Reviewed by Jill Owens
Along with poetry, essays are one of Graywolf Press's great strengths. They recently published Geoff Dyer's remarkable collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, and in 2009 they published Stephen Burt's excellent Close Calls with Nonsense, an essay collection about reading contemporary poetry that was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Mark Slouka's Essays from the Nick of Time, which came out last November, was a bit overshadowed by all the holiday blockbusters, but it was one of the best books, of essays or otherwise, published last year.
Slouka is a contributing editor to Harper's magazine, where many of these essays first ran. His intelligent, honest, witty, and slightly despairing voice is a good fit for Harper's, but I think the essays are a lot more powerful when read together in the order in which they're arranged in this collection. In the introduction, Slouka describes them more accurately than I could summarize:
What are these essays about? They're about the intersection of memory and history and diction, because that is where I live as a writer. They're about America, because America is where I've spent the majority of my years. They're about how we work and how we remember and how we make sense (or not) of the things that happen to us. A number, I see, are about the losses exacted by what we've been trained to call progress, even when it's not.
More specifically, these essays range widely in topic (and time), from his 1993 "Speak, Video!", a wonderful caution against our urge to over-document our lives through videotaping that seems eerily prescient today, to his 2009 "Dehumanized," a determined and frustrated plea for the necessity of the arts for our continued humanity. Throughout, Slouka draws fascinating and unlikely connections. In one essay, he moves from Sherwood Anderson's nervous breakdown to George Bush's incessant brush-clearing to the Italian art movement Futurism. His historical essays include his personal experience as well; they are mostly collected in the first section, called "Reflections," which is an apt title. And, his political writing about the state of America, much of it under Bush, doesn't feel dated; instead, it illuminates how little most of our problems have changed.
Slouka is a delight to read, regardless of his subject. His prose is clear and forceful, his metaphors unusual and full, and his tone passionate, moving, and, at times, contrarian. This kind of intelligent argument and engagement with the world, sustained through surprising connections and conclusions, is something to cherish.
Books mentioned in this post