(Columbus, OH: Mad Creek Books, 2018)
Prize-winning Irish essayist Chris Arthur contends that the essay is an outsider art form. A deliberate subversion of the more commercially-popular memoir, the traditional essay deep-dives into apparently quotidian details of our lives and “pulls into the light of attention commonplace things that are generally consigned to the dusk of being scarcely noticed.” Arthur is charmingly self-deprecating in the introduction to his latest collection, Hummingbirds Between the Pages, and downplays each essay as “only” a personal exercise in sharing interesting tidbits with his readers. However, it quickly becomes apparent that this collection has larger ambitions: What’s beneath the surface is profound – metamorphic, even.
In “The Archeology of Days,” Arthur describes his daily ritual of writing in his journal a brief description of his previous day’s activities and then reading from the Chambers Book of Days to learn what historical events took place on that date. He acknowledges he once regarded this ritual as “stale intrusions, heavy with the encumbrances of history; spurs to a kind of artificial nostalgia that keeps on looking back, clogging the flow of time with what has gone and should simply be let go of; pointless backward glances that get in the way of the spontaneity of living.” This seems at first to be too harsh of a critique; after all, there are plenty worse things to spend a few moments on than a bit of trivia. But, as Arthur explores the experience of reading the Chambers Book of Days more deeply, one starts to feel both boxed in and exhilarated by history’s odd coincidences, incongruencies, repetitiveness. Arthur writes:
What’s written […] seems without any clear point of origin or end, let alone a plotline we can understand. Our brief individual lives are no more than part of a single word, a fraction of a letter lost amidst countless lines on countless pages. Is it possible to glean any meaning from the centuries that generate and then annihilate us?
This question is brutal and unexpected given the essay’s modest beginnings. I think, too, it is precisely the type of “commonplace thing” Arthur feels responsible, as a traditional essayist, to draw out of the dusk. The essay is only partly an exercise in allowing his readers room to enjoy random factoids or interest. Arthur’s more consequential goal is to alert us to the potential insignificance of it all.
Existential themes recur throughout Hummingbirds Between the Pages but, rather than devolving into redundancy, each essay pushes deeper into the unfathomable. “Death and the Maiden” begins with Arthur and a colleague passing by a hearse while walking across the college campus where they are both employed. Neither man acknowledges the hearse to the other and, when a young woman comes to his office later in the day to discuss her failing grade, Arthur finds himself unable to concentrate. The inevitability of the young woman’s death (whenever it may come and whatever the cause) intrudes in his mind throughout their conversation, escalating thus:
There will come a point that will be the ten thousandth anniversary of her death, as there already is a point in the distant past that marked ten thousand years before her birth. The contiguity of the mundane and the momentous sometimes makes it difficult for a sense of time on any human scale to come into convincing focus. The way an afternoon abuts with eons, how a minute is part of millennia, the fact that we can be thinking one moment of what we plan to do on the weekend ahead and the next moment be trying to comprehend the thirteen billion years and more that the universe has existed makes every temporal calibration suspect.
I love this excerpt because Arthur moves beyond the typical “existential crisis experience” into a staggering contemplation of time – not just in the sense that we have so little of it, but that the concept itself is too imprecise, too nebulous to really believe in. What is an afternoon compared to an eon, anyway? Is it literally nothing? Not even a blip?
These are the types of questions that, ordinarily, would make me blanche. Fortunately, Arthur’s composure and receptiveness to the unknown provides a needed counterbalance to these mammoth questions. His writing is lyrical, his tone self-assured and occasionally academic; the result is that the essays challenge the reader to interpret life more mindfully rather than come unglued by its uncertainties.
The collection culminates with “Hitting the Right Note,” a fascinating and sprawling essay that (among other things) describes the difficulty of “attempting to transcribe the world’s whispered essays faithfully on the page.” In it, Arthur repurposes the phrase “monotone of the infinite” which was initially used in an essay by Joseph Brodsky to describe the poetry of Anna Akhmatova. Arthur explains:
Brodksy’s phrase makes me think of an unwavering note of something elemental woven invisibly into our mundane experience. […] However hard it is to remember in the midst of our daily preoccupations, we are ephemeral creatures; our presence in this world is only momentary. The vast reach of the centuries mostly contains our absence. […] Alongside this monotone our individual notes are miniscule. Can the mystery of the brief specificity sound any sense in the echo chamber of the infinite? Can a person claim any depth of meaning for their life, or is it rather crafted and cut by mere contingency?
Prior to reading Arthur’s work, I’d have insisted that of course our lives are without meaning! Not even a blip! But, when taken in the broader context of the collection, I feel a little more open to the idea that our lives can be both meaningful and contingent. For example, in “Glass,” Arthur describes his three-year-old daughter’s first encounter with death: A blue tit dies after flying into the closed-half of a window. The event is accidental, random. But it also meaningful in that reveals the painful truth that “vertiginous summits and precipices litter the topography of terrain we’ve come to see as mundane and unremarkable.” And, on a more intimate level, it lends meaning to the relationship between a father and daughter who learn together “the ungentle point that death isn’t something rare or distant.” It’s literally as close as a half-opened window, or a flower bed beneath a ginko tree.
Interestingly, a pull quote on the back cover of the collection describes Arthur’s essays as unhampered by “trammels of the imagination, attaining an embodiment which is civilized, idiosyncratic and rare.” Arthur’s authorial voice is often restrained and meticulous – but I am unable to come to the same conclusion that his work is without imagination (even if the comment was meant to be complementary). If anything, I see the opposite in Arthur’s writing: Many of us might see a bird break its head against a window and, after scooping it into the dustbin, move on with our day. But Arthur is visionary, manifold: He discovers in that dustbin the daily evidence of infinity and our temporary participation within it.
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Lisa Grgas is the Associate Poetry Editor at The Literary Review. Her work has appeared in Tin House Magazine, Luna Luna, Web Del Sol Review of Books, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon.