The Weight of Grief Goes Round and Round

By Penny Guisinger

October 1, 2021

The Weight of Grief Goes Round and Round

In Praise of Inadequate Gifts

by Tarn Wilson

Tarn Wilson’s memoir in essays, In Praise of Inadequate Gifts, has things to teach us about unusual topics. For example, the first essay teaches us about teeth. Some people’s teeth arrive on schedule and behave the way they’re supposed to, but some don’t. Teeth fall out and get lost. Teeth require nurturing and care. Teeth can disappoint. And speaking of unusual topics, the second essay teaches us about assembling circuit boards. Circuits are “Pretty striped glass beads with wires on the ends, stamped with little numbers” and “black rectangles with curved legs like centipedes.” Arranging and soldering them in place on green, plastic boards is careful work, and even when you follow the instructions you can get burned if you’re not careful. Like teeth, circuits are sleek jewels that are supposed to conform.

If these nuggets of information read like life lessons, it’s because they are, which is what allows Wilson to quietly tuck devastating life events in their midst without making those events seem out of place. Her parents split up and her mother is raped during a home invasion, and these facts are presented without sentimentality as if they are merely another imperfect tooth in a fairly average mouth or simply a badly soldered glass bead on an otherwise normal circuit board.

Wilson’s handling of traumatic events makes it seem like she randomly sprinkled them across the landscape of these essays, letting them land where they will. She makes it look easy, which is always a sure sign that it was anything but easy. Her approach has the effect of turning the instability, fear, and violence that sometimes characterized her childhood into a soundtrack that hums behind the book’s well-wrought scenes.

We come away remembering the vividness of Wilson and her sister playing the “deaf sister” game at a public pool to elicit sympathy from strangers, and our memory of the scene is bathed in the light of a long, lonely, hot summer in another new town spent trying to make the best of another bad situation. When their stepfather moves out and takes most of the furniture with him, the sisters name the large, empty living room “the aerobics room” and use it for dance routines and handstands. The good-naturedness of their efforts makes us smile in recognition, but we don’t forget why the room is empty in the first place. Wilson skillfully balances the sharing of her terrible and beautiful realities.

In Praise of Inadequate Gifts is a lesson in balancing weights and counterweights. For example, the book’s title essay, which appears last in the book, includes a story about Wilson’s eighth grade teacher, Mrs. Golder. It was the year that a classmate named Patty returned home from school to find her murdered mother’s body on the kitchen floor and also the year that Wilson’s mother was raped. When Wilson’s mother decided she needed to move the family to a new town to escape the terror, Mrs. Golder threw Wilson a small going-away party that included “a round, white cake with electric blue frosting trim and flowers.” The awkwardness of the party, the magnitude of the events surrounding it, and the empty feeling of knowing her classmates would barely register her absence is balanced against this kind offering. She calls it an inadequate gift, then reflects, “Only it wasn’t. Even then, through the fog of stunned grief, I was also profoundly, heartbreakingly touched. Not by the party, but by the gesture.” She continues:

The violence that had touched Patty and me was impersonal—and Mrs. Golder was the force of impersonal love fighting back against the broken people who had harmed us. In her action was a solidity, a grace, much larger than my awkward stance with my paper plate or the ugly blue stain of Crisco frosting on my lips. When I think back to the eighth grade, the rape of my mother, the details of that night are tattooed forever in memory. But so is Mrs. Golder’s party, an unlikely counterweight.

Throughout, Wilson is overt about her presence as the writer. In the first essay, we are made acutely aware that there’s an author at work. After thirty-two separate observations and reflections about her obsession with teeth, Wilson ventures sparingly into metawriting. “Here, I break the unwritten rules of essay writing. I’m not supposed to show you the movie camera at the edge of the scene. But I have no other way to tell you the whole story.” She goes on to share that it was only through the process of writing the essay that her obsession abated.

Maybe writing about my obsession was the equivalent of pressing my tongue over and over against my loose tooth—against what felt strange and uncomfortable and shameful. The soft skin underneath toughened, and when I finally felt brave enough, I twisted, gave a gentle tug, and my obsession released.

Again throughout, the author’s writerly self-consciousness returns, sometimes overly, sometimes subtly, but once the curtain is pulled back it never completely falls back into place. As a result, when Wilson is out running errands in the car with her abusive stepfather and he shows her a street his company had paved, we know we’re not solely talking about paving when he says, “The work’s more complicated than you’d think.”

It is complicated work to construct an effective memoir composed of multiple essays, most of which have been previously published as standalone pieces. A book like this does not present the reader with a straightforward timeline of events. Rather, there is looping back to the present expository information that was shared two essays earlier. We learn some details of Wilson’s story multiple times, as they need to be put back and ground the reader for what’s coming farther down the page. There’s a risk of annoying the reader. But that doesn’t happen with Wilson’s skillful handling of the material.

At the close of Part II, Wilson writes,

Maybe I need to believe in cycles. Night and day. Death and birth. Dirty laundry and clean. Sheets in a dryer, round and round and round. Maybe I need to believe in a larger order: the round token goes in the round hole; the shirts go with the shirts; and I fit, too, in the little cave of my life. Maybe when the weight of the grief makes me so weak I don’t know how I will walk into tomorrow, these rhythms, louder and stronger than my own, will carry me.

In Praise of Inadequate Gifts comes to us as a study in cycles and the ways the events of a life return to us again and again, going round and round and round.


In Praise of Inadequate Gifts by Tarn Wilson

Wondering Aengus Press
 $20.00 Paperback | Buy Now


GuisingerPenny Guisinger is the author of Postcards from Here. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Guernica, Solstice Literary Magazine, and others. Pushcart nominated, a Maine Literary Award winner, and a three-time notable in Best American Essays, she is the director of Iota: Conference of Short Prose and a former assistant editor at Brevity. Penny is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program.


Keywords: book review
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