The Wet Collection begins in the belly of a natural history museum, where, Joni Tevis writes, “they understand the virtues of careful storage.” Here she views the eyes of voles, the tongues of flamingo and great blue heron. “There is something repulsive in this, these parts taken without a whole,” says Tevis, and yet something necessary, a record of what was.
Tevis, too, clearly understands the virtues of careful storage. Opening this book of essays is like stepping into one of Joseph Cornell’s box constructions. It is a treasure chest of smaller containers, each one filled with the author’s muscular, graceful prose, preserving something that may have edged toward loss if not for the author’s keen observation, her religious attention to detail.
Yet if a museum preserves things in part, Tevis reimagines them whole. In this way, her book has little to do with nostalgia, and everything to do with hope. Her grandfather, a farmhand, finally owns the land due him: “He signed his contract with nail-heads hammered flush.” A woman homesteader from Oregon, 1911, rises from the soil and teaches Tevis how to both be alone and share her life with a loved one: “This is my book of new ritual,” she writes, “of learning to live a prophetic life in conjunction with another.”
Just as any meditation worth its solemnness is also plump with humor, The Wet Collection indulges. In one of the strongest essays, Tevis recounts her brief stint as a cemetery salesperson. And if humor is joy, then it teases the margins of every fervent page. The wonder of following a mind that works as beautifully as Tevis’s is sheer entertainment in the richest sense of the word. Perhaps the vascular map required by the longer pieces is what makes them slightly more successful than the shorter selections in the second half of the book. Most are gems, to be sure, but they sometimes strike the same note more than once.
No doubt comparisons to Annie Dillard will surface. A few may invoke Barry Lopez or Jane Hirshfield. The Wet Collection, though, is fresher than any comparison can conjure; it is the inimitable sound of one writer listening to her own voice.