Fugitive Assemblage, a novel by Jennifer Calkins, reviewed by Dave Karp

Jennifer Calkins’ Fugitive Assemblage is a prose-poetic narrative of a female narrator’s quest, always “on the wrong track,” to flee from present trauma and painful memory onto the roads of California, roads she will travel to both figuratively and literally bury what she has lost. The narrator surreptitiously flees the hospital, an IV in her body, and hits the road with something wrapped in bloody plastic in her trunk that we later learn is the body of her stillborn child. She begins with a kind of intention: “Head north to the valley where the rusted remains of my great grandfather’s farming tools lay beneath the soil” in order to bury the body with her ancestors. But quickly the trip north becomes wayward, veering toward the coast and a rendezvous with memories of a past surfer lover, the father’s child. The story that ensues is populated with motels and desk clerks, motorcyclists, gas stations, and outlooks, but what dominates the text are the narrator’s thought about her past, about her present journey and her evocation of a host of female ancestors’ rage in the face of death and deprivation. The book is resolutely subjective: people and places along the drive sometimes magnify into offhand symbols of longing and grief and help us track how the narrator arrives at her grimly persistent embrace of life. And yet, on balance, what the book leaves us with is a sense that the personal journey, however profound, is a footnote to the great emptiness of European California history.

From the start, Fugitive Assemblage is compellingly propulsive even if it is not always clear that the narrator knows where or why she propels herself. Part of what compels us is the work’s visceral mental and physical topography. Each place the narrator passes is vividly evoked. Here is a passage where the narrator reflects on the madness of her quest; even that reflection, distant from present events, is bracingly concrete:

This is the thing. I did not know what I was doing, only that it was the color of heartbreak in a little locked box. I could imagine I, we, hadn’t created this thing in the trunk, that I’d only found it, blood on the crushed sheet, the color of a crushed flea. The driving sand the cold blast from the north the wind-beaten hill the white tent Juliet Brier’s memory of the crossing. Northeast of where I stood, retching. Over the backbone of the Coast Ranges and the Sierra Nevada. My grandfather’s childhood, closer in, San Joaquin. Near the doorway to Yosemite. Dust and ashes. Waves rolling the rocks until they were sand, and then smaller. Crushed exoskeletons, cast up ashore. My body beaten by the surf. His body skating above it. But I wasn’t going in this time. The water is their chaos

Amid so much more, note the imagery of the dead child’s body: “blood on the sheet, the color of a crushed flea” and later the “crushed exoskeletons, cast up ashore by the waves.” Action abounds, stated or suggested: the narrator retches, there is the counterpoint of the narrator, “My body beaten by the surf” while the surfer lover “skate(s) above it.” And there are the allusions, words from the past that intensify the physicality of this memory: “the driving sand the cold blast from the north the wind-beaten hill the white tent.” Holding it all together is precise syntax, named geography. There are dozens of passages like this that make us wince and believe.

The way this book is assembled expands its impact. Partly this is simply a matter of the way Calkins chooses to tell this story, as a road trip, an archetypal American narrative matched by the familiar landscape of California, which even we who have never been to the state recognize. On this trip, the motels at which the narrator stops become stages in her journey, places where, struggling with lost love, she endures hours of listening to sex from another room or, later, where she is released enough from her melancholy to eat her first full meal of the book. There are also a few fellow travelers sketched in. Early in the book, “[a] man pulled up on a Harley Davidson and parked next to my car. Blue bandanna in his dirty blond hair, jeans so filthy they seemed to be made of earth and boots.” Enraged, holding her keys “like a weapon, ready to slice in the air,” the narrator looks at him and finds instead of a leering male: “Such a sweet smile, teeth broken on the left side. He confused me, so unguarded and everyone should be on guard ….” This image of surprising vulnerability suggests the yearning for another she still has to process. Later, in an overlook where a Harley pulls up, she looks again for the rider but discovers something and someone else:

But the rider was not the sweet faced man, it was a woman, lean, sunburned, jeans and cowboy boots, a tight black t-shirt, long brown hair braided down her back and glasses reflecting the sun, reflected by the water, filtered by the leaves, absorbed by the wood of the deck.

Now the rider is an emblem of stoic resilience, closer to the scabbed-over emotional state the narrator arrives at that allows her to endure.

If this book simply recorded an emotional journey, it would be well worth reading. But the allusions and motifs that run through the book further do more than magnify the narrator’s journey. References to the narrator’s great-grandmother, who, abandoned by her husband, considered drowning her children but chose not to loom over the trip, paralleling the narrator’s own struggle with destruction or self-destruction. Dozens of italicized fragments drawn from letters, diaries, journals reinforce the ubiquity of death and sickness:

Each mile cost seventeen lives (17)

Weak in both body and mind, many feral diseases amongst us, crazed (36)

There was a body once (54)

nothing but stuck in this blustery room of my mind (68)

a sort of mountain fever, fear comes like a sudden desolation (97)

References to the land, its geology, flora, and fauna abound, giving us a glimpse of the way Europeans have come to understand and exploit California but also of its recalcitrant hazards. Primarily in the latter part of the book we find a whole substructure of allusions to witchcraft and the persecution of witches:

a young maid had such strange passions and convulsions, three men could not sometimes hold her (79)

steal young children, with the help of demons (91)

and if by chance, having some such disease, she were found to be with child, she and her brood were buried alive (103)

These are just a few strains of the historical, literary, and biblical allusions that punctuate the main text. Patterns like these locate the narrator’s story within a larger story of California as an archetypal but false Canaan, a land of bitter dreams. And cumulatively they both underline the gendered struggle of the narrator’s journey and dwarf it, making the narrator’s grief seem both of a piece with and a faint echo of a host of ancestral sorrows and angers.

Powerful as they are, however, none of the patterns of allusions Calkins includes in this text cohere into full narratives. The history they record is much like the photos that punctuate the book—sometimes on-the-nose in illustrating what is happening, but more often evocative and anonymous. Both allusions and photos evanesce like tracks on the beach. Thus, it is fitting that one of the key events in the narrator’s journey, the ultimate burial of her stillborn child, happens as it does, not in a family graveyard or any other obviously meaningful place, but almost offhand in a lot behind a gas station. There is no destination to arrive at, no family farm or burial plot that leaves a trace anywhere except memory in this modern California that, having erased indigenous and almost every other history, continues to demand that the past disappear into archives to make way for the present. The book’s title, Fugitive Assemblage, in part echoes Wayne Sousa’s remarks on how alien species wedge themselves into an ecosystem when “disturbance generate[s] colonizable space.” The implication is that pioneering Euro-Americans made that disturbance, with the result that their own stories are precarious, frangible, and liable to vanish even as they are made. Calkins’ narrator moves through just such disturbed space and, struggling with her own story, summons up the many ghosts and ruins hidden there.

Fugitive Assemblage, by Jennifer Calkins. Olympia, Washington: The 3rd Thing, February 2020. 164 pages. $24.00, paper.

Dave Karp is associated with Margin Shift, a Seattle, Washington, reading series dedicated to supporting writers outside the mainstream. His articles and reviews have appeared in Golden Handcuffs and Heavy Feather Review. He has taught high school English in Seattle for 26 years.

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