Angela the Upside-Down Girl_ by Emily Hiestand. 240 pgs. Beacon Press, 1998.
As an accomplished visual artist, poet and essayist, Emily Hiestand is a wizard of imagery, conjering reflections and simulacra with smooth moves. The essays in Angela the Upside-Down Girl are truly edifying in that they reveal the misplaced detail—what we might lose or forget because it is so familiar, and we think we know it well enough already. Shrewdly articulate, her words are fully rounded, mindful observations that create a fine detailing of the places we could call home. She has an eye for the particular that captures the brilliance in clear-cut, renderings of the places where she has left, and where she has settled. Ms. Hiestand has a short but fortuitous history of leaving, suggesting not a lack of commitment, but an appetite for adventure, and an appreciation for contrasts.
After high school I did not hesitate to migrate northward to a college of art in Philadelphia, the old city of the Atlantic Plain….How lightly to me regional borders than signified: another new world could be chosen at a graduation party, with an offhand “Sure.” Mark the logic that led four young artists to Boston: it was not New York, which Judy declared “too big,” and it was not where any of us had come from. Ours was a tiny aperture of deliberation, and yet for me to aim at Boston was to travel farther north for a permanent dwelling than anyone in my family ever had….My maternal grandmother, Frances Webb Callahan Watkins, took the news as though I were bound on the first Arctic expedition. (“Angela the Upside-Down Girl”)
The collection begins with the title essay as Ms. Hiestand begins the process of adaptation, as we all must, to change. The migration from Down South to Back East can be quite literally unsettling:
During that first year, when I was learning the cadences of New England and of adult work, my first true neighbor was…Angela. Angela the Upside-Down Girl—she was a famous stripper in a nightclub in the Combat Zone…Angela’s stage name derived from her specialty, which was to completely strip while in a headstand. Offstage and right side up, Angela was a single mother with two children…
Angela and her son instruct the author—in all seriousness and out of a deep concern and conviction about the issue of survival—that in order to meet and beat the challenges of life one must “be limber.” While there is humor in this counsel, it is, in the end, the most uncanny, uncommon, kind of wisdom. Performing one of life’s most difficult tasks—appearing naked while people are watching—and standing on one’s head, as a way of providing for herself and her two young children, is indeed a preeminent lesson in adaptation.
The book starts with Ms. Hiestand’s arrival in Boston, but before she quite moves in, we are taken back to revisit eccentric relatives and a tragi-comic upbringing in “Atom City” (Oak Ridge, Tennessee), where the “jokes about the half-life of a neutrino at our parents’ cocktail parties” were commonplace, and where bombs were made and given names like “Big Boy” and “Fat Man”—destination, Hiroshima. There were many trips to Tuscaloosa County, Alabama; “the land of my mother’s people,” where, “on the Callahan porches and in the Callahan parlors, the basic building blocks of the universe had long ago been discovered and named: it was Talk, and its constituent elements were Mama and Papa, yellow-dog Democrats, grits and red-eye gravy, and of course, God A-mighty….” (“Maps”). “Those people” are provided with a forgiving surface, a canvas, for their colorful elaboration and her preservation of a deeply cherished history. The respectful approach used here might come as a relief, perhaps even a tonic, for the reader who has felt inundated by the depiction of familial dysfunction.
…Certainly by middle age, one knows that ours is a paradoxical paradise, that all times, all lands, all selves are an alloy of scar and grace, that blight may turn to beauty and beauty to blight, like mischievous changelings teasing the stolid. Certainly we all know that our land is one supple carnival of misrule, a mesh of redemptive improbability and change. (“Watershed”)
The themes in these essays are communion, preservation, and revelation. Alienation and angst are secondary to the recognition and celebration of a kindred spirit and the land that provides the essential background strokes. A compassionate understanding and heartening perspective—a smile—is evoked from elegant description of place rather than feelings, or even the events that otherwise evoke those feelings. And it is this elucidation of the here and now which is perhaps one of the author’s greatest gift: her incredible capacity to be completely immersed in the present. She tells us what it is to simply “be.” If we have read too much of what has been done to us, Ms. Hiestand is concerned here with what is around us:
Bringing any calm into this society can only be good, but the effect of Fresh Pond is both more complex and more salutary.…Circling Fresh Pond in all seasons has immersed me in a nuanced portrait of the year, and the pond’s fable of constant change within continuity has voided several slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Here, there will be a feather on the path, a sprawl of tree limbs after a storm, the arrival of geese, the dart of a sodden creature into the woods, a murder of crows cawing over glare ice. (“Watershed”)
In addition to this presence, there is a rousing compassion that has evolved from a lifetime of careful, practiced attention. It shows up in her writing as a kind of x-ray vision, the ability to see beyond appearances to what is invisible, what is long past but still felt. Emily Hiestand is not confused. She knows her history. She sees where the human intricacies of thought, remembrance, desire, and confusion can be overlaid, like a black-lined transparency, onto what is clear and wide and slow to emerge out of that past:
An uncle or cousin would meet me at the airport and drive me through a landscape of planted fields, modern schools, thirties bungalows, and new ranch houses. We passed wash-lines hung with quilts, cola machines snugged to the shank-ends of brick motels, and for a while the road would parallel the Black Warrior River, the wide, slow tributary that joins the Tombigbee at Demopolis. The land through which we were passing first belonged, if land ever does, to the Creek and Choctaw of the Muskogee Alliance. It lies east of the Mississippi border and slightly north of Alabama’s Black Belt, the crescent of dark, alluvial soil deposited across the lower part of the state. (“Artesian”)
Then again, it can work the other way, when the needs of the present, that inelegant bent toward progress, literally and completely disguises ancient harvest from the past. Even so, her persistent inclination towards clemency doesn’t settle for the conspicuous, but persists in drawing out what is of value, what begs to be remembered:
Never, I think, would I have guessed that the shopping plaza and its hardtop parking lot were formerly a red maple swamp, distinctive acres within the larger swamp, with smatterings of rum cherries and tupelo trees, with water lilies, pickerel weed, and high-bush blueberries….(“Watershed”)
Part One of the book ends with “Hymn”, a story about race and spirit, and finding solace in spite of the difficulties and differences inherent in both. Part Two begins in North Cambridge, where Ms. Hiestand eventually settles, with “Nest,” an essay about a blue jay’s nest which “most resembles a heap of trash”—“the blue jay…is almost too adaptable.” The second essay is thus appropriately titled, “House”.
A triple-decker, for those unfamiliar with Boston’s housing stock, is an indigenous, late nineteenth-century design that stacks three identical apartments and wraps them in an envelope of shingles, porches, railings, and columns, so that the imposing front facade resembles a tiered cake or domestic temple for the American worker.
We are given, as we have come to expect, all the background—historical and architectural—and the local and international lore that has given rise to the triple-decker. We are informed, briefly and barely, that the mover, the man who actually moves her inherited feather boa up to the third floor, will eventually become her husband. The final paragraph then brings it all back to the personal—the reason, value, and significance of all this deep harvesting of information:
No opportunity was missed to put wood trim or molding around something—a recessed hutch, a mirror, a bookcase. Doors also call for moldings and that may be why there are so many doors in our triple-decker—and in such close proximity that our flat could easily serve as the set for a play that involves five or six characters darting in and out of rooms, yearning to embrace, strangle, deceive, adore, or amuse each other. (p.120)
This is the effect of the essays in Angela the Upside-Down Girl: romance and love are to be discovered in door frames and crown molding. There are many mirrors and recessed hutches adorned with molding, out of which Ms. Hiestand constructs a world, a home for the reader, then adorns and embellishes with a flourish, and it becomes a place to live, a way to be, with much brilliance and confidence. Two feet on the ground, but one is still aware of heaven. Scott Russell Sanders comes to mind (Secrets of the Universe, In Limestone Country), where the words become like an axis mundi, so that a crossroads in Ohio is not just the four corners laid out there on the earth, but an intersection from above and below, as well; a three-dimensional juncture, that has a spirit, and perhaps even an intention. There is the environmentalist in Ms. Hiestand, but in these essays, the words “they” and “them” do not signify “the enemy.”
Kathleen Norris (Dakota) uses similar spirit/place conjunctions, and who would have thought that a book about the Dakotas would be a “good read?” Or, in this case, a series of essays on North Cambridge? Angela the Upside-Down Girl is a good read, not because it takes you away, but precisely because it allows one to appreciate the here and now, whenever and wherever that may be, and because we know by now that these are not just essays about North Cambridge, or Oak Ridge Tennessee, or Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, or Fresh Pond:
Here, the eye is schooled in the play between diffuse and close, taught to count on surprise, to rely on minute things—a dark red leaf encased in ice—to unlock meaning for the metaphor loving mind. The patterns of light and shadow, thickets and tangles into which we can see but partially, the unspoken-for patches, the water surface that skates toward the horizon—all these are forms and shapes that offer possibilities for mind, ways of being. (“Watershed”)
The “dark red leaf encased in ice—to unlock meaning,” are words that allow this reader to enter into the only place worth being, a place where meaning is honored, cultivated, and revealed exquisitely. “Here,” she is saying, “here,” offering and showing something unexpected, a surprise—and literature becomes an act of civility:
Many times the message for me comes not only from the pulpit, but from Miss Callendar , who has just turned eighty. …She is reserved but kindly, and one morning discreetly slips me a tissue when she sees me dabbing my eyes. When I thank her, she whispers, “That’s what we’re here for, to help each other,” proposing an answer to life’s most pressing question in nine soft words. (“Hymn”)
Civility begins with attention, which is everything in a world that is more a barrage than a tableau. Ms. Hiestand is as skilled at a zen-like mindfulness as she is in describing what she discovers, wherever she sits. In the midst of an information and memoir overload, it occurs to me that Angela the Upside-Down Girl provides a new paradigm for literary expression as we head into a new millennium: writing as a form of civility, of reciprocity between the writer and the reader and the lives lived by both—her “church”, her choir, and ours. This would mean a change, a shift in perspective, perhaps collectively, from inward darkness to outside of ourselves, towards connection rather than alienation. Outside to a place that looks like home—where your feet are planted, your fingertips are touching, and your eyes are watching; where you find the familiar. “But as always, the familiar when closely observed reveals itself as an exotic.” (“Watershed”) Emily Hiestand does this so well.
No matter;…I had feasted with the Rose of Sharon, had been on speaking terms with the spirit. It was not only the words, each one a physical fact, each one opened up, entered into and walked around in, but the majestic juice of the sound—the sweeping river of the woman’s voice…and the going so low, so sweetly, so solidly of the male voices. There was a moan at the center.…This was more than song, this was philosophy.…the call-and-response tradition whose template must be the creative play and reciprocity in life itself. (p. 77.)
The epigraph is from Duino Elegies, by Rainer Maria Rilke: “For when a traveler returns from the mountain-slopes into the valley, he brings, not a handful of earth, unsayable to others, but instead some word he has gained….Perhaps we are here in order to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window—…” The book ends with “Neon Effects” (the story for which Ms. Hiestand won a Pushcart Prize), and appropriately, the words, “Ooouuu, la luz,” because she does indeed bring light and awe into the room, and allows the unsayable to be said, with such tender fervor.