Katherine McCord’s ‘Run Scream Unbury Save’

by Kelly Cherry

Run Scream Unbury Save
by Katherine McCord
Autumn House Press, $17.95, paperback, 143pp.

Michael Martone, a highly intelligent author, selected this book as the winner of the 2016 Autumn House nonfiction prize. I might also mention that Autumn House is a highly intelligent press, and I know this because I reviewed some of their first books. The book under consideration here is also highly intelligent, although the author insists she is besieged and beleaguered and has been so all her life. She is deaf in one ear, which makes me sympathize with her. She also has S.A.D., which also makes me sympathize with her. We share these conditions. But why is she frantic, why is she nervous? Who is besieging her?

The short answer is: her father, who was alcoholic. And who worked for the CIA. This is not difficult to understand. An alcoholic parent always fails the children and if the spouse doesn’t share his penchant for booze, the work of managing the family becomes the responsibility of the spouse. This is why two parents are necessary: the burden on a single parent is for most too heavy to lift.

Katherine McCord tells us that her father worked for the CIA and was therefore often away. But sometimes the whole family joined him. McCord was born in Liberia. The family also lived in Nepal. There were two boys and two girls, Katherine younger than her sister, who plays an important part in this book, because the younger looked up to the older and their friendship has continued through the years. Her trust in her big sister lets her know that she herself is trustworthy, and do we need to know that. There are memoirs that want us to believe the author is perfect, self-sufficient, or so sorrowful that it seems no one else exists. Run Scream Unbury Save is about its author but also about the author’s family, the author’s spouse, the author’s children, and many other things, including writing and what it means to be a writer.

Run Scream Unbury Save, while short in terms of pages, spells out a world of words.

These words boil up like a pot of very hot water, sentences smashed together, verbs visibly active, the author’s voice alive and with much on her mind. I wish I could record here her chapter titled “Sisyphus”—the book is organized in shortish chapters—but this one is too long to present in full. She begins “Sisyphus” by talking about her father and ends with a mention of “the climb to not ever knowing what he thought.” A couple of generations back, fathers tended to distance themselves from their children: this child has a father who distances himself literally, roaming. The absence of a parent is always an enduring source of sadness and, more often than not, never goes away. The absence is remembered and every memory carries grief.

One thing her father did do for her was teach her how to shoot a gun. And happily, she marries a man who loves her. In “2. Beauty,” we may find ourselves falling in love with her husband for his competence and level-headedness. Similarly, we fall in love with her hard-working mother, who succeeds in handling her large family smoothly, or, as McCord says,

“[W]e’d run out of other ideas, in the background my father’s much scarier moods and alcoholism taking him down, trying to ruin us, my mother, herself barely withstanding the weight of us, having chosen to or been chosen to, no matter what in the end, directing us, my sister and me, my brother still too young, but, trust me, not far behind, his own materials soon to be model airplanes, music, wood, toward what was possible on that perpetual scale of human beauty, both hers, and, sometimes, his.”

McCord speaks to us as directly as if she were here, now. The urgency of this book is therefore, clearly, embodied in the title: Run, it tells us. Scream, if you have to and you will have to. Unbury the past; raise it up and take its measure. Save whatever can be saved, whatever is beautiful, good, helpful, kind.

She points us toward one such item, an item we want to save in our minds. In “Vincent (Starry Starry Night),” she reminds us that one of his long-lost paintings has been discovered in “an abandoned safety deposit box somewhere overseas.” Then she asks, “How could we be so lucky?” And after a moment, adds, “When you weren’t?” It’s a heart-stopping moment, causing us to reflect on the fortunes of men, as they say, although I’ll add “and women and children.” In another chapter, she writes about “a caveat to all of you, us, me, a reminder, late in the game, to beware, about perspective and that it’s important because of how someone else may, to survive, need to be, I mean see.”

Don’t let her chatter confuse you. Wisdom plays not a small part in this memoir.

One very short chapter charms us by listing the clues a married couple use to communicate. “The empty box placed prominently” says “We need more.” “My favorite,” she tells us, is “the GPS, cords organized and wound, left near the door,” which says, she says, “I don’t know where you’re going but I don’t want you to get lost.”

A few chapters approach poetry even though they are prose. “(Super)Moon II” is as musical as a flute, the rhythms secure and clear as the sea to which she refers. That she tells us in a later chapter, “I hate poetry and poems and poets,” does not mean she hates poetry and poems and poets. In fact, she goes on to say, “I love poetry and poems and poets.” But she isn’t really contradicting herself. She’s simply letting us know how her mind turns around and around, and that that is how all our minds work until we die. Yet how often have you seen that process mimicked in prose? She enlightens us by showing us how minds, including our minds, work.

Toward the end of this book, McCord addresses the end of everything. Yet it’s not the end. She writes about the need to write and the importance of writing. She writes about her friendship with her sister. She writes about her own daughters. She writes about how god (a lowercase god) says to her, on a cell phone, “Let’s just get through not losing your mind.” And indeed, however her passions may pull her this way or that, however her ideas race and get jumbled up with other ideas, the truth is that this author is eminently sane. So very sane that we can, all of us, learn from her. From her felt and full-of-feeling excellent book.

KELLY CHERRY has previously published twenty-two books (novels, stories, poetry, autobiography, memoir, criticism, essays, and reviews), nine chapbooks, and two translations of classical drama. The most recent book is A Kind of Dream: Stories. Her newest full-length collection of poems, The Life and Death of Poetry, was published by L.S.U. Press in 2013 and her newest chapbook, a group of poems titled Vectors: J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Years before the Bomb, appeared from Parallel Press in December 2012. Other awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bradley Major Achievement (Lifetime) Award, a USIS Speaker Award (The Philippines), a Distinguished Alumnus Award, three Wisconsin Arts Board fellowships, two WAB New Work awards, the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook Award for Distinguished Book of Stories in 1999 (2000), and selection as a Wisconsin Notable Author. Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards: Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and New Stories from the South. A former Poet Laureate of Virginia, she is Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She and her husband live in Virginia.