An Arch Under the Instep: Sven Birkertsʼ The Other Walk

Amy Wright

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Minneapolis, MN: Gray Wolf Press, 2011. 175 pages. $15.00
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Readers of Sven Birkertsʼ Editorʼs Notes in AGNI will be familiar with the value he places on contemplation. Whether his subject is the Jeopardy face-off between man and machine or cyber-fantasia, he studies it with a mode of thought often associated with religious orders. Birkerts established his reputation by questioning our deep reading sensibility in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. This 1994 text fears a digital mind-warping metamorphosis could send the literary eye wayward as a stray cursor. In his ninth and most recent collection The Other Walk: Essays, he continues to make a case for focus, but by making a “right instead of left” on his habitual walk, illustrating that attention transcends media.

Reading continues to be his subject—but his text is the stuff of life, including such things-in-themselves as “Cup,” “Ladder,” and “Lighter.” As emblems of the common, these forty-five short ruminations take on a timeless, universal quality. One might lift a page anywhere and find affinity, as in “Magda,” an essay named after the woman with an unforgettable name that Birkerts has the embarrassment of forgetting. Or, one might open to “The German Poet,” which reflects on poetryʼs power to assure us at least temporarily “that being, consciousness, is not for nothing.” Birkerts looks so closely at the inmost levels of experience he reveals the structural integrity we have in common.

In “Starbucks,” for instance, another regular irritates him with her blustery arrangement of the newspaper. He sees her in garish makeup spilling parcels several times a week. They interacted once. She asked if he was going to do the crossword in his newspaper. He answered her with such abrupt dismissal she never engaged him again. When he overhears her in conversation a year and many judgmental irritations later, its nuance of political understanding causes him to realize he underestimated her. Pettiness could crush humanity, he demonstrates, if not for its power to reveal us.

Birkertsʼ perception is so deft it recalls Annie Dillard stalking Roanoke waterways for muskrats. For decades this human nature data-gatherer has been scrutinizing the pinned butterflies of modern poetry, twentieth-century literature, and American fiction. Years of close reading practiced him to net winged daily specimens. In “Coffee,” he realizes that a clean-shaven stranger has been listening in on his conversation with his friend G. Once aware of “this monitoring,” he says: “I could feel the performing self stir to life. . . . We had only a split-second meeting of the eyes, but I saw it all.” This degree of self-awareness is a boon to other attentive readers. Like good conversation about a favorite text, it communicates unforeseen intimacies.

Birkertsʼ penultimate essay “Walden” connects him geographically to Thoreauʼs Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts and psychically to that writer who distinguishes walkers as a breed of “holy-landers” who can appreciate the art of perambulation. The “other” walk in his title alludes to the “genius . . . for sauntering” Thoreau describes in his essay “Walking.” Birkerts admits near the end of the collection that he had to make his way toward this mode. He spent many years in an anxiety-driven quest to arrive at some station in life, but over the years his pace slowed and his notice deepened. These essays benefit from that exchange of progress for absorption in his surroundings.

Birkerts traverses ground without forcing it to summit. One day, driving the same route home from work as usual, he decides “who knows why” to give money to the man positioned at the red light at River and Memorial. Another day, equally without explanation, he disappoints him, although the manʼs face reflects no judgment, nor self-pity nor pride. Make of such neutrality what you will, reader. Meaning is inherent in the accounting or it is nothing. Birkertsʼ style invites companionship without asking it, as he did not ask his daughter Mara to keep his morning ritual with him for “many seasons” though she did.

The surprise of this collection—although Thoreauvian references put one on the ready—is its mystic undercurrent. Witness this summer afternoon from “Points of Sail”:

I felt come over me, gradually, the clearest and sweetest melancholy. It was as if I had suddenly moved out of myself, pulling away and rising like some insect that has left its transparent shell stuck to the branch of a tree. I was in my body, aware of everything around me, but I was above it at the same time. It was as if the needle on the balance had drawn up completely straight; the string I plucked was exactly in tune.

Birkerts earns this cosmic scene by laying down a careful trail of field notes beforehand. He offers so much access to life inside his brown loafers, readers grow willing to follow him anywhere, curious where this departure from the everyday will lead. A conscientious traveler, he never finishes arriving. In the next passage his son Liamʼs red sail disappears from the horizon. The same steady eye reflects on his near drowning that has shined on bag ladies and Barcelona. They share the fundamental insight the pale, wide-eyed boy brings close: “We know nothing.” There is no hierarchy to what is. The only danger is that a walker might outpace herself for some destination or attempt at meaning, overlooking the succession of sidewalk, cobblestones, beach grass, pavement. Better to query texture, the sounds of moments, for the book of the world has no end and no beginning but in stories compressed from a vast network of consciousness.

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