Her essays challenge you to see—and so, to live.
Distance and Direction by Judith Kitchen. Coffee House Press, 230 pp.Hearing on Sunday of Judith Kitchen’s death, I felt a pang of loss. I’ve recently become a fan. Last June I read her Brevity essay “On the Farm,” a consideration of two archival photographs—a girl with chickens, a child with her father in a cornfield—and modeled an essay on it. And I read her celebrated essay “Blue,” a segmented lyric that moves from her father’s, mother’s, and brother’s blue eyes to her children’s to her high school geometry class. Then, in August, I read her essay collection that opens with “Blue,” Distance and Direction. It’s one of my top books of 2014.
Kitchen’s essays here verge on poetry. Moments from memory; how memory works. The world’s beauty. Her father’s image and his memory everywhere. And grief, loss, regret. Might you wish for more connective tissue? Maybe. Yet how neat to be given bright shards instead of always the mirror’s entire, dutiful brown frame too. Did Distance and Direction wholly achieve the author’s aim as art. Yes, surely. These essays make you want to be more alive yourself—to notice as much—and to write with such clarity and meaning.
Here’s a paragraph just before a space break in “Displacement”:
If it is going to rain, it will rain the cold, spiraling rain of the seacoast. Blinding rain that will wash in from the sea in a shroud of fog. The day will close down. The streets will be dark with the words of the sea, dark with the blood that has yet to be shed in a time that surely will be.
Note the rhythms, the simple diction, the precision. The passage’s culmination, that mysterious final sentence, soars beyond mortal power—streets “dark with the words of the sea” and rising to the epic grandeur and ominous mystery of those streets “dark with the blood that has yet to be shed in a time that surely will be.”
I’m most challenged by what seems within my range—the first sentence: “If it is going to rain, it will rain the cold, spiraling rain of the seacoast”—because it is made of what she has noticed. What she must have noticed in life to make that sentence. The way she saw the seacoast’s rain spiral. You must fully live, or have lived, in some specific place, to write such a sentence. You must have looked and you must have seen. She was a great noticer, or maybe magnetized, as it were, by her writing.
Here is more of Kitchen’s noticing, from “Direction”:
The train across Germany was old, with a steam engine, and it reminded me of childhood, waiting for my grandmother to come down the little flight of steps, the puff of steam escaping between the giant wheels. The East German landscape was drab, as though it were not late June, but early spring—grass only hinting at green, and everything dull and matted. Matte. That would be a good word for the landscape with its tiny stone houses and its clotted fields and the gunmetal sky that refused to acknowledge the sun. Miles of it. The backsides of towns, the way trains always peel away the privacy of any place they come to.