The best book by our best living literary essayist, An Elemental Thing
 by Eliot Weinberger got scant attention when it was published in 2007. As is sometimes the case with significant American writers, Weinberger’s reputation may be greater abroad
Elemental%20Thing.jpg than at home. Certainly his work has been translated into umpteen languages (including Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, and Maori). I recently reread An Elemental Thing
 and was knocked out again and surprised by what I missed the first time.

The book’s sequence of short essays covers an astonishing range of subjects, from wind to rhinoceros to lizards, from Aztecs to Romans to Mandaeans. Empodecles and “the ox-herding boy” are presiding spirits of sorts, drifting in and out of multiple essays. Parallel essays elaborating the seasonal activities of a T’ang Dynasty Chinese court give structure to the book as a whole.
What makes the essays so remarkable, besides their astounding learnedness (James Laughlin, the editor of New Directions, once said that Weinberger was the most erudite person he’d met since Ezra Pound), is their formal innovation. Each essay is utterly distinct. Everything Weinberger has learned from a lifetime’s obsession with poetry he brings to bear on the essay. Laughlin’s comparison comes to mind in part because Weinberger has cracked open the essay form in as dramatic a way as Ezra Pound cracked open the poem in the early 20th century.
Precipitous juxtapositions, heuristic leaps, lists, anaphoric incantation, cultural rhymes, onomatopoeia, parallel structures, strong syntactical shifts, refusals of closure, kennings, textual patterning on the page, and merciless understatement characterize the essays. Also, Weinberger empathetically heaps our plate with the facts of life as they are perceived by non-Western cultures, and he does so without relying on those patronizing qualifications—“they believe,” etc.—so often used to distinguish non-scientific modes of experience and explanation. Thus, in “Muhammad,” we read: “He never soiled his clothes; whatever passed naturally from him was instantly received and concealed by the earth. He never smelled disagreeably, but gave off a fragrance of camphor and musk. At three months, he sat up; at nine months, he walked; at ten months, he went out with his foster-brothers to pasture the sheep….”
Often elements from one essay are swirled into the configuration of another. For
Eliot Weinberger in China, 2007
instance, the reader is likely to associate an essay titled “Wind and Bone” with an earlier essay, “The Wind.” In “Wind and Bone,” an advisor tells a Chinese emperor that the wind he feels “is a wind for your majesty alone.” Any reader familiar with Pound’s Cantos
 will recall Pound’s “No wind is the king’s wind” and link this allusion to Pound references in other essays. Meanwhile, Weinberger goes on to mention Chang Hua, whose name connects him to an earlier essay, “Chang,” concerning (well, you have to read it) a bunch of men named Chang. The last line of “Wind and Bone”—“The metaphor for the ideal poem is a bird”—relates it to an essay called “Wrens.” This cycling of themes and references typifies the movement not only of the essays, but of the writing as a whole. Perhaps the book’s overriding compositional metaphor is the vortex; two of the most compelling essays, “Tree of Flowers” and “Vortex,” develop that image into a cosmogony.
It’s curious to note how ecstasy and carnage often mingle in the final sentences of these essays, despite (or not) that a number of them are concerned with creation. Weinberger tracks cycles of human violence and dreaming as, like huge vortical whirlwinds, they stalk each other across the widening desert tracts of human history.
Finally, though, it’s Weinberger’s attentiveness to particularity, to the particularity of our species, its dreams and literatures and landscapes, that makes the essays so rich. The brilliant net of details that Weinberger casts and recasts in his various inventive approaches to form is precisely what constitutes a superlative poetic imagination. And it’s what holds the essays—and us—trembling and raging and hallucinating together.
I’ll end with a beginning. These are the opening lines of the essay “The Stars”:
The stars: what are they?          They are chunks of ice
reflecting the sun;           they are lights afloat on the
waters beyond the transparent dome;          they are nails
nailed to the sky;          they are holes in the great curtain
between us and the sea of light;          they are holes in
the hard shell that protects us from the inferno beyond;
they are the daughters of the sun;          they are the
messengers of the gods;          they are shaped like wheels
and are condensations of air with flames roaring through
the spaces between the spokes;          they sit in little chairs;

Originally Published: September 10th, 2008

Born in California’s Mojave Desert, poet Forrest Gander grew up in Virginia and attended the College of William & Mary, where he majored in geology. After earning an MA in literature from San Francisco State University, Gander moved to Mexico, then to Arkansas, where his poetry—informed by his knowledge of...

  1. September 11, 2008
     Vivek Narayanan

    Truly an amazing book. The way the whole thing builds is wild.

  2. September 12, 2008
     Linh Dinh

    Interviewed by Kent Johnson, Weinberger discussed the essay:
    The essay strikes me as unexplored territory in English. With a few exceptions, it is either stuck in the 18th century narrative model – now called the 'personal essay’ with its various sub-genres (travel writing, personal journalism, memoir) – or in standard literary criticism. The exceptions – in English – have been mainly poets (D.H. Lawrence, Pound, Olson, to name a few obvious ones) or writers close to the poetry world (such as Dahlberg and Metcalf). These days, amidst an overpopulation of everything, there are, as far as I know, only two writers doing anything interesting or new with the essay form: Guy Davenport and Susan Howe.
    I can’t understand this at all, as the essay seems to me to have unlimited potential. It doesn’t need a first person; it can stretch toward pure narrative or the prose poem or the documentary; anything is possible. In writing essays, I only follow one rule, which is that all the information is independently verifiable. Contrary to what some people think, I never make anything up. Faux-erudition was done brilliantly and wonderfully by Borges and Nabokov. There’s no reason to do it again, particularly when the real world is strange enough.

  3. September 12, 2008

    There's a review of this book in the current Harvard Review.

  4. September 12, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    To Forrest's fine comments on Eliot Weinberger as singular innovator and explorer of the essay form, I think it's relevant to add that Weinberger has long been, in U.S. poetic circles, one of the premier practitioners of the "polemical essay," too. And I'd say it's a major reason his work gets far more kudos abroad than it does here: Since his scathing, funny broadside against Language poetry back in the 80s, his name is more or less verboten among that group and its younger acolytes. Similarly, an essay like "What Was Formalism," put him on the enemies list of the New Criterion/New Formalist crowd. And his satirical send-ups of soft-surrealist-confessional workshop verse didn't much endear him to that sociological formation, either. Other examples of pomposity popping could easily be mentioned.
    So like most principled satirists (though satire's just one dimension of his work), he's paid a proud punitive price.
    One other important thing about Weinberger: There is no other American poet, critic, or literary essayist who has had a more significant readership in regards to the imperial fiascoes of the Bush Administration. While the protests of poets here (sometimes internecine, in the case of the older Language poets at the start of the Iraq war) have been more or less impotent and ignored, Weinberger's many essays and his Reznikoff-like epic, What I Heard about Iraq, have been translated into dozens of languages (the latter even adapted, to great acclaim, for the stage), published in scores of major newspapers and magazines, read by millions, and had a real influence on political discourse at the international level.
    Sometimes the writers neglected in their own countries and times turn out to be the ones fated to be most remembered. Though nothing new there...