When poets turn to prose, images spark off the page and incantatory rhythms thrum in the minds of readers, as in Mary Oliver’s revelatory “Upstream.” The feel of the reins is different: A taut power surges through the lines. Enter New Zealander Ashleigh Young, whose new collection of essays, “Can You Tolerate This?” is an edgy, vibrant portrait of electricity in language and the body in crisis.
The recipient of last year’s Windham-Campbell prize, Young infuses a quirky energy into her surreal moments. The apparition of Paul McCartney — “as he appeared in the liner notes of ‘The White Album’: unshaven, almost disheveled-looking” — joins her on a hike near her village on the North Island. As a curator at Katherine Mansfield’s birthplace in Wellington she mulls one writer’s legacy. In a nod to Rachel Cusk’s “Outline,” a conversation with an elderly stranger on an airplane stirs Young to consider the deeper silence beneath the words we exchange. And she hints at her own isolation when she conjures her childhood landscape: “the hills, the row of pines above a clay bank, the Te Kuiti sky, a smothering gray.”
These essays are interior, keenly felt, occasionally shocking, sprinkled with enigmatic bits of history: a patient with two skeletons, the class of Japanese recluses known as hikikomori. “Can You Tolerate This?” adds up to a memoir prismed into multiple perspectives, drifting restlessly from first-person confessions to second-person meditations to third-person dramas. She brings us into her family dynamics: her aloof pilot father and self-absorbed mother, her loyalties to her brothers, particularly the troubled musician JP.
In exacting sentences she probes the body’s mysteries, from malformed bones to blurred vision to her own “faint” mustache and hirsute arms, which she shaves, yearning for transcendence: “Sheaves of blond hair clogged the basin, my mother’s leg razor overcome. My arms slowly emerged. They were weirdly soft, as if newborn. … This was how a girl’s arms should be, as long and smooth as pieces of bamboo. But only a few days passed before a dark wave of stubble began to rise.” There’s no cleansing the body’s imperfections.
Beyond Young’s rich visuals and personal history, she’s obsessed with what Freud called Das Unheimliche, the uncanny. I stumbled across vignettes lifted straight from my own life — a dachshund with an injured spine, the frustrations of wearing contact lenses, small talk with chiropractors — and felt the back of my neck prickle: These essays were reading me. She sees to the marrow of our humanity with a kind of MRI vision.
In Young’s hands the lyric essay transforms into something rich and strange, a sea change of form. “Can You Tolerate This?” is an assured debut from a prodigiously talented, empathic writer whose prose shines as brightly as her poetry.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.
Can You Tolerate This?
By: Ashleigh Young.
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 248 pages, $26.