Robert Vivian meditates on unexpected subjects and presents surprising epiphanies. His lyrical essays kick at dirt and turn up gold
Essayist Robert Vivian brakes for things most people might not notice -- a sad ghost in a shabby house, the way a train whistle at night "hauls out sadness," casino regulars, roadkill, bad teeth, disabled kids playing sports, the taciturn kindness of an overseas bus driver, a daydreaming woman washing dishes, a single mom with rowdy kids at a coin laundry, a man rummaging through a trash can at a bus stop, bereaved parents trapped in "a love that is slowly killing them," people scraping by in the poor little Michigan town where he lives, the litter, weeds and bones in an old Jewish cemetery in Poland.
In Vivian's "The Least Cricket of Evening," wonder, dread and meaning lurk in unexpected moments and places. His essays are like Rumi poems, lyrical wheels of contemplation, melancholy one moment, ecstatic the next. They are pleasing to read, yet not easy to digest. It took me a month to consume this spare book, because each essay was like a plate of rich and satiating food, and I could take in only so much at a time.
Not all of the essays succeed at drawing the reader into Vivian's epiphanies. But when they do, they are indelible. In "Notes From the Konukevi" (a konukevi is a guesthouse in Turkey; Vivian stayed at one during a teaching trip), he writes of being followed down a mountain by a feral white dog, "lean and hungry-looking, with a snout like the stock of a polished Winchester." At the bottom of the mountain, he crosses a busy highway and looks back to see the dog "with one of its front paws raised as if to ask me a final question." Later, he walks back to find the dog dead on the highway, "her face ... smashed while the rest of her lean body looked perfectly intact. ... I couldn't help crying -- crying for the white dog and crying for myself and a thousand other things, crying because I had unwittingly led her to her death and because she was a white, wild and beautiful dog that never had a chance."
It is this ability to take an observation from the particular to the universal, linking the inner life with the external world, that gives Vivian's essays their strong spiritual quality. And despite his Gothic view of life, he also spills over with hope, and his epiphanies are convincing because they are based on evidence, on encounters he witnesses and kindnesses he is afforded.
The world is full of "gritty angels," he insists, and, sure enough, a day or two after putting down his book, you will spy one in a place and moment in which you might, previously, not even have looked up. A book that bestows such a blessing is a good book indeed.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.