Erica Trabold. Five Plots. Seneca Review Books (Hobart and William Smith Colleges Press), November 2018. $15.99.
“The logic of permanent marker…”
“The logic of the return…”
The logic of…
If I could name the logic of Five Plots, Erica Trabold’s debut essay collection, perhaps it is the logic of small cuts—stinging paper-thin slices, red lines etched by prairie grasses. These cuts shape bodies, identities, and landscapes. In the tradition of the literature of place and as the inaugural winner of the Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize, selected by John D’Agata, Trabold’s essay collection honors the remnants of the Nebraska prairie of her childhood as well as the trauma, the small scrapes and dings, that make us who we are, even as they roughen our edges, make us vulnerable, and write our emplaced stories. Five Plots is a deeply personal excavation, but it also generatively and generously decenters the self from a much thicker set of concerns.
To start in the middle, Trabold’s meticulously crafted “A List of Concerns” functions as a lynchpin, the third of five essays in the slim volume. The orderliness of the list understates the complexity of the textual fabric. It is about growing up and survival, leaving and returning home, small violences and apologetic silences. It’s impossible to extricate person from landscape as the native prairie flowers cling to existence and children attempt to write their futures, experiencing the trauma of cuts on skin, on psyche, on landscape, on friendships, on memory. Trabold highlights the violence done to the prairie—sunflowers wilted, goldenrod picked and discarded—only to realize that the violence hasn’t just touched the land; it is also self-inflicted. She realizes, “I felt I had been cutting through it, waving my arms for the exit, for too long.” The essay operates transversally, cutting across places and relationships, as she stretches to escape.
Perhaps, though, Five Plots operates under the logic of freckles. Less violent than cuts, freckles leave marks that may be felt just as deeply. Even as Trabold’s freckles mark her face with traces of summer and Nebraska sun, so do histories and memories mark both identity and place. Trabold circles back to the marks we make and that are made on us: freckles mistaken for dirt, a permanent marker shaping exclamation points, plots carved into the earth. “Borrow Pits” excavates a researched history of bulldozers and man-made lakes, of suburban neighborhoods where prairie grasses once stood taller than fences. The changes to the Nebraska landscape have been both tragically swift and excruciatingly unobserved.
The history of the prairie cannot be understood in the years of childhood. Although the essay “Borrow Pits” covers three hundred years, it catalogues only a blip on the larger timeline. So, perhaps the collection follows the logic of generations. Trabold’s canvas for “Canyoneering” is that of striations of earth, with layers of dirt and time compounded by unyielding pressure. The prehistoric bear carved from the erosion of millennia and rock and wind and rain. In Trabold’s view, place and identity are impossibly entangled, and neither one is coherent in a single lifetime. Identity and place are complicated by the relationships that span not only generations, but also deaths, adoptions, relocations, and reunions. They are generationally determined.
So perhaps it is the logic of loss that a reader notices, especially a loss of things you never knew and certainly never knew you could lose. In “Tracks,” Trabold finds herself shivering in a hunting stand, contemplating an unknown future for both the deer and for herself, an unknown that is anchored in a present loss. It is the loss of the prairie ecosystem, an embodied betrayal, that we don’t even realize has occurred because we never knew what it looked like or how it felt in the first place. The logic of loss brings us back to the logic of cuts, with every violence and trauma, small or big, inflicted by what we’ve buried and the things that are beyond memory.
Perhaps, then, it is the logic of burial that conducts the collection, of being immersed and engulfed, of returning to earth in a compost of self and place. “Five Plots,” the book’s titular essay, may refer to the family’s burial plots (including the cat’s), the collection’s five essays, the deaths sprinkled throughout the pages, or the five generations of Trabold’s family on the Nebraska prairie. The title, shared by essay and collection, might refer to the plots of time and the laying to rest of earth, nature, culture, sediment, and millennia. Diving into these plots, these canyons, “You don’t know the history of every formation, but you can allow yourself to enjoy the reprieve, the soda straws, the water pooling on your skin, the evaporation lines.”
Trabold reminds readers that we are in a moment in which our relations to our world are being questioned—or, more concernedly, not being questioned as much as they could be. In the wake of posthumanisms and new materialisms, we are being asked to rethink the logic of the Anthropocene and its implications for both humans and nonhumans. This theoretical backdrop asks us to reconsider the ways we dwell with/in spaces and the ways we interact with the distribution of ambient agencies in a larger surround. Trabold’s collection can be read as an embrace of these movements. She refuses to participate in a flattened understanding of relations between human and environment or identity and place, instead constructing her “own menagerie” of reciprocity and permeability—a sense that there is no clear distinction between the edges and the center. Trabold’s voice is gentle but insistent. And it calls for us to recognize the liveliness of place that already inhabits us rather than the other way around.