Gary McDowell makes me want to be a neurologist. I would run one of those specialized MRIs that shows which parts of the brain are lighting up at different times based upon various stimuli. I’d love to take a gander at how McDowell’s brain works while he’s writing. Is the entire thing aglow? I’d also love to see how many parts of my own brain would light up as I read his new book, Caesura: Essays. Its profusion of topics includes everything from his broken engagement and Chilean flamingos, to an evocative description of the flight attendant on an eighth-grade field trip who smelled “like the ocean or a volcano or melted butter or hot dirt or oh-my-god.”
There’s more, though, to light up anyone’s brain in multiple places. In “Lyricism of the Fact: An Archive” McDowell incorporates the following cascade of details:
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was fond of eating fruit while it was still attached to the tree.
Most of what we smell is accidental.
That damn Wiemaraner—barking and pacing—every time someone walks drunk by the house. It’s July and I wash my hair at 3:00 am to stop the sweating.
The chemical symbol for gold is Au. This comes from the Latin aurum which, when translated, means shining dawn.
Marriage: what I’ve done and what I say I haven’t done; the line between them is thin as the finest silk sheets.
There was more time between the Stegosaurus and the Tyrannosaurus Rex than between the Tyrannosaurus Rex and you. Stegosaurus lived ~150,000,000 years ago. T. Rex lived ~65,000,000 years ago, practically yesterday comparatively.
Touch cells in the lips make nursing possible; among other things, touch teaches us the difference between I and other.
This deluge of information is dizzying, but in the best of ways. I imagine my brain’s neurons firing as rapidly as a field of fireflies at dusk in July, lighting up an MRI in a dazzling array.
But there’s more, much more, and ebulliently so: A definition of the word “archive,” amorous porcupines, descriptions of leaves as “elliptical, obovate, lustrous and entire,” quotes from James Wright poems, Radiohead lyrics, telepathy, Curious George books, the Wikipedia definition of masturbation, 880 billion photos taken in 2014, eight is the only cube that is one less than a square, Secundus the philosopher, Bigfoot, how Jeremy Wade will finally catch an epically sized arapaima in Guyana, the Great Pyramid and the first Pizza Hut, Bernd Heinrich’s Why We Run: A Natural History, the idea that dust in space, because of its chemical makeup, tastes like raspberries, the life cycle of a scarlet jellyfish, Genii and Magic Magazine, cruise missiles, and the mandibular muscle.
This book isn’t only a catalogue of anomalous details, fascinating facts, and witty observations, though. These are clearly lyric essays, with the emphasis on “lyric.” McDowell’s prowess as a poet, with multiple books published, including the award-winning Mysteries in a World That Thinks There Are None and American Amen, elevates these essays into deeply wrought and moving pieces of art, many of which are elegiac. But some of the finest moments in the book feature a convergence of the technical with the aesthetic. Of the informational with the emotional. While he references his stepfather’s Glioblastoma Multiforme multiple times and in often heartbreaking detail, McDowell also writes of it in the same cerebral way he writes of other facts, describing its development from astrocytes. He tells us that it “generally kills within the first 15 months after diagnosis. It’s fast. Almost as fast as pain, which travels through the body at 380 km/hr.”
That technical information is necessary, though. It buttresses the world of this book, which becomes a microcosm of the human mind and our current cultural paradigm, where we have access to, and are inundated by, mountains of facts daily, if not hourly, from CNN, our tablets, and our smart phones. It also acts as a balance to the raw ache that permeates McDowell’s work. He eschews sentimentality, while hauntingly displaying taut honesty and empathy that permeate every essay.
This is a book that wrestles with the expansive ideas of life and death as much as it chronicles the multitude of quotidian details we regularly encounter. There’s a sense of paradox as the dichotomous concepts of life and death, reiterated often, juxtapose and inform one another. They’re also indicative of the magnificent scaffolding an agile mind creates to allow us to journey toward a synthesis, a new vision of seeing everything as connected and purposeful. The agonies of McDowell’s life become as necessary as its celebratory moments and the copious prosaic details as integral as the aesthetic renderings.
It’s this gorgeous complexity that raises McDowell’s work to the echelon of revered essayists like Annie Dillard. I believe it could light up endless MRIs, too.
About the Reviewer
Lana K. W. Austin’s poems and short stories have recently been featured in Mid-American Review, Sou’wester, Appalachian Heritage, The Pinch, The Chariton Review, and Columbia Journal, amongst others. Austin has an MFA from George Mason University (2008) and her first full-length poetry manuscript, Blood Harmony, will debut from Iris Press in 2018. Also a journalist, Austin has written for numerous newspapers and magazines. Austin currently resides in Huntsville, Alabama, where she is an adjunct professor in the English department at the University of Alabama Huntsville.