'/> Uncommon Hours: Judy Ray's 'Sense of Place'
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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Judy Ray's 'Sense of Place'

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Whirlybird Press.
Judy Ray’s ‘Sense of Place’
By Bob Sommer

From Place to Place: Personal Essays, by Judy Ray
Whirlybird Press, 2015

Somewhere along the way we got our words muddled up and transmogrified essay into creative nonfiction, which sounds like the door sign for a cavernous university laboratory in which white-coated MFA candidates do things to words that can’t be discussed when others are eating.

Essay is such a marvelous word—suggestive of rich thinking, of experience, of exploration in language. Imagine Montaigne being told he should have his Essais “workshopped”!

Judy Ray’s new book, From Place to Place: Personal Essays, restores the idea of the essay to its etymological roots. “An essay,” she writes in her preface, “can be defined as a prose composition that is ‘analytic, speculative, or interpretive.’ By claiming ‘personal essay,’ I can drop the analytic and speculative, so what am I interpreting? Small episodes of my life… the kind of flashes that inspire poems, the foundation of choosing to write.”

In prose that is admirably fluid—and appears deceptively simple for the often complex nature of her themes—Ray wanders the literal and figurative geography of her rich and varied life in a series of essays connected by the themes of cultural diversity and the meaning of place. A native of southern England, she has lived in Africa, Australia, India, all over continental Europe, and in the United States. Long ago naturalized as a U.S. citizen, she describes the serpentine, Kafkaesque workings of the immigration bureaucracy and finds beneath its layers occasion to explore the nature of identity.

She brings a Wordsworthian sensibility to these essays, tapping ordinary, close-at-hand objects and activities in everyday life for the meditations they inspire: a kitchen stove, newspaper clippings, a moving sale, jury duty. In each reside memories and experience, and they become the ledges from which she leaps and then floats, as if on the thermal drafts of experience, through the meanings they suggest. Here, for example, is how the image of a highway evokes her “sense of place”:

Within this one land, ‘civilization’ or ‘progress’ has brought the highway strip to all our towns, hiding what might have been their unique character behind skins of gaudy, flashing franchise, familiar from coast to coast, border to border—housed in cheap rectangular constructions. What does that proliferation of repetitive images do to a sense of place?

Her life has been marked by drama and tragedy, so there is rich storytelling in this book. She played a role in a murder investigation. Few of us, fortunately, can make such a claim. She also describes at once sensitively and yet with enough distance to avoid the bathos that might flow from the immediacy of powerful emotions the tragic loss of her stepson, Sam, at just nineteen years old.

Judy Ray suggests that her own history offers “no more dramatic events than in most lives.” But the diversity of her life, the combination of events, the many places she has lived, the interesting people she has known coalesce in her unique and nuanced sensibility to offer a wide-ranging and continually engaging journey through these essays.

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