Favorite Writers to Read: Sophfronia Scott on Robert Vivian’s “Mystery My Country”

14 SophfroniaI’m going to tell you to read a book that’s not here yet. But it’s coming. In fact it’s quite close. At first I only sensed it was out there somewhere, its wake pushing waves across an ocean and causing seawater to lap at my toes where I once stood on dry land. Now I see this book, a gorgeous ship at full sail, on the horizon. It’s so beautiful I feel impelled to cry out, “Look, it’s here!”

The vessel we await is called Mystery My Country, and it contains a collection of dervish essays written by Robert Vivian, the author of four novels and two collections of meditative essays. It arrives in 2016, published by Anchor & Plume. A dervish essay is a prose poem that takes on the spinning energy of its namesake. But it goes beyond the realm of poem and stakes itself in nonfiction because Vivian molds the form to make it so. Using precious little punctuation he feels his way through, much as a straight essayist would, a notion, an observation, a question, all in service to better understand and appreciate what connects life to himself and his world. The whirling dervish energy might send Vivian through the tight spaces of grace in small acts, as in “My Neighbor St. Therese”:

“…but I know your mouth is my mouth and your voice my voice as together we take care of what we can however brokenly and imperfectly, cleaning a kitchen floor on our hands and knees using our tears for water, the smallest cry in the mouth of the smallest thing, offering even the little we are because there’s nothing left of us to give, not even a flower.”

Or it might push him to accept the present moment of health while at the same time coming to terms with old age as in this excerpt from “Come Earthward”:

“…but we are still quick and lively, and there are grooves in people, actual unplowed furrows deep as the night and it is glorious to move, glorious to walk and turn around, and before the planet of arthritis and old age we were all swallows and leaping fawns—we were the world when it was young, and there is stardust in us yet, so move while you still can…”

There is vital work happening here, and risk, especially in terms of Vivian’s ability to totally give himself over to the piece. He said in an interview, “I know when I’ve finished writing a dervish essay when the last line surprises me, when I sense the whirlwind is about to expire. Yes, it’s visceral, and yes, it’s spiritual. I less end them than they take me to a brink and I fall over into silence.”

I first encountered a dervish essay when Vivian presented one at a faculty reading at Vermont College of Fine Arts. The massive energy of the piece rang through the air and flooded the room. It was so beautiful, filled with his simple, emotional truths such as a touching, one-sentence description of the way his wife laughed. He layered these truths, one upon the other, until suddenly he’d made this complex creation reminding me of something so easy to forget in everyday life—that the little loves do matter; the way we notice a laugh or a butterfly on a sprig of lilac is what make us who we are as artists and differentiate what we have to bring to the page.

For the next two years no matter what literary journal I read whether in print (Booth, The Tishman Review, Stoneboat Literary Journal) or online (Barnstorm Literary Journal, Posit, Gravel) I would find Vivian’s dervish essays, large messages in small bottles, washing in with the tide and meeting me wherever I happened to be as I walk these writing shores. Soon it was obvious a book wouldn’t be far behind and I felt thrilled by the prospect of having these precious gifts assembled all in one place.

This ship will arrive, its bright sails glowing in the sun, and we’ll marvel at how, in the rough seas of creative writing where tightly held expectations about genre and form threaten to sink an artist at every turn, Vivian has managed to stay true to his course. We’ll all be glad he did since he, like a modern day Rumi, generously offers the lessons that will teach us as writers to dance with this whirlwind energy, and as human beings to split our hearts open with wonder of the world.

Here are links to ten Vivian dervish essays, so you can get your feet wet and prepare for this marvelous passage. What a ride we have in store.

“Looking, Then Listening”–Barnstorm Literary Journal (includes a recording of Vivian reading)


“Come Earthward”–Wraparound South


“My Neighbor St. Terese” and “When the Stones Abandoned the World”–Posit Journal


“Who is the Spirit”–Gravel Magazine


“Moon, River, Snow”–Bohemian Pupil Press


“Crow Ceremony” and “Stumble”–Numero Cinq


“Lead Me”–Iron Gall Press


“Open Letter to Late Night Traffic”–Sundog Lit



Sophfronia Scott is author of the novel All I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press); her work has appeared in Killens Review of Arts & Letters, Saranac Review, Numéro Cinq, Ruminate, Barnstorm Literary Journal, Sleet Magazine, NewYorkTimes.com and O, The Oprah Magazine. She recently completed her second novel and is finishing an essay collection. Sophfronia is on the faculty of Regis University’s Mile-High MFA and blogs at www.Sophfronia.com.


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