In My Big Little Break, we ask authors to talk about the first piece they ever had published, how it felt to finally break through, and what they’ve learned since then. This week we’re pleased to be speaking with one of the featured authors at our upcoming (getting close to sold out) conference outside DC on April 27, Ivelisse Rodriguez.Read More
Review by Laura Gill
There are two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two types of people and those who don’t. Many of us would probably like to think we are the latter—people who don’t use categories or classify people into groups because humanity is expansive—even if most of us accept we are often the former: we do group people, and sometimes there’s worth to doing so. We ask our friends and lovers: are you an Order Muppet or a Chaos Muppet? Are you type A or type B? All of us are probably a bit of both, or something different in between. Sometimes, we have moments when we do need to divide the world into two (or at least four, six, eight) types and moments where we see humanity as infinitely complex as possible.
In the world of essays, one might be able make a similar point. There are two types of essays; essays that explore questions and essays that want to answer them, and to answer them too quickly. In many of Mary Laura Philpott’s essays in the recently-released collection I Miss You When You Blink, we get the latter. Topics sometimes go unexamined, and simple metaphors or colloquial language soften what might be more complicated moments—the result of which makes it feel as though the narrator is attempting to simplify a much messier truth.
Mary Laura Philpott admits she’s Type A early on, and the essays mirror what we are meant to assume comes along with a Type A personality: a tendency to control an experience, to walk through life (and an essay) checking things off the list. Even though she questions with that impulse in herself, as it has been both the driver of her success and the reason for her stress about those successes, her essays don’t dig in deeply enough to the underlying issues that might participate in what has lead her to not just feel frustrated by her own perfectionism but also guilty for it. Often, it seems like she’s driving towards a predetermined end without interrogating the process to get there, a technique deployed often with deflecting remarks like this one: “I had my health, my youth. I was not yet forty. I was not dying of insidious cancer, and I had not accidentally gotten hooked on meth, like those soccer moms I saw on the news.” Since when did being forty indicate some terrible end? And when did getting “hooked on meth” become a barometer that made any sense for this narrator? While what she is saying is true—all of us are no worse or better off than millions of people (or I guess older or younger?)—it feels to me like a way to get out of digging more deeply into what that psychology means for those who do seemingly “have it all.”
Deflection on pops up in other moments in the book. In one essay about moving frequently as a child and having multiple fainting spells, she closes with: “I do know that learning to give in to sudden fainting spells and weathering the end of friendships severed by childhood moves gave me practice in accepting, without struggle, the unexpected. Don’t make a big deal, let it pass, everything’s fine.” In the margins, I wrote, “wait, what?” next to those sentences. As a child who moved a lot and experienced fainting spells, I wanted more. “Everything’s fine,” she declares. But, wait—what about when it isn’t? Though she doesn’t state it, she clearly feels the need to offhandedly say “no biggie, it’s all ok,” lest the reader think she’s complaining. Don’t look to closely, she seems to be asking; really, it’s nothing. Then why write an essay about it at all?
There are moments when Philpott deflects, and others where it feels like a detail or metaphor gets too much attention, almost diluting the material. In her title essay, she writes about where the phrase “I miss you when you blink” came from. It came from her son who says it to her while he’s doodling. She is stunned by it, as most writers would be—it’s a beautiful phrase, and it speaks beyond a simple gesture to a kind of longing; it acknowledges the pervasiveness of loss, and is made more moving because it comes from a voice that does not yet know know the true expansiveness of what that loss means. Philpott repeats the phrase to herself “as she lays awake in bed” and then again as she is in traffic the next day, and then she thinks: “How cute.” How cute?! No! How profound! How beautiful! She goes on of course: it isn’t just “cute, it “helps her be more “patient” and it “captures the depths” of her love for her son. But a strange thing happens as she continues to examine the phrase, she weakens it instead of enhancing it, writing that it “captures that universal experience: the identity crisis,” specifically the one where “you feel sure you can’t go forward and you can’t go back and you absolutely, positively cannot stand still one minute longer.” It is also a mantra: “I say I miss you when I blink to myself,” she writes, “and it means, Get a grip. Don’t panic. To figure out where to go next, look at where you came from. If you got here, you can get to the next thing.” And there, perhaps, is the problem. If the phrase means so many things, does it really mean anything at all?
Philpott is at her best towards the end of the of the collection when she writes about her depression. In saying that, I don’t mean to imply that essays that focus on personal struggle are intrinsically more interesting. In Philpott’s case, it’s that these essays are simply where one gets the strongest sense that the narrator has a universe of questions about the experience she’s trying to unravel, and in her unraveling, opens up to some poignant ideas about what it means to live with depression. She writes that she needed to leave her family for a few months because she “wanted to be unwitnessed for a while.” That phrase is moving, especially in light of her role in her family, as a mother and wife, often (and perhaps always) being witnessed. In this moment, and among those essays, it feels like she’s truly essaying, which is to say: making an attempt and trying to explain an experience she doesn’t completely understand.
In such essays, she also resists deflecting with off-handed comments about how she knows she doesn’t have it as hard as other people. This comes as a relief...but we are not relieved for long. In her essay, “Ungrateful Bitch,” she makes the point, again, that she is fortunate, but still, sometimes, distressed:
I know how fortunate I am to have my health and my family and my jobs and my roof and my car and my democracy. I do know. I promise. And I know that saying out loud, ‘I think I might want a different life,’ when you already have a perfectly good life is sort of like holding a half-eaten chocolate chip cookie in your hand while saying, ‘I don’t want a chocolate cookie.’ I know some people have no cookies. Unfortunately, having a fine life doesn’t exempt anyone from existential anger...
Here, it feels like the is pushing the reader away again. “I promise” she seems to pleads with the reader: I get it, I am fortunate. And because she gets it, she really needs us to step off, or step back, from a platform we weren’t on until she put us there. She then goes a step further to say that not only does she understand her own privilege, but she understands what it might be like to not have privilege, explaining that if she were homeless, she might not “give a damn about things like personal satisfaction or personal fulfillment because [her] greater concern would be not freezing to death.” To assume all homeless people have the same needs is an issue in and of itself, but what is more concerning, is that it perpetuates the type of of white guilt that keeps people complacent. In an article for the New York Times, Eula Biss wrote about white guilt as a “potential prod, a goad, an impetus to action,” asking, “isn’t guilt an essential cog in the machinery of the conscience?” I think the answer is yes, it can be, but in Philpott’s essay the guilt essay does not serve as a cog, or if it does, it is doesn’t function in the way it needs to. Instead of turning the magnifying glass on herself, she turns it away, further distancing herself from the complexities of her reality. She starts to blame herself for considering herself ungrateful, instead of examining the realms of that ungratefulness, and why gratefulness, in the end, really isn’t the point. In that same essay, Eula Biss writes that “being white is easy, in that nobody is expected to think about being white, but this is exactly what makes me uneasy about it. Without thinking, I would say that believing I am white doesn’t cost me anything, that it’s pure profit, but I suspect that isn’t true. I suspect whiteness is costing me, as Baldwin would say, my moral life.” In the end of the essay, Philpott seems to be suggesting it shouldn’t cost us anything—all thinking about whiteness does is lead to guilt. And for her, this guilt feels like useless self sabotage, something she needs to get rid of so she can simply be happy in her privileged life. The way to do that is, she suggests, just writing down the words“ungrateful bitch,” and staring “at them until they are just squiggles and shapes.”
Here’s the thing: I’m all for exploring layers of distress, and I’m all for exploring what the psychology of “having it all” means for all of us living in a country focused on striving, above all else. It’s a pathology that is clearly detrimental to society. But it’s worthy of a much better diagnosis than the one Philpott is able to give. James Baldwin comes back to the forefront; he who wrote so extensively about how the privileged in this country have just as much to reckon with as those that they’ve oppressed also strenuously argued that the delusions and the myths that we carry are not only making us sick, but perhaps do demand scrutiny and an honest reckoning. Of course, one can’t assume that Philpott and Baldwin are necessarily speaking to each other in a meaningful sense, or that this country’s past is the reason for her struggles, but if someone is going to offhandedly mention their privilege, it would serve them well to dive into it. The book takes place in the South, which is to say it takes place in America, and so much of it feels particular to that place and our country's relationship to success—who gets to have it and who defined it in the first place. And given that she doesn’t, there’s a rather awkward hole left in her work, waiting to be filled.
Laura Gill is a writer, editor, and photographer. Her essays and photographs have been published in Agni, The Carolina Quarterly, Electric Literature, Entropy, and Memoir Mixtapes, among others. She is a contributing editor of nonfiction at Hobart.
In My Big Little Break, we ask authors to talk about the first piece they ever had published, how it felt to finally break through, and what they’ve learned since then. This week we’re pleased to be speaking with one of the featured authors at our upcoming (getting close to sold out) conference outside DC on April 27, Gabino Iglesias.Read More
Review by Brian Simoneau
Back in February I met with a group of high school teachers to talk about ways to cultivate a classroom experience based on equity and inclusion. We shared ideas for bringing diverse voices into a curriculum and for decentering the idea of a Western literary canon. In the process, we reminded ourselves that unless such work also involves interrogating our own biases, we risk enacting the same colonialist impulses we’re trying to get past. We agreed that we need to think about how students see themselves in our classrooms—whether that means a richer sense of belonging or an uncomfortable reckoning with privilege—and that wrestling with such questions of identity is essential to building inclusive communities without glossing over difference and without erasing the ongoing complications of the past.
I came home that night to a copy of Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley’s second poetry collection Colonize Me in the mail, a fitting way to keep thinking about questions of literature and history and identity. Reading these poems, I was captivated by the vivid retelling of histories both personal and public and astonished by the lyrical leaps and expansive approach to form. By turns playful and earnest, Kingsley conveys a sense of the anxiety we feel when we think about where we come from and who we would like to be. How do we embrace an identity when it results in part from suffering? How do we move on from the past without forgetting it? By putting these questions in the context of American colonialism and its inherent violence toward marginalized groups, Colonize Me offers a profound exploration of identity that could not have come at a more essential time, as yet another disturbing episode of American history plays out all around us.
These are poems which complicate the notion of identity—poems in which we witness the assembly of a poetic self from multiple threads. Here we find depictions of Native American genocide, Japanese internment, American housing projects and trailer parks, police shootings, and pipelines across indigenous lands. For Kingsley, poetry becomes a way to salvage a sense of identity from the violent reality of colonial culture, a way to rebuild something meaningful from the wreckage of empire. For example, in “Of What America: How to Assemble a (1) Native (2) Nippon (3) Cubana Body in (4) Appalachia,” the speaker identifies as “a mixed-mixed skinned boy” and describes his “Onondaga origin / bowed beneath the whip / of whiteness” before revealing his faith that “the potential of / a small beginning” can eventually become a song “of forward / rejoicing.”
While the poems in Colonize Me emerge from overlapping histories of violence and struggle, what emerges is not a fractured identity so much as one which endlessly interrogates itself and integrates the many multiple selves found there. Kingsley captures this dynamic on the page and in the ear, as in the collection’s opening poem, “Our Broke-Ass Ladder of Opportunity or The Block Boy Anthem.” Sprawling across the page, the lines are broken and arranged in ways that shape multiple readings, as in the boy who
caught more air
than any jet plane
we’d never ridden in
an ambulance before
the sun turned its
on our street
In the moment it takes to consider which grammatical path to follow—a sense of being trapped or a sense of innocence?—all possibilities form one whole (albeit fleeting) truth. Even the title’s contradictory use of both “Broke-Ass” and “Anthem” to describe memories of growing up in the projects captures the specific double consciousness that lies behind Kingsley’s poems. And when the speaker claims “tenant reality was complex / colonies,” one can’t help but read the apartment building as both a prison-like instance of colonial violence and a self-sustaining community—a community that includes “boys raising each other” and dreaming still of taking flight. The apartment building becomes an image of both poverty and nostalgia, confinement and possibility, but the good never cancels out the bad. Both might be true for the speaker, but it’s no easy solace. It’s a sense of alienation that leads us to question our assumptions about Kingsley’s speaker, about ourselves, and about the very nature of identity.
Kingsley’s speaker presents his own sense of alienation as a result of a painful past and a source of what’s to come—both curse and offering. Poems like “I Can’t Close My Eyes Without Seeing Jason Pero’s Body” and “Split the Lark & You Will Find the Music” bear witness to police violence and poverty. Using multiple languages and images like “vines around the trunk / of violence,” they transform experience into art without diminishing their lived reality. A series of poems about Japanese Internment photos for sale on eBay leads into “Insecticide,” in which the speaker earns “half a penny per / japanese / beetle” in the garden of a white neighbor—an intersection of war and family history and capitalism that illustrates yet more of the difficulties of navigating this speaker’s past and present.
Reading these overlapping identities feels like laying out the edges of a jigsaw puzzle and finding more than four corner pieces. There’s no easy way to contain the heaps and scraps that combine to make a self—except maybe language, which itself fits together uneasily and only for moments so that every poem risks becoming a hollow gesture. Kingsley hints as much with poems titled “just another horse poem” and “just another night sky poem” and “just another fruit fly poem,” but his formal inventiveness and playful language mean these poems never ring hollow. Instead, the piecing together of an ever-shifting identity makes easy categorization impossible. The resulting poetic self—aware of its past while looking forward to define its own terms of selfhood—becomes nearly impossible to colonize, at least on the page, and so each poem becomes a chance to work through the anxieties that arise between past and present.
In “just another horse poem,” for example, the speaker responds to racist insults from a boss: he keeps silent to keep the peace, to keep the job, to keep close to the beautiful horse he takes care of. But his silent nodding becomes a sort of self-affirmation, and the language (“I sing sweet” and “I paint myself” and “I hold the wet drum / of his heart”) points to the poem itself as his ultimate response to the woman’s taunting, which leads him to a new self on the page:
I let my hands lie long behind the pieces
of his shoulders and when I hold the wet drum
of his heart I am ne hochsàte I am
horseman fullhearted enormous I am
I am clean I am I am bigger even than this moment [.]
This celebration of the self hints at one way a sense of alienation might be resolved, a notion that becomes more and more direct throughout the collection: love—everyday devotion of family, celebration of ancestors, love of self and other—becomes a form of remembering and resistance, a “singing of familial silence into ode.” Of course, it’s no simple sentimental love, but one complicated by its complex origins and its potential loss to the violence of history.
Colonize Me is a book to savor and share, a book with much to teach about how the past might be made into something capable of enduring the forces—capitalism, racism, state violence—that seek to exploit, to erase, to iron out the folds of identity that come together, no matter how untidily, to form a sense of self. What emerges is a necessary sort of hope for all who would do the hard work of building communities—in our classrooms, in our neighborhoods, in our homes—amid daily reminders that such forces remain as strong as ever. In poem after poem, Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley resists any impulse to erase these forces; instead, they are recalled and witnessed and shown to be—eventually, and in ways big and small—ineffectual against the resistance and persistence of the cultures and communities they seek to diminish.
Brian Simoneau is the author of the poetry collection River Bound (C&R Press, 2014). His poems have appeared in Boston Review, Cincinnati Review, Colorado Review, The Georgia Review, Mid-American Review, Southern Indiana Review, Third Coast, and other journals. Originally from Lowell, Massachusetts, he lives in Connecticut with his family.
Review by Michael Mungiello
The Condition of Secrecy
Inger Christensen, Trans. Susanna Nied
November 27, 2018
“The outer world is the inner world, raised to a condition of secrecy.” If you don’t know what to make of that phrase, then you understand it perfectly. And if you enjoy the confusion washing over you right now (and if it’s not vexation you feel instead), then you just might enjoy The Condition of Secrecy, an essay collection by Inger Christensen that lies somewhere between between memoir, philosophy, and grammar guide.
The central conceit of The Condition of Secrecy is interplay. Christensen (1935-2009) believed in lexical autonomy, rather than lexical slavery: words are sovereign and we cannot make them bend to our will. Like the animals with which we share the earth, words are in our stewardship, not in our control. Literalism and symbolism are both betrayals of language for Christensen. She wouldn’t have you take her at her word, but she wouldn’t have you put words in her mouth, either.
But let’s return to that nut I’ve been trying to crack: "the outer world is the inner world, raised to a condition of secrecy." This secrecy is willed illegibility, or the fact that we cannot pin down the meaning of the world and should travel through it as we travel through our own mind—that is, with passive acceptance and without complete understanding. Christensen writes, "[j]ust as the letters within a book will never be able to read the book, we will never be able to read the world." We couldn’t read the world, because as soon as we put one word of it under our magnifying glass we’d see it shift into something else and then something else again, as if we are physicists observing particles under a microscope.
Admitting our inability to understand the world is simple enough. But then, can anyone perceive the order in what’s random? Traditionally, the answer to this is either Nobody or God. And though Christensen doesn’t believe in God per se, she comes close: “[b]ecause humans use the word god (or have used it in the past), god exists (is still in existence) as the concept that corresponds to our sense of interrelatedness among all the atoms in the universe. (And so it’s quite possible that god is a loaded word.) I feel that what we call style is the closest we come to expressing that inconceivable concept.”
Make no mistake: she’s saying style is god. Art is her religion and individual words are members in the hierarchy of angels. Or maybe they’re more like saints whom Christensen adorns with personalities: "All adjectives are very helpless... All verbs are very agreeable… All prepositions are nearly invisible."
Part of the project of The Condition of Secrecy is to blur the relationship between language and what it latches onto: words become a porous membrane between our minds and reality, inside and outside. This couldn’t be further from the traditional (Augustinian) idea of language, that words are what get people to hand you the stone you need to build a house, that words are labels appended to objects. In Christensen’s Testament, the Word becomes Stone.
But language does not just fuse with the world. It is itself a product of nature. Language is as natural as apples, and poetry is as physical an activity as eating. We think of language "as man-made, something that we alone hold the patent on. But just as we ourselves are a part of the remarkable biology project that makes the earth unique, at least in our part of the universe, so too is language a part of that biology project." Christensen argues that what we think of as culture is in fact nature. And then, powerfully, she argues that since language is the product of nature, and the outer world is the inner world raised to the condition of secrecy, “Humans as a group are a chemical poem in praise of the earth and its sun." We are but the world’s words.
What Christensen accomplishes here is no small feat. She vivifies the supposedly abstract structuralist position. It was once assumed that when we write we don’t express ourselves; rather, language expresses itself through us. Christensen’s cunning twist on structuralist theory is ecological: it’s not language so much as nature—the earth itself—that expresses itself in our words.
Like any decent ecologist, Christensen is convinced of the interconnectedness of all things, not just aesthetically but politically. "Each and every one of us personally bears responsibility for every wrong action, even if it is committed by someone completely unknown to us. This kind of thing is neither theory nor practice. It's magic. Or, to use a less loaded term, it's style."
She’s making a political argument starting from aesthetic principles. If you’re stylish, if you have good taste, then you’ll want to bear responsibility for your fellow people: supporting each other like parts of speech to form the sentence that is society. This social democracy of letters is a place where I’d like to live. Originality has no great power here, but in its absence, we have communion: "I write in the certainty that this has already been written before, in all possible ways, and that all its mad self-contradictions are a part of that reassuring form. It should have been a lullaby, like the one that waves write on water: humans are not abandoned and alone, it tells itself." One of Christensen’s special qualities is an acknowledgement of one’s own superfluity that feels not like resignation, but reverie: a thankfulness for one’s predecessors.
For Christensen, it is better to be connected than it is to be unique. She doesn’t write to make sense, or to say something correct, or even to say something true. She writes to connect, to praise the writing of the past and record the world of today for the future. Life without connectedness—without magic or style—is "an isolated travesty" to her.
Christensen calls her writing magic, but this is mysticism. Like all mystical writers, when Christensen gets it right, she’s transcendent. But of course she doesn’t always get it right. I wish New Directions had been more selective: the throwaway shorter essays that pad the back end of The Condition of Secrecy (“The Regulatory Effect of Chance” and “The Shadow of Night”) make the book less than the sum of its parts. But the extraordinary essays in the first half of this collection (“Our Story About the World,” “The Condition of Secrecy,” and “The Naïve Reader”) are linguistic defibrillators, galvanizing our relationship to writing, ourselves, even punctuation, revivifying that core of your mind where word and world mix. Only William H. Gass (1924-2017) comes to mind as a writer interested in achieving the same end, and he, like Christiansen, has met his own.
Who will follow in their wake? Somewhat disappointingly, the wackiness of Christensen’s notions is never quite matched with a commensurate zaniness of voice. She’s formidable, Olympian, stately. But as we anticipate what’s next, I imagine a counter-Christensen: a writer who enthusiastically seizes on the chaos of language, instead of piously meditating on its haughty inscrutability. Where’s the Ginsberg to Christensen’s Emerson? Who will emphasize not the equipoise but the cacophony of interconnectedness?
Michael Mungiello is from New Jersey.