Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2015. 304 pages. $16.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
The subtitle to Joni Tevis’s latest essay collection—“Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse”—makes room for a disjointed gathering. “There are those wayward uncles,” it seems to say, “which pop like stray sparks from any family.” In fact, The World is on Fire collects such distant relatives as Freddie Mercury, John of Patmos, and Memphis Minnie, among others, and positions them at the place setting most appropriate for this end-time dinner theater. Their rapport, though, like the subtleties of Southern manners, is only apparent by reading between the lines.
Readers familiar with The Wet Collection (Milkweed Editions, 2012) will find the same sinewy sentences and electrifying attention to the overlooked. In both, of foremost interest is the record she is making—this artist whose website lists Joni Tevis as a band—but in her debut, the museumgoer remains secondary to the works observed. A desert pilgrim anonymous as a sandstone hoodoo, she tries “not to befoul” the places she visits.
Her second collection embraces more fully the power of character, insinuating the personal more artfully in context. A catalytic force, she reclaims an abandoned hotel’s stories by buying its keys. She flies in the face of fear by having a child. She wants desperately, as a fortune cookie promise will yield anything, and when that fails, she calls out such lies and the foolishness of believing everything you’re told. What sass! Having been hurt into fearlessness, she gives the rest of us permission too: “We’re all damaged. We all need love. So say what you want; say it again.” Preach.
This freedom of expression, though, comes with obligation. Tevis charges us to ask different questions or the same questions differently. What is it we are unwilling to see? Will we not ask more of each other, of ourselves? How about this bunch of serious goofs that comprise our society? Peeling back curtain after curtain, she reminds us that “‘apocalypse’ is a Greek word meaning ‘unveiling.’” Underneath the Sunday school lessons, inside the old Fenton factory, below the cosmetics ingredient label, the cultural narratives that shape us burn to be retooled and recast.
Organized into three acts with an overture, an intermission, and a finale, the dramatic structure calls attention to the text as a stage upon which readers project themselves. Enacting pride and passage, Tevis’s glassblower, Scissorman, loom fixer, and wilderness guide are not unlike the inhabitants of Doomtown, constructed to test the repercussions of atomic bombs. We study such figures in hopes that we might eventually “get it right” or “learn from” them. Viewfinder slides and tableau vivant bring art to life and vice versa, reflecting the larger frame in which Tevis finds herself. Nor are we mere lookers-on. Our measured distance in relation to, for instance, Miss Atomic Bomb, who “poses for photos with a cauliflower-shaped cloud basted to the front of her bathing suit,” betrays us. Have we too not wanted to become spectacular, a spectacle, “shaping our bodies to fit its form”?
Judge us not, Tevis seems to say, nor the atomic tourists who wanted this farcical queen into being. After all, she convinced her own family to vacation to Salton Sea. Created accidentally when the Colorado River, rerouted for agricultural irrigation, overflowed, the Salton Sea is an abandoned pleasure ground. It is also a metaphor among many in this book for what we bury, since its foil surface hides a locomotive as well as a number of “pumpkins,” or inert bombs. A Southern-born writer who left her hometown in search of work only to return to her native South Carolina years later, Tevis knows well the number of forgotten explosives and restless bones that have been laid by. Yet not even a metacarpal points in condemnation at an “other” from whom she is cut off.
“We All Drink from that Fiery Spring (Ode to Heavy Industry),” she reckons in Act II. Might our voices rise together like a Led Zeppelin chorus who are involved, implicated, and affected by the machinery of our lives? Bound at one time by a web of connection that unspooled from factories in the Textile Capital of the World, we were once more apparently the product of certain hands. From carpet to Apollo space suits, Dacron to fiberfill, our cultural baggage tumbled from the same turnstile. Then the mills closed. The fabric, which knitted community together for Easter egg hunts and fishing contests, now raveled. Old engines broke down, but their inner workings remained, refurbished in bit parts, rust sent on the wing.
A current of “interminable waiting” runs throughout the book. Characters wait for release, for higher bids, for eyefuls astonishing enough to prepare them to meet the God Tevis has been reading about all her life. Some even recall the hapless figures in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Heiress to the rifle fortune and its legions of murdered ghosts, Sarah Pardee Winchester is given instruction as mulish as Didi and Gogo’s following the deaths of her husband and weeks-old child. Lest the same spirits come for the widow, a psychic warns, she must build again and without cease. Her absurdist nest swells to 160 rooms, some of which are remodeled six hundred times without completing stairwells that end in ceilings or a one-story drop. Instead of “Nothing to be done,” there is overmuch. The answer to both predicaments seems to be the reclamation of agency.
Winchester reclaims hers, in Tevis’s eyes, in that she “tucked a simple lock of baby’s hair in a safe and knitted a house around it.” Tevis claims hers in the Arctic National Refuge, at a Queen concert, atop the layered bodies of a tilapia die-off. She reclaims it from middle school speakers and brimstone preachers who initiated a fearful educational trajectory. She seizes it from the sleazy clown milking a fair’s cheap heroics. She becomes, with Liberace-worthy showmanship, larger enough than life to live it. Part of that growth results from allowing herself to mourn with fury and horror the oily lakes in which her daughter can only see herself reflected poorly. Part results in being able to smile wryly at the caricatures we warrant. The rest comes from having the grace and humility to forgive what is.
This reclamation doesn’t mean that the first person dominates these essays. Far from it, but the I’s slight figure does cast the collection into fantastic relief. Whereas Winchester stands in the long and scattershot shadow of the gun industry, a marble tycoon melts a mountain of discarded glass into slags that “stretch a drip of honey into a feather.” An auctioneer teaches himself to chant by selling telephone poles on car rides with his family one essay over from the pillar of cloud issuing from the Texas City refineries. Meanwhile, Tevis slips into the diorama of Gray Fox and Opossum. In the Hall of North American Mammals at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this glassed-in narrative in miniature closes the book. Having surrounded herself throughout these essays with a thicket of demolition derby drivers, soothsayers, and rock singers, Tevis is that sly fox whose presence parts the greenbriers. Not the possum with the mischievous grin that pretends to die again and again, but the easily-missed figure that scintillates gee-whizzes, she kindles meaning, and the world blazes bright with reason for a time that can never last too long.