Proust stuns me with his impossibly long and elegant sentences (in the C.K. Scott Moncrief translation), which unlike the recursive sentences of Henry James are laden to the brim with sensuous images. Proust's narrator is incapable of recalling any detail about his childhood in Combray without tumbling into unending digression about what, precisely, a given place or relationship felt like. There's a curious kind of paganism to this, visible in his long description of the church in Combray, which creates reverence in the narrator not because it offers any sort of channel to God, but because it grounds and orients, like Heidegger's Greek temple, the whole village and countryside, from which scarcely any vantage point can be found where the church steeple is not visible (and if you're too close to see it, you feel its presence). The procedure of the novel is of course located in the famous image of the madeleine, a humble sensuous object from which almost literally the whole seven-volume opus pours at the end of the first chapter or "Overture":
And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.
It's a search for lost time, to be regained or recaptured only after many hundreds of pages have been written; but it's also a novel about its own novelness, about the desire to write one and to become a writer. This is all familiar enough, I suppose, but up to this point I hadn't had the patience for Proust, hadn't seen what all the fuss was about; the prose seemed lugubrious and the book plotless; in narratological terms it's all catalyst, no kernel. (A kernel is an event which produces a turning point, in which an alternative to what has gone before arises; a catalyst amplifies or delays the action.) But now it seems the drama of writing, of sentences foraging for the precise texture of experience, is enough to hold my interest. The book has many other pleasures to offer in terms of realism: sharply drawn characters and character types, gentle to savage satire of French provincial mores and the fascinations of aristocracy, etcetera. But the pathos of going back, trying to give life to what's been lost (chiefly, I sense, the loss of the mother, whose life-giving goodnight kiss is the inaugurating event or non-event of the narrative), for this reader cannot be decoupled from the pathos of wanting to write. Proust, in short, is good if intimidating company for the would-be novelist; the very endlessness of In Search of Lost Time reassures me in the perpetual middle of my own manuscript that the search of and in language can be the point, can almost be enough.
So while I continue to pick at my novel there's no poetry to speak of, and in this silence poetry becomes more important and more impossible. I picked up Alice Notley's latest, Culture of One, and am almost nauseated by the sheer wild verve of the thing—"a novel in poems," it says on the back cover—it's almost too rich to digest. Notley's writing is unclassifiable, it's neither lyric nor narrative; the individual lines seem casual, even sloppy, and yet poem by poem I am overwhelmed by the sheer imaginative power she brings to bear on what seems at root a simple story about a lone woman, Marie, creating a "culture of one" (cleverly opposed to monoculture) somewhere in the desert Southwest, building and rebuilding a hut (Heidegger's temple again, or a parody of it) that some kid burns down as repeatedly, while a grocer and compulsive liar named Leroy, a dead woman named Ruby (wonderful noir name), and a pop star (Marie's daughter? Ruby's daughter), named Eve Love exist in some kind of triangle with her (I'm only a quarter way into the book so others might emerge). But what can you make of, what do you do with, writing like this?
The Book of LiesDo you believe this stuff or is it a story?I believe every fucking word, but it is a story.Don't swear so much. Aren't we decorous? Whatis a culture?It's an enormous detailed lie lived in, wrought beliefs,a loving fabrication. What's good about it? Nothing.It keeps you going, but it institutionalizes inequality, killing,and forced worship of questionable deities, it always presumesan absolute: if no other an absolute of intelligence and insight.The lore of certain people—men—what you're referred to.This is Marie, thinking, though she wouldn't use this language;this is also Eve Love thinking, though she's young enoughto bang her head against the wall thinking it: Marie would ratherreinvent the world for herself. This is Leroy thinking, who knowsmore about lies than anyone. This isn't Mercy, or Ruby, orthe Satanist girl, or the girls, or their fathers thinking.The Satanist girl almost thinks this; but she can't loveskepticism. It would make her cry. I, I don't think.Except as a device. I think thought is a device. To get there.
Ruminative, essayistic, unliterary, clumsy: then it swerves, then it swerves again. Because these are poems they permit perhaps more easily than prose a kind of prismatic relation between the speaker and the characters, who occupy and then get kicked out of the "I" position, so that all and none of them speak. It's the purest sort of poetic heteroglossia (a contradiction in terms, some would say) that I've encountered. The imaginative freedom on display here is breathtaking, and hard-earned. It's not imagination in the sense of invention, but in the sense of being willing and able, line by line and poem by poem, to seemingly do anything, go on your nerve, say "fuck it," break rules I'm usually scarcely conscious of when reading "innovative" poetry (you won't find here many of the postmodern tropes and devices catalogued to devastating effect in Elisa Gabbert's essay, "The Moves: Common Maneuvers in Contemporary Poetry," found in The Monkey and the Wrench; you can read about these "moves" here). It's highly rhetorical, it's more about the sentence than the line, as befits a novel. It accumulates moods; reading it is like watching the pattern of light and shade all day in the desert, on a mesa, as clouds move overhead, and then someone drops something from a height and it's messy: a watermelon, a human head. I can't feel this freedom for myself, the freedom of what Notley calls disobedience, but I need it. Even if I am a man.