In his autobiography, Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov follows the “thematic design” of his own life, sidestepping chronology altogether: “I confess I do not believe in time,” he writes. “I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip.”
Dead Meander, a new essay collection by Nashville fiction writer and translator Adria Bernardi, takes a similar approach to memoir—but readers do not trip. Instead, we stand beside her as she precisely examines and catalogues fragments of her life. Bernardi’s writing shares a quality The New Yorker’s James Wood ascribed to Italian novelist Elena Ferrante: it “rips the skin off the habitual.”
Whether Bernardi is reflecting on the birth of a son, two months premature, or on the chronic migraines that can befall her for days, these essays, written between 1993 and 2008, encapsulate traumatic experiences frozen in time. She acts as the fact-checker of her own life and emotions, as researcher and reporter charged with accounting for each experiment’s contributing factors, however minor their effect.
In “Half-Cranium,” for example, Bernardi not only examines her own pain but translates it—both literally and figuratively:
Emigrare, in Italian, is to emigrate, and the word for migraine is emicrainia. Migraine, I have thought, is a journey caused by pain, an emigration from the cranium. E-migrare. E-micrania. Pain exiles you from your own brain and you go out-of-your-mind with pain. The pain is so great, you have to take leave and look at it from a distance, maybe from the corner of a darkened room as you lie upon a bed.
But I was mistaken.
I had not accurately broken the word into syllables. Not e-micrania, but emi-crania. Half-cranium. Because the pain occurs on one side of the head.
Still, I persist in thinking of migraine as referring to a condition that makes you an emigrant from your own brain.
Bernardi is the author of an award-winning short-story collection, In the Gathering Woods, as well as two novels, Openwork and The Day Laid on the Altar. In a review of Openwork, Kirkus Reviews called Bernardi “a prodigious talent” who writes in “beautifully rendered … impressionistic strokes.” The description also fits these personal essays, which—despite the eponymous meandering from one topic to the next—abound with verve and energy. The result is a tangle of gorgeous, poetic prose traveling deeper and deeper into itself, and into the author’s own experience, moving neither forward nor backward.