Essays Inspired by Poetry
By Joyce Peseroff, WTP Contributing Editor
SWEET MARJORAM: NOTES AND ESSAYS by DeWitt Henry (Madhat Press, October 2018). 156pp, $21.95.
I don’t usually write about prose, but Sweet Marjoram is an exception. In part, it’s because DeWitt Henry is a dear friend whose work I’ve read for decades. It’s also because so much of this book of lyric essays is inspired by, or works like, poetry. Shakespeare is Henry’s presiding muse, from title to end-note—best known as a writer and editor, Henry is also a scholar whose Harvard PhD thesis studied Shakespeare’s plays. Sweet Marjoram came together, Henry writes, when poet John Skoyles “encouraged me…to think of [the essays] as poems: associational, witty, playing with ideas and words, riffing like jazz or assembling fragments (and quotes) like collage.” An anthology of topics, assembled from common culture and private life, emerges through keywords. Some, like “On Weather” and “On Handshakes,” seem innocuous. Others are loaded: ”On Privilege,” “On Color,” “On Envy.”
Here’s the trajectory of “On Courage,” an essay beginning with short paragraphs of sentences and fragments knitted with quotations from Chaucer, Samuel Johnson, and G.I. Jane. The essay transitions to longer paragraphs, including one on “the red badge of courage”:
“Heartbreak Hill,” mile 22 of the Boston Marathon. The two-time women’s champion, Uta Pippig, with menstrual blood streaking her legs, falls behind and struggles to keep pace, but manages…to finish a close second. However, athletic endurance can’t rival my wife in childbirth…
Henry’s experience as marathon runner, partner, and father—“even beyond birth, true valor is shown in parenting,…in loving no matter what”—unfolds through reflections on physical bravery, then on the courage to love. The essay moves with the rhythm of thought, concluding with short bursts of language: synonyms, quotes, advice, and the laconic conclusion, “Both lion and chicken manage to survive.”
Sweet Marjoram includes moving tributes to Henry’s friendships with James Alan McPherson and Tim O’Brien (at one point, Henry considered titling the book The Words We Carry). In “On Time,” Henry describes signing McPherson out of an assisted care facility in 2015, years after he developed dementia:
It was one of his good days. We met Allen Gee, his former student, friend, and official biographer, later that afternoon for a Thai dinner. We talked about teaching Shakespeare and the world “prolepsis,” and when I praised his own essay about Othello, he asked, “Did I write that?”…”You see Othello in terms of his Levantine lineage…and you end up comparing him to O.J. Simpson.” “I said that?” He enjoyed hearing about himself, with bemused wonder and pride, as if the self we described were some unknown, close relation.
Sweet Marjoram rewards a cover-to-cover reading through its twenty-two essays, but also entices me to dip into subjects as the spirit moves me. I can imagine turning to “On Grades” at the end of a long semester, startled to discover the first paragraph:
On upgrades, my car labors, but not as much as the behemoth trucks I keep passing; my speed decreases, despite my pressing the gas…; then I crest the hill…and there are warning signs about braking, skidding, and turnoffs. I use my motor for a brake, and the trucks go juggernauting past.
Writers, scientists, and scholars share a desire to get at the root of quandaries; Henry interrogates common phrases as if they were mysteries. He parses their variations: making the grade, airline upgrades, degrade (to reduce or humiliate), low-grade fever, high-grade ore, Grade-A eggs. He grapples with college grading systems too, observing:
Whatever our earthly grades, we dream of heavenly ones as more profound and just. Souls deserving of St. Peter’s Fs, like Dr. Faustus’s, are hell-bent, while As get wings.
The book’s final essay, “On Magic,” ends with Henry witnessing the birth of his daughter: “..like that, the baby out, umbilical cut, and held by feet, gasping. And Connie’s ecstatic gasp, ‘Oh, look at her!’ Nature, yes; and more than nature, also; the rabbit from the hat.” Sweet Marjoram is essentially a collection of imperatives to look—to examine, to consider, to pursue thought down the deepest rabbit hole.
Originally published on Joyce Peseroff’s website.