In rural New England the tag sales begin as soon as the ground thaws. At an estate sale last spring, I perused a folding table spread with bed linens, old curtains, silk handkerchiefs. On the ground, a picnic blanket was covered with hatboxes and pocketbooks. Saddle shoes lay next to barely-worn orthopedics; a set of golf clubs leaned against a shiny metal walker. There, amongst the discarded belongings, I watched a young girl slip into a mink coat. Delighting in its majesty, she pranced in the muddy yard as the coat hem dragged awkwardly. When the girl dug her hands into the coat’s cavernous pockets, she gasped at having found a crumpled tissue tucked between the faux-fur folds.
I couldn’t help but smile at her discovery, recalling my own childhood. In a world where all things “gently used” composed the bohemian clutter of our family’s Bronx apartment, I was raised to rummage: consignment shops, flea markets, the remainder bins at the public library. I grew accustomed to meandering through the stuff of strangers, as if skimming a dusty retrospective of a life.
No book better illustrates this bout of tag sale nostalgia than Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s Descanso for My Father, which opens with an epigraph from James Joyce’s Portrait of The Artist as Young Man: “Absence is the highest form of presence.” Fletcher’s essays, or “fragments of a life,” embodies Joyce’s claim entirely. Fletcher’s prose, both lyrical and associative, forms an inquiry into the absence he has known since losing his father at age two as well as the enduring objects and impressions that shaped his childhood.
Like the dreamlike shadowboxes of Joseph Cornell, Fletcher assembles scraps of imagery and inherited keepsakes into an enchanting quest to understand his family’s stories. Yet the abundant images with which Fletcher crafts his essays serve best as they buttress the unknown. In the same way a painter applies the principles of negative space to a composition, Fletcher, who understands the endless possibilities of the essay form, relies on memory and observation, while safeguarding the sense of absence, the space of silence in his prose.
In Descanso (the Spanish word for memorial, or resting place), each essay is an offering, an ode to a father that Fletcher knows only, as his central essay reveals, as a “Man in a Box”: a silver-haired snapshot, a faded postcard, a tarnished ashtray, a broken sword, “little more than fingerprints, a scattering of artifacts, and silence.” Fletcher tries to fill this silence with family stories gleaned from surviving relatives and from his boyhood spent frequenting the second-hand shops of New Mexico with his mother, who he came to know through her own eccentric affinity for discarded, roadside relics—stained glass windows, church pews, a branding iron, hope chests and mirrors, a rosary—“…Old. Authentic. New Mexican.” As a boy he watched her construct “little shrines” from old cowbells and crucifixes while listening to The White Album, pausing often to assure him “Everything has a story.”
Descanso for My Father is as much an ode to an absent father as it is to Fletcher’s own story, pieced together like a collage: as a boy without a father, as a man of mixed-race, as a young father himself. In “White,” Fletcher lays bare his mixed Hispanic and Caucasian lineage stating, “with a cup of strong coffee and five packets of creamer I can approximate the skin tone of the nine members of my mother’s family.” Further memories expand the spectrum of his heritage—the whiteness of dough, lard, eggshells, and pearl. White is the pint of milk a Chicano boy throws, dowsing Fletcher’s wheat-haired friend. White is the way a scar appears against all shades of skin. White is the Bayer aspirin tablets Fletcher swallows after an allergic reaction to the sun, hoping “When the swelling stops, maybe I’ll be tan.” Perhaps the most significant evocation of white—beyond the hues of linen, cotton, lilies, and bone—is the space within check boxes left blank on racial and ethnic surveys each time Fletcher is faced with the challenge of self-classification. “Are you Spanish/Hispanic/Latino? What is your race?”
In “Relics” we learn how Fletcher decorates his Albuquerque apartment with antiques, and even when he moves away, when he trades “the range grass and cottonwoods of New Mexico for the bougainvillea and date palms of Southern California,” he wanders “seeking odd rocks, rusty wire and dried flowers” for his “artifact collection.” And, so, as if searching for evidence to reveal himself, Fletcher curates his narrative from the things he finds, adopts, and nurtures as his own—a wedding band that leaves his skin stained, a chest of drawers, a Y-shaped twig. What begins as an inquiry into Fletcher’s past as a boy emerges as a window into his presence as a father. “I look at him now,” Fletcher writes of his son, “and try to imagine the impressions he is forming from this time, the feelings he is filing away to retrieve later and hold to the light.”
In their own light, Fletcher’s essays weave around one another but never fully coalesce. Avoiding unnecessary unification, Fletcher, instead, trusts his readers’ intuition and intellect to fill the space he nurtures as fragmented imagery—cultural relics, icons of color and identity—allowing us our own discoveries. How do we interpret the complex areas of race and family? What do we know but keep silent? What do we possess that remains unseen? How do we make meaning—cultivate and give voice to the negative space we may not even know surrounds us? Some questions seem impossible to answer—no object can fill a single check box or symbolize the complexity of identity after all, which makes Fletcher’s own sense of collecting, his (albeit quietly revealed) reliance on things around him, even more profound.
At the estate sale last spring, I watched the young girl as she browsed, having lost interest in the lively mink. Trailing her mother, she peered close at the items on the lawn, and in her I recognized a certain quiet amidst the absence in the air. Descanso for My Father is a tribute to such absence and to presence that lingers after loss.
Of course, you don’t have to have been raised to flea-market as a child to appreciate this exciting new collection, but Harrison Candelaria Fletcher has reaffirmed my commitment to rummage: to scavenge for the fragments, to compose shadowboxes and treasure keepsakes that they might one day be lost and found again, picked up and discarded, forgotten, remembered, written and retold.