“I have to believe in this still, moving center,” writes Allison Verbova, “where the world expands and compresses in the same pocket of space, where time lines up as the wind whips past and the before-and-after is all just now.” Verbova’s narrator in “On Monasteries” offers snapshots from society’s margins, where despair is the norm and any respite fleeting. She shares with the other voices in this unthemed portfolio an experience of displacement, an acute awareness of what lies out of reach.
A vein of sublimity runs through these essays. Valerie Arvidson’s narrator, displaced in time, speculates about subjects in a photograph, chasing vapors of a family past much as her subjects “search for ankles, soft shoes, and unraveled ladies’ laces.” “No one wants to see the inside of a boy’s mouth,” Arvidson asserts, and in Lina Ferreira’s “Catching Moths,” a vagrant in Bogotá assaults the narrator with just that view, showing her “every wet, cavity-ridden tooth” in “a mouth like an open palm.” Yet the narrator’s observations of violence strive, it would seem, to balance it, much as Scott Esposito’s, who notes in his response to Michael Haneke’s film The Seventh Continent, “Their struggle presented as art becomes precisely that horrible Thing whose lack made their lives unendurable.”
These pieces gather along a perimeter of fixed systems designed to keep certain people in and others out, viewing such structures as outsiders. In “She Feeds Them” by Jessica H. Nelson, the narrator is a waitress at a restaurant that is all “family recipes, family business,” where her boss “tends her post . . . with the sharp eye of a ship captain and the intuitive gut-love of a mother”; in “Captivated” by A. Kendra Greene, the narrator works in a Chilean zoo where keeper jobs are passed down father to son and African elephants remain so feared the inveterate staff celebrates their deaths; in Sandy Florian’s “The Inter-View,” the narrator’s campus visit unravels into “a nightmare circus,” where she finds herself “the lonely elephant a long way from home”; and Shehla Anjum renders the experience of being mistaken for an American Indian working at Mt. Rushmore, the incongruity of waking up to her role within a system that dramatically dislocates her identity.
Enter the body and its unholy alliance with time, displacing us ever farther from the unattainable ideal. The narrator of Carrie Oeding’s “On Looking Young” confronts her body’s betrayals, saying, “I start to dissect myself by what of me is too young and what of me looks like it ran ahead.” Karen Marron lyrically evokes the body’s destination in “Girls and Horses,” showing the disintegration of Breyer horses, “thighs turning in on themselves, the muzzles diminishing into nothing.”
As themes go, it’s a cold collection. But by tracing the anatomy of their discomfort, these authors lead us to fresh insight on our shared condition. Camus’s polarity of tender indifference comes to mind. So much is wrong in the worlds described here, yet one finds solace in their depiction.