THE AUTHOR of a book-length lyric essay needs a steady hand and a deep reservoir of confidence to make the project coalesce, through digression after digression, into a lively, natural work of art. But an essay’s digressions are never as digressive as they might seem. They’re carefully managed. An apparent loss of control is, in reality, the strictest species of control, and it’s a key feature of the long lyric essay.
Some of the best contemporary book-length essays were accomplished by writers whose work lives in the borderlands between genres — authors with faith that when they make an associative leap, their readers will jump with them.
Poet and art critic Maggie Nelson gave us Bluets, a kaleidoscopic meditation on the color blue. Lyric essayist Jenny Boully gave us The Book of Beginnings and Endings, a volume of fictional first and last pages of books that, over time, morphed into something far more mysterious and meaningful than the sum of its parts. And Geoff Dyer (whose work happily flits between fiction, nonfiction, and criticism) gave us The Missing of the Somme: part academic discourse on memorial culture, part history of World War I, and part travelogue through France.
One of the latest books to join the club is Matthew Gavin Frank’s Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer. Frank is the author of an array of volumes, including three collections of poetry, a memoir about working on a marijuana farm, and a nonfiction book about the cuisine of Barolo, Italy. In the lyric essay world, that kind of triple-threat C.V. gives him strong credentials to actually pull off 300 pages that touch on squid obsession, ice cream, family history, and the power of myth.
The main thrust of the essay concerns Moses Harvey, a reverend and amateur naturalist in St. John’s, Newfoundland, who first showed the world the scale of the giant squid by draping a captured specimen’s tentacles over the shower rod in his bathtub and having the creature photographed. We also follow Frank as he visits St. John’s to research the giant squid and get a firsthand look at Moses Harvey’s house on Devon Row. Along the way, Frank manages to weave in a brief primer on the history of ice cream; the story of his beloved, obese, saxophonist grandfather, Poppa Dave; and tales from his own past, such as driving an ice-cream truck through the streets of Chicago in a record heat wave.
The connection between those threads may seem tenuous, but Frank controls the narrative by slipping between the global and the local. He follows the tiny connections from one story to the next. Huge statements like “Can I ever know my grandfather if I can never know his pain?” are balanced out by ornate — almost intimate — catalogs of detail, such as this description of Moses Harvey’s house:
In their dining room, the Victorian cherrywood table lay dormant under three purple doilies. The gold-framed oil of an abandoned, beached sailboat clung to its nail. The hutch with pewter latches that they brought with them to Newfoundland in pieces and then reassembled held two Bibles, shards of a broken hand mirror, and twelve linen napkins, each with unique stains that would never come out. The huntboard pie safe held in its drawers a scattering of fishing hooks and bobbers, snarls of line, brass “birdcage” reels and stop-latch reels with heart-shaped screws and, Harvey’s favorite, a silver reel with a rim pull-stop, hard rubber handle, and knurled counterbalance knob, and a “reverse-S” handle that Harvey felt was blatantly diaphanous.
The details build on each other, like the layers of color in an Impressionist painting. But Frank isn’t just using his prose for description and texture in the narrative; it’s for lyric pacing and orchestration, too.
In fact his background in poetry is clearly on display throughout the essay. In Preparing the Ghost’s most high-lyric moments, Frank slips into a litany of the giant squid:
The giant squid as silk lampshade.
The giant squid as a lampshade made of silkworms, trapped with staples,
but still wildly spinning.
The giant squid as the pet silkworms to whom my wife fed beet greens, so
they would spin red.
The giant squid as metaphor.
The giant squid as dominant metaphor begetting a recessive one.
The giant squid as Alyssa Milano.
The giant squid as teenage crushes.
The giant squid as my parents’ house.
The giant squid as watching TV with my parents.
The giant squid as octopus.
The giant squid as guppy.
The giant squid as Ruthie, my sister’s pet goldfish circa 1981, so named
after my grandmother due to a red spot on its forehead.
These moments are rare in the book, but Preparing the Ghost can accommodate them because of the range in Frank’s writing. Whether he’s relating the history of squid, creating a history with his imagined scenes of Moses Harvey, or describing his own travels through St. John’s, Frank adjusts his language accordingly. His food-writer voice surfaces in a description of a lunch of “shards of cod tongue with green peppercorn aioli, caribou roulade with juniper, seal flipper pie, lobster omelet, sweetbread with partridgeberry and bakeapple jams, [and] Lady of the Woods birch-sap wine”; a more muted tone appears when he describes driving an ice-cream truck “along the streets of suburban Chicago during the awful and now-renowned summer heat wave that killed nearly 800 people over the course of five days”; and he displays a self-deprecating streak when he shows up at the door of the Harvey home in St. John’s to find the exasperated current resident, who sighs “as if he’s enduring [Frank’s] stupidity.”
The piece of writing I thought of most often while reading Preparing the Ghost wasn’t a work of nonfiction, but a poem: Campbell McGrath’s “The Bob Hope Poem” from his collection Spring Comes to Chicago. At 70 pages, its subjects include takeout menus, Bob Hope’s property holdings, the streets of Chicago, history, imperialism, and capitalism. It features large blocks of text from Marx, Thoreau, Darwin, Wittgenstein, and Whitman. It uses highway signage, junk mail, movie summaries, litany, and haiku. But though it may seem overly ambitious, even arrogant in parts, by its conclusion, repeated lines suddenly take on new meanings, and, as the poem peaks, its emotional heft becomes undeniable.
Similarly, Preparing the Ghost builds slowly. Frank seems to understand that the long lyric essay can work like a symphony. He’s the conductor, and he artfully manages the diverse narrative threads that run through the book. We hear the individual sections: the strings, the woodwinds, the brass, and the percussion. The piece introduces themes and pulls them back. It makes variations. It rises and falls and eventually brings those themes together to make music pleasing to the mind and senses.
Of course, the book isn’t really about the giant squid in the end. It’s about how we tell stories — how we create them, and how they create us. It’s about how we can’t ever get away from them. By the end of the book, Frank speculates that Moses Harvey may have felt the same way:
He couldn’t let the story go. He was a speculator himself. In this way, I can tell myself that I empathize with Moses Harvey. In this way, we possess, we possess, we are possessed by the myths we destroy, and then resurrect by hanging their bodies, in our homes, above our heads, like halos.
Frank may not have destroyed the myth and hung it in his home, but Preparing the Ghost clearly possessed him. And for readers, thoughts of his book will circle their heads long after they turn the final page. Like notes of music. Or halos.