June 14, 2019 § 1 Comment
By Vivian Wagner
Matthew Ferrence’s Appalachia North: A Memoir is a book about landscapes—both those defined by rivers and mountains and those shaped by personal and bodily experiences. The book examines in depth the various historical, environmental, and sociological meanings and stereotypes of “Appalachia,” and at the same time it tells several layers of stories about Ferrence’s experiences in that landscape, his struggles with a brain tumor, and his search for a sense of identity and belonging.
As someone who lives in southeastern Ohio, which like western Pennsylvania is marginally Appalachian, I read this book with both a sense of fascination and recognition. I understand what he’s talking about when he says that people often don’t consider where you live as “really” Appalachian, even though it’s been defined as such by the Appalachian Regional Commission, by broader cultural lore, and by the interconnectedness of hills, streams, and seams of coal.
And as someone who grew up amongst the piñon pines and junipers of California’s southern Sierra Nevada Mountains and now lives in a small Appalachian village, trying to grow vegetables in her yard’s hard-pack clay and exploring maple, oak, and sycamore forests, I also viscerally understand both Ferrence’s sense of continual exile and his notion that the landscapes in which we live reflect and embody the landscapes we carry within.
This is a book that’s largely about identity—both regional identity and Ferrence’s own sense of self. As he says in the book’s preface, “I began this book with an idea, based on casual observation, that the functional realities of rural communities located along the entire chain of the ancient Appalachian Mountains carry certain similarities.” He’s looking for a sense of shared identity between and among mountain communities, but in the course of this quest he discovers a broader understanding of planetary interconnectedness.
Ferrence’s identity, he tells us, wasn’t always Appalachian, and the book traces the journey he takes toward seeing himself as such: “The writing of this project is at once the continuation of my own self-discovery as Appalachian, a reassertion of the validity of western Pennsylvanian experience as more than Pittsburgh steelwork, and a further investigation into how the labels of Appalachia have been drawn and written.” He seeks, in other words, both a way to describe the identity of the region and to describe his own identity—always with the understanding that those two identities are indelibly intertwined.
He’s not arguing anything in particular about Appalachia or about himself. As he says, “this is a book without an argument at its core.” Rather than seeking to debunk Appalachian stereotypes or create new identity markers, he’s interested in exploring the continuities in and between landscapes, the way one region is connected to another, how one side of the mountains is linked to the other. He’s interested in the way streams and rivers flow together, and the way he, himself, is part of this sense of continuous and interrelated identity.
Drawing lines around Appalachia, he argues, has historically meant the region’s been marked as useful only as a site of resource extraction, and the poverty within those lines is seen as an almost inevitable consequence of this extraction. As he says, the defining line around Appalachia “sets up conditions that let people outside the line do things inside the line that make them richer and Appalachia poorer. That is, indeed, the official origin of the region’s designation, and the contemporary dynamic that works to maintain the poverty within. Origin stories are hard to shake, so once Appalachia was defined as poor, then poor it must continue to be.”
Defining Appalachia as a resource-rich region with poor people, in other words, marks the region as other. Ferrence wants to de-otherize Appalachia, to reconnect it to the rest of the continent and to the earth, so that we can develop a more holistic and truer sense of the place, its people, and its relationship with the rest of the planet.
In addition to exploring the topographical, environmental, and sociological meanings of northern Appalachia, Ferrence explores the meaning and substance of his own body, via his experience with a brain tumor. The two narratives—the attempt to reconceive of Appalachia and to make sense of his experience in his own body—might seem at first to be disconnected, but they’re related in the sense that they’re both studies in materiality and physicality. They’re also both about destruction and erosion, and about the possibility and impossibility of reclamation and renewal.
Just as the strip-mined landscape of western Pennsylvania can never be returned to precisely what it was before, so his own body and mind will be forever marked by the brain tumor, which remains in his skull, irradiated and dormant but nonetheless there. Yet, both for the landscape and for his own body, Ferrence has a sense of hope. As he says near the book’s end, which meanders, ultimately, toward Prince Edward Island and the far northern reaches of Appalachia, “real recovery . . . requires that you decide what you really are at core.” What he discovers, at his core, is a dogged, persistent sense of hope and possibility: “I turn willfully toward the old growth, toward a desire to think about what these mountains are and to restore, preserve, and renew.”
Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she’s an associate professor of English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music, and several collections of poetry: The Village, Curiosities, and Raising.
June 7, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Megan Sweeney
A hermit crab seeking more spacious quarters finds an empty shell, waits by the shell if it’s not the right size, and when other house-hunting crabs arrive at the scene, enters a queue of crabs arranged in descending order of size. As soon as the largest crab moves into the available shell, each remaining crab vacates its shell and climbs into the next-size-up, hoping for a good fit.
Like a hermit crab trying on shell after shell, I’ve spent the past few months reading a stack of creative nonfiction. Each time I inhabit the spaces an author creates—her ways of seeing, habits of mind, and orientation to self and others—I hope to experience a sense of home. Lately, though, I’ve begun to feel confined by familiar floor plans. I find myself longing to encounter an “I” who is neither barricaded nor all-engulfing, who leaves ample room for others, an “I” whose introspection includes looking outward, attending to difference both inside and outside of the self. When I enter spaces that house pain, I often want deeper engagement, more genuine dialogue with this resident intruder. I’m eager to spend time in capacious, aerated rooms where experience is distilled, where narratives forged in fire are carefully wrought amid cooler flames.
Lia Purpura’s All the Fierce Tethers is just this kind of place.* In Purpura’s ample spaces, I feel hermit-crab-home. There, it’s possible to mind, to stay with things and make oneself a hospitable place, to hold and be held long enough to see a slug iridesce or a hare exchange one coat for another; to appreciate small moments, the boundedness of lives, the E pluribus unum of an ant hive; to feel the full mess of syringe-assisted peace or the imported, rebuffed peace of boundary-crossing Baltimoreans, so earnest in its imposition. In Purpura’s dwellings, there’s time to still the parts of a day, to conjure a beloved’s presence by adopting her gestures; to explore being unspecialized by a tree or rearranged by all the seeing. It’s work to hold, Purpura writes, to come to love the parts and particulars of a meadow, nest, day. Slow work. Investment—not “money down” but the older form, “the act of dressing to encounter the holy.”
Home to shy and alert screech owls, Purpura’s shelters have state-of-the-art acoustics. They enable ways of listening a listener hardly understands, like listening in to the ground suffocating beneath us, attending to both the presence of ease and the presence of ruin, hearing what we cannot name (an elegy that mourns a thing it never knew), or noticing the mental conversions we perform to prevent grief from overrun[ning] the banks [we] make. Purpura’s abodes accommodate being agog, unguarded, and sincere. And they make space for reading at a range of scales: reading land as body, reading the letter the day wrote me, reading shadows as expressions distilled, and reading a place like a poem by attending to all its dimensions. Under Purpura’s roofs, metaphor is an ecosystem, a way of revealing unseen dependencies, and humans, creatures, and objects are rekinned. The ghosted, shuddery call of the loon isn’t a simple sound of crazy; it’s the grief of a desperate, mercury-poisoned, coal-poisoned bird that cannot care—for its young or about its fate. Listening in, we hear ourselves in the loon’s call.
Reading All the Fierce Tethers has rearranged me. Like species of hermit crabs that find long-term shelter in the company of another—the green-eyed hermit crab who lives with sea anemones on its back, or the Japanese hermit crab who inhabits living coral—I want to reside in the spaces that Purpura creates. I want to be altered, again and again, by her reminders of what it means to be in relation, to live fiercely tethered.
*All italics indicate language from Purpura’s text.
Megan Sweeney is Arthur F. Thurnau Associate Professor of English and Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her publications include an award-winning monograph, Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons (2010); an edited collection, The Story Within Us: Women Prisoners Reflect on Reading (2012); numerous articles about reading, African American literature, and incarceration; and lyric essays published in Brevity, Entropy Magazine, and Bennington Review. Sweeney recently completed a creative nonfiction manuscript titled Mendings, and she is currently writing a book about prison garb.
June 5, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Lisa Ellison
I met Reema Zaman at the 2018 Hippocamp Conference when she presented “The Art of Radical Vulnerability: Using Writing to Turn Wounds into Wisdom.” Audience members sat elbow-to-elbow as she revealed the insights she’d gained while writing her debut memoir I Am Yours: A Shared Memoir. Reema’s message was received with the powerful silence deserving of profound truths. Follow-up questions focused on one theme: writing about trauma.
Six years ago, I worked as a trauma therapist, helping clients understand and revise the stories they tell about painful experiences. Now, I teach classes in memoir. Trauma is a frequent guest at our workshop tables. Sometimes it’s an uncontained beast that threatens to derail projects. As an instructor, I constantly seek tools students can use to safely house their suffering and mold chaotic experiences into something ordered. A favorite is the Soham meditation—a Sanskrit mantra that roughly translates as I am that. It serves as both repository for errant thoughts and reminder that our essential nature is powerful and good.
Like this meditation, I Am Yours creates a haven for trauma narratives—one that simultaneously records and reauthors the writer’s deepest challenges. Structured as a love letter to her highest self, Reema’s memoir encapsulates her experiences with misogyny, sexual assaults and rape, intimate partner violence, and the racially-charged subjugation she faced as a Bangladeshi immigrant in the United States.
Letters like Reema’s serve as apt vessels for traumatic experiences. Her greeting, “Dear Love,” invokes the ultimate loving witness for her vulnerable stories. In her letter’s body, she processes her story, and through the closing, we are invited to let go of past harms and embrace radical self-love.
Reema’s letter has a meditative quality she sustains through a variation on Soham. Each episode begins with “I am” and her age. “I am 3. I am 5. I am 11.” This “I Am” invites the reader into her painful experiences—ones she renders with stark clarity and poetic finesse. On being raped, she writes: “He grabs me. I steel my body against his…. The vile truth, as bitter as bile: He is much too strong.” When her abusive husband insisted she downplay her looks and intellect, she writes “I blot my cheeks, lips, eyelids, dimming myself.”
Her memoir opens with her early life. As the oldest daughter to parents of an arranged marriage, she tries to fulfill the preset roles of a toxic patriarchy. To cope with the challenges of living in a world that silences women, she develops anorexia—an illness that shrinks both body and spirit—and pursues beauty as she strives to become a voice for the voiceless. This leads to careers in modeling and acting. But external changes don’t result in internal metamorphosis. Eventually, she realizes, “being raised by a bully, I married a bully, and through my choices, I become my biggest bully.” Each page contains similar epiphanies that frequently read like prayers.
Her memoir fulfills the satisfying arc we expect: the heroine loses her innocence, struggles, and ultimately prevails. But her unique approach makes I Am Yours distinctive. Many memoirs weave traumatic episodes into gripping tales that ascend to a triumphant crescendo, placing readers fully in the story’s present moment, desperate for resolution. In the midst of Zaman’s darkest episodes, she invokes the witness, “my love,” and reminds readers that an actualized writer (not the wounded character) controls her story. She tells her younger self, “she is kind, loved, and has value in this world,” creating an in vivo reauthoring of traumatic experiences as she recounts them. A miscarriage is “my body knowing how to take care of itself.” Of her gritty and painful marriage to a man who says she’s a wife for “greensies not for keepsies,” she writes “I entered my first marriage a girl. I leave a woman.” On her rape, she writes, “this is but one chapter and only I author my life.”
Self-soothing and reparenting the inner child are therapy terms frequently met with balled fists and pursed lips. How does one practice what one never had? Whether Zaman learned these skills or intuited them, she models self-soothing for us and reveals a new way to write memoir—one that speaks back to trauma in her revolutionary style. Time will tell whether other writers will emulate her in vivo reauthoring in their books. Regardless, I Am Yours has proved an essential guidebook for authors who wish to harness their internal witnesses and speak compassionately to themselves throughout the writing process.
Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach and member of the Moving Forewords Memoir Collective. She teaches classes in memoir and creative nonfiction at WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in The New Guard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Guardian, and The Rumpus, among others. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen.
May 23, 2019 § 6 Comments
by Vivian Wagner
One cool, April day, seven years almost to the day after my father’s suicide, I sat outside a coffee shop reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. As cherry blossom petals fell around me and onto the pages of the book, I came across this passage in one of its essays, “‘Joy Is Such a Human Madness’”
It astonishes me sometimes—no, often—how every person I get to know—everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything—lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always of everything.
The essay ends with the idea that maybe, by joining our wildernesses of sorrow, we can find something like joy:
Is sorrow the true wild?
And if it is—and if we join them—your wild to mine—what’s that?
For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation.
What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying.
I’m saying: What if that is joy?
Not for the first time in reading The Book of Delights, I found myself crying. And then, as if on cue, a woman walked past with a cup of coffee. I smiled at her through my tears, and she smiled back. It was a brief moment of empathy and connection, of sorrow and joy.
It was a moment, in short, that could have come right out of Gay’s collection.
The Book of Delights is about how everyone lives on a knife edge between life and death, beauty and horror. The book spans the course of a year, from one birthday to the next, with Gay recounting in what he calls “essayettes” his everyday observations and experiences, joys and sorrows. Discussing everything from gardening to race relations, the book’s underlying premise is that connecting with others—particularly in a world rife with division—is central to living a full and happy life.
This practice of writing the essays for the volume is both meditative and interactive, and it leads him down crisscrossing paths shaped by his deep sense of empathy. These are essays about care and concern, and though on the surface they focus on the specific and idiosyncratic details of his daily life, they ultimately aim for a kind of universality, the hidden network of roots and mycelium that holds a culture’s forest together.
In one essay, “Found Things,” for instance, he describes seeing birds swooping through the Detroit airport and witnessing the way their presence brings people together. The idea delight expands through sharing is one of the central themes of the collection. He’s always looking for the small and seemingly insignificant connections we make with one another—a pat on the arm, a friendly glance, a song—that are evidence of shared humanity and, which might well be the same thing, shared mortality.
Race and class are two other central themes in the book. As a black man in the U.S., Gay understands viscerally the ways that people do not always connect and can, in fact, be cruel, dismissive, and violent toward one another. These essays look head-on at the tensions in American culture, even as they seek to find ways to open up fissures of communication, empathy, and understanding.
In one essay, “The Negreeting,” he talks about his desire for communication and acknowledgement between black people on the street—and the disappointment he feels when it’s not always forthcoming. In another, “The High-Five from Strangers, Etc.,” he looks at how what counts as pleasant or delightful is not always universal. As he says,
I love, I delight in, unequivocally pleasant public physical interactions with strangers. What constitutes pleasant, it’s no secret, is informed by my large-ish, male, and cisgender body, a body that is also large-ish, male, cisgender, and not white. In other words, the pleasant, the delightful, are not universal. We all should understand this by now.
And in “Microgentrification: WE BUY GOLD,” he describes sitting in the sun by a café and being told by the owner of a neighboring pawn shop to move along. He doesn’t even need to mention racism in this essay; it’s there in full view.
Nonetheless, the essays in this book all wend toward ground where connections might be made, even if they’re brief, barely-there wisps of recognition. Throughout this collection, Gay remains hopeful that empathy will win.
In its search for connectedness, The Book of Delights is not at all sentimental or trite. Rather, it looks squarely at the rifts between us—rifts that take the form of everything from hatred to casual disassociation—and still dares us to find the tomato plants and songs, the cups of coffee and tears, that we share.
Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she’s an associate professor of English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music, and several collections of poetry: The Village, Curiosities, and Raising.
May 22, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Anita Gill
Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story explains that when writing memoir: “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”
Debra Gwartney knows this. It’s evident in her extensive body of work, including her first memoir, Live Through This, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Oregon Book Awards. Since then, she’s published essays in journals and anthologies that turn the lens inward, confronting her own vulnerabilities.
Gwartney’s second book veers from the traditional structure of memoir, using a lesser-known historical event as a springboard for her own personal narrative. In I Am a Stranger Here Myself, Gwartney juxtaposes her memories with the story of Narcissa Whitman, one of the first white women settlers to journey westward. This genre-bending manuscript won the 2018 River Teeth Nonfiction Prize and publication this past March.
A fifth-generation Idahoan, Gwartney first learned about Narcissa in fourth grade. As an adult, she moved away, raising her family in Arizona and Oregon. Every trip back to Idaho, Gwartney confronts her complicated tie to her ancestors’ land. She writes this book with a burning desire to prove she’s part of the land where her family once had shops with their surname proudly displayed, and where her relatives hunted, rafted, and served in the community.
The book is structured into four sections, relating events in Narcissa’s life to Gwartney’s life. Clearly the writer differs from Narcissa. She lacks the pioneer’s religious fervor and her proselytizing ambitions. “But like Narcissa, I stayed. I did what was expected of me. I stepped into the only adult life I would let myself want,” she writes. Gwartney’s interest in Narcissa comes from a deeper place, especially looking closer into the first few years after Narcissa has arrived in Oregon and her only child drowns. Gwartney links to her own near-death accident, making a risky choice to raft along Idaho’s Salmon River. Chapter after chapter, Gwartney uncovers differing accounts about Narcissa, each contradicting the next and molding the independent pioneer woman into a more and more complex character.
Narcissa isn’t a role model of western expansion, but rather Gwartney’s conduit to understand her own complicated relationship to the land and her own family. During a trip back home as an adult, she inherited a book about Narcissa from her grandmother’s library, “a version of history set down in black and white, never to be altered,” she writes. “And hadn’t I done the same with my own? Told and retold the stories of my childhood so often that the memories finally calcified. Probably time to break it apart, my own past and, for some reason I had yet to decipher, hers.”
In a story which Gwartney narrates with such detail, richness in description, and thoughtful reflection, she also embarks on her exploration fully aware of the stakes involved. Even though this story is about white pioneers venturing into the wilderness with the earnest ambition of doing God’s work and saving the “savages,” Gwartney acknowledges the unforgivable displacement of Native American tribes. She points out the faulty political rhetoric that diminished the natives’ claims to the land, along with the post-Whitman vengeance laws allowing U.S. Marshals to kill “any Native American deemed a threat to life and/or property.” As Gwartney passes the problematic art in a hotel that portrays Native Americans as inhumane, she recalls in her research when two chiefs of the Cayuse tribe were forced to sign the treaty in 1855, thereby handing over their lands to white settlements.
On the surface, my life is nothing like Gwartney’s. Contrary to the author, I lack the generational roots to a place, because I’m the daughter of an immigrant. But the driving force in Gwartney’s memoir is the need to claim her place in the family and the land she came from, a people and life that she was raised in but then left. When reviewing my own essays, I’ve noticed that same desire shines through my words. I hoped that in returning to my father’s home country, I could unearth my link to my own ancestors. I wanted to know that even with my father’s decision to move to the other side of the world, I could touch down in India and feel an innate bond to home. Everyone wants to belong, so maybe it’s not a surprise that this memoir exploring home in the American West resonates with me, a second-generation immigrant.
Gwartney’s latest book reshapes memoir, adhering to its central tenets, yet branching into new forms that enhance the narrative. In this hybrid of memoir and history, Gwartney has created her own style of storytelling.
Anita Gill is a teacher and a writer based in Los Angeles. Her essay, “Hair,” was the winner of the 2018 Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction, selected by Kiese Laymon. Gill’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She will be a Fulbright Fellow to Spain for 2019-2020.
April 26, 2019 § 4 Comments
By Gretchen Lida
“And this much is true,” writes Pam Houston, “as long as I am in charge of it, this land will not turn into condos, it will not be mined or forested, it will not have its water stolen or its trees chopped down. No one will be able to put a cell tower in the middle of my pasture and pay me $3,000 a year for space. One of the gifts of age though is the way it gently dispels, all our heroic notions. All the time I thought I was busy taking care of the Ranch, it was busy taking care of me.”
I’m a member of the priced-out Coloradoans club. There are many reasons I no longer live in the state of the flatirons, prairie grass, and skies so big it’s hard to not to be hopeful, but at the top of the list is that I can no longer afford to live there. My heart sluffs off a bit like sandstone every time I visit because one more mountainside or horse pasture has succumbed to another overpriced subdivision. So, when I read this line in Pam Houston’s latest book, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, I was hooked.
I might have been drawn by the charm of the 120-acre homestead at the center of the book, but I stayed for the story of a writer who shows us what it is like to type with callused hands. Here is a memoir that is honest about the hustling truth of making it as a writer, and how if we must write, we must give it all we have, even when we have to break out the childhood trauma to get there.
The ranch is juxtaposed with Houston’s constant travels. She goes in and out of the ranch from one teaching gig or writing assignment to another not only determined to pay for the ranch but also determined to pay for it on her own terms. While she is gone, she finds “ranch-sitters,” people who feed her sheep and horses and keep an eye on things when she is away. Usually, she finds young writers who need the time and space to work. Sometimes it is a success, other times it is a disaster.
It would be easy to glance over the plot of the book and assume that Houston’s story is a charmed one. She was able to buy the ranch with money from her first book. She writes for places like Outside. She teaches at UC-Davis. She is a world traveler, but Pam Houston shows us that she has earned and fought for it all. Her details show us how often she fought and scrambled to make the mortgage payments and how the sharp beauty of the San Juan Mountains is sometimes anything but forgiving. There are wildfires, droughts, subzero temperatures, and, of course, the fact that on a ranch there is always something that needs to be fixed. No matter, this place is Houston’s hard-earned home.
A safe home was not a thing Houston had as a child or a teenager. She was raised by often cruel, hard-drinking parents. She writes about a mother who often made her feel worthless and a father that was both physically and psychologically abusive. Houston writes about them so clearly in the book that the sting of it can be felt through the pages.
I wasn’t as riveted by the one chapter mostly about travel. It was still fun to read and carefully written, but for me, it lacked the bright sheen of the others. What did work though were the little sections between chapters called “Ranch Almanac” where her animals and the workings of the high country come to life. There are even tiny snow fences marking a section break, and beautiful photography of the farm as well.
Throughout the book, Houston’s elderly horses, Roany and Deseo, wander in and out of the narrative. There is an old proverb that says you can always judge a horseman by the way they care for the horses they can no longer ride. When I visit my grandmother back in Colorado, she is still softening feed for old horses. Like her, Pam Houston takes good care of not only her old horses but old dogs and sheep. This kindness shines through her prose, making this book a quiet gem among the noise of the world.
Gretchen Lida is an essayist and an equestrian. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Horse Network, the Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. She is also a contributing writer to Book Riot and the Washington Independent Review of Books. She teaches composition in Illinois, lives in Chicago, sometimes resides on Nantucket Island, and is still a Colorado native. @GC_Lida
April 19, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Magin LaSov Gregg
After I miscarried my first pregnancy, I dreamed of former loves, all the ones who came before the one I love now. Night after night, these lost loves returned to me. They were handsome and young. Clothed and naked. Hands shimmered out of darkness. One pushed an empty baby stroller.
Nothing I did could stop the dreams. Grief meant facing a past that haunted me.
Randon Billings Noble’s Be with Me Always took me back to this year of unsettling dreams, to the shadow-lives those dreams invoked, to my own writerly desire to look back, and excise insights I’d missed in real-time. When I finished Be with Me Always, I wanted to begin again, so desperate was I for reassurance that my own hauntings didn’t make me a bad person or unfaithful wife. They made me human. They made me a person who wanted to heal.
The twenty-six essays in Noble’s collection confront hauntings on a personal and literary scale. Famous figures of history and culture interweave with experiences that span Noble’s girlhood to present day. She wrangles with the complexities of love, ambition, identity, rejection, legacy, and parenthood. At heart is the question of who’s doing the haunting? Do we haunt ourselves? Why would we do that?
There’s the mythic first love who comes back –– and comes back –– there’s Dracula and Anne Boleyn and Virginia Woolf. There are women who, to use Woolf’s phrase, “burn like beacons” in our cultural imagination but meet untimely ends because they’re born into patriarchies and born at the wrong time. There’s the specter of abuse that haunts gothic romance, where male desire devours everything.
“I am haunted by my need to be haunted, by my reluctance to let anything stay buried, by my desire to bring hauntedness into this weak winter light and see it for what it truly is,” Noble writes in a list-essay titled “Striking.”
Emily Bronte’s Cathy and Heathcliff trail Noble across the pages of “Striking,” blurring boundaries between the haunted and the haunter. There’s a dreaminess to Be with Me Always that echoes Wuthering Heights, from which Noble draws both epigram and title. Bronte’s novel conflates abuse with love, but Noble’s narrator knows better. Romance does not distort her view of the past.
A first love known as “D” in “Elegy for Dracula” is a looming presence, the proverbial road not taken, a path that beckons and repels. In the figure of Dracula, Noble finds a fitting symbol through which to tell a story about “my dark one,” who smears blood along the spines of her books after she leaves. As with Bronte’s lovers, the monstrous tinges their relationship, and that’s part of the draw. For years, Noble is “still bound” to her D, “still waiting for his call.”
What I love about Be with Me Always is its frankness in confronting myths of “fate” and “meant to be” that enable abuse. Passion, a concept Noble interrogates with exquisite insight in “Elegy for Dracula,” is a dangerous ideal, requiring both suffering and the giving up of power.
“Passion and passive share the same root,” she notes, “and it can be easy to confuse them. I was confused by them. Time after time I gave up action and responsibility for passionate passivity, gliding, restless, into what I thought was fate.”
I wanted to underline, highlight, and circle every single line of the collection’s first essay –– “The Split” –– where Noble recounts moments of clarity that emerge after a motorcycle accident in France. After impact, when she’s splayed in a field, bleeding and searching for a cross pendant, a second self emerges.
This is the same self who tells Noble “You should be thinking of something really important right now” in the moment before impact, and it is the voice that hovers on the edge of consciousness while she awaits rescue. This is a knowing, present voice who both haunts the narrator and promises restoration.
“I could feel her calm and faint disapproval. Not so much disapproval but wisdom,” Noble writes.
The subsequent hauntings of Be with Me Always derive their urgency from this split-self presence. The allure of a haunting is not a hunger for the past, but a hunger for the self who can discern meaning from the past and extract wisdom.
Noble powerfully reminds us that hauntings spring from the same desire that propels enduring essays, the desire to live an examined life.
Magin LaSov Gregg lives, writes, and teaches in Frederick, Maryland. Her essays have appeared in Washington Post, Dallas Morning News, Bellingham Review, Rumpus, Full Grown People, Under the Gum Tree, Hippocampus Magazine and elsewhere. She stopped making New Year’s resolutions in 2018, but swears she will finish her first memoir about finding her Jewish faith after moving to the Bible Belt and marrying a Baptist minister.