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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



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.



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


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.”




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



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


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



“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.




February 3, 2023



from Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America

by Leila Philip

“I watch the ensuing parade: big beaver, big beaver, then little beaver, little beaver, little beaver, with the third yearling bringing up the rear. That one pulls along a branch of poplar.”

—Leila Philip


Leila Philip is the author of The Road Through Miyama and A Family Place: A Hudson Valley Farm, Three Centuries, Five Wars, One Family. Our Paragraph of the Week is from her newest book Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America.  “In writing Beaverland I discovered the natural wonder of beavers and the powerful ways they restore damaged environments,” Philip explains. “Beavers demonstrate the incredible powers of resilience and healing available to us as concrete solutions to help us meet the urgent challenges of climate change. Beavers can teach us. We can learn.”


You can learn more about Beaverland here and see delightful photos of beavers on her Instagram site here.

The Paragraph of the Week


Now we see small shapes in the water. The kits have arrived, adorable as kittens, and about the same size with their small alert heads and miniature flat tails. Each swims bright-eyed toward the other beavers, then bobs around. They have only recently learned to dive, and don’t try going under the water for corn. They look at us curiously, but keep their distance. Soon the three kits are bobbing around the three yearlings that are trying to get some of the poplar leaves. A blackbird flits over, but the kits keep on mewling and bumping into the yearlings, then diving under them. The timbre and pattern of soft cries sounds remarkably similar to sounds made by human newborns. But these kits are little scamps, for one attempts to dive under a yearling but only gets a little way under before thumping into her side, chirping merrily, then the kit starts pulling at the leaves the yearling is chewing. The yearling is patient and ignores the kit, but now the kit is making a game of swimming into the other yearlings and bumping them while they try to eat. The babysitters have had enough—one grabs a branch of poplar in her mouth and starts swimming back toward the lodge. As if on cue, the other yearlings do the same. The three kits immediately follow them. I watch the ensuing parade: big beaver, big beaver, then little beaver, little beaver, little beaver, with the third yearling bringing up the rear. That one pulls along a branch of poplar.


—Leila Philip



Beaverland by Leila Philip is packed with carefully researched information about the “weird rodent” that “made America.” Beavers are “weird” because we do not understand them well. When they started making dams is unknown, and how animals with such little brain power can create such elaborate structures remains a mystery. They “made America” because native American tribes worshipped them and the fur trade which defined Colonial America was based on beaver pelts creating the wealth of magnates like Johann Jacob Astor. In the book we learn about the Beaver Lady, Dorothy Richards, who kept beavers in her house, held them in her lap, and created the first reserve dedicated to beavers. We spend time with a contemporary fur trapper, Herb Sobanski, who puts the body of a dead beaver in Philip’s hands implicating her in a process of trapping and killing beavers about which she remains ambivalent. We see the ways in which beavers offer solutions to some of our most pressing environmental problems, and read a reverential retelling of the “Algonquian deep time story of Ktsi Amiskw, The Great Beaver.” All this information, though, is secondary to Philip’s love of the animals. A genuine emotional connection informs every paragraph—including our paragraph of the week. She understands that she, like Dorothy Richards and many others, at times anthropomorphizes the animals, justifying the personal bond she feels by pointing to the research of animal behaviorists such as Frans de Waal and others whose work suggests a neurological basis for our shared empathy with animals. This undeniable emotional connection, rendered without sentimentality, is the driving force behind Beaverland.



February 10, 2023





from Uplake: Restless Essays of Coming and Going

by Ana Maria Spagna


“My favorite moments in essays by Ana Maria Spagna happen when she scrutinizes an idea by flipping it over in her prose.”—THE


Ana Maria Spagna is an elegant stylist and a master of the form of the personal essay. Every paragraph in Uplake: Restless Essays of Coming and Going is impeccably shaped with no apparent fuss or bother making it all seem easy, and I do think I could have chosen almost any one of them to be the Paragraph of the Week. But I found as I read the book that I am drawn to paragraphs in which she takes on an idea and offers it to us as she discovers it.


She is the author of nine books including PUSHED: Miners, a Merchant, and (Maybe) a Massacre forthcoming from Torrey House Press. Her work has been recognized by the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize, the Society for Environmental Journalists, the Nautilus Book Awards, and as a four time finalist for the Washington State Book Award. A former backcountry trails worker, she now teaches in MFA programs at Antioch University, Los Angeles and Western Colorado University and currently as a Visiting Professor at St. Lawrence University.

The Paragraph of the Week


Here's what I'm thinking: climate change is like cancer. It's a dire diagnosis, maybe not yet terminal, but something very close, and it demands a kind of toughness, a fighting attitude, a willingness to change almost everything about how we live. People like to talk about this, to write articles and books and circulate petitions about the deservedness of it all—and the urgency—but hardly anybody talks about the flip side, about how beneath the diagnosis lies something else. The cold hard grief, for what we've lost, for what we're losing, for what we're going to lose inevitably, no matter what, and maybe most of all, for how we used to be—carefree and ignorant of consequences, full of youthful invincibility, yes, but also full of easy passion. And hope. I can't help it; I miss the hope.


—Ana Maria Spagna



My favorite moments in essays by Ana Maria Spagna happen when she scrutinizes an idea by flipping it over in her prose. That is the true restlessness in Uplake: Restless Essays of Coming and Going. In one essay she wrestles with whether ambition is a matter of love or drive and settles, relieved, on love. In another she wonders if compassion is finite or unlimited and convinces herself and us that it compounds. In our Paragraph of the Week she takes on the flipside of the climate disaster we all know is here and getting worse and thinks about what we have lost in our “cold hard grief.” Among the casualties she lists blissful ignorance and “youthful invincibility,” and I find myself lingering on the phrase “easy passion” as our desires become implicated in our undoing. Her discovery—and it comes to her as a surprise—is that she misses hope which, it turns out was false but still felt like hope. Paragraphs such as these are the most intimate moments in this most intimate of genres, not because they reveal some personal secret but because they allow us, as readers, to participate in thoughts and emotions with the writer as she is discovering them. "Here's what I'm thinking," she writes, and we think it with her in an act of shared intimacy.




February 17. 2023



from “Athenaeum Fragmente”

by Friedrich Schlegel


“ a certain sense all poetry is or should be romantic.”

—Friedrich Schlegel



Romanticism was a movement that began with a set of writers living in the small European university town of Jena in the duchy of Saxe-Weimar around 1800. It included Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, the Shakespearean translators Caroline and August Schlegel, the poet Novalis, and others. I learned about these early Romantics in Magnificent Rebels by Andrea Wulf who argues that this set created the modern sense of self. Our Paragraph of the Week is the earliest definition of the term written by Friedrich Schlegel. It was first published in the magazine Athenaeum and sees romanticism not as a movement, but as a way of being fully alive as an individual in the world. In the commentary, Andrea Wulf sheds light on his idea contrasting other definitions of romanticism with Schlegel's all-encompassing term.


The Paragraph of the Week


Romantic poetry is a progressive, universal poetry. Its aim isn’t merely to reunite all the separate species of poetry and put poetry in touch with philosophy and rhetoric. It tries to and should mix and fuse poetry and prose, inspiration and criticism, the poetry of art and the poetry of nature; and make poetry lively and sociable, and life and society poetical; poeticize wit and fill and saturate the forms of art with every kind of good, solid matter for instruction, and animate them with the pulsations of humor. It embraces everything that is purely poetic, from the greatest systems of art, containing within themselves still further systems, to the sigh, the kiss that the poetizing child breathes forth in artless song....It alone is infinite, just as it alone is free; and it recognizes as its first commandment that the will of the poet can tolerate no law above itself. The romantic kind of poetry is the only one that is more than a kind, that is, as it were, poetry itself: for in a certain sense all poetry is or should be romantic.


—Friedrich Schlegel



But what did this all mean? To romanticise was not to be sentimental, lovelorn or overly emotional. To romanticise had nothing to do with candlelit dinners or declarations of love, as we often understand it today. The term 'romantic' has metamorphosed through several stages since the mid-seventeenth century. There is the original meaning of ‘like a novel’ and our modern understanding that associates the word with love or romance; but for the friends in Jena it was something much more ambitious. They wanted to romanticise the entire world, and this meant perceiving it as an interconnected whole. They were talking about the bond between art and life, between the individual and society, between humankind and nature. Just as two elements could create a new chemical compound, so Romantic poetry could weld different disciplines and subjects into something distinctive and new. Novalis explained: “By giving the commonplace a higher meaning, by making the ordinary look mysterious, by granting to what is known the dignity of the unknown and imparting to the finite a shimmer of the infinite, I romanticise.”


—Andrea Wulf


February 24, 2023


from “Prologue”

in Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self

by Andrea Wulf


“I have done things the wrong way round all my life.”

—Andrea Wulf


Last week we looked at the first definition of Romanticism written by Friedrich Schlegel at the cusp of the nineteenth century. I found it in Andrea Wulf’s book Magnificent Rebels, an account of the Jena set of writers and intellectuals who initiated the movement that defined the modern sense of self. The book begins though with a brief personal essay in which Wulf admits to living an unconventional life that may have been filled with mistakes—unmarried she had a daughter at 22—but mistaken or not she lived her life and not one handed to her by others. In her book she implies that it was “the invention of the self” by the early Romantic writers that allowed her to make those choices.

The Paragraph of the Week


I have done things the wrong way round all my life. Or maybe it was the right way. Or maybe it was just an unconventional way. In protest against my clever, liberal, loving and academic parents, I refused to go to university and worked instead in restaurants and bars. That didn't mean that I was not educating myself. I read. Mainly fiction and philosophy. I've always been an insatiable reader, but I wanted to decide for myself what to read and not be bound to a university curriculum. I also began an apprenticeship as a painter and decorator; I was a guide in a museum; I did an internship at a theatre. With the obnoxious confidence of adolescent selfishness, I saw the world through the prism of my own—admittedly narrow—perspective.


—Andrea Wulf



Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self describes the Jena set, a group of intellectuals in the duchy of Saxe-Weimar at the turn of the nineteenth century that included early Romantics such as Johann Wolfgang von Geothe and Friedrich Schiller, but the main character—the one who inspired their conversations that changed the world—was Caroline Böhmer-Schlegel-Schelling who lived a daring and unconventional life. It included three marriages (unheard of at the time) and going to prison for her political views. She was  a gifted translator and the editions of Shakespeare that she collaborated on with her second husband, August Schlegel, are so true to the poetry of the original that it is still used in Germany today. Wulf describes her as the “muse” of this influential circle, because of her keen mind and gift for conversation, but she was also no doubt an inspiration for Wulf. “Hers was a life lived to the full,” Wulf writes. “She had taken risks, made mistakes, and also suffered great pain, but, unlike most women, she had lived her life, determined, confident, and in control of her own destiny.”




March 3, 2023

from Late Work: A Literary Autobiography of Love, Loss, and What I Was Reading

by Joan Frank


“Why do I do this? How should I do this? What does the former mean for the latter?”

—Joan Frank


Joan Frank writes fiction and nonfiction, including two books that launched in 2022: the novel Juniper Street which won the C&R prize for short fiction and the essay collection Late Work which we feature this week. Late Work is not only a book about writing it is also about surviving the writer’s life in the crazy world of publishing today. The Paragraph of the Week is from the opening essay “What Would John Williams Do?” which describes an unfortunate encounter between Frank, who publishes with small presses, and an arrogant writer who landed a book contract with a major publishing house “for a cool high-five figure.” What she says here about the writers of literary fiction is all-too familiar to essayists.

Note: I will be at the AWP next week and will be unable to post a new Humble Essayist feature, so I will keep this page about Joan Frank running for two weeks, but THE will be back with a new feature on March 17. You can learn more about THE at AWP here. If you come to the conference please stop by and say hello. I would love to meet readers of the site. 

The Paragraph of the Week


After many years it seems clear to me that to write literary fiction, remain obscure on that radar, and still have ambition is not at all an unusual combination. It’s just a statistically doomed one. Lee Upton: “There is something especially compelling about writers’ ambitions, coming as they so often do—in actuality, despite labor and talent—apparently to nothing.” Thus, no matter how often we’ve reasoned them out in the past, the same questions flash into our faces like vexing paparazzi bulbs we must push past—Why do I do this? How should I do this? What does the former mean for the latter?—sometimes fanned to a firewall in scenes like mine with the blissfully monomaniacal author at the fancy party.

—Joan Frank



When Joan Frank was asked by a friend what she wants from her literary life, the “answer popped forth as if memorized”: “A contract with a major house” and a “modest advance,” an answer which “engages a whopping level of fantasy.” Like almost all literary writers she faces endless rejections and makes little money from her critically acclaimed books—in fact, she incurs many expenses along the way. Her predicament clearly gnaws at her and, she believes, others: “I will bet a huge portion of anything you’ve got (beer, marbles, candy) that no matter how well they behave or how successful we may assume them to be, bazillions of good writers in their secret hearts feel exactly the same.” At times she gets petulant and knows it, fending off her “inner whiner,” and in some of the most honest pages of agonized prose I have ever read, she gives full vent to her “New Doubt,” discovered late in life, that what she writes matters at all even though she can’t stop. Despite her lack of worldly success, Frank does find meaning in the writing life. On her quest to understand why she persists in a difficult and thankless task, she realizes that writing has “shaped and driven and irradiated” her days and makes a discovery that fills her with “wonderment” and a “white light”: “I’ve been able to inhabit my calling...I’ve been live...inside my calling.”



March 17, 2023



from “After the Uvalde Shootings”

by Kathryn Winograd


“...a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.”


                                                                                —Roland Barthes

Kathryn Winograd is a Colorado poet, nonfiction writer, and photographer, whose work focuses on the beauty of our natural world and our responsibilities as environmental stewards. Her first collection of essays, Phantom Canyon: Essays of Reclamation, was a Foreword Indies Book of the Year Finalist and her second, Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children took the Bronze Medal in Essay from the Independent Publisher Book Awards in 2020.  She and her husband, the playwright Leonard Winograd, divide their time between Denver and a cabin in the Colorado mountains. In our paragraph of the week, taken from her essay "Mist Nests" in Terrain Journal, she writes about taking the photograph below of a preening killdeer while, unknown to her, children were killed at a school in Uvalde Texas.

The Paragraph of the Week


I have been reading this book about photography, Camera Lucida, by the literary theorist Roland Barthes—“oh, semiotics,” my literary friend says, “impossible to understand”— who believes that “a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.” And I think he’s right. This time, after this shooting, when the world changed again, Leonard and I were in Yellowstone, walking the boardwalks near Angel Terrace and its bleached limestone—somewhere close beneath us a caldera of molten magma and gaseous fissures. I was taking pictures of a killdeer preening itself along the blue acidic pools of a hot springs while those 19 children and two elementary school teachers in Uvalde, Texas were slaughtered in their classrooms with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle owned by an 18-year-old—I don’t really know what to call him—who shot his grandmother, just a few years older than me, in the face before driving to the elementary school to kill.


This is what I see. Not the killdeer.


—Kathryn Winograd



Roland Barthes taught Kathryn Winograd that “a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.” The day of the Uvalde shooting she photographed a killdeer, fiddling with the aperture and f-stop while focusing on its wing, not thinking about dead children in a classroom, but now, knowing about the murders, the killdeer disappears when she looks at the photograph and she sees a teacher telling children hiding under classroom tables to pretend they are asleep.  She sees her students at her Denver community college “17 years after Columbine” still writing “poems and stories—haikus—about gunfire and the broom closets they locked themselves in.” She sees a highschooler in a trench coat who may or may not have been one of the Columbine killers “picking his way through the drainage ditch weeds” while she waited at a stop sign. So much darkness emanated from him, she writes, “that I thought I should call someone, but who, and I didn’t as he walked away from me, his trench coat lashing out in the wind.” She sees a dead teacher with her arms around her students also dead. “I don’t know the terror those little school kids felt; I don’t know what they thought when the only adult who could help them was shot dead.” She sees bodies in mortuaries emanating “a kind of light.” She is not alone. All I see are dead children, her husband Leonard says.


And so do we. Not the killdeer.


March 24, 2023


from “A Letter to Robinson Crusoe”

in Best American Essays 2020

by Jamaica Kincaid

“Please don’t come. Stay home and work things out; your soul, a property you value very much, will be better off for it.”


--Jamaica Kincaid


If you want a short, bracing lesson in imperialism without academic jargon, try on “A Letter to Robinson Crusoe” by Jamaica Kincaid which guts the idea of Robinson Crusoe as a hero and replaces it with the soulless, privileged European marauder that the Irishman James Joyce similarly skewered in our paragraph of the week. Kincaid used Joyce’s paragraph as the epigraph to her essay, and she poses as his servant, Friday. What is missing in Daniel Defoe’s hero, Kincaid argues, is his soul because he uses his adventure to cover up his real existential crisis by “living in a climate that is called paradisiacal.” And he drags Friday into his amnesia to serve his every need. “So dear Mr. Crusoe,” Kincaid tells the adventurer, “Please don’t come. Stay home and work things out; your soul, a property you value very much, will be better off for it.”


Jamaica Kincaid is an essayist born in St. John's, Antigua. She lives in North Bennington, Vermont and is Professor of African and African American Studies in Residence at Harvard University. Kincaid's most famous work is A Small Place, an extended essay about her Caribbean home. “A Letter to Robinson Crusoe,” first published in Book Post, was selected for The Best American Essays 2020. James Joyce is the twentieth century author of the complex and experimental novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

The Paragraph of the Week

The true symbol of the British conquest is Robinson Crusoe, who, cast away on a desert island, in his pocket a knife and a pipe, becomes an architect, a carpenter, a knife grinder, an astronomer, a baker, a shipwright, a potter, a saddler, a farmer, a tailor, an umbrella-maker, and a clergyman. He is the true prototype of the British colonist, as Friday (the trusty savage, who arrives on an unlucky day) is the symbol of the subject races. The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence; the unconscious cruelty; the persistence; the slow yet efficient intelligence; the sexual apathy; the practical, well-balanced religiousness; the calculating taciturnity.

—James Joyce



Dear Mr. Crusoe,

Please stay home. There's no need for this ruse of going on a trading journey, in which more often than not the goods you are trading are people like me, Friday. There's no need at all to leave your nice bed and your nice wife and your nice children (everything with you is always nice, except you yourself are not) and hop on a ship that is going to be wrecked in a storm at night (storms like the dark) and everyone (not the cat, not the dog) gets lost at sea except lucky and not-nice-at-all you, and you are near an island that you see in the first light of day and then your life, your real life, begins. That life in Europe was nice, just nice; this life you first see at the crack of dawn is the beginning of your new birth, your new beginning, the way in which you will come to know yourself—not the conniving, delusional thief that you really are, but who you believe you really are, a virtuous man who can survive all alone in the world of a little godforsaken island. All well and good, but why did you not just live out your life in this place, why did you feel the need to introduce me, Friday, into this phony account of your virtues and your survival instincts? Keep telling yourself geography is history and that it makes history, not that geography is the nightmare that history recounts.


—Jamaica Kincaid

March 31, 2023




from “The Undertaking”

by Ellen Rogers

in River Teeth



“The whole time we were dating, J hoped I could be a part of the circus. He hoped his dream could become mine.”—Ellen Rogers


Ellen Rogers holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Western Washington University. She has served as a poetry editor at The Hopper and as Assistant Managing Editor of Bellingham Review and lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota. “The Undertaking” originally appeared in the fall 2022 issue of River Teeth.

The Paragraph of the Week


The whole time we were dating, J hoped I could be a part of the circus. He hoped his dream could become mine. That way, we could travel together, perform together, build our lives around the bright tent’s inhales and exhales. In contrast to this vision, I had no dream quite so clear. I knew I’d rather write lines for a poem than perform in sparkling shows, but trying to write for a living seemed impossible, risky, and I didn't know what else I wanted to do. I had found someone living his unlikely vision, and though I could feel, fiercely sometimes, that it wasn't my own, I took it on because I wanted to stay with J, close to that shine. So I learned to pass juggling clubs and to stand on his shoulders in a two-high. Sometimes I wore a lacy black vest and pulled the sword from his throat.


—Ellen Rogers



J does shine. Unlike the author Ellen Rogers who is shy, he is gregarious, entertaining, and funny. “He shook any stranger’s hand, then spun his signature bowler hat upside down on his finger and tossed it via a triple-flip back on his head—a little magic for the shuffling grocery line or someone’s morning commute.” He could pull a blossom out of that hat for a child as well. His main talent was the dangerous and nearly impossible act of sword swallowing—he “pushed the sword between his lips safely down past his tender heart”—but for him and his circus friends nothing seemed impossible. They were “brave and playful and crafty.” J’s biggest attraction was that unlike Rogers he was living his dream of being in the circus, though supported by a nightmarish job as an undertaker. Drawn to J’s charms, she tried to join in. She learned to juggle, do the “two-high,” and took trapeze lessons, but, in this essay about not living someone else’s dream, seemed simultaneously lost as well as found in the dazzle. “In the circus, I sometimes felt more alive that I knew I could. And sometimes felt like the disappearing woman.” She left J and the circus to pursue her own risky dream of being a writer, but wrote this magical essay “to turn what came apart into a blossom.”




April 7, 2023

from “On the incessant, inescapable, infinite, unraveling, meandering,

indifferent and heartless road: A map”

by Jamie Etheridge

in Bending Genres


“...the road knows. It has always known and it will not let me go so easily—no matter how much I pretend otherwise.”—Jamie Etheridge


Jamie Etheridge is a writer, wife, mother of two, and a lifelong explorer. She has lived abroad for nearly two decades and traveled extensively in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. She likes bending genres and often writes short, experimental pieces of nonfiction which she sometimes calls odes. She also writes covers, or imitations, of the essays of others.


The Paragraph of the Week is from “On the incessant, inescapable, infinite, unraveling, meandering, indifferent and heartless road: A map” which first appeared in the April 6, 2021 issue of Bending Genres. It is a striking piece about the inability to escape the past mapped onto our bodies.

The Paragraph of the Week


Down the middle of my chest, that singular, sculptural breastbone my one true highway—to heaven or hell is irrelevant. The journey comprises the only destination worth mentioning. But I don’t cry too hard or laugh too much because in the end there is no escape from the only home I will ever truly know, the one where I am always that wandering nomad; a girl, unspooling.


—Jamie Etheridge


In Jamie Etheridge’s essay, the scars, lines, crevices, and hollows inscribed on her body are a road map to the past she cannot escape. Singing a lullaby to her daughter, it calls to her through cupped hands whispering “from the deep hollow” inside her bones and she feels the urge to abandon obligations and escape. The interstate highway map of track marks on her inner thigh are not from heroin, but from the road that left them there to shame her. The freckles beneath her eyes are asterisks from the map legend ticking off the cities she left behind crying. She may be tempted by a narrow path that circles around her arms to meander away from this inexorable highway of living and perhaps get killed by a swerving truck, but the road mapped on her body will not let her “go so easily.” Her “singular, sculptural breastbone” does not point forward to heaven or hell, but back to her her father and her one true home. The Rand MacNally map of faithlessness she inherited from him is tucked under her arm, along with his horrible stories of abandoned children. She may create a family of her own as far away from him as possible, but she cannot escape the road she took to get there. It is written on her skin.



April 14, 2023


from “Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Margeurite Porete

and Simone Weil Tell God”

in Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera

by Anne Carson



“In this book the various flowers composing the crowns of the martyrs were so lusciously rendered in words and paint that I had to be restrained from eating the pages.”

—Anne Carson


“Anne Carson is a poet, essayist, professor of classics, and translator. Her recent collections include Nox, Red Doc, and Float. Our Paragraph of the Week is from her 2015 mixed genre collection Decreation: Poetry, Essays, and Opera.

The Paragraph of the Week


When I think of books read in childhood they come to my mind’s eye in violent foreshortening and framed by a precarious darkness, but at the same time they glow somehow with an almost supernatural intensity of life that no adult book could ever effect. I remember a little book of The Lives of the Saints that was given to me about age five. In this book the various flowers composing the crowns of the martyrs were so lusciously rendered in words and paint that I had to be restrained from eating the pages. It is interesting to speculate what taste I was expecting from those pages. But maybe the impulse to eat pages isn't about taste. Maybe it’s about being placed at the crossing-point of a contradiction, which is a painful place to be and children in their natural wisdom will not consent to stay there, but mystics love it.


—Anne Carson



In the essay “Decreation” from a book by that name, Anne Carson takes on three authors—Sappho, Margeurite Porete, and Simone Weil—who “feel moved to create a sort of dream of distance” in their writing “in which the self is displaced from the center of the work and the teller disappears in the telling.” In order to enter the ineffable, whether that is oneness with God or the mysteries of life, the writer must decreate herself, unburdened by eating, love in this world, and other mundanities of self, and disappear. But, in the one paragraph in the essay where Anne Carson does appear, she remembers herself as a child handling this paradox of whether a book, that thing of the spirit, is of this world by eating it—or at least entertaining the possibility. She calls it “natural wisdom.” As an adult she is clearly enamored of daring writers who shed themselves on the way to inexhaustible wonder and can take her with them, but it is interesting to me that she gives the last word of her essay to the wisdom of the child. If you write yourself out of the world, she explains, “you are likely to live in terrible hunger. No matter how many pages you eat.”




April 21, 2023



from The Gathering Girl

by Amanda Irene Rush

“Childhood memoirs do not have happy endings. The charge of sugar-coating often leveled against the genre invariably misses the point.”



Amanda Rush, who was a student in my creative writing classes in the Ashland MFA, has a gift for doodling, making artistic creations born from her subconscious, not her imagination. “I don’t render them into existence so much as they seem to choose to be expressed,” she explains, and she uses them as tools for her writing: “when I let the pen or pencil or crayon do its thing, what comes out is usually the beginning of something surprising and engaging, which I can then enhance.” Her doodle of “a girl gathering apples” led to her memoir The Gathering Girl published this spring.



















The Paragraph of the Week


One doodle in particular drew me in from the start: a girl gathering apples She seemed to symbolically reflect the task upon which I was embarking. “Gather,” she seemed to say, as I stared at her night after night. “As you are able, so you must.” I Googled “apple symbolism” and found a quote from “Women Who Run with the Wolves” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It wasn’t a book I had ever read, but the quote was so fitting for what I thought the doodle was trying to tell me: “As with apples, it takes time for maturation, and the roots must find their ground and at least a season must pass, sometimes several.”


—Amanda Irene Rush



Childhood memoirs do not have happy endings. The charge of sugar coating often leveled against the genre invariably misses the point. Authors gather details from the past, not to vindicate family members, but to see them in a broader context allowing themselves and their readers to understand and feel what mothers, fathers, siblings and others are up to and up against and giving insight into the circumstances that led to good and bad choices. This act of empathy helps all of us—readers and authors alike—to push past labels such as “alcoholic” or “schizophrenic” and "sad" or "happy" to a more nuanced view. Inspired by “The Gathering Girl” that she unconsciously doodled, Amanda Irene Rush collects the fragments of her broken family, studying photographs for body language and facial expressions and pondering artifacts from the past such as toys and shards of stained glass. This gathering is largely painful with occasional and genuine joy mixed in. What she discovers does not repair her family, but it does allow her to acknowledge the sorrow, see the thwarted love there, and forgive them and herself. It is a gift for all who seek solace from a past that will never be simply happy no matter how it ends.


Ed Yong

April 28, 2023



from An Immense World

by Ed Yong


“There is a wonderful word for this sensory bubble—Umwelt...specifically the part of those surroundings that an animal can sense and experience—its perceptual world.”—Ed Yong


Ed Yong is a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer on the staff of The Atlantic, where he also won the George Polk Award for science reporting, among other honors. His first book, I Contain Multitudes, was a New York Times bestseller and won numerous awards. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, National Geographic, Wired, The New York Times, Scientific American, and more. The Paragraph of the Week is from his latest book, An Immense World, which explores the perceptual worlds of animals and deepens our understanding of the different realities life on earth has to offer its myriad creatures.

The Paragraph of the Week

Imagine that, right now, a sea otter is about to search for food. Floating on its back on the surface of the sea, it rolls and dives. It will only stay submerged for a minute roughly the time it will take you to read this paragraph. The descent eats up many of the precious seconds, so once the otter reaches the right depth, it has no time for indecisiveness. In a few frantic moments, it presses its knobby mittens over the seafloor, inspecting whatever it can find. The water is dark, but darkness doesn't matter. To some of the most sensitive paws in the world, the ocean is bright with shapes and textures to be felt, grasped, pressed, prodded, squeezed, stroked, and manhandled—or perhaps otterhandled. Hard-shelled prey nestle among the similar hard rocks, but in a split second, the otter feels the difference between the two, and pulls the former from the latter. With its sense of touch, its dexterous paws, and its overabundant mustelid confidence, it snatches that clam, yanks that abalone, grabs that sea urchin, and finally ascends to eat its catches, breaking the water at the end of this sentence.

—Ed Yong



In An Immense World Ed Yong takes on the nearly impossible task of describing the umwelt of myriad animals—the sensory bubble that allows each animal to experience, and in a sense, create a different world suited by evolution to its needs. He does this in part by talking to experts such as Sarah Strobel who studies otters and describes them as “fidgety.” The one in her lab once took apart an underwater table “by unscrewing the nuts that held the table legs in place.” She also offers the results of her experiments which reveal that otters can make a choice about what to explore with their hands “30 times faster” than human rivals which allows them to find food faster in the underwater dark. Yong is always alert to metaphors so when Strobel describes the unique hands of otters as “knobbly mittens” he uses it in a sentence: “If you held a paw, you could feel the nimble fingers moving underneath, but if you looked at it you’d see ‘knobbly mittens,’” and with the physical description and the metaphor, we get it. In our remarkable Paragraph of the Week, though, Wong brings the otters’ tactile unwelten into our reading experience. The sea creature only has a minute to find its food in dark water.  In “the time it will take you to read this paragraph” the otter dives, scours an ocean floor “bright with shapes and textures” and emerges with clam, abalone, and sea urchin in its mittens, “breaking the water” in the paragraph’s final sentence.




May 6, 2023

from “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting”

in Illuminations

by Walter Benjamin



“I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am...I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open”—Walter Benjamin



I recently read The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki—a novel written about and in large part ostensibly by a book that helps a boy cope with the death of his father. Throughout Ozeki invokes Walter Benjamin and his essay “Unpacking My Library.” I liked the novel so much that I dug up the essay—replete with my marginalia—that I read and taught years ago and decided to let its opening be the Paragraph of the Week. I can’t think of a more readable and delightful invitation into the challenging writings of Benjamin than Ozeki’s book, but for those pressed for time I’ll take a stab at it here in this week’s feature.

The Paragraph of the Week

I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not fear any of that. Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood—it is certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation—which these books arouse in a genuine collector. For such a man is speaking to you, and on closer scrutiny he proves to be speaking only about himself. Would it not be presumptuous of me if, in order to appear convincingly objective and down-to-earth, I enumerated for you the main sections or prize pieces of a library, if I presented you with their history or even their usefulness to a writer? I, for one, have in mind something less obscure, something more palpable than that; what I am really concerned with is giving you some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions, into collecting rather than a collection.


—Walter Benjamin [tr. HarryZohn]




The act of collecting, not the collection itself, sets the mood for Walter Benjamin as he unpacks books that have been stored away for several years in boxes. In a collection, books are not about their function, but their display, “the scene, the stage, of their fate,” as part of the owner’s life into which they are reborn when purchased. But as he unpacks each of his treasures, he is more interested in the tale of its acquisition than its place on the shelf. One brings back a city on Benjamin’s travels, another the abandoned market from which he liberated it because, as any book owner believes, “the true freedom of books is somewhere on his shelves.” Many books lifted from boxes bring back memories of auctions: when he snagged a book with unique illustrations in the lull after a big sale or remained silent in order to dampen interest in a book that he prized just for its preface and bought for a song later. The many opened crates remind Benjamin that collections are transmissible and can be passed on to others, but only at a cost. “The phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner” because ownership is “the most intimate relationship one can have to objects.” And with books, uniquely intimate. Each of the books may “come alive” as he sets them on his shelves, but “it is he who lives in them.”




May 12, 2023





from “Apollonianism and Dionysianism”

in The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music

by Friedrich Nietzsche



“Friedrich Neitzsche argued that complete artists—capable of rich works of the human spirit such as Greek Tragedy—must wrestle to equilibrium two contending ways of being  that are embedded deep in human nature.”—THE


Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) was a German philosopher and cultural critic who published extensively in the 1870s and 1880s. He is famous for uncompromising criticisms of traditional European morality and religion as well as of conventional philosophical ideas and social and political pieties associated with modernity. Here he examines the contending impulses of Apollonianism and Dionysianism associated with Greek gods that shape literary artists, bringing them to their knees.

The Paragraph of the Week


So far we have examined the Apollonian and Dionysiac states as the product of formative forces arising directly from nature without the mediation of the human artist. At this stage artistic urges are satisfied directly, on the one hand through the imagery of dreams, whose perfection is quite independent of the intellectual rank, the artistic development of the individual; on the other hand, through an ecstatic reality which once again takes no account of the individual and may even destroy him, or else redeem him through a mystical experience of the collective. In relation to these immediate creative conditions of nature every artist must appear as “imitator,” either as the Apollonian dream artist or the Dionysiac ecstatic artist, or, finally (as in Greek tragedy, for example) as dream and ecstatic artist in one. We might picture to ourselves how the last of these, in a state of Dionysiac intoxication and mystical self-abrogation, wandering apart from the reveling throng, sinks upon the ground, and how there is then revealed to him his own condition—complete oneness with the essence of the universe—in a dream similitude.


—Friedrich Nietzsche [tr. Francis Golffing]



Friedrich Neitzsche argued that complete artists—capable of rich works of the human spirit such as Greek Tragedy—must wrestle to equilibrium two contending ways of being  that are embedded deep in human nature. The first is the dream state represented by the god Apollo, “at once the god of all plastic powers and the soothsaying god” that comes to us in dreams and visions, a solitary lucent state untainted by the ordinary in which the mind succumbs to “fair illusions of our inner world of fantasy.” The other is the state of intoxication through drugs or springtime represented by Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, when people forget themselves, join the crowd, and commune frantically, behavior generally frowned upon by those “who have no idea how cadaverous and ghostly their ‘sanity’ appears as the intense throng of Dionysiac revelers sweeps past them.” Both states satisfy “artistic urges” simply by being in them, but the true artist wrestles with them both, “as dream and ecstatic artist in one.”  For this artistic state Nietzsche offers an indelible image that will ring true for most poets and writers who look back on the moment they realized their calling. “We might picture to ourselves,” he writes, how the young artist, “in a state of Dionysiac intoxication and mystical self-abrogation, wandering apart from the reveling throng, sinks upon the ground, and how there is then revealed to him his own condition—complete oneness with the essence of the universe—in a dream similitude.”



May 19, 2023




“Still Life with Gravestone”

in The Field Guide to Prose Poetry

by Michael Robins


“Has anyone described the elusive ambiguity of the prose poem more precisely than Michael Robins?”



Michael Robins is the author of five collections of poetry, including People You May Know (2020) and The Bright Invisible (2022). Our Paragraph of the Week, “Still Life with Gravestone,” is a complete prose poem from an earlier collection The Next Settlement (2007) and was reprinted in The Field Guide to Prose Poetry from Rose Metal Press. Most of the commentary is from his essay “A Wolf in Grandma’s Clothes: Undressing the Prose Poem” which also appeared in The Field Guide to Prose Poetry.


You can read more recent prose poems by Robins, each a paragraph long, in The Tiny magazine here.

The Paragraph of the Week


Still Life with Gravestone


You have to return the book, whether you've read it or not, though every face, even the dead & dying, seems more likely to take another inch from the sheet that curtains the room. People die every day: a radio poised over the tub, the piano that spins by a rope, disputes that find a cold resolve. Think banana peel. The skin loosens its grip, the veins map a branch across the instep. You can't mend the binding. You can't pay the fines or feed the thinning air. The meter will soon expire, so move along, move along.


—Michael Robins



Has anyone described the elusive ambiguity of the prose poem more precisely than Michael Robins? It is “personal, tranquil, where the fresh water meets the salt.” Not content to step onto a pedestal, it “pulls the bobby pins” and “loosens its shoulders from such a formal pose.” It “knows the rules but is, after all, unruly.”  Robins writes lineated poetry, too, but reading prose poets caused him to “sneak out of line into prose” where he can be a “pigeon among seagulls and a seagull among crows.” The prose poem “drops anchor in paradise.” It is “half mannered, half the hell with you.” It is there “in joy and in sorrow, in plenty and in want,” but it is restless: “the prose poem rides bareback into the sun and the view is astounding.”



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