This month, for my Appalachian reading resolution, I picked up The Long Weeping: Portrait Essays by Jessie van Eerden. Published by Orison Books last November, it had been on my wish list for a while. It’s always exciting to see a collection of essays get this much attention. It won the 2017 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award for Essays and received blurbs from the likes of Ann Pancake and Sarah Wells.
If I’m being honest, it was nice to pick up creative writing after months of historical nonfiction about Appalachia. I began this journey with Jesse Donaldson’s beautiful treatise On Homesickness and then launched myself into various histories of the region, each looking at Appalachia from a slightly different vantage point, whether it be books, politics, or chronological history. This overaching context is certainly important in my quest to reposition myself within Appalachia, but van Eerden’s essays deftly shifted my focus from the broad landscape to the raw beauty of the Appalachian people.
Van Eerden’s writing style, much like the book’s cover, reminds me of painting. Sometimes there is a blur in the words that permits movement in a way text usually can’t. Sometimes there is a layering that adds depth and shadow. It was a rare textural textual experience.
It was also spiritual. Religion is often left out of creative works. In grad school, my essays about faith were not as well received. Instead, I was pushed to write about broken relationships, gritty details, and uncomfortable truths. Van Eerden writes the difficult without removing faith. Having grown up in the church, it was refreshing to have that part of my own experience reflected back.
Her portraits also reflect the softness of memory versus the immutability of photography. Rather than invade, as the photographers did during the War on Poverty, she takes a gentler approach to portraying the likeness of her community. If “photos expose” (19), her written portraits capture essence without trapping. They have blurred edges with moments of clarity. The opening essay, “Woman with Spirits | Eliza” even discusses a War on Poverty photographer, who censored the truth with photograph titles like “Woman and Stove” and then “filed their faces under his name” (25). Van Eerden knows the woman at the stove and names her: Eliza. She fills Eliza out with the way she loved her husband, Don, and the way she gave herself up once Don died and she was forced to move from her homestead into an apartment. Van Eerden paints a true portrait that a visiting photographer, framing and cropping an unknown subject to fit his narrative, just can’t.
That essay is one of my favorite pieces in The Long Weeping because it is also a travel essay. Van Eerden connects Eliza with a trip to Moldova by braiding photography, resentment, and, interestingly enough, exorcism. Each thread speaks truth to the others. Personally, van Eerden reminds me that words have the power to capture life better than a photograph. I often find myself taking photographs to remember or share a person or a place when, sometimes, I need to let language shape those important memories for posterity.
Throughout the collection, van Eerden weaves threads through repetition of phrase. This is my favorite kind of writing: subtle, letting the readers connect the dots. By doing so, the readers also get that moment of epiphany when a term jogs their memory of a previous passage and the meanings begin to layer. One of the best instances of this comes in the essay “Cattle Guard | The Calf.” She begins with a childhood memory of riding in the back of a pickup and a calf being led by a rope tied to the truck. As they cross a cattle guard that the pickup driver forgot about, the calf’s legs get stuck. The driver fails to notice the caught calf and so the rope strains around the calf’s neck as it tries to free its legs until little van Eerden bangs on the back window of the pickup cab. A few pages later, she writes of her failing marriage, of a moment alone on cold linoleum where she tells herself, “Stop pulling—I cannot move.” There is no open tie to the calf in that moment, and yet we feel the panic of her child-self banging on the glass and the helplessness of the poor calf, stuck. The writing is striking.
The grounding feature of van Eerden’s writing throughout is the emotion. This book makes you feel. My emotional reactions weren’t necessarily tied to her characters, but rather to the people in my own life her characters evoked. She has written her people in a way that allows you to squint and see your own folk, like standing back from an impressionist work and recognizing it as somewhere you’ve been.
There is a point in her essay “Litany for the Body | C.P.” when she names where she is from and why it will always be part of her:
“For Mary Jane’s tumor, her lost leg, her chained half-mad husky, her long gravel drive lost to the pines. . . .
For legs too naked without runner-free nylons so Cindy misses on Sunday and we inquire—Home sick, her girls say and we let it be. . . .
For toes rubbed raw by the jelly shoe. . . .
For fingers on the banjo strings and untuned piano and rough moustache and stray wisps of hair.” (121–122)
This is an elegy. While van Eerden writes with a knowing longing, J. D. Vance’s attempt at an elegy misses the mark. He doesn’t know the same thirst for home. His version of longing is bent curiosity rather than a root. His true elegy is to his grandparents, not Appalachia.
I don’t know the names or faces or moments van Eerden writes of, but I can fill in my own. For Katie and Jennie in their new Easter dresses. For the sawdust smell of my father. For the pinch of the swing set down by the chicken lot. For Gene Price handing out brown paper bags of candy as children slide off Santa’s knee. For the sound of the dogs barking as we drive up the driveway. For the light gleaming through the tulip poplars as the sun sets.
This whole project, reading one Appalachian book a month, has been my attempt to find my place, to reassure myself that I’m still Appalachian, despite the fact that I have lived outside the region for nine years. In two pages of writing, van Eerden gives me that reassurance.
“I only know that this is where I learn I am not my own and that I’ll never leave this place, this tiny pocket of West Virginia. None of us will, even when we do leave, for college and the Marines and Philadelphia and New Jersey, for marriage, for divorce, for tree-trimming in Atlanta making better money than we can make here.” (121)
Her essays read like prose poems, delivering truth through light that shimmers and is hard to pin down. She captures the moments much more honestly than a photographer ever could.