SOCKS, TIME, AND JIGSAW
The Best of Brevity, eds. Zoe Bossiere & Dinty W. Moore, Rose Metal Press, 2022
Reviewed by Rebekah Flowers
My maroon socks are popped up against a red popcorn bowl,
The Best of Brevity is not escapism. It runs in the opposite direction, leaning into emotional exhaustion rather than avoidance. It is piecemeal and grabby. It is filled with burrs that hook and then then let go just as quickly. I never ask myself how long the next essay will be because it will all be over in three pages or fewer. None of the authors compiled here are trying to cultivate a reader's longstanding attention. Their goal is different—to make me feel something in as short a time as possible. For this reason, the experience of reading the 84 essays one right after the other is like playing catch-up with my emotions. I barely take a breath to feel the weight of the grief, or love, or horror, or guilt, or joy before I'm back in it again. Perhaps this is more of a set-it-down-and-pick-it-back-up-again-later book, because now that I've arrived at the end, I feel like an unstable hourglass.
You may wonder: why, in that case, did you choose to read it all in one sitting? My answer: for the lone masochism of making myself as uncomfortable as possible. I picked up this book because it is so opposite to everything I usually do, and as an official "adult," I possess the unfortunate knowledge that often the most uncomfortable things are the best for you. "Confronting emotions concisely," just about sums up everything I am not. Brevity's necessitated word counts are scary—to put words in and come back with numbers. Most days, my words are too few or too many.
Meet me in person and I likely won't impress you. Most of the time, I am in the corner, quiet and turned inwards. Once I took a picture of myself to practice writing descriptions and in the photo, I looked like a broken doll, bent in all the wrong ways. One foot inched slowly forwards like a little cockroach, the only evidence I was reaching out at all. The only evidence that though I am quiet from the outside, I am bursting from within; and the only way to get it all out of me, the only proven way that I have, is to write, like sucking poison from the wound. Every time I sit down to write, the words spill out of my mouth, syrupy and long, until a large pool of molasses forms, and I never find where the syrup string ends. Eventually I force myself to stop. I leave, sticky with the residue of my own words.
I tell my students there is beauty, skill, talent in concise writing. But it feels fraudulent because I can't model it for them, even on the rare occasions when I'm speaking. Sometimes I disengage from myself during conversations and watch myself speaking from a ghostly third person, who thinks: "get to the fucking point."
But for all my words, rarely do I glance back and confront the emotional truth of what I have written or said. I want to put up my fists and fight with these essays for taking my carefully folded emotions and swelling them beyond comprehension. There is no escape, and in the resultant moments of clarity, I wonder how I can know myself at all in my usually carefully kept confusion. So, I turn back to the book for answers—to find myself in a place where writer and reader are equally exposed as raw wire, violent and bright as my maroon socks and my friend's red popcorn bowl.
A Found Essay of Brevity in Compressed Time
Down by the shore, Brown was so fucked up he dropped to his knees, then lay sideways on the sand.
Jigsaw Treasure Map
She wonders which will stick with her today. Or maybe a better question is: who is she today? It changes every hour, every minute—when the wind blows, the clock ticks, and she is altered, a wavering holograph. As she reads, she looks inside herself, and at first, all she sees is darkness. She searches harder, climbing around on blurry building blocks from childhood. Then she sees them. A constellation of pieces emerges, suspended in clear plasma, and they look like the torn pages of a treasure map. She imagines herself Indiana Jones, or maybe even Benjamin Gates from National Treasure. She reaches up for a piece and it glows suddenly when she touches it, and she sees herself as that scrap of self shows her to be—an amateur boxer, ready for the ring. She touches another, and in this one she is a scared child, afraid to show love because what if it isn't returned? As she reads, more and more of these pieces light up, and she gathers them to herself. With Danielle Geller's "Blood; Quantum," she sees herself walking through her college's museum, and stopping in front of a wall of red panels: Red Man, Full Blood, ½ Breed, ¼ Blood, 1/8 Blood, 1/16 Blood. As she watches Jenny Boully drive away from a helpless cat, she feels the full force of guilt of abandoning someone she loves. In Tessa Fontaine's "Blind Prophets of Easter Island," she picks up that love of Jacques Cousteau and fits it into the empty space for a jigsaw piece in her chest. She picks up pieces that love description, that love to be shocked, that love awe, that love breathlessness, that love the way Diane Seuss fills the word "them" with meaning, that love innovations with form, that love new ideas, the expansion of herself, the creation of new pieces. The song "Heat Waves" by Glass Animals is stuck in her head as she reads, so she picks up that piece of herself, too. She holds to herself the first time she heard it, the highway wind whipping her stinging hair into her eyes, her stepsister blasting her playlist as they drove to get weed.
She is making progress, she thinks, but she doesn't know towards what. In her head she hears her adolescent self moaning, "I don't know who I am," but she knows it is more complicated than that. She looks to the book and its map of authors to tell her who she is, but in some ways she is afraid to know. She has always been afraid to tell people how she really feels, what she actually likes and dislikes, because perhaps it will reveal something psychologically devastating about herself. She looks at the pieces in her hands and tries to work them together—surely they will fit, because all of them are so small. Sometimes the edges stitch together, and she feels a sense of relief, but as she lays out more and more she sees pieces of herself falling up ahead. She scrambles to catch them and scatters her careful piles. Now all she feels is overwhelming dread. The edges are too rough, she cannot find the border, and she is getting tired.
When the book ends, she gasps audibly. She looks to the back for answers and finds an appendix of categorizations, by subject and form. She looks for patterns—no, it is not chronological, nor is it alphabetized, but there are the animal figures that crop up all over (bears and fish and cats), the repetition of "axe" instead of ask, and how all the found essays seem to deal with violence. She looks at the pieces that she has gathered and watches others falling into the darkness and disappearing, rain into a calm pool—the miasma of herself laid bare before her. She feels simultaneously too full and too empty.
In the end she doesn't know if she's found treasure at all. She doesn't know if she's found herself. She just is—brief pieces that light up at the touch of a book.