by Jill Talbot
When I read an essay, I linger on the first sentence—sure that all I need to know is there. And when I finish reading that essay, I immediately ﬂip back (or scroll up) and read that sentence again with what I have come to know.
“Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color.”
Thus begins Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. It’s a sentence with a first word that foregrounds supposition and speculation as Nelson thinks throughout the text, beginning many segments with words such as “Imagine,” “Perhaps,” “Then Again,” or “On the other hand.” She also introduces the “you,” a haunting presence of absence in the text. “Fallen in love” foreshadows not only the fascination with the “color” but also hints at the lover that’s been lost.
“I loved the restaurant’s name, a compact curve of a word.” Bernard Cooper’s first sentence in “Burl’s”1 introduces the restaurant, a location that creates Cooper’s oft-used bracketing structure, as the essay begins and ends at the restaurant. “Name” evokes the implications of what we call things, a central question of the essay. Finally, the “curve of a word” works on two levels: first, Bernard’s encounter with gender-bending curves his perspective of sexual distinction, and second, Cooper struggles, as a young boy, to find a word for what he had seen. Burls, he decides years later, perfectly combines boys and girls. Given that, no wonder Bernard
Cooper “loved the restaurant’s name.”
Along with that first sentence, or what I call “the place of privilege” in the essay, I read the final sentence. As I tell my students, when you complete a draft, go back and read your first and your final sentences. The entire essay should be there. I should interject something else I tell my students all the time: There are no absolutes in writing. So while most essays embody this concept, not all do. But to give you an example, here are the first and final lines of Dagoberto Gilb’s “Northeast Direct”2:
“I’m on board Amtrak’s number 175 to Penn Station.”
. . .
“And so as I begin a ride up the escalator toward the taxi lines, I watch him go straight ahead, both of us covered with anonymity like New England snow.”
During the span of the essay, Gilb notices another passenger on the train who has his book, and he watches him begin to read and at one point, Gilb comes oh-so-close to letting the passenger know he’s the author. So the train ride, the two strangers, the ironic distance between reader and writer—that’s the essay.
This first and final sentence read is not intended to reduce any essay’s power and or detract from the complexity that happens between these lines. The point is that we must pay attention to our beginnings and endings as writers, because while the reader doesn’t know where we’re headed, we better.
Moving beyond the opening and closing, I scan the essay for syntactical patterns. It’s like looking at only the shadows in a Hopper painting—where are they and what do they do? So it goes when I read essays—I look for the shadows in the syntax. Does the writer employ dashes? Are they throughout each paragraph (introducing distance or hesitation, perhaps?) or only twice in the entire essay (emphasis?). Are there parentheticals? Questions? Colons? Fragments? Does the writer rely on repetition?
I think of Meg Rains’s “The Memory of My Disappearance,”3 which includes seven segments. The first, fourth, and seventh segments begin with the phrase, “The last time I saw my Mother.” On a structural level, the syntactical refrain provides scaffolding for the essay. But at the level of meaning, the repetition shades in a mystery, as Rains cannot locate the disappearance in a single moment, so she remembers (does she?) more than one.
Still, when I read certain essayists, it’s clear from the first line to the final one that the art is in their sentences—all of them.
Syntax in the Canon
In the first sentence of The Writing Life, Annie Dillard tells us this: “When you write, you lay out a line of words.” For some essayists, the lines of words they lay out are done in such a way that can only be their own. In this way, they are more than essayists. They are syntacticians.
The syntactical styling of select contemporary essayists offer inventive and evocative models that allow us to consider how we write what we write. As prologue, I will point to a few canonical essayists with a penchant for particular stylistic elements4.
To begin, Montaigne relied heavily on semi-colons, interrogations, and intertextuality:
Pleasure is a quality of very little ambition; it thinks itself rich enough of itself without any addition of repute; and is best pleased where most retired. A young man should be whipped who pretends to a taste in wine and sauces; there was nothing which, at that age, I less valued or knew: now I begin to learn; I am very much ashamed on’t; but what should I do? I am more ashamed and vexed at the occasions that put me upon’t. ’Tis for us to dote and trifle away the time, and for young men to stand upon their reputation and nice punctilios; they are going towards the world and the world’s opinion; we are retiring from it:—“Let them reserve to themselves arms, horses, spears, clubs, tennis, swimming, and races; and of many sports leave to us old men cards and dice;”5
Next, Charles Lamb, who preferred the parenthetical, the dash, and italics:
“Innumerable are the ways which they take to insult and worm you out of their husband’s confidence. Laughing at all you say with a kind of wonder, as if you were a queer kind of fellow that said good things, but an oddity, is one of the ways;—they have a particular kind of stare for the purpose;—till at last the husband, who used to defer to your judgment, and would pass over some excrescences of understanding and manner for the sake of a general vein of observation (not quite vulgar) which he perceived in you, begins to suspect whether you are not altogether a humorist,— a fellow well enough to have consorted with in his bachelor days, but not quite so proper to be introduced to ladies.”6
Virginia Woolf, fluent in subordination, lyrical, adverbial, and serial constructions:7 That is true: to escape is the greatest of pleasures; street haunting in winter the greatest of adventures. Still as we approach our own doorstep again, it is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round; and the self, which has been blown about at so many street corners, which has battered like a moth at the ﬂame of so many inaccessible lanterns, sheltered and enclosed. Here again is the usual door; here the chair turned as we left it and the china bowl and the brown ring on the carpet. And here—let us examine it tenderly, let us touch it with reverence—is the only spoil we have retrieved from all the treasures of the city, a lead pencil.8
James Baldwin, another essayist enamored with subordination9: “When I was around nine or ten I wrote a play which was directed by a young, white schoolteacher, a woman, who then took an interest in me, and gave me books to read, and, in order to corroborate my theatrical bent, decided to take me to see what she somewhat tactlessly referred to as ‘real’ plays.”10
Joan Didion’s repetition of words and phrases:
“Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s on in the picture.”11
And those Truman Capote dashes: “Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans—in fact, few Kansans—had ever heard of Holcomb.
No, it was done for the same reason the mattress box was spread on the floor—to make the victim more comfortable.”
“Mr. Clutter in a navy-blue ﬂannel, his wife in navy- blue crepe; and—and it was this, especially, that lent the scene an awful aura—the head of each was completely encased in cotton.”12
One of my favorite syntactically charged essays is Steven Church’s“Thirty Minutes to the End.”13 This imagined essay—a direct address to Church’s Aunt Judy during the tornado that destroyed Greensburg, Kansas on May 4, 2007—begins at 9:15 p.m., thirty minutes before the tornado’s impact. From there, it counts down in five-minute increments (9:20, 9:15, 9:10) to the moments after.
That’s the essay structurally, but syntactically, Church recreates the frenetic feel of the tornado via the use of fragments.
In the opening section, “Thirty Minutes,” Church uses his first fragment: “One last moment of quiet in this house of stories.” “New noise.” soon follows along with three more fragments in the section. In particular, “Not yet. Now now.” which is repeated in the second section. In “Twenty Five Minutes,” he builds on “this house of stories” with “The silent piano.” “The siblings. The babies. Family Christmases. My grandparents, your grandparents. The holiday ‘shows’ in this house.”
At “Twenty Minutes,” Church relegates his use of the abbreviated sentence to hearsay, the fragmentary facts: “Telling you things. F5 they say. A massive tornado. Over a mile wide.”
In “Fifteen Minutes,” the fragments turn to threat: “Like a freight train.” They also return to “this house”: “His name. His chair.” “Your own children. Indiana, Kansas, Chile.” This last one, a series of locations, scatters a family and echoes the way objects during a storm are far-ﬂung, divided from their source.
At “Ten Minutes,” Church pares down to three fragments (the calm before the storm?): “Crumbled. Blown to bits.” “An image and a metaphor.”
Thenextsection, “Five Minutes,”includesthemostfragments of any segment in the essay (to the eerie count of thirteen). [I have used quotation marks to separate the instances of the fragments, which are spread throughout the segment.] “Now.” “Ting. Creak.” “Smacks your house.” “Like a train wreck in the dark. Glass breaking. Chink-chinking.” “Spinning. Drifting off.” “The plan. The grand plan.” “No rhyme, order, morality.” “Ever.”
And now we’re at “Zero Minutes,” when Church offers “The drain.” “Anything. A light, a voice.” He follows with four other fragments, and the final one reads, “Stricken and pale.”
The fragments in the final section, “The End,” come early, after the first two sentences: “Wandering east along Highway 54. Away from town.” “Dazed. Wandering in disbelief.” And they pick up again mid-segment: “Grandparents gone. The old and the young dying.” This final fragment in the essay concludes “this house of stories.” So in the eight sections of this essay, from thirty minutes to the aftermath—the fragment count reads 4/7/4/5/3/13/7/6—from inconsistency to destruction to decline.
Some synonyms of fragments: bits, chunks, particles, pieces, remnants, scraps, shreds, leftovers, shards, and tatters. In other words, what a tornado creates, what it leaves, so in the essay’s fragment progression and denouement, Church recreates the tornado syntactically. The fragments alone tell the story—the imagined experience—but the essay as a whole is an engrossing experience made more so because of them.
One more syntactical intrigue in this essay includes Church’s specific use of the dash, which only appears in the first and final sections as accompaniments to “the first-person I,” which he explains as showing up only brieﬂy in the beginning and again at then end, “to [show his distance] from the events but also [his] intimacy with both [his] aunt and the place.”14
From the first section:
“Not yet. Not tonight. Now it is something much worse—but you cannot know these things yet, have not seen the picture I’ve seen splashed in the days after.”
And from the final one:
“You cannot know now how I will imagine all of this tornado, this apocalypse, this story—every detail, every image of you—as a way to stretch my voice out and let it rise and quiver from the severed lines, hovering nearby as something familiar and safe here at the end.”
The phrase, “severed lines,” is brilliant in consideration of this essay’s fragmentation. Also, look at the way that final sentence elongates, stretches (the dash as connection more than separation), as do the ones which precede it, so that the storm has truly subsided, the quietude of suspension re-established. The syntax, as it were, intact.
Syntax as Palette
In “Word Hoards: On Diction and the Riches of the English Language,”15 Eric LeMay encourages writers to “be aware of [our] words as words,” in his informative, illuminating overview of American English’s “wordy mix” of Latinate (excitement, illusion, inanimate) and Germanic (thrill, trick, dead) by pointing out the ways in which we can blend Latinate (urgency) and Germanic (edge) words: “You can paint with them or mix them to make other colors.” Such experiments create tone and texture, movement and suspension.
When I read LeMay’s analogy, I wondered about my own sentences, about the ways in which I conscientiously paint and mix. Two sentences from one of my essays, “Wine List,”16 came to mind: “Years later, I’ll walk by this moment, see the two of us and the glints of more-than-gold in glasses. Hints of agony inside a stilling wind.”
I rely on the Germanic in the first sentence to accentuate the pang of a sharp memory, but I want to make a move, and not a sudden one, because the tone of this essay is wistful, so its sentences need to reﬂect that. I need to ease into the ache, the fragment that follows, and to do this I blend three monosyllabic words to invent my own Latinate (more-than-gold). I’m pouring all of these words toward one—“agony”—so I need it stand out, and to do that, I carry all of those “s”s over from the first sentence to “hints” and then pick it back up again with “inside” and “stilling” so that “agony” is framed (enveloped) by sibilance (hiss).
“The writing,” LeMay insists, “has to be as rich as the words from which it’s made.” When an essayist fails to consider the words, the words often have a cacophonous conversation the essayist never intended. And it’s distracting. But when an essayist is aware of his words as words, we delight in the cadence, the complexity, and the composition.
To press LeMay’s painting analogy, think about Mark Rothko’s multiforms, those blocks of opposing, yet complementary colors (yellows and reds, blues and greens). The energy and urgency and intimacy of those paintings derive from the contrast and complement of colors. Rothko took primary colors and put them into conversations, and as LeMay notes, “some words have better conversations than others.” What are your words saying?
The Measure of Music: The Lyric Essay
In his 1956 essay, “Music, Language, and Composition,”17 Teodor W. Adorno addresses the interplay between musical and linguistic forms:
“Music resembles language in the sense that it is a temporal sequence of articulated sounds which are more than just sounds . . . .The resemblance to language extends from the whole work, the organized linking of significant sounds, right down to the single sound, the note as the threshold of merest presence, the pure vehicle of expression. The analogy goes beyond the organized connection of sounds and extends materially to the structures. The traditional theory of form employs such terms as sentence, phrase, segment, ways of punctuating—question, exclamation and parenthesis. Subordinate phrases are ubiquitous, voices rise and fall, and all these terms of musical gesture are derived from speech.”
Adorno conflates the forms so that it’s difficult, at times, to discern which is which, until he shifts to the concept of interpretation: “To interpret language means: to understand language. To interpret music means: to make music.” But what happens when the essayist interprets language as music?
Seneca Review has become synonymous with the lyric essay, a subgenre of the personal essay Deborah Tall and John D’Agata describe as “[giving] primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information. They forsake narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation. The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language.” (my emphasis) The lyric asks us to listen to the language, both decorous and discordant, being made.
Here’s an excerpt from the middle of Lia Purpura’s “Augury,” an essay on the occasion of finding a goldfinch, hanging limp, dead, from a tree: “But yellow gets to be glorious, too. And its brightness not wholly awful. Such a yellow scours sight, fattens it. It is uncorruptedly lemon-like. And the sharp bolt of black on the wing shines like a whip of licorice. At the end of the path and around the bend, here’s the coming-upon again. The moment itself doesn’t close down. Its brightness is not slamming a door. Yellow’s not trying to make up for the end.
Time crests there.
The weather patterns. Fish in the lake. Dogs by the shore with laughing kids.
Why must a last moment be made so visible? And held aloft! Why must it dangle, and shift so softly, and keep on making a finality? From it, light rises. On it light settles. Slippery as tallow. Shushing in the breeze.
I think it’s good to stand beneath a thing that means to take words away.”
Through the use of rhyme (bend, again), simile (like a whip of licorice), consonance and assonance (wholly awful), and imagist fragments (Fish in the lake.), Purpura’s syntax soars. I get lost in this section of the essay because it is a digression, but not one of thought. Her conclusion to this yellow-inspired suffusion evokes irony, for the bird has not taken words away from her, it has taken them away, as if in fantastical flight. Time crests there.
I’m no Adorno, but I have always suspected a connection between musical ability and writing aptitude. “We turn to the lyric essay,” Deborah Tall and John D’Agata describe, “with its malleability, ingenuity, immediacy, complexity, and use of poetic language—to give us a fresh way to make music of the world.” As it turns out, many lyric essayists were making music in the world before they ever turned to the essay to make music of it.
Purpura writes: “Yes, absolutely there’s a connection be- tween a musical life and a writing life.” A former musician, she played oboe for years and notes, “there’s nothing like that controlled column of air moving through the body, ending in sound and song.”
When I read that statement in the context of her prose, I automatically replace “body” with “sentence.”
Another lyric essayist, Ander Monson, creates syntactical synergy in “Letter to a Future Lover”21: “You know, your lovers surely number more than mine; that’s fine, but when I fall, it’s ditch-witch hitting electric line, the whole world alive and lit in amperes for a moment. It might be gone again a nanosecond later, the body aching with or for or from the jolt; and perhaps it’s fever-dream; and who cares where it comes from as long as it’s fast and seems like it might last until we’re rusting into dust.”
We fall into the language, follow the long “i” to the short “i,” the quick bursts of “m”s and “n”s before the “f”s filter to the final resounding measure of short “a”s and “u”s. It’s a fun ride (read). As it turns out, Monson played piano and guitar, though not particularly well, he claims22. Most of his musical training was in the bassoon, which he played for seven years. He also sang in choirs, small ensembles, and jazz groups. No wonder there’s such wonder in his work.
Another lyric essayist, Brian Oliu, creates his unique syntax on two levels. First, he infuses his lyricism with declarative sentences, repetition, and subordination. On another, no less important level, punctuation, Oliu alternates between the dash and the colon. Here’s an excerpt from “Boss Battle: The Final Boss”23:
“When I arrived, the music changed, and then it went silent—nothing of note except for the ringing in my ears, the residue of the clinking of a glass, the dropped phone call, the silence of a house in the morning. There is nothing romantic about the idea of final when final arrives like this: not with an arrow in the eye, not with a body losing grip on the ﬂoor and disappearing in the dark with a sparkle and a wink, not with a final blink after turning magenta, a red not found in nature, a red not found in your face, not even while choking, not even while gasping for breath. What you have imagined the final stage to be is not what it is—here is a list it is not. It is not surrounded by family and handwritten cards from friends, fresh ﬂowers replacing dead ﬂowers, no, never dead ﬂowers, get them out of here, cast them into the street, put them in another room, the water will not save you. It is not done loudly, a body on fire, a spine crushed, speed meeting its opposite, the flavor of tin on the tongue, a lost tooth.”
Oliu, who more often than not employs the second-person in his writing, doesn’t play any instruments, but he does deejay, so I can’t help but glean a connection between his ability to spin songs, to intuit tones and rhythms, and to evoke a crowd’s participation the way he does a reader’s.
A prolific lyric essayist, Brenda Miller, admits: “I’ve never been a musical person (or at least I was told I had no “ear” for music from a young age), but just this past year I started taking voice lessons for the first time, just for fun. It’s been a transformative experience! And there are so many connections to writing that I’m just now beginning to articulate in my own mind. For instance, my teacher taught me early on that you can’t sing a note by listening to it with your ear or your brain; you have to feel the note in your body. By the time you’re listening to it, it’s already gone.”24
One of my favorite syntactical maneuvers appears in Miller’s essay, “Swerve,”25 which consists of only two-hundred-and-ninety words and two paragraphs. The second paragraph is one sentence: “I’m sorry, I said, and I said it again, and we continued on our way through the desert, in the dark of night, with the contraband you had put in our trunk, with the brake light you hadn’t fixed blinking on and off, me driving because you were too drunk, or too tired, or too depressed, and we traveled for miles into our future, where eventually I would apologize for the eggs being overcooked, and for the price of light bulbs, and for the way the sun blared through our trailer windows and made everything too bright, and I would apologize when I had the music on and when I had it off, I’d say sorry for being in the bathroom, and sorry for crying, and sorry for laughing, I would apologize, finally, for simply being alive, and even now I’m sorry I didn’t swerve, I didn’t get out of the way.”
I admire this sentence for a few reasons, and the first is in the way in which Miller employs what I call “the magic three.” Think of the five paragraph essay we all learn early in our writing education—the one that includes three body paragraphs as a means to develop and support a thesis. When I teach composition, I tell my students that the number three may be employed at the paragraph level as well, so that a general statement (topic sentence) may be supported by three examples.
In the creative writing classroom, I call it “the magic three,” because it can be used in various and magical ways. In Miller’s sentence, she relies on this syntactical device first in “too drunk, or too tired, or too depressed.” Then, she uses it again, but in a different way, with: “I would apologize for the eggs being overcooked, and for the price of light bulbs, and for the way the sun blared through our trailer windows and made everything too bright.” Miller echoes the composition principle of using specific examples to elucidate a general idea—the apology—with three examples, but here the “magic three” is one of progression, from within her control to beyond her control. She’s in control of cooking the eggs, but the price of light bulbs is not within her control, and certainly not the brightness of the sun, and I can’t help but read a progression of light here, too, in the (implied) yellow light of eggs to light bulbs to the blare of the sun so that we’re all squinting by the end of the sentence. The final syntactical decision I admire is the way Miller continues those clauses to the very end. For example, what would change if she had used a period instead of that final comma?
“Even now I’m sorry I didn’t swerve. I didn’t get out of the way.”
The syntax matches the content—for she didn’t get out of the way—and if she had chosen the end-stop of the period there, she would have syntactically gotten out of the way, but in her usage and perpetuation of the comma, she makes the “I” implicit in the inaction. The period would be a swerve, a move antithetical to everything that has preceded it.
To me, “Swerve” is even more fascinating when viewed through the lens of the first word(s) of each sentence:
“I’m sorry. Apound. Thunk. Your. That’s when. And I’m I’m sorry.”
The restraint in “Swerve” can be illuminated by comparing it to the syntactical selections of another essay, “There Are Distances Between Us,”26 by Roxane Gay. Unlike the extreme brevity of Miller, Gay’s essay comes in at seven hundred words, still a ﬂash, but more than twice as long as Miller’s. Still, the measure of their difference is not in their word count but in their syntax. Here are the first word(s) of Gay’s essay:
The interstate. There are. You are. We are. I have. There are. When I was young. I traced. I once. That summer. Before. My hair. I stayed. My parents. A change. I went. Each time. It was. I never. I only. When. The wallpaper. There was. I loved. Whenever. My brothers and I. He often. He said. Every morning. I think. It shocks. I do not. Those words. They shouldn’t. In a photo. We are. I have. My father. My brother and I. My father. He is. When he speaks. I have. My father. He is. He has. I’ve. The ingratitude. I do. We could. We could.
If we look at the initial two hundred and ninety words of Gay’s essay, we count twenty-one sentences to Miller’s seven, which results in a 3:1 ratio. This makes Dillard’s idea of “laying down words in a line,” seem simplistic (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Words, sentences, and fragments— they’re all variables that may be formulated differently by each writer, in every essay, into infinite syntactical equations.
Gay’s paratactic prose has been lauded by critics as “simple and direct,” “direct, bracing and propulsive,” and having a “plainspoken, almost affectless style.”27 A few years ago, I had the opportunity to ask Gay about her syntactical sparseness. Here’s how she described her prose:
“I developed [my voice] by trying, in my stories and essays, to focus on intense moments or situations or ideas and allowing that intensity to be revealed through stripped down prose. Let the story do its own work rather than trying to insert myself too much . . . . I prefer that when people read my work, they simply see what is being written.”28
This section has built on Adorno’s theoretical considerations of the similarities and differences between music and language and particularly how those connections may be read in the context of the lyrical essayist, but within my considerations, I have included a writer who uses straightforward, stripped-down prose as a method of contrast. Yet musicality still applies. Consider a waltz. Roxane Gay’s sentences imitate an almost-unwavering waltz, as she puts the stress (the subject) as the first beat of nearly every line.
Dancers Extraordinaire: Dinah Lenney and David Lazar
Have you seen Donald O’Connor’s comedic, acrobatic “Make ‘em Laugh” number from Singin’ in the Rain? His ﬂimsy, whimsical hat, the way he dances on his knees, leaps, falls and trips and dips and tangles, the way he interrupts his singing to play musical faces, how he play-fights a prop and does a backﬂip after running up a wall, not once, but twice? It’s a marvel, the kind of performance I watch in awe, wondering, “How does he do all of that? And how does he make it look so instinctual?”
Essayist Dinah Lenney accomplishes such feats through syntactical acrobatics in her consistent use of five elements: italics, dashes, parentheticals, questions, and dialogue. You can look at the opening paragraph of any of her essays and recognize these elements, sometimes all of them, but more often a couple of them, thoug her moves are never formulaic or predictable. Each paragraph is a combination of unexpected steps that sweep us through the dance of her syntax.
From her essay, “Parade”29:
“Now this here, this is a dream: We forgot to get married and we never had children—we never got around to any of it. And now, in the dream, he’s had it with me, he’s leaving, he says. In the dream, I’m 30, 35, 40, 45, 50… That is, I’m as old as I am. The dream is recurring, but different from the others, the ones in which I’m barefoot and trudging uphill or wading through water with all my belongings balanced on my head like a picture in National Geographic. This dream, unlike those, is so real, which is maybe why I’m not able to wake myself up. In this dream, he’s my very last chance at a real life— he is my real life — and he’s walking away. In this dream – though I’ve shrugged him off a half a dozen times during the day—though I’ve been snippy and critical and rude (maybe because I’ve been all those things), though I’ve thought more than once I’d just as soon live by myself—that way the counters would stay clean and I could be as selfish I am—it’s Fred who decides he can’t take anymore. In the dream, as in life, he is even and rational and kind. He’s not changing his mind. It just isn’t worth it, he tells me. But, I wail, we forgot to get married. Can’t we get married? Can’t we have a couple of kids? Weren’t we supposed to have a couple of kids, please? In real life, he saves me then. ‘Dinah, wake up,’ he says, touching my shoulder. And I do.”
If you stand back and watch her prose, look at it visually, you can see the performance of it (as well as the Charles Lamb echoes.) Lenney’s voice moves at a frenetic pace. It’s stream-of-consciousness paired with a conversational intimacy, a persona who questions her self (and us). Another syntactical element of her work? She answers, at least for herself, with intermittent, fragmentary declarations. In the paragraph above, she closes with (“And I do.”). A few examples from other essays—“Me neither.” “As if.” “But I do.”—each one letting the reader know where, exactly, she stands.
If Dinah Lenny is Donald O’Connor, David Lazar is Fred Astaire. If you’ve read Lazar—in essays, in interviews, or in person— you’ll immediately recognize the seamlessness of that connection. In his essay, “Death, Death, Death, Death, Death,”30 Lazar writes, “For me, charm is the quintessence of wit brought to bear to amuse and delight another in our presence. It allows us to think, most brieﬂy, that we exist with a kind of ﬂuidly amusing grace that can be shared . . . . That’s one of the reasons Fred Astaire’s death hit me so hard. The death of charm makes the ground tremble.” Lazar’s syntax is at once fluid, lyrical, interrogatory, hypotactic, parenthetical, conversational, and intellectual.
Here’s a passage from “Across the River”:
“I think this (a)moral seasoning dogged me for years, bogged me down until I realized—I can locate this precisely as having occurred somewhere between the ages of twenty and thirty—that I performed best on all occasions when I stuck to the rules, played it fair instead of loose. To cast glibness aside, the point is that I was trained to think that in the city, your wits should lead you to victory, to getting what you want and need, that savvy slight dishonesty was what you cleverly used or were trumped by. How disheartening, dispiriting, and (I sense one more coming) disillusioning to realize that my skill in almost all cases resided in the reasonably honest use of intellect, emotion, and language. In short, I think I was duped into thinking I could dupe. What a rube; how city-humiliating to be so self-trumped.”
Here the duality of the parenthetical is followed by the rhyme of dogged/bogged before the dash of a clarifying aside precedes the slant rhyme of rules/loose. Lazar carries the sibilance to the next sentence with “cast glibness aside” and extends the short “i” in glibness to “city,” “wits,” and the first syllabus of “victory.” Next, he picks up the “s” again with the alliteration-cum-consonance, “savvy slight dishonestly.” In his recurring use of serial constructions, he enjoys repeating the prefix with variation. Here, he uses disheartening, dispiriting, and disillusioning. Another example of this variation-on-a-theme appears in “The City Always Speaks”: “In the late afternoons in cities, the captive and the captured are joined in their capitulations to form.” (my emphasis) But back to the paragraph at hand, which continues with the s-s-s-s-ing in “skill in almost all cases resided in the reasonably honest use,” before the word play and rhyme of duped/dupe and rube. Wait, he’s not finished. He’s calling back that short “i” (city-humiliating) and those s sounds (city, so, self), before turning on a word used earlier in the paragraph: “trumped.”
All those “s”s evoke the hissing of a crowded city—the p- shhhh of bus doors, the air brake-release of delivery trucks, car wheels in the rain, and in the midst of these clever, compounded coordinates Lazar casts a comic aside, just to remind us he’s here with us, aware of his own syntactical, serial predilections with “(I sense one more coming).”
In “The Usable Past of M.F.K. Fisher,” Lazar describes his own prose as inhabiting an “excessively elaborating style, which depends on strings of dependent clauses, constant qualification, elaborate digression, and well, you get the picture.” These elaborate digressions, more often than not, occur within the frame of what I call the “Lazarian Parenthetical,” and to prove how much Lazar employs it, I have counted one-hundred-and-fifty-eight of them within the two-hundred-and-fifteen pages of Occasional Desire. However, they’re not all used for the same purposes and not always asides or wink-winks to the reader—this is what makes them, in my mind, Lazarian. For example, some of them are anecdotal:
“(I once had a woman wrestle the phone out of my hand in frustration, once had a man fix me with a look and imperiously command me to “Say good- bye”).”
“(When I am offered something to drink in an unfamiliar setting, be it morning or midnight, I always accept, wanting to appear game.)”
“(Shouldn’t the appearance of the unrepressed be a sister concept to the return of the repressed?)” “(Is my memory thawing or cooling into intellectualism?)”
“(Do we demystify our own work uselessly when we try to peg it and create self-conscious themes, make the perfectly implicit, the obsessively understated, too obvious?)”
And because Lazar is an aficiando of both literature and film, some of them include allusion or intertextuality:
“(Do I dare to eat a peach?)” “(E. B. White, hold on tight.)”
“(think of the end of “On Some Verses of Virgil”)” “(good fences make good mentors?)”
“(which makes the whole thing sound more madcap than it was, as though I was some Max Sennett character crashing through the window of a sushi bar)”
“(was Hitchcock’s The Birds, with its wounded and wounding avengers, ﬂying this same idea?)”
Still, some are conversant:
“(Rachel, here’s my list of essay descriptions, fond as I am of d’s: desire, disruption, discovery, dyspepsia .
. . dereliction, Daedalian, doubt, DuPlessian . . .)” “(I don’t like suspense in essays. It didn’t.)”
“(hold your letters—we’ve read the same books, all gone to therapy.)”
More often than not, though, the Lazarian Parenthetcial is a blend: allusion and interrogation, intertextual conversation, even meta- interrogations of self and genre.
In an attempt to explain his fascination with the parenthetical (how essayistic of him), Lazar muses, “I wish I could completely explain my love of parentheses (if I could though perhaps they’d be taken over by mere hyphens, and lose their lovely enclosed space, their digressive antechamber next to, or in the middle of a sentence, a thought).”31 And while he does employ the dash sparingly—again, look at the prose visually—the parenthetical is the most recognizable punctuation mark in David Lazar’s essays, and they are uniquely his own. In fact, they are charming.
While Lazar’s syntax clearly embodies the influence of classical essayists Michel de Montaigne and Charles Lamb, it’s difficult to ignore the Astaire influence, both in Lazar’s persona and in his style. Lazar grew up watching Astaire’s films “over and over.” And in the paragraph below, he catalogues Astaire’s attributes. The italics are mine . . .
“Astaire, in addition to changing the nature of dance itself in the twentieth century, fusing high and low, the serious and the whimsical, embodied a grace, sometimes lyrical, sometimes narrative, in his work (achieved through hours and hours of really meticulous rehearsal) that no one else had or has managed to combine.”
. . . because, as he would write: David Lazar, anyone?
Applause: Last Lines
The last line of essays suspend rather than end. Think about that second when the final movement of a symphony either dissolves into quiet or crescendos its coda and everyone in the performance hall is stilled by a silence that is no silence at all but reverberation, resuscitation, resplendence. Musicians, conductor, audience—all held by this impossible pose of delay like a diver at the height of her jump before the rush and riot of her twists and descent. And then, the splash, the applause, the standing ovations and bows and ladder climb from the pool to the deck dripping with the marvel of the music.
When I am reading an essay infused with lyrical, lilting, and elongated syntax, I get lost in the wonder, the wander through the language as if I’ve stepped through the door of an unfamiliar house, and I move from room to room, not understanding how I got there or why this room opens to this other one, and I forget to worry where I am or where the door is that will lead me out. But then I turn the page and see it there, the final sentence.
I put my hand over the words, not wanting to leave. And then I surrender.
1 Truth Serum: Memoirs (Houghton Mifﬂin 1996): 15-27.
2 Threepenny Review (Fall 1996): 67.
3 Brevity 42 (March 2013): http://brevitymag.com/issues/march- 2013/the-memory-of-my-disappearance/
4 While these examples do not convey the complexity and variety of these essayists’ writing as a whole, they do serve to establish that some writers do, in fact, create a recognizable syntax.
5 “On Some Verses of Virgil”
6 “On A Bachelor’s Complaint of the Behaviour of Married People”
7 She most often serialized in threes. In this sentence, it’s the chair, the china bowl, and the brown ring.
8 “Street Haunting: A London Adventure”
9 In a 1963 review of The Fire Next Time, the essay collection that followed Notes on a Native Son, The New York Review of Books noted, “He is in love [ . . . ] with syntax, with sentences that mount through clearly articulated stages to a resounding and clarifying climax and then gracefully subside.”
10 “Notes on a Native Son”
11 “Why I Write”
12 In Cold Blood.
13 In B.J. Hollars’s Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction (U of Nebraska Press, 2012): 60-71.
14 From Church’s meta-essay which follows “Thirty Minutes” in the anthology.
15 In Dinty W. Moore’s The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Creative Nonfiction (Rose Metal Press, 2012): 86-92.
16 PANK (Spring 2014): 127-130.
17 Theodor W. Adorno and Susan Gillespie. The Musical Quarterly. Vol. 77, No. 3 (Autumn, 1993): 401-414.
18 Both quotes included in this section by Tall and D’Agata can be found in “The Lyric Essay.” Seneca Review: http://www.hws.edu/ academics/senecareview/lyricessay.aspx
19 Rough Likeness (Sarabande Books, 2011): 67-71.
20 “An Interview with Lia Purpura.” Smartish Pace. 2007: http:// www.smartishpace.com/interviews/lia_purpura/
21 Brevity 25 (Spring 2012): http://brevitymag.com/nonfiction/ letter-to-a-future-lover/
22 Personal interview via e-mail. 28 May 2014.
23 DIAGRAM: The All-Essay Spectacular 12.1: http://thediagram. com/12_1/oliu.html
24 Personal interview via e-mail. 28 May 2014.
25 Brevity 31 (Fall 2009): http://www.creativenonfiction.org/ brevity/past%20issues/brev31/miller_swerve.html
26 Brevity 36 (May 2011): http://www.creativenonfiction.org/ brevity/pastissuestwo/brev36/roxgay36.html
27 Fenney, Nolan. “Roxane Gay’s Riveting Debut Novel.” Time (7 May 2014): http://time.com/90402/roxane-gay-an-untamed- state-review/
Charles, Ron. “An Untamed State by Roxane Gay.” Washington Post (27 May 2014): http://www.washingtonpost.com/ entertainment/books/an-untamed-state-by-roxane-gay/2014/05/ 27/0ebe0f7c-e28a-11e3-8dcc-d6b7fede081a_story.html
“An Untamed State.” Kirkus Review (11 May 2014): https://www. kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/roxane-gay/an-untamed-state/
28 Personal interview via e-mail. September-October 2012.
29 The Rumpus (13 April 2014): http://therumpus.net/2014/04/ the-sunday-rumpus-essay-parade/
30 All Lazar essays mentioned are from his collection, Occasional Desire: Essays (University of Nebraska Press, 2014).
31 Personal Interview via e-mail. 21 May 2014.
32 Rueﬂe, Mary. Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures. Wave Books (2012): 4.
Jill Talbot is the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal, 2007), the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together (University of Texas, 2008), and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (Iowa, 2012). Her essays have appeared in Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Passages North, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, Seneca Review, and more.