Trails of Doubt and Desire: Repetition in a Paragraph by Charles D’Ambrosio

I’d like to take a closer look at a paragraph from Charles D’Ambrosio’s excellent collection of essays, Loitering (2014).  It’s from “Orphans,” an essay about D’Ambrosio’s trip to an orphanage in Russia. D’Ambrosio describes the footpaths that surround the orphanage:

Maybe more than the building itself, the land around the orphanage and the elaborate network of footpaths create for the kids a sense of place. There are trails through the birch and pine, across fields where, every spring, the kids burn leaves and work the ash into the soil and plant potatoes, trails that lead to the river, to the school, to the village, to ponds and creeks and springs flowing up from beneath the ground with cool drinkable water, trails that are a story in themselves, worn by wandering feet over fifty years, worn by joy and hope and habit and need, trails like a sentence spoken, each a whisper about the surrounding world, a dialogue with doubt or desire that’s ultimately answered by a destination. Many of the children have either no history or a severely foreshortened sense of the past, but these trails, worked into the grass or through the forests by others before them, send the kids off to play in a shared world—shared not just in physical space, but down through time. It must in some humble way ease the isolation, like Crusoe finding a footprint in the sand. (204-5)

The centerpiece is the 102-word sentence that forms the bulk of this paragraph. What makes it remarkable, in part, is D’Ambrosio’s masterful use of repetition (specifically anaphora and polysyndeton). The intricacy of the repetition becomes apparent when we chart it out: 

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The repetition of “trails” forms the pulse of the sentence, but there are repetitions within those repetitions. This spiraling repetition certainly gives the sentence sonic heft, but there’s more to it than that: it’s also closely related to D’Ambrosio’s thematic concerns as a writer.

At first, each iteration of the word “trails” seems to describe a different type of trail that surrounds the orphanage. But by the time we reach “trails that are a story,” it becomes apparent that D’Ambrosio is tracing over and over the same terrain, much in the way the trails themselves were created, describing not different trails, but different interpretations of the trails, from the literal (where they are and where they lead) to the metaphorical (trail-as-story; trail-as-sentence).

And it’s the final phrase of the sentence that clues us in on the larger implications of D’Ambrosio’s description: “trails like a sentence spoken, each… a dialogue with doubt or desire that’s ultimately answered by a destination.” Compare this to how D’Ambrosio defines the “essence of the essay” 200 pages earlier, in the introduction to Loitering: “seeking with doubt. And longing. And not-knowing. And the occult directives of desire” (16). The two passages share two central terms, doubt and desire. In other words, these trails embody the method as well as the purpose of the essay, as D’Ambrosio understands it.

D’Ambrosio concludes that the trails remind the orphans that they live in “a shared world,” thereby easing their isolation. This bears a striking similarity to D’Ambrosio’s description (also in the intro to the book) of the “a precarious faith” that animates his essays: “that we are more intimately bound to one another by our kindred doubts that our brave conclusions” (20).

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