- Judith Kitchen’s Uncertainty Principle
I choose the interchapter “Uncertainty” in Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate (2012). I choose it because Judith Kitchen, like her father, was a scientist. Enough of one, anyway, to know that the moment we look directly at anything, it shifts. The mind shimmers with brevity and movement.
I would pick this one. When I was diagnosed with stage IIIC endometrial cancer, Judith called me to say, “At last I can dispense to you my otherwise useless knowledge I’ve piled up during these years of my own treatment.” Utterly kind, funny, and restrained, as usual. The two of us, exchanging the secret handshake of the Uncertainty Club forever.
Not our first secret handshake. We were of the same generation, with strikingly similar fathers. We’d written an essay together for The Great River Review, called “Your Father, My Father; Volleys,” a back-and-forth on the more amusing facets of these brilliant, eccentric, and difficult men.
Brevity. Quick, snap that one. “Mosiacs” is what Judith calls them in the introduction to In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal, the anthology of short pieces she edited with Mary Paumier Jones. This was 1999. The form felt new, not a prose-poem exactly. “A single voice,” she called it, “conveying individual experience, way beyond anecdote, a way of seeing the world, intimate without being maudlin. Private without being secret.”
So what’s new about that? Yet in the short pieces in Half in Shade, while the mind, it seems, sets out with the intent to compress, the old expectations of expansiveness are still playing in the background the way metered verse [End Page 19] played so prominently in the background of the modernist poets. Instress. Hence, its particular power. Hers, and theirs.
Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, or, in the case of her essay “Uncertainty,” 24 ways of looking at the crow of uncertainty, “its upward spirals and dives.” The first section names nothing. It’s suspended, wing shaped, “tied like a fishing fly, filament of air, filament of light, yellow halo, black depth, circling a hook.”
Each section releases the line, pulls it back: the timelessness of the first section, the dive into time in the second. “You will have to live with uncertainty,” says the doctor. So, what the mind does then is remember a long stretch of Highway 2 across northeastern Montana, a canyon, a “dilapidated shed poking its ribcage into the air”—it remembers aesthetic pleasures. Pleasures of the rib cage, the body. Better here, better Route 2, than “straight into nowhere,” she says.
The mantra, as she calls it in section 3. “Atmosphere and impression, feeling and conviction, oxygen and carbon dioxide… breathe in, breathe out, inhale, exhale, over, over, over, over, over.” Lungs struggling to breathe here. Short bursts.
Short bursts, this essay, its tour de force. A form that Judith Kitchen mastered, perfected, if not invented—in Only the Dance (1994) and in Distance and Direction (2001), its pressure to breathe into the moment, to give it all there is, conscious of, even grateful for, the limitations of the mind, the lungs, the body.
“I have been happy in this house,” begins section 4. The “nondescript white rambler” and all immediate things—tea, toys, photos, wooden boxes, the deer in the backyard. She tugs on the invisible fishing line and brings us back to the present, where her mind is. And further in, to the lung itself. What it’s shaped like, how it precisely feels when breath is hard to get. The lightness of it, but then, the heaviness of its dark interiors. There’s the word “shuttle” of air, a heavier image, more mechanical, than the light release of a filament line on a fly rod.
Breathing, here, is hard work. I see her, as she described herself to me in e-mails, walking miles within her own house, around and around, to exercise [End Page 20] her lungs and body as much as she could. We are so deep here in this essay now, into Judith’s interior, that we breathe with her. We are so far inside, finally we...