Hummingbirds Between the Pages

Hummingbirds Between the Pages, Chris Arthur's seventh essay collection, will be published in 2018, by Ohio State University Press in their "21st Century Essays" series, edited by David Lazar and Patrick Madden.

The contents as listed here are subject to change as the manuscript develops. A permissions issue with Houghton Mifflin, relating to quoting a poem by Archibald MacLeish, means that the Afterword, "Ars Poetica and the Essay", may have to be significantly rewritten or replaced.

The book's epigraph is taken from Annie Dillard's An American Childhood:

On the Pennsylvania frontier in the early eighteenth century, people pressed hummingbirds as if they were poppies, between the pages of heavy books, and mailed them back to Ulster and Scotland as curiosities.

The following extracts are taken from the Introduction, which refers to Arthur's first journey out of Ireland when — at the age of eight — he saw hummingbirds at London Zoo:

… It's risky, I know, to use something as exquisite as a hummingbird as a point of comparison by which to explain the nature of a book. Beside them, words look heavy, clumsy, colorless. Instead of the intricate perfection of form and motion that's so evident in these aerodynamic jewels, sentences seem lumbering; even the most poetic of them can appear as plodding parodies of a hummingbird's poise and grace. Like pressing, writing can reduce things to a faded husk, something emptied of its life and beauty and smacking of the mortuary. I hope my words avoid this, but I certainly don't want to suggest that they possess the brilliancy of color or artistry of flight that real hummingbirds so effortlessly display; it's simply that the keepsakes I've pressed into form in words and assembled here are things that caught my attention as compellingly as those free flying birds did on my first visit to London. Also — color, iridescence, and flying skill apart — in terms of their small scale, and the way in which they move — forwards, backwards, hovering, meandering, moving from one thing to another and then back again — hummingbirds offer a pleasing mascot for writing that likes to dart and wander, rather than following some ruled line that's straight as the proverbial crow's flight. …

… To admit to being an essayist is even riskier than comparing writing to something as beautiful as a hummingbird. Conventional publishing wisdom advises authors to avoid the term "essay." There's a preference for "creative nonfiction," "memoir," even "meditation" — anything that avoids the dreaded e-word. I've fashioned the book's subtitle in a way that pays tongue-in-cheek lip service to that outlook. Readers prefer — or are perceived by publishers to prefer — a book that consists of serial chapters, not free-standing essays. They want something that obeys the niceties of predictable progression, moving from beginning, to middle, to end, with everything neatly linked together, introduced, resolved, concluded. But I'm reminded of the sentiment expressed by the nameless protagonist in the opening paragraph of Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds:

One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and interrelated only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.

I've arranged Hummingbirds Between the Pages so that, to my mind, its contents sit easily together. But there's no singular beginning of the kind that O'Brien's hero condemns. There's no compelling reason for readers to start at the first page and read consecutively to the final one. Each of the book's constituent essays is independently intelligible and can be considered on its own and in any order — though I like to think that, assembled together, the essays gather cumulative momentum, draw strength from one another, that their proximity sets off echoes and resonances, that their voices, speaking together, companionably reiterate and reinforce common concerns, and offer sets of creative variations on the themes addressed. …

… 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 ancient but now ill-served genre lies in the fact that it provides a "respite from the clamor of commerce." In putting together collections, she urges essayists to resist the temptation of presenting their work in a way that obscures the individual independence of each piece, or gives the impression that essays can be subsumed beneath some organizing principle that pretends there's an overarching structure within which they unfold quite logically, one by one, following the expectations of linearity. "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." …

… In writing this short Introduction I was looking for something that combined features of a touchstone, symbol, and battle standard — and that avoided altogether the attempt to précis or summarize — a process to which essays do not submit (imagining that they do is to confuse them with articles). I hope my hummingbirds will not be read as an attempt to foist on the inevitable plurality of a collection an organizing principle that tries to force them into neat singularity, following a step-by-step progression. This is something essays just don't do. I reached for hummingbirds instinctively, simply because my experience of them — like my experience of writing essays — is rooted in wonder.

"The problem with ideas is that you can’t decide to have them … Whatever its narrative shape, an essay must have an idea at its beating heart. And ideas come to you on their own terms. Searching for an idea is like resolving to have a dream."

Ariel Levy

Top of page


  • Introduction
  • Darwin's Fox
  • How Many Words Do You Need to Describe a Woodpigeon?
  • The Walking Buddha Beckons
  • Sleepers
  • How's the Enemy?
  • Glass
  • (Un)sentimental Timekeeping
  • And Flesh Let Enter
  • Butterfly Smoke Signals
  • Watchwords
  • Death and the Maiden
  • Crux
  • Shells
  • The Archaeology of Days
  • Putting Two and Two Together
  • Skim Reading
  • Hitting the Right Note
  • Afterword: Ars Poetica and the Essay
One of the black-and-white photographs taken as a point of reference in 'And Flesh Let Enter'

"And Flesh Let Enter", takes a postcard sent from Los Angeles to Belfast in 1931 and two black & white photographs as key points of reference. The essay explores some of their unexpected interconnections. One of the photographs is reproduced above. Arthur says this about it: "When the realization of its true nature hit me I knew I'd have to try to explain in words the vistas that lie behind what's pictured. The difficulty of so doing is daunting and made it seem as if what I had to deal with wasn't just open to plain view, but was rather something tight-closed, even locked and armored, more like a Brazil nut than a photograph."

Cobblestones near the ruined cathedral in St Andrews

This encircled "X" is marked on cobblestones near the ruined cathedral in St Andrews, Scotland's ancient ecclesiastical capital. It commemorates the martyrdom of Walter Mylne, who was burnt at the stake at this spot on April 28th 1558. "Crux" considers some aspects of his life and the links between the moment of his execution and the present.

Mitra episcopalis shells

"Shells" follows some of the labyrinths of history that can be traced out of a collection of shells, particularly these two mitra episcopalis shells, collected in Egypt by the author's aunt during the course of World War II.

A farmhouse in County Down

"Putting Two and Two Together" considers the links and discontinuities between two moments in time as they passed, fifty years apart, at this County Down farmhouse.