Reviewed by D.M Clark
Trace Ramsey’s All I Want to do is Live: A Collection of Creative Nonfiction (Pioneers Press, May 2017) is a hodge-podge of the author’s essays, poetry, creative nonfiction vignettes, chapbook and zine pieces, and various interviews he’s done throughout his career. If that sounds like a lot to take in, it is. But I must say, Ramsey is pretty damn good at what he does, and each piece taken of its own accord is also pretty damn good.
As a collection though? Like I said, it’s a lot to take in. There isn’t a central story that brings all these pieces together. No discredit intended to Ramsey, but it was jarring to read three or four chapters of what seems like a novel, then jump ship to something else completely for a while, then jump again — etc. There are illustrations, pictures, and various graphical elements strung throughout the book to (perhaps) indicate separation between each piece, but I was still left scratching my head a good many times. But if you can get past that and just go with it, the stories are very good. They are sectioned off into essays, poetry, and so forth, so you can always use that good ole’ TOC to gain your bearings should you lose them.
Now, about the writing. Ramsey is at his best describing scenes involving nature, though the topics he covers are extremely various and too numerous to cover here. For example, from the piece titled Farthing Street: “The weeds in the lawn are tall and heading out to seed, the view from our front stoop full of henbit, broadleaf plantain and pepperweed. The purple flowers of the henbit are easy to spot from any window in the house, forming a raised mat of contrast against a green understory.” If this passage got you going, then you should definitely check out Ramsey’s work.
I, personally, like Ramsey’s prose (poetry, too). His sentences have that string of conscious words-shoving-words-ahead-of-them quality that some of our best authors have. It reminded me of Faulkner or McCarthy without the length at times, while at others it was all Thoreau or Berry. I’m not saying he is or isn’t on the level of these guys, but their stamp is allover his work.
Still, I can’t get past the structure of this book—maybe because it isn’t a book but a collection. It says so right on the front cover. Though the illustrations seem to separate different pieces, I’m not sure what some of them are alluding to, or how they fit in with the pages they are backing. I also felt the interviews in the back of the book didn’t quite jibe with the rest of the package.
Overall, I’m pretty sure I will read Ramsey again. But I think next time I’ll look for a more conventional format in which to view his work. There are just too many distractions in All I Want to do is Live for repeated viewings. But, I suspect, it is a good primer for his work.
So now, all I want to do, is read.
D.M. lives in Pittsburgh with his small family. He’s a technical writer by day, and a crazed writer on his lunch breaks and weekends. In other words, he writes a lot.
On staff since 2016