by Nina MacLaughlin
Black Sparrow Press, 2020
“What’s the start of summer for you, the signal that it’s here?” Nina MacLaughlin asks in her book-length essay Summer Solstice, published by Black Sparrow Press. And with that invitation the reader’s imagination is kindled, fueled by the flush of inquiries that follow: “Is it the last day of school? The lilacs or the day lilies? First sleep with the windows open?” The questions come like popcorn, or sparks from a campfire, joyful, seductive as hell. MacLaughlin describes summer as “evanescent, effervescent as a soda bubble at the back of the nose,” and her lyrical, lilting prose mirrors the metaphor, until the essay becomes one long gulp, fizzing with life.
It’s likely that the summer of 2020 means something different to each of us, and will mean something different than any season that has gone before. Summer, notorious for its sense of freedom, arrives fettered this year, demanding restrictions on our mobility, on the deep, unmasked breaths we can take. “Yes, there’s license,” MacLaughlin writes with some prescience, “yes there’s freedom, yes there’s drink and rest and sex. But the days are about to get shorter. Have you prepared for winter? Have you prepared to die?”
For those who cannot safely venture from their homes this season, MacLaughlin’s book can be that breath of fresh air, the nostalgic call back to better days, and the hope for a future when we can safely gather again under open sky. “Such is summer,” she writes, “Unroofed, under stars…pressing against friends, laughing, urgent whispers…earth as bed and sky as blanket.”
Summer Solstice is derived from a series of essays MacLaughlin originally composed for The Paris Review Daily during the summer of 2019. The book itself, which combines these four individual meditations into a coherent whole, looks like an object born of summer: a slim, enticing volume with celled oblong lozenges the color of honeycomb on its cover.
The extended essay doesn’t pretend to be more than it is: a brief reverie, short and sweet like the fleeting days it describes. While it’s clear the author researched various traditions and beliefs about the summer solstice, such references are light and lyrical rather than studied or academic. Her sources—from Nathanial Hawthorne and Herman Melville to Octavio Paz, Tony Hoagland, and May Swenson—are literary rather than scholarly, and the revelations, when they come, are more poetic than profound.
But profundity isn’t necessarily what one looks to summer for—better to save the dark density of thought for the crispier autumn or the deep cold of a bitter winter. The author herself confesses in the book’s afterword to preferring the frostier months—the “purple-blue gloam” of November, for example, when the mind feels “sharp and alive”—to the fruit flies, sweat, and “heat-stunning” effects of July and August.
MacLaughlin’s book is more dance than dissertation, a dare to dwell in a seasonal rumination just long enough to whet the appetite for a summer escapade but not long enough to keep one indoors while the sun still shines. “Now: It’s summer…midway between the planting and the harvest, and it’s time for the earth—soil, rain, and sun—to do its work. Can you take a rest? Can you aim yourself toward pleasure?”
The hands-on engagement with the earth that the text advocates is visceral—antithetical to abstract thought. It’s a dive into Walden Pond, a first kiss, a bonfire on a beach. “On the dawn of the summer solstice,” MacLaughlin instructs, “head to the lawn or the field or the garden, kneel in the grass or the mulch, and with palms open, touch the grass or leaves or petals, get the damp on your hands, and put the wetness to your face.” Such a tonic, she tells us, is supposed to engender health, youth, and beauty.
The book itself works like one of the magic elixirs MacLaughlin describes in the addendum to her essay, a list of herbs and plants traditionally linked with the solstice, “woven into flower crowns, tossed into flames, hung on doorways, made into tinctures and teas.” The “buttercuppy flowers” of St. John’s Wort (“to help burn away the distorting fog of depression”); Calendula (“sounds like a name you might give a pet cloud”); Yarrow (“under the pillow, dream of your true love”); Vervain (“said to staunch Christ’s wounds”); Lavender (“light filtering into a room through a thin linen curtain when the day is getting warmer”).
In Summer Solstice MacLaughlin has bound such restorative images into a carefully curated but no less wild and vibrant bouquet, tossed to the reader as a stand-in summer, a poultice, a panacea, a vicarious immersion in the season. “Summer whispers away, making promises about returning to that unbroken planet—is it youth maybe?” writes MacLaughlin. “Or further back, the muggy warmth of the womb? Or is it the pre-broken planet of our own cracked and divided selves?”
This summer, memories of an “unbroken planet,” are less metaphorical; with fewer planes in the skies and cars on highways, the resultant lower emissions and emboldened wildlife crossing our front yards remind us, in a larger sense, of what our planet was, of what might have been. “Summer is the memory of what we know use to be,” writes MacLaughlin, “but can never wholly recall.” In this new context, the nostalgia Summer Solstice evokes over lost childhood summers takes on new resonance, as the reader senses there is more to be longed for, and that, while this summer our freedoms might be limited, there is also a new, better, possible world out there to enjoy. “Is there any way of going back?” MacLaughlin asks. The answer is lush and devastating: “Only by way of the green-hedged memories of what was.”