Karen Salyer McElmurray
Voice Lessons: Essays
Iris Press / 2021 / 128 pp / $20
Reviewed by Elaine Neil Orr
The longest and most expensive journey you will ever make is the one to yourself.
–Jill McCorkle, Life After Life
Karen McElmurray’s new essay collection chronicles her life as a girl and woman searching for home. Her story moves us across hazardous terrain full of detours and by-roads. The scenes feel so visceral, this reader could almost feel the pen in the writer’s hand or hear her strokes on a keyboard. While the scope of the journey fans out wide and long, the book is not particularly long. Like other women writers who have struggled to find voice (I think particularly of Tillie Olsen and her stories in Tell Me a Riddle), McElmurray presses much life into her pages. Some of these essays are packed tight as backpacks one might carry on a weekend trek; the first essay covers a day and is three pages. Other essays range further: “Strange Tongues,” in the center of the collection is twelve pages and focuses on the author’s mother, beginning in the present but reaching back into the far and troubled past. A sense of urgency inflects the sentences throughout this collection. McElmurray knows what she has suffered, what she has lost, and where redemption and rejoicing may still be found.
The collection is loosely structured chronologically, through the author’s life, in sections titled: “Before I Was Born”; “In the Wayback”; “Learn-ed”; “Just Afore Dark”; and “Come Morning.” But the essays work on the reader more like multiple rings in water that swell out and intersect each other because McElmurray returns over and again to the touchstones of her life, from a son given up to adoption when the author was fifteen, to the saving grace of women’s writing, to houses and their discontents, and to a sense of self rooted in Appalachia.
The title essay, “Voice Lessons,” circles around the author’s family members and their stories. Woven in are church songs, outlawed songs, the sound of tires on the road: “the highway-voice of memory. Tires whishing rain. The low hang of electric wires over a road packed with snow and I am driving, driving, stoned and full of visions of home.” Even with all these voices, there is “longing in [the author’s] mouth.”
Vignette by vignette, McElmurray collects memories—visual ones, tonal ones, memories of escape, of return. Two vignettes focus on the womb: the one the author occupies before birth and the one her son occupies before his birth and her surrender of him. This circles within circles (the womb inside the endometrium inside the myometrium, inside the peritoneum) is the closest we get to the writer directly evoking the female body as a source of voice, perhaps of craft. We know that voice begins pre-birth: the mother’s heartbeat, even sounds such as music outside the mother’ body. For better and for worse, these circle us in our first homes. Our brains begin to form. Perhaps even our voices. At the end of the title essay, McElmurray returns to the sulfur well at the back of her maternal grandmother’s house. The sulfur water “left our palms the color of rust,” McElmurray writes. Referring to her girlhood, to the time she spent with her grandmother, the author concludes, “Again and again, I give that time a name, and I sing it, a song full of sorrow and joy.” While this sentence comes in the middle of the book, it is in a way a conclusion, or at least it is a sounding note of the collection. This book of essays is a song of “sorrow and joy.”
There was a point in the 1980s when theories about a female, or feminine, language flourished, led by Helene Cixous (“l’ecriture feminine”); Janet Wolff (Feminine Sentences); Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Goldberger, Mary Field Belenky, and Jill Mattuck Tarule (Women's Ways of Knowing). Monique Wittig wrote an experimental novel in which large circles took up entire pages. As feminist theory became more heterogeneous (less white, less gender normative), we began to understand that most of what feminists in the U.S. and Western Europe were conjecturing had to do with straight, white women. Womanists such as Alice Walker conjectured on the connection between quilting and writing, inter-related forms of women’s textuality. Reading McElmurray’s collection and her witness to what the poetry of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath offered her, I find myself retrieving these theories. The widening and overlapping circles of McElmurry’s essays do seem, if not a woman’s way of writing, at least an exercise in craft that is kin to traditional female arts: quilting, for example, weaving, basket making, even cooking.
Every essay in this collection does hard work and, in that way, pays homage to McElmurray’s people: people who worked farms, mines, gardens; worked in kitchens, scoured floors, fixed motors, scrubbed laundry. Many of the essays center a topic and move through the writer’s entire life, or much of it. “Smart,” in the section, “Learn-ed,” is an example. Early in life, McElmurray understands she is intellectually capable, but she is not always respected for her particular intellectual “brew.” In graduate school, she attends feminist potlucks but keeps her working class background to herself. She won’t tell anyone that she knows how to change a tire. A few essays zero in on a key moment or traumatic period, a particular place. “Elixir” conjures the writer’s struggle with cancer and stays close to her bodily experience.
“My Mother, Breathing” focuses on a visit the author makes to see her mother, who, in late life, suffers dementia yet still lives in the house that was once the author’s grandparents’ home. “The house looks smaller, as if it’s drawn into itself out of loneliness.” The essay weaves together the mother’s increasing debilitation and the degradation of the land around Prestonberg, and this mountainous region generally, from coal production first and now commercial development. Reading these sentences, we are carried by McElmurray’s mind as she moves associatively from mother to land.
Much is new to the author in this trip—strip malls, stores; but none of it is good. The writer remembers other towns nearby, their histories vanished or vanishing. She takes care of the mother who could not take care of her as a girl, could not sooth her, sit with her, though the mother cleaned incessantly. On this trip, the author combs her mother’s hair, takes her shopping, changes her sheets. A final memory brings McElmurray close to peace, but the peace is hard-won.
McElmurray’s honesty is a cause for celebration: that women can tell their stories. That we can conjure the good and the bad, expose the imperfections of home, lay bare the multiple ways we have failed the test of being quiet, deferential, too ashamed to speak. And yet at the same time, the collection points to the ways women have been, at times, too unsure of our material, too unsure of our right to speak, to be heard. McElmurray succeeds precisely because she will not defer, will not hush up about the pain, the sadness, the loss. She will wrest the story from the well, from her grandmother’s braid, from the road, from her own hands. In her poem, “Kathe Kollwitz,” Muriel Rukeyser writes:
What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open.
Karen McElmurray tells the truth about her life. This book holds that truth. Ultimately, Voice Lessons sings with righteousness because an artist found her voice. She found it. She nurtured it. And she gave it to us. We are richer for it.
Elaine Neil Orr is the author of five books, including a memoir and two novels. Her work appears in The Missouri Review, Blackbird, Shenandoah, Image Journal, and storySouth, among other places. She has served on the faculty of the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University since 2003. She is also professor of literature at N.C. State University in Raleigh, where she lives with her husband and their dog, Sammy. She is a white American who was born and grew up in Nigeria.