Postcards from Here (Vine Leaves Press, 2016), the new collection of brief lyric essays by Penny Guisinger, is a deeply personal look into the everyday things which make up a particular life that manages, somehow, to still be a universal story. I first met Guisinger, just as I’ve first met many writers, at the AWP conference. Then, she was just beginning to publish, but it was clear to me that she was going to be an important voice in American essays. Her work examines queer rurality and queer domesticity—both underrepresented in the current publishing landscape—through the lens of the life she leads with her wife, Kara, and her two children in rural Maine.
Guisinger’s prose is as stunning as it is spare. Reading this book is like getting to spend a quiet afternoon with the smartest, most interesting person you know. It’s an intimate book that goes so deep into that intimacy that it comes back around to the universal: love, community, parenting, marriage. And still, this collection speaks to a very particular experience in a very particular moment in time. In writing about her marriage in the days following Maine’s vote sanctioning same-sex marriage, Guisinger writes:
Four Portland bakeries donated over sixty wedding cakes to feed the seven hundred people who attended the victory banquet. All that data comes down to the heartbreaking way you pick up the pitcher and refill my water glass because you know I am thirsty. Your delicate wrist exposes itself to me as you place the pitcher next to the fifty-seventh wedding cake.
She brings to the fore the ways in which the day-to-day of her life is also extraordinary; here is the story of a happy marriage in a place that seems equal parts lovely and difficult. Something that would not be remarkable at all, except that it is the marriage of two women at exactly the moment that their marriage becomes possible.
By no means a polemical book, Postcards is more of a poetic exploration than a political one. While the life that’s explored is one whose extraordinariness is quickly—thanks to the Supreme Court decision to make marriage equality the law of the land—becoming ordinary, the lyricism of these essays remains exceptional.
When Guisinger turns inward to examine her own difficulties and failings, we get particularly poignant and beautifully rendered meditations on what it is to be human. In writing about her anxiety—which she acknowledges she sometimes treated with medication, sometimes with alcohol—she invites us into the darkest part of the night, when her worries are the worst.
This feeling, like a burglar, shakes me awake in the night, grabs me by the shoulders, rocks me hard and shouts into my face, “You didn’t check the battery in the smoke detector. You’re murdering your kids,” then it drops me in a pool of sweat and sleeplessness. When I trudge back to bed from checking the battery, it’s still there. “Pay attention,” it says, sitting at the foot of my bed. It has a knife. It’s casually whittling a sharp stick. “I’m watching you.”
Guisinger’s control over the language, and the precision of each piece, makes this book a pleasure.
While each essay stands on its own, the real magic of this book is the alchemy of how they add up to more than the sum of their parts. In this, Guisinger reminds me of Abigail Thomas, whose excellent memoirs use a similar fragmented strategy to present the stories of a life but leave it to the reader to put this story together. In both Guisinger and Thomas’ works, the reader comes to know the author the way we come to know a friend: piecemeal, and over time. It’s a difficult thing to pull off, but when it works—as it does so well here—it creates an intimacy that a continuous narrative can’t precisely because of how involved the reader is in the work of making meaning out of the pieces of a life presented without a guiding narrative.
Guisinger’s singular voice, infused with both place and poetics, is one that’s been missing from the landscape of American essays. We should all celebrate that it has finally arrived.