Four days after John’s surgery at UBC Hospital, I was in the UBC bookstore, looking for something to read. I’d finished the two New Yorkers I brought with me and then I finished Ben Lerner’s Topeka (a wonderful novel) and my nights alone in a suite near the hospital were pretty much sleepless. I knew Anne Boyer’s poetry and I receive her Mirabilary (“love letters about thinking”) via email and I know I read somewhere (though I can’t find the source now) that she thinks that women are finding new forms for their work that sort of elide genres. So when I saw The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care on the table, I bought it. I’d read the section that appeared in the New Yorker last year and I knew it was about her experience with an aggressive form of triple-negative breast cancer. In some ways it might not have been the best choice for a woman to read in the night, alone, as she waited for her husband to recover enough from a double hip surgery, with complications, to bring him home again, but in so many ways it was perfect company.
I’ve long believed that essays are an ideal form for me, though if your own view of the essay as formal, adhering to the rules we learned in school, paying strict attention to opening paragraphs, thesis, grammar, punctuation, syntax, and (when required) citing source material, then I’m not your writer. I think of the form as endlessly open and capacious, willing to accept experiments, bars of music, instructions for grafting, soup recipes, the history of Ukrainian embroidery, the life cycle of a blue mussel, meditations on mortality, dissertations on historical events, dream diaries, and colour wheels. Anything else? Whatever a writer needs.
What I try to do in my writing is that if I perceive my own weakness or my own occluded vision or some moment in which I am not up to the task of discerning some truth or seeking an idea, I just include that in the writing. I just include in the writing an admission of what I can’t do. I don’t ever want to be a writer whose writing presumes to have all the answers or to speak authoritatively on anything. (interview in The Believer)
Reading The Undying, which is a book-length essay of deep and thoughtful dimensions, was richly satisfying, although sad enough that I found myself weeping as I turned its pages in the narrow circle of light from my reading lamp. It’s a brave book. To track the course of your cancer treatment as you worry about income, the little hoard of paid sick days running out like sand through an hourglass, the loss of your fingernails, your hair, the potential damage–cognitive, physical– from Adriamycin, a chemical administered by nurses in hazmat suits, well, I was stunned by Boyer’s focus and range of scholarship. Her guides, John Donne, Audre Lorde, Aelius Aristides, her friends (the ones who haven’t abandoned her).
Although I finished the book a few days ago, I’ve been keeping it on my desk. There’s so much to learn from it. From the writing, clean and radiant; from the structure of the essay itself, resembling from time to time a section of one of the great epic poems, where the hero(ine) descends to the underworld and faces what is to be found there and returns, forever changed; and from the inclusion of so many sources that I want to follow up with. As someone who has a collection of essays currently under consideration and for whom the best way to cite source material has been (in the past) problematic–I’m not a scholar and have found that using formal citation styles to be awkward–I was excited to see how Anne Boyer has solved that problem for herself: a simplified Notes at the end of the book as well as a good bibliography. I’m glad to have a precedent for this way of citing quoted material and that this book won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction makes it a very good precedent indeed.
I loved what she says in The Believer interview (cited above) about the novel she is currently working on. This is so congenial to me. Sometimes when the material I have at hand leads me into fictional territory, I wonder if I have the right grammar for it. I do my best. But honestly? “The body of thought to carry the spirit of the thing.” Oh yes.
That’s what I’m learning about, going deeper and containing more. You have to think about the tissue between things. Like the way people move through space. In novels, which never happens anywhere else, somebody has to move from one room to another room. So there’s all these prepositions, extra conjunctions, dialogue. Dealing with all these parts, tissue, ligaments, as opposed to poetry’s beautiful condensation of experience, or the essay’s allowance of the body of thought to carry the spirit of the thing.