Aurelie Sheehan, Jewelry Box, BOA Editions, 2013
"I am writing a review of what I write as I write it. I am standing outside of myself..."
It's worth unpacking how apt the title Jewelry Box is for this collection of histories (fragments, memories, stories, moments). The experience of reading these is akin to that of opening a jewelry box, exploring what's inside it, which I picture as meant to be well-organized (maybe there are borders within separating the interior into small squares) but also a kind of visual chaos (the pieces overflow the partitions, spill across the borders, blend and entangle one another), creating the dual impressions of discrete pieces of beauty and also an overall assemblage not of discrete pieces but a unity. As Sheehan describes the rings in a jewelry box offered by a narrator to her daughter, "Not uniform at all, and not really very expensive, any of them, and only one or two cherished."
But the point is: the value of the jewelry is evident immediately in and of each piece—its beauty, its artistry, from rings to silver hoops to a dragonfly made in Japan (to a small bag of wisdom teeth)—but more so the value is in each piece's ghostly history, where it has been, whose it was, what resonant deep emotions (pains, joys, fears, loves) are embedded in its tiny form.
These histories can be quiet, and they can be loud. They can be momentous and they can be focused on almost overlookable interstices between such memorable moments ("A grain of sand is small but it is not nothing"). There is an energy, a humor, and a raucous charge running through these stories, building beyond itself:
Once you've been with a guy who has a big truck, there's no going back....You're sitting at a red light, and there it is, all that power underneath you, all around you, jiggling your bangles, making it hard to light a cigarette, making you have to go to the bathroom, making the poetic stares hard to maintain as you listen for the illustrative comment—once you've been there, I'd say it's like being present when a star is created, up way up where these things happen, these mysteries, these strong beautiful mysteries of destruction and creation. There you are sitting on top of the fucking star. Everything is there, everyone is there, you see it all. Everything is pure blackness. Everything is pure obliterating blissful light.
The language is supercharged, as brilliant as rare metals mined from base earth. It takes on lyrical force in places, becomes songlike and poetic in others, and can still manage the blunt directness and brevity of the everyday, of the real, of the unembroidered.
Part of the work throughout these histories is to be true, to present the beauty in these pieces, these moments, without corrupting it, letting their meaning show through without adulteration. One piece, considering a sexual fantasy involving elephants, ends with "And yet, these are only things that represent other things." This type of othering, distancing the content of these stories by making them mean but not be, is what the stories try to avoid. As another story reflects, "The problem with life is that it isn't over, that's the problem with that story." Life continues on, its meaning murky at best, but its beauty apparent.
These pieces show and explore and hold up to the light the fact "that we labor against our inability to be precise, to call into being what we experience and see." Though this observation directly connects to the work of writing, of art, it is also true about the work of understanding, the way in which the worth of all moments—this seeing, this experiencing—tends to elude us, evident but impossible to bring forth, hard to hold or show or "call into being." Like the stone placed on a table in another piece, which "had a life of its own, so to speak...[it] did not need stories..."
In places these pieces are rendered with gorgeous precision and intelligence, great care; in others, they show the hard work of revealing themselves bare, without adornment, their beauty not outer but inner, a felt thing rather than a decoration. As with the scent of smoke that should not be there, meaning is often "Just a tiny—just a fragment, a trace, a little ghost trace."
Two sisters in church taking turns gently touching each other's backs, a small shared sacrament; a dinner with an older writer and a joke-telling beautiful dessert chef; a tulip trapped in glass, which "fucking grew even after it was cut"; that which means so much in the middle of the night ("It's complete. It's beautiful. It's perfect.") but which is forgotten by morning, rendered now only by "____."
Each piece is made from compression, time rarefied and concentrated ("like being present when a star is created, up way up where these things happen, these mysteries, these strong beautiful mysteries of destruction and creation"), and also from a careful hand, working to extract from that compression the perfect light, the cut, just the right size, shape, and setting. As one speaker asks, "aren't all lives lives of art, really?" These stories explore and expose the related idea that all moments are moments "of art," and in Jewelry Box those moments are crystallized, captured in glass, enwrapped with rare metals, held close and cherished. [MS]