[Red Hen Press, 176 pages]
The process of writing involves the senses: The touch of a pen or the tips of your fingertips on the smooth surface of keys. The smell around the room as you view your paper or computer screen, the sound of “click, click, click” on the keyboard. It’s a sensual experience. It’s up for interpretation and deconstruction. It’s a process that, like all processes, can be questioned.
Chelsey Clammer’s collection of 12 lyrical essays, Circadian, reads like a philosophical treatise on language through the exploration of the writing process itself, as well as the ways in which stories constitute our identities, our memories and our biological makeup.
A phenomenological text
The text is inquisitive, thoughtful, funny and scientific—and it’s also fundamentally phenomenological. Constantly, at its core, it questions: How do we know the things we know? Or, more specifically, how does she know the things she knows, and how does she go about representing those things to you, her reader? Clammer gestures towards answers in science, math, DNA and the body, but always rounds back to language, the writing process and the writing experience—the phenomenology of writing.
In “I could title this wavering,” she writes of the steps she moves through while she writes, her thoughts and edits, and her conversation with the reader that has developed through her story, her process and her traumas.
“Once, a few sentences ago…”
“Once, two paragraphs ago….”
“I don’t know if I’ll still like this when I enter the editing phase. I wonder how this wavering impacts my writing. I wander about the wavering, observe its meaning. How necessary it is to know the difference between an o and an a.”
Clammer slowly takes us through each methodological step. She draws us into the questions of writing: How did the writer conceive of this sentence, paragraph or punctuation? When she went to edit, how did she make up her mind?
Clammer sorts out these steps to poetically show us her process. She unveils the numerous ways that a writer approaches their craft and the things that might be taken for granted. As readers, we may see the text as seamless, but through deconstructing her method, her every choice in every letter, she’s able to show the messy process that makes up her lucid prose.
Language isn’t limited to words on a page
Writing isn’t limited to just the written. It also lies in speech, how we speak and how ideas are formed. In the essay, “Mother Tongue,” Clammer writes, “The tongue tastes. The tongue speaks, forming words that started out as a silent idea. … And then there’s the teeth. Teeth controlling the latitude of language, conducting air as it flows from esophagus to mouth. And then out.”
Clammer has a way with words. It’s a cliché, yes. But it’s true.
The language is what sustains this collection. Clammer has a way with words. It’s a cliché, yes. But it’s true.
The essays are marked by an investigative approach and a narrative that’s tethered to her being—the death of her father, the death of a friend, a sexual assault, alcoholism, PTSD and mental illness, as well as a streaming hatred towards the body and a consequential eating disorder.
Clammer is swift with language, intelligent and funny. She’s lyrical, poetic and sometimes mesmerizing in her prose. She doesn’t miss a beat. But her explorations of language—noun, verb, sentence, fragment, edit—aren’t just about the surface of language and representation, but about how language is in every avenue of the body. It’s in the psychic innards of the mind, along with the various veins and genes that make up our skin. All of these, as they’re constructed, relate to and represent linguistic formation.
A meditative part of a philosophical tradition
There were moments in the text that I wished for more narrative thrust, when I wanted there to be a streamlined story that I could hold onto, but then I realized that reading Clammer is akin to reading the lines of someone like Proust or Merleau-Ponty. It can be hard work to get through. The inquisitive voice wants to deconstruct how things are known by making each sentence a step towards an understanding of our immediate present, including our actions, surroundings and knowledge.
Clammer flexes the boundaries of genre and form by integrating the editing process into writing, using bullet points to tell a story, deconstructing numerology, creating verbal collages, and asking some of the most universal questions of language and those who define its meaning. She asks, “But who decides when language dies?” and offers up a simple, yet profound summation of mourning: “Because grief is a continuous echo.”
In these moments of philosophical inquiry and statement, Circadian transcends Clammer’s own personal history and stories, and points to the universality of questions surrounding language, the nature of being and the process of writing. A moving collection of essays, to be sure, and a meditative part of a philosophical tradition.