Exploring the art of prose


The Diarist: Kathryn Scanlan’s AUG 9—FOG


By J.A. Tyler •

Other people’s diaries. Strangers. Their words inked across aged paper. Where did it come from? How did it get here? Who owned it, who read it? Hunt on eBay and one could be headed your way, laid open, exposed, a message written in textual origami, the birth of new sentences awaiting your eyes.

Looking at old books of the church
that Martha gave us & pictures,
alone all day. Clarence over to see
Bayard—he living in the past, other
wise he pretty good.

I’ve never bought any, for the record. But I’ve looked, browsed, perused, wondered. Others have too, many I’m sure, because there is something inherently intriguing about the possibility of looking into someone else’s honestly rendered life. A diary holds so many secrets, and Kathryn Scanlan has little interest in keeping them secret.

Fifteen years ago, she bought a diary from an estate auction. It was written by a woman who lived in the country. A person who, like many of the generations that preceded this hypersensitive, overstimulated, technology-obsessed one, took pleasure in jotting down snippets of information: the weather, who came to dinner, what the trees looked like. The latest rainfall, the next visitor, a birthday. My grandfather was prone to keeping one of these records in the form of a small spiral notebook held in his shirt’s breast pocket, inscribing to it dates, measurements, the county prefixes of license plates.

Who are these people, like my grandfather, who wanted to hold such small and seemingly insignificant scraps of language so close to their hearts?

D. & V. got me pretty slippers for
Mother’s Day. Hard rain last evening
sure do lot good. Out to Mother’s
grave with flowers.

Aug 9—Fog puzzles this diary out, unravels it—in a way. Scanlan spent years reading and rereading this stranger’s words, poring over the diary, thinking and rethinking its sentences, reenvisioning its ownership, its stubs of journaling from 1968–1972, simultaneously feeling out the past while exploring our present. In a tongue both hers and the diarist’s, Scanlan has written, unwritten, and rewritten a moment in time, and it is mesmerizing.

Vern put me a light in ceiling. Put
light down in Vern’s lungs. Putting
up pictures. Blowed up cooler in eve.

A diary has intrinsic linguistic and narrative value: Whose was it? Who were they? Why did they write what they wrote? Who were they reaching out to? What was their purpose? It took Scanlan a decade to interrogate this journal, opening it up line by line, word by word, until it was no longer what it used to be. And yet, it still reads like a diary, a wonderfully poetic one, and it engages readers on the same levels, because in Aug 9—Fog, we get to revel in both what was, and what is, Scanlan asking us, whose narrative is it now?

Know too that beyond these deeper punches, this philosophical underpinning, Aug 9—Fog is also a simple, poetic story about a woman who watches illness bloom like the seasons around her, a woman worried for her husband’s health and also for the attempted knitting of a pincushion, the story of a woman nearing the end of her own life, a woman who has the courage to write it out as it writes her out.

Turning cooler in eve. We had
smoked sausages, fried potatoes &
onions. Dr. says it’s a general
breaking up of his body. I am
bringing in some flowers.

A third of the way through I found myself reading too fast, tossing phrases aside, not sure any of these small narratives would hold. Two seasons later and I was caring for, in fact worried about, this cast of characters Scanlan has somehow magically fleshed out on such small, sparse bones. When I finished, I went back to the beginning, and not in the trite sense but in actuality: I started Aug 9—Fog again, reading it twice more in its entirety.

Ever where glare of ice. We didn’t
sleep too good. My pep has left me.

Scanlan has made this diary blossom in a way both perplexing and luminous. The narrative hums, soars, moves like a bird singing through the air. Aug 9—Fog is a tightly wound ball of intrigue, a woman’s later life collapsed into 128 pages of poesy. Aug 9—Fog is a wave washing over us. Relinquish control and wait. The words will open up. In the meantime, soak in Scanlan’s sun.

Cloudy all day. Most of ice & snow
gone. Birds beginning to eat out of
new feeder.


Aug 9—Fog by Kathryn Scanlan is out this month from MCDxFSG


J.A. TYLER is the author of The Zoo, a Going (Dzanc Books). His fiction has appeared in DiagramBlack Warrior ReviewFairy Tale Review, Fourteen Hills, and New York Tyrant among other places. From 2007–2013 he ran Mud Luscious Press. He resides mostly offline.