Click on the author's name: Kathleen McGookey, Richard Hoffman, Steven Harvey and Sarah Wells, Lars Horn, Leila Philip, Ana Maria Spagna, Friedrich Schlegel, Andrea Wulf, Joan Frank, Kathryn Winograd, Jamaica Kincaid, Ellen Rogers, Jamie Etheridge, Anne Carson, Amanda Irene Rush, Ed Yong, Walter Benjamin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Michael Robins, Henry David Thoreau, E. B. White, Alan Lightman, Kim Barnes, Robert Miltner, Richard Feynman, Terrance Hayes, Jill Talbot, Kathleen English Cadmus, Barbara Kingsolver, T. S. Eliot, Mary Oliver, James McBride, David Gessner, Jehanne Dubrow, Judith Kitchen, Michael Garfield, Sam Pickering, Rosemary Royston, Molly Giles, Jeff Gundy.
January 6, 2023
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
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.
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 Voices. Remembering 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.
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’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
Listen to Marvin Gaye singing “The Star Spangled Banner”:
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.
“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 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.”
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.
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
“...in a certain sense all poetry is or should be romantic.”
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.
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.”
February 24, 2023
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.”
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.
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 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.
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 able...to 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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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”
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.
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.”
July 7, 2023
by Henry David Thoreau
“It is not as if the owl is seeing him, but ‘endeavoring to realize him,’ to recreate a disturbance out there and place it in the snowy world of its dreamy mind.”
Every year around this time we celebrate our birthday, July 4, 2014, with a feature on the work of Henry David Thoreau. In that inaugural issue we wrote that he was “the most influential of American essayists leaving his mark on writers as varied as Walt Whitman and Annie Dillard” and that his masterpiece, Walden, “was his own declaration of independence from the ‘quiet desperation’ of a life of conformity.” Living alone in a cabin by a pond he established an intimate relationship with the natural world, and in his writings he allowed us to share in discoveries he made in the serenity of the woods.
This week's feature on the barred owl is from the chapter “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors.” You can find it and all of Walden on-line here.
The Paragraph of the Week
One afternoon I amused myself by watching a barred owl (Strix nebulosa) sitting on one of the lower dead limbs of a white-pine, close to the trunk, in broad daylight, I standing within a rod of him. He could hear me when I moved and cronched the snow with my feet, but could not plainly see me. When I made most noise he would stretch out his neck, and erect his neck feathers, and open his eyes wide; but their lids soon fell again, and he began to nod. I too felt a slumberous influence after watching him half an hour, as he sat thus with his eyes half open, like a cat, winged brother of the cat. There was only a narrow slit left between their lids, by which he preserved a peninsular relation to me; thus, with half-shut eyes, looking out from the land of dreams, and endeavoring to realize me, vague object or mote that interrupted his visions. At length, on some louder noise or my nearer approach, he would grow uneasy and sluggishly turn about on his perch, as if impatient at having his dreams disturbed; and when he launched himself off and flapped through the pines, spreading his wings to unexpected breadth, I could not hear the slightest sound from them. Thus, guided amid the pine boughs rather by a delicate sense of their neighborhood than by sight, feeling his twilight way as it were with his sensitive pinions, he found a new perch, where he might in peace await the dawning of his day.
—Henry David Thoreau
Although Thoreau often had visitors to his cabin by Walden Pond, in winter he was almost entirely alone, cut off from neighbors by “The Great Snow,” and during this time he settled into a somnolent, almost dream-like relationship with the nature around him—feeling both a part of it and separate. During one of his early morning walks stitching “a meandering dotted line” through deep snows, he stops for a half hour to observe a barred owl in a white pine a little more than sixteen feet away. Hidden from sight, the writer’s small movements cause little stir from the sleepy owl though occasionally at a noise its neck fathers stand up and its eyes momentarily open. It seems like a “winged brother to the cat,” predatory, calm, and distant, and though in the cold human and owl almost fall asleep together, they remain apart. “He preserved a peninsular relationship to me,” Thoreau explains, “looking out from the land of dreams,” the writer recognizing that animals experience the world differently than us. It is not as if the owl is seeing him, but “endeavoring to realize him,” to recreate a disturbance out there and place it in the snowy world of its dreamy mind. And when the nocturnal bird takes flight, passing silently overhead, it negotiates tree limbs not by seeing but by feeling its “twilight way” through a world it has internalized, as if passing through a neighborhood of pine boughs it knows by a heart that, yes, beats, but differently from ours.
July 14, 2023
from “Once More to the Lake”
by E. B. White
“There had been jollity and peace and goodness.”—E. B. White
Each July we offer a tribute to essayist E. B. White by featuring a paragraph from his classic essay “Once More to the Lake.” This year we look at a paragraph that contrasts the arrival of White and his son by car with the way White’s family arrived by carriage years earlier in a time before automobiles.
The Paragraph of the Week
It seemed to me, as I kept remembering all this, that those times and those summers had been infinitely precious and worth saving. There had been jollity and peace and goodness. The arriving (at the beginning of August) had been so big a business in itself, at the railway station the farm wagon drawn up, the first smell of the pine-laden air, the first glimpse of the smiling farmer, and the great importance of the trunks and your father's enormous authority in such matters, and the feel of the wagon under you for the long ten-mile haul, and at the top of the last long hill catching the first view of the lake after eleven months of not seeing this cherished body of water. The shouts and cries of the other campers when they saw you, and the trunks to be unpacked, to give up their rich burden. (Arriving was less exciting nowadays, when you sneaked up in your car and parked it under a tree near the camp and took out the bags and in five minutes it was all over, no fuss, no loud wonderful fuss about trunks.)
—E. B. White
We harbor the illusion that Americans in the past were rugged individualists compared to those of us now linked by myriad devices, but E. B. White’s remembrance about arriving at the summer cabin in “Once More to the Lake” is a reminder that the opposite is true. He and his son “sneaked up in a car” unloading quickly as we might do today, but when White was a boy the arrival was far more complicated and social—no one showed up unannounced. The “smiling farmer” who drove the wagon, White’s father who handled “the great importance of the trunks,” and the shouted greetings from fellow campers when the wagon arrived made for a splendid jumble. Surely part of the “jollity and peace and goodness” of the lake vacation in the past involved this slow arrival, savoring the “first smell of the pine-laden air” as the farm wagon led away from the train station for the “long ten mile haul” as the first glimpse of “this cherished body of water” swam into view. In this essay about living in relationship—son being measured against father, father being measured against son, and all being measured against a body of water that seems never to change—the hubbub of arrival is a reminder of what is lost when we retreat into artificial isolation.
July 21, 2023
from “What Came Before the Big Bang”
in The Best American Essays 2017
by Alan Lightman
“...the journey is the source of our nobility.”—THE
Alan Lightman earned his PhD in physics from the California Institute of Technology and is the author of seven novels, including the international best seller Einstein’s Dreams and The Diagnosis, a finalist for the National Book Award. His nonfiction includes The Accidental Universe, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, and Probable Impossibilities. He has taught at Harvard and at MIT, where he was the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and the humanities. He is currently a professor of the practice of the humanities at MIT. He is the host of the public television series Searching: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science.
In our feature, selected from The Best American Essays 2017, Lightman asks a big, probably unanswerable, question and then wonders at the asking.
The Paragraph of the Week
Quantum cosmology has led us to questions about the fundamental aspects of existence and being, questions that most of us rarely ask. In our short century or less, we generally aim to create a comfortable existence within the tiny rooms of our lives. We eat, we sleep, we get jobs, we pay the bills, we have lovers and children. Some of us build cities or make art. But if we have the luxury of true mental freedom, there are larger concerns to be found. Look at the sky. Does space go on forever, to infinity? Or is it finite but without boundary or edge, like the surface of a sphere? Either answer is disturbing, and unfathomable. Where did we come from? We can follow the lives of our parents and grandparents and their parents backward in time, back and back through the generations, until we come to some ancestor ten thousand years in the past whose DNA remains in our body. We can follow the chain of being even further back in time to the first humans, and the first primates, and the one-celled amoebas swimming about in the primordial seas, and the formation of the atmosphere, and the slow condensation of gases to create Earth. It all happened, whether we think about it or not. We quickly realize how limited we are in our experience of the world. What we see and feel with our bodies, caught midway between atoms and galaxies, is but a small swath of the spectrum, a sliver of reality.
To answer his title’s question—"what came before the Big Bang?”—Alan Lightman begins in 1931 when Albert Einstein, repudiating his earlier position, admitted to scientists at the Mount Wilson Observatory that the universe was not static but expanding. Expanding from what? Lightman visited the physicist Sean Carroll at Cal Tech who explained that the “entire observable universe was roughly a million billion billion times smaller than a single atom” and exploded in the big bang. Carroll does not know what came before the explosion, but, based on the “low entropy” in our expanding universe, argues that time is “two-headed.” “The behavior of the universe before the Big Bang is nearly a mirror image of its behavior after.” In fact, time may have more than two heads: “an infinite number of universes could have been spawned by this parent universe.” For a different view, Lightman visited professor Alexander Vilenkin at Tufts who contends that the universe appeared “out of nothing,” behaving the way certain mysterious subatomic particles do, a position in line with St. Augustine who wrote in his Confessions that “when God created the universe there was no before.” Don Page, an evangelical Christian who studied with Lightman, adds “I think there is a being outside the universe...God is the true creator.” But if quantum mechanics explains this sudden appearance out of nothing, Stephen Hawking famously asked “What place then for a creator?” Lightman ends his enquiry baffled by these answers, but thrilled by the quest. It causes him to be aware of our limits as a species: “What we see and feel with our bodies, caught midway between atoms and galaxies, is but a small swath of the spectrum, a sliver of reality.” At the same time the journey is the source of our nobility: “Not to help ourselves with physical survival or personal relationships or self-discovery, but to know and comprehend this strange cosmos we find ourselves in....It is a luxury to be able to ask such questions. It is also a human necessity.”
July 28, 2023
from “Carne Santificata”
by Kim Barnes
“A macelleria as chapel? Well, the road to ‘sanctified flesh’ is long and in this essay it passes through a butcher shop.”—THE
Kim Barnes’ first memoir, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country, was honored with a PEN/Jerard Fund Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. An award winning novelist, her essays, poems, and short stories have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Georgia Review, and the Pushcart Prize anthology.
She lives and writes in the mountains of North Idaho, but in this piece, called “Carne Santificata,” she is on vacation in Italy, freed from panedemic constraints and subject to carnal temptation.
The Paragraph of the Week
At the macelleria around the corner, three of [the butchers—i macellai] tend their trade. Their small shop is clean, well-lighted, made sublime by marble walls, a carved banco cassa resembling a pulpit, and a single case of meat: cutlets of chicken pounded thin and dusted with breadcrumbs; a single cappone, its yellow feet trussed, perfect for broth. A basin of pillowy kidneys and livers, one perfect hamburger patty, one seamlessly rolled braciola waiting to be braised in red wine. Loins, shoulders, haunches—an entire bovine broken down, deboned, divinely displayed, and glistening. A mass of meat. A meat chapel. Cappella della carne. I could worship there.
A macelleria as chapel? Well, the road to “sanctified flesh” is long and in this essay it passes through a butcher shop where the flesh, which is subject to fall, is draped everywhere on full display. The cash desk resembles a pulpit, marble walls gleam sublime. “Loins, shoulders, haunches—an entire bovine broken down, deboned” glistens, laid out in a single case of meat “divinely.” When she passes through the “narthex” of the shop and enters “the sanctuary” between counter and butchery, the handsome macellai smile “without effort” and ask “what is your pleasure madame” and—while her husband waits outside holding the bags—she discovers how easy it is “to fall in love.” She confesses that this dalliance in the macelleria, like the burn of hot cheese on the tongue later that night before dinner, was not “piety,” but “a penance” she would “willingly pay again.”
August 4, 2023
“You Know What They Say About Pears”
by Robert Miltner
“They see themselves as teardrops.”
Robert Miltner is the author of the award-winning collection of prose poems Hotel Utopia and a dozen chapbooks and artist collaborative books including “Rock the Boat,” “Canyons of Sleep,” and “A Box of Light.” On his website he writes: “Among my interests are writing, reading, book collecting, traveling, supporting local restaurants and farmer's markets, joining causes that support people over profits, attending poetry readings because audiences are crucial for the arts, going to local theater performances, being active in local writing and arts communities, and supporting small and independent presses because they are a necessity for a free press and for generating new directions in the literary arts.”
I found his prose poem, and his comments on prose poetry from the essay “Blockheads and Stanzagraphers,” in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry.
The Paragraph of the Week
You Know What They Say about Pears
Frumpy, heavy-hipped, green with envy of apples, the pears wear babushkas and pull carts filled with celery and cabbage out past West 88th and Detroit. Grainy sweet like candy eaten at the beach, freckled in or out of the sun, a pear is the younger child all brothers and sisters watch out for but never want to play with. The sad pears—Bartlett and Bosc, Seckel and d’Anjou—cry themselves to sleep. They see themselves as teardrops, tongueless bells unable to celebrate, or quotation marks with nothing to say. In their dreams, they run away to Hollywood and become avocados.
—by Robert Miltner
Here are a few of the many sly comments about the prose poem that Robert Miltner wrote, found, paraphrased, or copied from other writers for his essay “Blockheads and Stanzagraphers.” All of them describe our paragraph of the week.
“The paragraph standing by itself has a lovely pocket-sized quality, observes Naomi Shihab Nye, who adds, it garnishes the pages as mint garnishes a plate. Many people say (foolishly of course) they ‘don’t like poetry,’ but I’ve never heard anyone say they don’t like paragraphs.”
“Prose poetry is a new kind of flying machine, it’s said Edson said.”
“The distinction between ‘poetry’ and ‘prose’ saith T. S. Eliot, is very obscure.”
“Prose poems, opines David Young, are life histories reduced to paragraphs, essays the size of postcards, theologies scribbled on napkins.”
“In 1914, Gertrude Stein wrote Tender Buttons in tiny blocks. For her, that is the way to pleasure a paragraph.”
“Prose walks but poetry dances. Which is why a prose poem moves so funny on the page.”
August 11, 2023
in Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life
by Leonard Mlodinow
“So I have had it all.”—Richard Feynman
In Feynman’s Rainbow Leonard Mlodinow tells the story of his friendship with the renowned physicist Richard Feynman who guided him as a research fellow through the high-pressure world of physics at Cal Tech. Throughout the book Feynman is irascible, brilliant, funny, testy, and grumpy by turns, but always honest and discerning in his advice, and Mlodinow is in continual despair at finding a suitable project in the highly competitive physics program. Eventually Mlodinow began recording his conversations, and in the last one Feynman talks about his wife Arlene who died young. It is Feynman’s final lesson for the young physicist who would eventually follow his heart leaving cutting-edge physics behind to become a writer.
The Paragraph of the Week
I’m not worried about my own future in heaven or hell. I have a theory about that that I believe does come from my science. I believe in scientific discoveries and therefore have a view about myself that is consistent. Now I’ve just been to the hospital and I don't know how long I have to live. It happens to all of us sooner or later. Everybody dies. It’s just a matter of when. But with Arlene I was really happy for a while. So I have had it all. After Arlene, the rest of my life didn't have to be so good, you see, because I had already had it all.
Richard Feynman met Arlene when he was thirteen. She became his girlfriend and eventually they fell in love. He showed her some of the beauty of rational thought and she taught him that “one has to be irrational sometimes.” She had TB and some of his friends discouraged him from marrying her, but he rejected their advice “not out of a sense of duty” but “because he loved her,” and they were careful so that he would not contract the disease. After a few years of being “very happily married,” she died. His science taught him that discoveries are made in this world, not in a heaven or hell. He was not angry at a God he didn’t believe in for taking his young wife, nor at the disease. “You can’t get mad at some bacteria, can you?” He did not resent her death or look for revenge and felt no remorse because, he explains, “there was nothing I could have done about it.” Now, as he faces his own mortality, he is simply grateful to have been “really happy for a while.” Based on a humility grounded in science and the emotional life his wife nurtured in him, he understands that having loved, he “had it all.”
August 17, 2023
from “James Baldwin Cave Canem Keynote, 2017”
in Watch Your Language:
Visual and Literary Reflections on a Century of American Poetry
by Terrance Hayes
“We need all the stories and all the stories between the stories, all the songs, all the poems.”—Terrance Hayes
Watch Your Language is a compendium of drawings, poetry, prose, and a boardgame for poetry written by the poet Terrance Hayes. It includes a remarkable essay about the writer James Baldwin delivered as the keynote address by Hayes to the Cave Canem Retreat for Black poets in 2017. From that essay I have chosen one paragraph on the “Star-Spangled Banner” as the Paragraph of the Week and another on “what Black people can do with beauty.” both by Hayes, as our commentary. I throw in a link to Marvin Gaye’s remarkable performance of the national anthem at the 1983 NBA All- Star game as a lagniappe.
The Paragraph of the Week
So yes, one Black man playing The Star-Spangled Banner” is evidence that this is one nation. I’m on the side of Baldwin. I don’t know how he felt about the Black national anthem. But I know he liked good music. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is our song. And not just because of Memorial Day, The Fourth of July. This is our song. This is our nation: we share it, we defend it. We are instruments of music. Admittedly, it's a very complicated music, because this is a very complicated nation. That's why we can hear it played by [Jimi] Hendrix with vengeance and then sung with something close to transcendence by Marvin Gaye at the NBA All-Star Game in 1983. The song is as complicated as the man who sings “Let's Get It On” as well as “What's Going On.” America lives between those two songs. If you know “Sonny's Blues,” by a young James Baldwin (about a Black man who is transformed when he hears his brother, a recovering heroin addict, play jazz) and if you know “Going to Meet the Man,” by an older James Baldwin (about a white man who is transformed when he sees a Black man burned alive) then you know America also lives between those two stories. We need all the stories and all the stories between the stories, all the songs, all the poems.
I have seen what Black people can do with beauty. I have seen Black people make their complicated, contradictory, and fucked-up histories into poems. Little verbal engines. Wires of feeling. I'm not going to totally say it's artists that hear the dream of America best and then give this dream a shape, but I will say poets carry love in their defense, love in their loneliness and bewilderment, their doubt and genius. This is how we welcome Cave Canem in its twentieth year. I said Cave Canem was founded by teachers who had nothing in common beyond poetry and Blackness. I should have added, they had in common what they taught us. They taught us personal life need not be separated from public or political life. They taught us, they taught me, to write in my room alone, but to always turn my gaze to the window on our country as well as to the mirror of family and reflection, and to always leave a door into this room where you all are welcome to enter, eat, dance, and rest. We celebrate Black poets of complex Americanness. We must love this country better than it loves us. And this country must love us better than we love ourselves. I'm going to stop talking about it. I'm going to let you listen to Marvin Gaye sing it.
August 25, 2023
from The Last Year
by Jill Talbot
“Every time I leave for a trip,” Jill Talbot writes in The Last Year, “I imagine its ending.”
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction. Her most recent collection is The Last Year about the senior year in high school of her daughter Indie whom she as a single mom raised. The book captures the mix of emotions felt by both mother and daughter before Indie heads off to college far from home.
The Paragraph of the Week
The other night, after my friends picked me up from the airport and dropped me off at my apartment, I turned the key, opened the door, and rolled my suitcase inside. It was only then that I realized I had not turned to look at the empty rooms as we were leaving them. I had not pictured the moment I would come back to them alone.
“Every time I leave for a trip,” Jill Talbot writes in The Last Year, “I imagine its ending.” The same could be said of opening books. This collection of essays was always headed toward this paragraph and its final word “alone.” Jill Talbot felt bereft when her husband abandoned her and their infant child, but she was not alone. She devoted herself to raising and loving Indie who as a senior in high school still called her mother her best friend. This book puts into words that long goodbye and the empty apartment we saw coming in its opening pages but, oddly, like the author we are unprepared for “alone” when she turns the key, opens the door, rolls in her suitcase, and it unceremoniously arrives.
September 1, 2023
by Kathleen English Cadmus
“...‘running away’ eventually became ‘running toward’”—THE
Kathleen English Cadmus is a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner from Worthington, Ohio, and the author of Intertwined, the story of her struggles with the adoption of her Korean daughter who runs away. “How does a woman go from being a normal Midwestern mom to sitting across the table from a bounty hunter?” the book’s description reads. “That's what Kathleen English Cadmus wondered as she took one more surreal step in her quest to find and save her teenage daughter, Laura.”
The Paragraph of the Week is a meditation on the yin-yang symbol above Laura's heart that represents her struggle to find stability in an unstable world. It also offers a glimpse of the woman running toward her to help.
The Paragraph of the Week
The yin-yang that rests above Laura’s heart tells the story of a young girl who happened to wander into a tattoo shop while running away from her permanent home. She obtained a permanent tattoo while in a temporary relationship with a temporary name that had the same meaning as the name given to her at birth by her temporary parents who later placed her for adoption. The day after this young girl chose the tattoo, she was found by the efforts of her permanent adoptive mother who had been running toward her, trying to track her down.
Laura, the adopted Korean daughter of Kathleen English Cadmus, developed a psychological condition that caused her to run away from home, and the last time Laura escaped, Cadmus, desperate, sought out a bounty hunter to track her down. The task was to help Laura find a permanent home in a world of temporary relationships, temporary identities, and temporary parents, and that permanent home was grounded in the maternal persistence of her adoptive mother who never gave up on their relationship. In the end, Cadmus and her daughter arrived at the central paradox of the book, that “running away” eventually became “running toward,” the unifying insight symbolized by the permanent yin-yang tattoo that Laura picked up before being found by the bounty hunter.
September 8, 2023
from “Knowing Our Place”
in Small Wonder
by Barbara Kingsolver
“Protecting the land that once provided us with our genesis may turn out to be the only real story there is for us.”
I don’t know whether The Humble Essayist is growing uncharacteristically quiet or lazy, but many of the commentaries over the last few months have been by the authors and not by THE. This week is no exception. When he finds a good commentary, THE will snatch it up. The Paragraph of the Week is by the celebrated novelist Barbara Kingsolver. It is from the essay “Knowing Our Place” in the book Small Wonder. So is the commentary.
The Paragraph of the Week
With all due respect for the wondrous ways people have invented to amuse themselves and one another on paved surfaces, I find that this exodus from the land makes me unspeakably sad. I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant's way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in. I think of the astonished neighbor children who huddled around my husband in his tiny backyard garden, in the city where he lived years ago, clapping their hands to their mouths in pure dismay at seeing him pull carrots from the ground. (Ever the thoughtful teacher, he explained about fruits and roots and asked, “What other foods do you think might grow in the ground?” They knit their brows, conferred, and offered brightly, “Spaghetti?”) I wonder what it will mean for people to forget that food, like rain, is not a product but a process. I wonder how they will imagine the infinite when they have never seen how the stars fill a dark night sky. I wonder how I can explain why a wood-thrush song makes my chest hurt to a populace for whom wood is a construction material and thrush is a tongue disease.
Protecting the land that once provided us with our genesis may turn out to be the only real story there is for us. The land still provides our genesis, however we might like to forget that our food comes from dank, muddy earth, that the oxygen in our lungs was recently inside a leaf, and that every newspaper or book we may pick up (including this one, ultimately, though recycled) is made from the hearts of trees that died for the sake of our imagined lives. What you hold in your hands right now, beneath these words, is consecrated air and time and sunlight and, first of all, a place. Whether we are leaving it or coming into it, it's here that matters, it is place. Whether we understand where we are or don't, that is the story: To be here or not to be. Storytelling is as old as our need to remember where the water is, where the best food grows, where we find our courage for the hunt. It's as persistent as our desire to teach our children how to live in this place that we have known longer than they have. Our greatest and smallest explanations for ourselves grow from place, as surely as carrots grow in the dirt. I'm presuming to tell you something that I could not prove rationally but instead feel as a religious faith. I can't believe otherwise.
September 14, 2023
from “Tradition and the Individual Talent”
in The Sacred Wood
by T. S. Eliot
“T. S. Eliot is right when he argues that to value any artists we must set them, ‘for contrast and comparison, among the dead.’”—THE
I am a card-carrying member of the “Dead Poet’s Society,” and believe in the presence of the past in contemporary literature. The teacher in the movie by that name is based on the essayist Sam Pickering who often appears in The Humble Essayist, but it is an essay by the twentieth century modernist T. S. Eliot called “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that probably suggested the idea behind the film. After returning to Eliot’s essay which I had not read in decades, I remain convinced that artists create their work in “the present moment of the past,” but not without a crucial caveat that the literature of the present has taught me.
The Paragraph of the Week
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.
—T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot is right when he argues that to value any artists we must set them, “for contrast and comparison, among the dead.” Each new work of art draws on the living presence of a tradition of dead artists and nudges it along a bit: “The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered.” The writer does not just live in the present or the past, but in “the present moment of the past,” aware of what never dies. But Eliot is unclear what tradition he is talking about. Sometimes he calls it “English,” as opposed to French, and at other times he simply calls it “European.” Whatever it is, he guards it scrupulously—changes to the canon, he insists, must “be slowly and cautiously applied.” But his own poetry, though largely Eurocentric, drew on writers from around the world creating cracks in his own tradition. For example, “The Waste Land” ends with the Sanskrit word for peace, “shantih,” taken from the Upanishads. Since then we have smashed the old canon wide open. One of the joys of my time as a writer and teacher has been to see the addition of writers neglected due to racism or ethnicity, as well as writers from other cultures outside of the European tradition. This expansion has been done in full awareness of our “great difficulties and responsibilities” as artists. To value artists we must see them hobnobbing among the dead, yes, but our vision will be more encompassing if we remember it is an enormous room.
September 22, 2023
from “Winter Hours”
in Upstream: Selected Essays
by Mary Oliver
“In my mind now, in any comparison of demonstrated truths and unproven but vivid intuitions, the truths lose.”
Mary Oliver’s poetry won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and a Lannan Literary Award for lifetime achievement. Reviewing Dream Work (1986) for the Nation, poet and critic Alicia Ostriker numbered Oliver among America’s finest poets, as “visionary as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson.” Our feature is from her selected essays, Upstream.
The Paragraph of the Week
Knowledge has entertained me and it has shaped me and it has failed me. Something in me still starves. In what is probably the most serious inquiry of my life, I have begun to look past reason, past the provable, in other directions. Now I think there is only one subject worth my attention and that is the precognition of the spiritual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my own spiritual state. I am not talking about having faith necessarily, although one hopes to. What I mean by spirituality is not theology, but attitude. Such interest nourishes me beyond the finest compendium of facts. In my mind now, in any comparison of demonstrated truths and unproven but vivid intuitions, the truths lose.
What does “the precognition of the spiritual side of the world” mean? It is an idea that Mary Oliver pursued for the last third of her long career as poet and essayist, but she admits she doesn’t know “what to call it.” It lies somewhere between the words “precognition” and “recognition,” but is distinct from cognition itself. After all, knowledge has entertained her and shaped her life, but also “failed” her. It is distinct, too, from “faith,” which she only hopes for. I’m reminded of William Wordsworth, one of her heroes, who defined poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” For her tranquility is an attitude of reverence for nature in which she trusts her “vivid intuitions” over “demonstrated truths.” Courting the absurd by committing the pathetic fallacy and ignoring the anthropomorphic concerns of scientists, she sees owl, thunderworm, daffodil, and red-spotted newt as “a company of spirits, as well as bodies.” She does not write about wind, tree, and leaf but “on their behalf,” composing “praise poems” for “unawakened hearts.” For her it is “our way to a sustainable world together.”
September 29, 2023
from The Color of Water
by James McBride
“Oh, I'm crying now. Oh boy, what are y'all trying to do. . .”
James McBride is an award-winning memoirist, novelist, musician, and screenwriter. His landmark memoir, The Color of Water, published in 1996, has sold millions of copies and spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list. Considered an American classic, it is read in schools and universities across the United States. The main character in his memoir is his mother, and in our paragraph of the week he helps her reunite with a loyal friend whom she has not seen since childhood.
The Paragraph of the Week
As we neared Frances’s house in Portsmouth, Mommy began to get nervous and to talk excessively. "Look at these roads," she said. "Not a bump. Not a notch. They fix them down here in Virginia, but you shouldn’t speed on them, because the cops here don’t play. They don’t play, you hear me! Billy, slow down! Oh, my knees hurt. The air-conditioning really bothers my knees. And these seats are too small.” Even after we pulled into the driveway of Frances's house and her friend approached, she was babbling away, complaining now. “Oh, I can't get up now. My legs hurt. Help me get up, what the heck are y'all trying to do anyway! Driving so fast like that! You can't drive like that in Virginia, I tell you. Now my knees hurt, and—Frances! Look at how thin you are. Oh, you're so pretty. Oh, I'm crying now. Oh boy, what are y'all trying to do. . .” And she wept as she hugged her friend.
The part of this paragraph that gets me is at the m-dash—the long dash before the name “Frances.” It is masterful writing. James McBride’s mother, Ruth, has not seen her best friend from childhood for decades. Ruth was a Jew without friends in a largely gentile neighborhood when in fourth grade Frances said, “you have the prettiest hair. Let’s be friends.” Frances had a generous spirit about her. When her mother served non-kosher food that Ruth could not eat. Frances simply said she didn’t like the food either. “That’s how she was. She’d do little things to let you know she was on your side.” At school she was Ruth’s protector” “if she was around,” Ruth explained, “no one would tease me.” But when her son James arranges for the two to meet after the long absence, Ruth babbles nervously about her knees, the driving, the police, her legs, the police, her knees—and then she sees Frances, her friend and defender, on the other side of that dash, and we’re all crying.
October 6, 2023
from “Beneath the Ice”
in A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World
by David Gessner
“Do you want to know why we can’t stop destroying the planet? David Gessner has a clue.”—THE
David Gessner is the author of thirteen books that blend a love of nature, humor, memoir, and environmentalism, including the New York Times bestselling, All the Wild That Remains, Return of the Osprey, Sick of Nature and Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness. The Paragraph of the Week is from the essay “Beneath the Ice” in his latest collection, A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World. In it he finds a fresh and very personal way to write about why we can’t stop destroying the planet.
The Paragraph of the Week
“Annie's Song” comes on. ‘Annie's Song,’ which just happens to be, for no particular reason, the favorite song of Barbara Gessner. The same Barbara Gessner who gave birth to me sixty years ago and who is now sitting in a nursing home in North Carolina scribbling down what look like ancient runes, not even decipherable to her, in the same sort of wire-ring notebook she has made things-to-do lists in for half a century or so. The same Barbara Gessner who doesn't really believe that she is in assisted living but thinks she is either in a prison or some scary prep school where people plot against her and where each night “they” take her to a place called “the windowless house,” and the same woman who lives in a state of constant agitation, as if there is something to do that, if she could only remember what it was and do it, would solve everything that is wrong with her but that she can't do because she can't quite remember what that thing is, like an itch that can't be scratched, and whose mind and body bear little resemblance to the woman who danced in high heels on top of pianos and who was always the youngest, coolest, prettiest mom, and who loved her firstborn son with all her heart and signed her letters to him “Your Ever-Lovin’ Mom.” Yes, that Barbara Gessner.
Do you want to know why we can’t stop destroying the planet? David Gessner has a clue. Witnessing the “everyday tragedy” of his mother’s dementia, he admits that he “deals with her, the problem of her, as if she were any other problem on his very own things-to-do list,” and says things like, “it would be better if she died” and mean it. When his wife says how “awful and sad” his mother’s condition is, he can “nod numbly and agree and say nothing.” Until he hears “Annie’s Song,” while driving a rented car to see the Colorado river headwaters locked under ice, and the ice within him breaks. Chest throbbing and tears flowing he “is “bawling like a toddler.” He wails “My poor Mom...My beautiful mom. My mom”—the realizations coming from deep inside him. He cries through the rest of his John Denver songs and eventually pulls over before he can “stuff the tragedy of his mother back down where it belongs.” Human beings have a genius for repressing a hard truth especially when it is about the dying source of life. It allows us to carry on with our day and “get back to normal” even when normal is the problem. Gessner says that we need a new language for talking about climate change: “A new story, one that draws on the present and threads in the old and also the ancient.” One that breaks through the ice. In A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World he has found it.
October 13, 2023
from “Ambivalent Things”
in Exhibitions: Essays on Art and Atrocity
by Jehanne Dubrow
“Used or not, a thing of the old world or the new, she too is made to hold the burning.”—Jehanne Dubrow
Exhibitions: Essays on Art and Atrocity is a book of ekphrastic essays about what happens when beauty intersects with horror. In it Jehanne Dubrow weaves her personal story with commentary on works of art in a world coming apart. In the essay “Ambivalent Things” about a collection of Judaica in her home, she goes one step further, writing second thoughts in the margins of her own paragraphs in a way that will look familiar to readers of The Humble Essayist.
Dubrow is the author of nine poetry collections and two books of creative nonfiction. She teaches creative writing at the University of North Texas.
The Paragraph of the Week
I didn't know the word ambivalence when I was small. If I had, I would have pointed to the menorah of nails and named it my family’s ambivalence. We were Jews without belief, but still believed ourselves Jews, angry at a God whose presence we doubted, our faith abandoned a generation ago, in the ghettos or at the border crossings of another continent. This menorah seemed to say, belief is rigid and piercing. It will hurt you to believe.
But we might reach a different conclusion here. We say she is the cup waiting to be filled. She is also the empty case and the bread uncovered. Used or not, a thing of the old world or the new, she too is made to hold the burning, to lift the light with her soldered spikes.
October 20, 2023
from The Circus Train
by Judith Kitchen
“...you still see the mystery of his being there at all.”
Each year in October we celebrate the work of Judith Kitchen, the teacher, poet, and essayist who influenced a generation of writers. This week we return to her masterpiece, The Circus Train, for a lesson in what matters.
The Paragraph of the Week
The buck—you know it was a buck because the antlers were prominent—was too fast, too fluid, for you to count the points. What does it matter? He was large, and powerful, and he leapt the fence in one flowing movement and then he was off past the side of the house. You imagine his next hurdle, over the fence at the front of the house. If you went out, you might find his hoofprints in the garden. If you went out—but you won't—maybe you could still see him, stopped in his tracks so to speak, nibbling at the neighbor’s new willow. But you won't go out, won't look for him, because you still see the mystery of his being there at all, leaping your fence the way he did yesterday, and the day before.
In this paragraph from The Circus Train a part of Judith Kitchen is angry that she could not count the number of points on the buck, could not get the facts straight, and must rely on vagaries like “large,” “powerful,” and “flowing.” That same part of her wants to follow the stag into the garden where he may still be “stopped in his tracks so to speak, nibbling at the neighbors new willow.” It is the same part of her that likes the little joke about stopping in his tracks followed with the wink of “so to speak.” She won’t chase after the memory, though, because her better self knows it does not matter. “You won’t go” she tells herself, “because you still see the mystery of his being there at all, leaping your fence the way he did yesterday, and the day before.” The goal is not to capture memories or record the facts or be clever, but to follow the plume of smoke from her circus train to a more profound truth about being itself, and, through the alchemy of words and perceptions, turn event into mystery.
October 27, 2023
from “Exaptation of the Guitar”
in Guitar International
by Michael Garfield
“I encourage you to look upon the world with fresh eyes, to see it and feel it, not as some rigid predestined machine, but as a gift of creative jubilance.”
The bio in Guitar International where this essay originally appeared reads this way: “Illustrator and essayist by day, avant guitarist by night, Michael Garfield is intent on demonstrating that everything is equally art, science, and spiritual practice. Not content to merely push the boundaries of acoustic guitar technique, Michael draws from a world of traditions past, present, and future to deliver music both totally original and strangely familiar – and writes on the intersections of music, science, culture, and philosophy for a variety of websites.”
Here he takes on “exaptation,” the shift in the function of a trait during evolution, as an illuminating insight into the creative process.
The Paragraph of the Week
Exaptation is function following form, making do with the tools at hand, loving the one you’re with. On one end of the spectrum, exaptation is defending yourself with that rock just within reach. On the other end, it is taking the infinite abundance of every superimposed possibility at the root of manifestation, and using it to forget yourself in a world of frustration and constraint. In both cases, the creative medium (the rock, or the pleroma) contains no set of instructions, no essential purpose. It is “good for” whatever it happens to be good for, determined by the tumbling lock of relationship we call natural selection.
It is liberating to see that the universe was not created for a predetermined purpose. Drawing on the work of Stephen J. Gould and others, Michael Garfield reminds us that the giraffe’s long neck was not made “for” nibbling the tops of trees. Instead he argues that every adaptation requires two steps, “making it and then figuring out what to do with it.” He uses this discovery to inform his own highly improvisational style on the guitar, but exaptation has larger implications. “In this spirit,” he writes, “I encourage you to look upon the world with fresh eyes, to see it and feel it, not as some rigid predestined machine, but as a gift of creative jubilance inviting us to assist in the unfurling form and function of everything we know and are. Don’t assume that you know what that guitar is when you pick it up, or that pen, or that hand. Don’t assume you know what you’ve got riding in your chromosomes, or that their full potential has been explored.”
November 3, 2023
from “And So It Goes”
in The Truth
by Sam Pickering
“Taking the advice of Montaigne, Sam Pickering ditched the idea of writing an advice book and walked in the woods instead.”—THE
Sam Pickering has another book, and it is pure Sam Pickering. Called The Truth, it contains his usual mix of fun, made up “true” stories, and details from the world of nature all written in stunning prose which you can sample here. In the opening essay he contemplates writing an advice book, and decides against it.
The Paragraph of the Week
I decided not to write a book. “To compose our character is our duty,” Montaigne wrote, “not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately.” Often recognizing good advice is difficult, but when a person perceives it he should follow it. The pages I read in the spring were green and natural, maybe a little refined but not bleached or crazed with print. They pushed thoughts about writing another book aside and occupying my mind and sight satisfied me. Much was familiar, and I did not analyze. Days were garlanded, and I simply looked one moment at blossoms blanketing a Crimson Cloud cultivar of an English Hawthorne, the next at the small, sweet bristles of dwarf fothergilla. Wisteria dangled from the crowns of trees with the nonchalance of brides' maids. In the Beaver Pond, four Canada geese goslings fed on sedges and pond grass, their parents a moving bracket protecting them. Yellow Iris flourished in a marsh, and on Crimean linden the bark broke across the trunk in heavy surfer's waves creating deep troughs. “And the glowworm shines green in the midst of green leaves,” I said, recalling a line from a forgotten summer song.
Taking the advice of Montaigne, Sam Pickering ditched the idea of writing an advice book and walked in the woods instead where the pages he read “were green and natural, maybe a little refined but not bleached or crazed with print.” Days “were garlanded” with dwarf fothergilla, wisteria, and yellow iris, goslings fed on sedge “their parents a moving bracket protecting them,” and the bark of Crimean linden broke “in heavy surfer's waves creating deep troughs.” Surrounded by such beauty, he stumbles on a kill site near what looks like an ogre’s den: “Scattered atop the dirt raised around the opening were the leftovers of a turkey dinner, the skull of a groundhog, a fawn's leg, wings from a crow, and tails of rabbits and squirrels.” Most striking of all were the petrified remains of a fox with teeth exposed. “They were white and polished, and the skeleton was in one piece. Holding it together were dried ligaments and a wrap of black, leathery skin, odorless, furless, and taunt as the batter head of a snare drum. The dried juices of decay glued the skin to the skull, and the fox's mouth was open, grinning in a rictus and looking like a gargoyle on a medieval cathedral.” Here is the melancholy truth of his book’s title. Pickering admits that his life, like his walks, “has never been and will never be a masterpiece,” but amid glory and in the face of death, he ends up offering a bit of advice as wise as Montaigne’s: “tell people to moderate their hopes and desires, to temper their opinions, and to revere the book of nature. Its pages turn every day.”
November 10, 2023
from “The Shape of Love”
in Second Sight
by Rosemary Royston
“Be careful. The blade will surely slip.”—Rosemary Royston
The poet Rosemary Royston, a former student of mine, lives in my hometown of Blairsville, Georgia. Last month I heard her read from her book of poems, Second Sight, at Book Bound Bookstore, a local hangout for booklovers and writers. Our paragraph of the week is the beginning of her prose poem “The Shape of Love” in that collection. You can learn more about Rosemary and her work at her website here.
The Paragraph of the Week
Mother was beautiful until she was not. It was the 70s. I don’t think it was the brown, polka-dot polyester dress. It was, instead, my exit from Eden. Waking into reality. I saw Mother's strong jaw, her determined cheekbones. But there was a violent halo of sun around her face. Pock-marked skin. Coffee breath. Scream-cries of new brother.
For Rosemary Royston love is a dangerous gift that requires special handling. When her brother was born she hid in a large brown box. It was the day of her “exit from Eden.” The day her mother was no longer beautiful: her “strong jaw” and “determined cheek bones” surrounded by “a violent halo.” Rosemary fell asleep in the box amid the “smell of packing tape and grandma’s house.” To open such a gift that “comes in the form of a cube,” you must unwrap it. “Sometimes you have to use a knife or sharp scissors to cut through the tape and string,” she explains. “Be careful. The blade will surely slip.”
November 17, 2023
from “Lunch with Norman Mailer, 1987”
by Molly Giles
“Oh, my goodness. I am so glad to find this here.”
The second novel of Molly Giles, The Home for Unwed Husbands, just came out with Leapfrog Press and her memoir, Life Span, will be published next spring with WTAW Press. She is the author of five award-winning short story collections and has a piece in the current Pushcart Prize Anthology. The single paragraph essay, “Lunch with Norman Mailer, 1987,” appears in the current issue of Brevity magazine which not only publishes stunning brief prose pieces, but also leaves room for readers to comment. You can read the current issue of Brevity here.
The Paragraph of the Week
Lunch with Norman Mailer, 1987
The Round Table meets at Trader Vic’s. Would I come as their guest? They need a woman. I don’t know, I say: I’m no Dorothy Parker. “No,” my host agrees kindly, “but you’ll do.” Nervous, I follow him up the stairs to the Captain’s Cabin. I meet the famous movie producer, the famous architect, the famous director, the famous columnist, and there he is, the famous writer, Norman Mailer—just like his photos, twinkly blue eyes, curly silver hair. We sit. They talk. Books. Money. Movies. Money. Boxing. Money. Jazz. No one speaks to me, so I don’t say a word. Carafes of wine appear and plates of food. Norman Mailer starts to move his silverware around with his tiny hands; I have never seen such tiny hands. Baby hands. He lifts his knife up, sets it down. Is he strong enough to cut his steak? Without thinking, I, oldest daughter, mother of three, reach over and begin to cut it for him. The table stills, stares. Well, I think, looking up, they said they needed a woman. Mailer beside me grunts and starts to eat.
“Oh, my goodness. I am so glad to find this here,” writes Jan Priddy in the comment section that follows this essay in the Fall 2023 issue of Brevity. “Every woman I know has sat at table and been talked over. But cutting Mailer’s steak… I laughed!” “Marvelous!” adds Terese Svoboda in the next comment, “Molly Giles always knows how to undercut with the best of them.” “Bravo, Molly,” says Pat Matsueda. Rae says, “I’ve done the same, cutting someone’s food and wondered what the person receiving my action thought. It’s tricky. Loved that Giles did that.” “Ha!” writes Kenny. “They certainly did need a woman at the table! Fun piece,” writes Ginny Horton. Amanda Pinkston likes “‘You’ll do,’” quoting the host’s snarky remark, noting, “you did and then some.” Jean Coco enjoyed “…grunts and starts to eat. Wow–in 1987! Felt like the 50s. I love this essay.” “You have your epiphanies,” Leo Vanderpot explains drolly, “and then you have your getevenies. This was going toward the former and then clipped into the latter.” Finally, Beth Ann Fennelly exclaims, “This is fabulous. Thanks, Molly Giles!” And I agree with her on both counts.
—THE (with help from Brevity readers)
November 24, 2023
from “From the Rocks at Dusk”
in Spoken among the Trees
by Jeff Gundy
“Write until it's too dark to see...”—Jeff Gundy
Jeff Gundy has written eight books of poetry and four books of creative nonfiction and literary criticism, and was awarded the Ohio Poet of the Year in 2015. He is the Distinguished Poet in Residence at Bluffton University. The Paragraph of the Week is from his essay “From the Rocks at Dusk” that originally appeared in his poetry collection Spoken among the Trees. The commentary comes from his essay “Walking, Gathering, Listening” in The Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction where Gundy explains how a group walk at dusk can produce writing “that sounds resonant and beautiful in the twilight.”
The Paragraph of the Week
I kept pushing the pen across paper, breathed twice slowly, straightened my back. The wet dirt was still cold with winter, its small lives just stirring. Some odd phrases slipped through me like eels. Water muttered on down the creek, bending to geography, obeying the urge to settle. In the great darkness there were many small lights, and as every one of us fell deeper into evening I found myself believing that the darkness itself was on fire.
—Jeff Gundy, “From the Rocks at Dusk”
Prompt for “From the Rocks at Dusk”
Have some destination in mind where the group can settle in just as it's starting to get truly dark. Read a little more aloud once you get there, then invite people to spread out a bit, take out their notebooks, and just see what comes. Write until it's too dark to see; there's something about scrawling on a nearly invisible page that brings out things you would never find otherwise. I have learned over and over that the world always has something to say, if we can quiet ourselves long enough to listen.
—Jeff Gundy, “Walking, Gathering, Listening”