A Review of Courtney Zoffness’s Spilt Milk

April 9, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Nicole Graev Lipson

On a recent morning, I poked my head into my son’s room during virtual school. It was literacy period, and his teacher was introducing his second grade class to the concept of “mirrors” and “windows.” Say you’re a boy who lives in New England and loves birds, and you read a book about a boy who lives in New England and loves birds. That story would be a “mirror” reflecting your world. But if you’re this same boy, and you read a book about a girl who lives in Madagascar and loves astronomy, that story would be a “window,” opening onto a world beyond your own.

Our reading life should be full of both mirrors and windows, said his teacher.

I loved these metaphors, not only for their poetry, but their order—the way they seized on an activity as mysterious and amorphous as reading and arranged it into tidy categories. As I went about my day, I considered some of my own favorite books, designating each a “window” or a “mirror.” This was satisfying, like organizing a mess of papers into labeled file folders.

It was with this framework in mind that I read Courtney Zoffness’s debut essay collection Spilt Milk. The parallels between Zoffness’s life and mine are striking. She is a Jewish woman who grew up in New York in the 1980s, and I am a Jewish woman who grew up in New York in the 1980s! She has two young sons, and I have a young son! She lives in Brooklyn, and I live in Brookline—which is basically the Brooklyn of Boston. If we read, in part, to see ourselves reflected, here was a book thatcalled to me like a tremendous, shining mirror.

But from the very first of its ten searching and exquisitely-wrought essays, Spilt Milk made me question whether human experience can be so neatly divided. Circling around themes of motherhood, daughterhood, friendship, and spirituality, Zoffness’s writing illuminates, again and again, the porousness of boundaries between “self” and “other.” In the opening essay, “The Only Thing We Have to Fear,” Zoffness evokes this permeability through the lens of parenthood, tracing a thread between her five-year-old son’s anxieties and her own childhood worries and introducing a question that drives much of the collection: to what extent can we control what we inherit—from generations past, and from our culture?

Zoffness recounts turning to medical textbooks to better understand “parent-child transfer.” In its humility and poetry, her own writing emerges as an alternative to these texts, illuminating the interplay between parent and child in a way their “dense, inscrutable” language does not. Through her tender descriptions of her son’s struggles, she evokes the double-edged sensation—so common to parenthood—of feeling at once fiercely protective and culpable. In one achingly poignant scene, Zoffness attempts to comfort her son after a nightmare, but he shrinks from her. He has dreamed, he finally confides, that she was a monster. “He wants reassurance that I am who I say I am. That I’m not a demon disguised as his mom,” Zoffness writes. “He makes me pinky swear. Breath snags on a branch in my throat.”

In “Ultra Sound,” Zoffness flips the parent-child lens, probing the boundaries between herself and her own deeply private mother. In the 1960’s—a past Zoffness knows only from the wall of memorabilia in her childhood den—Zoffness’s mother was a folk singer, part of a duo that once shared a stage with Van Morrison and opened for the Doors. Zoffness captures her life-long yearning to understand a woman who has eluded her, a “paint-by-number profile with only some sections filled in.” As an adult, she finally hears an old recording of her mother singing, her voice sonorous and beautiful: “Each note from the record player is a portal I want to pass through,” Zoffness writes. Ultimately, the essay itself becomes a portal to the understanding she craves, as Zoffness the writer uses her imaginative powers to connect her mother’s creativity and her own.

Empathic imagination is also a theme in “Holy Body.” Here, Zoffness reconnects with a childhood friend who, motivated by compassion alone, has become a surrogate mother. Zoffness longs to uncover the origins of her friend’s generosity, so “unthinkable” in its hugeness. “You will spend the next several months—and likely the rest of your life—considering your relationship to restoration, and also how you can cultivate compassion in your sons,” the narrator reflects at the essay’s end.  Zoffness’s handles the tricky second-person voice masterfully: “you” becomes not just the author, but all of us who yearn to bring forth our best selves forward into the world.

Zoffness’s essays interpose disparate scenes in such a way that meaning wells up subtly, arrestingly, in the white spaces between present and past, self and other. Form itself becomes a vehicle for compassion. These juxtapositions work particularly well in “It May All End in Aleppo,” in which Zoffness conjures her developing relationship with Sol, a Syrian-American Orthodox Jew who once enlisted her help writing his memoir. Listening to Sol’s stories of his harrowing escape from his birth country—and then filtering his memories through her own imagination in order to write about them—blurs the line between storyteller and listener. Zoffness describes:

“Here’s what happens when you slip inside someone else’s body. When you chant alongside his father on Shabbat. When you eat his mother’s lamb pies and pickled peppers. When the glasses out of which he peers get knocked from his face, and his head—your head—is bashed against a wall. Here’s what happens when you assume their nation, their faith: Your eyes change. You feel a sudden affinity for the Arabic writing on your neighborhood storefronts. You smile at the Hasidic women pushing strollers past yours on the sidewalk. No one, including you, looks exactly the same.”

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect evocation of what good writing can do for a reader than this passage, which is to dissolve the barriers that keep us from one another. Could I still, after finishing Spilt Milk, accurately call it a “mirror”? In the end, it seems to me the most revelatory writing—the writing Zoffness gorgeously achieves with this collection—isn’t a “window” or “mirror,” but a combination of the two, a shifting kaleidoscope that transforms what we see and know.

In our own reflection, it shows us a world beyond us. Pointing to the world beyond us, it shows us ourselves.

Nicole Graev Lipson’s essays have appeared in River TeethCreative Nonfiction, The Hudson ReviewHippocampusThe Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and selected as a “Notable Essay” in The Best American Essays. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she is working on a collection of essays. She can be reached at www.nicolegraevlipson.com.

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