DECEMBER 11, 2015
LIKE A GOOD HOUSEGUEST, Brief Encounters has left this reader grateful for its abundant gifts; grateful too that it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Actually, it can’t. By keeping each anthology selection to a maximum of 2,000 words, the editors have brought together a variety of pieces that delight in their concision, alongside others that seem to be saying, “I’d better let you know what I’m about right away, because really there’s not much time.”
This last is especially evident in the many pieces whose first sentences are a notice of intent, a perfectly good strategy for a reader who wants to know where she is going, but an imperfect one for literature. And while “Contemporary Nonfiction” is what the subtitle promises, implying among other things reportage, it is lyric literature that’s strongest in these pieces, a mode that the editors (and I myself) are most attuned to. The many voices in this anthology, as well as the book as an entirety, have left me thinking: what makes a brief literary piece thrive, and what is the total impact of so many short stays?
“What am I afraid of?” So begins Pico Iyer’s “Why I Travel,” a piece that limns an arc going from the narrator’s mordantly humorous stories of his own travel predicaments to his realization that for others, the ones who live in that same place, these predicaments are the stuff of daily life. Is such an arc imposed or organic? In general, is there enough time in these short pieces for a satisfying arc to develop, or is a tidy ending a sign of the writer’s belief that closure is somehow required?
For me, the most delightful resolution of this problem is Sven Birkerts’s piece, “One Long Sentence,” four pages of a continuous sentence, its title a pun on the sometimes prison-like feeling of a long airplane trip. In its playful enjoyment of its own acts of writing, the piece reminds me of a Stephen Sondheim lyric. “This is me, all of us, hanging in parenthesis outside of ourselves, here out in space in the night, but at the same time homing in on script and schedule […].” This overt pleasure is, I suggest, one aspect of writing that works well in the short form: the writer is having fun with language … and with airiness. Birkerts’s closing period is set to the moment before we land. Keeping a reader up in the air may be a better strategy for a short piece than landing the vehicle with a bump.
Intense focus works too, whether on a game, as in Bill Capossere’s “Chess Piece,” in which he uses unwavering rules to give us moves and halts on the large board of “grief and loss”; or on a single color, as in Jericho Parms’s “Red,” in which she meditates on a single color with such intensity that red dilates into many meanings, “at once the longest wavelength of visible light, and the first color we lose sight of at twilight.”
Meditative, yes, but not musing. Musings need the byways that can be found in more capacious, discursive forms. Memory pieces too can be problematic, oddly so at least for me, a writer for whom memory is boon companion. But a memory often — although not always — needs a little more scope so that an anecdote can earn its gravitas.
Does a collection of brief works add up?
Anthologies demand an order; an order implies linkages. Ordering is a strange thing, akin to curation — the one who is doing the ordering is challenged by not wanting the links to seem overdetermined. Wanting the whole to breathe, but also the pieces to associate, one with another. How strong do the links need to be?
Brief Encounters has sent me back to one of my favorite essays, “Assumptions,” in Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, where linkage is contraindicated in favor of contradiction. I remember teaching this essay in a class where I asked each student to read just one sentence in a string of declarations. “The graveyard is carefully maintained and the dead are honored one day each year.” Next, please. “The graveyard is ignored and overrun with weeds.” It was fun to see students state a seeming fact, then watch as a “wait a minute” moment came over a face, and then, Aha! Believe nothing. Make up what you need. Don’t walk a straight line. Hugo again: “The adhesive force is your way of writing, not sensible connection.”
Sometimes in Brief Encounters it’s enjoyable to discern thematic intentions when they don’t walk the straight and narrow, when sensible connections are eschewed in favor of obliquity, as when we go from Cheryl Merrill’s “Wild Life,” with its photograph of an elephant’s eye and its question “How much of the world are we missing?,” to Liz Stephens’s “American Animal,” with her stories from a wild animal rescue center, where a tall and treacherous green heron lives in the shower stall, and to Pam Houston’s ecstatic evocation of the passionate nature of all things, “What the Osprey Knows.”
I do have difficulty with some of the more literal back-to-backs, as in pets to pets, sports to sports. Even though the book’s editors demur, they still choose to list themes in the back matter as though to say, “Sorry, but we have to pin this down for you.”
There is, for me, one overarching theme in this collection, unstated but deeply moving. It is wounds: wounded selves, wounding situations, wounds that are not even personal but those of species, human and otherwise. It’s the aggregate in a collection of separatenesses that give this collection a largeness, makes this book matter, gives it music beyond its individual notes. Nor is there insistence that wounds have to be surmounted. The triumphalist note is rarely sounded in these pages, which is a blessing.
Perhaps because of a wish to make one’s mark quickly, there’s an occasional self-conscious rhetorical quality to some of these pieces, at war, I think, with their writers’ deeper impulses. An example is the “how to” genre, as though the writer were offering advice but is instead using trope and tactic to get around the difficulty of establishing a voice in so short a time. Some of these essays show the result of forcing a bulb to bloom out of season.
Voice, however, is different from tone, and it is with tone that the short form excels: witness Bernard Cooper’s hilarious “The Insomniac Manifesto,” a knowing send-up of a political pronunciamento in which he urges the sleepless of the world to unite.
Most important to my particular parsing of what works and what doesn’t is this: anything goes if it sings, most especially the unexpected, so none of this is meant to sound prescriptive. In some of these pieces one can see a tame metaphor from a mile away, while others take only a sentence to startle a reader into upright alert-animal stance.
“The opposite of irony is nakedness.” This, the first line in Lia Purpura’s “Brief Treatise Against Irony,” is followed by, “To be available to the eyes of others.” By dint simply of her being interesting, I’d happily follow her the rest of the way.
“Beavers are the Shiva of the animal world.” Aren’t they just so, in their cycle of creation and destruction — but whoever thought of it? Leila Philip has, in “Water Rising.”
This anthology is full of such treats to savor, since a good sentence is worth a lot of calories, like this one — “What is a cloud but an overhead lake that likes to cross-dress?” — in Lance Larsen’s “A Brief History of Water,” with its assonant language.
I offer a contradiction in terms: the unprescriptive should be a requirement for brief cases. “Why should the whole lake have the same name?” I love this line from James Richardson’s “Aphorisms & Ten-Second Essays”; his might be the question to ask of an anthology — any anthology. This particular one makes his point: one lake, many names.
Emily Holt, whose first publication this is, writes a gorgeous line that could also describe this book: “We’re indirect, all possibilities running off in rivers that splinter the country, because who would want to choose just one river?” Brief Encounters doesn’t ask us to choose one river but rather to see all possibilities. Paradoxically, “brief” can be another word for generous, in this poetic and generative anthology.
Janet Sternburg is the author most recently of White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine (reviewed in LARB here). She is currently at work on a book of her photographs, Overspilling World (Distanz Verlag, 2016).