An admission: I know Jesse Donaldson very well. He is an old, close friend. We first met when we were twenty or so, at Kenyon College, and have since stayed in touch, sometimes in person—such as when we both lived in New York and worked for Phaidon Press in the 2000s—and more often distantly. Jesse flew to my wedding and I flew to his. Last winter, our kids played together while we ate pizza and talked about baseball. But I have not told Jesse that I am reviewing his latest book, On Homesickness (Vandalia Press, 2017).
On Homesickness comprises a series of autobiographical, linked, chronological, lyric essays named after Kentucky’s 120 counties, plus one for Multnomah County in Oregon, ordered (sort of) by the year the county was established. Tethered to Jesse's desire to return to his native Kentucky, the essays tell the story of Jesse’s blossoming relationship with his wife and their getting pregnant and Jesse’s grappling with aging & nostalgia & drinking as a form of escape & writing as a form of escape & also Jesse James, after whom Jesse Donaldson was named. There’s a lot going on in this short book.
Here’s a representative sample, "Morgan County 1823:"
Kentucky is merely a vessel to hold doubt, more pyrite than gold. In the Bible, the town of Ophir is a gilded port city, a place of riches that filled the vaults of King Solomon and sister to the mythic El Dorado, which spurred men across oceans teeming with leviathans and kragons. In Kentucky, Ophir is an unincorporated community where the post office closed in 2010 and the closest thing to gold is coal.
On Homesickness is both an advertisement for Donaldson’s abilities as a writer and the lyric essay as a form. The short, dense bursts of intricate writing in On Homesickness make for a collection of impressions, of short stories about Daniel Boone and the fauna of Kentucky, with the overarching narrative of Donaldson’s growing love for his family threaded throughout.
And to go a step further, On Homesickness is also an advertisement for literature at large. Though I knew the book’s story (I met Jesse’s wife before they were married; I knew he missed Kentucky; we spoke after his daughter was born and I shared what little parenting advice I could) I didn’t know it nearly as intimately as it is conveyed in On Homesickness. It is one thing to know our friends and to laugh with them about the losing records of our favorite baseball teams; it is another thing entirely to read our friends’ memoirs.
Which is not to say that On Homesickness is without flaw. The conceit of tying the book’s length to the number of counties in Kentucky feels somewhat artificial/arbitrary, and as a result, the book feels ever slightly too long (it’s a clever organizational device, but as a non-Kentuckyian I wouldn’t have noticed or cared if some counties had been left out). And as with any collection of lyric essays, not every essay succeeds equally.
Likewise, there are so many themes/threads in this book that some are less compelling—not to mention woven throughout less effectively—than others. For example, while I appreciate the theme of Jesse James = rebel as Jesse Donaldson = unsettled introspective writer, it’s less affecting than the more personal work, or the sections that meditate on nostalgia, or when the speaker confronts his drinking. The book is at its best when uses it self-reflection/self-laceration confession as a vehicle for conveying Big Thoughts. A good example is "Caldwell County 1809," which ends:
I know that sometimes we burn ties to the things we cherish and call it sacrifice, but really it’s just a means to simplify.
In all, this is a powerful book, and quite worthy of its bold title (seriously, On Homesickness is a pretty direct title). While some books of prose poems or lyric essays choose a stance of hip, disaffected objectivity—or worse, self-consciously obfuscating surrealism—On Homesickness chooses empathy and honesty, both for the place and people the speaker pines for and for the speaker himself. Its pervasive sense of welcoming intimacy (almost privacy) is ultimately what makes On Homesickness successful, and why its story is compelling. And even though I know the author well, On Homesickness is so well written that it gave me a deeper understanding of my friend’s feelings about home than years of conversation ever did. You can’t go home again, it turns out.
Kevin O’Rourke recently published his first book, the essay collection As If Seen at an Angle with Tinderbox Editions.