Photography is the story I fail to put into words. — Destin Sparks
Once I watched a hawk, what I wanted to write of here first, plummet from a telephone wire above a bicycle path: a conical of wings, a silken hood of air bronzed in the light and tender-necked, too, I think it now, the hawk astride its prey so quickly, a whole raft of wings in the grass tips afloat. I found the owl at the river’s edge, the riparian where cow hooves pocked the sludge, and then the grasses’ feathered thing I toed until I turned it, thinking it a gosling dead. Heavy-lidded were its eyes, dreaming as if it were still drowsy from some fall, its body gone. And to you, I called out then, here, here, only the head for me to cradle home. Don’t ask me why I think this: but how wild, my love, we once were, how blossomed we must have seemed to the wheeling hawks, to those smooth blades of the sky we lift still our faces to, white and dark our flesh.
(after seeing a hawk on the anniversary of my mother’s death)
HJ Burt 1929-2020
By our shed, the spotted knapweed I whacked at the week before nodded beneath the rain’s weight— a storm’s blessing. I thought the birds, the smallest ones, had caught the air thermals toward the valleys and the great scissor curves of rivers they shadow. Only the raptors left—coopers and red hawks, the bald-faced turkey vulture. In the golden hour, an elk grazed up the hill past Jan’s old picnic table, and I followed as quietly as I could, gone, I was sure, and then its antlers, staggered as blue penstemon, rose above the grass. The morning aspens gave me shadows and red-capped russula, milky caps. Yellow birds scattered in the woods, rode the dieback. I had forgotten the names of field grass my mother knew— wildrye and June grass, fox barley and sedge— and then I knew them: the morning lush, end of summer, wind and din of wasp wild. Leonard said he dreamed the dead back and they were smoothed by joy.
one by one flowers open, then fall Wang Wei, 701-761
I suppose it was the 3:00 a.m. mewling, the new puppy nudging me into suburban dark and moon milk, that made me think of the moon snail propped on my study window sill between the photos of a moth orchid and the winter’s Wilson’s Snipe I fashioned into postcards. How long now has this moon snail gathered dust there, shifted my afternoon sun from light to richest shadow? I found it, nameless to me, at the edge of tidal spume and broken cockle shells, and carried it from the sea to here— a spiral in my palm perfect of nipple-brown apex and hollow umbilicus where once a foot and seven rows of teeth and feathered gill lay. Leonard keeps asking me why we are here. Why this cup of tea? Why this pen we write with beneath a soda straw width of galaxies uncountable? Nights, the predatory moon snail plows nocturnal shores, drills the shells of clams with holes we’ll string and wear. Or it lays a thousand eggs into collars of sand, shaped, we’ll say, into ones our priests wear. And now this puppy, everything new to it: the curly cues of dried snail and earthworm it finds beneath the gutter spout. Or the blue bachelor button in sudden fall bloom it chews happy at the driveway’s edge. Once conjured with my camera into dark and shadow, this moon snail pixelated into swirls of pigeon-blue and rose-flesh: somewhere, someplace else, a constant sea rain of tiny moon snail and this moon I blink beneath.
unless Soul clap its hands and sing —William Butler Yeats
Researchers found that the small cabbage white butterfly likely originated in eastern Europe and then spread into Asia and Siberia when trade was increasing along the Silk Road.
from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
I suppose it’s the name, not the butterfly’s, that caught me first, Silk Road. Then the butterfly’s, lowly cabbage-eater I keep imagining clinging, white-winged and green speckle-eyed, to a shining hem or a sleeve woven from a silk cocoon some ancient silk farmer boiled just before the silk worm’s emergence. That strand of silk, kept intact by that farmer’s boiling, spun longer than this walking path in a sunken canyon, itself millions of years old. And that Silk Road? Some seven thousand miles away and gone centuries with ancient dynasties and Ottoman Empires and Xanadu courts. Where was I now? With an ancient farmer eating a boiled silkworm and a cabbage white butterfly stowing itself away across worlds and tall ships and iron horses to be, here, with me. No wonder Leonard calls me from sleep at three a.m., no moon for a poet, to stand groggy and awed on a cabin porch beneath a universe called Observable, despite the billions of galaxies we still can’t see spiraling over the Milky Way— our Scattered Straw, our Silver River, Way of Birds. And so. It’s the cabbage white butterfly I am thinking of because a Master Birder told me of beautiful birds in a canyon and I went, to catch in singing the White-throated Swift or the Lazuli Bunting or the Plumbeous Vireo I could hang extant in a simple black frame by my kitchen window. But all I could find was a butterfly, plain as a moth and hanging upside down on a purple weed. Instar is a molting, I have read, the cabbage white butterfly’s exoskeleton shed every time for something new. Now the head black. Now the yellow clypeus of the face. Now those tiny green dots I love.
I’ve been waiting for this. Right at the moment when we all went into lockdown at the start of the pandemic and my mother would begin a series of emergency room visits that led finally in just a few months to the hospice, my book, slow arrow: unearthing the frail children, came out. My mother never got to read it. It was one of the saddest times in my life. The book went on to win a bronze medal in essay for the independent publishers book award, a prize that put me next to lia purpura, who won the gold medal and is one of my favorite essayists. I was thankful to do this interview, which brought me back to my mother and those trips we made across teller county. I can still hear my mother, Ohio native of beautiful red and orange trees, complaining in fall: “What, another yellow leaf?” This is an interview about the journey of one book and the love for a mother.
All this year, I’ve been thinking about how to write about grief. Kafka said, “Everything you love, you will eventually lose.” So it seems exactly right that just moments ago the grief counselor called from the hospice where my mother died. Checking in on me. Their last call–Sunday the first year anniversary of my mother’s death.
My mother prepared me for her death for many years—it was the thing she wanted. But I did not realize how grief entwines with regret entwines with guilt each time we are at the cusp of sleep, faithless and alone. The writer Bruce Ballenger says about writing grief, “ Add a sentence that says ‘I was devastated.’ Most of the time this falls flat because it states the obvious. . . perhaps writers should trust that a situation that calls for sentiment can express it most strongly by withholding feeling.”
All I could think of was the “devastated.”
I thought to go back to my writing, what has always sustained me, but I didn’t know what to say, how to say it. Steve Harvey, creator of The Humble Essayist, says that as writers “what happened may matter to us but it is lost on us if we do not transform it into art.” Yet how do we shape raw grief into art, into something outside the grieving body, an artifact to be softened, hardened, handled, polished?
The summer my mother died, my daughters and son-in-law went hiking in the San Juan mountains to an alpine lake with the young son of one of my oldest friends. My son-in-law loves nothing more than to talk dares, though at thirty, he is long past the expectation that anyone would take him up on one. But, of course, the just-twenty-something in response to a ridiculous dare tore off his clothes, climbed a boulder, and then cannonballed into the air before disappearing into the still freezing waters of an alpine lake no one could even see.
“Did you at least check to see how deep the water was?” my friend later asked her son.
I had always thought of the braided essay as the way to “luck” into the deep image, into deep meaning, that poet’s way of totally giving in to the powerful prayer of language. It’s a cannonball, I thought, a leap into the unchartered, a faith that we will sink into the unknown and then pop out again, blue sky and air in mouthfuls.
Brenda Miller, best known for her braided essays, says that “at some point-some crucial point-we need to shift our allegiance from experience itself, to the artifact we’re making of that experience on the page. To do so, we mustn’t find courage; we must, instead, become keenly interested in metaphor, image, syntax, and structure: all the stuff that comprises form.”
I had never fully believed that the braided essay gives the writer courage to write what they think they cannot write. Or that it is the way to move out of the freewriting of grief into something of beauty, grace, purpose. That is until I found this one sentence in my journal and so begins my own cannonball:
My mother came from a family of floaters. “Your grandmother could float in a pond on her back for hours and sleep,” my mother would tell me the childhood summers I floated with her in the green pond behind the Ohio farm house . . . A year now and I am looking for metaphor everywhere.
Of course, no one else was walking in the downpour that afternoon at Lands End, so my shame was all my own. Only later could I see the humor in it, the slapstick quality of a suicidal woman diverted from the deed by her golden fancy pants’ dysfunction, but at the time it was a terrible humiliation from which I had to flee. Returned to my room at the bed & breakfast, which was cold and unwelcoming, I went on living.
from Put Off My SackCloth: Essays by Award-winning Author, Annie Dawid
The Humble Essayist Press (and I) are pleased to announce our most recent publication: a collection of essays by Annie Dawid, novelist, essayist, playwright, and poet. Put Off My SackCloth is Annie’s fifth book. A previous Colorado Voices Author, Annie has been the recipient of multiple awards including The International Rubery Book Award, The Dana Award, and the New Millennium Award for short fiction. Her previous books have been published by Litchfield Review Press, Carnegie Mellon University Press, and Cane Hill Press.
In Dawid’s essay, “Babysitter Goes to War,” the eighteen-year-old in glittering braces, who cares for Dawid’s young son, pronounces that he will go to Iraq to prove that he has “what it takes to be a man.”
“How will you be of use to the world as another casualty?” Dawid asks him.
It is this simple question that Dawid confronts throughout this collection of essays, whether that casualty be a babysitter, a stranger, a loved one or Dawid faltering in the 20th century maelstrom of war and drugs and depression and modern-day massacre that can and does annihilate the very youngest of our school children. Into this mosaic of memory Dawid takes us, holding out for us yet another chip of painted light to finger under the estranged sun.
Like the question, this collection could be a simple journey: once there was a sad girl from a sad family with a sad life. And one night she stood on a twelfth-floor balcony, holding her child in her arms.
But there is nothing simple here in this essay collection crafted by a writer, scholar, professor, journalist, daughter of a holocaust survivor, a modern woman who finds in the reckonings of T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland” her own fragments that she will gather against her ruins, “harvesting bits of self,” as she describes it, “scattered like meteorites everywhere.”
Dawid’s essays bear witness to her searing, unflinching honesty and keen eye for detail, the precision and lyricism of her prose, the sophistication of her ability to “tell a yarn.” As Jill Christman, author of Darkroom: A Family Exposure, asks, “How have I lived so long in this world without reading Annie Dawid’s essays?”
Find out more about Annie Dawid, her splendid collection of essay, Put Off My Sackcloth, and The Humble Essayist Press here.
Finished reading James Agee’s “A Death in the Family.” Been thinking a lot about the “poetry of prose” in creative nonfiction these days. Not just the lyrical beauty of prose, though it’s hard not to get stuck in a brilliant passage like this, “fiction” as it may be, from Agee as he describes the evening noises of a neighborhood settling down toward sleep, the fathers after dinner hosing down the summer yards:
Meantime from low in the dark, just outside the swaying horizons of the hoses, conveying always grass in the damp of dew and its strong green-black smear of smell, the regular yet spaced noises of the crickets, each a sweet cold silver noise three-noted, like the slipping each time of three matched links of a small chain.
Look at that little piece of figurative language, those links of a silver chain slipping. Just look and listen. In a piece I did for Essay Daily on the lyric impulse, about a student who wouldn’t look at her own bricks strewed throughout her essay on building a house, I quoted from the philologist Max Mueller, who said, “man, as he develops his conceptions of immaterial things, must perforce express them in terms of material things because his language lags behind his needs.” What I understood then was that figurative language becomes the vehicle for greater precision of expression; exactitude grows through metaphor, not necessarily through narrative.
I still believe it. Leonard sent me to a stunning essay published in the New York Times, I’m Going to Die. I May as Well Be Cheerful About It,by Mary Pipher. My mom is almost 91 and she wants to die, which she tells me every time I see her, so I think a lot about death now.
At the end Pipher’s essay, Pipher suddenly turns to the image of snow, what becomes the profound metaphor of her piece: “All of my life I have loved snow.” She then describes a beautiful memory of her and her family safely ensconced in their home while a Nebraska blizzard raged outside. That memory becomes a spiritual experience, snow outward and inward until death becomes a whiteout. There is the great precision, the greater exactitude of metaphor:
Snow falls inside and outside of me. It settles my brain andcalms my body.
I hope death feels like watching the snow grow thicker and thicker. Doctors call dying of a morphine overdose being “snowed.” I would not mind that at all. I would like to disappear in a whiteout.
As I tried to tell that student of mine so long ago who wouldn’t pick up the gift of the bricks she had given herself for even a moment, sometimes we have to hold the thing our heart sends us, though unbidden, though not always understood, and let it just be for a little while, filled with mystery and some other kind of better truth.
I’m finding that learning about essay writing is never ending. Probably that’s why I like it. This week, I finished The Best American Essays of the Century (Joyce Carol Oates ed) and found Gerald Early’s essay, “Life with Daughters: Watching the Miss America Pageant.” Just another humbling and soaring moment in the learning curve for me, specifically on how to breach the cozy family wall of the personal essay into the wide cultural, political, and racial world we all stem from.
If you don’t know Gerald Early as a writer and cultural critic, you should. Not only is he the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in the African and African American Studies Department at Washington University, exceptional scholar and essayist who has been a commentary for NPR and the executive editor of The Common Reader, but he has worked multiple times with Ken Burns on Burns’ documentary.
So, what’s to learn from Gerald Early’s essay?
Start with its deceptively simple title, which in no way prepares you for the complexity of Early’s moves between the seemingly pedestrian scenes of family life, like watching the Miss America Pageant, playing with dolls, and deciding on hair styles, and his searing polemics around the pageant as a vehicle of popular culture that represent for Early “a totemic occupation with and representation of a particularly stilted form of patriarchal white supremacy.”
(This essay, of course, is a lot more complicated and a lot more beautiful than what I can share here. Read it through JSTOR if you have access or through Kindle for free.)
At the risk of oversimplification, here are four techniques of craft I recognized for myself in moving the essay from the strictly personal to, as Miller and Paulo call it in their Tell It Slant, “Writing the Larger World”:
Let family ritual and family members frame and serve as “touchstones” throughout the essay. Early’s essay begins with the family’s tradition of watching the Miss America Pageant and continuously circles back to that tradition. The Miss America Pageant serves as the frame of the essay, helping to keep the general reader centered in a wide-ranging and complex essay and emotionally connected to Early and his family. The “simple” family scenes— his wife straightening her hair, his daughters playing with black and white dolls, the family making jokes as they watch the pageant—are the touchstones that launch Early into staggering cultural, political, and historical analysis.
Use Family history as an envoy into Cultural history. Family history in Early’s essay, such as an old photograph of his sister holding a white doll, doesn’t exist only to serve itself. It sets up the broader and deeper history of American culture. The white doll his sister holds serves as symbol for the “fetishization of young white feminine beauty, and the complexity of black girlhood.” His beautifully described walk as a boy through the streets of Philadelphia past a “large black beauty shop on Broad and South Streets” becomes an image for the “epistemology of race pride for black American women so paradoxically symbolized by their straightened hair.” (I told you this was a cool essay.)
Write yourself as the complex, multi-dimensional narrator you are: Early is loving father and husband. Early is astute critic and academician. Early is an African American son/grandson/great grandson connected by family lineage and personal experience to the atrocities and subterfuges of a white culture. Early is the father of a new generation of daughters (in 1990) unbothered by the overt and subterranean racism that Early finds in even their black Ken and Barbie dolls. Early enjoys watching these beauty pageants with his wife and daughters even as he feels “shame-facedness” and “embarrassment” at this “spectacle of classlessness and tastelessness.” Early confesses that he still needs Miss Missouri, Debbye Turner, to be the third black woman, at the time, to win a pageant even as he damns the pageant’s complicity in the feeling that “race pride for the African American, finally, is something that can only be understand as existing on the edge of tragedy and history.” In short, Early is a man of the family and a man of the world.
Do the Research, dummy. Of course. And bring in the experts from that research.
We are composites of the past, the present, and the future. The family of our house and the family of our planet. Perhaps knowing and understanding what that means matters most in the breaking down of any wall.
At a recent residency for the Regis University’s Mile High MFA program, I presented a craft seminar on the process of creating a braided essay, a beautiful form of the essay that weaves different “threads” together. I used as a case study one writer’s revision process that focused on framing and metaphor-patterning and turned a rough compilation of “this happened and then that” into a beautiful meditation on personal and universal “black holes.” River Teeth: A Journal of Narrative Nonfiction picked up this essay within a couple of weeks of the writer (okay, he’s my husband) submitting it.
After presenting my craft seminar, I had enough students and fellow faculty come up to me after the presentation saying how much they had learned about revision, framing, and metaphor in the braided essay that I asked Essay Daily if I could publish a write-up of the seminar with them. They said, yes! And here it is:
Leonard Winograd’s essay,” The Physics of Sorrow,” appears in River Teeth Journal: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, Issue 21. For readers with access to Project Muse, you can read it here. Or, even better, subscribe to River Teethhere.