Discoveries: Robert Vivian
By Susan Salter ReynoldsDecember 10, 2011
The Least Cricket of Evening by Robert Vivian
THESE ESSAYS CONTAIN SOME OF THE FINEST writing I have ever read. We readers are big mammals. We lumber through life as best we can, leaving so much in our wake unnoticed. Robert Vivian makes up for this shortcoming. He’s got something extra going on, some reflexive seventh sense, which might be called the ability to make sense of the world. Reading these essays, you grow roots, gain dimension; your universe expands. In the first, “Ghost Hallway,” Vivian describes the ghosts that watch over him patiently in Michigan, particularly the long-suffering woman who lived in his house for decades with her husband and children. “Their senses are alive in mine,” he writes, “just as mine are remade in the memory of theirs.” “I see how after a fight or a death in the family they sat by themselves in the living room, wanting things to be good again, wanting to be healed but not being able to do anything but wait.”
In many of the essays, Vivian admits things about himself, has real-time revelations and epiphanies. For example, toward the end of that first essay, he writes, “I will be the ghost for someone else.” “This is the first time I’ve admitted to myself that I live among ghosts. I have fought the impulse for months, for years, thinking to myself that such an admission bordered on the crazy, the fantastic, the frankly absurd.” Vivian transforms his own anguish into something beautiful: “My whole life has conspired to pry me open to this darkness, layer by delicate layer—not that I may embrace what I find there, but that I might shed myself, finally, of all that is not close to the burning of some deep interior flicker, the one I am learning to reach for like a child holding out empty hands.”
Vivian admits that three times in his life he has had the urge to pray, all three on a public bus. In these moments, these ecstatic experiences, “the whole weft of it is incandescent, lit up from within, a complete awareness … each step a little closer to some mysterious truth.” Rarely are we let in like this, with explanations and observations offered so simply, free of ties, free of ego. Many things are forgiven: the reader’s strangeness, the self-centered search for meaning, and the clumsy efforts to be a better person, even being American. “The ache I don’t fully understand,” he writes, “is somehow part and parcel of the same lodestone of peculiarly American woe chipped from the enormous monolith of towering stone called the American dream.”
There’s so much alchemy here: sadness, inadequacy are converted into peace; ugliness into beauty. Vivian sees the “frail loveliness” of laundry, the glowing leaves of locust trees in working-class neighborhoods in his home state of Michigan, dust motes that “burst into a catastrophe of blinding light,” fog clustered around porch lights caught in his car’s headlights, the dirt-rimmed fingernails of an old woman holding her hands out for money on a street in Budapest, “tiny aureoles of doom,” that look as though “they had been painted on by a scavenging angel.”
Susan Salter Reynolds is a book critic and writer who lives in Los Angeles and Vermont. She has three children: Sam, Ellie, and Mia.
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