Essay Collections in a Global Time
By DeWitt Henry, Literary Bookmarks Editor
In the American Sixties, a writer’s “sense of place” usually referred to regionalism and immediately brought to mind Faulkner, Cather, and Frost. For English writers, the phrase suggested colonial displacements, such as E.M. Forster’s India or Joseph Conrad’s Congo. Since then, however, with the rise of post-colonial, post-national, and global studies, the term has been expanded; and more than ever, as reflected by these two new essay collections, has taken on cosmopolitan meanings. “Thus is man that great and true Amphibium, whose nature is disposed to live not only like other creatures in diverse elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds,” wrote Sir Thomas Browne some centuries ago.
VOICES, PLACES: ESSAYS by David Mason (Paul Dry Books, 2018). 210pp, $19.95.
Poet David Mason (Ludlow, an “historical novel in verse”) is also a first-rate essayist and literary critic, whose work has appeared regularly in The Hudson Review, Sewanee Review, and The Wall Street Journal. He assembles his essays, many of them reviews of biographies and books of travel writing, into an expression of his own personality, thought, and vision. His voice recalls that of E.M. Forster, especially in Forster’s travel writing and musings on historical personalities.
For Mason reading is “a form of travel” (and vice versa). He grew up in Washington state, first travelled to Alaska, where he noted “My place is to be out of place, and to write about it.” Then he became a world traveller: “I would live in Greece, travel to Turkey, India, Mexico, and the Antipodes, but my experience was always that of a reader, a body in time.” He divides the collection into 1) Travellers, where he discusses books about ancient and modern Greece; 2) “Exiles, Eccentrics, Immigrants,” where he discusses Conrad, Joyce, Pound, Auden, and Australian poet Kevin Hart (“eccentricity is a form of displacement,” he argues); and 3) “Voices, Places,” where he discusses such voices of the American West as Robinson Jeffers, Thomas McGrath, Belle Turnbull, and Wallace Stegner.
In writing about Greece, he begins with reviewing Justin Marozzi’s book about Herodotus, who appeals to Mason as “A companionable wanderer finding the strange in the familiar and the familiar in the strange.” Meanwhile Marozzi introduces a contemporary writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, whom he considers a modern Herodotus, and who Mason knows personally. Fermor writes “about the places where history, imagination, and travel meet.” His “boyish soul can hardly bear the modern world,” Mason remarks, “so he moves through it from one island of civility to another.” Sitting on a Greek terrace facing the sea, Mason feels “touched by timeless journeys and the stout-hearted people who made them and wrote them down.”
In another review (Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire), he contemplates al-Afghani, “one of the most distinguished Muslims that ever lived,” China’s Liang Qichao, and India’s Rabindranath Tagore, each of whom reacted against Western Imperialism; and concludes that “the dualism of East and West may prove a too-convenient fiction, though I know from experience how strange, how disorienting it can be to move between vastly different cultures.”
David Roessel’s In Byron’s Shadow: Modern Greece in the English and American Imagination prompts Mason to ask “What is Greece? What borders in time and space do we use to comprehend it?” Roessel’s description of how ”deluded romantics, sometimes perpetuating sexist and racists stereotypes…[have fed] off the corpus of Byron and his imitators,” leads Mason to praise Constantine Cavafy, George Seferis, Henry Miller, and Lawrence Durrell as moderns who helped “a literary reinvention of the culture” and who “instead of searching for an ideal Greece…listened to the Greeks themselves…hearing some of their contradictions.”
He recommends Kevin Andrews’s The Flight of Ikaros (about the Greek civil war) and a biography of Andrews. He celebrates his friend Fermor again, aka Paddy, not as a travel writer about Greece, but as “a poet, a fantastic re-creator of experience, a maker of paradisiacal sentences that leave me hungry for life.” He appreciates Bruce Chatwin’s books, which “concern people whose lives are painfully circumscribed but, like Chatwin’s own, fraught with sexual secrets and a tension between freedom and responsibility.”
In the fascinating “Exiles, Eccentrics, Immigrants” section, Mason explores Conrad’s “quality of doubleness” and remarks on “how modern literature in English has been enriched by such artists of psychic and political exile, champions of the individual imagination over the cant of group think.” He sees Pound as “the tragic hero of literary Modernism”; praises Joyce for “celebration of word and thing, being and language”; and finds in Auden “a rare breadth of mind and personality.” He then addresses lesser-known Australian writers: Kevin Hart, who “seems to me one of the best poets of our time partly by standing both outside it and inside it, by being a poet of liminal states”; Les Murray, “Australia’s best known poet”; and his wife Cally Conan-Davies, “one of my favorite Australian poets.”
The collection ends with revisiting writers of the American West. First, there is Mason himself, musing on the associations of Hemingway and Pound with Venice, and their odd connection to Idaho, where Pound was born and Hemingway shot himself: “Two Americans with strained relations to their native country, two writers whose stock has fallen”; two writers also who had touched Mason as he “grew up in the West when it seemed a relatively empty and unlettered place.” He turns to Robinson Jeffers, focussing on his letters: “the great poet of California remains one of the proud visionaries we need most to hear”; to Belle Turnbull, whose 1940 novel in verse, Goldboat, recalls Mason’s, though he only read it after Ludlow had appeared; to Thomas McGrath, who exemplifies “a vision of the human condition…rooted in his region” (McGrath wrote from Greece, “North Dakota/is everywhere”); to a tribute to Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey as Western Prophets in David Gessner’s All The Wild That Remains. “The idea of the American West,” Mason concludes, “has inspired millions to migrate here. But these are shallow roots and create a dangerous nostalgia. The region’s best writers remind us who we are by connecting to the land and its often troubling stories.”
Mason is inspiring in his clarity and capaciousness, his embrace of dualities, his love of language, and in his own curiosity, attentiveness and hunger for life. He challenges our comfort zones.
OBJECTS OF AFFECTION by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough (Braddock Avenue Books, 2018). 215pp, $16.95.
Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough’s culturally and personally probing essays appear in such magazines as American Scholar, Three Penny Review, TriQuarterly, and Agni. They deal with issues of Hryniewicz-Yarbrough’s identity as a woman raised in Post-WW2 Poland under Russian dominance; and later as an immigrant in America, settled, yet unsettled.
Within the Polish context, she experienced doubleness between the public self as dictated by Communist ideology and the private world of family. Her early reading and discovery of books was clandestine, “my daily obsession and pleasure.” Later the study of English in ninth grade “became a symbol of everything missing in the reality of a Communist Poland.” She went on to get degrees in English and to visit and then settle in America, where following on an early divorce, she married Steve Yarbrough, a novelist from Mississippi.
The couple relocated from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to Fresno, California, and later to Boston, Massachusetts, following his academic jobs. As they drove across America, she reflected on space, self invention, and impermanence with mixed emotions. America’s big sky reflected “inhuman dimensions, vastness, raw and terrible beauty,” compared to Europe’s “permanence,” and her “sense of space remained rooted in [her] previous life.”
She became a professional translator, and raised her two daughters to speak their mother’s tongue at home, while English became their “mother tongue.” In her concluding essay, “Little Bowls of Color,” she writes that, in contrast to the Polish in her upbringing, where “it was understood that silence made problems go away,” English “helped to open me up. I can share things about myself and my life and assume that my experience is worth talking about.”
Throughout the collection, she is haunted by a sense of uncertainty and difference—whether between languages, between cultures and landscapes, or between her childhood past and adult present. “Childhood homes,” she writes, “…familiar like no others, determine our identity and create the parameters of what we will always search for in a home.” Yet she also concedes that “homelessness [is] no longer reserved for immigrants, exiles, victims of history or fate. It’s a feature of modern life, a result of globalization, of the world’s greater conformity.”
As she and her American family regularly visited Poland, she rehearsed our national perception that you can’t go home again. She speculates how growing up in Poland conditioned an “ingrained fear”: “I had never rid myself of the feeling that my life was provisional,” and even after marrying an American, “my sense of life as provisional and unreal didn’t abate.”
In post-war Poland, she’d been “trained to expect the worst,“ and “now lived in an optimistic, forward-looking country, in which bad things weren’t supposed to happen. And yet they did happen.” As 9/11 impressed on her, nowhere was safe. In the title essay, she relates how, thanks to the war, her grandmother had “no objects imbued with memories, nothing to fill out the space and make it hers”; and how, after her death, Ewa was left only with a glass paperweight and some photos. “Objects help exorcise some of our fears,” she concludes; they give us “a semblance of permanence and grant a stay against chaos, darkness and oblivion.” This is true of memories and of stories as well, and Hryniewicz-Yarbrough’s proves Nabokovian in summoning memories of her loved ones, their habits, and the rich sensory details of her past.
In “My Private Book of the Dead,” she contemplates the deaths of her parents and grandmother. She tries to replace the dead face of her father in a casket with earlier memories, in life, not death. She recalls the first death of a young person she knew (“My friend had been here just a few days before, and then, suddenly and with no warning, she was gone”). She recounts her dawning awareness of suicides in their town, which “no one talked openly about.” She complains that none of her family members “cared in any way about memorializing themselves…and probably counted on our learning from their example since they themselves were such reliable keepers of our family’s memories.”
In the lyrical essay “Floating” (illustrated by the collection’s cover painting), she recalls the importance of lake swimming in her life, which becomes a metaphor for swimming in time and the fluidity of self. As a child, she “discovered that if I lay flat on my back, the water would keep me afloat and I could rest staring at the sky.” She wants freedom, and a space without lifeguards or regulations. She wishes for gills in order to be “no longer an intruder on the parallel world I have found so enticing.” And now in middle-age at Walden Pond, she feels her body “dissolving in water, the act of swimming indistinguishable from me swimming, the feeling of boundlessness—the closest I can ever get to the foretaste of infinity.”
She addresses a deceased friendly acquaintance in “The Displaced,” a woman whom she’d known twenty years before in Fresno, who wrote poetry, and who had come from Poland in 1980, “in the midst of the Solidarity movement…sick of the precariousness and unpredictability of our lives…[and craving] ‘a normal life,’ which was lived by people of other countries but denied to us.” The woman had married, moved to California and born two sons. But then, just as Hryniewicz-Yarbrough had begun “to question the whole idea of roots, admitting in some sense I had always felt rootless,” the woman had a breakdown, set fire to her house, was committed to a mental institution and finally committed suicide, “your last escape.” Haunted by her memory still, Hryniewicz-Yarbrough can only speculate: “Your life turned into a desert…[whereas] I found a niche within the unfamiliar and I wasn’t unhappy. Or simply, I was more resilient than you.”
However, the recurring physical pain that Hryniewicz-Yarbrough writes about in “The Hour of Lead” seems to echo this other woman’s nightmare. Afflicting Hryniewicz-Yarbrough in her sixties, it has no medical explanation. “Pain is impossible to translate into language,” she says. It defeats empathy. “Though sick with worry, we don’t even feel the pain of loved ones…If we did suffer with everybody else, we wouldn’t be able to live.” Then when the pain passes, for now, “I again belong with others.” Belonging is both her spiritual dream and the yearning of these eloquent and profoundly relatable essays. Her longing for change has “ultimately led me to who I may have been all along. By peeling off the inauthentic layers in myself, I may have reached the hidden core of my innate disposition.” She has also, as a true translator, “[taken] us out of our national confines, broaden[ed] our perspective, releas[ed] us from cultural isolation, and…repaired our separation.”
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