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Archive 2024

Shoemaker

January 5, 2024

 

 

from “Story”

in Slow Learner

by Jan Shoemaker

 

Poet and essayist Jan Shoemaker is one of our finest prose stylists, and her second book of essays, Slow Learner, is a reason to celebrate. What I admire about her work is her range, her seemingly effortless eye for literary effects, and her complete control of tone throughout. By range I mean she can go from meringue to mystery in a phrase. She successfully pulls off more surprises in a paragraph than most writers do in an entire essay. And as for tone she can move assuredly from ridicule to reverence and back at will. I have written that I laughed all the way through this heartbreaking book, but it is heartbreaking in the end, so I set her humor aside in my choice for The Paragraph of the Week and in my comment try to honor the darker truths of her achievement.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

By any thinking person’s estimate, our actual 3.5 billion-year-old story is not headed for a happy ending—not for humans or starfish or the beautiful Sally Lightfoot crabs Steinbeck tried and failed to surprise. Billionaire global overlords and their apparatchiks aside, I think lots of us will concede that we are approaching the conclusion of what’s turning out to be a tragedy. And guiltily, bemusedly, anxiously, we wonder who, if anyone, can write the twist that will turn the plot around. There’s long been a buzz among editors, who’ve been scribbling for decades, “Don’t shit where you eat.” I drag my recyclables to the curb, overcome with the feeling of being small, smaller than I’ve ever felt before. From the dread of staring ahead, I turn back and look behind, and wonder about the narrative arc that landed us where we are. Did the engine of evolution, our author writ large, leave any wiggle room in our decisions at all?

 

—Jan Shoemaker

Commentary

 

In Jan Shoemaker’s view we live in a miracle and are enacting a tragedy. The miracle is the natural world around us that she describes in deliriously joyful and at times hilarious prose. I’ll choose one example for the delightful surprise that turns “elvis” into a verb. “From their pulpits in the creaking tree canopy, crows bellow their wild heresies with the bombast of Baptist ministers and, riding half-submerged logs, frogs elvis their velvety love me tenders. It’s a better noise than I get from the news.” Unfortunately, the news isn’t good. When she turns it on, Trump “redder and more bloated than usual...spread into the TV screen like a batter finding the edge of its pan, as he lobbed blame for our country’s slow response to the pandemic out into the world, trying to get it to stick somewhere.” We are, she believes, on a train headed for disaster from the beginning, and the end is at hand. I don’t know if there has ever been a sadder paragraph about the human condition than the Paragraph of the Week, with “shit” quite literally at its heart. The stories we create to buffer the pain of this unhappy end—including her own celebratory ones which she takes to task for aiming to please—will not change that hard truth, our only hope the question mark begging mercy from the “engine of evolution” that she leaves us with at the end.

—THE

Fennelly

January 12, 2024

 

 

from “What I Think When Someone Uses ‘Pussy’ As a Synonym for ‘Weak’”

in Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-memoirs

by Beth Ann Fennelly

“In order to come back with the baby, I had to tear it out at the root.”

 

Beth Ann Fennelly, Poet Laureate of Mississippi from 2016-2021, teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Mississippi where she is a four-time teaching award winner. Her sixth book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, was named an Atlanta Journal Constitution Best Book, a Goodreaders Favorite for 2017, and the winner of the Housatonic Book Prize. The Paragraph of the Week is a one-paragraph micro-memoir from that collection.

The Paragraph of the Week

What I Think When Someone Uses “Pussy”

As a Synonym for “Weak”

At the deepest part of the deepest part, I rocked shut like a stone. I'd climbed as far inside me as I could. Everything else had fallen away. Midwife, husband, bedroom, world: quaint concepts. My eyes were clamshells. My ears were clapped shut by the palms of the dead. My throat was stoppered with bees. I was the fox caught in the trap, and I was the trap. Chewing off a leg would have been easier than what I now required of myself. I understood I was alone in it. I understood I would come back from there with the baby, or I wouldn't come back at all. I was beyond the ministrations of loved ones. I was beyond the grasp of men. Even their prayers couldn't penetrate me. The pain was such that I made peace with that. I did not fear death. Fear was an emotion, and pain had scalded away all emotion. I chose. In order to come back with the baby, I had to tear it out at the root. Understand, I did this without the aid of my hands.

 

—Beth Ann Fennelly

Commentary

 

What I admire about “What I Think When Someone Uses ‘Pussy’ As a Synonym for ‘Weak’” is that it doesn’t build, but comes at you all at once. From the opening where the woman retreated into her deepest feminine self and “rocked shut like a stone” to the remarkable sneer of the last line “understand, I did this without the aid of my hands” she rages against insult without taking a breath. Along the way, she leaves behind “quaint concepts” of human relationship: “midwife, husband, bedroom, world” and becomes animal with clam shells for eyes and a throat “stoppered with bees.” Her anger cascades. The palms of the dead cover her ears. She is a wolf in a trap and the trap. Utterly alone, she is a rescuer “beyond the grasp of men.” Pain eradicates all fear and she makes a choice: “In order to come back with the baby, I had to tear it out at the root.” The paragraph is in the venerable tradition of the rant, and by its end we have blasted so far beyond weakness that the cliché in the title has been seared away for good.

Lea

January 19, 2024

 

 

 

 

From “Prologue”

In Such Dancing as We Can

By Sydney Lea

 

“I sat down on a porch bench and slid my feet in, rejoicing at how perfectly the boots fit. Merely to wear them was to yearn for a hike.”—Sydney Lea

 

The Humble Essayist Press is pleased to announce the publication of Such Dancing as We Can by poet Sydney Lea, the author of Hunting the Whole Way Home, a collection of essays and poetry. He was the founding editor of the New England Review and the Poet Laureate of Vermont from 2011 to 2015.

 

The Paragraph of the Week is from the “Prologue” of Such Dancing as We Can, his newest collection of essays about aging and mortality. What I admire in this apparently unassuming paragraph about finding boots in the back of a closet after nearly ten years is the way it draws together several strands of thought that lead to a low-key epiphany characteristic of this understated collection.

 

Sydney Lea has published twenty-four books: a novel, five volumes of personal and three of critical essays, and sixteen poetry collections. Such Dancing As We Can is his sixth book of personal essays. His second novel, Now Look, is due in spring of 2024.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

For the better part of a decade, I couldn’t find my favorite pair of many boots. They’re rugged enough, but they’re made of the lightest leather possible. I’m scarcely alone in such frustration; the thing we seek must be right at hand, but where? One day as last August waned, red maples in the wetlands beginning to show those heartbreak splashes of color, I found the boots in an unlikely closet, hidden behind boxes of my so-called papers. I let out a whoop, one loud enough to startle our three dogs. Then I sat down on a porch bench and slid my feet in, rejoicing at how perfectly the boots fit. Merely to wear them was to yearn for a hike.

 

—Sydney Lea

Commentary

 

Earlier in the “Prologue” of Such Dancing As We Can, Sydney Lea writes about an illness from a tick bite that nearly killed him and kept him from hiking in the woods. In passing he also mentions that he has “no notion of what becomes of us after the Reaper does arrive,” except for “an odd little inkling of continuity, of everything’s starting over,” repeating as the seasons do. He found an example in his boot because when he put it on he discovered an acorn that had waited all those years for his “foot to return” prompting him “to take certain matters up” where he had left them, including the hikes he used to love.  Instead of tossing the acorn away, he holds it in his hand because “the thing we seek must be right at hand.” Gazing at it fills him with a mixture of joy, melancholy, “and a whole lot more” beyond his understanding.

 

–THE

Horrocks

January 26, 2024

 

 

 

 

from “Dissolving Genre: Writ with Water”

in Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction

by Ingrid Horrocks

 

“Nothing is more soft and yielding than water. Yet for attacking the solid and strong nothing is better.”Tao Te Ching

Ingrid Horrocks is a writer and critic from Aotearoa, New Zealand. Her latest essay collection, Where We Swim, is a blend of memoir with travel and nature writing. The Paragraph of the Week is from her essay "Dissolving Genre: Writ with Water" which calls for a relaxing of genre boundaries to teach us how to yield to the rising waters of climate change and live inside the nonhuman world. I found it in the anthology Bending Genre edited by Margot Singer and Nicole Walker.

 

In the paragraph she thinks about a verse from her father’s copy of the Tao Te Ching that he shared with her when she was a girl and focuses on a single word from the Gia-fu Feng and Jane English translation.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

What I keep coming back to with a question is that term attack, sometimes translated as “overcoming”: Nothing is more soft and yielding than water. Yet for attacking the solid and strong nothing is better. What I see is water flowing through rigid social structures, seeping into a seeming collective belief that we must pour concrete, raise steel to the sky, buy primary-colored Legos in bright plastic boxes, wear tailored trousers. Perhaps the very threat of water, of floods on a scale we can as yet hardly imagine, might help us instead to seek more yielding ways to live alongside and within the nonhuman world. To  soften with it, from the page into the ground.

 

—Ingrid Horrocks

Commentary

 

In order to “evoke being part of the nonhuman world” Ingrid Horrocks finds her writing  “bending and yielding.” Her sense of family “ripples outward” to the world of whales. She thinks of them as “part of the fluid families we all inherit” and watches “the way even the most enormous adult appears light.” She wonders about whale songs: “What sounds do they float to acknowledge and guide one another?” She writes about her own encounter with water so that her “stories will have at least the weight” of her “human narrative,” at the same time resisting the urge to turn her experience of water into a metaphor for another creature’s experience of water. She imagines her “braided essay as a braided river” afloat on the “upswell” of contemporary eco-nonfiction with “water as the vessel of connection.” She reads this “new wave of bending, resistant” nature writing because her life, and ours, depends on finding “more yielding ways to live alongside and within the nonhuman world,” softening our hard edges “from the page into the ground” and returns ultimately to the word “attack” in an ancient verse from the Tao: Nothing is more soft and yielding than water. Yet for attacking the solid and strong nothing is better.

 

—THE

Walker

February 2, 2024

 

 

 

 

from “On Beauty”

in Sustainability: A Love Story

by Nicole Walker

 

How are we to be in this world while recognizing that “to be is still a verb?”

 

The Paragraph of the Week is from Sustainability: A Love Story by Nicole Walker, a tour de force on love and doom in the age of global warming and the tonic we need in our toxic times as we increasingly realize that being human, alas, is the problem. She is also the author of Processed Meat: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster, The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet, and A Survival Guide for Life in the Ruins. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.

The Paragraph of the Week is about her husband, Erik, a filmmaker who lifts her spirit when she agonizes over the looming ecological disaster.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

It was Erik who told me the oysters were dying as the oceans turned acidic from global warming but it was also he who strapped on his camera and said let's make a movie about people who are not fucking up. About how people are unfucking if not whole oceans than at least whole puddles of nitrate-ridden water, about how people understand how microclimates pinch their Grenache grapes cold but ripen their  Chardonnay grapes sweet and how, if we begin to follow microclimates that maybe we can be like the grape and reorganize the way we bend into the flow of canyon air streaming down to us in Sedona from Flagstaff on high, that if we massage micropreemie babies they will go home sooner and sooner and he brought the information to me in the way the internet brings information, in a flow, similar to water when I'm sunk in sadness at the memory of water broken by oil spills, broken by stupid fights, broken by nitrates, broken by pi, broken by global warming, broken by choose, he stands in front of me and agitates. Like a washing machine.

 

—Nicole Walker

Commentary

Nicole Walker worries about everything. Here’s a short list: guns, drought, trees, sex too early, and plastic, her marriage, her children, alcohol, science, and plastic, micropreemies, oil spills, suicide, impossible choices, endless fighting, and plastic. She spends as much time arguing with her husband, Erik, as loving him, which is a lot. They can’t resist going to the mat over stuff that matters little such as the best way to describe the concept of “pi,” though neither of them is a mathematician. Her prose is the perfect vehicle for these raging anxieties. Robert Frost characterized poetry as ice gliding on its own melting. Her writing is popcorn flying everywhere. Her biggest worry is this: the only way to save life on a carbon-choked planet is for humans to stop being human: stop desiring, stop striving, stop savoring the taste of meat. How are we to be in this world while recognizing that “to be is still a verb?” How do we sustain both love and life on a planet we are turning brown? She knows the beauty we are destroying because she’s seen it “raining upward as the clouds pull water from the pines” and feels it encircle her like the endless string of numbers after 3.14. When she is shattered by our destructive ways, nothing helps, but love, that may not sustain the ecosystem, stands undeterred before her “and agitates. Like a washing machine.”

 

—THE

Christman

February 9, 2022

 

 

from “Editor’s Notes”

in River Teeth 25:1

by Jill Christman

 

“The crucial lesson that Joe Mackall taught Jill Christman in his comments on her first draft of ‘Going Back to Plum Island,’ is that time happens differently in nonfiction than in life.”—THE

 

Jill Christman is the author of If This Were Fiction: A Love Story in Essays and the Senior Editor, with her husband Mark Neely, of River Teeth magazine. In her “Editor’s Notes” she discusses the way the founding editors of the magazine—Joe Mackall and Dan Lehman—helped her grow as an essayist and, now that she is an editor of the same magazine, discusses the relationships she forges with the authors she mentors during the editing process.

 

Since the relationship between author and magazine editor is so important, I would like to devote several features to it, beginning with the lessons that the founding editors of River Teeth taught Christman. From Joe Mackall she learned not to write past the ending and from Dan Lehman she learned the importance of naming names in her essays. But the most important lesson—advice that has become “the cornerstone” of her teaching and writing—is about the need to savor decisive moments in an essay. In the initial draft of the “pivotal scene” of “Going Back to Plum Island,” she knocks twice on the door of a man who raped her as a child and, when the knock goes unanswered, abruptly leaves with little discussion of what went on in her mind at that crucial moment.  In the margins Mackall simply asked “Can you linger in the uncertainty here?”

The Paragraph of the Week

 

In life, I had stepped forward and knocked a second time, but in the essay, I didn't know what to do with this moment. I had, as personal essayists often do, traveled back in memory to a place and time I needed to return to figure something out, entirely on my own volition and within my own control, and panicked. I wanted to get out fast. I'm always reminding my students that “life doesn't come with plot,” but dang, if ever there were a narrative climax in my own life—a decision to be made, an action to be taken, and a life that would never again be the same? Here it was. And, yet, Joe was showing me how I'd come right up to this pivotal moment and flinched. I had backed away. I returned to that moment—and then I asked myself to stay. Joe knew I needed to stay in the place that scared me a little longer. He knew also that I would emerge into the light, brighter than before.

 

—Jill Christman

Commentary

 

The crucial lesson that Joe Mackall taught Jill Christman in his comments on her first draft of “Going Back to Plum Island,” is that time happens differently in nonfiction than in life. According to the clock every minute of our lives is the same length, but that is not the way we experience time, and a personal essay is about capturing the experience. Sections of an essay devoted to exposition move quickly through essential but unimportant information: who, what, when, where. Other sections, such as dialogue, take about the same amount of time to read aloud as they did in life. But for pivotal moments the author has the chance to slow the clock, filling the event with the significance it deserves. In the final version of the “Going Back to Plum Island” which appears in her collection If This Were Fiction, Christman lingers for several paragraphs over the momentous knock. Dogs snarl, “throwing themselves against the door—muscle on metal, convulsive, so loud.” She wonders what she would say if a stranger came to the door: “I wonder if you would mind if I just walked around the yard?” But she knows if the creep who raped her showed up, she would not cower, but stand up to him for her sake and the sake of her daughter. She knows what she would say: “I am not afraid of you anymore.” In the end no one answers and she walks away, but as the clock of her prose slows, the moment fills with meaning.

 

—THE

February 16, 2024

 

 

 

from “God Forbid a Black Girl”

in River Teeth

by Tierney Oberhammer

“Take Tierney Oberhammer’s ‘God Forbid a Black Girl.’ Not only is this Oberhammer’s first published personal essay, it's her first personal essay. Like ever.”

—Jill Christman

 

Last week we devoted our paragraph to advice that Jill Christman received from the founding editors at River Teeth, Joe Mackall and Dan Lehman. Now Christman is a senior editor at the magazine, and I thought I would do a feature on the passion that she, like so many great editors, brings to the task by turning to a comment she made on “God Forbid a Black Girl” by Tierney Oberhammer in her “Editor’s Notes” for the Fall 2023 issue.

 

Oberhammer’s essay about her struggle as a black girl raised in a white family and culture is technically ambitious, amping up the intensity of her experience in a collage of short paragraphs, Google searches, lists in different fonts, words in all caps and bold, cancelled words, and repetitions that grow in meaning with a relevance that slowly become clear.  These technical moves do not distract, but inexorably reveal the transformation that impressed her River Teeth editor.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Things I will say to my future child

- You are all the things we are and more, and they're all yours.

- You can climb any tree you want, but please, not too high.

- If you need help, I'm here.

- We wanted you and chose you. We love you.

- You can have ice cream every day, but not too much.

- I'll carry you for as long as I can, whenever I can.

- I don't know the answer, but I understand.

 

—Tierney Oberhammer

Commentary

 

Take Tierney Oberhammer’s “God Forbid a Black Girl.” Not only is this Oberhammers first published personal essay, it's her first personal essay. Like ever. Opening the attachment she'd sent in order to prepare for our meeting together, I saw that the title of the document was simply “CNF experiment_final?” Oberhammer had been playing with her words. She was using the form of the essay, a form I love for this reason, to explore her mind and memories, to transform the bewildering experience of growing up the Black daughter of a white mom into something she could live with, a narrative she could move into the future with: “Maybe I am writing about being a mother, though I am not one. I am afraid to have a daughter like me, untethered to any race.” Throughout the course of the essay, an essay quite unlike anything I have ever read before, Oberhammer transforms herself into the mother she did not have, the not-yet mother who could imagine telling her not-yet conceived, mixed race child, “You are all the things we are and more, and they're all yours.”

 

—Jill Christman

Oberhammer
Finney

February 23, 2024

 

from “Hotbed 66”

in Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry: Poems & Artifacts

by Nikky Finney

 

“Hotbed:  An area of decaying organic matter, heated earth, a soil environment, enclosed in glass, fermenting, used for the germination of seeds, favoring rapid growth.”—Nikky Finney

 

Nikky Finney’s publisher writes: “Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry is a twenty-first-century paean to the sterling love songs humming throughout four hundred years of black American life. National Book Award winner Nikky Finney’s fifth collection contains lighthouse poems, narrative hotbeds, and treasured artifacts—copper coins struck from a new matrix for poetry, one that testifies from the witness stand and punctuates the occasional lyric within a new language of ‘docu-poetry.’”

 

Finney describes the contents of her collection as “minglements.”

 

Our Paragraph of the Week is “Hotbed 66,”  a tribute to the woman who spotted the Mother Emanuel Church murderer and alerted police and an indictment of a society that allows such racially motivated gun tragedies happen.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

They tell me that she spent her days staring at the eyes of peonies, the fragile skin of day lilies, the open mouths of daffodils, the waxy and waning winks and pinks of peace lilies. I'm telling you this woman knew flowers. They say she was driving to work when she saw him, or did they say she was delivering a bouquet of fresh cut flowers to someone on their birthday, or had just come from the door of some sweet couple's fiftieth anniversary? I can't remember all of that right now. All I can think about is what she must have known about flowers before this moment began. I know she was a woman out on the road driving and paying very close attention to the world around her. She was also a woman who did not look away when she saw his soup-bowl haircut pass by one lane over. Was his upside-down empty vase of a neck the giveaway? In the car that was not going too fast and not going too slow. In the car that had a backseat. Was the backseat where he put the gun that he had just used to kill the nine praying sunflowers of Mother Emanuel? Or was the gun there in the front seat with him? By then, back in Charleston the nine passion flowers were slumped on the basement floor inside the church. The nine calla lilies had been snapped in two. She saw his funny haircut and quickly recognized him as the one who had just taken the lives of the nine human beings, in mid and full bloom, who had welcomed him, called him son, invited him to sit and be with them in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. Twelve fragrant gardenias had welcomed him to their circle and the flower lady was the one who recognized the long flowerless vase of his neck and made the call. What did she say on that phone? Hello. I'm calling to report a sighting. That young man you are looking for... who shot up that church... he's here on the highway with me... a black Hyundai. I know it's him, he's covered in pollen.

 

–Nikky Finney

Commentary

 

Throughout the poems and hotbeds of prose that make up Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry, Nikky Finney uses the language of a master of ceremonies to guide her readers. In “Hotbed 66” the MC introduces us to the woman who turned in the Mother Emanuel Church murderer and directs our attention to center stage. “I'm telling you this woman knew flowers.” The rest of the paragraph is pure hotbed: words planted in “decaying organic matter, heated earth, a soil environment, enclosed in glass, fermenting, used for the germination of seeds, favoring rapid growth.” I am deep in the sultry box of all the poetry that prose can muster as “waxy” evolves in a sequence of shifting vowels and consonants to become “lilies”: “waxy and waning winks and pinks of peace lilies.” I see it in the “upside-down empty vase” of the killer’s neck as he drives with apparent calm past the “flower lady.” Words from the hotbed stir me when I try to see the “gun that he had just used to kill the nine praying sunflowers of Mother Emanuel?” And because images bowed heavy on hotbed stems are unforgettable, how can I unsee “back in Charleston the nine passion flowers...slumped on the basement floor inside the church?” How do I unhear “the nine calla lilies...snapped in two.”  How do I unknow the lost “lives of the nine human beings, in mid and full bloom, who had welcomed him, called him son, invited him to sit and be with them in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost.” How do I get the stench of gardenias out of my nose. And what, by God, do I do with all this pollen?

 

—THE

Root

March 1, 2024

 

 

 

from The Arc of the Escarpment: A Narrative of Place

by Robert Root

 

“My experience with the arc of the escarpment has surprisingly given me a spiritual certainty about existence.”—Robert Root

 

 

Robert Root has spent much of his career writing about place and the people it shapes. He edited and contributed to Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place, an anthology of essays and writers' commentaries. His first full-length work of creative nonfiction, Recovering Ruth: A Biographer's Tale, was named a Michigan Notable Book in 2004 by the Library of Michigan. His nonfiction of place also includes Following Isabella: Travels in Colorado Then and Now and Walking Home Ground: In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth and two essay collections, Postscripts: Retrospections on Time and Place and Limited Sight Distance: Essays for Airwaves. He is also the author of two memoirs, Happenstance and Lineage.

 

The Paragraph of the Week is from his newest book, The Arc of the Escarpment, about a geological formation that comes to symbolize his place—and, by extension, our place—in the universe.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

A map of the Niagara Escarpment often shows up online, with a red line arcing from New York through Ontario and Michigan into Wisconsin. How little that image tells me about what it means to be grounded at any point along that trajectory. I've filed hundreds of photographs in laptop folders, images that help me remember locations and formations: bluffs and cliffs, cataracts and gorges, crevices and caves, sea stacks and alvars, islands and peninsulas, sinkholes and springs, shorelines and quarries. If I close my eyes after viewing one of them, I can feel myself standing on a prospect, listening to waves and waterfalls and woodland winds or to the silence within the cuesta. So much of it stays with me, comes back to me at the slightest provocation, and because the arc of the Escarpment encompasses most of the major milestones of my life, personal memories surface as well: childhood, youth, adulthood, and beyond. My experience with the arc of the escarpment has surprisingly given me a spiritual certainty about existence.

 

—Robert Root

Commentary

In The Arc of the Escarpment Robert Root patiently records his journey along the rocky geological formation that runs from Wisconsin, where he lives now, to New York where he was born and raised, learning along the way “a spiritual certainty about existence.” The first lesson is that he is a small part of what endures. “If I am but a particle of Silurian strata, that strata has endured for an almost inconceivable length of time and will endure for an almost unimaginable time to come.” But looking at the crumbling rockface of the Escarpment he takes away an equally powerful lesson in change, “that mutability is part of its nature too, that the very rocks we stand upon are impermanent.” These are not just ideas for him conjured up from lines on a map, but lived experience, and by writing about them with such attention to detail we share in his spiritual discoveries. Along the way, we learn the language of the quest, from bluffs, cliffs, and sea stacks to alvars, cuestas, and quarries. “Connecting to the land we temporarily occupy at least links us to the vast ages of planetary existence, links us by proxy to all living things that ever were and ever will be, including the very earth itself,” Root writes. “It’s not immortality but it’s an existence long enough for me.”

 

—THE

Parker

March 8, 2024

 

 

 

from “Good Souls”

by Dorothy Parker

in The Glorious American Essay

 

“As usual, you are way ahead of me, gentle reader—it is indeed the Good Soul.”

—Dorothy Parker            

 

Dorothy Parker was an American poet, writer, critic, and satirist best known for her caustic wit. She wrote for the New Yorker early in the twentieth century and held forth at the famous Algonquin Club Round Table where clever writers gathered.

 

I found her essay “Good Souls” in the anthology The Glorious American Essay edited by Phillip Lopate. Her topic? Irritating do-gooders.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

The activities of the adult of the species are familiar to us all. When you are ill, who is it that hastens to your beside bearing molds of blanc-mange, which, from infancy, you have hated with unspeakable loathing? As usual, you are way ahead of me, gentle reader—it is indeed the Good Soul. It is the Good Souls who efficiently smooth out your pillow when you have just worked it into the comfortable shape, who creak about the room on noisy tiptoe, who tenderly lay on your fevered brow damp cloths which drip ceaselessly down your neck. It is they who ask, every other minute, if there isn’t something that they can do for you. It is they who, at great personal sacrifice, spend long hours sitting beside your bed, reading aloud the continued stories in the Woman’s Home Companion, or chatting cozily on the increase in the city’s death rate.

 

—Dorothy Parker

Commentary

A Good Soul is the one who brings tasteless “blanc-mange” when you are ill and reads aloud from the Woman’s Home Companion while “chatting...about the city’s death rate.” At the theater these Good Souls make a fuss about their seat being better than yours and insist on switching, inconveniencing all and basking in the “genial glow of martyrdom—that is all they ask of life.” Phillip Lopate in his introduction to the essay points out that the author, Dorothy Parker, “did not suffer fools (or nice, pleasant people) gladly” and considers her piece “Good Souls” to be “a prime example of the contrarian essay, which inverts the usual pious assumptions about worthy behavior and dares to adopt a misanthropic or at least antisocial stance for the sake of laughter and surprise.” It is cynicism delivered with a wry smile—a tone perfectly suited to the personal essay. Parker admits that Good Souls are often put upon by others who say “Oh, he won’t mind” and eventually that they will receive their reward in Heaven, but wishes, cattily, “that they were even now enjoying it!”

 

—THE

Winograd

March 15, 2024

in “3 a.m. and Taking the Puppy for a Pee Beneath a New Moon.”

from This Visible Speaking: Catching Light through the Camera’s Eye

by Kathryn Winograd

 

“It was the 3:00 a.m. mewling, the new puppy nudging me into suburban dark and moon milk, that made me think of the moon snail propped on my study window sill...”

 

—Kathryn Winograd

 

 

Kathryn Winograd is a poet, essayist, and photographer. She is the author of three books of poetry and two essay collections:  Phantom Canyon: Essays of Reclamation and Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children. She is married to the playwright Leonard Winograd, and they divide their time between a home outside of Denver and a cabin in the Colorado mountains.

 

The Paragraph of the Week is the prose poem “3 a.m. and Taking the Puppy for a Pee Beneath a New Moon.” It is from her collection released on March 15, a book of her photographs and ekphrastic prose poems called This Visible Speaking: Catching Light through the Camera’s Eye published by The Humble Essayist Press.

 

Like most Humble Essayist Press books it comes with a study guide for teachers. For our feature, I thought it would be fun to take a question from Winograd’s study guide and answer it in my commentary. You can find more about This Visible Speaking and read the Study Guide including question 6 that I answered in my commentary at the press website here.

The Paragraph of the Week

It was the 3:00 a.m. mewling, the new puppy nudging me into suburban dark and moon milk, that made me think of the moon snail propped on my study window sill between the photos of the moth orchid and Wilson’s snipe I fashioned into postcards. How long has this moon snail gathered dust there, shifted my afternoon sun to richest shadow? Nameless to me once at the edge of tidal spume and broken cockle shells but now a spiral perfect of nipple-brown apex and hollow umbilicus. Leonard keeps asking me why we are here. Why this cup of tea? Why this pen beneath a soda straw width of galaxies uncountable? Nights, the predatory moon snail plows nocturnal shores, drills the shells of clams with holes we string and wear. It lays a thousand eggs into collars of sand, shaped, we say, into ones our priests wear. For this puppy, unlike us—everything is new: the curly cues of dried snail and earthworm beneath the gutter spout, the blue bachelor button in bloom it chews happy at the driveway’s edge. Once conjured by my camera into dark and shadow, this moon snail pixelated into swirls of pigeon-blue and rose-flesh: somewhere, someplace else, there is a constant sea rain of tiny moon snails and this moon, too, where beneath my puppy and I, just us, blink.

—Kathryn Winograd

Commentary

So what is the answer to Leonard’s question? Why are we here? “Why,” I picture him saying, “this cup of tea,” spreading both hands in exasperation? And Kathryn Winograd is careful to honor the apparent randomness of the things in their world: the “mewling, new puppy” sending her out into the night, the moon snail stuck on a window sill between postcards of a “moth orchid” and a “Wilson’s snipe,” the pen shaped like a soda straw which when focused on the night sky encircles “galaxies uncountable.” But the author likes to gather random things that catch her eye in boxes, and that gathering connects them, puts them into relationship with one another, thrown together, yes, but given meaning by her selection. She names the nameless and connects them with metaphor, the moon snail becoming “now a spiral perfect of nipple-brown apex and hollow umbilicus.” She learns about them, the snails’ predatory ways and nocturnal habits, through careful study propelled by a curiosity her bloom-chewing puppy shares. She recreates them lovingly, the moon snail emerging from shadows in her photograph “pixilated into swirls of pigeon blue and rose-flesh,” according to beauty in the eye of the beholder. Gathering, naming, learning, studying, loving—that’s why we’re here. That’s why she and her peeing puppy standing “in suburban dark and moon milk” at 3 a.m. blink in wonder like her camera.

 

—THE

Winograd 10.png
Winograd 11.jpg

PHOTO: KATHRYN WINOGRAD

PHOTO: KATHRYN WINOGRAD

Aldrich

March 22, 2024

 

 

 

from “I, Swimmer”

in Studio of the Voice

by Marcia Aldrich

 

 

“Swimming in a pool is like a meditation, an act of faith.”

—Marcia Aldrich

 

One of the ways that Marcia Aldrich handles her “sometimes burdensome solitude” is by swimming.  She fell in love with water when her mother dropped her off at the country club swimming area: “glittering pools, a square, a rectangle, and a bean, set like sapphires in a tiara with a yoke of profoundest green.”  She immersed herself in her solitude by sitting “Buddha-style” underwater and holding her breath “as if frozen within an ice cube.” It was the first stage, she writes, of “hundreds of incarnations on my infinite path to enlightenment.” She swam competitively for many years, but lost interest when she tried, but failed, to impress a boy she had a crush on by swimming across a lake. But as an adult she returned to her meditative ritual at night in her local swimming pool where “the lighting is kept low, in a soft, ageless cast of anonymity, and the muted sounds from outside the gleaming glass walls doze on the breathing water.” She and the other swimmers, she writes, “never exchange greetings; we’ve come for the silence.”

 

Our Paragraph of the Week and the amplification of it in the Commentary are the last two paragraphs of her essay “I, Swimmer” from her new book Studio of the Voice. I could not resist breaking precedent and including the cover of her book as well. Aldrich is also the author of Companion to an Untold Story and Girl Rearing.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Swimming in a pool is like a meditation, an act of faith. I like to swim at night when the pool is illuminated with underwater lights. When I stand before it, on the verge of entering, I feel a lump in my throat, a homesickness. I carry no purse, no identification. What I have done or have not done lies behind me, my accomplishments and my mistakes deposited in a locker. In my bathing cap pulled low over my hair and ears, my goggles covering my eyes, no one knows me. There is nothing and no one to lean on. Other swimmers are there, shafts of moving color, but I am alone. We never exchange greetings; we’ve come for the silence. Someone sits in the lifeguard chair, a blotch of red. I see a blurry body of water before me like a blank sheet of paper. The water is cold, always a shudder when I first descend the steps. I push away and begin my breaststroke, in the first laps trying to quiet my mind, musing on my father astride the clubhouse veranda, watching with an opaque gaze, on stopwatches and canoes and far shores. Then I am a ship in a limitless ocean, and I have lost my bearings. I concentrate on laps, lap on lap; swimming is the only word my body says. I throw the spool of myself out and reel it in, over and over. I no longer know I am swimming.

 

—Marcia Aldrich

Commentary

 

The swimmer I want to be does not require acclimation; trepidation is not in her vocabulary. She wants quick immersion. Stripped of jewelry, not even a thin wedding band, the swimmer makes you believe she is unharnessed from the world, owns no clothes, belongs to no house, and that a heavy purse, with its wallet and identification cards, would drag her down. The swimmer swims for herself and checks her baggage before she enters the water. The swimmer I want to be stands in the middle of a blank canvas, facing forward with hands firmly on hips. The bend in her elbows makes a white space like the V of Canada geese in skies of migration. When I see her, I think water. It must be nearby, not far from the path of vision, not even a stone’s throw away, for her stance is one of readiness. The canvas is blank, no pool, no lake, no ocean, no body of water the mind can see, yet everything suggests it is always at hand, that she carries water with her wherever she goes, ready to plunge in. Plunge in, I say.

 

—Marcia Aldrich

Aldrich 1.jpg
Hennen

March 29, 2024

 

 

“The Life of a Day”

in Darkness Sticks to Everything

by Tom Hennen

 

“For some reason we like to see days pass, even though most of us claim we don't want to reach our last one for a long time.”

—Tom Hennen

Tom Hennen’s publisher writes: “Born into a big Dutch-Irish family in 1942 in Morris, Minnesota, Tom Hennen grew up on farms. After abandoning college, he married and began work as a letterpress and offset printer in 1965. In 1972 he helped found the Minnesota Writers’ Publishing House, printing with a press stashed in his garage work that included his first chapbook, The Heron with No Business Sense. He worked for the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division in the 1970s and later worked as a wildlife technician at the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota. Now retired, he lives in St. Paul near his children and grandchildren.”

 

The Paragraph of the Week is a prose poem from Hennen’s collected and new poems Darkness Sticks to Everything published by Copper Canyon Press. I listened to it in the Audible version of Good Poems selected and read by Garrison Keillor.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

The Life of a Day

 

Like people or dogs, each day is unique and has its own personality quirks which can easily be seen if you look closely. But there are so few days as compared to people, not to mention dogs, that it would be surprising if a day were not a hundred times more interesting than most people. But usually they just pass, mostly unnoticed, unless they are wildly nice, like autumn ones full of red maple trees and hazy sunlight, or if they are grimly awful ones in a winter blizzard that kills the lost traveler and bunches of cattle. For some reason we like to see days pass, even though most of us claim we don't want to reach our last one for a long time. We examine each day before us with barely a glance and say, no, this isn't one I've been looking for, and wait in a bored sort of way for the next, when, we are convinced, our lives will start for real. Meanwhile, this day is going by per­fectly well-adjusted, as some days are, with the right amounts of sunlight and shade, and a light breeze scented with a perfume made from the mixture of fallen apples, corn stubble, dry oak leaves, and the faint odor of last night's meander­ing skunk.

—Tom Hennen

Commentary

 

It is the repeated word “pass” that leaps out at me here, and, when I listen to the prose poem read slowly at dawn this ordinary March morning, passing is what is happening. The yellow and maybe pink outside the window and the sun momentarily rimming the clouds phosphorous white lift my spirit when I put in my earplugs, but, as I hear the words about the life of a day read to me, clouds close in. How quickly the glow fades!  Coppery beech tree leaves hanging on all winter go drab, the trunks of hardwoods leaning this way and that at the edge of the woods turn a uniform gray, and the feeder swaying on its hook marks time like a pendulum. The wisdom of the poem is that we are usually blessed by our inattention to this passing, allowed to take our days for granted. They “just pass, mostly unnoticed” unless they are “wildly nice” or “grimly awful,” and we like it that way. “We examine each day before us with barely a glance,” the poem in my ear tells me while the day outside my window goes gray, “and say, no, this isn't one I've been looking for.” We “wait in a bored sort of way for the next, when, we are convinced, our lives will start for real.” Pass: yes, it means what we miss, and followed by “away” it means that other thing too.

 

—THE

Welty

April 5, 2024

 

 

from “A Sweet Devouring”

in The Eye of the Story

by Eudora Welty

 

“The pleasures of reading itself — who doesn't remember? — were like those of a Christmas cake, a sweet devouring.”—Eudora Welty

 

Born in Jackson Mississippi in in 1909, Eudora Welty was known primarily for her short stories and novels, but she also wrote an autobiography, One Writer’s Beginnings, which became a nationwide best seller, and essays and book reviews that were collected in The Eye of the Story. Our Paragraph of the Week is from an essay in that collection called “A Sweet Devouring” about maturing out of the youthful love of indiscriminate reading—a stage lovingly and humorously rendered—to become a reader with taste.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Our library in those days was a big rotunda lined with shelves. A copy of V. V.'s Eyes seemed to follow you wherever you went, even after you'd read it. I didn't know what I liked, I just knew what there was a lot of. After Randy's Spring there came Randy's Summer, Randy's Fall and Randy's Winter. True, I didn't care very much myself for her spring, but it didn't occur to me that I might not care for her summer, and then her summer didn't prejudice me against her fall, and I still had hopes as I moved on to her winter. I was disappointed in her whole year, as it turned out, but a thing like that didn't keep me from wanting to read every word of it. The pleasures of reading itself — who doesn't remember? — were like those of a Christmas cake, a sweet devouring. The “Randy Books” failed chiefly in being so soon over. Four seasons doesn't make a series.

 

—Eudora Welty

Commentary

When she first started reading, Eudora Welty “gobbled up” the Elsie Dinsmore series, The Five Little Peppers, The Little Colonel, The Green Fairy Book, and plowed through four seasons of the “Randy Books” all of which disappointed, but she “read every word” because what mattered was the “pleasure of reading itself.”  She read so fast that the librarian scolded her: “Nobody is going to come running back here with any book on the same day they took it out.”  But when she read two versions of The Camp Fire Girls—an authorized version and a fake one—she realized that series books kept going by allowing nothing really to happen.  She suspected that “the whole thing is one grand prevention.” She thought of The Purple Jar in which a girl is tricked into spending precious money on a glass jar filled with purple water. “I wondered if I felt some flaw at the heart of things,” Welty writes, “or whether I was just tired of not having any taste.” Eventually she went back to the book shelves at home and her “lucky hand reached and found Mark Twain—twenty four volumes, not a series, and good all the way through.”

—THE

April 12, 2024

 

 

from “On Trespassing”

in Split Rock Review

by Elizabeth Carls

 

“I’m interested in boundaries both real and false.” —Elizabeth Carls

 

Elizabeth Carls is a poet and essayist writing across genres from her home in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Split Rock Review, River Teeth, Great River Review, and Under the Sun Literary Magazine, and she currently serves as the Assistant Editor of Creative Nonfiction for Water~Stone Review.

 

She is fascinated by boundaries: “the ways in which we as human beings attempt to compartmentalize and contain, the ways we divide our landscapes into states and nations, the ways we assign genres to the things we read and write.” In a haibun published in the Spring 2024 issue of Great River Review, Carls explores the French expression entre chien et loup which is “the time of day when it would be difficult to distinguish between a dog and a wolf, friend or foe, what is safe to approach and what should instill fear.”

 

The Paragraph of the Week is from her essay “On Trespassing” and the commentary is from her discussion of that essay called “‘On Trespassing’: A Walking Meditation on Borders Real and Imagined,” both found in Split Rock Review and available in full online here and here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

When we’ve left the woods, walking once again under the full expanse of sky, in the open rolling fields of the Olsen Farm, the dog finds what’s left of a dead porcupine. Mostly what remains of the decomposing body are stiff hairs and delicate bones, which she thoroughly investigates but is wise enough not to roll in. Eventually, weather and an unseen army of micro-organisms will reclaim even the quills leaving no trace of the porcupine, no evidence of what was likely a meal for the coyotes who run these hills, the coyotes who have always run wild through these woods and hills.

 

—Elizabeth Carls

Commentary

 

I’m interested in boundaries both real and false—the ways in which we as human beings attempt to compartmentalize and contain, the ways we divide our landscapes into states and nations, the ways we assign genres to the things we read and write. This is a theme I explore frequently in my writing in general and in the essay, “On Trespassing” specifically. Metaphorically, borders real and imagined show up in this essay in several ways—my own act of trespassing, the coyotes and beavers who cross property lines, even the micro-organisms decomposing the porcupine defy containment. It is an expansive essay, as was the walk that inspired it. As such the essay also contemplates, as I frequently do, the ill-defined border between ourselves and our environment.

 

—Elizabeth Carls

Carls
Sutin

April 26, 2024

 

 

from A Postcard Memoir

by Lawrence Sutin

 

“All the desires and the parts where I get disoriented are real.”

—Lawrence Sutin

 

Lawrence Sutin has published books in multiple genres: biography, history, novel, collage and erasure books, and memoir, including A Postcard Memoir, a series of vignettes based on his personal collection of postcards. Before he retired, he was a professor in the Creative Writing and Liberal Studies Programs of Hamline University and taught in the low-residency program of the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  He “tries to lead a quiet life devoted to writing, family, friends, reading and listening to music,” his website explains. “It doesn’t always work out quietly but he does the best he can.” You can learn more about him and his work here.

The Paragraph of the Week is his take on the postcard image below.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

In Jerusalem, during my junior year abroad, the woman I thought I would love forever and I became lovers. She had come separately to the Holy City after her graduation, at which point she had broken off with the young man with whom she had been in love for most of her college years. In the autumn, by accident, we met in the library of Hebrew University where I was a student. Obtaining her address and phone number, I persisted gently but obsessively with my attentions. It was fitting for my fantasy of her as a dusky angel nurtured and protected by the gods that she had found lodgings in a single-room garden house in the backyard of an old Jewish residential district. I could walk to it from my dormitory, by way of a semiarid valley. One night, after many shy visits there, we began to kiss and went on kissing for hours, yes, hours. Her black hair fell over my face, a robe of initiation. I was a virgin. My first orgasms with her were in my own jeans as we lay together writhing on her bed. At last, in the hoarfrost winter, we became lovers. Paul McCartney’s first solo album was playing in the German Quarter apartment of a friend of hers who was away. We were both fumbly. At dawn beside her I heard the muezzin’s call. She was asleep with her rich hair now falling over her black brows and ripening plum skin. It crossed my mind then that if I married her, as I intended, I would never have any other women.

 

—Lawrence Sutin

Commentary

 

In the “Author’s Note” to A Postcard Memoir, Lawrence Suttin claims that his memoir,  based on photos of people he does not know, borrowed names, made-up details, in places where he has not been, is emotionally true.  “All the desires and the parts where I get disoriented are real.” In this memoir of his desires he meets a woman who looks just like his first love and fantasizes about them reading books together “and “kissing with the slow, precise passion reserved for the spiritually chaste” though she had another boyfriend and his love remained unrequited. He met her postcard look-alike, pictured here leaning against a tree, years later in the Hebrew University library, and after “shy visits” to her apartment eventually began kissing her “for hours” while her “black hair fell over [his] face, a robe of initiation.” This love would not last. He made the mistake of peeking into her diary and grew jealous when he read of a “young, dark, Israeli soldier” who had seduced her before they met “with sizzling ease.” After their split, he entered a period of risk taking, “of travel, friends, drugs, attitudes that twisted harder than drugs,” passing time, believing in nothing. But desire remained. He still loved the frieze of Venus’ breasts which have “the delicious throb of wings, the fragrance of milk, lemon blossoms, and blood, the softness stone has when shaped into breasts.” He fell in love with the woman who would become his wife in his adult writing class. She knew he did not have a girlfriend because he wore “orange socks,” and he fell for “her draping fair hair, paled blue eyes and rosy mystic calm after sex.” In this made-up book of real desires, he writes that “I had the sense of having slipped into a garden I’d never seen and yet suddenly belonged in.”

 

—THE

Ou-Yang Hsui

May 10, 2024

 

 

from “Pleasure Boat Studio”

by Ou-Yang Hsui

 

“This, then, is why I named my studio after a boat.”—Ou-Yang Hsui

 

Ou-Yang Hsui, born in  1007, was one of the most distinguished writers during the Song Dynasty in China as well as a classical scholar, archaeologist, historian, bibliographer, political theorist, and statesman. He was a renowned writer among his contemporaries and is considered the central figure of the Eight Masters of the Tang and Song. He argued for a loose, informal prose style at court, letting the brush “write what it would,” and lobbied successfully for its inclusion on the imperial examinations. Even in translation, his classic, “Pleasure Boat Studio,” makes this less ornate style clear. You can read the entire essay in the anthology “The Art of the Personal Essay” edited by Phillip Lopate.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Three months after I came to Hua I converted the rooms of the eastern wing of the government offices into a place for me to spend my leisure time. I named it "Pleasure Boat Studio." The studio is one room across and seven rooms long (the rooms being connected by doorways), and so to walk into my studio is just like walking into a boat. First, in a corner of the warm room I made a hole in the roof to let in light. Then on either side of the bright and open unwalled rooms I in­stalled railings to sit on or lean against. Anyone who relaxes in my studio will find that it is just like relaxing on a boat. The craggy stone mounds and the flowering plants and trees that I arranged just beyond the eaves on both sides make it seem all the more that one is drifting down the middle of a river, with the mountains on the right facing forests on the left, all very attractive. This, then, is why I named my studio after a boat.

 

—Ou-Yang Hsui (translated by Ronald Egan)

Commentary

A writing studio that doubles as a pleasure boat is not all fun and games, as any writer knows. In the next paragraph of “Pleasure Boat Studio” Ou-Yang Hsui changes tone and points out soberly that in Chinese the phrase “cross the river” is used when escaping adversity suggesting that “the real purpose of boats is to deliver people from danger rather than to provide comfort” and admits that naming a writer's studio for a sight-seeing boat equipped with “railings to sit on or lean against” is deceptive: “was that not a perverse thing to do?” He himself barely escaped arrest by boat when he was younger, banished because of his crimes to a life on the Yangtze. He traveled thousands of miles on water enduring storms where “dragons and water-serpents” rose up and “high waves broke and surged on all sides.” Eventually exonerated of his crimes and taking a position in the government where he worked as a reformer, he still suffered nightmares from his past in his Pleasure Boat Studio. Writing has its rewards, but too often dread drives writers to it. “Who,” he wonders, looking at those fellow escapees on the water with him during his exile, “would be caught out here.”

—THE

May 17, 2024

 

 

 

 

from “The Glass Essay”

in Glass, Irony, and God

by Anne Carson

 

 

“I am my own Nude.”—Anne Carson

 

I take the celebrated poet, essayist, and translator at her word when she calls “The Glass Essay” an essay. It is written as verse, but the lines break naturally at phrases, and the whole sounds like a story or a desperate explanation to make what is murky and ugly clear. So it is fitting that her Virgil on this journey to hell is the novelist of Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë.

 

Carson takes on a hard question: what happens to the meaning of life when love is stripped away and we “turn into two animals gnawing and craving through one another towards some other hunger.” What happens when the horrible masters us, when “Thou” moves upon “thou?” Brontë has one answer. Carson offers another with a terrifying clarity.

 

To achieve this hybrid of poetry and prose Carson does away with the basic unit of the essay, paragraphs, so we will call our “Paragraph of the Week” a passage. At The Humble Essayist we often celebrate prose that aspires to be lyrical like poetry, but Carson goes the other way, writing poetry that aspires to be narrative. It’s fitting as our ships pass on the sea of language to tip a hat to one another.

The Passage of the Week

 

It is chilling to watch Thou move upon thou,

who lies alone in the dark waiting to be mastered.

 

It is a shock to realize that this low, slow collusion

of master and victim within one voice

is a rationale

 

for the most awful loneliness of the poet’s hour.

She [Emily Brontë ] has reversed the roles of thou and Thou

not as a display of power

 

but to force out of herself some pity

for this soul trapped in glass,

which is her true creation.

 

Those nights lying alone

are not discontinuous with this cold hectic dawn.

It is who I am.

 

Is it a vocation of anger?

Why construe silence

as the Real Presence?

 

Why stoop to kiss this doorstep?

Why be unstrung and pounded flat and pine away

imagining someone vast to whom I may vent the swell of my soul?

 

Emily was fond of Psalm 130.

“My soul waiteth on Thou more than they that watch for morning,

I say more than they that watch for the morning.”

 

I like to believe that for her the act of watching provided a shelter,

that her collusion with Thou gave ease to anger and desire:

"In Thou they are quenched as a fire of thorns," says the psalmist.

 

But for myself I do not believe this, I am not quenched—

with Thou or without Thou I find no shelter.

I am my own Nude.

—Anne Carson

Commentary

After humiliating herself in loveless sex with a longtime lover who leaves her the next day, Anne Carson asks why she cannot stop reliving the horror. Why suffer this “vocation of anger?” She turns to her favorite author, Emile Brontë who was also lonely, tormented, and trapped in a loveless life like a “drop of blood under glass.” Brontë faced the horrors that mastered her—“reversed the roles of thou and Thou”—to “ease her anger and desire,” mistaking silence for “the Real Presence” and “imagining someone vast” to ease her agony, but Carson’s torment will not be so easily “quenched.” Instead she turns to the deck of thirteen nudes, images of women’s bodies in agony that come to her as visions and are the “naked glimpses” of her soul. In Nude #1 a woman stands on a hill as the wind whips off strips of her flesh. In Nude #7 she is in the “continuous satiny white membrane” of the fleshy inside of a womb as a voice whispers “Be very careful, Be very careful.” Nude #6 is so terrifying she cannot remember it at all. But it is the last card, Nude #13 in this tarot of torments, that most clearly separates her from Brontë’s consolation of “anger and desire” mastered and extinguished. Trying to stand on the hill of terrible winds like Nude #1, Carson becomes unrecognizable in Nude #13 as the flesh is torn away. She is no longer her body, or even a woman’s body, but “the body of us all” in a “cleansing of the bones,” a purgation of human pain not by escape, amelioration, or mastery but through more and more torment until the skeleton stripped of its tortured and chastened body stumbles “out of the light.”

 

—THE

Carson
Tu Fu

May 24, 2024

 

 

 

 

“Moonlit Night”

in A Little Primer of Tu Fu

by David Hawkes

 

“When shall we lean on the open casement together and gaze at the moon until the tears on our cheeks are dry?”—Tu Fu

 

In A Little Primer of Tu Fu those who know no Chinese can get a glimpse of the power and beauty of the eighth century Chinese writer that some consider the greatest lyric poet of all time. In addition to translating thirty-five poems into prose English, David Hawkes also reproduces the original poem in Chinese characters and Pinyin, includes guides to pronunciation, and offers commentary and exegesis based on a deep understanding of ancient Chinese language and culture.

 

In prose, the lyrics of Tu Fu read like a memoir of a writer living in tumultuous times. We chose “Moonlit Night” for the Paragraph of the Week which describes a moment during the first year of the eight-year An Lushan Rebellion, perhaps the bloodiest civil war in human history, when Tu Fu was separated from his family. During the Mid-Autumn Festival “traditionally celebrated by eating ‘moon-cakes’ and crabs and drinking wine and, of course, looking at the moon” the poet thinks of his wife and children at home.

The simplicity of the content in Tu Fu’s poems masks the complexity of form making it hard for readers in English to see their beauty. Complicated rules of euphony and parallel structure govern each pair of lines, sounds that are often lost even on modern Chinese readers since the language has changed over time. In our commentary we look at a few of those formal elements that Hawkes taught us.

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