Which of the psalms will hear the clouds as
they pass overhead, a stave of wires their nest?
What makes them beautiful? Why do they tear
themselves apart like aging stars or clocks?
Two years ago this month, I read a slender book called The Absent Therapist, by British novelist and poet, Will Eaves. It would become one of my top books of 2014 and remains, to this day, one of my bedside essential texts. This fragmentary tour through the musings and minds of a host of disembodied characters comes together to create a thoughtful, intelligent, and affecting piece of experimental fiction. It’s a book I’ve returned to often.
The Inevitable Gift Shop, released earlier this year, forms a counterpoint to The Absent Therapist, but whereas Therapist was a project of inhabitation, brief and fleeting, interjected with moments of factual or speculative distancing—the mood of Gift Shop is much more immediate, personal. The text is divided into sections of poetry and prose, with the latter, still fragmentary, moving between memoir, literary criticism, natural science, and even the occasional humorous aphorism. The result is an unclassifiable work that is welcoming, engaging, unpretentious, and wise.
When I first encountered The Absent Therapist, I was deliberately seeking experimental approaches into what I imagined would be a fictional exploration of some aspects of my life story that I wanted to write about. I had, at the time, shared little personal writing beyond this blog, which was still finding its voice. Today, I come to this new work, this curious blend of nonfiction and poetry, as a writer with a number of published pieces to his credit, from in-depth critical reviews, to essay/memoir and prose poetry. If I am a more astute and directed reader now, I feel as if this book has anticipated me, and I find myself once again encountering words that reach out to me and catch me off guard in the way that my favourite passages from its predecessor did. (My review of The Absent Therapist can be found here.)
In particular, the fragments that address the act of writing—especially in its most vulnerable form—echo concerns that continue to haunt me after a year of writing myself “out” in the world. The very first prose piece, in which Eaves shares the insecurities he felt as a late bloomer, physically and sexually, ends with this admission that I recognize so well:
Even writing this is a perilous sort of confession: I will read it over and hear a small voice piping away, an echo that is shaming, and peculiar, because its mental acoustic is also so much to be desired. Because my refuge from all kinds of strange accusation and self-doubt will be the place anterior to the page – inside of my head.
By laying himself open in the earliest pages, Eaves is setting a tone that runs through this work and pulls it together into a cohesive whole. There is something in his voice—a measure of quiet reflection, as if he is thinking aloud and inviting the reader to listen and take from it what he or she wishes without expectation—that is refreshing. In this era of the self-indulgent introspective memoir and its thinly-veiled fictional counterpart, Eaves is, by contrast, slightly self-conscious in his writing. As a result, the memories and reflections he shares take on a special intimacy and personal feel throughout this work, whether he is remembering his mother, commenting on Madame Bovary, analyzing Shakespeare’s Sonnets, musing about the nature of consciousness, or detailing the unfortunate mating habits of captive tortoises.
However, if there is a theme underlying the seemingly disparate fragments of this book, it might be the attempt to understand and capture conscious experience. A psychological imperative permeates the “conversation” that unfolds:
Something is more or less well done but it flows away from me in the doing, and when it’s finished I feel often a mild perplexity at the thing done – at the idea that it had anything to do with me in the first place. Because there is no way back into the work as it happens. Much as we rejoice in the escape from personality, we’re apt to be disconcerted by the experience of liberation – by the irretrievable oddity of what we produce. How was this written, who wrote it?
This unconventional “memoir by other means” is anchored by the poems that grace its pages. They appear like books within the larger book, islands of verse that balance a more conventional literary presentation within an experimental work. And Eaves’ discussions of poets and poetry that occur through the text enhance the experience of engaging with these poems:
Poetry, is the discipline exerted on or by words in order to summon feeling, often very painful feeling, at will. It is powerful because it recognizes that the material world, as far as humans are concerned, exits in psychological flux: no material or brute fact is an island. It survives in an atmosphere of witness…. The messiness of the world as it presents itself to creatures of emotion becomes subject to ordering, but the aim of poetic ordering is not to deny the emotion or regulate the world: it is to stabilize both in a form of words – an incantation, Thom Gunn says – that faces the entirety of the mystery, of why we are here to see and hear and locate these things in every daily particular.
The Inevitable Gift Shop, as its title (taken from the comment of the tour guide at an Icelandic greenhouse called The Garden of Eden) implies, is a collection of oddities, amusements and small treasures that reveal a deceptive depth as one browses its offerings. As a reader and writer, I suspect this is another book that I will return to time and again, fitting well alongside not only The Absent Therapist, but one of my favourite similarly eclectic collections of writerly wisdom and poetry, Breyten Breytenbach’s Intimate Stranger.
Original, undefinable and yet well worth the visit, The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves is available from CB Editions.