Reviewed by Chelsey Clammer

The book sits on my desk, the southern hemisphere of its pages soaked, pages drenched and holding onto each other in the unrelenting way that wet pages refuse to separate. It’s the result of a leaky water bottle in my bag. The water, thankfully, did not stretch itself too far into the text, did not reach the places where I took a blue pen and illustrated my curiosities about the craft of writing onto the pages of the essay collection. Wavering lines under phrases that carry meaning, the scratching of a note to remind me why that underlined section actually means something to me, and at times just a “wow” at the beauty of not only what the author has just said, but the way in which he said it..

I am writing this as the sun pinks itself into the day. I meant to go running this morning, to move my body for an hour, which is to say to give my brain the space to meditate on my thoughts, to explore what it is I have to say about this book. But there are knots in my back and an incessant yawn trying to drag me back to sleep. I resist. And the coffee kicks in by the time the pinking haze of a new morning transitions into a clear view of the world that surrounds me, filtered just a bit, softened just a bit by the day still trying to come into itself.

Enough about that.

In Sven Birkerts’s The Other Walk, he enters into his essays through an object, a tangible element in his life that leads his writer mind into a thought and a memory. The first essay, however, is about walking—a practice that Birkerts engages in daily in order to “set up the writing day, to start my thinking.” He continues, “Usually by the time I get back [home] I have some basic sequence worked out. I think about projects. I'll get hooked on some thought, and I'll go over it, repeatedly, as if inscribing it into my muscles, but also testing its basic hardiness against the rhythms of walking” (5).

After bringing the writer through a few essays that provide snapshots of how Birkerts orients himself into the world, the next eighty pages consist of proof that Birkerts is able to enter into an essay through an object. Throughout these essays—through most of the essays, in fact—Birkerts gives meaning to objects and then uses frank transitions such as “Enough about that” and “None of this is especially interesting” (26, 79) in order to take a sharp turn into a different angle—one that provides another view of the meanings of the objects.

From objects such as a tape dispenser, a tin, eyeglasses, a ladder, a light bulb, photographs, shoes, a ring and a shelving unit, Birkerts enters into memories through describing each object.[1] He opens many essays by either providing a description of an object or stating why he is thinking about that object. For instance, in “Lost Things” he writes, “The other day I wanted to write about a tape dispenser—I had a reason—and I searched high and low through the house” (20) which leads into a story about a story, the meaning of things lost in our lives, and how a lost object can reappear in a writer’s mind which allows her to tell her story again (23).

Another example comes from “Chessboard” in which the first sentence immediately directs the reader’s gaze to an object, and puts the her under Birkerts’s storytelling influence. His description brings the reader into the essay in order to make her feel as if she is standing next to Birkerts, viewing the object with him. “This is a handsome, serious-looking chessboard,” Birkerts begins, “a kind of hinged wooden valise with squares on the outside and an embedded green felt space inside, with an elastic loop for each piece” (53). As the reader is now next to Birkerts, her eyes now focused on the same object Birkerts’s eyes are focused on, their common gaze makes the reader follow him through a story about this chessboard, which ultimately becomes an essay about how a friendship between two people builds, and then how it can quickly crumble. The objects, indeed, set up each essay and orient the reader to Birkerts’ thoughts and focus.

“The moment of the shift. It comes now” (70).

Moving on.

The meaning of an object or relationship can change when put in a different context. Birkerts muses on the implications of different aspects of life when they are in a landscape that may shift. The example in The Other Walk that perhaps shows the most impactful way a shifting context can encompass many experiences of relationships comes from the essay “Zvirbulis.” Discussing the experience of telling a story in a secondary language, Birkerts states, “Except for family, I had never confided anything to anyone in Latvian; I had no ready language for the things I really thought and felt. Maybe for that reason everything I said seemed new to me, itself a new sensation for me” (12). In other words, taking the stories we know how to tell in one language, and trying to describe them in the context of a different language can bring new meaning to these experiences.

Touching back on the presence and importance of objects in The Other Walk, Birkerts states that “Lost things have their own special category. So long as they’re lost, and felt to be lost, they belong to the imagination and live more vividly than before” (20). An object that is not necessarily symbolic or highly significant in your life, but one that is occasionally or frequently put to use, transforms into a significant object, because it becomes more present—that nagging feeling of where did I put that? Whether the subject matter of an essay in The Other Walk  is about a lost object such as a tape dispenser (“Lost Things”), a lost sense of a previous self (“Archive”), a lost friendship (“Chessboard), or a lost sense of a tight-knit family (“The Points of Sail”) the ways in which Birkerts considers, reflects on, and relates his musings on life to the reader shows that objects can be “soaked in significance” (25). The effect of this, therefore, is that The Other Walk becomes its own type of reliquary. Where throughout the book Birkerts discusses the bookshelves and storage units that contain his objects—the relics that bring meaning to his life—the book Birkerts has written is now a place that holds elements of his life all throughout their shifting contexts.

“You can’t see it, but I'm shaking my head and smiling as I write this” (108).

I don’t know if this critique “works,” if the ways in which I implement Birkerts’s craft points and transitions actually adds something to the critique, or functions as a space in which I was able to test out new writing techniques.

What this second-guessing of myself means, is that it’s time to go running, to put my body into a state of movement after sitting at my desk for over an hour in order to contemplate this critique. I'm hoping that with a change in scenery I will be able to see how “the wispier thoughts tend to dissolve and float away; the more durable ones settle in and then start thudding in my head” (5). It is this thudding that will bring me back to the writing, back to my desk to begin the editing process, a thudding that also undeniably brings my fingers back to the page, the pen, the keyboard, and the wet pages of my copy of The Other Walk, which sits on my desk, ready to re-encourage me to write—an object that is now, in fact, soaked in significance.

The Other Walk
By Sven Birkerts
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Language: English
ISBN: 9781555975937

[1] Other essayists use this technique as well, such is Philip Lopate in “My Drawer” and Bret Lott in “On My Desk.”

Reviewed by Chelsey Clammer

In Sarah Arvio’s collection of poetry/essays/dream interpretations, Night Thoughts, she explains how writing the book journeyed her through the process of “understanding the riddle behind the thoughts” (141). The thoughts here are her memories (and at times, missing memories) of personal trauma. The riddle is figuring out how her dreams give these experiences meaning. To solve each dream’s riddle Arvio explains how she entered into psychoanalysis and started writing down her dreams each morning. Eventually, she found clues to the riddles when she translated dreams into poetry (87).

It is through piecing the dreams and their meanings together through poetry that Arvio’s story begins to take shape. Arvio comments that “there is something about pain that ratchets up the nerves, that makes us skinless and vulnerable” (113). This what her dreaming mind wrestled with. Beginning the book with seventy poems that explore how her various traumas were reflected in the dreams, Arvio exposes her vulnerabilities, becomes skinless to her readers. In the second half of the book, however, Arvio re-skins herself as she narrates and explains her traumas and dreams. She uses the salve of reasoning, remembering and understanding in order to soothe her wretched nerves. As I read through the notes section, I kept questioning if the second half of the book was necessary. I say this because Arvio explains the connection between the dreams that the reader has already made on her own. While the concept of the book is brilliant, I question, if Arvio’s “notes” section takes away from the power of her poetry.

In order to address this, I want to first look at the poems themselves, as well as the craft aspects that Arvio implements in order to give a language to her dreams, to encourage them out of her mind and into the word of poetry and reflection. Right from the beginning of the book, Arvio brings a sense of urgency to her poems, pulling the reader into understanding of how vivid, important, and powerful these dreams/poems are.[1] Arvio puts the ampersand to use in order to quicken the pace in some of her poems, which brings on that sense of urgency. In “snakes,” for instance, Arvio writes, “when the snakes begin to swarm in the brown / roses behind me then push out lifting / their heads & snaking out & and then I turn / & run with my hair flowing behind me / up the pair of stairs & down the long hall / down the long walk & across the lawn / as they snake behind snaking as snakes do” (8). The ampersands make the reader’s eyes race with the action. This sense of urgency is then amplified by the contrast of the next poem, “white hat,” in which Arvio slows the pace down and brings the reader into a dream scene in which she is walking instead of running. Another aspect of “white hat” that slows the reader down is her use of something similar to negative theory.[2] By stating “I don’t / say pink in the dream I don’t say shadow / or white hat” (9) instead of what it is that she does say in the dream, the reader pauses in the space of trying to understand what Arvio is actually saying through what she is not saying. Arvio uses this technique in other poems, such as “pale blue sheets,” “war,” “corner,” “knife,” “three boys,” and “end.”

Connected to this, Arvio states “I grew up not knowing why I was suffering” (95). She sensed something was different or “off” with her and how she related to the world, and, as it becomes apparent in the poems, Arvio defines her sense of self not through who she is, but through the missing explanations for her suffering. Moving from poems to notes, while she tries to explain a dream in which things were “on the pink counter / or white it may be white” (19), and in a later poem she simply states “I don’t know why” in addressing the different images that appear in the dreams (57), the reader gets a sense that Arvio is writing these poems in order to figure out the answers to what she does not know. Also in her notes, Arvio states “It usually took six pages to write out every thought and to come to something that seemed to be the dream’s meaning or message. This was often a sequence of connected memories, and often alluded to the same set of traumatic events that occurred when I was eleven or twelve years old” (77). It is through the writing the poems, then, that she figures out the meaning of her dreams.

While Arvio states that “Dreaming is an endless stream” (80), I want to respond to that statement with the thought that writing is also an endless stream. Because while Arvio comes to understand that “the mind seeks to disguise and conceal what is too painful or shaming to endure” (82), it is through writing these poems that the painful and shaming experiences are un-disguised, are revealed for what they are: experiences that have created and influenced Arvio’s life and writing. Each “dream reflects an idea that my dark and terrible thoughts have driven out of the playful, lyrical and poetic thoughts.” She goes on to explain that she didn’t understand the role of darkness in lyricism, and that “trauma smashes the mind: it stops us from thinking, feeling, and remembering” (135). Due to this trauma, Arvio considers how “there was my longing to speak—in other words, to write” (126). Furthermore, as Arvio works through psychoanalysis, she hits a point in she felt like she could go no further, which was fine, as she explains it, “I was writing poems” (139). Thus, it is through writing that Arvio can make sense of her trauma, can begin to understand the riddle behind her thoughts (141).

Taking all of this into consideration, I want to now address the question I have about the second half of the book. Does the ‘notes’ section serve Arvio more than it does the reader? Part of the pleasure in reading the poems is piecing together the clues from the dreams in order to figure out Arvio’s trauma. It’s as if the reader gets to un-puzzle the poems with Arvio. In “stone well” she writes, “all life embellishments cut away / by a secret cutter with a secret act / & nothing but a dream to figure it” (42). Yes, both the reader and Arvio are doing the act of figuring through each poem. By page 55, the reader discovers with Arvio how these poems are connected, how they are snowballing together, and that their events seep into and roll around each other. A picture of Arvio’s history starts to form as different images and phrases from the poems re-appear. Robin eggs, snakes, white and black, pink, blood, and lips and body parts[3] are all repeating images in the poems. The reader, like Arvio, finds the clue in these images, becoming a part of the process of un-riddling the dreams.

In her notes, Arvio states that “For the first time in my life—dreaming these dreams, cultivating these thoughts—I found my own mind, my own self, interesting. If my mind can create such intricate and beautiful thoughts, I said to myself, I might be worth saving. I noticed that the dreaming mind was poetic, or moved like a poem, through suggestions and disguise” (100). The reader has witnessed the validity of this statement prior to Arvio explaining it. In other words, the second half of the book in which Arvio explains her dreams and the connections between them feels as if she wrote it more for herself, as in she was able to recognize who she was as a creative person through reflecting back on the poetry that came out of her as she tried to figure out these dreams. The power of her poetry, and the outstanding writing both through concepts and images is apparent to the reader in each poem. The reader doesn’t need an explanation of the poetic statements or presence of lyricism, it’s there, in the poems, for the reader to experience for herself.[4]

Ultimately, Arvio is writing the book as she is figuring out what it’s about, as well as how it helps to connect aspects of her life and give meaning for her. In “crying,” Arvio state that “this is not a dream this is the truth” (65). While she states it here for the reader, the rest of the poems become a pleasurable puzzle of details that the reader sifts through and puts together in order to understand Arvio and the effects of trauma. As the trauma and its connections are unearthed from the dreams through the poems, the impact of this trauma on Arvio’s life becomes apparent. As the reader figures this out, Arvio does so, as well. She figures bits of her life out and in the last few pages of the book she states, “I whisper this now, as I write” (143). And while I believe that the reader does not need Arvio to state how she is whispering in the face and fact of these traumatic memories as she writes them out, the overall statement discovered in this book is that writing helps to wrestle with trauma both through the notes, but more powerfully through the poetry. Because, as Arvio makes apparent, while dreaming is an endless stream, discovering the self through writing is also a never-ending journey.[5]

Night Thoughts
By Sarah Arvio
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Knopf
Language: English
ISBN: 9780375712227


[1] “Many poems behave like dreams, chasing associative patterns through the mind, using riffs and non sequiturs. They draw on the unconscious mind in their development of thought patterns. A poem can be like a dream, dancing around an idea and avoiding it” (Arvio, 77). There is much to say about the similarities between dreams and poems, how dreams are like poems and how poems can read like dreams, as well as how Night Thoughts defies genre. Is it poetry? Nonfiction? Dream  interpretation? Unfortunately, there’s not enough space in this critical response to do explore this.

[2] Negative theory is the concept of defining god (or anything, really)  not by what he is, but by what he is not.

[3] There is also much to say about embodiment in both poetry and dreams in the book. How is it that our bodies appear in dreams, and what is it to have specific body parts separated from the whole body and concentrated on during a dream and/or a poem? Fingers (7, 37), hands (26, 60), thumbs and toes (31), a penis (33), lips and female genitalia (34) all function in the poems to show how segmented a person can feel when specific body parts are concentrated on, when they are separated from the context of the whole body. Arvio even states in her notes that, “In my imagined body, the body where I lived my thoughts, I had spawned and then buried fear” (137), which further brings into question the role of a traumatized body in something that lacks anything tangible and physical, such as a dream. Sadly, however, there again is not enough room in this critical response to further consider this concept.

[4] Another issue that could be further explored is a writer’s trust in a reader that she will figure out what is going on in her own, and how I want to question if this trust can continue if the writer begins to explain what is going on in her own writing. Personally, I love anthologies in which a writer writes on certain craft points, which is followed by and essay that is an example of that craft point. That said, Night Thoughts is not about craft, but about figuring out. So the question remains, what type of trust does an author have in the reader if the author feels that explaining her writing is essential to the reading experience of her book?

[5] A final point that needs to be made is that were the reader to re-read the entirety of the book, I believe the reading experience would be substantially different as the reader is now approaching the text with the explanations already known. Like any experience of re-reading a book for a second (or third, or fourth, or etc) time, it becomes a different book as the ending is already known. How would this book be experienced differently a second time approaching it? For instance, what was it like to watch James Camron’s “Titanic” when you already knew how the main event ended? I believe if I were to re-read Night Thoughts, I would pick up on more of the clues and connections. I don’t know if this would make for a stronger reading experience, or a weaker one, or if that distinction can even be made, but I just want to state here that knowing the explanations of the dreams as you enter into a second reading will change how a reader experiences a main aspect of the book, which is the sense that the reader is figuring out the storyline along with the writer.