FIVE PLOTS, Erica Trabold’s debut collection of lyric essays, is the inaugural winner of Seneca Review’s Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize. As the editor of Seneca Review, Tall helped found the lyric essay as an identifiable — and eventually fashionable — genre, carving out a space between (or, more accurately, amalgamating bits and pieces of) other forms and styles. Just as the prose poem (a close cousin, formally, of the lyric essay) occupies an uncertain ground between narrative-driven prose and the formally preoccupied contemporary poem, so the lyric essay has hybridized memoir, critical commentary, the personal essay, and the sort of first-person-account almost-journalism often associated with John Jeremiah Sullivan or David Foster Wallace. Coincidentally, Wallace, in a review of an anthology of prose poems, has suggested that working in a hybrid genre makes the generation of a piece that “works” much more difficult. Success in such a genre, according to Wallace, means capturing in a sometimes-antagonistic form something almost ineffable, achieving a weird satisfaction in the smooth working of various parts that don’t seem as if they should work — a satisfaction probably best defined via the Potter Stewart method: I know it when I see it.
Trabold’s new collection passes that ambiguous test. Like other writers — such as Maggie Nelson and Leslie Jamison — whose work we can categorize as being within the ambit of the lyric essay, Trabold manages to reach a literary gestalt in these pieces: they become something more — frequently something other — than the sum of their parts. The quality and nature of these additive relationships between a lyric essay’s threads and its observations determines its efficacy — which, as Tall and associate editor John D’Agata explain on the Seneca Review’s website, is not primarily informative but aesthetic and personal, a question of emotional impact. Lyric essays, they write, are meant to “give primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information. They forsake narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation.” With Montaigne’s Old French derivation of “essay” in mind — essai, to attempt, from Latin roots meaning to weigh or consider — Tall and D’Agata present the lyric essay as an appropriately contemporary form, less concerned with the exposition of some fact or stable truth than with the exploration of possibilities. Writing presciently in 1997, they hold that “we’re drawn to the lyric now because it seems less possible (and rewarding) to approach the world through the front door, through the myth of objectivity. The life span of a fact is shrinking; similitude often seems more revealing than verisimilitude.”
The suggestion here is that the lyric essay is a basically structural form, reflecting the contingency of truth, memory, and experience through its various threads, its jumble of observations and recollections. This serves at times to make the familiar strange (in the old Brechtian way), and indeed Trabold is at her best when her essays’ strangeness, their ability to defamiliarize and make uncanny, emerges from the collision of lines and concepts, rather than from a single, overarching structural conceit. Her essays, in other words, become an arena in which ideas and images encounter one another at significant velocity, just as a particle accelerator creates radical novelty by smashing together different examples of the same fundamental bits. Likewise, each essay in Five Plots visits and revisits the same thematic material treated throughout the collection — and indeed in many other lyric essays: family, memory, space, and place, both recalled and newly encountered. But these basic thematic concerns never collide in the same way twice, and so Five Plots rarely feels stale.
To borrow Tall and D’Agata’s term, this “recombination” allows Trabold’s essays to remain consistently generative. It’s not that she has found some remarkable alchemy by which these topics have become something entirely new — fresher or more glittering. Rather, as she wanders through the landscapes — both physical and psychological — of her past, Trabold reminds us that the familiar is always strange. Each time an event, person, or thing is remembered, it is remembered differently. As science tells us, to observe is to necessarily alter, to have an effect. In other words, the act of recollection always distorts, and these slight discrepancies give memory its sense of uncanniness. On the very first page of “Canyoneering,” the first essay in Five Plots, we see this commingling of the inexplicable and the mundane: “I assume I have always been attracted to the mysterious, adopting family stories as my own.” Hardly soporific, around-the-dinner-table chitchat, her family stories are already inherently mysterious by nature of being stories, being memories.
This embrace of the mysterious, this acknowledgment of epistemological limitation, runs throughout the book. “Canyoneering” is littered with references to unlearning and relearning, running right up against the downright unknowable. Underground, writes Trabold, “the dead have awakened, swirling in a haze around my eyes, choking out what I thought I knew about living.” The whole essay is devoted to a sense of exploration, both geological and genealogical — an exploration that destabilizes assumption rather than expanding knowledge. Trabold links her underground realization to her grandfather’s confusion upon his arrival in the United States, suggesting that he likely “couldn’t maintain a solid grasp on the details.” Later, Trabold feels “the foundation shifting” and then realizes “there is no solid foundation at all.” Like the slow sedimentation that formed the cave rock, memory and knowledge are similarly piecemeal, never perfectly stable.
The suspicion of memory features centrally in “A List of Concerns,” the essay that most emphasizes a single structural contrivance. A numbered list of memories, observations, and info-bites, it takes its formal cues from like-minded list-texts like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (2009), Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red (1998), or David Markson’s bizarrely quotidian data-novels. The story “A List of Concerns” tells is engaging: it strings together Trabold’s recollections of coming-of-age — in a certain place (the prairie), among certain people (other young women), in a certain context (constant, unremitting change). Emphasizing that remembering is itself an act of narrative creativity, Trabold writes that the list is “a form concerned with the failure of memory” and also of time: the essay reads like a movie scene sputtering along at a very low frame rate. Time is artificially fragmented, pieced together.
But the essay’s power does not emerge primarily through the essay’s obvious formal experimentation. Instead, the best thing about “A List of Concerns” is Trabold’s ability to shift between registers suddenly and with aplomb — from the ruminative (Concern 10 ends, “We considered the girls we were, the ways we wanted to stay, and the women we wanted to become. Our lists were demanding, the requirements exhaustive”) to the well-pared (Concern 67 reads, “I don’t find it difficult to believe in my own cruelty”). In a bit of formal provocation, Concern 53 is blank. And Concern 91, the last, cannot resist the urge to soar: “They used what they could find on the prairie — beauty in abundance — to relieve the most basic kinds of pain.” In one sense, then, the list works as a prefabricated form, but “A List of Concerns” is more interesting as an exploration of growing up than as an analogue for and embodiment of slippery memory. And so at times the list-as-conceit distracts from the essay’s ability to (again borrowing Tall and D’Agata’s terms) make meaning “mosaically” — its ability, in other words, to be a lyric essay.
“Borrow Pits,” meanwhile, is the best essay in the collection, and coincidentally it is also the most obviously mosaic. Rooted, again, in a certain place — an artificial lake that becomes Trabold’s grandparents’ retreat-to-nature — “Borrow Pits” tracks (all at once) the history of artificial lakes, her family’s self-understanding, American capitalism, and human violence done to the land. Everything, each node of significance, seems to pull double- or triple-duty. This is true for the collection as a whole; the land, variably, operates as metaphor (for time, for memory) and serves as contrast (to capital, to anthropocentrism), while featuring as a subject in its own right. “Borrow Pits” manages this feat particularly well: the title, for example, refers to the quarries from which raw materials are sledged and dredged, the quarries that eventually become the artificial lakes. Trabold suggests that the formation of identity, for an individual and for a family unit, occurs in a similar way: to form an identity requires a vast accumulation of materials, proceeds slowly over time, and invariably leaves behind marks and scars. (And, of course, the whole thing happens under the auspices of capitalism, which turns the ugly pits alchemically into high-priced lakeside resorts.) As Trabold writes: “The shame we feel for living, changing, revising our own physical landscapes. When something goes wrong, it can send us into despair. Some would call it a pit.”
In his review of the prose-poem anthology, Wallace writes that, when an example of the genre works, its “surreal imagery/associations never seem gratuitously weird; i.e., they end up making psychological or emotional sense” despite the superficial uncanniness of the things being compared or connected. Like the prose poem, the lyric essay depends on its juxtapositions, but not all juxtapositions are productive or interesting, or serve the establishment of some emotional vivacity. In this way the lyric essay is akin to an Olympian’s high-degree-of-difficulty dive or spin — the potential rewards are considerable, but the execution is demanding. In Five Plots, Trabold’s execution is technically precise, and at times she, without warning, brings it all together into something at once strange and familiar.