IF YOU’VE EVER sat through a silent 10-day meditation retreat, you know the spectacle that is the human mind — the monkey mind (as the Buddhists call it), the clamoring mind; the memories rising, relentlessly, one after another, the sheer acrobatics of thinking. According to certain meditation practices, samsara is the story we create of experience. It is the mechanism of the mind that interprets sensation and turns it into narrative. But we suffer, the thinking goes, because we react to sensation based on these stories. One teacher describes samsara, first, as a line in the sand — erased easily by the rising tide. The danger, he warns, is that over time such lines become as permanent as grooves etched into stone. It’s not just that our stories lack flexibility or nuance, but that they ultimately create a phantom self — a limiting and faulty version of who we are based on past events, with an ego that eclipses our ability to observe the world in the present moment. This, according to the ancients, is the cause of our misery; the alternative, however — the dissolution of ego — is a threatening paradigm for any person to consider, let alone one who has devoted her life to art.
Judith Kitchen is a writer — a meaning-maker by profession. If she’s not quoting Beckett, she’s riffing on Hemingway, or arranging epigraphs from Edna O’Brien’s Mother Ireland. So her book doesn’t reject the narrative agendas of artists who have come before; in fact, she clearly uses the work of these writers as a primer by which she can model her own attempts. Yet those attempts are determinedly fraught. In fact, one of the quotes in the book, selected from Beckett, takes up his similar disillusionment with language and meaning: “Till finally you hear how words are coming to an end. With every inane word a little nearer to the last. And how the fable too. The fable of one fabling with you in the dark.” The end of words, the unsayable — whatever consciousness it is that evades language — lurks between the fragmented sections of her book-length essay The Circus Train. The specter of death has rendered “fabling” not irrelevant, but insufficient.
So perhaps Kitchen is after something other than the “inane word a little nearer to the last.” This, I think, is what’s most notable about the text — the accretion of meaning gained, not through linear narrative, but through the space and reverberation of the author’s collection (and recollection) of language, image, and scene. In The Circus Train, the speaker, faced with metastasized cancer, creates a gallery of memories: the merry-go-round where she first knew love, the black crows touching down in the yard, the flooding of her childhood home. “Isn’t she looking for some way to make it make sense?” asks Kitchen about herself. It’s precisely this desire to arrange the fragments — to make it all “make sense” — that Kitchen’s attentive book takes up in subject and in form, generating profound implications about art, meaning, and the self.
The Circus Train is a work of art that cherishes memory while remaining deeply suspicious of its operation. “Don’t the moments disappear with you, drop off into the void?” she writes. “You suspect that they do — and so you write them furiously, as though you could hang on to a lifetime […].” As Kitchen summons up each remembered moment, there’s a skepticism on her part about what it might mean — now and finally. Her disbelief is heightened when we learn that the central image, the circus train the speaker recalls from childhood, is actually conjured — it’s a false “memory.” “It must have meant something,” Kitchen admits, “because it keeps on trailing its scarf of smoke.” In this revelation, the text points not simply to the drama of our desire for meaning, but to the mysterious work of the mind.
That mystery — memory and imagination decontextualized — is at the center of The Circus Train. “The images resolve to collage,” writes Kitchen.
A window seat. Curtains lifting in the breeze, then falling back, lifting, falling back, lifting, falling back like a butterfly wing, all afternoon, all afternoon. A barn with its great high ceiling and sunlit streaks of dust swarming in the rafters.
In this way, the book very much demonstrates what meditators call conscious mindfulness. Every image shimmers in its own right — the crows, the curtains, the grandchildren — freed from the limitations of some grand and meaningful narrative. In a transformative passage, Kitchen writes:
The spinning years falling past each other in a tumble of time. The precipitate falling like snow, little flakes of the self that settle as sediment in the bottom of the glass.
Kitchen’s purposeful avoidance of the first-person point of view also signals a complex relationship with the self. At one point she explicitly addresses the “I” as if it were another entity altogether. “The ‘I’ has mostly disappeared,” she writes.
Resurrected in memory as someone who used that pronoun. Who walked into a room with the I intact — sensibility, and a sense of ownership. More and more, the I lives in a past that is non-negotiable. It was. It is. […] The I would like to retain perspective.
And the use of fragmentation similarly dislocates writer and reader and disrupts any sense of narrative arc. Although there’s a frame of sorts (sections titled Coda and In Three Parts), there isn’t a neatly devised beginning, middle, or end. As the book progresses, the text becomes increasingly splintered and self-conscious. Chunks of text play with language, sorting and organizing words and phrases, to add to the catalog of loss:
Hic, haec, hoc oiled floors, blackboard, chalk huius, huius, huius we could have been hï, hae, haec from any time hörum, härum, hörum who came and saw […].
Moments like these provide a useful, formal counterforce to our expectations. They accumulate meaning even as they reveal the haphazardness of the effort, and they call attention to the book as art object — as something made and created.
If enlightenment is the dissolution of the belief in the grand narrative of the self — then Kitchen’s final gesture in the book is a nod to that liberation. Not that The Circus Train is a religious text, but, in the face of death, a mind that has spent a lifetime engaged with inquiry through art will likely take on the most awful and exhilarating questions. There’s no tidy spiritual summation here; rather, a brave look at losing the self — and losing, or rather letting go of, the stories that prop us up in the end.
How does impending death set us adrift? Water floods Kitchen’s landscape throughout: The rain is relentless. A boat is untethered from its mooring. And here, in one of the book’s most intimate moments, she offers memory not as some desperate yearning for meaning — but as a revival of perception; a revival of love.
There were days when the soccer field seemed to glow in slant October light, and boys flew across it, the checkered ball incidental to their youth and energy. Two of the boys were my sons and their long legs surprised me. In the shadows of early evening, I was a red car, a ride home. I hold them there, knowing in hindsight some of what has become of their lives. But none of us knew more than that moment of eloquence when the ball spilled before them like water.
Maybe this is what it means to let go of narrative — this “fabling” — and to turn one’s attention to cherishing “that moment of eloquence.” Maybe this is what mindfulness looks like — a great resurrection of the ability to truly observe. Kitchen reminds us that we rarely see life as it plays out before us. This is the genius of The Circus Train and the power of keen observation: the self may fall away — or settle like sediment — but then there’s the trade-off: the world suddenly and gorgeously comes to life like falling snow. For Kitchen, the surrender of ego results in something much more satisfying — something sensory and alive.