Melanie Dylan Fox Reviews Horizon’s Lens: My Time on the Turning World by Elizabeth Dodd
As a longtime reader of Terrain.org, I’ve particularly come to appreciate the lyrical and insightful prose and photographs from regular contributor, board member, and Distinguished Professor of English at Kansas State University, Elizabeth Dodd. Her essay, “Sinuous,” which won the 2010 inaugural nonfiction contest, was a breathtaking piece that left me with a sense of my “own movement through time and across distance.” In her new collection, Horizon’s Lens: My Time on the Turning World, in which “Sinuous” appears, Dodd asserts that “[w]e are, each of us, a tiny axis mundi, an upright observer around whom worlds upon worlds unwind,” and through Dodd’s observations of and insights into those connected and unwinding worlds, she has created a rich portrait of the nature of landscape and time.
Explaining what Dodd’s collection is “about” is a complicated task, as the book is equal parts essay, memoir, travel/outdoor narrative, and scholarship. Woven throughout the 12 interrelated essays—sometimes within each individual essay—are elements of literature, linguistics, anthropology, history, geography, and science, all of which present a physical and emotional understanding of time, history, and sense of place. This is not, though, a wholly personal collection, and that’s one reason why the essays work so well together and independently; Dodd connects her individual experiences and interests to the wider context of the histories and languages of other cultures. She blurs the lines between academic and personal, skillfully crossing genres to parse complex philosophical questions, writing of her “proclivity for turning patterns into stories, for seeking out significance in the scatter of matter,” and here readers get both significance and story.
Toward the end of the essay “Ruin,” Dodd writes, “Throughout my life it’s through attention that I’ve tried to tie myself to various places, through mindful recognition of my body’s presence in the world of forms to memorize my own brief passage in the this world.” My impression of this collection can be articulated by borrowing from this passage a single word: attention. One of Dodd’s greatest strengths is that although she has integrated diverse material—sometimes from seemingly disparate sources—the material is interconnected, speaking satisfyingly to her larger thematic focus. Some essay collections feel as though each piece was written separately and that the narrative structure was later forced. This collection is structurally impressive in its cohesiveness within the parts and for the whole. Each piece takes place in a different season, with many occurring on or near the solstices and equinoxes, and in a different geographical location, with a particular focus on the American Southwest. In that way, the collection has a sense of forward movement, as if the reader is moving through the earth’s cycles. In the structural balance Dodd achieves, there is an underlying sense that the larger whole was always a consideration and that each essay was crafted with that unity in mind.
Dodd’s attentiveness was not limited to her structural choices, but can also be seen in her detail and integration of research. As a reader of nonfiction, I want to learn something about a work’s subject, and I was richly rewarded by this collection. Dodd questions humans’ “cultural drive to mark the apparent passage of time along the world’s perimeters, the rise and fall of the sky’s illuminating bodies around the horizon’s lens” and seeks to unravel these complicated concerns by incorporating a stunning depth and breadth of factual information. It is clear Dodd conducted a daunting amount of research for this project, confirmed by the revealing detail that she “launched into months of lexical obsession, interlibrary loan, and attempts to speak a smidgeon of Salish and Yakama.” Such complete commitment to her sources allows her to write these pieces from a place of both authority and authenticity. She isn’t just researching and inserting facts she uncovered; she instead shows that she’s internalized the knowledge gleaned through research in order to create something specific from her perspective.
The same sort of commitment to Dodd’s subject is also seen in the language itself. Each sentence is precise, whether the focus is factual or personal. There are lovely, lyrical moments, many of which can be seen in her resonant essay endings, such as at the conclusion of “Belt of Venus”:
Personal impermanence is a given, the scatter of bones, the hunger of bereavement. Language washes over the rock face, impermanent as a cloud shadow…Wind lifts dust in a gusted swirl, falls back into invisibility. Now what was it you were saying? Something about yourself?
Dodd’s prose gives the impression that every single word—in meaning, sound, and relation to other words—was carefully chosen and crafted.
The strengths of this collection, though, could possibly present limitations. Form mirrors content so well in this book that it’s written as it must be read: with full attention and mindfulness. Dodd’s prose has a meditative quality and these are not essays that can, or should, be read quickly. They are dense and highly saturated, full of weight and import. It’s clear Dodd invested herself tremendously in writing these essays, and reading them, in order to fully absorb and appreciate all that they contain, demands the same effort and investment by the reader. Some may find this sort of undistracted attention challenging, and the density and mostly introspective voice (most characters are peripheral and scenes are infrequent) could limit Dodd’s audience.
Still, the stories here offer far more than a mere “glimpse of something larger, unpricked by our own particulars, undimmed by self-referential veil or shade,” and if readers are willing to commit to Dodd’s meditative journey, it is one well worth taking.