Bathing (Again) at 9600 Feet

By Jill Christman

September 2, 2020

Bathing (Again) at 9600 Feet

Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children by Kathryn Winogard

Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children has a sub-subtitle that appears only on the title page: Essays from 9600 feet, an ascension to yet another layer, so Winograd. I will begin at that altitude, in the Colorado cabin Winograd built with her husband Leonard—who features frequently in these pages as voice of reason, asker of crucial questions (“Where are the bees?”), cracker of jokes, watcher of sky, and bearer of arachnid mercy in the form of an oft-used spider jar. The Winograds live in the suburbs of Denver, but they built their mountain cabin in 2005 to—sometimes—escape:

I came to these 40 acres parceled out of an abandoned high meadow cattle ranch thinking it refuge from the worlds I had no control over, a sanctuary like the Ohio farm my mother and father bought almost unseen, climbing into it over a graveyard fence more than 40 years ago. Instead, I found this place to be the center of everything, found that one cannot migrate out of this world but must confront it and learn to decipher and accept the metaphors it gives.

This land and the cabin, in the shadow of Nipple Mountain, is more beautiful than I ever imagined. I know because I have been there. Kathryn Winograd and I met in the summer of 2008 when I joined the faculty of Ashland University’s low-residency M.F.A. and began spending many, many hours in her good and brilliant company not only in lectures, readings, and craft talks, but also, eventually, in the two-bedroom student apartment we shared. There, she would daily impress me with her discipline, passion, fleetness of foot, and appetite for popcorn. When I had a tough question—about teaching, writing, or mothering—I asked Winograd, and I can tell you: on the page and in person, she is wise and big-hearted, and she is always paying attention.

I was in the room on the Ashland campus when Winograd—who had published a book of poems, Air Into Breath (Ashland Poetry Press, 2002), and was teaching poetry in the program—read a draft of an essay that both took the air from my lungs and schooled me, a member of the creative nonfiction faculty, on the writing of an essay. When I think “lyric essay,” I think of sound, image, and language braiding together to reveal patterns and new meaning. The essay Winograd read that night, “Bathing,” appeared a few years later in her first collection of essays, Phantom Canyon: Essays of Reclamation (Conundrum Press, 2014); “Bathing” is a regular feature in my essay-writing classroom, and if you’ve never read “Bathing,” I can give you a list of reasons why you should.

In the same year Phantom Canyon was released, Winograd asked me to a literary festival in Denver, and I realized what I had to do: Accept, and then angle an invitation to the cabin. My goal? To take a bath in the tub, the bathtub, in which the narrator of “Bathing” bathes. For me, this was a literary pilgrimage—like traveling to Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst to gaze upon her tiny square writing table or making the trip to Helen Keller’s childhood home in Tuscumbia to behold the water pump where she first understood that things have words. I bounced up those winding roads with Winograd and as I sat on the closed toilet watching the water rise in the clawfoot tub, I quoted passages from “Bathing,” tracing the filaments of the intricately woven prose to the belly button of that perfect essay: “What I will not tell you is that I did not love my body enough.”

And now? Winograd, weaver of threads and singer of syntax, has done it again. In Slow Arrow, we are invited to join Winograd up on those same forty acres. Much has changed: the aspens are ill and her new neighbors (whom you will despise) have built a dam to clog the creek for a fishing hole and Winograd’s eighty-five-year-old mother, who has moved from her own beloved Ohio to Colorado to die, sometimes pays a visit. During the time when these essays are set, the fading 2010s, Winograd’s mother has reached a point in her life when she wants not to exist. She is ready to die and reminds Winograd of this fact so often it ceases to be shocking, but even she is not without a playful side. At the wolf conservation center, she jokes darkly, “Well, why don’t we just shoot ’em?” and then requests that Winograd leave that part out of the essay. Winograd writes that part down, too.

The titular essay, “Slow Arrow,” is available online, published originally by Inverted Syntax. Near the beginning, there’s one of the most extraordinary descriptions of a mushroom I’ve read in literature:

I think I have always been half-afraid of mushrooms, their abruptness of “being” after days of dampness, their bloodless pallor—a kin of clay in a litter of leaves, molded out of the rot and dankness just beneath the hinged door of our earth.

Death, beauty, and the mushroom-like barrier that grows so quickly, pushing death and beauty apart and then glomming them together. Although Winograd has staked out new land, a new home, new people, and her own twin girls, her mother’s arrival in Colorado pulls Winograd back in time and memory to their native Ohio and pushes mother and daughter into the dying game together—no matter how much each woman wishes it weren’t true.

Savoring the twelve short essays (with the prelude and the coda) in Slow Arrow, I fall under Winograd’s lyric spell, the patterns of the images and concerns clicking together, the architecture of her writing inspiring freshly drawn blueprints in my mind. As a narrator, Winograd is simultaneously impossibly tender and scarily fierce. She looks and listens with the attention of a mountain lion up a tree—and with the same patience—distilling scene, setting, and character with the kind of carefully chosen words that create discovery and poetry.

“Unearthing the ‘Frail Children’” layers the story of Winograd’s father’s death with a journey she takes to a “broken volcano named Guffy along an ancient lakebed once rife with petrified sequoia stumps and post-dinosaur insects,” dragging her cranky mother along. In the quarry, she digs down with the blade she’s provided by the paleontologists, scraping through strata, not knowing what she’ll find, excavating with the same curiosity and precision she uses to write an essay. The penultimate paragraph of “Unearthing. . .” folds the end of the quarry visit with the memory of a fossil Winograd found as a child on their family farm in Ohio; she combines the death of her father and the coming death of her mother with the image of that fossilized snail: “a doe-eyed crater of infinite light and black hole I still yearn for.”

There are moments in these essays that aren’t for the squeamish or those who prefer to look away. Winograd holds us by the scruffs of our necks and turns our faces to look, and not just once, at the dead and the dying, over and over—trees, birds, calves, fathers—until we have some chance of seeing with her. Harder yet, the essays here that fold her mother’s approaching death in with the landscape of her beloved forty acres, remind us what we already know but usually prefer not to hold in our minds: there is no good way to grow old and die, not really anyway. The body goes first, or the mind, and neither is pretty or painless.

Throughout, Winograd challenges us to be better readers, better writers, and more open: our eyes, our brains, our hearts. She wants us to pay attention, before it’s too late. We can trust Winograd to allow an essay to keep flowing, undammed, in the direction it’s determined to move, as in “Breviaries of the Ghost”:

That [Sudden Aspen Decline, killing off of trees] was what this essay was “supposed to” to be about. And then there are my children’s shoes hanging from our suburban garage rack, four thousand three hundred and twenty-three feet below Phantom Canyon in a place called Columbine Knolls, one mile from the high school where two boys in trench coats slaughtered the children I read about on the stone markers of Rebel Hill, their parents still bumping against me in the local grocery store.” Do you see how quickly words and meaning and place can change by their proximity?

Halfway in, “Breviaries of the Ghost” is tying the trees and the shoes and the shooting to the story of an addict, now dead from an overdose, who had planned to take Winograd’s poetry writing class. His mother enrolls in the class after his death and wants Winograd to judge whether his left-behind poems are any good. Look here, Winograd insists, and we lean in to listen, to really consider, the questions she lays before us:

. . . do you see how memory wills itself into the beautiful?              

                         or

If we ask our daughter, our sons, will they remember time as we do?

                                    or

Is it beauty then, or the idea of beauty now?

Winograd allows image to attach to image, language to beget language. Frequently, I think she’s gone as far as she’s going to go, and then she takes us deeper yet, as in another of my favorites, “Canyons”:

This fall, I will teach mythology at the community college: the world, and every god I think I know, turned metaphor for the uncontainable, for the essence of self, the mysteriousness that binds body to body.

            Or a daughter to a mother.

I feel as if I’m not doing this collection justice, that I’m failing to portray the sheer scope of the essays in Slow Arrow—the depth of Winograd’s contagious curiosity and generous heart in her work to understand the bodies and the land we inhabit. In these pages, we encounter hummingbirds and Hawking, pronghorns and dead stars. We learn about migration corridors and Icarus, glory holes and ghosts, public policy and motherly instinct, fracking and the theory of relativity, weaving spiders and wandering daughters, scars and quarries, the “luckless” birds incinerated in the sky above the solar farms, and the existence of more than fifty Inuit words for snow.

Here is one: krikaya—which Winograd tells us means “snow mixed with breath”—and which feels like something she is pulling off with her prose. In “Gravitational Waves and Canis Lupus,” Winograd reminds us of “our need for awe, for the mysterious, no matter how fleeting or frail.” Reaching the end of this essay, my mind full of stars and coyotes, shining and in shadow, I think how extraordinary that Winograd can show us this synthesis between scientific observation and her most intimate human relationships in words that enlarge the scope of our vision like Leonard’s homemade telescope—pointing at the sky.

It’s really something.

 

Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children by Kathryn Winograd

Saddle Road Press
 $20.00 Paperback | Buy Now

 

Jill Christman

 Jill Christman is the author of two memoirs, Darkroom: A Family Exposure & Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood, as well as essays in magazines such as Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Longreads, River Teeth, & True Story. A senior editor for River Teeth and executive producer of Indelible, she teaches in a mask at Ball State University. Find her on Twitter @jill_christman.

Keywords: book review
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