Over the last several months, I have been working with Matthew Goulish as an editor and publisher of his forthcoming collection of essays, The Brightest Thing in the World: Three Essays from the Institute of Failure. Over the course of that process, questions began to emerge from the periphery of the text as I continued to read and re-read the manuscript. These questions did not arrive at first glance for me, but rather coalesced with my sense for Goulish’s craft. The Brightest Thing in the World is a collection of essays that touch on seating strategies, Dick Cheney, cuckoo clocks, the Fibonacci series, butterflies and old friends. It covers tremendous ground for being only 70 pages; the experience of those pages feels most like an afternoon I spent once, a few years ago, when a very dear friend whom I hadn’t seen for years had a six-hour lay over in Chicago. We spent about three of those hours walking around Wicker Park and after the 20 minutes of personal-life catch up, regularly found ourselves in a conversant territory that was at times abstract, reflective, sanguine, funny and joyous. Only in retrospect did I consider how our physical derive coincided with the discussion we’d had, or how — perhaps — we had, in an intuitive and accidental way, managed to negotiate the past and the present at once. Goulish similarly weaves multiple threads together like a tapestry and by their accumulated resonance creates an impression of loss and longing. As in Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, the reader passes through an associative experience and the colors of each facet are bright and vivid — perhaps like the leaves in fall on a misty morning. These are the essays of a poet; like the performance of words, each verb is as active as a muscle. The Brightest Thing in the World: Three Essays from the Institute of Failure will be released at Defribillator Gallery on Monday, May7th from 7-9pm.
Caroline Picard: At the end of the book, there is a small but striking note about the deteriorating relationship between humankind and animals. Something came into focus when I read that note —I suddenly realized how present other life forms were in the book, from the pets abandoned in Katrina, to monarch butterflies, to ctenephore (what in some ways feels to me like an A-list star of the book, though I suppose there are many stars). Can you talk a little bit about the presence of animals in The Brightest Thing in the World?
Matthew Goulish: When I go to the movies, I always sit through the credits until the very end. Sometimes a dedication appears and pauses on the screen before the fade out. I appreciate that the very last words one sees have a special place, and a particular role to play, as the threshold leading out of the work and back to the world – like an usher opening the door of the theater. Beyond that gesture, I find the last moment a charged one in the way it can, with a very small comment, re-inflect everything that has come before, as if to offer a revelation from the vantage of the retrospective view, and to invite a second reading with that end grace note in mind. The passage on the possibility of animals going away forever comes from Howard Norman, whose writing has been a longtime inspiration for me. Throughout his work, starting with his earliest translations of the Swampy Cree in Manitoba, one finds this attitude of respect for animals who “are people like us” although they have a skepticism of humanity. I remembered the quote as I was working on the Barbellion essay. I wanted to introduce that kind of thinking into the essay, as it seemed to make explicit the implicit reverence with which Barbellion observed nature. I did not know what to do with it until I had the thought to drop it in at the end like that. Then when I selected these three essays to constitute this book, the quote guided my thinking in the way it might amplify that thread through all three of the essays, and do so after the fact if it appeared at the end of the book. I had in the back of my mind, for example, in the middle essay, that between the death of the monarch butterflies in Mexico in 2002 and the race riots of Tulsa in 1921, an equation exists that has to do with uncountable loss, and the ancient belief of the butterfly as psychopomp, the carrier of the human soul between lives. This was how I formulated my response to W. G. Sebald – as if to compress and Americanize his obsessive hysteria, his monologues that seem to be running to try to keep pace with accelerating disaster. But through the three essays this thread appears in a backgrounded way, the way animals might make their appearances in human life, anyway my life, rushed and crowded in an urban setting. As the bus approaches the bus stop, I see a Sandhill Crane flying over Division Street, possibly headed for the Humboldt Park lagoon. Or I’m leaving a friend’s house at the end of the night and I surprise a raccoon at the back porch. If I let it, that encounter, however fleeting, resets my thoughts about my behavior, my values, or anyway my day. I wanted to use the book’s last moment to draw attention to that unobtrusive thread – call it ecology.
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