“Autumn” in Autumn

Essays, story collections, vignettes—they allow us the opportunity to read a variety of thoughts, on varied subjects. Devoid of any centralized focus, we’re invited to partake in them occasionally, like a painting, to engage deeply in the realm between the frame and then, satisfied, saunter off, perhaps to a new painting, a new sensation, or perhaps to our own thoughts.

Karl Ove Knausgaard has made a name for himself ruining the demarcation lines in his own memory, letting thoughts interrupt or interrogate moments otherwise mundane, charging them with a force flowing and vivid. It’s the struggle of a man coming to grips (in near real-time) with what it means to remember, to impart meaning in memory, and the tension between trying to impose some meaning on it now versus what must have been dredged from it then. We read this process page-by-page and feel we gain through it, if not an insight into our own relation to our past then through the fantastic, coherent confluence of another’s.

Autumn, by contrast, is a group of short pieces written chronologically, ostensibly to his then-unborn daughter, introducing her to the world. Its subject matter is precisely the mundane: teeth, twilight, fingers, chimneys, vomit. In Knausgaard’s hands they are rendered into tiny points of reflection and rumination, as when he transmogrifies shame into glee. Or, like their topic, they are more mundane, less filled with light, and while most do become interesting many begin with scientific descriptions of the topic at-hand. The joy of exploration sometimes becomes a slog.

The most compelling thing about Autumn, however, is not any particular section but the liminal space between them, when you turn the page from one fragment to the next. Each piece is an essay, an attempt, to reach some level of veracity with the subject, and when Knausgaard thinks he’s gotten there he’s content to end. It has (a degree of) closure, and must have felt so for him, given the remit of the book (one piece a day, each day). For the reader, however, such pacing is impractical, and the pieces aren’t suited to that level of deliberation. (Koans they ain’t.)

Walter Langley – Memories (1906)

Instead there’s much joy to be found the the space between them. In an early piece, “Wasps,” he procedurally recounts an encounter while painting, ending it with taping off some vents and trapping the wasps. This leads to “Plastic Bags,” which contrasts the artistic listing and swaying of the bags with their more problematic place in nature. As he stares at one bag, in water, he feels not any great resolution but the sense that he “was still in the middle of something  and always would be.” The parallels are suggestive and inviting.

But the most rewarding is halfway through the book. In “Autumn Leaves” he uses the item to evoke apples and family, the tart taste and cidery smell conjuring genealogies of both the apples he’s eating and the family he’s sharing them with. Yet while this evocation is felt, it brings about the larger realization that his current life is the one he’s fixated on, not the past one. “I think of it every day, that what matters is now, that the years we are living through now are when everything important happens,” he writes, leading to a conclusion where he proleptically mourns this moment, one where he’s trying to be present, to appreciate. It’s not about the past, it’s about the now.

Except it really isn’t, since the next piece, “Bottles,” is a humorous childhood story of a town drunk. It’s all reflective, vivid yet reduced in typical Knausgaard style. It begins, as many others, with an exploration of bottle-as-object, but it’s impossible to hide the smirk that forms when he segways into the memory. It seems such a playful refutation of what came before, and invites the reader to guess at Knausgaard’s thoughts: is he aware of this contradiction? Does he find it a joke? Or as a point to be proved? I’m not quite sure myself, but ask me tomorrow and I may have a new thought on the matter.


Long Player: An Introduction

Series image via Library of Congress (http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c17301).

This is a statement of intent for a new series I’ll be embarking on, titled “Long Player.” The idea here, besides getting me to write with more regularity, is to produce a series of thematically linked essays that take their titles—but not necessarily their inspiration—from the song titles of an album. So each series of linked essays (which might only link tangentially, by the way) will last for the length of the album, at which point I’ll pick a new album and start again.

I’d like to keep things purposefully vague and free-flowing in terms of structure, so some essays will be personal, some will be exploratory, some will read like (boring?) academic papers, and some will instead be short fiction/poetry. I’ll iterate as I get a feel for the format. But the idea appeals because it implicitly allows for the kind of cross-media explorations I find most fruitful. I’d also like to stress that this isn’t like some 33 1/3rd knock-off but rather an admittedly flimsy attempt to just create stuff, using this device as the creative constraint.

I’ll be kicking things off with Yo La Tengo‘s album Fade, which came out in 2013, is 45:48 long, and has the following track listing:

  1. Ohm
  2. Is That Enough
  3. Well You Better
  4. Paddle Forward
  5. Stupid Things
  6. I’ll Be Around
  7. Cornelia and Jane
  8. Two Trains
  9. The Point of It
  10. Before We Run


On Letter Writing, pt. II

A wise friend of mine, when I told him I wrote letters of multiple pages to faraway friends, simply scoffed. Too much pressure, he claimed, to convey all it is that time and distance accumulates in one life to another. Too much! Much easier to just send a peculiarly picked postcard with some brief words. The words won’t say it, but imply “I thought of you (and think of you) long enough to crystallize that thought into a memento: this postcard.” Any thought of its own inadequacy, or the void of what’s not said, is washed away by simple presence. You’re there, I’m not there, but here we are.



Image: The Passion of Creation, Leonid Pasternak

M a n y

Note: this piece is an expanded version of experimental fiction originally written in 2011. Images via Ernst Haeckel.


The first thing you see when you wake up, or the last thing you see before you go to sleep. The only meal stubborn enough to be served all day.


The branch of entomology that deals with ants. Derived from the Greek for ant. The period after World War II was a dark time for ant-based studies, with the proliferation of technology and Cold War tensions directing humanity’s achievements elsewhere. Thankfully, 1981 marked the resurgence of myrmecology, and interest in ants (whether the carpenter, bullet, crematogaster, or dinoponera variety) has been strong ever since. Estimates place ants as 17% of Earth’s total terrestrial biomass, and further argue that there may be as many species of ant as-yet undiscovered as there are known ant species.


Looking at something else to look at yourself. Reflecting the mannerisms of someone else to convince them to like you by seeing them in you.

Mm hmmmmmmmm

Waking up. Stretching. Emoting the sublimity of a moment, properly. Warm soup belly. Unflinchingly answering in the positive. Feeling content. Feeling confident about the usage of adverbs. Being content. Radiating excess energy. The random brightening of lights.


The state of having a valence greater than two. A thing that has more than two somethings. One thing that spawns many things. One thing with many sides. The quality or state of having many values, meanings, and approaches. [See M a n y.]


I didn’t believe in magic until my mother told me the story of her pet bunny. It goes like this: she went to a camp with her parents one summer, and the bunny went along. The day after they arrived it got lost, and despite thorough searches, it would not be found. By the last day my mother had almost forgotten about it, the way most children do when things leave them for no reason [see Memories for clarification on the differences between children and adults]. On the last day of camp there was a meal, and for that meal were a number of treats: beer-simmered sausages, veggie shish-kabobs, fried chicken, Mrs. Felderson’s famous potato salad, s’mores. And, to top it off, a delicious pot of rabbit stew. It was fresh, tasty, and exquisitely seasoned. Everyone enjoyed it: it ended the camp on the highest of notes. Only on the car ride back (after minutes of silence that later became normal in their relationship) did my grandparents tell my mother that, in the delicious rabbit stew that she had partaken in, was her own bunny.

That is when I knew that anything could happen.

Making Out

Tongue sails billowing. Currents rushing, swirling. Complete absence of seagulls. Observation of stars, creation of constellations (at any angle). Throwing the map away, trusting the winds not to betray. Not being able to drink the water beneath your chin. Wanting that thirst. See Mmmuaaa-!


A fertile, low-lying grassy plain found along the Outer Hebrides. A TV series located in the same place. A thing abandoned without pretense but also without history, like the opening pawn in a chess match.


See me. Or spend some time with me.


Children are the paintings. Adults are the ones looking at them. The shunting is instantaneous. And irreversible.


An African instrument consisting of a wooden board, a resonator, and staggered metal tines, the last of which are often adapted from cutlery. Further proof that you can you can play with your food instead of just eating it.


An apron and a corn cob pipe. A type of store usually only seen in old TV shows. In the UK, a corner shop or an offy. Where people go after they feel guilty about Black Friday.


The pantomimed question of why human beings treat each other the way we do. What some readers might want to express after a terrible pun.


See Mm hmmmmmmmm. See also Munchies. A drug, like coffee. Like dreams. (Both of which it either nudges away or softly embraces.) Possible side effects include anxiety, especially when you realize you’ve by mistake just eaten your roommates pot brownies. For some, see me my roommate.


Result of above. Cheeze whiz. Processed foods. Mayonnaise. Seven cheeseburgers in one go (from Burger King, though). Guacamole. Granola bars and juice boxes. 7-11 runs. Five pounds of Twizzlers in a “convenient” plastic container. Someone else’s cookies. Resurrection of stale chips. A simple indulgence. A need to be (full)filled, to occupy a space repeatedly emptied. An effortless, supple way to look at the complicated question of why we exist: to be filled.


A simplification. Can be lengthened, shortened. A kiss, with emphasis on its lingering qualities. A mellifluous act which cannot contain the mellifluousness it generates.


You’ll have to look this one up yourself.

Making Up

Not Making out. Not even close. Though the aftermath has the potential to far surpass it, vertically if not horizontally.


Verb or noun, to extract money from someone either through taxation or deception, or the payment thereof. Etymology: derived from 15th-century Latin mulctare, further from mulcta ‘to fine.’ Usage has steadily dropped since the 1800s, with a comeback unlikely.


If not a fan of Making out or Mmmuaaa-!, grow one. Requires: a fine-tooth comb, words from your father, a lack of noticeable maturity elsewhere, a pair of aviators, courage.


A compilation of all past and future entries. A constant time capsule. A misappropriation. The space in between the hitting of the F5 button and the rendering of the result. A way of living that is constantly refreshed, that can only be lived as-is. That cannot but imperfectly be shared with others. An ideal that makes loneliness bearable. Another answer for another day.


Going about; one way to end things.




On Letter Writing

(image: Johannes Vermeer, Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid [detail])


Letter writing made a lot of sense when the internet didn’t exist, or even when phones didn’t in a personal capacity. Or even phones in general. A staple of the 50s b-movie teen flick was never a letter slipped under a door, or a note tied to a rock thrown through a window, but rather a discrete (both temporally and secretly) phone call listing a time, and a place, to gush out the secrets. (And then they’d usually get eaten by a monster, but that’s besides the point.)

Teddy Roosevelt, I found out thanks to Edmund Morris’ excellent three-part biography, wrote plenty of letters while navigating between his dusty ranch in North Dakota and his posh life in New York. Most were informational, or exciting, like when he killed a bear that was charging through a thicket, or when he captured a group of thieves who stole his canoe. (One of the thieves even managed to have the epic name Pfaffenbach.) The dude built his own raft, coaxed two buddies to traverse a frozen river to catch the thieves, and after catching them, escorted them solo across the North Dakota plains to the nearest jail. But don’t worry–he had a copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to keep him occupied. He ended up writing some letters explaining his thoughts on the book, and while he wouldn’t commit to calling it either a great or a terrible book, did manage to pen the following insightful words: “Do you notice how he never comments on the actions of his personages? He relates what they thought or did without any remark whatever as to whether it was good or bad, as Thucydides wrote history–a fault which tends to give his work an unmoral rather than an immoral tone; together with the sadness so characteristic of Russian writers.”

During WWII, and even before, the Japanese established what they called “comfort stations” where “comfort women”–basically women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers–were coerced into having sex with soldiers to “keep moral high.” One woman, taken from Korea to a camp when she was 15, was abused sexually and physically for months before she was finally let go. In her shame, she moved to China, and after the war met a man (who already had children) and married him. Fearful of the sexually transmitted diseases she had contracted during her repeated sexual assaults, as well as how physically ill they made her, she went for medical help, with doctors ultimately deciding to remove her uterus. As a way to cope with the surgery, and the sobering fact that she would never be able to have children, the doctors suggested she write a letter to the child she would never have, as a way to cope.

These days, letter writing seems almost an esoteric act, as if there’s a Trystero-like conspiracy behind it (You write letters? To who? Saying what?). Of course, the answer is both plain and predictable: yes, to friends, mostly, or whoever will have them, and about nearly anything. Once, I even wrote a letter about writing letters.

Anything, that is, save the every day. The majority of letters I receive nowadays are either spam, bills, or marriage invitations. I’ve always gotten the first, recently started getting many more of the second, and probably get too few of the third (though given my own prospects in that regard, maybe it’s not surprising). They are received with some level of regularity, and so become yet more markers of the accumulations that construct a life only when the final pieces are in. The rote, day-by-day drinking of coffee, commuting (or driving) to work, experiencing soul-crushing boredom beside near-rapturous moments of accomplishment, are more or less how we have to lead our lives, but it’s difficult to convey those granulated experiences in a way that doesn’t sound like a shopping list of activities and feelings: I started class again this week. I’m anxious, but excited. Maybe I’ll meet someone-? Far be it from me to smash such transcriptions, like the society in The Letter Killers Club, but I simply don’t find them productive when you’re talking to someone so far away, both geographically and temporally.

So what to write about, then? Other methods of slipping the knot. The epistolary is a genre notable for its formal constraint of being composed solely of documents, mostly letters. Some famous books, like Frankenstein and Carrie, employ the epistolary form in varying degrees. Its development is interesting, as a common trend is that earlier uses of epistolary form use the constraint to peer into the thoughts and insecurities of characters in ways that would otherwise be unimaginable in the 18th-19th centuries (though I guess they compensate for this with a lot of jokes about purity and sex, so it’s a fair trade). The Coquette, published in the U.S. in 1797, utilized the form entirely throughout the text, serving to both connect directly with the tragic heroine Eliza Wharton and to provide an easy narrative transition after her death. Later uses of epistolary are often sparing but effective at disjarring a narrative, presenting some document that complicates the section it’s woven around. Nabokov’s Pale Fire is centered around a long poem bookended by commentary of said poem, providing a useful framing device nonetheless unable to hold its contents.

Of course, for all of these stories letter writing was still a dominant form of communication, if not the dominant form. The only contemporary equivalent I can think of (and I’m stretching the sense of “contemporary” here) is the terrible 2006 film The Lake House. I can believe in a magical mailbox sending letters through time. What I can’t believe, on the other hand, is that Keanu Reeves is supposed to lead a romantic drama. But then again, I suppose they were just asking each other Maybe I’ll meet someone-?

So why are letters mostly gone? Don’t we still need an outlet to explain our good deeds, or help with  our bad memories, or simply to vent? Or are they now, freed by technology from serving as “catch-ups” or “updates,” simply too much of a bother to do, taking too much effort for too little effect? While I agree with the lifting of these simple frames has made it harder to get a letter started, I try to remind myself that a letter is kind of like an essay: looking at etymology it’s a trial, a test, an attempt, one that can’t be ventured toward if you don’t indeed venture. It will go at the beginning and tumble its way to the end. The only difference is that, when you’re done with a letter, you simply get to sign off and leave.




P.S. If you’ve actually managed to make it through here and your major thought the whole time has been, “but he doesn’t write me letters,” then I implore you to send me your address. My letter may not be the best thing to grace your mailbox, but I’ll be selling your address to marketing companies, so it certainly won’t be the worst.

Quotes on Writing from Richard Poirier

Writing must not be simple. Yet most commentators on the literary, political, or cultural matters treated . . . give every impression that writing is somehow easy, that words can somehow be set into place and count on not to move.”


“Reading can be a civilizing process, not because the meanings it gathers may be good for us—they may in fact sometimes be quite pernicious—but because that most demanding form of writing and reading called literature often asks us to acknowledge, in the twists and turns of its language, the presence of ancestral kin who cared deeply about what words were doing to them and what they might do in return . . . Good reading and good writing are, first and last, lots of work.”



“We are always and everywhere trapped in language; it is our central means of self-expression, yet it is imprecise, maddeningly slippery, not equal to our thoughts or our feelings.”

Get Over Myself (d1)

Note: this is a first draft of a poem about time and self. I’ve always enjoyed looking at completed poems and wondering how they got there (“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop is a good example of the efficacy of drafts), so I thought I’d make the process transparent for something I’m working on. I also want to include a piece of art with each draft, with this version’s accompaniment being “Woman Descending Staircase” by Gerhard Richter. While I like the little experiments in each stanza, they aren’t yet connected in a meaningful way.


Get Over Myself

Pipes jut in the sad remnants of our once-was basement

and I find myself by the goodwill sofa, whispering to

myself that I never properly got the bookshelf stocked.


Indiscernible invisibility, specks of ourselves play

in a song that never finished once we were done with it.

Rain pickled on the porch, the porch processed

the scene as we trampled up the stairs, eyes stared

at the exposed brick of next door’s brownstone.


You kissed me like a retronym in the bedroom, right

by the rotary phone and my stack of floppies

with wimpy ideas. Tasked with pushing the light

across the room, I sat and traced the shadow lines

until they came around again.


Far above, I thought (still think) that I failed

too many times, not for abundance of failure but

for lack of trying. I made it about me, and

there you (were) lost.


The great thing about time

is that it goes on.