Reviewed by Cate Hodorowicz
Chelsey Clammer’s Circadian (Red Hen Press, October 2017), winner of the 2017 Red Hen Press Nonfiction Award, uses experimental lyric essay forms to explore loss, trauma, and grief—and Clammer excels at her craft, making concrete the way memories circle, resurface, combine, cascade, and loop into exhausting obsession. This is not a pretty or comforting preoccupation, as the ambitious project requires the constant revisitation of suffering. But Clammer finds refuge in the thick of language, which becomes both sentence-level driving force and thematic glue.
Because Clammer knows that nothing is without its troubles, particularly the things we most love, her retreat to language isn’t one-dimensional. Instead, she embraces language’s complications. For example, “Mother Tongue” ranges over lazy Susans, oppression, White-Out, and Hurricane Katrina to engage the sexy, playful, fraught, and distasteful flavors of words. The sounds of the sentences create luscious rhythms and rhymes even as they engage the political: “We can’t ignore the lexicon we loathe, would love for the OED to declare dead.” This attention to sound creates pleasure and levity throughout the book even as Clammer evokes the relentless anxiety of a brain trying to heal from the suicides and untimely deaths of loved ones, the aftermath of sexual assault, and relentless survivor’s guilt.
Clammer wields her unconventional essay forms—including numbered lists, diagrams of cell mitosis, email exchanges, outlines, and the strange alchemy of numerology—with a deft hand. Likewise, her compelling voice and well-placed black humor guides the reader through challenging content. At the end of perhaps the most engaging essay in the book, “Then She Flew Away,” in which Clammer grapples with the death of a teen whom she mentored, a photo of the deceased girl slips from the cluttered surface of Clammer’s writing desk. The teen’s death involved a fall from a great height, and the last line, “Shit, Sophie fell again,” encapsulates the cyclical and sometimes grimly humorous tentacles of grief and memory.
But when “I Could Title This Wavering” demonstrates the speaker’s insecurity about spelling (“I still cannot remember when to use affect or effect . . . so I avoid all use [of them]”), Circadian doesn’t quite benefit. A move likely meant to demonstrate the speaker’s vulnerability, willful ignorance comes across instead. This seems odd: the speaker in earlier essays embraced the value of all words because of what they teach us, even if those lessons are hard, even if the words have gone the way of the dodo. Now, though, it seems she’d prefer to avoid words that give her technical trouble than go to the effort of teaching herself something new—which would give her more of the syntactical power she seeks.
And yet. The essay form at its best embraces human contradictions and messiness; it wrestles with the speaker’s—and the reader’s—sensibilities and convictions. This, too, is part of Circadian’s design: we’re not meant to like the speaker, her fretful mind, or its relentless returns to her traumas, especially her father’s alcoholic decline and suicide. There’s nothing to like about PTSD. But through it all, we see the speaker reclaim her self and find power by breaking and renaming linguistic moves; she creates the delightful term “caboosed verb” and “Chelsey[s] a sentence.” This is the playful, inventive persona struggling to come through, to live, in the aftermath.
Other excellent pieces include “Trigger Happy,” which engages smartly with the topic of trigger warnings, and the final and immensely satisfying “Collection,” which ties the loops of Circadian together and comes to a hard-won conclusion about how the speaker views the tragedies of her life. But just as Clammer would rather have at her disposal (nearly) all the words in the world, even the troublesome and outdated ones, one gets the sense she would rather have her father and friends alive than arrive at any kind of resolution about their fragmentation and loss.