Jessie's Reviews > Cannot Stay: Essays on Travel

Cannot Stay by Kevin Oderman
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's review
Aug 08, 2015

it was amazing
bookshelves: nonfiction

This book took my imagination off the beaten path, as Kevin’s work always does. In these travel essays he writes about the hungers and curiosities and questions and heartbreaks that send us traveling, each segment of each essay so incredibly well observed and so deeply felt—like this moment in “Waiting for the Bombs” about travel to Laos: “I feel like my bed is sitting on the strings of a gigantic, prepared piano. Every monastery its own ensemble, playing together, but each on its own, playing alone. The whole is not a concert, but not a cacophony either. Every monastery plays and pauses, and plays again. The rhythm, the spatial effects, are like peepers in spring or crickets in fall. Mysterious, organic polyphonies” (27).

Kevin often drops you in the middle of a culture and in the middle of words and place names that you must scramble to understand by context, in much the way real travel does. The streets in these essays wind around in the barely sketched world map in your head and he fills in parts of the map with fine cross-hatching, lots of sensory detail. The essays are full of deep looking, always ready to challenge the “agreed-on world,” offering insights into the use of a camera, living with images of encountered suffering, the authority attributed to ancient things, the study of structures—so many wondrous structures!—like the family compounds in Bali with teak posts and thatched roofs and “a kind of casual clarity, nothing crowded, nothing too close or closed, everything distinct” (182).

He writes of old Corsica, a place where “a kiss mattered, a glance, sweet words or hard words. It all mattered”—and mentions how this “felt gravity” may have been the attraction to the writers who traveled there (141); this is a feeling I have as I go to KO’s essays—I go to a world where things matter, glibness gets no air time. But neither does he take himself too seriously: he’s “just a guy”; in seeking out the origins of a Khmer goddess he meets in a gallery in DC, he writes: “I’m just the guy still trying to respond to a thousand-year-old smile, myself caught in an oddball web of associations here at my desk” (155).

My favorite theme in these essays is the relationship between familiarity and strangeness, so beautifully articulated in “A House Fitting”: “The best travel estranges in just this way—insists our worlds are made up. Which is not to say arbitrary. Different worlds don’t cancel each other out, don’t make it all relative and meaningless. Everything human speaks. But sometimes at home the world speaks in a drone, the familiar drowns out the strangeness of our own choices.” (166)

Art, too, estranges, and Kevin’s “Colors” may be my favorite of the batch; this one cracks open to the writer’s life and heartbreaks, and also to the healing power of art—well, art’s power to heal but also to unnerve, destabilize, renew, arrest. Reading this one last night, I experienced one of those rare moments of gratitude for the smartphone at my side on the arm of the couch because it enabled me to take a peek at Goya’s “Goat” and all of the other many paintings noted in this essay, though when I did pull up the image I found that I felt as if I’d already seen it through the beautiful prose.

I’ve left North America only twice and at one time I was smug with a line I read somewhere about a woman who “traveled acquisitively” – I can’t remember where I read it. In truth, I’m often afraid of leaving my comfortable nest and so I can hide behind a kind of blue-collar frame of mind, thinking myself to be someone resistant to feeling the need to acquire the world. In KO’s traveling, there is no hint of acquisition, only porousness, none of the silly travel-for-good-writing-material impulse you sense sometimes in nonfiction writing workshops (“make a pitch to National Geographic so you can get a paid ride to Uganda and have stuff to write about because the world is ours to have, to bound around in and to mine for material” – that kind of thing). As a traveler, KO is one among—in his essays travel seems to me a way of living and being willing always to be changed and humbled into wisdom, kept available for surprise, whether that surprise presents itself in the dance of the Legong or, back home, in the daily walks through the neighboring graveyard with one’s companion and dogs.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
August 8, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
August 8, 2015 – Shelved
August 8, 2015 – Shelved as: nonfiction

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