blackbirdonline journalFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Review | Circadian
Chelsey Clammer
Red Hen Press, 2017

spacer Circadian (Red Hen Press, 2017)

In 1973 Carl Sagan wrote, “All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a giant red star.” Perhaps Chelsey Clammer was responding to this as she crafted Circadian, an essay collection in which lightning becomes “white veins  . . . across the sky,” just as trauma travels through the synapses. In the universe of Circadian, the body and its experiences are as inseparable as the narrative and the form in which they are delivered.

Clammer’s collection contains twelve experimental lyric essays concerning themes of trauma and the ways it frequently settles under the skin, such as her own experience with her eating disorder or her father’s cluster headaches. Circadian gives the reader the sensation of placing a stethoscope to one’s own chest and taking a deep breath. In often disarming prose, it follows the circularity of addiction, depression, grief, and, ultimately, language. Each essay services the relationship between form and function, between what is flesh and what is figural, all in an effort toward establishing Clammer’s central search: how life’s cycle is a pattern in which we are constantly becoming, constantly growing, even as mental illness and our own biology threaten our destruction.

By definition, circadian refers to the periods or cycles of biological activity within a given day. Clammer’s essay collection embodies these inherent patterns. In “Outline for Change” she writes, “Genetics is a field of biology that intersects with the . . . science of being alive. I was curious if in some way I could make science intersect with story and emotion, if I could come up with some sort of system . . . to understand what I’ve never been able to comprehend.” Science and story are so connected in this collection that on a graph they might appear as one parabola, one narrative arc.

This desire to understand leads Clammer to analyze her experiences and relationships in entirely new frameworks. An essay considering histories of misogyny and racism closely examines language and nomenclature to reveal a vernacular sculpted by societal prejudice. Still, Clammer never neglects the biology at the heart of her work. A consideration of language is then grounded in the physicality of speech:

The tongue speaks, forming words that started out as a silent idea . . . Teeth controlling the latitude of language, conducting air as it flows from esophagus to mouth . . . And the tongue follows, strikes the teeth, lashes, clashes with it to complete a sound that holds meaning. And then that one final push to bring the word out, to transform air into sound, to vocalize what’s inside so I can connect with you, out here.

This stands in stark contrast to Clammer’s examination of the societal expectation that women not only be systematically silenced, but also that they be starved: “the full-bodied taste of full-body hatred that resonates in her mouth with an intense, rich flavor of restriction.” Clammer’s conclusions are not always comfortable, but they are significant. It’s this exact discomfort that she seeks to biopsy.

While many of Circadian’s essays seek resolution or understanding in the face of her father’s death, the title essay backtracks—Clammer studies her father’s cluster headaches within the framework of their tempestuous relationship, and it is here that circadian rhythms operate most overtly in the collection:

Clusters are cyclical. Same time. Every night. The zap of an intense pain. The ripped from dreams. This nightmare of these tension headaches, again. Routine.

Clammer takes us right to the source of our suffering in an attempt to reckon with it:

Here lies the hypothalamus.

Size of an almond. Shape of an almond. Not a nut but nuclei-made. Hypothalamus means under, means chamber. . . . The hypothalamus stimulates, inhibits, releases hormones—an anatomical character that conducts the story of our bodies, our minds, our moods. In essence—the hypothalamus is the sole supervisor of our cycles.

What is so remarkable about this collection is an equal willingness to characterize not only the cycles but the breaking of those cycles—the circadian dysrhythmia to our own circadian rhythm. In this breakage, we adapt.

Given this approach, Clammer’s writing is characteristically self-conscious. Readers might find Clammer’s candid shirking of authorial distance unexpected. There are moments in which she confesses the words she cannot spell, or words she has crossed out in favor of others—moments where she might blow her nose a time or two to disrupt the reader’s rhythm. This merging of the dyad between reader and writer establishes a necessary intimacy.

In “Body of Work,” Clammer writes within and addresses the restrictions of structured essays, demonstrating that the limitations of form are not always given to transcendence:

We . . . were force-fed the essay’s acceptable appearance, all our thoughts squeezed into five paragraphs. If/then statement. If we write within the standardized confines, then we prohibit explorations of an essay’s true beauty . . . we thrive in a variety of forms. Like our bodies.

The essay is thus an enactment of dysrhythmia—it is a kind of intimate resistance. In an instance of the close intimacy between form and content in this collection, she writes, in the section titled “Body II: Restructuring The Fractured Body:”

And how a body can move away from this, can work against it by creating a new text of physical self. Cut up the archetype. Expose the horror story we believe our bodies to be, solve the mystery of how we can fit in this world by simply fitting in with ourselves . . .—get a thrill out of living creative-nonfictionally. This is my body. Fact. This is what it says. Create.

This work is quite literally of the body. Her emphasis on the physical body and earthly function frequently turns toward the divinity in that which is tangible, even when abstraction and illusion might be more tempting. Clammer returns us again and again to the incredible force of life that is always in flux—that we breathe, digest, and ultimately live, even when we do not actively try, even when it might not be what we want.

Even in the act of confession, this letting go, this embrace of vulnerability, Clammer edges closer to touching the core of whichever small truth she has biopsied. She calls this purging. Even that which seems to be obviously emotional, abstract, out of reach, becomes tangible through language. Language, for Clammer, bridges the gap between the mind and the body, and, therefore, the self and the world. Recovery becomes attainable, possible.

In this way, content and craft intertwine. It is difficult to isolate a passage in Circadian that is not, somehow, touched by a careful consideration of both. Her writing is in sync with life’s rhythms and the brain’s circular logic in the face of trauma—lightning meeting grass. If there’s anything Clammer proves, it is how much we can learn from the body’s unconscious functions.

Consider dust, Clammer urges in “RE: Collection.” Dust is a measure of time, a measure of neglect—a father’s ashes, for example. A father’s death accumulates metaphor, but then, unavoidably and necessarily turns toward its particles. Dust is made of our own debris, our pollution: skin cells, hair, maybe even the remains of some meteorite decomposing outside (we are, after all, made of that too). Clammer tends to the emotional by excavating the physical—“and,” she writes, “as skin cells shed, there’s an emotional release as well . . . cellular suicide helps the next generation to grow.”

For Clammer, movement is growth, and we are constantly engaged in both. Hers is not a resistance to circadian rhythms, to pattern, to the needs of the self; hers is one of moving closer to the pure, raw nerves of the parts of the system—that she and readers might come closer to ourselves and to the world when we are willing to listen to the rhythm, move with it or toward it. We can even hear it—we press our ear to the page.  

Chelsey Clammer is the author of two nonfiction collections, Circadian (Red Hen Press, 2017) and BodyHome (Hopewell Publications, 2015). Her work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Essay Daily, Hobart, McSweeneys, The Normal School, The Rumpus, and The Water~Stone Review, among others. She earned an MFA in creative writing from the Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop and is the essays editor for The Nervous Breakdown.

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