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; and another poem titled “Blue.”] 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.



Lyric Essay, Part One: Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is subtitled “An American Lyric” and categorized by the publisher as “lyric essay/poetry.” What does lyric suggest or mean? In what ways does this poetic element of her essay play a role in the rhetorical project? What is Rankine’s rhetorical project: what is she doing in here?

In simplest terms, I presume the publisher means it as something of a synonym for poetic. Here is the OED entry for the adjective “lyric.”  Another term, then, might be prose poem. And lyric, in poetry, has come to mean something personal or autobiographical, in contrast with the epic; poetry of the I. Think Whitman, “Song of Myself.”

Calling prose lyrical or poetic may also just be a cop out: an attempt to describe prose that doesn’t behave like it should–and thus seems ‘poetic,’ transgressive of the rules of the genre. There may be something to this. And that something has a history in American nonfiction. It is one way that we can continue to explore the rhetoric of the essay, and particularly the rhetoric of race, as we read and discuss Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. The lyrical quality is a poetic element of her writing; but I would also argue that it speaks to the rhetorical project as well.

When I look at Rankine’s text, I think back to the poet Walt Whitman–and not his poetry but to his prose. Specifically, the autobiographical prose he would write and collect under the title Specimen Days. As you can see from browsing it, the prose is composed of lots of paragraph or two long sections that not only feel fragmentary–but are presented as such. Consider how Whitman begins Specimen Days.

The fragmentation of the book is part of the story. It is not simply a case that an older Whitman has difficulty putting together all the ‘scraps’ and ‘memoranda’ from his life spent as a writer recording the poetry of America, it is that the very record is necessarily a pile of scraps. He makes the point particularly about the section of the text (its heart, really) that re-collects the notes and memoranda he recorded while in the Civil War hospitals. Where Whitman saw, and wrote about, wrote from, fragmentation at first hand.

Whitman named this “Convulsiveness“:

As I have look’d over the proof-sheets of the preceding pages, I have once or twice fear’d that my diary would prove, at best, but a batch of convulsively written reminiscences. Well, be it so. They are but parts of the actual distraction, heat, smoke and excitement of those times. The war itself, with the temper of society preceding it, can indeed be best described by that very word convulsiveness.

So lyric may well mean poetic. But it also seems to me, with Whitman’s example in mind, that lyrical for Rankine’s type of essaying can mean a resistance to poetry–if by poetry we mean some sort of meaning that comes together into wholeness, a place where things are worked out by the end of the poem. Whitman’s poetry wants to do that; the prose doesn’t seem able. In 1876, Whitman published a volume of poetry/prose titled Two Rivulets: where the prose and poetry exist on the same page. He begins this volume in a manner similar to Specimen Days, by emphasizing his declining health, and his effort to put all the various scraps of his writing together. It is interesting, then, to think about Rankine’s focus on mental health and the sense of illness we see in her book.

Whitman expresses an understanding that Emerson, in his very lyrical essay, “Experience,” puts this way: “I know better than to claim any completeness for my picture. I am a fragment and this is a fragment of me.” And of course, let’s not forget Frederick Douglass, who concludes his narrative by commanding the reader to undergo his fragmentary experience as a fugitive in order to understand him. Let you, reader, be as lonely as I was, he seems to say. Perhaps this is Rankine’s interest as well: don’t let me be lonely (without you being lonely). I think of the statement by the Irish poet Yeats: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric; we make out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Rankine, and perhaps the lyric essay form, seeks to combine the quarrel with others and herself.

John D’Agata, a contemporary nonfiction writer and scholar of the essay, expresses several of these qualities in his definition:

The lyric essay, as some have called the form, asks what happens when an essay begins to behave less like an essay and more like a poem. What happens when an essayist starts imagining things, making things up, filling in blank spaces, or–worse yet–leaving the blanks blank?What happens when statistics, reportage, and observation in an essay are abandoned for image, emotion, expressive transformation?… What’s a lyric essay? It’s an oxymoron: an essay that’s also a lyric; a kind of logic that wants to sing; an argument that has no chance of proving anything. [D’Agata, The Next American Essay, 436-7]

A final thought about the meaning of “lyrical.” It also strikes me as a way to get at the multimedia and documentary elements of this narrative.  For Rankine, the lyrical ‘I’ seems to exist, thoroughly if uneasily, in a world of eyes. We are all individuals, but watching the same commercials. Or so it seems. Some of the images, as we know, are racially focused, coded. In fact, the book began (she told the audience when she visited Washington College several years ago) in response to imagery from the Byrd lynching in Texas, and a comment President Bush made about it during a debate. In using a more recent, racially charged and coded image, namely from the Trayvon Martin shooting, I am updating the discussion.

As we will see in the last section of the course, Rankine also composes essays in video form, for example this one titled Zidane. Several others are listed under “Situations” on her website. We will be visiting these again in a couple weeks when we explore the video essay.

Could you imagine your own essay  expressed through video or photographic forms? Rankine will be on campus in September; the first-year read this coming summer will be her latest book, Citizen.

One of the rhetorical elements of this essay we need to consider: its appeal to logos, to evidence. Consider all the footnotes at the back (you might not have known they were there). What’s going on with all the evidence?