An elderly woman’s diary of daily life in the Midwest provides inspiration for this assemblage of found text.
Scanlan’s debut begins with an indispensable author’s note in which she describes acquiring a diary at an estate auction. The diary spanned five years in the life of an Illinois woman who was 86 years old when she began the project of keeping track of her days. Falling apart and badly water-damaged, the diary was only partly legible. But the voice Scanlan found within it—idiosyncratic, matter-of-fact—compelled her to keep returning to the diary, rearranging and collaging bits of language. The result, labeled “part diary, part collage, part fiction,” is a slender volume arranged by seasons; most pages feature only a few words. The weather is one obsession: “Terrible windy,” reads one entry, “everything loose is traveling.” We get glimpses of chores, like sewing and canning, and gossip from others’ lives. A narrative starts to emerge when one recurring figure, seemingly a son or son-in-law, gets severely ill and then, in the hospital, “seemed to just sleep away.” There is an undeniable poignancy in the readerly act of filling in the gaps of this octogenarian's life, her voice pulled into the present from where it had been suspended in the late 1960s/early '70s. Scanlan’s project will be familiar to anyone who reads contemporary poetry: Titans like Susan Howe or Solmaz Sharif have made stunning poems from found text. But Scanlan’s book is “part fiction,” and it’s unclear where the invention, if any, actually comes in. What are the woman’s words, and what aren’t? Scanlan doesn’t explain. And where Sharif or Howe use public texts, this is private writing manipulated and published as a work of art by Scanlan. Here, the text offers pleasures that the context complicates.
A work of frequent beauty but puzzling intent.