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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

September 08, 1996|Susan Salter Reynolds

PORTRAIT OF MY BODY by Phillip Lopate (Anchor Books: $22.95, 325 pp.). Phillip Lopate, author of eight books and most recently editor of "The Art of the Personal Essay," could teach charm school or sell something, anything, for a living and be just as successful (certainly financially more so) than he is as one of this country's most illustrious essayists. But no, this quaint art form is the medium he has chosen in which to flay and gut himself for our supper. These are painful essays, at times painfully beautiful, and it is only by the sheer centrifugal force of his talent that Lopate forces us to examine his neuroses, his body parts (legs, good; male organ, excellent by all accounts, including his own), his obsessions and delights.

Since he's made himself fair game, part of the delight of these essays comes from thinking that you know the man, to the point of generous beneficence over his revealing disclaimers: "Not that I'm homophobic, I'm not" or " . . . this, in spite of the fact, which I promise not to repeat again, that I have generally been able to do it whenever called upon. Believe it or not, I am not boasting when I say that. . . ." But of course you don't know him, any better than he knew his fellow professor and, yes, distant mentor (despite the essay "Terror of Mentors"), Donald Barthelme.

Favorites in this collection include: "The Moody Traveler," "The Dead Father: A Remembrance of Donald Barthelme," "Delivering Lily" and "Memories of Greenwich Village: A Meander," which is a counterpoint to Anatole Broyard's lovely memoir, "Kafka Was the Rage." In each of these, Lopate appears to be wrestling with a piece of his heart that has flown off and lodged in something he loves, trying to convince it to come back into his body where he can control it, whether it's lodged in Barthelme or his daughter, Lily, or Greenwich Village. Lopate writes, to borrow an idea from poet Mark Strand's famous poem "Reasons for Moving" ("We all have reasons / for moving / I move / to keep things whole"), to keep himself whole.

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