Last spring, at the 2014 Associated Writing Programs conference in Seattle, a large crowd assembled to honor writer and educator Judith Kitchen.
Given her remarkable output, as well as her contribution to the community, such a celebration was long overdue. A poet, novelist, critic, essayist, and editor, Kitchen founded the legendary State Street Press, co-directed the Rainier Writing Workshop, and regularly wrote about poetry for The Georgia Review. She was the winner of multiple Pushcart Prizes for creative nonfiction, the Fairchild Award and the Gable Prize for her novel, the Anhinga Prize for poetry, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. A graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA program, Judith taught creative writing and literature at SUNY College in Brockport, New York, for over a decade. She also served as a judge for the AWP Nonfiction Award, the Pushcart Prize in poetry, the Oregon Book Award, and the Bush Foundation Fellowships, among others. Most recently she founded Ovenbird Books with the aim of “[promoting] innovative, imaginative, experimental works of creative nonfiction.”
Since Judith’s death last November, testaments to her influence and generosity have continued to appear in print and online. A substantial anthology of her critical pieces is forthcoming from The Georgia Review, and other posthumous publications of both fiction and nonfiction are in the planning stages. In fact, Judith worked — and wrote — right up until the day she died: a new essay was included in this winter’s Harvard Review, another will be published in the spring 2015 issue of River Teeth, and Brief Encounters (co-editor, Dinah Lenney), the fourth in Judith’s series of collected short nonfiction, is coming from W. W. Norton next fall. All this to insist that she is very much among us even now. But on that day last February, she was in remission and in the room, sitting somewhere near the back with her husband, the poet Stanley S. Rubin, when four appreciative writers attempted to express the depth and breadth of her achievement.
— Kevin Clark, Dinah Lenney
JUDITH KITCHEN: THE BREADTH OF THE CRITIC
I’m not going to tell you the story — I should probably say stories — of my first meeting with Judith Kitchen, which came in August of 1981 in a truly quaint restaurant near the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference campus in Vermont. I was there as a fellow on the basis of my just-released first book of poems; Judith was there because she and her then-husband had stopped off at Bread Loaf so she could meet a visiting editor with whom she had recently become acquainted via the method by which writers and editors became acquainted in those quaint, antiquated days: the United States mail. I’d gotten to meet that editor the day before, and was pleased to do so because I’d never before met an editor, and on top of that this was one who had published a couple of my book reviews (and had turned down a number of my poems). His name was Stanley W. Lindberg, he was the editor of The Georgia Review, and he invited me to join the dinner party that was going to include this woman I’d never heard of but whom he was sure I would like.
Now that’s not the story of my meeting Judith — that’s just the backdrop. You’ll have to check with Judith for the story. (You can ask me and I’ll give you one, but hers would be better.)
I want to begin instead with something much more recent — from just a couple of months ago, when I read these words: “Judith Kitchen is one of the two or three leading poetry critics in the United States and one of the five or so in the English-speaking world.” Now, let us all pause for just a moment — in a manner appropriate to certain religious and civic gatherings — for silent, inward-aimed consideration: Has anyone ever said of you that you are one of the two or three leading whatevers in the United States and one of the five or so best in the English-speaking world? If nobody has, do you have in mind what you would like your whatever to be if such praise ever does come around?
Folks, we are not talking small-time stuff here. We are talking global. Oh, yes, you can say, “Well, that’s just one person’s opinion.” Still …
I’ll come back to this matter, but first I’ll thrill you with a few numbers beyond that “one of two or three” and “one of the five.” After Judith had written a couple of strong reviews for us in the late 1980s, Stan and I decided she might make a good successor to Peter Stitt, who had been doing four-a-year essay-reviews for us for most of a decade but was heading off to be the inaugural editor of The Gettysburg Review. We also signed on North Carolinian Fred Chappell, who would alternate issues with Judith — and did so for X years. I think none of us — Stan, Judith, or yours truly — could have had a thought that nearly twenty-five years later Judith would still be producing semiannual poetry studies featuring unflagging aesthetic insight, intellectual rigor, emotional acuity, and often-poetic prose.
Since the summer of 1988, when Judith assayed new books by William Stafford, Heather McHugh, Linda Pastan, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and Li-Young Lee, she has published nearly fifty substantive and lengthy poetry studies for us — upwards of 250 new collections examined across roughly 800 pages of our journal. We at the Review have shipped box after box of review copies to Judith — for about fifteen years to Brockport, New York, and for the past decade to Port Townsend, Washington. You would have to ask Judith — you should always ask Judith — how many books she read to get “down” to those 250, but my guess is that there must have been more than a thousand — and that she must have set out into (in the manner of an editor screening manuscripts) at the least a thousand more. She’s never complained, but I can’t help thinking she must have had at least a few early mornings and late nights when she stepped back to reflect on the enormity of her reading effort and called to mind Samuel Johnson on Paradise Lost: “None ever wished it longer.”
Of course, bulk is not the point, though it does have some bearing on the reviewer’s development of knowledge and expertise. What did Judith think she was doing in the course of those hundreds of Georgia Review pages? She has said herself that “I wanted to discover what I was thinking as I wrote, and I wanted to feel my way toward a full sense of what was important in and about the poems. Over time, I learned more and more how to respect the writer’s cues.” And what does she think might have been the outcome of these wants? Here is Judith again:
At the very least, [my accumulated essay-reviews] show what a wide range of poetry is being written — by women, men, poets who celebrate their ethnicity, poets who show a fierce individualism, poets whose careers have soared, promising poets whose work has all but disappeared. I see poets whose work I admired suddenly being recognized years later. I even see a resurgence of interest in poets who died over the course of my tenure [, and] I hope to have been a source for some of this renewed enthusiasm.
I realize I’m not being entirely fair by getting Judith to speak in my stead here, but the temptation is great for several reasons: First, she’s in the audience … and so the more of her words I use, the fewer of my talk’s total words she’ll be able to take exception to when she confronts me — and she will — at this session’s end. Second, Judith is not just super-smart and sensitive and articulate about poetry — she’s that way about everything, including herself, which in general makes her her own best spokesperson. And third … well, third brings me back around to that “one of the two or three leading poetry critics in the United States and one of the five or so in the English-speaking world” business from earlier.
I don’t know who wrote those words — by which I mean I don’t know what individual wrote them. What I do know is that they were written by an official reader for a book manuscript — a manuscript of Judith Kitchen’s selected essay-reviews from The Georgia Review, and a manuscript — as yet untitled — that will be an inaugural book in a newly established Georgia Review series of books to be published by the University of Georgia Press starting in the spring of 2015. I am pleased and more to be making this first public announcement of Judith’s book and of the series, and of course I hope all of you will keep both on your radar and rush to buy when the time comes.
I’ll close by making two final observations, one for all of you in the audience and one just for Judith.
To you all, this: One of the greatest pleasures of my long-running tenure as an editor has been to have long-running editorial back-and-forth sessions with a number of contributors. Both sides learn a lot, I think — though not without consternation or worse. (An etymological aside: according to Webster’s, consternation comes out of the Latin consternare — to terrify — and is akin to the Latin sternax — headstrong, restive — with links to the Indo-European base ster — rigid, stiff. Think of the fine relationships that can flow from such a word.) Over the many years, Judith and I have learned to extract from our hearts many a flung dart of strongly held other-belief and to transform them, by various spells, into so much water running off our backs — and the winner in all our debates, whichever way they go, is always the version of the essay-review that appears in print.
To Judith, this: Excepting the one quoted from Samuel Johnson, my remarks here concluding contain not a single instance of the word it.
Postscript to you all: If you want to know about the it business, you should ask Judith. You should always ask Judith.
“NO MORE WARNING”: ON THE VERSE AESTHETIC OF JUDITH KITCHEN
After she’d started publishing poems in journals but before Judith Kitchen published her first book of poems, she founded the State Street Press in 1981 in Brockport, New York. Over the course of 18 years, State Street would publish 76 chapbooks, two pamphlets, one retrospective anthology, five full-length books, and two volumes of translations. It’s difficult to imagine the breadth, commitment, and perseverance of such production: While being a mother and teaching at SUNY and writing her own poems and essays, Judith saw nearly five books a year into print. For those readers who have brought one book into the world, consider what it’s like to be such a prolific publisher while maintaining a full life outside of the press. Judith wrote grants, raised money, began a nationwide chapbook contest, brought three editors into the fold (Bruce Bennett, Linda Allardt, and her husband Stan Rubin), developed a signature design, and established as much advertising as she could.
State Street Press gained a nationwide reputation for publishing excellent poetry. I make this last assertion with some self-congratulatory risk, since she chose to publish my first chapbook in 1984. (One of the key moments in my life was answering the phone to her percolating voice as she gave me the good news.) And so I’ve spent the last month reading many of the chapbooks. I’m simultaneously struck on one hand by diversity of voice, form, and subject and on the other by elements of a common, highly refined aesthetic that seems to be linked to theme. In the late ’70s, when Judith told Stan Lindberg, editor of The Georgia Review at the time, that she thought he had a great job since he could bring into print writers who represented his aesthetic, he suggested that she should publish chapbooks because, even though so many good emerging poets had only unfinished first-book manuscripts, many had enough poems to fill out the shorter book form. And as we know, Judith’s aesthetic came into widespread acclaim in the form of her own poetry and that of the folks she published.
There exists in the work of State Street Press poets what I might call a reverence for the passage of time. Though comparatively accessible, the poems are complex and they favor mystery, both in human beings and in nature. Here’s a passage from Greg Glazner’s chapbook Walking Two Landscapes:
I ease across the first
dry rocks, where old roots
dip into the river, gesturing
in the uneven current, and slip in
up to my knees, the edges
of my loose shirt translucent
in the sunlight. The absolute
clearness of the water disappears
where I stand, the shadows it leaves
change shape on the smooth rocks,
and the current circles a new way
without admitting me.
Like so many of the poems Judith brought into the world via State Street, Glazner’s work admits us, at the very least, into life of the uncertain mind. Employing a musicality that lives between blank verse and the iambic aspiration of colloquial free verse, State Street poets seem unified by the pursuit of what may be un-pursuable. Quiet singers, they are fascinated by the way the world’s truths seem both available and hidden.
Most of the State Street poets reflected Judith’s aesthetic when seeking a central image in each of their poems that is both organic to the setting of the poem and archetypal in its implications. While Judith only published one volume of poems, I know with utter certainty that she has always had poetic greatness in her. After all, what are some of those paragraphs in her astonishing, inimitable 55-page essay “The Circus Train” that appeared last summer in The Georgia Review? They are prose moments aspiring to and achieving poetry of the highest order. In a way, my comments here form an argument with Judith who does not believe she could come to write poetry at the level to which she aspired. But passage after passage in “The Circus Train” clearly disputes her modesty. And, in my opinion, her poetry book Perennials, published in 1986, was already a work of quiet power in which accessibly wrought images expand out of the poem and into the wide world, enveloping us in their many layers of implication.
When those poems, usually modest in length and tone, come to closure, we’re simultaneously reminded of the way the universe secrets its many meanings in plain view — and the way those meanings are nonetheless intuited by us mortal creatures if we are attentive. It’s as if Judith had spent her youth in the town of Painted Post, New York, coming to recognize the often overlooked gifts of the natural environments as well as those of the human world — and then transforming the native flora, fauna, and objets into symbols that suddenly seem so radiant with significance that we’re astonished we hadn’t noticed them in such a way before.
Her 16-line elegy for her friend Kathryn Sanford Borden, simply titled “White,” takes its title from snow that covers the land:
The road winds through fields of snow.
I am coming home to bury all of us —
everything we thought we’d be, and all those
days of maple-covered streets. You wrote
you hadn’t changed. Were still the girl
of seventeen, or seven. Still played dolls,
wore braces, still turned from the camera
with an awkward smile. They took away your jaw,
and with it, words. Words gather
at the edge of the mind, pooled, like light
on the horizon. The silence of this winter
and the church that waits, now, at the end
of this ride. My life stretches out
with no more warning than we’re ever given.
Drifts swirl at the edge, girls in white dresses
stepping gingerly into the highway.
“Words gather at the edge of the mind.” Indeed. The poem reminds us that we can’t know the future, that we’re locked in the present moment, that snow is covering the dangerous highway, preventing us from seeing into what-happens-next. As adults we learn that there is “no more warning.”
Perennials is filled with poems like this, poems that combine transparent expression and exacting imagery with an inviting, mature, knowing tone. As I say, these first-book poems are extraordinary in the way they welcome us as readers into an abiding otherworld consciousness, one that we seem always to have inhabited without our being conscious of doing so until the moment we read the poem. And as exquisite as they are, these poems also offer promise of further, ever more stunning exploration.
As I say, we see this promise come to fruition in her essay “The Circus Train,” which is — among many other things — an exploration of the efficacy of memory by a woman facing her own mortality. As a four-year-old girl, Judith saw across a field a circus train pulling its cars in all their crazy colors. Now, in the midst of chemotherapy sessions and exhaustion and difficulty breathing, she also remembers that the train hit a car, killing at least one of its occupants. She can remember her mother helping at the scene of the accident, but not her father. Sometimes she feels as if her father was holding her hand as she watched the train, though she knows — for certain? — that he was not there with her. And, as a modernist poem might mimic the way our thoughts free-associate, the essay tracks and mimics the hyper-associative nature of thinking itself. As Judith muses on the train and her parents and the helpfully poisonous drip of the chemo, she remembers time spent in Vermont — and so a theme returns:
Snow sifting. Silent. Filling the Vermont street with its hush, a postcard moment in the life being lived. Snow taps on the window and we walk out into its lavish new day. Snow whispers along the macadam, making little snakes of itself in the feathery wind, rising in whirls like girls dancing. It settles on the fir trees and along the bare branches of maples. It mimics the birches, is backdrop for cardinal, and jay. Snow fills your lungs, hollows them so they send breath back out, white against white.
In the context of the essay, this poetical paragraph — with its fragments, its lovely cadences, its interior rhyme, its inviting imagery — demonstrates both Judith’s former poetic style and the development of something new. The paragraph highlights the sustaining function of beauty in our memories. The paragraph returns to the image of snow, but now, rather than use snow as an apt metaphor for the inability to understand where we’re going, snow becomes, first, a thing of beauty to be appreciated, and, second, a reminder of her mortality and our own, a symbol of breathing: “Snow fills your lungs, hollows them so they send breath back out, white against white.”
If we listen to the paragraph closely, we can hear yet something else. The elegiac tone of the poem “White” and the other poems in Perennials has been changed considerably. The beautiful Tennysonian, James Wrightian sadness that often characterizes the poems in Perennials has reformed into a kind of unflinching urge to set the record straight, no matter what. As Judith writes in “The Circus Train”: “How to be scrupulous. Inclusive. Honest. Isn’t that what this is about?” It’s not that elegy isn’t true, but now her tone is more Yeats than Tennyson, more declarative than resigned. The road is no longer covered in the stillness of snow. The circus train is kinetic. As she writes in the end of her essay, it “keeps on trailing its scarf of smoke.” Judith has achieved in prose the kind of poetry that she believed she could not.
ATTENDING TO READERS: THE FICTION OF JUDITH KITCHEN
It’s always a pleasure to have a book signed by its author. If you know the writer, even a little, you experience two anticipations: not only for the reading experience ahead, but also for the brief hit of personal connection — oh, what will she say to me? Judith Kitchen’s inscription in my copy of her 2002 novel, The House on Eccles Road, did not disappoint. For nestled in it was this intriguing phrase, “Joyce in Woolf’s clothing …”
In this phrase, as in all things Judith Kitchen, there is both a great directness and the tangy zest of the true subversive. Even before I got to the acknowledgments page or the epigraph, I was on a journey. A journey that would turn out to be as finely guided — and as satisfyingly mysterious — as the journey undertaken by Kitchen’s central character, Molly Bluhm, in the town of Dublin, Ohio, on June 16, 1999.
But about that acknowledgments page: it contains an intriguing hint, too. Listen:
I am grateful to a fictional character in J. M. Coetzee’s essay, “What is Realism?” […]: “Elizabeth Costello made her name with her fourth novel, The House on Eccles Street (1969), whose main character, Marion Bloom, wife of Leopold Bloom, the principal character of another novel, Ulysses (1922), by James Joyce.” For that idea, I give thanks.
Leave it to Judith Kitchen to actually write the novel ascribed to a fictional author in a Coetzee novel. For her genius in sniffing out a possibility, bringing it fully to life, and doing it with grace, sophistication, and wit, I give thanks. And for her novel’s many layers of reading pleasure, I also give thanks. Because a Judith Kitchen novel, like a Judith Kitchen essay, or poem, or book review, offers us several forms of fulfillment at once — or, to put it more accurately, it recognizes — and attends to — many different readers inside us. Let me list three. There is, first and foremost, the reading self I’ll call “The Peasant.” Second, the Old English Major. And 2.5, hidden in the English major, the eternal student of writing or the Wolf (with one “o”) in sheep’s clothing.
Let us attend first to “The Peasant” — the hungry reader who, beguiled by the novel’s rich texture, forgets that these characters are fictional creations, and finds herself fully immersed in the novel’s world. Kitchen’s own Leo Bluhm, Molly’s husband, describes this reader better than I can, as someone who reads “for the author’s internal rhythms, not for what was said about the place of gender or politics or economics,” who “read[s] for the human.”
Forget James Joyce, forget Virginia Woolf, forget everyone but this Molly, on this day, living on a road whose name has been changed, like all roads American, from Eccles Road to Larch, in an American suburban village called Dublin, on June 16, 1999. The reader will be granted a stunning depth of immersion into precisely the sort of day and month and place that seem, on the surface, least promising. Molly hates June; she finds it “unoriginal” and “indeterminate.” But her resistance is the very thing Judith Kitchen will use to probe the deeper trouble stirring: “Everything in her life had turned out to be ordinary, or almost ordinary. Yet she’d had her own passions, her griefs, so why did they seem, today, like the husks of someone else’s emotions?” Yet. A tension — a question — has been set in motion. Before the day is over, every last thread of June’s “ordinary” will surrender the grief and glory it secretly holds.
That it will do so chiefly through the consciousness of a woman with a beautiful voice who has not sung for many years, since the death of her only child, seems another example of Judith Kitchen’s genius for what I’ll call productive resistance. For it is from this voice — so long silenced — that all the characters of this novel, major and minor, will take their cues, beginning with Molly’s husband, beloved English professor and anniversary-forgetter, Leo Bluhm. Memory will speak too, for those who cannot: of little Arjay, the Bluhm’s lost child, who was, in his last days, “pricked and poked and growing thinner and thinner, as if he might simply slip away from them. It will speak of a great flood in Molly’s childhood, an image that flows through the day like the “dark, swirling waters of the unconscious.” All the living and the dead, it seems, will carry Molly through this day, toward the birth of her neighbor’s child, toward the scene of a fatal car accident, toward a meeting with Ted Boyle, a theater director with whom she once shared an indefinable bond. It will carry her, late in that day, to a small pub where she will be invited to the microphone, and make her way there, and then:
her voice … rising on its own bare bones, in a crowded room of a crowded pub, drinks spilled out over the tables and the ashtrays full of cigarette butts and at the bar, one or two early drinks, but even they stopped mumbling and looked up when her voice offered up its whispered promise … She sang with her heart and her heart did not empty.
For the pleasures of these internal rhythms and for the writer’s deep and abiding sense of the human, the Peasant gives thanks.
But, if hiding inside the Peasant there is an Old English Major, and inside that old English major lurks the eternal student of writing, the wolf with one “o,” then there waits yet another great pleasure: that of discovering the many ways in which this novel acknowledges — with great respect and playfulness — both James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, then builds its own architectural wonder from those foundations. There are many ways in which Kitchen makes this House her own, but I am going to focus on just one today — one that feels central to the novel’s whole design and its generous vision of “the human,” yet operates at the molecular level: it is — move over Woolf and Joyce — point of view. For as you read her sentences, particularly these liquid and unobtrusive transitions from one viewpoint to another, sans chapter break, sans white space, you can’t help but ask, how the hell did she do that?
The novel opens close to Molly, and, in its first few pages, roots us firmly in her consciousness in a very particular moment in time and place — the threshold of summer, the staircase and entryway of her home. Listen:
She was not going to spend the whole day inside, that’s one thing she was certain of, though just what she was going to do was vague, as yet unformed, so the day spread itself out like a clean linen tablecloth, waiting for its pleasures, its flatware and candlesticks and bright plaid napkins. No, she was not going to let Leo’s failure to mention their anniversary get in the way of her life.
The next two sentences begin with the words Maybe … and If so … both phrases that move us from resistance into possibility — No, in Judith Kitchen’s lexicon, is a potent engine propelling the character to make her own way forward into the unknown day.
This opening establishes the novel’s cadence, the “internal rhythm” by which it will move, not only within the mind of a character, but also between separate minds. It’s that word, “no” and all its friends “not and no and maybe and if so,” that keep the narration as supple and open as this June morning — a day both unnerving in unformed state but also full of possibility. It’s the blank page itself — the abyss or a new beginning — we can’t know.
But there’s more. Even in those first few pages we do not “stick” to the present moment but move, by thresholds within the threshold, into memory — June’s “indeterminacy” calls up other summers, and within them, her awareness of an “unfinished” constellation of students swirling around her husband Leo … until we get to this:
Today he’d looked old. Or at least tired … And the sun had broken over the hood of his car until it disappeared in dazzle. And he’d back down the driveway and turned toward the city and left her standing on the upstairs landing with a day to fill, and a night…she has an image of herself so far from his thoughts that her figure is dissolving into sunlight … a dust mote floating in the lit space above the rug …
When I read this now, closely, I realize that Molly’s own perspective has made the gesture; she has conducted herself into “dissolving.” A new paragraph follows: “And Leo, backing out of the driveway, glanced up once to see her, at least it looked as though she were looking down.”
So much is going on here. Repetitions of both action and phrase: that image of the car in the driveway as the pivot point of perspective. The phrase “at least,” first voiced in her mind, then echoed in his, also forms a microfiber of continuity. And Leo … backing out of the driveway … that And, that smallest of conjunctions, is a note shared; a breath shared: one beat, and lo, we are in the car, moving with Leo, listening to Leo, but glancing back up at her, ending the sentence with an image, however uncertain, of her. Another nearly invisible thread helping us make the transition — it has, almost, the quality of a dance: a little forward, a little back, then forward again.
In the course of the novel, Judith Kitchen will take us in and out of many characters’ viewpoints, but no matter how brief the solo, each will have its full moment. Nor will we be guided in and out of them purely by visual cues; we’ll also be guided by rhythm itself. And trust me when I say that no two transitions are alike.
To end, I want to call the Peasant back in, the Peasant who so appreciates the world, previously unknown to her, brought into being by Judith Kitchen’s musicality, her eye that misses nothing. The Polish writer Bruno Schulz once said that his work was “an expression of rebellion against the kingdom of the quotidian, that fixing and delimiting of all possibilities, the guarantee of secure borders.” That’s what Judith Kitchen does in The House on Eccles Road. She liberates napkins and flatware, cars and pubs, the month of June, whole neighborhoods and the lives submerged in floods past and present. Like a great blues singer, she tells us about grief and frees us from it while we listen. Like her own Molly, she sings, and her heart does not empty. It fills, and shows us all how much we all might hold.
THE COMPANY THE SOLITARY KEEP: ON JUDITH KITCHEN’S NONFICTION
In her introduction to the anthology Short Takes, Judith Kitchen wrote:
We participate by paying attention to the attention that is paid. This is nowhere more true than when we encounter the stilled moment of clarified perception that defines a lyric essay.
A “stilled moment of clarified perception” seems to me an apt definition of the lyric essays of Judith Kitchen. She was moved to define the form in response to Sven Birkerts’s charge that essayists “accept that it is their lot to be solitary in the world,” and indeed her essays, these stilled moments of clarified perception, seem to be a kind of reckoning with solitariness, or else, more accurately, what it means to perceive things as the solitary do. There is no self-pity in this solitariness, and it certainly does not imply a turning of one’s back, if that isn’t clear already from the fact that Kitchen prefaces her remarks with the words “we participate.” Instead, it is a way of being in the world; such solitariness is best understood not as a disposition but rather as a way of appreciating one’s being. At one point in her first book, Only the Dance: Essays on Time and Memory, Kitchen writes, “In the end, I must come to the disturbing conclusion that I am interested only in my life.” The emphasis, as the disturbance, was hers; for us, her readers, this was a delight rather than a disturbance.
To dwell on the solitary, though, would be to miss the point: In book after beautifully agile book, Judith Kitchen was writing not about solitariness, but about the company that the solitary keep: memory. In the three books of nonfiction that followed Only the Dance — Distance and Direction, which came out seven years later in 2001, Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate, which came out in 2012, and The Circus Train, which came out in January of this year — she gave her readers a profound philosophy of memory. The epigraph of The Circus Train comes from the essayist Joseph Joubert: “How through a memory a person is one, and without it there is no more I, or at least a continuous I.” Reading that epigraph reminded me of something John Berger once wrote, in an essay on the photographs of Paul Strand:
The present tense of the verb to be refers only to the present; but nevertheless, with the first person singular in front of it, it absorbs the past which is inseparable from the pronoun. I am includes all that has made me so. It is more than a statement of immediate fact.
To which Kitchen has already, in a way, responded, in Distance and Direction: “Fact: past tense. Locked in its pastness which is, by definition, what makes it fact. The present tense is formative.” Kitchen writes, “[the] past [is] so real in its remembering […] that it often unfolds in future tense. Past and present in tandem.” In her four books of nonfiction, Judith Kitchen not only gave us a past, but a past and a present presented together, a strangely forward-looking memoir, a formative one. For all that each book has only the past in it, is only memory, taken together, what we are presented with is not nostalgia but life, presence, being, the company of another.
In her preface to Distance and Direction, Kitchen wrote:
The essays in my first collection were about time. These are essays of place — of distance and direction and the way memory works through and within landscape. […] The long essays are really a study in displacement, punctuated by a number of short lyrics that explore method and mood. Woven throughout is a series of elegies for my father.
The character of her essays — not just those in that book, but in all of her books — might be said to follow this same recipe: lyric, elegiac, woven together of brief moods. This was what Kitchen called “her amalgamated self,” a self made up of instants, memories, moments passed. But she was always also looking forward. She tells us, “I can begin anywhere. With anything. Turn it in any direction. […] My sense of the past turning toward the present, taking from it what it needs to keep shaping the past.” As an oeuvre, I want to say that these books are more a celebration than an elegy: as much as passing memories evoke mortality, an irrevocable loss, they also present us with a life, or, really, life, a present tense that is, because stilled in clarified perception, a nexus pregnant with possibility, just as complicated as any person is.
Throughout these four books there are frequent echoes and repetitions, memories and turns of phrase we will recognize from before, a kind of signature, assuring us that the same person is behind each book. These memories, though, do not pretend to be the subject of their essays, and so their repetition can’t possibly tire us. Through their repetitions, they begin to seem almost Cubist: Scotland, Brazil, the flood that devastated her childhood home, a neighbor, Johnny Harr, robbed of speech by a nerve gas attack in World War I, a train colliding with a car and her mother giving first aid to one of the passengers, the incredible iridescent blue of a butterfly, popsicles from Bosco’s fruit stand, hitchhiking in Greece. In a strange sort of present that encompasses so much life, it isn’t the memories themselves that we ought to be paying attention to, but to the attention that is paid them. Here is the epigraph of Only the Dance, from Emmanuel Levinas, “The present rips apart and joins together again; it begins; it is beginning itself. It has a past, but in the form of remembrance. It has a history, but it is not history.” And then, as if in answer, in The Circus Train, she asks: “Isn’t that how reading should work? That you become filled, however briefly, with another person's way of being in the world.”
In Half in Shade, her meditation on photographs taken by other people, Kitchen asks, again and again, of each picture she considers, “Why this moment?” which is a question that she wants us to recognize ought to be applied to her memories — and ours — as well. The photographs that provide her with the means to ask this question about memory are all presented with a context that stretches from the moment of their exposure to her present, the time of the writing — same as any memory — but it is the moment of exposure, that briefest of instants, the one that we remember, that fascinates Kitchen, and that moment is the one, ultimately, she wants to know more about and admits she cannot know more about because she was not the one behind the camera. The mystery of such a moment is also a longing for life, a longing for an impossible resurrection, but perhaps it is equally itself a life, an I, a stranger trying to help us with a problem we haven’t yet formulated. The photograph is, after all, a way of thinking — a judgment that the instant it captures will need to be fixed in time, that sometime later we will need to know what passed in that moment, and that judgment, that way of thinking, implies an I. The memories of her other books may seem to promise the same sort of mystery but also, with it, a solution, for there we have the memories and the person who remembers them, but, like the family photos of Half in Shade, Kitchen showed us that all of our memories are equally mysterious, their mechanisms hidden to us. We know the photographer, it is us, but somehow, we still cannot know what it is to have been that person. We still cannot answer Kitchen’s question: “Why this moment?” and perhaps that is what is so important about memory. In the mystery of its constant renewal, there is life, there is personhood. In Distance and Direction, she writes, “You cannot inherit memory. My sons will never see the mountains in my mind. But if they’d go there, they might find our memories intersect. They could carry some small piece of me, of the world as I might have seen it.” That we might, too, intersect each others’ memories — can there be a more noble or worthwhile quest? A more essentially human one?
In the Circus Train, Kitchen asks, “Does remember count as a verb? Its action the making of action.” The making of action, whether an action itself or not, an incubation or an inspiration, the in-breath of the gods, the very essence of life. The question hearkens back to her first book, Only the Dance, where she wrote:
Is memory made up of verbs? Perhaps. Verbs and adjectives. With the hindsight of memory, we paint in color and shape. […] At the time, we live only the moment, unaware of comparison, or the hint of connection. In memory we piece things together.
I think that we, her readers, can answer for her: yes. Remember is a verb, and an important one. Kitchen’s particular “I am” is not a statement that even attempts to define her (“Don’t ask me who I am,” Kitchen writes; “Life is unruly. Everything spills into everything else”); these memories are given to us, instead, by way of appreciation.
Speaking of a canvas that has been scraped in preparation for re-painting, Kitchen writes, “Memory is the hidden painting,” that is, the painting underneath the painting to come. “Not half-finished,” she writes, “but half-erased. A thing in the process of its unmaking. […] Not so much a peeling back as a rising to the surface.” And if we are truly paying attention to the attention that is paid, we will notice that Kitchen’s focus on memory is a marveling at the moment that is this instant, itself a potential memory to come. It is not the present that is in the process of unmaking; memory is the thing half-erased here but rising to the surface. On it we impress our every action, and behind those actions, memory. If to say “I am” is to make a claim extending back to birth, then perhaps the converse is also true: to think about all that has made one so, to recount a memory, is another way of being in the moment, a more beautiful way of being, because it accords this moment, the one we are living in, the respect it is due. This much Judith Kitchen taught me.