Faye Rapoport DesPres

The Lyric Essay – What We Can (or Can’t) Say with Words

Screen Shot 2014-11-01 at 3.46.16 PMThis week our Creative Nonfiction Writing class will discuss lyric essays. Rather than try to define the form, I played around with it and came up with this:

Morning, Late October


Maxim, the foster cat, settles on the bed and pushes his claws into the green fleece blanket. He’s had the soft fleece since he was adopted ten years ago by a woman who lives alone in Cambridge. She is seventy now and in the hospital; I don’t know her. We were asked to do a favor, so we did it. Max will live here for three months. But for him, large and long with a snaking tail, coal black with a snowy chest and a muddy smudge on his nose, there is only today. Max doesn’t know where his human mother has gone, and he doesn’t understand why he is here. He doesn’t know what to make of our cats downstairs. He sits like the sphinx and stares out the window, watching leaves detached from branches shift and shuffle on the street. The sparrows are still asleep. Traffic from the Turnpike hums a mile away; the sound is like the roll of distant surf. Max kneads the blanket beneath his claws and keeps company with his stuffed toy: a black and white cat with a blue collar, just like his. She even made sure the bells match.


It is cold; my two-year-old sweatshirt from Florida comes on. Manatees. The viewing center was situated on the edge of a small bay behind a long, wooden building that housed a gift shop and exhibits. Across the bay stood a utility station, its power lines towering up against the sky. For a while, leaning our heads over the railing on the pier, we spotted only birds. But what birds. Snake-necked, slim-beaked, stick-legged. Soaring in the sky and searching for fish in the shadows beneath the water. Pelicans with pouches. It was hot and so humid that my head hurt. Then we saw them, the manatees—just two, graceful and gray, their tails gentle discs fanning the water. Now and then their backs rose just an inch above the surface as if resting for a moment in the sun. I am so rarely relaxed; the manatees calmed me.


In October the air is chilly New England, especially in the early morning. The sky stays dark until seven. During summer, the sparrows chirp noisily by five; a flock settles without fail in the trees around our house. One family builds a nest under the living room air conditioner, so we haven’t used that air conditioner in years. When I pull my car into the driveway in the afternoons, I see the adults flitting in and out of the nest. Sometimes they scold me for the timing of my arrival; I have disturbed their careful business of carrying sticks. In the house, I hear the racket of the chicks crying for food. At five in the morning, one floor above, my husband will wake and complain about the noise. But he knows. He knows that if harm befell even one chick, I would cry into my pillow for half the night. There are so few safe windows.


I can’t remember the last part of his name. When I was a child we had a canary, slim and yellow, exquisite song, and I kept adding to the first name we gave him. Initially he was called Gabster, but by the time I was done I had named him Gabster Gabriel Gabby Gabe Gimbel Gabel…and there was a last one. Something final, a word that ended the name with a single syllable. Every night my mother covered Gabster’s cage with a towel, and every morning when the towel came off, Gabster sang. Why can’t I remember that name? That’s what we do, I think; we shut our minds, close the door, and turn the key. It’s always safer in a cage.


One of the squirrels in our yard seems to roll from side-to-side as he scampers across the grass. Every few steps he loses his balance and falls over. Then he rolls back up and moves forward again. Sometimes the motion is so quick I can’t tell if he has a handicap or if he just likes rolling in the grass. He does this all the way between the backyard fence and the tree where the bird feeder hangs. Then he sits on his haunches underneath the tree and eats sunflower seeds that have fallen from the feeder. Okay, I leave the seeds there for him. After he eats his fill, he bounds up the tree without any problem at all. I have watched this many times, and I always think it’s strange that he is unsteady on the ground but perfectly balanced in the tree. Then I look around and wonder, is it?


The snake was just a flash, slithering under the rhododendron that grows next to the front door. I saw the hole; I left it.


Maxim hears my husband wake in the bedroom across the hall. The cat’s eyes and ears swivel toward the door at the sound of blinds shearing up windows. Footsteps cross the hall and pause. The doorknob turns, and the door opens. Max jumps off the bed, runs across the room, and greets my husband with a high-pitched “roww.” Then he follows my husband out the door. They all follow, don’t they? They have no choice. The key digs into the palms of our hands.


The Lyric Essay: “…the “lyric essay” in general. What is it? That is the main question we all have; I might even write it on the board. What is the lyric essay? Not only What is it? But how do I make it? What’s the definition? What’s the answer?

And I might tell them: I don’t know. I might tell them, though they won’t want to hear it, that we’ve entered a realm of unknowing, a place where definitions are constantly in flux, a place where answers are not as important as the questions to which they give rise.” – Brenda Miller, in Tell It Slant (1)


(1) Miller, B. “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay.” Tell it Slant. 2nd Ed. Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola. Web. Available at: http://www.mhprofessional.com/sites/tellitslant/essays.php?c=braidedHeart Accessed October 29, 2014.