Northwords Now Issue 37

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Time Taking Flight: the art of essays

Chris Arthur (Mad Creek Books)

A Review by Kirsty Gunn

What is it like to feel oneself alive in the world – now, in this moment – before being tipped forever into the vast oblivion of eternity? This is the question essayist Chris Arthur is interested in: Mortal time and its constraints - whether experienced in reality, as fleeting moments of sensation and experience and understanding, or on the page, as pieces of writing that are themselves attempts to hold back time and make permanent the dancing transience of thought.

About half way through Hummingbirds Between the Pages, his latest collection of reflections, projections, autobiography and rivetingly precise observations about the natural world, human behaviour and the touch and sight and smell of lived life, he comes right out with it. In an essay called ‘Butterfly Smoke Signals’ we read, in a section about butterflies hatching, “The fact that many of the people who came to meet the butterflies that evening were elderly...made the proximity to these flawless life-gems... particularly poignant. The contrast between newly minted morphos and old men and women who were as worn and tattered as butterflies nearing the end of their lives gave added luster to the sheen the butterflies possessed as mirrors of mortality.”  

It’s a perfect summing up of this writer’s sensibility and method, a thinking out loud around the big mysteries of life that come harnessed to observations about ordinary life that have been lit up by small event or other, contained in a literary form he has made his own and crafted to be within “a hair’s breath”, as he writes, between the words and the reality being described. Who else writing in Britain at the moment is so at ease with the very genre of essay, I wonder, that can be both abstract and highly personal? The sort of non-fiction writing that is not only an essai or attempt – a leap of an idea into the unknown, first championed by the French essayist Michel de Montaigne in the 16thC  – but is also completely at home with the worlds of facts and figures, science and maths and history, empirical certainties once held by clergymen and philosophers alike as “proof” of their own orthodoxies.

Essays may be more widely read now than they were even ten years ago ( thanks to dedicated essay publishing houses and competitions, and prominent novelists such as Ali Smith involving them in her fiction) but here in Scotland we are still slow to celebrate a genre that was once such a vigorous, robust aspect of our culture – forged within the coffee houses of the Edinburgh Enlightenment and expressed all over the highland and islands in local publications and journals that are the stuff of Scottish historians’ research.

Chris Arthur has always only ever written essays – this is his eighth collection – and  has won prizes and accolades in America, where his work has been anthologised in prestigious collections such as Pushcart’s Best American Essay, celebrated for the sheer fineness of his prose, its attention to detail, the way he allows the texture of his thoughts to create spaces and depth within the subjects he addresses , whether it’s the woodpigeon on his lawn or the sight of an empty hearse followed by that a teenage girl dressed in the colours of Spring, two very different kinds of “body” in mind. The voice that speaks in all his work is quiet, yet lyrical, both self effacing and slyly self conscious – “Encountering Julie’s erotic charisma only minutes after passing the empty hearse occasioned a collision of electricities” he writes, acutely aware of how the form of her young womanliness will “dissolve into what preceded it, and what will come next.”

Why is this writer not better known here in Scotland, in Britain, where we should “own” him as a leading practitioner of form of writing now slowly being adopted on university reading lists and creative writing programmes? It seems crazy that the new volume is published, as are others, by an American publishing house, with its American spellings, and an introduction by an American editor, when most of the pieces here are set in places that will be familiar to Scottish readers – St Andrews and Dundee and Edinburgh, along with Belfast and London - and describe situations that are known more directly on this side of the Atlantic – the Irish Troubles, British animals and flowers and weather– before they turn their attention to more universal themes.

Certainly, what marks Hummingbirds Between the Pages as being both a development of and a departure from this writer’s earlier work – collections such as Irish Nocturnes and On the Shoreline of Knowledge, and the more recent Reading Life - is the sure slow tick of time we hear sounding through its pages. A universal certainty for sure. Though his subject matter, as always, ranges freely, Arthur’s underlying subject here, drawing all the essays together and grounding them with a deep seriousness, is the inexorable march of the human individual towards the end. That phrase “even in the midst of life we are in death” has surely never seemed more apt than in the wry, tender, intelligently probing set of essays we have here. “Contained in the moment thus simplified there is so much more than meets the eye” he writes in “Watchwords’, an essay about coming upon his father’s old watch. “Questions about time and memory, identity and absence, God and purpose get lodged in the shafts that words create” he finishes, “glimpsing something of the disparity in scale between language and what it tries to speak of... silence.”

For a while I wondered why the collection hadn’t been named after an essay like that one, or The Archaeology of Days, his meditation upon rituals, journal keeping and memory. That essay in particular seems to lay out his project so completely, after all. But finishing reading and closing the book I’ve come to understand, I think, why the essayist wanted his volume to have about it the sense of a contained holding within its pages the forms of once living creatures now dead and kept as keepsakes. For though what I think of as a genre is more open ended and shifting than that expressed by the fixed certainties suggested by the title of these essays, I see that what Chris Arthur has done here is show us, in the pressing of his thoughts to paper, how the individual life takes flight each time we snatch it from the air and stamp it to the page. Each thought “stopped me in my tracks, glinting with the suggestion of meanings beyond the commonplace.”