Tell Me How It Ends : An Essay in Forty Questions – Valeria Luiselli

TellMe

Valeria Luiselli, successful author of “The Story of My Teeth” and “Faces In The Crowd” (both translated by Christina MacSweeney and both shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award), has released a new title, again through Coffee House Press, but this time written in English and not fiction, this time an essay.

Titled “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay In Forty Questions” this is a timely release from a writer who has recently received her US “Green Card”, an exploration of Mexican US relations, through the view of child refugees arriving in the USA, via Mexico.

The book opens with a reflection of 2014, a time when thousands of “refugee” children arrived in the USA.

In varying debrees, some papers and webpages announce the arrival of undocumented children like a biblical plague. Beware the locusts! They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen – these menacing, coffee-colored boys and girls, with their obsidian hair and slant eyes. They will fall from the skies, on our cars, on our green lawns, on our heads, on our schools, on our Sundays. They will make a racket, they will bring their chaos, their sickness, their dirt, their browness. They will cloud the pretty views, they will fill the future with bad omens, they will fill our tongues with barbarisms. And if they are allowed to stay here they will – eventually – reproduce!

We wonder if the reactions would be different were all these children of a lighter color: of better, purer breeds and nationalities. Would they be treated more like people? More like children? We read the papers, listed to the radio, see photographs, and wonder.

In this enlightening essay we learn of Luiselli’s role as an interpter for these children when they have to face the New York City’s federal imigration court, filling out a questionairre containing forty questions about their immigration status.

Each child comes from a different place, a separate life, a distinct set of experiences, but their stories usually follow the same predictable, fucked-up plot.

Which goes more or less as follows: Children leave their homes with a coyote. They cross Mexico in the hands of this coyote, riding La Bestia. They try not to fall into the hands of rapists, corrupt policemen, murderous soldiers, and drug gangs who might enslave them in poppy or marijuana fields, if they don’t shoot them in the head and mass-bury them. If something does go wrong, and something happens to the child, the coyote is not held accountable. In fact, no one is ever held accountable. The children who make it all the way to the U.S. border turn themselves in to Border Patrol officers and are formally detained. (Often by officers who say things like “Speak English! Now you’re in America!”) They are then placed in the icebox. And, later, in a temporary shelter. There they must start looking for their parents – if they have parents – or for relatives who will sponsor them. Later, they are sent to wherever their sponsor lives. And finally, they have to appear in court, where they can defend themselves against deportation – if they have a lawyer.

This is a brutal book, highlighting news reports of mass graves, relaying stories of horror, both at home in countries such as the Guatemala, EL Salvador and Honduras or along their journey through Mexico and upon arrival in the USA. It is through Luiselli’s role interviewing these children that we learn about a few specific examples, the painful lives that these children have already lived, simply to take a chance on a “new life”.

Numbers and maps tell horror stories, but the stories of deepest horror are perhaps those for which there are no numbers, no maps, no possible accountability, no words ever written or spoken. And perhaps the only way to grant any justice – were that even possible – is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we call all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.

This is a very important book, and although looking at a specific cog in the massive wheel that is the refugee crisis, it uses a simple humanistic approach, the questioning by Luiselli’s own daughter “tell me how it ends?”

Debates about all refugees, not only child refugees, generally overlook the cause of the exodus but it is a “transnational problem that includes the United States – not as a distant observer or passive victim that must now deal with thousands of unwanted children arriving at the southern border, but rather as an active historical participant in the circumstances that generated that problem.”

An eye-opening, educational and important book, that I fear is only going to be read by people who are already wanting to understand more about the refugee plight, the audience of “wall builders” will somehow be missed.

Luiselli’s fiction includes humour, radical plot devices and bizarre tales, here the reality of her adopted home is brought to you in her new language, a stark shock to your senses. A book that I hope receives the attention it deserves, an important contribution to the worldwide debate about refugees, essential reading when attempting to understand the Donald Trump rhetoric about building a wall.

This essay doesn’t simply present the issue, there are glimmers of hope provided, although I personally found them a little shallow, it also works you through the forty questions that these children must answer as part of their application, factual but balanced with human stories. One of the highlights of 2017 to, date.

Roberto Bolaño’s “2666” where numerous nameless corpses mount up in the Mexico desert towns, may be a fictional account of the border area, here Luiselli puts a children’s human face to some of this horror and in the coming days I will look at a poetry work that made the 2017 Best Translated Book Award Longlist, “Antígona González” by Sara Uribe, a Mexican work whereby the poet is searching for the corpse of her missing brother. It is through these literary works that we can understand, and hopefully stop “normalizing” this “horror and violence”.

“Calamities” by Renee Gladman & “Violet Energy Ingots” by Hoa Nguyen

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Incomprehension is usually the result of obfuscation, the words refusing to slip into focus
–  (Foreword Annie Dillard’s “The Abundance” by Geoff Dyer)

My recent enjoyable excursion into the world of Mary Ruefle via “My Private Property”, exposed me to the publisher Wave Books, and, as I frequently do, I purchased a couple of other books from Wave Book’s recent catalogue. September 2016 releases, “Calamities” by Renee Gladman and “Violet Energy Ingots” by Hoa Nguyen. First up let’s look at Renee Gladman’s latest release, “Calamities”.

The Poetry Foundation website describes Renee Gladman:

Born in Atlanta, poet, novelist, and publisher Renee Gladman earned a BA at Vassar College and an MA in poetics at the New College of California. Gladman, whose work has been associated with the New Narrative movement, composes prose and poetry that tests the potential of the sentence with mapmaking precision and curiosity.

Author of the poetry collection A Picture-Feeling (2005), Gladman has also published several works of prose, including Event Factory (2010), The Activist (2003), Juice (2000), and Arlem (1994), and a monograph of drawings, Prose Architectures (2017). She has edited Leon Works, an experimental prose chapbook series, as well as the Leroy chapbook series. Gladman lives in Massachusetts and teaches at Brown University.

A collection that is an attempt at defining the problem of “where you are in a defined space and what your purpose is for being there”, the work at times feel liberating (as you find the space) and claustrophobic at other times (as the definitions pin you in). The book opens with forty-four short essays, narratives all opening with the phrase “I began the day…”, it closes with “The Eleven Calamities” which number fourteen in total?!!?

I closed the inner essay to look at the outer. I wanted to find a word or sentence that would prove there was an even larger essay that was further outside of this one. I closed the quotes of lying in the bed with my eyes closed, and opened my eyes, looking literally into the face of the question of narrative, which was the emptiness of my apartment and the long stretch of the day that lay ahead.

A collection that muses on the fringes of human existence, the spaces you never read (or write) about, there are a few difficult passages as there is an assumption that we all understand the idiosyncrasies of specific United States geographies.

I began the day reading the third section of Eileen Myles’ Inferno. I was in “Heaven,” and had been awake only a short time, still in bed, lying on my side. I hadn’t yet had coffee, so after a line or so of the book my eyes would close. I’d be sleeping, except also reading. The book would go on in my mind as I slept (how much time passes in this state?), until suddenly I’d be awake and would find the book fallen to the floor (it wasn’t a high bed) or sitting at an impossible angle in my hand. I’d right the book and try to find my place. The lines I’d been reading would not be there. Where had I gotten them? They continued the story perfectly, but not, it turned out, in the direction Eileen had wanted it to go. But, why? My additions were not terrible, and they seemed bodily connected to her text, and what’s further, they stayed with me as I went on reading, mingling with the lines that actually were there. I woke up again. I was thinking this and not reading the page I was reading and I didn’t quite know what I was thinking though it made sense with what had been on my mind before I’d fallen asleep. I’d been reflecting on how your mind writes what you read and lays it out only one or two steps ahead of you, so that there’s always a risk of taking a step that isn’t there yet.

An exploration of location, exploring structures in fiction, these are luminous creations, that explain the art of writing poetry (“Poetry comes out of nothing…read the nothing”), and novel writing (“asked it to step out of its hiding place, its refusal place, and come to me.”). These are multi layered essays, layers of an onion, “each one thicker as you moved outward, away from the core, though onions have no true core, or rather, no core that survives our trying to reach it.”

A revelatory, hallucinatory read as you work your way through space, there are large passages I simply did not understand, however this became part of the reading challenge as I moved through the day to day mundane minutiae of Renee Gladman’s life “for much of the day nothing happens, nothing ever happens”, luminous sections, confusing sections, sometimes the works “refusing to slip into focus”.

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Hoa Nguyen’s poetry collection, also from Wave Poetry, “Violet Energy Ingots” is even more confusing, opening with the dedication “For Aphrodite, deathless and of the spangled mind”, the luminous nuggets scattered throughout the poems are like searching for flecks of gold, only once you have enough can you create an “ingot”.

In “Mekong I” (pg 6) A poet’s birth is like a delta spreading into strands “become/mangroves stranded/and braid your oiled hair” the poems containing vivid imagery of silt, sand, stone, a “River as sift/ and sorter”, the poem containing the lifeblood of floating markets, but still an area to be traversed.

Political, these works become even more focused in these uncertain times…

Who was Andrew Jackson?

He was the seventh president of the United States
He was responsible for the Indian Removal Act
He was poor but ended up rich
He was an enslaver of men, women, and children
He was given the nickname “Indian killer”
He was put on the twenty-dollar bill

Like Renee Gladman’s “Calamities”, where each of the opening essays opens with “I began the day…”, we have the poem “Week of Words” where a few insignificant snippets of a week’s activities are presented, the news, a number of seemingly unconnected events all broken with spacing, where the reader is unaware of the activities, the spaces where the action resides, it is not (cannot be?) put into words, “snow all day/snow all day”

A collection that blends the solstice, the seasons, star signs, the mystical, blended with the sceptical. The collection of sixty-one poems are, at times, incomprehensible another work where the result is “obfuscation, the words refusing to slip into focus”. You know these are important statements, the fragments moving into your consciousness, but residing elsewhere.

I’ve covered this collection here, and purposely chosen one of the more formal, recognisable poems, as I would like to highlight some of the poetry collections I do read, where I am simply out of my depth. An enjoyable book, however one I cannot explain.

Excerpts of both books are available at the publisher’s webpage here.

 

 

Twelve Days of Messenger’s Blog – Day Seven

Something a little different for today’s “favourite” work of 2016. This year I branched out a little and read a number of essay collections, and to narrow my favourite essays down to a single collection for the whole year would be a little harsh, so I’ve given myself a little liberty and allowed myself three books to take the seventh spot on my “Twelve Days of Messenger’s Blog”.

In no particular order, these three books all excelled at a criteria I regularly use for my reading, they all have pushed the boundaries of the form, they all enrich my thinking through mechanisms that are not standard, they all make fine use of language, poetic throughout, all a pleasure to read, in their own personal way.

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First up “Proxies: Essays Near Knowing {a reckoning}” by Brian Blanchfield. Brian Blanchfield is a North American poet, with two published collections to his name, Not Even Then and A Several World, which won the 2014 James Laughlin Award and was longlisted for the National Book Award. “Proxies; Essays Near Knowing {a reckoning}” is a collection of twenty four essays, musings on the mundane.

As explained in the opening “Note” each essay was composed using two criteria, they needed to be written fully from memory, with no reference checking, no internet referral, and Brian Blanchfield needed to “stay with the subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability, and keep unpacking from there.”

Even though our writer here is using a “proxy”, authority to act as somebody else, or as Blanchfield says “a stand-in, an agent, an avatar, a functionary” he then gives his reason why he is suitably qualified for such, but it is the raw honesty, the existentialist approach, the honest revelation of self that is the moving, touching component here.

Using, what would, on the surface, seem mundane, we have subjects such as “Foot Washing”, here the historical, and religious symbolism is mixed with the familial and “On Minutes”;

Minutes are so called because they keep a chronological record, or because they guarantee that the proceedings of a meeting will be represented in their minutiae. They constitute the primary mode of clerical documentary nonfiction narrative, and are understood to be entirely faithful to fact, objective and without analysis, very nearly at 1:1 scale. Nonetheless the art of preparing minutes inheres in one’s facility with abstraction, namely paraphrase. There are no quotation marks in minutes. What was said must be related, and the audience is posterity.

At times I felt I was out of my depth with the superior intelligence of Blanchfield, but I was true to his creation process and did not use reference material when reading this collection (it helped that I read it on a long(ish) plan flight where there was no internet and I didn’t pack a thesaurus or dictionary). In the essay “On The Locus Amoenus” he describes somebody as “gracefully intelligent, highly literate”, in my mind that is Brian Blanchfield himself!

A collection that is brilliant in its exploration and revelations, for example to explore a simple word like “confound” and add such depth and meaning shows you are reading a master of language, a writer who is operating at full strength and is enlightening you as part of his journey of self-discovery.

unbearable

Next up Sun Yung Shin’s “Unbearable Splendor”. As publisher Coffee House Press tells us, “Sun Yung Shin is the author of poetry collections Rough, and Savage and Skirt Full of Black, which won an Asian American Literary Award. She coedited the anthology Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption, and is the author of Cooper’s Lesson, a bilingual Korean/English illustrated book for children”. With their blurb of the book saying, “Poetry as essay, as a way of hovering over the uncanny, sci-fi orientalism, Antigone, cyborgs, Borges, disobedience.”

Doesn’t help much does it?

An essay collection blending micro-fiction, poetry, graphs, all musing on themes linked to cultural or scientific references. We have Borges, Kafka, Antigone, the Minotaur, Dante, Pinocchio, the movies Alien and Blade Runner. Starting off with the universe’s creation, astrophysics, light, and black holes:

Maybe I am a kind of star. Burning – sending you the light to read by. A valley you might come upon gradually, not a hole to fall into.

Don’t be perturbed by the early graphs, showing ‘moving’ and ‘still’ plotted against axis’ of ‘human likeness’ and ‘familiarity’, the opening appears complex, but as you work your way through this fragmented poetic text the messages of identity and singularity come clearly into focus. In these graphs, the axis ‘human likeness’ appears as a demarcation line, policed with cameras and guns. As our poet was born in Korea the DMZ (demarcation zone) immediately springs to mind.

Parallel to Sun Yung Shin’s journey as a star, is her journey from Korea to the USA as an adopted child, a two-year-old. Attempting to explore her roots we have an ‘essay’ titled “One Hundred Days In The Cave” where Sun Yung Shin explores Korean history until the Bronze Age, as well as Korean creation myths.

Our time is recursive and forking. Our time is a garden in which all realities are simultaneously possible. All paths are truly one path. From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence. This sentence is utterly, heartbreakingly unique. Never before and never again. Yet they, in ensemble, create One Sentence. It holds and houses us. Announces and defends us. Blesses and confesses us. Curses and condemns.

Not your usual collection of ‘essays’ you need to dwell on the poetics, the message behind the written word, the timbre and the metre. Mixing myth with poetics, with familial recollections or dreams this is a startling revelation of a search for identity.

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Lastly Mary Ruefle’s “My Private Property”. Before I even opened this small book, I was excited, beautifully presented, in slim hardback, exquisitely bound, containing a luscious thick mottled paper cover, I have started looking at other titles from Wave Poetry, books that would make fantastic additions to any collection.

Opening with an epigraph by Walker De La Mare’s “Memoirs of a Midget”;

The cumbersome bones, the curious distance from foot and fingertip to brain, too; and those quarts and quarts of blood. I shuddered. It was little short of a miracle that they escaped continual injury; and what an extended body in which to die.

The reader knows they are in for an existentialist journey. The collection contains thirty-one short prose pieces and ten reflections on colour (more on that later) over 103 pages and opens with ‘Little Golf Pencil’;

…in the beginning you understand the world but not yourself, and when you finally understand yourself you no longer understand the world.

These short sharp pieces poignantly, poetically capturing multitudes in a few short sentences. The piece “Please Read” opens with a Clarice Lispector quote “Once upon a time there was a bird, my God.” And in the opening sentence we are told that the character in this piece dies within an hour. Little scatterings of information like “She filled out a card stopping the mail” are enough to allow your imagination to run riot, this is a very moving piece musing on the simple joys of nature.

“Pause” an emotional and realist essay on menopause, Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” (a character who keeps popping up in works I read) gets a reimagination and a new relevancy as a teaching method in the piece “Take Frank”.

The ten pieces on colours, each feature a different colour and are attached to “Sadness”, here is “Red”;

Red sadness is the secret one. Red sadness never appears sad, it appears as Nijinsky bolting across the stage in mid-air, it appears in flashes of passion, anger, fear, inspiration, and courage, in dark unsellable visions; it is an upside-down penny concealed beneath a tea cozy, the even-tempered and steady-minded are not exempt from it, and a curator once attached this tag to it; Because of the fragile nature of the pouch no attempt has been made to extract the note.

Memory recollections, poignant and touching pieces that may not make logical sense but are all moving. At the end of the collection we are advised that we can replace the word sadness with happiness and nothing changes.

 

Something I will be visiting more often in 2017, the essay that pushes writing’s boundaries, ones that can mix poetics and literary styles, ones that can put restrictions on the writer and come up with something absorbing, thought provoking and entertaining.

My Private Property – Mary Ruefle

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I lead a very busy lifestyle, I work full time in quite a senior professional role, I run a yearly charity event that runs for two weeks to assist with the retention of female indigenous culture, an event I also participate in so it requires a massive amount of training, I have two young active boys (aged twelve and fourteen), in the evenings I’ve recently been studying poetry writing and as regular visitors here would know I read a lot. Occasionally there is a need to take a deep breath, reflect, slow the pace down. The words of poet Gabriella Klein ringing true for me (Taken from Wesleyan Magazine);

A poem by definition is a slow process. It requires a pace that is at odds with the modern scape. Most people go through the day at a velocity; we are acclimated to our high-speed connections. Poems ask you to slow down. And if you heed, they provide an instance of timelessness.

I have Gabriella Klein’s poetry collection “Land Sparing” (from Nightboat Books) on my “to be read” pile and it is one I will hopefully get to soon. However, I am not quoting her for a review of her own work, I am using her observations to reflect upon Mary Ruefle’s recently published essay collection “My Private Property”.

Mary Ruefle has received fellowships from the United States based “National Endowment for the Art and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as a Whiting Writers’ Award, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.” (Poetry Foundation), and in October her prose collection “My Private Property” was published by Wave Books. This collection appeared on the Book Riot listing “25 Great Essay Collections from 2016”  , a list that I used to read and review “Unbearable Splendour” by Sun Yung Shin  and “Shame And Wonder” by David Searcy

Before I even opened this small book, I was excited, beautifully presented, in slim hardback, exquisitely bound, containing a luscious thick mottled paper cover, I have started looking at other titles from Wave Poetry, books that would make fantastic additions to any collection.

Opening with an epigraph by Walker De La Mare’s “Memoirs of a Midget”;

The cumbersome bones, the curious distance from foot and fingertip to brain, too; and those quarts and quarts of blood. I shuddered. It was little short of a miracle that they escaped continual injury; and what an extended body in which to die.

The reader knows they are in for an existentialist journey. The collection contains thirty-one short prose pieces and ten reflections on colour (more on that later) over 103 pages and opens with ‘Little Golf Pencil’;

…in the beginning you understand the world but not yourself, and when you finally understand yourself you no longer understand the world.

These short sharp pieces poignantly, poetically capturing multitudes in a few short sentences. The piece “Please Read” opens with a Clarice Lispector quote “Once upon a time there was a bird, my God.” And in the opening sentence we are told that the character in this piece dies within an hour. Little scatterings of information like “She filled out a card stopping the mail” are enough to allow your imagination to run riot, this is a very moving piece musing on the simple joys of nature.

“Pause” an emotional and realist essay on menopause, Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” (a character who keeps popping up in works I read) gets a reimagination and a new relevancy as a teaching method in the piece “Take Frank”.

The ten pieces on colours, each feature a different colour and are attached to “Sadness”, here is “Red”;

Red sadness is the secret one. Red sadness never appears sad, it appears as Nijinsky bolting across the stage in mid-air, it appears in flashes of passion, anger, fear, inspiration, and courage, in dark unsellable visions; it is an upside-down penny concealed beneath a tea cozy, the even-tempered and steady-minded are not exempt from it, and a curator once attached this tag to it; Because of the fragile nature of the pouch no attempt has been made to extract the note.

Memory recollections, poignant and touching pieces that may not make logical sense but are all moving. At the end of the collection we are advised that we can replace the word sadness with happiness and nothing changes.

There are entertaining pieces, for example “Old Immortality” which tells of the Earl of Staffordshire writing a novel as a sequel to Sir Walter Scott’s “Old Mortality” and publishing it on 104 plates of the finest china, and inviting dinner guests to a read his work off of their plates between courses. An on-line version of this piece is available here.

The piece “They Were Wrong” another poetic emotional moving piece on death, opens with;

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I never believed them. They say all writing is an argument with the world, but I’ve never met them, and besides, I no longer live in this or any other world. Where do I live? you ask. I live in a fog, a haze, and the drowsy fumes of daylight make me want to sleep.

This is a beautiful, slow work that you need to read slowly, meditate upon and reflect. More poetic essays that are thoroughly enjoyable, crafted by a master of the written form, short and appearing simple on the surface they are complex pieces with many layers, many readings, many themes. Another fine work I have stumbled across and I can only hope to read more from Mary Ruefle and more books from Wave Poetry. Works that will force me to slow down, works that may be “at odds with the modern scape” but works that “provide an instance of timelessness”.

Shame and Wonder – David Searcy

shamewonderLast week I reviewed the “poetry as essay” collection “Unbearable Splendor” by Sun Yung Shin, taken from the Book Riot “25 Great Essay Collections from 2016”. The next collection that I picked up, from that listing was “Shame And Wonder” by David Searcy. Described as “A debut collection of 21 essays, this book combines a personal voice with a sharp critical eye. Searcy’s subjects are varied, but his perspective on the world is consistently surprising, fresh, and insightful.”

David Searcy is apparently well known for his “two horror-inflected novels, Ordinary Horror and Last Things”, Google him and the matches you get are all for Shame and Wonder, I’m starting to get that uneasy feeling, the publicists are doing a great job with very ordinary material. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Like dispatches from another world, the twenty-one essays in David Searcy’s debut collection Shame and Wonder are unfamiliar, profound and haunting. In his late sixties, the Texan author David Searcy became drawn to non-fiction, writing ‘straight-up’, on note pad and manual typewriter, a series of disparate thoughts and interests. These unframed apprehensions, as he called them – of forgotten baseball fields, childhood dreams of space travel, the bedtime stories he’d invent for his young children – evolved into a sequence of extraordinary essays probing the pivots and pathways of his life, and puzzling out what they might mean. Expansive in scope, but deeply personal in their perspective, the pieces in Shame and Wonder forge beautiful connections that make the everyday seem almost extraterrestrial, creating intricate and glittering constellations of words and ideas. Radiant and strange and suffused with longing, this collection is a work of true grace, wisdom and joy.

 Rereading the blurb and the precis of such at Book Riot, I am starting to question why I bought this book in the first place…

Here are my thoughts….From the first page my skin crawled, we are talking narcissism in the extreme, the opening essay, “The Hudson River School”, is basically about a farmer who used a recording of a child’s cry to lure and shoot a coyote. But the essay is about Searcy and his visit to the dentist, and the reasons why he can’t visit the farmer in question, why he doesn’t floss, his “girlfriend”, Nancy, drawing a picture. Now a 60 year old latecomer to non-fiction, calling out his “girlfriend” every few pages, a woman who is painted as his trophy, a woman without a voice, is getting on my goat and I’m only 25 pages in….this was going to need some pretty decent storytelling to win me over…

In the big high-ceilinged living room are all the animals Nancy didn’t see on the way down. All the ones she’d periodically wake herself to look for out in the scrub along the highway. Here they are. The biggest elk I’ve ever seen above the fireplace. On the floor, a brown bear rug. And on the wall across the room above the bookcase is a group of horned and antlered beasts so fully and expansively themselves they lose significance as trophies.

Exploring the psyche of somebody who hunts may be an interesting subject for a reader like me, a vegan pacifist, a person who consciously does not harm any animal (even flies) – I am willing to open my mind to other views, however in the hands of Searcy (as this is ALL about Searcy) I simply cannot have any compassion. Sorry mate, they are no longer “so fully and expensively themselves” because somebody put a bullet in them!!! He seems to think white males with guns have a right to own everything “your wind, your emptiness, your animals, your house”, I’m surprised there wasn’t a “your woman” thrown in there.

Essay two, “El Camino Doloroso”;

How striking and encouraging to discover that a ‘51 Ford pickup or whatever had a soul. Who would have thought?

Oh my goodness, an essay about cars, and the cars have souls!!! The animals that hang on walls in essay one don’t have souls, they’re just possessions you can treat as you want, lure to their death, but the fucking cars in essay two do!!!

I’m done.

An “everyman’s” essay collection, guns, motors, toothpicks, a beaten up typewriter, an “invented” writer for us, do we recall Hemmingway and be oh so macho? I’m fully aware of the record companies, and television programs that create boy bands, girl bands, the next big “voice”, I didn’t realise that publishing companies were up to the same trick, the next big writer. Put in a dash of this, a splash of that, a spicy after-shave blend for the well-rounded man, a great gift for Father’s Day, or Thanksgiving, or Xmas, no need for socks or chewing tobacco, buy the latest writing sensation talking all things guns, cars and balls. Puke.

Unbearable Splendor – Sun Yung Shin

unbearable

What is essay? In recent years I have been exploring the fiction form and the boundaries being pushed in the fictional format. Recently I have noticed an inordinate number of new essay collections hitting the shelf. Is the factual argument or the exploration of a subject via experimental means lesser of an essay? I recently reviewed Brian Blanchfield’s “Proxies; Essay’s near knowing” where personal restriction was put in place (for example, no research whilst writing each essay), this collection was vibrant, exciting, thought provoking and thoroughly enjoyable. Can others also experiment with the form for similar results?

As mentioned in my recent post about Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream”, reading such a dense, complex and large book poses mental and physical restrictions. Generally I read one book from start to finish, pick up something that seems to suit the flow of my previous reading and then complete the new one, and continue ad-nauseum. A few “breaks” by participating in Women In Translation Month or Spanish Literature Month or other style read-alongs can break the flow I’m in and set me off on a new tangent. As regular visitors here would know I have been primarily focused on Latin American, South American literature for quite a few months now, and switching to the German was a massive cultural shift. Given the sheer size of “Bottom’s Dream” it is not a book I take to read on my daily work commute, I’m therefore breaking up the Germanic, at the moment, with various essay, short story or poetry collections. Regular visitors here will notice that over the comings weeks or months my posts will be reviews of books of the shorter form, although I do have a few unwritten reviews from novels read (and heavily notated) which I may get to write up and post.

For my essay reading I referred to a recent post at Book Riot titled “25 Great Essay Collections from 2016” http://bookriot.com/2016/09/20/25-great-essay-collections-from-2016/ – a number simply didn’t take my fancy as they appeared to address American History, or the blurb indicated a severe case of narcissism (“It tells stories about growing up and coming to understand her intelligence, her role as a writer, and her place in the world.”), I culled the list to six, yes I was savage in my culling process.

The first collection off the pile was Sun Yung Shin’s “Unbearable Splendor”. As publisher Coffee House Press tells us, “Sun Yung Shin is the author of poetry collections Rough, and Savage and Skirt Full of Black, which won an Asian American Literary Award. She coedited the anthology Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption, and is the author of Cooper’s Lesson, a bilingual Korean/English illustrated book for children”. With their blurb of the book saying, “Poetry as essay, as a way of hovering over the uncanny, sci-fi orientalism, Antigone, cyborgs, Borges, disobedience.”

Doesn’t help much does it?

An essay collection blending micro-fiction, poetry, graphs, all musing on themes linked to cultural or scientific references. We have Borges, Kafka, Antigone, the Minotaur, Dante, Pinocchio, the movies Alien and Blade Runner. Starting off with the universe’s creation, astrophysics, light, and black holes:

Maybe I am a kind of star. Burning – sending you the light to read by. A valley you might come upon gradually, not a hole to fall into.

Don’t be perturbed by the early graphs, showing ‘moving’ and ‘still’ plotted against axis’ of ‘human likeness’ and ‘familiarity’, the opening appears complex, but as you work your way through this fragmented poetic text the messages of identity and singularity come clearly into focus. In these graphs, the axis ‘human likeness’ appears as a demarcation line, policed with cameras and guns. As our poet was born in Korea the DMZ (demarcation zone) immediately springs to mind.

Parallel to Sun Yung Shin’s journey as a star, is her journey from Korea to the USA as an adopted child, a two-year-old. Attempting to explore her roots we have an ‘essay’ titled “One Hundred Days In The Cave” where Sun Yung Shin explores Korean history until the Bronze Age, as well as Korean creation myths.

Our time is recursive and forking. Our time is a garden in which all realities are simultaneously possible. All paths are truly one path. From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence. This sentence is utterly, heartbreakingly unique. Never before and never again. Yet they, in ensemble, create One Sentence. It holds and houses us. Announces and defends us. Blesses and confesses us. Curses and condemns.

Not your usual collection of ‘essays’ you need to dwell on the poetics, the message behind the written word, the timbre and the metre. Mixing myth with poetics, with familial recollections or dreams this is a startling revelation of a search for identity.

At one stage the Minotaur in his labyrinth is fed nine youths every nine years until visited by Theseus, and later the scientific research of dreaming in-utero is presented followed by “dreams are ephemera”, the adopted Korean cannot discern between truthful and deceitful dreams, the ones she has of her life in Korea, her biological parents being unknown, as evidenced by a facsimile of her Birth Certificate.

At one stage Sun Yung Shin links adoption to Gregor Samsa, the protagonist in Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, the similarities of having to change in a new environment, new restrictions, new cultural norms, new learned histories.

At times written in the plural, is this the royal “we”?, when the dreams of a forgotten childhood are documented, we later learn Sun Yung Shin’s playful language is in use here, in the essay “Autocionography” the concept of no such thing as “I” is explored.

to love the word we more than I – we don’t have to capitalize we even in the middle of a sentence – the I has been sprung from its prison no more stretcher for you letter I – who do you think you are letter I to be so tall to be like the Roman numeral one – you don’t stand for one anymore – you don’t stand up anymore

Not only exploring her cultural roots, her homeland, her adoption, this is a work deeply rooted in cultural references both Korean and American. We also have the themes of motherhood, of what it is to be female as evidenced by the epigraph from Carl Jung;

A particularly beautiful woman is a source of terror. As a rule, a beautiful woman is a terrible disappointment. – Carl Jung in an interview with Frederick Sands, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 10, 1961.

Even surrogacy is touched upon, “my womb a piñata”.

Antigone becomes as reoccurring character, and I have to ask are there parallels to Jacques Lacan’s 1997 quotes: though Antigone represents ‘‘a turning point in . . . ethics’’ and reveals ‘‘the line of sight that defines desire,’’ it is ‘‘Antigone herself who fascinates us, Antigone in her unbearable splendor’’? I’m no psychoanalyst, nor have a clue what half of their work means, so I’ll leave that to the more educated (wish me luck when I get into the whole Freud thing in Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream”!!)

Unlike your more “vanilla” essay collections, this work uses poetic building blocks to slowly reveal the existentialist heart, a very impressive result as the personal connection is palpable. Successful where so many fiction writers fail. This work is layer upon layer of revelation, a slow unwrapping of identity, a convincing view of numerous ephemera, myth blended with science blended with history and culture, poetically descending into our consciousness and leaving a memory behind. Thoroughly enjoyable, experimental poetic essay, who would have thought!

Proxies: Essays Near Knowing {a reckoning} – Brian Blanchfield

Something a little different to end the month, a book that was recommended to me by Rough Ghosts whilst I was reading Ben Lerner’s “The Hatred of Poetry”  Brian Blanchfield is a North American poet, with two published collections to his name, Not Even Then and A Several World, which won the 2014 James Laughlin Award and was longlisted for the National Book Award. “Proxies; Essays Near Knowing {a reckoning}” is a collection of twenty four essays, musings on the mundane.
As explained in the opening “Note” each essay was composed using two criteria, they needed to be written fully from memory, with no reference checking, no internet referral, and Brian Blanchfield needed to “stay with the subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability, and keep unpacking from there.”
Even though our writer here is using a “proxy”, authority to act as somebody else, or as Blanchfield says “a stand-in, an agent, an avatar, a functionary” he then gives his reason why he is suitably qualified for such, but it is the raw honesty, the existentialist approach, the honest revelation of self that is the moving, touching component here.
Using, what would, on the surface, seem mundane, we have subjects such as “Foot Washing”, here the historical, and religious symbolism is mixed with the familial and “On Minutes”;
Minutes are so called because they keep a chronological record, or because they guarantee that the proceedings of a meeting will be represented in their minutiae. They constitute the primary mode of clerical documentary nonfiction narrative, and are understood to be entirely faithful to fact, objective and without analysis, very nearly at 1:1 scale. Nonetheless the art of preparing minutes inheres in one’s facility with abstraction, namely paraphrase. There are no quotation marks in minutes. What was said must be related, and the audience is posterity.
At times I felt I was out of my depth with the superior intelligence of Blanchfield, but I was true to his creation process and did not use reference material when reading this collection (it helped that I read it on a long(ish) plan flight where there was no internet and I didn’t pack a thesaurus or dictionary). In the essay “On The Locus Amoenus” he describes somebody as “gracefully intelligent, highly literate”, in my mind that is Brian Blanchfield himself!
A collection that is brilliant in its exploration and revelations, for example to explore a simple word like “confound” and add such depth and meaning shows you are reading a master of language, a writer who is operating at full strength and is enlightening you as part of his journey of self discovery.
In housesitting, you have an established normalcy to play at, an established normalcy to play against. Largesse and obligation alternate and conspire in transitory identity, which wanders the premises with you: minder, keeper, prowler, visitor, charlatan, surrogate, subordinate, beneficiary, help. Because, as you move through the days, the eventual goal is to cover all traces of yourself and leave things as they were, house sitting is situationally criminal, or adolescent at best, surreptitious in any case. The construct is a tidy, socioeconomic parallel of queer desire in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
 An in-depth discovery of our writer’s journey and thought processes whilst housesitting. And like the aforementioned Ben Lerner’s “The Hatred of Poetry” there is reference here to Aristotle too;
This is in language what Donald Winnicott insisted remain free in childhood play, our remake of our surroundings, our exercise of independence. This is what Aristotle mistrusted in poets, makers; we cannot leave things alone. We say what we like. There is a given world and then most of us graduate into a second given, an abstract realm where all of the entities of the given world are players that we can bring into transactive arrangements in sentences, by their names. Standing to reason is only one position. That was a proposition.
Whilst Brian Blanchfield is openly gay and there are numerous references to homosexuality, and essays that address subjects such as male-to-male sex and HIV, AIDS in New York in the 1990’s to restrict his observations and revelations to a purely gay audience would be a great disservice. Let’s hope this work isn’t marketed purely as LGBIT essays!!
Blanchfield’s sexuality is, of course, the subject of many family diversions, an adopted child (adopted by a step father remaining with his blood mother), the relationships with his step father and mother, his real father are often the destination of his unpacking, the “area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability”. As family relationships are for many of us!!!
Be warned though, you can, at times feel as though you are a minnow in the shadow of Blanchield’s learnedness, his writing self-described as, “…the stronger I grow as a writer, my work is not especially welcoming to the uninitiated and one can feel excluded there by a somewhat nuanced consciousness of literary tradition.” As I said…be warned.
With references to other writers, such as Roland Barthes, where he says “agile, esoteric, and unsynthesized, pivoting continually to consult yet another tangential text or discipline”, Blanchfield could be holding a mirror up to his own writing.
And poetry? In the essay “On Reset” he describes reading “Chris Nealon and Kevin Killian and Jena Osman and Harmony Holiday and Aaron Kunin and Bhanu Kapil”…”Each of them, midway, I put down and looked up to find the world changed, a little. That’s what I’m looking for, that transfer, a new attunement.”

 Described on the back cover as singlehandedly raising the bar for what’s possible in the new golden age of creative nonfiction, this is a collection that demands to be read, if essays are your cup of tea here is a fresh approach to what would seem insignificant subjects. A focus on what appears to be mundane shows a deep personal connection to everything that makes us human, where family relationships can bubble in the darkness and only resurface when you are thinking of personal (or more specifically peripersonal) space or the forest or Bre’r Rabbit. Like the “Understory” described in one essay, the multi layers of soft mulch under the forest canopy, this collection is rich in matter, when the light shines through the over growth the focus is intense, but the revelation unique. An absolute brilliant read, one to be celebrated.

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