February 2010

Colleen Mondor

Past Perfect

Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays by Eula Biss

When you begin reading the essay collection Notes From No Manís Land by Eula Biss, you are lulled into what appears to be a history of the telephone and telephone poles in America. Biss discusses a so-called war on the poles fueled by private property rights, and allegations they appeared as urban blight. This is a comfortable, intriguing review of cultural history, and readers will find the initial pages diverting if not deeply interesting. And then, on the seventh page, Biss kicks you in the gut and unleashes the real point of her observations. She writes:

"In 1898, in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, a black man was hanged from a telephone pole. And in Weir City, Kansas. And in Brookhaven, Mississippi. And in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the hanged man was riddled with bullets."

The lists continue, the events are recounted, the dark and dangerous alternate history of telephone poles is revealed. And the reader realizes that Biss has an ulterior motive with her very innocuous-appearing collection. She has written a book about race -- only it is written in a wholly unexpected way, and thus packs a wholly unexpected punch.†

If Biss were only a careful observer, then her historical references and careful musings about the poles; the town of Buxton, Iowa; Hurricane Katrina; or reparations would be interesting unto themselves, another Americanís perspective on an always problematic aspect of our collective memory. But Biss inserts herself, and her own history, directly into these essays. She writes about jobs she has held, places she has lived, family members, living and dead. Her grandfather was a lineman who ďbroke his back when a telephone pole fellĒ; a cousin is biracial; her Caucasian mother had more than one long term relationship with an African-American. Biss is white, but her personal history and interests find her laying claim to more than one racial line. So even when she writes about a cultural or news event, such as the infamous 1999 case of a white woman who gave birth to twins via in vitro fertilization only to discover one was white and one was black, the author still spirals it around to a personal connection. She still finds a way to make the story connect to her, and through that effort, she brings it home to the reader as well.†

From New York to Mexico, from the Midwest to California, Biss ticks off geographical destinations that serve as guideposts for a journey into individual and collective understanding. She writes about her teaching jobs in the Bronx and Harlem, and the issue of education for freed slaves during Reconstruction. At a job writing for an African-American community newspaper in San Diego, the dark specter of former government programs on eugenics and race-based sterilization rears its ugly head. She writes of the gardens of Babylon and nonnative plants in California, and immigration from Mexico and urban gardens in New York City. Biss twists us around from what we think we see and know, and demands we reconsider, reconstruct, redirect. ďGraffiti is one way to claim a place you do not own,Ē she writes. ďAnd so is planting a garden. Because we are all forever in exile, or so the story goes, from the original garden.Ē†

A writer will reel at the elegance of Bissís seemingly effortless connections; a historian will be spellbound by the constant collision of past and present -- which is a historianís dream, after all. But all readers will be impressed by the ease with which we are escorted along this new trip across America, with how we see ourselves and our country with fresh eyes again. We see so many telephone poles everyday, and yet, have we ever seen them for what they once were, for how they were so casually used?†

When I was young, I believed that the arc and swoop of telephone wires along the roadway was beautiful. I believed that the telephone poles, with their transformers catching the evening sun, were glorious. I believed my father when he said, "My dad could raise a pole by himself." And I believed that the telephone itself was a miracle.

Why would any of us think differently, seeing them there, so ubiquitous, so ordinary, so deeply ingrained in our lives? How would we ever be expected to connect all of these dots, across so many miles and so many years? Why would we expect horrors of the past to bring us crashing back to the present? And yet, that is exactly what happens in No Manís Land.†

Biss has a clarity about the American experience -- it is the most stunning aspect of her collection. She sees things that the rest of miss, or worse, ignore. While occasionally the essays seem forced, or personal experience exaggerated, Biss rights herself quickly and regains the understated tone that is so effective. On the whole, she has put together something both relevant and visceral -- a collection that is more than the sum of its parts, and stirring on all counts.† †

Notes from No Manís Land: American Essays by Eula Biss
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 1555975186
208 Pages