Monday, June 19, 2017

Melissa Matthewson on Desire, Design, and the Lyric Moment

Enter Here: Constructing Extended Lyric Prose of Desire
access a threshold
When I sit down to write, I approach with a sort of compulsion, and what I mean is that I feel crazed to find the most resonant and booming way to express a moment, a story, an experience. It’s what we know as the creative impulse, the urge to fashion a narrative which takes a reader on a beautiful journey that engages all the senses, the story reaching for some sort of epiphany or state of transformation. It’s quite the ambitious task. I am thoughtful in my approach, aware of my disadvantages, or doubts, my ego, but in essence, what I’m always reaching for, is that place in writing that revolutionizes or surpasses daily function, that place which takes ordinary practice and pulls it into something greater, to persist in the lyric moment.
the lyric moment as…
How to prolong the lyric moment? How to reconcile poetic techniques with extended narratives? These are the questions Carole Maso asks in her essay, Notes of a Lyric Artist Working in Prose: A Lifelong Conversation with Myself Entered Midway,” of which she reveals a number of poetic techniques writers must incorporate in order to prolong the lyric moment—architecture, music, constellations, and image intensity. She refers primarily to works of fiction, but these strategies, of course, can be applied to nonfiction works as well, and that’s my primary genre of interest. Maso references the erotics of extended lyric prose, which to her, works in the elongation and expansion of a prose text. She calls it an opening.” She writes, There is compression in lyric fiction, yes, but also expansion. Elongation. The longing for clearings. An opening up of perceptions, possibilities, every time the writer or the reader sits down. And duration, and the obvious erotics of this.” This idea of the erotics of duration, of expansiveness in writing lyric prose, of opening, works in various layers here. There is the layer of possibility in the composition of lyric prose, but there is also the prose of desire and the ability of two writers to write within this expansiveness, to approach the work as anticipation, as intimate linking. Not to mention the erotic as power, which Audre Lorde has espoused in her essay “The Uses of the Erotic.”
two texts
In Anais Nin’s autobiographical novel (perhaps we call it a nonfiction novel, or a hybrid text), A Spy in the House of Love, Sabina, the narrator, is struggling with her own identity and freedom within various sexual relationships. She is torn between the safety of marriage and the excitement of sexual affairs. It’s a story of sensual restlessness. In the introduction to the novel Anita Jarczok refers to Anais Nin as among “the most notable experimental writers of the twentieth century.” While Nin is widely known for her diaries, this novel exemplifies some of her extraordinary lyrical writing. As Jarczok says, Nin’s carefully selected words and elaborately constructed phrases are woven into expressive and memorable passages. Together with the rich imagery and lyrical language, they create the spellbinding and dreamlike atmosphere of the narrative.”          

Katherine Angel’s book, Unmastered: A Book on Desire Most Difficult to Tell, is an experimental nonfiction work in which the narrator explores her love affair with a man through personal experience and philosophy. In this book, she considers the feminine, the masculine and the relationship between those two as she questions the nature of women’s sexuality and desire.
In her essay, Carole Maso writes of architecture. This term describes what we’re all trying to do when we construct a narrative. It’s the art of design. How are we to design our essays, our stories? Which form works to fit the content? Her idea of architecture is one of spaciousness in which the passion of the mind can release its creativity onto the page. Virginia Woolf, wrote, in reference to form, Stand at the window and let your rhythmical sense open and shut, boldly and freely until one thing melts into another, until the taxis are dancing with the daffodils, until a whole has been made from all the separate fragments.” Maso refers to the construction of form as an organic process, one that is mysterious and elusive, where the construction is an experience of space. Often, we don’t find the architecture of an extended prose piece until we begin writing, as we explore what story we’re trying to tell and how the form may enhance the content. Maso suggests, To create whole worlds through implication, suggestion, in a few bold strokes. Not to tyrannize with narrative. Allow a place for the reader to live, to dream.” That’s our aim in assembling a narrative: creating a cathedral to enter in as readers, to look up and around at the space in which we can feel a story’s depth.

Angel’s book is constructed in such a way that allows for the elucidation of concepts, namely that of the feminine struggle with desire. Without the chosen architecture, without the form, the story would/could not hold as much weight. Angel extends the expansiveness of the story by setting her book into eleven titled sections. She titles each with a lyrical title, allowing the reader into the substantial space of her exploration of desire. This allows for possibility and rumination on what’s to be discovered in revealing the details of the affair and the subsequent questioning of the narrator. Subtle connections are made between the text in the chapters with the titles themselves. For instance, in a section titled, I Would Even Say: To Open Her Mouth,” the narrator covers several subjects having to do with expression, dialogue, voicing opinions about women’s sexuality, the differences between the feminine and the masculine, even a simple argument between the narrator and her lover. The titles are a clue to what we may find on the pages that follow. And they are beautiful on their own. As poems. In addition, the notes to the book tell us that each title references another writer’s work. For example, Harnessed to a Shark” references a phrase from Virginia Woolf’s Selected Diaries, October 27, 1935.

Within the eleven sections, Angel splits her book into further segments: Roman numerals create distinct sections and within that framework, numbered sections with the text. She uses white space in building the architecture of the book, something that poets have at their disposal in order to give the reader contrast, weight, pause. Angel writes in sparse prose with sometimes only one sentence on a page, usually revealing some dramatic content or language, followed by white space, leaving the reader to consider the meaning of the text. For instance, early on, Angel writes, Fuck me. Yes, fuck me!” and then leaves the rest of the page open. Using white space presents ideas in fragments and can be quite provocative. It creates tension. For instance, in another example, she writes in reference to women and women’s sexual identity, So, we’re all whores now?” then white space, followed by, Silly grown women.” The white space here is a way to cue. To pause. To suspend the lyric. To upset the conventional structure of storytelling.
Angel asks questions of the reader as an opportunity for engagement with the narrative creating a storyline by questioning. For instance, Angel writes, Must I either take or be taken? Must I either do or be done?” Again, Is this a compulsion to be what the other person wants? Am I sitting in the draft, taking the leg? Am I not quite myself, but someone else?” She continues to build the narrative, even validates it, with many feminist authors, most notably Susan Sontag and Virginia Woolf. Angel responds to the quotes, or in addition, the quotes are connected to various events taking place within the story of the love affair. She quotes Sontag, Fucking vs being fucked,” wrote Sontag. The deeper experience—more gone—is being fucked.” She responds by telling of an event in which she wants to make love on top, to be in control, but then she second guesses herself and wonders if The Man” as she calls him will not be fully satisfied if she’s on top. This goes on for several pages in which she investigates the nature of sexual positions and how they relate to power and femininity, but again it’s almost as if it is a call and response, a technique to build space within a storyline. Later on she quotes Foucault: Pleasure, wrote Foucault—pleasure in the truth of pleasure—is sustained, ‘but not without trembling a little,’...” The rest of the chapter is devoted to sexual acts and defining pleasure within them.

If Angel were to go from point A to B in a linear fashion, we might not get the dramatic pauses that her particular construction allows us. In terms of content, this exploration of desire and sexuality is dramatized in this form. It’s a lyrical subject in itself—the erotic, the sensual, and to use a lyric form for construction heightens the effect of the text. You could call it an erotic form.”
Nin’s book does not follow a traditional novel form in that time is murky within the framework of the story. She creates a dreamy atmosphere on the page. One never knows where Sabina, the narrator, is in time. We switch between multiple encounters with various men—five in fact—as well as switch between Sabina’s fantasies and anxiety about what each lover thinks of her, or whether her husband will find out about her affairs. In lieu of a traditional timeline to create a framework for her novel, she blends the events, fantasies, and dreams together to create a new architecture, one that is expansive and actually reflects reality as stories never unfold in the way we design them to. This does not create confusion because we understand this is how the book has been constructed. We float with the narrator in and out of affairs and dreams. For example, there are no chapter breaks, numbers, or titles. Further, in one section, Sabina is visiting her lover, Philip, in three different places. First, on a boat. Then, the sand dunes. Then, the city. It’s drawn out as fragmented memoir. Sabina muses moving between lovers and desire and insomnia and calm moving between these section without pause, in a floating atmosphere which mimics the narrator’s own drifting between erotic affairs.
Maso writes that we should sing in prose, to somehow get the urgency of bone and blood and hair, entire histories, into prose.” She calls this type of writing symphonic, fugue.” We can manipulate sound in our sentences as Maso suggests by reading everything we write aloud. Nin is a master of music in her language. It seems to fuel her prose,

Desire made a volcanic island, on which they lay in a trance, feeling the subterranean whirls lying beneath them, dance floor and table and the magnetic blues uprooted by desire, the avalanches of the body’s tremors. Beneath the delicate skin, the tendrils of secret hair, the indentations and valleys of flesh, the volcanic lava flowed, desire incandescent, and where it burned the voices of the blues being sung became a harsh wilderness cry, a bird and untamed cry of pleasure and cry of danger and cry of fear and cry of childbirth and cry of wound pain from the same hoarse delta of nature’s pits.

This passage moves like how a body might move. It evokes the erotic. Her use of repetition heightens the music, like beats, like what it’s like to get lost in a song we love. The music of the language also works to intensify the desire, makes us feel the eruption that’s taking place within the narrator. There is movement in the word choice. And the cries toward the end beckon music and desire at the same time, ending on the right beat, a consummation of the desire and the song. Use of punctuation is important for the pause, but also to keep the music of the sentence in continuity. In an interesting blog post by Ken Carroll, he writes about the idea of variation in sentence length, which he believes is the key to making music in language because in fact, our human speech has variation as well. He recommends contrasting short sentences with longer ones.

“The present - Alan, with his wrists hidden in silky brown hair, his long neck always bending towards her like a very tree of faithfulness - was murdered by the insistent, whispering interfering dream, a compass pointing to mirages flowing in the music of Debussy like an endless beckoning, alluring, its voices growing fainter if she did not listen with her whole being, its steps lighter if she did not follow, its promises, its sighs of pleasure growing clearer as they penetrated deeper regions of her body directly through the senses bearing on airy canopies all the fluttering banners of gondolas and divertissements.”

That’s one sentence, extending the lyric over many images, sounds, tunes. One could say that it’s important to vary sentence length and to even use fragments, one word sentences, to mimic music, but here’s it’s like an opera of sorts. The use of punctuation, again, helps in this sentence to contain the music. Again too, we hear a repetition that makes the music with the clauses of its” over and over again, drawing out the lyric. On one end of the sentence, the narrator struggles with her husband and his faithfulness, his solidity and then, we flow into the narrator’s desire, which unfolds as a melody would, both in rhythm and tonality and extension.

Later on, Nin writes about Stravinsky’s Firebird” as Sabina’s place in music where she might find self-revelation, “The fireworks were mounted on wire bodies waving amorous arms, tip-toeing on the purple tongues of the Holy Ghost, leaping out of captivity, Mercury’s wings of orange on pointed torches hurled like javelins into space sparring through the clouds, the purple vulvas of the night.” Much of Nin’s book is akin to this type of prose. And while she brings the music, she also returns to this notion of desire, by comparing clouds to vulvas in the night.” It’s a delicacy and an attention to the sound that makes for prose that unites the reader in their quest for connection and understanding.  

of patterns
The definition of constellation is a group or cluster of related things. It comes from the Middle English as an astrological term denoting the relative positions of the stars. Maso refers to constellations in lyric prose as patterns or accidental associations. These constellations evolve throughout a story or narrative, change and augment the lyric work. In reference to her own work Maso writes, I wanted it all: the moment and the elongation of the moment, and then another moment, and the cumulative pleasures of an intensifying, building content.” She goes on to explain what she wanted in her prose, The pleasure of accumulated meanings, of accretion, which is the narrative act. A fragile constellation, through time and space, of relationship.”

From the beginning of her work, Angel builds connections between the feminine and the masculine, liberation versus connection. She does this through sexual encounters with her lover in order to ask, find, provoke the larger questions. These layers build upon each other as we go on in the reading. It’s like tree branches crossing over each other, lattice work possibly, spider webs, knitted scarfs, any number of things that layer meaning by associative connection. A really good example of this type of constellation work occurs in the middle of Angel’s book. There are three numbered sections that build upon each other that explore the idea of the masculine versus the feminine. In the first she writes, My man. This man. The Man. No wonder, sighed Ellis, that ‘so few women, so very few men”—the anguish in that ‘very’!—‘come safely into port.” In the second section beneath, Coming safely into port. He puts down anchor in me, and finds his masculinity there. I put down anchor in him, in his masculinity, and find my femininity there.” She’s also creating an intensity of images in the patterns as well. In the next section, facing the page, A port: a place to rest. A place also to traverse, to pass through. Putting down anchor, but only for a while.” She’s started with the man, and man’s need to find his maleness with a woman, though she uses the port as a metaphor, that its not an easy landing, its temporary, a resting place, but not permanent. She builds in just two pages and three numbered fragments this constellation of meaning. If we were to craft our prose with this careful attention to patterning, our prose becomes complex and elaborate. In addition, Angel builds upon the entire idea of desire throughout the work as a constellation, as hunger, and she uses different ways to approach the subject, but each fragment is working to build upon the previous one in order to create that cumulative intensification. Desire becomes hunger. Hunger becomes the female wanting more. Hunger becomes the voice. Then the man. And it all starts to interplay.

Another example in Angel’s book of this kind of constellation that I want to point out is two separate fragments that appear side by side.

My desire to speak desire, as I struggle against their weight, is revisionist: of myself, and of what I understood to have made that self. Of the feminism that made me, and that forbade my desire; or the feminism I made make me—for what makes us choose the canon we choose?

And next,

The desire to speak desire is a desire to burst through silence, to puncture. As such, it is also erotic; it contains its own excitement. Speaking undoes the perceived straitjacketing. Unlaces the corset, winds down the hair.

Angel struggles with her desire to speak desire, calls it out as a retelling, a revision to herself, to what she knows. Calls out feminism that denied her desire, or that she denied herself. She’s struggling to find the voice and so she continues to build the tension in the next passage. She wants to burst through the quiet, the woman who does not speak her desire. The sentence, As such, it is also erotic; it contains its own excitement,” which likens back to Maso’s idea that the elongation of the lyric prose is erotic: the excitement, the expansiveness, opening. So here, Angel unlaces the corset, winds down the hair,” an opening of speaking of desire, taking risks, bursting, elongating.  

Nin also creates connections and patterns within her work as she writes desire in a different way, through a fictional narrator who struggles to find her own identity within various sexual relationships, but because this is the pulse behind the narrative, each section continues to build on this pattern of associations. For instance, the association that she works to build throughout the entire novel is that of the multiple self. She writes,

Slowly what she composed with the new day was her own focus, to bring together body and mind. This was made with an effort, as if all the dissolutions and dispersions of her self the night before were difficult to reassemble. She was like an actress who must compose a face, an attitude to meet the day.”

Consistently throughout, she writes of re-design, of designing a new self, of masks, of being an actress in her own life, of pretending. This continues to build with each new affair, each new man she encounters. It becomes a chaos of constellations. She also uses her cape as a way to build this question of identity. Always she’s running away from someone or something with this cape hiding her true self, or masking her chaotic, restless inquiry into who she is. In reference to a man who gazes her way, she writes, It was the alchemy of desire fixing itself upon the incarnation of all women into Sabina for a moment but as easily by a second process able to alchemize Sabina into many others.” The fractured self. The search for identity. One woman and many women. To be honest in our exploration of patterns, we must immerse ourselves in the pleasure of creating those links, in seeking the wholeness that Nin and Angel do in their narratives. It’s the under layer of our prose. The working layers. The associations built into a round ball, a whole sun. An erotic embrace.
forced to see
Intensity meaning force, potency, strength and if we are to use imagery in our prose, then they should carry the intensity of the thing they are trying to portray. Just as in poetry. Images are our means for bringing meaning to a story, for exploring the weight of a narrative, for bringing intensity of imagination. It’s how the reader can picture a whole world. Maso writes, Images follow a progress through interplays and modulation until they reach a level of nearly unbearable intensity.” She goes on, 
Throughout, images such as boats, dream, figs, swans, roses, horses, gloating, angel, butterfly endlessly repeat themselves in varying configurations as the imagination gropes and tries to make sense of chaotic experience. As the imagination tries to save, the outward world distorts to speak of the interior world. The internal world informs the external world. A hallucination.”
So imagery, and the intensity of certain imagery, becomes a dream, or a hallucination for the reader. A mirror for what we feel inside of us. The strength of a writer is when they can take an image, intensify it over an extended prose piece, and make it work in such a way that our imaginations are making sense of experience as Maso suggests. Both Nin and Angel rely on image intensity throughout their extended prose works to provoke the imagination and to sense the external world. They do not rely on one image alone, but multiple that work with each other, against each other, through each other.

Nin returns to several of the same images again and again. Fever is a common one to evoke the sensual restlessness of Sabina. She has throughout feverish breathlessness,” “not yet warmed by her feverishness,” “the fever had reached its peak.” As well, the flesh and body are repeated. Sabina wears a cape throughout the story which works as a way to intensify the narrator’s search for an identity, for her masculine freedom, for her multiple selves. For instance, she writes, Also the cape held within its folds something of what she imagined was a quality possessed exclusively by man: some dash, some audacity, some swagger of freedom denied to a woman.” Again she writes, ...the warrior’s shield for his face in battle, all these she experienced when she placed a cape around her shoulder.”

Nature in various forms repeats itself as a building and intensifying image—the dark, the ocean, trees, the moon—all imagery she calls upon to build the desire of the narrator.
The song ascended, swelled, gathered together all the turmoil of the sea, the rutilant gold carnival of the sun, rivalled the wind and flung its highest notes into space like the bridge span of a flamboyant rainbow. And then the incantation broke.”

All of these things—constellations, image intensity, music, architecture—should be on our minds when we sit down to write. Let’s write like poets do, remembering that our job as essayists is to embrace the expansiveness of language, to create a place that a reader enters with awe and wonder, to bring about an erotics of words and images. Think of writing an extended lyric prose piece as an opening to the passion and desire we all hold within us, as Audre Lorde has suggested is the “power of the erotic.” To do this, we compose for music, design images for intensification, constellate and pattern meaning, and architect an expansive space. Approach our writing as we do the erotic.
Melissa Matthewson lives and writes in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. Her essays have appeared in Guernica, Mid-American Review, River Teeth, Bellingham Review, New Delta Review, among others. Her work has earned an AWP Intro Journals award and has been listed as notable in Best American Essays. She recently completed a fragmented memoir of lyric essays about desire, marriage, farming, and identity. She teaches writing at Southern Oregon University and runs an organic vegetable farm. You can find her at

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