Review by Fran Levin
If a family member or friend wanted to invite you out for, say, a celebration birthday dinner at your favorite restaurant, you would probably know in advance what you planned to order and would anticipate enjoying some well-loved dishes. But if that person decided to surprise you with an outing to a newly opened venue, one that offered unusual and experimental cuisine, you might feel overwhelmed by the choices on the menu. You might ask the waiter for their recommendations, ask about the daily specials, or decide to be adventurous and choose your meal by what strikes you on the menu.
This hypothetical situation describes my reading of the anthology, A Harp in the Stars, compiled and edited by essayist Randon Billings Noble, founding editor of the online literary journal After the Art. The title attracted my attention, conjuring images of music and the galaxy. The harp in the title refers to Orpheus’s lyre of Greek mythology and its connection to the constellation Lyra. “The stars are there,” Noble writes, “but their shape is what your mind brings to them” (xviii). The title is an exciting expression of a range of sensual possibility and beauty; a multi-layered name which echoes how, “the whole of a lyric essay adds up to more than the sum of its parts” (xii).
The anthology showcases a broad, well-structured, and detailed reference frame for teachers, writers, students, and readers. This allows readers to experience the impact of each essay in its own right as well as see its placement in relation to other essays with regard to form and the broader architecture of this contemporary and elusive subgenre of creative nonfiction. Noble’s introduction is the starter course of historical background and an exploration of the varieties of lyric essay. She describes a lyrical essay as, “a piece of writing with a visible / stand-out / unusual structure that explores / forecasts / gestures to an idea in an unexpected way” (xiii). The anthology presents four particular types: flash, braided, segmented, and hermit crab essays and provides the reader and practitioner with the tools and strategies required for understanding and appreciating the wide range of essays each type contains. For lovers of fusion, there are also texts that combine and integrate two structures. For example, “Classified,” by Susanna Donato, is a blend of segmented and hermit crab structures while Dinty Moore employs flash and segmented essay strategies to produce “Frida’s Circle.”
The body of the anthology, or, if you like, the entrée course, consists of forty four lyric essays which cover a wide range of topics, inviting the reader to experience the impact of this unconventional nonfiction format. For dessert, there is a section devoted to six craft essays, written by practitioners who are also inspiring instructors (Heidi Czerwiec, Marina Blitshteyn, Chelsey Clammer, Maya Sonenberg, Jenny Boully, and Julie Marie). And for a heady digestif, a series of “Meditations” in which each contributor shares their personal definition of this form.
The range of content covers contemporary and universal issues: illness and death, body image, parenthood, childhood, loneliness, violence, love, and loss. Many of the essays focus on personal, collective, or national tragedy and trauma, such as minority disenfranchisement, homelessness, gender inequality, addiction, and discrimination, bearing out the thesis that the shape of these texts provide a framework in which the writer can display sensitive material while offering the reader an intense intellectual and emotional experience.
No restaurant recommendation would be complete without a list of the reviewer’s personal favorites. Here are some tasters from the collection that astounded me with their impact and craft, according to category. Jericho Parma’s ruminations on the death of a moth in “Immortal Wound” was particularly striking. “What cruel mystery is a Luna,” he writes, “royal silk moth of the deciduous forest, found dead outside a small-town bar?” (4). Talea Anderson’s “In My Brother’s Shadow” reflects on her changing relationship with her brother: “I still feel the glow of our shared purpose when I ran invisible in my brother’s shadow” (51). As Noble states, these examples of the flash essay are “one thousand words or fewer” but “are short, sharp, and clarifying” (xiii).
On the other hand, segmented essays invite readers to “think, consider, and digest each segment before moving on to the next. Each section may contain something new, but all still belong cogently to the whole” (Noble xiv). In Sarah Einstein’s “Self Portrait in Apologies,” the writer reveals herself through a series of confessions, each segment adding to and filling out the portrait of a complex, imperfect human being (126). In “The Boys of New Delhi – An Essay in Four Hurts,” Sayantani Dasgupta recounts four instances in her childhood and youth in which she is denigrated by boys and men, building up to the lasting effect of these encounters (37). She writes:
A Man in My Life noticed my new sweater. Instead of a smile, his eyes
narrowed in displeasure. He nodded curtly. Which only meant one thing.
Disapproval- disappointment- waste- of- time- and- money. (39)
In a braided essay, “each strand of a braid returns to take its place in the center…its meaning is enriched by the other strands” (Noble xv). Aimee Baker’s “Beasts of the Fields” effortlessly entwines the descriptions of the essayist’s rural childhood, the history, habitat, and habits of the brown rat, the efforts of her family to dislodge an infestation of them, along with the unfolding story of her brother’s growing dysfunction, while dividing the story between the cycle of seasons (42). As a former special education teacher myself, “I’m No Sidney Poitier” by Curtis Smith resonated with me as he weaves the strands of the story of To Sir, With Love, his own experiences as a teacher, and his relationship with a troubled student into a whole. This passage stands out:
Denny stands on my porch. My backdoor a frame, me blinking back the
cobwebs in my dim kitchen, him standing in the harsh sun. Our clashing
expressions. His victory and relief. My shock. (180)
Hermit crab essays, “borrow another form of writing as their structure the way a hermit crab borrows another’s shell” (Noble xvi). Michael Dowdy achieves this in his abecedarian manual, “Elementary Primer,” in which he instructs his first grade daughter about the epidemic of random mass shootings (99). Laurie Easter’s “Searching for Gwen” both surprises and enraptures by opening with a word search puzzle made up of key description words, which describe her missing friend and complete each numbered paragraph (24). Dorothy Bendel, in “Body Wash: Instructions on Surviving Homelessness,” uses the frame of instructions and components on the label on a bottle of soap in order to portray the essence of homelessness, fulfilling the contract with this form and containing sensitive content in a borrowed format. The effect Bendel achieves is striking:
Too much alcohol; not enough time; violence; silence; the next paycheck;
history; secrets; blind rage; and blind love.
Does not contain empathy.
Not suitable for sensitive skin.
Made with 100 percent organically grown fear.
Tested on children. (135)
The craft essay, “Chance Operations” by Maya Sonenberg, draws interesting parallels between the methodology of the choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham and the adventurous spirit of this genre. She writes:
I want chance to bring me to a moment of despair like the one Cunningham experienced
when rehearsing the impossibly difficult solo he’d created for himself and then
for it to bring me to the moment when he went on anyway. (235)
The rich variety of personal meditations at the end of the collection describe how the “essay may wander through time,” as Talea Anderson notes, “collecting sensations and memories in a long glittering train” (252). Susanna Donato also states that the form “invites revelry in language, its rhythm, the lush taste of the perfect word… and is more tuned to the sensory impressions around an episode or epiphany” (260). Kelsey Inouye draws our attention to “its versatility, the way you can braid themes and genres and linger on the sound of each word” (265).
As a satisfied diner, I am leaving a hefty tip: return, revisit, and recommend! These are literary dishes to savor slowly and thoroughly, in order to fully appreciate their ingredients, as you enter into the experience that each passage offers. This is a resource that writers, students, teachers, and readers can refer to again and again, whether in search of instruction, inspiration, or a new way of interpreting their lives.
Fran Levin moved from London to Israel in 1977. After retiring from a thirty-three-year career as a Special Education, English and Drama teacher,she exchanged her teaching passion for writing. She is presently enrolled in the Shaindy Rudoff Creative Writing Graduate Programme at Bar Ilan University, where she has received the Lechter Institute for Excellence Nonfiction Prize in 2021 and the Dave Greber Nonfiction Social Justice Award in 2022. Fran is presently working on a collection of essays for her thesis: “A Breathing Place.” She continues to guide teachers taking in-service training courses. When she is not reading, writing or guiding teachers, she practices yoga and Pilates, produces bead and patchwork art, living a creative life alongside her growing family and Swiss Shepherd dog Misty.