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Jackie Ess's Favorite Books

For the March installment of Favorite Books, Sebastian invites Jackie Ess to tell us about her top seven reads. Jackie is the author of Darryl (forthcoming May 2021, preorder now from CLASH!), and her writing has appeared in the Vetch, The New Inquiry, the Zahir, We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics, and elsewhere. Below are her favorite books.

Samuel Delany, Atlantis: Model 1924 (1995, in the collection Atlantis: Three Tales)

I was put onto Delany very early, an older lover lent me a copy of The Motion of Light in Water, thinking I might find in it a model for life. Was it? Chip seemed a little wilder, but suddenly I was less alone. This is context you won't necessarily share, I seem to have come to his fiction already resolved to like it. Atlantis was one of the first I read, and it's the one I've come back to most often in the years since.

That first day in the library, I found that we shared Hart Crane, which is maybe an adequate synecdoche for the whole thing. The novella follows Sam, coming to New York from a half-remembered South ("For moments Sam thought again about the memory he didn't have—because he'd dozed through it"), floating with more sensation and reverie than comprehension through the Harlem Renaissance in starry-eyed puberty, and finally getting cruised by Crane himself on the Brooklyn Bridge. Every encounter seems to be off a beat, half-recognized, syncopated by his youth, his light blackness which isn’t right and has to be explained, his desires and body just stirring, a constant distraction, concerns always the wrong scale.

It’s full of interesting formal devices too, frequent splits into columns and a generous approach to epigraphs and images. A book to send you off in so many directions. But these days I come to watch the diver.

William Leonard Pickard, The Rose of Paracelsus (2015)

This book was written in prison, while Pickard was serving two consecutive life sentences for allegedly producing vast quantities of LSD in the late 1990s. Expecting to make allowances for style, I was shocked when I read it to find a book written in pitch-perfect 19th century prose, erudite in high and low, worthy of its influences, chiefly Borges, De Quincey, and T.E. Lawrence. The title is borrowed from Borges’s story of the same name, from his final collection, Shakespeare’s Memory. This collection was published in 1983, at the end of Borges’s life, and as far as I can tell, only widely available in English beginning in 1998 with Andrew Hurley’s translations. In Borges’s “Rose,” the late renaissance Swiss alchemist Paracelsus, who arguably introduced chemistry to medicine, rejects a would-be disciple by humbling himself as a mere fraud. Then the rose. This isn’t a book about drug experiences, it’s a book about a shockingly cultivated and spiritually disciplined underground organization, potentially the beginnings of an advanced culture that might not make it. It will surprise in many ways, including its relatively harsh attitude to the many ways we can poison ourselves. And it may disappoint in a few ways: in its seeming equation of super-Europeanness with intelligence and beauty, and perhaps of the outward marks of spiritual discipline with the fruit of it. Read it anyway, and figure magic has limits. Thankfully, five years after the publication of the Rose, with 17 years served, Leonard was granted compassionate release in 2020.

William Godwin, St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (1799)

Another tale of alchemy, dungeons, living with secrets, and secret advantages. Count Reginald de St. Leon loses his fortune gambling and is on the brink, when a stranger offers him the secret of eternal life and the multiplication of gold. He quickly learns how impossible it is to live without a ready story to offer, and is frequently run out of town, or confined to dungeons for years. The lives of his companions are a blink in his miserable eternity, but their loss stings no less. Reginald’s post-human life is unlivable, but isn’t the only reason for its unlivability that he is isolated, persecuted, and confined? His intolerable infinity is there in every hour, for the all-too-mortal Reginalds in our redecorated dungeons. The departure from our supposedly defining finitude seems smaller than the distance from us to Godwin, or from Godwin to Paracelsus’s magical sixteenth century.

MacDonald Harris, Mortal Leap (1964)

Sadly, this book is almost impossible to find. I list it partly to advertise the project of getting it back into print in a respectable edition. Happy to help. It’s the story of a merchant marine in the Pacific Theater, who’s blown to just the right-sized smithereens to be totally unrecognizable to others, and to himself. He then takes on a false life that may be no more false than anyone else’s. I think there is no way to convey by summary that this isn’t just another false Conrad or Hemingway, but their equal. One gets the sense that there were many similar books written about this time, but this one happened to get it right. One of the more profound tellings of the destruction of an ego, beginning long before the blast.

Nadim Samman & Julian Charrière, As We Used to Float (2018)

We stay with the Pacific. Samman and Charrière traveled to Bikini Atoll for this project. They’re negative tourists, whose slide show exposes the tragic ecology of this place, whose people can never return, “for the good of mankind and to end all wars.” Ideas and images bloom out of it, and we see the post-nuclear world for a moment through a scuba mask, in deep nitrogen narcosis. Vivian Blaxell raised the issue of the relative absence of Marshallese voices in this project, and I think that objection stands, I haven’t answered it. But the effect of the book is undeniable. Nadim Samman spoke on it here:

Wallace Stevens, The Auroras of Autumn (1950)

A Primitive Like an Orb I The essential poem at the center of things, The arias that spiritual fiddlings make, Have gorged the cast-iron of our lives with good And the cast-iron of our works. But it is, dear sirs, A difficult apperception, this gorging good, Fetched by such slick-eyed nymphs, this essential gold, This fortune's finding, disposed and re-disposed By such slight genii in such pale air. II We do not prove the existence of the poem. It is something seen and known in lesser poems. It is the huge, high harmony that sounds A little and a little, suddenly, By means of a separate sense. It is and it Is not and, therefore, is. In the instant of speech, The breadth of an accelerando moves, Captives the being, widens--and was there. III What milk there is in such captivity, What wheaten bread and oaten cake and kind, Green guests and table in the woods and songs At heart, within an instant's motion, within A space grown wide, the inevitable blue Of secluded thunder, an illusion, as it was, Oh as, always too heavy for the sense To seize, the obscurest as, the distant was...

Well, it continues from there at some length. I'm very frustrated with Stevens, but living with these poems doesn't feel like a choice.

Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate (1986)

Something light! A novel in bouncy Onegin stanzas. This is the Bay Area I wanted to believe in when I lived there. And a gay novel that never makes sexuality the problem. As cute as life. Read it, it’s fun.


"Favorite Books with Sebastian Castillo" is our monthly column in which previous contributors and friends of Peach Mag are invited to share the works of literature that have made the biggest impacts on their reading and writing lives. Sebastian is the author of Not I and 49 Venezuelan Novels. Read previous installments of Favorite Books here.


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