Archive  2021

November 27, 2020

from The Circus Train

by Judith Kitchen

 

“Contradictory or not, her memories are what she must be true to.”—THE

 

I remember during a presentation at a writers conference in Portland decades ago that my friend Judith Kitchen asked whether I was bothered by the fact that Annie Dillard made up the famous story of her cat leaving bloodied footprints on her chest. I mumbled something about facts being a great teacher, but that Annie Dillard was a superb writer, and it didn’t matter that much to me. This was at the very beginning of the debate about truth in nonfiction, and the audience grumbled at my remarks. I was not sure where Judith stood on the issue at that time, but in the end I think she and I mulled over the problem and came to similar views on the subject. I offer this Paragraph of the Week and Commentary as evidence.

 

Judith died in November 2014, and each year around this time The Humble Essayist features a paragraph from her work. This time I chose one from The Circus Train which I consider her masterpiece and the finest book-length essay ever written.

 

This is our last feature for 2020. The Humble Essayist takes the month of December off, but we’ll be back on Friday, January 8. In the meantime we will leave the feature on truth and memory by Judith in place as a way to crown the year.

—THE

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Don't. Don't keep arguing with me, refuting what I've just said, resisting my interpretations. You always try to give others their due. You posit excuses for them. Or reasons. I don't care about the reasons. I only care that…that they are what I say they are. The product of my perceptions. So don't go on defending them against my stories. My stories are real. They carry themselves along the months, then years. They move slowly, horse and buggy time, and their colors do not fade. So, simply, don't. Open yourself to my version of my life—because it will eventually explain everything. Will lead to the cookie jar that holds my ashes. Open yourself to what it feels like to be burdened with memory, and insight. Or, if not insight, then critique. Commentary. So, quite simply, don't.

—Judith Kitchen

Commentary

 

Judith Kitchen was not only an elegant writer of lyric prose, she was also an astute literary critic. In The Circus Train she is often of these two minds, and when she slips into second person here it is the writer talking back to the critic. Her book begins with her earliest memory of playing in a strawberry patch and seeing a circus train in a valley, but the more her critical mind examines the memory the more contradictions she sees in it. When she pictures her house and the strawberry patch “there is no room in that scene for the little valley with its tiny chugging circus.” Perhaps the train was in a book, she wonders, but the critic in her suspects she has conflated two separate scenes to create a memory that didn't happen. “When you doubt your own version,” the critic asks sharply, “how can you not doubt the whole?” Exasperated, the writer responds. “Don’t. Don’t keep arguing with me.” It is not a debate about the facts that the writer needs, but stories that are, she contends, “the products of my perceptions.” They last a lifetime and “do not fade.” They are real and she can take them to “the cookie jar” that will one day hold her ashes. Contradictory or not, her memories are what she must be true to. And yet, she needs the critic too and asks, calm now by the end of the paragraph, that the two of them do this task together and share “what it feels like to be burdened with memory.” In addition to personal perception the writer knows she requires “insight,” “critique,” or “commentary”—whatever word best describes what the critic in her has to offer—though in the end memory, no matter how flawed, is the final arbiter.

—THE

 
 

January 8, 2021

 

from “The Cruelty We Delivered: An Apology”

by Ira Sukrungruang

in The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction

 

“...young Ira and his friends thought the scene was funny until they heard the boy’s manic cackle that scattered crows.—THE

 

An anthology of the best essays from the first twenty years of Brevity magazine came out at the end of last year, so we thought we would celebrate the beginning of 2021 by devoting the month of January to works from the new book. The founder of Brevity, Dinty Moore, admits in the introduction that the magazine dedicated to personal prose of 750 words or less began more as “an experiment than a commitment,” and he did not expect it to last long, but it set in motion a wave of interest in short nonfictional forms and has become one of the great online magazines in our time. You can reach the website for Brevity here.

 

We begin with the essay “The Cruelty We Delivered: An Apology” by Ira Sukrungruang. He is the author of the memoirs Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, the short story collection The Melting Season, and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night.

The Paragraph of the Week

We said cruel things, too. In our secret circle. In the temple library, where dust coated books about suffering, where furniture went to rot in the damp back room. Someone said, He smells like barf. Someone said, Thai white trash. I said, No wonder his parents dumped him. How could we know you hid behind a shelf of Buddhist books, patting a stray cat that made a nest in the hollow of a cabinet? How could we know what was to follow? If we did, would we have stopped our tongues?

—Ira Sukrungruang

Commentary

In many ways the boy ridiculed by the “secret circle” of Ira Sukrungruang’s friends was just another mischievous boy like them, but his pranks were fueled by a “rocket energy” that made everyone uncomfortable. So when he threw a rock through the Temple window and the monks chased him into the vegetable garden young Ira and his friends thought the scene was funny until they heard the boy’s manic “cackle that scattered crows.” They huddled and shared insults about him, not really understanding the boy and barely aware of the pain they were inflicting. They did not know that he kept a stray cat in the library because he thought it missed its mother, and they did not know that one day years later he would kill himself. When Sukrungruang learned the news he and his friends said they weren’t surprised, pushing aside their guilt, but thinking back on the time that the boy stole holy water and, smiling broadly, poured it over his head, the author knew better and accepted responsibility. “I remember,” he writes feeling ashamed, “wishing forgiveness in the form of rain.”

—THE

January 15, 2021

from “Shower Songs”

by Brian Trapp

in The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction

 

“It is the irreverence of the brothers that allows ‘Shower Songs’ to cut to the heart.”

—THE

 

An anthology of the best essays from the first twenty years of Brevity magazine came out at the end of last year, so we thought we would celebrate the beginning of 2021 by devoting the month of January to works from the new book. Writers can take on any subject as long as it is written in 750 words or less. The theme of the current issue is disability which is also the subject of our Paragraph of the Week. You can reach the website for Brevity here.

 

Last week we featured an essay by Ira Sukrungruang about bullying and its impact on boys which you can find in the archives here, but this week we look at the flipside, in a passage from “Shower Songs,” by Brian Trapp, a piece about brothers taunting each other in ways that may seem cruel to those outside the relationship, but, when matched with responsibility, tenderness, and empathy are the language of brotherly affection. Trapp’s essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Gettysburg Review, and Ninth Letter among other magazines. He is at work now on a novel and memoir both based on growing up with his twin brother, Danny.  You can read the complete version of "Shower Songs" here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Now it was time for our special song. For this, I used the loofah. His penis was matted with black pubic hair from being crushed inside his diaper. Bits of crystallized urine were caked to the hair. As I scrubbed, I started the bass line, a sort of march. I sang, “It’s not gay…It’s not gay…cause I’m wa-shing my bro-ther’s penis.”

 

—Brian Trapp

Commentary

 

It is the irreverence of the brothers that allows “Shower Songs” to cut to the heart. When Brian gave his disabled 23-year-old twin brother, Danny, a bath, Danny called him “momma” as a taunt and said “Ahhhhh” through chattering teeth in a “complicated heckle for You're such and idiot that doubled for It’s freaking cold.” Brian got back by saying Danny was “ugly,” and added “you smell and stink to boot” causing Danny to smile and say “Brian,” though it came out “I-an.” And Brian sang the loofah song with the refrain “It’s not gay…cause I’m wa-shing my bro-ther’s penis.” During this banter, Brian carried his brother into the shower, washed his “taut abdomen,” “hairy chicken legs,” “warped feet,” and “splayed hands,” and cleaned the crystalized urine away from his pubic area with care for the last time. Soon Brian would move three hours away and Danny would be taken to a group home where he would die five years later after a medical procedure. It is the give-and-take between the twins that tells most of the story of their brotherly affection removing sentimentality on the way to true sentiment, though the hug in the shower at the end of the piece, brothers “chest to chest,” gets me too.

—THE

 
 

January 22, 2021

 

from “How to Leave a Room”

by Marcia Aldrich

in The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction

 

“She recalls, after her mother died, finding the familiar tube of lipstick while going through her mother’s things, and feeling ‘overcome with a desire’ to smear her lips.”

—THE

 

We thought we would celebrate the beginning of 2021 by devoting the month of January to works from The Best of Brevity, an anthology of the best essays from the first twenty years of the magazine. You can reach the website for Brevity here.

 

This week we feature the essay “How to Leave a Room” by Marcia Aldrich. She is the author of Girl Rearing and Companion to an Untold Story and her essays have appeared in many magazines including Gettysburg Review, North American Review, Witness, Arts and Letters, Northwest Review, Brevity, The Rumpus, The Butter/Toast, The Normal School, The Kenyon Review, Hotel Amerika, and The Seneca Review. You can read her full essay here.

 

The essay begins with Aldrich noting her mother’s belief that when you leave a room you should “leave no trace behind.”

The Paragraph of the Week

 

And yet, to my confusion, she wore lipstick, applied in a thick style that changed little from year to year, a signature of sorts. In the bathroom she had her own sink, mirror, and cabinet. Out of the top drawer of the vanity she’d pull her single tube of lipstick—Revlon’s Mercy, a buoyant shade of red, a bit shrill. Leaning in close to the mirror, she puckered her lips and applied her Mercy, careful to stay inside the lines. At the end of the application, she’d brusquely rip a tissue from a nearby box and blot. And there would be the telltale red imprint of a kiss.

—Marcia Aldrich

Commentary

 

Marcia Aldrich’s mother taught her daughter to “leave no trace behind” when you “leave a room” and yet when she wore lipstick she would blot her lips with a tissue “leaving the telltale red imprint of a kiss.” As an adult, Marcia also wears lipstick favoring “Black Honey” exasperating her daughter’s circle of friends who prefer piercings. “Pierce, Don’t Paint” they say “with a lisp on studded tongues,” causing Marcia to wonder why then she does paint her lips. It brings pleasure—her favorite “noir” color “throws people off”—but she knows that is not the full story. She recalls, after her mother died, finding the familiar tube of lipstick while going through her mother’s things, and feeling “overcome with a desire” to smear her lips. The lipstick she realized was the mark of a “twisted allegiance” to her mom. Discovering it in the room that her mother had left forever she imagines “finding a tissue” as well, “on which she had blotted her lips” and knows, if she happened upon such a kiss, “she would hold onto that tissue for eternity.”

—THE

 

January 29, 2021

from “The Heart as a Torn Muscle”

by Randon Billings Noble

in  The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction

 

“There’s The One and The Other and a torn heart muscle between.”—THE

 

We thought we would celebrate the beginning of 2021 by devoting the month of January to works from The Best of Brevity, an anthology of the best essays from the first twenty years of the magazine. You can reach the website for Brevity here.

 

Our last feature in the series is a paragraph from “The Heart as a Torn Muscle” by Randon Billings Noble. She is the author of the essay collection Be with Me Always and the lyric essay chapbook Devotional. “The Heart as a Torn Muscle” was a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2016, and other work by her has appeared in the “Modern Love” column of The New York Times, The Georgia Review, The Rumpus, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere. She is the founding editor of After the Art. You can read her essay in full here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Not The One (The One you already have—and deeply love) but of all the people in that large room far from home, he was the one for you. And your heart stretched more than it should have, tore a little, and let him in.

–Randon Billings Noble

Commentary

 

There’s The One and The Other and a torn heart muscle between. Some of what Randon Billings Noble does to relieve the pain would work for any muscle: herbal tea, cool showers, and the application of ice, but soon these remedies give way to cures specific to her divided heart. She advises that a “protective layer” is necessary, a “piece of clothing,” “a wall,” or “ideally a state.” She also protects the muscle by “refusing to jump into anything.” For her, compression means “hold yourself together” and elevation means to “rise above.” Her young bohemian friend wonders if the One and The Other would be up for a threesome, but her oldest friend says “What do you mean ‘met someone?’” In the end she puts her hand on her chest to “feel what beats.” That muscle, which longs to be whole, will show her the way.

—THE

February 5, 2021

from “Inexhaustible Precision”

in In the Land of the Cyclops

by Karl Ove Knausgaard

translated by Martin Aitken

 

“Are these photographs too simple to be art?”—THE

 

Can art be simple and accessible? Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard tackles the question in his essay "Inexhaustible Precision" from his recent collection, In the Land of the Cyclops, focusing  much of his attention on the photographs by Sally Mann. His answer is yes, if the art is marked by “inexhaustible precision,” a phrase we ponder in this week's feature.

 

This English version of the essay was first published in The Point Magazine which you can access here.

 
Mann Battlefield Manassas.jpg

Sally Mann, “Battlefields, Manassas (Airplane),” 2000. Silver gelatin print. © Sally Mann.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Nothing of what I have written here, apart from the concrete description of the dark landscape, is found in these pictures. They evade meaning, the way the world evades meaning, being simply what it is. The photographer’s interpretations of it emerge in the picture, but in the form only of the picture itself, intuitively understood by the beholder in the emotions, feelings, moods the picture awakens. The fact that they do not speak, wordless and yet expressive, is what makes them so powerfully alluring. When I look at a tree in one of these photos, it is as if it holds a secret, as if it contains something unfamiliar to me, standing there draped in its dense cloak of foliage, shimmering almost, weightless and yet heavy, and in this light almost submarine, as if it were the sea and not the wind that washed among its branches. The tree is a living organism, alive through perhaps four hundred years or more. It is a simpler organism than us, and we know everything about what it comprises, what happens inside it and why, and still it bears a secret, is a part of something of whose nature we are ignorant, for the only thing we can see is surface; even when we examine its constituent parts, they become but surface. Oh, what do we need with knowledge? Cells and mitochondria, atoms and electrons, galaxies at the farthest perimeters of space, what does knowledge give us when the secret, which only art can express, the voice of the trees and the song of the soil, the very mystery itself, is indivisible?

—Karl Ove Knausgaard

 

Commentary

 

Karl Ove Knausgaard admits that the photographs by Sally Mann such as “Battlefields, Manassas (Airplane)” are “simple, naturalistic and immensely alluring” and disconnected from our time so he wonders if such a “nostalgic dream of a world” is too easily felt and “essentially a lie.” We live in a time of “constant flux” but these pictures seem “immune to change.” The fact that Mann used outdated equipment and techniques giving them a “nineteenth century patina” only adds to their nostalgic magic, courting sentimentality if not kitsch. Are these photographs too simple to be art? Then he posits the idea that opens them up: “I don’t think those pictures are meant to represent the places in them, but the way we relate to them.” The photograph, like the tree, is “wordless but expressive.” It is “shimmering almost, weightless and yet heavy, and in this light almost submarine, as if it were the sea and not the wind that washed among its branches.” He could go on and on—and for many pages he does which is in part his point, ending with this thought: the photograph is fathomless in a way that renders all of our knowledge irrelevant. “Cells and mitochondria, atoms and electrons, galaxies at the farthest perimeters of space, what does knowledge give us when the secret, which only art can express, the voice of the trees and the song of the soil, the very mystery itself, is indivisible?” This mystery behind the ordinary is the goal of all art. He calls it “inexhaustible precision” which is “always simple, always without resistance and easily grasped, but always has more to it than what first meets the eye.”

—THE

February 12, 2021

 

from Braiding Sweetgrass:

Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

by Robin Kimmerer

 

“The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibilities for all we have been given, for all that we have taken. It’s our turn now, long overdue.”

—Robin Wall Kimmerer

 

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, plant ecologist, writer, and SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. She serves as the founding Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment whose mission is to create programs which draw on the wisdom of both indigenous and scientific knowledge for our shared goals of sustainability. Her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants was released in 2013 and was awarded the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. She has served as writer in residence at the Andrews Experimental Forest, Blue Mountain Center, the Sitka Center, and the Mesa Refuge.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

A sheaf of sweetgrass, bound at the end and divided into thirds, is ready to braid. In braiding sweetgrass—so that it is smooth, glossy, and worthy of the gift—a certain amount of tension is needed. As any little girl with tight braids will tell you, you have to pull a bit. Of course you can do it yourself—by tying one end to a chair, or by holding it in your teeth and braiding backward away from yourself—but the sweetest way is to have someone else hold the end so that you pull gently against each other, all the while leaning in, head to head, chatting and laughing, watching each other’s hands, one holding steady while the other shifts the slim bundles over one another, each in its turn. Linked by sweetgrass, there is reciprocity between you, linked by sweetgrass, the holder as vital as the braider. The braid becomes finer and thinner as you near the end, until you’re braiding individual blades of grass, and then you tie it off.

—Robin Wall Kimmerer

Commentary

 

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer slowly makes the case for reciprocity as the basis for creation by the power of its examples and the beauty of its language. It contrasts the myth of Eve, who was banished from a garden, with the Native American myth of Skywoman “who created a garden for the well-being of all,” and laments the violence, the lack of reciprocity, when these two cultures met. “What would it be like,” she asks, “to be raised on gratitude” rather than greed and calls for a “declaration of interdependence” and “justice for all of creation.” She points to the Native American way of planting crops together called Three Sisters in which corn provides the poles for beans to climb and squash at the base provides nutrients for all. Instead of capitalism that is based on the unequal distribution of wealth, creating scarcity, she suggests the teaching of “One Bowl and One Spoon” which holds that “the gifts of the earth are all in one bowl, all to be shared from a single spoon.” Earth, she explains, creates by a continuous mutual exchange of abundance: “plant breath for animal breath, winter and summer, predator and prey, grass and fire, night and day, living and dying. Water knows this, clouds know this. Soil and rocks know they are dancing in a continuous giveaway of making, unmaking, and making again the earth.” So the best way to braid sweetgrass is for one person to lean toward the other, “head to head, chatting and laughing, watching each other’s hands,” with this gift from the earth plaited between them. “The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibilities for all we have been given, for all that we have taken,” she writes. “It’s our turn now, long overdue.”

—THE

 

February 19, 2021

 

 

from “How Lady Antebellum Wrecked Country Music”

in Anything Will Be Easy after This: A Western Identity Crisis

by Bethany Maile

 

“Bethany Maile…traces her love of country music to weekends riding in her father’s pickup in the Idaho foothills with her feet out the window listening to ‘Rodeo’ on repeat.”—THE

 

Bethany Maile is a professor of writing at Boise State University. Her work has been published in Shenandoah, the Rumpus, River Teeth, Prairie Schooner, High Desert Journal, and the Normal School. Her essay “How Lady Antebellum Wrecked Country Music” begins as a critique of the band Lady A, but ends up being about herself and much more. Her collection of essays about the myth of the wild west is called Anything Will Be Easy after This: A Western Identity Crisis.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

I have said that the group [Lady A] poses too hard in the shadow of a thing it just isn't, and here I see the lamest reflections of myself. I wear cowboy boots to shopping malls and movie theaters. I drive my pickup to coffee shops. I have laid out my costume, if you will, as evidence of my earnest Idaho-ness, and while I genuinely like these things, nothing about them is authentic. I don't haul trailers or hay with my pickup; it could just as easily be a convertible. I could wear sandals or flip-flops more purposefully than my boots. I have taken the functionality of the old world and reduced it to a stylistic flourish, like a whiskey shot lyric or fiddle tiff. Maybe Lady A has been just as thoughtless, yet earnest, with its flashes of country. Maybe this should elicit empathy or grace.

—Bethany Maile

Commentary

 

“How Lady Antebellum Wrecked Country Music” is a smart and blistering critique by Bethany Maile of the pop-country band Lady A for not being country enough, good enough, or interesting enough which, she admits, is an indictment of herself. She traces her love of country music to weekends riding in her father’s pickup in the Idaho foothills with her feet out the window listening to “Rodeo” on repeat. She realizes that this view of herself is a myth—she doesn’t haul hay in her pickup which “could just as easily be a convertible”—but she wants country music to be authentic to that idyllic past. Lady A, which is “vague and therefore universal” does not do justice to the myth of the west, and like her has “reduced it to a stylistic flourish, like a whiskey shot lyric or fiddle tiff.” But can you be authentic to a myth, she asks, in the question at the heart of both her essay and her book Anything Will Be Easy after This: A Western Identity Crisis? She realizes that authentic country songs are “fixated on the past,” each an “elegy to a world that’s disappeared” and an attempt “to pin down the vanished.” Comfortable memories of her mother’s “gingham blanket” or of eating “crackers and cheese” and sharing an “overpriced Coors” with her father seem far-off. In the end, she rejects these much-loved, but frozen clichés as no longer sustaining and calls for “a new story for us to occupy” based on “analysis and deep thinking and interrogation,” one “that prizes the health of a place over our desire to claim it” in an ever changing world that changes us as we are passing through.

—THE

 

February 26, 2021

from “Men Explain Things to Me”

in Men Explain Things to Me

by Rebecca Solnit

 

“I like incidents of that sort, when forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that’s eaten a cow or an elephant turd on the carpet.”—Rebecca Solnit


Writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of more than twenty books on feminism, western and indigenous history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and disaster. Her essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” first published in April 2008 at TomDispatch.com and reprinted in Guernica magazine on August 20, 2012 was a sensational critique of a particular form of male arrogance that later became known as “mansplaining.” It was eventually published in Men Explain Things to Me, a collection of essays on topics such as Virginia Woolf’s embrace of mystery, an examination of marriage equality, and a survey of violence against women, all written in her direct and accessible prose. I thought it would be fun to look at this seminal essay to see why it struck such a nerve. You can read the full essay here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.

 

—Rebecca Solnit

Commentary

“Men Explain Things to Me” reveals what is at stake when some men presume that the world needs to be explained to women. “Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being.” What makes the essay memorable are unmistakable details about the behavior of her two examples, Mr. Very Important I and II. Everyone has seen men act this way but no one before Rebecca Solnit had nailed it so vividly. When she describes Mr. Very Important I who attempted to explain her own book, which he had not read, to her, she skewers his “smug look” of “a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.” Who has not seen that? When she describes Very Important II, who accused her of getting a fact wrong which she had gotten right, thus dismissing all she had to say, she writes that “his scorn was so withering, his confidence so aggressive, that arguing with him seemed a scary exercise in futility and an invitation to more insult.” Again, who—male of female—has not seen the “invitation to more insult” used as a shield against criticism from a woman? “I like incidents of that sort,” Solnit admits, “when forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that’s eaten a cow or an elephant turd on the carpet.” It is her precise rendering of such incidents that sears them in the mind.

 

—THE

 

March 5, 2021

 

from “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable”

in Men Explain Things to Me

by Rebecca Solnit

 

“What Virginia Woolf gives us, Solnit declares, is ‘a compass by which to get lost.’”—THE

 

Last week we featured Rebecca Solnit’s well-known essay “Men Explain Things to Me” about the arrogant tendency of some men to assume an air of unwarranted authority around women and say stupid things. In the end that essay is about the dangers of being around a smug know-it-all who shuts other people up. In this week’s feature on “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable,” Solnit flips the coin, describing the liberation of not knowing. The essay originally appeared in The New Yorker and you can read it in full here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

The tyranny of the quantifiable is partly the failure of language and discourse to describe more complex, subtle, and fluid phenomena, as well as the failure of those who shape opinions and make decisions to understand and value these slipperier things. It is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to value what cannot be named or described, and so the task of naming and describing is an essential one in any revolt against the status quo of capitalism and consumerism. Ultimately the destruction of the earth is due in part, perhaps in large part, to a failure of the imagination or to its eclipse by systems of accounting that can’t count what matters. The revolt against this destruction is a revolt of the imagination, in favor of subtleties, of pleasures money can’t buy and corporations can’t command, of being producers rather than consumers of meaning, of the slow, the meandering, the digressive, the exploratory, the numinous, the uncertain.

—Rebecca Solnit

Commentary

What Rebecca Solnit admires above all in Virginia Woolf is her willingness to embrace the unknown. It is not found in the office, Woolf writes, where we “sit surrounded by objects which enforce the memories of our own experience,” but in the street where “we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers.” Solnit agrees: “At times, thinking is an outdoor activity, and a physical one.” She suggests that Woolf’s imagination is animated by an “uncertainty principle” that serves her well, pushing past the “confinement sometimes called the art world” to mystery, “the capacity of something to keep becoming, to go beyond, to be uncircumscribable, to contain more.” By liberating her text she also liberates the rest of us, especially women who are not merely freed to do “some of the institutional things” reserved for men in the past, but “to roam, geographically and imaginatively.” The nebulous goal is to exchange “the tyranny of the quantifiable” for what can be insinuated but not named by language, to protect the planet from “systems of accounting that can’t count what matters,” to be “producers rather than consumers of meaning.” What Virginia Woolf gives us, Solnit declares, is “limitlessness, impossible to grasp, urgent to embrace, as fluid as water, as endless as desire, a compass by which to get lost.”

—THE

 

March 12, 2021

from “Ode on Melancholy”

in Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse

by Anahid Nersessian

 

“Once the jailer I’m now the object of an unflinching rhetoric of criminalization: everything I do is wrong.”—Anahid Nersessian

 

Anahid Nersessian is the author of The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life and Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment, and has published widely in top scholarly journals as well as in the Los Angeles Review of Books and Public Books. She also founded and co-edits the Thinking Literature series at the University of Chicago Press. She describes her most recent book, Keats's Odes: A Lover's Discourse as “a short book of experimental criticism, aimed at general readers” in which each of Keats’s Great Odes is followed by critical commentary in the form of a personal essay. We have chosen the Paragraph of the Week from her meditation on Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy” which brings her personal experience of being blamed for broken relationships to bear on the ending of the poem.

Paragraph of the Week

 

Once the jailer I’m now the object of an unflinching rhetoric of criminalization: everything I do is wrong. It comes easily to me to ask for forgiveness, but even though I really do mean it and really do want it I am also getting tired of this nonsense. If love is anything not laid waste by this world it is free. Mine is. Beneath all uncertainties it is sacred in the way of a riot, like the very idea of song. It has to be dragged kicking and screaming even from the scene of its final insult, for which I too am responsible, not least because I greet with furious exultation the moment it all goes to pieces and I abandon hope and us. From various corners I hear I have been characteristically insensible or clueless as well as hypocritical, beguiling, and cruel. No one seems convinced of what I know to be true about my love, that it was not wanted for what it was but for the pain it could guarantee.

—Anahid Nersessian

Commentary

 

In her literary analysis Anahid Nersessian compares herself to “Veil'd Melancholy,” presented by Keats as a femme fatale who “dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die” and turns “Joy” and “Pleasure” into poison. She may be “the very temple of Delight” but her “Sovran shrine” is hung about with “cloudy trophies” of past lovers. Nersessian is a victim of Melancholy as well and turns gloomy after an ugly argument over the phone with an ex-lover in which they hurl insults at each other. He says she has “ruined his life,” and she says he has always been “a great wet claw of hostility.” The argument ratchets up to the point that he sends her “a picture of his dick.” She may be tired of the “nonsense” of always being blamed for these breakups, and rejects accusations of being “clueless” as well as “hypocritical, beguiling, and cruel,” but admits that the fight is “fresh air…this frankness” and in the end takes Keats’ words to heart that a bitter—and one hopes temporary—truth about her love is that it is not wanted for what it is, but “for the pain it could guarantee.” Some will no doubt object to turning personal experience into literary criticism this way, but it does open new possibilities for the personal essayist, the solitude of a lyric poem and the solitude of lyric prose speaking for one another, and serves as a reminder of Helen Vendler’s description of the lyric as “utterances for us to utter” as our “own words.”

—THE

March 19, 2021

 

 

from “Grandparents in Paradise: Life in the Face of the Fall”

in Yesterday’s Noise: : A Family Legacy of Rage and Radiance

by Joe Mackall

 

“Ellie tosses us a casual wave over her shoulder and disappears into the Buick, into the world.”—Joe Mackall

We at The Humble Essayist Press are pleased to announce our latest book publication, Yesterday’s Noise: A Family Legacy of Rage and Radiance by Joe Mackall, a book which Andre Dubos III describes “as stories that square off against life’s mysteries, test the limits of love, and enlarge the heart.” Founder and longtime co-editor of River Teeth magazine, Mackall is the author of two works of nonfiction: The Last Street Before Cleveland: An Accidental Pilgrimage and Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish.

 

We took our Paragraph of the Week from the essay “Grandparents in Paradise: Life in the Face of the Fall” about the teeth-gnashing experience of Mackall and his wife waving goodbye as their granddaughter heads out in a car with her teenage friends. You can learn more about The Humble Essayist Press and Joe Mackall’s Yesterday’s Noise here.

Paragraph of the Week

As the day nears dusk, I watch as my oldest granddaughter runs out of our house toward a car full of other high school kids. The girl behind the wheel—somewhere between sixteen and the rest of her life—is a little overweight, which for some reason comforts me, until I notice she wears the too thick makeup of a young woman wanting a life she doesn’t yet understand.  A boy jumps out of the rustbelt Buick to let Ellie in the backseat. I don’t like the kid right off; I know he can’t be trusted. His movements are too deliberate. He acts as if perpetually aware of a camera. He has too beautiful hair. He doesn’t even acknowledge my wife or me as we smile miserably from the front porch. I hear the tinkling of an empty can spilling out of the car and hitting our driveway. Assuming it’s a Miller or Bud, I tense; my muscles clench. I then feel the warmth of my wife’s fingers on my arm, which is just enough to keep me still.  Ellie tosses us a casual wave over her shoulder and disappears into the Buick, into the world. The world outside of our family and our home has been whispering to her since she was old enough to realize there was something else out there. It beckons us all, of course. But on this day, it echoes with the wail of pain.

—Joe Mackall

Commentary

 

What world does Ellie enter when she slides into the backseat of a “rustbelt Buick” beside a cocky boy sporting a pompadour while her grandparents “smile miserably from the front porch?” It is a world where “past, present and future cohere and exist simultaneously.” Joe Mackall knows its past from the experience of his own family in which affection was entangled with meanness, mob activity, and murder. He knows the broad outlines of its future where his granddaughters will live “in a country and a world without [his] protection.” And its present stares him in the face as Ellie is whisked beyond the circle of his sheltering love while an empty beer can tumbles out of the car and hits the driveway. In Yesterday’s Noise Mackall brings his full voice—its humor and anxiety, its capacity to reenact the violent, the ugly, and the beautiful, a rich voice full of both night and day—to bear on a “legacy of rage and radiance.” His goal, he tells us, “is learning how to carry my love and devotion for the past, and my fear and hopes for the future, all the while remaining upright, bending toward beauty.” In the end the book takes him beyond judgement, if not beyond torment: “How sweet the past is, no matter how wrong or how/Sad” he writes in the final essay, quoting the poet Charles Wright. “How sweet is yesterday’s noise.”

—THE

 
 

March 26, 2021

 

from To Hell With It:

Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno

by Dinty W. Moore

 

“Dinty W. Moore uses jokes, parodies, even comics to poke fun at the absurdities of Dante and the Catholic Church in To Hell with It.”

—THE

 

Dinty W. Moore is the founding editor of Brevity magazine and the author of many books of nonfiction including Beyond Panic and Desire, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, and The Accidental Buddhist. His latest book, To Hell With It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno has been praised for its humor and for the sadness behind the jokes.

 

The Paragraph of the Week is about one of Moore’s earliest childhood memories of his father—“a sweet, clever, funny man who drank far too much," standing in a hole.

Paragraph of the Week

 

A mechanic's pit, to be precise. A six-by-twelve-foot rectangle cut seven or so feet deep into the cement floor of the local Chevrolet dealership's repair shop. This was before hydraulic lifts became standard. This was when a car would be brought into the garage and driven directly over the pit, when a mechanic would need to descend into the hole to access the automobile's undercarriage, to change the oil, wrench off the muffler, or adjust the springs.

—Dinty W. Moore

Commentary

 

Dinty W. Moore uses jokes, parodies, even comics to poke fun at the absurdities of Dante and the Catholic Church in To Hell With It including a bit on gluttony that takes place at an eating contest where chicken are cooked in a pan so large they are stirred with a rake and a catechism class where a nun attempts to explain the concept of pagan babies living in limbo to a class of snickering first graders. Behind all this fun, though, is the image of his father stuck in a hole: “his own sizeable abyss, a dark hole in his life.” Moore is convinced that the Catholic Church—and Dante’s revenge-tale version of its world view in The Inferno—is not only ridiculous, but destructive. Created out of thanatophobia (the fear of death), it induces guilt and fear of an afterlife in believers and apostates alike, reinforcing the depression that runs through many families that cannot cope, and driving his good-natured but alcoholic father into an early grave not unlike the hole that he hated standing in all day for half of his life. Moore is not “naïve enough to believe that all would have been well” for him and his family without hell, original sin, and Dante who hammered these concepts “into our culture like some crucifixion nail,” but when he asks himself if any of it helped, his answer is “Nah.”

—THE

April 2, 2021

 

from “White Debt”

by Eula Biss

in The New York Times

 

“Eula Biss begins her essay ‘White Debt’ by pointing out that the word ‘debt’ in German also means ‘guilt.’”—THE

 

Eula Biss is the author of four books of essays, most recently Having and Being Had. Her book On Immunity was named one of the Ten Best Books of 2014 by the New York Times Book Review, and Notes from No Man’s Land won the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism in 2009. Her essay “White Debt,” the source of our Paragraph of the Week, appeared in  The New York Times on December 6, 2015. She lives in Evanston, Illinois which recently passed Resolution 58-R-19, a “Commitment to End Structural Racism and Achieve Racial Equity,” in part through reparations.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

‘‘The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning’’ is the title of an essay Claudia Rankine wrote for The New York Times Magazine after the Charleston church massacre. Sitting with her essay in front of me, I asked myself what the condition of white life might be. I wrote ‘‘complacence’’ on a blank page. Hearing the term ‘‘white supremacist’’ in the wake of that shooting had given me another occasion to wonder whether white supremacists are any more dangerous than regular white people, who tend to enjoy supremacy without believing in it. After staring at ‘‘complacence’’ for quite a long time, I looked it up and discovered that it didn’t mean exactly what I thought it meant. ‘‘A feeling of smug or uncritical satisfaction with oneself or one’s achievements’’ might be an apt description of the dominant white attitude, but that’s more active than what I had in mind. I thought ‘‘complacence’’ meant sitting there in your house, neither smug nor satisfied, just lost in the illusion of ownership. This is an illusion that depends on forgetting the redlining, block busting, racial covenants, contract buying, loan discrimination, housing projects, mass incarceration, predatory lending and deed thefts that have prevented so many black Americans from building wealth the way so many white Americans have, through homeownership. I erased ‘‘complacence’’ and wrote ‘‘complicity.’’ I erased it. ‘‘Debt,’’ I wrote. Then, ‘‘forgotten debt.’’

—Eula Biss

Commentary

 

Eula Biss begins her essay “White Debt” by pointing out that the word “debt” in German also means “guilt,” and, quoting the German philosopher Friedrich Neitzsche, urges white Americans to feel its pang: “only something that continues to hurt stays in the memory.” For many Americans, Biss argues, debt is designed to be forgotten. To buy a house we arrange payments so that they are manageable and often talk about houses that banks own as “ours” as we settle into “the illusion of ownership.” When it comes to the matter of race, and the condition of perpetual “mourning” that blacks live under, the forgotten debt creates an illusion of white superiority based on ignoring a long list of real estate ills from “redlining” and “loan discrimination” to  “predatory lending” and “mass incarceration” that have prevented black Americans from accumulating wealth from  home ownership at the same rate as white Americans. Sherman Alexie once cautioned Biss against encouraging white guilt. “White people do crazy [expletive] when they feel guilty,” he told her, and she admits that whites do damage when they swoop in to “to save other people who don’t want or need to be saved.” To Alexi’s concern I would add the inevitability of white backlash, the most dangerous development in American politics in the twenty-first century and the biggest threat to racial justice and democracy in our time. But a great debt needs to be paid, and Biss urges white Americans to own up to their guilt, because “guilt is what makes a good life built on evil no longer good.” What Biss wants is “liberation,” by paying off the debt until she “deserves” what she has.

—THE

 
 

April 9, 2021

 

 

 

from “Consider the Lobster”

in Gourmet

by David Foster Wallace

“Lately I have been thinking about when an essay becomes personal.”—THE

 

David Foster Wallace was an American author of novels, short stories and essays widely known for his 1996 novel Infinite Jest. Our Paragraph pf the Week is from his essay “Consider the Lobster” which originally appeared in Gourmet magazine in 2004 and was published in the collection Consider the Lobster and Other Essays in 2005.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

The intimacy of [boiling a lobster] is maximized at home, which of course is where most lobster gets prepared and eaten (although note already the semiconscious euphemism “prepared,” which in the case of lobsters really means killing them right there in our kitchens). The basic scenario is that we come in from the store and make our little preparations like getting the kettle filled and boiling, and then we lift the lobsters out of the bag or whatever retail container they came home in…whereupon some uncomfortable things start to happen. However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster’s fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming). A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it’s in terrible pain, causing some cooks to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little lightweight plastic oven timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over.

—David Foster Wallace

Commentary

 

Lately I have been thinking about when an essay becomes personal. Some believe it happens when writers reveal something private or secretive, but for me people are more than what they hide. Others hear the person behind the essay in the voice of the text. So, according to this view, a writer like David Foster Wallace has such a distinctive voice that hearing it tells us who he is. The voice in “Consider the Lobster” is an unforgettable mixture of journalese (“Be apprized, though, that the Main Eating Tent’s suppers come in Styrofoam trays”) and language meant to be down-to-earth enough to parody the journalese (“Nor do they give you near enough napkins, considering how messy lobster is to eat, especially when you’re squeezed onto benches alongside children of various ages and vastly different levels of fine-motor development”). But to my ear the voice in writing is often very different than the voice in person and not a reliable indicator of the personal. For me, an essay becomes personal when we watch a writer’s interior struggle with the issue at hand, and that happens here beginning with the word “uncomfortable” in the phrase “whereupon some uncomfortable things start to happen.” Two paragraphs before the description of—let’s face it—the torture of a lobster, he explains what he means by uncomfortable: “The animal- cruelty- and- eating issue is uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling.” Like most others, his way of dealing with the subject is “to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing.” But when the lobster hitches its claws over the edge of a boiling pot “like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof,” the uncomfortable is visited upon the troubled and conflicted author, and the essay gets personal. It is also the place where his struggle becomes ours.

—THE

April 16, 2021

 

from “All Thy Waves”

in Put Off My Sackcloth

by Annie Dawid

 

“On one bend of a trail I’d never seen before, I discovered the hanging tree. Like a car wreck, it drew me back again and again…I was defenseless against its allure.”

—Annie Dawid

 

The Humble Essayist Press is pleased to announce publication of its newest collection of essays, Put Off My Sackcloth by Annie Dawid. The daughter of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and an American mother prone to suicidal depression, Annie Dawid, in these essays, traces the history of her life, pivoting between the hanging trees of her most despairing moments, the dizzying shifts of her youth, her archetypal dig into the horrific mass suicides of Jonestown, and the aching “architectural wonders” of her beloved son, Elijah. The writer Jill Christman describes the book this way: “In these essays, Dawid never flinches and when she can laugh, she laughs. She takes us down deep, but she shows us the sparkle of light glinting at the exit of the cave—and love? Love wins.” Our feature this week is the first paragraph of her book.  You can learn more about Put Off My Sackcloth and The Humble Essayist Press here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

During my last sojourn in That Place, I could listen only to Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson singing mournful, soothing gospel. I could read only literature from the nineteenth century and earlier. In the solipsism of my condition, I discovered that King David’s Psalms described depression with beauty and accuracy, and I found some solace there. I ate only cereal, and that with effort. I could not bear the sun and prayed for rain. Nights were marginally better, when I did not have to confront the light. In the wooded park where I walked my dogs, I found the darkest places and the least-trod paths. On one bend of a trail I’d never seen before, I discovered the hanging tree. Like a car wreck, it drew me back again and again. I didn’t want to study it, to want what it promised, but I was defenseless against its allure. Every afternoon I walked around the old oak, admiring its solid, sturdy arm under which I believed I would achieve my final rest, like a bird, nesting. As school was out, I did not teach and had no daily obligations. I was six months’ pregnant – six months off my meds.

—Annie Dawid

Commentary

 

Annie Dawid was too gloomy during her pregnancy in the summer of 1999 to understand why she suffered depression. She thought it was the result of despair caused by the Columbine shootings and the anxiety of bringing a child up in such a world. Also a friend had told her that she could not be a good mother given her tendency to depression. She found herself drawn to the “hanging tree” of suicide. The real problem though was that she was off her medications. What helped was a doctor who told her that “in scans of severely depressed people, whole sections of their brains remained unilluminated,” and she understood why she was not thinking clearly. Slowly the doctor’s words sank in, and she delayed suicide, aware that she would be killing her unborn child, and eventually took a low dose of medication that diminished her anxiety. Friends she trusted promised that “it’s not going to be like this always,” and Dawid started to repair herself. She read T.S. Eliot’s poetry and found belief in “something bigger and stronger than humankind," and, overcoming the “allure” of the hanging tree, gave birth to her son who made the world look “entirely different.” Caring for another human being, loving and mothering her son, and taking her meds revealed to her “the myriad delights of living.” This transformation is the theme of Put Off My Sackcloth, stated succinctly by a friend: “Hell sometimes disguises paradise.”

—THE

 
 

April 23, 2021

 

from The Glorious American Essay: One Hundred Essays from Colonial Times to the Present

edited by Phillip Lopate

 

“Much as I revere Howells, Gass, and Ozick, I respectfully disagree.”

—Phillip Lopate

 

We have two reasons to celebrate here at The Humble Essayist. Phillip Lopate, whose The Art of the Personal Essay published in 1994 became the definitive anthology of the genre, has edited two more sumptuous collection of essays: The Glorious American Essay featuring essayists from Colonial times to the present and The Golden Age of the American Essay: 1945-1970. The first is not only a remarkable collection of artfully crafted prose but an informal history of America as well, and the second collects writers such as James Agee, E. B. White, A. J. Liebling, James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy and many more whose work has withstood the test of time. We have chosen to feature two paragraphs from the introduction of the first volume both written by Lopate which explain why he chose to follow an all-inclusive view of the genre rather than a narrow one. We think both sides of the debate are interesting.

 

The good news is that there is more since Lopate plans a third volume devoted to the contemporary essay in the twenty-first century. These anthologies contains many surprises as well as old friends, and I’m sure that The Humble Essayist will draw from this rich trove for future features.—THE

The Paragraph of the Week

Many have tried to limit the field [of the essay]. William Dean Howells drew a strict border between the essay and the article. William H. Gass forbade the scholarly paper from consideration as an essay. Cynthia Ozick wrote: “A genuine essay has no educational, polemical, or sociopolitical use; it is the movement of a free mind at play….A genuine essay is not a doctrinaire tract or a propaganda effort or a broadside. Thomas Paine’s ‘Common Sense’ and Emile Zola’s ‘J’Accuse’ are heroic landmark writings, but to call them essays, though they may resemble the form, is to misunderstand. The essay is not meant for the barricades; it is a stroll through someone’s mazy mind.”

—Phillip Lopate

Commentary

 

Much as I revere Howells, Gass, and Ozick, I respectfully disagree. We are just as privy to Thomas Paine’s mind working through reasons to rebel as we are to his contemporary Hazlitt on the pleasures of hating, and why should a piece of writing be excluded from the essay kingdom simply because it follows a coherent line of reasoning? Even the lightest of familiar essays usually has an implicit armature of argumentation, just as essays that may not be overtly political invariably reflect an underlying politics. There are those who would seek to exclude criticism as a form of essay; but in my own experience, having taught and written a good deal of the stuff, I came to see that the best critics were all cobbling together a highly specific voice or persona through which their evaluations and insights could resound.

—Phillip Lopate

 

April 30, 2021

 

from Good Neighbors, Bad Times Revisited:

New Echoes of My Father’s German Village

by Mimi Schwartz

“Unfortunately, it is 1933 all over again around the world as bigotry becomes normalized and tolerated, including here in America, and, like the people in Rexingen Germany when the Nazi’s ruled, we are all being tested.”

—THE

 

Mimi Schwartz has “revisted” her 2008 book Good Neighbors, Bad Times about her Jewish father’s hometown of Rexingen, Germany under the Nazis because she realized that the story was not done with her. After publishing the book she discovered a private memoir by Max Sayer who grew up Catholic in the same town and his story confirmed her theme of how decency survived amid horrors in her father’s small town before, during, and after the war. We thought we would use this new edition as an excuse to reprise our December 2016 feature on her book which is as relevant now in a time of continuing white supremacy, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism as it was then.​

 

Schwartz in a video explains why she revisted her book here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Dear Hans,

...I still like to think of that Friday evening when I was supposed to deliver the starched collars to your house. As soon as I reached the door, I realized that the Sabbath had probably begun because I heard your fine clear tenor voice sound out on the road. I very timidly knocked on the door and your mother received me in a very friendly way and asked me into the living room. And I stood there as though I had been nailed down. There was this wondrously laid out table with such a festive atmosphere.... In spite of my presence, you, Hans, continued to sing your Ado, Ado, Adonai from deep in your throat. Your father with the typical thing for his head had the book in his hand and this picture I always have before my eyes.... The memory doesn’t let me go. . . . Is it this very special moment that is soothing to think of? Or is it reassuring to remember how one and the other respected each other?

   In this sense I stay connected to you, dear Rexingeners and send you my greetings of my family from all my heart. 

—Inge Wolfmann

—in Good Neighbors, Bad Times by Mimi Schwartz

Commentary

 

“So was Rexingen special or not?” Mimi Schwartz’s son asks after she returns from her last trip to Germany before completing Good Neighbors, Bad Times. Her goal in the book was to determine if the stories she heard as a child from her father and others about the kindness toward Jews in this small town in Nazi Germany were true.  In the end, she does find many “small acts of defiance” by the people of Rexingen against the cruelty of Hitler’s Germany, from the barber who cut the hair of Jews under the sign that read “No Jews allowed here” to carpenters who fixed Jewish windows after Kristallnacht and were sent to the war front never to return.  But the “treasured proof” of “ethereal” acts of heartfelt affection “made concrete” was this letter from the young, blonde German, Inge Wolfmann, who refused to join the girls’ Nazi Youth group, did not “yield to Nazi pressure” when the mayor appeared at their door with a whip in hand, and who wrote this letter to “a Jewish man she barely knew,” Schwartz writes, “not out of friendship—that would be easy to explain—but because one moment of memory binds the girl of ten and the boy of thirteen in a shared community now lost in guilt and grief.”  Sadly, even in Rexingen many Jews were eventually rounded up and taken to concentration camps.  “To this day it haunts me,” Inge says.  “We should have done more.”  But by 1939, it was too late.  “The time to stop the Nazis was in 1933,” when they first made a grab for power, Mimi Schwartz argues, reminding us of the importance of stopping tyranny while there is still time.  Unfortunately, it is 1933 all over again around the world as bigotry becomes normalized and tolerated, including here in America, and, like the people in Rexingen, Germany when the Nazi’s ruled, we are all being tested.

—THE

 

May 7, 2021

 

 

from “Coatesville”

by John Jay Chapman

in The Glorious American Essay

 

“I saw a seldom revealed picture of the American heart and of the American nature. I seemed to be looking into the heart of the criminal—a cold thing, an awful thing.”

—John Jay Chapman

 

One of benefits of an anthology is that it introduces us to writers we have missed, and John Jay Chapman, a powerful but at times peculiar and largely forgotten essayist, was one of those to me. An added benefit in Phillip Lopate’s anthology, The Glorious American Essay: One Hundred Essays from Colonial Times to the Present are the many cross-references he embeds in the book. So, in addition to meeting Chapman, I also get to read Edmund Wilson’s essay on Chapman describing him as a writer who was, among other obsessions, infuriated by the mistreatment of African Americans during the Jim Crow era.

 

The Paragraph of the Week comes from an essay by Chapman entitled “Coatesville.” In 1911 a black man accused of murdering a security guard was tortured and killed by “a few desperate, fiend-minded men” in Coatesville, Pennsylvania while a large gathering of “well-dressed American citizens” watched. Stirred by the horror, Chapman wrote an essay about racist hatred at the heart of American life and presented it as a speech. Two people showed up to hear it. The essay is haunting and now when I hear politicians regularly say in the face of racist violence in America that “this is not who we are” I think of Chapman’s piece.

Paragraph of the Week

 

I will tell you why I am here; I will tell you what happened to me. When I read in the newspapers of August 14, a year ago, about the burning alive of a human being, and of how a few desperate, fiend-minded men had been permitted to torture a man chained to an iron bedstead, burning alive, thrust back by pitchforks when he struggled out of it, while around stood hundreds of well-dressed American citizens, both from the vicinity and from afar, coming on foot and in wagons, assembling on telephone call, as if by magic, silent, whether from terror or indifference, fascinated and impotent, hundreds of persons watching this awful sight and making no attempt to stay the wickedness, and no one man among them all who was inspired to risk his life in an attempt to stop it, no one man to name the name of Christ, of humanity, of government! As I read the newspaper accounts of the scene enacted here in Coatesville a year ago, I seemed to get a glimpse into the unconscious soul of this country. I saw a seldom revealed picture of the American heart and of the American nature. I seemed to be looking into the heart of the criminal—a cold thing, an awful thing.

—John Jay Chapman

Commentary

 

On August 13, 1911, a Negro who had shot and killed a special officer of the Worth Brothers Steel Company in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, was burned alive by a mob under circumstances of special horror. Chapman, who was full of the Civil War, brooded upon this incident till he “felt as if the whole country would be different if any one man did something in penance, and so I went to Coatesville and declared my intention of holding a prayer meeting to the various business men I could buttonhole.” He had difficulty in getting a hall, but finally, four days after the anniversary of the lynching, succeeded in finding a place to speak. The address he delivered was strange and moving. He said that, when he had read in the papers how “hundreds of well-dressed American citizens” had stood by and watched the torture of the Negro, he had seemed to see into “the unconscious soul” of America. And what he had seen there was death—“the paralysis of the nerves about the heart in a people habitually and unconsciously given over to selfish aims.” They had “stood like blighted things, like ghosts about Acheron, waiting for someone or something to determine their destiny for them.” It was the old wickedness, not yet purged, of the slave trade, and all America was to blame for it. They could but open their hearts to God and pray that new life might flow into them.—The only persons who attended the meeting were an educated Negro woman from Boston and a stool pigeon sent by the police.

—Edmund Wilson

M1y 14, 2021: Alice Meynell, reprinted from archive Spring 2016

May 21, Anne McGrath, reprinted from archive Summer/Fall 2019

 

 

May 28, 2021

from “Against Interpretation”

in Against Interpretation and Other Essays

by Susan Sontag

 

“The inherent meaning of a painting, a piano sonata, or a paragraph is not what matters. What matters is how it works.”—THE

 

Susan Sontag was an American intellectual and writer best known for her essays on modern culture. One of her most influential books is Against Interpretation and Other Essays which is the source of our Paragraph of the Week.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art—and, by analogy, our own experience—more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.

—Susan Sontag

Commentary

 

Susan Sontag argues for a pragmatic view of literary criticism. The inherent meaning of a painting, a piano sonata, or a paragraph is not what matters. What matters is how it works, and, in a paragraph, how it does what it does to the reader. That has always been our goal here at The Humble Essayist where we don’t presume to explain meanings, but to open the paragraph up to discover its inner workings. A paragraph “is what it is” and to “show how it is” or "even that it is" worth all the fuss is the aim, though we don’t always live up to the task.

—THE

 
 

June 4, 2021

 

from “On Being a Cripple”

in Plain Text

by Nancy Mairs

 

“It has opened and enriched my life enormously, this sense that my frailty and need must be mirrored in others.”—Nancy Mairs

 

Nancy Mairs who died in 2016 wrote on a variety of topics, refusing to be defined by multiple sclerosis that made her life so hard, but “On Being a Cripple” is one of her best essays, one woman’s candid, sometimes blunt, often funny, and thoroughly unsentimental reckoning with a devastating illness.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

This gentleness is part of the reason that I’m not sorry to be a cripple. I didn’t have it before. Perhaps I’d have developed it anyway—how could I know such a thing?—and I wish I had more of it, but I’m glad of what I have. It has opened and enriched my life enormously, this sense that my frailty and need must be mirrored in others, that in searching for and shaping a stable core in a life wrenched by change and loss, change and loss, I must recognize the same process, under individual conditions, in the lives around me. I do not deprecate such knowledge, however I’ve come by it.

 

—Nancy Mairs

Comment

 

The “gentleness” Nancy Mairs discusses here is the empathy for others’ pain that living with MS has taught her. She quickly goes on to admit in the next paragraph that if she could be cured she would—“in a minute.” She writes: “I’m only occasionally looney and never a saint.” But much as she hates her disease, she refuses to “deprecate” the insight into human suffering that it gave her.  Her description of the process is precise: she sees that in a world of “change and loss,” her struggle to find and shape “a stable core” is everyone’s struggle, and her phrase—“under individual conditions”—tucked unobtrusively in the sentence is heartbreakingly generous since her individual condition was so uncommonly hard compared to that of most of us. Furthermore, she refuses to ask “why me?” knowing that the only answer is “why not,” and wondering “who would I put in my place?” Unwilling to inflict her suffering on another, she jokes: “I might as well do the job myself. Now that I’m getting the hang of it.”

—THE

 

6/11/2021

 

from “Ordinary Time”

in Ascent

by Sarah M. Wells

 

Ordinary Time is for watching “the sunset through the pines in the valley below our home before the next episode of The Office begins.”—Sarah M. Wells

 

Sarah M. Wells is the author of poetry, devotional books, and essays, including a novella-length essay The Valley of Achor available on Kindle. Poems and essays by Wells have appeared in Ascent, Brevity, Full Grown People, Hippocampus Review, The Pinch, River Teeth, Rock & Sling, Under the Gum Tree, and elsewhere.

 

She is also my former student—a remarkably talented and accomplished one—and the first to encourage me to create The Humble Essayist when I retired from teaching.

 

In this paragraph she contemplates when Ordinary Time becomes something else.—THE

Paragraph of the Week

 

I think about death almost every day these days. I’d prefer not to, but it doesn’t seem to want to give up its grip. There are times when I drive that my mind will flash, imagine what might happen if I just let go of the steering wheel, what would happen when my car strikes against the guard rail. Sometimes when we’re walking on the sidewalk and my son is riding his bike I picture his balance wobbling, him falling wrong and into the road and into the path of a speeding car, and I blink and panic and push away the way ordinary can become extraordinary in a hot second, just like that, just like that and everything I’ve written off as typical and mundane becomes scarce and precious and gone.

 

—Sarah M. Wells

Comment

 

Ordinary Time is the forty hours a week that Sarah Wells writes marketing plans at work. It is for making breakfast and dinner and paying for school lunches. It is the middle years when she turns 40 and her husband 42 “at the middlest middle” of their “middle-income, Midwest life.” In the liturgical calendar it is the time between Easter and Advent when “Jesus just walks around and teaches his disciples, heals a few people, holds a few dinners for sinners and tax collectors.” Her mother, diagnosed with cancer, is no longer in Ordinary Time, but in the Lent or Holy Week of her life—“maybe even Maundy Thursday” and since she thinks about her mother often Sarah finds, even in Ordinary Time, that she ponders death more than she would like. Ordinary Time is for watching “the sunset through the pines in the valley below our home before the next episode of The Office begins,” she writes. “Its bright notes rise orange and red until the green of the trees is made black.” It is for “time and stillness, habit, a solid night’s sleep for all the neurons to rewire and restore and recycle the day’s memories.” It is “when nothing tragic or ecstatic is happening,” but, as the Paragraph of the Week makes clear, Ordinary Time can “in a hot second” become extraordinary and what she has “written off as typical and mundane becomes scarce and precious and gone.”

—THE

June 18, 2021

 

from “Line”

in Brevity

by Irina Dumitrescu

 

“what if

what    if

what

if

                    what if      now

what

          if…”

—Irina Dumitrescu

 

 

Irina Dumitrescu lives in Bonn, Germany, where she teaches medieval literature. Her essays have appeared in Longreads, The Southwest Review, Scena9, The Yale Review, Literary Hub, Petits Propos Culinaires, Serious Eats, and the Marginalia Review of Books, and have been reprinted in Best American Essays 2016, Best Food Writing 2017, Wine Reads: A Literary Anthology of Wine Writing, and Longreads.

 

Our featured essay “Line,” about overcoming secret fears in order to lead a life of ordinary joys, is in the current issue of Brevity magazine.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Now as you walk to the kindergarten staying close to the hedge and out of the path of the bikes, you think about how you cannot tell anyone, as usual, you cannot tell a soul. There is no hour in your life when you are truly alone, no single span of sixty minutes that is not in service of family or workplace or of the rituals needed to keep your body moving through its stations of duty. But none of the people who crowd your days would know what a triumph it is to open the doors to the kindergarten yard on time that afternoon, to search the shady playground for your son, to ask the caregiver how his day was and what did he eat and did he play nice today.

—Irina Dumitrescu

Comment

 

What interests me in the final paragraph of Irina Dumitrescu’s brief essay “Line” is what gets her there. She describes coming to the curb of a busy intersection several hundred yards from the school where she will pick up her kindergardener and, as she is about to step into the crosswalk, sees a truck approaching and hears “that voice, or is it a voice, is it rather a picture, or perhaps a hollow pressure in your belly.” It tells her “what if” five times, the phrase sprinkled across the white space of the essay like a poem, enacting, perhaps, the faery dust of an anxiety-induced trance, with the word “now” stuck randomly in the fourth iteration to poke the thought forward. “What if,” she wonders, “I didn’t make it to the pick-up time.” This is followed by a flurry of imaginings: the cell-phone cracked on the ground, her confused son, her husband notified in another town and a “colleague whose shock registers more inconvenience than loss”—none of which happens as she steps into the street and the truck comes to a stop at the “six-inch yellow line” that separates her from her daymare, a secret anxiety she often has of falling or being pushed across such yellow lines. The result: our concluding paragraph where resentments about never having time for herself in the fraught world of a working mother are acknowledged but swept aside at the sight of her son.

—THE

 
 

June 25, 2021

 

from “Sounds”

in Walden

by Henry David Thoreau

 

“We like to think of Walden pond as pristine in Thoreau’s time, but there was a machine in his garden: the Fitchburg Railroad.”—THE

 

On July 4 The Humble Essayist will celebrate its seventh anniversary and as usual we do so by featuring a paragraph from that well-known partier Henry David Thoreau. This time our selection is from the chapter "Sounds" in Walden. Our feature will run for two weeks, and when we return we will start our eighth season!

Paragraph of the Week

 

As I sit at my window this summer afternoon, hawks are circling about my clearing; the tantivy of wild pigeons, flying by twos and threes athwart my view, or perching restless on the white-pine boughs behind my house, gives a voice to the air; a fishhawk dimples the glassy surface of the pond and brings up a fish; a mink steals out of the marsh before my door and seizes a frog by the shore; the sedge is bending under the weight of the reed-birds flitting hither and thither; and for the last half hour I have heard the rattle of railroad cars, now dying away and then reviving like the beat of a partridge, conveying travellers from Boston to the country. For I did not live so out of the world as that boy who, as I hear, was put out to a farmer in the east part of the town, but ere long ran away and came home again, quite down at the heel and homesick. He had never seen such a dull and out-of-the-way place; the folks were all gone off; why, you couldn’t even hear the whistle!

—Henry David Thoreau

Comment

We like to think of Walden pond as pristine in Thoreau’s time, but there was a machine in his garden: the Fitchburg Railroad that he estimated was a hundred rods (a little less than a third of a mile) south of his cabin. It’s whistle penetrated his woods “like the scream of a hawk” as the engine roared along at “twenty miles an hour” shaking the earth and echoing through the hills periodically each day. In the evening he heard it “blowing off steam” like “an iron horse” and was often awakened at midnight by its “defiant snort.” It is not surprising that Thoreau would disparage the intrusion. “Up come the books” from Boston, he wrote, “down goes the wit that writes them.” But in the Paragraph of the Week, the rattle of the passing cars seems to fit in with the “tantivy of wild pigeons” giving “a voice to the air,” the sound going in and out among the hills “like the beat of a partridge.” At one point in Walden, he describes the “embankments,” deep cuts in the hillsides made for trains, as beautiful: The various shades of the sand are singularly rich and agreeable, embracing the different iron colors, brown, gray, yellowish, and reddish. When the flowing mass reaches the drain at the foot of the bank it spreads out flatter into strands, the separate streams losing their semi-cylindrical form and gradually becoming more flat and broad, running together as they are more moist, till they form an almost flat sand, still variously and beautifully shaded, but in which you can trace the original forms of vegetation.” The train reminded him daily that he was a member of society, just as he has ever since been reminding us that we are a part of the natural world.

—THE

July 9, 2021

from “Once More to the Lake”

in One Man’s Meat

by E. B. White

 

“The opening of E. B. White’s ‘Once More to the Lake’ embeds hints of its darker theme in a disarming paragraph about annual family vacations at a lake in Maine.”—THE

 

Each year around E. B. White's birthday, July 11, we at The Humble Essayist feature a paragraph from “Once More to the Lake” in honor of one of the most beautifully constructed essays in American literature.  This time we take on paragraph one which sets in motion this remarkable work.

Paragraph of the Week

 

One summer, along about 1904, my father rented a camp on a lake in Maine and took us all there for the month of August. We all got ringworm from some kittens and had to rub Pond's Extract on our arms and legs night and morning, and my father rolled over in a canoe with all his clothes on; but outside of that the vacation was a success and from then on none of us ever thought there was any place in the world like that lake in Maine. We returned summer after summer—always on August 1st for one month. I have since become a salt-water man, but sometimes in summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of a lake in the woods. A few weeks ago this feeling got so strong I bought myself a couple of bass hooks and a spinner and returned to the lake where we used to go, for a week's fishing and to revisit old haunts.

—E. B. White

Comment

 

The opening of E. B. White’s “Once More to the Lake” embeds hints of its darker theme in a disarming paragraph about annual family vacations at a lake in Maine. We get ringworm, Pond’s Extract, and “my father rolled over in a canoe with all his clothes on” right away for slapstick and laughs, but these mistakes of first-timers on a family vacation are intended to set up the White family’s love for an idyllic place that they returned to “summer after summer.” Now he is a “salt-water man,” the phrase suggesting bonhomie and good cheer, but in that sentence the tone shifts a little, the ocean a setting for “restless” tides, “fearful cold,” and “the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening.” He longs for the “placidity” of the lake and decides to buy “a couple of bass hooks and a spinner” and take a summer trip to that spot in the Maine woods filled with memories. The trip is for a week of fishing with his son, yes, but also to “revisit old haunts,” the apparently innocent phrase ending in a carefully chosen word of foreboding.

—THE

 

July 16, 2021

 

from “Dying to Be Competent”

in THICK: And Other Essays

by Tressie McMillan Cottom

 

“Despite her formal education, health insurance, and marriage ‘nothing would shut down’ what her ‘blackness screams.’”—THE

 

Tressie McMillan Cottom is an associate professor in the iSchool at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life (UNC), Faculty Associate at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, and 2020 MacArthur Fellow. Her essays combine academic analysis, popular culture, and blunt language in a unique and readable mix that is “like all of me,” she declares: “Thick.” The Paragraph of the Week, describing her medical ordeal as a black woman during a miscarriage, is from “Dying to Be Competent” in her collection THICK: And Other Essays.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

To get the “healthcare” promised by the healthcare bureaucracy, it helps tremendously if the bureaucracy assumes that you are competent. When I called the nurse and said that I was bleeding and in pain, the nurse needed to hear that a competent person was on the phone in order to process my problem for the crisis that it was. Instead, something about me and the interaction did not read as competent. That is why I was left in a general waiting room when I arrived, rather than being rushed to a private room with the equipment necessary to treat a pregnancy crisis. When my butt hurt, the doctors and nurses did not read that as a competent interpretation of contractions and so no one addressed my labor pains for over three days. At every step of the process of having what I would learn later was a fairly typical pregnancy for a black woman in the United States, I was rendered an incompetent subject with exceptional needs that fell beyond the scope of reasonable healthcare.

 

—Tressie McMillan Cottom

Comment

 

When Tressie McMillan Cottom was a little girl she dreamed of being competent and hearing her high heels go “click, clack, click, clack” on a “shiny, hard floor.” But when she started bleeding due to a miscarriage none of the nurses or doctors saw her that way. Despite her formal education, health insurance, and marriage “nothing would shut down” what her “blackness screams.” When she was on the telephone she plainly told the nurse that she was bleeding and in pain, but “something about me and the interaction,” she writes, “did not read as competent,” so when she got to the doctor’s office she was told, despite being in crisis, to wait. Only after bleeding into a chair was she finally able to see the doctor who dismissed her as “probably just too fat” and sent her home. As a result, she was in labor for three days without medical attention and her baby died after drawing her first breath. During the delivery Cottom screamed “Motherfucker!” and begged for an epidural, but the anesthesiologist “glared” at her and said that if she were not quiet he would leave and not give her any pain relief. Sadly, such mistreatment is not unusual for pregnant black women. “Black babies in the United States die at just over two times the rate of white babies,” Cottom explains citing OB-GYN statistics from the Wexner Medical Center in Ohio, and the CDC “says that black women are 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes than are white women.”  When her miscarriage was over, the nurse scolded her: “You should have said something.” The truth is that she did, but all the nurse heard was what blackness screamed.

 

—THE

 
 

July 23, 2021

 

from “My Perfect Little Life”

in In Praise of Inadequate Gifts

by Tarn Wilson

 

“Her job as a writer is to solder connections between disparate events like these into one story.”—THE

 

Our Paragraph of the Week is by Tarn Wilson from her new collection of essays, In Praise of Inadequate Gifts published by Wandering Aengus Press. Wilson is the author of a memoir The Slow Farm published by Ovenbird Books in 2014 as part of the Judith Kitchen Select series. She earned her MA in education from Stanford and her MFA in creative writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her work appears in Brevity, Defunct, Gulf Stream, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Inertia, Ruminate, River Teeth, South Loop Review, and The Sun, among other magazines, and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

When my story is assembled, always imperfectly, always with a few under or overfilled joints, I look down from the top, as from an airplane. For a moment, I hold the summer- I- soldered- keyboards- for-Chrysler-LeBarons as a tiny world in my hand. A story about stories. Stories that delude and distract. Stories that give us courage. How can I know if the story I've told is true? I can't. But I can tell I'm getting close to truth when I've found the right pattern, made the right connections, and feel an electricity I don't understand that pulses through the sentences and makes the story live.

—Tarn Wilson

Commentary

 

When Tarn Wilson took a job soldering keyboards for Chrysler she knew nothing about electricity. “Resistors. Transistors, Capacitors—Words from a language I’d never understand,” she admits. But she loved the work: “pretty, striped glass beads with wires on the ends, stamped with little numbers.” Her essay about this temporary job appears to meander as she describes her distracted father, her depressed mother, and the boyfriend who broke up with her. It includes the other workers at the LeBaron’s plant who made up tall tales about their lives, including Ed who flirted with her and claimed to be a freelance photographer for National Geographic. Her job as a writer is to solder connections between disparate events like these into one story, this one “a story about stories.” She doesn’t understand the connections—the truth of her story—any more than she does electricity, but she knows she is getting close when she can feel on the circuit board of the page a current “that pulses through the sentences and makes the story live.”

 

—THE

 

July 30, 2021

 

from “Death of Abraham Lincoln”

by Walt Whitman

 

“Through the general hum following the stage pause, with the change of positions, came the muffled sound of a pistol-shot.”—Walt Whitman

 

As the congressional hearing into the January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington D. C. begins I thought it might be sobering to look at another act of political violence from the past. The Paragraph of the Week comes from Walt Whitman’s well-known essay “Death of Abraham Lincoln” published in 1879. Whitman appears to be reporting as an eyewitness but was actually using the description given to him by his partner, Peter Doyle. Whitman was in New York preparing Drum Taps for press at the time of the shooting, but Doyle was at Ford’s Theater. The Paragraph of the Week is so long that I cut it in two, the second part serving as the commentary this week. Whitman’s prose is ornate, but the two paragraphs, taken together, give a dramatic picture of the events of the evening when Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

The Paragraph of the Week (Part 1)

 

The President came betimes, and, with his wife, witness’d the play from the large stage-boxes of the second tier, two thrown into one, and profusely draped with the National flag. The acts and scenes of the pieces—one of those singularly written compositions which have at least the merit of giving entire relief to an audience engaged in mental action or business excitements and cares during the day, as it makes not the slightest call on either the moral, emotional, esthetic, or spiritual nature—a piece, (“Our American Cousin,”) in which, among other characters, so call’d, a Yankee, certainly such a one as was never seen, or the least like it ever seen, in North America, is introduced in England, with a varied fol-de-rol of talk, plot, scenery, and such phantasmagoria as goes to make up a modern popular drama—had progress’d through perhaps a couple of its acts, when in the midst of this comedy, or non-such, or whatever it is to be call’d, and to offset it, or finish it out, as if in Nature’s and the great Muse’s mockery of those poor mimes, came interpolated that scene, not really or exactly to be described at all, (for on the many hundreds who were there it seems to this hour to have left a passing blur, a dream, a blotch)—and yet partially to be described as I now proceed to give it. There is a scene in the play representing a modern parlor, in which two unprecedented English ladies are inform’d by the impossible Yankee that he is not a man of fortune, and therefore undesirable for marriage-catching purposes; after which, the comments being finish’d, the dramatic trio make exit, leaving the stage clear for a moment. At this period came the murder of Abraham Lincoln.

 

—Walt Whitman

Paragraph of the Week (Part 2)

 

Great as all its manifold train, circling round it, and stretching into the future for many a century, in the politics, history, art, &c., of the New World, in point of fact the main thing, the actual murder, transpired with the quiet and simplicity of any commonest occurrence—the bursting of a bud or pod in the growth of vegetation, for instance. Through the general hum following the stage pause, with the change of positions, came the muffled sound of a pistol-shot, which not one-hundredth part of the audience heard at the time—and yet a moment’s hush—somehow, surely, a vague startled thrill—and then, through the ornamented, draperied, starr’d and striped space-way of the President’s box, a sudden figure, a man, raises himself with hands and feet, stands a moment on the railing, leaps below to the stage, (a distance of perhaps fourteen or fifteen feet,) falls out of position, catching his boot-heel in the copious drapery, (the American flag,) falls on one knee, quickly recovers himself, rises as if nothing had happen’d, (he really sprains his ankle, but unfelt then)—and so the figure, Booth, the murderer, dress’d in plain black broadcloth, bare-headed, with full, glossy, raven hair, and his eyes like some mad animal’s flashing with light and resolution, yet with a certain strange calmness, holds aloft in one hand a large knife—walks along not much back from the footlights—turns fully toward the audience his face of statuesque beauty, lit by those basilisk eyes, flashing with desperation, perhaps insanity—launches out in a firm and steady voice the words Sic semper tyrannis—and then walks with neither slow nor very rapid pace diagonally across to the back of the stage, and disappears. (Had not all this terrible scene—making the mimic ones preposterous—had it not all been rehears’d, in blank, by Booth, beforehand?)

 

—Walt Whitman

 

August 6, 2021

 

 

from “Pliny and the Mountain Mouse”

in The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction(Third Edition)

by Reg Saner

 

“…what we most admire can't die, including the best of ourselves—which we don't invent, merely inherit or borrow. And which, like the world, is nobody's possession. Is wave-lengths, passing through us.”—Reg Saner

 

Lately I have been re-reading the Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction anthologies edited by Robert Root and Michael Steinberg. What a wonderful gathering of essays, including insightful commentary about the genre. Looking over the many possibilities for The Humble Essayist, I chose one of my favorites, all marked up from years of teaching. It is called “Pliny and the Mountain Mouse” by Reg Saner. Saner died last April at age ninety after a long and distinguished career of writing poetry and essays. In this particular essay he compares the courage of a marmot that can skitter along a sheer mountain ridge line to the Roman author “Pliny the Elder” who wrote sixty books of which only one survived. Here I try to boil down what this rich essay has to teach us about the tenacity of spirit in all creatures.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

[The fact that he wrote so many books that did not survive] makes Pliny's compulsive curiosity, despite his patchwork and pack-rat science, all the more touching. Laborious days and nights belied his own glum estimate of the human situation. We survive by not believing what we know. Is that because our unconscious knows something truer than fact? Maybe it knows that what we most admire can't die, including the best of ourselves—which we don't invent, merely inherit or borrow. And which, like the world, is nobody's possession. Is wave-lengths, passing through us.

 

—Reg Saner

Commentary

 

What do all creatures—from the tiny but spirited marmot to the grumpy but inquisitive Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder—share? That is the question behind “Pliny and the Mountain Mouse.” It is tempting to say that our common quality is curiosity since Reg Saner uses that word to describe the “compulsively curious” Pliny. After all, the marmot looks slyly in all directions for predators as it emerges hungry from months of hibernation. But curiosity is only part of the story. What is most admirable about all living creatures is what Saner later calls “the spark” of “all animal hardihood” which he also describes as our animal “stamina” to continue even in the face of inevitable death. It is this tenacity of spirit, more akin to courage than curiosity, that connects us to all other living beings and cannot die. No one owns it. We pass it on. It keeps us going forever. It is the best in us.

 

—THE

 

August 13, 2021

 

from “Ghost Museum”

in Best American Essays 2020

by Elvis Bego

 

“In Elvis Bego’s ghost museum, statues do not cast shadows because they are shadows, rocking the ontological status of any work of art.”—THE

 

Reading the Best American Essays 2020 I found “Ghost Museum” by Elvis Bego about the issue of authenticity in art. Born in Bosnia, Bego left that country at the age of twelve and now lives in Copenhagen. His fiction and essays have appeared in Agni, The Common, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Threepenny Review, Tin House, and elsewhere. He is at work on a novel and completing a book of stories. Let's enter the ghost museum with him through his opening paragraph.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Somewhere in the platonic cloud of ideas a ghost museum exists, a cave stuffed with works of art that do not cast a shadow because in a way they are shadow. They may once have been stone or bronze or painted canvas, but they have since been atomized, disappeared. The Athenians knew even in their own day it could all disappear. Sophocles told them at the very height of their culture that there was “nothing once known that may not become unknown.” The Greeks may be our fathers who died before we were even born, but we like to remember that we crawled from underneath their toga. Like the traveler looking at the self-mocking ruin of Ozymandias, we marvel at the erosive work of time.

—Elvis Bego

Commentary

 

In Elvis Bego’s ghost museum, statues do not cast shadows because they are shadows, rocking the ontological status of any work of art by calling into question what he calls the “aura of precedence.” He points out that as “inadvertent Platonists” we don’t like copies. We want the original. When we stand before a Rembrandt we feel the artist’s presence and are disappointed to learn that it was done by one of his students—though the painting we once admired has not changed. In the ghost museum, though, this yearning for the original is complicated. Is the bronze statue an original or the mold from which it was made?  What about prized works like the Disc Thrower that exist only as copies, the original lost?  For that matter, if Plato is right, the physical work of art is a sullied copy of an original concept so that a “destroyed work of art…returns the idea to its original, perfect state.” In the essay itself Bego complicates this argument about the “aura of precedence” further but there is a point to his nearly boundless cleverness. Our yearning for the original in art is a “cultural prejudice” based on anxiety about the authenticity of our own interior lives as we teeter on our “rickety plinth.” In a culture obsessed with "aura and authenticity" are we the real deal or just copies?

—THE

 

from “What America Would Be Like without Blacks”
in  The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison
by Ralph Ellison

“[T]oday it is the black American who puts pressure upon the nation to live up to its ideals.”—Ralph Ellison

One way to think about the contribution of African Americans to America is to imagine what the nation would be like without them. In a 1970 essay, “What America Would Be Like without Blacks,” Ralph Ellison made the attempt and concluded that black Americans symbolize the nation’s “most stringent testing and the possibility of its greatest human freedom.”  The Paragraph of the Week and its commentary show, in part, how he came to that conclusion. Both are by Ellison.

The Paragraph of the Week 

In other words, had there been no blacks, certain creative tensions arising from the cross-purposes of whites and blacks would also not have existed. Not only would there have been no Faulkner; there would have been no Stephen Crane, who found certain basic themes of his writing in the Civil War. Thus, also, there would have been no Hemingway, who took Crane as a source and guide. Without the presence of Negro American style, our jokes, our tall tales, even our sports would be lacking in the sudden turns, the shocks, the swift changes of pace (all jazz-shaped) that serve to remind us that the world is ever unexplored, and that while a complete mastery of life is mere illusion, the real secret of the game is to make life swing. It is its ability to articulate this tragic-comic attitude toward life that explains much of the mysterious power and attractiveness of that quality of Negro American style known as “soul.” An expression of American diversity within unity, of blackness with whiteness, soul announces the presence of a creative struggle against the realities of existence.

 

—Ralph Ellison

Commentary

Materially, psychologically, and culturally, part of the nation’s heritage is Negro American, and whatever it becomes will be shaped in part by the Negro’s presence. Which is fortunate, for today it is the black American who puts pressure upon the nation to live up to its ideals. It is he who gives creative tension to our struggle for justice and for the elimination of those factors, social and psychological, which make for slums and shaky suburban communities. It is he who insists that we purify the American language by demanding that there be a closer correlation between the meaning of words and reality, between ideal and conduct, our assertions and our actions. Without the black American, something irrepressibly hopeful and creative would go out of the American spirit, and the nation might well succumb to the moral slobbism that has ever threatened its existence from within.

 

—Ralph Ellison

August 27, 2021

 

from “Ode al Ventro Occidentale”

by Mark Sullivan

in The Best American Essays 2021

 

“This disappointment probably has something to do with my own stage in life. No longer young, I've come to that point where discouragements and losses begin to accumulate and outweigh, at times, the moments of elation.”—Mark Sullivan

 

The paragraph this week is from “Ode al Ventro Occidentale” by Mark Sullivan which appeared in the 2021 edition of The Best American Essays. The essay describes his search for the site where Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelly was inspired to write his Ode to the West Wind. The disappointment mentioned at the beginning of the paragraph is that he is near the end of his stay in Florence and still hasn’t found the plaque marking the site, but we learn that it goes much deeper. Sullivan is the author of the poetry collection Slag and has published poetry, essays, and reviews in Alaska Quarterly Review, New England Review, and the Southern Review.

The Paragraph of the Week

This disappointment probably has something to do with my own stage in life. No longer young, I've come to that point where discouragements and losses begin to accumulate and outweigh, at times, the moments of elation and integration Emerson talks about, where the inspired instances that once would wipe away several weeks of frustration have become even more infrequent. This ebbing of enthusiasm seems to be a hazard of middle age, especially when, as in my case the more tangible signs of success, like publications and recognitions, thin out or become so sparing at times as to seem desultory and disconnected. When you add to this the difficulties that accompany almost anyone’s moving past the middle of life—the sudden or gradual loss of loved ones, the physical ailments that are managed rather than healed, the coming to terms with limitations only to make further adjustments downward—it's not surprising that I would be attracted to Shelley's crisis and breakthrough, his yearning for inspiration that became its own fulfillment. I wouldn't be so melodramatic as to say I've fallen upon the thorns of life (though isn't one of the things we love about poems that they allow us to say things we would be embarrassed to say in our own voices?), but I can certainly appreciate Shelley's metaphor of the “heavy weight of hours” that makes time itself into a kind of gravity. Time too is said to bend and slow down around massive objects, the object in this case is the fact of our rectilinear course, and the differences between my circumstance and Shelley's, the almost two hundred years and age discrepancy that separate us, seem unimportant next to this common lot.

—Mark Sullivan

Commentary

 

On a stay in Florence with his wife who is doing a week-long stint teaching art, Mark Sullivan runs each morning with the goal of finding the site of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s inspiration for Ode to the West Wind. As a poet and essayist, he knows that writing is mostly dogged persistence and cites Rodin’s “rallying cry” to continuous work. “Toujours travailler!” But he thinks that the emphasis on the grind of production misses the real joy for the artist: “that moment when effort becomes gliding and the slog turns into song.” Virginia Woolf called such inspiration “moments of being” and Emerson described the artist’s experience of a “double consciousness” when the everyday routines of life are “shot through with intimations of something greater.” He realizes that art involves a troubling paradox: “the loss of self when one is most fluent.” Simone Weil called it “decreation.” Shelley’s poem about creativity as “Destroyer and Preserver” is a call for renewal from this a universal predicament for the artist. Sullivan’s disappointment on the last day at not finding the spot is compounded by his own “stage in life” which he describes as “an ebbing of enthusiasm” characteristic of middle age and made worse when moving past middle age: “the sudden or gradual loss of loved ones, the physical ailments that are managed rather than healed, the coming to terms with limitations only to make further adjustments downward.” His ennui is what has drawn him to seek the site of Shelley’s own “crisis and breakthrough.” He does eventually find it tucked away unobtrusively behind a fountain and experiences a consolation involving an appreciation of the mundane sources of inspiration that deserves to be read in its entirety, but his statement of the problem is an honest and moving description of what artists who live long enough eventually come to feel.

—THE

 
 

September 3, 2021

from “The Lives of a Cell”

in The Lives of a Cell

by Lewis Thomas

“We are an invaded species and never quite ourselves.”—THE

Lewis Thomas was a biologist and a physician who wrote impeccable, thought-provoking essays. Our paragraph is from The Lives of a Cell, the winner of the National Book Award in 1974 and the first of his five collections of essays. Its subject? Human arrogance.

The Paragraph of the Week

A good case can be made for our nonexistence as entities. We are not made up, as we had always supposed, of successively enriched packets of our own parts. We are shared, rented, occupied. At the interior of our cells, driving them, providing the oxidative energy that sends us out for the improvement of each shining day, are the mitochondria, and in a strict sense they are not ours. They turn out to be little separate creatures, the colonial posterity of migrant prokaryocytes, probably primitive bacteria that swam into ancestral precursors of our eukaryotic cells and stayed there. Ever since, they have maintained themselves and their ways, replicating in their own fashion, privately, with their own DNA and RNA quite different from ours. They are as much symbionts as the rhizobial bacteria in the roots of beans. Without them, we would not move a muscle, drum a finger, think a thought.--Lewis Thomas

 

—Lewis Thomas

Commentary

In “The Lives of a Cell” Lewis Thomas mocks the hubris of humans by arguing against the notion that we are autonomous beings at all. We may feel independent and powerful as we stride the earth building and creating and thinking our own thoughts, but in fact we are at the core “shared, rented, occupied.” He begins with mitochondria, organelles found in large numbers in most cells, that generate energy and  send us “out for the improvement of each shining day.” They allow us to move and think, but they are not really ours. They have a different RNA and DNA and took to lodging in cells long before cells became human. We are an invaded species and never quite ourselves. Seen in this light, “viruses, instead of being single-minded agents of disease and death now begin to look more like mobile genes,” Thomas writes, reminding us that earth is “the toughest membrane imaginable” and we are “the delicate part, transient and vulnerable as cilia.”—THE

September 10, 2021

 

from Fox & I

by Catherine Raven

 

“What she sees in the ecstatic tumble of kits ‘unencumbered by parental supervision’ is the ephemeral nature of all living creatures.”

 

Catherine Raven, the author of Fox & I, is a former national park ranger with a PhD in biology and degrees in zoology and botany. Her book is about her friendship with a fox, an idea she as a scientist initially resists, but ultimately embraces. Her moment of insight comes when she watches Fox’s kits play by her door.

After reading our feature the author tweeted this: “That entire scene with the kits allows me to picture love.”

Paragraph of the Week

 

Rolling back on their hind legs and facing each other, a pair of yowling kits boxed with both forearms. Two more jumped on them, and the fox huddle became a spastic, thrashing mass. When they calmed down, the four enmeshed foxes were throbbing like a single large animal. They dispersed when one took off in bounding leaps. Others jumped up on small boulders before following their den mates on a treasure hunt. Someone dug up one of Fox's cached cadavers and somersaulted around the prize. A snarling, heftier sibling sauntered up, exposing fangs that caused the littler thief to surrender its copped cache for a game of tag.

—Catherine Raven

Commentary

 

After this moment, which Catherine Raven later calls “kit night,” she nudged the manuscript for the scientific textbook she had been writing to the edge of her desk until it toppled by its own weight into the trashcan. She gave up on her project to “objectify” the animals near her cabin, in particular Fox who had become a friend. What she sees in the ecstatic tumble of kits “unencumbered by parental supervision” is the ephemeral nature of all living creatures. Throughout the book Fox has an ambiguous ontological status and she is not always sure if he is alive or dead, sick or healthy, animal or spirit, friend or not as he flits elusively through her days. Like the kits he refuses to corral, Fox is one creature made of many “enmeshed,” and once she can love—rather than study—this evanescence she is able to see “purpose” rather than “profession” as the goal of her life.

 

—THE

 

September 17, 2021

 

from “A Kind of Survivor”

by George Steiner

in Commentary, February 1965

 

A country is “a bounded, transient thing compared to the free play of the mind and the anarchic discipline of its dreams.”—George Steiner

 

George Steiner was born on Shakespeare’s birthday in 1929 and died on February 3 of last year. The author of Language of Silence among many other essay collections he wrote prolifically on language and society as well as on the Holocaust. “A Kind of Survivor” first appeared in Commentary magazine in 1965 and it still resonates today. You can read the original article here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Nationalism is the venom of our age. It has brought Europe to the edge of ruin. It drives the new states of Asia and Africa like crazed lemmings. By proclaiming himself a Ghanaean, a Nicaraguan, a Maltese, a man spares himself vexation. He need not ravel out what he is, where his humanity lies. He becomes one of an armed, coherent pack. Every mob impulse in modern politics, every totalitarian design, feeds on nationalism, on the drug of hatred which makes human beings bare their teeth across a wall, across ten yards of waste ground. Even if it be against his harried will, his weariness, the Jew—or some Jews, at least—may have an exemplary role. To show that whereas trees have roots, men have legs and are each other's guests. If the potential of civilization is not to be destroyed, we shall have to develop more complex, more provisional loyalties. There are, as Socrates taught, necessary treasons to make the city freer and more open to man. Even a Great Society is a bounded, transient thing compared to the free play of the mind and the anarchic discipline of its dreams.

—George Steiner

Commentary

 

Is there a paragraph that speaks more to our troubled era than this prescient one by George Steiner? It is from his essay, “A Kind of Survivor,” which argues that Jews, killed by Nazis and scattered in the Diaspora no longer had a homeland. Those who survived atrocities lost family members, their countries, their homes, and even their languages as they spread abroad. Setting aside the state of Israel as a solution—a “sad miracle” Steiner rejects as another form of nationalism—Jews had “to develop more complex, more provisional loyalties” than that of patriotism. They built a homeland of “secular thought and achievement” with the work of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein in the vanguard. They discovered that a country is “a bounded, transient thing compared to the free play of the mind and the anarchic discipline of its dreams.” In this they can be our models as our country drifts into the dangerous, even barbarous nationalism that every “mob impulse in modern politics, every totalitarian design, feeds on,” the “drug of hatred which makes human beings bare their teeth across a wall.”

—THE

 

September 24, 2021

 

from “Soul-Error”

by Philip Weinstein

in The Best American Essays 2020

 

“‘Soul-error,’ which Philip Weinstein takes from Montaigne’s phrase ‘erreur de l’âme’, is born of ‘an incorrigible mis-taking of others and ourselves.’”

 

Philip Weinstein, the Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor Emeritus at Swarthmore College, has published widely on nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction. The Society for the Study of Southern Literature chose his Becoming Faulkner (2010) for the C. Hugh Holman Award. "Soul-Error" is the signature essay in his current manuscript of the same title. In it he describes “how we stubbornly insist on misreading our world.”

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Such distortion only intensifies if we consider how often “seeing the other” is unknowingly inflected by the self who does the seeing. Take that precious moment all parents are familiar with: their screaming child, with whom they've been quarreling for what seems like hours, is finally in bed and has fallen asleep. The parents tiptoe into the child's bedroom, batten on the becalmed spectacle, and their hearts swell with love—their child, so troublemaking earlier, so precious now. Yet reconsider the optics at play, the perceptual slippages in time and space. The troublemaking child, obstreperous and demanding an hour earlier, has been replaced by the image of a tranquil, sleeping one. This sleeping one, mentally absent though bodily in the room, finally quiescent, has become wholly accessible to the parents' conception of it. Silent, unresisting, the child is now theirs—again. What they are so moved by is less the actual child than the magnitude of their feeling for their offspring. Tomorrow they will quarrel again—embodied players in present time again, active wills opposed to each other—but for now the child has been subsumed into its parents' precious image.

 

—Philip Weinstein

Commentary

 

“Soul-error,” which Philip Weinstein takes from Montaigne’s phrase “erreur de l’âme,” is born of “an incorrigible mis-taking of others and ourselves.” In this paragraph about parents looking at their angelic baby in the crib we see the mechanism at work. When the child was misbehaving, its will was opposed to that of the parents, but once the chaotic present has been “replaced by an image” of tranquility, the child fitting the image in the parents’ minds “is now theirs—again.” He points out that “the parents will live out their lifelong relation to their child mainly by way of such images” and that “perceptual slippages in time and space” pervade everyday life, including lovers’ most intimate moments: “even in the bedroom together, each one's eyes closed during or after a moment of intimacy, it is the images that predominate.” Later in his essay Weinstein considers the implications of these ubiquitous and inevitable distortions, including some very grim ones about regret, but here he reminds us that we make our lives our own by imposing images from our inner selves onto the world, and it is only by seeing through a glass darkly that “others continue to matter to us at all.”

 

—THE

 
 

October 1, 2021

 

from “The Gifts of the Moon”

in Little Poems in Prose

by Charles Baudelaire

“The moon left a greenish, pale light behind in the child’s wide eyes and filled the room with a ‘phosphorescent air.’”

 

We have long had an interest in the prose poem here at The Humble Essayist and have included many poets writing prose such as Maggie Nelson, Naomi Nye, Amy Wright, Matsuo Bashō, Claudia Rankine, and Joy Harjo to name some that you can find by poking around in THE archives. This week we look at a paragraph from a piece by Charles Baudelaire who is often called the father of the prose poem though the form can be traced back to antiquity. In this piece the moon claims a child with a kiss.

 

Next week we will take on a more contemporary master of the form.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

In the amplitude of her joy, the Moon filled all your chamber as with a phosphorescent air, a luminous poison; and all this living radiance thought and said: "You shall be for ever under the influence of my kiss. You shall love all that loves me and that I love: clouds, and silence, and night; the vast green sea; the unformed and multitudinous waters; the place where you are not; the lover you will never know; monstrous flowers, and perfumes that bring madness; cats that stretch themselves swooning upon the piano and lament with the sweet, hoarse voices of women.

—Charles Baudelaire

Commentary

 

The moon who is “caprice itself,” in Baudelaire’s “Gifts of the Moon,” descended on “a stairway of clouds” and “passed through the window pane without a noise” to select a child for—well, for what? To be an artist? A poet? A homosexual? A saint? A thief in the night? It is not clear. The moon left a greenish, pale light behind in the child’s wide eyes and filled the room with a “phosphorescent air.” Kissing the child sealed the deal so that it would grow up to love what the moon loves: clouds, silence, night, the sea, as well as “cats that stretch themselves swooning upon the piano and lament with the sweet, hoarse voices of women.” The “spoiled child” would become “the Queen of men” nurtured nightly by moonlight crouching at the foot of the bed, that “august divinity, that prophetic godmother, that poisonous nurse of all lunatics.”

—THE

 

October 8, 2021

from “Music”

in Beyond Time: New and Selected Work 1977-2007

by Robert Gibbons

 

“I want to conjure words of solace, drown out cacophony of retribution, self-righteousness. Fog, help me today…”

 

Robert Gibbons is the author of many collections of poetry, most of them prose poems. In them he transforms everyday occurrences into celebrations to lift his spirits and ours. Our feature this week is a prose poem from Beyond Time, his new and selected work published in 2007.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Music

 

I know some gentle people. Quiet places. I want to conjure words of solace, drown out cacophony of retribution, self-righteousness. Fog, help me today, mist, bare trees, any phone call from loved ones, family, friends, or email missives from colleagues concerned with art, the written word, music, color, blood running through veins burning for life. Smother the noise of Oedipal wrath. Seriously, meditatively, let's help each other turn away from gnashing teeth out of the West Wing. At the moment, I'm choosing one image. It's quite simple, & divine. It's eight-&-a-half-inches high from the island of Keros in the Cyclades. Harp player. A seated figure whose head tilts toward the sky in such a way that makes us wonder if he's blind. Long before Homer. Instrument decorated with bird's bills. Birds teaching man to sing? The simplicity of line is fascinating. How the sculptor carved him into this ceremonial throne, we'll never know. (My wife, & Maureen, & Alice just wrote. Words of love & encouragement. What courage means from Women!) Our blind musician's feet squarely on the ground. His hands are gone, no longer needs them, forever playing everything by ear, he's a funerary object placed in the grave to accompany the recently deceased in life beyond.

—Robert Gibbons

Commentary

 

Robert Gibbons is a poet of the “immediate-erotic” who quickly and with little revision writes prose poems that bristle with everyday life and moments of transcendence “beyond time.” We see both impulses at work in “Music” beginning with an invocation to the fog to help him escape a “cacophony of retribution, self-righteousness” and “Oedipal wrath.” But really any everyday interruption could help: “mist, bare trees, any phone call from loved ones, family, friends, or email missives from colleagues concerned with art, the written word, music, color, blood running through veins burning for life.” Gregarious and generous in spirit he invites the world to join him, in poem after poem.  What it brings on this day is a broken, ancient funerary object of a blind musician who learned how to sing from the birds. At this point, the moment of insight is about to arrive but the poet needs a little more help which comes in the form of a new parenthetical interruption—this time words of “love & encouragement” from courageous women in his life. They propel him to and are a part of the poem’s discovery and consolation: that the statue with hands gone is “forever playing everything by ear,” drawing on inner resources to comfort the dead “in life beyond.”

—THE

 

October 15, 2021

 

 

from Whiskey Boys and Other Meditations from the Abyss at the End of Youth

by Phillip Hurst

Whiskey Boys is a story about bartending and the meaning of life.

 

Phillip Hurst’s Whiskey Boys is the winner of the Monadnock Essay Collection Prize at Bauhan Publishing. Hurst is the author of the nonfiction book The Land of Ale and Gloom: Discovering the Pacific Northwest, forthcoming from Unsolicited Press, and the novel Regent’s of Paris forthcoming from Regal House Publishing. He lives in Oregon.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Epictetus, who began life as a Roman slave, believed humanity troubled by a tendency to worry incessantly over a mortality that cannot be avoided, while failing to worry sufficiently about what can be controlled, and to thereby confuse our desires and aversions such that we bungle the key to contentment, which he phrases in his Discourses as, “whether you do not fail to get what you wish, or do not fall into what you do not wish.” While the negative phrasing makes for some confusion, the key word is wish. The point is not achievement in the traditional sense, which inevitably implies the perceptions of others, but serenity, which requires we observe and understand what is actually meaningful—to us. Failure in such a conception doesn’t lie in the job itself or even how it’s performed, but in how we conceive or fail to conceive of it.

 

—Phillip Hurst

Commentary

 

Whiskey Boys by Phillip Hurst is a story about bartending and the meaning of life. In it, the author fails to pass the bar exam due to a night of debauchery which launches him on a career tending bar around the country. At first his book is a romp: a new city, a new lover, and a new bar in each chapter. Throughout the voice is winning as we might expect the voice of a charming bartender to be, full of stories and adventures as well as knowing and interesting asides about literature, philosophy, and the history of alcohol, but, as the book moves through time and the author faces the fact that he may be a "lifer" in the whiskey trade, the text darkens, and he contemplates what this job, that holds so little esteem in the eyes of others, means. He is drawn to the stoics, in particular Epictetus, who contended that life is brief, our ability to control it an illusion, and this one is all we have, a flicker of light between vast gulfs of nothingness. Our task is to make the most of it regardless of what society thinks. "Failure," the author writes, "doesn't lie in the job itself or even in how it is performed, but in how we conceive or fail to conceive of it."

 

—THE

 

October 29, 2021

from Out of Loneliness:

Murder & Memoir

by Mary Woster Haug

“As the title Out of Loneliness: Murder & Memoir makes clear, Bev Waugh, a young, transgender teenager, will kill Myron Menzie, and Mary Woster Haug will tell that story, but this meticulously researched and beautifully written book is about more than a murder.”

October 29, 2021The Humble Essayist Press is pleased to announce its latest release, Out of Loneliness: Murder & Memoir by Mary Woster Haug launched on Wednesday, October 27.  It is, Haug explains, “an unexpected story in an unexpected place that balances the mundane life of a small-town with the violence and the pervasive myth of the cowboy. At heart, this is a book about transformations.” Haug is also the author of Daughters of the Grasslands and has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Paragraph of the Week

Memorial Day, 1962. Bev Waugh, a twenty-four-year-old laundry worker, strode down the street in a quiet neighborhood in Chamberlain SD, my little hometown on the banks of the Missouri River. In the light of the setting sun, her* duck’s ass hair style was slick and shiny. The studs on the plackets of her western shirt gleamed with polish. A rolled-up sock bulged in the crotch of her jeans. She carried a .22 caliber rifle. The horse-shoe clips on her cowboy boots clicked against pavement in the persistent beat of a timer on a bomb. She approached a car, its wheels smashed against the curb, the fender crumpled over the wheel well. Inside the car, Myron Menzie, a young Lakota man, gripped the steering wheel, his knuckles pale. Sitting next to him was Jeanie Stepon, his pretty teenage fiancé who was also Bev’s lover.

—Mary Woster Haug

Commentary

As the title Out of Loneliness: Murder & Memoir makes clear, Bev Waugh, a young, transgender teenager, will kill Myron Menzie, and Mary Woster Haug will tell that story, but this meticulously researched and beautifully written book is about more than a murder. It is the story of Bev Waugh whose gender identity brings torment in a Western state where boys flip her off and shout “fuck you, Butch.” It is the story of forbidden love in a teenage world “where the taste of adolescent longings lingered in the air, moist and sweet as sugar and cream.” It is about the difficulty of finding language to tell the story, the asterisk beside the word “her” directing us to a discussion of the problematic pronoun. But, as the author makes clear in a book that started out as a true crime story and became her own memoir, it is an account of her own transformation. In it the author, a “chubby freshman girl” afraid to speak out at insults hurled at Bev because she is “in the presence of a cool senior boy” and simply glad the insults were not hurled at her, reckons with her own silent complicity in bigotry when growing up. In this book she tells all these stories to the world.

—THE

November 5, 2021

 

from “Buckeye Pyre”

by Amy Wright

in Beautiful Things

 

“…an elegy for us all.”

 

Amy Wright is an award-winning essayist, author of three poetry books and six chapbooks. Her essays appear in Georgia Review, Fourth Genre, Kenyon Review, Minding Nature, and elsewhere. She is the Senior Editor of Zone 3 and has twice been awarded Peter Taylor Fellowships to the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop. Her newest book is Paper Concert: A Conversation in the Round.

 

“Buckeye Pyre” appeared in Beautiful Things, a feature on the River Teeth magazine website first conceived by Sarah Wells and currently edited by Michelle Webster-Heins and Jill Christman. Each entry is 250 words or less. You can read Wright’s entire piece here.​

Paragraph of the Week

 

For hours in the field, foreheads singed, we fold in the fire. In its hunger to spread, the conflagration abandons limbs, which we pitchfork back toward the center blaze, where flames tongue the gnarled pith and ash butterflies flap blackened wings.

 

—Amy Wright

Commentary

 

Much of the flash piece “Buckeye Pyre” is a straightforward description of the burning of an enormous downed buckeye tree: gathering branches, pouring kerosene, lighting newspaper, and tending the flames by “folding in” branches along the edges, but there are plenty of indications that it is an elegy for us all. There is the word “pyre” in the title, the poisonous fruit of the buckeye, the description of branches as “funerary lilies,” the dating of the tree to the 1918 influenza, talk of covid from a passing neighbor, and the death of a cousin from the disease. This is an elegy for the tree, the people in the piece, a weary nation, and a diseased and burning planet with the macabre metaphor of “ash butterflies” flapping “blackened wings” as a lagniappe.

 

—THE

 
 

November 12, 2021

 

from “The Unbroken Line”

in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry

by Gary Young

 

Using “as little artifice as possible,” Gary Young writes prose poems that begin and end “on the same rhetorical plane.”

 

This week’s Paragraph of the Week is by Gary Young. In the commentary I draw from Young's essay "The Unbroken Line" in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry to describe his austere aesthetic for crafting such beautiful prose poems. Several volumes of his prose poetry are collected in No Other Life.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

The earth submits to seasonal drift. The stars slide, and the planets swing higher over the horizon every day. This morning the sun sent a shaft of light through a rift in the redwoods; it followed the steep angle of the canyon, skirted the stream, the wild azalea, the granite cutbank, and shined on the brick stoop beneath the stone arch at our gate. It rested there only for a moment, but my son found it. He sat there warming himself, and anyone watching the light play over his body could have believed he was made of gold.

Gary Young

Commentary

Using “as little artifice as possible,” Gary Young writes prose poems that begin and end “on the same rhetorical plane.” He conceives of them as “meaningful utterances playing out on a horizontal field.” Borrowing from poet Karl Shapiro he describes a paragraph as “a sonnet in prose.” It can be brief or “cruise on for pages,” but it ends where it begins. So, in this prose poem he begins with “seasonal drift,” follows a sunbeam through redwoods, and ends with light playing over his son’s body, though I feel a slight vertical lift at “made of gold.” He wonders what Robert Frost who famously said free verse was tennis without the net would say about poems without lines. “With the prose poem,” Young writes, “you don’t need a net; you don’t even need a court. You just hit the ball as far as you can, and follow it wherever it goes.”

THE

 

November 19, 2021

 

from Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through: An Essay

by T Fleischmann

 

“Anyway, you never get there,” writes T Fleischmann in Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through, “you just keep going.”—THE

 

Angry parents in America are going through school libraries to see which books should be banned because they contain explicit sex, depict LGBTQ life, use expletives and gender neutral pronouns, and depict slavery. Sometimes the parents don’t even read the books but search digital versions for the words they don’t like. Banning books is a notoriously authoritarian move and another step in our deteriorating democracy. In response I looked back through THE Archive and found a book that breaks many of these taboos. It is the memoir of a transgendered writer, T Fleischmann, that includes much explicit sex and asks us to think hard about bigotry. It also includes some lessons about pronouns along the way. I reprise it here to remind readers of the beauty and truth young people miss when books are banned at school.

 

T Fleischmann is the author of Syzygy, Beauty and the curator of Body Forms: Queerness and the Essay as well as Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through. A nonfiction editor at DIAGRAM and contributing editor at Essay Daily, Fleischmann published critical and creative work in journals such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, Fourth Genre, Gulf Coast, and others, as well as in the anthologies Bending Genre, How We Speak to One Another, Little Boxes, and Feminisms in Motion.

The Paragraph of the Week, from Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through, explores art and the body as well as identity and community from the author's transgendered perspective. The symbol for the pain experienced along the way is fractured ice and frozen hands, and joy is in the ache of  hands warming.—THE​

The Paragraph of the Week

 

...fracture. Split through, split apart, split into and out of blue. Split so the split is black and the ice is white. Split with tendrils of crack. And where it is still whole and hard, there beside the split it is whitest, although the whitest whites are just smaller splits, cracking the fractured ice into itself and out of its blue. A fog of small splits about each break and a hard dark split so there is no whole, just a clear ice and a clear ice. Because I lifted the block, wetting my hands on the white, dropped it onto the gray slate of creek rock. Because my hands ache from touching the ice. Because I can now put the two whole ices one atop the other, the white splits and dark crack splits each finding a fracture to match. And because the ice melted to water by my hands can find the static hum of the splits and fill and quiet them. Tonight it will grow colder and colder still and grow still in the colder, and the mends will become rends, and it will restore a clear hum. And maybe then I will have a block of ice again, to break...

—T Fleischmann

Commentary

 

“Anyway, you never get there,” writes T Fleischmann in Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through, “you just keep going.” It is for me the central insight of this book-length essay about the writer’s life as a person in gender transition. Fleischmann is forever arriving but never arrives at a true gender identity. At times desires and pleasures might repeat making gender seem stable “as if our love has to be just so,” but then it changes because the true gender for trans is trans. Fleischmann’s heartbreaking symbol for unfreezing gender rigidity is melting ice. In its frozen state large chunks of river ice may seem pellucid but on close examination the blue is riven with splits and fissures. Only by lifting a chunk and smashing it against another can the lines of the chunks reveal themselves, and only by taking the ice into warm but aching hands does the melting temporarily “fill and quiet” fissures which at night form again. Fleischmann first noticed ice in the picture book of a lover, Simon, who is left behind by the various changes the author undergoes over time, but in daydreams Simon returns and the lovers in imagination are reunited, the two of them “holding hands, and going exactly where we should be.” And where is that? “Where everything is impossible so we try to make it real. Where it’s spring, and the season of ice has passed.”

—THE

November 26, 2021

from “What Persists”

in What Persists: Selected Essays on Poetry from The Georgia Review

by Judith Kitchen

 

“essay reviews…with the emphasis on essay.”—Stephen Corey

 

Each year in November we celebrate the work of the poet, critic, essayist, and teacher Judith Kitchen. This year we look at What Persists, her collection of eighteen essays chosen from the nearly fifty essays on poetry that she published in The Georgia Review. Stephen Corey, the former editor of the magazine called them “essay reviews…with the emphasis on essay.”

 

What persists in poetry, Kitchen argues, is the “work’s ability to judge, and if necessary, correct itself.” In the course of this struggle, it “teaches us how it is to be read.” For example, what persists in the poet Robert Hass is “his awareness of the obstacles to song and his desire to sing.” What persists in Lisel Mueller’s case are poems that “couple present and past in a continuing commemoration of what could have been viewed as historically broken.” For Charles Wright, “the poems may say one thing at any given time, but the poetry is all about not-knowing, about impermanence and flux.” The Paragraph of the Week is from her essay-review of the poetry of Charles Wright. We’ll take a paragraph from her essay and match it with the selection of Wright’s work that she chose.

 

—THE

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Since Wright’s poems are about movement, they let the reader in on the movement even as they self-consciously annotate their progress. Even subvert it to see if the opposite will reveal yet another possibility. Wright's images occupy a juncture; they are the vehicle, moving thought from concrete to abstract and back again. Accompanied by patterns of sound, these images feel as fluid as music, as in “Cicada.” The whole point of all this thinking seems to be to “answer to / my life.” Not to answer, or to find an answer for, but to speak to its conditions, both physical and spiritual. The poems approach the age-old question of the nature of the universe and the place of the individual life within it, each time opening wide vistas, and often coming back to the inevitable: “There's only this single body, this tiny garment / Gathering the past against itself, / making it otherwise" and, in another poem, “One life is all we're entitled to, but it's enough,” and in yet another, "When we die, we die. The wind blows away our footprints."

—Judith Kitchen

from “Cicada”

Noon in the early September rain.

A cicada whines,

                               his voice

Starting to drown through the rainy world,

No ripple of wind,

                   no sound but his song of black wings,

No song but the song of his black wings.

Such emptiness at the heart,

                                                     such emptiness at the heart of being,

Fills us in ways we can't lay claim to,

Ways immense and without names,

                                                                  husk burning like amber

On tree bark, cicada wind-bodied,

Leaves beginning to rustle now

                                                         in the dark tree of self.

 

—Charles Wright