- The Wet Collection
William Gass wrote that essays are always "in the act of thinking things out, feeling and finding a way . . . the mind in the marvels and miseries of its makings, in the work of the imagination, the search for form." As the literature of thought, essays encourage experimentation and playfulness, and while not every attempt meets with equal success, the essays in Joni Tevis's The Wet Collection demonstrate how prose, while meditative and purposeful, can be as lyrical as poetry. Tevis notices and pays homage to small, common things. An American flag over a casket. A pearl. Prayer. Color. Her essays vary in length from less than a page to over 20, but no topic she takes up is shortchanged. She places each idea under a magnifying class and considers it meticulously—every essay allows room for a reader's personal inquiry while still concluding with satisfactory polish. Tevis's crisp, clear images are on the border between song and dream. Her experiments do not push any of her subjects into obscurity or her reader into needless confusion; rather, she delves into meaningful rumination on every page. Tevis's essays invite a reader to think with her.
As it might in a collection of poetry, the table of contents separates the book into three distinct (numbered, but untitled) sections bookended by a prologue and epilogue. The prologue, which is also the book's title piece, opens with a scene of Tevis examining jars in which parts of animals and plants are preserved for research in the basement of a natural history museum. As she looks at dried tongues, eyeless carcasses, disconnected ears, she observes, "There is something repulsive in this, these parts taken without a whole." She pauses in her descriptions, reflects on the beauty that surrounds her, and [End Page 175] reminds herself (and her readers) that "careful study is a holy work." Tevis presents her essays like a wet collection of specimens displayed for careful study, research, fascination, and enjoyment. The variety of her short essays may seem disconnected at first, but as I read—enraptured by her vivid language and provocative thoughts—I saw how each piece contributed to a cohesive whole. There is nothing repulsive about this wet collection. The thoughts on display grapple with ideas and experience, but are not meant to shock the reader; they vie for attention only as a butterfly wing or river-smooth pebble might: with subtlety and with grace.
The first section begins with "A Field Guide to Iridescence and Memory," which again spotlights how fragments can create an intact whole. As it guides the reader through a series of images and off ers brief, poetic commentary on them, this essay demonstrates how examinations of the wild and of memory can run parallel to each other. Under the subheading "What I Want," she writes of her desires:
To know what it means to live a biblical life, uncloistered every day. This is my book of new ritual, of learning to live a prophetic life in conjunction with another. Togetherness's attraction and threat—the shared room, common air. My practice is observation. How do relationships illuminate?
With that in mind and on paper, we move forward considering biblical themes (including reinterpretations of Naaman and Jeremiah), cultural and personal myths, and how relationships can cast both light and shadow. In "Building a Funeral," Tevis describes working for a company specializing in cemetery plots and headstones, in a humorous narrative that morphs into poignant memories and realizations because of the people she works with and for. Throughout the collection, Tevis explores her relationships and her perceptions as a way to understand how people connect to each other and to the earth.
Perhaps what surprised me most about this collection is Tevis's willingness to imagine. She includes hypotheses, conjectures, and invented situations in her essays—not as fiction, but as indications of how she thinks. Without making a reader feel manipulated, without providing any reason not to trust her, Tevis launches into what might be, what could have been...