by Heidi Czerwiec
Pleiades Press, 2019. $17.95
Reviewed by Whitney (Walters) Jacobson
I typically consider myself to be someone who thinks things through before forming an opinion. Reading Heidi Czerwiec’s most recent book Fluid States: Essays (Pleiades Press, 2019, winner of the Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose) makes me think I’ve been doing it all wrong and much too fast. Fluid States is heady and nuanced, like a fine red wine one wants to (needs to!) drink slowly, thoughtfully. At one hundred pages, it can be read quickly, but doing so would deprive one of the symphony Czerwiec has composed and replace it with a ditty.
Broken into four sections of short essays, Czerwiec strikingly dissects the themes of origins and evolving states of being. Many essays are only a few pages, with the shortest at two sentences long (“Fume” 10) and the longest at sixteen pages (“Anatomy of an Outrage” 53-68).
Given the beauty of each individual section but rather dissonant topics (perfume, reactions, fracking in North Dakota, and radiation), the book can be likened to Holst’s The Planets. It jarred me to shift from perfume to reactions (but perhaps it should have as our favorite perfumes take us out of the present state of mind, yes?). Nevertheless, the topics are connected given the book’s title—each one is fluid or regards a state of being. Likewise, each one has layers and evolves beyond its origins to resound—like the last note of a symphony: “I praise you, reader, with whom I in turn share my warmth, breaking the illusion of privacy, breaking the fourth (stall) wall, to convey this, a love commodious, to you” (74).
The word play in the essays made me feel as if I had dipped into Czerwiec’s stream of consciousness where she was making easy free associations—see “Eau’d to Diorling” (15) for a delightful example. However, the writing is far too smart to assume Czerwiec simply put pen to paper and the end result was Fluid States. In her essay “Cuir,” she scrutinizes how we are drawn to the smell of leather: “Another irony: while perfume can scent leather, leather cannot scent perfume. There exists no extract of it. What we smell as leather is actually the smell of elements used to tan and scent leather, created by playing chords of perfume notes, to create what is called an accord” (14). Plus, Czerwiec uses delectable words like “deliquescing” (47) that make me want to spend hours slowly forming my mouth around their sounds as I read them aloud.
Czerwiec’s writing is poetic in nature, if not form—though I could be convinced otherwise (see “Pleasure / Pain / Pamplelune” 29). Many pieces in her “Descants” section are haibuns, such as “Use It and/or Lose It” (11-12), and her third section, “Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle” (77-92) functions as a cycle exploring the contradictions of oil beneath our feet.
Indeed, if there is an expected essay format, then Czerwiec doesn’t accommodate it beyond perhaps the mouthwatering “She Got Sauce” (50-52). Instead, she follows her extended analogy in “Consider the Lobster Mushroom” (69-71) by infusing other structures (outlines, definitions, historical dates, and haiku), layered meanings, and typographical shifts (italics, section signs, and parentheticals) to craft her perceptions.
The writing is lyrical yet direct. It creates discomfort by staring down the reader as a participant in the events discussed—sometimes pointedly “What lies beneath you?” (78). Czerwiec’s words don’t allow the reader to walk away unchanged—one can no longer say one didn’t know or hadn’t thought about a topic that way—which makes her final words all the more fitting, “—go now, goddamned” (100).
Whitney (Walters) Jacobson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Minnesota State University Moorhead. Her poetry and creative nonfiction have been published in Punctuate, Feminine Collective, Up North Lit, After the Pause, and In the Words of Womyn International, among other publications. She is currently working on a collection of essays exploring skills, objects, and traits passed on (or not) from generation to generation. She maintains a curiosity in memoir and the themes of feminism, water, inheritance, blue-collar work, and grief.