Wednesday, March 31, 2010


plunging, Kincaid

I noted yesterday that I couldn't cut my finger without thinking of Randall Jarrell cutting his finger. For better or worse, I seem to be constant (and sometimes reluctant) communion with the books I've read. There's that great line of Milosz's: "[F]or our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, / and invisible guests come in and out at will." Interviewing the poet in 2000, I asked him about that very line, and he replied: "When writing [Milosz's ABC's], I tried to be as passive and open as possible to the haphazard appearances of persons who are no longer alive. In other words, I treated myself as an instrument that would serve to mark their existence." This is a little different from what I'm describing--he's allowing the honored dead to use him as a megaphone--but many of those departed voices are writers, so I suppose it comes to the same thing.

In my previous post, for example, I mentioned my father plunging the drain in our shower. It is impossible for me to picture that scene without a passage from Nicholson Baker's A Book of Matches flitting through my brain. The drain in the narrator's shower has clogged. He grabs the nearby plunger and goes to work, with results that are almost sensually gratifying:
It made the most wonderful deep squirting noises--huge sucking, bubbling gulps and gasps and noggin-snorts as several pounds of water were thrust down into the drain and forced up in a foul fountain out the overflow valve higher up on the top. I began working with the water, as if I were rocking a car when it's stuck in the driveway, sucking, pushing, sucking, pushing. At one point the drain seemed even worse, and I found that all the turbulence had caused the drain lid to turn and fall shut. When I opened it again and was more careful to center the plunger over the mouth of the drain, I got real results: after one blast, to which I gave the full might of my arms, a supernova of black fragments came up, God, and then more with a second plunge, and I knew that without chemicals, without rooting snakes, with only strength and cunning, I had made that water move. I held still for a second to listen: yes, the purling of water curving away into the pipes. Later there was even a brief vortex, like a rainbow after a storm.
"Noggin-snorts" might be my favorite touch here: a noggin is a person's head, of course, but also a small quantity of booze. It's one of those multiplex metaphors, staggering around with its shirttails out. The drain is a drunk; no, the drain is a drink. I also like the rooting snake and the rainbow--bits of biblical frosting. But why should this scene have stuck in my head, along with the narrator's earlier, shower-related disclosure that he likes to sing "Eight Days A Week" to the drone of the ceiling fan? It's not logical.

Nor is the fact that I've been haunted by the first sentence of Jamaica Kincaid's The Autobiography of My Mother ever since I read it in 1996: "My mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity; at my back was always a bleak, black wind." The first half, up to the semicolon, is bad and sad. The second half is frightening, both for what it says and how it says it. What I mean is, there's a formal perfection to those words: "bleak" and "black" have an almost familial relationship, very appropriate to the matter at hand, while the rhyme of "back" and "black" seals up the sentence in a kind of sonic casket. None of this would matter if Kincaid hadn't cut right to the heart of a scary, permanent emptiness. Beyond repair. At moments of major or minor desolation, the sentence tends to float into view.

Labels: , , ,

Fascinating! Your emotional involvement with texts so intrigues me, especially because of your comments, s that I invite you to check out the following from NYT, an article about the psychology of reading literature.
Hi R.T. Thanks for stopping by and posting that comment. It does seem that literature and I are, well, codependent (I need it more than it needs me, alas). Reading the NYT article right now.
I was particularly drawn to the notion (from Ms. Vermeule) that literature satisfies our "intense interest in other people's secret thoughts and motivations." Your comments (and my own relationship with literature, especially works by Flannery O'Connor to cite just one example) suggests that we could go a step beyond Vermeule by adding the metaphor of a mirror to what she argues. We look at literature and the mirror offers us our own thoughts and motivations.
"I tried to be as passive and open as possible to the haphazard appearances of persons who are no longer alive. In other words, I treated myself as an instrument that would serve to mark their existence."

Milosz's wish to remember everything probably stemmed, in part, from his Catholicism, and its remembrance of the dead in holidays, prayers, customs. (And Orthodox Church, too: Zhivago begins on a liturgical note -- "On they went, singing 'Eternal Memory'")

But surely it cuts both ways. D.H. Lawrence: "The dead don’t die. They look on and help."
A scary, permanent emptiness that is "beyond repair" can't be communicated in terms of language. Once it is, it may still be scary and painful, but is no longer "beyond repair." Language is the bump shop for existential collisions. But is Kinkaid's language up to the job? The sentence you quote begins with a blunt directness that, for me, fully realizes the speaker's haunting and haunted sense of loss and guilt. But after the semicolon it is neither sad nor frightening. It is an overt attempt to compel the reader to feel something, to manipulate him. Once this happens (back, bleak, black), the reader draws back, and the spell is broken.
Cynthia, Barry, thanks to you both for stopping by and commenting. Let me answer one at a time.

I'm sure it's true that Milosz's determination to resurrect the dead in his poetry was colored by his idiosyncratic Catholicism. But I also think it is a goal of many non-Catholic (and even non-believing) writers. What is writing if it is not remembering?

As for Barry's comment--I appreciate the wit but don't agree. Yes, language is indeed the bump shop for existential collisions, but some dents will never be hammered out. And my reaction to the sentence is precisely the opposite of yours. I don't find the second half of Kincaid's sentence to be manipulative or flimsily poetic. For me, that is where the blunt, monosyllabic spell is cast. All of which is fine. In any case, I've enjoyed your blog--and there is something about a man in an apron.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?