That Feminine “I”
“How could the light have been that different?” asks the narrator in Rachel Jamison Webster’s “Widowed,” comparing her memory of an incandescent moment with a camera’s cold rendering years later. In the face of the video, “all hard lines and ordinary,” she muses, “this is the fear, isn’t it, that in our perceptions, in our feelings, we are really alone.”
How can we trust what we see? The question arises time and again in this portfolio, among essays mostly by women, all displaced in some fundamental way.
The narrator of Sharon Dolin’s “Strangers on a Train” compares herself to Hitchcock’s bespectacled female characters, whose near-sightedness becomes metaphor in the director’s tableau to the extent that Miriam, the “bitchy wife,” can be read as a participant in her own murder. “Perhaps there is something just as American about being stalked or being on the run for one’s life as there is about Mt. Rushmore or the Jefferson Memorial,” Dolin states, and, after relating several of her own such experiences, must resist the temptation to question her own clear-sightedness. The urge to abnegate her own perception is strong, though she proves stronger.
These narrators see clearly, confidently, until a wink in their own consciousness displaces them, like the camera in Hannah Kittle’s video essay “Grandma’s Basement,” whose “aperture, open momentarily in accommodation for rushing light, closes and begins to draw with the accompaniment of the luminescence that hurried through only milliseconds before.” Kittle’s narrator collects and confines moments because she knows, when the light is gone, we question what was real to us. Whether she knew grief, love, or fear in the space of that opening, a certain narrator, especially that feminine “I,” will wonder at the legitimacy of her own subjectivity. Constantly, she fends off doubt.
As Kurt Kaswell states in “The Great Divide,” a piece on the Tao of bicycle trekking, “It’s not easy, shaking off a world-weariness you spent most of your life taking on. It doesn’t just vanish with a good ride and a good swim, with a little humor and a sweep of stars across the night. It comes back to you, and it comes back to you, and it comes back to you again.” These narrators try to drop the lenses culture puts before their eyes and really see. They search for a relationship between landscape and soul. They come back to themselves, and back to themselves again.
In “Foreign,” by Linda Frazee Baker, we meet a woman living in Germany, stripped of her familiar California culture, jarred into an uncanny recognition of her own inherited traits in the locals who shun her. She grasps for any sense of identity, wondering of her late grandmother, “If she who hated all things German was herself what she despised, then what was I?”
The dislocations layer up over time: a moment, a life, a generation, until we are left with only a stubborn will tethering us to our own experience. These narrators are survivors, clawing forward with sublime tenacity. Perhaps the seventeen-year-old in Julianna Piccillo’s “Red Lipstick” speaks for them all.
“How strange the world was turning out to be,” Piccillo’s narrator notes, looking down at her john. Yet she knows, in the moment he toys with her, “It was his little power trip to confuse the stupid whore, to see the wheels turn behind my eyes.” Even as she plays the role he wants her in, she trusts her own vision. She intuits his needs, but hers remain hidden from him, and the reader, until such time as she chooses to explore them.
In both their withholdings and their revelations, these narrators wield power.