Review of Karen Salyer McElmurray’s Voice Lessons

January 7, 2022 § 2 Comments

By Zoe Zolbrod

I bought Voice Lessons, the new book of personal essays by Karen Salyer McElmurray, out of writerly solidarity, but I didn’t necessarily plan to read it. Like so many others, my brain has been scrambled by the tenor of the news and the pitch of the country’s conflicts. Individual reflections had started to seem like a broken umbrella as the violent threats and acts rained down, and I turned toward full-length works of broader scope, novels, and history. I put Voice Lessons on the maybe someday pile.

But it tugged at me—that writerly solidarity, to the essay form as much as to this particular writer—and one night I picked it up, thinking I’d dip in for twenty minutes. I started at the beginning, the prologue, “Before I was Born.”

Before I was born. My father tells me there was a shootout in Floyd County involving the Baisden’s and the Gray’s, my mother’s kin. I do not know if this is true. A history of Floyd County says one of my ancestors was Belle Star.

Instantly, the tide of my interest turned. Those four short sentences mapped a path back to the place where the personal connects to the world. The placement of I do not know if this is true reverberated, reminded me:Even with apparently factual sources laid out before us, what do we really know about anything to do with humans if we haven’t turned over the stones of the contradictions, considered contexts and motivations, plumbed the emotional depths?

Being born. In photographs, my mother’s face is tired and angry. Her eyes squint at the sun. This was in Kansas, and she was far from Kentucky, her sisters, and the only place she’d known.

Another reminder: the way the language can land a truth. The alliteration of squint, sun, and sisters, of Kansas and Kentucky, conjuring the expanse between the pained, stubborn mother and contentment. The iambic beats of the last phrase emphasizing the weight of home.

The prologue continued, each short passage opening with a phase-of-life lead line. Being young. Being young. Being young. Young.

Less young. I wanted to be a hippy, and I was, after the fact, I ran away from home. I had a son. I heard him cry. Once. I surrendered him and never saw him again for a million years. I was married at sixteen. We strung up a quilt to divide the trailer in half where we lived.

No longer young. Less young. The three introductory pages played for me like an overture to an opera, suggesting a whole arc while luring me in with recurring themes. I read until 2 a.m., something I rarely do anymore, as my life is structured around duty and regularity. I woke up and finished the book, leaving the cats mewing to be fed.

What particular alchemy compelled me? The details of place were exotic but also familiar to me as someone who grew up Appalachia-adjacent and drawn to classic country music—names like Harlan County and East Van Lear, preacher’s voices and miner’s wives. They highlighted the way the rough-hewn past is distant from the striving present but also ever there, especially for those of us who have moved far physically or culturally from our origins.

McElmurray’s situation is specific. She was raised by a severely OCD mother from a clan of mountain people. The details she provides about being washed by her mother’s chapped hands, loved by a grandmother who saved “slag coal to burn,” took me deep inside someplace new. But I recognized myself in her desire, her need, to move outward—she goes to Crete, Nepal, graduate school—while simultaneously hearing the call to return, both in person and in writing. She illuminates how reading and writing itself are a kind of home, a place as definite as the long, narrow outbuilding in Johnson County, Kentucky, where she watched her grandfather work with wood.

In “Hand-Me-Down,” McElmurray describes taking her oral exams, talking to her professors about Jean Rhys’s Good Morning Midnight and the character of Sasha.

I told them she is adrift, that she feels most connected to her past, despite the great pain it has brought her. I realized, after some minutes had passed that I had forgotten, really, whether I was talking about Sasha or about Jean Rhys or whether I had somehow ended up talking about myself.

The essays in Voice Lessons all stand alone. Many of them have been published before. I could have cracked the book open in the middle, read one or two pieces, and been satisfied. It’s a gift that I started with the prologue, heard the overture. Introduced in that way, the repetitions endemic in collected personal essays serve as refrain and variation. Even the pieces that are most associative and lyric contribute to a narrative. I experienced the structure of the book as true, the way images, moments of childhood consciousness, and tugs from the ancestors ebb, flow, and circle even as we move linearly through life’s stages: Being born. Being young. Less young. No longer young. Sick. Old. Watching a fearsome parent retreat into death.

The book broke a dam in me. Back into personal essays I poured, as both a reader and writer. Yet my consciousness seems permanently changed by the political upheaval in our country. I’m sadder. More distrustful. More afraid of people and for people. McElmurray herself is not immune to the cynicism of the current era. In the essay “Teaching Rapture,” there’s a section dated 2019.

I am older now. These days when the world is full of random acts of violence and political machinations, I can feel far less hopeful about the ability of language to transform our lives. I can feel completely empty of possibility.… Is rapture something we can try? Perhaps. Or is it a gift, an unexpected wonder that lies at the heart of the best of our words and, I hope, the best of what we have to teach.

Sometimes at a concert, during a perfect set, I fantasize about being a singer-songwriter. The distillation of story, the way a singing voice and chords can square the power of words, seems a feat of both craft and magic. I experienced Voice Lessons along these lines. It provided me with rapture and brought some light to these dark times.

Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the memoir The Telling and the novel Currency. She has published essays in Salon, The Guardian, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. @zoezolbrod

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