On ‘Elements’ and Great Teaching Moments

April 19, 2013 § 2 Comments

579px-wind_turbine_1888_charles_brushA guest essay and book review from John Proctor:

First, let me tell you a little bit about why I love Donna Steiner.

I heard of her magisterial essay “Elements of the Wind,” first published in Fourth Genre, from essayist Patrick Madden, who marveled at a couple of tricks Steiner plays on her reader. One involves a copious list of different cultures’ names of the wind and the other breaks down the “two kinds of people in the world” dialectic. I won’t go into specifics because I don’t want to spoil either payoff.  After reading the entire essay, I realized that these were just two of the many schematics Steiner makes use of; “Elements of the Wind,” in fact, draws most of its energy from a series of inversions, reversals, and recontextualized narratives and memories. To call them jokes would belie the critical and emotional heft at the center of the essay, but there’s something to the fact that I’m giving the review-speak version of “You just have to hear it.”

So instead of giving anything away directly, I’ll relate a personal experience. I’ve now taught “Elements of the Wind” to my freshman writing students for the past two years. My primary reason for this is to show them the multitude of possibilities inherent in the essay, a form that by college most of them have decided can only exist in five paragraphs and most would only write for a standardized writing exam.

Predictably, many of their responses to it can be summarized as, “Is this really an essay?”

Yonathan, one of my better students this year, came to my office recently to talk about his own personal struggle with “Elements of the Wind.” Another professor and I joke about Yonathan. We say he has the singular ability to make deeply profound observations while simultaneously looking like he’s about to bust out laughing. On this day, he wasn’t laughing.

“I’ve read the essay three times now,” he started, “and I don’t understand if she likes the wind or not.”

“Well,” I said, venturing in slowly, “What do you think?”

“It’s kind of tricky. I mean, on the one hand she makes all these lists of the gods named after the wind. But then she says,” and here Yonathan began skimming through his copy of the essay, “‘When it can’t be named, ascribe it to the gods.’ Which is it? Why does she give the wind all these names, and then say it can’t be named?”

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Well…” His brow furrowed, and a smile started to curl one side of his mouth. “I guess she might be saying that there are no real answers? Is she contradicting herself on purpose?”

“What do you think?”

“She does start the whole essay by saying you can’t say there are two kinds of people, that it’s too simplistic, then she says there are two kinds of people. And that whole thing with the big list of names for the wind—which I read, by the way—then saying there are people who read the list and people who skim over it. And she gives that—whatsitcalled—Beaufort Scale diagram about kinds of the wind, and she says that’s too simple: ‘The Beaufort Scale categorizes and concretizes what was once a subjective, almost abstract phenomenon: the movement of air. Imagine the magnitude of the accomplishment: naming the wind.’ So is she saying words and charts are too simple to describe the wind?”

I sat, looking at him.

“Then why did she even write the essay?” he asked.

“Maybe,” I started, “she’s writing about writing.”

“I thought she was writing about the wind?”

“Maybe she’s writing about both of those things.”

He was smiling on both sides of his mouth now. “I’m so confused,” he said, shaking his head.

This was one of my great teaching moments.

Now, let me tell you a little about Donna Steiner’s new essay chapbook, Elements.  (Scroll down after clicking the link.)  This is the first essay “chapbook” I’ve read, but I hope essay chapbooks turn into the next big trend in indie publishing. I’ve just ordered B.J. Hollars’s three-essay In Praise of Monsters, and have always loved Eula Biss’s One Story-inspired Essay Press, which publishes bound copies of novella-sized essays by Albert Goldbarth, Jenny Boully, and others. The chapbook has traditionally of course been the publishing realm of the poet, which has sustained my abiding love of poetry. I love going to a reading, being blown away by a poet’s work, buying the poet’s chapbook, and taking it home with me so I can later see the voice I loved hearing, transcribed on the page. Looking at my poetry section on my bookshelves now, I realize I have about three times as many chapbooks as full-length collections.

I’ve never heard Steiner read, but I can confidently say she has one of those voices you want to take home and savor, in small, slow, savory bites. Elements, a little blue square, can fit easily in most pant pockets (though probably not skinny jeans, yet another reason not to wear skinny jeans). It makes me think less of a book than that symbol of a bygone industry that still, only scant years since its demise, evokes a nostalgic twinge—the CD. It’s beautifully tactile—handbound, with a cover cutout of a square revealing a full moon. Opening the diminutive book reveals the moon in a sky over an ostensible illustration of  “a freight train busting the night open,” from the closing line of “Elements of the Wind.”

The chapbook contains five essays, one about her alcoholic lover, another about a magnifying glass by which she detects elements of her world, another about a vaguely sexual prank phone caller, another about her sleeplessness, another about the wind. Each of them, whatever its ostensible subject, is as much an assemblage as a narrative, turning over each element in her palm and mulling it over with the care of a collector and the passion of a paramour. When I open it and take in Steiner’s masterful prose, and even when I simply open the book and hold it in my hands, I think not of a reading but of a conversation, of a voice offering no answers and telling no lies, but rather setting up the riddles so that every response, so long as it is honest, is the punchline.

John Proctor lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, two daughters, and Chihuahua. An active reader on the New York City open mic scene, he’s written memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them. His work has been published in Diagram, Superstition Review, Underwater New York, Defunct, New Madrid, Numero Cinq, McSweeney’s, Trouser Press, New York Cool, the Gotham Gazette, and the anthology Imagination & Place: Weather. He serves as Online Editor for Hunger Mountain Journal of the Arts, and teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can find him online at http://notthatjohnproctor.com/.

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§ 2 Responses to On ‘Elements’ and Great Teaching Moments

  • Thanks so much for calling attention to this essay and to her work, John. I was not aware of it and have just gotten ahold of it and am impressed. I have a question, in what category of structure or type would you place “Elements?”

    I think I’d call it a classical meditative essay—with a postmodern twist, of course, in that it’s ultimately about and not about the putative central question. Or something—I’ve just read through it once. I think it’s about personal subjectivity/experience, that which cannot be reduced.

    My reductive question is a low-level but serious attempt to categorize mostly because of my growing files of essay types and structures. Which is against the point of this very essay, and it resists such neat categorization. So I’ve filed it under Classical, Expository, Meditative. But there’s doubt. Is it “really” braided? Do I have to start a new folder, Postmodern?

    Finally, kudos for teaching this. In my experience most freshmen and many upperclassmen, at least non-majors, are conservative vis a vis treatment and form. Wit is risky. Exposure to such art, of course, may broaden the majority and delight the third or so that get it.

    • John P. says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful response, Richard. I think all of those labels would fit, and would take that one step further to say that your inclination to categorize and codify, as well as your questioning of it, are right in line with “Elements of the Wind” – Steiner does the same sort of naming, categorizing, etc, and then questioning the purpose and usefulness of this tendency.

      It is a fun essay to teach, though it does how a fairly low rate of success amongst freshmen – many are simply probably not ready for the level of discourse and ambiguity. But those who do get it usually rate it as the best essay they read all year.

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