Table of Contents




Nicole McCarthy, A Summoning, Heavy Feather Review, 2022

Reviewed by Jesi Buell

[Review Guidelines]

We can live and linger forever inside a frame.

A Summoning is built around the conceit of a house as the physical manifestation of memory. Throughout the book, McCarthy explores how we try to preserve our lives in things—in our homes, our books, our pictures. In one scene, her husband is taking pictures of them, wanting to relive moments he missed while he was away on deployment. There is a futility in trying to hold life 'inside a frame,' whether in a photo or walls. While we might try to capture a remembrance, we can only ever summon it, a semblance of it, through these approximations.

McCarthy uses a common convention in creative nonfiction books where the writer has a personal passage and then a scholarly-type passage that expounds upon the main theme of the previous passage and the process repeats. In this case, these 'educational' passages center around memory, from scientific understandings to its roots in mythology. These sections are some of the most successful. While drier in tone, McCarthy does an incredible job blending the informational with the emotional and creates a strong foundation for affective or sentimental attachment to the rest of her story.

Where the author departs from convention is how she uses hybridity and different forms to explore how a life's story is captured, recapitulated, or stored. There are images interwoven with text throughout, mainly blueprints that become structure for the poems they contain. McCarthy attempts to mirror the physical act of recall through text, too. At different points, she includes several pages of the same memory, altered and overlapping, to illustrate how a story changes in iteration. This technique shows how a minute change causes a significant difference in the understanding of a story.

For years my body belonged to his body—my hair, my tongue, the valley between my hips, the freckle behind my knee—his for occasional devotion, for revision, for relief, for perception, for sound and silence, for abuse.

Violence and loss are pervasive in these pages. Trauma seems to either take memories away or to embed them deeper into the psyche. We see most misfortune stem from the narrator's relationships, primarily with men. Different male characters interact with memories, both their own and the narrators, which scar or gaslight or disappear. The narrator acknowledges the complexity of these relationships alongside Interference Theory, which states that "[t]here is nothing to protect us from false or misleading memories being planted by others or by ourselves." She is conscious that her own understanding might be flawed and even wrong, but that doesn't prevent these recollections from haunting her. The reader can't help but ask what is real when memory is malleable.

The struggle centered in this work is that people try to make something impermanent permanent. We build a monument, a home for our memories, and we live in them and find comfort there, even in our trauma. McCarthy makes it clear that memory isn't something stored away in an attic. It is performative; we set it to "music and meter" and we try to remember our memories through words, music, film, and movement. Yet, McCarthy quotes Plato, who thought writing was not "the potion for remembering, but for reminding." We build things to house our stories, which in turn become our selves. We embody our memories or lose them and, at the same time, we know that memory is changed by our unstable and changing brain and by an unstable and changing understanding of the world around us. Our relationship to a specific memory affects how we interact or perform with others, but it is always evolving and it is only a shade of the actual occurrence. People devote so much time and so much energy to creating, to remembering. McCarthy would say we devote so much to memory because in those spaces, in their depths, is where we find a kernel of recognition, where we can summon something close to a home.