A Review of Patrick Madden’s Sublime Physick

July 20, 2016 § 2 Comments

51yB4df7wgL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_By e.v. de cleyre

A 352-word essay took me two years to write. It started with a prompt at a low-residency workshop, then expanded into a long essay (per a professor’s suggestion), then written into a nonfiction manuscript, then removed from said manuscript, and finally rewritten at another low-residency workshop with another prompt, two years after the first. Instead of being happy about its publication, I felt like a slug and a fraud—like I was too slow, and couldn’t write anything without the help of a prompt, or without the work of other writers.

Patrick Madden’s Sublime Physick makes me feel better about two things: that writing takes time, and that we all suffer from “Independent Redundancy.”

The second-to-last and longest essay of the book, “Independent Redundancy” took seven years to write, clocks in at over thirty thousand words, and explores “the phenomenon of two or more individuals coming up with the same idea without any cross-pollination or shared influence.” Madden mentions controversies and court cases from music history, along with passages of writing about his own writing, quotations from other essayists, musings on why independent redundancies occur, plus images and illustrations. Sublime Physick is a mix of Montaigne and Sebald (as noted by Brian Doyle) with a dash of Chuck Klosterman.

Madden’s essays traverse great depth and breadth. His writings are reflective, pivot to follow the thread of a thought, balance irreverence and grace, and are built on a bedrock of culturally relevant scenes and subjects. Reading Madden’s meta-writings on his own writing is like listening to a magician revealing his tricks, yet he always holds the upper hand: “So the obvious question here is What steganographic secrets does this essay contain? The answer is Yes.”

Still, I am suspicious of writings that seem reveal everything, so willingly, even though that is often the mark of a good essayist (“spend it all,” said Annie Dillard), and I am especially skeptical when Madden says that the universe often conspires to help him write essays: “I am constantly preaching about how when I’m ‘in’ an essay, my life seems to align itself to the essay, offering up quotations and memories, experiences old and knew, in service of the idea I’m exploring.”

Sure, it’s a nice notion, to think that some higher power is looking out for us lowly, solitary writers, but I feel like the universe has other, more important things to attend to. The answer to my unspoken question comes no more than ten minutes after closing the covers of Sublime Physick, when I search the internet for a way into this review, and find a 2015 TriQuarterly piece by Patrick Madden, titled, “Finding a Form Before a Form Finds You.”

Any doubts are slain, and this line from the essay “Miser’s Farthings” is etched further into the brain: “What we know, or think we know, is always surrounded by mystery, which makes an essay both necessary and indeterminate, both essential and futile.”


e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from New Hampshire Institute of Art, and her essays and reviews have appeared in Brevity, Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.

Patrick Madden visite la Tour de Montaigne!

April 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

Madden_MontaigneQuotidiana connoisseur Patrick Madden guest blogs on his (almost) tour of Montaigne’s Tower:

The first goal on the Madden Family European Road Trip Vacation (after my semester directing a study abroad program in Madrid) was my own pilgrimage to Montaigne’s tower in the Perigord region east of Bordeaux. We arrived after a long day in the car and were surprised to find a chain blocking the entrance. Turns out the site was closed not just on Mondays, as David Lazar had warned me, but on Tuesdays as well. After a few minutes of pleading in fake French, I got to speak to the gardener, who spoke English, and who graciously led us on a tour of the grounds, including some wild- and tame-life encounters (birds, lizards, a snake, and several donkeys). I told him how I was a disciple of Montaigne, wrote my own essays, was editing a book paying homage to the master essayist. He said he wasn’t much for reading Montaigne, but he sure liked caring for the plant life around his place. Laurent’s patience and kindness were extraordinary, and as my family turned finally to leave, he gave me, a lifelong teetotaler, a bottle of Chateau Michel de Montaigne wine (2001 vintage). In all, it was an utterly pleasant afternoon, despite my getting so close but failing to visit the tower.

The way I figure, I can take this thwarted pilgrimage two ways. I can be disappointed, upset, what have you, or I can do like an essayist and use what really happened to my benefit. Like Alexander Smith said of Montaigne:

Each event of his past life he considers a fact of nature; creditable or the reverse, there it is; sometimes to be speculated upon, not in the least to be regretted. If it is worth nothing else, it may be made the subject of an essay

Or as Paul says (in my paraphrased appropriation):

All things work to the good of them that love the essay.

When I set out, I had hoped to see with my own eyes the inscriptions in the beams of Montaigne’s library. Sure. But had I joined a regular tour, I’d never have met Laurent. I’d have been processed through the attraction like so many glassy-eyed high-school kids. I’d have paused and examined, yes, and I’d have taken some pictures, but I did those things anyway, from outside the walls, and one of the things I considered is this:

That there’s something appropriate about being stymied in an essayistic quest, because essays were never about completing things; they distrust the very notion of tidy endings. Much better, it seems to me now, that I missed the dusty tower and instead strolled the grounds with the gardener, who, like the Great Dead Man he and I serve, contains within him the entire human condition.

And, as my friend Brent Rowland pointed out, with my Rush T-shirt on, “this is the most Pat Madden of all Pat Madden photos ever taken.” When I go back in a few decades, trying to make it in the tower, I’ll be sure to carry a volleyball for the picture, so I can out-Pat-Madden even this one.

Ned’s Head

March 28, 2012 § 1 Comment

Over at Writerhead, Kristin Bair O’Keeffe interviews Ned Stuckey-French about the inner workings of an essayist ‘s brain:

Much of the time, however, my writerhead is trying to think about what I really think, what I really believe. I am an essayist and so skepticism is where I live. I turn things over constantly. I am constantly watching myself, listening to myself. A part of me is always sitting in the press box of my own game, doing play-by-play and color commentary. It started when I was a kid shooting baskets in the driveway. 3 – 2 – 1… French stops, pops. It’s good!

But if am skeptical and questioning, I am also hopeful. I’m a very political person and believe in possibility of progress …. So, in my writerhead, I’m constantly refining my position, questioning myself, and others, and trying to figure out what makes sense and is convincing. Is that fair? Is this what I think? I am always, always turning such questions over in my head. They are my version of Montaigne’s Que sais-je?, or What do I know?

A Voice for All Seasons: Carl Klaus and The Made-up Self

November 17, 2011 § 8 Comments

The Made-up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay.
Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010. 160 pages. $18.18, paper.

Of all the matters that have eclipsed the minds of essayists, one remains unyieldingly prevalent: the matter of self. It is, after all, the personal essay. One cannot write a personal essay without confronting the self—that elusive entity with blurry lines and ever-changing denotations. I confront the impossibility of defining myself when I write, and typically fail to provide something I am half-satisfied with. Maybe that’s why I essay, to define and explore myself through words.

The problem of pinning down the self is exactly where Carl Klaus starts in his exploration The Made-up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay. In the prologue, Klaus writes that

The person in a personal essay is a written construct, a fabricated thing, a character of sorts—the sound of its voice a by-product of carefully chosen words, its recollection of experience, its run of thought and feeling, much tidier than the mess of memories, thoughts, and feelings arising in one’s consciousness.

Though the cover of the book describes it as literary criticism/reference/writing, Klaus doesn’t give the reader what might be expected by these classifications—a solely informative look at the personal essay form. Instead, he says that “given my addiction to the personal essay, I could not resist the temptation to write about it in the freewheeling form of essays, nor could I resist the enticing roles an essayist can play.” As Klaus sets out to accomplish the feat of a book-length discussion on the essayistic personae, the character, voice, and recollection of classic and contemporary essayists inform the text with a delightfully broad look at the many selves that have given life to the essay. But despite the in-depth look at the work of others, Klaus’ voice weaves itself in and out of Montaigne and Woolf, around bends of Lamb and White, and over the rivers of Dillard and Didion, showing readers that no matter where the essay goes, the essayist is ever at the helm.

Klaus’ book is broken up into four parts: “Evocations of Consciousness,” “Evocations of Personality,” “Personae and Culture,” and “Personae and Personal Experience”; each part is broken into chapters like “Elia: Pseudonymous Self Extraordinaire,” “The Mine and the Mind’s Idiosyncrasy: Ideas of Consciousness in the Personal Essay,” and “Montaigne on ‘Montaigne’: Towards a Poetics of Self,” which is the opening chapter. Of course, who better to begin with than Montaigne, the father of the personal essay to whom we give thanks for shaping the essay’s form? Klaus reflects on Montaigne’s constant digressions into his own mind, and notes that despite whatever subject matter was at hand, Montaigne’s self was under examination as much as anything else. By opening his book with Montaigne, Klaus shows Montaigne’s undeniable stamp of introspection and exploration of the self on the essay that has stayed with the genre for more than four hundred years.

Throughout the book, Klaus’ voice and tone is as changeable as the chapter headings, at times mimicking the subject of each chapter—jumping playfully from topic to topic in his chapter “Discontinuous: Form of Consciousness,” or reflecting on his own battle with health in “Illness and ‘I’: Malady in the Personal Essay.” In the final chapter, Klaus explores the idea of his changing self, and concludes his meditations by saying:

Change, after all, is in the air—it touches us, touches our words, touches our personae, as it touches all things. So, a voice for all seasons could only exist in a world without change, a life without death. The “I” is mutable, whether we will it or not.

A guest blog/book review: Natalie Johansen is currently a Creative Writing MFA student at Brigham Young University. She is first and foremost an essayist, and hopes to soon become a citizen in the world of publication.

On Transparency of Thought in the Essay

October 21, 2011 § 14 Comments

Whispered Wills and Words That Bleed: On Transparency of Thought in the Essay, a Brevity craft essay by Jennifer Bowen Hicks

Let me preface what I’m about to say with this: I’ve never taken my clothes off in public and I’m not a particularly close talker. If I have boundary issues, no one has ever told me so and I’ve never asked, a fact that, itself, should exonerate me. Bear this in mind as I tell you that I admire Terry Tempest Williams’ aim to write as though she “whispers in the ear of the one [she] loves.” Such a whisper, to such a love, would be, above all else—intimate, wouldn’t it? Intimacy, I think, must presuppose honesty as honesty presupposes vulnerability. Williams, then, must write as though she’s exposing her barest self.

An earnest whisper in another’s ear—how brave. Put away thoughts of black lace and sordid secrets. The sort of whisper I mean can be about hummingbirds or athlete’s foot, an aging parent or eggplant. Its very purpose is not to show, but to say, and by saying to connect. You to me. Arthur Schopenhauer notes that when human language began it resembled animal sounds and marked not concepts but feelings and “agitations of the will.” Imagine homo habilis’ moan as she held her first blood-smeared newborn—a guttural utterance that might have conveyed: Beautiful. Scared. Wow.

When a writer voices the agitations of her will through words, I feel my own blood moving inside my veins, transfused and transformed by the essay’s greatest potential gift: full access to another human’s thinking, feeling, core—that place where our truest feelings and agitations live. In writing, is there any other point?

One of many ways I’ve felt invited into a writer’s “core” is when reading his transparent, winding thoughts. Seneca’s essay, On Noise, for instance, ancient though it may be, subtly welcomes the reader into his fluid stream of consciousness. Seneca, who was said to have influenced Montaigne, expresses his thoughts, ideas and rebuttals in such an organic way that it would be hard to believe the words didn’t flow directly from his head to his pen.

On Noise opens with Seneca obsessing over external noises that are distracting him:

Someone starting up a brawl… the man who likes the sound of his voice in the bath, the people who leap into the pool with a strenuous splash.”

We hear every noise Seneca hears. Soon the writer takes a substantive shift from external noise—carriages, carpenters, the coxswain’s strident tone—to internal stillness. In that moment it feels that Seneca himself took a U-turn in his mind and rounded the bend to a different path. The effect is one of intimacy, for certainly it’s compelling to be inside another’s mind. In fact, it is exhilarating to watch the birth of an idea. You can see it unfold in this passage:

I force my mind to become self-absorbed and not let outside things distract it.  There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within, so long as fear and desire are not at loggerheads, so long as meanness and extravagance are not at odds and harassing each other. For what is the good of having silence throughout the neighborhood if one’s emotions are in turmoil? 

After this passage Seneca considers internal peace. In the end, he convinces himself that we are “lulled to rest” only when our temperament is such that we can remain detached to all grievances and distractions. Yes, he’s sure of this. Yes. Yet, he wonders…isn’t it easier to remove oneself from distraction than struggle? Yes, come to think of it, it certainly is. He’ll be leaving to do just that. He was only giving himself a little practice. And in the end, it’s just as compelling to have watched the birth of a contradiction to his ideas.

This type of writing has a certain generosity of spirit. It’s human. It’s vulnerable. Readers are almost co-creators of the new ideas. If not that, then we’re godparents of sorts. Is that too strong? Maybe. The point is, we’re invested.

It’s easy to see Seneca’s influence on Montaigne’s writing. We follow Montaigne’s thoughts, too, swerving though they may be. They flow from one concrete idea to another, even to the thought process itself. Consider Montaigne’s essay Upon Some Verses of Virgil.  It has what today’s business leaders might call—transparency:

We should take the whip to a young man who spent his time discriminating between the taste of wines and sauces. There is nothing I ever knew less or valued less than this. At present I am learning it. I am much ashamed of it, but what should I do? I am still more ashamed and vexed at the circumstances that drive me to it. It is for us to trifle and play the fool, and for the young to stand on their reputation and in the best place.

It’s messy. And it does get a little exhausting. It requires trust on the part of the reader.  (Phillip Lopate acknowledges: “Finally one just has to surrender to Montaigne, dive into the ocean of his thoughts and bob around in that undulating, fascinating mind for the sheer line by line reward of it.”)

The flipside, though, is that it places an additional burden on writer and reader. To follow this person’s mind through thickets and brambles over brooks and into what could be a sunrise but may be a ditch—this writer must be interesting. Not just the writing—the personality of the writer. (A writing teacher of mine once disagreed: not interesting, he said, just interested. I now wonder if we’re both right, if those two things aren’t one and the same.) Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay, Montaigne; or, the Skeptic, says this of Montaigne:

The sincerity and marrow of the man reaches to his sentences. I know not anywhere the book that seems less written. It is the language of conversation transferred to a book. Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.

Emerson responds not just to the words, he responds to Montaigne, himself. The gift and gamble of Montaigne’s writing is that we are not merely reading his words—we are exploring his raw mind.

Contrast that to reading a tightly crafted persona. The effect is less vulnerable and the essayist becomes, in some ways, a tour guide, taking us on a journey, yes, but one in which we will see no back alleys of the mind. Granted, we see plenty of beauty when the essayist is in control; we are in good, often skilled hands. We are meant to see the essayist’s idea/proposition/persona laid out cleverly and clearly. We are meant to chuckle at the turns of phrases and awe at the neatness of the metaphor. Mind you, I do all of these things.  Often I do them with gratitude and delight. Indeed, sometimes it is nice to have a competent tour guide in a new land. But I do something else, too. I find I am less forgiving of the essayist in some ways. This writer hasn’t allowed me to see the creation unfolding, to witness inevitable human contradictions. So I find myself asking for them. I can become less an unconditional reader, more a skeptical consumer.

A.A. Milne’s essay, The Cupboard, for example, gives the illusion of wandering and of self-exploration, but it isn’t a presentation in which the thought process feels organic. The essay’s narrator is renting a place that, to his joy, has a fine cupboard. He needs the cupboard because he doesn’t have a garden like married men do, who grow plants only for pretense. You see, the garden is where married men bury things they don’t want: broken cups, old shoes, etc. But Milne, pitiful bachelor that he is, has only a cupboard. So he tours us through this cupboard, item by item.

The cupboard is nearly full. I don’t usually open it to visitors, but perhaps you would care to look inside for a moment? That was my first top-hat.…That is a really good pair of boots…All that paper over there? Manuscript….Well, you see, it might be valuable one day…

The final object Milne shows his reader is a letter, which he coyly instructs us to look away from, surmising that perhaps if things had been handled differently with the object of his correspondence, then, perhaps he’d have a marriage garden, too.

Milne’s essay is fun to read. But he is not transparent in thought the way Montaigne and Seneca are. Cut these words and they will not bleed because they are not Milne but a crafted representation of him, his character: dejected, wistful bachelor.

In the service of Milne’s persona, the essay reaches a sweet ending, which is meant to be self-deprecating but winds up feeling a little tidy. I smile, but I also wonder: What kept Milne from securing his love? What’s in his heart, his head? What’s happening along the dark, potholed road that connects the two? That’s the path I most want to travel down. I don’t care what mess I discover along the way; it’s the access that I crave. Instead of whispering in my ear, Milne tours me through a quaint cupboard of remorse. And that tour is enjoyable; it is pleasant and it’s economical. But as the tourist in Milne’s essay, I leave having missed the local haunts, the most memorable places, those raw spots ripe with character that only a few locals know of, those very real corners that distinguish this “country” from every other place on earth.

Jennifer Bowen Hicks writes essays and stories, a few of which can be found at Connotation Press and Defunct. She’s the assistant nonfiction editor for Hunger Mountain, a contributing editor for Defunct, and a 2011 Loft Mentor Finalist in Creative Prose. She teaches creative writing to prisoners and lives in St. Paul, Minn. Her MFA is from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

In Praise of Lester Bangs

May 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

It gives us nostalgic pleasure to see our rock & roll memories (via Leslie Conway Bangs’ kick-ass writing in Rolling Stone and Creem) tied to the gritty essayistic tradition of old “Blood and Guts” Montaigne.  Joe Bonomo loves a good rock memoir as much — no probably more — than the next guy, and he digs the classic essay, so here he is making the case on his ever-lucid blog.

We’ll start you off with a little bit, but take the leap to the full article, we tell ya, take the leap:

Anyone who turns his prime attention onto himself will hardly ever find himself in the same state twice” (Montaigne). Which I why on days when I’m feeling the pull toward the petty confession, toward the shallow but no less human end of things, I turn to Lester Bangs. I don’t know that there’s a greater example of Montaigne’s “obedient servant of naive frankness.” Patricia Hampl writes of listening to Fats Domino at a freshman mixer, of the intimation of sex’s “heavier pleasure” there but denied her; Bangs heard sex and rock & roll too but he barreled right in, decorum be damned. Made a career of it, in fact.

Of More Books on Books

March 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Sunday’s New York Times offers up an interesting round-up of three new books essaying the original essayist, Michel de Montaigne.  The review’s conclusion make us smile:

At the end of the “Essais,” Montaigne complained that “there are more books on books than on any other subject: all we do is gloss each other.” One wonders what he would make of his own inadvertent contribution to this state of affairs.

The Made-Up Self

January 17, 2011 § 2 Comments

Carl Klaus, author of the brilliant The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay, is interviewed over at The Millions, and both the book and the interview are well worth your time.

Klaus is perhaps our finest theorist on the essay form — smart, widely-read, insightful, and always willing to challenge conventional wisdom.  In this interview he takes aim at the confessional “me-moir” genre and dismisses the oft-repeated notion that bloggers are somehow modern-day Montaignes.

Kudos to Klaus for holding us to a higher standard.

Full Interview Here, and a brief excerpt below:

Well listen, the differences between Montaigne and bloggers are so manifold that I find it surprising that anyone would even think of comparing them – because they have different agendas and completely different ways of going about writing.  For example, Montaigne’s freewheeling style is grounded in an overriding concern with echoing the flow of his thought.  Now the bloggers aren’t concerned with that kind of interiority.  Their writing is largely concerned with topical subjects of the moment, and they have no consciousness of consciousness.  That’s not what they’re after.  Even more importantly, bloggers’ pieces are one-shot affairs, whereas Montaigne took his essays through three separate revisions.  And the revisions were made by additions, by accretion.  He never dropped anything … His concern with consciousness is a concern with representing interiority – that was the overwhelming concern of Montaigne. ‘I am myself the subject of my book,’ he says.  His writing about the consciousness of consciousness makes his essays like a nest of Russian dolls.  You don’t get that profound concern with thought in bloggers. “


From the Master

April 24, 2009 § 1 Comment

“It is a pity that intelligent men are so fond of brevity: by it their reputation is certainly worth all the more, but we are worth all the less.”

—Michel de Montaigne

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