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Winter 2017


(Click on the name of the author or simply scroll through the text.)

from “Jazz, Fatherhood, and Albert Murray”

in Twin of Blackness

by Clifford Thompson


“Not only is America a cultural stew of continuously improvised art, it is a racial stew as well.”—THE


Clifford Thompson’s essays on books, film, jazz, and American identity have appeared in publications including The Threepenny Review, The Iowa Review, Commonweal, Film Quarterly, Cineaste, Oxford American, and Black Issues Book Review. Many were collected in Love for Sale and Other Essays, published in 2013 by Autumn House Press, which brought out his memoir, Twin of Blackness, in 2015. He graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in creative writing and has recently taken on adjunct professorships at Columbia University and New York University. He self-published a novel, Signifying Nothing, in 2009. He lives in Brooklyn and is at work on more essays and a novel.


“Clifford Thompson’s memoir, Twin of Blackness, rather sneaks up on its reader,” writes Gerald Early, “disarming in its simplicity as it provides warm and intimate details of lower-middle-class black life…a tale that is touching, amiable, yet unsentimental.”  The Paragraph of the Week on the effect of reading The Omni-Americans by scholar Albert Murray offers a taste of these qualities.

Thompson's work takes a fresh look at multiculturalism in American.  It is reminder that there is no going back.  There is no "great again."  In fact, there never was.

The Paragraph of the Week


The Omni-Americans helped me do two things: find a definition of blackness that did not exclude me, and see how that very blackness not only didn't exclude me from Americanness—but actually made me American. At the heart of the American experiment was the notion of making a way where none had existed, a shining testament to that idea being the US Constitution. That determination to survive by making a new way—to improvise—had parallels in black history: for example, the Underground Railroad and the civil rights movement, which were American in both geography and spirit. Murray's work also helped me to understand how the racial distinctions we all obsess over are largely false, in a land where blacks had both shaped and been shaped by a culture Murray called "incontestably mulatto." I realized I had seen examples of this my whole life. When the father and oldest son on The Brady Bunch can slap five, when the boys I grew up with could turn their jacket collars up in imitation of Fonzie on Happy Days, when US blacks have ancestors from the same continent as descendants of southern Italians, when blacks and whites alike have Native Americans in their bloodlines, when there are whites and blacks who can trace their lineage back to Thomas Jefferson, when the first jazz was played on instruments left over from Confederate army bands (!), when there are growing numbers of biracial individuals—when all those things are true, then not only do Americans, as Murray pointed out, look like no one so much as one another: to a great extent, they are one another.

—Clifford Thompson



When he turned thirty in 1993 and was about to become a father for the first time, Clifford Thompson attended a Seder where the guests shared fondly remembered stories and songs from the Jewish tradition that they had learned as children, and Thompson slowly seethed.  What was “the black American equivalent of a Jewish camp song?”  Where “were the fondly remembered pieces of a black tradition that didn’t make us laugh?”  He could not just make up a black tradition.  “It had to be there already, it had to be good and old.”  How, he wondered in despair, could he guide “a child, a bi-racial human being...through the thicket of racial/ethnic identity?”  About the same time as this Seder, he had begun to listen to jazz—discovering Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps along the way.  He also read The Omni-Americans by Albert Murray and eventually became friends with the author.  American culture was “uncontestably mullato” Murray argued, which rang true to Thompson.  Boys in The Brady Bunch can “slap five” and kids from his neighborhood “could turn their jacket collars up in imitation of Fonzie on Happy Days.”   Not only is America a cultural stew of continuously improvised art, it is a racial stew as well with whites and blacks tracing their lineage back to Thomas Jefferson and  an increasing number of Americans choosing bi-racial marriages. "Blackness did not exclude" Clifford Thompson from "being an American, it made him American."  As Murray pointed out, “Americans look like no one so much as one another: to a great extent, they are one another.”  What is the black-American equivalent of a Jewish camp song?  In a country where “the first jazz was played on instruments left over from Confederate army bands,” the tradition is grounded in the continuously evolving improvisations of all American art, but especially American jazz.  “Art,” Murray said to Thompson once, “comes out of play based on survival,” and with American improvised art forms as the bedrock of his cultural heritage, Thompson was equipped to bring his daughter into the world.


Clifford Thompson

from “How Long Before You Go Dry”

in River Teeth, Fall 2016

by Alex Lemon


“What makes Alex Lemon's essay unforgettable, though, is not just its candor, but the caudron of language and imagery at its heart.”—THE


Alex Lemon is the author of Happy: A Memoir, the essay collection Heartdusting: Notes from the Feverland (forthcoming from Milkweed Editions), and five books of poetry, most recently Or Beauty (forthcoming from Milkweed) and The Wish Book. He teaches at Texas Christian University and in Ashland University's low-residency MFA program.  The Paragraph of the Week is taken  from the essay “How Long Before You Go Dry” in the fall 2016 edition of River Teeth.

The Paragraph of the Week


So: I am a man and my father dies and I cannot stop weeping for weeks. So: I am a man and the orange tabby I've named Biggie cannot be found—probably has run off or run out into the street and been killed—and I could give two shits about the cat—whatever happened, I'm pissed, clenching my fists, gritting my teeth and I say good riddance, mutter that motherfucking animal better not come back. So: I am a woman and my father dies and I cry and cry and cry for weeks. So: I am a woman and the orange tabby I've named Biggie cannot be found—has either run off or run out into the street and been killed—and my eyes are waterfalls, my cheeks glazed with a melt of tears and makeup and snot. So: I cannot stop crying, loudly. So: I am a man and my entire body is crying—ponds, waterfalls of tears in my armpits, my belly and chest, the crack of my ass—but why don't we call it sweat so no one knows. So: I am a man, weeping through my entire body, crying with everything, but my eyes and their dryness fills me with rage. So: I am a man and because I want so badly to feel tears soak the rough skin of my face that I punch and kick and tear and Fuck you, what are you looking at. So: I am a man, so old that sometimes I cannot remember why I am crying. So: I am a woman, so old that sometimes I don't know what causes this sheen of tears. So: I am a man and the tear gland I have is smaller than the one that I have as the woman I am. So: there are these tears, all of these tears. So: there are more. So: there will always be more. So: I am a man who cries and cries and cries—what am I?

—Alex Lemon



In this essay about incontrollable weeping in a painful world Alex Lemon brings together a number of strands from his life: his son Felix, who has night terrors; a trip to a cremation temple in Kathmandu when he was younger to watch bodies burned and dumped into the Ganges; several times when he was tempted by women in that city; the brain operation on Henry Moliason which left the man living in a continual present tense; and his own brain operation which he fears may eventually cause mental deterioration. Joe Mackall, the editor of River Teeth magazine where this essay appeared last fall praised Lemon’s work for its honesty, his willingness to be “open and openly vulnerable” which is true and makes readers like us feel less alone with our sorrows.  What makes the essay unforgettable, though, is not just its candor, but the caudron of language and imagery at its heart. Lemon is “whipped awake, stripped from [his] dreaming.”  His insides are “tumbledown.” A sharp sound pierces “like a thumbtack jambed into his eardrum.”  When he was nearly bitten by a snake, he “jerked backward, a hopping crabwalk.”  He compares his son under a blanket to a mound of earth and the color red to a rabbit turned inside out.  Sometimes the verbs do the work:  “Branches tiptoeing the roof.  The barely audible shriek of a train braking miles and miles away.  On the opposite side of the house, a solitary cockroach bumpers over the kitchen tiles.”  Tiptoeing branches.  Bumpering cockroaches.  Brain scans from the hospital look like “treasure maps that go nowhere at all.”  At night, his son in a terror, sits “erect like a vampire rising” and his father can hear his “lawnmower cry.”  The source of this imagery is the melancholic mind of the poet—a place as rich and terrifying as Alexander Pope’s “Cave of Spleen.”  In Lemon’s nightmarish version of this grotto, “a handful of nails are thrown in the air” and “instead of nails, tooth after tooth” comes floating down.  He sees “The number eleven” and a “row of bodiless heads being shaved” and “a baseball unstitching itself” and “a whitewall tire rolling down the night street.”  Alex Lemon’s honesty about his attempt to wring meaning and love out of such a painful word is admirable, but it is his artistry with language that reveals the never-ending agony of the struggle.


Alex Lemon

January 20, 2017

Foul Mouth in the White House


from “Becoming What We’re Called”

in Anything We Love Can Be Saved

by Alice Walker


“The danger of political incorrectness, Alice Walker argues, is that we become what we’re called.”—THE


Alice Walker is an internationally celebrated writer, poet, and activist whose books include seven novels, four collections of short stories, and volumes of essays and poetry.  She has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for her writing.  The Paragraph of the Week comes from her essay “Becoming What We’re Called.”  THE uses her work to send a message to his readers about our newly inaugurated president.  This issue is dedicated to the women who march in Washington on January 21, 2017.—THE

The Paragraph of the Week

Sometimes I think these struggles about identity will never end; [and I am reminded] of nothing so much as of the battle black people seem to have lost a decade ago against the word "nigger." Seeking to redeem it, to render it harmless, many people deliberately kept it alive among themselves. Now, because of rap, it is commonplace to hear it bouncing through the air, no matter where you are, and if you are not fond of it, you feel all the assault such a negative description brings. (Nigger: a vulgar, offensive term of hostility and contempt, as used by Negrophobes.) Recently, for instance, two other friends and I were walking through the San Francisco Botanical Garden, the only black people there, the only black women. It is crucial, living in the city, to have access to nature: a place where you can relax, be yourself, and relate to the magnificence of the earth without thinking every moment of life in a racist, violent society. We stood by a pond on which there were hundreds of birds and marveled at the way the fluttering of their wings stirred the air. It was a beautiful day. The sun was warm, the sky blue, the Asian magnolias in full expression. Suddenly, out of nowhere, it seemed, we heard, very loud, "black nigger black ... dah, dab, dah." We looked about for the racist white man who had dared shatter our peace. He was not there. Instead, the retreating back of a young black man, bopping in tune to music from his Walkman, told the story. He was singing along with someone whose refrain, "black nigger black," he echoed. We watched as he swung along, oblivious to the beauty all around him, his attention solely on this song. He went the length of the garden, seeing nothing; only thinking of how he was black and a nigger and this was all the identity he had. It was like watching him throw mud, or worse, all over himself.

—Alice Walker


Our new president called women “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs,” and “disgusting animals.”  He called a young female reporter a “beautiful piece of ass.”  He called a breast-feeding mother “disgusting.”   He called Alicia Machado “Miss Piggy,” “Miss Housekeeping,” and an “eating machine.”  He called Hillary Clinton “a nasty woman.”  He famously called immigrants “killers” and “rapists.”  He said “laziness is a trait in blacks.  It really is.  I believe that.  It’s not anything they can control.”  He habitually uses the word “the” in front of words for minority groups to disparage their members as interchangeable:  “the Hispanics,” “the Muslims, “the blacks.”  He even says it when he says he loves them as in “I love the Muslims, I think they’re great people,” or “I have a great relationship with the blacks.”   “Look at my African American over here,” he bellowed at a rally, dismissing the man as a token.  He told the Republican Jewish Coalition that he was a negotiator “like you folks.”  He dismisses intellectuals as “losers and haters” claiming his I.Q. is “one of the highest.”  The danger of political incorrectness, Alice Walker argues, is that we become what we’re called and now we have a foul mouth in the White House.  Americans have to be on guard for the next four years that they do not pour the “mud, or worse” of his words over themselves.


Alice Walker
Steven Church

from “Timothy Treadwell”

in One with the Tiger:  Sublime and Violent Encounters Between Humans and Animals

by Steven Church


“…the telling takes on a life of its own.  It is not necessarily a lie, but a truth that is ‘harder to pin down’ because it goes beyond the facts.”--THE


Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, The Day After 'The Day After': My Atomic Angst, and most recently, Ultrasonic, which was featured in the Los Angeles Times, The Paris Review, Tin House, and, of course, right here in The Humble Essayist. His essays have been published and anthologized widely, including in Best American Essays and most recently in After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays. He teaches in the MFA program at Fresno State, where he is the Hallowell Professor of Creative Writing.

Paragraph of the Week


Can you hear the line crossed, the moment when there is no turning back? What does it sound like? I can almost hear Treadwell's high-pitched voice, frantic, shrieking at Amie, trying everything he can to get her to run and hide [from the bear], to get away. He knows he's going to die. But my imagination can only take me so far into that experience; and though I know I shouldn't, I want to listen. And it's true that now you can find online what claims to be the actual audio recording of the attack. I could listen with one click. But I don't. It's not the grisly reality of the attack that most interests me, but the ecstatic and imagined reality. I'm interested in the mediated truth of that scene more than I am in the actual recording. I don't want to listen. I want to watch Jewel watch Werner Herzog listening.

—Steven Church



In his book about people like Timothy Treadwell, obsessed with wild, predatory animals, who died along with his girlfriend, Amie, in a bear attack, Steven Church uncovers the surprising source of his fascination.  As he watches a video of Jewel watching filmmaker Walter Herzog listen to the grizzly gnawing on her former boyfriend’s body, he realizes that it is not the killing itself that compels him to watch but “the ecstatic and imagined reality” of it.  “Herzog puts his hand to his face.  Jewel gasps,” writes Church, and “in the silence, my mind fills the gaps left in the story.”  It is not what actually occurred in the woods on that awful day that holds him spellbound, but a secondhand truth captured by the gesture of Herzog, a gasp, and the expression on the face of Treadwell’s former lover—“the mediated truth of that scene”—that sends Church “into a state of sublime confusion.”  Once the event is over, the art of the telling takes on a life of its own.  It is not necessarily a lie, but a truth that is “harder to pin down” because it goes beyond the facts, and it raises the stakes for the nonfiction writer who in reliving experiences like Treadwell’s in the imagination must “leap into the empty white space” of the page, “a leap that frightens and paralyzes a great many people” and one that still fills writer Steven Church “with equal parts terror and wonder.”


from “Sakerson”

in Animals Strike Curious Poses

by Elena Passarello


“The accent on the word ‘affixéd’ is one clue”—THE


Elena Passarello is the recipient of a 2015 Whiting Award. Her first collection with Sarabande Books, Let Me Clear My Throat, won the gold medal for nonfiction at the 2013 Independent Publisher Awards and was a finalist for the 2014 Oregon Book Award. Her essays on performance, pop culture, and the natural world have been published in Oxford American, Slate, Creative Nonfiction, and The Iowa Review, among other publications, as well as in the 2015 anthologies Cat is Art Spelled Wrong and After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays. Passarello lives in Corvallis, Oregon and teaches at Oregon State University.


The Paragraph of the Week comes from the essay “Sackerson” in her new collection Animals Strike Curious Poses, an essay about the famous bear with that name at The London Garden in Elizabethan England.

The Paragraph of the Week


But do not think that London's garden crowd imagined him a broken, bashed-in thing. Believe me, this is tricky. I might see the lives of baited bears as nothing but a broken chord of muzzle, chain, and stake. Of blunted teeth, barrages of dog jaws, of living-out a mongrel just to have another thrown upon the slavered flesh. That rink's the only place that he could run, a hard-won constitutional—fighting dogs and running laps in that dank polygon. That garden, broken even in its flowers—the rosettes they affixéd to his brow were bull's-eyes for the mastiffs when they jumped. And jump they did, mouths tearing up the flesh that leered at them from each side of the bloom. They bit so hard that London's citizens grew up thinking a bear's eyes to be pink.

—Elena Passarello



The accent on the word “affixéd” is one clue.  The heavily alliterated b-sound is another:  “a broken, bashed-in thing” and “baited bears as nothing but a broken chord. ” This paragraph, about Sakerson the bear, like the rest of her essay about bear-baiting conducted at The London Garden near Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, imitates in prose the stately iambic pentameter of The Bard’s plays.  Check it out—it scans!  It is one of many experiments in prose in Elena Passarello’s new collection Animals Strike Curious Poses.  In “Jeoffry,” for instance, she fills in parts of lines in a Christopher Smart poem which was “missing its left hand side.”  Her essay “Koko” is rendered “entirely from the thousand-plus-word vocabulary of a famous sign-language-using gorilla.”  And there are many more pieces that push hard against the limitations of prose.  The upshot of this verbal playfulness, as the paragraph about Sakerson suggests, is a simple, but important truth. The gap between humans gifted with language and animals with their various other gifts is wide.  Passarello pushes the language to fill in the gap, and gives us a sense of the power, nobility, and vulnerability of the animal world, but those words “power,” “nobility,” and “vulnerability” are human concepts, and no matter how hard she presses our greatest asset, it only takes us so far.  There is a mysterious kingdom of animals beyond the ability of our best writers to capture in words, and all we can do is look on with respect and humility.  This book allows us to creep up to the border of that wordless world and peer in.


Elena Passarello

from “Why I Can’t Write About My Mother”

in Sister Mother Husband Dog: (Etc.)

by Delia Ephron

“As her mother lay dying, her last words to Nora were ‘Take notes.’”—Tisha Reed


This week The Humble Essayist has a guest writer, Tisha Reed.  Tisha chose a paragraph by Delia Ephron who is the daughter of screenwriters and sister to the more famous Nora Ephron.  Her first book was about the art of crochet.  She is best known for her screenplay You’ve Got Mail and her journalism printed in magazines such as O, The Oprah Magazine and Vogue.  Currently she lives in New York with her husband and a fluffy white dog.


Tisha Reed is a student of mine in the MFA program for creative writing at Ashland University in Ohio.  When not being fiendishly serious in her day job, she has great fun being a mother, even though she is often scolded by her seven year old daughter for breaking the rules and being inappropriate.  Tisha’s teacher agrees.—THE

Paragraph of the Week


I can’t help notice that, in writing about my mother, I keep sliding into me.  Into what she did to me.  What I’m writing – my intention to get a grip on her – keeps spinning out of control, the way life in that house did.  I keep trying to make this essay “neat,” bend it to my will, make it track, but I can’t.  And I keep waking up at two in the morning with my mother on my mind.

—Delia Ephron



Delia Ephron starts Sister Mother Husband Dog: (Etc.) with a love story about her sister, Nora.  The two often quipped that they shared a brain.  The two often quipped that they shared a brain.  So losing Nora was like losing half of herself.  That is not to say that this collection is flowery and eulogizing.  In fact, Ephron mentions several lines that Nora stole from her, ways that Nora was less than generous and the sheer difficulty of dealing with Nora at times.  But there is no doubt that she loved her sister.  The essay “Why I Can’t Write About My Mother” is the penultimate essay in the collection.  Ephron’s mother was much more concerned about raising her four daughters as career women, most preferably writers.  She did not attend school open houses or bake for her children.  Once she descended into alcoholism, she was not the protective mother bear, but a monster from whom her children needed protection.  Most especially Delia.  As her mother lay dying, her last words to Nora were “Take notes.”  To Delia she said, “I hated crochet.”  However, without the influence of her mother Delia may never have been a writer.  When Ephron was 14, her mother told her “Never tell anyone what happens here.”  As a result, she is having a hard time telling even as an adult.  Even though she knows keeping secrets perpetuates the sickness and keeps the secrets of the bad times safe.  She is still under the curse even though the spell should be broken as the witch is dead.

—Tisha Reed

Delia Ephron and Tisha Reed

from Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

by Terry Tempest Williams


“It begins slowly and is largely hidden.”—Terry Tempest Williams


One of the bonuses of reading for The Humble Essayist is that on occasion authors write their own commentaries in the text, making my job here at THE a lot easier!  This week features one of these “found” paragraphs with commentary in two back-to-back paragraphs from Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams.  Here the commentary takes the form of an analysis of the surprising connection between creative writing and cancer—illustrating the “abnormal” nature of both.


Terry Tempest Williams is known for her impassioned and lyrical prose.  She the author of Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and PlaceAn Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the FieldDesert QuartetLeapRed: Patience and Passion in the DesertThe Open Space of Democracy; and Finding Beauty in a Broken World, The Story of My Heart by Richard Jeffries, as rediscovered by Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams.  Her most recent book is The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. The book was published in June, 2016, to coincide with and honor the centennial of the National Park Service.  She will also be the visiting nonfiction writer in the Ashland University MFA summer residency.


This is the second time that Williams has been featured in The Humble Essayist.  You can see the earlier paragraph with my commentary in the fall 2015 archive here.  But first, please read the Paragraph of the Week and self-commentry by Terry Tempest Williams below.

Paragraph of the Week


It begins slowly and is largely hidden.  One cell divides into two; two cells divide into four; four cells divide into sixteen…normal cells are consumed by abnormal ones. Over time, they congeal, consolidate, make themselves known. Call it a mass, call it a tumor. It surfaces and demands our attention. We can surgically remove it. We can shrink it with radiation. We can poison it with drugs. Whatever we choose, though, we view the tumor as foreign, something outside ourselves. It is however, our own creation. The creation we fear.

—Terry Tempest Williams



The cancer process is not unlike the creative process. Ideas emerge slowly, quietly, invisibly at first. They are most often abnormal thoughts, thoughts that disrupt the quotidian, the accustomed. They divide and multiply, become invasive. With time, they congeal, consolidate, and make themselves conscious. An idea surfaces and demands total attention. I take it from my body and give it away.

—Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams
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