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Archive 2023

January 6, 2023

 

“October Again”

by Kathleen McGookey

from Field Guide to Prose Poetry

 

“She feels a presence vaguely in the rustling of the grass.”—THE

 

Let’s start the year by getting the date wrong. I meant to do this prose poem called “October Again,” last October, but could not squeeze it in. I do not want to wait ten months to feature this lovely piece, so here it is lighting up the new year.

 

Kathleen McGookey is the author of four books of prose poetry: Instructions for My Imposter, Heart in a Jar, Stay and Whatever Shines. She also has a book of translations from the French of Georges Godeau’s prose poems called We’ll See. She lives with her family in Michigan. I found this poem in Field Guide to Prose Poetry published by Rose Metal Press.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

October Again,

and the maple’s leaves turn fire-red, starting with a single branch. My garden’s tangled with mildewed vines. No frost yet. My wristwatch ticks. You never meant to hurt me by dying. The neighbor's dog, mistakenly let out of the house, vanishes. My son learns the alphabet, the sounds the letters make. Ducks fall from the sky, bleeding, same as every year. The tall grasses, swaying in the window by the door, catch my eye, and make me think someone has come. When I answer my son, Yes, everyone dies, he replies, Not us.

 

—Kathleen McGookey

Commentary

 

Once we get to the end of the prose poem and realize that the mother has been hesitating to answer her child’s question about whether we all die, we can look back and see the melancholy images leading to her answer: leaves the color of fire, the garden rotting and in disarray, a dog running off, a ticking watch, ducks gunned down by hunters. She hurts from the death of someone she cared about, but has no one to blame. She feels a presence vaguely in the rustling of the grass. But her son who is learning the sounds of the alphabet wants answers, so she tells him the truth: Yes, everyone dies. His surprising retort—Not us—is a touching denial, defying without completely dispelling the gloom.

 

—THE

January 13, 2022

 

 

from “Procedure: A Look Inside”

in Remembering the Alchemists & Other Essays

by Richard Hoffman

 

“Catching a glimpse of a shadow on the fluoroscope screen during a medical procedure, Richard Hoffman began to obsess over his own death, though his fretting was in fact about life.”—THE

 

The Humble Essayist Press is pleased to announce the publication of Remembering the Alchemists & Other Essays by poet, memoirist, and essayist Richard Hoffman. It is an intense, passionate, and moving collection of personal essays that never loses sight of the moral issues it raises. At times thoughtful and wise and at other times a cri de cœur, it is held together by the experienced voice of a writer at the top of his game. It speaks softly, even reverently, about love and the natural world, but on subjects such as gun violence, war, bullying, or child abuse it roars in fury.

Hoffman has published four volumes of poetry, Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the Sheila Motton Award from The New England Poetry Club; Emblem; and Noon until Night, winner of the 2018 Massachusetts Book Award. His other books include Half the House: a Memoir; the 2014 memoir Love & Fury; and the story collection Interference and Other Stories. His work, both prose and verse, has been appearing regularly in literary journals for fifty years. He is Emeritus Writer in Residence at Emerson College in Boston, and nonfiction editor of Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse VoicesRemembering the Alchemists is a collection of essays from a lifetime of writing.

 

The Paragraph of the Week, from the essay “Procedure: A Look Inside,” describes Hoffman’s sudden anxiety about death after glimpsing a disturbing shadow on a screen during a medical procedure. The essay raises questions about what does and does not matter in life and afterward.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

I still think it's odd, though, that in the days after, waiting for my test results, not once, not for a single moment, did I entertain the idea of an afterlife. I remained plenty scared, though hiding it from others helped me put it from my mind for hours at a time. I considered my absence and its impact on my wife, my grown children, friends, colleagues, students. I thought of work I wanted to accomplish. I thought of things I needed to do and people I needed to speak to while I still had the chance. I started making lists: people to forgive; people to ask for forgiveness; people to thank. I even thought about what I would like done with my remains. The prospect of a waiting paradise or a terrible punishment never crossed my mind, however; no other world awaited me, I felt sure.

 

—Richard Hoffman

Commentary

Catching a glimpse of a shadow on the fluoroscope screen during a medical procedure, Richard Hoffman began to obsess over his own death, though his fretting was in fact about life. He found reassurance in hiding his anxiety from others, weighed the effect of his death on his family and friends, thought about work he hoped to accomplish, weighed reckoning with wrongs, both those done to him and those he did to others. All of these concerns were about what happens in life. When he writes “I even thought about what I would like done with my remains,” he is thinking about what remains in this life.  What surprises him is what he does not think about: an afterlife. “The prospect of a waiting paradise or a terrible punishment never crossed my mind,” he writes. “No other world awaited me, I felt sure.” When the doctor called to confirm that the test results showed no abnormalities, the “weird penumbra of fear” eased, but the memory remained. “This world,” he writes, “was never more real to me than it was that week—those seven days, those 10,000 minutes or so—awaiting the phone call.”

 

—THE

Hoffman
McGookey
Harvey/Wells

January 20 2023

from Ya Mismo

in The Beloved Republic

by Steven Harvey

“Steven Harvey’s collection of essays is one that considers thresholds, the limbic spaces of transition, as the republic seems to crumble, perspectives on race and sexuality evolve, the political becomes personal, and mortality looms.”—Sarah M. Wells

 

My latest book, The Beloved Republic, launches today.  It won the Wandering Aengus Press nonfiction award, and two of its essays appeared in The Best American essay series. I asked Sarah M. Wells, who played a big role in my decision to start The Humble Essayist website, to choose a paragraph from the book and write a commentary. Wells is a poet, essayist, and the author of devotional books. Her most recent book is a collection of essays, American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation, which we featured here the week of March 11, 2022. You can learn more about Sarah at her website.

 

Wells writes: The Paragraph of the Week comes from Steven Harvey’s essay, “Ya Mismo,” which appears in his newest collection of essays, The Beloved Republic. In the essay, Harvey is worried he forgot to turn off the hose after filling the waterfall in his backyard, just before a trip to Ecuador. Throughout the trip, he envisions his basement filling and flooding, potentially ruining a treasured guitar. Just before this moment, he has resigned from administrative work at his college.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Where does it end, this letting go? I walked out in the yard past the garden spot and the bird feeder, scattering birds, and past the picnic table all beaten up and worn and gray with lichen. What happens when I come to the end of my list of chores? I looked at the lawn cart leaning against the house with the shovel propped against it. I turned and my gaze fell on the shaggy trunk of the Leland cypress I had planted years ago. Then I heard the waterfall. A reprieve! One more chore. I hooked up the hose and opened the nozzle, and as the basin filled, I watched, the lines of Lao Tzu floating in and out of my awareness. “Nothing on earth yields as cunningly as water.” A little bored, I let my finger play along the spillway ledge and rearranged a few stones. “Better to stop just shy of the brim.” Removing the nozzle, I walked back to the house already regretting that I had sent the letter when I remembered the last line of Lao Tzu’s poem which I translate as “Work done? Retire, naturally.”

 

—Steven Harvey

Commentary

 

Steven Harvey’s collection of essays is one that considers thresholds, the limbic spaces of transition, as the republic seems to crumble, perspectives on race and sexuality evolve, the political becomes personal, and mortality looms. Here, in “Ya Mismo,” he stands on the precipice of retirement, the resignation letter just sent “with a whoosh,” looking for chores to fill the space that will inevitably be created once his professional career has come to an end. “Where does it end, this letting go?” Harvey writes. “What happens when I come to the end of my list of chores?” Looking around, he finds “One more chore.” In the midst of the work that is left for him to do, he discovers what may yet save the republic, reconcile race, unite humanity, and bridge the here and now to the eternal: art, music, poetry, “the peaceful and fragile confederacy of kind, benevolent, and creative people that is necessary for civilized life in a world of tyrants, thugs, and loud-mouth bullies,” Harvey writes elsewhere. This reality is ya mismo: already here and not yet, now and forever, maybe someday. “La vida es maravillosa! Life abundant and the hidden life” await where the letting go ends.

 

—Sarah M. Wells

Horn

January 27, 2023

 

 

 

from The Voice of the Fish: A Lyric Essay

by Lars Horn

 

“Nonbinary, transmasculine—my gender exists, for the most part as unseen, unworded, unintelligible.”—Lars Horn

 

“It is, after all, always the first person that is speaking,” Henry David Thoreau wrote on the first page of my copy of Walden, a sentence that clarified the “I-voice” of the personal essay for me years ago, but Lars Horn in The Voice of the Fish has made it problematic again. “I have never felt comfortable with an ‘I,’” Horn writes, “or in bringing any concept of ‘me’ as a self to language.” The  use of plural pronouns with singular antecedents is a constant reminder of this fluidity of gender identity, but for Horn the ambiguity, painful as it is to experience, engages a much larger issue: new ways to live and understand our role as human beings in an evolving universe.

 

The Paragraph of the Week describes a time when Horn as a child swam naked with their mother’s art students.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

All those years ago, I watched the world liquefy, and, for a moment, one brief, rippling moment—it made sense. The emptiness, the quiet—the lack of human footfall, just the catfish, the alligators, pelicans gliding knowingly across it all. Streetlamps burnt over dark water. I felt my body fit. Felt how this world—obscured, glassy, teeming with hidden life—how it resembled me, or I it. Or, maybe, it was simply a space through which I could softly slip. Those nights, I dreamt that I lay in the flooded tennis courts, that my body floated past the dirty net, past the chain link fence, silt-smeared shopfronts, that it drifted into the river of the street, spiralled into new movement. I dreamt that the fishes carried in the current beside me. That the pike, eels, the sturgeon—they swam in and out of this body, moved through this world with ease. That, in some strange, gilled sense, my body finally breathed.

 

—Lars Horn

Commentary

 

“Nonbinary, transmasculine—my gender exists, for the most part,” Lars Horn writes, “as unseen, unworded, unintelligible.” After a lifetime of trying to collapse “dichotomies of mind and body, body and world” gender identification floats through Horn as a kind of dysphoria, though words like “mind” and “dysphoria” seem too clinical. “They smell of bleach.” “Soul” seems better, “something ancient that speaks,” and the language of religion, of souls passing through different bodies, helps. “I just feel like a soul in a strange craft.” The plural pronouns Horn uses seem fitting, too. They take comfort in gods that are plural like the sphinx or centaur. They are drawn to fish that can change genders over the course of a lifetime, and live in fluidity. Fish “dissolve knowledge, shimmer possibility,” and serve as reminders that “human laws are fallible, transitory, subjugated to this earth and the sway of its oceans.” Fish also teach a sobering lesson: “That humanity represents but short trajectory in a world that waits” and “endures its violence with patient heartbeat.” In water as a child, Horn could “watch the world liquefy” and feel their body “fit.” In some “strange, gilled sense” they—a multiplicity of beings—could at last breathe.

 

—THE

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