Gleeful and Outward Looking

Illustration for the essay, “Talent,” from Amy Leach’s “Things That Are.” (Pen-and-ink drawing by Nate Christopherson, courtesy of Milkweed Editions and the artist)

I have been reading nonstop while my hand heals since there is really nothing I can do in the studio. The body does this part all on its own which, like a stubborn child, will not be swayed by bribes, threats or entreaties. When the wound is healed the wound is healed, and not a day sooner than that. So I am digging deep into my stacks* until I am summoned back to work.

While my current rash of reading has leaned toward art, art making and a search for what is transcendent in the visual arts (which is a set of interests that may not appeal to all of my readers), I did read one book that I do believe will meld more easily with a variety of predilections and categories of interest: Things That Are, by Amy Leach. This is a slim book, but Leach is mesmerizingly gifted at pulling you into every one of her 26 quirky, brilliant and beguiling essays. Part science writing, part poetry, part literary mastery in miniature, this is a genre-defying collection. As Julian Gough put it in his Guardian review, “Leach’s writing is very much of now, when postmodernism is merely the sea we swim in, almost invisible to us. High and low cultural references snuggle up in the same paragraph. The realistic coexists with the mystic. The scientist lies down with the poet.”

Let me tempt you with a few Leachian nuggets:

Sometimes it avails to be a goat. When the grass withers away in Morocco, sheep will stumble dully along, thinking horizontal thoughts. No grass … no grass. But goats look up, start climbing trees.

Other lizards hide by crypsis, or blending in, like Neptune keeping secret among the stars until 1846. Some lizards look like leaves and some like tree trunks and some like thorns and some like beetles. The secret to crypsis is placing yourself among things you look like, but in a scene where no one will expect you, like Willie Nelson with Lithuanian peasants.

Another reason to suppose that jellyfish sense light is that they live in light, like tomato frogs and bears and grass. Even grass senses light, although slowly, while light is meaningless for tapeworms. Light sponsors its own comprehension.

There is one more passage from Gough’s review that really struck me. It helped me realize something about this book that is actually quite singular:

Many literary writers are mournful, looking inward and backward; some complain quietly to each other about digitisation, about technology, about change. But the scientists are gleefully looking outward, forward; talking to the world. As the scientists take energy from the colossal expansion of the known universe, the literary writers risk being sucked into a black hole of irrelevance. Leach connects these two worlds; one negative, one positive. That generates the current which invigorates her sentences. She is a scientifically literate, literary writer, gleeful and outward looking.

Gleeful and outward looking indeed. That’s an approach that I want to embed in the way I approach my life and my work. Leach’s book embodies that in a way that feels legitimate and authentic, in a way I hope I can model in my own way.

*Some of my readers really care about books and will ask me for titles. I’ll make it easier for them and for myself since if I don’t write these titles down here my “ran out of RAM a long time ago” memory may forget how delicious they were. So here is my recent list:

Art and Discontent: Theory at the Millennium, by Thomas McEvilley

The Art of Small Things, by Jon Mack

9.5 Theses on Art and Class, by Ben Davis

Creative Spirituality: The Way of the Artist, by Robert Wuthnow

Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, edited by Sherry Turkle

Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, by David Wojnarowicz

The Craftsman, by Richard Sennett

Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art, by Alexander Nehamas

Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, by Jane Bennett

Balancing Heaven and Earth: A Memoir of Visions, Dreams, and Realizations, by Robert A. Johnson and Jerry M. Ruh

Why We Make Things and Why it Matters: The Education of a Craftsman, by Peter Korn

Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science, and the Spiritual, by Lynn Gamwell

Paths to the Absolute, by John Golding

(A special thanks to Ted Stebbins who recommended the last two books to me, ones I would never have encountered without his help.)

4 Replies to “Gleeful and Outward Looking”

  1. My husband of 45 years died suddenly 4 years ago. I’ve made the journey through grief, but this past year I have done too much ” looking inward” which is making me a sad person. Getting in touch with my outward looking scientist self sounds like a possible antidote. Thank you, Deborah for today’s Muse, and the introduction to Amy Leach.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I felt a similar cry of yes! inside when I read this book, captured so well by Gough’s passage. Thank you for your comment Donna.

  2. Thanks Deborah once again. Anyone who would put Willie Nelson with Lithuanian Peasants has to be all good. And I have looked for Lynn Glamwell for several years and just not found the book.

  3. Great excerpts. Milkweed Press publishes some lovely books. I think my daughter needs to read Amy Leach’s book. The list of other books: much appreciated–though I haven’t had much time to read lately. 🙁

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