“Hear Me Ohio” begins with horseradish and ends with unicorns. This far-ranging collection of essays by Jen Hirt provides access into a curious mind exploring not only the natural world, but also the quirky, surprising, and sometimes heartbreaking world of humankind. Like the first essay, which takes the reader on a quest for an antique bottle that once held her great-grandfather's "celebrated horseradish,” most essays involve seeking, not only for physical objects, but also for meaning.
I bought Jen Hirt’s recently published book while attending a writers’ conference in early March in San Antonio, Texas. The looming threat of the coronavirus almost caused the organizers of the event to cancel, but they forged ahead, and so did I. On my way home, on the day Penn State announced classes would be held remotely for the rest of the semester, I read “Hear Me Ohio.” As I flipped through the book in airports and on planes, I dogeared one page in the essay titled “Arrived to Find” that seemed to foreshadow the world I would arrive back to.
Several months after reading the book, I revisited “Arrived to Find” to discover why that essay made such a strong impression on me. It meditates on arrivals and departures of all sorts, on what it means to say we’ve “arrived,” and on what we do when we get to our destination. For example, it asks us to consider how we might react in the moment of arriving to a fire in a 16th century palace in Wiemar, Germany, which was then a priceless library of rare books. Which books would we choose to save?
“Arrived to Find” focuses most intently on three Garden Orb spiders Hirt observes at a Kentucky arboretum where she’s landed a writing residency. She observes their movements, habits, and the wide and cloudy zigzag of thick silk in the middle of their webs that “looks like a vertical stack of cursive letters.” Despite careful observation, Hirt misses what leads the three spiders to depart, and is left wondering if it was free will or catastrophe.
The passage I marked is spurred by the news that the famous French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, has died. Hirt writes: “Derrida distinguished two types of future. There was the predictable future of schedules, or patterns like the weather, or annual events like an equinox. This, he said, is not the true future. It deceives us into thinking we know. The true future is the unexpected arrival of The Other, which we can never really know. We can’t know the moment of arrival, nor the temperament of The Other, nor how we will react.”
This meditation on the true, unexpected future felt charged and important as I departed one city and arrived home into uncertainty. I felt as if it was telling me something about what we would face in the coming months of pandemic and protest.
“Hear Me Ohio” offers an exhilarating and thought-provoking journey with a wise and friendly guide, who, as another reviewer puts it, reveals “the magic at the heart of the mundane.”
Reviewer Alison Condie Jaenicke is an assistant teaching professor in the English department at Penn State.