By Walter Cummins
Chris Arthur, in this new collection of essays, does not seek insights into himself or words that convey the essential drama of his life. Instead, the knowledge he pursues is a deeper understanding of the ordinary, of his quotidian experiences—a chestnut found in a coat pocket, a list of mammals he compiled at age five, a pencil taken from the ground near a school, a photo of a boy with his first bicycle—in the much greater context of the natural, historical, philosophical, and spiritual; in short, how the smallest and seemingly insignificant detail relates to the totality. In this sense, what happened to Arthur, distinct happenings, do not function as access into the man himself, but rather as representative of all our lives, starting points for exploring the connections of the personal with the world around us.
A review of On the Shoreline of Knowledge: Irish Wanderings by Chris Arthur (University of Iowa Press, 2012)
Arthur considers what may be held in common between multiple ways of looking at a briefcase and looking at a blackbird, and he remembers the blackbird is Ireland’s totemic bird. This leads to a childhood memory of seeking blackbird nests in “secret, hidden bowers”; his father, when he was very small, lifting him to see the eggs. “Sometimes I think of the briefcase now as a kind of nest crammed with a treasure trove of eggs.”
These essays could be considered exemplars of William Blake’s world in a grain of sand, “the depth of meaning contained in the seeming shallows of the ordinary.” But in this case objects Arthur has encountered throughout his life do not yield their vastness from within. Each grain opens up worlds of complex relationships through networks of meaning that encompass time and space. In this approach Arthur can be considered an interdisciplinary writer, integrating the findings of extensive reading and historical associations with the musings of his own imagination.