What is fourth state of matter?

September 23, 2016
The Fourth State of Matter

Lynn KilpatrickLynn Kilpatrick’s essay “(we interrupt this life for what some people might call ‘vacation’)” is forthcoming in The Ocean State Review. Her essays have been published in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and Ninth Letter. Her collection of stories, In the House, was published by FC2. She teaches at Salt Lake Community College.

I wish I could remember the first time I read JoAnn Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter.” It might actually have been when it was originally published, June 24, 1996 in The New Yorker. What I do remember is being immediately taken with the voice of the piece, which is at once knowing, aware of the writer’s perspective of hindsight, and unknowing, returning, as much as possible, to the innocence of the time before the event.

The part that grabs me first is on that first page:

The Milky Way is a long smear on the sky, like something erased on a
blackboard. Over the neighbor’s house, Mars flashes white, then red, then
white again. Jupiter is hidden among the anonymous blinks and glitterings.
It has a moon with sulfur-spewing volcanoes and a beautiful name: Io. I learned it at work, from the group of men who surround me there. Space physicists, guys who spend days on end with their heads poked through the fabric of the sky, listening to the sounds of the universe. Guys whose own lives are ticking like alarm clocks getting ready to go off, although none of us are aware of it yet.

What I love here is how, unbeknownst to the first-time reader, she gathers the pieces of her essay together. The essay begins with her dog, then she introduces the squirrels, slyly, and then the big piece, which at first seems like just a bit of description, just some window dressing: the night sky, the men she works with; then suddenly, the hint, their lives “ticking” away, how blissfully unaware they all are, just then.

I teach this essay to my students, both in creative writing and in literature, so that they might understand how meaning is made, and, perhaps more importantly, how writers and readers arrive at meaning.

Did Beard, nearing the end of her essay, intend to return to the squirrels, writing “Silence. No matter how much you miss them. They never come back once they’re gone”? As a writer, I’d say no. She didn’t set out to write that, but when she got to that point in the essay, that’s where she was, it’s what happened. She followed the threads of her essay, the clues she so clearly laid out in the beginning, and they led her to this conclusion.

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