About two-thirds of the way through his new collection, “The Other Walk,’’ Sven Birkerts offers a page-and-a-half long essay titled “Reading Oneself.’’ In it, Birkerts encounters a former student who presents the author with an evaluation he once wrote about her. After contemplating the sentences that he wrote years earlier, Birkerts concludes that he is now a better stylist than he used to be; he has become subtler, more confident and concise. Yet, as he considers the writer he once was and the writer he has become, he also regrets that he has achieved a level of mastery at a point when he may have the least use for it.
“It’s sad, though, that we usually attack our best subjects before we know what to do with them, and attacking them wears them out for our later purposes,’’ Birkerts writes. “What to do now with all this style?’’
Birkerts, Arlington-based director of the Bennington Writing Seminars, editor of Agni, and author of “The Gutenberg Elegies,’’ is an astute and thoughtful critic. So, it’s not entirely surprising that he can be particularly insightful while analyzing his own work. For, contained in his ruminations inspired by that old evaluation, is an apt analysis of both the charms and liabilities of many of the essays that precede “Reading Oneself’’: Birkerts’s material doesn’t always rise to the level of his technique.
“Reading Oneself’’ is the 34th essay of the 45 included here and, by the time the reader reaches it, he or she may begin to recognize a formulaic quality to Birkerts’s constructions. Few of the essays are longer than five pages. The author often will begin with a seemingly unremarkable object - a painting, a cup, a lighter. The object frequently will inspire a series of vivid and often resonant memories and associations - his Latvian grandfather; the hours he logged working in a bookstore; the old friend with whom he has lost touch - before concluding with a niftily constructed closing line. Themes recur - Birkerts’s fondness for solitary walks, his penchant for self-effacement, his troubled relationship with cats - and so do certain phrasings. Taken individually, each of the essays can serve as a thought-provoking diversion, but the cumulative effect can be deleterious to the author’s aims.
For a time, Birkerts’s collection can resemble an exhibit of a fine artist’s studies for more ambitious works, and the reader may feel inclined to treat these essays in the manner of a museumgoer - to linger here, glance there, to skip this sketch and return it to later, to assemble one’s own order in much the same nonlinear fashion that one can read “Hopscotch,’’ by Julio Cortazar, whom Birkerts cites as one of his early literary heroes.
But then, in the back stretch of “The Other Walk,’’ there appears a stunningly powerful essay titled “The Points of Sail,’’ which describes a family trip to Cape Cod during which Birkerts’s 14-year-old son goes sailing, and his boat capsizes. The essay is more than twice as long as nearly every one that came before it, and the added length allows sufficient room for his artistry to emerge. Characters, other than the author himself, are fully developed - Birkerts’s children emerge as nuanced, recognizable individuals. As the author waits on shore for his son to return, the suspense in the narrative gives greater heft and immediacy to Birkerts’s observations about fatherhood. One would never wish on any parent the fear that Birkerts must have experienced in order to write “The Points of Sail,’’ yet that fear inspires his loveliest and most compelling writing. The author confronts his own mortality and reveals an urgency and sense of consequence that’s all too rare in this collection. And in this essay, Birkerts also finally provides a most eloquent answer to a question he posed earlier: This is exactly what he’s capable of doing with all this style.Adam Langer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.