Essays full of hard truths and touching prose
The rise in popularity of the personal essay — the easiest way for a woman writer to get into print — has drawn criticism of self-indulgence, hubris, and oversharing. But Kim Dana Kupperman’s debut collection of essays, winner of a 2009 prize from the Bread Loaf writers’ conference, goes leagues beyond easy emotion to underline the strange details that lift life into consciousness.
Unlike many writers of first-person nonfiction, Kupperman, 50, doesn’t have a dramatic trauma to impart. She has more ordinary adventures: a young adulthood spent hopscotching between New York and France, a decade or so living in rural Maine, a divorce, a mother who committed suicide, a brother who died of AIDS.
But Kupperman notices the telling detail with a quiet ferocity. Her sharp, unsparing vision insists that her life as a perennial participant-observer deserves to be set down for others to read. It says everything that the “wings’’ in the title essay belong not to angels or fluttering birds but to chickens about to be fried.
Her description of scattering her brother’s ashes — interrupted by a vagrant who asks for a light — echoes the sensation of reading the book itself: “It is as the scene in which I am participating occurs just above the surface of things, in a place where evidence becomes so light that it dissolves.’’
Kupperman is committed to the hard truths, not easy emotions that can prove false, as when she learns that her grandmother lied about her birthplace, rendering a sentimental trip to Kiev empty. She writes: “I claimed to sense my grandmother through my feet, as if a mystical osmosis reconnected us. I infused buildings and scenery with her gaze, placed her on the grand boulevards and on a bridge that crossed the Dnieper River. How naïve.’’
The book isn’t cold, though. Kupperman ends an essay about her parents’ custodial fight with her father saying to his miserable daughter, “I’ll take you to Rappaport’s and buy you a toy.’’
The topics of the first part of the book are somewhat conventional, but Kupperman eventually ventures beyond the basic. An essay reclaiming the color orange from the post-9/11 Homeland Security code is luminously odd. In the piece “That Roar on the Other Side of Silence,’’ she juxtaposes a personal episode of sadomasochistic passion with battered women’s narratives without diminishing or simplifying either. It also features some of her most touching prose: “This exchange of pleasure and hurt occurs in the early hours of morning we erroneously call night, as if there were some clear boundary between one time of day and another, as if we’d forgotten what it was like to be children yearning to trade day for night and night for day, as if we’d never been bruised before.’’
The final essay — an uncharacteristically loopy piece personifying poetry — can be skipped. Kupperman already voiced her philosophy when she reflected on poet Frank O’Hara’s terror of the color orange, a reaction that to her expresses “the awe you feel in front of something so ordinary — a piece of fruit or a story — that you must, if you are a poet or a painter, capture what you sense as extraordinary.’’
Danielle Dreilinger can be reached at email@example.com.