Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Maintaining balance on the water and in life

Originally printed Jan. 27, 2011.

"Two and a half years after our thirty-eight-year-old daughter, Amy, died of an undetected anomalous right coronary artery, I have taken up kayaking. They say that people in grief become more like themselves. I have always been a loner, so going out in the kayak suits my temperament."

That's how Roger Rosenblatt begins his 15th book, "Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief and Small Boats." It's the second book that the award-winning essayist, broadcast journalist and literature professor has published since the death of his daughter.

And it's after reading those sentences that I thought I should check in with Jeff Swenson, an assistant professor of English at Hiram College in Ohio, whose dissertation was titled, "Canoe Passages: Cross-Cultural Conveyance in U.S. and Canadian Literature."

Swenson, not surprisingly, took issue with the short, Inuit-specific history of the kayak that Rosenblatt provides.

"Skin boats, like the kayak, are far more common than the canoe," he said. "Wherever people were in the world, if they lived by the sea, they had some version of them."

But Swenson, as a father himself, was more impressed with how Rosenblatt discusses the special relationship between father and daughter as well as with how Rosenblatt continues to be so honest about the anger and loss he still feels.

"While reading, I kept dreading that he was going to come to some quick epiphany that would tie everything together," Swenson said. "That he would bring the water, his reading of 'Moby-Dick' and the kayak to some kind of closure. Instead, he leaves the book in his grief. And the journey goes on."

Unlike the canoe — which is more associated with lengthy wilderness journeys that require supplies — the kayak offers Rosenblatt an intimate experience with the water. Just a morning's journey. One in which he can ruminate on many poems, elegies and other laments in which parents mourn the loss of a child.

Swenson said serious sea-kayakers probably would be disappointed by Rosenblatt's limited experience — being content to paddle in a creek, afraid to go out to sea — but Rosenblatt made good use of his time on the water.

"Usually writers choose metaphors because they are strange and unexpected," Swenson said. "Rosenblatt's use of the kayak as metaphor is relatively simple, but it works for him."

Unfortunately it also means Rosenblatt often skims the surface of his grief. He's not willing to go out into the deep sea, nor is he willing to dive into the depths.

"Water is groundless," Rosenblatt writes. "It has no basis, like art. It is the answer to no one's questions. I love the feel of it. Paddling, I churn up great bulbous drops, splash my arms, my legs, my face. ... I could live this way, forever damp as a sail, a seal, a hull, a sluice. Diluted as a column of water."

Rosenblatt will be on hand to talk about kayaks, love and his still undiluted grief at 7 p.m. today in Prairie Lights Bookstore.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

No comments:

Post a Comment