Teaching Brevity: Traci Brimhall’s “Post-Mortem”
May 19, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Amie Souza Reilly
There’s a toy called a Jacob’s ladder made from flat wooden blocks held together with ribbons. You hold the top block at its edges, letting the squares hang down and then, with a turn of the wrist, the blocks seem to flip, to tumble down the line.
Traci Brimhall’s essay “Post-mortem” opens with a paragraph about death in the arctic, the slowness of decay in the cold. Next, a paragraph explaining the death of a friend, missing then murdered. Third, the death of her mother, then a return to the murdered friend, before reaching back in time to explain the post-mortem practices of the ancient Egyptians. In the last two paragraphs, Brimhall first describes a dead bison feasted upon in the same field her murdered friend’s remains were found, then she shifts, closing the essay by writing about her mother’s will, her own yet-unwritten will, her own mortality: “I used to imagine countries my husband and I would visit. Now I imagine the tomb I would build if we lived somewhere a body could last.”
These sections seem at first like disconnected thoughts. But the disconnection is only an illusion created by space.
In fact, like a Jacob’s ladder, these paragraphs are built separately, then tied to together with a common thread. And if the wooden toy gives us the illusion of movement when we hold it in our hands, turn the first block over, so too does Brimhall’s essay. Each paragraph shifts the meaning of the last, until we reach the end and all of her thoughts fit together.
This is an essay written in associations, in digressions; a journey through connections to make sense of something nonsensical.
In the introduction of Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay he writes, “The chief role of the digression is to amass all of the dimensions of understanding that the essayist can accumulate by bringing in as many contexts as a problem or insight can sustain without overburdening it.” Arctic death, murdered friend, dead mother, decomposing bison, the awareness of one’s own mortality. In order to come to terms with the last, the writer needs to gather all that comes before.
Brimhall’s is a work about frailty and fear, about the inescapable vulnerability of our soft bodies, each one of us destined to become a part of the earth, regardless of time or place. Regardless, even, of love.
This is not an essay of different deaths, it is an essay of all deaths, even her own.
In a classroom full of writers, I like to project the fireplace video on YouTube up on the screen. The sound and the glow of it creates a more comforting space. In front of the “fire,” we read Brimhall’s essay, quietly to ourselves. Then I ask them to draw the shape of the narrative as a line drawing. Start on the left of your paper and draw a continuous line that represents what Brimhall’s narrative looks like. I tell them the rest of the Lopate quote from above: “The digression must wander off the point only to fulfill it.” Where does this essay travel to? How do we get from one point to the next? The drawings look often like waves or snakes, like ribbons.
As we look at the shapes I ask them a question I do not have the answer to: How do you write about something as big as love, or death, or the loss of love?
And then I invite them to think about all the types of love they know, or all of the deaths, or all of the losses. Find the idea that feels the most distant from the painful part and then follow where it leads. Can you get from a faraway place to a close one? Let go, digress, and follow your guts, I say.
Let one idea fall into the next, write as many as possible. Wander. Then find the tie that binds them all together.
Amie Souza Reilly is an MFA candidate at Fairfield University and is the Assistant Managing Editor at Brevity Magazine. Her work can be found in trampset, Catapult, SmokeLong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and son.
THIS POST IS PART OF BREVITY‘S EXPANDED TEACHING SECTION. PLEASE VISIT Resources for Teaching Brevity TO SEE OUR HELPFUL NEW RESOURCES.
Fine article that gave me many ideas. Thanks.
Great article, Amie. I love the use of Jacob’s Ladder in connection with Brimhall’s essay to help the reader understand how the essay comes together.