The Pleasures of Disrupted Reading

Summer-wise, most of my reading is done in a hammock, slung under the grapevine, where the shade deepens from June to August.

This summer I set myself a few tasks: reread some favorites (the novels of Siri Hustvedt), find some shorter books (poetry, mixed genre, novellas) for an upcoming class to encourage students to be ambitious, and read interesting fiction to learn how to write interesting fiction. I wasn’t looking for “beach reads.” These were hammock reads.

Hammock reads disrupt my expectations, leaving me hanging, but not in any sort of plot-dependent, whodunnit sort of way. I wanted books that demanded my attention, my re-reading, my deepening investment not in individual characters or poems, but in the entire enterprise of the book. Hammock reads require dissection, sifting, and leave me wanting to create my own map—like those books that include maps as their end papers, all unknown place names and craggy landmass, with accompanying genealogies. I wanted to chart the geographies and topographies of these books to diagram how their parts work together, speaking between and across the pages, verso and recto, text to text. Both The Sorrow Proper, by Lindsey Drager (Dzanc Books) and Sarah Sadie’s We are traveling through dark at tremendous speeds. (Lit Fest Press) celebrate the pleasures of disrupture, delaying and toying with the reader’s desires.

Hammock reads disrupt my expectations, leaving me hanging, but not in any sort of plot-dependent, whodunnit sort of way.

Drager’s slim novel The Sorrow Proper is about love. It is also entirely about loss. These two things cannot be disentangled. Through the twinned story of a library’s eventual closure and a romantic relationship between a photographer and a mathematician, the book meditates on whether endings (which are always present) are endings. The library dies—sort of. The thing called the library, and known as the library, dies. Someone, either the photographer or the mathematician, dies. (Don’t worry, reader—this isn’t a spoiler; it’s revealed on page 10.) A young girl has also died in front of the library, and her death haunts the librarians, while her parents continue to observe the library’s present.

Because the book reveals that one of the lovers will die, and so early, our basic understanding of how narrative functions is disrupted. There is no suspense, not really. We are told, “things either intersect, refract, or pass untouched.” What we do not know, or what quickly becomes confused, is who has died. The photographer is an amateur, who only exhibits in the free space of the library—he only photographs objects, insists that to photograph people would be unethical. At one point, he tells his lover that “a subject is ‘captured.’ Photography is violent and cruel.” The mathematician is deaf; she communicates through notes and signs, teaches the photographer about proofs, how her experience of the world differs from his. (At one point he asks her what silence sounds like, but she tells him she doesn’t know what that is . . .) They connect through various signs—most poignantly letters inscribed on her body, as he writes on her flesh. After she, or he, dies, the book alternates between their grieving. Fragmentary chapters describe the photographer unable to throw away the marker he used to write on her skin. Another describes her wrapping and re-wrapping the writing in bandages to preserve it from the elements, the ordinary friction of the everyday, hoping to save for a little longer this memory of him and their time together. They both continue to exist, alone, yet together.

Drager’s slim novel The Sorrow Proper is about love. It is also entirely about loss. These two things cannot be disentangled.

Alone, yet together, is the prevailing feeling of even the chapters where the mathematician and the photographer are both firmly alive and falling in love. Loss is present here too—traced throughout all their interactions. Both the structure and the prose (nearly prose poetry) insists it must be: early on, the mathematician writes to the photographer, “I will need you exactly always” and he thinks “in no world is always ever exact.” When the librarians gather to mourn the ending of their library, they write an epitaph for their building, their livelihood, their lives. They write: “I WANT TO EXPRESS THE DEGREE OF MY AFFECTION, BUT THE BORDERS OF THIS PAGE ARE TOO LIMINAL TO HOLD THE PROOF.” They write that the library has no floors, “MEANING NOT THAT IT LACKS A FOUNDATION, BUT RATHER, THAT IT IS A STRUCTURE THAT POSSESSES ONLY A SINGLE STORY.”

Perhaps the mathematician and the photographer are simply a possible story, a series of possible stories, in the library, as long as the library continues to exist. The reader reads the possible stories of them, as long as the book, the library, the culture of the book and the library continues to exist. Perhaps if and when the library and the book ceases to exist, so will the possible stories of the mathematician and the photographer, as well as any possible permutation of love stories, which are also every possible permutation of loss stories, and this is what concerns the librarians as they gather to bemoan the library’s fate, over beers and shots at the local dive bar. Perhaps what the book suggests through its exploration of the language of photography, mathematics, and the Many Worlds theory, is that we are all just “managing the dark.”

When the librarians gather to mourn the ending of their library, they write an epitaph for their building, their livelihood, their lives. They write: “I WANT TO EXPRESS THE DEGREE OF MY AFFECTION, BUT THE BORDERS OF THIS PAGE ARE TOO LIMINAL TO HOLD THE PROOF.”

The dark is what greets the reader first in the tangible form of Sarah Sadie’s poetry book We are traveling through dark at tremendous speeds. A slim volume, black front and back cover, simple white text, reversed on the back, as if one is looking through the book. One also has to read through the book—the normal way of reading, turning the pages in sequence, simply won’t work. I tried. There is a long poem that runs the length of the book at the bottom of all the pages that (not so) subtly tugs one’s attention downward. In the end, I had to read this long poem first, then go back to the individual poems, then read a third time, finding the connections, the hinges, between the self-contained poems on the pages and where they intersected with the long running text, like a news channel’s banner, constantly updating. Given the topics and recurring metaphors sprinkled throughout the book, I came to think of this running poem on the bottom of the pages as breadcrumbs (as the banner itself says on one of its numberless pages), like those in the story of Hansel and Gretel, those little morsels left as trail, as markers, for the reader to find her way back home.

One also has to read through the book—the normal way of reading, turning the pages in sequence, simply won’t work. I tried.

Throughout the poems, things are left for the reader to find. Most notably, the “princess water toys” the speaker leaves in the bathtub, in the “small, one-bedroom apartment” they rent in another town, “in another part of the state” where her husband works “half of each week.” The running text poems continues: “I leave them there anyway, emissaries. // Belle sighing, Girls grow up. / Cinderella nods, tired. Even a queen grows restless. // [. . .] And Ariel, facedown, repeats We were here. We were here.” Perhaps these quick mentions of everyday things would go unnoticed, if it were not for the book’s dedication: “For Reed, who knew to leave the princess water toys right where they were.” The poems are full of the everyday: laundry, strawberries, “bad cold wine,” acorns, and Great Horned Owls that nest in the backyard (more on that in a moment). But all of these everyday things, these quotidian moments, are complicated—fraught—with a simmering unease, a dissatisfaction that erupts from the running text poem and disrupts each page, challenging. The poem, “Riff on the Definition of a Poem” is interrupted by the voice that says, “I’m changing my name, she tells her husband. What’s changed? he asks.” Or the poem “The Girl the Gods Let Go” that speaks of not being chosen, of being left behind, so continuing on with “minivans / and pool parties [ . . .] Four kids and a successful spouse, a dog, / and all was well, more or less” is complicated by the running text that reads “Already she questions and crosses out her first sentences.” Here, the “she” seems to reference the earlier daughter, perhaps the Ariel princess left behind, but no longer face down, and no longer voiceless.

There are three poems called “Love in the Season of Great Horned Owls.” The first describes the discovery of the owls, and seems to only include the speaker and the children. The poem expresses a wish: “to translate / the wild of owls into English.” From the bottom of the page, the running text warns, “In order for there to be a story, a man has to pass by.”

There are three poems called “Love in the Season of Great Horned Owls.” The first describes the discovery of the owls, and seems to only include the speaker and the children. The poem expresses a wish: “to translate / the wild of owls into English.” From the bottom of the page, the running text warns, “In order for there to be a story, a man has to pass by.” The second and third owl poems are nearer the end of the book and in both, spouse and children are fully present, the furniture of human relationships, reflected in the watching of the birds. In one, the speaker proclaims, “Married // love is muscled and damn big, but hard / to spot, even with binoculars.” The final owl poem shows the family engaged in a project together, creating a garden, with a walkway and bench, for the neighbors who come to view the owls. The speaker refers to them all as “human constellations.” They “visit together, having been visited.” And near this poem, the interrupting text has become quieter, less voluble. Fist in its mouth.

Finally, this may be the project of the book. The bottom text, its breadcrumbs, a path for the reader to interrupt the closed forms of the poems, to meander in and out of the book, interrupting and challenging what seems quotidian, a depiction of the trials and difficulties of marriage and children, the navigating of relationships that are somehow—strangely—unlike where you thought you’d end up. But they are, also strangely, where you’re glad to have ended up. Because the poems must address both these states, the poet writes them both, and allows them to comingle on the page.

Read The Sorrow Proper
Read The Sorrow Proper
Read We are traveling through the dark at tremendous speeds
Read We are traveling through the dark at tremendous speeds

top photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

Just Like Any Other Couple

“Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.”

— Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, June 26, 2015

Getting married is not as easy as living alone. When you live alone, no one cares if you leave the dishes in the sink for days or forget to put your shoes away or neglect to maintenance the car. When you live alone, you can come home from teaching and only eat a tortilla with peanut butter for dinner, and then write semi-bad fiction for hours before you binge-watch several episodes of “Orange is the New Black” and then come to bed in a clatter of noise and light. When you live alone, you can let all the negative emotions simmer for days in your body until you develop pneumonia, exhausted.

When you live alone, you can tell yourself, “This is better. This is easier. I don’t have to negotiate with anyone. I’m just fine by myself. This is evidence that I am a strong woman.”

And in the middle of the night, when you wake from a nightmare, and the dark room looms over you, and you turn on all the lights, a lump in your throat, you can comfort yourself, because that is the only other person in the room.

When you live alone, you tell yourself, Don’t accountants say getting married doesn’t make good financial sense? And anyway, haven’t you tried marriage already? You failed, remember? Yes, he was a man, and you realized you were gay, but still, you failed.

When you live alone, you tell yourself, Don’t accountants say getting married doesn’t make good financial sense? And anyway, haven’t you tried marriage already? You failed, remember? Yes, he was a man, and you realized you were gay, but still, you failed.

And when you finally meet a woman, and your body and your soul pulls you toward making a life with her, you shrink, afraid. Why do it? Why get married? Why stand in front of your family and friends and look this woman in her brown-ringed-with-gold eyes and say, “I promise,” and “I do”, and “I will love you the best I can for my life”?

It doesn’t make logical sense, right? Sometimes, it will be very hard. Sometimes, it will be unpredictable. Sometimes, you’ll stand in your kitchen and look at her and feel infuriated by something she’s said or not done. Sometimes, she’ll look at you with disappointment or with irritation. Your life together will be unpredictable. You might lose her. Actually, you will lose her. Someday in the future, one of you will have to look at the other one fading away, her white hair spread like rays on a pillow.

Why leap into such pain?

This morning, I woke to Meredith’s soft cheek against mine, her arms around me. I still floated in my dream, but when I murmured something incomprehensible, she pulled me closer and said she loved me. In one week, we get to marry each other, she murmured into my hair, and smiling, I opened my eyes and kissed her.

I used to insist I preferred living alone. Even for months after I met Meredith, after we began to spend hours together, and never ran out of words to say, and found that no amount of time was enough, I insisted — to her — that I didn’t want marriage. Better to have good friends. It’s so much less of a risk. Anyway, why were LGBT people fighting to get into the institutions of marriage and the military? Isn’t it better to create our own ways of being, to live happily alone and then sometimes come together to kiss and spend some hours?

Meredith was patient. She held me carefully then as she does now. She never articulated arguments for marriage (though she thought them), but instead cooked beside me, camped with me and Mitike, watched movies with me, talked with me into the small hours. And then all of a sudden, I understood that I wanted to share all my days with her. I don’t know when this happened, but I think it was probably an ordinary moment (Emerson: “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common”). I think maybe Meredith was slicing red cabbage for coleslaw or she was scratching our dog behind his ears or she was laughing about something I had just said or she was listening carefully to Mitike or she was gazing off into space with her fingertips resting on her eyebrow as she does when she’s thinking. It wasn’t a moment of angel trumpets and bright neon lights. It was just a moment in what had already become our shared lives together, though we still lived at different addresses. And it hurt because I understood, in a flash: even when it’s hard, I want to live beside this woman. Even when she’s sick. Even when we’re irritated with each other. Even when I’m exhausted and I can’t be soft and kind. Even when we don’t know what the next day will hold. Because this hard work of companionship is richer and more what life intends for us than being alone.

If I’d read those words when I was single, I would have felt angry resentment. How dare anyone talk about how the universe intends us to live and learn in relationship, when it’s not an option for some of us, or when some of us tried and then lost it? And I would have been right, just as I am right to say: here in my current life is you, and I choose you to be my wife, to be no other than yourself, to love what I know of you and to trust what I do not yet know, to support you in becoming the person you want to be, to nurture my faith in your abiding love through all our years, and in all that life may bring us.

Marriage is serious, and though it doesn’t make people’s lives easier, it does make them richer.

Last June, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority 5-4 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.” Marriage is serious, and though it doesn’t make people’s lives easier, it does make them richer. This June, Meredith and I will choose to become more than two individual women, but a couple, committed to struggle with and rejoice in this life together. Because it’s harder. Because it’s ultimately lovelier to walk through this life hand in hand with someone you cherish and who cherishes you.

When I started my column this month, I intended to write about the one-year anniversary of that Supreme Court decision. I wrote several drafts in which I discussed the dissenters’ opinions, and then lauded Kennedy’s statements. In one draft, I wrote my own experience against the backdrop of those conflicting opinions, explaining that it’s still difficult to be a lesbian even in a nation that allows me to legally marry my wife. But none of those drafts felt right, and I didn’t understand why, until Meredith — my best editor — said quietly, “Why don’t you write about how we’re just like any other couple, gay or straight? We’re a regular couple getting married. Write about that.”

Meredith and I are now like every other couple who walks into a county office in the United States and says, “We’d like to apply for a marriage license.” We are like every other couple who takes a deep breath and — though it will be difficult, and though it’s a crazy risk — dives into marriage together.

And that is what last year’s Supreme Court decision was all about, anyway. Legally, Meredith and I are now like every other couple who walks into a county office in the United States and says, “We’d like to apply for a marriage license.” We are like every other couple who takes a deep breath and — though it will be difficult, and though it’s a crazy risk — dives into marriage together.

Last year, Justice Kennedy had to argue to the nation that Meredith and I deserve “equal dignity in the eyes of the law,” that we deserve to be included in “one of civilization’s oldest institutions”.

This year, we just get to hold hands with each other and, while our nine-year-old daughter and our family and friends look on, we get to say “yes” to each other, to a life greater than any we would have led alone.

top photo by Chris Johnson on Unsplash