Book Review

As Ronald Johnson offers us in his germinal epic, ARK:

Beneath a maze pattern on a wall of the church of St. Savino, in Piacenza, the inscription reads: THIS LABYRINTH REVEALS THE STRUCTURE OF THE WORLD. Convoluted of sun and dust, shut dark in a skull, the labyrinth is its own clue. Our lot is puzzlement.

In Kylan Rice’s shaking debut collection, Incryptions, our labyrinthine world is at once made less and more puzzling by the essayist’s keen eye. The murky surface to which Rice turns our attention gives way to iridescent depths—ones numinous, intimate, strange. Across this collection, the reader is made to reckon with what’s concealed and what’s revealed, what’s of the mind and of the world, until those boundaries dissolve altogether.

Perhaps most striking and essential, in a collection that in other hands might risk hubris, is the humility of its author in pursuit of his quarries. The necessity of Rice’s words is laid bare, the essay form itself put succinctly:

Like the flame, the thought gets out of hand, or burns the hand that holds it furling in a hazel branch. I let it drop. I light another one, one of anything, whatever is in reach, bird or bell, with just my breath.

Look with me, the essayist seems to ask, for as long as light projects from this clear thought. And when it fails, join me in the next.

By the light of each thought, Rice fixes our attention on a set of codes. The act of en- and de-coding is not, for Rice or his forebearer Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, one of cleverness or rote intelligence—rather, it’s a gesture toward kosmos, toward the under-world that reveals itself before the thinker’s eyes. As Rice asks: “But if the world is encrypted, who is its cryptographer? And why? What is there to hide?”

Across Incryptions, the language itself begins us in answering the above—a coherent scheme of symbols, metaphors, and metaphysical entryways open into that kosmos of the unseen. Rice offers, “For Thoreau, the body is enough of a transporter. The lung is the long form of journalism. Breathe, and there are rivets. Look, and you are riveted.” The thinker is autochthonous to his crypt—he builds the labyrinth (per Johnson, “shut dark in a skull”) even as he deciphers its path. Without the urgent mind looking for its pattern, is there a pattern there to find? Per Rice, “I can’t decrypt before I encrypt first.”

Rice, like all great essayists, is accretive in his thinking—the mind to which we are privy is wholly at work, accumulating the raw matter that it then fashions into inquiry, insight, awe. An anecdote from Thoreau is held as equal to Rice’s own observations of the world at present—both are component to the forward momentum of the essay at hand. Each cog, though whole unto itself, gestures utterly toward their shared machine.

And it’s that sense of a “shared” project that allows this collection to contain such multitudes. Indeed, the writer turns time and again to Leibniz, to H. D., to Etel Adnan, and to Ralph Waldo Emerson—who himself literally “decrypts” his wife, one year after her death—to remind us of those most essential matterings at hand for the work: The earth beneath our feet is porous; the body (mine, yours) is a fleeting decryption of all this matter, the likes of which will never be again. As Rice offers, “A drill-rig in the pasture. The intaglio of ditches in the valley. The person you sleep beside in bed. A life is a kind of dirt. You are supposed to feel autochthonous to it, as if you belonged to it. You don’t have to think to take it for granted.”

As the project advances, the essayist applies this decrypting lens variously, generously—we consider encryptions both personal and transcendent. The writer’s own lineage and inheritance is delivered via metaphor, memory: “For a while, the family is stretched in a line through the woods, taut string in a chord.” It’s redoubled in a similar lineage between the writer at hand and those thinkers who precede him. Edgar Allan Poe “studies gnats and hears. . . a pyramid, slanting orange in the declining sun.” The pyramid is, of course, itself a kind of crypt, a labyrinth, a beacon gesturing toward the same cosmic infinitudes that Rice’s work probes. One hears in this attention, too, the lineage of Sir Thomas Browne and W. G. Sebald, the latter of whom distills the former in The Rings of Saturn: “Time itself grows old. Pyramids, arches, and obelisks are melting pillars of snow. . . The iniquity of oblivion blindly scatters her poppyseed and when wretchedness falls upon us one summer’s day like snow, all we wish for is to be forgotten.”

In addition to its deeper cosmological and ontological crises of what’s known, this collection also grapples with things utterly felt: love, purpose, family, faith. On its surface, Incryptions may well be a reckoning with faith of many kinds, of many sources—the narrator’s, the concert hall of voices component to the work. More essentially, however, the project endeavors to reckon with meaning—the code abstracted by one’s routine, visible only in moments that rise from the river-like current of hours, days, years. “Hume says the human mind runs on associations, and for this reason risks seduction by appearances and images, false consistencies. In fact, anything can relate to anything.” It’s therefore in Rice’s observations, as much as his ruminations, that the project finds its step and keeps it. “A life in one place. Us, plus a few of our friends. The dinner-table laid, a warm pot set against its applewood, this and that thrown in, gumbo with whatever is on hand.”

Like for Walter Benjamin, in Rice’s language one finds the beginning; like for Ludwig Wittgenstein, in Rice’s language one finds the limit, the boundary beyond which the writer cannot see. Equipped as he is with only a sliver of this unknowable whole, Rice offers Incryptions as a cipher by which to imagine beyond those boundaries. Or, as he writes: “. . . to see beyond sight to the thing that it sees. What is already there. What is right in front of me.”

About the Reviewer

Daniel Schonning’s poems have appeared in Orion Magazine, Poetry Magazine, The Yale Review, Poetry Daily, and elsewhere. His poem “Aleph with all, all with Aleph” was selected by judge Cyrus Cassells as winner of Crazyhorse’s 2020 Lynda Hull Memorial Prize. He lives in Geneva, New York, where he serves as the Trias Postgraduate Teaching Fellow at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and as Managing Editor for Seneca Review.