Precious Cargo

A Review of Chris Arthur’s latest essay collection

by | Aug 30, 2023 | Review

Hidden Cargoes

Hidden Cargoes

By Chris Arthur
232 pp. Eastover Press, $20.00
Released October 2022

I have come all the way to New Orleans for this gumbo. It is nestled in a bowl in front of me, just shy of overflowing its banks. But, having just read Chris Arthur’s collection of essays, Hidden Cargoes, I see the gumbo differently. The shreds of alligator sausage become flesh again, bubbling and fusing together in front of my eyes as the reborn alligator’s snout surges from the soup, snapping shut on a mouthful of shrimp and okra rice, receding back into the bayou of my bowl.

What was the alligator’s last meal before it became mine? If I traced its DNA, what thousands of years of evolution-refined instincts and muscle-knowledge would I find contained in this alligator’s cells that I now swallow down my throat? And what will this strange chunky combination of shrimp and sea-flesh transform into, as it is passed through the fluids of my body, dismantled into usable raw materials to sustain my biology?

Said Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” Having read Hidden Cargoes, I have internalized Chris Arthur’s way of seeing the world—a “different strata of seeing.” Or rather, I have been awakened to the way we normally perceive the world around us, the way we “look at the world but not really notice what’s there; a kind of seeing-without-seeing.” Indeed, Arthur’s essays and the gumbo are equally a part of me. Looking at this gumbo, I’m astounded by “the incredible cargo of sounds—and sights and smells—that it contains.” I can’t unsee it.

Having not read any of Arthur’s prior work, I come to the task of this book review as a tabula rasa for understanding anew this venerable Irish essayist whom Phillip Lopate calls “one of our greatest living essayists” and whom Robert Atwan describes as “among the very best essayists in the English language today.” The inadequacy I feel for reviewing Chris Arthur’s most recent book is exacerbated by the fact that it is his most recent of eight collections (and counting). Let me hazard my attempt.

I had the privilege of receiving a copy of Hidden Cargoes and the Best American Essays 2022 on my doorstop on the exact same day: November 1, 2022. Both had the allure of mystery, the type of love you have for a new book just because you are bending its freshness in your hands, before the book “wears the camouflage of the known.”

But, in the first essay, I felt an instant kinship with Arthur. I, too, had a boyhood woods. I appreciated his desire not to name his, and I won’t name mine, for the same worry: the gradual encroachment of civilization upon these last snippets of nature. In my woods, sandhill cranes, elk, deer, moose, osprey, and sage grouse were frequently sighted. I never did find an owl skull, like the one Arthur muses on in his first essay, but I did find the skull of a bison once. I found myself admiring Arthur’s relatability (what a brilliant generalizable experience!) but then I realized that our kinship was fortuitous, and I wished every boy or girl had their own woods to retreat to, their own bones to find, their own sanctuary in nature.

Arthur’s essay on the owl skull is the first of what he calls “twelve exercise in paying attention.” Next, he fixates on the “naked whorls” of a girl’s ear. Almost every subsequent essay is centered on a thing or an object: a cigarette box set with butterfly wings, a windblown leaf, Scrabble pieces, a delicate vulture’s egg (carefully blown), a photograph, long-eared owls, the stomach of a termite, or two sprigs of witch-hazel. Of course, to say that these are the “topics” of Arthur’s essays would be a misstatement. Arthur explains it best:

My essays try to strip routine’s dulling insulation from the wires of experience so that the voltage of what’s there can touch us, make us aware of the hidden cargoes that are held in such abundance in the unlikeliest of places… However much we contrive not to notice it, the electricity of wonder runs through everything.

Indeed, Arthur’s essays explore “the extraordinary nature of the ordinary.” Their true subject is how we see (and don’t see) the world around us, how we perceive and experience. They are also about evolution, about history, about time, memory, ancestry and progeny, about lineage, adaptation, genetics, nature, and existence. Perhaps above all, they are about the limits and possibilities of language in helping us absorb life meaningfully.

Arthur’s essays linger. Often, after reading one of his essays, putting it down, and then walking across campus, I found myself musing, thinking, and reflecting with abandon. I hated being interrupted in one of his essays. I felt it diluted their power. When I read Arthur, I am sucked into his whirlpool of words—not drowning, but subsumed beneath the surface of his prose—only to be launched from that vortex, flying through the air like a soaring owl, ears humming with the sound of wind, eyes aflame.

A magician hates to have his tricks exposed, but I did mark every instance of the word “cargo” as I noticed it reappearing. The one that struck me as the most magical was on page 58, when it is used for the first time in reference to actual ship cargo rather than in some other form of metaphorical and luminous usage. That Arthur could set a figurative theme through his whole work, and then use the same word in such a mundane and literal sort of way, surprised and delighted me.

I read the book like a writer of course—marking techniques. As a result, I began to devise a sort of methodology of how one might perhaps write like Arthur. This is because, on one level, the essays follow a loose sort of formula.

Select an object (owl skull, ear, cigarette box, leaf). Muse on the fact that it causes you to muse. Trace its associations in your mind, the places it leads your thoughts. Then, look at the world from the object’s perspective: what has it seen, heard, witnessed? Ask questions. Give no answers. Imagine how you might ritualize, enshrine, or honor the object. No, maybe you’ll destroy it. End the essay.

But this formula is too reductive to truly account for Arthur’s power, and it is deceptively simple. Still, the pattern seems worth noting, and Arthur is full of techniques to be noticed and mastered by budding or established essayists.

I found it fitting that the book became a hidden cargo of my own, stowed in my backpack on a weekend trip, during flights to and from New Orleans for a conference. It was in NOLA that I realized how transformative Arthur’s way of seeing really was. Arthur’s essays had taught me to timescan the city, to “glimpse massive vistas of time, heavy with the cargoes that they carry” in a time-lapse of “history’s circulatory system,” revealing its unending prior eons and conjuring its unfurling futures before the eyes of the imagination.

Two of Arthur’s essays depart from his identifiable form. In “Pulse,” he meditates on “three hearts beating momentarily in sync.” As he rides on a bus across a bridge, he draws a vertical line to skewer his heart between a curlew flying above him and an oystercatcher soaring below the bridge at just the perfect moment. Then, in his final essay, he is “curious about what counts as a moment in the first place.”

This is just one example of the many threads—blood, ropes, water, words, electricity, birds—that run throughout and between his essays, making unending and dizzying connections. Writes Arthur, “I’m often struck by how little it takes to set off a chain of associations in the mind. The smallest stimulus will do” even if “the leaf that blew into the driveway of my house one October morning might seem an unlikely source of gravity.” In Arthur’s hands and prose, each object and word becomes “a kind of conduit,” “a tangle of contours,” a “talisman,” and “primordial verbal lava,” that “if I look at it now… will trigger an explosion of images and ideas.” Just “think of where language lets us go.”

Like Arthur, I have collected talismans of my own, humming with their own voltage and electric memories. A shard of ancient pottery, Oregon sand dollars, the branch of an olive tree, a deer antler. Looking at them now, I can begin to see the cargoes they carry that were previously hidden. Because of this, Chris Arthur’s is a book that I will return to again and again, to see what I might have missed the first time—to see if I can’t unpack any of its other hidden and precious cargoes.

Isaac Richards

Isaac Richards

is an award-winning writer, researcher, professional communicator, and teacher. From public relations to poetry to peer-reviewed research, this website outlines the range of his experiences in writing, rhetoric, communication, and teaching.