Review by Amy V. Blakemore
About an hour away from my childhood home, there is a butterfly conservatory where I used to stand and wait, still as possible, for a monarch or a moth to land on my shirt. The Butterfly Place: a simple name for a veritable portal, a tiny building that transported me. I used certain tricks: bright clothing, cucumber melon body mist—I was trying to make myself a flower, something attractive and wild. Sometimes, I spent whole visits just waiting; that was okay. Even if just one winged thing selected me, for a second, I felt winged, too.
Be With Me Always: Essays by Randon Billings Noble is a series of brushes with similarly bright, fleeting things—the moments that Noble remembers over and over. Through both traditional and experimental forms, she tries to lure them closer, pin them down, see their colors up close. Whether writing the memory of lazy a day on the Jersey Shore or the visceral image of smeared blood on book spines, Noble molds her prose into the shape she needs to crack a feeling open. What is perhaps more intriguing—and at times challenging—about Be With Me Always is that there is no central theme to these micro essays, which range in subject matter from ex-boyfriends to classic literature to motherhood to near-death experiences. The unifying thread is instead a unified method of inquiry, a willingness to transform and meet each subject on its own terms—and then to flit away.
Each memory is treated with equal care and caution in Be With Me Always; Noble does not assume a single one will land on her easily, no matter how seemingly simple. For writers who often begin a sentence only to stop themselves and say: is this important enough? is this loud enough?reading Noble’s work might feel like a personal love letter—like a book that gives you permission. Her work is a testimony that it is not always the big, traumatic moments that haunt us, but also the small, flirtatious ones that creak and stir, never fully revealing their ghosts. In “Marked,” for example, Noble explores her own stretch marks: “One is particularly deep. I poke my fingertip into its crater and wonder what I am touching, what layer of skin or tissue.” Here, the body itself is haunted: traces of where someone has been born, and something less effable has exited. The leftovers on the skin are no less significant than the act that formed them: they have to be read, excavated. In “The Island of Topaz,” Noble catalogues her grandmother’s rings with a similar meditative intensity: “Sitting in my apartment, I pour them out onto a plain white plate. I stir the pile with my finger.” We stir through garnet, onyx, her engagement ring, performing a special kind of summoning—the summoning of the living. The rings offer up questions, possibilities: could a diamond ring, as Pliny wrote, ward off insanity, Noble wonders—could it ward off dementia? This is only one question brought about by the stirring of the rings; as with the entire collection, her choice of form is both a result of and a facilitator of inquiry.
Because Be With Me Always doesn’t limit itself to a specific subject matter, we move from quiet moments to loud moments; we are surprised by their sudden presence and color. Whether being sucked into a riptide, being flung from a motorcycle, losing a love, or creating a monster, we revisit moments in the author’s life and recognize their transformative potential. In a meditation on pregnancy and Frankenstein titled “Assemblage,” Noble writes, “To make a creature, start by stalking the dead…To make meat, kill the animal…To make a child, you need an egg and a sperm.” The labors of conception mutate, are revealed to possess an under-discussed violence. In “69 Inches of Thread, Scarlet and Otherwise,” the concept of murder is also interrogated and unexpectedly redefined as “to punish severely or be very angry with (when you said, “People who love each other don’t treat each other that way.” How can I not, now reading this, think of murder as a punishment of words? What other everyday killings have I written off as mundane? The winged things come close enough that we see their strangest parts: the beaded eyes, the black legs that are thin and impossibly strong.
Maybe Noble’s work reminds me so thoroughly of the conservatory because of the dedicated brevity of her essays. In 172 pages, we are presented with 26 essays, and each one makes the most use of its word count by leveraging unique forms. “Striking,” which ponders what we mean we say Heathcliff (a lover, or an idea?), is broken into 20 parts, because “there are twenty matches in a book.” “The Heart as a Torn Muscle,”catalogues the symptoms of heartbreak and proposes measures for selfcare: “If home remedies bring no relief in twenty-four hours, call your youngest and most bohemian friend.” Sometimes, Noble’s prose even breaks into poetry, all to penetrate the center of a feeling, and mutates back into the traditional essay form. Like a girl, perfumed, attempting to become a flower, Noble’s essays try to become the things they describe; her work reminds us of the labor, and the ingenuity, needed to thoroughly examine a life. Of course, certain essays feel too brief—perhaps only because I am greedy for more—but for readers of chapbooks and flash nonfiction outlets like Sweet: a Literary Confection, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things,” and Brevity (where Noble was published), Be With Me Always will read like a best friend who understands you and your love of the quick, compressed, and strange.
Amy V. Blakemore writes about the body. Her work has been published in The Kenyon Review, PANK, Wigleaf, The Indiana Review, Redivider, and Paper Darts, and she has received support from the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, WritingxWriters, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. She is at work on her first novel, a horror story about girlhood, and a collection of essays on eating disorders, queerness, and television. Follow her on twitter at https://twitter.com/AmyV_Blakemore