Monday, July 12, 2010

Impressions of Butler's "Dear Sound of Footstep"

Sometimes first impressions are misleading, and that was the case with Dear Sound of Footstep (Sarabande 2009), an essay collection by Ashley Butler that I picked up at the publisher's table at AWP in Denver this spring.

On first reading, the writing was impressive, but the book wasn't engrossing me. I only managed a few pages at a time, and it felt like work to pick it up again and again. Described by the back-cover blurbers as "innovative," "daring" and "eloquent," the book delivered on all these fronts, but I wasn't drawn in like I'd hoped. I plugged away at it, but I was giving up on the text so frequently--and the essays were ending and beginning so rapidly--that there was no sense of continuity or development.

But these are lyric essays, if anything is, and I picked the book up again last week to see what I could discover from Butler's technique. And on second reading, I found a lot more to appreciate about her work.

In some ways reminding me of those in Lia Purpura's On Looking, the essays in Dear Sound of Footstep link ideas and anecdotes that in any other context would appear un-connectable to one another. Butler's discussion of her mother's debilitating disease and slow death is the most obvious theme, but it is really one among many recurring threads. The book describes scientific exploration, failed experiments and dreams, interaction with Butler's father and sister, Houdini's death, and the five senses. The variety and order can seem random at times in the book, but for me more connections appeared the second time--so that, for instance, an essay titled "Crime Scene" that references everything from syrup bubbling up through the tongs of a fork to Butler's first childhood conversation with her mother about what happens after death left me with more than mere befuddlement.

Some of the essays could be categorized poems, and, not surprisingly, these are the essays that continue to leave me very much in the dark, even on second reading. Still, I enjoyed the literary frolic of many of them, even though I felt like I "didn't get it." In one essay marked by aphorisms made new (and in many cases made completely inscrutible to me), Butler writes, "Hyperboles happen in happiness and horror, in sickness and in stealth. People say true dreams come but true love depends on optics. If a mark is significantly longer than it is wide, then a line has been drawn. If two lines converge on a plane, then a vanishing appears in one's future." If I try to figure out a paragraph like that, I end up frustrated. Sometimes it's best just sit back and enjoy, see what comes to mind, what light these statements shed on the world.

In an interview available on Sarabande's site, Butler notes that in her book and "in writing in general ... openness is important, that is, to try to make a space so something can pass through." Butler seems to accomplish that goal in Dear Sound, even though as readers we may not be able to put our finger precisely on what just passed.

Her brief description in "The Book of Concealed Hearts" of what I'm assuming is the 2007 collapse of the Minneapolis bridge is stunning, and unadorned, akin to the kind of conversations and news broadcasts in Don't Let Me Be Lonely (Claudia Rankine). Butler's record of the questions of a reporter and the answers of a rescuer is sticking with me, along with this, oddly my favorite moment in the book:

"Hunter agreed to go on a [medical helicopter] flight a few months ago. On the drive to the hospital, however, she crested a hill and found the truck in her lane had been hit ... Adam lands right in front of her. He's not allowed to get out of the helicopter because it's all about speed. She imagines him looking back through the shield attached to his helmet, imagines herself as the patient then medic. He's advised to stare straight ahead so he doesn't get emotionally involved. He has to fly a different direction depending on how a body is injured. If you get burned you go to Dallas. If you get crushed you go to Abilene."

Thursday, July 08, 2010

So many doors, so many locks, and other adventures

I live a block away from this ...

... and I finally ventured inside it this week (it being the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, on which work continued over the course of 80 years).

I happened inside the door only minutes before 5 p.m., which as it turns out is closing time. I explored the various chapels and read through the ornately posted beatitudes for several peaceful moments. And then I turned to go, to continue on to the grocery store down the street.

But the narthex door was locked! And the other front door. And the other. I scurried as reverently but quickly as possible back into the sanctuary and up the left side aisle. Hooray! A side door. But no. It too was sealed shut.

Just as I began resigning myself to the prospect of sleeping on one of the pews, I heard a sound. A door closing. I raced to the right side of the altar and around toward one of the chapels. And a nice older gentleman tour guide kindly let me escape. Phew!