Robert Vivian is a gifted writer and a close and thoughtful observer of nature and people whose best essays from “The Least Cricket of Evening” stand comfortably beside the discourses of Midwestern masters like Joseph Epstein and Scott Russell Sanders.
A Nebraska native who is a professor of English and creative writing at Alma College, he expresses a humble gratitude for landing in his small central Michigan community “like a bolt at the bottom of a toolbox, like a greasy chain on the floor of a pickup.” Despite arriving “without a parachute, without a spare tire” and few expectations, he has rooted there, discovering “that these are in fact your people and where you’ve come from,” that he “might croon a soft savage song made of ragged cornfields and roadkill littering the shoulders of highways every 1.6 miles.”
Frequent lyricism to the contrary, some subsequent essays are very concrete in depicting his (and his family’s) adopted home’s negatives as well as positives. In other essays, he also sends up praises for the benefits of travel to—and even extended sojourns in—faraway places like Turkey, Poland and Hungary. For example, as a Gentile, he reflects upon working as a volunteer to restore a Jewish cemetery, and muses about how it is that Poles today can sing and even dance in the shadows of the crematoria.
Something in this picture seems wrong to a newcomer such as he, to whom the very air is fraught with “a kind of tense waiting” and where “you see or project signs of the Holocaust everywhere like floating seedpods of death from a blackened cottonwood tree…”
But who is he? “You wonder if you’re just another tourist, and suddenly the word is more hateful than racist or bigot.” Who is anyone else to judge the lives of these people? Instead, even in clean, colorful laundry flapping on clotheslines he begins to see “bless-yous at the edge of the world… new dawns and dusks, new bright beginnings for the backs of their wearers.”
In gathering together his works, a writer not only displays his strengths but hazards disclosing his weaknesses. Sometimes the latter are amplified here simply by the arrangement of the material. One notes some few lapses of tense. More seriously, Vivian’s prose can be purplish, caught up in the very rhythm of his language; he is better when he is more sparing, to the benefit of the concrete. Indeed, some essays could use trimming, including killing the occasional metaphor or simile that seems like piling on.
In his essay “Falling into the Arms of a Dervish,” Vivian’s musings about the historic near-eradication of the Armenians in Turkey in the early twentieth century—about the “division and suspicion between peoples and nations that keep breaking out into war and genocide”—unconsciously undermine his anecdotes about how wonderfully Turks accepted with open arms an American stranger.
Nonetheless, these modern Turks did share with him what he experienced as “an almost delirious love,” a demonstrativeness he himself began to manifest, and in interrogating this phenomenon he also interrogates human evils such as genocide. He “came to realize that being at the mercy of others, especially those from a very different background, is a very important and necessary thing to do—perhaps the last and final hope of this world in the twenty-first century.”
These essays are organized under the headings “Hauntings,” “Folk Music” and “Hope,” but no matter what order in which you read them, “the least cricket of evening” gets his due, and hope does spring afresh. (Martin Northway)
“The Least Cricket of Evening”
By Robert Vivian
University of Nebraska Press, paper, 204 pages, $15