I don’t often think of writing as a bodily experience; sometimes when I’m caught in the flow, it’s easy to forget I even have a body, and I suspect I’m not alone in this. Happily, my recent reading of Gayle Brandeis’ visceral new essay collection, “Drawing Breath: Essays on Writing, the Body, and Loss,” caused me to pause and reevaluate the notion that I write only with my mind. “Drawing Breath” is a welcome reminder that bodily experiences drive writing as much as ideas do; the collection is “a map of body and word and the breath that animates and unites them.”
“Drawing Breath” covers a range of topics—the opening essay introduces us to Brandeis as a young girl finding her voice as a writer; this piece is mirrored by another that catalogs her daughter’s first attempts at spelling; by the end of the first section, titled “Eupnea: Quiet Breathing,” we know this is a world where words are magic. As the collection unfolds, it reveals itself as equal parts cultural history, family history and personal history, placing topics such as thigh anxiety, figure skating, her mother’s delusions and eventual suicide, the natural world, divorce, remarriage and childbearing in deep conversation with one another. Following Brandeis’ astute and attuned intellect over this range of subjects is a pleasure.
Brandeis, a Chicago native, is the author of a memoir and five novels, and her facility with language and dedication to craft is on full display. Her keen observations and lyricism allow poignancy and delight to shine through—even when exploring the darkest days of grief and loss, Brandeis welcomes the physical world, tethering herself and her stories to everyday objects. One of my favorite pieces in the collection, “Eating the Food of the Dead,” is a marvel of generosity on the topic of losing loved ones and the experience of integrating that loss into one’s physical body—quite literally through the food they’ve left behind.
Not every essay in the collection hit me with quite the same force (nor would I expect them to; like a good potluck, a collection such as this allows for tastes both divine, mundane, and all points between), but each piece is thought-provoking and illuminating.
The final section of “Drawing Breath,” titled “Apnea: Absence of Breath,” brings the reader into the COVID era. After being diagnosed in early lockdown, presumedly with COVID, Brandeis struggles through months of recovery—no longer ill, but not quite well, either. In these final four pieces, Brandeis weaves together the physical experience of long-haul COVID with the emotional experience of aging. The result is a profound meditation on illness, middle age and slowing down. As she explores the woods near her home in Lake Tahoe, still unable to recover her writing voice in the wake of illness, she muses: “I’ve been thinking about how the phrase ‘going to seed’ has been used in such a negative way, akin to ‘letting oneself go’—why is it so bad to go to seed, when that’s such an act of generosity and hope, sending the stuff of life out so future generations can flourish?” This insight has stuck with me in the days since finishing “Drawing Breath,” much the way a milkweed seed clings to its landing place. Fortunately, Brandeis has breath left in her yet, as this lovely collection blows words of nourishment into the world.
“Drawing Breath: Essays on Writing, the Body, and Loss”
By Gayle Brandeis
Overcup Press, 226 pages, $18.95
Sara Rauch is the author of “What Shines from It: Stories” and the autobiographical essay “XO.” Her author profiles and book reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, Lambda Literary, Los Angeles Review of Books, Curve Magazine, and more. She lives with her family in Massachusetts. www.sararauch.com