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    colorful watercolor painting

    What the Light Passes Through

    A Review of Thin Places by Jordan Kisner

    Annelise Jolley

    September 24, 2020
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    • Timothy Wade

      Thank you for this thoughtful review.

    In “Attunement,” the opening essay of Jordan Kisner’s collection Thin Places, she chalks her short-lived conversion to Christianity up to being a “naturally reverent” child. Reading this, I knew exactly what she meant. As a child I felt tilted toward awe; I was inherently on board with the concept of divine goodness. Maybe it was this recognition that pulled me into Thin Places, but it was Kisner’s search for the sacred – and her determination to wrap words around it – that held me there.

    While Kisner’s childhood reverence eventually tipped in one direction, mine tipped in the other, which is to say that I stuck with God. As an agnostic twenty-something, Kisner both mistrusts and craves “that upper-level, externally imposed certainty so easily accessed by religious converts.” The essays in Thin Places string together the different ways she tries to arrive at her own certainty. But for me, there’s nothing certain or ecstatic about my choice to believe; instead my faith has been a continual assent to a love I’ll never fully understand.

    Pinning words to religious experience is a little like pinning a butterfly to an insect board, only as soon as you push the tack through the thorax the butterfly dissolves and you are left without the beauty, just the instrument to display it. Because I was raised in the church, for a long time the term thin places – spaces where the membrane between invisible and material grows permeable – felt worn to me. As teenagers, my friends and I used it as short-hand for moments of spiritual gravity. Just imagine earnest high-schoolers trying to speak about a summer camp worship gathering, giving up on words and shrugging. “It felt like a thin place,” we’d say gravely, and everyone would nod.

    “Because thin places involve an encounter with the ineffable, they’re hard to talk about,” Kisner acknowledges. “You know something has happened, some dissolution or expansion, but like most things that feel holy and a little dangerous, it just sounds weird in post-factum description.” But Kisner doesn’t avoid these subjects, even as they dissolve like smoke. And in her hands, the concept of thin places became linguistically viable to me again. Instead of saying something directly about the ineffable, Kisner says something about objects and physical spaces that act as conduits. And by writing about places where the light passes through, she says something about the light. The thin places she explores in the collection are often not religious in any traditional sense (the subway platform, a corpse, tattoos), but they nonetheless open into revelation. Rather than arriving at certainty what she finds, instead, is meaning in the search.

    “Attunement” is an essay about her longing for religious conviction and the ways she tries to grasp it. Kisner walks the reader through early religious experiences, from her childhood conversion at summer camp to a return to church in her twenties. She lets a friend read her the Bible. She lies on her bed and speaks to the ceiling, waiting for revelation. When these attempts fail to produce a lasting “epiphanic clarity,” she turns to the subway platform.

    The subway, Kisner writes, is a “heterotopia,” a world within a world but “beyond the reach of normal human systems and social mores.” While waiting in this limbo one can observe Bible-thumpers and mariachi bands and professionals on the way to work. People are waiting for their stop, but they are also waiting for a million other things: a new job, a diagnosis, permission, transfiguration. I remember reading Mary Szybist’s poem “To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary” years ago and being stopped cold at this line: “What I want is what I’ve always wanted. What I want is to be changed.” I want that epiphanic clarity too. I want it no less for being the “religious convert” Kisner writes about with something like envy.

    There’s nothing certain or ecstatic about my choice to believe; instead my faith has been a continual assent to a love I’ll never fully understand.

    On the subway platform where bodies blend together, suspended between destinations, this longing for transfiguration becomes Kisner’s revelation. The waiting is the point, she seems to say. “I turned my attention away from whatever epiphany I thought I was owed and toward the feeling of standing on the subway platform, the impatience and dumb helplessness and blind trust inherent in this daily exercise.” She ponders Søren Kierkegaard’s driving question in Fear and Trembling, about whether or not a person can achieve faith through sheer force of longing. On the subway platform she decides that “enough is revealed in the way you wait,” and that longing is its own form of revelation. Wanting to be changed, she seems to say, might produce the change itself.

    Some of the collection’s subjects are overtly religious, exploring others’ commitments as she questions her own. She visits what might be seen as overtly thin places: the last active Shaker colony, an evangelical church that ministers in Montauk’s nightclubs. In each of these communities she finds things to admire and critique, testing various forms of belief before setting them down. Each space opens, briefly, into an encounter with the ineffable, though it’s less an encounter with God than a diffuse sense of joyful aliveness. In the nightclub church she gets “maybe seven seconds of a vivid memory of grace.” After visiting the Shaker colony she dances alone in a gas station parking lot. But these are private experiences, a joy in the search rather than any clear answer to a question. When they are over, she leaves the religious communities behind.

    In the majority of the collection’s essays, she approaches the question of transcendence at a tangent: through a meditation on physical spaces, a conversation in a dive bar in Lone Pine, California, or spam calls from doomsday preachers. Quoting philosopher Calvin Seerveld, James K. A. Smith identifies a certain “allusiveness” or “nuancefulness” present in art – “a kind of subtlety and obliqueness and indirectness that somehow speaks to us all the more because it doesn’t confront us head-on but slinks into our being by other avenues.” What I like about Kisner’s essays is that most of the thin places she explores are patently un-religious. They slink into our being through avenues we don’t anticipate.

    Take one of the collection’s most ambitious and heavily reported pieces, “The Other City.” The essay unfolds in Ohio’s Cuyahoga County medical examiner office. Describing how she wound up reporting a piece on the forensic pathologists who investigate sudden deaths, Kisner says simply: “I had some impulse to witness the end of the body.” She seems to intuit that this grotesque space most of us will do anything to avoid might open into a thin place.

    I want to be swallowed by God and emerge changed, a transformation clear enough to merit a visible mark on the skin.

    There are two sets of characters in “The Other City”: the living and the dead. The living – a cast of death investigators, morgue technicians, trace evidence techs, toxicologists – usher bodies through the in-between. They name causes of death (suicide, homicide, accident, natural causes, or undetermined) and look for patterns. They seek justice for the dead when they can. For their part, the corpses tell the living how they died. Of her two-day forensic training, Kisner writes, “We learned to recognize the characteristic forward slumping position of people who died of opioid overdoses, which is sometimes referred to as the prayer position. We learned to look at a corpse and its damage or rot as a story.” The bodies act as conduits for some kind of invisible knowledge. They are a thin place, a visible container for what lies beyond words, life and death meeting in a single body.

    By immersing herself in the practicalities of dying – the undressing, the weighing, the dismantling, the smell of it all – Kisner is able to look at her own mortality sideways.

    Inasmuch as I had bought into the delusion that by denying death we can escape it, I lost that thread of assurance. I did – as Foucault predicted of the atheist – come away with a stronger sense of the sanctity of the body as a “trace of our existence in the world in language,” though it seems false to suggest this is the only trace.

    Ultimately, it’s not that she lands within the bounds of belief about life after death, but rather that her own aliveness is confirmed and reflected back to her by the dead. It’s the privilege of the living, after all, to revel in our own aliveness; to reach for revelation in a morgue. In the weeks and months after leaving Cuyahoga County, she writes, “I’d get these rushes every few hours, like sine rhythms: I’m here. I’m here.” Her living body – like all of our bodies – becomes a thin place, merging the material and immaterial.

    In the final essay, my favorite of the collection, Kisner turns to tattoos. To mark one’s skin with ink can be an attempt to mark a transfiguring event, its imprint invisible to the naked eye but a hinge point that marks a before and after. These tattoos signify “chimeric transformations, moments where the self breaks open and becomes some other self, the unsustainable liminal state.” In her own season of transformation, Kisner hunts for the right tattoo to mark this breaking open. Readers never learn what the three dots inked on her wrist mean. What we do learn is something about love, change, and a joy that is brighter and steadier than flares of happiness.

    I recognize Kisner’s desire to mark turning points with ink on her skin, giving them a visible container. It mimics my own desire to wrap words around the ineffable, to pour mystery into language. The container is too small, of course. For language to ever hold this mystery at all is a “backward miracle,” in the words of a Kay Ryan poem Kisner titles the essay for:

    Every once in a while
    we need a
    backward miracle
    that will strip language,
    make it
    hold for
    a minute . . .

    More than that, her tattoo hunt mimics my own longing for transfiguration. I want to be swallowed by God and emerge changed, a transformation clear enough to merit a visible mark on the skin. To form a line between before and after. For me, religion – by which I mean the church, its sacraments, the scriptures, a community of believers – is a way of making this longing hold, of giving it form and purpose.

    In Thin Places, Kisner lands somewhere different. Her desire for God becomes enough. The search becomes the point. She hunts for thin places, where the membrane between visible and invisible is so thin that the light passes through. And then she writes – brilliantly, unblinkingly – toward that light.

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    Contributed By portrait of Annelise Jolley

    Annelise Jolley is a San Diego-based essayist and journalist covering food, ecology, faith, and the terrain between. Her work appears in The Sunday Long Read, EcoTheo Review, The Millions, Brevity, Hidden Compass, and has been noted in The Best American Travel Writing 2019. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University.

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