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  • Like One of Those Songs that You Can’t Get Out of Your Head
  • Dinah Lenney (bio)

The voice inside, when you find it, which can take hours or days or weeks, is not your speaking voice. It is your singing voice—except it comes out as writing.

—Louis Menand, Best American Essays 2004

He’d worked with hundreds of singers over the years…but no one touched you the way she did… living was loss, he knew that, too, and her voice confirmed it. Even at a whisper, he could hear its undertones.

—Judith Kitchen, The House on Eccles Road

So here’s my theory: Judith wanted to be a singer. Also a dancer. Also a physicist. A doctor, an architect, a designer, a four-star chef. A painter, a sculptor, an acrobat. Judith wanted it all. Would have done it all. Meant for the writing to do it all. Listen to this, her artist’s statement:

So let me call up a visual image for what I want my work to be doing: there’s a juggler in the park, wearing a red hat, and he’s tossing a knife, an orange, and three purple balls into the air, deftly catching them, passing them under his legs or behind his back, twirling and catching, then, balancing a stick with one spinning ball on the tip of his forehead, he holds the knife blade-side-up so that when the orange falls it is sliced cleanly into two [End Page 25] equal halves which he catches in both hands and holds up to the light.


So you see what I mean—but seriously, it was the music (among other things)—it was the miracle of the human voice (among other miracles) that caught Judith’s imagination again and again. I’m sure of it. But this is the thing about her being dead: I can’t ask. How I wish I’d asked. Busy as I was accepting reassurances, it never occurred to me to offer them. However, it’s so clear to me now that the singing was important—it turns up again and again in her work, not only in the fiction—not only in The House on Eccles Road (2002)—but in the essays, too, from the very beginning, as in Only the Dance (1994), where she writes: “Reba McEntire hits her high note and the voice quivers,… catches each throat-tightening moment of your past and holds it out on a platter of sound,” straight through to the end. Or most recently, in a piece titled “Tenors” (posthumously published in the Harvard Review) in which Judith says of a singer and his song: “It is joy, fed at the back of the throat, a note elusive as its source.”

But the essay that I want to talk about here? My favorite—or one of them, anyway—because it’s wise, hilarious, confessional, astonishingly resonant—is “Proportion” from Distance and Direction, her second collection, published in 2001.

“Proportion,” the second-to-last piece in the book, is also its last real essay, only followed by “Red”—and “Red” is a prose poem, I’d say; a punctuation mark on the whole, for symmetry’s sake, “Red” preceded by “Blue” (with which she opens the collection), and “Green,” and “Yellow,” and “White,” and “Black”—the colors spaced at irregular intervals throughout, giving hue to what comes before or after. Well, and this is Judith all over, too—I’m wanting to talk about sound, as if Distance and Direction were orchestrated, which it is; but it’s curated, too, a gallery of places and relationships revisited. Judith intended, she wrote in her preface, to get at “the way memory works through and within landscape.” Memory—another of her preoccupations—memory and time. And yet: one of the reasons I love “Proportion”? It underscores her great and determined attentiveness—her ability to express her vulnerability not only in the moment before but in the now.

The essay starts this way: “Sing Loo, Miss Witzel commanded, shaping the sound into one round flute.” From there, Judith goes on to explain that [End Page 26] she could...


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