KR Reviews

Sacred Hauntings: On Randon Billings Noble’s Be with Me Always

Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2019. 186 pages. $19.95.

Like many people, I first read Wuthering Heights as a young adolescent. Heathcliff was a brooding, volatile outsider and as such, a fitting antihero for one of my earliest infatuations. I can still imagine his voice cracking when he discovers his beloved Cathy has died only hours after they last spoke. “Be with me always,” Heathcliff howls after her. “Take any form—drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!”

Our obsessions often continue to haunt us, much like they did with Heathcliff. In her new essay collection, Be with Me Always, Randon Billings Noble examines the ghosts that have paraded through her own life thus far—past lovers, a grandmother who is both there and not there, gothic monsters, even Stonewall Jackson—and ruminates on her decision to invite them in.

“Here I am haunted by my need to be haunted, by my reluctance to let anything stay buried, by my desire to bring hauntedness itself into this weak winter light and see it truly for what it is,” Noble writes in her essay, “Striking.” To really begin to understand these hauntings, Noble organizes the essays in Be with Me Always as a kind of cabinet of curiosities: relics from her life distanced behind glass and illuminated overhead.

Noble successfully maintains her distance to these subjects through her dexterity with the essay form. Be with Me Always features a range of different types of essays: prose poetry, hermit crab essays, object essays, literary criticism, essays in list form, collage, braided essays, and more. By choosing forms that alternately illuminate, distort, or complicate the subject matter, the forms often speak to the reader as much as Noble’s actual narratives do.

Perhaps the clearest example of this occurs in Noble’s hermit crab essay, “The Heart as a Torn Muscle.” In this essay, Noble uses medical reference material à la WebMD to describe a forbidden attraction. This form allows Noble to help her readers more easily grasp the intangible nature of heartache by presenting it as a physical ailment. By organizing her essay into distinct sections common to this type of material, Noble is able to systematically examine her tender experience with wit and restrained poignancy.

Beginning with the Overview, Noble provides the reader with a quick synopsis of her “condition.” She deliberately chooses the second person point of view to further distance herself from the subject, writing: “Your heart was already full, but then you saw him and your heart beat code, not Morse but a more insistent pulse: Oh yes. That’s him. That one.” By distancing herself in this way, readers are better able to identify with Noble’s situation and also view her essay through the lenses of their own lives.

As the essay continues, Noble takes us through her list of symptoms, which provides a beautiful parallel between the dangers of torn muscles and torn relationships, a particularly humorous section on how to care for the injury, and a series of questions and comments designed to interrogate whether this attraction may be worth exploring. Most charming of all, Noble ends with a required reading list containing books about complicated love stories.

In another stunning essay, “The Island of Topaz,” Noble examines the properties of gemstones as a way to speculate and search for answers about her grandmother’s earlier life. She opens this object essay with an image of her grandmother’s rings tangled together in a small vinyl pouch, all but forgotten. From there, Noble reflects on the symbolism behind each stone and ties it to a thread from her grandmother’s life. The topaz leads her to ruminate on origins; the amethyst channels religious and secular spirituality; the aquamarine acts as an amulet against ghostly secrets; the garnet captures some of her grandmother’s fiery spirit; the diamond and onyx herald the luminous and ominous; and the blue glass bauble leads Noble back to her questions in the beginning. Each passage is a mix of truth and conjecture, fitting for a woman that Noble sees as both familiar and mysterious.

Italo Calvino suggests in Six Memos for the Millennium that when an object appears in a narrative, it acts as “a knot in the network of invisible relationships.” The gems in Noble’s object essay certainly attest to this: besides acting as an organizing structure for her essay, each ring helps form an incomplete constellation of her grandmother’s life amidst the author’s inquisitions. For as much as she desires to know about her grandmother, Noble seeks answers that will also tell her more about herself and her family. She writes, “I have read and studied, theorized and speculated, asked my father a thousand questions and wondered where the truth lies.” Ultimately, Noble must settle for the symbolism and stories that the rings conjure, all the while mourning a grandmother who’s gone but not yet dead.

One of Noble’s most effective tools for conjuring up her ghosts is through the use of literary criticism. In “Assemblage,” she uses the story of Frankenstein to examine the carnage inherent in creation. In “Elegy for Dracula,” she ponders Dracula’s dual nature, both human and monster, to reflect on the parasitic love of an ex-boyfriend. Less obviously, Noble patterns her essay, “Devotional” after a medieval Book of Hours, but trades piety for lust. In each of these examples, Noble uses literary criticism as a tool to either highlight or add complexity to her core subject.

Similarly, the rich texture of Noble’s language adds further depth to this collection. She writes one essay, “Vertebrae,” as a prose poem to explore the allegorical nature of bone:

It is easy, at first, to see only
the abstract, to forget that
this was once part of a living
animal.

But there is a tunnel where
its spinal cord once was,
a cord that bound it
to movement, to life.

There are the fledgling
beginning of ribs.

There are other hooks
and flares that kept this bone
attached
to muscles, tendons, other
bones.

What happens when all
attachments fall away
and you are left only
with this?

Using a completely different tone, Noble remembers summers with her grandparents in her essay “Yet Another Day at the Jersey Shore.” The details evoke an extraordinary sense of place: her grandfather’s yellow Cadillac; snack dishes of Planters peanuts or cheese curls; a wall calendar filled with seagulls, sailboats, and sunsets; her grandmother’s white bathing cap with white rubber flowers. In these details, Noble provides the reader with a nostalgic glimpse into the lives of two people who seemed to have brought a sense of continuity to her life.

Noble’s relationship to the ghosts of her past is ultimately more complicated than Heathcliff’s relationship to Cathy’s ghost. At different turns in her collection, she struggles with these ghosts and embraces them, scrutinizes them and makes peace with their existence in her life. Overall, Be with Me Always is a collection of essays that longs for the known and unknown—a search through biologies and histories and literature for the ghosts that continue to haunt many of us, the ghosts that become unexpectedly sacred in the formation of her life and our own.