Abani: The Rhetoric of Memoir

In reading Chris Abani’s The Face: Cartography of the Void, we will begin our turn to very contemporary poetics of the essay known as lyric essay. We will take this up more directly in the final text of the course, reading the work and thought of lyric essayist John D’Agata in Lifespan of a Fact. We will also be reading (and visiting with) my colleague Dr. James Hall, another poet and lyric essayist. In addition to the essay from his forthcoming book (distributed to you), you could read his poem “A Home in the Country.” Some questions we could ask Dr. Hall, as we take up the lyrical quality of essay writing: is his poetry nonfiction? is his essay writing poetic? And what would that mean?

Like Dr. Hall, Abani moves us in the direction of the lyric essay since he is writing an essay (as a memoir) in The Face, and doing so as a novelist and a poet. [Here is an example of his poetry]. He is writing nonfiction, but using the imaginative and even fictive tools of the poet to do so.  We will have an opportunity to see and hear Abani at the Literary House on April 6 at 4.30 pm. As we read and discuss The Face, think about questions we might ask the author.

One series of  questions would be to ask him to define his terms. In the opening section, “Threshold,” in a moment of metadiscourse, he refers to the book he is writing as an essay.  Would he further define it as ‘lyric essay,’ and if so, what does that mean? What are the uses and limits of that definition for the genre? What does the lyrical character of an essay allow, invite, necessitate?

In the next section, “Caveat,” we are warned that “Everything in this book is true,” as we would expect from nonfiction, but also, or rather, “none of it may be true at all,” since everything in the book involves memory and remembrance, and thereby, misrepresentation. Here, I think, we begin to note the complications that interest lyric essayists: nonfiction that does not see truth as synonymous with fact, nor the opposite of imagination. This rhetoric of remembrance warns the reader of a potential problem, a disclaimer–think of how Abani here operates differently than Shields, perhaps more in line with Kaysen. And, it seems to me, this problem of memory, but also potential to generate writing from its very misrepresentation, is part of the larger rhetorical project.

I would suggest that the poetic quality of this work is also part of the project. I have in mind several elements of this essay that we can further explore. Certainly, it’s interest in language, and the ways Abani, like Kaysen, develops his critical reflection and deeper resonance for the essay through the focus on words and concepts that are part of his lineage. Within this reflection, Abani presents us with some concepts we can think about as rhetorical tools for our own writing: beauty, balance, symmetry, and patience are a few that I am particularly interested in.

 

Kaysen: imperfect images

In “Mind vs. Brain,” Kaysen refers to an image that can be viewed as either a face or a vase, or both–another example of ekphrasis in action. This is what she has in mind. Here are some other versions of what is known in psychology as bi-stable illusion. This one interested Freud. And this one the philosopher Wittgenstein.

And, of course, there is the extended ekphrasis we get at the end, returning to the Vermeer painting at The Frick Museum in New York City, from which she gets her title. This is what she has in mind.

Notice how these fitful, imperfect images speak to her argument. One version of a “thesis statement” could be the following from “Mind vs. Brain”: “No doubt, no analysis” (141).

What might these images tell us, or to use with the metonymy of images, what might they illuminate about: Kaysen’s project–what she’s doing in this essay? any essay, as memoir?