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  • No Distance, All DirectionsOn “Displacement,” from Distance and Direction
  • Lia Purpura (bio)

Judith Kitchen’s preface to Distance and Direction begins with this assertion: “The essays in my first collection, Only the Dance, were about time. These are essays of place, of distance and direction and the way memory works through and within the landscape.” There you have it: the author’s intentions, her request that we read her just so. Then the fun begins. Consider her unabashedly contradictory opening to the wonderful essay “Displacement” (in Distance and Direction): “I return again and again to find time altered” (emphasis mine). I love the simple sentence, the insistence on multiple takes, the need to prove to her persistent self that time, indeed, does keep changing. These gestures—the bold assertion at the outset of a project, followed by a contradiction unfurling into a much grander, more lyrical experiment—all pure Judith: freely roaming, curious about her own motives, in search of what’s most “real” in the elusive.

The moves that follow are highly refined. In the second paragraph of “Displacement,” she writes, “I drive past the house where I grew up just to see what color they’ve painted the shutters. Who could bear to walk inside, go up the wide stairs, turn left into my old room with its built-in drawers, and the tiny windows tucked under the eaves?” She is, indeed, in an actual place now, as promised, but one that exists only in memory, suggesting time and place are versions of a similar experience. She continues, thinking about her playmates, “Do I want to know what happened to each and every one? Better caught in mid-century amber, locked in a promise of future that takes them away from the town—diner, gas station, fruit stand, railroad tracks, Little League baseball park—into whatever awaits them.” Here, captured in miniature, [End Page 11] in brief strokes on the very first page of the essay, is Judith Kitchen’s essential approach to the lyric essay: behave boldly, court options, pose unanswerable questions—and (I’ll show in a minute) allow your deepest aesthetic drives to duke it out.

Utterly fluent in numbers and logic and reason as she was, Judith could’ve been a world-class mathematician, scientist, doctor, or economist. She also, let it be known, began her writing life as a poet. Listen to what happens, then, in the next section of the essay. She begins in the realm of the rational and measureable:

On the mountainside, it’s easy watching the incremental changes, snowmelt and sunshine, the gentle tide of alpine flowers. On level ground, spring travels north at the rate of thirteen miles a day—though who knows where I heard the saying? Driving due south, past my hometown in the Southern Tier and down through Pennsylvania, I note the town, New Buffalo, where I see forsythia in bloom. Dividing the mileage by thirteen, the answer is clear: twenty more days until spring.

And then, what follows is all lyrical explosion:

Twenty days later, there it is… yellow fountains of gauze. Color of desire, delineation of the flowing shape of all desire, wedded to April, wedding to wanting. Buds splitting the dormant hive, buzz at the tip ends of memory. Alive. We’re alive. The increments of a lifetime, brought here, to this specific season this welter of unbidden longing.

And because her subject is time, or rather, a remembered-place-as-an-expression-of-time, this meditation comes:

Where has she gone, the girl who sat on the wide front steps, waiting for the car to round the corner… where is she now, so light of heart, so full of light? April arrives with its splash of color, its overwhelming undoing of everything so carefully put away.

See how she is compelled toward the lyrical, by way of the rational? How her thinking shifts from one form of sense-making to another with such ease? [End Page 12] How both reason and lushness meet up and wrangle to reveal a wholeness of experience and how each isn’t really whole without the other? How proceeding by way of questioning doesn’t...


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pp. 11-14
Launched on MUSE
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