Book Review: A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Book Review

Though the title of this book is paradoxical, it becomes oddly accurate, as Solnit guides the reader into an introspection and a comfort with not knowing, with being lost. It is one of those text-artifacts that is what it means, in that Solnit not only writes about various ways of getting lost, but has a language that spirals in on itself, refusing clarity in search of a deeper grace. From meditations on blueness, to story-songs that map landscapes, to white settlers (or invaders) taken captive by Native Americans in the 1800s, and through her own flirtation with punk rock, Solnit leads the reader on a fascinating, meandering tour.

Readers could expect this book to be absorbed in geography and landscape, but what is surprising and lovely is the intensity with which Solnit stares beyond these landscapes, into their hidden things. There is much meditation on this book about darkness, about mystery. And though there are many quotes I could choose, I think this one suits my purposes:

“It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own. Scientists too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, ‘live always at the ‘edge of mystery’­—the boundary of the unknown.’ But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.”

The dark sea is of course blue, a color that Solnit constantly re-evokes because of its connection with distance, with lost things: blue—as in the sky, as in the ocean, as in the faraway—is not real, but an intricate mixture of light and desire.

I wondered, after reading this book, about my ability to access the dark blue unknown, to go there and get lost. With my GPS and my cell phone, with email and social media accounts and blogs, with Google tracking all of my website visits and advertisers targeting their online commercials to my preferences, there is no longer the same possibility for being lost: for remaking and renaming oneself; for transformation. It feels crass to bring the buzz of the digital age into conversation with Solnit’s work, which is so deeply engaged with the real and the true of history or nature and never with the cheap, passing fads of popular culture. Still, our post-Enlightenment culture worships science, and with these technologies we all seem to be desperately striving to make the unknown known, to haul in all of the mystery and desire we can find, map it, tag it, and monetize it.

I left Facebook for a matter of months and some of my friends behaved as though I had left the world, had gone missing. In the summer during this hiatus a more iconoclastic, nomadic friend passed through town and we met at an arranged time and place because he had discarded his cell phone somewhere between North Carolina and Utah. We found each other but got lost in the park where we walked, forgetting the time along the way. We discussed trust and how leaving digital life is a form of going astray; there comes a doubt, a frustration, from others who would prefer you to be always found. I would like to say that losing a cell phone or an online account is like getting lost in Solnit’s sense, but it is only a taste of that underworld; further transformation cannot take place with so many watching. Much of A Field Guide tells stories of hermitage, of reveling in solitude.

Solnit recognized the anxiety we have historically felt about getting lost, about separation from community, about the unknown. But seven years after she published this book, I have to think that anxiety has been amplified with our fixation on digital identities. Recently I recreated my Facebook profile and was instructed many times, in the imperative, to “find friends”. Today Google+ informed me, after I added three Broad! editors to my circle for a virtual meeting, that I “might be lonely!” if I didn’t contact more people. I think if we are anxious about getting lost, with its implications of loneliness and separation, we are now even more fearful of being lost, of not being remembered in an age when every moment can be simultaneously archived forever and forgotten immediately, buried under so much that is happening in the present. But to continue with Solnit’s paradox, I hope A Field Guide to Getting Lost never will be lost or forgotten; it is an increasingly relevant work of literature that promises to endure.

Three Women Who Turned Me On to Spoken-Word Poetry

Feminism, Lit

I’m a relative newcomer to the world of spoken word and slam poetry. Spending sleepless nights pouring over Neruda, it never really occurred to me that poetry, when performed out loud, could draw fervent crowds. Discovering the phenomenon of poetry slams was pretty exciting: this thing that I’d always loved in an obscure, solitary way was suddenly resonant to a whole roomful of people. I loved the immediacy of it, the way the reaction to a poem was made palpable. However, I think a lot of people have a misconception of spoken word that it’s something like the hilarious parody on the webseries Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl (look it up). While there is indeed performance poetry that bad, I think it’s really just as diverse as any other genre. Here are some of ladies whose voices I’m in love with.

Andrea Gibson

… The doctor who stitched me up asked me if I did it for attention.

For the record:

if you have ever done anything for attention

this poem is a tension.

Title it with your name.

It will scour the city bridge every night you spend kicking at your shadow, staring at the river,

it does not want to find your body doing anything but loving what it loves.

My first encounter with spoken word poetry was a prolonged Andrea Gibson youtube binge. My sister recommended her to me the winter of my freshman year of college, when I happened to be struggling with a severe bout of depression. I felt raw and messy, and Andrea was an antidote because she was raw and incisive — it was consoling that someone could be at once so vulnerable and so powerful, both emotive and lucid.

A writing instructor at a workshop I attended said that “to write about sadness is generous.” For me, Andrea Gibson embodies that generosity. That’s not to say she’s melancholic — she can just as easily be funny or wry or angry or ecstatic. But in a culture where “navel-gazing” or “oversharing” seem to be amongst the worst vices a writer — particularly a female writer — can commit, she is a testament to the power of candor, of emotional authenticity.

Stylistically, the most apt description I can come up with for Gibson’s poetry and performance is “effortless lyricism.” For all the nuances of her craft — wordplay, metaphor, her literal voice and inflection — there is always this sense of instinct, of ease. Andrea Gibson’s reality is one where the girls she loves float through her bloodstream and hang on her “monkey-bar” ribcage. She wants to give you glimpses of it.

Lenelle Moïse

… Some thirsty throats cope,

manage dirges in Cajun, in Zydeco

out-of-state kin can’t get through

refugees, refugees

remember ruined homes

a preacher remembers the book of revelations

still, saviors wait to save

and the living wade with the countless dead

while the wealthy president flies overhead, up where brown people look-

up where brown people look like spoiled jumbalaya, stewing from a distance in their down-there distress…

I’d seen her before. She had this warm, full, throaty voice and an electric physical presence. She managed to have full command of the audience’s attention and at the same time engage us naturally in her performance: using call and response, asking questions, and just maintaining an energy and intimacy that’s often inhibited by “the fourth wall.” I was struck by the way she wove her poems seamlessly into her speech — segues from story to story. She was poignant, radical, funny, down-to-earth, and thoroughly innovative onstage. The evening left me with completely new (and frankly more positive) connotations for the term “performance art.” The piece was also, very genuinely, a catalyst for political thought and discussion, though Lenelle never hits you over the head with an an agenda.

A playwright and actress as well as a poet, Moïse merges genres, working vocal jazz, movement, and storytelling techniques into her poetry performance. She writes about growing up Haitian-American, bullies, first crushes, sexuality, hate crime, Hurricane Katrina, gender, language, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. She’s fierce as fuck, and you should hear what she has to say.

Rachel McKibbens

Go with the one who loves you biblically.

The one whose love lifts its head to you despite its broken neck.

Whose body bursts sixteen arms electric to carry you,

gentle, the way

old grief is gentle. Love the love that is messy in all its too much,

the body that rides best your body, whose mouth saddles

the naked salt of your far gone hips,

whose tongue translates the rock

language of

all your elegant scars.

Go with the one who cries out for his tragic sisters as he

chops the winter’s wood, the one whose skin

triggers your heart into a heaven of blood waltzes.

I came across Rachel McKibbens back in April, while participating in the National Poetry Month poem-a-day challenge — she was posting enormously helpful prompts on her blog for every day of the month. The “ex-punk rock chola” has serious spoken word credentials: she was 2009 Women of the World Slam champion, an eight-time National Poetry Slam team member, and a three time NPS finalist. McKibbens is a versatile poet; her dark, spare, and brutally beautiful work is as visceral on the page as it is at the mic, delivered in her distinct, ragged voice. I think that her insights on both “page poetry” and slam poetry are telling. Of spoken word, she says, “[I]t certainly taught me a lot about cadence, rhythm and sound. I’ve been a syllable counter since the day I understood words. Sonics are extremely important to me. And timing. I don’t think you can really learn these things in their entirety unless it’s on a microphone. Reading it aloud to yourself in your home is not the same as knowing how to honor your poem by reading it to an audience properly. Many page poets don’t read their poems correctly. I’ve heard brilliant pieces of writing fall flat because the reader didn’t learn the poem’s voice.” However, she also notes, “I have never played to win… I have only ever played to change the game,” and insists “in slams, I approach a poem exactly as I do at readings. I stand at the mic, and I read my poem. That’s it.”

Rachel McKibbens is acclaimed in both spoken word and “book poet” circles because in her work, the muscle of the language is apparent regardless of what form it takes. While it makes sense to sometimes assess performed and written poetry differently, I think that it’s important to remember that cliques not withstanding, it’s all poetry. I am interested in poetry, period, and at the end of the day I don’t care whether it’s written or spoken just as long as splits my head open.

How to Stay in Love with a Broken World


This essay is my contribution to Molly Templeton’s How-To Issue project, a response to the gender inequality in the New York Times Book Review 2012. You can read about how the How-To Issue started here. You can also read this post over at the Issue.

1. Allow yourself to face the problems. The world is far from perfect. Mitt Romney will run for president and announce an extreme right-wing running mate who thinks Ayn Rand’s economic philosophy is inspirational. A mass murderer will kill twelve people in a movie theater, and another will shoot up a Sikh temple during worship. The New York Times Book Review, in 2012, will act like the feminist movement never happened and only publish two how-to essays by women: “How to Cook a Clam” and “How to Raise Your Kids.”

2. Get angry about these events, and release your anger. Don’t let it seep into your bloodstream and poison you into sullenness; let it out. Rant at the television news anchors, call and vent to a friend, write a journal entry. If you’re going to make empty threats, make them original. Threatening to move to Canada is so 2004.

3. Stop ranting. Transform the sparks of your anger into intelligent, well-argued statements aimed at people of influence, such as voters and congressmen. Make the phone calls; write the letters. That is, if you’re not actually moving to Canada.

4. Remind yourself to look at the beauty. A woman in Afghanistan found a way to get hydroelectric power to her village. A recent college graduate is traveling around the world doing favors for people. A freaking Adele song woke a British girl up from a coma. The American Cancer Society was able to give $5.5 million to Illinois researchers, double what they gave last year.

5. Do not spend too much time questioning the beautiful things. Avoid criticizing them because they are smaller than the seemingly insurmountable problems, or because they could be more beautiful, or because they do not represent a whole and perfect solution. Just acknowledge them, and be grateful.

6. Expect solutions instead of more problems. A cynic expects people to be self-interested, and avoids doing anything out of a philosophy that creating solutions is not worthwhile. Instead, expect people to be generous. They often are. If you sometimes meet with disappointment, you are still bound to have more success than someone who did nothing because she was pre-disappointed.

7. Create more beauty. Don’t be overwhelmed with the idea that you must create perfection, or solve a large and complicated problem with one solution. This is how people grow passive. Just begin with something small: a newspaper article, a piece of art, a favor for a stranger. Meet up with other people who are creating similar beautiful things. Focus on what you’re creating, and on crafting solutions, instead of being at war with the problems. Invite more people, expect their generosity, and be grateful. This is how to stay in love with a world that seems broken: to become the part of it that seeks wholeness.