January 16, 2012
The moment a body loses contact with the ground, moving into air, moving into water, it must immediately account for the paces and drags of that new medium. Pamela Ryder’s debut, Correction Of Drift (FC2, 2008), addressed this concept both literally and practically: structured as a “novel-in-stories,” the book triangulated on the Lindbergh kidnapping, borrowing navigational principles and a well-rutted American narrative to ground her challenging, lyric flights. Compiling fifteen stories that largely (or entirely) predate that first full-length, A Tendency To Be Gone presents an artist unmoored, ascending exultant heights while demonstrating the perils of dead reckoning, where a miscalculation multiplies upon itself and leads progress further and further off-course.
Opening the collection, the vast, astonishing “Hovenweep” introduces Ryder at her most formidable, exposing the hard years of a relationship against the unflinching grandeur of the rocky monument:
“We are too much in the open here: sky, sky, slick rock, heat, and high above us the circling birds. We are left too much unshadowed by the shape of them, escaping past the canyon walls, winging down the stone, unshaded by the deer-stripped juniper that juts above the river.”
A sense of place established through mouthfeel: the short, staccato approach soaring in sudden rhyme; the hardspoken /k/ scrabbling through the trail of syllables; the final, pleasing bend of alliteration. Atop these tonal qualities, Ryder then composes narrative as much from botanical, geological, and ecological processes as standard psychological motivation; though “Hovenweep” uses words to tell its story, they are not words that announce who did what to who and in what order, but rather words that offer fossil-records of backstory, words that imbed conflict in the turn of seasons, words that locate the patterns of life in eternal crags, in primordial seeps, and in a relentless sky.
“We keep our distance. We keep a sentence short and to the point: I tell him he is always out of earshot; he says I can never be just one step ahead. So I try running, pushing through the brush, pretending it is just me out here, unheedful of the crumbly stone and ledge, me slim-hoofed sure past the scent of him, past his pant and breath, so far ahead that what I am hearing is just the wind that brings us bleak nights and early winter…”
“Hovenweep” is that rare story that can be traveled backward and forward, read and re-read, a story that ranks alongside the very best by Dawn Raffel or Christine Schutt. And, yes, that unavoidable elephant: both of Ryder’s books do bear the same dedication, For Gordon Lish, and yes, during the footloose years of the Clinton administration, Ryder did regularly place her stories (including “Hovenweep”) in Lish’s The Quarterly. But, no. No, there is nothing remotely “minimal” in the dense overstory of Ryder’s prose, and no, relative to her Lish/ Quarterly peers, Ryder’s work is equal to, not derivative of, built of sentences that betray neither Schutt’s lurking secrets nor Raffel’s ascetic incisions.
Even at their most intimate, Ryder’s narratives sink prodigious roots. “Solstice” observes a coal-miner’s wife about her daily tasks, baking bread, filling the water bucket, readying their meager table. So often a scene black in choking dust and blasting rock, this miner’s tale is instead geared toward the generative, as Ryder seeds her story with ferns: cooked fiddleheads, fern-scented soaps, fern-trimmed dishes, ferns in church murals, fern bookmarks in the bible, ferns as a vascular, rhizomatic species, a species significant to the Carboniferous Period, composing the organic matter that, through the ages, became coal. In terms of plotted action, nothing happens; still, within a handful of pages, “Solstice” tells the complete story of lifetimes lived in exhaustion and toil.
There is, however, a decided risk in reducing (or expanding) the human to the elemental: wildflowers and rocks, rivers and silt, emotionally speaking, none of these are invested with a great range of subtlety or nuance. Following “Hovenweep” and “Tendrils, As It Were” (in which an incompatible marriage is revealed via a troubled home garden), the narrator of “Three Men” concedes:
“We have termites in the baseboard, carpenter ants in the attic. We have galls in our oaks, moths in our woolens, skeletons in our closets.”
A home inspector/ symbolic marriage counselor is on the scene to comb every inch of a property gone to seed, examining cellar walls and crawl spaces, underground wiring and backyard fencing, ultimately informing the homeowners they are, in fact, “past repairs.”
“We are past the point of no return, the two of us,” declare the plural narrators of “Arroyo,” the very next story. This go-round, a pair of lovers find themselves adrift on dark, desert roads, but none of couples presented in these stories ever converse, so other than moments of sexual connection, it’s difficult to guess what could have been so right about the relationships to add resonance to their turning so wrong. And as “Arroyo” winds further into the desolate night, the grounded, red-dirt girl of “Hovenweep” wuthers further into the windsinging heights of a high desert priestess:
“We look for the soonest light along firey rim of banded rock that heaved up when the earth was molten and unmade, when the river was a slow red lunge of blood-hot stone.”
Though such overcooked passages are atypical, Ryder does favor risky narrative modes, frequently returning to a style reminiscent of Ulysses’ “Lestrygonians” section: Pineapple Rock, Lemon Platt, Butter Scotch. A sugarsticky girl shoveling scoopfuls of creams for a christian brother. Some school treat. Bad for their tummies. Before inhabiting that interior headspace, Joyce had at least introduced Bloom, Dedalus, and a host of principals, allowing him to move seamlessly from 1st to 3rd person, doling out descriptive clauses with the subject implied. In many of Ryder’s stories, however, comprehension is so elusive that by the time a speaker/narrator can be identified and assigned human qualities, much of what’s come before has come to seem confused or indistinct. “Apogee” crackles with street energy—a lonely garment worker finds herself enmeshed in a bizarre love triangle with the ice cream man and her pet parrot—but at the essential level of voice and scene, Ryder’s words flap against each other in a shapeless flurry of conflicting ethnic cues, esoteric seamstress jargon, and shopfront Astrology. “Aquifer” presents an even more slippery narrator, telling a story of life and water in a wash of Joycean fragments:
“The choir hushed. Rain slowed to a patter. The drainpipe singing. Pockets emptied. Silver dollars uncollected on the plate.
Rungs of sun. Roof slats bright and steaming. Plover chipping in bur-reed. Perch and rainbows rising near the high water ford. Grass bent low under its starry weight.”
Writing in objects, Ryder is an obsessive chooser of nouns, stringing images that often unfold with the ethereal quality of early Terrence Malick, circa Badlands or Days Of Heaven. Consistent with Correction Of Drift, the visuals in A Tendency To Be Gone are framed in a saturation of wood-grains, weather conditions, fabric patterns, and more avian and plant species than an Audubon Field Guide. “Solstice” alone references coltsfoot, blackcaps, Larkspur, Speedwell, Soloman’s seal, and Jack-in-the-Pulpit, while in the title story, the reclusive narrator relates:
“I remember what lives near the water: honeysuckle, selfheal, foam flower. Here is what lives near the narrows: sticktight, mother blight, broom. Here is what grows by the road: stonecrop and meadow.”
At first glance this might seem mere pastoral description, but for a deeper understanding of the loss haunting “A Tendency To Be Gone,” a reader must know (or be motivated to find out) that “stonecrop” was notable among Ancient Greeks and practicing Wiccans for its capacity to cause miscarriage.
“Overland” plunges even further into the abstruse, where understanding depends almost entirely on specific, secondary knowledge: “Burton” and the narrator “John” labor to stay one step ahead of a ravaging ant species while leading an expedition in search of a vague river source. No markers in the text specifically make clear that the time-frame is the mid-nineteenth century, that the principals are in fact Sir Richard Burton and John Speke, and that “Overland” roughly follows their torturous expedition to discover the source of the Nile. (True story: elements of “Overland” reminded me of a Discovery Channel program on siafu (army ants) and promos for Joanna Lumley’s travel series – only through a sententious collision of luck and search-terms did I happen upon a Wikipedia page for Sir Richard Burton). In this case, historical context doesn’t merely enrich the story: for even elementary comprehension, it is essential to know something of the homosexuality scandals that dogged John Speke’s career, it is essential to know something of the illnesses and maladies that befell both explorers, and it is essential to know something of the massive traveling party they led and the mutiny they were forced to quell. Ultimately, “Overland” can be read as a transitional piece, its pitfalls likely paving the way for Correction Of Drift, which wisely centered on circumstances more in the common vernacular while offering stories in formation rather than as isolated sorties.
While “Overland” appears to mark a functional turning point, progress is rarely a simple linear process and “Seraphim” closes A Tendency To Be Gone with Ryder her farthest afield. An exhausting forty pages, “Seraphim” revisits the abbeys, cloisters, and 14th Century milieu introduced earlier with “In The Matter Of The Prioress”; these companion pieces occupy nearly a third of the book and seem culled from a separate, perhaps abandoned novel, one that may have intended to do for the bodice-ripper what Colson Whitehead did for the Zombie thriller. Sacraments and leeches, dovecotes and oubliettes, Sapphic sisters and a tormented Dimmesdale, the forbidden passion between Prioress and Bishop unfolds against a black plague/ apocalypse allegory with Ryder’s recurring themes writ large (the naturalistic in conflict with the biblical, the enduring cycles of female labor, the crushing toll of human relationships). That Ryder is able to raise this tour de force off the ground is a testament to her vision and meticulous craft; more dirge than dirigible, however, “Seraphim” is doomed to come crashing down, a spectacular tangle of ropes and canvas and vegetation that inspires less an admission of defeat than a chimerical backward glance, wide-eyed and alive with the limitless possible.