J.A. Bernstein’s Glass Essays (Variant Lit, 2023) centers on a man’s experience in the liminal spaces between soldier-hood and parenthood.
This short essay collection opens with a brief two-page vignette recounting a time when the speaker’s wife bough overpriced watercress at a farmer’s market. The speaker then recalls the Oxford English Dictionary page for watercress, writing, “what a study in contrasts: water and cress; soothing and pain, as it were” (Bernstein 1). Thus begins a meandering thirty pages. Flashing between sweet moments of fatherhood and uncomfortable memories of life or death conflicts, the collection is its own study of moments of soothing and moments of pain.
In the essay “In the Lake, Before Dark,” a Jewish-American foreign volunteer in the Israeli Army describes the world around him in which he is deeply uncomfortable, in which fellow soldiers share explicit videos of women performing sex acts and brag about how many “Arabs” they’ve “gotten” (read: shot or killed) over McDonald’s burgers. In the same essay, fifteen years later, the speaker sits at his kitchen table while his toddler daughter eats breakfast. When her spoon hits the floor, the “discordant clanging” reminds him of the very American-aid-supplied .50-caliber rifles he himself used to fire (Bernstein 4). The reader is transported to the world of armed conflict with the speaker. Just two lines later, separated by a roman numeral, we are with the speaker and his toddler wading naked into a lake somewhere in Wisconsin, his wife looking upon them lovingly. These echoes of war contrasted with what would otherwise be normal, happy parenting moments resound throughout the entire collection.
As the speaker continues meditating on mortality, a new collective trauma unfolds on the page: the COVID-19 pandemic. In the essay “Bug,” which takes place early in the pandemic, he reflects on the fleetingness of childhood memories with his oldest daughter, now three. “‘I’ll always remember you,’ she says. ‘And I’ll always remember this, too,'” he says back (Bernstein 20). Again, speaker finds that performing fatherhood is a welcome distraction to the tragedies he’s hearing on the news. As a reader, I find this essay extra eerie; I know that the pandemic in Italy he only hears of on the news will soon become a reality in his own family’s life too. Thinking of the news, he says, “I remember how desolate the world is, and uncertain and afraid, and I fixate now on [my daughter’s] eyes: the way they almost glow there, so quiet and amused, so contented with the world, and alive” (Bernstein 20). Here, the speaker juxtaposes parenthood, the impending pandemic, and the passing of time so fluidly that it reads with ease. There are no lead pens here, rather a light airiness to the writing in stark contrast to the heavy subjects dissected and examined.
Meditations on the passage of time recur throughout these essays, in part thanks to their structure and placement. Time goes back and forth, ranging from 1984 to 2021. Not every essay is denoted with time, though. In this way, Bernstein potentially lets readers get lost, or perhaps, makes them work harder while reading.
The collection opens with an epigraph from its namesake, Anne Carson’s The Glass Essay:
It is dawn.
They are leaving Dover for France.
My father on the far left is the tallest airman,
with his collar up,
one eyebrow at an angle.
The shadowless light makes him look immortal,
for all the world like someone who will not weep again.
Here, Carson describes her father as only an airman who is immortal, someone who will never cry. But the speaker in these essays is not immortal, noting that time and time again. He is certainly not someone who holds in his feelings; he pours his emotions onto the pages in this collection. Bernstein’s vulnerability on the page pushes back against Carson’s idea of a hardened soldier, as he shows us that there are other kinds of soldiers too: softer ones who feel conflicted about their violent actions, love for their families, and anxieties about the past, present, and future.
Glass Essays is available for purchase at Variant Literature.
Heather Domenicis (she/her) is an Upper Manhattan based writer and editor moonlighting at a tech startup. She holds an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from The New School and her words appear in Hobart, JAKE, and [sub]liminal. Born in a jail, she is writing a memoir about all that comes with that. You can follow her on Instagram @13heatherlynn1.
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