Perhaps it should come as no surprise that reading a collection of lyric essays can require more concentration, more effort, than reading a collection of short stories or personal essays, and that is true of the pieces in this issue of Seneca Review. This intense hybrid genre, a form of many forms, gives rise to responses like responses to poetry—visceral, shocked, troubled, enraptured—partly because it is filled with images, juxtapositions, and gaps, yes, but partly because it depends on the frontal lobe too, the facts and footnotes of argument and persuasion, at the same time it claims the personal, the fragile and emotional.
Catherine Taylor’s “Inanimate Subjects” juxtaposes segments explaining drone warfare through the eyes of her pilot brother with segments exposing the strange magic of puppetry. “Like a puppet,” she says in a segment that joins the other two types of segment:
the drone is both an extension of the operator and an object unto itself. Something manipulated. A body with a distant mind . . . Drones have the strange appearance of autonomy found in robots, automata, and puppets . . . It leans more instrumental than performative. Or does it?
This has the look of prose, of argument, but it has the same feel as the starkest war poetry, so that the reader wants to rush away and not see what Taylor insists that we see. “Maybe this is the way love puppets us,” she says, “—the strings that attach me to my brother yanking me away from thinking further about the murky questions of the ethics of domination.” The sentences in some segments are fragments, contradictions, parallelisms of affirmation and denunciation; in other segments, they are chatty, drawn-out, explanatory. The ultimate effect is more distressing by far than either a textbook discussion of the effects of drone warfare, a novel about a fighter pilot, or a strident, sorrowful poem, because it is all three. In this piece, Taylor controls every gift the lyric essay offers her subject.
“The Lonely Hunters: A Ballad, Alphabetical” by Sonja Livingston is about two-thirds the length of “Inanimate Subjects,” but, like Taylor’s piece, it is also segmented and looks like prose, each of its twenty-six segments given a one-word title in alphabetical order. “The Lonely Hunters” deftly weaves images and information. A meditation on the TV show Ally McBeal, it remembers the soul singer Al Green, the nineteenth-century romantic poet Fiona MacLeod who was actually William Sharp, and Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, threading them all with the needle of love desired and imagined and almost, but not quite, accomplished. Livingston’s lovely piece is an energy vortex, reminding us in a spiral whirling both up and down what it feels like to want to be loved, and where in our culture we have seen that desire acted out.
But not all the pieces in this issue of Seneca Review look like prose. In “The Abstract Humanities,” Sandra Simonds tells a chilling story of an experiment gone wrong, whose echoes resonate in poetic stanzas with other attempts at control and perfection that fail miserably, as they must, though we keep trying them and hurting ourselves and others. And in “The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, Line #614” and its companion, “. . . Line 4088,” Sandra Beasley presents aphorisms and vignettes in poems that breach our objectivity:
. . . Every breath
is a child’s hand rummaging through a bag of grapes.
Your fingers and mouth grow stickier by the minute.
The jails within us keep multiplying
Not all the pieces are by women, either, though I’ve used their work as examples so far of the fierce combinatory beauty of this lyric essay issue of SR. Steve Coughlin’s “Another Life” gives us two men, “the man who is not my father” and the one who is, two strands of a braided “essay” mourning a family shattered by a brother’s mental illness and murder. It’s a short, harrowing piece. And in “Knowledge Transfer,” Piotr Gwiazda provides snapshot after snapshot of the difficulty of teaching poetry in a world dissolving in an acid crucible of unjust politics.
Each of the two dozen or so lyric essays here deserves (and requires) a careful reader’s time and attention. That this is a genre far more than the sum of its parts is without question. Seneca Review, which since its beginnings in 1970 has emphasized poetry, including translation, and which embraced the lyric essay in 1997, is to be praised for showcasing this challenging, versatile mode.