Some books you read for the narrative, the story line that pulls the reader along on a journey.Some you read for the characters, falling in love with a person and getting to know them, you enjoy spending time with them. Others you read for information. Written well or badly, such a book gives you the knowledge or facts you want to know.
Kim Dana Kupperman’s collection of essays, I Just Lately Started Buying Wings, you read for the sentences. Shimmering, dancing sentences that carry a fierce weight. Sentences like this, where Kupperman, recipient of the 2009 Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize in Nonfiction, is meditating on the color orange in connection with the terror alert notification: “There was the full moon rising on the pale shimmer of a winter solstice, how it arced over the horizon. A molten annunciation of all things orange, from pale apricot to fiery vermilion.” Or this one, which opens the first essay in the book: “I woke to a downpour the March morning in 1989 when I had to identify my mother’s body at the New York city morgue.” Or this one” “Your voice is in another state and between the soft volume pay phone connection an the rush of the avenue you sound so light I think for a second that I’d be able to lift you, an impossibility when we stand face to face and gravity contains us.”
Such gems are sprinkled liberally throughout the pages of these essays. Kupperman is a poetic and precise writer of prose, able to see and convey details with a nimble touch of emotion and concreteness. The best essays in the book, “Habeas Corpus” for example, marry the graceful rhythm of her prose to the tangible and often difficult realities of her experience. This essay tells the story of her parents custody battle over her. When she was grown and her father was dying she finally obtained from him the file outlining the epic battles her parents had fought in the court system.
Kupperman’s mother and father emerge as full blooded characters refracted through the dry court documents and the yearning of the grown child to know them. Her mothers mental illness, her father’s philandering, the uproar that surrounded the family, the death of them both are all intense subjects which Kupperman tackles with skill and feeling.
Death haunts the first essays in the book. Her brothers dies of AIDS, her father of cancer, her mother by suicide. She meditates on her father’s death in “Anatomy of My Father”, parsing the essay in sections: “My father’s hands, my father’s foot, my father’s remains, my father’s teeth.” Her search to know her father brings her to stare at his hands: “As a child I never considered the things my fathers hands had touched: money, his own body parts, pens, guns, piano keys, hardware, womens’ breasts ( including my mothers ) crap table, dice, the clarinet he tried to learn to play but then abandoned, an instrument he cleaned regularly until he sold it.” Such ferocity of focus exposes not only her father’s humanity but also her own desire understand and know him.
Unfortunately, as exquisite as the marriage of sentences and subjects are in the first 60 pages or so, Kupperman does not sustain such intensity through out the remainder of the essays. The topics (her grandmother’s roots in the Ukraine, her travels there to somehow connect with her, the fleeting nature of memory, ill advised love affairs, battered women) do not carry the weight of family and divorce and death. The author turns inward and loses the reader a bit. We saw Kupperman more clearly when tried to show us her parents; when she tries to show us herself the image becomes blurry.
The sentences sparkle throughout, nonetheless, and her beautiful sentences alone are good enough reason to read this book.