Review by Mack Hassler
So many people never live long enough nor have the inclination to write a memoir. Those who do have a great responsibility. Not only memory and accurate detail but also they need the art to construct something of imagination. I think Joe Kirkish steps up nicely to both responsibilities. In particular with Long Exposure, a fine writing style and good prose enhances the sense the reader has of an enhanced lived experience, makes it seem more loved and lovely. Kirkish, who was born in 1925, is now nearly 100 years old. Most of his long family development and long worklife in photography and radio and various university positions in humanities and theater and communications is complex, varied and generally “harum-scarum.” For that very reason, it is rich and full and very interesting reading. He tells it all in first person and dramatic present, meaning past tense on the page.
But he opens with his editor and friend Meg Ostrum speaking herself in first person in a Foreword and referring to him as “Joe”— She has him speak, “Aaahhh, Meg. I was hoping it was you.” The Foreword ends, “Our marathon quest has produced a lasting legacy and given purpose to both our lives through an uncertain and stressful period [the pandemic]…. Aaahhh, Joe.” (p xv) This artful use of point of view and voice in the prose, in addition to a beautifully designed book visually with many fine Kirkish photos and black bordered chapter layout ranging across the nearly century of life experience from his immigrant Lebanese family start in Houghton to his emeritus status as a Professor of Humanities at Michigan Tech and a well-known radio voice for his “hometown” family, surely enhances for the reader a lived experience of an important Memoir. I like this genre of unlocking life as we know it our time, with good and clear organization and artful writing.
On a deeper note about the meaning of life experience and its relation to the development of literature, which is what UP books are about after all, and which in my opinion this volume from Kirkish contributes toward defining for us, a new study titled Radical Wordsworth by the prolific scholar Jonathan Bate (Yale 2022) explains how this genre of “life and letters” or memoir helped define the importance of late Victorian literature. Bate points out that there was little else for readers to hold onto in the vertigo of Darwinian theory and the other sciences or pseudo-sciences such as Freud was constructing. Few could feel comfortable within the dizzy uncertainty of “Monkey Trials”– both the actual trial as Victorianism merged into the 20th century and the continual controversy in the Press. Now with all its detail and complexity through the changing history of his academic and cultural moves, I think provides a similar stability of meaning. Since he was raised in a family where Arabic was spoken, Joe reports that the Finn was relatively easy for him to pick up as he attended UP camps and sold his wares from his father and uncle’s businesses as well as his own photographic work. And this fact is probably why he decided to come back to the UP of the Houghton/Hancock area rather than stay in New York City and why his memoir is mostly about the Copper Country. Perhaps his “life and letters” life experience book will remain as another cornerstone in UP literature, Long Exposure is certainly an enjoyable read and a beautiful book that accomplishes what it is intended to do. It gives the stability of meaning to a life well lived.
Long Exposure: My Life In and Beyond the Copper Country,
by Joseph B. Kirkish (edited by Meg Ostrum).
Mission Point Press, 2022. 332 pages, paperback, n.p.