SEPTEMBER 26, 2020
JENNIFER CALKINS IS, among other things, an evolutionary biologist, and you might recognize in her creative writing, with its formal tinkering and innovation, the spirit of a scientist. Her text A Story of Witchery, a book-length narrative poem published in Les Figues Press’s TrenchArt: Material series, is introduced by Amy Gerstler as a story of “twisted clinical fictions.” A series of poetic pieces about birds, written on Wren Day, December 26, over five consecutive years, was published by Entropy and filed under creative nonfiction/essay. These Wren Day essays meander across the natural world — “As the scientists say (and I was one before and am now again)” — and the mysteries of human consciousness — “The juncos gather in my yard. The abyss is so much deeper this year. Have I drawn too close to human considerations?”
With Fugitive Assemblage, which is dually classified as fiction and poetry, interspersed with black-and-white archival photos in the public domain, and described by the Olympia, Washington-based publisher, The 3rd Thing Press, as “lyric noir,” Calkins continues her daring and precise literary experiments, applying her singular scientific method to the human condition.
Fugitive Assemblage begins with two epigraphs, one of which instructs the reader, “Do not forget you are a fugitive assemblage, a composite whose ingredients are only waiting to come apart.” And then, before we glimpse an embodied narrator, situated in the story’s setting, we get traces of thought, bits of the landscape and memory: “Cloak me in rage. Onions in the fields.” In the way this first page touches on the narrator’s family history, the California landscape, and fragments of emotion, and then asserts that “all of this is story,” it is a microcosm of the entire book. Very little happens throughout, aside from the passage of towns in the rearview mirror and the miles unwinding on the speedometer, while the concrete details that are given are jumbled with historical data and fragmentary thoughts in a way that unsettles the reader’s certainty in the reality of what is happening outside the narrator’s mind and what is “merely” her inner monologue. By the book’s end, however, what Calkins achieves is a realism of her own that lays bare grief and trauma.
A stream-of-consciousness novel, Fugitive Assemblage tells the story of the narrator’s road trip after giving birth to a stillborn baby, checking herself out of the hospital early, and driving north along the California coast with her baby’s body in the trunk. Her mind clouded by grief and wandering across time and memories sparked by the Californian scenery, she carries on with her journey until she eventually buries the body behind a gas station, many miles from home. This synopsis is straightforward, but the book’s premise is not initially clear. It is consistently clear that the narrator is on a road trip — “I jumped west, 210 to the 134 to the 101” — out of greater Los Angeles and up the coast. The fact that there’s a body in the trunk of the narrator’s car is not withheld and is referred to frequently. This reader, however, wasn’t initially sure whether the body was metaphorical — a representation of the narrator’s family history that had real lingering effects on her life, expressed symbolically through its perceived weight in her trunk.
And perhaps the body in the trunk is indeed partly a metaphor for the narrator’s past, or for her complicity with the history of inequity that plagues the California landscape: “The car was heavy bottomed, I was sure of it. The sort of weight that signals undocumented workers aboard.”
But this isn’t wholly a metaphor: the body is also real. And this, surprisingly, comes as a relief — the alternative would be crass and calloused, which is not what Calkins does. At the same time, of course, it is devastating: this is a road trip steeped in real death, with an actual body in tow. The fragmentation is not indulgent; it is an expression of the narrator’s traumatized consciousness.
In this stream, Faulknerian italics mark the slippage between phases, except Calkins shifts not in time but in modes of thought, between asides-to-self and a more declarative mode of inner speech: “each being is an accident My hunger for the ocean driving me towards the sea.”
These fragments, like bits of memory and turns of phrase that drift through one’s mind on a long drive, don’t need to be explained. The narrator doesn’t savor and analyze them so much as she is absorbed by them. The deeper and more fleeting thoughts are italicized; the more conscious and crafted thoughts, the kind that might make it into the narrator’s speech, if we saw her talking to other characters more often in this novel’s pages, are not. Yet the alternation itself lends the narrative another dimension, deepening it.
Though these stylistic choices give the novel an experimental flair, I would argue that there is a traditional plot unfolding. The dramatic structure doesn’t play out in a sequence of events external to the narrator, in which she strives toward a clearly articulated goal and is foiled by antagonistic forces; rather, it plays out in her own embodied psyche, as she gradually faces the loss of her child. The story’s climax is when it coheres in clearly articulated physical actions, when the narrator is able to tell clearly what is happening as she acts in the world:
I stared into the trunk, watching that roll of plastic. It took me a long time. There is no point to try to explain it to you. You cannot possibly know.
I stared into nothing and then I lifted it out of the car.
I held it to me; hugged, for a moment. Then I became nothing. Then I became a body again.
The impactful, terrible event in the narrator’s life has already happened; the suspense lies in the narrator’s journey toward articulating what this event was, which is to say her coming to face the reality of death, and of her own body.