Of Charcuterie, Teleportation, and the Digressive Essay

March 22, 2021 § 3 Comments

In her latest book, Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster, Nicole Walker continues her deep essayistic dive into sustainability, climate change, global food issues, and her own eating obsessions, layering in the overlapping impact of our unsettling pandemic year. Her insights remain refreshingly honest and are, at times, spiced with unexpected humor. Brevity founder and fellow pancetta-enthusiast Dinty W. Moore interviews Walker on her book, on digression in the essay, and on the possibility of hope in desperate times:

Dinty W. Moore: First, a confession. More than a decade ago I was visiting the Arizona city where you live and you invited me to join you for dinner. “How about charcuterie?” you said, pronouncing it as if you knew exactly what you were proposing, and I instinctively blurted, “Yes, I’d really love that,” because I didn’t want to seem unsophisticated. Back then, I had no idea what “charcuterie” really meant, though I do still remember the enticing selection of meats, cheeses, pickled vegetables, and spreads that ensued. So maybe I’m not the best person to speak with you about Processed Meats, or maybe I am the perfect person. In any case, it is too late – we have agreed. So, here’s my question: Do you remember that dinner and I did I fool you at all?

Nicole Walker: This question is the most on-point question you could ask. I just wrote an essay for the NYT and the only real edit was, can you make it clear how you know what charcuterie is and how much privilege comes with making sure your kid eats 9 colors of fruits and vegetables a day? An obsession with food isn’t becoming. Making your guests feel out of place is definitely against the Emily Post’s rules of etiquette. Your graciousness at that dinner covered for you, if not me. I remember us sitting on the deck, eating cheese and prosciutto, and then maybe also having tacos? Max and Zoe adored you. You talked to them like they were the adults they thought they were, even though they were two and six at the time.

This story is making me want to hang out with you. If I could spend the energy to build a teleport machine instead of curing strange meats, I should. But maybe charcuterie is its own kind of teleport machine. I know books are. The main reason to publish books is to be invited to places to read or to be invited to talk with you. It’s a kind of teleport machine. The book came out earlier this month. I made pancetta for the book release, which took four weeks to cure. With book and pancetta, I am bringing myself to book readers and charcuterie eaters, which is all I ever really wanted to do.

DWM: Speaking of charcuterie as its own kind of teleportation device, what I love about your book is how processed meat, your ostensible subject, becomes a vehicle to explore so many deeper themes: pregnancy, plastic waste, parenthood, pandemic, owlets, and anti-bodies. The Greek philosopher Anaxagoras first expounded the theory of “everything-in-everything,” which is the basis for poetic (and essayistic) metaphor. Look closely at any one thing and all things will be revealed. Did you imagine at the outset of Processed Meats that salami, capicola, bologna, and prime rib would lead you in all these directions, open all these portals into culture and human existence?

NW: I was talking with a friend who is working on this big book project about her father’s time in a concentration camp in the Ukraine and she was trying to figure out a structure to the book because otherwise she just chases after details and the book sprawls. I said to her, well, you can just be like me and see where the words take you, but I get that such an approach is an unconventional one. Maybe even a vilified one. Cohesion. Topic sentences. Stay on target, Luke is told when he’s gunning for the Death Star’s weak spot. Max says of nachos that the triangle ones are better for chasing the cheese. It is nice to have a target and maybe even an angular and pointed kind of targeting device. Circles have a hard time getting the cheese.

But in writing, the target is always moving. Derrida said so in “Structure, Sign, and Play,” obviously riffing off Anaxagoras—you’re more likely to get at the thing if you approximate the thing itself. If you get closer to it. Sidle up. Don’t spook it! And metaphors are the best approximators. I take my cue from poetry so I can leap and play but I also know it can seem unserious—that I’m not making a point and completing an argument in my essays.

But my larger, forever-point is that we can understand things better from supremely local positions. Bologna and prime rib, shrimp and capicola we can know. Meat in particular is a weird way to approximate the center. Our bodies are subject to so many strange manipulations—not so many as the cow’s, of course, but still—from sitting unmovingly in church to forcing it on 100-mile runs, to suffering real hunger to letting the doctor’s take a big chunk out for biopsy, we know through our bodies and our mouths abstractions that are hard to understand otherwise. If I can mete out the steps from mouth to body to soil to tree to big global catastrophe, maybe the everything-in-everything theory that Anaxagoras offers us not only makes sense in a cognitive way but in a visceral one as well. (Puns apologized for, but not regretted. Well, a little regretted.)

DWM: All this talk of Anaxagoras and Derrida may mislead potential readers, overlooking what I find equally compelling about your book: the humor, the silly asides, the basic optimism. Processed Meats doesn’t fail to acknowledge our difficult times—not just our pandemic nightmare but our toxic consumerism and the climate crisis that we’ve been avoiding for too long—but I found the book itself to be a bit of a lift, a buoyant and invigorating read.

So, tell me Nicole. Do you still have hope? Despite it all?

NW: What is wrong with me? Why do I read about the fires and the melting and the storms and the dislocation and still find hope? I am, as flawed as it is to be, an American. I’m full of optimism just as I am full of cheese. Optimism is dangerous. It’s often plain wrong. But when I look at the twenty-year old kid who invented a boat to pull plastic from the ocean and the water protectors from the Hopi and Navajo nations bringing attention to the rapidly declining aquifer and the local farmers and community-supported agriculture, all I can see is promise. It’s brighter than the bad news—not because it’s bigger. In fact, maybe because it’s smaller. I can relate to the person who grows heritage pigs and feeds them acorns from his hand and still manages to slaughter them and sell that pig to his local pork product purveyors because he spent so much time and energy with them. They had a good and industrious life. The acorns did too. The soil researchers who worry that at a certain temperature the forest becomes a bigger producer of carbon than a carbon sink look at layers of sand and at the nearly invisible microorganisms chowing down on the decaying leaves and I think, those microbes, if not those scientists, will figure something out. I’m Generation X. We aren’t supposed to believe in anything or have a lot of hope, but I think underlying all that biting realism, there’s a layer of “fine. We’ll get it done.” I believe we’ll get it together. And by we, again, I might mean the microorganisms more than the people, but still. Getting it together will be got.

Nicole Walker is the author of Processed Meat: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating DisasterThe After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet and  Sustainability: A Love Story and A Survival Guide for Life in the Ruins. Her previous books include Where the Tiny Things AreEggMicrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. Her work has been published in Orion, Boston Review, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Normal School and other places. She curated, with Rebecca Campbell, “7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone” for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, she is noted in multiple editions of Best American Essays. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Dinty W. Moore is editor-in-chief of Brevity and author of To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno.

A Review of Lisa Olstein’s Pain Studies

February 27, 2021 § 1 Comment

By Jehanne Dubrow

This past month, as I’ve struggled with the daily scald of acid rising in my throat, my sleep wrecked by the sensation that I’m drowning in my own saliva, my breathing asthmatic, my waking hours hoarse-voiced and blurry-eyed. I have had many occasions to meditate on my body. The fact is, I do not notice it when it doesn’t summon my attention with pain. I only remember that I live inside a thing called a body when it stubs itself, when it winces or twinges, when it bleeds or scabs over or scars. The pain brings me inescapably back to myself, even as it makes me want to run from my own skin.

In her first book of creative nonfiction, Pain Studies, poet Lisa Olstein meditates on the paradoxes of pain. Pain, she writes, is “vivid even in its opacity, vague even in its precision.” It simultaneously “reduces and expands, diminishes and amplifies,” so that the suffering body is drawn away from others and inward to the pulsing hurt.

Divided into thirty-eight short chapters, the text swirls from ache to ache, nonlinear as the pain it narrates. The book’s title implies that pain is a scholarly discipline. Olstein functions here as both scholar and sufferer, her approach brief and fragmentary, as if she worries that to linger too long on any single narrative might lead her to feel more pain. The book also functions as a series of artist’s studies, each chapter a sketch that presents the outlines of its subject matter. Like an artist’s drawings of a bird or a human hand, Olstein’s studies show us pain from dozens of angles so that we eventually see its whole shape.

Like any good scholar, Olstein grounds her assertions about pain in essential texts, including Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill,” Eula Biss’s “The Pain Scale,” and Elaine Scarry’s landmark interdisciplinary text, The Body in Pain. Olstein’s analyses are wide-ranging and interdisciplinary, because pain too reaches everywhere, touches all corners of a sufferer’s life. She writes about the character of Gregory House—who is, provocatively, both a doctor and a patient—from the television drama, House, M.D. She links the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras to Emily Dickinson. She connects her own chronic migraines to the work of artist Donald Judd, his sculptural installations in Marfa, Texas, prismatic in much the same way as Olstein’s debilitating headaches. “If migraine’s prism could be painless,” she writes, “if migraine mind could be prismed through the lens of a hundred brushed aluminum boxes reflecting desert earth and sky, it would look like this.”

A central preoccupation of Pain Studies is the narrator’s examination of the suffering of Joan of Arc: “I find myself acutely, at times even obsessively, interested in Joan—specifically, in her trial. That is, what she had to say.” Finding references to Joan of Arc everywhere—in the writings of Anne Carson, Elizabeth Willis, even the former UN Ambassador Samantha Power—Olstein tries to understand “Why Joan?” In Joan’s trial, the author finds a menacing reflection of the “doctor/patient” relationship: all those unanswerable questions, all the poking and prodding, all the “deeply biased men” circling the small form of a woman.  

As compelling and beautiful as I find Olstein’s language, I can’t decide if her analogy goes too far. She points out that “[t]he word pain derives from the Latin poena (penalty, punishment, execution).” When pain strikes, it does indeed feel like the body has been put on trial.

I was named for Joan of Arc, Jehanne the medieval spelling, how scribes signed the saint’s name on all extant letters. When Olstein asks, “Why Joan?” I can’t quite see my own pain as persecution. I know the hurt comes from inside my body. At night, I lie on a wedge-shaped pillow, my back angled at a 45-degree angle, trying not to choke on the acrid water rising in my mouth. Someone is squeezing my lungs with a fist. But, no, there is no hand around my breath. I have not been imprisoned; I am my only prison. At least for me, there is no burning at the stake.
Jehanne Dubrow is author of nine poetry collections and a book of creative nonfiction, throughsmoke: an essay in notes. Her lyric essays have appeared in New England Review, The Common, The Colorado Review, and Image. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with Anaxagoras at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

%d bloggers like this: