Book Review: The Circus Train by Judith Kitchen

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Of the many tremendous writers I’ve gotten to meet over the past five years, Judith Kitchen stands out. I met her at Ashland University where she was invited to speak and read as a guest lecturer for the university’s MFA in Creative Writing program. Unsure of if her health would allow her to journey to Ashland, my professor and mentor practically prayed that she’d make it. And luckily she did, her health questionable but her determination stronger. Kitchen had been battling cancer for years at this point, and although she had a grim diagnosis with no end possible rather than death, she continued to live passionately and with a strange sense of humor. She even read herself in between deep breaths and painful coughs. Somehow, though, it was one of the best readings I’ve ever heard.

Unfortunately, Kitchen passed away near the end of 2014 from the cancer that had been a part of her for so long. It was only four months prior that I got to hear her read from The Circus Train, and after finishing the extended essay/memoir I realize how lucky I truly was to have heard the reading. There was something (a word, a sentence, an entire section, word for word) on every page of this book that shocked me, that filled me with sadness or nostalgia or truth. The Circus Train is not a cohesive/chronological piece; rather, the book focuses on one memory to the next, random and sometimes small, unimportant moments that the author remembers poignantly. In the face of death, Kitchen attempts to write down her life, to remember it all. She tells us: ‘Here’s what I want: to stitch it all together. Give it the dilated eye of attention. To make it add up. But of course, it doesn’t, no more than any other life.’ Kitchen is at once surprised and not surprised that her will to remember leaves her empty and devoid of memories… or rather of the memories she thinks she should remember, the memories that are more important than the ones she is remembering. Kitchen begins to feel extremely bothered at her seemingly weak memory, especially her inability to know for sure if she actually did see a circus train driving by her childhood home. And as she tries hard to remember, she reflects: ‘of course you could go on replaying scene after scene. But to what end? Don’t these moments disappear with you, drop off into the void? You suspect that they do- and so you write them furiously, as though you could hang on to a lifetime when, in fact, you know you can’t. Can’t ever quite add it up and make it make sense.’

Despite this knowledge, Kitchen dives deeper into her subconsciousness, attempting to free certain memories from her mind. There is a constant tension throughout this book between her knowledge that she cannot remember it all and her determination/desire to remember: ‘what do the spent days do with themselves? How do they breathe in the face of forgetfulness? You should try and hold on.’ Declarations like this make me want to remember and catalogue every memory in writing. And although Kitchen frustrates herself with the non-rememberings, what she does remember is truly beautiful: ‘Some things should go on forever, unchanging. Halloween should begin in mid-October while the sun is still sharp enough and the trees have a tinge of yellow to match- should begin with sky so blue it hurts, air that cuts but does not slice. And then it should mellow through a week of rain, a slow predictable tapdance of rain where everything seems dismal. And then Halloween should bloom, like something resurrected. Every child should become someone else and keep that oddly magical feeling all day long.’ She remembers a perfect Halloween and her recollection makes us wish for such a Halloween. And there’s this too: ‘Listening to the crack of sparks flying out into the frigid air, waiting (always waiting), for his car to round the corner so they could ride off windows down, taking in the sounds of the evening- the crickets, the steady babble of water in the creek bed- taking in the scents of dusty July heat and the sense that this evening would go on forever, as it has. Clearly it has, since she smells it now, hears its sounds, knows what will happen next. And she will go off to college, then go on into the world. And he will go into the navy, and then on into the world. And they will never see each other again, or even want to, but this night will live on in both of them as something ineradicable.’ How beautiful and true- memories of a past love that still pang and hurt with nostalgia although you probably don’t actually want them anymore. This passage rings so true with me; the way a smell or a certain summer night can bring you right back to an ex lover’s passenger seat, back to that love that you can’t believe still exists. Is it really the past if it still lives so clearly and forcefully in your mind? Kitchen grapples with this question throughout The Circus Train as well: ‘The future that never happened alongside the past that did. The ache of it, pinning you to the perpetual present even as it slips away.’

There are memories that make Kitchen believe in time in a different way: ‘This one garden, this one June morning, this one sun beating down, this one tree- this could be mine forever. And forever seems so very real.’ Haven’t we all been here? In such a blissfully happy and beautiful moment that it seems to halt time, seems to speak to the vastness of forever? I too have been in this garden and I too have not wanted to leave it. ‘The time is coming when tense will not matter. What has been will be what is. Will forever be. What we want is to get it all down because we fret about the meaning of things. We care whether our lives are what we think they might have been, whether we have been a little of who we hoped to be. Face it, don’t we- all of us- really want to know whether that train moved across the page in reality or in a dream?’ Yes. By the middle of the book, I too can see that train and its strange colors, moving. Kitchen hypnotizes the reader in this book, easily guides you to think of memory in the same way that she does: ‘She wants to tell them that things will work out or they won’t, and that either way it will have been a life. That the alternative is often just as interesting as what you thought you wanted.’ Do we have to wait until we’re close to death to begin to think this way? To treasure memory so much? Or can we start beforehand? She reaches out to us asking, in a way, the same question: ‘Are you there? Can you hear what I have to tell you? Our lives are finite… and yet. Look at the way they preserve themselves. Think of all the shelves harboring photographs, of the old home movies. Think of the way I can still find my way to the house where I had my first babysitting job. You out there- I hope you’re there, because I need you, I need someone to carry this forward. Whoever you are, I hope you are watching the world go past. Your world, and your inner world within it. Look up. Listen- the water makes a sound as the ferry moves through it. Rips open. Overhead the mayhem of gulls is persistent. Everything persists, even as everything changes. So keep a close watch. I’ll want an accounting.’ What a tremendous gift Kitchen is placing before us: the opportunity to remember in beautiful ways. She believes that we too can write these amazing passages full of nostalgia and sadness. And I know it makes me want to do so. Makes me want to write endless paragraphs about what I remember and what I don’t.

I didn’t want this book to end. But Kitchen ends masterfully just as she’s done everything else: ‘What is your mood as you face each day with a shadow of doubt? The unreconstructured words trailing its tiny ‘if’ behind your every move? Who would you be without the nagging weight on your shoulders? Would you laugh without shame? Or would you simply not realize how light your load was, how bright?’ Kitchen is dying. She’s remembering at the end of her life. But The Circus Train serves as a beacon and reminder that we don’t have to wait. That we can start remembering and writing the memories before we face mortality. We can observe and record for her. I know I will. RIP.

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