Exploring the art of prose


A Jump to the Left, and Then a Step to the Right: Lateral Lyric Moves


By Heidi Czerwiec •

I come late to creative nonfiction, after decades of writing and training and teaching and researching as a poet. While I feel I’m still playing catch-up with the standards of nonfiction craft, what I bring to the discourse is a deep familiarity with the craft techniques of poetry. The lyric essay is achieving a critical mass in publication, even as the critical work explaining its workings lags. Because so many writers of the lyric essay form come to it from poetry, it makes sense to import discussions of poetic craft to help explain various aspects of how the lyric essay functions on the page. I don’t pretend that these discussions are new, but they are new to creative nonfiction.

In my essay “Success in Circuit: The Lyric Essay as Labyrinth,” forthcoming in Randon Billings Noble’s anthology A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays, I both describe and enact ways in which the lyric essay may turn itself without actually advancing, sidestepping as it circles its subject, much like the circuitous path of a labyrinth. While that piece is presented as a lyric demonstration, I wanted to offer as a preface a more straightforward explanation, with examples of these lateral moves that create parallels or reversals, and spatial placements that may be either of the two.

Some terms: When I’m talking about mode—lyric, narrative, assay/meditative, didactic—I’m referencing both classical applications (cf Aristotle on lyric vs. narrative, dramatic, didactic) as well as the more current taxonomy offered for discussion by Karen Babine at LitHub. She subdivides literary nonfiction into genre, subgenre, form, mode, and shape in order to start a conversation not on rigid classifications, but to describe what a piece is doing.

While the lateral moves I’ll be describing occur in other essay modes—for pacing and to create suspense in narrative mode; to incorporate history or research in assay/meditative mode—they appear in greater density in lyric mode. So many of the moves are based in language and, on the page (especially since the early twentieth century), with language’s relationship to space (arrangement, breaks, white space). Language is the primary interest of pure lyricism. Here, I have great respect for Katharine Coles, who puts it best in her critical essay “If a Body”: “I use ‘lyric’ as a noun differently than I do ‘lyric’ as an adjective, where for me it indicates a reliance on dense musicality and imagery.” She goes on to clarify the difference, for her, between narrative and lyric:

[N]arrative works operate structurally through narrative gesture, the ‘if/then’ movement of cause and effect, about which lyric cares not. The pure lyric may gesture or hint at narrative possibility, which it nonetheless sequesters outside itself, operating instead through the this-and simultaneity we recognize in metaphor and metonymy, which purports to move us along while still keeping us from getting anywhere.

While I think Coles’s piece does some brilliant work demonstrating how the lyric can bridge poetry and prose, I disagree slightly with her description of pure lyric as lack of movement. Rather, I argue there is lateral movement, a resistance or delay to forward movement, which nonetheless moves us through the lyric essay.

But I also think it’s important here to distinguish the ways in which the movement and handling of time in the lyric (and therefore in lyric essays) is more fluid than in other modes, which is what makes these lateral moves so prominent. Carl Dennis, in “The Temporal Lyric,” describes the two “plots” of lyric poetry as the temporal—“a psychological development in which the speaker reaches a position by the end of the poem different from the one he or she occupies in the beginning”—and the nontemporal, which involves “the amplification and intensification of a single state of mind.” In both cases, the lyric may resist forward movement, so long as the piece brings the reader to a new position or richer understanding.

Heather McHugh, in “Moving Means, Meaning Moves: Notes on Lyric Destination,” argues, “A poem means to move you, but in unexpected directions…. In poems, the convention of continuance is always being queried by poetic structure…. It is a structure of internal resistances.” McHugh refers to the ways in which the poem’s forward movement is constantly in tension with the arrangement of its language on the page, across lines, breaks, and space. But because the lyric essay employs many of the same disjunctions, an examination of how these poetic structures function or are adapted in prose is important. To create lyric tension, the lyric essay may also resist forward movement, instead moving laterally.

The first group of lateral moves are those that create parallels, placing similar elements in apposition. These may be images, scenes, or situations that resonate with each other, placed in proximity to heighten/call attention to those resonances. Nicole Walker’s “Fish” is a triptych in three different writing styles, scenes, and points of view—lyric nature documentary/fish ladder/close third-person; memoir/deep sea fishing/first-person; and food writing/kitchen/second-person—and each section presents only a brief, image-based moment addressing some aspect of fish. While each section has its distinct voice, images and words echo across the essay: the straining of the salmon upstream becomes the straining of the young girl and barracuda against each other, and returns as directions for making a sauce: “Strain through a chinois. Strain through cheese cloth. Strain one more time for good measure.” Words like “circling,” “hold,” and “flesh” recur, accruing meaning—Dennis’s nontemporal “amplification and intensification of a single state of mind.”

The parallel move also may be achieved via language, especially in lyric essays. This may be accomplished by exploring the etymology of a word to discover or create links between two ideas. Sun Yung Shin’s “The Hospitality of Strangers” traces the sources and cognates of the Old English gest, which means both guest and stranger and is related to the words host, hostile, and hospitality, in order to interrogate borders and immigration. The author might employ wordplay, invoking a similar-sounding word to suggest a linkage or slide the meaning from one word to a seemingly unrelated one. I’ve done this myself in a lyric essay “Cuir,” where I recount the entwined history of leather and perfume: “[F]rom cuir to queer, the veneer of sweat-stained chaps and battered motorcycle jackets, leather’s skin-on-skin action.” In “Dee Aster,” Lee Ann Roripaugh moves from “disaster” to her mispronunciation “Dee Aster,” which gets her to the traumas of “Lee Aster.” In using this technique, the author doesn’t exactly create connections so much as reveal them, the trace of the author made visible.

The author might also signal more clearly that she is creating a parallel through such phrase tags as “at the same time” or “at that time” to parallel two simultaneously occurring events, or by saying “that reminds me of” or “which makes me think of” to suggest a connection which may exist only because of the author’s process of mind or stream of consciousness. At the beginning of Terese Mailhot’s Heart Berries, her lyric account of trauma, mental illness, and reconciliation, she says, “I knew I was not well. I thought of the first healer, who was just a boy. My friend Denise told me the story. She called him Heart Berry Boy, or O’dimin…. The people in his village were sick and dying because the Indian world was shifting.” She then relates the tale of the first medicine, wild strawberries, and first medicine man of the people. This “field of concurrent times” links Mailhot both to original trauma and to potential healing.

This requires a bit more explanation of lyric time and how it differs from narrative time. Time in poetry includes the tension between its progress and its structures of internal resistance, but there’s more to it than that. Radiant Lyre, an anthology of craft essays on lyric poetry, includes some marvelous critical work on lyric time. In “To Think of Time,” David Baker says:

Poetry is about the varieties of measuring, telling, and thinking about time…. The interesting question is not whether a poem has a story in it, but rather what kind of time-telling the poem undertakes. Time may be suppressed, elongated, distorted, or abbreviated. It may be spotty, circular, or linear. It may, as in a palimpsest or a bad photograph, be multiply exposed. Time may be a field of concurrent times.

This would seem to be a revision of Dennis’s nontemporal amplification—here we have multitemporal amplification, what Stanley Plumly in “Lyric Time” describes as “those concerns in present time amplified, compared, and analogized in past time—the moment juxtaposed with mythic memory.” In these lateral moves created by paralleling events or moments, lyric time is shown to its greatest effect.

The second group of lateral moves involves opposition rather than apposition—reversals, or at least restarts that don’t actually or immediately move the piece forward, but move in an opposite or new direction. This might be done using anaphora, a technique where an initial word or phrase is repeated at the start of each line or paragraph, acting as a reset button or a listing mechanism, as in John Scalzi’s “Being Poor,” which is a list of details from shifting perspectives (old, young, parent, woman), all of which create a composite portrait of poverty by beginning, “Being poor is.” This could also be signaled with phrase tags such as “or, rather,” “not x, but y,” or some negation that refutes what came before in favor of what is now being offered, or at least offers alternatives. I do this in “Consider the Lobster Mushroom: being a brief theory of the craft of creative nonfiction,” when I compare writing nonfiction to the lobster mushroom, which is actually a mushroom infected with a parasitic fungus: “You become infected by an idea, a topic…that absorbs you, imparting its own qualities, until the you’re transformed, not the same person as before. // Or, you may play the part of parasite—cloak your work, make it take the appearance of another form…. // Or, you may think you’re writing one essay, but another essay takes it over, makes it its own.”

This kind of oppositional move could also be presented via revision, such as redoing a scene in a different way by changing point of view or “perhapsing” an imagined alternate scene, as Anika Fajardo does in “What Didn’t Happen” when she imagines an alternate unlived life, or at the level of language by saying something again but using a different tone, register, or rhythm. Dinah Lenney does this in “Object Parade: Little Black Dress,” where each paragraph starts with a new shift in the speaker’s register, from lofty to blunt to wistful: “O, you should be able to say when you bought this dress and what for…” “So. Is it actually, finally time to retire the little black dress?” “You remember a dinner party in Laurel Canyon.” In presenting these alternatives—logical, thematic, emotional, tonal—the lyric essay explodes with multiple possibilities, creating a density of meanings within a compressed space.

The final group of lateral moves is more ambiguous and spatial, and involves juxtaposing and/or braiding items/fragments. The author lays down one thread in order to pick up another, signaling this with white space. Although white space has long existed in poetry in the right margin’s turns of verse and in its stanza breaks and caesuras, and the fragment does appear in Romantic prose, its expansion as a technique largely comes from two concurrent developments in literature at the end of the nineteenth/start of the twentieth century: the production of cheap typewriters so writers could treat the blank page as a visual field to be manipulated, and the influence of the French Symbolists with their experiments in prose poetry. The combination of these two led to innovative work that often is included as early examples of flash nonfiction, and from there, the practice spread. As a result, white space is one poetry technique which has received some nonfiction craft attention. Dinty W. Moore acknowledges this debt to poetics in his excellent “Positively Negative” in Bending Genre: “[Poets have] been thinking of white space, negative space, the distance between thoughts and words, since the time they first took up the pen.” He laments that “prose writers…seldom if ever articulate how white space works…. We use it, certainly, but I very seldom find it discussed in craft books or writing classrooms.”

For white space as a lateral move, it’s left more to the reader to determine whether the fragments are being placed in apposition, opposition, or something else—and whether that move is a leap or resisting motion altogether. Eula Biss’s fragmentary essay “Time and Distance Overcome” juxtaposes scenes of telephone poles linked to violence to complicate the ideas of connection and division at the birth of telephony, the resistance to forward movement mimicking resistance to (and, in the case of racism, even lack of) progress. These fragments function almost like telephone poles, stringing their connections across the dividing white space—what is communicated?

There may be no clear sense of accrual, however, and the effect may even be jarring. Here, I think especially of Kathy Fish’s flash piece “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild,” with its startling catalogue of proposed names for groups that culminates in a gutpunch of a shift at the end. In fact, in this example, it’s the white space that creates the gutpunch, with its pacing, pause, and then succinct, deadly delivery.

I do want to assert that I don’t believe an essay, even a lyric or fragmented essay, can succeed solely through lateral moves or leaps. At some point or points, the piece needs to advance in order to develop or arrive at a revelation, however small. New writers experimenting with the form sometimes attempt to move only by juxtaposition, fragments laid down, a series of “and this” without a sense of accrual or summation, resulting in an essay feeling static and flat. Here, I find it especially useful to apply what poet Robyn Schiff calls “bound association.” During Q&A at a recent reading, Biss cited Schiff, who distinguishes between “free association” and “bound association.” In the latter, you bind yourself only to the trajectory of certain terms, to keep yourself from pursuing infinite rabbit holes. When Biss uses this process, she goes back and tries to figure out how she got from one leap to the next, to fill in any gaps, while also trying to preserve wonder.

I really like this for a summation. The lyric essay may move laterally, sidling through the various associative techniques I’ve outlined. Doing so allows the author to contain multitudes within a compressed space. But there are limits and bounds—walls to the labyrinth—and there needs to be a trajectory, a path that, rather than losing us in a maze, leads us to amazement.


Essayist and poet HEIDI CZERWIEC is the author of the lyric essay collection Fluid States, selected by Dinty W. Moore as winner of Pleiades Press’s 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and the poetry collection Conjoining, and is the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She writes and teaches in Minneapolis, where she is an editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com


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