January 5, 2024
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?
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.
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
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.
January 19, 2024
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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. 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.”