Pick up the current issue of the Oxford American to read a feature-length essay by Press Street co-founder Anne Gisleson, “Condolences from Death Row.” The essay, an early draft of which Gisleson read at a Room 220 event in May 2012, uses the author’s receipt of a letter from a death row inmate, who her attorney brother represented, as the jumping-off point to ruminate about their father’s recent death and her own mortality. Gallows humor (that, as we learn through Gisleson’s descriptions of her father, clearly runs in the family) and an urgent sense of longing pervade the essay, which is yet another piece of evidence that one of New Orleans’ best prose writers is getting better before our eyes.
From “Condolences from Death Row”:
There are times in your life like that, in grief, in love, when you walk around like a live wire, meaning sparking off everything, and you go through the day dazzled and hurt. Maybe I was being oversensitive about the death row letter, but lately I was back in that place, feeling like Dante “midway in our life’s journey,” lost in the dark wood at the entrance of the Inferno and harassed by furry beasts of worldliness before Virgil shows up to guide him… Dante ultimately sees much of the redemption for his midlife crisis in the fantasy of a too-young girl, Beatrice. I guess men have always been built to disappoint. But I’m starting to think that the dark wood isn’t really so bad, and sometimes you run into people you know; sometimes sympathetic strangers. There can be camaraderie there—like, hey, we’re here together in the dark wood, can I pour you some more of this bourbon, can you recommend a good book? Was [the inmate’s] letter another low branch across the path or was it the murky green light that filters in between branches? And what about your kids? They’re happy enough, they’re fine, you can hear them in the sunny clearing nearby and you can always go join them. Sometimes you think it would be nice if we could widen these paths, make it easier for our kids when it’s their turn in the dark wood. But I think the best thing we can do is make sure they’re equipped. They can bring their own machetes, their own bourbon.
Read the complete essay–along with more outstanding writing, including a piece on Jazzland by N.O. writer Benjamin Morris–in the current issue of the Oxford American.