One of the self-indulgent luxuries of being retired is that I feel an innocent, almost childish thrill sometimes that I only remember having experienced as a young graduate student at The University of Alberta in the late 60s and at York University in the early 70s: it’s a decadent, even guilty sense that I had, from day to day, the time I needed to read, to explore any writing or writing issues I wanted to explore over a long, unlimited and slow stretch of seemingly endless time. I was in an incubated state of suspension designed to achieve exactly that. That was the whole idea. And sure, I can still see the pathetic, childish side of that indulgence, but I can also see its glittering gifts and strengths. What a lucky, lucky guy I was then and still am.
In that spirit then, about seven years ago someone put me onto a novel written by the Norwegian writer Per Petterson called Out Stealing Horses. Something about the vision and the structure of this novel knocked me out. I couldn’t believe how gorgeously the novel was designed as a structure, a shape. It played an intricate, slow-moving and irresistible foreground plot against an equally intricate, fast-moving, epic background plot and conjoined the two fields in a breathtaking ‘story’ that was both private and public at the same time. The only other works that reminded me of this kind of compression was a mixed genre piece by Mark Slouka called The Visible World and a novel by Alexandre Hemon called The Lazarus Project. Petterson really caught my eye, so much so that I just went onto the Abe Books website and ordered all his books. The first to arrive was a beautiful bildungsroman called It’s Fine By Me and then a stunning last novel called To Siberia that had this almost impossibly beautiful final paragraph. The young woman in this scene has been through everything to get to this point of view at the end of the novel, and what she sees is everything:
I went up above the quay past the steps to the hotel. I saw a man through the window with a beer in his hand, and another man with a basket full of eggs. I was feeling heavy now, and tired, and I stood there leaning backward with my hands crossed behind my back at the end of the breakwater before I walked on to the beach on the other side and some way along on the hard-frozen white sand. It had started to blow a bit, and it was still cold with no snow, so I took off my scarf and tied it around my head and ears and sat down in the shelter of a dune and blew into my hands to warm them before I lit a cigarette. Poker ran along the edge of the water with a seagull’s wing in his mouth, and I was so young then, and I remember thinking: I’m twenty-three years old, there is nothing left in life. Only the rest.
Isn’t that beautiful from so many angles? Petterson is worth reading. He is a stunning craftsperson. Eventually, in the middle of reading his novels, I wrote the following, instinctive view of his writing in my notebook, and it tries to capture the edge of something significant in this writer’s work for me, a design I still struggle with in my own writing:
Have been lost in two Per Petterson novels: In The Wake and It’s Fine By Me. I read Out Stealing Horses and I’ve ordered To Siberia. He fascinates me. I tried to explain why to Jake earlier this morning: it’s because Petterson presents a very textured compression, but he places this compression—somehow—within a larger, culturally referenced context so that we get a tricky, even impossibly intricate microcosm whirling within an accessible macrocosm, a macrocosm that is indistinct, but just visible enough to provide the intense pleasure of the universal. Like a flywheel, mechanically storing energy, stabilizing the operation of the machine. Berger does it. Michon does it. Jake does it in Hazard. I’ve reached for it many times, but especially in Wood Lake Music and The Face In The Garden. Ondaatje does it, especially in The Collected Works Of Billy The Kid. Richard Ford in Wildlife. Kristjana in The Prowler. But it’s tricky, tricky, tricky. It doesn’t run on ‘correspondences.’ Correspondences are Baudelaire, Joyce & Lowry machines. No, they’re not a net of correspondences. Instead, they’re a net of faintness, subtlety—titles, allusions, echoes, quotes, shameless gags—all nudges toward the macrocosm, towards the lineages we are writing out of. We are writing out of those lineages the same way jazz musicians are playing out of their lineages…with intense technical & spiritual awareness, love, and an almost sacred sense of joy and honoring. Hard to explain. And it can’t be too mechanical. That would kill it and make it self-conscious. It has to be gracefully done, confidently done, almost like a kind of improvisation. An early example for me might be my use of Wallace Stevens in a poem in Frieze called “Incarnation Quartet: Sunday Mornings.” So the title sets the macrocosm up, and so does this line: “Not this wide and indifferent blue,” directly from Stevens’ argument. Without the title, and without that slight, but key echo at the start of my poem, the reader’s experience of the poem would be quite different. Wallace Stevens’ poem “Sunday Morning” becomes a quiet, faint cradle that surrounds my own poem and, even, supports its logic—my poem a microcosm whirling within a faintly suggested macrocosm. In Ford’s Wildlife, it’s just the fuse of the ‘wildlife’ metaphors that constitute the macrocosm. This is what Petterson has borrowed from Richard Ford in It’s Fine By Me. These two sixteen year old boys, caught in a microscopic bildungsroman that vibrates eventually as a universal. Blah, blah, blah. But here is something crucial that is often ignored in literary criticism it seems to me: there is a tendency to suspect a snooty kind of academic self consciousness in writing that purposefully refers to other writing, or art that purposefully refers to other works of art. I’ve certainly been misread that way. I am thinking especially of early responses to Wood Lake Music. But the references in my long poem—the web of echoes that make up the macrocosm I’m referring to here (above)—those references aren’t there to save or rescue the piece by borrowing from a culture that is more significant than the piece itself; no; they’re there in order to spotlight the piece itself, allow the reader, even, to see its unique, microcosmic significance. Hard to explain. But very true, I suspect. They’re there as the klieg lights you’ve set up for an installation. Or a web of lazer beams you need to arrange carefully in order to create a hologram. They’re there, quite naturally, as allusions in jazz improvisations. And no one would ever question that in jazz. There’s nothing snooty about them at all. It’s just another, significantly more open process. You allow things in. You interpenetrate the object, inside out.
Now I want to extend this kind of thinking about structure and design—especially the image of a microcosm whirling within the stainless steel armature of a softly suggested macrocosm—by setting these few notebook thoughts about Patti Smith’s writing in M Train next to the thoughts about Petterson. There is an important connection between the two, but I’m not sure what it is:
Finished Patti Smith’s M Train this morning, in the middle of the night actually. 3:30am. Couldn’t sleep. So there I was, then, looking for redemption and, by gum, finding it in Smith’s beautiful meditations. There is, in her, a sacred kind of seeing or ‘attesting to’ or ‘awareness of’ caused by quiet observation—mostly of physical objects—that causes the internal world to perform a dance in the external world. That’s what she does for me. It’s embedded in her use of language, the awareness of how important sentences are to her, an incredible ear for syntax and the relationship—almost visceral in itself—between syntax and logic/meaning, an actual way of seeing…here are some small gems: (from the First Vintage Books Edition, 2016 …ISBN 978-1-101-91016-0):
“There were a lot of people in a hurry on the street, as if last-minute shoppers on Christmas Eve. I hadn’t noticed at first and it seemed they were steadily multiplying. A young woman brushed past me with an armful of flowers. A dizzying perfume lingered, then dispelled, replaced by a vertiginous refrain. I felt conscious of everything: a beating heart, the scent of a song wafting in a conflict of breezes, and the human current heading home.” 141 (…reminds me of Carver’s ‘Fat’ and ‘What We Talk About When We talk About Love.’)
“I walked over and stood where he had been standing and felt the warmth of his presence. The wind was picking up and unidentifiable bits of debris were circling in the air. Something was coming, I could feel it.” 207/08 (again Carver, same as above.)
“Images have their way of dissolving and then abruptly returning, pulling along the joy and pain attached to them like tin cans rattling from the back of an old-fashioned wedding vehicle.” 232
“Now it’s your song, I said, addressing a lingering void. The world seemed drained of wonder. I did not write poems in a fever.” 235
“I believe in movement. I believe in that lighthearted balloon, the world. I believe in midnight and the hour of noon. But what else do I believe in? Sometimes everything. Sometimes nothing. It fluctuates like light flitting over a pond. I believe in life, which one day each of us will lose.” 249
“I’m going to remember everything and then I’m going to write it all down.” 253
“How can a writer place a living thing in the hands of the reader?” 275