A Review of Melissa Febos’ Abandon Me

June 16, 2017 § 3 Comments

Abandon Me jacket artBy Sierra Dickey

Living as a blend of Native American, Puerto Rican, gay, and European, Melissa Febos knows that the chance to tell her story is a hard-won privilege. The identity she deconstructs in her latest memoir is built on proximity, history, and the behaviors residing in her blood. By holding her patchwork nature in focus, Febos honors the silent ancestors that make her life a “very American story.” Abandon Me is an inventory of what she was given, what she has made of it, and, somewhat necessarily, what her inventions have made of the others in her story.

With this work, Febos has engineered a new shape for memoir, a feat she is well-positioned to accomplish. Her 2010 debut Whip Smart details her four years as a college student and dominatrix. Since 2010, she has written articles and spoken against “memoir-bashing,” and argued in favor of “expressive writing” and writing on trauma as worthy of readers and their high praise.

There are eight “memoirs” in this book. The first seven are brief and launched by intimate markers like names, tattoos, and hickies. They blend commonplace anchors and author revelation in expertly measured portions.

The eighth memoir breaks from the cadence and structure of the previous seven. One hundred and fifty-plus pages long, this essay considers the end of a tragic love story that had been taking place in flashes throughout the seven prior essays. By peppering the central event through the first seven pieces, Abandon Me becomes more like an album than a book.

Her structure delivers an autobiography told through familial and romantic attachments. The central event, an affair with a married woman named Amaia and its dissolution, is treated as Febos’ most epic relationship to date. We meet Amaia on page two: “I carried a story of my own into that room, but her voice silenced everything in me.”  Readers witness their love from preamble to desertion. Febos no doubt is changed by the affair (“I had to be destroyed to become something else”), but what of Amaia and the others in her life?

A bisexual woman with feminist politics, Febos orchestrates an uncanny negation of Amaia’s spurned wife. Nowhere in Abandon Me is she referred to by name. Only as “the wife” and never as “her wife.” Does Febos wish to make her into an archetype? An obstructing object? Febos also uses a title instead of a name for her adoptive father in the book: “the sea captain” or “my captain.”

I enjoy when authors of nonfiction treat their experiences with the focus and relish of storybooks. Chloe Caldwell made Women a novella and Wendy C. Ortiz used only initials for her L.A comrades in Hollywood Notebook. I acknowledge too that names are often changed or withheld to protect privacy. Yet I felt that the “storybookish” names Febos gives to those implicated in her histories put them within or beyond the range of agency. The sea captain may be in, but the wife is out. This is allowed in memoir, the form that gives ultimate license to the authorial “I” and all of its insertions and deletions.

However, this choice seems to contradict Febos’ stated mission with memoir: to do “the heart-work.” As she writes in Abandon Me, “In writing, I find the tender spot and start to push, to peel, to name.” There is plenty of pushing and peeling in this work, but along with powerful naming––“my captain” and “my beloved”––there is some obscuring too.

Febos’ tendency to obscure while purporting to illuminate made me restless as I consumed Abandon Me. Beyond renaming characters, she sometimes wraps her thoughts in circular constructions: “I wanted it to work. I wanted the work of it to earn me what I wanted.” To my reading, this does the opposite of unspooling. The repeated “wants” and “works” chase their own tails. But even as this kind of prose frustrates me, I’m stalled by the wisdom in her retellings. I’ve been a lover desperate to make it “work,” and I’ve been one that believed, stubbornly, that more “work” would redeem a dying relationship.

Dizzying repetitions aside, Febos is at her best with words that drive her narrative, such as Abandon Me’s beginning: “We had no television, no god, no family less than a day’s drive away, but we had stories.”
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Sierra Dickey is a writer and farmworker living in Brattleboro, Vermont. Ping her on Twitter @DierraSickey.

A Review of Katherine McCord’s Run Scream Unbury Save

May 11, 2017 § 3 Comments

41LL9ibon8L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgBy Sonya Huber

Katherine McCord’s book Run Scream Unbury Save, winner of the 2016 Autumn House nonfiction prize chosen by Michael Martone, is a whetstone of a fragmented and poetic memoir in bursts and paragraphs. You will emerge from each page emboldened to capture the exact this-ness of your day as a shadowbox-diorama with that exact plastic dinosaur and this exact wad of sponge for trees you colored insufficiently with a green marker (remember?). McCord’s work is “stream of consciousness,” but not a cup of tepid pondwater of raw free-writes or the journal stuff of “why am I sad today?” That stream is not the first pass but the final barrel-roll through the linebackers of an extended sports metaphor that flails like a wipeout on an icy sidewalk because what do I know about football anyway? McCord’s layered entries glance off narrative threads having to do with her family, crafting, her sister, texting, wasps, writing, the CIA, seasonal affective disorder, dreaming in horses, and teaching, among a million other things. The binding material here is a voice that flutters like a bird-heart, hurtling the gaze of the reader through the sky and dropping all pretense of packaged experience, opting instead for revelatory and intimate association.

Stream of consciousness as a phrase (William James, Principles of Psychology, 1890, thx Google) was first used in a literary sense to describe the work of Marcel Proust, James Joyce (i.e. in Ulysses) and the work of Virginia Woolf (see The Waves for some awesomeness). Stream of consciousness reconstructs with careful attention and precision the feeling of thought with all its bright sparks and twists and rapidity. In contrast, my typical journal entry starts like this: “I’m feeling shitty and I’m not sure why,” (though it’s always vague catastrophes impending that I am sure I can predict) followed by an attempt to talk myself down from whatever current fear I’ve got whipped up into a healthy meringue. But the “meringue” in that last sentence—I wouldn’t journal with that word; that’s me talking to you, not me talking only to me. Beyond the sinkhole of my journal, the associations captured by stream of consciousness present a portrait of a moment and a mind. What I don’t write in my journal is this: These days I’m afraid because Trump just announced an increase of troops into Afghanistan. And that country—never been there—makes me think about the Soviet invasion of as reflected through the 1980s in Mr. Joe Miller’s history class (cinder-block painted in so many layers of yellow that it had started to look over the years like glossy cheese). The 1980s were also about fears, and the cassette “Songs from the Big Chair” from the band Tears for Fears, waiting for the bomb with every day being the day before the day after, and I felt like maybe those dark-eyed men wearing tons of hair gel understood. But what Big Chair? I could wonder about it for hours as if knowing which chair would keep us alive. What kept us alive in the era of the Big Chair was dumb luck, I assume, plus not having an erratic tyrant in charge with a hair like an orange meringue. (Too much? Or not enough? If I apologize, my dead socialist relatives will unbury themselves, run/scream/buy plane tickets, reconstruct their own skeletons to ship their German skulls over the ocean just to look me in the eye with their eye sockets and ask, “Too much?”)

There is something in the details that will save us in the face of the vague and imprecise erasure of the world. Details—like a horse trough somehow painted with glitter that McCord’s daughter uses to store her clothes in—offer the solace of the particular and the real. McCord’s details dredge this “stream of consciousness” that pursues its own fluid self with avid reckless attention, steering always away from abstraction and vagueness of emotion toward the shocking vivid precision of remembered sights, sounds, smells, slants of light, feelings, and street corners. McCord’s short entries string together, given a sense of propulsion precisely by her own breathless quest for honesty, confiding in the reader that she can’t quite find the thing she means to say and so she returns on each page with another angle, refracting and pursuing the quickening edge of life and consciousness itself.
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Sonya Huber’s newest book is Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. She teaches at Fairfield University, where she directs the low-residency MFA program.

A Review of Jericho Parms’ Lost Wax

May 8, 2017 § 3 Comments

51oaa9webml-_sx321_bo1204203200_By e.v. de cleyre

In “To Capture the Castle,” an essay in her collection Lost Wax, Jericho Parms recounts an arduous climb to the summit of Croagh Patrick. The essay weaves its way upward, over the landscape of Ireland, tracing the outlines of other individuals on the pilgrimage, and winds its way through memory.

“I can understand pilgrimage as an act that asks the body to journey for the soul,” Parms writes. “To summit a mountain, to complete a trail, to reach an ancient monument offers a tangible sense of arrival. The worn and weary legs of a pilgrim are but a physical expression.”

Reading Lost Wax, I’m transported to pilgrimages I made in and around Lhasa, in 2010; a climber, like Parms, but one who did not make it to the summit. Seven years later, I still circle around Tibetan monasteries—not in person but in writing. Around and around I go, tying recollections together like prayer flags, and stacking anecdotes like cairns.

The essays of Lost Wax are a journey in their own right, though not a physical one. Instead of putting one foot in front of the other on an incline, Parms puts down a memory, then a metaphor, then a realization—all of it circling toward the summit, all the while acutely aware of the richness of colors and feeling.

In “Honey,” Parms recalls the untimely death of a goldfish, and the wet orange scales practically drip off the page. “A Chapter on Red,” much like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, utilizes color as a way into writings on life, a way to make sense of seemingly unrelated disciplines or events. In it, Parms asks, “But what about the stories and myths we tell ourselves, the meaning we make, in order to endure?”

Like pilgrims scurrying up a mountain, writers climb in faith. Unable to see over the next hill or page break, we trek onward and upward in search of solace or reconciliation or shared meaning or greater understanding—even of something we may never fully comprehend.

“I can understand pilgrimage as an act that asks the body to journey for the soul.” I can understand how writing, like walking, is a kind of pilgrimage—how the movement of an arm over the page, albeit small, primes the body and brings about a new mental space. We may not possess answers to all of life’s questions at the end of an essay collection, but we may field solace, having climbed the seemingly insurmountable subject of memory and family, and made it out alive.
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e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer currently residing in the Midwest. She holds a BA and MFA in creative writing with a focus on nonfiction, and her essays and reviews appear in Brevity, Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.

A Review of Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This

April 19, 2017 § 4 Comments

Cover+2c+new+skyline-01+(2).jpgBy Emily Heiden

Kristen Radtke’s graphic memoir Imagine Wanting Only This is a book about abandonment. Through Radtke’s beautiful and bruising images, we consider the ways we leave places and people, and the ways they leave us. We feel these departures deeply because of Radtke’s painstaking drawings, which allow us to experience the story for ourselves with an immediacy that narrative alone often struggles to achieve.

As someone who had no inherent interest in abandoned landscapes, I was surprised to find myself so drawn in by Radtke’s renderings of them on the page. When the book begins, she and her college boyfriend, Andrew, go on a trip to the defunct town of Gary, Indiana, to explore, and we discover with them its disrepair. I was especially struck by a depiction of an abandoned movie theater. There was something savage about it, something wild. How could society allow such decay to exist? In my too-suburban mind, cities are tidy. What doesn’t work out is bulldozed to the ground and resurrected as high-rise condos. These black and white images, therefore, provide one of the first encounters I’d ever had with a full-on departure—the decision of a community to simply pack up and go.

As the narration moves on, we also experience abandonment through Radtke’s relationships. The death of her Uncle Danno is her first true loss, and one she explores powerfully through words and visual images. Months after Danno dies of complications due to heart surgery, Radtke discovers a cassette tape of an interview she conducted with him when she was in elementary school. She heads to the garage, climbs into a truck, and presses play. Her uncle’s voice begins blaring from the player, his words stabbing at the reader and Radtke’s heart when he joyfully proclaims: “I mean…look at me—I beat heart disease!”

Many of Radtke’s images and stories express the desire for and illusion of permanence. The interview with her uncle preserved a piece of him; his voice is still present on the tape; she can access it whenever she presses play. But this experience makes her and the reader feel her uncle’s absence even more poignantly, knowing that’s he’s gone. When Danno proclaims his triumph over the disease we know eventually killed him, we confront the fleeting nature of life.

The book’s most engaging moments deal with her only concerted attempt to commit to a person or place: her relationship with Andrew and their house in Chicago. Together they undertake what she calls “a first pass at adulthood”—getting a kitten; paying utility bills—in essence, playing house. This partnership is an important sojourn in the trajectory of her life, but not the destination. Radtke becomes restless and leaves the country. Andrew clings to their love, eventually proposing to her in Europe. The proposal is the stuff of fairytale; the ring is beautiful; the backdrop an idyllic European town along a river. Radtke accepts, and immediately finds herself staring at the ring warily. After the engagement, she tells us “Every city we visited…began to feel like the stock backdrop for some stagnant future, our imaginary kids stomping up the stairs next to photos of us twenty years younger, holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”

Radtke’s account of her relationship with and engagement to Andrew ring especially true for me: my own college relationship culminated in a move to Iowa with a boyfriend I too tried to play house with. When he proposed, I cried, nodded yes, let him put the ring on my finger, then walked in a daze to the bathroom, where I stared at the stone, feeling the same mounting pressure Radtke felt. I too pictured our future children, and myself as a soccer mom. I knew the engagement would keep me stuck in one place, when I wanted to experience all of them. Like Radtke, I knew I had to move on.

Both Radtke and I indicted ourselves for leaving those loves. She makes statements throughout the book like “To abandon something beautiful is where the crime rests,” and laments her lack of “…ability to claim something with ferocity.” This capacity to grab hold of a love, a land, a home, is something she praises in others and questions in herself, asking: “Am I supposed to want children who will mourn me or husbands I will watch lowered into the ground or houses I will endure in their emptiness?”

She sees the end in the beginning, her brain always fast-forwarding to ruin, abandonment, and decay. Radtke concludes the book by envisioning the prophesied flooding of New York City, telling us “we forget that everything will become no longer ours”–a pronouncement that asks us to question the stability of our everyday surroundings. The book, finally, is Radtke’s desire to hold on to what she cannot bring herself to believe will remain.
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Emily Heiden is pursuing a Ph.D. in literary nonfiction at the University of Cincinnati. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from George Mason University. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Long River Review, and Juked Magazine.

A Review of B.J. Hollars’ Flock Together: A Love Affair with Extinct Birds

April 17, 2017 § 2 Comments

download.jpgBy Scott Russell Morris

A “spark bird,” I learned from B.J. Hollars’ Flock Together: A Love Affair With Extinct Birds, is the bird that gets one interested in birding. Presumably, it takes you beyond casual observation and into impassioned enthusiasm. In Hollars’ case, his spark bird leads him into an exploration of extinct birds, which leads him to investigating the lives of bird experts, living and dead, many of whom have made significant contributions to environmental causes, which of course, he discusses in relation to the fact that most extinct birds are so because of us humans. While I have never experienced a spark bird, and while I’ll admit that even after reading Flock Together, I’m only slightly more interested in the birds themselves, I can say that I’ve experienced a spark squirrel. I was nineteen, I had recently moved from California to Maryland to be a Mormon missionary, and I was walking through a suburban neighborhood when I noticed a squirrel leaping in the trees above. While it certainly wasn’t the first squirrel I’d even seen, there was something about the grace of that moment that caught my eye and my imagination. I can—somewhat sheepishly—admit that the quiet, gray moment with a gray squirrel leaping against a gray sky felt something like a religious experience, a world of wonder opening up before me. I became obsessed with squirrels. Just watching them frolic brought me pleasure, learning about their habits became endlessly fascinating. Like many other enthusiasts, I dedicated a great deal of time thinking about them. I started collecting squirrel t-shirts. They became the focus of my MFA thesis. When my girlfriend and I broke up, she listed squirrels (among other things) in her list of concerns, and when that girlfriend and I got married there was a squirrel-themed scavenger hunt at our reception. I eventually found myself in England, hiking for hours a day, finally seeing a single endangered red squirrel after two months of extensive looking.

Hollars accounts a similar progression (though of course the details are slightly different.) He sees a bird, the then researches birds. His research, which is both the narrative and the substance of Flock Together, takes him into quite a few museums, where he finds various relics of extinct birds, especially following the fate of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, also called the Lord God Bird, which went extinct early in the last century and then was (probably) mistakenly claimed to still be alive at the later end of the century, raising the hopes and dreams of many ornithologists. He befriends prominent experts. He travels into the wild to count birds and to look for the remnants of a famous birding hermit’s cabin. I felt especially akin with him when he recounts dragging his family away from a vacation to seek out birding lore.

For a long time I thought I might be just a little crazy to have fallen for something so common in such a simple moment, but knowing that the birding community has a name for such an event, even for the creature itself, is relieving. Flock Together spends a good amount of time—in fact, more than in directly talking about the birds—talking about those who are infatuated with birds. Besides getting to know Hollars, we also get meet Steve Betchkal, a modern bird expert, and Francis Zirrer and Bill Schorger, unlikely friends corresponding in the 1940s, as well as a smattering of museum curators who share Hollars’ fascination with the birds that were once alive but aren’t now. As the subtitle of the book suggests, the birds themselves aren’t really the subject matter: it is the love affair that felt more interesting to me, with whom or what was secondary. And for each of the love-stricken characters, including Hollars himself, I was much more taken in by their dedication, enthusiasm, and sometimes even irrationality than I was by the birds themselves.

For those of us who are writers, which is to say, professional enthusiasts, intense fascination is nothing new. While not every spark needs to become a lifelong obsession like it is in Flock Together, it can be enough to start an essayist going on a project. As Alexander Smith said, “A quick ear and eye, an ability to discern the infinite suggestiveness of common things, a brooding meditative spirit, are all that the essayist requires to start business with” (emphasis mine.) What’s more, there is enjoyment in that watching. Hollars tells us this while watching some crows,

“The crows brought me no joy, but my noticing did.

And what I noticed was all I’d missed noticing.”

There are all sorts of common things in this world that can catch our “ear and eye,” which lead us from that first sighting to things subtler and more infinite. Though the sparks may be different for each writer—spark animals, spark books, spark injustices, spark happenstances—the progression tends to be the same: from common to common to common until we find the less common, the rare, the practically unattainable, the endangered and then the extinct, finding out about everything we can because we’ve found that we now care immensely about some smaller corner of the world we didn’t even know about last year, and we need to name its parts because “when we don’t know the names of things, we don’t have a problem forgetting they exist” (Hollars quoting Betchkel). Then, we must share those names with our readers because we realize soon enough, as I did when looking for squirrels in England, as Hollars does as he contemplates the fate of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, that the things we love are fleeting, if not already gone.

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Scott Russell Morris is an English PhD candidate at Texas Tech University, where he also teaching creative writing and literature. He has an MFA from Brigham Young University. His essays have previously appeared in Brevity, The Chattahoochee Review, Superstition Review, Proximity, and elsewhere.

A Review of Phillip Lopate’s A Mother’s Tale

April 13, 2017 § 1 Comment

zz lopate00_By Debbie Hagan

In the fall of 2005, my thirteen-year-old son tried to hang himself by using a leather belt that held up the pants of his Easter suit. By some miracle, the belt ripped in two, throwing my son to the floor, leaving him breathless but alive.

Since then, I’ve come to see death and life separated by a thin, quivering line. One minute you’re standing at the stove, cooking spaghetti for your family, picturing them laughing and talking around mouthfuls of Italian bread. The next, you’re racing to the emergency room, angry with yourself for minimizing your son’s depression.

I’ve learned as well that mother-son relationships are complicated. What’s more, wherever there’s love, there’s bound to be some pain too.

In part, this is what Phillip Lopate addresses in his slim new book A Mother’s Tale.   He possesses a deep love and respect for his mother, Fran Lopate. But she’s a hard woman to love—jealous, narcissistic, and needy.

In 1984, Lopate conducted a series of taped interviews with her, which became sort of a stage for his mother on which she tells her life story of being orphaned at age eleven, raised by sisters who didn’t want her, trapped in a loveless marriage, and then bound to a life of domestic drudgery. All this prevented her from pursuing what she perceived as her true calling: the theater. (At age fifty, though, she launched a somewhat successful acting and singing career, and might be remembered from the iconic Alka Selzter commercial, “Mama Mia, That’s a Spicy Meatball!”)

After the interviews, Lopate put the tapes away and didn’t play them for thirty years.

On the tape, Fran Lopate tells us, “I had a modicum of talent. I wanted to do something more with my life…. It seems that when I was younger, every time I tried something I was ridiculed. I was put down. Nothing I did was ever good enough.”

After hearing this, Lopate says, “…she had been frustrated at every turn: thwarted, thwarted, thwarted. Well, she certainly was thwarted, so why do I feel like mocking this assertion? I guess because it doesn’t take into account that it was she who dropped out of high school, she who chose to obey her sister, she who opted to marry my father, and not pursue her dream, etc., etc.”

A master of voice, Lopate plays two key parts in this book. He’s the in-the-moment, younger interviewer, who’s debating with his mother, challenging her “truth.” Interceding is the older Lopate, who’s less judgmental and more reflective.

The climax occurs when the younger Lopate and his mother argue about his suicide attempt. “Any time a mother sees a son in a state like that, unless she’s crazy, is going to feel guilty,” says the mother. “And I felt guilty. There’s nothing I could do to help you.”

In the next breath, however, she scolds him for not calling sooner, not letting her know until the next day that he was in the hospital.

“Well, I was in a coma—“

Lopate doesn’t reveal much more about this. Instead we hear the mother blame him for being distant—not reaching out, not calling regularly, not sharing his problems.

“I don’t understand how I could have come to you with my problems when you always had seemed so troubled to me,” replies Lopate on the tape. “Even when I was young, you had come to me with your problems….”

In fact, the mother confided in him, as if he were one of her girlfriends, about her various affairs, abortions, and immense disdain of his father.

Obviously Fran Lopate was not the perfect mother, but then again, who is? Children often come (especially during her time) when they’re young, naïve, and selfishly craving freedom and adventure.

“Listening to these tapes impressed upon me how often even an intelligent person can fail to observe the truth about herself,” says Lopate, who after three decades returns to the tapes less reactionary, softer, and more forgiving. This combination of voices and perspectives provides a more resonant truth about family dynamics and more importantly the tenuous and curiously malleable nature of love.

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Debbie Hagan is the mother of two practically grown sons who recall being forced into wearing tortuous bow ties and suits for every holiday. In addition to writing and editing book reviews for Brevity, she writes for Hyperallergic and her essays have been published in Pleiades, Superstition Review, Don’t Take Pictures, Brain, Child, Boston Globe Magazine, Dime Story, and elsewhere. She is also a visiting lecturer at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

A Review of Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System

March 21, 2017 § 1 Comment

huber_frontby Vivian Wagner

This is a book about pain. Chronic, searing, never-ending pain—a pain that’s shaped Sonya Huber’s life for years. It’s also a book about the language of pain, the discourse of pain, and her gradual movement toward being able to talk and write about her experience with this mysterious thing that dominates her life.

As someone who hasn’t yet experienced chronic pain, I relied on Huber to draw me into her world, to show me what it feels like, to allow me to begin to understand an experience that many of us will, eventually, know first-hand. And she takes on this project masterfully, introducing her readers to pain just as she might introduce a family member. By the end of the book, I’d begun to see my current pain-free state as an aberration, as a temporary fiction, and I was grateful that she’d facilitated my entry into a world that is, in many ways, more real than the one I inhabit.

Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System is fragmented and disjointed, much like pain itself. She circles around her subject, assaying it, exploring it. Reading the book, therefore, offers an almost visceral experience. To shape this experience, the essays are filled with metaphors. In the first essay, for instance, “Lava Lamp of Pain,” pain is compared to “evil pink evening gloves,” a predatory bird, and a criminal.

Pain, though, exceeds the boundaries of metaphors and, ultimately, language itself. Huber wants to describe and delineate this experience, but it always escapes her grasp. Chronic pain, we learn through these lilting, lyrical essays, remains mysterious, even though it’s indelibly and inescapably connected to her body and sense of self.

Huber also emphasizes that eventually, pain is part of most of our lives. It is, in this way, more constant and reliable than a lack of pain. In “Welcome to the Kingdom of the Sick,” she examines and interrogates the constancy and steadiness of pain. The essay opens with the following line: “When I am ill, only the kingdom of the ill is of comfort.” The kingdom of the ill, she says, is paradoxically more predictable and grounded than the kingdom of the healthy:

What I learn is that the kingdom of the ill is a vast bedrock. We appear weak and reclined, yet we cannot be invaded or defeated. Look at us: We are unbreakable in our brokenness. We cannot be cured and are therefore invincible.

In other words, far from being illusory, the kingdom of the ill is, in a way, more “real” than the kingdom of the well. As she says “We are real, and only illness reveals the true bedrock of illness. It is not imaginary. This land is the most reliable and most vast of the human experience.” As she grapples with feeling abnormal for being in chronic pain, Huber comes to realize that there’s nothing more normal, ultimately, than pain.

The arc of this collection moves toward the final essay, “Inside the Nautilus,” which is a moving account of Huber’s introduction to the McGill Pain Questionnaire. Unlike other pain rating systems, she finds that this questionnaire gets closest to providing a language for describing pain. It asks, for instance, “what does your pain feel like?” and then offers what she calls a “transfixing list of words.” Under the category of brightness, it suggests “itchy, tingling, smarting, and stinging.” Elsewhere, the questionnaire allows the respondent to choose from the following descriptors: “punishing, grueling, cruel, vicious, and killing.”

Immediately, Huber loves this questionnaire, because it provides a language for expressing her pain. During much of her experience with pain, she describes feeling marginalized and shunned, but when she discovers this questionnaire she feels validated. The questionnaire provides a kind of poetry of pain, and it lends a sense of reality to her experience. As she says, “I savored the form with a quiet outpouring of affection one reserves for sensitive thinkers and researchers whose work plumbs the core of human experience.”

Finally, it’s not so much the questionnaire, but this essay collection itself that allows Huber to develop her own pain discourse. Through these essays, she speaks the unspeakable. She gives form to the formless. She shapes the difficult reality of her daily life into a narrative that ties her experience with the broader human condition. And ultimately, through writing, she finds what she calls at the end of her final essay a “poetry within.”

A few weeks after finishing the book, I had surgery to remove a spot of cancer from my nose, and in the temporary pain of the recovery process, I found myself thinking of Huber’s essays. I caught a brief glimpse of someone I’d gotten to know through her writing—someone who will, most likely, become a more constant companion as I age. And this, ultimately, is Huber’s gift with Pain Woman Takes Your Keys. She recognizes our shared frailty, and she offers compassionate encouragement to tell its story.

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Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music, and a poetry collection, The Village.

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