Tinderbox Editions ($16)
by Celia Bland
Buyer beware! Carley Moore warns her readers that “I plan to wallow and wander, to get stuck and linger over painful moments and difficult texts. I am trying to figure something out here and to name it for myself and for you my dear friend.” These essays are close to Montaigne’s Essays—“I withhold judgment” was Montaigne’s motto and his essays are often ideas on around-the-block test drives, personal explorations that don’t always come to a decisive answer. Similarly, Moore’s essays are like quicksilver; they move from pithy pronouncements to TMI moments of confession to acute observations. She is attracted to the quick fixes of self-help manuals and yet explodes their pat positivism with well-placed zingers. Hers aren’t the pristine stylistics of E.B. White. Indeed, the very ambitiousness of Moore’s essays necessitate an almost insistent messiness; they are “an anti-palliative, a recipe for pain, and an invitation to cause trouble.” She asks: “How can we make space for sadness, for bad feelings, and for being unhappy?”
Let’s consider some of the dominant voices of the current essay. Eileen Myles’s writerly voice is confident, quirky, experienced; Leslie Jamison’s is measured and nearly scientific in its accounts; Maggie Nelson’s narratives flex with intellectual swaggering. 16 Pills exhibits elements of each of these and also something different: a dedication to teaching. Let me explain, Moore tells us, what I have tried so hard to learn. Here is what I’ve read, and this is the community where I have chosen to live, where I have found shelter.
At times, Moore’s essays can be baggy as blog postings—topical and diffuse and bright with the hard varnish of political self-consciousness. “The Sick Book,” the collection’s opener, describes a childhood crippled by illness, laying the foundation for Moore’s sense that powers beyond her control have dictated her life. She connects her own congenital illness with the metaphorical malaise of family structures and societal ills. Instances of isolation and frustration are detailed so vividly that we begin to wonder what’s going unstated. Who, by extension, are her readers, her “dear friends”? We too, she suspects, wake up crying. We march against Trump. We medicate for anxiety. We lie with our sleeping child while swiping Tinder for possible hook-ups. Voltaire’s quip in which he compares self-regard to sex—“it is necessary, it is dear to us, it gives us pleasure, and it must be hidden”—comes to mind; Moore sees self-love as a form of resistance, but we must learn to let the act give us pleasure, and it must no longer be hidden. She rejects assumptions about what is sick and what is healthy, even as she searches, essay by essay, for cures for loneliness, frustration, and mortality.
But what if we aren’t who she thinks we are—that is, what if her readers are more than mirroring personas? Moore’s reliance on short sections and weak transitions creates curious linkages between the sexually liberated ex-lovers, the motif of the dating site, and the frequent crying fits. Contemporary life, as Moore astutely asserts, is prone to group-think but lacking in community. Dancing and writing become in these pages far more intimate than sex, although the author’s search for answers is paralleled by a naked desire to be sexy, to be admired, to display risky behaviors like dirty sheets. Determination, intelligence, a need to reveal herself (the collection’s lengthy acknowledgements begin “For Clonazepam, Lexapro, Midol, Sinemet, and Zoloft”) seem linked to her idea of herself as a leader. If she has “used sex to disassociate from my life, as a salve for wounds I couldn’t name, to claim power, and to stop thought,” she has also used narrative for the opposite impulse, promoting rather than stopping thought as she considers nit-picking, breast-feeding, racial transgressions, and Disney movies. “The narcissism of the personal is embarrassing, and still I persist in the belief that I have something to tell myself and maybe you.”
“My Pills,” for instance, uses the occasion of withdrawal from Lexapro to speak about our addicted society. Statistics and anecdotes are quilted together with such quotables as “Pill of weight gain. Pill of constipation. Pill of always full no matter what I ate. Pill of bloat and fat.” But one begins to wonder: if Moore’s essays are pills, how are they altering our perceptions, our digestions, our shapes? She works against the American insistence upon self-help and self-improvement, an easy answer, a cure, at one point quoting Leslie Jamison: “I do believe there is nothing shameful about being in pain, and I do mean for this essay to be a manifesto against the accusation of wallowing. But the essay isn’t a double-negative, a dismissal of a dismissal, so much as a search for possibility.“
“In the end with Lexapro,” she tells us, “it was a contest I called ‘Fat Vs. Sleep.’” Are we to understand that vanity has won over sanity—that the only reason she is going off a drug that helps her sleep, levels off her emotionalism, stops her endless tears, and allows her to enjoy her daughter’s company is that it made her bloat? One hopes not, but Moore’s intentions often remain obscure, buried in details. As she struggles to see, to claim a vision provoked by intense emotion, we too struggle to rise above spiraling identities.
Most vivid are the essays that describe Moore’s classroom. Her students clearly trust her, look to her for answers, and enjoy her company. With them, one sees her brilliance, her struggle against authority, and a kind of iconoclastic gaiety: “What makes me happiest in the classroom is when we manage that kitchen-table feeling . . . Politics, love, laughter, sadness, and schemes—all stewing together on the stove top.” She nurtures, too, her young daughter as she begins her own journey into the wider world: “Eventually that small person can talk about her feelings and is living with her dad half the time in Brooklyn and when she is with you, she treats your big animal body like a rock in the ocean. She washes up onto your shores. She scrambles somehow up the side of you. She hits you like a wave you’ll never stop surfing.”
The child’s growing maturity prompts the mother’s reluctant acceptance of her own pain. In the final and perhaps most powerful essay, “Small Animal, Big Animal,” Moore comes to a tired wisdom that resonates: she’s “been walking around like a wound in search of a bandage or maybe just another wound.” When she tells herself, “You don’t need a map anymore. You know the way,” it is certain that she has traveled far to discover who she is. Perhaps, by extension, her journey allows us to know a bit more about who we, her dear friends, are as well.