Thistle: A Story of Ghosts, Memories, & Ashes, by Emily Capettini. Oakland, California: Omnidawn Publishing, November 2015. 88 pages. $6.95, paper.
Within the language of Emily Capettini’s work, there exists a subtle sense of gentle quiet that allows the reader to sink into it, to ruminate over the delicate nature of each sentence as it works to connect one moment to the next. There is a calmness, even in anger, even in chaos, that seeps tenderly through the stuff of story, through the type on the page, into the misty atmosphere of introspection that forms as the reader is drawn, more and more deeply, into the haunted spaces of the living. The delicate thread that weaves its way through this narrative, through these haunted spaces so tenderly quilted together, is one that tells a tale of intimacies lost and found, of a remembrance that echoes, of a memory that clings. The voice of Minerva, a voice that’s thinned, wisps through these spaces until an image is constructed, as if from lace, of a life that isn’t. A life defined by the overwhelming presence of absence. A life of reticence, certainly, but also of perceptive stillness. Minerva can see what haunts her, and unlike so many others, who might wish away such divination, her strongest desire is to follow this intuition with urgency. Hers is a story of what can be found underneath the currents of the everyday, of a connectivity that could be, but that is usually swept aside by the seemingly more pressing matters of the business of living a proper life.
There could not be a more appropriate title for such a tale than Thistle, the name of a plant most ambiguous, both in its meaning and in its nature. The symbol invokes a sense of self-protection, of perseverance, of survival in the midst of suffering and hardship. In environments that perhaps prefer to shut out the option of a genuine life, this is a plant that insists. It insists on an all but permanent presence that it takes without permission. It insists on its own existence when so many would have that existence stamped out. It insists, perhaps most fervently, on the recognition of its usefulness and of its beauty, a thorned but fragile purple flower that most would discard as an offensive weed. And from this invocation, Capettini pulls a narrative. A woman who is not present in her own life, who, by necessity, exists instead underneath and unnoticed. Minerva, a character who is separate from everything but the reverberations of an unfinished past, is haunted so strongly by the shadow of her mother, an apparition who can only speak in platitudes, a haunting that should be solely Minerva’s to hold but bleeds into the world that is perceptible even to Alex, a man who seems only to notice the smooth surfaces of life, and wants nothing to do with the prickly undercurrents of would-be intimacies. Just as the presence of her mother spreads, the thistle spreads—in her yard, in the yard of her father’s estate, and even, in a scene most gorgeous, within her own body, taking root firmly at the base of her skull.
Like that of the thistle, Minerva’s own existence is one of quiet persistence. In a home that is not a home, with a fiancé who both acts and does not act like a fiancé, a mother who is gone but is not gone, Minerva protests the removal of self through pills that Alex insists she tries; she protests the stifling presence of the absences that surround her. She moves consciously away from what promises to look like the proper pieces of a life, towards an effortless intimacy, towards a true connectedness. At home, she lives alongside the almost constant absence of Alex as he lives a life separate from her. She lives alongside the almost constant presence, or threat of the presence, of her mother, a woman who imposes the frayed loose ends of a life that is over, onto a life that has not yet been given the opportunity to thrive. As Minerva begins to occupy this home space less and less, a new kind of space is formed, in which these fractured intimacies can be swept aside, and a new kind of knowing can take place. The knowing of another person, the possibility of a true coupling, yes, but also the knowing of the self, the knowing of her own entrenchment in nature, in memory, in the essence of what it means to have existed that allows the echo of a life, now over, to take on physical form. This is a space underneath, a space of determined rootedness, where Minerva can, as her mother insists, be true to herself. And in that sense, this is also a space of letting go, of allowing for a shedding, a scattering of an unwanted life, in order to move forward into a more genuine expanse of interconnected possibility.
Within the muted narrative space of Thistle, Capettini explores the nature of intimacy and of memory, the stretching of these private things, the many delicate forms they can take just below the surface of the everyday. In a novella that is beautifully and thoughtfully crafted, false intimacy is exposed alongside the genuine article—a past, tattooed, protected in the skin and in that way present in the world, but equally secreted away. An engagement, moving ever-forward towards what is meant to be the perfect wedding, wanted by no one, smoothing over the separate lives of Minerva and Alex. A knowing, Minerva’s insight into the protected truths of others, that repels them from her—an intimacy that separates. The ghost of a woman that takes on many shapes, depending on who is doing the remembering. The very stretching and reshaping of what it means to remember, of what it means to connect, not only to the external world of other people, but to the internal world of the self, winds its way through the lives of Capettini’s characters as they each make their own private efforts to soldier on in a world where it seems too painful to truly see beyond, or into, the self. These are people who float. They float past each other; they float through their own lives towards the inevitable, towards the ultimate letting-go. In this way, Thistle is a beautiful study of all things subtle and quiet about living a life in a world that seems almost ill-suited to support it, an honest, though painful, meditation on what it means to be a human being.
Stephanie Marker is pursuing her fiction PhD at UL-Lafayette. She did her undergraduate work in music and creative writing at Western Michigan University, and got her MFA in fiction at Bowling Green State University, where she was Assistant Fiction Editor for Mid-American Review. In addition to editing Lazy Mouse Press, her creative work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review and Third Coast, and her music and book reviews have appeared in West Michigan Noise and Asylum Lake Press, respectively.