days when the weight of it threatens to pin me to the ground.” Throughout the book she uses sentences this way, like pins “to hold the specimen in exactly the right position.” On vultures: “They dispatch that which horrifies us so that we might imagine, for a moment, a world where all rabbits are safe, where all roads are crossable.” And, “departure widens outward as a crack in stone yawns from the point of torsion.” And, “sometimes the metaphors write themselves.” And “I prefer the beauty of feathers and the orderliness of how they lie across a wing in such a way as to permit flight.” In an interview with Amy Wright for Zone 3 Biondolillo explains, “This book is my attempt to explore how my voice was forged, in heartbreak and unease, and therefore tends to sing in a creepy minor key.” Once again, she nails it.
September 23, 2022
from “Of Repentance”
by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne
in Essayists on the Essay
edited by Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French
“Lord, what beauty there is in these lusty sallies and this variation, and more so the more casual and accidental they seem.”—Montaigne
To me, this paragraph from “Of Repentence” by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne goes to the heart of the essay. Essayists write, he explains, from a place where the mind cannot gain a firm footing. They portray passing, he argues in our Paragraph of the Week, and court contradiction, but when they enter mystery they do not lose control. In our commentary, Carl H. Klaus, co-editor of Essayists on the Essay and the author of The Made-Up Self, agrees with Montaigne (as well as E. B. White and others) that the essay is freeing but not a “free for all,” and gathers many voices into a thoughtful discussion of the paradoxical idea that the essay is “artful artlessness.” He goes on to discuss other ideas such as the way the essayist uses this approach to explore ideas and the slippery business of persona: who is really telling us all this? But for me, the essence of the personal essay is the zone of “a mind that is always in control of itself no matter how wayward it may seem to be.” These “lusty sallies,” these glimpses into the “deep interconnection among ideas” beneath “surface continuity,” make up the iridescent beauty of the personal essay.
The Paragraph of the Week
I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness. I take it in this condition, just as it is at the moment I give my attention to it. I do not portray being: I portray passing. Not the passing from one age to another, or, as the people say, from seven years to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute. My history needs to be adapted to the moment. I may presently change, not only by chance, but also by intention. This is a record of various and changeable occurrences, and of irresolute and, when it so befalls, contradictory ideas: whether I am different myself, or whether I take hold of my subjects in different circumstances and aspects. So, all in all, I may indeed contradict myself now and then; but truth, as Demades said, I do not contradict. If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial.
—Michel de Montaigne
[Theodore W.] Adorno's view of coherence, like White's and Montaigne's, is predicated not on mere surface continuity from one statement to the next but on a deep interconnection among ideas, on a cohesion so powerful, as Montaigne implies, that related ideas seem to be animated by an affinity for each other no matter how far apart or seemingly unrelated. Given this view of coherence, the essay evidently requires a delicate set of mental adjustments, attuned both to giving the mind free rein and to reining it in, so that the form of an essay will appear to reflect the process of a mind in action, but a mind that is always in control of itself no matter how wayward it may seem to be. In other words, the essay is predicated on an idea akin to organic form, yet also on an idea of artful artlessness, or as Montaigne exclaims, “Lord, what beauty there is in these lusty sallies and this variation, and more so the more casual and accidental they seem.” [Joseph] Addison hints at this complex combination of the organic and the artful when he says that in writing an essay “it is sufficient that I have several Thoughts on a Subject, without troubling myself to range them in such order, that they may seem to grow out of one another, and be disposed under their proper Heads.” [Katherine Fullerton] Gerould reaffirms this complex idea of essayistic form in her assertion that “the basis of the essay is meditation, and it must in a measure admit the reader to the meditative process.... An essay, to some extent thinks aloud; though not in the loose and pointless way to which the 'stream of consciousness' addicts have accustomed us.” [William] Gass affirms the same principle when he speaks of [Ralph Waldon] Emerson as having “made the essay into the narrative disclosure of thought. . . but not of such thinking as had actually occurred. Real thought is gawky and ungracious.” [Aldous] Huxley redefines it as “free association artistically controlled" in trying to account for the "paradoxical secret of Montaigne's best essays.” And Adorno codifies the paradox in his assertion that the essay “proceeds, so to speak, methodically unmethodically.”
—Carl H. Klaus