Essay by Katherine Yeejin Hur, Black Warrior Review 47.2 nonfiction contest winner
“Third” by Katherine Yeejin Hur is in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Black Warrior Review. “Third” won the 2020 BWR Nonfiction Contest. It will be hard to follow this newsletter without having read the essay. I stumbled on this essay three weeks ago and it has kept me up at night since.
Katherine Yeejin Hur is a Korean American writer from Atlanta, Georgia. She is in her final year of Louisiana State University’s MFA program, and has been published in The Southern Review, as well as Black Warrior Review. You can find her on Twitter here.
A note: this essay deals with the death of someone close to the narrator. While at times, a discussion of craft can feel mechanical, I try to always keep in mind I am discussing someone’s truth, a story about that truth, yes, but a lived experience.
The full (final) two(ish) maps of “Third” by Katherine Yeejin Hur:
I’m not going to lie to you, it took me three maps to get here. “Third” is structurally complex, although on the surface feels easily navigable (or even doable should you want to use it as a prompt in mimicking structure). It pairs two threads (about two characters arguably—one personal, one research) in and out of one another. I personally love essays like this, that seem one thing and are entirely another. If you haven’t read Meander, Spiral, Explode by Jane Alison I highly recommend buying a copy so you can understand just how nerdy I’m about to get with this essay.
I started the original map following what Hur tells readers in the opening line, “I have always seen things in threes.”
My move then is to follow the threes: numbers that are divisible by three, lists that contain three items, grouping paragraphs by threes, looking for any contrast to or in groups of three.
Hur probably knows a reader is going to do that so we get the following information in paragraph one: 27 is her number, her mother dies in her third year of college on the 27th of March, and a year later on April 27 (nearly six months since they’ve spoken) she tells a boy she loves him, and he confesses it’s mutual. The first three paragraphs act like this. Hur introduces the three movements of a concerto, her mother’s religion’s Holy Trinity, and the brilliance of giving us a history in two short sentences, “In history: three waves of Korean immigration in America. Sugar-cane plantation workers to war brides to liquor store owners.” These paragraphs end with the sentence, “My mother hangs herself in the basement of 931 West Conway Drive.” Which, as it should, feels like a trap door—everything we will know from here on out is hinged on this sentence.
Think of this initial map like a study in Apophenia (a tendency to perceive recognizable patterns in random data. Supposedly also an error in perception).
My immediate thought after these first three paragraphs was to research the maxim that “death comes in threes.” I fully convinced myself this was the way the essay would move. My assumptions were wildly incorrect. So, my inclination as I kept reading was to keep asking questions.
Whenever I’m in doubt, I make a list of questions. I do this in my own writing too. I wish I could remember where I learned it, but I’ll write 50 “what if” questions. Usually three or four of them are actually what I’m trying to navigate.
The jump from that final sentence in those opening paragraphs leaps into a direct address (second person POV) that we learn a few paragraphs later is to the composer Rachmaninoff. Of course, my first question is what does the direct address offer Hur and her reader? Also, the white space remains the same between all the paragraphs, but we’ve jumped in time and place (Mother’s death (931) to October of 1893)—what does that movement offer?
I hope you also got chills reading 9-3-1 next to 18-9-3. Yes, this essay makes me deeply feel that there are no coincidences only craft.
The direct address to Rachmaninoff against her own history with grief surrounding her mother’s death continues for the rest of the essay, broken into the three concerto sections (1. Allegro ma non tanto, 2. Intermezzo: Adagio, 3. Finale: Alla breve). What I ultimately came to in this initial map is that the direct address to Rachmaninoff offers Hur a way to also directly address her mother and herself, as well as to initiate a conversation about creating art through grief, and untangling the knot between lived-experience and reflection we all face on the page.
My initial assumption was that the essay acted like a play in three acts, or a triptych in three sections (though that would be heavily influenced by images typically). And while it’s obviously a concerto from section titles, I still tried to find a way into the essay through the sections.
For instance the final words of each section are “write again, renowned, and home”—they feel like a journey when placed together like that. This feels poetic to me. The writer is thinking about what words or phrases are acting as places to leap.
I then tried to track the themes of each. The first section introduces themes of death, love, and failure. The second asks what it means to be “okay” and what it looks like when you aren’t necessarily. It breaks down the double meaning of “apart” that I’ll get to later. It introduces writing as Hur’s art (though obvious in that she’s writing an essay, writing becomes a particular part of the meaning). The third reveals a convergence of writing, grief and art—experience vs. reflection and analysis. There is a whole other map in here that’s a triple venn diagram, but I wanted to make it harder on myself. It had to be done later though, there was no way to avoid the references.
I want to note following a writer through the structural clues they’ve offered a reader. Here: threes, and three sections, three threads, lists of threes—what structure does that make you immediately see? Start there.
So, I kept thinking about it. Because the first map (purple) ultimately failed in unlocking meaning. All I knew on an initial read and mapping session is that these two threads (mother’s death and Rachmaninoff’s journey to composing his Third Piano Concerto) are synced for a reason, and the reason was elusive.
Sure, there is one fully-developed memory in the entire essay between Hur and her mother, her mother “slumps against the upright speaker” listening to Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto late into the evening. The memory of her mother’s body while she listens is contrasted against the image of Hur bathing her mother the night before, “To see her vulnerable, head bowed between her knees, exposing the nape of her neck, whimpering softly as dead skin sloughs away under the pressure of your own hands.”
I started to see it here, in the first map. I noted the bathing memory, but it got lost in an idea I had about senses—how giving the reader only one memory makes them so dependent on the senses evoked by that memory. All true, but why?
Ask yourself why and how when something stands alone. Dr. Roxanne Gay says that writers don’t need to cannibalize themselves on the page. (Linked is a two-hour Writing Trauma panel with her and Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, Terese Mailhot, Saeed Jones, and Aubrey Hirsch). While this essay is steeped in grief, we’re not experiencing a pounding-on of trauma surrounding the event, or more than necessary memories to know the mother. I am wondering now (writing this towards the end of my figurings) if this could be considered a eulogy, or an elegy. My initial instinct is to say no to both, but I’m curious what others think.
We know there’s a content connection since her mother clearly loved this concerto, but I couldn’t get beyond it. I knew there was a third element because a writer embracing the number three wouldn’t leave us with two. So, I drew a helix between the mother and Rachmaninoff in my second map. There’s something to be said for entering an essay fully trusting the writer.
In this map I continued tracking threes but every time I felt metaphorical crossover between Rachmaninoff and Hur’s mother, I wrote it into the helix. Grief is a thing that changes our DNA both personally and ancestrally. Rachmaninoff loses his mentor early, composes his first symphony, and it almost ruins him. He enters despair and does not write again for years. We learn this right after the intimate memory scene of Hur bathing her mother, and Hur’s mother enraptured against the music speaker.
We learn it right after the line, “She looks at me, but she does not see me. If she recognizes me, she does not say.” It is a line separated and on its own in the essay.
Writers don’t just set lines aside. Do I love it every time when a line stands alone? No. Sometimes it feels like writers want me to look at it too closely, or they know the language is especially juicy and want to point out their own prowess. THIS line alone though—yes. I skipped over it the first few times I read the essay. I thought it summarized the scene. It is doing so much more.
While I ignored it, I did notice Hur’s musing on writing, grief, art, criticism, and the differences between the way we experience music and the way, only after, we can reflect and analyze—two different moments, one that can arguably never be achieved in art, and then the art made which reveals the impact of experience. The same can be said for grief, the experience of grief and the crafting of grief for the page can be siblings, but can’t twin. I called it something like, “the actual death” and “the creative death” in the map. The act of experiencing, and then creating, are so different to me. They are sprung from different emotions entirely—though we can backtrack in our reflection, or find ourselves in similar emotional territory, it still feels like a refracted or relived emotion, not the pure emotion of the experience.
(My friend, Michael Ramos, writes about his experience in the military—and his experience of convergent timelines, ever-present past and a lived present which argues against what I’m arguing above).
I was right initially about Apophenia. It is the phenomenon the essay is built on, but the true underlying tension of the essay is in the word “recognition.” It is the THIRD thing, the culmination of the trifecta. Once I saw it, and named it, (recognized it if you will), it was EVERYWHERE in the most beautiful, brilliant way. And it allows Hur room to tangent from the initial helix of her mother’s death and Rachmaninoff’s history (two stories of grieving and creation).
I would have never even learned the word “Apophenia” if I hadn’t followed the wrong avenue of my initial inclinations to research, “death comes in threes.” So, even if your research is in the wrong direction—research is almost always fruitful.
Recognition is there when Rachmaninoff’s hypnotist sees him free of charge and recognizes the three lines he needs to hear, “You will begin to write your concerto. You will work with great facility. The concerto will be of excellent quality.” It is there when Hur writes the simplistic sentence, “This is my mother.” She gives us image after image, contradiction after contradiction of who her mother is, and how she exists in these images too. It is there in her mother’s lack of recognition when she looks up from the speaker at Hur, against the raw memory of naked, intimate recognition when Hur (the night before) is washing her mother’s body.
Recognition as an idea is so visible, it seeps into the tiny tangents. We learn in the first paragraph that Hur confesses her love for a boy, and it’s mutual. Later, in the essay she feels like everything is coming back to her so easily after her mother’s death, and then the next paragraph, “Then I turn angry, so angry it surprises me.” RECOGNITION. She looks at someone and thinks, “I know exactly how to take you apart.” RECOGNITION. A few paragraphs later, she describes her brother’s anger and his fighting throughout school, her father says, “I feel our family is falling apart all of a sudden.” The two versions of “apart” against each other—“taking apart” and “falling apart” are two sides of the same coin, two ways of looking at grief. She wants the boy who loves her to fight her, but he refuses, apologizes. She recognizes her needs on the page through this series of her own and family emotions. Love and anger recognized and intertwined—a helix.
Rachmaninoff’s history: will he be recognized, whether critically or renowned? Will any artist? Will Hur’s mother? There’s something in this essay (subtle, so subtle) about perception and true knowing. At one point Hur talks about when a famous person dies their Wikipedia is immediately updated, yet her mother’s death is recognized by training herself to say, “My mother’s favorite composer was Rachmaninoff” instead of “My mother’s favorite composer is Rachmaninoff.” God, language, I love you so much.
In her recognition of emotions, Hur’s roommate takes her to see A Star is Born, and Hur has to “look away” when Bradley Cooper’s character passes. A reader might think it’s because of the dual image associated between her mother and the character’s death, but it is the entire ribeye he sets on a plate for his dog that makes her, “leave the theater in tears.” Her recognition of this “last act of love” reads like a callback to the one scene we get with her mother, the music, the bath.
You might be wondering why I keep bringing up this singular memory of her mother. It stands out to me. The inclination of a lot of writers might be to overwhelm with details of the mother, to write an essay steeped in memories, but Hur explicitly avoids this. She gives us one memory, a memory intended to act how she describes Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, “a series of interlocking rings” or the way he plays with his sister as a child, “dizzying circles on ice.” It repeats in our mind because of its singularity.
In the final paragraphs, she sees a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto and describes the pianist as a “conduit for art” who is performing “without ego, without a sense of self,” a performance so extraordinary because it is “so bare.” Bare is such a specific word here, so powerful. While Hur asks the question of whether or not she can transcribe the experience of listening to music (and also underlying—describing her own grief), she gets there for me with the one singular word, “bare.” Her mother, in the bathtub. The intimacy between them. Her mother enraptured with the music. Rachmaninoff’s concerto. The connecting point: bare.
Her last act of genius in this essay is the final paragraph in which she attempts to describe the triangle often evoked for her between music and memory, and her own reconciliation of both with image. She describes hearing the Third Piano Concerto live, and she does not “disassociate” as she has always experienced. Instead, we get dizzying sentences in threes. Lugansky “pulls the strength from” his feet, body, hands. He plays with “terrifying rhythm—the beating, living pulse.” “Everything falls away—there is nothing else, not the boy I love,” “nor my mother,” “no, not even you, Rachmaninoff.” Only music, “soaring vibrato of strings, brilliant warmth of chords on the piano,” and a “rolling cascade of triplets to make the return of the first theme.” It is, “one whole, one entity unbroken, something complete.” Three. Three. Three. Overwhelming three-tier descriptions.
We do get the memory of her mother one more time in the essay. On page six (originally on page three), Hur says, “But for me there is only my mother, drunk and lonely, pressing herself against the speakers to feel the vibrations of something filled with music. I cannot look away.” It comes right after a paragraph describing where Rachmaninoff originally played the concerto in Russia, and his own “yearning for Russia—for home.” The final line of the essay, “A feeling like coming home.” A place of recognition: I cannot look away, a yearning for home.
If this isn’t a standing ovation, what are we waiting for?
A brief list of further structural studies:
One of my professors used to call all structure a container. I kind of agree with this notion, but mostly disagree. Sarah Minor’s collection Bright Archive does a good job with revealing visual / imagistic containers, but her museum work and sculptural essays make me feel like the word “containers” is too limiting.
When interviewed, Natalie Diaz often talks about the limitations of the “container of the page”—particularly in terms of book shape and size. Here is an hour long interview from Free Library of Philadelphia.
Jenny Boully’s The Body: An Essay, a book that is written in footnotes.
About Cassie Mannes Murray:
Cassie Mannes Murray is a literary agent at Howland Literary, where she started from the bottom with a cold email and a dream, and a publicist at Mindbuck Media. Before she weaseled her way into publishing, she produced a robust blog called Books & Bowel Movements, and taught public school. For writing, she has an MFA in creative nonfiction, has received a notable in Best American Essays 2020, and a Pushcart Prize nom. Her work has been featured in The Rumpus, Story Quarterly, Passages North, Hobart, Joyland, Slice Magazine, and Fugue. She’s married to a non-writing gamer, and they live with the fireflies in North Carolina where their dog chases street chickens.