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In Essays About Bodily Ailments and Other Conditions, Clues to Writing — and Life

CAN YOU TOLERATE THIS?
By Ashleigh Young
248 pp. Riverhead Books. $26.

Many poets have in their oeuvres what they call an ars poetica to describe their philosophy of writing, inspired by a 2,000-year-old verse by Horace. But these formal apologia seem to give away the keys to the poetry kingdom — once we read them, we might come to believe that all poems are secretly about poetry. It is odd that we don’t have a word for this in other kinds of writing, especially in the relentlessly introspective tradition of the personal essay. The New Zealand poet and essayist Ashleigh Young writes many sly ars poeticas in her collection “Can You Tolerate This?,” a lovely, strange and profound debut that spins metaphors of its own creation and the segmented identity of the essayist, that self-regarding self.

The collection opens on a short entry in which Young contemplates a man with a condition that caused his bones to continue growing throughout his life, so that “a second skeleton began to grow around Harry’s first skeleton.” This new bone was “heterotopic,” a medical term that Young defines as “in another place, the wrong place.” This word is arresting, though, because it also describes the essay form in general, and these essays in particular: growing organically and jangling with diverse topics, an irregular network sprouting lobes of interest and memory.

After this opening salvo, covert commentary on the writing process seems to lurk everywhere. Young writes about Ferdinand Cheval, a 20th-century French postal worker who spent 33 years building a grand and bizarre palace from stones he found along his route. Cheval encountered many moments of hopelessness during its creation, but in the end, his palace offers one simple message, according to Young: “How wonderful it is if we just keep going.”

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But in a meditation on bad eyesight, Young interrupts what is otherwise another figurative examination of the essayist’s craft (“The more I allowed myself clear sight,” she writes, “the less I truly understood what it was that I saw”) with this startling statement: “Having bad eyes is a fact that wants so badly to be a metaphor for something else … but more often, it is simple, inconvenient fact.” This blunt axiom undercuts the tendency to read too much into the more earnest and personal episodes related in the book, those homely accounts of the author’s early life in rural New Zealand. Despite this collection’s interest in symbolism, it is also a catalog of immediate memories, arranged like snapshots in a photo album. Young explains her drive to write about her family as an effort toward intimacy: “I believed that simply describing these people, especially at those times when they were most mysterious to me, would show their faces to me more clearly and bring me closer to them.”

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