Harrison Candelaria Fletcher

On Fragmentation

1. Is it a memoir if the text is divided into numbered entries, lyric nuggets that intersect loosely, puzzle pieces with edges rounded by overuse until the seams reveal air, no matter how tightly you press them?

2. Is air itself an act of memoir, gaps the fullest truth we can tell?

3. If, in fact, memoir requires a writer to consider the self from all angles, and if the memoirist is Maggie Nelson, and if the memoir is Bluets, does the choice to focus on a single color as inspiration create a through line of lyric gesture that can be read both as a cheating way to connect disparate ideas and a brilliant way to consider the way the discontinuity of life can be considered?

4. Unity is for fiction.

5. Poetic gesture cannot be considered only the domain of poetry.

6. How different, after all, are Descanso for My Father and Bluets? Each organizes around rupture.

7. A focal point, whether it is a lost father or a beloved-color, creates just enough distance for a writer to find the gap in which the self hides.

8. Yet the self hides well, always, can never be anything more stable than a shadow in a darkened room, a quick wink in the mirror, a dream forgotten as soon as you wake.

The Invisible Self

Willian Least Heat-Moon begins Blue Highways with a series of very short chapters, setting the stage for the voyage he’ll soon take in his “truck” (let’s be clear: it’s a van) named Ghost Dancing. Chapter 3 starts this way: “A pledge: I give this chapter to myself. When done with it, I will shut up about that topic” (4). And he ends it like this:

With a nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing suspicion that I lived in an alien land, I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected. (5)

Then we’re off, climbing into Ghost Dancing with Heat-Moon (Is this why he calls it a truck? Because saying climbing in the van with Heat-Moon sounds a bit sketchy? Get in my van and I’ll show you America, yeah, America. But think of all the famous vans that have come to pass…the Mystery Machine of Scooby Do, the black van of the A-Team. Let us not dishonor the literary history of vans by calling Ghost Dancing a truck!)) as he travels the so-called “blue highways” of the country, the back routes, through towns off the Interstate, where we get the growing sense that the project of the book is to show some kind of real America to the reader and to the author.

But what of the self of that author, our narrator who quickly dispenses with the raw materials of his identity — age, marital status, van ownership — and promises to stay away from what Scott Russell Sanders describes as “the private, idiosyncratic voice in an era of anonymous babble” (“Singular First Person”)? And let me dispense with this idea straight off: Blue Highways is certainly written within that voice, is animated by the clear presence of Heat-Moon narrating this drive. There’s nothing objective about the voice, nor the project, and I don’t think Heat-Moon would argue with that. The shutting up about that topic that he references is the singular focus on the self as subject and not the denial of the power of the singular voice.

Still, the book is undeniably, about William Least Heat-Moon. About halfway in, after lots and lots of writing about other people, extensive quotations, and history, and exhaustive listing of the food he finds at diners, Heat-Moon winds up in the desert of Eastern Arizona:

What is it in man that for a long while lies unknown and unseen only one day to emerge and push him into a new land of the eye, a new region of the mind, a place he has never dreamed of? Maybe it’s like the force of spores lying quietly under asphalt until the day they push a soft, bulbous, mushroom head right through the pavement. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. (162)

“A new land of the eye” might has well be written “a new land of the I,” as the seeing of the moments to follow are the emergence of the vision of the self, the recognition that as much as he might deny it as the source of the project, the subject of Blue Highways is that, even when it isn’t. Really, what road book isn’t about the person on the road? On the Road is about America, sort of, but really focuses on Jack Kerouac. Eat Pray Love is about Elizabeth Gibert. The Songlines is about Bruce Chatwin. And on and on.

I mean this as no criticism, of either Heat-Moon or of the genre of travel writing. Quite the opposite: any book of travel that implies objectivity is false. The traveler is always the subject, even if the reader thinks he/she is gaining some kind of overview of a place previously unknown. There’s a reason, after all, that mid-century maps and guide books were sponsored by oil companies. They were the real subjects, urging travelers to know that about other places, that being the unstable need to pump gasoline into tanks to feed engines to turn wheels that take travelers to places. The literary travel writer isn’t, of course, in the business of selling oil or tires but, instead, peddles the self as a vehicle of transport.

I doubt Heat-Moon was ever ignorant of this fact. Heck, the first page of Blue Highways offers this idea: “A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go” (3). Yet he proceeds with the attempt to subordinate the self as subject as he does this. While it’s possible that he took the voyage that makes the material of the book without a clear sense that he was looking for himself (but, c’mon, that’s precisely what the American road book is all about, and why a literary person hits the road at a time of personal crisis, at least partly), certainly he knew by the time of the writing that the self was an unavoidable subject. Still, the claim is made.

And, notably, this is a claim that has been made by every book under consideration this semester: Patricia Hampl recedes for the middle of her memoir. Harrison Candelaria Fletcher searches for himself via his father (and, ultimately, mother). Mark Doty finds himself in his mother (and, ultimately, his father). Lauren Slater finds herself by creating a fake self. Maxine Hong Kingston writes the self through the application of myth and story.

What gives? Particularly since that subject is an inevitable portion of any kind of autobiographical writing. Clearly, when we write from the perspective of the self, we write about the self, no matter how we seek to evade or subsume ourselves as subject.

I think the distinction lies between subject and singular subject, as this is the distinction I see between pop-memoir/autobiography/political memoirs and literary memoir. In the first category, the subject of the book is the subject of the book: the self matters most of all, because readers are drawn to the dramatic features of the individual. This, also, is why I consider a healthy chunk of even creative nonfiction as more-or-less the equivalent of genre fiction. For many books, “plot” matters more than anything else. In the case of popular nonfiction et al, plot equates to the singular personality of the writer. It’s no mystery, then, why the first titles that often come to the popular mind when hearing the word “memoir” are tales of personal triumph, degradation and recovery, medical trauma, and all sorts of melodrama. This, also, is why I admire what Lying does in the sub-genre of the medical memoir, since Slater absolutely resists the “requirement” to make this about recovery. Genre nonfiction lacks subtlety, and while Lying isn’t exactly subtle in the way of Descanso, Slater’s narrative is oblique, which I suppose is another kind of subtle: look at this so you can understand that, but don’t look directly at that.

Literary memoir focuses on a different sort of aspect of self. Sven Birkerts describes the function of pain in what he calls traumatic memoir in a way that I think does a lot to define how the self works in literary memoir, as sources that “create discontinuities in a life that often require different strategies of presentation” (145). I’d like to suggest that the writing of the self in careful memoir is always the writing of our own discontinuities, which are born partly of the multiplicities that are each of us and partly of the way other lives intersect with our own in creating our sense of self.

The desire to deflect, then, to write about others or, even, to claim a desire to not write about the self is a good faith recognition of the discontinuity of experience. This is, perhaps, the most important way that a writer can avoid the sort of solipsistic, navel-gazing work that dominates the nonfiction bestseller list (alongside soporific, terrifying guides to business management techniques). If we accept ourself as part of the subject of our lives, we recognize the way our sense of self develops through interaction and, perhaps even more importantly, we are able to write memoir that reflects the lives of readers as well as authors. A literary memoir helps the reader see him or herself in the author’s story. As Sanders writes, “I choose to write about my experience not because it is mine, but because it seems to me a door through which others might pass” (8). I’ll add that, in order to write about our own experience, we often need to pass through the doors of others.

Speaking to the Ghost of Frank Chin

I. On Ghosts

To suggest that ghosts are important in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior is hardly an earth-shattering observation. Nonetheless, considering the nature of ghosts in the memoir helps create a foundation for the several issues I’ve been thinking about the last few days. Ghosts are central to the reality of this book, not as figments of the imagination but as extant expressions of experience. In a way similar to Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s Descanso for My Father, ghosts offer tangible presence on the page. They are not symbols of superstition, nor a mechanism to explain the less-than-fully-sophisticated background of Kingston’s mother, nor phenomenon to be explained away scientifically. Instead, Kingston writes of ghosts as a way to foreground and value the reality of non-Western-scientific thinking. The chapter of their appearance, “Shaman,” in fact begins with a subtle critique of the binary of Chinese superstition vs. Western science. In writing of her mother’s medical background, Kingston clarifies that she has both studied in the way a Western reader would expect and approve (school, diplomas, science) but also that her rigorous study included things a Western reader might not support (historical/traditional medicine). Further, we see that she becomes unable to continue her practice of medicine once she moves to the U.S. Kingston does not comment on this fact directly but, instead, relies on the layering of image and the deployment of ghost stories. Again, these are not representational stories. They are presented as real, and any dissonance a reader might feel — how can we believe something like that actually happened? — works to turn a careful reader inward. That very response is what Kingston writes against, even if it happens to be the very response she might have found in herself as she grew up in California, hating and distrusting the “superstitious” behavior of her mother. By reading ghosts, and realizing our own entrapment in our own overly-rational conception of the world. we begin to be able to read against the homogeneity of Western intellectual tradition and, more importantly, recognize how “superstition” is merely a word we apply to other people’s traditions we do not share.

II. On Voice

Also quite obvious in The Woman Warrior is the subordination of Kingston’s voice. Most of the book includes the telling of other people’s stories, whether they happen to be family stories or remixes of Chinese myth. Within the first four chapters, Kingston appears directly only at the end, creating context and intersection with her own life. But, largely, hers is only a tiny voice that bumps into the larger stories.

Kingston voice appears in force, finally, in “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” a chapter that also presents an inversion of the previous patterns of the book. Here, we begin and stay primarily within Kingston’s experience, turning in the end to myth. “Here is a story my mother told me, not when I was young, but recently, when I told her I also talk story. The beginning is hers, the ending mine” (206), Kingston writes. The sequencing of this chapter functions crucially. Kingston “finds” her voice, which for most of the chapter comes across as immature, hateful, and naive. She browbeats a fellow child who doesn’t talk, abusing her verbally in a bathroom. She explodes at her mother and lays out all of the wrongs she has perceived, thanks to Chinese tradition. That catharsis follows a Western narrative arc — the hero finally speaks her mind! — but also leads Kingston to a recognition that a good reader will share:

Be careful what you say. It comes true. It comes true. I had to leave home in order to see the world logically, logic the new way of seeing. I learned to think that mysteries are for explanation…. Shine floodlights into dark corners: no ghosts. (204)

The voice that Kingston finds is an American voice that denies the Chinese, that considers the hyphenation of Chinese-American as a perpetual separation and, moreover, a requirement of choice. The voice that Kingston displays is one that cannot reconcile the halves, and so she reconciles in the direction that denies her mother. Yet Kingston writes this to show the dangers of this voice, that she herself misinterpreted the past (of herself, of her mother, of China) as something to be moved away from. The beauty of the ending of the memoir, then, is that Kingston returns to story, in fact ends with a story “instead” of her personal voice. But now, the careful reader I keep referring to, recognizes that the story that Kingston’s mother begins and she ends is, in fact, part of her voice. Story, like ghosts, is not a superstition to be unravelled rationally. Stories mean as stories do, not as codes, or signs of avoidance, or primitiveness, or lack of rigor. Stories mean. (Sidelight: I think I’m defending the importance of the study of literature in general right now, encouraging any fool who thinks the empirically measurable is a superior mode of knowing to just go read a book…an artful book that deals more in language and figurative thought than information.)

III. Frank Chin

… is not a careful reader. Or maybe he is. In certain respects, I don’t feel that I have the background and context to comment, but his infamous hatred of Maxine Hong Kingston’s work (and Amy Tans, and David Henry Hwang) seems to me to come from the same place as a careless reader’s condemnations of a book as boring, or worthless, or whatever. Chin’s argument is that Kingston is a white racist, deploying stereotypical Chinese backwardness that is devoured and championed by a broader white American culture in the name of self-congratulatory multiculturalism. That the reading and championing of any non-European writer is not necessarily a signal of true multicultural belief is, of course, a point where I cannot disagree with Chin — I can think of too many people, quite quickly, who claim to love certain books but do very little to actually resist the cultural dominance of White Male European modes of thinking. Certainly, there must be plenty of fans of Kingston et al who do the same thing. Reading The Woman Warrior becomes the beginning and end of many liberal mindsets.

But, on careful reading, I see the construction of The Woman Warrior as a tremendous defense against the hegemony of homogeneity. She presents voice and ghosts and allows for the pre-conceived notions of American readers to offer their own critique of the American self. The careful reader recognizes that he/she, like Kingston, views certain moments as curious, or exotic, or superstitious, or backward very much because he/she comes into the text already believing such things. The power of the memoir is to create dissonance if the careful reader: why did I do that? The power extends, ideally, in the same way that Kingston ends her book, with a recognition of what is lost when we find a narrow voice, that a failure to see ghosts is not a signal of intellectual advancement but, instead, fully a failure.

(Un)Reliability in Memoir

A) In full, chapter one of Lauren Slater’s memoir Lying: “I exaggerate.”

B) And this from Sven Birkerts The Art of Time in Memoir: “…memoir is undertaken not just as another kind of artistic expression, which is to say a work created for an intended audience, but also as an act of self-completion” (88).

C) What does a writer do if the act of self-completion forces her to consider the gaps in a life that cannot be filled? See “A.”

***

As memoir, Lying addresses both a unique and resolutely universal conundrum, the instability of memory, which complicates the writing of a piece of art that in its very definition depends on memory. If memoir seeks to think back on a portion of life, reinhabit memory, then apply the lens of time to make sense of those memories, the enterprise would seem to be utterly corrupted when the view through the lens magnifies a gaping hole or, in fact, if the application of the lens functions like a magnifying class aimed at an ant in the hot sun, the multiplication of energy causing the obliteration of the subject of study. Such a memoir would be a close-up image of a smoking hole. And in many respects, Lauren Slater writers of the examination of such absence. Hers is a story of reconciling childhood epilepsy (or appears to be…instability makes me question everything in this book), which she describes as having left gaps in memory. Experience has been erased, and in this memoir she seeks to write and examine that experience.

So, directly, Slater’s admissions of exaggeration are revelations of experience. I hope that doesn’t strike anyone as too post-modern, this intentional absence functioning as commentary on the absences of life. Indeed, this is the only tactic that Slater has in reconstructing her life. She cannot complete the self in the same fashion as other memoirists, because she cannot access or even pretend to access memories. About fifty pages in, she writes the magic words THE END, then flips everything around on the next page, just so we’re clear on what’s happening:

Not quite.

This is a work of nonfiction. Everything in it is supposed to be true. In some instances names of people and places have been changed to protect their privacy, but the essential story should at least aim for accuracy, so the establishment says. Therefore, I confess. To the establishment. I didn’t really fall into the grave. I was just using a metaphor to try to explain my mental state. The real truth is I went to the funeral, the hearse had engine trouble, the coffin was late, I looked into the grave, and I thought about falling in. (60).

Page 59 offers the narrative clarity we desire in reading, a story that comes to a satisfying and properly evocative ending, Slater lying at the bottom of a grave looking up at the faces peering over the rim. Page 60 presents the complication, that it didn’t happen even as it did, because things that happen in the mind are every bit as real to the body as things that happen physically. Perhaps obviously, in a memoir focused on the deep issues of the brain, writing through this aspect (and against the mind-body split) is crucial.

What memoir isn’t about this, actually? In Firebird, Mark Doty looks through lenses of time to repopulate the memories of his childhood, and he identifies his project as the construction of a perspective box, which is to say, a box built of distortions and viewed through different resolutions. In Descanso for My Father, Harrison Candelaria Fletcher assembles a version of his father through the collection of pieces, which is to say he reconstructs a false image through the act of tertiary memory. In I Could Tell You Stories, Patricia Hampl addresses the difficulty of could in the telling, and the slipperiness of memories of learning to play the piano, and how writing through the false memory leads to something…else.

While it’s too easy to repeat this aphorism, I repeat it anyway: all memoir is meta-memoir. How can it not be, if the project of the writing relies in the ethical engagement of memories that can never be fully trusted? I say too easy, though, because Lying cannot be reduced to mere meta-artifact; it is not just or even a book about writing memoir. Sure, we can read it that way, since the trouble of memory that Slater considers is the trouble of the genre, but Lying is also a tremendous act of ethical reconstruction. It is a memoir (how I want a strand of significant organ music to play as you read those words), and it is concerned primarily with the very construction of self that Birkerts suggests as central to this particular style of art.

I’ll back up here for a moment, to my aside about never trusting anything in Lying, that I’m never quite sure if she’s really writing about epilepsy or if she’s using it as a metaphor for something else. While this, too, sounds overly-meta, I think that’s part of the point. Even though Slater keeps reminding the reader of when she exaggerates, or when she is flat out lying (think, again, about page 60), that act works to weaken the reader’s resolve to see the action on the pages as fully literal. Yet, also, it encourages the reader to trust the moments that are presented as real, because Slater has established herself as reliably unreliable. She’ll tell you if she’s lying…right…won’t she?

Maybe. Maybe not. How could she if she herself doesn’t even know? Ultimately, that’s the point of the accent on unreliability, that we can never knows as readers because she can never know as writer. So we are forced to trust experience in the same way she trusts experience, which is to say that we can’t but also do. Which is to say that the memoir functions simultaneously as meta and literal text. Which is to say that memoir itself, even life itself, is about dealing with the unreliability of our own narrative centers. We do that automatically every day, yet also experience the frustration of moments when, say, a loved one remembers a cherished moment different than we do. Who’s wrong? Who’s right? Both…neither…we can never quite know.

Holding It All Together

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been teaching Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s essay “The Beautiful City of Tirzah” for several years, thanks to its inclusion in the superb anthology of creative nonfiction called (not so creatively) The Touchstone Anthology of Creative Nonfiction. In that book, Fletcher’s author bio identifies him as working on a collection of essays called Man in a Box. I’ve been thinking about that working title for the year or so that I’ve known of his first book, the Descanso for my Father that I’ve been writing about over the last two weeks. Since “Tirzah” is included in this book, and since it is his only book thus far, and since one of the essays in Descanso happens to be called “Man in a Box,” I have a hunch that Descanso once carried a different working title. And with that little factoid, here goes.

“Man in a Box” is physically in the middle of Descanso. It is, by far, the longest essay included (37 pages; “Tirzah” is the second-longest at 14). And it serves as the central hinge of the collection. Everything before “Man in a Box” writes toward the essay, and everything after it writes…well…after it.

On one very facile hand, I see Descanso ending its structural unity at the moment that “Man in a Box” comes to a close on page 104, or 105 if you count the photograph of, presumably, Fletcher’s mother. The essay finishes the arc of thought that animates the preceding pages. Certain moments offer echoes of previous images — an important component of effective collections — and other moments offer crucial fleshing out of the lyric material that has preceded it, even as the essay itself remains firmly lyric. Perhaps most notably, in “Man in a Box” Fletcher writes directly of the process of his search for his father. We see the stage directions, that he is traveling to different places very much to find his father, that he is actively trying to put the pieces together, that the book you hold in your hands is the result of this very search. “I assemble my father,” he writes. “Bit by bit a composite forms” (87). The sum of the long essay and the preceding shorter ones is that composite, which feels both satisfying and complete.

So the question that animates my writing in this space fixates on the notion of a “collection” of essays, and more pointedly, on how much a collection needs to hold together as a book and how much latitude it has to just be, y’know, a collection of things. In hearing essayist Brian Doyle read and speak last spring, I was struck by how he described his own process of book making as, more or less, collecting together thirty of the short pieces he’d recently written. Now, I think Doyle practiced careful self-deprecation in that moment, as his own collections show the hand of an assembler making a thing of each collection. But, at the same time, there’s truth within his description. Doyle’s books are closer to loose collections than fully cohesive units. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with that model of essay collection; however, the most satisfying collections, whether fiction of nonfiction, are those that do create a unified sum within their parts. While there isn’t necessarily a common arc, there is an accumulation of fragments that lead to a clearer mosaic, the same sort of “composite” formed when Fletcher pieces together his father.

Thus, if I apply the requirement of cohesiveness to Fletcher’s collection, and if I wish to claim that the unifying arc of that cohesion of fragments is the building of the father composite, Descanso doesn’t quite work as a single thing. Rather, I would have to argue that the essays appearing after “Man in a Box” read as essays that are delivered without the steam and tension that drove those earlier in the collection. The man has been assembled, and the rest is a lengthy denouement with only oblique relationship to the rest. And if I look at the subject matters of these final six essays, I find the sudden and vibrant appearance of Fletcher’s wife, and his son, and a lot more about his mother, and a lot less about his father.

Yet, even as I have felt that twinge of disconnection in reading Descanso, I am not willing to diminish the book as being the sort of collection that just kind of brings stuff together. Nor am I willing to criticize it as being 100 or so pages of a book, filled in with B sides. (Though I understand that I’m throwing those ideas out here, which gives them a touch of credibility, even as I will, now, refute the ideas I have introduced). The problem with this view — my problem, really — is tied up with the old title. I can’t help but think about this book as being Man in a Box. If it were, well, then the criticisms would hold. But Fletcher has titled it Descanso for my Father, and he has defined “descanso” usefully and artfully in the prologue in a way that helps me understand the bookishness of this collection.

Yes, Descanso is about the assembly of the father, but it is mostly about the assembly of the author. Indeed, the first half of the book must preoccupy itself with the project that, no doubt, inspired the initial writing. Fletcher wanted to fill in the gaps of the man he finds in the pictures and clippings inside the box kept in the closet that Tirzah led him to (that sentence read to the tune of, “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea”). And he did that. And in doing it, he closed the gaps enough in the primary search to recognize the need for a more fundamental one, that of the self. Throughout the essays in the book, Fletcher keeps running up against his own image, reflected in glass, in wood, in eyes. He keeps looking for his father and finding himself, but not quite recognizing it.

Ultimately, then, “Man in the Box” is the essay that lets him lay aside the initial search and venture toward the new one. He writes after that essay about those elements that have shaped him. Or, perhaps, he writes about these elements as a means to discover his own shape. Back to the prologue, where he writes: “In middle age, a father, few things frighten me more than the notion of being forgotten or remaining a mystery to my son and daughter. It is my hope with this collection to write a descanso for the father I never knew, each essay an offering on the path to find him, to find myself” (6). The end of that quote makes me feel a bit dumb — Fletcher told me exactly what he was up to. Yet the force of the image of the father is so powerful to me as a reader, and to him as a writer, that it consumes the first half of the book. I find it remarkable that the construction of the collection demonstrates in its very construction the nature of that power. As readers, we are led into the totality of his search in ways similar to Fletcher’s own obsession. Only in satisfying that first tension can we move forward. And, yeah, it’s a bit disappointing to lose that tension…but only because it’s something we’ve lived with for so long, for 100 pages. For Fletcher, the assembly is something he lived with for 40-some years, and I can imagine that the “solution” of the father puzzle felt like both relief and let down. Now what?

The rest of the book. Which begins the essai toward a Harrison Candelaria Fletcher who can turn the lens of discovery in new directions. As readers, we follow that arc with him.

Haunting Trust

Credibility is one of the most important qualities of an effective memoir, yet sometimes the truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction.

Tara Caimi, “Privileged Perspective in Memoir”

Among the many things I admire so much in Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s Descanco for my Father is the deft handling of dreams and ghosts. More accurately, my admiration rests in Fletcher’s ability to make a case for haunting as a presence within his essays, not as imagined or delusional, but as significant moments of truth-telling. Now, I understand that many readers are likely predisposed to the quick discounting of dreams or ghosts, probably equating ghosts as dreams. Moreover, many are likely to question the credibility of a writer who lays claim to the truth of hauntings. Yet in Descanso, Fletcher makes artful and frequent use of hauntings, and partly because of the technique of his writing and partly because of the force of his reflections, the hauntings exist on the page as equivalent to the “actual” action of the characters.

The first haunting occurs on page 32, in “Among the Broken Angels,” an essay that reveals itself, ultimately, to be framed by the story of Fletcher and his mother traveling to visit graves. These present tense scenes are interspersed with past tense ones, which is where the hauntings happen:

“Sixty miles southeast, in the village of Corrales, Abenicio Perea, my great-grandfather, dozed off in his broad iron bed when a voice whistled into his room.

“‘Estoy muerto!’

“Abenicio reached over to shake his wife.

“‘It’s Juan,’ he whispered. ‘Juan Mora'” (32)

In an essay pre-occupied with the nature of spirits, of the fear and desire of connecting with the dead, and with the general concept of hauntings, Fletcher presents this move into the past with the seeming insignificance of verb tense. Charting the opening of the essay, we see the first two sections appear in present tense, the narrative that includes Fletcher and his mother. The third and fourth move into the past, first in telling the story of Mora’s death then in the recounting of his presence after death; the scene above happens in the fourth section. What I find remarkable about this tense shifting is how Fletcher creates a clear and, at the same time, easy-to-miss separation between the experientially known and imaginative reconstruction. That which happens in the past is imagined.

I’ll pause there for a second, having just written that sentence and been struck by its ambiguity. After all, isn’t this the very stuff of memoir: the past is imagined, at least in some ways. Recollection, then, is always partly fabrication, much as we’ve seen in considering Patricia Hampl. The duality of my inadvertent sentence, then, is crucial. The past tense refers to imagined events from the past, which is not to say that imagined recollections are false. Indeed, the ease in which Fletcher slides between present and past tense suggests the closeness of those events. His reliable narration of memoir (the present tense) and reliable recounting of other’s stories (past tense) are read as a continuous line.

But he has chosen to make this differentiation, even as he has chosen to signal it without firm declarations along the lines of, my mother told me a story that goes like this. In fact, the subtlety of that differentiation does much of the work of trust building in the essay (and by trust, I refer to narrative trust: that we believe in the story Fletcher tells, which is the subject of the article by Caimi that I reference as epigraph). By creating an implication of the absolute in the recounting of these stories, Fletcher argues for their validity. But also, notably, by narrating hauntings only through the stories of others (throughout the book), Fletcher retains for himself a credibility most readers would not question. While this isn’t a sentiment I share, more readers are likely to discount a writer who claims to have experienced hauntings than one who recounts, even believes, the stories of others. Certainly, part of the power of this rhetorical move is also born of the facts of experience, since Fletcher has not experienced hauntings of the literal sort, only the desire for them.

Back to tense: consider the way verbs work in signaling the position of narrator in creative nonfiction, particularly in light of the then-now construct of the genre. Essays work because they let writers populate two moments of his or her own narrative experiences, to present “the reader with a view of the story from two perspectives at once” (Caimi 33). Present tense, however, offers only limited space for reflection, because the immediacy of the action prohibits the time necessary to make sense of it. Past tense, in contrast, allows a writer to both narrate and reflect: time has passed between the event and the writing, so narration and reflection can happen together.

Fletcher, then, presents a grounding story that is absent reflection. He is with his mother, experiencing. The stories are the space of reflection and, in fact, the mechanism that will allow him to make sense of his mother’s relationship to death. It is not the act of experience that allows him to reflect. Instead, it is the act of haunting that opens space for him to begin to reckon experience: “When I stand among those identical white markers laid as tight as false teeth, I’m numb to my emotions. But here, among the broken angels, I feel all the sorrow and love I’ve tried so hard to summon for him” (34). It is only through the combination of experience (present) and family story (the haunted past) that Fletcher can begin to access the emotional core that drives this journey.

As always, I am struck by essays that intersect formal structural decisions with emotional impact. And that’s precisely what Fletcher delivers in this essay and in the collection in general. On one hand, the move between tenses is a way for him to signal the two braids of an essay. But on the other, it opens up space to invite readers into the same position where he finds himself near the end of this essay: “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).

As readers and writers, that’s a position of openness to which we should all aspire.

Owls and Artifacts of Memory

In a past that shouldn’t seem as distant as it feels, my father and I traveled the woods together. I walked beside him as he pointed out flashes of color. I waited in the dark as we called to owls. I awakened early, in murky dawns, to visit smelly salt marshes and fix spotting scopes on wading birds. These memories flicker at the edge of my past, appearing as suddenly as the first live owl I ever saw. Late at night, I rode beside my father in his GMC. We wore black trash bags as improvised ponchos, and the rain outside continued to fall as it had all day. Under a canopy of trees, the night seemed absolute, barely ruptured by the truck’s headlights. Above us, then, appearing like a portent, or an angel, or bolt of feathered energy, a Great Horned Owl hovered. His mottled underbelly glided just above the windshield, for a moment so brief it survives only as memory, not story. Then it disappeared.

Matthew Ferrence, “Spaces Between”

Here now, in the last twitches of summer, where weather has turned quickly from a cool summer to solidified autumn, a Barred Owl has taken to calling from the woods near my house. The call first appeared a bit more than a week ago, the familiar four beat syncopation, hmm hmm hm-hmmmmm. I awoke that first night, cool air streaming through the open window, the clock declaring it half past three, and I listened while the owl called into the night. Last night, the owl called again, as it did two nights before as well, wresting me from sleep now even through closed windows. This is not a loud call, the owl clearly perching not in my yard or the neighbors, but down the street, where the road ends and a swatch of ravine separates the small city from forest. But I hear it, wake to it, something about the tonality of owls that cannot be ignored, something about the owl that calls to me alone.

“The point of the recollection of thing, person or event is in large part to reinhabit, to some degree, the former self,” Sven Birkerts writes in The Art of Time in Memoir (26). So it is with owls for me, this most recent night call an echo of other appearances. And reading today, I find myself thinking about these words from Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s prologue to his collection, Descanso For My Father: “Gazing down at the artifacts, I began to assemble portraits. From the portraits, narratives” (Fletcher 5). I do not intend to write my own narrative here, that of owls calling out from so many nighttimes to so many versions of myself, though I do expect to be haunted by owls for the remainder of my life, haunted in much the same way Fletcher writes of spirits visiting members of his family after death. No, indeed, my intention is to write myself toward a brief discussion of the power of the owl named Tirzah, the most crucial character in the lead essay of the collection, called “Beautiful City of Tirzah.”

This autumn marks the fourth I have taught that essay, but the first that I have taught it as part of a study of the recently-published collection. And I must report that I find the essay near-perfect, as fine an example of recognizing the power of metaphor circling a life as I can find. The motion of Tirzah in the essay leads both reader and narrator toward objects of note. Owls are, as grandmother Desolina declares, omens, if not bad, at least “messengers of the night” (11) as she tells the childhood Harrison, narrator of the essay. Structurally, it is precisely the motion and effect of the singular owl, Tirzah, that I find so fascinating.

Tirzah directs the eye, avoiding young Harrison for so many pages because he is not prepared to follow the owl where he needs to go. Instead, she gives peace and hope to his mother, memory of youth to his grandfather, sense of purpose to his brother. Or, rather, Tirzah doesn’t avoid Harrison: the avoidance goes the other way, the boy too timid and unsure to embrace the bird. His first touch, even, is with the tip of a pencil. But then, finally, an opening…literally, to the closet door within which the possessions of the narrator’s dead father are collected: “Tirzah, gazing toward the opening from her perch, flutters atop the closet door. I hold my breath. My sister calls our mother. Normally, the closet is off limits to us kids. We try to shoo Tirzah away, but she won’t budge. She just stares into the cool abyss. After a moment, she lowers her head and hops inside. From then on, the hall closet becomes her sanctuary. To fetch her, I must reach into darkness, brushing my father’s things” (16-17). Literally, the action of the owl is to lead young Harrison into that darkness, to force him to reach — without sight — and make contact with the clothing left behind. Structurally, the move signals the space between the then and now of memoir, of which Birkerts writes as being central to the meaning-making of the genre. The owl leads the author to reconcile the memory of the past with the meaning of the past.

Describing that move doesn’t do it justice, because the lyricism of the essay is staggering. There are no breaks to the narrative, no clumsy moves to declare what things mean. In fact, the very nature of this essay is to avoid declarations. It is, instead, a groping toward the beginning of knowledge, a slow recognition of the desire to know a man who can hardly be remembered. Tirzah is, in this light, both omen and oracle. Yet she is also purely owl, revealed later in the piece at the expense of a meadowlark.

For a long time, this essay has struck me with its beauty. As a stand-alone piece, it serves as an exemplar of what the essayistic impulse is all about. But as the lead piece to a collection, it serves as so much more. “Beautiful City of Tirzah” locates the moment of departure for the author, that moment in life when a single portrait began to shape the desire for narrative. Reaching into that darkness is the moment when, in the words of Birkerts, “pattern hints at a larger order, possibly an intention to underlying experience” (49). From this starting point, then, Fletcher establishes the position of the book, that of the confused young boy, seeking knowledge, afraid to touch it, yet reaching into the darkness. This, too, is the position of the memoirist, beginning to first recognize the way moments will assemble to reveal a clarifying, if not unifying, narrative.

I think, then, of my own owls, and of Fletcher’s prologue definition of the roadside memorials he has witnessed in New Mexico: “However they originated, historians agreed: a descanso marks the ground of an interrupted journey, the spot where a man, woman, or child died unexpectedly, the point at which a spirit left its body. A descanso reminds us to pray for a soul in purgatory. It is a manifestation of unexpressed grief, a communication, a eulogy, an apology” (6). I think about the owls of my life, how they adhere to moments of longing, and night, and the confusion that lies between wakefulness and sleep. “A descanso is love,” Fletcher declares, ending the definition. The book, Tirzah, owls hooting across Northwestern Pennsylvania — these are all invitations to recognize the gaps of knowing that create our emotional memory, the energy of attachment between past and present that allows us to recognize the meaning of the present in the accumulation of the past.