How to Do a Close Reading

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July 17, 2018 by The Citron Review

by B.J. Miller


Read your mother with a pencil in hand. Your left hand. The hand she would use to write you a note in a card with a picture of a cardinal on it. And white glitter for snow that falls on your countertop—where there’s a banana that you took from her house. Because her house would smell of rotten bananas if when she is well enough to return.

Annotate your mother. She is paler than Proust’s madeleine, in a bleak house of skin, living under a blanket of cold anesthesia.

Note how she hears cats fighting in a hospital. Should that detail be unpacked more?

Note her children’s competing narratives: She’s slurring. No, she’s not.

Look for patterns. Your mother promised you she would behave, to rest her heart before it was stopped. She would not mop the floor. Oh no. But she would get on her knees to scrub the floor. Because that’s different. She will not get out of bed without two nurses. She gets out of bed when no one is looking and collapses.

Consider the main character. Is she round or flat? Round as a donkey. Now docile now belligerent now shooing you out the door so you can avoid traffic now hugging and begging, Don’t go.

Consider the narrator. Is she more or less reliable than her brothers? Is she omnipotent, or does she learn things at the same time as the reader?

Use the details of language to be convinced of the location. Mitral valve. Replaced, not repaired. More damage than we thought. Surgeon paging hematologist. Blood motivated to clot. More than it should. Striking. We cannot tell you why. Competence of care. Relaxing music on channel 12. Foam in, foam out.

Pay attention to small objects that can impact the plot. Like bits of bone the surgeon had to scrape out of her heart valve, in cahoots with the clot-prone blood.

Gather as many fragments as you can.

Wander the halls, asking, Who among you can sweep up wet bone? Where’s more broth if things get thick? What means something? Why the sudden confusion? What can you not imagine? To answer some of your questions, go back to the text.

Find the seven-dollar blanket she packed. It has a hole in it—from catching on the wire of her mirror. Lacan would find this striking. This Ideal-I toward which the subject will strive her entire life. I am healthy. I mop scrub the floor. I am healthy. I can walk to the bathroom myself.

Close reading sometimes feels like overanalyzing, because really, can’t Percocet explain everything? Sometimes it isn’t satisfying. What you do and what you don’t know by the end.


B.J. Miller’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and West Branch.

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George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library. "Sunflower." The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

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