Last week I had the privilege of previewing and commenting on one of the poems in the current issue of the literary journal Prairie Schooner, now in its 83rd year. Today, it's a creative nonfiction essay which has our attention. The piece, A Grand Canyon, by Lee Zacharias, appears in the print version of the journal, and in part online at their website.
Of the four good essays in the Spring 2009 of PS which I was graciously permitted to preview, I knew immediately I was most connected to A Grand Canyon. She had me at hello, with an opening sentence that's tight, enticing and effective – and not only because it brought up something intensely personal for me, and I suspect, for many adult children juggling teenage children and the seemingly trivial wish of an aging parent.
In Zacharias's piece, it's a trip to the Grand Canyon her mother yearns for; for me, it's Williamsburg, Virginia my own mother longs to see, never mind that she's unable to handle the walking about required. Okay, I admit that's perhaps a bit like judging a book by its cover, but there you go. Yet, I can think of no better way of selecting how to spend my reading time than to find an opening line so arresting it makes a reader decide, immediately, yes, I'll spend time with that narrator, I'll follow where she leads – take me.
Zacharias opens her narrative this way:
"My mother said she always wanted to see the Grand Canyon. Actually what she said was "I always wanted to see the Grand Canyon, but I guess I'll never get there." Then the guess fell silent, the comma disappeared, she was sure she'd never get there, and the pause between the two clauses grew so short, the thought was one, desire and disappointment a single breath. She wasn't going to see the Grand Canyon before she died, and to her it surely seemed a melancholy measure of her life."
You can read a longer excerpt of the opening of the piece here.
Then, after a few paragraphs of backstory, we're off, physically and metaphorically; daughter and mother will travel to the Canyon, along with the narrator's 14-year-old son: "But the truth is I didn't really decide to take her to the Grand Canyon. One night when she began, "I always wanted...," I snapped, "I'll take you," because I never wanted to hear the rest of that sentence again."
Now here, Zacharias had entered my particular emotional territory, and the landscape in which I often travel as a writer – mothers and sons, daughter and aging parent, grandparent and grandson. Yet the truth is, Zacharias's prose is excellent all around, and her narrative style is compelling enough to pull a reader through the journey of the plot as well as the journey on the page, regardless of whether a reader shares any of her particular situational dynamics. Of course, isn't that the sweet spot of personal nonfiction, the embodiment of why people read nonfiction at all? Not because they necessarily want the narrator's story, but because they wish to find, somewhere within that story, some way to process and understand their own.
Zacharias delivers, weaving a piece rich in family dynamics and generational chasms. The questionable pairing of travel companions, grandmother and teenage grandson, begins sweetly, devolves into perhaps predictable bickering, and – once all have seen the physical Canyon – ends with the narrator's confiding a future separation between mother and son of a far greater emotional distance, with more at stake than a mother's unrequited wanderlust. There is as especially effective segment where, much later, the narrator is looking at photographs from the trip, and trying to make sense of the gaping distance to come: "Max and I should have lingered on the trail – why didn't we? My mother is fine and he is so soon to retreat from me – but the shadow is long, it's late, we're tired and hungry, it's time to move on."
In reading through Zacharias's essay and the Christiano poem, I was struck by the mirrored themes of sons growing away from their parents, as of course, all teenagers must As Zacharias puts it, "One day the love affair ends for the child, though it never does for the parent….As children always do, he grew up and became someone else, a young man I love more than anything on earth even though I will never know him in the way I once thought I knew the boy."
Prairie Schooner's managing editor James Engelhardt, had this to say about A Grand Canyon:
"Here again, families are at stake. What’s good to note, at least in passing, is how the two genres (poetry and creative nonfiction) differ in their compression. Zacharias has a lot more (dare I say it?) space in which to work. But also notice the strength of the opening and how the narrator moves so deftly through the paragraph, establishing the breadth and narrowness of the mother’s ambition (note, too, the sly alliteration of “Nashville, New Orleans, and Niagara Falls”). We get a very quick look at how the mother/daughter relationship around travel was built, but with very little commentary or judgment. And then the end of the second paragraph when we read that the Grand Canyon “was big enough to hold everything that had failed to come her way in life.”
Then the focus switches to the narrator's son and by the end of the third page (probably five or so manuscript pages) the characters are onstage and off on their adventure. As the essay moves along, I find myself nodding over the ways that Zacharias situates each tension explicitly. I mean that instead of saying that the grandmother and teenaged son bicker constantly over small things, she picks two small points: legroom and earphones. There are other conventions that Zacharias borrows from fiction besides a tight focus. She tells us that “the stark beauty of the land seemed to bode well” in a deft example of foreshadowing that seems lovely (and notice that the comment is within a visual detail) and yet ominous. Not too much later, she sketches out some of the trouble her son would have, but not on this trip.
She compresses time marvelously at different points to work us through the narrative more quickly. Every scene picks up some new aspect to the characters and their relationships. The narrator is slightly distracted, distressed, we wonder about some of her decisions, but we never lose identification with her.
At the end of the essay, Zacharias does a kind of summary that is pretty well strictly forbidden for poetry. She makes explicit that the Canyon is a metaphor for the divisions within family, and the erosion that left the Canyon AS a canyon reveals how a relationship can change and yet remain wonderful. And yet she leaves some things unsaid, and it’s the wonderful job of the reader to find the theme of Otherness that also runs through the piece, as we discover with her how each of them experiences their environment and each other as wholly different."
UPDATE: If you leave a comment here, or over on last week's post about the Roberto Christiano poem, you'll be entered in a giveaway of a year's subscription (four issues) to Prairie Schooner. (Be sure to leave an email or another way for us to contact you.) We're going to extend the contest until midnight PST on Friday, April 17. You can also order your own subscription or back issues here.