Hidden Cargoes

"If anyone can lure out of hiding the mysterious secrets of the things of this world, and turn the familiar unfamiliar, the everyday, magical, it's Chris Arthur. One of our greatest living essayists, he brings a rare combination of tenderness, power, care and, at times, ghoulish humor to the page."

Phillip Lopate

The electricity of wonder runs through everything, no matter how often we fail to notice it. Hidden Cargoes tries to make that electricity more evident by highlighting the extraordinary nature of ordinary things and experiences. In this collection, Chris Arthur ranges over subjects as various as a girl’s ear, a vulture’s egg, the letters in a Scrabble game, a sprig of witch-hazel, and the chasms of complexity contained in an ordinary moment. Whether he’s writing about such things, or looking at owls, leaves, a street in his hometown, the symbiotic interrelationships in the stomach of a termite, a souvenir cigarette box from a ship sunk in World War II, or the coincidence of three hearts beating simultaneously together, what gives these unorthodox meditations their appeal is the way in which — with striking lyricism — they tap into unexpected seams of meaning-mystery in our everyday terrain. Poet Mary Oliver’s assertion, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work,” has been chosen as the book’s epigraph. The constituent essays in Hidden Cargoes offer twelve idiosyncratic exercises in paying attention.

Hidden Cargoes will be published by EastOver Press in 2022.

This is how the book begins:

William Blake’s famous lines urge us

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

This book challenges those who dismiss Blake as a dreamer or a madman. For them, sand grains are just sand grains, wildflowers no more than simple blooms. They believe that our hands can enclose nothing greater than what fits neatly in our grip, and that an hour is always confined within the palisade of its temporal duration. I leave to visionary geniuses like Blake the task of seeing on a scale that reveals worlds, heavens, infinity and eternity. My aim is more modest. My essays try to strip routine’s dulling insulation from the wires of experience so that the voltage of what’s there can touch us, make us aware of the hidden cargoes that are held in such abundance in the unlikeliest of places — a girl’s ear, a cigarette box, the letters of the alphabet, an owl’s skull, a sprig of witch-hazel. However much we contrive not to notice it, the electricity of wonder runs through everything. The twelve exercises in paying attention that constitute this book try to make that electricity more evident.

At the start of Portrait Inside My Head, Phillip Lopate provides an Introduction that’s sub-titled “In Defense of the Miscellaneous Essay Collection.” Since Hidden Cargoes is such a collection, should I likewise start by defending it?

Perhaps.

But such a tactic risks undermining what it’s meant to support. Faced with an opening salvo of authorial defense, readers may suspect that what they’re about to embark on lacks legitimacy. Why would it need to be defended unless its status was dubious?

I can see why almost any book might be thought to require an opening apologia. In a world in which so many people live in terrible need, the time and resources claimed by writing and reading might be thought questionable — frivolous, uncaring, selfish, irrelevant — unless a link can be demonstrated between them and some practical remedial upshot, a contribution to the common good. That apart, I see no reason why a collection of essays needs any more justification than a novel or a play or a book of poems.

In an essay about essays, provocatively entitled “In Defense of Incoherence,” E.J. Levy writes that “the form doesn’t lend itself to mass market sales.” But, she says, “that is precisely its charm and our pleasure in reading it.” In her view, part of the appeal of this genre lies in the fact that it provides a “respite from the clamor of commerce.” In putting together collections, she urges essayists not to succumb to the pressure of making their work more palatable to the economic exigencies of publishing, particularly by presenting it in a way that obscures the individual independence of each piece. To give the impression that essays can be subsumed beneath some organizing principle, to pretend there’s an overarching structure according to whose linear blueprint they unfold, is to betray their essential nature. “The first impulse that brought us to the essay form,” Levy reminds us, is art. And art is “not about the market or clever formal conceits, or even publication, but about wonder.”

I hope what I’ve said doesn’t swim against the current of Levy’s argument. The idea of paying attention and, by so doing, seeing the hidden cargoes carried in the things around us, offers a loose commonality that links the essays I’ve assembled. But I wouldn’t like it to be taken as a sign that I’ve surrendered to any kind of organizing principle. I join Levy in condemning such devices. The book’s title and epigraph, and what I’ve said in this Introduction, provide only the most general orientation. I’ve no desire to disguise the essentially miscellaneous nature of Hidden Cargoes. To invent some organizing principle that forces things into line, that gives the impression of a single narrative running unbroken from beginning to end, would be dishonest. The pages that follow don’t dance to this tune. The essays are independently intelligible and can be read in any order — though I’ve tried to arrange them in a way that’s in harmony with the music of their unfolding.

Some readers find this kind of collection an alarming prospect. They’re suspicious of the absence of a point-by-point progression. They feel uneasy outside the safe anchorage provided by linearity, where everything conforms to a predictable pattern of unfolding. If such readers haven’t fled the scene already, let me offer three reassuring touchstones — without, I hope, introducing the artificiality of the kind of organizing principle that Levy rightly condemns, or mounting a preemptive defense that might simply undermine what it seeks to foster.

First, as Graham Good puts it, “At heart, the essay is the voice of the individual.” To the extent that an individual’s voice reflects one particular personality, history, and worldview, Hidden Cargoes can claim that degree of homogeneity. Secondly, I agree with Levy about the fundamental nature of art. All of my essays share a common origin. They are rooted in moments of wonder. Thirdly, in a comment that nicely catches the way in which single essays relate to a collection, Richard Chadbourne suggests that the essay “is both fragmentary and complete in itself, capable both of standing on its own and of forming a kind of ‘higher organism’ when assembled with other essays by its author.” Hidden Cargoes is precisely such a beast. All of its constituent body parts contribute to what the “higher organism” is concerned with — namely exploring the extraordinary nature of the ordinary.

"For the secret life of an essay is to lift the veil on the process of thinking, that most intimate of acts, to reveal not a thought, but thinking."

Patricia Hampl

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Contents

  • Introduction
  • A Kist o Whistles
  • Ear Piece
  • Voice Box
  • Leaf
  • Letters
  • Listening to the Music of a Vulture’s Egg
  • Particle Metaphysics
  • Blood Owls
  • Pulse
  • In the Stomach of a Termite
  • Still Life with Witch-hazel
  • Fitting In
A skull of a long-eared owl (Asio otus)

“A Kist o Whistles”, the first essay in the book, focuses on the skull of a long-eared owl (Asio otus)

The lid of a souvenir cigarette box from a ship sunk in World War II

The lid of a souvenir cigarette box from a ship sunk in World War II (note that the blue background is made from butterfly wings). In “Voice Box,” this box is used as a kind of keyhole to look into the author’s father’s life, in particular the cruise he took in 1939 aboard the ship in question, T.S.S. Vandyck.

Autumn foliage of a tulip treeA tulip tree flower

“Leaf” — an early version of which appeared in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (February 2018) — is a journey through the memories, ideas, and associations sparked by a single leaf fallen from a tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera). The photographs show (i) the autumn foliage of a tulip tree that was taken from Ireland and planted in the author’s garden in Wales, and (ii) a flower on the tulip tree outside St David’s University College library. Both trees are important points of reference in the essay.

A Griffon vulture’s egg

A Griffon vulture’s egg (with coins to show scale) — found by the author in a junk shop in Ireland when he was a boy. It provides the starting point for a memoir/meditation that takes in aspects of Tibetan mortuary practice and philosophy, touching on aspects of “sky burial” and teachings about the bardo plane in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The earliest musical instrument yet discovered, a Stone Age flute made from a vulture’s wing bone, is also brought into play.

A street in Lisburn, County Antrim

Like many of the essays, “Particle Metaphysics” is a reflection on the way in which the ordinary and the extraordinary are intimately intertwined. In this case the focus is on a photograph of a street in Lisburn, County Antrim (the author’s hometown). The essay looks at how the photo can be read not only in a commonplace way (the physics), but also in a way that brings much more far-reaching perspectives into play (the metaphysics).

Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of the heart and its blood vessels

“Pulse” dissects a moment that’s framed by the simultaneity of three heartbeats that are briefly arrayed in a vertical line as a bus goes over a bridge: an oystercatcher’s heart, beating as the bird flies under the bridge; the author’s heart, beating as he sits in the bus; and a curlew’s heart, beating as it flies above bridge at the exact moment the bus is crossing it. The oystercatcher’s heartbeat becomes the main point of focus for the essay. Leonardo da Vinci’s question, “How could you describe this heart in words without filling a whole book?”, is one that’s also posed by “Pulse”. Da Vinci’s question is written on his famous drawing of a heart and its blood vessels (c.1513), held in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan.

An oystercatcher

An oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) by Andreas Trepte.

A curlew in flight

A curlew (Numenius arquata) in flight, photographed by Charles J Sharp, sharpphotography.