'Imagined Spaces' by Kirsty Gunn and Gail Low (published by The Voyage Out Press)
How do you cut into what Elizabeth Chakrabarty terms 'the Trojan horse' of the essay? Whether it's lyrical, discursive, inter-medial, associative, reflective, self-reflexive, or something else not yet defined, from the outset of Imagined Spaces
, the form is as far from the familiar academic expectation as may be dreamed.
What then is this literal try, this attempt, this... what exactly? Gabriel Josipovici, in his essay, On Being Hit on the Head by a Poem
, primes us rather wonderfully: 'your sense of confusion... may be part of what it is about'.
Editors Gail Low and Kirsty Gunn, who are both practising essayists, have given themselves a difficult brief which they choose to partly unpack in their questing, robust introduction. Arguably, their editorial role is in itself a strange one as this book does not operate as a conventional anthology. These essays – some epistolary, some collaborative, some as much image as word – take Paul Klee's famous exhortation to 'take a line for a walk' into unmapped directions. So many are not self-contained but spill out, to reference and to learn and grow from one another. Consider the courageous You by Me: Writing Depression
by Stephen Carruthers and Fiona Stirling, which, as part of its richly layered understanding, extracts and enacts an element from Songs I Can't Play
by Stephanie Bishop.
Taking work, which is by its very nature evolving, into publication presents a particular editorial challenge – but that, too, is entirely true to the essay's character. The exploratory, interconnected sequence of Imagined Spaces
probes and requires a very different way of reading that will take byways through the extensive Notes and Bibliography
as well as re-tracings, re-readings and occasional loops. It feels entirely reader-specific in that way.
For a book of around 200 pages, with so many contributors, this collection is longer than the sifter might first think, being mycorrhiza-like in its scope. Low and Gunn talk of 'essaying into the unknown', where we are 'to be surprised by and into life'. In Proust's terms, this is 'the house we have'. If that unknown place is 'a liminal space between belonging and estrangement', it's exciting to see the teasing out of duality in several of the shared essays.
Home, Ile, Ghar, Hame
, by Tomiwa Folorunso and Hamzah Hussain, investigates where and what that home may be for new Scots of dual heritage, seeking 'to find the equilibrium of this balancing act'. Equally, in Politics of Small Places
, Lorens Holm and Paul Noble find proximity in a witty correspondence across continents, in both image and word. 'I don't think in words, I think out of words,' writes Noble. Worlds apart are also described in the often humorous, lyrical sharing of The Flicker of North
, by Duncan McLean and Kenny Taylor, which finds North on both sides of the Pentland Firth, and beyond. How well their essay ends by not ending, which is surely the essence of what we are now uncovering to be what 'essaying' is all about.
If, at this stage we find ourselves unsettled, less able to contain and define the form than we were at the outset, then surely Imagined Spaces
is achieving its aim. When Susan Nickalls considers Dundee's V&A in Mind the Gap
, she's contemplating Kumo's intentions in designing a building 'hard on the outside, soft on the inside', imbued with the Japanese concept of 'ma'. That space – where 'truth resides in the gaps'.
Chris Arthur draws often and deeply on Eastern poetry and spirituality and here connects with visual artist Graham Johnston in Line Drawing
, exploring the shared pathways of drawing and the essay. When Arthur says of haiku that these poems are 'able to cup their hands around the delicacy of the moment without crushing it', there is a sense that that precision, that fragile yet expansive quality, likewise holds good for what he and Johnston are up to as well. There is something of that beauty, too, in the fragmented, spare, anaphorae spilling through curator Graham Domke's A Leaf Out of Someone's Book
and in Meaghan Delahunt's delicate study of the deathbed's restless nature in her Life in the Bardo: Dying, Death and the Imagination
There's an awkwardness between giving a balanced sense of any anthology, without descending into glorified name counts. Perhaps the reader of Imagined Spaces
comes to know less of the essay's boundaries and more of its vistas. That is to be celebrated here.
Beth McDonough is an artist, author and poet