by Faye Rapoport DesPres
186 pages, Buddhapuss Ink, LLC (May 14, 2014)
Reviewed by Cindy Zelman
As a creative nonfiction writer, I often contemplate what makes for great writing in this genre. Too often, I hear criticism of memoir as “navel gazing” and lacking the insights and imagination of fiction. Message from a Blue Jay, Faye Rapoport DesPres’ debut collection of memoir in essays, provides a master lesson in what creative nonfiction can accomplish when it utilizes all the tools in the writer’s kit: character development, compelling narrative, scene, dialogue, reflection, setting, and lyrical prose.
Her essay, “Tulips,” is, for example, an exquisitely rendered piece in which the narrator describes in vivid detail the house in which she and her husband reside, the way “the crooked wooden floors creak underfoot.” “If I had to choose one word to describe it, I’d call the house ‘broken,’” writes Rapoport DesPres. Yet it isn’t just the house that is broken, the reader learns; the narrator, too, feels fragmented. As a young woman, she faced a serious medical problem that changed the course of her life, leaving her bereft on many levels. Now a woman in middle age, the author recalls a turning point in her young adulthood:
“If you were my daughter,” Dr. Kleiner said to me, “I would tell you to get that thing out of there right now.”
That thing was my uterus, something that once, what seemed like a long time ago, had been a private part of my body. Before I got sick I had never discussed my body with anyone, not even my mother. I had kissed only two boys before age sixteen, and one of those was during a game of spin the bottle. My body had been laid out under glaring hot lights for the entire world to see.
This medical experience traumatized the narrator; it affected her first marriage, her ability to have children, and her perceptions of own body. Thus the planting of tulips now in middle-age, in an attempt to fix a “broken” house, becomes a life-sustaining moment—a metaphor and narrative to fix a broken spirit.
The individual essays that compose Message from a Blue Jay (many of which have been published in literary journals) have been adapted into a full-length book that retains the independence of the original pieces while connecting them by theme, tone, and language into a cohesive memoir. Roughly linear but not strictly chronological, the effect is an emotionally powerful memoir that hits to the reader’s core through language that is both surprising and familiar. Take, for example, Rapoport DesPres’ description of the Colorado sky:
Glancing up at the sky, I think of Colorado, where I lived for four years. Out west, the sky stretched so far and wide it reminded me daily of my irrelevance. There was comfort in that. In Boston, I am lucky if I glimpse the sky between rows of aging rooftops and sagging telephone wires. It is a backdrop that encourages a loss of perspective and a tendency to give weight to perceived misfortunes. I spend my days fighting setbacks that exist only in my mind. The sky set me straight. I miss it.
While the description of the Colorado skyline as a wide-stretching reminder of one’s irrelevance is a familiar one, the narrator adds a surprising twist by re-framing this irrelevance as something positive—something that might provide “comfort” and perspective, that might set her “straight.” It is a startling association, as one does not usually associate feelings of irrelevance with comfort. By contrast, the urban/suburban clutter and ugliness of greater Boston, where she lives with her husband, force her inward and make her ponder the meaning of her life.
In eighteen chapters, an author’s note, and a prologue, Rapoport DesPres weaves together a mosaic of a life into which we become wholly absorbed. We see ourselves in the very human situations she experiences—love relationships both nurturing and difficult, conflicts with parents and in-laws, as well as carefully, lovingly recorded encounters with nature. Indeed, there is a an encounter with a blue jay, which meets her eye to eye, in the middle of a college campus street during a January rainstorm; a conversation ensues, and the bird surprisingly jumps on her foot. The interweaving of human and animal/bird/landscape encounters is prevalent and calls to mind the work of writers such as Annie Dillard or Barry Lopez.
The narrator’s love for animals and nature is deep and sustains her as a continual reminder of beauty—earth, sun and sky, or cat, bird, and mountains. Such encounters make her feel connected to life, even as she works through the feelings of isolation in her personal life. Her love for her father is just as deep; yet, human love brings difficulty and sometimes fear. She writes in the prologue, as her father’s car slams into a deer in the dead of night:
I see the headlights, I see the deer, I hear the loud bang, I feel the jolt, I hear my father’s anguished sob. I see his head hanging forward on his chest as he gasps and sobs. And then I push the image as far away from conscious thought as my mind will allow, because I am afraid.
Rapoport DesPres’ father is a Holocaust survivor, a hero figure, and someone for whom she has deep respect. Yet he was also a missed figure in her childhood, as he worked in NYC while the family lived on a farm upstate and spent weekdays without him. The hitting of the deer is a rare moment when the narrator sees him sobbing and vulnerable. This is perhaps a normal reaction to killing an animal, but it also hints at a man rife with pain and regret over his own past suffering and losses. The incident is so painful that the narrator must push the image away. Her father’s experiences, his presence and his absence, his kindness and his anger, seem to have affected his daughter’s life and worldview—her need to search for that elusive “home.”
One of the most searing and honest essays in the book, “Into the Vacuum,” is focused on another family member, the author’s mother-in-law. Here, Rapoport DesPres sits next to the woman as she deteriorates from cancer. The two of them have been on rocky ground, as we learn, a conflict described in an earlier essay as an age-old battle of mother-in-law versus daughter-in-law, a battle the narrator is forced to forfeit because “my mother-in-law has a brain tumor.” As the woman lies on her deathbed, rather than feel the cliché sympathy one might expect, the narrator feels traumatized and angry.
Sitting here now, I feel alone, too. I struggle with emotions that are jumbled together in my head: compassion, despair, my own anger. This woman, who is both physically and mentally ill, has held us captive with her fate and her pain. She has called at all hours, made crazy demands, shrieked when things didn’t go her way. After weathering the unreasonable rants for so long, I am suspicious at their absence from this room. Like a traumatized child, I wait for the storm.
Where the passage above speaks mainly to the “now” of the narrator, sitting next to a dying woman, it also provides the opportunity for reflection and a glimpse into the past relationship. The simple line, “I am suspicious at their absence from this room,” is a meditation on circumstances that both encompass the challenging past of the relationship and the strange quiet of the current moment. One of Rapoport DesPres’ strengths is her utilization of the concept of the dual-narrator, meaning the narrator to whom the action is happening (in the moment) and the older, reflective narrator who is able to look at the past and question, grapple, and possibly make sense of it.
In the title essay, “Message from a Blue Jay,” the author employs this dual narration seamlessly with regard to one of the critical issues of her life—the feeling of emotional fracture—while describing her present situation, in this case, her experience visiting Israel.
I sense the energy that courses through the streets and the people and try to absorb it into my own skin. I let the sounds of the language enter empty crevices in my mind and give rise to images that are absent in English. I watch the waves of the Mediterranean lap against the shores as the sun sets behind the hotels in Tel Aviv. I am transfixed by the lights of the ancient port of Jaffa as they shine over the water at night. I breathe the hot, dry air into my lungs in the desert and feel the crunch of ancient earth beneath my boots. I run my hands along the smooth edges of the stones of ancient ruins and sit in the crevices of their walls drinking water from a canteen. In the morning, as I listen to the birdsong, I wait for an inner stillness I have craved all my life. I want to feel, even if only for a moment, the fractured elements of who I am fall, finally, into place.
Describing her present situation with lyricism, Rapoport DesPres leads us to a simple and elegant conclusion: the wish, if just for a moment, to have the broken parts of herself fall together. Those final, eloquent sentences weave birdsong together with inner stillness, showing us the process by which the reflective narrator has unobtrusively searched for a lifetime’s worth of answers.
Message from a Blue Jay is a memoir of personal growth and introspection, written in rhythmic and often stunning prose. It is about one woman's search for authenticity in what she calls her "middle" years, or her forties. Rapoport DesPres’ journey is a search for home—within the body and soul as well as for the physical place where one resides and feels settled. Where is that elusive state of being which will embrace her life-sustaining connection to the natural world? How does she find that home which will assuage her conflicted relationships with her family? And perhaps most important, what is the place/concept of home that might overcome the otherness she feels inside her own skin? Well, the blue jay landing on her foot will help her to figure it out, along with her own drive to make sense of her life and the world around her.
I recently heard Rapoport Despres read from this book at her launch event outside of Boston. As she read to a packed house, the audience was rapt: under a spell of the beauty of her prose, the accessibility of her emotions, and to her struggles, always edged with hopefulness no matter how reluctant. You listen to Rapoport DesPres, because she is telling you your story, as well as her own. And, as if intuiting her audience’s pleasure, she ended her reading with a hopeful piece about watching one of her favorite rock bands from the front row of a standing room only concert:
This is one of the moments when I feel no despair. I have been told that one of the advantages of oversensitivity is that while you are capable of feeling pain to unfathomable depths, you an can also experience immeasurable joy...The music engulfs my pain and spits it back out, splintering and spinning in a kaleidoscope until it is transformed into something achingly beautiful.
Indeed, Rapoport DesPres has moved her reader into an achingly beautiful state, hopeful, but never ridiculously optimistic—a little breathless over the wonders of life, yet always realistic to its conflicts and challenges. Faye Rapoport DesPres leaves us all a little changed for the better, having taken us along on her journey home.
---------Cindy Zelman is a graduate of the Solstice MFA Program in Creative Writing of Pine Manor College. Her creative nonfiction and other writings have appeared in numerous journals including Tinge Magazine: Temple University’s Online Literary Journal, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Feminist Studies, Sinister Wisdom, The Whistling Fire, The Huffington Post, TMI Project.Org, lesbian.com, Steamticket: A Third Coast Review, and CobaltReview. Her chapbook: What’s in a Butch’s Purse and Other Humorous Essays is available for sale in print or e-book from Winged City Chapbook Press. To read her blog “The Early Draft” and to find a list of her publications, follow this link.