Reviewed by Alexa Josaphouitch
I was first introduced to lyric essays in my senior year of college. I immediately fell in love with the braided essay and have been trying to master the form since. I have been looking for a collection that would motivate me while writing.
A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays edited by Randon Billings Noble (University of Nebraska Press, 2021) is exactly the type of collection to inspire and inform readers. Noble ties the title to the Greeks and “the invention of the lyre that eventually gave us the word lyric…” She outlines four types of lyric essays that appear in the collection: flash, segmented, braided, hermit crab, and craft. However, she also notes that “a lyric essay can be many things at once, the way a square is also a rectangle, a parallelogram, a quadrilateral. One shape, but many ways of naming it.”
The hermit crab reference was not one I was familiar with before reading this collection. Noble gives credit to Brenda Miller for naming this type of essay and describes it as one that “borrows another form of writing as their structure the way a hermit crab borrows another’s shell.” Examples in this collection include a word-search puzzle by Laurie Easter about the search for her missing friend and a bottle of body-wash directions for Dorothy Bendal’s “Body Wash: Instructions on Surviving Homelessness.”
An essay that stood out to me was Elizabeth K. Brown’s “Informed Consent.” Brown was recruited for a study that aimed to identify genes associated with drinking when she was thirteen. She continued to be involved in the study through her thirtieth birthday. The structure of the essay is the informed consent document provided to the participants and Brown uses footnotes to expand the protocol and write about her experience, both regarding the study and her life. She tries to deconstruct the language used by the proctors, such as why the term “drinking behavior” is used when other terms considered include “‘drinking conduct,’ ‘drinking performance,’ ‘drinking phenotypes’ … ‘drinking customs.’” She also describes answering the questions for the study as a child in her basement while her father is passed out in the hallway, her siblings run around, and her mother prepares fish sticks for dinner.
Similarly, other essays in the collection include topics dealing with familial and historical trauma, the ripples of addiction, faith, race, and more. There is also a chapter of meditations from the contributors that describe how they approach or think of lyric essays. This part alone is fascinating and allows the reader to approach the essays in the collection with a new point of view.
The contributions represent a range of experiences and each essay brings a different perception of the form of a lyric essay. While the bottom text block includes the type of lyric essay, I wish this detail was also in the table of contents. Overall, I highly recommend A Harp in the Stars edited by Randon Billings Noble for those interested in writing and reading lyric essays.