By Chelsey Clammer
Red Hen Press, 2017
Circadian by Chelsey Clammer is a book that pushes boundaries – of genre, of subject and of the author’s own experiences. This collection of essays that defies classification does not offer clear answers or smooth narratives, but this quality echoes and deepens its heavy subject matter. Even as the work confronts very dark moments – the death of an alcoholic father, sexual assault – Clammer’s writing shimmers, shifting from one moment to the next, lyric, matter-of-fact, and often irreverent. This is a satisfying, challenging read that may deeply impact readers whose experiences overlap with the author’s.
The form of the essays changes from one to the next, creating a book that confronts the reader as boldly as Clammer confronts her past. Each essay seems to grab the reader and say, “You thought you’d figured things out? Ha!” before plunging on into another form, another facet of the author’s life and mind. The book begins as a list of bullet points that switches between fact (“A handle of 80-proof vodka contains 3,830 calories.”) and intimate details of the author’s family life (“A fifty-two-year-old businessman with no college degree who is fired because he drinks on the job possibly does not know how to solve the problem, either. Perhaps he doesn’t care to. Perhaps his life is a concept he will never get”). Many of the essays that follow hold some similarity to this: facts of either a personal or general nature, musings about life or language, all interspersed with visceral moments from the author’s life. Even so, the essays are unpredictable, veering unexpectedly from page to page, but somehow holding together. An essay that begins with Lazy Susan delves into the shifting sexism of words and language and the author’s own witty invented lexicon.
At the same time, though the form is varied, the personal elements of the book are heavily focused on two tight knots of the author’s experience: the death of her alcoholic father and her later sexual assault. While there are certainly other moments and characters explored, most of the essays contain one or both of these moments. Indeed, Circadian lives up to its title in this regard: it is cyclical, returning again and again to the same places, to the same pain.
The book is fearless, even in its confrontation of fear and trauma. In “A Striking Resemblance”, Clammer explores the obsessive feelings that she has for the man who assaulted her, and is not afraid to examine how closely these feelings skirt infatuation.
“Because I want to talk about lightning.
I want to talk about that magnetic moment.
I want to talk about him.
I want to talk about how he imprinted himself on my skin, how my veins still rattle with him.”
Often, the poetry of Clammer’s words is stark against with the violence of the moment. Or perhaps, it carries with it a closer understanding for the reader. She revisits the moment again and again, in great detail, pushing further into it with her language. The book is challenging, and Clammer knows this. She explores it extensively in “Trigger Warning”, in which she questions whether these warnings should be given, and how trauma always noses its way unexpectedly into daily life, how triggers are impossible to avoid.
The book is not all darkness, tragedy and trauma. It provides numerous respits, enough humor and philosophizing and little known facts, to give the reader moments to breathe. It is peppered with history and fact and wordplay. There is enough joy in the small things to show an author who has gained, at least fleetingly, some distance from her past. Still, as Circadian circles the same moments again and again, we do not follow Clammer to some sort of triumphant transformation. This book makes it clear how slow the grief and recovery are, how little reprieve is found, but how life and joy and art and humor continue on in spite of and often because of these traumas.–Amelia White