Limber: Essays by Angela Pelster
Sarabande Books, 2014; 152 pp
Reviewed by Clinton Crockett Peters
Disclosure: This is a biased review. I know Angela Pelster from our time at Iowa, and I even got to workshop a couple of the essays in this remarkable book, Limber. But, I hope, if you've read my last two reviews in AMRI, you’ll know that I'm not above wearing my harsh critic's hat when reviewing books by people I know.
First things first. Get over the need to have a book make sense. I'm saying this more to myself. Summarizing Pelster’s book is like the time I tried to tell my nephew what Tree of Life is about. I know, kinda, but more descriptively I sit there and watch and unconsciously take in the images, adjectives and sensual nature of the sinewy movements. There's more than a little of the Romantic tradition to Pelster’s work, but she punctuates her personification and ardor with whimsy and self-aware rumination. Rather than seem antiquated, the work feels truly conscious of its time and literary moment: the ongoing crest of the nonfiction essay as an art form.
If you tied up Michel de Montaigne with Percy Shelley in a room and had Annie Dillard on speaker phone you might have an idea of Limber. It is a loosely connected collection of sumptuous essays about trees. But more. It asks the reader to put on hold for a moment those by-now-boring questions about narration and intent. Who is the speaker? What’s her angle? No, sit back and watch the universe explode and the bark fly without trying to peal back the reeds to see the creator.
Sure, some of the individual components, like “Mango,” seem more clunky than others. You may also be taken aback by sporadic revelations of Pelster’s narrator (Her father smoked crack?). You may also feel annoyed at first by the essays that don’t seem to be about anything until, suddenly, near then end, and even in the last sentence, they are.
I usually don’t like it when writers seem to hold out on me, but I forgive this book because the essays have this reoccurring and eery ability to guide you into meaning. The payoff is worth it, and you will be floored or at least envious by Pelster’s ability to weave resonance into her codas.
Being more specific would ruin for you the forrest of color. This is a very quiet, but brimming essay collection. What it's trying to do alone makes it worth the read. Pelster is threading together meaning through disparate fabrics of the personal and universal, the natural and the supernatural, and she is making art. This is not nonfiction as education or “just a good story.” These essays are ideas on the page, speaking together much like, as we learn, trees talk to each other through airborne chemicals as you pass them. The human and more-than-human are Pelster’s artist materials, and she seems to put the work together in front of you. Don't argue, I’d say. Just listen.