Review: Peter Orner’s criticism memoir, ‘Still No Word From You’

On the Shelf

Still No Word From You: Notes within the Margin

By Peter Orner
Catapult: 320 pages, $26

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About midway by means of “Still No Word From You: Notes in the Margin,” Peter Orner invokes Terrance Hayes’ “To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation With the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight.” By this level we all know sufficient about what we’ve been studying to acknowledge the parallels between Orner’s undertaking and Hayes’ work of biography-as-criticism-as-autobiography. Like its predecessor assortment “Am I Alone Here?,” a 2016 finalist for the Nationwide Guide Critics Circle Award in criticism, “Still No Word From You” is a e-book of conversations: Orner in dialogue with different books, Orner in dialogue with himself.

Hayes’ work is “part homage, part reckoning, part collection of stray intimate details,” Orner writes, “… notes for a future biographer, but his method seems to me the only honest way of trying to construct an actual life on the page. A gathering of fragments. Of the stories that get told about us. Of the stories we told. Unordered, like our thoughts in any given day we lived.” I’m not stretching after I recommend Orner is doing one thing related.

“Still No Word From You” seems to be at its writer’s life by means of the lens of studying: memoir as daybook, because it had been. In 107 brief essays or chapters (some only a paragraph), Orner shapeshifts and time travels. For him, essentially the most resonant works are sometimes essentially the most tough to pin down — works similar to Bernadette Mayer’s magnificent “Midwinter Day,” a book-length poem during which the poet data a day within the lifetime of her household (“there’s breakfast, a trip to the library, lunch, dancing around the kitchen, making drawings, reading out loud, squeezed-in sex while the kids are at last asleep, toys on the floor, dreaming”) whereas capturing her personal “fiercely individual consciousness across the seconds, minutes, hours of December 22, 1978.”

It’s the double imaginative and prescient right here that issues; just like the writer he chooses to put in writing about, Orner occupies a few views without delay. He’s studying “Midwinter Day” as a result of he’s aside from his spouse and youngsters, after some form of — the small print aren’t specified — home spat. “I’m still sitting here in West Lebanon,” he laments. “My own family is at home across the Connecticut River and everything I’ve squandered encloses me like a fist.” The mundanity of each Mayer’s day at house and Orner’s day away resonate with each other, creating a way of fusion, or at the very least of sympathy. Orner makes the purpose specific within the subsequent brief essay, which remembers a day in Bolinas, his personal child eventually asleep and he and his spouse within the bed room: “Upstairs you said I was dawdling,” he recollects. “You said, let’s get the show on the road. Any second, she’s going to wail —”

This, after all, is what readers do; we search for echoes and reflections, for the picture of ourselves. I’m doing it proper now in penning this assessment, my copy of “Still No Word From You” marked up with my notes within the margin. By way of these offhand and infrequently fragmentary anecdotes, I not solely see acquainted experiences— the distant father, the buddies misplaced or lifeless or in hassle, the pleasures of elevating kids — but in addition, in some sense, inhabit them anew. This assessment represents its personal set of notes, its personal account, a set of observations on how studying (mine and Orner’s) intertwines with all the opposite stuff of life. Orner’s type of studying is, on this manner, contagious.

Occasionally, it might additionally change into just a little a lot. If studying is connective it will also be distancing, separating us from others as we withdraw inside our heads. Orner, nevertheless, is properly conscious of this contradiction. Visiting with a good friend who has seen a person overwhelmed to dying on a San Francisco sidewalk, he’s upbraided for invoking Isaac Babel: “Do you ever stop?” the good friend asks. “Don’t you get tired of yourself?” The reply is: Sure, completely. That’s an important rigidity of the e-book.

“I keep threatening (to myself) to stop talking, remembering, describing, repeating, feeding off other people’s works, whatever it is I’m doing,” Orner confides. “Let a kid in a poem wait beside his mother. How rare to just shut up?” And but he can’t resist.

Couldn’t the identical be stated of remembering — that it’s instinctual, unbidden? “Still No Word From You” is a e-book of reminiscence whether it is something in any respect. We meet Orner’s grandparents and fogeys, his brother and a bunch of lovers and relations. We see his mom age, his father die. “Absence, too, of course is weight,” he notes. “The ultimate weight. Maybe this is why we always return to the things, even the smallest things that outlast our people.”

Such small issues embrace these essays, that are palm-of-the-hand tales, actually: a web page right here, two or three there, bits and items, an instantaneous or a parting look. It jogs my memory of Kafka, who’s a ghostly presence within the e-book, first in a riff on his ability as a reader and later in a reference to “the conversation slips” he “wrote during his last months because he could no longer speak.” Take into consideration that: Kafka by no means gave up on language, even when it gave up on him. “Why is any of this important?” Orner asks. Perhaps as a result of, as he retains insisting, these little moments, these passing seconds, are the one ones we’ve.

Ulin is a former books editor and books critic for The Occasions.