The lyric essay shares the same literary nebula as the prose poem; it is often easier to define by what it doesn’t do than what it does. Lyric essays can be highly fragmented, asterisks heavy, atonal wonders, and they can be tightly braided works of memoir and research. They often approach poetry, by which I mean they forgo nominal expectations of narrative and structure and reach for a more fluid diction. They can also be a mess of affect and precious aimlessness, lost in their own world of psychological ephemera.
Lyric essays and prose poems are unruly, tweaking the reader’s expectation of what an essay or a poem should be. They mine the latent energy that exists between their dual hearts, and in the process transform the essay/poem into something strange, alchemical, even unrecognizable. When they succeed, they come excruciatingly close to breaking genre apart entirely.
Selah Saterstrom’s Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics, from Essay Press, is suffused with that energy, that possibility, in both its craft and its content. The author comes from a long line of readers. Hers is a family steeped in various practices of divination, and Saterstrom’s texts are an extension of these practices. At any moment we are many selves with equally as many possible futures, presents, and pasts, and through divination — the cut of a deck, the lighting of candles, a Tarot session, the writing of a poem — we can discern and even understand these selves.
The introduction and first essay efficiently set the stakes for the collection: that the act of a divinatory reading and the reading of a text are interchangeable; that a text is the summation of far more than a sequence of sentences. Artists often refer to their work as an extension of themselves, and I have rarely encountered a text that so clearly earned that description. Saterstrom writes in the introduction:
Being an effective [card] reader is contingent upon the quality of presence with which one positions oneself in the constant stream of information and texts. The stream is wherever you are, all of the time, in every grand place, in every suffering pit.
How are you in it? How does your awareness participate? How do you read and write there? What syntactical logics emerge from such writing, and what do they say towards being? In this place I wrote with water; in this place, an extinguished match; here, blood and cheap perfume; here, nothing.
Further along she adds:
Stephen Moore’s concept of “responding in kind” has been important to my thinking about divination. Moore suggests that rather than bringing an analytical jackhammer to a parabolic text/event that we instead respond in kind. To me, this means participating (reading and writing) from within the membranous precincts between our multiple bodies in the larger rhizomic field of resonances, where much is sounding and also unsounded. This is the site from which I want to consider narrative. It is what I mean when I say “divinatory poetics.”
This didn’t make much immediate sense to me, but the essays bring this poetics to light and life. The first essay is a three-part reflection on her divorce, for which the writing process took 15 years to come to fruition. In explaining the context for the piece, she writes:
I began to work with the notion that there is celebratory value within the heart of failure. In time, one must redefine failure altogether. It would be years before this notion truly took root. Divinitory poetics: the way we send postcards to our past, present, and future selves through the crackling medium of fragmentation and juxtaposition.
The essay’s three parts are titled by the three mysteries of the Rosary — joyful, sorrowful, and glorious — and each blends narrative realism with unexpected dives into the poetic, not unlike the first quote above.
One thousand three hundred and sixty days two hundred and twenty-seven candles a pound of sugar and some money. Thirty-six hatches scripted into the webbing. The ruby gelatin latent in the womb. A matchbox stuffed with hair. A red velvet cake in an infant’s coffin. That is how much.
This excerpt exists by itself on the page, deepening its mystery. Nearly every page in the book is home to a single paragraph, sometimes two or three. In some cases, the commitment to minimalist form is overly self-indulgent, giving equal emphasis every heady passage, which flattens the overall effect. In the collection’s most successful essays, however, the effect is truly, beautifully kaleidoscopic.
A stray end sections the ink and needle. Elsewhere, the gown bothers, elsewhere, a worthwhile evil hopes. Here, flowers before the faithful, a mathematics breathing flowers, here is a calendar that regards them. The ink and needle caution. The point renders the sharpest meal. The ink and needle burn. This tattoo technique is called Plum Blossom Anniversary.
The book drops the reader in the middle of conversations and obscure knowledge sets. It’s disorienting at times, but Saterstrom calmly guides you through the book’s internal logic and magic; even if an essay falls short of its aims, you’re acutely aware of those aims. This is in large part because Saterstrom’s essays are often bookended by lengthy introductions and notes that delve into the essay’s context — where it came from, what it could have been, what it didn’t do.
These bookends are as much a part of the overall work as are the essays. The notes sections are sometimes more compelling than their corresponding essays. “The Tale of Brother and Sister” is one example. The essay situates you in a womb with two fetuses, a brother and sister, implying that the brother does not survive: “To be continuously on fire. As we are. Brother, as you were.” The narrative threads include hospitals, darkness, elegy, lament, and reincarnation, such as when the sister speaks of a past lives as a Brigadier General and a Viking. The narrative is opaque, each paragraph dense with fragments, and while there are alarmingly beautiful surprises, it’s too fractured and discordant. The scenes bleed into one another until the form loses its grip.
In the notes section, we learn that Saterstrom gave birth to a stillborn son, and that she had a twin brother who died in utero. She asks the question, “Can a piece of writing be haunted?” to the waitress at an all-night diner, who responds with a story about her mother and an old letter from her brother, written while he was away at war just before he died. “Every morning after her mother read the letter, without fail, when she took an egg to cook, upon cracking it, its yoke ran red.” It’s an incredible note to end on.
Ideal Suggestions often reads like it’s written for writers because of its emphasis on the creative and generative engines of craft. One of these engines is a belief that the world interacts with us as much as we interact with the world, that coincidence is communication.
For example, the introduction to the essay “On Other People’s Stories” tells us this work began as a commission with a fascinating subject: Her copy of Ideal Suggestions in Mental Photography: A Restorative System for Home and Private Use, Preceded by a Study of the Laws of Mental Healing, from 1893, considered the first self-help book published in the U.S. Saterstrom’s copy was passed down through several generations of her family, and each owner left behind hand-written notes in the margins. Although the topic of the family copy crackled with inter-generational magic and psychological complexity, while editing one evening, the author spontaneously wrote a very short scene from childhood about riding in her stepfather’s car after school.
Soon after finishing the story, her phone rang. It was her sister, informing her that their stepfather might be dead. That death is confirmed with near-indescribable trauma: with the help of her ex-husband, Saterstrom enters her stepfather’s house to find that he died by suicide, a shotgun to the face. Gore and bile are everywhere; there is so much human in the couch that it is too heavy to lift.
The essay that follows this introduction isn’t about Ideal Suggestion in Mental Photography at all. Instead, Saterstrom collects several stories from four friends and transcribes them, in third person. These are small stories, heavy with nostalgia, about Ford T-Birds, sex, penguins, growing up. They are simple, but very warm, very real, a lot like Michael Kimball’s Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard) (2013). The essay is an important contrast to the collection’s swaths of densely lyrical prose poetry. It ends with the moment of its unknowing birth: the small story with Saterstrom in the car with her stepfather.
What does it mean to know that “On Other People’s Stories” was supposed to be something else? These essays answer questions of the why and how behind a work of art but in doing push the experience of reading the essay into new territories, new questions.
Saterstrom’s stepfather is not the only suicide in this book. The final essay, one of the collection’s most powerful, is introduced by a little background on the life of German painter Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528). We learn his art was extremely important to the author’s grandfather and his family. Almost without pause, the introduction turns into a ghost story explaining that her grandfather died in much the same way as her stepfather.
In revealing these deaths, Saterstrom’s tone and pacing is understated, which magnifies the staggering trauma and, somehow, soothes its impact. The equanimity is not just laudable — it lends a certain amount of hope. The essay that follows is a long, unbroken column of text that spans four pages. It is voiced as a sort of command to the self more than the reader, and each time I read it I root out more hope:
Let us say we have an experience in matter. Let us say the earth, saturated with iron oxide, is red. Let us say that those words of the Lover, so often repeated: Fear Not. We must believe or we will never get out of this shithole. Our nourishment is unseen, but real. Let us say: reconstructed. But the pilot grasps the helm and steers the orchid waspward.
Ideal Suggestions, like good poetry, quietly implores its reader to return. Like good poetry, its impact can quickly spread to the next book you read, the next thing you write. I wish it offered more context and history for the various practices it touches on. At the same time, the lack of context and history is part of what keeps this text open. When I read it again, a different version of me will crack the spine, bringing an altered context for its pages. It will speak to me differently, or I’ll hear it differently — a rare quality in a world too easily closed off from growth.
Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics by Selah Saterstrom (2017) is published by Essay Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.