Kathryn Savage's debut lyric essay "Groundglass" is about mourning — particularly the loss of her father to gastric cancer. Like Joan Didion in "The Year of Magical Thinking," Savage approaches grief by situating her thoughts within the conversations of other writers, including Terry Tempest Williams, Jacques Roubaud and Camille T. Dungy, but in so doing, her individual mourning moves quickly and fruitfully to larger discussions about how our bodies are connected to the spaces around us.
Specifically, she invokes the idea of "place-history" alongside "body burden" to consider how past environmental actions live on not just in the spaces where they occurred but also in our bodies because of the "the load of environmental pollutants bodies hold." It is this dark interrelationship between the self and toxic spaces, both literally and figuratively, that concerns Savage and her effective meditation.
She contemplates loss, the environment and the self, starting with questions about whether her father's death was caused by his living near a polluted industrial site, the Humboldt Industrial Area in the Victory neighborhood of Minneapolis. But since her current home near Shoreham Yard in Minneapolis also places her next to industrial waste, this parallel situation pushes her beyond her immediate personal concerns.
As she learns, there are 450,000 active brownfields in the U.S., and people of color and those with low incomes are disproportionately more likely to be living near those sites.
In order to show this bigger picture of environmental racism and large-scale disaster, she writes about various events from the more well-known history of Love Canal, to land grabs of Indigenous lands for mining, to the death of approximately 764 people to silicosis (mostly Black workers) after excavating the tunnel at Hawk's Nest in West Virginia.
She even gives narrative space to others with health issues that could be caused by environmental factors, such as Keisha Brown, who writes from a Superfund site in Alabama, and Rebecca Jim, who writes from the Tar Creek Superfund site in Oklahoma. Savage's body burden is specific to herself, but she also sees her bonds to so many others living in the polluted world.
The structure of the book suits its subject and approach. The writing moves organically from idea to idea and place to place, the way that memory does — as well as the way that toxic waste might seep from one place to the next, into the groundwater, into us, and perhaps then even genetically into the next generation.
Overall, Savage balances the personal with research so readers can feel both why she cares and why we should. This work is a worthy reflection on the important subject of how the polluting of our spaces can't but infiltrate our bodies and should filter into our thinking and actions.
Abby Manzella is the author of "Migrating Fictions: Gender, Race, and Citizenship in U.S. Internal Displacement," winner of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers Book Award.
By: Kathryn Savage.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 210 pages, $16.95.
Event: Book launch, 2 p.m. Aug. 6, Dreamsong Gallery, 1237 4th St. NE, Mpls.