blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Review | The Long Weeping: Portrait Essays
Jessie van Eerden
Orison Books, 2017

If Charles Wright’s assertion that “form is nothing more than a transubstantiation of content” is true for both poetry and prose, then the essays of Jessie van Eerden’s creative nonfiction collection, The Long Weeping, could not have been written in any form less attentive than the portrait. And a review of Eerden’s book could not have been written in any form less direct than an epistle.

spacer The Long Weeping: Portrait Essays (Orison Books, 2017)

Dear Jessie,

I began reading The Long Weeping perched on the dry-rotted backyard swing behind my house. I read “Resurrection” walking down zoomy streets in Tampa. And I read “Work Ethic” while laying across a stone ledge on the bank of the James River as people played music through their waterproof speakers, drank beer, got sunburned, and tripped into the water. When I began your final title essay, when I got to “The Long Weeping” in The Long Weeping, rain came crashing down. It was the summer kind that wailed on the house so hard I had to shut the windows. I thought of my poor bike locked somewhere on campus drowning, and then I kept reading. I had just rolled my bed against a different wall in my room, and my view, sitting up, felt fresh but familiar, like rain, like your book. I read until it got dark, devouring every word so greedily I almost forgot to chew.

You told me, in Tampa, that you wish people would read your book in discordant places, places like noisy shops where bikes get fixed, places like the James River on a Saturday, places like Four Green Fields where I first heard you read an essay out loud, Four Green Fields which is not a green field at all but an Irish pub by some railroad tracks in Tampa, the kind of place that doesn’t make their own fries and goes absolutely crazy on Saint Patrick’s Day. It would especially make sense to read your last portrait essay, about Rizpah, in a discordant place like that, as that essay is discordant itself—a meditation on an ancient Bible story, only with images like jalapeño potato chips, a hot pink wig from the Dollar Tree, an old motel bathtub that somehow appears clean and desirable. The Long Weeping is not concerned with flattery and romanticism. And it is less concerned with what “makes sense” than it is with what is true. Honestly I can’t imagine what could’ve been more true to Rizpah’s story than potato chips, than a grocery store dairy aisle.

Despite my not knowing all the people in your “cloud,” and despite my not knowing West Virginia (a place you remind us is in “the mountains, not the South”), I still found these essays intimately relatable. And I imagine anyone who has spent time reading in a discordant place, in a Jiffy Lube, or a turbulent plane, or a packing warehouse, would likely feel the same way. Perhaps the essays are easy to identify with because they’re sincere. When life has made you feel like you’re some Old Testament woman hurling stones at birds to keep them away from your seven sons’ murdered dead bodies as they spin like “large horrible whirligigs”—you say so. When life has made you feel like you’re a semiblind woman, a “disfigured self” roaming the cold dairy aisle of Kroger, “nipples hardened until they fell off . . . one nipple then another among the fancier cheeses,” when life has made you feel like that, you tell it like that. Your words reveal truth to the reader in a way that’s evocative and surprising, ordinary and extraordinary.

The voice of this collection is imaginative, lovely, haunting, consistent, hospitable (in the sense of hospitality), and wounded, but never merely or unintentionally so. Portraits range in subject from those you know dearly to those you’ve never met at all, including your mother, a stretched-out calf, Jacob’s first wife (Leah from the Bible), a boy at summer camp, a friend from home, and the famous French philosopher Simone Weil. Some essays are sectioned. Some are not. The shortest is two pages long. The longest is sixty-one. No matter the length, the rhetoric of each essay is just as intricately woven.

I’ve thought a lot about how you described your rough draft files on your computer, how you like to keep them untidy—five different colors and fonts, all bulleted and underlined. Despite the fact that you began these essays years ago, well before your novels, and despite the fact that the drafts were ten-colored, messy, and screaming—the essays come off clean, easy, slow, and casual. The pace and tone are seamless—evidence, you would say, of the fact that you read and read and reread your drafts out loud, a good habit that should, you said, “not only be practiced by poets.”

This achieved orality is not the collection’s only successful poetic strategy. Perhaps what most delighted me while reading were the breadcrumb motifs throughout the book—sometimes objects, sometimes textures, sometimes words, like magnanimous, like beneath the beneath, like damp air on a face, like a goat hair rug light as a table cloth, like your mother’s silhouette in the doorway as the bus pulls away toward school, her dark barn sweater around her shoulders. Each time her shadow grows smaller as we move forward, drive away.

When some writers repeat in this way it is only precious. But in The Long Weeping the motifs are intentional, controlled, revelatory, and unexpected. All of a sudden, the tree frogs are back. The tile grouting too. But from where? How did they arrive? You call upon each image as casually as you might call upon a friend. “Still, I call on them,” you write of your dearest friends, your cloud of witnesses, “They are not made perfect without me.” The same may be said for your images. Such repetition is not unlike matryoshka, those Russian nesting dolls, the same girl again and again inside herself. Or it is like the day I sliced a plain old red tomato I had just harvested from the field and found that one of the tomato’s yellow seeds had begun to grow within the unopened fruit. Tiny leaves were unfurling inside the goopy, acidic sac, in the dark, without any sun or soil. Natural and miraculous all at once, this is the way your essays repeat—like a tomato in a tomato. Like vivipary.

If these essays are collectively asking something, it might be one of the very questions you’ve dropped along the way: “Where can I find God?” “How can I ever bear to remember again?” “What is urgent?” “With whom am I livid and why?” “What pulls us out of it?” Or perhaps it is the question in the epigraph above the last essay, the excerpt from James Galvin’s poem “Putting Down the Night,” on page 127. “That wasn’t supposed to happen, but then,” Galvin asks, “what is?” The poet’s answer is evening. Evening is supposed to happen. “The night,” he writes, “is part of everything.” The darkness can be counted on.

But life happens regardless. A seed may sprout leaves even in the tomatoey dark. Perhaps The Long Weeping’s answer to Galvin’s question would not be “the night” but the “secret of the face.” The secret of the face, the portrait, is what is supposed to happen. And when a proper portrait happens, when that face is revealed, something shifts. When Rizpah’s own face is revealed to her, she realizes whether or not she wants to die. Once she makes that discovery, it is nothing but a dinged-up piece of stone fruit that saves her—a nectarine left by somebody who heard Rizpah’s request even when it seemed like no one was listening. The body knew it needed that nectarine despite the senseless, disconnected Rizpah-brain, despite the mind feeling like it’s “all out of ideas.”

You mentioned once during a reading that you call these essays portraits, but that they’re also “portals, a way into a question or an idea . . . by means of . . . paying attention really closely to the character.” The Long Weeping makes it clear that, so long as we pay attention in this way to the people around us, we can never be “all out of ideas.” Each character or person (including the character and person of the self) is a portal, a way toward contemplating big questions and discovering unexpected truths.

Till soon,

Jessie van Eerden is the author of the essay collection The Long Weeping: Portrait Essays (Orison Books, 2017), and two novels, My Radio Radio (Vandalia Press, 2016), and Glorybound (WordFarm, 2012), winner of the Foreword Reviews’ 2012 Editor’s Choice Prize for Fiction. Her work has appeared in Image, Oxford American, and Willow Springs, among others. Van Eerden holds an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa and directs the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College.

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