Matthew Vollmer, Inscriptions for Headstones, OP19 Books, 2012

[Review Guidelines]

In a string of largely unpunctuated sentences, opening as if already begun and ending without any marker to close them off (though they do build, and their narratives do reach a sort of resonant resolution), Matthew Vollmer has built a beautiful elegy for the everyday, at times sad, at times funny, but thoroughly and ceaselessly rhythmic. These short pieces all work as "here lies" epitaphs (though not all expressly opening with that phrase), but not like those that might actually grace any given tombstone; rather these fluctuating memories, coursing through the book like the undying consciousnesses of moments and persons past, read like fragments of the endless, eternal "transcription of the life of a particular human being: all the thoughts and actions and perceptions and interactions that this person's recording angel had chronicled." As this quote indicates, the essays (or rather the inscriptions) tend to reflect on religious themes and ideas, but not in a heavy way (despite these being intended for headstones); rather they deal with ghosts by thinking about the maybe-imagined ghosts that haunt the new owner of a deceased's childhood home. And of these "recording angels" another inscription includes his thoughts questioning whether the angel recorded "in addition to the deceased's sins the everyday minutiae of cereal eating and waste elimination and tooth brushing and free throw percentages, and if there was a heaven would the deceased make it there, and how long was eternity, would he get bored." These short inscriptions manage to convert these small pieces of life into narratives writ across the pages of this eternal book by recording angels, the book of each life filled with worries, fears, and so many small details—that which really makes up the bulk of our lived lives, despite the many sins for which we fear punishment and the many acts we hope get recorded toward whatever redemption.
     Not, again, to suggest these inscriptions are heavy. They're funny, and pack punches like opening with "here lies a man who once befriended a guy named Gary"—although again this essay ends with an equal and opposite punch, noting Gary (in later life) "had been reduced to a series of letters on a piece of paper, and thus remained forever unknown." The connection to the recording angels is clear, but of course Gary's reduction to a series of letters, forever unknown in this way is the fate that awaits us all—or as another of the deceased who wanders his neighborhood wondering about those inside watching TV thinks, "why doesn't he look up at the stars more often and acknowledge the vastness of space and in turn meditate on his own relative insignificance and subsequently feel blessed and lucky to have beaten the odds of never existing."
     The idea of framing a collection of connected essays as a series of epitaphs poses certain risks, perhaps, but works well here, and I think Vollmer does well exploring the choices of what inscription—what moment, what minutiae—will grace the face of the ultimate narrative page. It also allows Vollmer the removed, disembodied perspective to look back at these moments as if regarding them from an afterlife, or at least with an eye to what really makes a life, all the minutiae left unsaid in the typical epitaph. Actually, it seems to me equally possible to read these as moments in the lives of many deceased characters, or many deceased moments in one life.  Either way, they manage to illuminate the deathless beauty and importance of even the most insignificant pieces of our personal histories, those in the billions of books written by recording angels.
     Building up to the question of "what would you say if you knew you only had maybe five or six more breaths before dissolving into oblivion," these short inscriptions manage a delicate balance between the brief poignancy of moments passing away and of their building to something that lasts; the balance between telling stories of these particular perspectival decedents and highlighting our own minutiae, our own relative insignificance, the need to consider what words we'd want carved into stone to sum up the whole history of us. [MS]