On the Shelf
Still No Word From You: Notes in the Margin
By Peter Orner
Catapult: 320 pages, $26
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About halfway through “Still No Word From You: Notes in the Margin,” Peter Orner invokes Terrance Hayes’ “To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation With the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight.” By this point we know enough about what we’ve been reading to recognize the parallels between Orner’s project and Hayes’ work of biography-as-criticism-as-autobiography. Like its predecessor collection “Am I Alone Here?,” a 2016 finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, “Still No Word From You” is a book of conversations: Orner in dialogue with other books, Orner in dialogue with himself.
Hayes’ work is “part homage, part reckoning, part collection of stray intimate details,” Orner writes, “… notes for a future biographer, but his method seems to me the only honest way of trying to construct an actual life on the page. A gathering of fragments. Of the stories that get told about us. Of the stories we told. Unordered, like our thoughts in any given day we lived.” I’m not stretching when I suggest Orner is doing something similar.
“Still No Word From You” looks at its author’s life through the lens of reading: memoir as daybook, as it were. In 107 short essays or chapters (some just a paragraph), Orner shapeshifts and time travels. For him, the most resonant works are often the most difficult to pin down — works such as Bernadette Mayer’s magnificent “Midwinter Day,” a book-length poem in which the poet records a day in the life of her family (“there’s breakfast, a trip to the library, lunch, dancing around the kitchen, making drawings, reading out loud, squeezed-in sex while the kids are at last asleep, toys on the floor, dreaming”) while capturing her own “fiercely individual consciousness across the seconds, minutes, hours of December 22, 1978.”
It’s the double vision here that matters; like the author he chooses to write about, Orner occupies a couple of perspectives at once. He’s reading “Midwinter Day” because he is apart from his wife and kids, after some sort of — the details are not specified — domestic spat. “I’m still sitting here in West Lebanon,” he laments. “My own family is at home across the Connecticut River and everything I’ve squandered encloses me like a fist.” The mundanity of both Mayer’s day at home and Orner’s day away resonate with one another, creating a sense of fusion, or at least of sympathy. Orner makes the point explicit in the next short essay, which recalls an afternoon in Bolinas, his own kid at last asleep and he and his wife in the bedroom: “Upstairs you said I was dawdling,” he recollects. “You said, let’s get the show on the road. Any second, she’s going to wail —”
This, of course, is what readers do; we look for echoes and reflections, for the image of ourselves. I’m doing it right now in writing this review, my copy of “Still No Word From You” marked up with my notes in the margin. Through these offhand and often fragmentary anecdotes, I not only see familiar experiences— the distant father, the friends lost or dead or in trouble, the pleasures of raising children — but also, in some sense, inhabit them anew. This review represents its own set of notes, its own account, a set of observations on how reading (mine and Orner’s) intertwines with all the other stuff of life. Orner’s style of reading is, in this way, contagious.
On occasion, it can also become a little much. If reading is connective it can also be distancing, separating us from others as we withdraw inside our heads. Orner, however, is well aware of this contradiction. Visiting with a friend who has seen a man beaten to death on a San Francisco sidewalk, he is upbraided for invoking Isaac Babel: “Do you ever stop?” the friend asks. “Don’t you get tired of yourself?” The answer is: Yes, absolutely. That is an essential tension of the book.
“I keep threatening (to myself) to stop talking, remembering, describing, repeating, feeding off other people’s works, whatever it is I’m doing,” Orner confides. “Let a kid in a poem wait beside his mother. How rare to just shut up?” And yet he cannot resist.
Couldn’t the same be said of remembering — that it is instinctual, unbidden? “Still No Word From You” is a book of memory if it is anything at all. We meet Orner’s grandparents and parents, his brother and a host of lovers and relations. We see his mother age, his father die. “Absence, too, of course is weight,” he notes. “The ultimate weight. Maybe this is why we always return to the things, even the smallest things that outlast our people.”
Such small things include these essays, which are palm-of-the-hand stories, really: a page here, two or three there, bits and pieces, an instant or a parting glance. It reminds me of Kafka, who is a ghostly presence in the book, first in a riff on his skill as a reader and later in a reference to “the conversation slips” he “wrote during his last months because he could no longer speak.” Think about that: Kafka never gave up on language, even when it gave up on him. “Why is any of this important?” Orner asks. Maybe because, as he keeps insisting, these little moments, these passing seconds, are the only ones we have.
Ulin is a former books editor and books critic for The Times.
This story originally appeared on LATimes