Thursday, March 8, 2012

like wild pigs against the dark sky

There are books that have been pegged to my memory by a detail, while the rest of the book is a general shape and feeling (a fog of characters, plot, the what-happens, etc) and the one detail stands on its own, not part of this mist impression but another separate summary, one point that contains the book, or is another book, a unit, Elizabeth Hunter in Eye of the Storm opening her eye a little and revealing some world of spirit -- her eye-glint is what I mean by my detail -- and I intuit a book inside or within the detail or behind the detail: inside the detail, ready to unroll, a quiescent spring, the rolled-up tip of a fern, the corgi rolled like a cashew in Anne Tyler's Accidental Tourist, which they gave us to read in high school, a "high, rat-colored car" in Flannery O'Connor -- in which story? I don't recall, but if you say to me, "Flannery O'Connor" then I see this car standing in a sunlit bare street -- I picture it hunchbacked -- Dorothy Wordsworth noticing in her journal that the swallows outside her window had the tails of fish -- and then on fish, I think of the rotting carp that I saw in a Japanese pool, alive but harrowed with mould, ripe haze in their eye sockets, myself watching them while adults nearby were earthing toy pinwheels over graves. Where was that? Dorothy's brother William consulted her diaries when he wanted to remember a detail for his poems and she wrote about the meeting with the leech-gatherer. If she had chosen other details, would he have written other poems? If Christina Stead hadn't been in love with a man who was Jewish, if she hadn't become interested in Judaism via him, would the stormclouds coming over the mountains in The People With the Dogs have been habited like the rabbi? Her lover appears disguised like a cloud, or mist-hat as the Middle English had it, and the details in those old English poems are guided into life by the sounds they make -- it's poetry, Geoffrey Hill said in his Oxford lectures, forcing us into patterns we might not find if we were not writing poetry; and Greer Gilman, imitating the Middle English alliteration, finds details like that too, for Moonwise. Marguerite Young in Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, describes a set of mountains with the word "razorback". I imagine her thinking of the shape of the peaks before she wrote razorback, and it wasn't until she had the word running through her that she remembered -- the word reminded her -- razorback pigs -- because she goes on like this, "snouting like wild pigs against the dark sky."

"His hair had grown three inches since he left Persia at sunset, just when the sun was setting over the empty box factory, over the bare razorback hills snouting like wild pigs against the dark sky, over the trees naked of flowers, the leafless bushes, the foundry that had no bricks and no fires and the bell-tower that had no bells and the flour mill where the flour was black as coal dust," she writes, with one item leading to another, the trees bare of flowers conjuring up the bushes that are bare but can't also be bare of flowers, so it has to be something that sits on a branch like a flower -- leaves, obviously -- and then we already know (I mean, if we're reading the book then we've worked out) that this man has come from a town named Persia so we need buildings as well as plants, and those buildings will be like the plants, in that they're without their natural attributes. So the foundry has no fire, the bell-tower has to have no bells, the flour has to be without the quality that makes it most obvious to the human eye: its whiteness. "Coal dust" because flour too is dust: we've kept the shape and changed the colour. We could have written "the flour mill that has no flour" but this way we stay with the meaning of the passage without being repetitious; we did the same centuries ago when we wrote, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; / Coral is far more red than her lips' red; / If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun." Loss is tedious but not literature; let's strike a balance. The more the MacIntosh world loses, the richer we are in words. The blackness of the flour might also be the "dark sky" earlier, and the absence of firelight in the foundry.

Young's language adds and then subtracts, it draws, then erases, then draws again, or draws and erases at the same time, by which I mean that she will name a thing in order to say that it is not in fact there: "No tires, no spare tire, no instruments, no instrument board ... no lights, no rear view mirror, no side mirrors, no tongs, no bellows, no fire, nobody ever pregnant, no star ever born." She writes a word and then overwrites it: "Mr. Spitzer had attended Mr. Spitzer's funeral, and that was why he was so hopelessly benumbed, why he knew so little of all these current events, these current months, these currents in streams, these air currents, this passing or flowing onward." The characters imitate the prose as well as they can within the obvious limitation of being imitation people, the American man from Persia has decided not to cut his hair until the Democratic president is out of office and yet he's never signed up to vote, Miss MacIntosh opposes all British institutions down to the King James Bible but she only wears British shoes, the protagonist's surname is a tumbling action, Cartwheel -- Vera Cartwheel -- veritably she turns around and around, never knowing if she's head or foot -- she grows up next to that shuddering thing called the sea, and her author loves to mention those unstable-looking things, stars, and that middle-colour, purple. Instability! says the book, although it can't say any of it without being stable itself, a block in two volumes.

Charles Dickens prophesised Miss MacIntosh when he renovated a solid object into an abstract. "Miss Slowboy insinuated herself into a spencer of a fashion so surprising and ingenious, that it had no connection with herself, or anything else in the universe, but was a shrunken, dog’s-eared, independent fact, pursuing its lonely course without the least regard to anybody." Which has to be one of the strangest descriptions of anything ever written.

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