Small Fires (Sarabande Books), a new collection of essays by Julie Marie Wade, is a meticulously constructed body of writing that plumbs the depths of family connection and explores a childhood experienced not peripherally but confronted head on. In Small Fires, Julie Marie Wade, who won a Lambda for her memoirWishbone, considers family and memory with a poetic eye and unabashed tongue. With her carefully chosen words and a studied deliberateness, Wade proves unafraid to delve into her past—to skillfully reconstruct the events of her youth, from the horrifying to the sentimental to the self-conscious and beyond.
There are several themes that run through Small Fires: the body, appearance vs. actuality, separation and the mother/daughter connection, sexuality, memory, forgiveness. Each essay stands alone, but the collection also functions as a cohesive body of work, slowly building toward a conclusion. Certain elements—the study of language, how a mother separates from a daughter, the garden metaphor—return again and again, linking the narration.
These pieces all feature the heightened language most often associated with poetry (and quite actually, the Triptychs that punctuate the collection are more like prose poems than essays): “Rubbing against it. My jellyfish skin, my wrinkled, translucent fins. The rock hangs heavy beside me: a fractured likeness, a darkly blemished twin.” Wade’s language is refreshing, precise.
Some of these essays, particularly “Skin,” made me uncomfortable—physically so—and while I winced through several scenes, Wade’s ability to craft each moment with her exquisite language makes it all somewhat more bearable: “Now I see that skin is easy to misspell. We let the k slip away to reveal our true intentions. To live in sin is the same as living in skin—a crime of embodiment. We are all guilty, bodied bandits, slaves to our insatiable flesh.” There seems nothing that she will shy away from, and while I don’t always love memoir for that exact reason, Wade pulls it off: zooming in close and pulling away, navigating the precarious balance between full disclosure and too much information.
In “Four Eyes in a Dark Room” Wade takes a magnifying glass to language, examining its myriad faces alongside a secret, burgeoning sexuality. There is an elicit kiss, and the requisite shunning that follows, and the resulting attempts to cover it up—to be normal, to date a member of the opposite sex, to appear as everyone else, all the secrets kept to make it work. Beneath those secrets, the truth, revealing itself slowly.
As the collection progresses, each scene reveals a new vision, and a new secret. From the first essay, “Keepsake,” which ends: “Suddenly, it all seems very clear to me: how I don’t want to be kept, don’t want to be tethered: how, like a cannonball or a hot air balloon, I belong to the circus—ascension and motion, traveling light, my own life I will have to let go of” through to the final piece, “The Flower of Afterthought,” Wade weaves together the images of her childhood, unflinching, poetic. Some questions remain unanswered, or purposefully shaded from view. Small Fires is Julie Marie Wade’s story, but the collection opens onto something universal—how we individuate from our family, how we become ourselves, what we carry forward from our pasts and make our own.
By Julie Marie Wade Sarabande Books Paperback, 9781936747023, 184pp