Reviewed by Chelsey Clammer

In his introduction to Blurring the Boundaries, editor B.J. Hollars states that “the writers' unique stylistic approaches provide vastly different reading experiences” (4). In regards to this craft anthology, this statement is undeniably true. Each essay is an example of the ways in which different authors approach their writing, how they do, indeed, create powerful essays in vastly different ways. But there is no “right” way to tell a story, as each author has her own stylistic approach to writing.

This critique could explore those stylistic approaches. Such as how in “Salvos into the World of Hummers,” Beth Ann Fennelly weaves her research on the lives of butterflies into her own story about motherhood.

This critique could explore how many of the essays do blur the boundary between fact and fiction. Such as how Steven Church does so in “Thirty Minutes to the End” when he tells the story of his aunt's town being hit by a massive tornado—an event he wasn't there to witness, and yet he wrote a stellar essay by fabricating the specific details of this true event. Fact or fiction? Robin Hemeley does this too in her essay “Flagpole Wedding, Coshocton, Ohio, 1946.” Hemely creates a story about a real situation though it is not one experienced. Again, fact or fiction? We'll call it a blurring.

This critique could explore the vast array of structures found in each essay. Ander Monson's use of the Harvard outline in “Outline towards a Theory of the Mine versus the Mind and the Harvard Outline.” Eula Biss creating a type of litany in “Time and Distance Overcome.” Naomi Kimbell describing her opinions on the field of psychiatry via the Socratic method in “Whistling in the Dark.” Michael Martone structuring the actual look of the text to emphasize the purpose of his essay “Asymmetry.” Or Dinty Moore using the well-known structure of a self-help article in “Four Essential Tips for Telling the Truth in Personal Memoir and Securing that Blockbuster Book Deal” to talk about the process of writing.

This critique could look at the two approaches to research provided in this anthology. There is the extensive research Fennelly did on hummingbirds. And then there is also the opposite of this approach—such as how neither Wendy Rawlings nor Maliszekwsi researched their subjects, but instead drew only from their personal experiences to write their essays.

This critique could be about point of view. The use of not just first person in these personal essays, but also toying with the use of the second and/or third person (Susan Neville and Brian Oliu).

This essay could address all of that.

But what ultimately draws the reader in the most is the presence and variety of the  perfectly executed sentences within it.

There are memorable sentences about technique and philosophies on writing, and there are astounding sentences, poetic and awe-inspiring sentences in each actual essay. There are the philosophical sentences, such as Hollars's statement in his introduction that “Nonfiction writers regularly grapple with [the] feeling-out process, pressing our hands to the past in an effort to report or reshape what we thought we always knew” (4). Pressing our hands to the past, as if we are reaching out to what happened before this moment, grabbing onto it, holding it up to a light and looking for not only how it speaks to us, but how to interpret the language of that experience and then finding the right words to fit it. There are creative statements that give thought to structure such as Aldrich's realization that “a different kind of story...would require a different kind of organization” (21). Biss's litany and Monson's outline, for example, use unique organizations of the text in order to support the complex concepts of each essay, to induce a richer reading experience for the reader.

The craft essays in the anthology convey different ways in which writers can approach their work—both from structural/organizational platforms as well as an approach in which writers follow the writing as they figure out what the essay is about. For instance, in describing her writing process for her essay “Time and Distance Overcome,” Eula Biss states that in this essay she wanted to “create a brutally repetitive experience for the reader” (43). She does this, but in her craft essay she reveals that she did not intend to do so. As Biss started researching the history of the telephone, she discovered many newspaper articles about people using telephone poles to lynch black men. And so she started tinkering around with language, trying to find the best way to tell that story. By following the writing instead of the idea, Biss was able to find the story and the necessary structure in which to tell it. Through this process she was able to discover and then create a type of litany that integrates the subjects of racism and human connection. I don't think this essay would have worked as well if she had used a different structure, such as a straight narrative or a text that did not use white space. Steven Church also explains how he used the follow-the-writing process when he states “The subject chose its own form and style and I mostly just jumped aboard for the ride” (Church, 69).”

Moving onto the actual essays, specific sentences within them proved how influential writing can be, how inspiring and unique each line can be. Most of these monumental sentences I am drawn to work like a pause—a beat for the reader to take in a breath and soak in whatever  scene/idea/thought/description came immediately before the beat. Impressive sentences and concepts such as “One last moment of quiet in this house of stories” (Church, 60), and “So much depends upon where tears go once they have fallen” (Kupperman, 124) grab the reader with their sound and meaning and push her towards the realization of how limitless language can be. These are the sentences that make you stay still, the ones in which you have to take another breath before moving on, overwhelmed by the beauty of them. Also, there were a few instances of powerful imagery that completely melted me. My favorite: “I jumped against the soft wall of my father because all of a sudden there was too much feeling to fit inside my skin” (230). What a unique way to describe the transformational experience of fright as it shifts the narrator away from innocence.

Aside from these gorgeous lines, there is a specific section of six pages in the book that stick out to me because of the urgency that is brought to the page through them. In his introduction to the craft book Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, Dinty Moore states that in writing “there must always be a burning urgency of some sort, translated through each sentence, starting with the first” (XXIII). For me, the best passage in the whole anthology, the one that is perhaps the most urgent passage, the one that kept me going and going and reading and reading the essay not once, but thrice, comes from Steven Church. In the span of six pages, Church writes:

Now....Nqw....It is almost over now...This is when....This is when....Now....Now....Now....Nothing can pull you back now” (60-66).

Regardless of what comes after each “Now,” the repetitive use of the word (twenty-five occurrences) drives the reader and takes her step-by-step with the narrator through the events of the essay. “Now” puts the urgency in each sentence as the fact of the “Now” keeps going and changing, putting the reader right into the middle of the action in each “Now” sentence.

Finally, these striking pause-inducing sentences, as well as the knowledgeable statements about craft incited a few ideas for me. Butler showed me that I could write a personal essay based on reportage, but then at the end of the reportage use those facts as a metaphor for a connected and shocking personal story. Or how Hemely resists a linear narrative, and instead approaches her essay by stepping inside and outside the story throughout.

For me, the purpose of all writing is to inspire the reader to write down her own words, to tell her own stories and ideas. Not just for entertainment, but to use writing as a way to connect with one another. For a writer reading this collection Dinty Moore provides one of the most monumental and influential sentences about writing when he states “the difference between an adequate word and the perfect word is like the difference between a lightning bug and a runaway fuel tanker exploding on I-95” (195). Moore challenges the reader to find these words for her own essays. By doing so, he reaches out to the reader and invites her into the process of not just writing, but writing powerfully.

While the main concept of Blurring the Boundaries points to the complexity of how the borders of fiction and nonfiction can be, well, blurry, it doesn't actually solve this conundrum. But each essay shows  how the writers attempt to figure out this puzzle. Mostly, though, they resist putting genre labels on their different pieces of writing. Through discussing their writing process in each essay, the authors come to the conclusion that writing is what it is, that authors should follow the writing instead of the rules, that in a way disregarding these genre “rules” is perhaps what writing nonfiction is really about, and that ultimately regardless of structure or genre or the type of stylistic approach used in writing, “the essay is a space to be filled” (Monson, 183). Blurring the Boundaries invites the reader to fill that undefined space.

Blurring the Boundries
Edited By B.J. Hollars
Paperback: 280 pages
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Language: English
ISBN: 9780803236486

Reviewed by Chelsey Clammer

It is the language Mark Doty uses in Still Live with Oysters and Lemon that intrigued me most while reading the book. Because this book is focused around still life paintings and not any sort of narrative arc per se, Doty has to bring movement to the text by being especially intentional about which verbs and nouns he chooses for his descriptions.

          He does precisely this in the first few pages.

          Who could give the coiled peel the greatest sense of heft and curve,           or spiral it down from the edge of a table, with the most convincing           sense of gravity's pull? In Cornelis de Heem's The Flute of Wine, a               swoop of lemon peel occupies the very center of the picture,                       looping down into the space below the edge of the table and back               up again to end in a flourish of curl, impossibly long, as if the little             fruit had yielded an unlikely bounty of peel to serve the painter's                 purposes. (9, emphasis mine) 

All but the last italicized word convey a sense of movement—coiling, spiraling, pulling, swooping, etc. Due to the fact that the still life paintings are, obviously, inanimate and unmoving objects, Doty uses transient verbs and moving adjectives to describe the lemons, a technique that keeps the reader reading. With these active descriptions, Doty does not desert the reader in a stagnant space, leaving her to look at a  landscape of numbing, motionless lemons. Though this could have easily occurred due to the lack of actual action in the text. But Doty avoids this travesty as he perfectly executes the craft of writing vivid descriptions. This leads the reader past a motionless object and into a text full of movement. 

About the last italicized word: at the end of the paragraph Doty stops the movement. He yields the reader. His use of yielded creates a speed bump in the flow of the paragraph, indicating to the reader that here is the end of this description and its movement—the painting captured, its lively descriptions now done. From this language-induced halt, Doty then jumps into the next description of a still life painting—another one that is full of movement even though it is an unmoving object. And the reader continues to read, enters herself into the flow of the text and moves with it, lazy river style. 

Aside from these active verbs and lively descriptions Doty uses in Still Live with Oysters and Lemon, I was also intrigued by the use of taking an inventory of paintings and objects in order to convey some aspect of himself, as well as of the significant people in his life. He does this because by saying something about the people with whom he has important relations, Doty also says something about himself. In the tradition of Philip Lopate's essays “Portrait of Myself” and “My Drawer,” Doty creates a sense of presence and belonging in the world by taking inventories at specific moments and sprinkling them throughout the text (found on pages 12, 20, 32, 52, and 60).The reader encounters the first inventory on page 12 as Doty describes the things found in his Mamaw's purse: 

          Doan's Pills. Lavender water. Smelling salts in a tiny glass ampule....           Round tin of snuff....A tiny red edition of the New Testament,                     tissues in small packets, a sparkly pair of multifaceted earrings                   whose clasp has long ago broken; short, dull-tipped pencils, a                   cluster of the ubiquitous, potentially useful rubber bands; a scrap of           ribbon snipped from the flowers at whose grave? And then, the item           to which my attention is repeatedly drawn, to which all the other                 items are merely ancillary: those red, pinwheeled peppermints. (12)

From this inventory, the reader gets a sense of the type of person Mamaw was (religious, practical, perhaps superstitious and a little nostalgic), which in turn helps to convey the relationship between Doty and Mamaw, to juxtapose them, to hint at the qualities of their relationship. Later on in the text, Doty draws on this inventory again. He returns to the peppermints, uses them to re-approach his theme of independence versus connection. “Suppose I were to make a still life of my grandmother's peppermints....I could array those little disks in their transparent wrappers against the dark...perhaps lying alone on a surface, perhaps a group of them in a silver dish.” Doty goes on to describe his mother's personality as he starts to remember her character traits through various associations with the peppermints. He continues discussing his hypothetical painting: 

          These associations...would be brought to bear upon my painting of             the peppermints, but none of them would be visible; there's no                   reason the viewer would know any of this [about my mother]. I could           render only what can be seen....And yet there is something more                 here, and that something is what nags at me to write this                           book....Why, if all that is personal has fallen away, should these                   pictures matter so? Why should they be alight with a feeling of                   intimacy? Interiority makes itself visible....Is that what soul or spirit             is, then, the outward-flying attention, the gaze that binds us to the             world?” (48-50). 

By frequently using the form of an inventory throughout the book, the named objects stand on their own, stand out to the reader, and thus Doty is able to return to these specific items/signifiers later on. Upon these returns to certain objects, he shows how their significance has grown, how they get to the heart of his book. These connections provide a rich philosophical question about our relations to the world. Ultimately, this question continues to investigate the theme of independence versus connection that is prevalent in the text. This, in turn, gives the reader a sense of her own connection with Doty's ideas.

I imagine it like this: the reader sits in her comfy chair, alone, reading Still Live with Oysters and Lemon with no one else around, independently looking at the still life paintings through words. A connection to the paintings and what they say to her increases with each lively descriptions. It is not just about how the inventories stick out in her mind, how she admires the specific details Doty uses to describe the people in his life, but it's about how her subsequent knowledge of these personal and telling details encourage her to continue to find her own connections to this text. How does she relate? The images and meditative considerations she has while reading the book help to bind her to the world, a world which, as Doty shows, is full of that vibrant art, those lemons, this beautifully moving still life.

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon
By Mark Doty
Paperback: 80 pages
Publisher: Beacon Press
Language: English
ISBN: 9780807066096

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.    





Welcome to the new blog for Cigale Literary Magazine. Here Cigale hopes to provide more ongoing reviews, comments on writing and craft, contributor news, and other interesting things. We want to this be pretty open ended as to the contributions. If you have ideas or an interesting idea for a guest post or a series of posts please let us know (reviews (at) cigalelitmag (dot) com).

Currently Cigale is currently looking for bloggers to do reviews of books, short stories, and award winning fiction.