As part of my preparation for my interview with William Gass, I began April with a reread of Conversations with William Gass. Once again, I highly recommend Conversations as it offers a great mind essaying off-the-cuff, and doing it brilliantly. I followed this with a reading of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, another of Gass’s fifty literary pillars. It’s an incredibly elaborate orchestration of metafictional play and stylistic counterplay. Seamless collage of seemingly disparate elements like pulp genres, Irish folklore and mythology, and frame within a frame within a frame tales is one mark of its formal inventiveness. One of the joys of At Swim is getting tangled in, and having to disentangle yourself from, the various threads, and following all the characters in and out of their nested boxes. As to be expected from a novel about a writer writing about a writer writing a novel, there’s a lot of commentary about writing: “There are two ways to make big money, he said, to write a book or to make a book.” And this was the remark that “provoked” a group of pseudo-intellectuals to have a “discussion on the subject of Literature-great authors living and dead, the character of modern poetry, the predilections of publishers and the importance of being at all times occupied with literary activities of a spare time or recreative character.” Love that capital “L” there! This whole passage, with the bits about how the room “rang with the iron of fine words,” how the “names of great Russian masters were articulated with fastidious intonation,” and how psychoanalysis “was mentioned-with, however, a somewhat light touch,” is hilarious. And I think this statement: “Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another,” is critical, too, since it’s a justification, of sorts, of all the overlapping and juxtapositions of characters and settings throughout the course of the novel.

I should mention here that one of the things I like about the novel are all of these expository asides set off by a colon. (It’s also an attribute, albeit with a different stylistic effect, of Gary Lutz’s work; and it’s something I sometimes play around with in my fiction.):

Description of my uncle: Red-faced, bead-eyed, ball-bellied. Fleshy about the shoulders with long swinging arms giving ape-like effect to gait. Large moustache. Holder of Guinness clerkship the third class.

The narrator has no shortage of succinct encapsulations of personality traits and physical attributes. And any time the narrator remarks about the uncle, look out! “Description of my friend: Thin, dark-haired, hesitant; an intellectual Meath-man; given to close-knit epigrammatic talk; weak-chested, pale.” There are concise, droll descriptions of vibe and atmosphere: “Nature of chuckles: Quiet, private, averted.” And other hilarious asides:

Nature of mime and ejaculation: Removal of sweat from brow; holy God.”

Purpose of walk: Discovery and embracing of virgins.”

I really enjoyed the tall-tale grandiosity of the Finn Mac Cool passages, like this one with its insane inventory:

I am friend to the pilibeen, the red-necked chough, the parsnip land-rail, the pilibeen móna, the bottle-tailed tit, the common marsh-coot, the speckle-toed guillemot, the pilibeen sléibhe, the Mohar gannet, the peregrine plough-gull, the long-eared bush-owl, the Wicklow small-fowl, the bevil-beaked chough, the hooded tit, the pilibeen uisce, the common corby, the fish-tailed mud-piper, the crúiskeen lawn, the carrion sea-cock, the green-lidded parakeet, the brown bog-martin, the maritime wren, the dove-tailed wheatcrake, the beaded daw, the Galway hill bantam and the pilibeen cathrach. A satisfying ululation is the contending of a river with the sea. Good to hear is the chirping red-breasted men in bare winter and distant hounds giving tongue in the secrecy of fog. The lamenting of a wounded otter in a black hole, sweeter than harpstrings that. There is not torture so narrow as to be bound and beset in a dark cavern without food or music, without the bestowing of gold on bards. To be chained by night in a dark pit without company of chessman-evil destiny! Soothing to my ear is the shout of a hidden blackbird, the squeal of a troubled mare, the complaining of wild-hogs caught in the snow.

It’s a gorgeous display of O’Brien’s luscious lyricism, and his expressive use of the hyphen is effusive without sounding garbled.

The narrator is preoccupied by so many concerns, and he talks about “retir[ing] to the privacy of [his] mind”, and “into the kingdom of [his] mind.” And, after his “witticism was unperceived,” he “quietly replaced it in the treasury of [his] mind”; and later, he talks about how a “sense of tedium is so deeply seated in the texture of [his] mind.” There might be other causes to his mind trouble: “The mind may be impaired by alcohol, I mused, but withal it may be pleasantly impaired.” And in Trellis’s letter to Mr. Arbuthnot, he says, “With the present pressure on my mind, I should not be able to sleep if I did not use wine as an opiate; it is less hurtful than laudanum but not so effectual.”

I shifted gears with a reading of Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies. While certainly dated in some ways, the book is still provocative for any lover of books as objects made of paper and ink. I think I first flipped through the book in the library after I’d read somewhere that Lia Purpura recommended it, and I think my motivation to finally read it was borne from my frustration with how technology and virtual media are seemingly taking over everything, usurping our time, compromising our privacy. Here are some of Birkert’s thoughts about the “differences between the print orientation and that of electronic systems”:

The order of print is linear, and is bound to logic by the imperatives of syntax. Syntax is the substructure of discourse, a mapping of the ways that the mind makes sense through language. Print communication requires the active engagement of the reader’s attention, for reading is fundamentally an act of translation. Symbols are turned into their verbal referents and these are in turn interpreted. The print engagement is essentially private. While it does represent an act of communication, the contents pass from the privacy of the sender to the privacy of the receiver. Print also posits a time axis; the turning of pages, not to mention the vertical descent down the page, is a forward-moving succession, with earlier contents at every point serving as a ground for what follows. Moreover, the printed material is static-it is the reader, not the book, that moves forward. The physical arrangements of print are in accord with our traditional sense of history. Materials are layered; they lend themselves to rereading and to sustained attention. The pace of reading is variable, with progress determined by the reader’s focus and comprehension.

The electronic order is in most ways opposite. Information and contents do not simply move from one private space to another, but they travel along a network. Engagement is intrinsically public, taking place within a circuit of larger connectedness. The vast resources of the network are always there, potential, even if they do not impinge on the immediate communication. Electronic communication can be passive, as with television watching, or interactive, as with computers. Contents, unless they are printed out (at which point they become part of the static order of print) are felt to be evanescent. They can be changed or deleted with the stroke of a key. With visual media (television, projected graphs, highlighted “bullets”) impression and image take precedence over logic and concept, and detail and linear sequentiality are sacrificed. The pace is rapid, driven by jump-cut increments, and the basic movement is laterally associative rather than vertically cumulative. The presentation structures the reception and, in time, the expectation about how information is organized.

Further, the visual and nonvisual technology in every way encourages in the user a heightened and ever-changing awareness of the present. It works against historical perception, which must depend on the inimical notions of logic and sequential succession. If the print medium exalts the word, fixing it into permanence, the electronic counterpart reduces it to a signal, a means to an end.

I’m not sure what inspired me to read The Complete Poems of Hart Crane. Perhaps it was just a simple craving for art that utilizes the full resources of language. While some people may find Crane’s poetry unnecessarily inscrutable; his poems are, on the contrary, invocations full of sensuous sonorities, thrusting the reader along eddies of personal associations, the emotional intensity of which I found invigorating; and while reading I was often swept away by the rhythms, the evocations, the lapidary style, and was unconcerned with immediately understanding (this would come, I knew, with repeated readings) the so-called meaning of the poems. Besides the baroque quality of these iambic pentameter lines (set into quatrains for White Buildings and Key West, Crane’s latter two books), there are Crane’s inspired creation of portmanteaus and compounds and hyphenated compounds: “oilrinsed”, “windwrestlers”, “moonferrets”, “cloud-templed”, “star-glistered”, “larval-silver”, “space-gnawing”, “wind-sleuths”, “moonferrets”, “cloud-belfries”, “lead-perforated”, “wing-pulse”, “ghoul-mound” “blue-writ”, “oak-vizored”, “death-strife”, “pasture-shine”, “sky-barracks”, ‘crystal-flooded”, “planet-sequined”, “Everpresence”, “cold-hushed”, “sun-silt”, “Vine-stanchioned”, “chimney-sooted”, “much-exacting”, “Half-riant”, and “transmemberment”.

There’s also no shortage of unfamiliar words, e.g., cavil, borage, cycloramic, encinctured, conclamant, aureate, clamant, corymbulous, hypogeum, undinal, diapason, irrefragably, and argosy.

With its repeated references and likenings to water, poetry full of  “writhing pool[s]”, poems where “streets / Burst suddenly in rain…”, Crane’s poetry is really a psychic seascape. From “Ave Maria”:

“Witness before the tides can wrest away / The word I bring…”

Here waves climb into dusk on gleaming mail; / Invisible valves of the sea,-locks, tendons / Crested and creeping, troughing corridors / That fall back yawning to another plunge.”

Dark waters onward shake the dark prow free.”

O Thou who sleepest on Thyself, apart / Like ocean athwart lanes of death and birth, / And all the eddying breath between dost search / Cruelly with love thy parable of man…”

In “Powhatan’s daughter” someone is tossed about by “a tide of voices” in their dreams. And in “The River” a tributary alters dreams, diffuses it: “The River, spreading, flows-and spends your dream. / What are you, list within this tideless spell?” You find water weaving and throwing “laughing chains” in “The Dance”.

From “Cape Hatteras”: “Sea eyes and tidal, undenying, bright with myth!”

From “Southern Cross”:

All night the water combed you with black
Insolence. You crept out simmering, accomplished.
Water rattled that stinging coil, your
Rehearsed hair—docile, alas, from many arms.
Yes, Eve—wraith of my unloved seed!

From “My Grandmother’s Love Letters”: “Yet how much room for memory there is / In the loose girdle of soft rain.”

A man in “At Melville’s Tomb” stands on some dark promontory, presumably, and reflects on the sea, itself a grave of “drowned men’s bones”, a “calyx of death’s bounty” that “bequeath / An embassy”, a series of reflections, that Crane describes as “A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph, / The portent wound in corridors of shells.” The sea is a keeper of “fabulous shadow”. And we learn in Voyages that the “bottom of the sea is cruel.” And note Crane’s marvelously filigreed description of waves and sea sounds in that same poem: “Take this Sea, whose diapason knells / On scrolls of silver snowy sentences…”

I followed my reading of Crane’s poetry, and ended April, with reading Jane Unrue’s Life of a Star. It is a beautiful book comprised of evocative fragments full of anguished reveries and lyrical prose. Unrue’s narrator insists the reader seam these luminous bits together to form, not some raggedy patchwork, but a luxuriant tapestry. Though erotic tensions, and some violence, suffuse the narrative, the language here is both subtle and agonizing, profound, elegant:

And, yes, there are some fine examples, in that other, smaller gallery, of another kind of art, a women’s art, close work performed by candlelight: the willowherb, the dragonfly, the frogs and butterflies and clover, and a set of handkerchiefs on which one woman stitched and stitched and sent, by way of female messenger, those secret words embroidered into pictures, to her lover: butterflies and berries, tiny flowers, if you love me then for chrissake come and fuck me, chutes, thin curling lines and spider’s webs that glisten in among the hard-to-read entreaties stem- and serpent-stitched in bone- and eggshell-tinted thread.

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JOHN MADERA writes fiction and nonfiction, and sometimes likes to blur the two. His work is forthcoming in Conjunctions, The Believer, Mud Luscious Press, Jaded Ibis Press, Willows Wept Press, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Publishing Genius; and may be found in Opium Magazine, Featherproof Press, elimae, Everyday Genius, ArtVoice, Underground Voices,Little White Poetry Journal #7, Corduroy Mountain, and hitherandthithering waters. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, his criticism may be found in 3:AM Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Bookslut, The Collagist, DIAGRAM, Fiction Writers Review, Flatmancrooked, The Millions, The Prairie Journal: A Magazine of Canadian Literature, The Quarterly Conversation, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, New Pages, Open Letters Monthly,The Rumpus, Tarpaulin Sky, and Word Riot. He is editing a collection of essays on the craft of writing (Publishing Genius Press). He edits the forum Big Other and journal The Chapbook Review. Former fiction editor at Identity Theory, he’s senior flash fiction editor at jmww. He also sings and plays guitar for Mother Flux.

7 responses to “A Reader’s Log(orrhea) #4: Lyrical Language and Luminous Bits”

  1. Simon Smithson says:

    I’m always fascinated by your pieces, John, but I have to confess, I’ve been coming away with the unpleasant feeling that I need to lift my game substantially when it comes to reading and writing. I’m becoming increasingly fascinated by ideas of playing with form, and so while it’s good to know that others think the same way, I’m jealous – I mean inspired! Inspired! – to see how well and intricately others have done it.

    • John Madera says:

      Thanks, Simon! I’m so glad to hear that you’re inspired, and your being inspired is inspiring me. And, you know, it seems the more I go back and explore classic texts, the more I find to prod my thinking, to inspire me as a writer.

      So what have you read lately, and what are you reading now? What’s sitting in the queue?

      • Simon Smithson says:

        Ditto on the classic texts – standing on the shoulders of giants, and all that.

        You know, I’ve never read any David Foster Wallace, just bits and pieces here and there, and everyone tells me I should, so he’s making his way onto the list. I’ve been traveling, so I haven’t been reading much, and a lot of non-fiction has been moving through the pipes. But the very next up is Ronlyn Domingue’s The Mercy of Thin Air, I’ve been trying to get to that for months now.

  2. Dika Lam says:

    I’m definitely going to check out Flann O’Brien. Thanks for this!

  3. […] of Jane Unrue’s Life of a Star (Brooklyn Rail, July/August 2010); A Reader’s Log(orrhea): “Lyrical Language and Luminous Bits” and “Mr. Tellibly Divicult!”: James Joyce and the Joy of Must-Read Books, Like Finnegans […]

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