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  • Disquiet and the Lyric Essay
  • Dawn S. Davies (bio)

If only, if only this were a narrative essay about lyric essay—and it’s not, I can’t write those things—I would say something like this, then be on my way:

Essayist John D’Agata says, “The lyric essay asks what happens when an essay begins to behave less like an essay and more like a poem.” The Seneca Review says, heavens to nerdatroid, that the lyric essay “forsakes narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation.” Judith Kitchen says that the lyric essay “suffers from an identity crisis, and that the term is applied to anything short, anything (of any length) that uses poetic language, anything (of any length) that employs the mosaic technique, anything (of any length) experimental, and, for want of a better word, anything we might dub clever.” Purdue OWL, dour as usual, warns us of the perils of it, cautions us that this “new,” hybrid form that combines poetry with essay should be taught only at the intermediate to advanced levels, hinting that we must lash ourselves to the mast when sailing past its rocky shores, holding fast to the seductive draw of such a siren song of high art. Deborah Tall and John D’Agata say that “the lyric essay does not expound, that it may merely mention,” which causes Gen Xers and ADDers like me to be like, phew, that’s a relief, because screw it, I can’t write any other way.

This is not a narrative essay.

Between us, I’m not sure I care what the lyric essay is. I just like to play with my words and find a place to quiet the disquiet of all the overwhelming, lovely things worth seeing, that by themselves mean little but when collected and measured against each other, illuminate the kind of breathtaking truth [End Page 169] we don’t often find unless we are looking for it, the poised, the base, the ethereal, the muddied, the salted, the bloodied, the cathedral full of light, the sweat-filled stadium rippling with the anemone of fans, ruminations on meat, on flowers, on game theory, or birds, or childhood memories, or accidents, or on things done on purpose.

In Lyric Essay We Use Peripheral Vision When Viewing the World and Writing about It

Once, on a country road, a bird flew through my open driver’s window and pierced the neck rest of my seat with his beak. I saw him angling in toward my face out of the corner of my eye and, without thinking, moved my head quickly to keep him from impaling my face. Feathers burst everywhere, the smell of salt and must and bird blood, the wet on my neck, my heart rushing into my throat, pulling off the road, and as stiff and tough as you think a dead bird would be, dislodging his beak from the headrest was like pulling away a bag of soft water covered in a kind of skin you don’t normally think about, bloody and blotchy and pricky and peachy gray, with feathers bent backward like a flail of broken fingers. I cradled him for a moment. He was warm in my hand, almost not dead. His eyes were open. Had I left the house even ten seconds earlier or later, or perhaps slowed for a speed bump, the bird may have realized its natural life expectancy.

A Fine Chaos

During lyric essay class, I peel an orange, the only food I can think of besides chocolate and almond and pizza that nothing rhymes with. Along with food, doodling and shaking my foot and swiveling my chair back and forth are a few of the tricks I use to help me stay focused. I am a daydreamer with a short attention span. When I sit still, I get ants in my pants that make me want to leap up and holler. When I was very young, my mother doled out Tic Tacs to get me to behave in church, my fingers walking...


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pp. 169-182
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