The Infinitely Unending Art of Judith Kitchen

By Marilyn Bousquin

December 1, 2014

The Infinitely Unending Art of Judith Kitchen

The Circus Train by Judith Kitchen

A few years ago, as I dashed around a corner at a writing conference, I (literally) ran into Judith Kitchen. Mid-apology for my recklessness, I noticed her nametag and screamed, “You’re Judith Kitchen!” Her eyes held steady—dare I say twinkled?—as I stammered my appreciation for her work, to which she replied, with resonance, “Thank you,” then proceeded on her way, unhurried and undeterred, as if practiced in the art of pausing and reflecting without losing sight of her own course. After reading The Circus Train, I would now call this moment, right down to that—yes—twinkle, signature Kitchen.

Judith Kitchen, writer, editor, critic, and teacher, died at the age of 73 on November 6, 2014, after living with metastasized breast cancer, the subject of The Circus Train. I choose the word “living” deliberately because Kitchen’s presence—her aliveness on the page—is a swirling force behind many memorable passages in the book:

Don’t these moments disappear with you, drop off into the void? You suspect that they do—and so you write them furiously, as though you could hang on to a lifetime when, in fact, you know you can’t. Can’t ever quite add it up and make it make sense and make its sum be something—some thing—you can hand over, relieve yourself of, bequeath.

The Circus Train, a lyric meditation on mortality, is composed of three linked essays: “The Circus Train,” a novella-length essay originally published in The Georgia Review; “Coda,” in Water-Stone Review; and “In Three Parts.” Each part explores memory, time, and the question, What does a life lived amount to?

Kitchen’s organizing principle arises from her devotion to literature, in this case Beckett. “In Samuel Beckett’s Company, memory persists. A long walk up a hill, holding his mother’s hand. Until she drops it. But still, he returns to that moment, again and again. The walk. The hand.”

Joking at a reading at Ashland University this past summer, Kitchen said she fancies herself a “female Beckett.” Her method is to choose a memory to return to again and again, for example, age four, sitting in a strawberry patch, sifting dirt in her hands. “I do not remember what I was thinking, but that I was thinking. Alone with my thoughts. With the dirt and the breeze and my own sense of self that did not disappear with my mother’s call.”

Each detail of this memory becomes its own tributary worthy of exploration—“So will thought be my solace, or my curse?”—and each return to it yields more of the memory, until:

I looked up, and there it was—the little circus train winding through the valley. But was there a valley? I don’t remember that there was. … But I remember the train, far away, while I was sitting in the strawberry patch. It must have been another time, another place. But there it is: the blue and yellow and lavender cars following the tiny plume of smoke, rounding a bend, suddenly emerging from a string of trees, making its bright way across the horizon—well, not horizon, but the landscape below it, pulling the animals and acrobats and jugglers from somewhere to somewhere else. I see it so clearly, almost seventy years later, and still there is doubt because I see the house, the apricot tree, the strawberry patch, and there is no room in that scene for the little valley with its tiny chugging circus.

With this recollection, Kitchen plants the fallibility—the very unreliability—of memory, which heightens her curiosity, fuels her persistence for discovery. She writes, adopting the third person,

Memory serves her well. And yet here, caught on the brink of its own oblivion, it deserts her at a crucial moment. That train has lived in the folds of her brain for well over half a century, and only now, when she wanted to write it down, did it disappear into ripples of doubt.

Where Beckett wanes pessimistic (Kitchen quotes him: “Fail again. Fail better.”), she waxes playful—really, she can’t help herself: Remember that twinkle—abandoning herself to language, rediscovering herself in wordplay:

Windswept, windblown, downwind, wind down. Wind at my back, sword in my side, sidewinder, winding sheet, wraparound gown, wound up, simple past tense of the sound that I carry, surgical scar that confounds me day after day after uncertain day.

Before we know it she’s having fun—wait, isn’t this about death?—playing not only with language but also with literary convention, moving effortlessly from past to present to future, from first person to second to third, establishing an ebb-and-flow that extends the back-and-forth pattern she’s borrowed from Beckett—returning again and again to key memories, in search of meaning.

Her insistence that memory holds “some thing” renders the past present and integrates her selves until the distinction between her now self facing death and the myriad selves she used to be falls away: “I think of myself as still ten, still that boundless din of a girl.” The result is a serious literary romp in which the narrator becomes a shape-shifter whose savvy collapses time and tense without ever losing sight of her quest to fully realize herself.

While wordplay and bursts of lyricism drive the book as a whole, the buoyant tone of “The Circus Train” dissipates in “Coda” and “In Three Parts” as illness persists and mortality looms. “Okay, the mind plays its own tricks. So go for what is certain. As in honest. Let the rest of your life be free from fraud. Even the petty pretenses that cover your real feelings and make the day go round. If you’re bitter, be bitter, I say. If you’re blunt, be blunt.” Language becomes sustenance, a lifeline to the self in the face of death: “How do you retain a self unless in words?”

Although these three essays can stand alone, they speak to each other from different vantage points along the trajectory of a terminal illness. The ending of the memoir might be summed up by a passage that comes early in “The Circus Train”:

As she lay dying—she loves when she can make a literary allusion—she thought about what her life had meant, and in the end it didn’t add up. There was more positive than negative, more success than failure, more love than hate, but still, it didn’t add up. Not the way it does in a good novel. With insight. Or closure. And that’s the way of it—the way life goes on and on, infinitely unending.

In a grand finale of wordplay extraordinaire, the end of “In Three Parts” loops back to the beginning of “The Circus Train” and strikes a note that is as exacting as it is haunting, a note of what it means to be alive to the very the last syllable, a note of hard-won truth that reverberates with wisdom, insight, and presence.

I was struck dumb by her closing. Pierced by its final word, I burst into tears. This was before I knew that Judith Kitchen had died—I would later learn that she’d died on the very day that I wept at the final pages of The Circus Train. But her passing, invariably, casts those pages into a new light, an eternal light that “goes on and on, infinitely unending.”

In a culture that separates death from life, The Circus Train is a rare gift. A book that engages us with death through the warmth of Judith Kitchen’s supple and literary mind. Her genius to stay her course, to pause and reflect in the face of the unknown, becomes something—some thing—that can only be called signature Kitchen: A life lived to the brink of mortality, mortality nosing Kitchen back to the brink of life.

“When will she give up the narrator’s stance? Simply be. It sounds so simple. The mind at rest.”

May she rest in eternal play.


Circus Train by Judith Kitchen

$13.54 Papercover | Buy Now

About the Reviewer:

Marilyn BousquinMarilyn Bousquin is the founder of Writing Women’s Lives (TM), where she teaches women writers who are done with silence how to free their voice, claim their truth, and write their memoir stories with craft and consciousness. A graduate of Ashland University’s MFA program, Marilyn is also a certified Amherst Writers and Artists workshop leader. Her work appears in River Teeth and is forthcoming in Under the Gum Tree. Her essay “Against Memory” was named a finalist for AROHO’s Orlando Prize for Creative Nonfiction 2013. She is currently at work on a memoir titled Searching for Salt.



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