I’ve never been a huge dessert or sweets fan, but I can’t lie: I do know the simple pleasure of sucking on a sugar cube pressed into the roof of your mouth. Sugar is a versatile ingredient, though. Just because I prefer it in compacted cube form doesn’t mean everyone does. This week, let’s add some sugar to our scene.
Amy Stevens, Confections #65, 2008. Photograph. www.amystevensart.com
André Kertész, Bowl with Sugar Cubes, 1928. Photograph.
Margaret Morrison, Gummy Worms, 2009. Oil on canvas.
I picked up Riverine and found more of myself than I’d bargained for. A child with a racing mind and rabidly romantic devotion to her first ever friend. Land with an impossible need to continue in and of itself, despite human tampering. All that, and a language with the kind of focus and endurance that sometimes leads to hope. “Like rivers,” Palm writes, “people are always folding back on themselves, and then straightening again. Contradicting themselves. Pulling off a bluff even as they try to begin anew, and then collapsing back onto the past.” In this memoir, rife with subtly repeated images and motifs, Angela Palm inspects the branches of her life and her trajectory away from suffocation.
Raised in rural Indiana, in a tiny township, Palm’s early years were marked by domestic unrest, the Farmer’s Almanac, and the boy next door. In her memoir, she goes back to the beginning, and follows from there the trails that have lead to her adulthood as writer, mother, wife, and homecoming love.
Though we experience the span of her life, Palm’s childhood and adolescent persona feels especially accessible to me. There’s a poignancy to the point of view in these early chapters that feels immediate and familiar—as if the naiveté of my own childhood has bloomed again before my eyes, coloring the world with both curiosity and suspicion. Perhaps I feel at home with Palm’s voice here because of our Scorpio kinship? Or, more likely, the internal dialogue in Part I, “Fields,” is so brooding and obsessive that it could captivate any audience. Palm perfectly dissects the myth-building and meaning-making involved in childhood thinking, not ignoring but instead highlighting the mundane artifacts of life and their power to shape the mind. For instance, she illustrates the lewd illustration on her father’s cap which would inform her idea of womanhood and female attractiveness. From the discussion of the cap, Palm seamlessly branches into a rich characterization of her mother and thus propels the memoir with powerful and earned energy.
In fact, part of the appeal of Riverine is the way the memoirist includes the material world in the development of her story. Palm laces history into both time and landscape in a way that makes this book decidedly real. After pointing to the blank yellow on the map where she was raised, she recalls the riverbed’s first inhabitants, the Potawatomi, who were exiled by the Indian Removal Act. She continues, throughout the book, to contextualize her own existence in space with history—how the Kankakee River was re-routed in the 1800s, leaving behind the floodplain of her childhood house. Later, she recalls Monica Lewinsky and the Freedom to Farm Act of 1996 and 1997; both mile-markers in her adolescence with significant impacts on national discourse as well as her local economy.
If you’re on the fence about memoirs, then consider this: Riverine is a smart book. Would you care to learn a bit about thermodynamics and entropy? What about bifurcation and the splitting and re-planting of hostas? Or Badlands, the 1973 Terrence Malick film? Palm is unreserved in her roaming and generous as she shares how the mind makes sense of life’s strange echoes of itself. What’s more, she’s funny.
I likened dead Papa Lou to Jesus and Santa, to Danny Boy and Fido. This bothered me because I preferred to pee alone, and now there were two invisible persons, one invisible God, and two dead dogs following me into the bathroom. It was getting crowded.
As non-fiction requires, Palm shows her flaws unabashedly. This is a person you want to know, or maybe you feel like you come to know her, to love her even. This is a beautiful story of coping, survival. “I have taken meditation everywhere and sprinkled its soft gray middle across the land like salt.” And this is the diction and the imagery that Palm rewards you with for reading her memoir. Finally, that person who has interrogated the earth for its patterns and the heart for its ability to remember, she tells the most satisfying story of unrequited love that I’ve ever encountered. Love and a river that also rises and falls, robs and renews.
What are the landscapes that have made you who you are as a writer? as a reader?
Franziska Hauser, Untitled. Photograph. www.foto-haus.info
Anonymous (likely Léonard Misonne), Harvest, circa 1910. Photograph.
Gertrude Käsebier, The Sketch, 1902. Photograph. Via Shorpy.
Hi folks. Turns out, fall is a chaotically busy season for many of us at Hazel & Wren, and probably many of you, too. So much so that we forget things, like the fact that What We’re Reading is scheduled for Thursdays. Have patience with us, won’t you, please? In lieu of our normally scheduled book review, we hope you’ll accept today’s “Oops” edition in honor of the season that makes us so forgetful. Here are a few poems about autumn; thanks for your patience, friends.
What are your favorite poems about fall?