Things That Are by Amy Leach
(Milkweed Editions 2012)
Reviewed by Amanda Giracca
Everything Becomes Erstwhile
Reading Things That Are, the first essay collection from writer Amy Leach, you might get the creeping sense that these essays are being narrated not by the woman whose photo you’ll find at the back of the book, but by a hoary old man with jiggly earlobes, who repeatedly asks you where his spectacles are as they sit pinched to the tip of his nose. As you crack the book and begin to read, this voice brings you one recondite axiom after another: “First of all, it seems imperative to understand modern bird migration, for birds used to fly to the moon in September and then back in spring.” Or, “The secret to identifying any creature is to note its proficiency as well as its terrain: the same insect, clever on a biscuit, may be stupid in a puddle,” or as he tells you what happens to extraneous beavers “during the periodic population control that beaverocracies exercise.” This imagined old narrator is full of all sorts of information that’s both scientifically fascinating and absolutely absurd. “Beaverocracies…?” you ask out loud. “That’s a word?” (The glossary at the back, while sometimes confounding you further, does not include BEAVEROCRACIES; but some definitions drop hints as to what this book is up to: “VASTY (As differentiated from ‘vast’) has approximately the same meaning as ‘biggy,’ ‘hugey,’ and ‘giganticky.’ Do not let anyone tell you these words are not words; all words are words.”)
You might, as I did, start to feel like a petulant child who has to listen to another bedtime story, or who must be sat down for yet another natural history lesson. Sometimes, you get irritated by this annoyingly benign Winnie the Pooh-like voice. “I know the difference between echolocation and echolalia!” you might want to shout (as I scribbled in the margins). But then as you read on, you start to realize, “Well, I didn’t know that much,” and you are silenced as this narrator, in the essay “The Wine of Astonishment,” begins a long spiel on how whirligig beetles, in a manner similar to how bats use echolocation, “percuss” their abdomens against the water, sending out waves across the surface to locate food.
These essays that make up Things That Are are part encyclopedia entry, part whirlwind tour of a peculiar imagination. Often, they start quite simply. Take, for example, the essay “Love,” which is broken into four sections, each section named for a particular plant: Love-in-Idleness, Love-in-a-Mist, Love-Lies-Bleeding, and Love-Bind. The essay begins with a look three million years into the future, when the “Andromeda Galaxy may collide with our Milky Way. At first this sounds miserable, like a collision of two bird flocks. But galaxy members fly farly, not tip to tip. In a galactic collision the stars do not actually collide—as with crisscrossing marching bands, only the interstices collide.” This is all to picture a future denuded Earth, “having lost its beautiful flocculence, its beautiful freight,” and to imagine, were it to regrow all its life, which “biospherical items might return first.” This leads to a discourse on the properties of the hardy, self-seeding wild viola known as love-in-idleness. These essays often start simply and straightforwardly enough, but nearly each essay eventually escalates into a circus of words, pulling in absurd similes (like comparing the stars in colliding galaxies to clarinetists in a marching band). The love-bind portion of the essay begins discussing how the plant is a rampant vine that can grow ten meters in a season. But the essay quickly abandons sane descriptions, and starts to envision love-bind covering up an entire forest, then covering up every object on earth while trying to vine its way to the moon:
Love-bind turns everything into a dubitable green figure. Once-unabmiguous mangadous, once-dapper pineapple-gadrooned credenzas, once-natty hatstands—all rendered approximate by overrushing love. The love-trammeled are no longer spruce, no longer chiseled, no longer emphatic. Considering a mystical green ectomorph, one might wonder: “Tetzel the tavernboy? Beanstan the barrelstaver? Wictred the twit? Maybe a butternut seedling?” Overgreening love converts the Nest to a Was-a-nest, the Wiliwili to a Was-a-wiliwili, Upholsterers to Were-upholsterers. Everything becomes erstwhile; and in a way this love-bind is like time and obliteration.
This was one of my favorite such imaginings: to picture just a fuzzy outline of various objects, everything covered now in vine, just a shape reminiscent of its former self. For a moment my inner petulant child shut up, and along with our narrator, I enjoyed putting scientific fact to imaginative use: what if? What if these vines were unstoppable?
Another such silencing happened in the same essay. While discussing love-lies-bleeding, the narrator expounds on what we can do forever—bleeding not being one of them. “There are some things you can do forever. Given a deep enough shaft, you can fall forever,” reminding me, of course, of Alice falling into the rabbit hole. I paused for a moment, truly disturbed, really considering what it might be like to fall forever. In that moment it became clear that Leach is directly channeling Lewis Carroll throughout. Half of the book reads like “The Jabberwocky.”
This book renders its readers into Alices—we become baffled, unsure of which side of the looking glass we are on. Is this fact or fantasy? Rooted in scientific fact (as a horticulturist, I can attest to the accuracy of plants’ descriptions, and the facts on beavers, goats, and the planets’ moons all seem easily researchable), the stories of these species are warped with imaginative properties. This book is two-fold in that we can be sure we are gleaning mini scientific lessons—the reproductive cycle of jellyfish, for example—but at the same time given permission to fantasize. What if the wind did blow love-bind out to space and it covered the stars in vegetation? It’s what people in the Dark Ages might wonder if they knew what we know now.
These twenty-four essays are arranged in two sections: “Things of the Earth” and “Things of Heaven.” The first section is essays of plants and animals, the second filled mostly with essays about stars and space. However, the book is bisected with an essay that doesn’t fall in either category. “Memorandum to The Animals” happens in the middle and the essays leading up to it do give a hint to this change about to take place in the book. Two essays before “Memorandum” we get “You Are Going to Fly,” a piece distinctly told from the first person, starting with “Once, a friend and I followed a moth that trudged across a whole grocery store parking lot.” The voice is very different from (although it doesn’t entirely abandon) the hoary-old-man-voice the collection begins with. The essays toward the center aren’t just encyclopedic facts, or myth-like ponderings—they are suddenly distinctly lodged in the author’s experience. And the next essay, the one preceding “Memorandum” perhaps gives itself away with its title: “God.” Again, we are rooted with a first-person narrator here, who isn’t afraid to ponder on the page: “The people say the word repeatedly, and the more they repeat it, the less I can understand it: listening to words I do not understand is like swallowing stones.” No longer is this the confident, schoolteacher voice of pages of yore. It’s as though the book is developing a consciousness. We go from the Earth’s base most inhabitants—from the primordial waters of the beaver swamp—to this voice that’s suddenly aware of itself, aware of a human’s place among these things that are.
“Memorandum to the Animals” is just that. It’s a letter addressed to all species on Earth, except that rather than on the brink of a great deluge, this letter warns of the end of the Holocene: “Don’t you know, Animals, nothing lasts forever,” the letter claims, closing with, “The future belongs to us.” The “us” can only mean humans, although the word Anthropocene is never used—meaning the geologic age in which we now live, having begun roughly 200 years ago, the era’s identifying factors having to do with humans’ impact shaping Earth’s ecological makeup. “Memorandum” opens with the cold efficient language of a termination notice: “Unfortunately, Animals, we are not going to be able to bring all of you with us this time.” It continues, as unconcerned as an IRS audit: “If you are concerned about the devastation of your genetic type, and you do not see your name on the Keep-Alive-List, you might think about clumping some vegetation together into rafts on which to rescue yourselves.”
It’s a cold, heartless, F-YOU to the animals, the jolly-frolicking Carrollian voice all but gone from the page. It’s certainly the most didactic of all the essays, but by this point I’m grateful for a little bit of sanity. Like a whirligig spinning haplessly on the pond’s surface who happens upon a water flea, I’m eager to consume this morsel of take-away. I’m also grateful for the first-person narrator whose presence lingers for a few essays into the “Things of Heaven” portion of the book.
One of those essays, “The Safari,” is actually in second-person, but is told with the same intimate voice, rife with self-consciousness; I still felt the guiding hand of the sane narrator that emerged during “God.” It’s the saddest piece, too, and my favorite in the collection, mostly for the lyrical voice that here has been rendered wistful and elegiac. The essay places the reader in the position of a zoo-goer, the animals also referred to as “memories.” We’re invited to become the viewer, to imagine our memories set free again, allowed to imagine what it would be like to go hunting for them again. Perhaps I like this piece best because it holds, what seems to me, the book’s closest thing to a thesis. The last three paragraphs join together the past, present, and future, holding within them a microcosm of the book overall:
But right before the sun goes down, the light will get more intense, and your memories will rouse and trumpet and stamp and bawl and honk and become whiter-teethed, greener-feathered, browner-furred, sharper-horned, softer and more violent, as if time’s filmy layers had dissipated and your entire past were happening anew—the past as new as the present. Your memories will sting and stain your eyes as this final sunlight is translated into red-gold lions and gilt-orange floating birds with long ribbony tails and yawning wet stump-toothed hippos. …
And then one of your little days, like a kingfisher, will fly over the waters, diving down beneath the opaque golden surface of your mind, where swim your earliest, submarine memories. What is caught is a tiny primeval memory that should mean nothing, a throwaway. Yet when pulled out of the water, gripped in a birdbeak, lashing the air and throwing flashing grapefruit-colored waterdrops from its glittering, tiny perishing silver self, this forgotten, underwater matter will suddenly mean all the world to you—the long lost glittering hour that means more than age, more than logic, more than lore.
Then the sun and its light will truly leave. … There will no longer be any way to apprehend your days; the stars will come out but they will only illuminate themselves. … Sometimes we do not get the type of charity we want from the stars, and then we fault them for being selfish. But what? Would we rather that no thoughtless stars lighted themselves—that our days escaped us in grimmest gloom? … Will the stars, at length, not grant us a firmament of shivery, glinting, white-gold flames under which to relinquish our days?
Shortly thereafter the book resumes its wild romp. In “Sail On, My Little Honeybee” Leach brings the exploration to the moon. The book becomes once again a science lesson wrapped in riddle delight, back to its old rascally ways:
To discover why the Earth acts so central and the Moon so obsequious, let us not measure yards but consider inward differences. The Earth is not gigantic and the Moon is not slight, but the Earth has a core and the Moon does not. Or rather, if the Moon has a core, it is undetectably small and inert, like a frozen mouse. How do we know that the Moon has a mousy core? Whoever really has been a Lunar Interiorist? Here we shall invent a philosophy and call it Imaginative Exteriorism: wherein, by looking at the exterior, we imagine the interior; for the face often tattles on the heart, and an empty surface may bespeak an empty center (though this is not true of alligator eggs).
From past to present, Holocene to Anthropocene, from fantasy to reality—Things That Are leads us through the looking glass and to the other side, even if we’re never sure which side we’re on. It’s part celebration of the Earth’s strange bounty, and part swan song at nature’s dimming twilight. It goes from the bottom of the ocean where tender, sessile jellyfish polyps watch the sunflower stars eat sea urchins, and it leads us far into the night sky where constellations migrate. And for a brief moment in the middle humans are considered, given a brief voice before silenced again. We are but a blip in all of this, just one more thing that is.
I wish I could say this collection is for everyone. But it’s the sort of book you really need to be in the right state of mind for. You must be willing to put away your inner petulant child, to sit still for just a few moments, to turn your attention fully to the narrator, to listen closely.
Amanda Giracca is a third-year Creative Nonfiction student in the University of Pittsburgh’s MFA program.