Review of Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel’s Fear Icons
July 18, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Melissa Matthewson
If you think of life as a series of devotional moments and, also, of cognitive reasoning, or at least a thinking of one’s self in relationship to others and in relationship to our most vulnerable moments, especially fear, then it reasons that we might arrange a self in such a way that we might interrogate our insecurities, or at least, expose our vulnerabilities. That in this, we can find profound connection with each other. That’s the hope. Perhaps this is the function of art—and why we need it so urgently—that is, art reminds us of our own possible transformation through collective inquiry and beautiful expression.
For instance, I was stopped at a train crossing recently, commuting to work, morning near eight, and paused at the edge of the tracks, taking in the surrounding landscape as the train and the patterns of graffiti art tagged on the steel cars rumbled by. And in the significance of this small moment, I recognized the tessellations of change scratched into the train car, a representation of both beauty and the loss of beauty, which equates to me the purposes of literature: to show the dark and the light.
To think further on this, perhaps the reason I devour books, is to an encounter an inquisitive mind who challenges my notions of the world in unexpected ways. Further, the essay, when written well, makes me feel less alone and serves as an instrument for transformation. Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “I speak in a poem of the ancient food of heroes: humiliation, unhappiness, discord. Those things are given to us to transform, so that we may make from the miserable circumstances of our lives things that are eternal, or aspire to be so.” This is all to say that this is what Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel’s essay collections does—takes a circumstance of our lives—fear—and transforms it into a book of timeless ideas from which we might or could transform.
The essays in Fear Icons, the inaugural prize winner of the 21st Century Essays series from Ohio State University Press, are invigorating in that they present to the reader a stylistic candy shop from which to sample: essays as letters to iconic figures in popular culture as well as explorations of motherhood, violence, culture, pain, politics, to name a few of the subjects. In essence, Schlegel’s style is spare, controlled, precise, sometimes proceeding with caution. What Schlegel does best is to reveal the dark underbelly of the human condition—asking hard questions about who we are, what we fear. The work is smart and precise in its word choice. At the outset, she asks, “Who are we to each other when we are afraid?” She engages with a historical line of authors – referring to the shadow texts at the back of the book. From Barthes to Maurice Sendak, from Terrance Hayes to Anne Carson, Schlegel situates her own thinking and inquiry within a tradition of thinkers and artists, lifting the narrative to new heights. She also experiments with hybrid forms and lyric narrative—braided essays, letters, fragments, dates and time, numbers, illustrations, white space. Each form speaks to the content that lie within the essay.
My favorite part of Kisha’s collection is when she reveals herself, as the “I,” the persona who shifts and changes as we encounter various stories within the book. She is a compelling character in her own right and she invited me into her stories such that I felt comfortable following her lead. I particularly favored the essays in which Schlegel reveals herself as parent and the ways that we fear for our children and also love them. In one essay early on in the collection, “Gun,” Schlegel opens, “I needed something to be beautiful again, so I took my son to The Nutcracker, to see the sugar plum children dance.” The imagery set forth here feels encompassing and visceral. As in all of Schlegel’s essays, there is an attention and devotion to language, to beautiful sentences, which as both a reader and writer, is what makes me fall in love. As she continues in “Gun,” Schlegel reveals the beauty of motherhood: “For a brief moment, I only felt the weight of his warm body. I feel his legs dangling against my legs, his knees over my knees. Our bodies moved together. He was a little planet in my orbit, and I was a planet in his.” This, juxtaposed to the thread in which Schlegel investigates the violence, death, and trauma of the Newtown school shooting. As she watches her son play, she writes, “I turned away so I couldn’t think of dead children while looking at my living child.” She describes her fear in this essay as she imagines a shooting in a movie theater and how she might respond, how she imagines surviving. She continues to investigate both her own life, her son’s, and the ways we fear, damage, and wound each other, both in specific ways and subtly. Schlegel seamlessly integrates an anecdote into the essay to reveal her own fears by telling the story of a little girl building blocks with her son in the library. She imagines the girl will do something to harm her and writes, “A part of you dies even though you live, the destruction moves all too easily from one person to another. I’m not comfortable thinking this way, but there it is: the idea that the wounded will wound.”
In an essay in which she explores the persona of Dolly Parton, Schlegel visits the Dollywood Amusement Park, and the replica of Parton’s home is the point from which Schlegel investigates notions of beauty, time, nostalgia, and preservation. Parton has changed her appearance in every way possible and in this transformation, Schlegel asks, “What’s it like to preserve yourself this way? What is it that makes us care?” She continues thinking about the persona of Dolly, how we both admire and turn away, with, “Dolly bubbles onward, floating somewhere between a down-home country song and that figment of timelessness called fame. She stays a comfort and so strange, ours and not ours, hers and not hers.” Schlegel then turns her attention to nostalgia, to the strangeness of being human. She thinks of herself as a girl, all the possibility held within, writes of herself, remembering, “I sit cross-legged in the clover, feeling all the strangeness of being alive only to die.” Schlegel doesn’t look away from the difficulty of living, of pressing on in her essays to investigate the dark realm of being, of time, and diminished selves, and “the magpies are already gathering in the corner of the year, waiting for what remains.” It’s an essay that builds through layers and accretions, exposing our terror, exposing our comfort, showing us what it’s like to live.
All in all, I think what is most admirable about Schlegel’s essays is her unafraid progression—she’s not fearful of trying to write the dark, the hard, the sad. She wants us to confront fear, and she does so with depth. I admire her smart, thinking mind and the way she crafts language in surprising ways to show us something we need in order to live—to transform, as Borges said, for the eternal.
Melissa Matthewson’s essays have appeared in DIAGRAM, Guernica, American Literary Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives on a farm in the Applegate Valley and teaches at Southern Oregon University. Her first book of nonfiction, Tracing the Desire Line, is forthcoming from Split Lip Press (Sept 2019).