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Home in All the Lush Senses

Simmons B. Buntin reviews Phantom Limb: Essays, by Theresa Kishkan

Phantom Limb: Essays, by Theresa KishkanEvery now and then, readers find themselves fortunate enough to come across a writer whose work fits their lifestyle and belief systems so well that the relationship between writer and reader seems familial. Though geographically estranged, perhaps, it’s as if both author and reader hail from the same town, studied under the same teacher, and spent the long, warm evenings of summer hanging feet off the dock, side by side. Reading the work is like reconnecting with an old friend.  Only pages in, there’s a comfort level with the diction and style, a familiarity with words even though the reader finds them surprising, delightful.

So it is with Theresa Kishkan and Phantom Limb (Thistledown Press, 2007), a collection of 15 short essays that span Kishkan’s British Columbia while also venturing afield to places like Utah and Ireland.

Like Alison Hawthorne Deming and Scott Russell Sanders, Kishkan writes from a core of earth-based wisdom—a common sense that speaks to community, conservation, and compassion. She is a liberal essayist in the base and best definitions of the word: “free from prejudice or bigotry; tolerant” and “given freely or abundantly; generous” and “not strict or rigorous; free; not literal.”

I am drawn to people with an environmental and community ethic, who believe in family and realize that family takes many forms, and who value free thought and the right to express thoughts in eloquent and sometimes daring, even painful ways. Kishkan is this type of person, I am sure, because the essays collected in Phantom Limb are full of the experiences, wonderfully told, of a woman discovering herself and her place among environments and cultures that cannot help but define her.

In “Autumn Coho in Haskins Creek”—the first essay—for example, she writes, “Although our lives change, loved ones die—several good friends, a neighbor, and even one of the dogs who watched the fish with us last year died in the spring, her body now buried under old cedars in our woods—we need the constancy of place to anchor ourselves like a small boat in wild waters.” In addition to penning insights that are universal but far from preachy, Kishkan also fills the essays with lovely language, painting the landscape without drenching, providing the light of hope on the horizon. “Autumn Coho in Haskins Creeks” provides the first of plenty of examples, my favorite near the end, where she describes coho salmon in winter: “There is a radiance in their color and shape, purpose in their movements; this culmination of a journey from as far away as the north Pacific to this small waterway, is proof that home—its scent and texture—has a place in deep memory.”

Memory plays another role too, in this collection and for this author, for I had the opportunity to read three of these essays—“An Autobiography of Stars,” “month of wild berries picking,” and “Well”—before they were published; and then after, too, for they originally appeared in Terrain.org.

Disclosure isn’t necessary, nor is any conclusion that exposure to Kishkan before receiving the book makes me like it better. It undoubtedly made me eager to read the book, since I enjoyed those three essays immensely from the get-go. Yet whether by reading an essay here or there or by settling into the book, following essay after beautiful essay until the 168-page book is complete, the outcome is the same: a sense of wonder and honest questioning and discovery, superbly written.

I set out to list the essays I liked the most, but it differs little from the table of contents. One, however, remains with me well after finishing the book, and that is “Coltsfoot,” an essay that braids coltsfoot, a plant blooming on the Sechelt Peninsula, with Kishkan’s coming of age with her horse.  Perhaps this particular essay whispers like a wise friend in my ear because I am the father of two daughters, not so far away now from their teenage years, their first experiences with boys. In introducing us to her own colt, she begins:

Almost forty years ago, I was a girl with a horse. He was an Anglo-Arab colt, not quite three years old. His coat was black, he had three white socks, and a blaze on his handsome face. I loved him with all the ardor that a teenaged girl has to offer. I’d kiss his soft muzzle over and over, murmuring endearments. I did not yet ride him. He came to me accustomed only to the halter and lunge line. He was ready to be trained as a saddle horse and I was going to do it.

The essay continues with the author’s experience of turning her colt into a saddle horse, and of turning herself into a young woman. They are intertwined. “A girl longs for physical affection,” she writes, “and my horse provided the warmth and close intimacy that was lacking in those early teenaged years.” The intimacy continues even after the horse rears and she falls, breaking her pelvis and spending two months in the hospital:

Nothing else was broken, nothing lost apart from my heart to that large animal with his exquisite smell and coat like rubbed silk. I know that horses are thought to be symbols of sexual drive and fertility, and I will say this is true. Straddling that warm animal, I was never more aware of the latent possibilities of my own body, the rich musculature that began and ended between my legs. No boy I ever kissed gave me that sense of my own power. To learn that in a small orchard, with a submissive horse whose flanks one has groomed, polished with a soft cloth, whose muzzle one has kissed and shared breath with, whose feet one has held, one by one, to clean and care for, was to partake of the most urgent of mysteries. What was awakened was also a gradual sense of knowledge—that my body was capable of strength and power. I was ready for the life ahead, leaving that room with its single bed and girlish things, to travel on my own, find my voice as a woman, a writer. I was preparing for passionate love with my husband, the passage of my children down through my body to enter the world.

Other essays continue to resonate, as well, like “Scouring Rush,” full of poetic language such as, “How lovely a word: estuary. The s sound at the front of your mouth, then the wide opening. The rush of vowels. The tidal swoosh.” And “Drunkards Path,” about quiltmaking and Mormonism and the author’s brief stint in Provo, in which she writes, “Imagine a woman’s desire to make a first quilt, having admired them in the houses of others or in books. Perhaps she’d moved to a new place and discovered a quilter’s guild, a group of women meeting regularly to sit in a circle of flying hands. Perhaps she’d felt a need, as strong as hunger, to make something of beauty to take her out of her life for some time each day, or more deeply into it.”

I discovered that the title essay, “Phantom Limb,” is best not read with an open office door during lunch hour. Finally I had to close the door to hide my wet cheeks, for anyone who has lost a dog before—and likely those who haven’t—will be greatly moved by this fine essay. A sample:

The prerogative to make a decision to end a life is a difficult privilege. There are so many things to consider: whether you are doing it for the animal’s sake, your own, whether it might be best to let nature take its own slow course. But there’s a time when an animal loses its essence, the sacred element integral to its being: for Lily, not being able to run, to even walk slowly through her woods and cause the grouse to rise, to move from place to place of her volition, seemed to cause her confusion.

It would not be true to say that Theresa Kishkan has a striking voice, an angelic voice, a voice so bright you cannot look directly at it—though the six-part “Six Stones on a Summer Windowsill” is as fine a lyrical essay as I’ve read in quite some time. Rather, she has a comfortable, wise, and elegant voice that reminds me of home, home in all the lush senses, full of texture and history and meaning. Phantom Limb is a wonderful collection of honest essays that convey not only sense of place, but also sense of worth and compassion. It belongs on the favored bookshelf yet deserves to be passed to an old friend, who will thank you for years.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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Phantom Limb: Essays

By Theresa Kishkan

   Thistledown Press
   ISBN 978-1897235317


Read essays from Phantom Limb that originally appeared in Terrain.org:



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