December 8, 2017 § 2 Comments
By Lizzie Klaesges
“What was I doing!?” I shrieked, shielding my face with my hands. I was flipping through old photo albums with my mom and stumbled upon a particularly embarrassing photo of my preteen self.
In the photo, I was wearing a sweatshirt that said Genuine Girl, only I put masking tape over Girl and wrote Alien in black marker. Genuine Alien. I wore this to a Mardi Gras themed fundraiser at my middle school. I was also wearing butterfly face paint.
Of course, I knew what I was doing in the picture. I didn’t have to ask. It was the time in my life when I was obsessed with aliens. Not pictured were my little alien dolls, each with full life stories of my own invention. I was a strange child.
I thought of that picture while reading Chelsea Martin’s recent collection of essays, Caca Dolce: Essays from a Lowbrow Life. The collection contains the essential stories of her childhood into young adulthood, in which she describes her younger self as a delightful concoction of strangeness. In one essay, “The Meaning of Life,” Martin reveals how she too was preoccupied by aliens. She describes her attempts to summon aliens, believing they had special knowledge far beyond human understanding. She hoped they would reward her belief in their existence and share secrets with her, most importantly the meaning of life.
The strangeness of a child normally doesn’t make sense to anyone else, but Martin finds a way to present her childhood curiosities logically and with deadpan delivery. She is honest and self-deprecating while maintaining a certain aloofness to her humor that keeps readers unflinchingly by her side. Better still, she captures not only the absurdities of the young mind but also the discomfort. A large part of growing up is the discomfort of an evolving mind, a mind which eventually recognizes former childhood notions for what they are. In the essay, “A Year Without Spoons,” Martin describes choosing to give up spoons for seemingly no reason at all, even though a part of her realizes this is an unusual choice:
I stopped using spoons one day. I was becoming weird, I knew. And it didn’t seem like the good kind of weird, like the eccentric arty weird that could be appreciated by other people. It seemed like the bad, dark kind that could unravel a person if it got out of hand.
Many of Martin’s essays unfold to reveal more tender and complex undertones. The spoons, for example, become a coping mechanism for the lack of control Martin had over her life during a time when she switched schools a lot and had no real friends. Her choice of utensil became a way to practice control and restraint and, in a way, it felt like an achievement.
Some of the many topics of Martin’s “Lowbrow Life” include her sheltered small town, troubled relationship with her stepfather, living with mild Tourette’s syndrome or OCD, meeting her biological father for the first time, attending art school, and various romantic endeavors. Martin often manages to capture the essence of her quirky former selves in just a few words. As I breezed through the pages, I was often left thinking, how did she do that?
In the essay, “Ceramic Busts,” we observe teen-Martin’s attempts at flirting with a boy named Sandy at driving school:
“My favorite Beck song is ‘Thunder Peel,’” I said. ‘The one that’s like, Now I’m rolling in sweat with a loaf of cold bread and a taco in my jeans.
I had practiced the lyrics over the weekend, perfecting my falsetto delivery. I’d hoped that it would make him smile.
“Oh,” Sandy said.
After finishing driving school and leaving that town behind, having had no meaningful interactions with Sandy, Martin goes on to create many artistic renderings of him, mostly ceramic busts. She eventually submits these for her application to art school and gets accepted.
In an essay titled, “Goth Ryan,” Martin attempts to communicate through facial expression:
Before he disappeared, I tried to give him a look that said I don’t care what you do, and Like at all, and Anyway Zach is here and we are in love, we are going to tell each other how in love we are and soon you will be merely a distant foggy memory that rarely occurs to me, and when I’m older I will conflate you with someone else I knew around this time and you will become a half-person, so unimportant on your own that I couldn’t be bothered to remember you as one being, so utterly useless in my memory that you barely exist, and But in all seriousness, I really don’t care.
Martin’s subject matter becomes more serious towards the middle of the book as she describes meeting her father for the first time at age sixteen, which she says is “an age that is known for being awkward and unbearable and confusing.” It’s already clear to readers that Martin has a difficult relationship with her stepfather, Seth, and it’s apparent early on that Martin’s relationship with her father will also be flawed to say the least. Martin strikes the perfect balance between funny and fraught while talking about her father’s relentless disapproval of her. He criticized her for everything from how much sour cream she eats with dinner to her acne.
I tried to understand what the problem was. My dad wanted to change what I did and said, and also the ways in which I did and said them, implying that possibly everything about me was, if not outright wrong, somehow off, in need of correction.
As writers, we are naturally wondering about the potential repercussions that can come from writing about people we know, especially those related to us. This, Martin addresses in her final essay, “The Man Who Famously Inspired This Essay,” in which she expresses her decision to take a break from her relationship with her dad and eventually choosing to write about him:
“You’re going to thank me one day for giving you all this material for your writing,” [My dad] said when I stopped crying.
I avoided eye contact and silently promised to never write a damned thing about him.
I love the irony here, how Martin writes about never writing about her father. She concludes the essay, and thus her collection, with: “And though I’m comforted by the fact that this past self seemed to know that it was always her story to tell or not tell, I have to admit that what she didn’t yet know is I never keep promises to myself.” I can’t help but think that this was Martin’s pre-emptive response to our pressing question: it was always her story.
Although I love Martin’s detailing of her poorer, less cultured hometown and lifestyle, this collection gives us more than simply “Essays from a Lowbrow Life,” as the subtitle suggests. These essays are also about the common rites of passage that face most of today’s young people. This book is about leaving home and coming to terms with flawed relationships. It’s about being friendless and making weird fashion choices. It’s about learning to bullshit. It’s about becoming be self-reliant and making countless mistakes along the way.
Like looking at childhood photos, this book is as uncomfortable as it is humorous. It reads like a memory we might have been a part of in another life and reminds us of our shared humanity through even the most painful times of self-discovery.
Lizzie Klaesges is a Minneapolis-based writer and marketer with recent publications in Rain Taxi, The Critical Flame, and Allegory Ridge. She definitely does not still think about aliens.
December 4, 2017 § 2 Comments
By Phillip Russell
The first time I met Thomas Mira y Lopez was at a local bar early on in my first semester of graduate school. We sat and talked about death and cemeteries—how strange it was to own a plot of land for eternity. Little did I know that Tommy had been finishing up revisions for his first collection of essays The Book of Resting Places, a beautiful, quiet, collection that grapples with anxieties surrounding the death of a loved one and the baggage associated with the places we end up leaving them. The book was recently released, and I had the opportunity to talk with Tommy once again:
Phillip: In The Book of Resting Places a key theme revolves around how we place our memories of the deceased into the physical world whether it be a house, tree, grave, or something else. However, the Thomas Mira y Lopez that exists in the book seems conflicted about these yearnings even though this collection, in many ways, is an artifact of that very inclination. What do you make of that paradox?
Thomas: That’s spot on about the paradox. I envisioned the book as not just being about resting places, but also as a resting place itself. The ability to apply both prepositions to book is crucial, I hope. Because where do we memorialize or elegize the lost if not in books? No resting place is eternal—each one has its half-life—and so the knowledge that this book too is a temporary object informed much of what I wrote. As soon as I granted these memories a physical space I was also, in some ways, changing them.
P: The collection deals with a lot of complicated ideas—ideas that don’t have concrete answers to find. What was your initial motive for writing these essays and how did that change once you started putting the pieces together?
T: This book started because I went for a walk in a cemetery one day in New York. I couldn’t say exactly why I was interested in writing about it, but once I started to think about the spaces I have granted the dead in my own life and what type of memories I started to preserve, the ideas kept coming. One decision I had to make was whether the book would be a tour of literal resting places or a thinking through of the death of my father through those spaces, some physical and some metaphorical. I opted for the latter, as it felt like there lied the questions I could resolve the least, so I needed to try and answer them.
P: One of the most interesting aspects of the essays is the mixing of personal experience and rumination about death with research and journalism. In the second essay, “Monument Valley,” you offer an unexpected parallel between an iPhone game of the same name and post-mortem photography to talk about the subjective perspective we have on our loved one’s lives. How did you approach weaving in these researched topics with your personal experience? For instance, did you play Monument Valley and know right away that you’d be talking about it in your book or did those connections come later?
T: Oh man, “Monument Valley” happened because I had to turn my thesis in and my partner, Sarah, told me about the game right before the manuscript was due. I couldn’t stop playing it when I should have been working and I ended up writing about the game for my aesthetic statement. My thesis advisor, Ander Monson, who champions as he puts it “the bad idea essay” suggested turning it into something. As far as the other essays, I’m not always sure how they came about. Part of it was through reading a lot in an attempt to be receptive and part of it was a mania for parallels. I like playing detective: I would come back to some little statement I had taken for granted in the past—my mom’s stated desire to be buried in a storage unit alongside her possessions like the Egyptian pharaohs—and see what leads I could follow.
P: So much of this collection is about how we remember the dead, it makes me wonder, how do you want to be remembered when it’s all said and done?
T: Part of me wants to quote Diogenes, the Greek philosopher, and say throw me to the dogs, who cares, I’ll be dead. But that seems a bit grumpy—Diogenes was a cynic, after all—and so I’ll say that I aim to end up in somewhere that allows whoever is close to me a space to acknowledge the loss and then move on.
P: This project is about endings and what we do with them. Now that it is out in the world, what’s been your biggest take away?
T: It’s a wonderful, thrilling process to publish a book and I’m lucky to work with excellent people who have guided me through it. But it’s also a really conflicted process—”you run the gamut of emotions,” someone just told me, and it’s true. With this particular book, I realized late in the game that it was a way of creating a second life for my father, and so having it out there also requires acknowledging another loss I never expected to occur. I thought publishing a book would mean keeping someone with you, but really it means letting him go. That’s been hard to reckon with.
Thomas Mira y Lopez has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona. His essays have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review Online, and The Normal School, among others, and listed as Notables in the Best American Essay series twice. He’s received a fellowship from The MacDowell Colony and a scholarship from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He was 2015-2016 Olive B. O’Connor Fellow at Colgate University and is currently the Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC-Chapel Hill. He’s an editor of Territory, a literary project about maps, and an assistant fiction editor at DIAGRAM.
Phillip Russell is a second year Masters student at Ohio University where he studies Creative Nonfiction. His work has appeared in New River Journal, HyperText Magazine, Burrow Press, Writer’s Digest, and more.
November 29, 2017 § 4 Comments
By Rachael Teresa Hanel
I’m writing a book about someone who made some bad decisions. She bought a gun, kidnapped a woman, held up a bank, and on the very last day of her life shot at SWAT officers. Camilla Hall’s protest of injustice in America in the 1970s—as a member of the violent Symbionese Liberation Army—took a violent turn that put many people in harm’s way.
If you read anything about Camilla today, the story you get is one only of her bad decisions. Yet, in researching her entire life, I find myself feeling tremendous empathy for her. She grew up with three siblings, but all three had died by the time Camilla was in high school. Her parents were loving, but distant. She kept it secret from them that she was a lesbian. A bubbly personality masked intense sadness and frustration.
I’m trying to uncover who she was before she became the one story the media tell. After reading Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body:A Murder and a Memoir, I understand I’m looking for what are called “causes in fact” in legal terms. What are the possible causes that led Camilla down a violent path? Is there a “proximate cause” that a judge or jury could point to as “the one” cause? Can any action ever be explained with just one “proximate cause”? The law says yes. Marzano-Lesnevich, a trained lawyer, says, “wait a minute….”
The case that gave her pause was that of Ricky Langley, who had been sentenced to death before getting a retrial. Marzano-Lesnevich stumbled upon his case while interning for an anti-death penalty organization. She was staunchly against the death penalty until she learned about Langley. The violence he was accused of, and how it related to a dark secret in her family, endeared in her no empathy. She wanted him to die.
So she set off on a journey to explain her change of heart. What she found surprised her: the more she learned about Langley, the more she saw herself. They had more in common than she would have ever thought: alcoholic dads, a dead sibling, and families who pretended the dark past had never happened. She and Langley were two people destined to be damaged. Both lived lives that spiraled out of control. But the difference for Marzano-Lesnevich was that she recognized her self-destruction and stopped it before it was too late.
This is a story of a search for causes in fact, a search for why we become who we become. It’s also a story about humanity and understanding. Is there room for compassion in the face of evil? Is there room for empathy for the accused? Marzano-Lesnevich struggles with finding the answers to those questions for people in her own life, and she projects those questions onto the case of Langley.
This is a work of narrative nonfiction, in which Marzano-Lesnevich augments the facts with her imagination. She uses dialogue when she didn’t hear it and assigns thoughts and feelings to others. But ever the lawyer, at the end of the book she meticulously lists the sources consulted in each chapter. She makes it clear when she has basis in fact and when she’s used her imagination to make scenes bloom. For example, when writing about a woman taking a swig of alcohol: “Upon the bare information about the drink in the play, I have layered my imagination of what the moment must have been like. That said, the drink does not occur in other descriptions of the search, and should be considered disputed.” I am thankful that this lawyerly voice is reserved only for the sources consulted section. Marzano-Lesnevich the creative writer appears consistently throughout the book itself.
Stylistically, Marzano-Lesnevich uses an odd construction throughout the book that repeatedly took me out of the story. She consistently interrupts scenes from the past with future tense. In one scene showing her mom getting ready for a night out: “She shimmies control-top pantyhose up her legs. Never a bra—my mother, flat-chested like I will be, hates bras.” By page 40, it became distracting enough that I started circling each “will.” On one two-page span, I circled “will” thirteen times.
But still, I was left with a thought-provoking story that puts my own character of Camilla into perspective. We see ourselves in others, even those we may despise on the surface. As Marzano-Lesnevich writes, “What you see in Ricky may depend more on who you are than on who he is.”
Rachael Hanel is the author of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter (University of Minnesota Press, 2013). She teaches Mass Media at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
November 17, 2017 § 2 Comments
By Melissa Cronin
Some Bright Morning I’ll Fly Away, by Alice Anderson, is not only a telling of a battered woman’s storm-ravaged life, it’s also a story of redemption, resilience, survival, and a reclamation of one’s true self in face of one trauma after another. The cascade of events begins with her father, whose sexual abuse of his four-year-old daughter continues through her school age years. Just as she finds her “soul-deep” place while in college, Anderson is thrown airborne from her scooter by a rogue car. She sustains critical injuries, her long recovery whiplashed by endless setbacks, convincing her to drop out of college. At her mother’s urging, Anderson attempts to re-fashion herself into a model in Paris. But six months later she’s had enough, and returns to school. Her life is blown sideways once again when Hurricane Katrina blasts through Mississippi, where she lives in an upscale neighborhood with her physician husband, Liam, and their “sweet three,” as she so tenderly refers to her children. Their home was the only one remaining intact, missed by what Anderson describes as “the wrath of the twister.”
But the most epic flood of all is just beginning. In the wake of Katrina, Liam’s OCD and alcoholism spirals out of control, reaching its high-water mark when he attacks Anderson at knifepoint. To protect her life, and the lives of her children, she finds refuge in a FEMA trailer far from Liam’s fury. For her children’s welfare, for self-preservation, she walks straight into the ensuing wind-whipping legal battles, holds her own in face of a misguided social service system, and powers ahead despite her fearmongering husband, who has threatened to take their children from her and to have her locked up in a psychiatric ward. Scariest of all, is Liam’s Plan B threat: “I’ll kill you. Without a second thought.”
Anderson’s moment-by-moment detailing of her husband’s violence, the kind seen in psychological thrillers, drove me to question why I couldn’t, wouldn’t, seek shelter from the book, why I continued reading, page after page, late into the night and, yes, even while out for a walk.
I was committed to the book because I have a personal interest in traumatic memoirs of this nature. In the memoir I’m currently completing, I write about the personal trauma I experienced when an older driver confused the gas pedal for the brake and mowed down dozens of us at a farmers’ market fourteen years ago. The book, which is about how I take back my life after sustaining severe physical and emotional injuries, is not always uplifting. And there are stories of how the crash affected others: survivors, the dead, the driver himself. Brighter moments do lend meaning to the narrative: finding consummate love for instance. But it took me a long time to figure how to paint the page with such levity. As perverse as it is, people have a morbid curiosity for the tragic; I assumed my readers would possess the same macabre inclination. But I quickly learned, after reading lots of memoirs, and receiving feedback from editors and writing mentors, that levity is essential to traumatic narratives. Buoyancy gives us space to breath, to re-align ourselves, offering us enough emotional reserve to keep reading.
So how does Anderson do it, deliver disaster relief among all wreckage? A stellar, award-winning poet, she sings from the page with intoxicating beauty. When referring to her children, she writes, “Sweet three attached like sequins.” Later, she notes how they “smell like starlight and sugar cookies and sing like birds filling blue skies.” And while in court, her friends and family on her side, we are on her side, afraid with her as she describes her interior world, “I was moving through fog akin to shifted night sugar.”
More than her poetic finesse, Anderson’s humor is priceless, the way she rouses laughter with her Mississippi dialect: “Doesn’t that seem a little … down the bayou of batshit crazy?” she asks when another model tells Anderson the owner of the agency for which they work is a big-wig oil trader.
There’s no arguing that Anderson endures untold devastation equal in destruction to Hurricane Katrina. Yet, from deep within the wreckage, she digs up the remaining scraps of her broken life and, piece-by-splintered-piece, recycles them into “dazzling scaffolding”—a gift really, one she leaves for us to unwrap in the very first sentence of the prologue: “We make chapels of our scars.”
Melissa Cronin is a freelance journalist and author. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Washington Post, The Jerusalem Post, Narratively Magazine, Saranac Review, River Teeth Journal, Under the Gum Tree, and Intima. She is currently completing a memoir. Melissa holds a BS in Nursing from Boston University and an MFA in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
November 15, 2017 § 4 Comments
By Sonya Huber
As many essayists and memoirists know, poets often stroll into nonfiction and bowl a perfect strike, knocking us all over like so many bowling pins. Kelly Davio’s skill as a poet is in full effect in the pages of her new essay collection, It’s Just Nerves: Notes on a Disability. She’s underselling with that word “notes,” as each of the twenty-five essays contained here is a miracle of compression. And as the best poems and essays do, these works pull upward and outward with taut energy, connecting specific experiences and resonant details to overarching themes relevant to any reader who happens to live in a body.
As someone whose body is also awry, I dove into this collection hoping to find that special sanity that comes from having one’s reality reflected in the experience of another. Although my rheumatoid arthritis is different from Davio’s condition, I am pulled toward memoirs and essays of illness and disability because it feels like these authors are engaged in a collective project of understanding and analyzing the way ableism functions. Davio’s essays delivered even more than I’d hoped, opening outward and inward.
Davio’s progressive neurological condition, myasthenia gravis, is named in the book’s epigraph, but that physical state is referenced in a circling, round-about way in the essays themselves. With a balance of intimacy and intellect she brings the reader immediately into the most urgent dilemmas that refract from that condition, dilemmas that reflect on all bodies and especially female bodies, such as the pressure to be “strong and healthy,” the ever-present question about one’s reproductive choices, the monitoring of appearance, food, and clothing, and even the way we think and use our senses.
Although I have delved into the pain experience, I realized in reading this collection that it’s still quite easy to detach from the actual fact of my body, spinning out into abstraction untethered from flesh. For Davio, the sensory and physical world is ever-present, but also intimately connected to larger issues and ideas.
There’s an essay that emerges entirely from the smell of old books and raises itself to the question of which bodies enjoy the experience of being the “default” in our cultures. The last two sections of the book dashes headlong through topics as varied as Kylie Jenner, David Bowie, oxygen tanks, Empire, mindfulness, and a range of other topics, leaving the reader wondering what Davio cannot do. The final essay, “Loss Report,” manages to knit the collection together and offer yet another lens through which to view the whole collection.
Experiences as a patient—both here and abroad—provide a fascinating window into healthcare as experienced by the female body. I found myself wishing that the collection’s longest essay, “Our NHS: One Sick American in England’s National Health System,” might appear in a high-profile venue like Harper’s or The Atlantic, as it provides a valuable and relevant look into the challenges and benefits of a government-funded healthcare system as experienced by someone with a reference point outside of that system—especially important as we watch the collapse of a funding system here in the United States.
Compressed description and an eye for resonant detail are paired with endings that arrive almost before you expect them, with observations that cut to the quick and echo long after each essay reaches its close. One essay in the collection, “The Service of Lesser Gods,” manages to weave together the risks of a major surgery, wool socks, the poetry of Wallace Stevens, and Davio’s religious upbringing, all into a stunning four and a half pages that ascends into an ending that leaves the reader entirely clear on the connection among all of these themes and slightly breathless. Davio makes it look easy, so I asked myself whether I could do a similar exploration of Catholicism, the rheumatoid disease running through the family line and striking one of my aunts in the convent, the way faith is entwined with a kind of reverence for suffering? And in four pages? I’d have to walk away from that challenge.
The writing community comes up in more than a few pieces, including one disturbing instance in which Davio, while walking with a cane, is assaulted at the sprawling book fair of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference. As in other essays, Davio hovers with precision on the moment after that impact, asking the reader and herself to reflect on the gap between what we expect of each other and what we deliver. Her persistent probing raises the question of whether we as writers are so immersed in our own text and world-building that we may fail to engage with the embodied people around us. And part of me wants nothing more than to have this essay read on the stage at the next AWP book fair, though many disabled writers have decided that the barriers in attending the conference are too great.
As with the best of essay collections, the writer’s voice is the persistent presence that unites the pieces. The dry humor contained in these pages both cuts and delights. In each essay, Davio’s dry wit skewers the assumption that she might be considered a disabled “inspiration” for abled people because of her health condition, and in the next moment her vulnerability and intellect offer the reader so much more.
Rather than aiming to transcend her body or to be sanctified by physical challenges, she freely admits that the body reveals the self, and she lays bare her experience at the intersection of body and mind in the service of essaying, thinking, reflecting, and connecting.
Sonya Huber is the author of five books, including Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and the new essay collection 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.
November 10, 2017 § 1 Comment
As soon as I saw Claire Tomalin had written a biography, I had to read it. She had been an inspiration to me when I was working on my dissertation; I specialized in creative nonfiction, writing about the relationship between Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf. Not only was Tomalin one of the UK’s pre-eminent biographers, she wrote Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life. My excitement grew when I read that Tomalin came late to biography, becoming a full-time writer at nearly forty. She writes, “how long it took me to get going with the work I most enjoy and value: researching and writing historical biographies.” I am a full-time lawyer, but would love to be able to be a full-time biographer, and I thought this might be a guide in making this shift.
Of course, that was foolish, as I discovered in reading A Life of My Own: A Biographer’s Life. An autobiography is not a how-to guide; it can only be a story of one person’s life. Anyway, I would not swap my life for Tomalin’s, even if it meant never becoming a successful biographer.
Tomalin describes, with the same care she takes for all her subjects, the story of how her life unfolded, starting with her unusual, intelligent, and artistic parents and early marriage, and continuing through her schooling, work as a journalist, then editor, and finally full-time writer. She sometimes takes for granted her successes and fortune, such as assuming she’d be accepted into Cambridge, which she enters and receives the highest possible standard.
She began writing after much personal difficulty: her husband abandoned the family, followed by an untimely death in Israel. At times, the book seems lacking in emotion, particularly in the way she describes how her husband “came in and advanced angrily with clenched fists raised to punch me in the face.” She uses the same tone and well-measured prose as describing how she organized a carpool for her children. However, I did feel her pain and confusion over the death of her husband, a well-known British journalist, and over another family tragedy.
Tomalin is eighty-four now, and the book sometimes sounds like an elderly person reviewing her diaries. Even so, A Life of My Own is an interesting read and a useful historical resource, showing what life was like in the literary media in the 1980s (including the detail that is attracting attention in the British press: her affair with Martin Amis). It is also the story of a woman with “conflicting desires to have children and a worthwhile working life” and achieving both. However, as the title says, the story is Tomalin’s life. The rest of us just have to forge our own.
Laura Shepperson completed a master of studies in creative writing at the University of Cambridge, in 2015, specializing in creative nonfiction. She wrote a biography of Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf for her dissertation. Shepperson was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize in 2017 for her novel, Harriet’s Room.
November 6, 2017 § 2 Comments
By Katharine Coldiron
When I read Eileen Myles’s most famous book, Chelsea Girls, I found myself regretting my mild little life. It’s a book wrought from the chaos of New York City in the 1970s: sex, crime, booze and drugs, poverty, and poetry. None of that had ever been in my life. My experience with Chelsea Girls was practically anthropological, so distant was the content from anything I’ve lived, and it stirred in me both jealousy and relief.
The book did make me wonder how its author ended up, in a metaphysical sense. In the movies, dissolute youth often ends in a fiery wreck at the bottom of a ravine. In life, how does a bohemian poet cope with middle age? What does settling down look like for them? After multiple books that avoid the “memoir” label, what will they elect to write about that finally fixes it on the front cover?
In Afterglow (a dog memoir), I have an answer, and yet another example of the shadow life, the what-might-have-been, that divides Myles from me. I have never had a dog, and always wanted one, and Afterglow revolves around Rosie, the pitbull whom Myles cared for from 1990 to 2006. In this book, Myles grants to Rosie a remarkable breadth of experience and ability, and they toy with form and narrative freely. An early chapter comprises a puppet talk show on which Rosie is a guest and in which a dream of Myles’s is embedded. Later, Rosie and Myles bat the first-person pronoun back and forth in chapters both confusing and captivating. Rosie calls them Jethro instead of Eileen, philosophizes about Manichaeism, and asks its author what the book is even doing.
“Dog ghostwriting”—great language, funny idea, but honestly aren’t all dog books dog ghostwriting. No dog writes a book, no dog wants a book written no dog reads a book and the only part that might be interesting is the idea that all writers are ghosts. Look at you! The writer spends her life reducing her own existence to that of a ghost.
In just a few sentences, Myles and Rosie 1) expose why dog books are sort of dumb, and 2) hew close to questions that have plagued me for most of my life as a writer: whether authors are as real to most readers as they are to me, whether the experience of reading is normal or actually psychedelic and bizarre, what an author’s name written on the cover of a book signifies.
Not all of their experimentation is successful. Sometimes Rosie’s recorded thoughts are so jumbled that they become tedious to read, and I don’t really understand what foam has to do with art. But Myles’s books always feel this way to me: some aspects hit so hard that they lodge in the mind, crystalline and perfect, and others drag across the eyes as if I’m forced to mop up a soiled floor. Of course, Myles reaches different readers for different reasons. That is the glory of experimental literature: in it, there is no such thing as mass appeal.
I appreciate the sound of Myles, so unlike any other writer:
Meanwhile the gentle tap tap tap of the music of the house still pouring out. One side of the fireplug is blue. Chalk blue. I want to say scrawl. The cat seems to get distracted so I’m luring him in. He looks back at this day. More agitated it holds a white dog barking jumping up and down. The wall behind him is rose faded salmon in sunlight going to white. Blazing. My yard he barks. My sidewalk. We’re close up and all we see is whiteness and fence.
Afterglow is a memoir primarily about Rosie, but not exclusively about her. The reckoning a writer tends to do after age sixty, the backward gaze at a life, is present here, but not in an ordinary way. Myles has maintained the fire, the dirt, and the immediacy that characterized Chelsea Girls as well as so much of their poetry, but they’re using it to examine the mortality of their dog and, in no small way, themself.
Yet this is what writing is. A leaving behind.
The two chapters that discuss Rosie’s death in detail are as affecting as writing gets, but they make up only one mood in a patchwork of them. Like much of Myles’s work, Afterglow is less a unified book than a conversation. With itself, with its author, with its author’s dog, with me, the anthropologist who can’t stop reading about a life she barely understands. Like all great conversations, it ranges everywhere, strikes wrong notes, stutters in finding its way, contains moments of astonishing beauty and insight. Like all great conversationalists, Myles has a profound sense of themself, as well as a willingness to risk saying something totally weird as long as it’s true.
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., The Rumpus, The Collagist, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.