On Chelsey Clammer’s ‘Circadian’

Melissa Grunow
Jan 5, 2018 · 3 min read

Clammer’s vital essays challenge everything we know as true & scientific, & pits it against those things we can never understand.

Chelsey Clammer
Nonfiction | Essays
161 pages
5.0” x 7.9”
Perfectbound Trade Paperback
Review Format: Paperback
ISBN 978–1597096034
First Edition
Red Hen Press
Pasadena, California, USA

Winner of the Red Hen Press Nonfiction Award, Circadian is a ruthless exploration into the landscapes of trauma and how we bear the dissension of loss, grief, assault, and mental illness on our bodies. Each of the twelve essays in this collection reverberates with confrontation and a microscopic gaze to distinguish causation and correlation between the kinds of experiences that ignite resilience rather than personal destruction.

Clammer’s essays subvert the conventional structure of the nonfiction form by taking on shapes that mimic the cyclical rhythms of the human body and the jolting that occurs when confronted with trauma and its aftermath.

The opening piece, “On Three,” is an essay in bulletin points that uses numbers as measurements of quantity and time to process the image of a passed-out drunk father who can’t be moved from his bed on moving day.

In “Mother Tongue,” which won second place in the Black Warrior Review 2014 Nonfiction Contest, Clammer digs deep into the history and lexical etymology of the “Lazy Susan” to examine how appropriation of language and women’s identity perpetuates a culture of misogyny:

“We can’t Ctrl+Alt+Delete history. We can’t select all of the misogyny and racism that we wish didn’t exist and do away with it. Altering the long and strong history of oppressive social constructions isn’t that easy. No matter what we try to battle, try to eradicate what’s wrong. The historical acts that created these struggles are still there, always will be there, lurking beneath the new layer of language that tries to get us to forget.”

(p. 20–21).

Both “Body of Work” and “Twenty-Six Junctures of How I Am a Part of You” toy with the hermit crab essay form in which the essay lives in a form pre-determined by something else. “Body of Work” challenges the conventional form of the essay as a means to challenge the structural limitations in which we all exist, particularly women who never fit nicely in a box to begin with. “Twenty-Six Junctures …” takes us through every letter of the alphabet with anecdotes that build questions around how the female identity is influenced by family, traditionally feminine hobbies and practices, social expectations of beauty, and even the struggle of how to make friends.

In the final essay, “Re: Collection,” Clammer confronts that the irony of dusting her bookshelves means also removing dust from the box encasing her father’s ashes. The renewal and freshness that comes with removing dirt and debris from one’s home place is counterintuitive to the way we cling to the memories of our past.

“Dad had too much pain, too much sadness. Frustration. Anger. Then alcohol. From this, I became resentful. Spiteful. Cause and effect spreading like cancer. And then he died. And then our relationship got better. Because when closets get cluttered, attics get dusty, basements get stuffed with useless junk, we do some spring cleaning. Get rid of what we don’t need, what no longer feels vital.”

(p. 160)

Circadian is a vital collection in that it challenges everything we have come know as true, factual, scientific, accepted, and pits it against those things we can never understand: the death of an alcoholic father, a stranger on the street who grabs a woman in a dress, a mentally ill woman who falls to her death from the top of a parking garage, and the colors or textures that trigger our emotional memories. Clammer’s voice is distinctive and instructive but also cycles through different ways to ask the same questions knowing there just might never be an absolute answer.

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.

The Coil

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Melissa Grunow

Written by

Author of REALIZING RIVER CITY: A MEMOIR (2016) and I DON’T BELONG HERE: ESSAYS (2018), book reviewer, word nerd. www.melissagrunow.com #amwriting

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.