The magazine After the Art asks essayists to blend writing about art – with writing about a text – with writing about personal experience.
In answer to this tri-part prompt, I link a painting by Yukon artist Jane Isakson – to an essay by William Least Heat-Moon – to fragments from childhood in Alaska.
The mountain doesn’t know you’re an expert.
This is how my family reminds each other that life alongside mountains must by necessity be humble. By necessity alert. The tear-shaped island in Alaska on which I grew up has steep, rainforested mountainsides. It has dark, rocky shores. And it has a two-lane bridge to the mainland, where the rest of town is a capital city busy with state politics but rimmed by an icefield so that no road links our community to any other community. Because of this, we have a special responsibility to take care of each other.
Continue reading “Points of Reference: I Am Here – After the Art“
I’ve completed a four-part series of “Yukon Dispatches” for Assay. Each dispatch tracks developments in my research during my year as a Fulbright fellow in Whitehorse, Yukon. Full sequence gathered and excerpted here.
This is an essay about wandering and about fixity. This is also an essay about the body, place of arising, place of rootlessness: the birthed body of a person, the grounds and bounds and turf of home, a region’s ancestry coevolved and coevolving with a people, ancestral symbiosis of biome and culture. This is an essay about my friend’s head, the surgeon’s hands. This essay is also sometimes about leaves, and sometimes about fish.
When Rachel traveled for a holiday by the tropical sea, she hadn’t the ambition to swim out past the breakers. She just sat down in the froth of the waves, plunk, and let the tumbling white of each crash drag her slight frame downbeach, push her back up, tug her sideways, and fill her pajama pants with sand. The French say les vagues for the waves—vagues like the English “vague” (as in “uncertainty” but also related to “vagabond,” to “vagrant”), and I wonder now if my friend’s minimalism in the surf was born of premonition, a sense she might appreciate—though never trust—les belles vagues. But at the time it was her glee that struck me: how satisfied she was with this salty edge, how all she needed was wave after wave sloshing into her lap and sucking sand from beneath her calves. The sea pulled and spun her, sure, but she wasn’t even in deep enough for it to disturb the posture of her slender back.
French waves and English vagueness also share their name with a nerve: the vagus nerve. It’s the one that wanders throughout the body. It livens the lungs. It animates the stomach. It is responsible for the ear canal, for sweating, for the rate at which the heart pumps grief and love over the body’s crags and planes, into its crevices. But for all its wandering the vagus nerve always keeps a firm hand on the throat where it is gatekeeper of each gasp, each sigh, and every gulp or swallow.
Full essay published in the Fall 2018 issue of Ocean State Review.
Someone cries out from the water. She thrusts her head and shoulders upward and lingers in the air for a still silent moment, then peels off sideways. Her buoyancy fails and she slips beneath the sea. An eagle rides the air overhead. On the far side of the water, behind the small circles spreading and already dissipating in the silence, mist clings to a muscle of ice. The glacier is jagged and blue beneath an overlay of snow.
I am a small girl standing on the side of the road looking out over the water and clutching my father’s index finger. He is concentrating. He wonders if he has understood. Someone is brokenhearted in the black and silver sea and there is an eagle overhead. Across the cove, the curving tongue of glacier says nothing. Full essay here.
Rooster Cogburn loves his ostrich. Its eggs are for sale.
You can get in to one by tapping a nail through the shell. I don’t recall that I used a nail—it could have been a corkscrew—but I blew out the raw yolk and egg white and rinsed the empty shell, placing it on a blue towel to drip by the sink. It was huge, the size of my left lung, I remember thinking, and was a creamier color than I expected, a butter egg. The counter slanted under the towel, but the egg didn’t roll or even waver. It must have been I who slanted then, lightheaded from the sustained air pressure it had taken to empty the shell, or dizzy from something more general and slower to accumulate, something in the tap water, perhaps.
We economized words then, there, weighing the air between one another with minimal talk.
Happy graduation, Corinna.
I got you an ostrich egg.
Breakfast? We can have it before stuff starts, early.
There is nothing here I could have said. This lung-sized egg, so soon broken? An exacting kind of grief would have bloomed in my throat. My friend would have seen it there, my swallow stymied, and had the kindness not to smile. Full essay in Tammy 6.
A tiresome, albeit necessary question: what are the rules of truth in nonfiction? In this Brevity post, I find Niklaus Luhmann, German sociologist and systems theorist, useful in de-centering the debate. Excerpt:
The true/false binary that’s useful in science is, I submit, of dubious service to literature, for it’s not art’s project to lie. And I can’t, at the moment, think of any art or genre that claims falsehood. Imagination, sure. Surreality, hyperreality, fantasy—yes, yes, yes. But none of these are properly understood as false. Metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche are among our basic literary tools. Hyperbole, irony, personification, imagistic juxtaposition, even the objective correlative—none of these tools are for lying. We use them to communicate.
[…] Yet for categorization (read: library organization) purposes, does it even count as nonfiction? is a crucial question. Still, is there a way the term “nonfiction” could serve beyond these implied thumbs-up/thumbs-down, yay/nay, qualified/disqualified, on the shelf or off it, true/false stakes?
If yes, maybe we have to skyhook the practical, organizational impetus of genre. This is what I propose: maybe we can treat “nonfiction” selectively—sometimes as a genre, but also sometimes as a lens of reading. Full post here.
An excerpt from my essay:
By Plane, Part One
She is in her seventies with a solid frame and a mannish nose and we will share a death but not our names. She wears a big khaki-colored jacket full of cargo pockets in which she rummages first to check on her half-spent cigarette, later for a damp tissue. Wrappers come out, go back in without inspection. Betcha this pen is dead, she crows, transferring a chewed ballpoint from somewhere in a breast pocket to a Velcro flap by her thigh. I may have seen hands like this before, but can’t place them. Something I say about the chewed pen delights her, so her eyes scrunch closed and the bridge of her mannish nose scrunches too and she purses her lips so that only her two front teeth show in this thing of a smile. Leaning left and right in a couple of quick sways, she finger-fans her face and chortles. It is a gravelly cooing. Full essay at Nowhere Magazine.
I gave a talk with a group of colleagues who all read theory not only as part of our scholarly practices, but also as part of our creative ones. Excerpt from my contribution to the panel below:
I think and write about Alaska. It’s a big place with few people. Home base is the rainforest in Southeast; it’s an archipelago all cut up by glacial fjords. Yes, there’s packaged food and there are trashcans and white bread, but still: we eat a lot of salmon, and king crab, and we eat a lot of venison, and blueberries, and we really like it that way.
But, before I define “we,” let me note that a bunch of indigenous people who were very recently (partly) displaced (and largely) joined and crowded by the western industrialized masses of which I am a part—have a very, very long pre-industrialized history, in this same rainforest, of eating a lot of salmon, and king crab, and eating a lot of venison, and blueberries, and really liking it that way.
So who is this “we” that does all this eating? Maybe “we” is that which needs clean water for healthy fish and rich forests for deer habitat? If yes, there’s a sense in which “we” means every single thing bound in communal exchange with the world around it […] but there’s a sense in which some of “we” is also inherently destructive—of what it needs, and thus, of itself, of its own collectivity.
Theorist Giorgio Agamben comes in here for me, because he writes about the caesura: the divide, the boundary, between us and them, between human and animal, the very concept of dis-connectivity, of separation—and ultimately he says the caesura doesn’t work. That we have to think without it; we have to forego the very notion of separation. Transcript of full talk here.
Autumn where I live in Alaska comes early and summer where my grandfather is dying in the midwest stays late. The dark air of the morning is cold on my neck when I walk away from my dog, my work, and the hills’ turning colors. I leave these in favor of an airplane idling on a paved corner of the valley below.
In the minutes before takeoff the land grows streaked with stretched shadows of spruce trees. It is that first light of morning, light that shoots from the horizon along the flat earth like a stone skipping on water. Numbing my forehead against the window of row nineteen, I watch this light. The flatness of the valley leaves space for dawn’s momentum.
Some drop hefty obligations midstride to board airplanes like this one but the truth is my dog doesn’t really need me. My work doesn’t either. Still, I am hopeful that the forest’s leaves will cease their turning when I leave, that without me the world will lose its purchase on autumn. I imagine my absence being dire to the birch trees, that their shift toward nakedness depends on my view of them from the porch. Leaves are always tumbling in feather pillow bursts these days. It is my practice to sit with the dog while leaves alight first here, then there. We watch the pockets of yellow flurries breathe like so many autumnal snowglobes, and I don’t know about the dog but I am always willing myself into that globe, carol book in hand. Do those soft blizzards continue to swirl in globes without carolers? Full essay here.
Their ears are large
Their feet are small
They haven’t any chins at all.
But I think mice
Are rather nice.
—Unknown children’s book
Marion’s fingers are a little bit longer than warranted by such a slight body and her joints point sharply. The effect is elfin. And rather like mice, she doesn’t have any chin to speak of.
“What was the most beautiful part of your day?” she will ask you, beaming, delighting in your hesitation, your uncertainty. When you can’t think of what to say, resort to deflection: turn the question back to Marion and she will give you an immediate answer. The moment a crisp banjo string snapped under her fingers, perhaps, or the ravens’ chaotic involvement in her afternoon at the dump, or better yet, the cold pepperoni pizza a lady in green covertly shared with her upstairs in the bookstore. When all you do is blink Marion will throw the thinnest arms around your neck, calling you adorkable […]
Much like a stick figure pressing onward through the squares of a cartoon, Marion walks bent too far forward at the waist. She must be nursing some protracted ailment of the lungs — perhaps her ribs are too fragile to properly house the meager collection of vital organs impossibly lodged inside her paper-thinness. Should she ever straighten her shoulders and throw back her head one can only assume her skeleton would snap dryly to pieces like uncooked spaghetti noodles. But the image may be unnecessary: recent periods of adolescent homelessness and indigence all but confirm your hunch that Marion suffers from some unmitigated pulmonary disorder which causes her to bend unthinking from the waist even as she springs from this side of the parking lot to that and back again. Full essay in issue 30.