- A Remembrance of Things PresentThe Circus Train by Judith Kitchen
It’s impossible for me to write this review without first sharing some personal information—not so much as a disclaimer but as a window that might offer a better view. Judith Kitchen was my colleague at the State University of New York at Brockport; in fact, she was the very first person I met when my husband and I rolled into town in our gigantic U-Haul in search of a place to live and someone to help us figure out what exactly we were doing.
Judith and her husband, Stan Rubin, were in the middle of directing one of their famous summer writing workshops. They had hundreds of things to take care of and dozens of people to assist, but when we walked into Thompson Hall, they dropped everything to help us. I remember Judith sitting on the floor, her favorite spot, in one of her signature batik tunics, her loose black pants, and her Clarks sandals, shouting things at us over the noise of the room. Simultaneously, she argued back and forth with Stan about where was the best place for us to live.
It didn’t take long for Judith to become not just a colleague but a friend, though “friend” isn’t quite the right word for our relationship, which was chaotic, exuberant, intense, sometimes mercurial—in short, like a relative [End Page 183] you don’t always see eye to eye with but whom you love and respect unconditionally anyway. Her artist son, William, helped choose the color for our living room (Limerick). Our little red end table in the living room was purchased at their garage sale when they moved to Washington. A picture in our photo album shows Judith holding my infant son, Hudson, at a Rochester Red Wings baseball game. Once we fought, terribly, and then we made up and never fought again. It was like that with us: a mutual respect for each other despite decades, politics, and personalities of difference. We both loved a good argument, and one of my favorites was about our differing views of what creative nonfiction could and should be. We spent hours together at school, at her and Stan’s house over wine and cheese (I miss their big country kitchen with the Depression green painted walls), over Writers Forum dinners, discussing what “truth” meant and whether or not genre mattered more to a reader or to a writer.
A few things I quickly learned about Judith: she was extremely talented, intelligent, loyal—and extremely averse to any bullshit. Judith’s inability, her unwillingness rather, to speak or write a single word of insincerity leads me to her last published book, The Circus Train, which offers readers an honest rendering of the life of the mind at the end of a life.
I remember going to a reading in Minneapolis when I was a college student and listening to poet and essayist Bill Holm talk about the way writers tend to “burrow” into, under, and around their material. Instead of thinking of it as recycling or repeating images and ideas, Holm’s “burrowing” offers a more poetic approach that allows for echoes of repetition that I find in so much of Kitchen’s work. In her first book of essays, Only the Dance (University of South Carolina Press, 1994), one essay, “Floral Clock,” begins: “Memory is trickery” (7). In the essay “Hide-and-Go-Seek” she writes, “Is memory made of verbs? Perhaps. Verbs and adjectives. With the hindsight of memory, we paint in color and shape” (17). For Kitchen, memory is like chasing a cat that doesn’t want to be held.
Kitchen’s second essay collection, Distance and Direction (Coffeehouse Press, 2001), finds her burrowing even more deeply into the confounding issue of memory. In the essay “Still Life with Flowers” she writes, “Memory is [End Page 184] the hidden painting. Not so much a peeling back as a rising to the surface. A reenactment” (37). In “Proportion” she writes, “All the...