Book Review

The term “lyric essay” has been with us for nearly thirty years, and while it may well be that we still can’t agree on what it is, here to save us from the irksome I know it when I see it is the new, illuminating anthology of lyric essays A Harp in the Stars. Part poetry, part memoir, part ephemera, part found object—the lyric essay is nothing if not malleable, and though long ago the form escaped from any whiff of the five-paragraph hardtack of high school composition classes, this new collection renders the essay continually new and surprising.

Edited by essayist and creative writing teacher Randon Billings Noble, A Harp in the Stars seeks not only to guide readers towards an accessible encounter with associative essays, but, thanks to a spruce section of craft essays, also charts a course for writers who, if they knew what they were looking for, might also find a home in the lyric.

To that end, Noble exhibits an understanding that to be able to relax and enjoy, even use, this fresh, astute, and most of all, moving collection, it’s beneficial to get the form thing knocked out at the outset. And so, under Noble’s discerning editorial hand, Harp (think lyre) breaks down the lyric essay oeuvre into the following types: flash, segmented, mosaic, hermit crab, braided, craft, and meditation. Helpful too is Noble’s introduction, which delineates the structures, features, and timbres of each type of essay; as if to say, yes, you can. Even these, it transpires, are ruled by all-too-human virtues, such as intuition, want, yearning, or a thirst for payback. There may be patterns out there in the universe, we are shown, but the mind is the ultimate sorting device, organizing them according to its own idiosyncrasies.

That’s a boon to writers. However, Harp is also, even firstly, a collection for readers, and as the essays exhibit the flexibility of their forms, what they largely do is express the nuanced, piercing, exposure of lived experience. In its fifty-plus essays, Harp gathers a steady build of voices into a moving chorus. The lyric essay may be experimental, but the stories witnessed here also collect the universal. As a Buddhist monk once said to me when I asked about karma, “We’ve all done everything, good and bad.” The essays within these covers remind us that part of the human business model is to mess up, clean up, and confess, as well as endure and report. And Sarah Einstein’s utterly relatable essay collected here, “Self-Portrait in Apologies,” reminds us not to get too hung up on form when the truth is knocking hard.

This caution is also sound when form is front and center, such as in Dorothy Bendel’s hermit crab tour de force, “Body Wash: Instructions on Surviving Homelessness,” which deploys a bottle of liquid soap to devastating effect. As Noble points out, “These extraliterary structures can protect vulnerable content (the way a shell protects a crab), but they also act as firm containers for content that might be intellectually or emotionally difficult, prodigious, or otherwise messy.” In other words, what’s too painful to address head on can be packaged or bottled to brilliant effect.

Indeed, this mention of the “otherwise messy,” raises a central question of the lyric essay: Why is the lyric essay form so often the seat of traumatic experiences? This volume offers clues. Just as sequence can be critical to the success of segmented essays, the order of the pieces collected in Harp (the track listing) accrue to a new understanding of the mechanisms of the mind. Image triggers memory (or vice versa) and through the refracted lens of time (or the focusing spur of memory) both are made new. Yes, there is loss, shock, despair, violence, abuse, and fear. But then there is more. There is noticing, interrelation, and the event of witnessing thought in action. The sound and the look of thinking. The redeemer. And in this accretion, the lyric essay shifts gear, propelling it towards the next phase of its evolution. The stars may be fixed, but as Harp projects, the essay form is always going places.

Turn to any page of A Harp in the Stars and one can feel the forward motion of consciousness through the essays, which move along too. In Jericho Parms’ “Immortal Wound,” a summer night ushers in, “. . . summer again, and the air was swollen and my skin was lonely and I was wishing New England had fewer churches and more sky.” Lia Purpura’s “Loss Collection” finds in a meditation on the word “quaint” that it “. . . won’t let a body see green in flight or suggest the song of budding pears is in any way pinkly audible.” In Leslie Jill Patterson’s “Against Fidelity” the single word “because” springs open a doorway to the blaze burning up against it. The excitement of possibility is present throughout.

And where does this excitement originate, really? The craft essays and meditations offer access to the writers as they relate the phenomena of the process. Far from exploiting any trickery, the lyric is more mimic than gimmick, and what is mimicked, or tapped into, is the psyche. Listen to Aimée Baker (“Beasts of the Fields”): “Segmented and braided essays give space and structure to the internal logic of trauma. They allow the narrative to split and converge with a fluidity that replicates the emotional experience of trauma that traditional forms resist.” Jenny Boully (“On the EEO Genre Sheet”) states that, “An essay that begins with the self, searching for the self—that’s often the start of the lyric essay, yes; however, the self in this search reaches outward for the real stuff of the world.” Thus, the science, medicine, history, maps, music, news stories, and other concrete materials buttress the God particles between.

Again and again, the lyric essayist is forced into the meta mode of describing the experience of describing experience. I don’t mean to be clever here. This is the meat, or as contributor Marina Blitshteyn calls it, the “gas” of the lyric essay, “just a mind in love with itself.” Whether a product of the limbic system of the brain, where emotions and memories are processed, or of a conscious response to formal constraints, the lyric essay is highly attuned and deeply suited to making sense of things. A Harp in the Stars helps the reader make sense of things. Its neon flashes: You are not alone.

And so, Harp takes its place in the lineage, in the discussion, as it were, of its kind. In his forward to the bountiful D’Agata-edited, three-volume leviathan of essays (The Lost Origins of the Essay, The Making of the American Essay, The Next American Essay), critic James Wood notes that, like the novel, the essay needs “perpetual renovation.” Perhaps. But as Noble makes plain, both through the selection of subjects and essay types contained here, as well as in her own meditation (on Meditations), if the form is to evolve it won’t be through any means as deliberate and plotted as a renovation. Instead, it will more likely find new spark in the fired synapse of a mind, the mystery of a beating heart, or in a life streaking like a comet across its own dark sky, adding its light to the stars of eternity—and that can’t be contained, or foretold.

About the Reviewer

Alison C. Powell is a fiction writer, essayist, and critic based in Dallas. Formerly the music editor for Interview magazine, she has also published in Oxford American, Colorado Review, Seneca Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Guardian, The Sunday Telegraph, ELLE and Typishly, among others. Powell holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College.