The Other Walk
(Graywolf Press)Birkerts is a professor of English, so he has spent his life talking about writing and books. Literature and poetry and names of writers pop up here like alfalfa on a late spring morn on The Commons. Shelley, Joyce, Baudelaire, Emerson, Ginsberg, Eliot, Roethke, Dickinson, Poe.
And more mundane things emerge here, too: Friends, Cups, Postcards, Lighters, Loafers ... memories of finding an ancient lightbulb on a beach, losing a ring (and finding it again in the shoe closet); old loves, old apartments, dowdy women, cockatiels.
Much of this memoir is of getting swept away by writers and books. Birkerts revels in literature. One of the few passionate outbursts has to do with landing a job at the original Borders / Charing Cross bookstore when he was at university in Michigan.
His is a contemplative style, ruminative if not rheumy, plump with bursts of insight. This on being a parent to a teen-ager, "I think of the way we look at our children when we are afraid, the way we read their eyes to see if they are telling us everything, and a terrible sense of their fragility."
In fact, one of the best chapters here belongs his son Liam ... the day in Provincetown when the boy rents a Sunfish sailboat and disappears. The writer (and the reader) learn that the boy, fourteen-years-old, came close to drowning because as he was out in the bay doing a turn a rope from the tiller got caught 'round his neck, the sailboat flipped, "The force of capsizing instantly tightened the noose and as the mast was pulled down to the water he could barely get his hand in between the rope and his throat ... being pulled down by the boat."
The drama (and it is dramatic) works because Birkert stretches out the episode over a taut fourteen pages (the longest story in the book). He artfully works so that the rest of us are caught up in the noose, almost dragged under, almost drowned.
And woven in this story are some fine meditations about being a parent,
Kids get older in sudden jumps and with each jump the scramble begins. Strategies that worked so reliably one day are useless in the face of the new moods, secrets, distances, brash eruptions.
"You know things are shifting when you suddenly find yourself choosing your words, reading cues like you never had to before." The meshed interstices of being a parent along with the possible loss of a child (that is, being a parent no longer) works here in fine fashion.
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The other essay that captured us is a tribute to a simple ladder. When younger, Birkert had been hired on to paint a house. He finds himself going up on what he thinks might be the longest ladder in the world, on a big old house in Biddeford, Maine, and "Somewhere between one step and another the time stream balked, then stopped and started backing up."
I am halfway up the side of the tallest house I've ever seen and I'm alone. And that little twist of the neck was like breaking the seal. The calm, the focus, whatever story I was telling myself up here, is gone.
Now we know because he knows (he didn't tell us before) he is afraid of heights, especially in the breeze, everything below turned so small, "the ground all at once so far away, the wind now pulling at the back of my shirt, and I feel the fingers of my right hand tighten their grasp and my chest and stomach push in harder against the rungs. What have I done? I can't unsee the distance down, or lose the sense of the ladder shrinking away to nothing below me and above me." Birkerts has (again) twisted the story adroitly so we too are on the ladder and like many of the rest of us he has acrophobia and now knows that the worst time in the world to figure this out is when you are half-way up the tallest house you've ever seen and you're on a ladder that shrinks away below.
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Birkert is a professional and so he can and does play us like a writer should but there are times when he is so writerly that we want to reach over and grab him around the neck in a choke-hold and tell him to lay off. He spends a whole weekend up in the attic organizing all the words he has produced over the past twenty-five years, his "archive," and we know the exact measurement of the binders, "twelve of those cutaway magazine holders, each about three inches wide at the base ... roughly sequenced on the top two shelves" and we don't want to know much more. It's like having to listen to stories about Hemingway getting in fights with his friends, Dickinson hiding away in the upper stories of her house, Fitzgerald falling down drunk in the streets of Paris, Tolstoi abusing his wife, J. R. Ackerley having sex with his dog. Writers lives are not all that stirring because, well, most of the time they are stuck in front of their typewriters or computers or legal pads doing something boring. Like writing. And rewriting. Or trying to write. It's a little too prosaic.
Still, Birkerts can find magic in the picayune. Coming home from a lunch-time session where "the critic James Wood worked his way through a single passage of Saul Bellow's story 'Zetlin'" (yawn) stuck in traffic on Massachusetts Avenue trapped behind school bus (yawn) ... but then "I saw a finger, a finger so small I couldn't picture what kind of child it might belong to, draw a crooked circle in the window just above me. So slow and careful."
And such a sweet shape. Followed --- slowly, slowly --- by a dot in the middle and two opposing sets of whiskers. One little triangle for an ear, then the other. And then we were off.
"Here was a whole caravan of traffic, the jumble of a rainy day, but now it had a focus."--- Alice Turner, M. A.