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  • Finding Its Way
  • Mary Swander (bio)
A Certain Arc: Essays of Finding My Way
David Hamilton
Ice Cube Press
206 Pages; Print, $19.99

David Hamilton's decades-long editorship of The Iowa Review and his position on the faculty in the University of Iowa English Department placed him in the heart of the literary circles of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the wider world of American and letters. At Iowa, Hamilton not only offered courses in everything from science writing to the essays of Montaigne, but he also became acquainted with the cast of characters teaching at the Writers' Workshop. In his privileged vantage point as editor-observer, he was a colleague of the permanent faculty—Marvin Bell, Donald Justice, Jorie Graham, Marilynne Robinson, James Alan McPherson, and more—getting to know them through personal, daily interactions without the intensity of teaching in the Workshop itself. In addition, through his work on the magazine, he interacted with an array of literary figures throughout the world.

In his new collection of essays, A Certain Arc, Hamilton gives us an opportunity to glimpse the everyday life of a dedicated teacher and editor. In "At the Fair," his best chapter in the book, Hamilton treats the reader to an experimental piece of writing that is the tour-de-force of the book. He drapes his observations of the literati—their insights, bits of gossip, and profundity—on an extended metaphor of bird watching. Just when your head becomes dizzy with a pile-up of large writer personalities, Hamilton returns to the solitude of his home study where he has hung a bird feeder in the pine tree outside his window. There the titmice fight, feed, sing for mates, and call for more seed.

Masterfully, Hamilton jump-cuts his way through a collage of moments and memories of The Iowa Review. He dips and dives through broadening allusions to pieces in the literary cannon and finally to his philosophy of editing: Why edit a magazine? Why keep at it? What is the ultimate reward? How do I teach my assistants and what do I learn from them? What creates literary trends and how much attention do we give them?

I've read so many pieces about how hard it is to write, how hard it is to overcome writers block, sell a book, and deal with editors, it was refreshing to turn the tables and get an editor's take on what jumps out of the slush pile for him, how he shapes an issue of the review, and when he might engage with an author to solicit material, fashioning the final work for publication.

There are moments in this essay, though, when the prose itself dissolves into slushy obscurity. For example, who can make sense of this sentence?

But we generally find whatever claims made beside the point once into the work, from which we emerge, far more often than not, uncertain for want of a controlling theory of value to which we had committed ourselves and that we try to avoid in hopes of being fair minded readers which, if it means anything, may mean readers at a fair and minded, that is supplied with something like a mind, by that fact.

Interestingly in contrast, some of Hamilton's best writing displays itself in his observations of nature. Here again is his titmouse:

How he hammers at his seed, clasped between his toes, his head pecking at it, his tail raising as his head hammers away, the whole of him rocking like an oil field pump, which is when Nuthatch arrives, upside down and aggressive enough to command one side of the feeder, a green-capped, mesh canister which I filled this morning and find half empty already.

As a whole, the sixty-eight page essay about editing The Iowa Review is the equivalent of a novella—too short to be a novel or memoir, too long to be a short story or essay. I longed to see this essay expanded even more, owning its rightful place, and becoming a book on its own.

Instead, Hamilton chose to create a miscellany, a...


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pp. 22-23
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