Why We Read

I’ve just been reading “Glossolalia” by David Jauss from Glossolalia, his new and selected stories.

Perhaps if I had said yes, we might have talked about that terrible day… and I could have told him what I had since grown to realize—that I loved him. That I had always loved him, though behind his back, without letting him know it. And, in a way, behind my back, too. But I didn’t say yes…

Such an urgent lesson.  I think of E.M. Forster’s injunction “Only connect” and how often writers show characters missing their chance—how painful that is. They sacrifice their characters so that we may learn and do differently.

Writer after writer teaches this lesson, which feels to me more like an act of mercy.  I learn and relearn it. It is one of their great gifts.

Jauss’ story keeps going and the ending is complex, heartbreakingly so.  The son turns from the heartbreak and regret of his relationship with his father towards some sort of redemption through his son. And yet this was the very problem which caused the heartbreak in the first place.

How may I be doing the same? How much do I think I am doing things differently even as I pass on what I received from my parents, that which was passed to them…

I have a discomfiting awareness of my blind spots. I sense them without being able to see into them. I know nothing of their size or location. This is another gift of writers—they offer us this true knowledge of our own ignorance and a certain humility.

The young father in Jauss’s story sits on the edge of the bed beside his sleeping son in the wan glow of a nightlight…. What about the light of my awareness? How far does it go?

And what about my need for salvation? Where will it take me? And where does it take any of us? We can never know what we don’t know but we can feel how immersed we are in a world made complex by need, grief, and love. I came away from Jauss’ story suffused with a sense of this complexity, humbled by it, softened…

On Tone

What is the sound of Oh…


As if she were to bump her shin in the night
and utter a small, audible oh,
the doctor says, “Oh,”
as in:  things don’t look good, or
the baby that’s growing
there inside
is no longer the baby
there, growing.  Like Whitman’s O,
O gossamer thread, O filament, filament, filament….
Or the Oh that comes into a room
after the wind has filled the curtains
and emptied them again.  Just
Oh.  What causes it?  Causes
what is, not to be?  Whichever O
in theology you prefer, the same way
“Sweetheart, I love the sex
but I don’t love you”: equals:  Oh.
Or maybe the Oh in Oh what the hell—
it’s nothing dramatic,
not the Oh of a funeral
but of a year later
when you simply look up from your work
and remember that she’s gone….Oh,
like omission.  It’s nothing
I can put my finger on, nothing
that can be grieved for or raged against—
to miscarry, to put the lame collie down,
and how many years now
since your friend passed away?  So
I lose my wallet or the tip
of my index finger. With everyone else,
I’m standing on this continuum
of fairly average losses, all
supportable, shrewd blows,
O’s, zeros, noughts.  An absence
of something so profound
it bears down on the soul,
                        as if I were to take some nails
                        and hammer them into the water—
                        just small nails,
                        driven deeply. 

                                       from Wind Somewhere, and Shade by Kate Knapp Johnson
                                       permission to reprint, Miami University Press and The Sun

Oh.  It is hardly a word, more a tone.  Each time it appears, we don’t so much read it as hear it sound within us.  Oh.  With its halo of silence.  Johnson takes us through a range of intonations, covering a range of losses, each profoundly unique even as they converge.  The beauty is in the precision; it is what gives those small nails their painfully sharp points.  I’m reminded that one of the tasks of writers is to instruct us how to read what they write, never to leave it neutral or indeterminate.

Tone can seem secondary, even dispensable, but for fellow poet Tim Seibles, it is fundamental.  He says that before he can start a poem, he must first establish its tone.  The tone precedes the words; it dictates them.

Finding the tone is really a way of rooting oneself in the essential emotion.  After all, tone is vibration, the voice shaped by the body and the emotions it contains.  I’ll never forget the instruction I got in a theater improv class:  we were advised to connect, before we stepped out onto the stage, with a specific state of mind or emotion so that, from the first instant, our words and movements would have a clear source; they’d have an impetus, like water rising from a spring.  The alternative is to step onto the stage as a blank and flounder…  I know what that felt like!

It can be useful, before you enter a poem or scene to hover in the wings.  I love that moment before a choir bursts into song, when the director sounds a tone into the silence, that moment of listening and attunement.  When we take a moment to tune in, our character or persona, instead of appearing as something amorphous that only gradually finds its shape, will be fully present from the first note; the very first utterance will be vibrant with life, even it’s hardly a word but more a sound, a zero, a word as simple as “oh.”

Cats and Syntax

   Dogs don’t notice when they put their paws in the quiche.  Dogs don’t know where they begin and end.

   Cats know exactly where they begin and end.  When they walk slowly out the door that you are holding open for them, and pause, leaving their tail just an inch or two inside the door, they know it.  They know you have to keep holding the door open.  That is why their tail is there.  It is a cat’s way of maintaining a relationship.    

                                                                         Ursula LeGuin, The Wave in the Mind

How vividly the cat appears in this short passage by LeGuin.  Even the way her sentences move–or rather, stop moving–gives us the cats’ intentions.  Her language starts to get repetitive:  “They know it,” she says.  “They know you have to keep holding the door open.”  “That is why their tail is there,” she explains, then adds, “It is a cat’s way of maintaining a relationship.”  For a moment, you wonder about these statements, sounding so abrupt, almost awkward, after the elegance of the previous sentence, but then you realize it’s not what the sentences say so much as how they land, stopping the flow–it’s the pause at the end of each that starts to become insistent.  A stillness is being enforced, and for as long as the graceful cat decides to linger, maintaining her connection, the door must be held ajar.

As LeGuin moves us along, keeps us reading, I can’t help feeling that she herself is the cat, intent on maintaining a relationship, as all of us are when we write, standing before the open door of our reader’s mind.  With all our passion and our art, we look for the sentences that will continue to hold it open, from one moment to the next.

And syntax can help us.  It never ceases to fascinate me:  the power of form.  The syntax we choose—the way we arrange information into clauses and phrases, creating sentences that are simple or complex, long or short—is itself communicative.   Our sentences are malleable as clay, and there’s no reason not to make them as expressive as possible, shaping their contours to fit our message.  Sentences can pirouette.  They can soar.  Or they can point straight up like the tail of a cat, hovering in the doorway, creating a point of focus, a moment of shared understanding.

Virginia Tufte’s The Artful Sentence is the best book out there if you want to get intimate with the English sentence and all that it can do (and the book is chockful of examples).  Even if you find yourself skimming certain sections, make sure you get to the final section on mimesis.