This is the third installment of our series of web interviews with The Southern Review contributors.
Carrie Brown’s essay “The Art of Losing: A Letter to My New Colleagues at Deerfield Academy” appears in the winter 2016 issue. You can listen to an excerpt of it here. Interview conducted and condensed by The Southern Review/LSU Press marketing intern Megan Feifer.
Megan Feifer: In the last section of “The Art of Losing: A Letter to My New Colleagues at Deerfield Academy” you write: “In our new house, the things of the world will rearrange themselves into new tableaux, new demonstrations teaching us how to love the world.” Can you tell us about the newness of life for you since you wrote this letter?
Carrie Brown: In Cynthia Ozick’s essay “The Shock of Teapots,” she writes, “This is what travelers discover: that when you sever the links of normality and its claims, when you break off from the quotidian, it is the teapots that truly shock. Nothing is so awesomely unfamiliar as the familiar that discloses itself at the end of a journey. Nothing shakes the heart so much as meeting—far, far away—what you last met at home. Some say travelers are informal anthropologists. But it is ontology—the investigation of the nature of being—that travelers do. Call it the flooding-in of the real.”
That phrase—“the flooding-in of the real”—describes exactly what I have felt in the months since our departure from Virginia. What seemed vital to us as we were leaving Sweet Briar was the past—every object we packed, every encounter, every walk seemed to speak to us of the past. At Deerfield, perhaps because we have no past here, it is the power of the present I feel most fully: the changing quality of the light from morning to night and season to season over the marsh across the street from our house; the nearby presence of the rivers—the Connecticut and the Deerfield—in whose fork we live, and which overflow their banks after high rains, flooding the fields, huge mirrors for the sky. These things are new to us, and we take them in like travelers trying to understand where they find themselves.
Yet the familiar is equally arresting. The business of reassembling the contents of our household in a new place has been like piecing together something broken into many shards. It is impossible to reconstruct the original object—too many pieces have been lost, the form is not the same—so instead the fragments are rearranged to make a new shape. Seeing familiar objects in unfamiliar tableaux—a table, a lamp, and a bowl, for instance, keeping unusual company with one another—still gives me a jolt of surprise, even after several months. (How long does it take before something becomes so familiar that one ceases to see it?)
When we left Sweet Briar, I saw things with the intensity of someone who knows she is leaving. Everything shimmered with our history there. At Deerfield, I am a traveler, and every view, every object—familiar or new—even the observation of the day’s quotidian rituals—making tea, brushing one’s teeth and gazing at oneself in the mirror—has the power, as Ozick says, to “shock.”
MF: Throughout the process of packing and readying yourself for leaving, you intimately describe how “. . . the past [begins] speaking, a babble of voices, light out of the dark.” When you started the letter did you imagine that writing it would result in this deeper meditation on time, memory, and loss?
CB: When I began writing the essay, I did so in the grip of pure feeling, in the grief we felt over our departure. I wrote only to catalog the itinerary of that departure, as a diarist might record the day’s weather and what is had for supper and what work is done or friends seen. To write down the experience of those last days and weeks was to preserve them, and I had the sense of wanting to do that. That is to say: I was not writing purposefully at a thematic level but was impelled only by feeling, by the urgent desire to say what had happened, and to describe how we made our way through what we understood to be our remaining time in that place. I was if not stopping time then trying to slow it down. But writing is necessarily an act of consideration and reflection, and eventually those feelings became organized in my mind around exactly the forces you name—time, memory, and loss—forces that act upon all of us. Gradually the storm of feeling was given shape and thereby became artful. (As V. S. Pritchett said, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”) Though the essay is a personal one, in which I describe something particular to me and my life, I began in it to look outside my own experience; that’s something else that happens when we write, I think—we make connections that bind us up into the human community more fully. We begin to ask questions that allow us to place ourselves and our experiences in a larger context.
MF: In the letter you reference several examples of ritual and memorialization. For example, you talk about the ceremony of “present[ing] daisies at Daisy’s feet” and the tradition of “artful relation” practiced in vanitas art. Do you see your letter as engaging in similar forms of ritual and memorialization?
CB: Interesting question. Letters are—in themselves—a kind of ritualistic practice, I suppose. We begin with a salutation, we offer information or express emotions or thoughts, we close with our name and some expression of feeling—love, regret, in sympathy, with gratitude, etc. Like a ritual with many stages, letters often belong in a sequence, too—they are exchanged and go back and forth and form a conversation. Absent the conceit of the letter, the essay would be less intimate, I suppose; I began with the notion of an audience (something I never do as a fiction writer), and I was aware when writing it of leaning toward those listeners with a kind of familiarity, even though they were strangers. Also, the essay is a kind of obituary to a time and place; in that way it is an act of memorializing.
MF: You conclude that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master. . . . But if there is an art to it, I wish someone would tell me what it is.” What have you learned about losing? Is it really an art one can master? What has this experience clarified for you in terms of loss?
CB: The experience of loss takes place at many levels—emotional, psychological, and absolutely physically. The body knows something has been lost and says so in its own language. Is there an art to losing? And is it an art that can be mastered? I suppose writing about something one has lost is part of the art of it. Certainly there’s an art to surviving loss, I think. (One hopes to do it gracefully.) The experience of being severed from a place I loved and where I felt at home has made me more aware of the strange human capacity to merge—and to want to merge—with a physical landscape in a way that is almost bodily. The human story is rich with myth about the ways the physical world is alive—trees and rocks and rivers run through with intention and identity, presences we can feel around us. When I walk around Deerfield now I am aware — perhaps in a way I might not have been before—of who preceded me here, of what the trees have seen, and of some speechless connection between the physical landscape and the human world.
MF: According to the Sweet Briar English Department website you are returning to the college to resume your position of Banister Writer-in-Residence. Congratulations! How does this make you feel? What are some of your reflections as you begin packing up, once again, and readying yourself for a return?
CB: The college’s ability to recover from the blow dealt to it by the effort to close it has been nothing short of miraculous. We never imagined that we would be able to return, and we are very glad to be going home. Since learning we could return, I have been thinking about the Deerfield community, the early settlers here who tried—on several occasions—to establish themselves here, the bloody contests between those who wanted to stake their claim to this particular part of the Connecticut River Valley. We do not easily relinquish our hold on a place. Preserved in one of the museums here is a door scored with hatchet marks from one of the battles between the Native Americans in the area and the settlers. In the cemetery is a mound, the burial site of those who lost their lives because they wanted to stay. The urge to stay is at least as powerful as the urge to go.
Carrie Brown is the author of seven novels, mostly recently The Last First Day and The Stargazer’s Sister, as well as a collection of stories, The House on Belle Isle. The recipient of numerous awards, she lives in Massachusetts with her husband, the novelist John Gregory Brown, where she is the Wilson Fellow at Deerfield Academy.
Megan Feifer is a doctoral candidate in English with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. She received her MA from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee in English (Modern Studies). Her teaching and research interests include Afro-Caribbean diasporas in the U.S. and postcolonial literatures and theories. She is the cofounder and president of the Edwidge Danticat Society and volunteers with the organization Other Worlds.