Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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A student recently summarized what was going on in some essay—I think it was by Didion, tucking notes into cabinet
drawers for the police to find, after—as “human versus” something, maybe “human versus
self,” though it sure felt to me like “human versus human” threatened, out at the dark edges, circling
around in unmarked panel trucks. For me, this was a line out of high school, which is where the student had picked it up,
this set of names for the possible conflicts and plots of the world, “human versus” this or that. It reminded
me of sitting in our room reading “The Most Dangerous Game” and worrying about lack of knowledge when it came
to the sometimes essential skills of setting deadly traps. I thought of this with Kim Henderson’s book, too, because
tension runs through it like a spine; this little jewel-crusted gimcrack runs on an internal dynamo of
“versus,” wound tight.
These pieces are segments along an ostensible autobiography, from childhood to adulthood, from the panics contained within a marriage to those earlier domestic scenes of comfort marred only with acute discomfort. Henderson sets each phrase down like a tile, building a monument of denial, framing the absence at the center of her language:
The two of you have sex. You feel euphoric, full, complete, all that jazz.... On the way to work the next day, he gets irritated about stopping for a scone at Starbucks because you are nauseated from taking a vitamin on an empty stomach.... While watching Bill Moyers Journal, he squeezes your knee and promises to take you for sushi, and after some initial fumbling and a belated request for ChapStick, you have sex, feel euphoric, shower together, talk about how lucky you are; it’s not so bad here....
At other points the tension is between childhood optimism (for meaning, ultimately?) and the brutal realities of the
world: our narrator thinks of Rainbow Brite as she contemplates not murder but the ways we all stand around at guardrails
and gawk as the murder begins to happen and after it’s all down to “Pink nipples and bright white skin and
bare curved against a backdrop of gray asphalt, rectangular buildings, cloudy exhaust, muddy buses and brown-splattered
license plates.” Expectations meet disappointments here. Itches burn and burn all summer. Facts are described in
relation to their alternatives, as when a good teacher is one who “didn’t throw erasers or call us names or
say this job was going nowhere.” And givens—or earneds, or chance-encountered-but-clung-tos—are things defined
as much by what they are not as by what they are. “My father’s torso was like slipping into a hard boiled
egg—the perfect cocoon. In my husband’s arms I have felt tender but not safe,” Henderson writes, in a
particularly taut piece, hitting authentic and then doing reps with it.
There is choreography worth note, the ability to hit a mark, especially when it comes to studding a line with particulars (Bill Moyers Journal, ChapStick, that flaky-hard Starbucks scone no doubt greasing through its paper) or leaving a word unsaid, a thing unnamed and thus all the more resonant (a woman is thrown off a bridge, into “some famous body of water.”). The aimlessness of youth (from snapping crayons to killing time at the periphery of adolescence) matures, in these few pages, to that other kind of, sharp-edged, aimlessness of adulthood (scrolling down a Web page for disaster statistics, “chewing my cuticles flame-red”). All the while, Henderson, offering us something raw, keeps it inflamed, refuses to reduce, nurses a grainy contempt for such reduction that the reader will find rewarding. I certainly did, not looking for some easy “human versus,” wanting more than the case-closed sense of “It was the year my brother disappeared, which should explain my behavior, according to psychology books.” Henderson makes us stare into the eyes of the theorists who run “the program for troubled kids,” and we share her narrators anger when life—the stuff of these pieces—gets zipped up in some airless bag of textbook talk. “I knew it was something different,” she writes, “some other parent-child relation between frustration and admiration and even love,” and yet at the same time, still raw, she writes, “but I also knew it was not making me into the sort of girl I wanted to be.”
Official Kim Henderson Web Site
Official Rose Metal Press Web Site