Unconventional essays offer intimate glimpses into a writer’s heart and mind.
In her second collection, Clammer (BodyHome, 2015) once again stretches the boundaries of the form, pushing against “the tenuous fences between poetry and fiction and nonfiction and humor and critical writing and academic writing and blogging and every other genre that has existed, ever, in order to discover how to discuss our lives.” The essays are notable for their inventive language; many take the form of prose poems or verbal collages; one is constructed of bullet-pointed sentences; another, like a class syllabus. As the title suggests, the essays circle around several recurring themes: Clammer’s relationship with her father, an “outstanding alcoholic” and “the catalyst,” she writes, “for every problem in my life”; her various health problems, including PTSD, an eating disorder, bipolar disorder, and alcoholism; suicide (she made two attempts); and the writing life. The title essay focuses on a particular circadian image: her father, pacing in circles as he tried to get relief from the “throbbing, clobbering” cluster headaches that blighted his life, the aftereffect of a head injury. Sometimes he howled with pain; he self-medicated with alcohol, and he tried to kill himself. After he died, Clammer was left with traumatic memories of his suffering: “there was no healing. No desire for sobriety. No want for life. The only thing present was his continuous hurt.” Suicide recurs in several pieces, especially one essay about her work in a mental hospital for homeless adolescents with addiction and mental health issues. “I was just a woman with a sober heart, with a steady and medicated brain, with a belief in each youth’s sobriety,” she writes. She felt attached to one girl, who eventually died—accidentally, though she often threatened to kill herself—and Clammer struggles to understand the depression, vulnerability, and fear that led to the young woman’s death.
An affecting memoir emerges from a dozen circuitous, digressive essays.