Half a year ago or so, I was having a conversation with a group of writers about two memoirs: the lyrically-written and arranged Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s Descanso for My Father, and a well-done but conventionally-structured memoir. One comment stuck in my craw and has lingered ever since. One of the other writers declared Fletcher’s book “interesting” in its structure, but “something poets have been doing forever.” This was delivered with a note of finality, and more than a little disdain. And it was spoken as a definitive reason why this speaker preferred the other book. My own opinions were precisely opposite. In comparing two books written with such fine prose, it was the structural play of Descanso that carried the day.
Yet that disdain…”something poets have been doing forever.” I understand the comment, and I don’t disagree. The structure of Descanso and, broadly, the lyric essay borrow heavily from the intuitive leaps of poetry. As I often say in fumbling to define the lyric essay, it is the gaps between two elements that allow a spark to fire, in engines and in writing. Lyric essays work because they bring material close enough to allow intuitive meaning, for reader and writer. And, let there be no mistake, my favorite essayists operate with a heavy use of gap: Annie Dillard, Lia Purpura, Brian Doyle, Brenda Miller el al. Descanso fits into this category easily, with the lyric arrangement of individual essays creating layers of meaning: the interplay between titles and vignettes in “White” and “Relics,” the numbered sections of “Man in a Box,” the flight of the owl in “Beautiful City of Tirzah.” And the collection itself creates a fuller, more complex sense of meaning and density through the repetition of image (what Charles Baxter calls “rhyming action”) and through the air creates between essays. In this assembly, the sum of the essays executes a different mathematics than the simple collection of units.
Yet that disdain… “something poets have been doing forever…” as an explanation of a collection’s limitations instead of its mastery, as a claim of derivative sub-quality… this is something I cannot understand, and with which I absolutely disagree. In fact, part of the beauty of lyric form in nonfiction writing is the recognition that artful arrangement of experience yields new gaps and, therefore, new understanding.
Lyric assembly creates tremendous power for a line like: “To fetch her, I must reach into the darkness, brushing my father’s things” (Fletcher 17). Viewed through the narrow lens of experiential explanation, that line means what it means: a young Harrison had to touch his dead father’s old belongings in a darkened closet. By grace of the assembly of that essay, and through the sequencing and invention of the whole Descanso, the line becomes so much more. It is a line of lyric electricity, the narrating Harrison and the young Harrison both reaching into a dark space, one literally into a closet and the other remembering reaching into that closet, one recognizing now that this moment led him to merely brush the surface of knowability and the other, as a child, registering a synaptic impulse at the moment that, later, could be unlocked through the act of writing.
Or in “Among the Broken Angels,” consider how these two lines work together:
“She has taken me as far as she can, or wants to go” (43).
“I stand stock-still, straining to hear it, or feel it, a presence in the land, a current of spirit and memory from which we can draw to fill the spaces within” (43).
Again, there are both literal and lyric intentions to these lines. At surface, they are about a tired mother no longer able to continue a journey with Harrison among graves, and about the author trying to listen to the silent messages of those graves. More importantly, the lines indicate the author’s recognition that his mother functions as a guide toward the discovery he hopes to make and that, now, he must move himself to find what he senses will satisfy the desire of his search. Essays build, then, with Fletcher gathering items — the portraits he references in his prologue — building momentum for the longest essay of the book, “Man in a Box” and, ultimately, to this line: “I assemble my father. Bit by bit a composite forms.” This assembly is not linear, and it is not built merely from an accumulation of facts. Instead, the composite is about the search for items that can be interpreted, intuited, made into the lyric expression of a father both long lost and always present.
The central motivation for my fellow writer’s disdain, I think, is the hard-to-shake residue of “factuality” always assigned to the field of nonfiction, whether or not the descriptor of “creative” is included. And I find it significant that this writer happened to be a poet who, eventually, wrote a memoir. I mean no insult to poets, but instead to suggest that sometimes writers from other genres slum it in the nonfiction world without a deep understanding of the traditions and contemporary impulses of the form (and, I should say, many of the great contemporary nonfiction writers came from other genres, and many from poetry, where the lyric impulse of that genre translates nicely from verse to prose). Indeed, a cursory glance at what “nonfiction” means in the lexicon of, say, the NYT Bestseller list illustrates exactly what I’m trying to say. A screen-shot of the current top 5:
Of these five, none fits the definition of lyric, and really none is what I’m talking about when I talk about memoir or creative nonfiction, though In the Kingdom of Ice comes perhaps close. The point is, of course, that Descanso‘s form is, curiously, belittled when it borrows from poetry precisely because the popular definition of nonfiction is so limiting and, generally, dully factual. Or dumbly ephemeral, in the case of, say, Unphiltered. Very much because so many think nonfiction is this one thing that it has always been (but really hasn’t) no latitude for lyric space is afforded, even by serious writers who ought to know better.
I’ve entered the gravity of soapboxing now, but I’ll indulge that for another moment. Reading Descanso offers a wonderful example of the power lying within the “true narrative” to exceed the boundaries of both narrative and the rigorous assembly of fact. Instead, the application of lyric logic gives Descanso the kind of artistic zing that we describe when we utter the word “literary.”