Reviewed by Alice Maglio
Remember these words: line, matter, reflect, circle, form. They are shifting elements as well as anchoring points. Erika Howsare cycles through these words as she enters them at the bottom of most pages of her new book How Is Travel a Folded Form? Their accompanying definitions change page by page, setting us on a path of questioning, renegotiating our reading of these words and their permutations as we progress. This tendency towards negotiation underpins the book itself—it wants us to reflect and engage with it actively, shaking ourselves from a stationary state.
Part poetry, part essay, How Is Travel a Folded Form? is a travelogue of sorts. The narrator embarks on various journeys through the American landscape, accompanied by her "footed analog," Isabella Bird, a nineteenth-century British explorer and writer. The two plan on reversing the classically patriarchal exploratory narrative. Instead, they obey the directive, "Go east, young women, filling notebooks."
The aspect of the notebook is key here, and the way the work plays with this form is perhaps what excites me most about it. How Is Travel a Folded Form? sidesteps the impetus to culminate in something smooth and finished. There is an ongoingness to it, a sense of being in progress. Howsare situates short excerpts of her travel experiences next to pages of notes, most of them with handwritten titles, such as, "draft of author bios—need work," or, "Notes on Ambivalence." Some typed titles she chooses to cross out and rewrite: "Guidebook to Modern American Travel" becomes "I don't like this; much too grandiose / Notes on Description." Howsare wants us to see her process, to witness her travels and her book as a series of negotiations with herself and the landscapes she encounters. It's helpful, as a writer, to be reminded of the steps along the way. The idea of creating a perfect finished piece can be a paralyzing one, and I love the way Howsare chooses to comment on and challenge this perceived requirement.
As a whole, this book does feel like a conversation, an act of give and take. In the first section, the narrator travels alongside Isabella, and the two engage in conversation about the spaces they are exploring. Their process is highly collaborative: "you can still follow deer and rabbit trails, I tell her. She picks her favorite of my sentences." The narrator helps Isabella explore as Isabella helps her write. In the second section, their relationship is complicated, and the narrator splits from Isabella: "We will write each other postcards at appointed times. Reception will be difficult." Still, the conversation continues. Postcards continue to pop up as an image system throughout the book, which feels appropriate as many of the book's entries have the feeling of postcards—vivid, impressionistic takes on new scenery.
In section three, the narrator adds a new interlocutor to the conversation—the reader. She begins addressing us directly, roping us into her travels. She explains, "We are all three in the same place at different times." Though we are witnessing the travels second hand, it nonetheless feels active since we have become characters in this narrative. It's almost as if we have no choice but to participate.
Physicality and place are other key aspects of the book. The narrator is filled with longing she experiences in her body: "I rub my face on my atlas, wanting to break into the paper, inhabit the cool greens and blues." This makes sense since the book's primary drive, both plot-wise and conceptually, seems to be travelling towards and inhabiting spaces. Howsare is interested in what spaces signify and inspire in us. In the section "Landmarks Sought," she lists and expounds on gaps, overlaps, cruxes, and other liminal spaces. These are not easily defined locations, and they all call for some kind of interplay with still other spaces—they only exist through relationship. To illustrate liminal spaces, she gives some examples: "Between a photo and the paper it's printed on; between the surface of a mirror and the person looking into it; spaces involving harmonics; several more involving etymology; many involving reading." She wants to go to the in between, the impossible places. Maybe this book is a map towards the sensation of those kinds of spaces.
Of course, by the end, we learn that we can never really pin down spaces, never truly know them. The whole enterprise of mapping and demarcating can never be an end it itself—it's nothing that is truly edifying. As we move into the final section and gather back together as a group of three, the narrator writes, "The lines of our route became refracted. We suspected a recurrence under every straight shot. We could not adequately separate our eras. We lost track of what was inside or outside any frame; things on opposite sides of a window became more alike, and names blinded us." We float in and out of history, across routes. We have entered (or always have been in) the liminal. I walk away from the book with a floating feeling.