Hoping to understand — and perhaps end — his stagnant 10-year relationship with a married, much older woman, Marc Nieson headed to Iowa. He had tried to run away from Sybil before, trekking to Italy for months, but the pull of the relationship (“more adoration than love,” based mainly on “sex and cinema”) was too strong.
Nieson was a native New Yorker, but in Iowa City — where he attended the Iowa Writers Workshop — he rented an old country schoolhouse on 500 acres of woodlands. Over his months there, the land and the wild helped him find grounding, strength and peace.
“From that very first morning, I figured if I intended to recalibrate how to be in this new world, then I should probably start with where I now was in that landscape,” he writes. And this he does, earnestly and singlemindedly. “Here on a quiet Iowa hillside, I was hoping … to both learn and unlearn who I was. To try living not only alone and apart, but a more consciously observed life — both inside and out.”
In “Schoolhouse,” his stark, poignant memoir, Nieson explores the natural world deeply, minutely — tracking deer, bringing home seed pods, feathers, wasps’ nests, bones (and, once, a dead great horned owl) for examination, learning to chop wood and ride a horse.
And always, he is thinking hard about where he fits in the world and why that fit is so uncomfortable, so uneasy.
Nieson’s colleagues in the MFA program criticize his work as being too distant and detached, and that criticism is easy to understand; this memoir is also detached and, at times, oblique. There are gaps in the narrative, deliberate omissions, and we have to work to understand his feelings for Sybil (who we meet only in glimpses — her boots, her hair, the photos he keeps in an envelope that he will not allow himself to open). We have to work hard to understand Nieson, too. There is much he does not explain.
“I was learning to harness the power and poignancy of white space,” he writes. “What I’d always presumed as the private domain of poetry could also prove critical in rendering prose. Those overlooked spaces between scenes and paragraphs, sentences, words.”
Nieson handles several narrative threads — the wilderness, his writing, Sybil, Italy, a dying friend, his dead brother — though they do not all weave together naturally and it can sometimes feel like a stretch when he tries to tie one to another.
But the beautiful heart of this book is the natural world, and Nieson’s close, fascinated observation of the seasons. This is where his writing loses its caution and comes alive.
“As a city boy, I’d known only pigeons and seagulls — birds as nuisance,” he writes. But in Iowa, “I learned to focus on treetops and follow flight, to discern wing bars and silhouettes. I heard song patterns separate from the thickets and single cries echo across a still marsh.”
“Schoolhouse” is a thoughtful meditation on growing up, lifting one’s head, looking up, and letting go.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor/books for the Star Tribune. @StribBooks; Facebook.com/startribunebooks
By: Marc Nieson.
Publisher: Ice Cube Press, 261 pages, $19.95.
Events: With Julie Patterson, 5 p.m. Nov. 20, Magers & Quinn, Mpls.; with Jim Heynen, 7 p.m. Nov. 21, Common Good Books, St. Paul