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.”


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