Marissa Landrigan’s creative nonfiction has appeared in The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, Guernica, Orion, The Rumpus, Diagram, South Loop Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, and currently lives in western Pennsylvania, where she teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh – Johnstown and runs the food-themed reading series Acquired Taste.
The joy of reading “Time and Distance Overcome” lies in reading it unadulterated, at least the first time. When I first encountered this essay, I wasn’t yet familiar with Biss’ writing. I didn’t know what was coming. And that’s the secret power of this essay.
It’s an essay about telephone poles.
The beauty of “Time and Distance Overcome,” is that this statement is both true and false. For the first few pages, Biss beautifully meditates on telephone poles. When I first read the essay, I succumbed to this completely.
I got lost in the intensely-detailed minutiae of fact, in awe of her ability to weave information and reflection. I marveled at her musings on American values as reflected in the war on telephone poles: an aesthetic of purity, a desire for privacy, the impulse towards the rugged individual. I’m in awe, when I re-read the beginning of this essay, at all that Biss shows us a devotion to fact can accomplish, the vast, unexplored potential of any subject, the power of research to uncover what seems most obvious or mundane.
Then, on the third page of the essay, after a break, Biss writes: “In 1898, in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, a black man was hanged from a telephone pole. And in Weir City, Kansas. And in Brookhaven, Mississippi.”
Biss goes on, the next several pages of the essay becoming an unrepenting litany of violence, list after detailed list of crimes committed against black men and their bodies. Every time I re-read this essay, I sit up, as I did the first time. I shake my head a bit, as if to ward off the inevitable cobwebs of scanning words on the page. The turn is so powerfully shocking, simple and direct. We are no longer reading, simply, about telephone poles. This has become a different story.
When I teach this essay, my students immediately want to talk about this moment in the essay. They, too, have been shocked by the turn, their spines straightened, their glazing eyes woken up. And we do talk about it: how she’s earned the sudden shift because it is not, in fact, a shift, but rather an extension of a subject already present in the essay. How she maintains the thread of telephones throughout the rest of the essay, even after introducing such a shocking subject. We talk about the power of restraint in those moments, how her sparse language allows the sentence to reach out and punch us right on the nose, tears springing to our eyes.
I love forcing my students to delay that part of the conversation, to play in our discussion the way Biss has on the page, because I want them to take from this essay more than just the moment of revelation, but a lesson in how it unfolds, how Biss masterfully leads us there.
But my favorite part of teaching this essay is what comes after we’ve talked about the ways in which Biss, a white woman, has found a way to write about racism in America, how she condemns with clarity and language and unflinching imagery. After we’ve talked about the role the space breaks play in allowing her to tease out the darker parts of our country’s consciousness.
My favorite part of teaching this essay is getting to read my students the notes from the back of Biss’ collection, from which this essay is drawn. I intentionally don’t give them these notes so that this can be the essay’s final reveal in the classroom. In her notes on this essay, Biss writes that she began researching the essay by searching every instance of the words telephone pole in The New York Times from 1880 to 1920. It was only when, as part of those search results, she read several articles about lynchings involving telephone poles, that she expanded her search to include all the instances of the word lynching.
She was planning to write an essay about telephone poles. She was only planning to write an essay about telephone poles.
The rest of the essay revealed itself to her.
See how the meandering path of the essay can cover such unexpected ground, I ask my students. See what can happen when you follow where your research leads, with no regard for where you think you’re going or what you thought you’d find? See where you can end up?