Initially, I picked up Amy Monticello’s “Close Quarters” because of its binding. It’s a slim volume, perfect-bound, with a crossed-stitch binding that suggests a corset laced up at the spine. The corset stitch is elegant and unusual—a thick cord twisted and knotted into a series of X shapes the length of the book. “Can we do this?” I and the other interns asked. We knew immediately that we wanted some compelling detail for our next chapbook design, and that this eye-catching stitch could be that detail. We emailed the book’s press, Sweet Publications, for guidance.
“It’s actually funny that you ask,” the reply read, “since the binding that we came up with was a bit of a quick fix. Our original intent was to do a perfect binding, but we quickly discovered…as soon as a reader opened the book, they would see straight to our black and very obvious book tape. This was not aesthetically pleasing…so the cross-stitch was an attempt to cover our mistake.”
Interesting, then, that Monticello’s essays in “Close Quarters” are all about binding, even when the ties that bind are attempts to repair mistakes. In the titular essay, Monticello writes, “All they do is laugh, and the way they laugh might make you think they’re old lovers or on a second marriage…They spent the last of their youth in this town, in love and out late. They got married, had me, legally separated for five years, and eventually divorced when I was seven. But from that divorce twenty-three years ago came a new commitment to one another, a friendship as strong and soft as worn leather, like a marriage in middle age.”
Through sense-heavy memories of her childhood, she delicately outlines the divergences and reunions of her family, and the family tree emerges effortlessly from her prose. She avoids excessive exposition, an understandably common stumbling block among memoirists, in favor of raw experience. At the closing of the essay “Christmas 1984”, Monticello writes, “This is the family I will wish I had because I won’t remember when I had it so briefly. This is all of us together with enough—enough presents, enough peas, enough hope that people can change and put things back together. I eat my second piece of cake, chocolate ice cream dripping down my chin and into the neck of my pink sweater. I grip my spoon in my fist and eat. It’s like the cake won’t be there if I look away for even a second.” Her characters—members of her family—are compelling and fully human, but it is her poetic and image-saturated prose that followed me for days after I had finished the book.
The essays in “Close Quarters” are less essays than extended prose poems—the rhythms clear and smooth, the narratives taking a backseat to the lyrical rollicking of the prose. Monticello takes a contemplative step back and shows us her family as they might be seen through the knotted stitching that holds them together: imperfect, incomplete, in the shadow of dark lines. But they are beautiful, and they catch the eye.