Portrait Inside My Head by Phillip Lopate

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Reviewed by Victoria

Readers may recognise Phillip Lopate’s name from the anthologies of American essay writing for which he is the editor, though in fact he is a prolific essay writer who has also published poetry and memoirs. In the introduction to this, his latest collection to be published in the UK by the glorious Notting Hill team, he constructs a defence of the ‘miscellaneous’ essay collection, proposing that:

I consider the essay to be a wonderfully fluid form possessing the freedom to wander in search of sudden discovery. It has a long, glorious history as a literary testing-ground of intellectual thought and psychological self-portraiture; and a heterogeneous assemblage of essays offers an idea field in which to demonstrate the form’s range.

And in any case, Lopate suggests that it’s not as if there aren’t all kinds of threads that could connect his essays together, should the reader look for them. There’s the theme of ‘the discovery of limitations, and learning to live with them’ as well as the implications of the title, that no matter what the topic of the essay, we are always as readers in the presence of the same thinking mind, going about its business. In fact, the essays in this collection end up feeling like different pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, that when slotted together would result in the coherent portrait of a complex and sensitive man.

Not that Phillip Lopate always sells himself as such. A significant number of essays are distinctly self-deprecating, if not self-critical. One of the standouts is ‘The Countess’s Tutor’, in which Lopate describes the period in his early adolescence when he tried to teach their neighbour’s son, Georgie, how to read Hebrew. Phillip’s family isn’t poverty-stricken, but they are only just scraping by, and the money is useful. Also, Phillip is, as one might expect, a very smart boy, gifted and capable. But at the end of the day, he is still only a boy, and not really mature enough to be put in a position of authority over an annoying, provoking youngster who cannot match his intellectual reach. Whilst bound up in his own struggles to figure out his relationship to the Jewish religion, to women who are not his mother, to his budding intellect and to the implications of power, he ends up rough-housing Georgie in a way that will be familiar to just about every boy. But then he has Georgie’s over-protective mother to deal with. The outcome is painful, leaving Phillip with ‘the squeamish guilty sensation that comes from not only knowing you did wrong but knowing that your true nature has been found out.’

That squeamish guilty sensation feels like it might be the motivation for some of the essays that concern his marriage. ‘The Limits of Empathy’ is an intriguing short essay about the couples’ counselling he and his wife undertook in part to resolve their bickering over the relative merits of sympathy and empathy. I imagine this will also strike a chord with the majority of married couples, and I wish I could take a straw poll over the resulting sympathetic – if not even empathetic – identifications. Whilst his wife longs for his empathy, Lopate defines it as ‘a stickier, more ghoulish shadowing that stems from the delusion that one can actually take on oneself, or fuse with, another’s feelings.’ In the sessions with Barry (‘Wise, reasonable, scrupulously even-handed, and empathetic – perhaps to a fault’), Lopate finds that his more ascerbic remarks are picked upon, and subjected to translation into a more gentle phrasing. ‘I have a lingering suspicion that many couples therapists train you to say not what you genuinely feel but what is less confrontational, all the while telling you that they want you to be in touch with your feelings. No, they want you to make nice.’ Lopate’s cynicism is both understandable and (for an empath like myself) not quite the point, but it was consistently fascinating to read what would definitely be my husband’s point of view, articulated with such honesty.

Sometimes this honesty can be a bit much, as in the essay ‘Duration, or, Going Long’ which concerned Lopate’s abilities, or otherwise, to hold off orgasm. But it proved to be moving and involving when describing the truly nightmarish early years of his daughter’s life. Lily is born with a ‘gastrointestinal problem with the transport and absorption of protein’, a problem that remains forever ill-defined and poorly understood, but which proves remarkably difficult to deal with. For most of her early childhood, Lily is more in the hospital than out of it, only able to feed via gastric tubes that mean she is phobic about putting food and drink in her mouth. It’s the sort of unresolvable catastrophe that as a parent you spend a lot of time propitiating the heavens to avoid. Lopate and his wife were plunged into the sort of horrific experience that makes all previous bad luck look like a walk in the park.

I had often felt stronger than my circumstances, fantasizing a reserve tank of energy and courage that I might tap into if, suddenly, I found myself in a grueling or dangerous situation. Faced with the experience of Lily’s illness, I quickly went through my reserve tank. My Superman fantasies were ended. I was discovering the irregular nature of courage: two days of heroic pluck, two days of blank despair. Besides our heroism seemed beside the point; what was needed was patience, a different more demanding virtue. Now we were In It. I understood what it meant to suffer, really suffer, night and day: to be up to our necks in the lake of suffering.

There’s so much more in this collection that I haven’t begun to touch on – Lopate’s essays about writing and reading poetry, about his relation to his brother, to politics and religion, and even to not liking Thomas Bernhard. In all of these essays, Lopate comes across clearly in his views, writing with elegance and insight into moments of being that have had genuine significance for him. You might not always agree with him, but what’s an essay collection that you can’t tussle with in your head? And that’s another benefit of the miscellaneous personal essay collection that Lopate doesn’t mention – you get an unexpected look at the inside of your own mind while reading.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Read our Shiny interview with Phillip Lopate in our BookBuzz section, click here.

Phillip Lopate, Portrait Inside My Head (Notting Hill Editions: London, 2015) 978-1907903960, 254 pp., hardback.

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