Inscriptions for Headstones
(Outpost 19, 2012)
Inscriptions for Headstones, the essay collection from Matthew Vollmer, reads more like a group of experiments in form and narrative structure than one of essays. For one, the thirty essays that comprise the collection are bound by a singular theme—epitaphs composed for the deceased (all male) that unravel in one sentence. On a second, more entertaining level, they read as stories: replete with characters, a backwards-working plot, and boundless metaphor. But taken as essays (and there is a case to be made), the prose may actually teach us about the ways in which we arrive at bits of information and nostalgia, and how nostalgia informs, upholds, or distills our memories.
It is precisely nostalgia that epitaphs are after—the ability to tap into a consciousness, either recognizable or repressed, and help relive a person’s life. And though it’s an endgame, it’s also a form. Vollmer is intensely aware of how using only one sentence to tell each essay entangles our expectations of who each man is. Rather than memory as a straight line, Vollmer weaves in and out of many, hurdles time frames, and mixes sentimentality with honest humor as well as any eloquent pastor. He renders consciousness an everlasting phenomenon, one that, should we be grateful enough to let it in, belies even death. Written like long exhaled breaths, we are sure to receive it, and better yet, sure to pass it on to those with lives yet to live. Vollmer understands that lives are not perfect—they are fractal and incongruent and sometimes plain unfortunate, but written in memory of someone, their moral lessons are guileless and deserved.
The collection begins with “here lies a man who felt compelled to visit time and time again the house where he’d spend the majority of his childhood,” a simple line that complexly unravels as it becomes a meditation on dreams, home interiors, ghosts, and, suggestively, reincarnation. The deceased wanders through rooms of his childhood house, engineering “makeshift haunted houses” and “revealing the decapitated bodies of dolls,” though “none of this was nearly as scary as the deceased like to think.” In swift and surprising turns, the man’s memories are replaced by reports of the house’s new owner feeling haunted by its previous owner, whom she has no idea still visits them “in dreams.” Traversing time and viewpoints, Vollmer packs a startling amount of information in these first five pages. Indeed, not only have we been presented vibrant images of the deceased’s childhood, but we have seen what succeeds his time spent in the house; the two viewpoints converge when the deceased “would go back and take a tour of the place where he’d lived and think how small this house was.” Vollmer cleverly circles back to the way he begins the essay, though our impression of the house, and consequently, the man whom the house has borne, has changed.
Many of the essays in Inscriptions are mystical and burgeoning with frontier lives, such as one where a boy steps on a copperhead snake and “lived to tell about it.” The boy lives on land full of venomous snakes and is told by his parents to rid these snakes with a pair of tongs or a shovel. While danger in this story is a clear and decipherable enemy, the real conceit comes when the father says to the deceased, “We’ll bury you,” a statement that makes the deceased question the reckless manner in which he clears the land of snakes, but also the irresponsible ways his father shows his love toward him.
In another gorgeous essay, the deceased is described as standing underneath an orange maple before his dog pulls him along to a street where “Bus 127, piloted by balding and mirthful Gene, would soon perform the miracle it performed every day at more or less 3:50 post meridian, which was to deliver back to the neighborhood its children, who had gone away for the day to learn about treble clefs and subtraction and the Lakota Indians, who themselves believed that plants and trees like the one mentioned earlier had been sent by the benevolent spirit Waken Tanka to rise from the ground, the idea of which, along with everything else the children had learned, would be more or less forgotten once they streamed down the stairs of the bus and along the windswept lane.” The “miracle” of transporting kids safely back from school should not be miracle at all, but it touches upon how characters in this essay and the one described before are unaware of their demises, as well they should be. It’s an astonishing but circumspect fact of life: knowing we will one day die but not wanting to be aware of when or how or why it will come. To call the spaces in-between, the spaces in which we live “miracles” is to preserve their ephemeral truths.
Søren Kierkegaard said that repetition is forward-looking while recollection is backward. We can shorten his identifier to mean that by recalling memories, faith and hope have been eliminated and that by looking into the past, we are setting ourselves up for painful experiences. Vollmer’s elegiac, original, and probative essays set us up for pain, but cut it with notions that any of these stories (car rides, insect infestations, snow sledding, public speaking classes, aliens) are shared experiences that derive pleasure through a collective consciousness. Why else should we care about John Doe who lived here or lived there and died on this day? Because for us, the ones still here, there is profound gratitude in knowing that we too will go, and how nice would it be for people to listen to our tales? Vollmer, who authored the short story collection Future Missionaries of America and, most recently edited with David Shields, Fakes, an anthology of found documents, understands the value of collective experience. It’s an offshoot of fiction writing, sure, but it’s also an integral part of people-writing, and Vollmer knows a great deal about human emotion. The essays sing, rejoice, yearn, insist, or sometimes, just patiently wait for us to arrive until, just as patiently, we harbor their merciful lessons.