Festival Days by Jo Ann Beard

Review by George Yatchisin

There’s an honored and honorable tradition of writers writing to explain why they write, from George Orwell to Joan Didion to Annie Dillard. Jo Ann Beard, author of The Boys of My Youth and In Zanesville, joins that tradition with her elliptical, associative essay “Close,” that is found in her new powerful collection Festival Days. “Close,” which bumps amongst ducks, preparing for an academic talk, a poem by Dennis Nurske, also offers straight forward advice likes this:

“So in order to make art (literature) out of just that—human experiences and emotions—we have to find new and surprising ways to convey our insights. That means we have to have insights, which means we have to think, and that means we have to work to create art out of life, to bring something new to each sentence, a surprise for the reader. Not in a pyrotechnic way, but through intelligence, through our powers of imagination, and through the rigorous refusal to waste a reader’s time.”

Which means the pressure is really on for me as a reviewer, dear reader. But I want to take on that challenge as I want to understand the incredible force of this book, one that made me pause, sigh, gasp, guffaw, and just put the damn thing down when it got to be too much and I needed a breather. It’s a relatively death-obsessed collection (a dog passes four pages in), which means every sentence is about what we want to believe life is. And it makes us question if we care to really feel that (much), really look and listen and live. Take the piece “Cheri,” which captures in precise detail the decline of a woman with cancer, yet offers lines that sting like this, “Even the pain has a sharp, glittering realness to it, like a diamond lodged in her hip.”

The ultimately apt detail isn’t everything for Beard–describing it excruciatingly is. When a woman has to whack an attacker with a shovel during a home invasion in “The Tomb of Wrestling,” here’s how Beard puts it: “It rang, titanium on bone, like a clapper on a bell. She might have thought that the worst sound a shovel hitting a head could make was a melon-like sound, but it wasn’t. This was the worst sound a shovel hitting a person’s head could make–a muffled bell-like gonging, like a gravedigger hitting a rock.”

In many ways Beard is a writer as gravedigger, excavating exactly where the body of each of her stories should rest. Please note I’m offended by own sloppiness using the word “stories” in that last sentence–Beard is sort of infamous for writing nonfiction prose that might put more emphasis on the fiction than most, and then of the two pieces originally billed as short stories in Feast Days, she claims the following in her author’s note, “They are also essays, in their own secret ways, and the essays are also stories.”

So beyond the sheer brilliance of the line-by-line writing, the magic of metaphors snapping the world into right new meanings, Beard also grapples with the ontological—what the heck do we know, and how can we be sure we know it? We are humans, so we tell ourselves stories, of course. Few of us tell them as well as Beard. The truth is as personal as the wind against your face, and she makes you feel it in Iowa, India, Ithaca, whether you’ve ever been to any of those places on the map. Beard makes each real in her carefully carved geography of words.

Her power comes most into focus in the final, title essay of the collection, where she gets most freewheeling yet also never loses the reader. She associates moments throughout her life and metaphors and images and builds everything into brilliant mansions of meaning. The feminist without being polemical “Festival Days” is a travelogue to India, a stirring tribute to a dying friend, a calmly vengeful lament for a dying relationship, and more than anything a portrait of time, sliced, re-arranged, paused, diced, but never ever stopped. Finishing it, I could only wonder, “How could this come to an end?” even knowing Beard had prepared my now wider, open eyes for that, too.