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: , , ,

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Charles Darwin = Travis Bickle, cut, stato d'animo

Last night I was walking down the hallway, and for no particular reason I grabbed The Autobiography of Charles Darwin off the shelf. Well, perhaps there was a reason: I had recently watched Master and Commander with a feverish teenager, and the scenes in the Galápagos Islands--shot, to my amazement, on location, with authentically freaky lizards and flightless cormorants--must have stuck in my head. I opened the Darwin to page 10, and found this recollection of the author's trigger-happy youth:
When at Cambridge I used to practice throwing up my gun to my shoulder before a looking glass to see that I threw it up straight. Another and better plan was to get a friend to wave about a lighted candle, and then to fire at it with a cap on the nipple, and if the aim was accurate the little puff of air would blow out the candle. The explosion of the cap caused a sharp crack, and I was told that the tutor of the college remarked, "What an extraordinary thing it is, Mr Darwin seems to spend hours in cracking a horse-whip in his room, for I often hear the crack when I pass under his windows."
As any musket geek will tell you, this Victorian Travis Bickle was firing his weapon with a percussion cap, but no ammunition. The nipple is a hollow metal passage at the rear of the barrel, through which the flame from the percussion cap would ordinarily travel and ignite the main powder charge. Sigh. Later in life, a disgusted Darwin gave up hunting. It wasn't the sight of blood that turned him off. It was the discovery of a small bird on the forest floor, which had been shot the day before and was now just barely hanging on. Hope was not the thing with feathers. Darwin, who loved nothing better than to gun down an entire posse of snipe in one go, resolved to hunt no more.

For me, on the other hand, the sight of blood is an ongoing problem. Two weeks ago, I gashed my right pinky while washing out a drinking glass. The glass was an old one, from the Fifties, and came apart very neatly into two sharp-edged fragments. I bled and bled, even as I applied pressure with dozens of paper towels and tried to quell my racing, wimpy heart. A phrase from one of Randall Jarrell's letters came to mind--he had cut his own finger, and exclaimed at the cheerful red color of the blood. Do I live so vicariously through books that I really needed to borrow my reaction from somebody else? Perhaps. (I just thumbed through Randall Jarrell's Letters, and couldn't find the passage: drat. But I was floored once again by his 1951 letters to Mary Von Schrader, who he would marry the following year. Such love! Such elation! A small blaze of wit and metaphor-making seems to be burning continuously in his head--maybe an inspirational flame was traveling through a nipple at the base of his hypothalamus. It's a self-portrait of a happy man. You don't encounter so many of them. Plus this penetrating sentence, which made me wonder about myself: "Really complete egotism is so hard on you because you feel that everybody else is, essentially is or should be, like you--so you're alone, really alone.")

Anyway, I applied pressure. The bloody towels accumulated in the wastebasket. Nina got me to sit down, dabbled an antibiotic ointment on the gash, then dressed the whole thing very professionally with gauze and tape. A subsequent trip to the doctor was anticlimactic: no sutures necessary, the cut would close on its own (and it has, there's a pink, innocent, V-shaped patch of skin on my finger.) For a few days, however, I wasn't allowed to get the dressing wet. I showered with a plastic bag wrapped around my right hand, which I held aloft at all times, resembling a cranky, hirsute Statue of Liberty. And for some reason this ridiculous image began to strike me as meaningful. Representative of my stato d'animo. What was I doing? What did it all mean? I lift my lamp beside the golden door--also beside the perpetually stopped-up drain, which my 84-year-old father insisted on plunging the other week, in a nostalgic nod to his youthful stint as a plumber's assistant.

Since everybody may not care to have that image stuck in their heads for the rest of the day, I'll leave you with another. I already posted my micro-speech from the NBCC anniversary bash back in November. I just discovered that the video is now available, so I'll share it below. The audio is out of synch. At one point I have five o'clock shadow, then it disappears, in an eerie time-lapse effect, and I'll admit that the dime-store reading glasses are not flattering. Whatever. I had fun. At 1:06 you can see John Ashbery in the front row, wearing a jacket and tie:

James Marcus at NBCC's 35th from NBCC on Vimeo.

Labels: , , ,

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