Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Love of Lula by Kelley Benham

TAMPA - Lula Mae Tollaman spent 46 years, or maybe it was 48, in the bathroom at the Columbia Restaurant. Whether you trust old records or her own long memory, it was a long time.

She sat on a red-cushioned chair outside the stalls in a perfect white uniform, Bible in her lap. She was always careful about her uniform and her white stockings. If she ever had a special visitor or her picture taken, she liked a day's notice so she could look extra nice.

She handed out paper towels. Checked that the toilet paper hadn't run out. Offered a hair brush or a word of advice. She rocked babies, and the babies of those babies. She protected the secrets of thousands of women who came through the restaurant. Her bathroom was a vault.

With time and renovations she got a new bathroom with dark wood and marble counter tops and toilets that flush automatically. She worked her way again and again through that Bible, which grew stuffed with mementos and notations. She kept a bottomless bag under the sinks, containing every accessory a woman could require, and whatever else mattered to Lula.

Mostly what she did was listen and talk. Regular customers learned not to enter Lula's ladies' room before their meals were served, because the food would turn cold before they got back.

She outlived two generations of Columbia owners: first Casimiro Jr. and Carmen Hernandez, and then Cesar and Adela Gonzmart. She diapered, cradled and counseled three others: Richard and Casey Gonzmart, their kids, and theirs, who now skitter through the restaurant dining rooms and into the bathroom, maybe wondering where Lula has gone.

She took time off the week of Aug. 7 and didn't return. She died a week ago. She would never forgive us if we told her age.

Her chair isn't in the bathroom anymore. The Columbia has no ladies' room attendant, and Richard Gonzmart swears it never will again.

Lula's funeral is today in Tampa. We talked to her last year, in the bathroom. This is the story she told, the way she told it.

* * *

"Do you know I'm so happy to be here? People say, "You work in the ladies' room.' I meet so many interesting people and do you know I've learned a lot, oooh, good stuff, oh, about travel and this and that.

"Richard is a wonderful boss. His mother used to bring him in here when he was too young to go in the men's room. You see why I stayed so long? They like me, I think. Don't you think they like me? They made me part of the family.

"They used to have violins every night. So, so beautiful. You know, Cesar played until he took too ill. When he took sick we went to see him in the hospital. When I got there he was sitting up in bed and he said, "Oh, Lula.'

"I started pulling up a chair; he said, "Oh no, you sit right here by me on this bed.' And we started talking about the old times, oh yes, the old times, and laughing. Richard was telling him about the salad he was going to put on the lunch menu. He said, "Be sure you make that salad for Lula.'

"He said, "Lula, I hurt so bad and I'm so sick, will you pray for me?' I was afraid to pray with all the nurses walking around. I said, "I'm going to go into the ladies' room and pray.' I did. I prayed so hard when I got here. And the last thing he said to me with his arms around me, he said, "Lula, I love you.'

"Did you ever meet him? No? You missed part of your life.

"I started working in 1956 for Casimiro, Adela's father. I went to the store and bought a mop. I thought I needed a mop. I sent the bill upstairs - I couldn't afford to buy a mop for the Columbia restaurant. He said, "Lula, I see where you bought a mop and you sent me the bill. You don't need a mop.' I said, "Oh, thank you.' But he didn't return my $2.

"I said I'm just going to work until Christmas. Christmas came, I said I'll work until Easter. Then I said, oh, I'll work until after my daughter goes to high school. After high school it was college. I don't have any more excuses. I'm working because I love it. I've been here so long I've seen everyone grow up. I've seen them through good times and bad times.

"I thought about leaving when Cesar died. But Adela said, "Lula, don't go until I'm gone.'

(A little girl comes out of a stall and starts for the door.)

"Honey, you want to wash your hands?"

(Lula helps her.)

"Nobody could steal me away. Nobody but Oprah. I'm waiting for Oprah to call me now. No, I really am.

"Marilyn Monroe. She was here with Joe DiMaggio. Well you know all ladies have to go to the bathroom. She was just like on the screen, you know, so darling and sweet."

(A woman walks out of a stall and leaves Lula a tip.)

"Oh, thank you.

"Eva Gabor was the most darling person. It was just like she lit a candle in here. Have you ever met someone that left such an impression on you?

"People always come to the door and say, "Can you come out?' I don't know why people think I can't come out.

"The women come in, I see them so heartbroken and everything and I tell them, "Honey, fix your face up and your hair and walk back out there, and don't you ever let them see you cry."'

(A woman comes out of a stall and stops at the sink. Her dress is caught in her hose. Lula gets off her chair and fixes it for her, still talking.)

"Every Saturday night this guy was dating this young woman. They were from Dade City. One night she came in and she was all aglow. I said, "You're so beautiful tonight.' She said, "I'm so in love. Do you think he'll ask me?' I said, "I don't think he could refuse. Keep on looking like you're looking.' After a while she came in crying. I said, "Oh my goodness, why are you crying?' She said, "Lula, I'm so happy.' I said, "Oh honey, I'm going to pray for you.'

"I thought she would squeeze me to death. They came in here a long time. They had a baby. When their daughter was 16 they brought her here for her birthday.

"One night I got a telephone call my son was very sick, I would have to go to Texas. Cesar said, "Lula, I'm sorry about your son and if you need plane fare to fly to Texas it's on me.' I went in that other bathroom and started crying. That's the way he made me cry, with happiness.

"When my son passed away the first somebody I saw at the funeral was Cesar and Adela. They were standing at the end pew in the aisle so I would see them. I tell you I almost crumbled. Yeah, they were the first somebody I saw.

"My daughter Betty is a retired schoolteacher. We laugh about that. She retired but I'm still working."

* * *

Richard Gonzmart never knew as much about Lula as she knew about him. He remembers her in his grandmother's kitchen when he was 3. Remembers crawling under the stalls in the women's bathroom when he was a boy, and Lula scolding him. When he got older, he had to wait for her to emerge to talk to her. When he was 16 and met his future wife - she was 14, he spotted her from table 93 - he introduced her to Lula the same night he introduced her to his mother.

When Lula got sick, he and Melanie visited her at home. He had never been to her home before. She had as many pictures of his children and grandchildren as she did of her own.

He pulled up a chair. Sit closer, she said. Closer.

He thought she would be tired, but she talked and told stories about the Columbia. He even told her a secret.

When he put his hand on his wife's lap, Lula said, oh, I hope that doesn't mean it's time for you to go. He doesn't know how long they stayed, because time always did go on and on when you were talking to Lula. She talked about how much she missed Cesar, his dad.

Richard said, Lula, I love you, and when he got home he prayed.

He sent her a CD of his father playing the violin. It was recorded in the 1960s in the Don Quixote dining room, just off the ladies' room where she worked. She used to stand outside the door and listen.

She asked her daughter to leave it playing for her all the time.

copyright St. Petersburg Times, 2005


Wenatchee: A True Story by Dorothy Rabinowitz

WENATCHEE, Wash.--The last time Pastor Robert Roberson and his wife, Connie, saw their 4-and-a-half-year-old daughter was on March 28. That day, the Robersons joined the ever increasing number of Wenatchee citizens arrested, over the past year, on grounds of child sex abuse.

The Robersons were taken off to prison, accused of sexual assaults against their own small daughter and an 11-year-old girl--charges that would in due course multiply to include sex crimes of a dazzling variety. The number of their alleged victims, too, would multiply as the Robersons' young accusers told rapt police and investigators from Child Protective Services of more and more children abused in various corners and crevices of the pastor's small church, the Pentecostal Church of God House of Prayer; of child rape in more conspicuous places, including the altar, during services; and of orgies in a variety of other locations around town.

Following their arrest, Connie and Robert Roberson's daughter, Rebekah, was taken off to a foster home and given over to the ministrations of Child Protective Services and allied abuse investigators. In short order the latter's interrogations of the child yielded fruit and delivered what is known, in the richly productive world of abuse investigators, as a disclosure--namely, of sexual assaults already alleged against her parents. Freed on bail after more than four months' imprisonment, the Robersons now await their trial--due to be held in November--and are forbidden any contact with their daughter.

However extreme, their circumstances are not particularly unique nowadays in Wenatchee, a town nestled in the foothills of the Cascades, population 59,000. Since the child sex ring investigations began here, more than 40 people have been arrested--several charged with 2,400 and more counts of sex abuse. One woman was charged with 3,200 counts of child rape--a lifetime's work. Child Protective Services has by now placed some 50 children of the accused in foster homes. Some children are taken off, for a time, to locked facilities (inaccessible to parents' defense attorneys and family members) to undergo therapy. For the prosecutors, at least, the benefits of this therapy are undeniable, given the fact that the focus of most of the treatment is, evidently, to get the detainees to give details of molestation.

Of the accused who have been arrested, 28 are now in prison. Eleven are awaiting trial. Some have plea bargained or confessed, they attest, under police threats of a lifetime in prison and loss of their children if they didn't tell the investigator what he wanted to hear. Many would soon recant their confessions, often studded with elaborate descriptions of orgies with children and, more important, the names of all the townspeople supposedly involved in these activities.

How the Wenatchee child sex abuse investigations first began is not easy to unravel. What is clear is that the current remarkable sweep of accusations and arrests came about mainly thanks to the single-minded work and preoccupations of one detective, Robert Perez, sex crimes investigator for the Wenatchee police--abetted by the like-minded staff of the local Child Protective Services. Whatever side they take, most here agree that the blond, rosy-cheeked investigator could never have uncovered so much molestation without the aid of one 11-year-old girl--the accuser and chief witness in most of the cases.

The fact that this chief witness also happens to be Detective Perez's own foster daughter and member of his household doesn't appear to have troubled anyone in law enforcement here. In 1992, she had already given clearly fanciful testimony in another case, ending in a child rape conviction. In 1994, she came to live in the comfortable home of Detective Perez and his wife, where she was soon joined by her older sister (also to serve as an accuser in the sex ring cases).

This January, the younger girl began confiding new names of molesters to an attentive Detective Perez, already pursuing a trail of such cases. In April, Detective Perez and two child care workers took the girl on a ride around town--reminiscent of the kind taken in the McMartin case, where children fingered half the population of Manhattan Beach, Calif.--and asked her to point out all the locations in which she and other children had been assaulted. By the end of this journey, now known to local skeptics as The Parade of Homes, the girl had identified 23 sites, the Robersons' house and church among them, as well as a molester or two passing by on the sidewalk. All this the child care workers earnestly recorded.

In court this week, the girl held a large teddy bear while testifying against her half-sister Donna, a terrified woman in her 30s who shook as the witness gave details of Donna's alleged sexual assaults. Troubled by a heavy cough, the young witness nevertheless appeared radiant, particularly on her receipt of a huge smile from her approving foster father, Detective Perez, seated at the prosecutor's table. All the accusing children--of which there is now a dependable core of four--were rewarded with extravagant shows of support and thumbs-up signs, notably from Child Protective Services personnel who packed the courtrooms during the trials.

Among those tried was 31-year-old Sunday School teacher Honna Sims, accused of raping and molesting children during the group sex adventures at Pastor Roberson's church every Friday and Sunday night--charges of which she was later acquitted. Each accuser offered versions of these festivities, some of them wonderful to contemplate. One child said that he was so tired from having to engage in sexual acts with all the adults at the church on weekends that the pastor would write a note to the school to get him excused on Mondays. Another told of inflatable sex toys kept under the altar, of the pastor lying on-stage crying "Hallelujah!" while attacking young victims during services, of mass child rape (at the church and elsewhere) by men all in black wearing sunglasses and by ladies wielding colored pencils and carrots, and of crowds of adults so organized that everybody got a turn with each of the children. Anyone who missed his turn with a child would, it was explained, get an extra visit that month.

Neither the 50-year-old pastor nor his 45-year-old wife were altogether surprised at their arrest. They had, after all, seen one person after another named as a molester over the past months.

Among them was child care caseworker Paul Glassen, who had the temerity to report that a girl who had just accused her foster father had come in, disturbed, to confide that she had "told the police a lot of lies about Dad." For his efforts to bring this recantation to the attention of this superiors, Mr. Glassen was promptly arrested--on grounds of tampering with a witness--immediately suspended from his job for "misconduct," and finally fired. More important, the caseworker's name suddenly began cropping up on the list of those identified as participants in the sex rings. This was enough for Mr. Glassen, who promptly packed up his wife and child and headed for Canada.

Pastor Roberson's problem began when it became clear that he was monitoring the arrests closely, and keeping records. Unknown to him, he, too, now began to be named in the allegations. In March he stood up at a public meeting and roundly criticized the investigators' tactics. Five days later, police took the Robersons to jail, where they were kept on a million dollars bail each, and where Robert Roberson was brutally beaten at regular intervals, the guards having informed prisoners of the child molester in their midst.

The list of suspected molesters grows apace. Investigator Larry Daly--a defense investigator in the Honna Sims case--was told, a few weeks back, that he could not enter offices of the Child Protective Services to interview plaintiff children, because of vague reports that he was wanted on child abuse charges. Now Tom Grant, reporter for CBS affiliate KREM 2 News, who has broadcast an unrelenting, generally remarkable expose of the Wenatchee prosecutions, may also soon come under investigation for sexual abuse, according to a high state official.

Few such suspects, needless to say, are likely to endure anything remotely like the trials of Robert Devereaux. The target of the allegations recanted by Mr. Glassen's client, Mr. Devereaux was by all accounts a singularly devoted foster parent until he became caught up in the swirl of charges of sex circles operating in his home. Today he sits in his darkened house sold to pay lawyers, a house empty of furniture, sold to pay the bills--a ruined man like many another in Wenatchee today.

copyright the Wall Street Journal, 1995


A Reader's Manifesto by B.R. Myers

Nothing gives me the feeling of having been born several decades too late quite like the modern "literary" best seller. Give me a time-tested masterpiece or what critics patronizingly call a fun read—Sister Carrie or just plain Carrie. Give me anything, in fact, as long as it doesn't have a recent prize jury's seal of approval on the front and a clutch of precious raves on the back. In the bookstore I'll sometimes sample what all the fuss is about, but one glance at the affected prose—"furious dabs of tulips stuttering," say, or "in the dark before the day yet was"—and I'm hightailing it to the friendly black spines of the Penguin Classics.

I realize that such a declaration must sound perversely ungrateful to the literary establishment. For years now editors, critics, and prize jurors, not to mention novelists themselves, have been telling the rest of us how lucky we are to be alive and reading in these exciting times. The absence of a dominant school of criticism, we are told, has given rise to an extraordinary variety of styles, a smorgasbord with something for every palate. As the novelist and critic David Lodge has remarked, in summing up a lecture about the coexistence of fabulation, minimalism, and other movements, "Everything is in and nothing is out." Coming from insiders to whom a term like "fabulation" actually means something, this hyperbole is excusable, even endearing; it's as if a team of hotel chefs were getting excited about their assortment of cabbages. From a reader's standpoint, however, "variety" is the last word that comes to mind, and more appears to be "out" than ever before. More than half a century ago popular storytellers like Christopher Isherwood and Somerset Maugham were ranked among the finest novelists of their time, and were considered no less literary, in their own way, than Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be "genre fiction"—at best an excellent "read" or a "page turner," but never literature with a capital L. An author with a track record of blockbusters may find the publication of a new work treated like a pop-culture event, but most "genre" novels are lucky to get an inch in the back pages of The New York Times Book Review.

Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand, is now considered to be "literary fiction"—not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance. It is these works that receive full-page critiques, often one in the Sunday book-review section and another in the same newspaper during the week. It is these works, and these works only, that make the annual short lists of award committees. The "literary" writer need not be an intellectual one. Jeering at status-conscious consumers, bandying about words like "ontological" and "nominalism," chanting Red River hokum as if it were from a lost book of the Old Testament: this is what passes for profundity in novels these days. Even the most obvious triteness is acceptable, provided it comes with a postmodern wink. What is not tolerated is a strong element of action—unless, of course, the idiom is obtrusive enough to keep suspense to a minimum. Conversely, a natural prose style can be pardoned if a novel's pace is slow enough, as was the case with Ha Jin's aptly titled Waiting, which won the National Book Award (1999) and the PEN/Faulkner Award (2000).

The dualism of literary versus genre has all but routed the old trinity of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, which was always invoked tongue-in-cheek anyway. Writers who would once have been called middlebrow are now assigned, depending solely on their degree of verbal affectation, to either the literary or the genre camp. David Guterson is thus granted Serious Writer status for having buried a murder mystery under sonorous tautologies (Snow Falling on Cedars, 1994), while Stephen King, whose Bag of Bones (1998) is a more intellectual but less pretentious novel, is still considered to be just a very talented genre storyteller.

Everything is "in," in other words, as long as it keeps the reader at a respectfully admiring distance. This may seem an odd trend when one considers that the reading skills of American college students, who go on to form the main audience for contemporary Serious Fiction, have declined markedly since the 1970s. Shouldn't a dumbed-down America be more willing to confer literary status on straightforward prose, instead of encouraging affectation and obscurity?

Not necessarily. In Aldous Huxley's Those Barren Leaves (1925) a character named Mr. Cardan makes a point that may explain today's state of affairs.

Really simple, primitive people like their poetry to be as ... artificial and remote from the language of everyday affairs as possible. We reproach the eighteenth century with its artificiality. But the fact is that Beowulf is couched in a diction fifty times more complicated and unnatural than that of [Pope's poem] Essay on Man.

Mr. Cardan comes off in the novel as a bit of a windbag, but there is at least anecdotal evidence to back up his observation. We know, for example, that European peasants were far from pleased when their clergy stopped mystifying them with Latin. Edward Pococke (1604-1691) was an English preacher and linguist whose sermons, according to the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, "were always composed in a plain style upon practical subjects, carefully avoiding all show and ostentation of learning."

But from this very exemplary caution not to amuse his hearers (contrary to the common method then in vogue) with what they could not understand, some of them took occasion to entertain very contemptible thoughts of his learning ... So that one of his Oxford friends, as he traveled through Childrey, inquiring for his diversion of some of the people, Who was their minister, and how they liked him? received this answer: "Our parson is one Mr. Pococke, a plain honest man. But Master," said they, "he is no Latiner."

Don't get me wrong—I'm not comparing anyone to a peasant. But neither am I prepared to believe that the decline of American literacy has affected everyone but fans of Serious Fiction. When reviewers and prize jurors tout a repetitive style as "the last word in gnomic control," or a jumble of unsustained metaphor as "lyrical" writing, it is obvious that they, too, are having difficulty understanding what they read. Would Mr. Cardan be puzzled to find them in the thrall of writers who are deliberately obscure, or who chant in strange cadences? I doubt it. And what could be more natural than that the same elite should scorn unaffected English as "workmanlike prose"—an idiom incompatible with real literature? Stephen King's a plain, honest man, just the author to read on the subway. But Master, he is no Latiner.

If the new dispensation were to revive good "Mandarin" writing—to use the term coined by the British critic Cyril Connolly for the prose of writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce—then I would be the last to complain. But what we are getting today is a remarkably crude form of affectation: a prose so repetitive, so elementary in its syntax, and so numbing in its overuse of wordplay that it often demands less concentration than the average "genre" novel. Even today's obscurity is easy—the sort of gibberish that stops all thought dead in its tracks. The best way to demonstrate this in the space at hand is to take a look at some of the most highly acclaimed styles of contemporary writing.

"Evocative" Prose

It has become fashionable, especially among female novelists, to exploit the license of poetry while claiming exemption from poetry's rigorous standards of precision and polish. Edna O'Brien is one of the writers who do this, but Annie Proulx is better known, thanks in large part to her best seller The Shipping News (1993). In 1999 Proulx wrapped up the acknowledgments in a short-story anthology titled Close Range by thanking her children, in characteristic prose, "for putting up with my strangled, work-driven ways."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Passion's Progress"
(April 20, 2000)
Edna O'Brien talks about how her new book, Wild Decembers—in which heartache is prefigured by a tractor—fits in with her own "inner gnaw."

Interviews: "Imagination Is Everything"
(November 12, 1997)
A Conversation with E. Annie Proulx.

That's right: "strangled, work-driven ways." Work-driven is fine, of course, except for its note of self-approval, but strangled ways makes no sense on any level. Besides, how can anything, no matter how abstract, be strangled and work-driven at the same time? Maybe the author was referring to something along the lines of a nightly smackdown with the Muse, but only she knows for sure. Luckily for Proulx, many readers today expect literary language to be so remote from normal speech as to be routinely incomprehensible. "Strangled ways," they murmur to themselves in baffled admiration. "Now who but a Writer would think of that!"

The short stories in Close Range are full of this kind of writing. "The Half-Skinned Steer" (which first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, in November of 1997), starts with this sentence:

In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled-out year, Mero had kicked down thoughts of the place where he began, a so-called ranch on strange ground at the south hinge of the Big Horns.

Like so much modern prose, this demands to be read quickly, with just enough attention to register the bold use of words. Slow down, and things fall apart. Proulx seems to have intended a unified conceit, but unfurling, or spreading out, as of a flag or an umbrella, clashes disastrously with the images of thread that follow. (Maybe "unraveling" didn't sound fancy enough.) A life is unfurled, a hustler is wound tight, a year is spooled out, and still the metaphors continue, with kicked down—which might work in less crowded surroundings, though I doubt it—and hinge, which is cute if you've never seen a hinge or a map of the Big Horns. And this is just the first sentence!

Proulx once acknowledged that she tends to "compress" too much into short stories, but her wordplay is just as relentless in her novels; she seems unaware that all innovative language derives its impact from the contrast to straightforward English. It is common to find her devoting more than one metaphor or simile to the same image. "Furious dabs of tulips stuttering in gardens." "An apron of sound lapped out of each dive." "The ice mass leaned as though to admire its reflection in the waves, leaned until the southern tower was at the angle of a pencil in a writing hand, the northern tower reared over it like a lover." "The children rushed at Quoyle, gripped him as a falling man clutches the window ledge, as a stream of electric particles arcs a gap and completes a circuit." In one brief paragraph in The Shipping News a man's body is likened to a loaf of bread, his flesh to a casement, his head to a melon, his facial features to fingertips, his eyes to the color of plastic, and his chin to a shelf.

This isn't all bad, of course; the bit about the ice mass admiring its reflection is effective. And every so often Proulx lets a really good image stand alone: "The dining room, crowded with men, was lit by red bulbs that gave them a look of being roasted alive in their chairs." Such hits are so rare, however, that after a while the reader stops trying to think about what the metaphors mean. Maybe this is the effect that Proulx is aiming for; she seems to want to keep us on the surface of the text at all times, as if she were afraid that we might forget her quirky narratorial presence for even a line or two.

The decline of American prose since the 1950s is nowhere more apparent than in the decline of the long sentence. Today anything longer than two or three lines is likely to be a simple list of attributes or images. Proulx relies heavily on such sentences, which often call to mind a bad photographer hurrying through a slide show. In this scene from Accordion Crimes (1996) a woman has just had her arms sliced off by a piece of sheet metal.

She stood there, amazed, rooted, seeing the grain of the wood of the barn clapboards, paint jawed away by sleet and driven sand, the unconcerned swallows darting and reappearing with insects clasped in their beaks looking like mustaches, the wind-ripped sky, the blank windows of the house, the old glass casting blue swirled reflections at her, the fountains of blood leaping from her stumped arms, even, in the first moment, hearing the wet thuds of her forearms against the barn and the bright sound of the metal striking.

The last thing Proulx wants is for you to start wondering whether someone with blood spurting from severed arms is going to stand rooted long enough to see more than one bird disappear, catch an insect, and reappear, or whether the whole scene is not in bad taste of the juvenile variety. Instead you are meant to read the sentence in one mental breath and succumb, under the sheer accumulation of words, to a spurious impression of what Walter Kendrick, in an otherwise mixed review in The New York Times, called "brilliant prose" (and in reference to this very excerpt, besides).

Another example:

Partridge black, small, a restless traveler across the slope of life, an all-night talker; Mercalia, second wife of Partridge and the color of a brown feather on dark water, a hot intelligence; Quoyle large, white, stumbling along, going nowhere.

Black, small, large, white: these are lazy, inexpressive adjectives. For all its faux precision, that feather simile is ultimately meaningless: there are too many possible browns for it to evoke whatever shade Proulx had in mind (even with dark water involved). A more concise syntax would show up the poverty of this description at once, but by stringing a dozen attributes together she ensures that each is seen only in the context of a dazzlingly "pyrotechnic" whole.

Since Proulx is a novelist and not a poet, her need to draw attention to her presence throughout the text poses certain challenges. How can she keep the focus on her style even during the nuts-and-bolts work of exposition? How can she get to the next purple passage as fast as possible without resorting to straightforwardness, that dreaded idiom of the genre hack? Her solution: an obtrusive—and therefore "literary"—telegraphese: "Made a show of taking Quoyle back as a special favor. Temporary ... Fired, car wash attendant, rehired. Fired, cabdriver, rehired." Not even Proulx's fans will go so far as to praise this aspect of her writing, but they probably share her impatience to cut to the "lyrical" chase.

Many of Proulx's characters are described almost exclusively in terms of regional or ethnic origin. From Accordion Crimes:

[Chris] wore a pair of dark glasses and began to run with a bunch of cholos, especially with a rough called "Venas," a black mole on his left nostril, someone who poured money into his white Buick with the crushed velvet upholstery, whose father, Paco Robelo, the whole Robelo family, were rumored to be connected with narcotraficantes.

Venas is one of many characters to be introduced in a flurry of words and then dropped from the narrative. We hear no more of this Latin stereotype until several years and pages later, when the author, as if realizing she didn't need him in the first place, notes in an offhand sentence that he was found clubbed to death. We are not meant to care who did it or why, or how the death affects Chris. So why did we need to know the exact location of the man's mole, or his father's first name? If the lapping aprons are fake Dylan Thomas, an effort to mystify readers into thinking they are reading poetry, then this is fake Dos Passos, easy detail flung in for the illusion of panoramic sweep. Alas, Proulx is only cheating herself. By putting everything in sharp focus she lessens the impact of her vivid sense of locale. Some of the personal details, too, especially in The Shipping News, are so brilliant that they cry out for more breathing room—such as the information, which is somehow both funny and sad at the same time, that a man's cheap wet socks have dyed his toenails blue.

Of course, one can hardly blame Proulx for thinking, "If it ain't broke, why fix it?" Her novel Postcards (1992) received the PEN/Faulkner Award; The Shipping News won both the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Her writing, like that of so many other novelists today, is touted as "evocative" and "compelling." The reason these vague attributes have become the literary catchwords of our time, even more popular than "raw" and "angry" were in the 1950s, is that they allow critics to praise a writer's prose without considering its effect on the reader. It is easier to call writing like Proulx's lyrically evocative or poetically compelling than to figure out what it evokes, or what it compels the reader to think and feel. How can Close Range really impart a sense of life in Wyoming when everything—from the loneliness of the plains to the grisly violence it actuates—is described in the same razzle-dazzle style, the same jumpy rhythms? And why should we care about characters whose gruesome deaths and injuries are treated only as a pretext for more wordplay?

The critics' admiration for Proulx reflects a growing consensus that the best prose is that which yields the greatest number of standout sentences, regardless of whether or not they fit the context. (In The New York Times the critic Richard Eder quoted with approval a flashy excerpt from Close Range about a car trip that the characters themselves do not appear to find remarkable at all.) Proulx's sentences are often praised for having a life of their own: they "dance and coil, slither and pounce" (K. Francis Tanabe, The Washington Post), "every single sentence surprises and delights and just bowls you over" (Carolyn See, The Washington Post), a Proulx sentence "whistles and snaps" (Dan Cryer, Newsday). In 1999 Tanabe kicked off the Post's online discussion of Proulx's work by asking participants to join him in "choosing your favorite sentence(s) from any of the stories in Close Range." I doubt that any reviewer in our more literate past would have expected people to have favorite sentences from a work of prose fiction. A favorite character or scene, sure; a favorite line of dialogue, maybe; but not a favorite sentence. We have to read a great book more than once to realize how consistently good the prose is, because the first time around, and often even the second, we're too involved in the story to notice. If Proulx's fiction is so compelling, why are its fans more impressed by individual sentences than by the whole?

"Muscular" Prose

The masculine counterpart to the ladies' prose poetry is a bold, Melvillean stiltedness, better known to readers of book reviews as "muscular" prose. Charles Frazier, Frederick Busch, and many other novelists write in this idiom, but the acknowledged granddaddy of them all is Cormac McCarthy. In fairness, it must be said that McCarthy's style was once very different. The Orchard Keeper (1965), his debut novel, is a masterpiece of careful and restrained writing. An excerpt from the first page:

Far down the blazing strip of concrete a small shapeless mass had emerged and was struggling toward him. It loomed steadily, weaving and grotesque like something seen through bad glass, gained briefly the form and solidity of a pickup truck, whipped past and receded into the same liquid shape by which it came.

There's not a word too many in there, and although the tone is hardly conversational, the reader is addressed as the writer's equal, in a natural cadence and vocabulary. Note also how the figurative language (like something seen through bad glass) is fresh and vivid without seeming to strain for originality.

Now read this from McCarthy's The Crossing (1994), part of the acclaimed Border Trilogy: "He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her."

Thriller writers know enough to save this kind of syntax for fast-moving scenes: "... and his shout of fear came as a bloody gurgle and he died, and Wolff felt nothing" (Ken Follett, The Key to Rebecca, 1980). In McCarthy's sentence the unpunctuated flow of words bears no relation to the slow, methodical nature of what is being described. And why repeat tortilla? When Hemingway wrote "small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers" ("In Another Country," 1927), he was, as David Lodge points out in The Art of Fiction (1992), creating two sharp images in the simplest way he could. The repetition of wind, in subtly different senses, heightens the immediacy of the referent while echoing other reminders of Milan's windiness in the fall. McCarthy's second tortilla, in contrast, is there, like the syntax, to draw attention to the writer himself. For all the sentence tells us, it might as well be this: "He ate the last of the eggs. He wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate it. He drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth. He looked up and thanked her." Had McCarthy written that, the critics would have taken him to task for his "workmanlike" prose. But the first version is no more informative or pleasing to the ear than the second, which can at least be read aloud in a natural fashion. (McCarthy is famously averse to public readings.) All the original does is say, "I express myself differently from you, therefore I am a Writer."

The same message is conveyed by the stern biblical tone that runs through all of McCarthy's recent novels. Parallelisms and pseudo-archaic formulations abound: "They caught up and set out each day in the dark before the day yet was and they ate cold meat and biscuit and made no fire"; "and they would always be so and never be otherwise"; "the captain wrote on nor did he look up"; "there rode no soul save he," and so forth.

The reader is meant to be carried along on the stream of language. In the New York Times review of The Crossing, Robert Hass praised the effect: "It is a matter of straight-on writing, a veering accumulation of compound sentences, stinginess with commas, and a witching repetition of words ... Once this style is established, firm, faintly hypnotic, the crispness and sinuousness of the sentences ... gather to a magic." The key word here is "accumulation." Like Proulx and so many others today, McCarthy relies more on barrages of hit-and-miss verbiage than on careful use of just the right words.

While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who's will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who's will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who's will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)

This may get Hass's darkly meated heart pumping, but it's really just bad poetry formatted to exploit the lenient standards of modern prose. The obscurity of who's will, which has an unfortunate Dr. Seussian ring to it, is meant to bully readers into thinking that the author's mind operates on a plane higher than their own—a plane where it isn't ridiculous to eulogize the shifts in a horse's bowels.

As a fan of movie westerns, I refuse to quibble with the myth that a wild landscape can bestow epic significance on the lives of its inhabitants. But novels tolerate epic language only in moderation. To record with the same somber majesty every aspect of a cowboy's life, from a knife fight to his lunchtime burrito, is to create what can only be described as kitsch. Here we learn that out west even a hangover is something special.

[They] walked off in separate directions through the chaparral to stand spraddlelegged clutching their knees and vomiting. The browsing horses jerked their heads up. It was no sound they'd ever heard before. In the gray twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool. (All the Pretty Horses)

It is a rare passage that can make you look up, wherever you may be, and wonder if you are being subjected to a diabolically thorough Candid Camera prank. I can just go along with the idea that horses might mistake human retching for the call of wild animals. But "wild animals" isn't epic enough: McCarthy must blow smoke about some rude provisional species, as if your average quadruped had impeccable table manners and a pension plan. Then he switches from the horses' perspective to the narrator's, though just what something imperfect and malformed refers to is unclear. The last half sentence only deepens the confusion. Is the thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace the same thing that is lodged in the heart of being? And what is a gorgon doing in a pool? Or is it peering into it? And why an autumn pool? I doubt if McCarthy can explain any of this; he probably just likes the way it sounds.

No novelist with a sense of the ridiculous would write such nonsense. Although his characters sometimes rib one another, McCarthy is among the most humorless writers in American history. In this excerpt the subject is horses.

He said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold ... Lastly he said that he had seen the souls of horses and that it was a terrible thing to see. He said that it could be seen under certain circumstances attending the death of a horse because the horse shares a common soul and its separate life only forms it out of all horses and makes it mortal ... Finally John Grady asked him if it were not true that should all horses vanish from the face of the earth the soul of the horse would not also perish for there would be nothing out of which to replenish it but the old man only said that it was pointless to speak of there being no horses in the world for God would not permit such a thing. (All the Pretty Horses)

The further we get from our cowboy past, the loonier becomes the hippophilia we attribute to it. More to the point, especially considering The New York Times's praise of All the Pretty Horses for its "realistic dialogue," is the stiltedness with which the conversation is reproduced. The cowboys are supposed to be talking to a Mexican in Spanish, which is a stretch to begin with, but from the tone in which the conversation is set down you'd think it was ancient Hebrew. And shouldn't Grady satisfy our curiosity by finding out what a horse's soul looks like, instead of pursuing a hypothetical point of equine theology? You half expect him to ask how many horses' souls can fit on the head of a pin.

All the Pretty Horses received the National Book Award in 1992. "Not until now," the judges wrote in their fatuous citation, "has the unhuman world been given its own holy canon." What a difference a pseudo-biblical style makes; this so-called canon has little more to offer than the conventional belief that horses, like dogs, serve us well enough to merit exemption from an otherwise sweeping disregard for animal life. (No one ever sees a cow's soul.) McCarthy's fiction may be less fun than the "genre" western, but its world view is much the same. So is the cast of characters: the quiet cowboys, the women who "like to see a man eat," the howling savages. (In fairness to the western: McCarthy's depiction of Native Americans in Blood Meridian [1985] is far more offensive than anything in Louis L' Amour.) The critics, however, are too much impressed by the muscles of his prose to care about the heart underneath. Even The Village Voice has called McCarthy "a master stylist, perhaps without equal in American letters." Robert Hass wrote much of his review of The Crossing in an earnest imitation of McCarthy's style:

The boys travel through this world, tipping their hats, saying "yessir" and "nosir" and "si" and "es verdad" and "claro" to all its potential malice, its half-mad philosophers, as the world washes over and around them, and the brothers themselves come to be as much arrested by the gesture of the quest as the old are by their stores of bitter wisdom and the other travelers, in the middle of life, in various stages of the arc between innocence and experience, by whatever impulses have placed them on the road.

The vagueness of that encomium must annoy McCarthy, who prides himself on the way he tackles "issues of life and death" head on. In interviews he presents himself as a man's man with no time for pansified intellectuals—a literary version, if you will, of Dave Thomas, the smugly parochial old-timer in the Wendy's commercials. It would be both unfair and a little too charitable to suggest that this is just a pose. When McCarthy says of Marcel Proust and Henry James, "I don't understand them. To me, that's not literature," I have a sinking feeling he's telling the truth.

"Edgy" Prose

Not all contemporary writing is marked by the Proulx-McCarthy brand of obscurity. Many novels intimidate readers by making them wonder not what the writer is saying but why he is saying it. Here, for example, is the opener to Don DeLillo's White Noise (1985).

The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through the west campus. In single file they eased around the orange I-beam sculpture and moved toward the dormitories. The roofs of the station wagons were loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books, sheets, pillows, quilts; with rolled-up rugs and sleeping bags, with bicycles, skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts. As cars slowed to a crawl and stopped, students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside; the stereo sets, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph records and cassettes; the hairdryers and styling irons; the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags—onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints.

This is the sort of writing, full of brand names and wardrobe inventories, that critics like to praise as an "edgy" take on the insanity of modern American life. It's hard to see what is so edgy about describing suburbia as a wasteland of stupefied shoppers, which is something left-leaning social critics have been doing since the 1950s. Still, this is foolproof subject matter for a novelist of limited gifts. If you find the above shopping list fascinating, then DeLillo's your man. If you complain that it's just dull, and that you got the message about a quarter of the way through, he can always counter by saying, "Hey, I don't make the all-inclusive, consumption-mad society. I just report on it."

Of course the narrator, a professor called Jack Gladney, can't actually see what's inside the students' bags; he's just trying to be funny. So is there really a caravan of station wagons, or is that also a joke? How much of the above passage, for that matter, are we even supposed to bother visualizing? Similar questions nag at the reader throughout White Noise. We are no sooner introduced to Jack and his wife than their conversation marks them as paper-flat contrivances.

"It's the day of the station wagons." ...

"It's not the station wagons I wanted to see. What are the people like? Do the women wear plaid skirts, cable-knit sweaters? Are the men in hacking jackets? What's a hacking jacket?"

No real person would utter those last two questions in sequence. DeLillo's characters talk and act like the aliens in 3rd Rock From the Sun, which would be fine if we weren't supposed to accept them as dead-on satires of the way we live now. The American supermarket is presented as a haven of womblike contentment, a place where people go to satisfy deep emotional needs. (In a New York Times interview after the novel's publication DeLillo elaborated on the theme by comparing supermarkets to churches.) This sort of patronizing nonsense is typical of Consumerland writers; someone should break the news to them that the average shopper feels nothing in a supermarket but the strong urge to get out again. White Noise also continues a long intellectual tradition of exaggerating the effects of advertising. Here Steffie, the narrator's young daughter, talks in her sleep.

She uttered two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, words that seemed to have a ritual meaning, part of a verbal spell or ecstatic chant.

Toyota Celica.

A long moment passed before I realized this was the name of an automobile. The truth only amazed me more. The utterance was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder. It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform ... Whatever its source, the utterance struck me with the impact of a moment of splendid transcendence.

DeLillo has said that he wants to impart a sense of the "magic and dread" lurking in our consumer culture, but what a poor job he does of this! There is so little apparent wonder in the girl's words that only a metaphor drawn from recognizable human experience could induce us to share Jack's excitement. Instead we are told of an un-named name carved on a tablet in the sky, and in cuneiform to boot. The effect of all this is so uninvolving, so downright silly, that it baffles even sympathetic readers. It is left to real-life professors to explain the passage in light of what DeLillo has said in interviews and other novels about how people use words to assuage a fear of death. Cornel Bonca, of California State University, writes, "If we see Steffie's outburst as an example of the death-fear speaking through consumer jargon, then Jack's wondrous awe will strike us, strange as it may seem, as absolutely appropriate." A good novelist, of course, would have written the scene more persuasively in the first place. Far stranger things happen in Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls (1842), but we don't need an academic intermediary to argue their plausibility or to explain what Gogol was getting at.

In this excerpt from White Noise, Jack and his family go shopping.

In the mass and variety of our purchases, in the sheer plenitude those crowded bags suggested, the weight and size and number, the familiar package designs and vivid lettering, the giant sizes, the family bargain packs with Day-Glo sale stickers, in the sense of replenishment we felt, the sense of well-being, the security and contentment these products brought to some snug home in our souls—it seemed we had achieved a fullness of being that is not known to people who need less, expect less, who plan their lives around lonely walks in the evening.

Could the irony be any less subtle? And the tautology: mass, plenitude, number; well-being, contentment! The clumsy echoes: size, sizes; familiar, family; sense of, sense of; well-being, being! I wouldn't put it past DeLillo's apologists to claim that this repetition is meant to underscore the superfluity of goods in the supermarket. The fact remains that here, as in the Toyota Celica scene, the novel tries to convey the magical appeal of consumerism in prose that is simply flat and tiresome.

At least that paragraph is coherent. Most of the author's thoughts, regardless of which character is speaking them, take the form of disjointed strings of elliptical statements. This must be what satisfies critics that they are in the presence of a challenging writer—but more often than not "the dry shrivelled kernel," to borrow a line from Anne Brontë, "scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut." Here, for example, Jack Gladney tells a woman why he gave his child the name Heinrich.

"I thought it was forceful and impressive ... There's something about German names, the German language, German things. I don't know what it is exactly. It's just there. In the middle of it all is Hitler, of course."

"He was on again last night."

"He's always on. We couldn't have television without him."

"They lost the war," she said. "How great could they be?"

"A valid point. But it's not a question of greatness. It's not a question of good and evil. I don't know what it is. Look at it this way. Some people always wear a favorite color. Some people carry a gun. Some people put on a uniform and feel bigger, stronger, safer. It's in this area that my obsessions dwell."

So Gladney thinks there is something forceful about German names. This is such a familiar idea that we naturally assume DeLillo is going to do more with it. Instead he gives us a frivolous non sequitur about television, followed by a clumsy rehashing of the first point. If the narrator's obsessions dwell "in this area," shouldn't he be able to tell us something we don't know, instead of "Some people put on a uniform and feel bigger, stronger, safer"?

From the archives:
"An Urban History of Mid-Century America"
(October 1997)
A Dantean Novel, to be talked about for years to come. (A review of Don Delillo's Underworld.) By Tom LeClair

Another source of spurious profundity is DeLillo's constant allusions to momentous feelings and portents—allusions that are either left hanging in the air or are conveniently cut short by a narrative pretext. Jack ponders the clutter in his house: "Why do these possessions carry such sorrowful weight? There is a darkness attached to them, a foreboding. They make me wary not of personal failure and defeat but of something more general, something large in scope and content." What is this something large in scope and content ? We are never told. Later Jack registers "floating nuances of being" between him and his stepdaughter. Similar phrases turn up throughout DeLillo's novels; they are perhaps the most consistent element of his style. In Underworld (1997) a man's mouth fills with "the foretaste of massive inner shiftings"; another character senses "some essential streak of self"; the air has "the feel of some auspicious design"; and so on. This is the safe, catchall vagueness of astrologists and palm readers. DeLillo also adds rhetorical questions or other disclaimers to throw his meaning out of focus. Here, to return to White Noise, is another of Jack's musings.

"We edge nearer death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot."

Is this true? Why did I say it? What does it mean?

The first and third of those questions are easily answered; after all, we edge nearer death every time we do anything. So why, indeed, does Jack say this? Because DeLillo knew it would seem profoundly original to most of his readers. Then he added those questions to keep the critical minority from charging him with banality.

Interspersed with these ruminations we get long conversations of the who's-on-first? variety. These only highlight the sameness of the characters' speech. Young and old, male and female, all sound alike.

"What do you want to do?" she said.

"Whatever you want to do."

"I want to do whatever's best for you."

"What's best for me is to please you," I said.

"I want to make you happy, Jack."

"I'm happy when I'm pleasing you."

"I just want to do what you want to do."

"I want to do whatever's best for you."

And so on. To anyone who calls that excruciating, DeLillo might well respond, "That's my whole point! This is communication in Consumerland!" It isn't unlikely, considering how the dialogue loses its logic halfway through, that the whole thing was written only to be skimmed anyway. Like the bursts of brand names that occur throughout the text ("Tegrin, Denorex, Selsun Blue"), this is more evidence of DeLillo's belief—apparently shared by Mark Leyner, Brett Easton Ellis, and others—that writing trite and diffuse prose is a brilliant way to capture the trite and diffuse nature of modern life.

But why should we bother with Consumerland fiction at all, if the effect of reading it is the same queasy fatigue we can get from an evening of channel-surfing? Do we need writers like DeLillo for their insight, which rarely rises above the level of "some people put on a uniform and feel bigger"? Or do we need them for an ironic perspective that most of us acquired in childhood, when we first started sneering at commercials? Yes on both counts, according to the jurors of the National Book Award, who gave White Noise the nod in 1985. The novel's inflated reputation remains a clear signal that we should expect less from contemporary fiction than from books written in our grandparents' day. Just as it is now enough for a prose poet to be vaguely "evocative," it is enough for an intellectual writer to point our thoughts in a familiar direction. Jayne Anne Phillips praised White Noise in The New York Times in 1985 for choosing to "offer no answers" and instead posing "inescapable questions with consummate skill." She also said, "[The narrator of White Noise] is one of the most ironic, intelligent, grimly funny voices yet to comment on life in present-day America. This is an America where no one is responsible or in control; all are receptors, receivers of stimuli, consumers." In other words, this is an America that Andy Warhol began commenting on in the 1960s, and in far more coherent fashion. Warhol even wrote better, for God's sake. But then, where would Notable New Fiction be without the willing suspension of cultural literacy?

Most of DeLillo's admirers hedge their bets by praising his style—or, my favorite, his "analytic rigor" (Jay McInerney)—while offering only a phrase or two of textual evidence. Phillips at least had the guts to quote a lengthy excerpt from White Noise in which a character holds forth on the semiotics of—what else?—the supermarket.

"Everything is concealed in symbolism ... The large doors slide open, they close unbidden. Energy waves, incident radiation ... code words and ceremonial phrases. It is just a question of deciphering ... Not that we would want to ... This is not Tibet ... Tibetans try to see death for what it is. It is the end of attachment to things. This simple truth is hard to fathom. But once we stop denying death, we can proceed calmly to die ... We don't have to cling to life artificially, or to death ... We simply walk toward the sliding doors ... Look how well-lighted everything is ... sealed off ... timeless. Another reason why I think of Tibet. Dying is an art in Tibet ... Chants, numerology, horoscopes, recitations. Here we don't die, we shop. But the difference is less marked than you think."

That couldn't be rendered any less coherent if the sentences were mixed up in a hat and pulled out again at random. I hasten to add that Phillips made those ellipses herself, in a brave attempt to isolate a logical thought from the original mess. All the same, she presented the above as evidence of DeLillo's "understanding and perception of America's soundtrack." This is the irony of Consumerland fiction: its fans are even more helpless in the presence of authoritative posturing, and even more terrified of saying "I don't understand," than the shoppers they feel so superior to.

Throughout DeLillo's career critics have called his work funny: "absurdly comic ... laugh-out-loud funny" (Michiko Kakutani), "grimly funny" (Phillips). And most seem to agree with Christopher Lehmann-Haupt that White Noise is "one of Don DeLillo's funniest." At the same time, they refuse to furnish examples of what they find so amusing. I have a notion it's things like "Are the men in hacking jackets? What's a hacking jacket?" but it would be unfair to assert this without evidence. Luckily for our purposes, Mark Osteen, in an introduction to a recent edition of the novel, singles out the following conversation as one of the best bits of "sparkling dialogue" in this "very funny" book. It is telling that the same cultural elite that never quite "got" the British comic novel should split its sides at this.

"I will read," she said. "But I don't want you to choose anything that has men inside women, quote-quote, or men entering women. 'I entered her.' 'He entered me.' We're not lobbies or elevators. 'I wanted him inside me,' as if he could crawl completely in, sign the register, sleep, eat, so forth. Can we agree on that? I don't care what these people do as long as they don't enter or get entered."


"'I entered her and began to thrust.'"

"I'm in total agreement," I said.

"'Enter me, enter me, yes, yes.'"

"Silly usage, absolutely."

"'Insert yourself, Rex. I want you inside me, entering hard ...'"

And so on. Osteen would probably have groaned at that exchange if it had turned up on Sex and the City. The fuss he makes over it in this context is a good example of how pathetically grateful readers can be when they discover—lo and behold!—that a "literary" author is actually trying to entertain them for a change.

"Spare" Prose

Anyone who doubts the declining literacy of book reviewers need only consider how the gabbiest of all prose styles is invariably praised as "lean," "spare," even "minimalist." I am referring, of course, to the Paul Auster School of Writing.

It was dark in the room when he woke up. Quinn could not be sure how much time had passed—whether it was the night of that day or the night of the next. It was even possible, he thought, that it was not night at all. Perhaps it was merely dark inside the room, and outside, beyond the window, the sun was shining. For several moments he considered getting up and going to the window to see, but then he decided it did not matter. If it was not night now, he thought, then night would come later. That was certain, and whether he looked out the window or not, the answer would be the same. On the other hand, if it was in fact night here in New York, then surely the sun was shining somewhere else. In China, for example, it was no doubt mid-afternoon, and the rice farmers were mopping sweat from their brows. Night and day were no more than relative terms; they did not refer to an absolute condition. At any given moment it was always both. The only reason we did not know it was because we could not be in two places at the same time. (City of Glass, 1985)

This could be said in half as many words, but then we might feel even more inclined to ask why it needs to be said at all. (Who ever thought of night and day as an absolute condition anyway?) The flat, laborious wordiness signals that this is avant-garde stuff, to miss the point of which would put us on the level of the morons who booed Le Sacre du Printemps. But what is the point? Is the passage meant to be banal, in order to trap philistines into complaining about it, thereby leaving the cognoscenti to relish the irony on some postmodern level? Or is there really some hidden significance to all this time-zone business? The point, as Auster's fans will tell you, is that there can be no clear answers to such questions; fiction like City of Glass urges us to embrace the intriguing ambiguities that fall outside the framework of the conventional novel. All interpretations of the above passage are allowed, even encouraged—except, of course, for the most obvious one: that Auster is simply wasting our time.

This is another example of what passes for thought in his fiction.

"Remember what happened to the father of our country. He chopped down the cherry tree, and then he said to his father, 'I cannot tell a lie.' Soon thereafter, he threw the coin across the river. These two stories are crucial events in American history. George Washington chopped down the tree and then he threw away the money. Do you understand? He was telling us an essential truth. Namely, that money doesn't grow on trees." (City of Glass)

It's always risky to identify a novelist's thoughts with his characters', but the prevalence of these free-associative parlor games in Auster's fiction suggests that he finds them either amusing or profound. This is from Moon Palace (1989).

One thought kept giving way to another, spiraling into ever larger masses of connectedness. The idea of voyaging into the unknown, for example, and the parallels between Columbus and the astronauts. The discovery of America as a failure to reach China; Chinese food and my empty stomach; thought, as in food for thought, and the head as a palace of dreams. I would think: the Apollo Project; Apollo, the god of music ... It went on and on like that, and the more I opened myself to these secret correspondences, the closer I felt to understanding some fundamental truth about the world. I was going mad, perhaps, but I nevertheless felt a tremendous power surging through me, a gnostic joy that penetrated deep into the heart of things. Then, very suddenly, as suddenly as I had gained this power, I lost it.

That talk of secret correspondences and gnostic joy appears aimed at making trusting readers think there must be some insight here that they are too dim to grasp. For the rest of us the narrator includes a disclaimer: "I was going mad, perhaps." Like DeLillo, Auster knows the prime rule of pseudo-intellectual writing: the harder it is to be pinned down on any idea, the easier it is to conceal that one has no ideas at all.

What gives Auster away is his weakness for facetious displays of erudition. In passages like the following it becomes so clear what Nabokovian effect he is trying for, and so clear that he can't pull it off, that the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

When I met Kitty Wu, she called me by several other names ... Foggy, for example, which was used only on special occasions, and Cyrano, which developed for reasons that will become clear later. Had Uncle Victor lived to meet her, I'm sure he would have appreciated the fact that Marco, in his own small way, had at last set foot in China. (Moon Palace)

By falling in love with a Chinese woman, the narrator can perhaps be said to have "discovered" China, though God knows that's awful enough, but set foot in it? It is no mean feat to be precious and clumsy at the same time. More examples:

[At school the name] Fogg lent itself to a host of spontaneous mutilations: Fag and Frog, for example, along with countless meteorological references: Snowball Head, Slush Man, Drizzle Mouth. (Moon Palace)

... a new tonality had crept into the bronchial music—something tight and flinty and percussive— ... (Timbuktu, 1999)

Was Mr. Bones an angel trapped in the flesh of a dog? Willy thought so ... How else to interpret the celestial pun that echoed in his mind night and day? To decode the message, all you had to do was hold it up to a mirror. Could anything be more obvious? Just turn around the letters of the word dog, and what did you have? The truth, that's what. (Timbuktu)

Nobody's perfect. But why should we forgive a writer for trying to pass off a schoolboy anagram as a celestial pun, or snowball as a meteorological reference, or tonality as a synonym for "tone," when he himself is trying so hard to draw attention to his fancy-pants language? Even worse is the way he abuses philosophical terms.

According to him, [the name Marco Stanley Fogg] proved that travel was in my blood, that life would carry me to places where no man had ever been before. Marco, naturally enough, was for Marco Polo, the first European to visit China; Stanley was for the American journalist who had tracked down Dr. Livingstone "in the heart of darkest Africa"; and Fogg was for Phileas, the man who had stormed around the globe in less than three months ... In the short run, Victor's nominalism helped me to survive the difficult first few weeks in my new school. (Moon Palace)

This is for people who know only that nominalism has something to do with names. In fact the nominalists argued that just because words exist for generalities like humanity doesn't mean that these generalities exist. What does that have to do with Uncle Victor's talk?

Another hallmark of Auster's style, and of contemporary American prose in general, is tautology. Swing the hammer often enough, and you're bound to hit the nail on the head—or so the logic seems to run.

His body burst into dozens of small pieces, and fragments of his corpse were found ... (Leviathan, 1992)

Blue can only surmise what the case is not. To say what it is, however, is completely beyond him. (Ghosts, 1986)

My father was tight; my mother was extravagant. She spent; he didn't. (Hand to Mouth, 1997)

Inexpressible desires, intangible needs, and unarticulated longings all passed through the money box and came out as real things, palpable objects you could hold in your hand. (Hand to Mouth)

Still and all, Mr. Bones was a dog. From the tip of his tail to the end of his snout, he was a pure example of Canis familiaris, and whatever divine presence he might have harbored within his skin, he was first and foremost the thing he appeared to be. Mr. Bow Wow, Monsieur Woof Woof, Sir Cur. (Timbuktu)

This sort of thing is everywhere, and yet the relative shortness of Auster's sentences has always fooled critics into thinking that he never wastes a word. His style has been praised as "brisk, precise" (The New York Times) and "straightforward, almost invisible" (The Village Voice). Dennis Drabelle, in The Washington Post, called it "always economical—clipped, precise, the last word in gnomic control," which looks like something Auster wrote himself.

The creator of Monsieur Woof Woof has also received the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. (Why he still hasn't received the National Book Award I cannot imagine.) Critics compare him to Kafka, but it is from Borges that Auster borrows his allegories (detective work, biographical research) and his favorite theme: the impossibility of ever really knowing anything. This is an unwise choice of material, because he is not enough of a thinker to convey the fun that makes intellectual exercise worthwhile after all. The gnostic correspondences between Chinese food and food for thought; dog spelled backwards is god—this is philosophical writing?

Then again, Auster is commercially successful precisely because he offers so much cachet in return for so little concentration. Whole chapters can be skimmed with impunity. He creates a dog that understands English perfectly, only to describe how it likes to sniff excrement. He christens his hero Marco Stanley Fogg, a name portending lots of onomastic exposition and tales of playground cruelty, and then spends pages giving us just that. A man counts his books (why?) and finds that there are precisely 1,492 of them, and his nephew is going to a certain university in New York City. "A propitious number, I think, since it evokes ..." Go on. Take a wild guess.

Generic "Literary" Prose

A thriller must thrill or it is worthless; this is as true now as it ever was. Today's "literary" novel, on the other hand, need only evince a few quotable passages to be guaranteed at least a lukewarm review. This reflects both the growing influence of the sentence cult and a desire to reward novelists for aiming high. It is perhaps natural, therefore, that the "literary" camp now attracts a type of risk-averse writer who, under different circumstances, might never have strayed from the safest thriller or romance formulae. Many critically acclaimed novels today are no more than mediocre "genre" stories told in a conformist amalgam of approved "literary" styles. Every amalgam is a little different, of course; what unites these writers and separates them from the rest of the "literary" camp is the determinedly slow tempo of their prose. They seem to know that in leaner and livelier form their courtroom dramas, geisha memoirs, and horse-whisperer romances would not be taken seriously, and that it is precisely the lack of genre-ish suspense that elevates them to the status of prize-worthy "tales of loss and redemption."

The most successful of these writers is David Guterson, who was recently named by the tony journal Granta as one of America's twenty best young novelists. This is from Snow Falling on Cedars (1994), which won the PEN/Faulkner and spent more than a year on the New York Times best-seller list.

He didn't like very many people anymore or very many things, either. He preferred not to be this way, but there it was, he was like that. His cynicism—a veteran's cynicism—was a thing that disturbed him all the time ... It was not even a thing you could explain to anybody, why it was that everything was folly. People appeared enormously foolish to him. He understood that they were only animated cavities full of jelly and strings and liquids. He had seen the insides of jaggedly ripped-open dead people. He knew, for instance, what brains looked like spilling out of somebody's head. In the context of this, much of what went on in normal life seemed wholly and disturbingly ridiculous ... He sensed [people's] need to extend sympathy to him, and this irritated him even more. The arm was a grim enough thing without that, and he felt sure it was entirely disgusting. He could repel people if he chose by wearing to class a short-sleeved shirt that revealed the scar tissue on his stump. He never did this, however. He didn't exactly want to repel people. Anyway, he had this view of things—that most human activity was utter folly, his own included, and that his existence in the world made others nervous. He could not help but possess this unhappy perspective, no matter how much he might not want it. It was his and he suffered from it numbly.

I apologize for the length of that excerpt, but it takes more than a few sentences to demonstrate the repetitive sluggishness of Guterson's prose. Michael Crichton could have given us the same stock character of the Alienated Veteran in one of those thumbnail descriptions he's always getting slammed for, but Guterson seems intent on dragging everything out.

The word thing is used to add bulk. "You could not explain to anybody why everything was folly" becomes It was not even a thing you could explain to anybody, why it was that everything was folly. "His cynicism disturbed him" becomes His cynicism ... was a thing that disturbed him. "He believed that" becomes he had this view of things—that. There is plenty of unnecessary emphasis, the classic sign of a writer who lacks confidence: "enormously foolish," "wholly ... ridiculous," "entirely disgusting." There are sentences that seem to serve no purpose at all: "He could repel people if he chose by wearing to class a short-sleeved shirt that revealed the scar tissue on his stump. He never did this, however. He didn't exactly want to repel people. Anyway ..." Almost every thought is echoed: "He preferred not to be this way, but there it was, he was like that ... He could not help but possess this unhappy perspective, no matter how much he might not want it." And "... everything was folly. People appeared enormously foolish to him ... In the context of this, much of what went on in normal life seemed wholly and disturbingly ridiculous ... Anyway, he had this view of things—that most human activity was utter folly ..." You could study that passage all day and find no trace of a flair for words. Many readers, however, including the folks at Granta, are willing to buy into the scam that anything this dull must be Serious and therefore Fine and therefore Beautiful Writing.

Like Cormac McCarthy, to whom he is occasionally compared, Guterson thinks it more important to sound literary than to make sense. This is the oft-quoted opening to East of the Mountains (1999).

On the night he had appointed his last among the living, Dr. Ben Givens did not dream, for his sleep was restless and visited by phantoms who guarded the portal to the world of dreams by speaking relentlessly of this world. They spoke of his wife—now dead—and of his daughter, of silent canyons where he had hunted birds, of august peaks he had once ascended, of apples newly plucked from trees, and of vineyards in the foothills of the Apennines. They spoke of rows of campanino apples near Monte Della Torraccia; they spoke of cherry trees on river slopes and of pear blossoms in May sunlight.

Now, if the doctor's sleep was visited by phantoms (visited, mind you, not "interrupted"), then surely he was dreaming after all? Or were the phantoms keeping him awake? But isn't restless sleep still sleep? The answer, of course, is that it doesn't matter one way or the other: Guterson is just swinging a pocket watch in front of our eyes. "You're in professional hands," he's saying, "for only a Serious Writer would express himself so sonorously. Now read on, and remember, the mood's the thing."

What follows is a Proulx-style succession of images. By the end of the third sentence, with its cherry trees, pear blossoms, and still more apples, the accumulation of pedestrian phrases is supposed to have fooled the reader into thinking that a lyrical effect has been created. The ruse is painfully obvious here. Proulx would at least have drawn the line at something as stale as august peaks—especially in an opening paragraph. (She would also have avoided the clumsy echo of restless and relentlessly.)

It is from Auster, however, that Guterson seems to have learned how to create writerly cadences through tautology: "a clash of sound, discordant," "an immediate blunder, a faux pas," "Wyman was gay, a homosexual," "She could see that he was angry, that he was holding it in, not exposing his rage."

On the positive side, Guterson has more of a storytelling instinct than many novelists today. Beneath all the verbal rubble in Cedars is a good murder mystery crying out to be heard—feebly, to be sure, but still loud enough for The New York Times to have denied the book its "non-genre" bonus of a second review. Guterson also knows that he has no gift for figurative language; outbursts like "a labyrinth of runners as intricate as a network of arteries feeding" are mercifully rare. As a result he sinks below mediocrity as rarely as he rises above it. Only the sex scenes, which even his fans lament, are laughably bad.

"Have you ever done this before?" he whispered.

"Never," answered Hatsue. "You're my only."

The head of his penis found the place it wanted. For a moment he waited there, poised, and kissed her—he took her lower lip between his lips and gently held it there. Then with his hands he pulled her to him and at the same time entered her so that she felt his scrotum slap against her skin. Her entire body felt the rightness of it, her entire body was seized to it. Hatsue arched her shoulder blades—her breasts pressed themselves against his chest—and a slow shudder ran through her.

"It's right," she remembered whispering. "It feels so right, Kabuo."

"Tadaima aware ga wakatta," he had answered. "I understand just now the deepest beauty."

If Jackie Collins had written that, reviewers would have had a field day with You're my only, the searching penis, the shudder's slow run. Thanks to that scrotum slap, which makes you wonder just what Hatsue's body felt the rightness of, the passage fails even on a Harlequin Romance level. But critics gamely overlook the whole mess, because by this point in the book Guterson has already established himself as a Serious Writer—mainly by length and somberness, but also by all those Japanese words.

Almost every fourth amateur reviewer on complains about the repetitiveness of Snow Falling on Cedars. Kirkus Reviews, on the other hand, called the 345-page novel "as compact as haiku," and Susan Kenney, in The New York Times, praised it as "finely wrought and flawlessly written." The novel is required reading in some college English classes, and even history students are being urged to read it, as a source of information about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. So much, I suppose, for Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston's Farewell to Manzanar (1973), another good book displaced from the school canon by a bad one.

No Way Out?

At the 1999 National Book Awards ceremony Oprah Winfrey told of calling Toni Morrison to say that she had had to puzzle over many of the latter's sentences. According to Oprah, Morrison's reply was "That, my dear, is called reading." Sorry, my dear Toni, but it's actually called bad writing. Great prose isn't always easy, but it's always lucid; no one of Oprah's intelligence ever had to wonder what Joseph Conrad was trying to say in a particular sentence. This didn't stop the talk-show host from quoting her friend's words with approval. In similar fashion, an amateur reviewer on admitted to having had trouble with Guterson's short stories: "The fault is largely mine. I had been reading so many escape novels that I wasn't in shape to contend with stories full of real thought written in challenging style."

This is what the cultural elite wants us to believe: if our writers don't make sense, or bore us to tears, that can only mean that we aren't worthy of them. In July of last year Bill Goldstein, in The New York Times, wrote an article putting the blame for the proliferation of unread best sellers on readers who bite off more "intellectually intimidating" fare than they can chew. Vince Passaro, writing for Harper's in 1999, attributed the unpopularity of new short fiction primarily to the fact that it is "smart"—in contrast (he claimed) to the short stories of Hemingway's day. Passaro named Rick Moody as a young talent to watch, and offered this excerpt from "perhaps the best thing he's written," a short story called "Demonology" (1996).

They came in twos and threes, dressed in the fashionable Disney costumes of the year, Lion King, Pocahontas, Beauty and the Beast, or in the costumes of televised superheroes, Protean, shape-shifting, thus arrayed, in twos and threes, complaining it was too hot with the mask on, Hey, I'm really hot!, lugging those orange plastic buckets, bartering, haggling with one another, Gimme your Smarties, please? as their parents tarried behind, grownups following after, grownups bantering about the schools, or about movies, about local sports, about their marriages, about the difficulties of long marriages; kids sprinting up the next driveway, kids decked out as demons or superheroes or dinosaurs or as advertisements for our multinational entertainment-providers, beating back the restless souls of the dead, in search of sweets.

By the third line you realize you're back in Consumerland. (Moody says he was "utterly blown away" by White Noise.) Far from evincing any challenging content, unless you count those feeble jabs at Disney, this passage offers a good example of how little concentration is required by modern "literary" prose. You don't need to remember how that long, chanting sentence began in order to finish it; after all, Moody doesn't seem clear on who is beating back the restless souls of the dead either. (The metaphorical verb implies more awareness of the dead than can be attributed to either the excited children or their chattering parents.) You don't even need to read each word, because everything comes around twice anyway: "Protean, shape-shifting"; "in twos and threes ... in twos and threes"; "complaining it was too hot with the mask on, Hey, I'm really hot!"; "as their parents tarried behind, grownups following after"; "in the costumes of televised superheroes ... kids decked out as ... superheroes." None of this can hide Moody's tin ear (Hey, I'm really hot!), his unfamiliarity with the world of children (who haggle after they get home—and over less humdrum treats), and the complete absence of sharply observed detail.

All Passaro said to justify quoting that passage was that it combines "autobiography, story, social commentary, and the irony to see them all as a single source of pain." (I think I got the pain part.) This is typical of today's reviewers, who shy away from discussing prose style at length, even when they are praising it as the main reason to buy a book. The reader is either told some nonsense about sentences that "slither and pounce" or given an excerpt in its own graphic box, with no commentary at all. The critic's implication: "If you can't see why that's great writing, I'm not going to waste my time trying to explain." This must succeed in bullying some people, or else all the purveyors of what the critic Paul Fussell calls the "unreadable second-rate pretentious" would have been forced to find honest work long ago. Still, I'll bet that for every three readers who finished Passaro's article, two made a mental note to avoid new short fiction like the plague. Even a nation brainwashed to equate artsiness with art knows when its eyelids are drooping.

People like Passaro, of course, tend to think that anyone indifferent to the latest "smart" authors must be vegetating in front of the television, or at best silently mouthing through a Tom Clancy thriller. The truth is that a lot of us are perfectly happy with literature written before we were born—and why shouldn't we be? The notion that contemporary fiction possesses greater relevance for us because it talks of the Internet or supermodels or familiar brand names is ridiculous. We can see ourselves reflected more clearly in Balzac's Parisians than in a modern American who goes into raptures when his daughter says "Toyota Celica" in her sleep. This is not to say that traditional realism is the only valid approach to fiction. But today's Serious Writers fail even on their own postmodern terms. They urge us to move beyond our old-fashioned preoccupation with content and plot, to focus on form instead—and then they subject us to the least-expressive form, the least-expressive sentences, in the history of the American novel. Time wasted on these books is time that could be spent reading something fun. When DeLillo describes a man's walk as a "sort of explanatory shuffle ... a comment on the literature of shuffles" (Underworld), I feel nothing; the wordplay is just too insincere, too patently meaningless. But when Vladimir Nabokov talks of midges "continuously darning the air in one spot," or the "square echo" of a car door slamming, I feel what Philip Larkin wanted readers of his poetry to feel: "Yes, I've never thought of it that way, but that's how it is." The pleasure that accompanies this sensation is almost addictive; for many, myself included, it's the most important reason to read both poetry and prose.

Older fiction also serves to remind us of the power of unaffected English. In this scene from Saul Bellow's The Victim (1947) a man meets a woman at a Fourth of July picnic.

He saw her running in the women's race, her arms close to her sides. She was among the stragglers and stopped and walked off the field, laughing and wiping her face and throat with a handkerchief of the same material as her silk summer dress. Leventhal was standing near her brother. She came up to them and said, "Well, I used to be able to run when I was smaller." That she was still not accustomed to thinking of herself as a woman, and a beautiful woman, made Leventhal feel very tender toward her. She was in his mind when he watched the contestants in the three-legged race hobbling over the meadow. He noticed one in particular, a man with red hair who struggled forward, angry with his partner, as though the race were a pain and a humiliation which he could wipe out only by winning. "What a difference," Leventhal said to himself. "What a difference in people."

Scenes that show why a character falls in love are rarely convincing in novels. This one works beautifully, and with none of the "evocative" metaphor hunting or postmodern snickering that tends to accompany such scenes today. The syntax is simple but not unnaturally terse—a point worth emphasizing to those who think that the only alternative to contemporary writerliness is the plodding style of Raymond Carver. Bellow's verbal restraint makes the unexpected repetition of what a difference all the more touching. The entire novel is marked by the same quiet brilliance. As Christopher Isherwood once said to Cyril Connolly, real talent manifests itself not in a writer's affectation but "in the exactness of his observation [and] the justice of his situations."

It's easy to despair of ever seeing a return to that kind of prose, especially with the cultural elite doing such a quietly efficient job of maintaining the status quo. (Rick Moody received an O. Henry Award for "Demonology" in 1997, whereupon he was made an O. Henry juror himself. And so it goes.) But the paper chain of mediocrity would probably perpetuate itself anyway. Clumsy writing begets clumsy thought, which begets even clumsier writing. The only way out is to look back to a time when authors had more to say than "I'm a Writer!"; when the novel wasn't just a 300-page caption for the photograph on the inside jacket. A reorientation toward tradition would benefit writers no less than readers. In the early twentieth century it was fashionable in Britain to claim that only a completely new style of writing could address a world undergoing an unprecedented transformation—just as the critic Sven Birkerts claimed in a recent Atlantic Unbound that only the new "aesthetic of exploratory excess" can address a world undergoing ... well, you know. For all that Georgian talk of modernity, it was T. S. Eliot, a man fascinated by the "presence" of the past, who wrote the most-innovative poetry of his time. The lesson for today's literary community is so obvious that it may seem patronizing to bring it up. But if our writers and critics already respect the novel's rich tradition—if they can honestly say they got more out of Moby-Dick than just a favorite sentence—then why are they so contemptuous of the urge to tell an exciting story?

Moyer Bell and other small publishers are to be commended for reissuing so many older novels. It would be even more encouraging if our national newspapers devoted an occasional full-page review to one of these new editions—or, for that matter, to any novel that has lapsed into undeserved obscurity. And modern readers need to see that intellectual content can be reconciled with a vigorous, fast-moving plot, as in Budd Schulberg's novel What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) or John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra (1934). Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square (1941) and Roy Fuller's The Second Curtain (1953) are British psychological thrillers written in careful, unaffectedly poetic prose; both could appeal to a wide readership here. By the same token, many of the adults who enjoy Harry Potter would be even happier with Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy (1946-1959) if they only knew about it. Suspense fans would be surprised to find how readable William Godwin's The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794) is. Americans should also be encouraged to overcome their growing aversion to translated fiction. To discover Shiga Naoya's A Dark Night's Passing (1937) and Enchi Fumiko's The Waiting Years (1957), two heartbreaking classics of Japanese fiction, is to realize how little we need a white man's geisha memoirs.

Feel free to disparage these recommendations, but can anyone outside of the big publishing houses claim that the mere fact of newness should entitle a novel to more of our attention? Many readers wrestle with only one bad book before concluding that they are too dumb to enjoy anything "challenging." Their first foray into literature shouldn't have to end, for lack of better advice, on the third page of something like Underworld. At the very least, the critics could start toning down their hyperbole. How better to ensure that Faulkner and Melville remain unread by the young than to invoke their names in praise of some new bore every week? How better to discourage clear and honest self-expression than to call Annie Proulx—as Carolyn See did in The Washington Post—"the best prose stylist working in English now, bar none"?

Whatever happens, the old American scorn for pretension is bound to reassert itself someday, and dear God, let it be soon. In the meantime, I'll be reading the kinds of books that Cormac McCarthy doesn't understand.


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Narrow World Made Wide by Walt Harrington

"Bed, where are you flying to?"
-- A line jotted in a notebook in 1980 by Rita Dove,
United States poet laureate
February 5, 1995, 5:35 p.m.

TWILIGHT IS NOT THE TIME Rita Dove prefers to work. Much better are the crystal hours between midnight and 5 a.m., her writing hours when she lived in Ireland the summer of 1978, before her daughter was born, and Rita was young, with only a handful of poems published, before the Pulitzer Prize, before she became poet laureate of the United States. In Ireland, she and her husband, Fred Viebahn, a Ger-man novelist, would spend the late afternoons selecting dinner at the fish market, filling their sherry bottle from the merchant's oak cask, strolling Dublin's streets. They would cook dinner, write letters, read, talk, make love, watch TV into the late night, and then Rita would write, or do what people call writing, until the milkman arrived at sunrise and it was time to go off to sleep.

No more, not with her 12-year-old daughter, Aviva, the trips to Washington, the phone and fax, the letters, speeches, interviews, the traveling -- oh, the traveling. It's the worst. It doesn't respect a poet's frame of mind. Rita can't go off chasing a shard of thought about the three-legged telescope her father once bought, or why it is that hosts in southern Germany fill up a guest's wineglass before it is empty, or whether a forest's leaves can be both mute and riot-ous at once (they can, of course). While traveling, Rita must catch a plane, look both ways, always muster the dedicated, logical mind of a banker or a plumber.

But this afternoon, for the first time in a while, she sits at her desk in her new writing cabin, which stands down a sharp slope from the back door of her house in the countrified suburbs of Charlottesville, where she teaches at the Uni-versity of Virginia. The cabin is small -- 12 by 20, a storage shed with insulation and drywall, a skylight so tiny it's more like the thought of a skylight, a wall of windows whose mullions create miniature portraits of the woods, pond, mountains and sunset to the west. No phone, fax, TV, no bathroom or running water, hardly any books by others and certainly no copies of her own nine books: "They're done. They have nothing to do with the moment of writing a poem." On a small stereo, she plays music without words -- lately, Bach's Brandenburg concertos and Keith Jarrett's jazz piano.

The last few days, Rita has been thinking about three poems she'd like to write -- "Meditation," "Parlor" and "Sweet Dreams." She began to ponder the last poem after she reread a few lines she'd scribbled in a notebook in 1980. For 15 years, she had looked at those lines every couple of months and thought, "No, I can't do it yet." She wrote 300 other poems instead. But just seven weeks from today, Rita Dove will consider "Sweet Dreams" done -- with a new title, new lines, new images and a new meaning the poet herself will not recognize until the poem is nearly finished.

It will be a curious, enlightening journey: one poem, one act of creation, evoked from a thousand private choices, embedded in breath and heartbeat, music, meter and rhyme, in the logic of thought and the intuition of emotion, in the confluence of the two, in the mystery of art and the labor of craft, which will transform random journal notations, bodi-less images, unanchored thoughts, orphan lines of poetry and meticulously kept records of times and dates into some-thing more. Words with dictionary meanings will become words that mean only what the experiences of others will make of them, words no longer spoken in Rita's voice but in whispering voices heard only inside the heads of those who pause to read her poem.

IN 1980, LIVING IN a $ 50-a-month, one-room walk-up in West Berlin, Rita was sick in bed one day. For light reading, she picked up Das Bett, a German book about the place of the bed in history. She was leafing page to page, when she came upon this sentence: "Vergleiche man die Waende der Wohnung mit einer Nusschale, so waere das Bett jene feine Haut um den Nusskern, den Menschen."

She stopped. She loved the sentence, its meaning -- if the walls of an apartment are like a nutshell, then the apart-ment's bed is like the fine, delicate skin around the kernel, which is the human being. But she also loved the sentence's sound. In the way that the sensuous glissando of a harp, the haunting blue note of a trumpet or the hypnotic percussion of a drum can touch a person's mood, Rita's mood was touched by the sound of the German words said together in their sentence. As a composer might hear a bird twittering and a woodpecker pecking and suddenly hear instead a melody, Rita suddenly felt "the cadence of thought."

The sentence said something beautiful and it sounded beautiful: "And that is the essence of poetry." It is language as idea and sensation at once: "the clay that makes the pot." She copied the German sentence into her notebook and wrote, "Bed, where are you flying to?" She imagined the bed as a home, the bed as a magic carpet, the bed as a world: "That's the inspiration. I have no idea what the leap is."

Soon after, she wrote:
sic itur ad astra
(such is the way to the stars, or to immortality)
Bed, where are you flying to?
I went to sleep
an hour ago, now
I'm on a porch
open to the world.
I don't remember a thing,
not even dreaming.
and Chagall shall play
his piebald violin.
we'll throw away
the books and play
sea-diver in the sheets --
for aren't we all children
in our over-size shirts (clothes),
white priests of the night!

Rita enjoyed the lines, especially the first stanza. Like the sentence in Das Bett, it seemed to have a music all its own and to carry the exuberance and spontaneity of a child's dream, although the stanza also baffled Rita: "I wasn't quite sure what it meant."

Rita has, after a fashion, a filing system -- plastic folders in yellow, blue, red, purple, green, pink, peach or clear. She doesn't file her nascent poems by subject or title, as a scientist or historian might file documents. She files poems by the way they feel to her. Red attracts poems about war and violence. Purple, Rita's favorite color, accumulates intro-spective poems. Yellow likes sunshine. Blue likes the sky. Green likes nature. Pink -- after a line she wrote about her daughter: "We're in the pink/ and the pink's in us" -- is a magnet for poems about mothers and daughters. But the cate-gories aren't fixed: Blue is the color of sky, but blue is also the color of the Virgin Mary's robe.

Rita's flying bed poem went in the clear folder, which holds very little: "The clear folder wants to be pure thought." A perfect, clear, pure lyrical poem: "It was a daunting folder. Very few things ever made it out of that folder."
But when Rita sits down at her desk this 5th of February, as she goes through her ritual of laying out her folders, looking at each and waiting for the door to her intuition to swing open and reveal to her which she should pick up and thumb through, she reaches for the clear folder, reads the old poem and thinks: "Maybe I can do it now." Maybe in this cabin, clean and fresh and pure as a lyrical poem, she can finally finish it.

"It was now or never."

At 5:35, she writes:
-- Sic itur ad astra. (Such is the way to the stars.)
Bed, where are you flying to?
I went to sleep nearly
an hour ago -- now I'm on a porch
open to the stars!
I don't remember a thing,
not the crease in the sheet,
the neighbor's washing machine.
I'm a child again, barefoot, catching
my death of cold,
in my oversized nightshirt
and stocking cap . . .
but so are all the others,
eyes wide, arms outstretched in greeting --
white priests of the night!

Rita is fiddling, playing, just seeing where her mind takes her words. She has changed the poem's title to "Sweet Dreams." She has lost Chagall and his piebald violin, the sea-diver in the sheets. She has gained the neighbor's washing machine, the crease in the sheet and the barefoot child catching her death of cold. She has altered punctuation. But as she rereads the poem, it is the stanza she wrote 15 years ago that grabs her -- the porch open to the world has become the porch open to the stars : "It changed without me even thinking about it."

What did that mean?

She jots these notes on her poem: "The original impulse of the poem -- it was meant to be magic, pure impossible magic. The speaker goes to sleep & wakes into a journey -- is it a dream or the lost feeling when you wake & don't know where you are? . . . How to capture the ecstasy, the spontaneity?"

Rita now enters a strange and magical place in the creation of her poetry, as she begins to carry on a kind of con-versation with her poem, as she tries to actually listen to what the poem she has written is trying to tell her, the poet.
And the poem begins to create itself.

Rita uses this analogy: One of her favorite books as a girl was Harold and the Purple Crayon. With his crayon, Har-old drew before him on the blank page the places he wanted to go -- a street, a hill, a house. He created the world into which he then entered. But once inside that world, it was real, not an illusion. For Rita, writing a poem is like Harold drawing his way through life: Once a line is written she can step out onto it. The line is like a train and she a passenger curious to learn its destination. Each line is an idea that carries her to the next idea. Yes, she is taking the poem some-where, but the poem is also taking her.

Some people's minds run from point A to point B with the linear determination of an express bus roaring from stop to distant stop. Theirs are minds trained to avoid detours, to cut a path past the alleys and side streets of distraction. Rita's mind is more like the water of a stream swirling randomly, chaotically and unpredictably over the stones below as it still flows resolutely downstream: "It's hard to describe your own mind, but I am really interested in the process of thought. Sometimes I catch myself observing my own thoughts and think, 'Boy, that's kinda strange how that works.' " Rita is not like those who see tangential thoughts as distracting digressions: "I'm interested in the sidetracking."

When her poem's first stanza was written, for instance, its character was in a dream, flying on a bed, feeling a child's excitement -- "open to the world." Perhaps, Rita asks herself, she unthinkingly changed "world" to "stars" in a later version not as a simple slip of the pen, but because the world is really what her dreamer wants to leave behind? Perhaps the stars -- or immortality, the word Rita wrote beneath the poem's title 15 years ago -- are her character's real destination? And, she tells herself, that isn't just exciting but also frightening, meaning that "Sweet Dreams" was never meant to be only a joyful, childlike poem.

"That's what had stopped me all these years."

February 10, 4:30 p.m.

In her cabin, Rita stands at the Schreibpult, the stand-up writing desk that her father, an amateur woodworker, built as a surprise for her two years ago when she turned 40. While visiting her folks, Rita saw the desk in their basement. She came upstairs and said to her father, "That's a pretty nice desk down there." And he said, "Well, when your birthday comes you can take it home." It had been a decade since Rita had mentioned to her father that she'd like such a desk: "It was astonishing."
Rita is sick today, coughing and feverish, but the jobs of wife, mother, professor and poet laureate go on, with the job of poet taking a back seat. It has been a satisfying and grueling time that will ease this summer when her two-year tenure as laureate expires, but the fame that it has brought will forever change her life. She can no longer write in her university office, because someone will stop by to visit. She can no longer sit in an outdoor cafe in town and read, be-cause someone will recognize her. Some days she hasn't the time to make a single entry in her notebook -- not a frag-ment of conversation, a recipe, a fresh word. She has a new book of poetry just out, Mother Love, but still feels a crea-tive emptiness in the face of so many demands, is afraid of losing the human connection to the clay that makes the pot: "It's harder and harder. Fame is very seductive. I'm tired of hearing the sound of my own voice. I want to be silent." Often, she has asked herself, "Was I writing for prizes? No. I wrote because of those moments when something happens in a poem." She once wrote these lines: "He used to sleep like a glass of water/ held up in the hand of a very young girl."

"That was a great moment."

Rita loves the image, although she doesn't know exactly what it means or even feel the need to know. She remem-bers a line written by poet Stanley Kunitz: "The night nailed like an orange to my brow." Kunitz once said that for years he lived in fear that someone would ask him to explain that line. He didn't understand the image, Rita says, but he was-n't going to touch it. "Sometimes you have those moments. Those are the moments you live for. There are some that change your life. When I write, I feel like I am learning something new every second. But I'm also feeling something more deeply. You don't know where you've been. That's the mystery of it. And then to be able to put it down so that someone else can feel it! I feel incredibly alive."

Outside Rita's cabin windows, two Canada geese are nesting at the pond beneath the little pier Fred built last year. Never before has she had so comforting a view from the windows of a study. The years she and Fred spent in Europe, they lived in dark apartments that looked out onto concrete. In Arizona, she gazed out at a decaying swimming pool in the back yard.

This cabin is doing something to Rita. When she was a 10-year-old girl, a few months before her first period, she daydreamed a house for herself: "It was small, one room . . . This dream house would stand in the back yard, away from the house with its clinging odors but close enough to run back -- just in case." Her cabin is eerily reminiscent of the fan-tasy. And like Harold's purple crayon, like a poem that begins to create itself, the cabin is casting its own role in Rita's life. When she comes here, even for an hour, she writes at least a line or two. In this cabin, even in the middle of the day, it seems like the crystal hours from midnight to 5 a.m.
"It's a harkening back."

On her desk, Rita has put the tiniest clock she could find, and she has decorated her bulletin board with pictures. A photo of a Colorado sand dune that resembles the torso of a woman: "I just love this. I don't know why I love it." A postcard depicting a solarium (her grandmother's house had a solarium) in which sits a violoncello, an instrument Rita played as a girl: "It's a room I'd like to be in." A snapshot of Rita and her daughter, who is almost totally obscured by shadows, standing in a dry riverbed in Arizona: "You can barely see her, but I know she's there." What do the pictures mean? Rita has no idea. "These are things that make me start to dream. They open my mind."

She writes in her journal:

"What I love about my cabin -- what I always forget that I love until I open the door and step into it -- is the abso-lute quiet. Oh, not the dead silence of a studio, a silence so physical that you begin to gasp for air; and it's not the alle-gorical silence of an empty apartment, with its creaks and sniffles and traffic a dull roar below, and the neighbors' muf-fled treading overhead. No, this is the silence of the world: birds shifting weight on branches, the branches squeaking against other twigs, the deer hooosching through the woods . . . It's a silence where you can hear your blood in your chest, if you choose to listen."

February 20, 5:45 p.m.

Rita has identified her problem: She's like an opera singer who must -- without exercising her voice, humming a bar, hearing a note struck on a keyboard -- hit a perfect B-flat. She has been away from the first stanza of "Sweet Dreams" so long, she likes it so much, that it's like one of her published books -- it's done. She can't read the lines and rekindle the emotions that created the lines in the first place -- and so she can't hitch a ride on those emotions into the rest of the poem. In the language of the poetry craft, she can't "make the turn" from the first stanza to the next. So she ignores the first stanza, begins without it.

In her cabin, she writes:

I'm a child again, barefoot,
catching my death of cold
in a nightshirt I've never seen before
fluttering white as a sail . . .
moonlight cool as peaches above me,
below, -- but I won't look below.
Bed, come back (here), I need you!
I don't know my way back.
Bed, at least leave me my pillow

Rita is writing lines and stepping out onto them. She decides to break away from "the tyranny of the typewritten page." In the margins, at odd angles, she writes: "purple crayon," "blow," "languid," "fluid," "landings," "whispering, happy landings." She is searching for the feeling of flying. Suddenly, she's frustrated: "Can I fly? If I could only re-member! How does one remember?" She continues to scribble: "I've lost my feet," "with its garden of smells," "aro-mas," "crushed smells," "its petals whispering happy landings." She picks up a book of poetry by Wallace Stevens, thumbs through the pages and jots down words that strike her: "confusion," "hermit," "fetched." She scrawls: "purple hermit of dream."

At 6:02, she writes:
I'm a child again, barefoot,
catching my death of cold
in a nightshirt I've never seen before
fluttering white as a sail.
Above me, moonlight cool as peaches.
Below . . . but I won't look below . . .
Come here bed, I need you!
I don't know my way back.
At least leave me my pillow
with its crushed aromas, its
garden of dreams, its purple petals
whispering Happy landings
"I'm a child again." Too explanatory. The poem should have the feeling of childhood without needing to announce it.

"Catching my death of cold." It goes on too long. This poem must be a collage of fleeting images, as in a dream. But Rita likes the line and would like to find a way to keep it.

"Moonlight cool as peaches." She likes that line, too, may use it someday in another poem, but to mention food while in flight is too corporeal, too earthly. Still, she'll leave it in for now.

"In a nightshirt I've never seen before." The image is too surreal, gives the sensation that the poem is a real dream rather than the sensation that it is like a dream.

"I won't look below." Not believable. Her poem's character wouldn't need to remind herself not to look below at the world. She's yearning to leave it behind -- for a ride to the stars.

"Come here bed, I need you!" Wait, the poem is talking to Rita again: Its traveler is ambivalent about her journey. She craves the stars but, like a child, also the comfort of her bed.

"I don't know my way back." The word "back" is too narrow, too referential to the world. This traveler isn't worried about the way "back," but the way to the stars, the future, immortality.

"Garden of dreams," "purple petals," "Happy landings." "Yech!" "Awful!" "Disgusting!" But Rita doesn't stop to change them. They are place holders for the poem's cadence. New words will come.

On and on it goes -- each line, each word examined. At 6:10, 6:15, 7:33 and 7:44, Rita begins new versions. She now believes that the complicated emotions in her poem can no longer be described as "Sweet Dreams." She hates it that people always accuse poets of being "hermetic" -- hard to understand, obscure -- but she goes back to the original Latin title from 1980 anyway. Unlike an essayist, who must keep in mind readers' tastes, interests, biases and education the better to convince them, Rita never thinks of her readers: "That sounds awful, I know. But to me a poem can't possi-bly be honest if I'm thinking about my readers."

It is a paradox: Rita has a better chance of reaching the emotions of her readers if she doesn't consciously try to reach them, if she doesn't worry about how people will respond to a certain poem. Pondering that would put a kind of emotional membrane between herself and her material, making it less authentic and more distant from the unmediated emotion she is trying to feel and then evoke, reinvent, in her readers: "If I start thinking about 'the world' and about the reception of this poem in the world, then I'm lost. I'm lost. It's not gonna be a poem."

Rita deletes "crushed aromas" because the word aroma is too "thick," not simple enough. That allows her to replace "garden of dreams," a cliche, with "garden of smells." She likes that change, because a smell, unlike an aroma, can be either pleasant or sickening. "Purple petals," which probably referred back to Harold's purple crayon, is excised. It's, well, too purple. Now, without "crushed aromas" and "purple petals," she adds "crushed petals." She plays with the poem's enjambment -- the way sentences run on or break from line to line -- looking for meanings that she didn't see at first: "Catching my death/ of cold in a fluttering nightshirt," for instance, can mean something far different from "catch-ing my death of cold/ in a fluttering nightshirt."

At 7:44, with Keith Jarrett playing, she writes:
-- Thus is the way to the stars.
Bed, where are you flying to?
I went to sleep nearly
an hour ago, and now
I'm on a porch open
to the stars -- barefoot,
catching my death of cold,
in a fluttering nightshirt
white as a sail. Above me,
moonlight cool as peaches.
Bed, come back here,
I need you! I don't know
my way. At least leave me
my pillow, with its garden of smells,
its crushed petals whispering
Lay back. Relax. Gentle landings.

On the poem she jots: "dreams" and "worries of the day," reminding herself not to lose the poem's dreamlike feel-ing and to add the idea that traveling to the stars is also a way to leave the trivial bothers of daily life behind.

February 24, 5:35 p.m.

In her journal, Rita writes: "I want more intriguing, surprising metaphors . . . I want the language to imitate the clar-ity of children's literature . . . I'm looking for an image as wild and apt, as wonderfully penetrating yet impenetrable, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez': '. . . and death began to flow through his bones like a river of ashes.' If I could catch a fish like that, I'd be ready to die. No, not really. But the contentment would be immense and would last my entire life."
But not so others can read the line and admire her as she admires Marquez, but so she can feel the line's creation. It's an addictive joy, a feeling of exhilaration, yes, but not of pride. It's beyond pride, or maybe before it: "I feel very humble: 'Thank you, line. I don't know where you came from, but you're greater than I am.' You have those moments. They're the ones that keep you writing. You're always after the next fish."

It is 6:20 now, sundown out the cabin window. Rita takes up a new pen and writes: "Now we'll see how this pen works. Sungown. Dundown. The light quenched. Oh, fennel bloom. Another ladybug -- perennially cute, ladybug, body and name. Too many make a plague of luck. Ah shame on you, duckie: You've lost your quack. For an ounce of your prattle I'd hang up my traveling shoes."

What does it mean? Who knows.

Gone fishing.

March 13, 4:23 p.m.

Rita was going through old notebooks earlier today, trying to unclog her mind, searching for inspiration hidden in a line or even a word: "A word that will knock this damn poem back on line." It was a beautiful 73-degree day outside, but Rita was at her desk imagining the sensations of flying on a bed at night: "The absence of incidental 'white noise,' the smells and the cool feelings that night floats up in us, almost like the earth is emitting a faint subterranean sigh."

She wants to write this poem, but the world is relentless: USA Weekend has asked the U.S.A. poet laureate for an original poem to publish, she must plan her laureate's farewell poetry reading at the Library of Congress, organize the panels for an upcoming literature conference, write the opening remarks for the Nobel Laureates in Literature convoca-tion, finish writing her lecture for the university faculty colloquium and write the foreword to an anthology of stories written by children. That's for starters.

But then, going through a tiny black and red notebook, Rita comes across a snatch of forgotten poetry she jotted down while at a conference in Morelia, Mexico, in January 1994.


Bed, where are you flying to?
One minute ago I climbed
into the cool
waters of night & now
(end of day)
I'm on a porch
open to the sky
If I close my eyes
I'll sink back
into the day, made
strange --
but no, my eyes are open
and I am falling it

Rita is amazed. Just the other day, she made a note to remind herself to add to her poem the idea that traveling to the stars was also a way to escape daily life -- "the worries of the day." Now she finds, in the forgotten Mexico nota-tions, these lines: "If I close my eyes/ I'll sink back/ into the day." She thinks, "This thing has been haunting me for all these years." She writes in her journal: "Somewhere there's a few lines about melancholy . . . Where is that sheet of pa-per?" Then, dutifully, she spends the afternoon and the evening working on a poem for USA Weekend.

March 17, 5:47 p.m.

Fred has asked Rita to go with him and Aviva to the stable where Aviva keeps her horse. Rita, who hasn't been out to the stable in months, hears Fred's plea and agrees, although she plans to sit in the car, watch Aviva and her horse trot around the track and work on "Sic Itur." But once she gets to the stable, she can't capture the poem's mood. The grounds are too much of the earth, not the stars. So Rita works on "Parlor," one of the three unfinished poems she considered working on way back on February 5. She works for an hour, scribbling additions and deletions and notations on her copy. Then Fred climbs into the car, out of the cold, and turns on the radio news.
"Does that disturb you?" he asks.

"No," Rita says, lying. "I think I'll just stretch my legs."

Walking out along the fence line in the descending darkness, Rita asks herself, "I've had all this time to write. Why can't I give up this few minutes?" She wants to be in her cabin writing, but she wants to be with Fred and Aviva. She wants to be with Fred and Aviva, but she wants to be poet laureate of the United States: "I want to fly as a poet." She takes out her notebook and writes, "Sic Itur Ad Astra: You don't want to come down. Immortality -- it's loneliness. You long for the pillow's smells, the earth you are leaving but that's all you can take -- the recycled breath, the memory -- into the rarefied air . . . The dear worries, the sweet troubles of dailiness."

And it has happened.

Rita's poem is creating itself -- it is a train, she its passenger: "For the first time since I wrote that stupid title down I realized I wrote it down because it had that line about the way to immortality. I realized I was talking about fame."
Naturally, people reading Rita's poem will know none of this. They'll see the poem's themes through the lens of their own ambivalent feelings about whatever are the conflicting demands in their lives. But the tension Rita feels be-tween the satisfactions of fame and accomplishment and the joys of everyday life is her particular lens -- and the emo-tional juice of her poem. Because a new meaning has emerged for that first line written in Rita's sickbed in Germany in 1980, before her life had become a dream ride from earth to the stars: "I want 'em both."

"It's just that I've felt lonely."

"Where's my life? I want a life."

March 19, 4:30 p.m.

It comes quickly. Yesterday, the Brandenburg concertos playing for two hours, Rita ripped through four versions of "Sic Itur." Today, the Brandenburg concertos still playing, she whips through five versions. She has found her old mus-ings on melancholy, cribbed an image -- "tiny dismissals" -- and combined it with the lines on life's trivial irritations from her Mexico notations: "If I close/ my eyes, I'll sink back into/ the day's tiny dismissals."

Rita has turned a corner. Forced to work on her poem for USA Weekend, impelled to work on "Parlor" at the sta-ble, her mind was somehow freed, her attention distracted momentarily from "Sic Itur," which, inexplicably, allowed Rita to finally see her poem clearly. These so-called distractions cleared a path so that her poem could happen to her, as if she is not the creator of insight, but its recipient. Rita keeps a single quote, in German, tacked to her cabin's bulletin board, the wisdom of Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke: It is not enough for a poet to have memories. You must have very great patience and be able to wait until the memories come again. Memories remain, but the poet changes: "You have to wait until it all comes back in a different form to find the meaning."

Rita is loose now, playing -- with words, images, punctuation, enjambment and stanza size. She writes a line, walks out onto it, looks ahead, continues or steps back, tries another. For the first time, she can hear the rhythm of her poem before its words are written, as in a song that doesn't yet have lyrics.

"It's very weird."

She writes:
Bed, where are you flying to?
I went to sleep nearly
an hour ago, and now
I'm on a porch open
to the stars! If I close
my eyes, I'll sink back into
the day's tiny dismissals --
bagged lunch, the tiny dismissal of a glance --
but no, I'm wide-eyed and barefoot,
catching my death of cold,
nightshirt fluttering white as a sail.
Bed, come back here, I need you!
I don't know my way.
At least leave me my pillow
to remind me what I've rested my dreams on - my dear/crushed pillow, with its garden of smells.

Rita is suddenly hit with an image that grows from the lines she wrote way back on February 5: "I don't remember a thing,/ not the crease in the sheets."

She writes:
What will they do when they come in
and find me missing, just the shape
of my dreaming creased in the sheets?

The lines make Rita shiver in the way she once shivered when she wrote, "He used to sleep like a glass of water/ held up in the hand of a very young girl." That feeling. So much of writing a poem is less like saying a prayer than it is putting together the weekly shopping list. Then comes a sacred moment . . . For Rita, these lines are a fish to keep -- a rare poet's epiphany in the muck of craft: "I don't know where it came from. It just came."

Bed, where are you flying to?
I went to sleep nearly
an hour ago, and now
I'm on a porch
open to the stars -- barefoot,
catching my death of a cold
in a nightshirt fluttering white
as a sail. Come here, bed,
I need you! I don't know my way.
If I close my eyes, I sink back
into the day's bagged smiles,
the tiny dismissal of a stranger's glance . . .
Oh, what will they do
when they find me missing,
just the shape of my dreaming
creased in the sheets?
Who will tell them what it's like here?
No one else knows but my pillow - my poor, crushed pillow with its garden of smells!


Bed, where are you flying to?
I went to sleep
nearly an hour ago,
and now I'm on a porch
open to the stars!
Close my eyes
and I sink back into the day's
tiny dismissals; eyes wide
and I'm barefoot, in a nightshirt
fluttering white as a sail.
Come here, bed,
I need you!
I don't know my way.
What will they say
when they find me missing,
just the shape of my dreaming
creasing the sheets?
At least leave me
my pillow to remind me
what misery I've fled --
my poor, crushed pillow
with its garden of smells!

Out Rita's window, the sun is lingering three inches above the mountains. The days are longer now, but she has been too busy even to notice that it is spring: "Why is spring a she? What gender are the other seasons? Summer is fe-male, surely. And winter, too. Fall? Actually, they're all female." Rita's mind, again, is swirling like water over stones in a stream.

"I had given up on this poem."

"It's a great feeling."

"I'm rolling!"

Rita has deleted the sappy line, "Lay back. Relax. Gentle landings." She has again included "catching my death of cold" but then excised it as too "cutesy-wootsy." "Bagged lunch" has gone in, become "bagged smiles" and gone out: "I don't know what a 'bagged smile' is." She has finally taken out "moonlight cool as peaches," and the cliche "wide-eyed" has become "eyes wide" and will later become simply "open wide." She has added "the tiny dismissal of a glance," which has become "the tiny dismissal of a stranger's glance," a cliche she hates, and which has now become simply "the day's tiny dismissals." She loves the sneering sound of the hiss in the word dismissals. The line "Bed, come back here" has become the more direct "Come here, bed."

Remembering her notation to emphasize that this poem should have the feeling of a dream, Rita has added, "I've rested on my dreams," which she hates as a cliche. But she thinks, "Oh, hell, I'm just gonna put the dreams in and see what happens." Working from her epiphanic flash, the lines have become "just the shape/ of my dreaming creased in the sheets," which have now become "just the shape of my dreaming/ creasing the sheets." Rita also has added a stanza space between "just the shape of my dreaming" and "creasing the sheets." That space will force a reader to pause after the word "dreaming," float in the space and ponder the image before moving on to the next line. The newly added ge-rundive i-n-g ending on the word "dream" also carries action -- and the sense that the act of dreaming, not the dream itself, is leaving its impression on the bed of real life. As with her poetry, the product is inseparable from the process. In the words of Yeats: "How can we know the dancer from the dance?"

Rita has added "my dear/ crushed pillow," although she knows it's too corny. She has quickly changed it to "my poor, crushed pillow." Despite the truism that a poet should never use two adjectives when one will do, she wants two adjectives to precede the word pillow. Less for the words than for the double beat of emphasis, which is meant to mimic the intense affection of a child for a blanket, toy or pillow: "It's not always the words themselves that bring you the nostalgia but the sound and the rhythm of the words."

This is Rita's ideal: She wants to take a reader to the place she would go as a girl when she read a poem and sud-denly felt her breathing begin to synchronize with the poem's cadence: "Before you know it, your body's rhythm is the rhythm of the poem. That's one of the things poems do. You don't even notice that it's happening. But what convinces you is the way the poem influences your breathing, your heartbeat. It becomes a physical thing."

"You want people to get there."

Rita has realized that the final sentiment of her poem is mundane. After visiting the stars, her traveler discovers the wonder of what she has left behind: "my poor, crushed pillow/ with its garden of smells!" -- meaning her ordinary life with Fred and Aviva, the days Rita cooks those quick meals of frozen fish fillets, sliced fried potatoes and salad with Caesar dressing, the evenings they all plop down at the TV and watch Aviva's favorite show, "Star Trek: Voyager," and then Rita quizzes Aviva for her test on earthquakes and volcanoes, and Aviva is curled up on the chair and in the silence between Rita's questions and Aviva's answers, Rita can hear the sound of the leather creaking as her daughter adjusts her body, which makes Rita think to herself, "There's no sound in the poem. Is there sound in dreams? Sound does funny things in dreams -- it's like telepathy."

Of her yearning to travel to the stars and her irritation with daily life, Rita asks herself, "Where you gonna go? Is there anything really better than this?" And how else to be a poet? Aren't the trivial, even irritating distractions of life the wellspring, the clay that makes the pot? A poet free from "the day's tiny dismissals," living only among the stars, will not be a poet for long: "It sounds like the old, corny notion, 'Love will bring you back,' but you know that's what it is. How many different plots do we have in this world? Not many."

For the first time, Rita stops to analyze the poem's rhyme and discovers a surprising array of rhymes, half-rhymes and "cousins" of rhymes: barefoot/nightshirt, my way/they say, creasing/sheets, fled/bed, smells/dismissals, sail/smell. Although a reader wouldn't consciously notice the rhymes, they still weave the poem together, like the reprising melo-dies of a minuet.

"Okay, I'm ready!"

Rita has been writing versions of "Sic Itur" with different stanza configurations -- experimenting, seeing if stanza breaks at different lines carry meanings she hasn't recognized, in the same way that playing with a poem's enjambment can reveal a new insight. But now she realizes how she wants the stanzas constructed: "It's really, really picky." But if "Sic Itur" is a journey up to the stars and back down to earth, it demands a narrow, vertical silhouette on the page: "To lift you up in the sky." And if it is to evoke the simplicity of childhood, it also must look clean and pure on the page. The idea is to reach people not only through words, ideas, images, sounds, rhythms and rhymes, but also through the pattern of ink their eyes see on the page.

She goes through tightening lines to narrow the poem's width and extend its height. Then she adjusts the number of lines in each stanza. From top to bottom: a 1 1/2-line title, 5-line stanza, 6-line stanza, 6-line stanza, 5-line stanza, 1-line stanza: "It's like a mirror image," which makes the tug of the stars and the pull of the world equal in visual weight on the page.

At 5:24, she writes:
Thus is the way to the stars.
Bed, where are you flying to?
I went to sleep
nearly an hour ago --
and now I'm on a porch
open to the stars!
Close my eyes
and sink back to
day's tiny dismissals;
open wide and I'm
barefoot, in a nightshirt
fluttering white as a sail.
Come here, bed,
I need you!
I don't know my way.
What will they say
when they find me missing,
just the shape of my dreaming
creasing the sheets?
At least leave me
my pillow to remind me
what misery I've fled . . .
my poor, crushed pillow
with its garden of smells!
"I'm dotting the i's."

She worries about the word "fluttering" in the line "fluttering white as a sail." Is it necessary? Does it add enough for the space it takes? Unlike prose, which Rita compares to walking through the woods and describing everything you see, poetry is like walking through the woods, coming upon an old, deep well and describing only what you see as you stare down its casing. Poetry is a narrow world made wide. So every word, every line in a poem must stand on its own. But without the word "fluttering," the line is lame: "white as a sail." Pick any line: "just the shape of my dreaming" or "and sink back to." Each adds something -- action, an image, lyricism, intrigue, an idea. But wait . . . that one line: "At least leave me." What does it add? Nothing: "It just sits there." "This line and I are going to battle."
Rita's not sure about those three i-n-gs in a row -- missing, dreaming, creasing. And she's not sure about the line "Close my eyes" -- she might add a comma. Today, she's not even sure about the title -- maybe she should go back to "Sweet Dreams," which now carries a touch of irony. But adding "Sweet Dreams" would put too much type at the top of the poem and muck up her mirror-image construction of the stanzas. And for the poem to make sense she still needs the Latin and its translation -- "Thus is the way to the stars." Come to think of it, maybe she should go back to translating "thus" as "such" -- "Such is the way to the stars." Less pedantic. And she'd better look up the quotation. Turns out to be from Virgil's "Aeneid," which she didn't know: "Oh, shame!" She must attribute it. No room for "Sweet Dreams" now.

Maybe she should move down "Come here, bed, I need you" and move up "just the shape of my dreaming creasing the sheets", so the poem's character flies from sky to earth, earth to sky, sky to earth -- a trip that ends back home, where Rita has realized she wants to be. But then she'd lose the spatial pause between "just the shape of my dreaming" and "creasing the sheets." And that word "misery"! Rita wants it to be self-mocking. "What misery I've fled . . ." is supposed to mean that her daily life wasn't misery at all. But the word is too strong. "I think there's a different word that won't ring as many bells. One word. And it should be three syllables, but it might end up having to be two."

March 26, 1:43 a.m.

After allowing herself a week of distractions, a week for her poem to simmer, Rita writes:
Thus is the way to the stars.
-- Virgil

Bed, where are you flying to?
I went to sleep
nearly an hour ago,
and now I'm on a porch
open to the stars!
Close my eyes
and sink back to
day's tiny dismissals;
open wide and I'm
barefoot, nightshirt
fluttering white as a sail.
What will they say
when they find me
missing -- just
the shape of my dreaming
creasing the sheets?
Come here, bed,
I need you! I don't know my way.
At least leave my pillow
behind to remind me
what affliction I've fled --
my poor, crushed pillow
with its garden of smells!

" A POEM IS NEVER DONE . You just let it go."

In her cabin, Rita hears the distant woof of a dog. Outside the open window is a faint wind: "The sound of air moving -- not quite a breeze, but a sighing -- all that the word zephyr implies." She remembers a time as a girl when her father said that word. At a gas station, as the attendant filled his tank, her father stood and stretched, faced off into the horizon and said as naturally as if he were asking for the time, "What a lovely zephyr today." Young Rita never forgot the baffled look on the attendant's face.

Where are those few words she jotted?

Ah, here they are:

Meek, this fallen leaf
reminds me of a word
my father used to say --
zephyr, tilting back to
gaze up under his brimmed fedora
as if to coax the air along
his brow: "What a lovely zephyr
today." And the gas station
attendant scratched himself,
instantly ashamed
And once again, Rita steps out onto the lines . . .

copyright, 1995 -- Washington Post