JULY 12, 2014
Now I think the world is full of tiny, invisible strings we’re scarcely aware of, of threaded gossamer so delicate it binds us to people and to places and the nethermost of gestures, to the tiny warblings of living beings, to the musty smell of other rooms. The strings tying us to each other are everywhere.
— Robert Vivian, from “The Dignity of Crumbs”
IN THE MIDST of reading Xylotheque — Yelizaveta P. Renfro’s collection of luminous essays — I take in a pregnant foster dog, Becky. She’s little more than a puppy herself: nine months old, a stray, with a golden coat and the brindled markings of a shepherd mix. She has an open, friendly face, eyes alert for whatever will happen next. I don’t know her story, and perhaps her past is not as important now as her immediate future, foretold in the distended belly that holds eight or nine full-term pups.
As soon as Becky arrives, the house takes on an aspect of waiting: the pregnant pause. I find myself watching that belly, placing my hand there to feel the puppies moving inside. So much is unknown, so many questions that have no immediate answers: Will her maternal instinct kick in? Will I panic? Will the puppies all survive? Will they find good homes? I unravel various stories in my mind, while Becky and I gaze at one another: a vast, reverberant silence between us. This waiting — it feels like a kind of worship.
It is in this expectant silence that I turn back to Renfro’s essays. And I find Becky’s presence has perfectly infused the atmosphere for an immersion into this collection, because Renfro is a master of what we’ve come to call the lyric essay: nonfiction pieces that find their voice in the borderland between prose and poetry. Most of her essays are segmented in some way, working along parallel threads, creating gaps and fractures, yet held together as a whole through strong theme and images. They proceed with what Montaigne called the “poetic gait.” He wrote, of his own essays:
I go out of my way, but rather by license than carelessness. My ideas follow one another, but sometimes it is from a distance, and look at each other, but with a sidelong glance. […] I love the poetic gait, by leaps and gambols. […]
Renfro’s lyric essays are sure-footed in their gamboling. They revel in the gap between knowing and unknowing, and pause in order for connections between disparate themes to ravel together. Her essays, as most lyric essays do, nudge the willing reader, to collaborate in this endeavor, to go along for the ride. As the editors of the Seneca Review articulated in their 30th-anniversary edition, “They’ve got this built-in mechanism for provoking meditation. They require us to complete their meaning.”
Xylotheque: an unfamiliar word. I need to look it up, and I find it means, simply, a collection of wood. But a xylotheque, at a deeper level, is also a place of preservation, a gathering of knowledge. It’s an inquiry into history and evolution through patient inspection. A place where time is recorded and stored.
All these definitions apply to Renfro’s own Xylotheque. What ties most of these essays together — on the surface — is Renfro’s preoccupation with wood in the form of trees. Not particular trees necessarily (though some essays do focus on the oak, say, or the redwood, or the petrified forest), but more essentially the sentinel presence of trees in her world and ours. As she signals to us on the very first page, in her essay “Living at Tree Line”:
I have always been interested in trees in a general way. I do not spend a lot of time looking at specific trees or learning how to tell an eastern white pine from a western white pine, but I like the idea of trees. There is something soothing about running your eyes over trees.
This first essay also signals to us Renfro’s parallel, deeper theme in this collection: death. She has worked at a cemetery and as a crime reporter, so specific stories from these two professions continually weave through her essays. And hers is not, as you might expect, a weighted, melancholic voice that reports to us from these fields; rather, Renfro often uses a light touch that endears us to her perspective. For example, again in “Living at Tree Line,” she invites us into the book as a whole, with these thoughts about working at the cemetery:
Some people have expressed surprise over my choice of employment, but the truth is I like the dead. They do not make unreasonable demands; they are not stupid or mean; they are never late. They are quiet; they leave me alone. It is the living who try my patience.
“Living at Tree Line” signals to the reader not only Renfro’s primary content/themes, but also introduces us to the lyric forms these essays will assume. “Living at Tree Line proceeds through segmented sections, with two repeating subtitles: “The Dead” and “Trees.” At first, these topics seem opposed to one another, a study in contrasts. The pause between the first two sections builds our curiosity: What will happen next? How are “The Dead” and “Trees” related? Where are we going, and how will we get there?
It turns out we are heading, of course (the title was our tip-off), to the tree line, “an elevation beyond which trees would not grow.” At the end of the second section, “The Dead” and “Trees” cleave together. “I strive for that breaking point,” she writes, “for the arid thin air of subalpine elevations, where the pines, spruces, and aspens gradually make way to bald rocks, where one crosses out of the vibrant land of the living into the barren land of the nonliving.”
With lyric essays, we need an articulate voice like Renfro’s to guide us through narratives where transitions are no longer linear. When I teach the lyric essay, we look at how these writers need to do a lot of work (without making it look like work); they need to lure us into the essay, show us the fragmented path, and encourage us to follow along. My students and I look at beginnings over and over, seeing how themes and key images are seeded — sometimes in ways that are subtle, sometimes more directly. Sometimes (as noted) a title itself, or a well-chosen epigraph, does the work in retrospect. But in any case, the lyric essay writer is laboring without showing us she’s in labor. She needs to give us some idea of where we are headed, enough to intrigue us, and to let us know we’re in the care of a trusted scout as we light out for unknown territory. We’re following instinct: hers and ours. We have to believe we’ll be rewarded in the end.
Becky is starting to nest. She digs at my carpet, ignoring the very nice whelping box I’ve set up for her in my office: a child’s plastic wading pool lined with blankets and towels. She sighs and hiccups, curls up under my desk, and falls asleep. I look up from my work every few minutes to watch her. My world of work — with its predictability, deadlines, tasks I can neatly cross out on my to-do list — seems to contrast with Becky’s world, which now adheres to a more primal sense of time. I’m caught in between. Where are we going? And how will we get there?
Luckily I have Renfro as my companion in this netherland. I turn back to her prose and follow her past the tree line, to the land of the bristlecone pines, “the oldest living things on earth.” Again, her themes come together, as she observes: “It is normal for a bristlecone pine to be both dead and alive simultaneously; sometimes more dead than alive, yet still unmistakably alive. What, then, is the distinction between life and death?”
Questions such as these are vital for a lyric essay to succeed. In traditional forms, one event follows another, suspense is created, and we move along logically toward a destination. “Profluence,” I write on the board for my students: a term John Gardner used for fiction to describe the momentum any piece of writing must accrue. In a lyric essay, questions within the fragmented narrative, the more unanswerable the better, serve in lieu of “plot,” propelling the work forward; in the lyric essay, which might eschew chronology or linear progression, the author cannot be a know-it-all.
Renfro understands the power of interrogation in her chosen form; she questions herself and the world throughout Xylotheque, creating a musing voice that ignites our own deepest wonderings. In one of my favorite pieces, “Mulberry,” in which the pendulum has swung from death to birth, she asks: “Who can say what thoughts occur during birth? […] Is it a lie to create memories after the fact? Is it a fiction to plaster over experience with words?” In “Song of the Redwood Tree,” the insistent question “What is a tree?” recurs again and again, as Renfro engages her daughter in looking deeper. In “Soviet Trees,” an essay written in the second person about the time Renfro spent in a Soviet summer camp at age 12, she writes:
You understand that all summer you’ve been yearning for a transformation, and you wonder, if the transformation refuses to come, can the very yearning effect a transformation? Do you have that power? Can we make things happen to us, not just on the outside but on the inside? […] You don’t know what to ask but feel that you are brimming with nascent questions.”
Renfro’s “nascent questions” become ours, and with them in mind, we follow her to a place where, once arrived, we realize we’ve been all along; this is, in fact, the fluxing realm of time. Back to “Living at Tree Line”: in the penultimate section, titled “Time,” Renfro weaves in additional facts about bristlecone pines (including the story of the graduate student who cut down a 4,950-year-old tree in order to study it) with more glimpses from her job at the cemetery. She tells us of the man who arranges a burial for his mother who is still on life support, the mother who celebrates each birthday for her dead teenage daughter, the burial of an infant who lived only an hour. “We are not here for a very long time,” she muses, “and then we are here for a blip of a second, and then we are not here for a very long time.” “Time” interrupts the syncopation of “The Dead” and “Trees,” and makes all boundaries porous.
Becky gets restless, so I take her out for a short walk at the park next to my home. I’ve walked this park with my own dog hundreds of times; it’s a grove of second-growth fir and cedar, with winding trails, Frisbee golf, horseshoes, owls, and ravens. I’ve been here morning, noon, and evening, seen it in all weathers.
Today, with Becky, we slow down, her belly swaying side to side; she looks like a goat, with her slender legs, her tiny feet, and her convex, nippled belly. We stop in front of a tree that is half-dead, its interior blown apart by some force long past. But though I’ve passed this tree hundreds of times, and my own dog has probably sniffed its base and left her mark, I’ve never really looked at it before.
Now, because my mind is full of Renfro’s images of trees — and because the rhythms of her voice have put me in a contemplative frame of mind — I stop and really observe. The trunk lies open, a half-pipe, while the bark around it flakes off in sheaves of silver. It gives off light. How have I never noticed this tree, with its quiet encapsulation of time? Perhaps because in ordinary life we look for the green leaves, the shade, the qualities we know of as “tree” in the most general way. But now, because Renfro’s perceptions have insistently become my own, I can fully take in another whole manifestation of tree. I can feel, as she articulates in “Soviet Trees,” how “[…] trees are singular, the full force of their strength and purpose invested in simultaneously reaching upward toward light, downward into earth, without any need for retreat or posturing, without contradiction.”
As a teacher and a lyric essayist myself, I’ve come to understand just how important it is to learn the skills of both fragmentation and what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, “de-fragmentation.” When I teach the segmented essay — or its sister forms: the braided essay, the collage — my students become excited at the escape from traditional narrative lines — after all, we all like to blow things apart; there’s something thrilling in seeing what is already formed disintegrate. People line up for this sort of event, setting up chairs on the sidewalk to watch a building in a controlled implosion.
But once the cheers have died down and the dust has cleared, you have to begin the hard work of piecing the world back together in a new way: one that honors the splitting apart while creating a new pattern of cohesion. This is, perhaps, why we admire mosaics and stained-glass art: the brokenness so apparent in the design.
My students grow perplexed and frustrated when they realize the work it takes to gently and carefully assemble what has been disassembled. We’re now in the realm of instinct and intuition; how can I possibly teach these things? You either get it or you don’t, though you can cultivate intuition through patient observation. We need to listen to the essay, make it a tactile thing, cut up the sections, move them around, and see what happens through juxtaposition. We need to be comfortable in the mess that accompanies the birth of any living thing. We need to find the perfect stitches to hold everything in place. And we can look to essayists like Renfro to show us how it’s done.
Becky is giving birth on my living room chair. While I was in my office, looking up signs of imminent labor on the internet, Becky jumped up on my very nice, microfiber, plum-colored lounge chair and started delivering the first puppy. I rush out to find the first pup still emerging, nestled in its amniotic sac, and Becky gazing at it with puzzled focus. Then her instinct kicks in, fast and furious, and she begins lapping with deep moist strokes to free the baby from its watery sac and chew off its umbilical cord. I watch, paralyzed, not sure what to do, or if there is anything for me to do besides try to get a towel under her before my chair is ruined.
The puppy — wet and slick and free of her mother — begins to chirp, and Becky curls her front paw and pulls the baby deep into the cave she’s made of her abdomen. Only then does she look at me again, panting, and again some wordless communion passes between us. I’ve got this, she seems to say. Trust me.
And trust her I do. For the next four hours I sit by her side as more pups arrive, and time expands and contracts. Each puppy is a surprise, the coloring apparent through the amniotic fluid, and each one stretches its small limbs and chirps once free of the sac and under its mother’s care. People come to help, and leave. The mailman brings the mail. My cell phone beeps. The workaday world carries on around me, but here Becky and I have entered a space both separate from and connected to that world. It’s just as Robert Vivian wrote in “The Dignity of Crumbs”:“The strings tying us to each other are everywhere.” This sentiment becomes more obvious when in the presence of birth or death, when all the portals are open.
It’s this kind of space Renfro re-creates on the page: the pause where something new — you’re not sure what — can be delivered. A time out of time connected to all time. You just have to be there, stay put, trust your guide, and follow instincts you didn’t know existed. In Xylotheque, Renfro offers us the twin gifts of connection and articulation. As she writes in “Mulberry,” in which she describes the birth of her daughter: “We become ourselves through stories. And our stories are the cocoons that gently hold the things that cannot be uttered.”