Monday, September 24, 2018

Jay Ponteri on Danielle Dutton's SPRAWL

O the things feelings of loneliness make us humans do. I’m not sure if we talk about the experience of loneliness enough. What do you think? I’m not sure because maybe others are talking about loneliness but I’m not hearing their conversations. I’m not sitting at the same table. When I was a teenage boy, I couldn’t imagine riding my ten-speed all the way to the mall. I could have, but my imagination somehow couldn’t reach all the way. Fourteen months after we divorced and two months after moving into separate places (her: house and me: apartment) between which our son began to shuttle, I took a trip by myself to Mexico City where I spent 10 days wandering the streets in every possible direction, in lines, curves, circles, slants, curlicues, voids. I was alone, often lost, but not lonely. 
August 23, 2016
Today Centro Historico. Streets turn to cobblestone. Streets narrow. Buildings built with gray stone. Buildings with stripped facades. Crumbling buildings. Iron gates open into courtyards in which I shall never sit. Food stands with tarpaulin roofs sagging with puddles of rain water. No street signs, no landmarks to orient me. I turn right. My body just does this. It turns right onto a street curving to the left curving to the right and overhead small cement stoops with clothes draped over lines to dry. Everything seems to lean over the street, as if it all might fall onto me.
Alone is a condition, loneliness a feeling. There are many ways to be alone in the world. We are alone in our bodies. We are alone in our thoughts. We are alone in interior and exterior spaces, alone around people we know, around people we don’t. Walkers and people eating at food carts crowd the city sidewalks as cars with drivers and passengers ride past me, and out in the country, a woman walks on the side of a two-lane road surrounded by fallow fields. It is winter. Five people, complete strangers, crowd into an elevator and the elevator rises to the eighth floor. The person closest to the door exits first. Alone in bedrooms, alone in kitchens, alone in bathrooms, in barns, in garden sheds, at grave sites, inside churches, on a narrow path bending gently through the forest. To be alone, to feel oneself alone is to be in touch with the distinct edges of our bodies separate from the bodies of others. Alone is a condition, loneliness a feeling. The experience of loneliness entails an intense but less varied emotional mix. When I feel lonely—alone or not alone—I feel a presence of absence nagging at me, I miss somebody. I miss you. Loneliness might include feelings of grief, aggrieved feelings, sadness, invisibility, anxiety, disorientation. The edges of my body seem to be disappearing. I suddenly don’t know myself, so I reach for you, but you’re not there, which brings to mind this line from Morgan Parker’s poem “Ain’t Misbehavin’”: “No one to walk with / into the glowing couch, the green / afterward.” What happens inside of our thoughts, what we feel, only we can see and feel. Didn’t E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel say something about how we get to know characters in novels better than actual people in our lives, even loved ones?

Speaking of novels—Or is this a book-length prose poem or a book of prose?—on page 101 of Danielle Dutton’s wondrous Sprawl—published in 2010 by Siglio Press and now reissued by Wave Books this month—the speaker says of her suburban surroundings:
Seen from above, there is a peculiar pattern to our expansion: neighborhoods snake around supermarkets, hospitals, airports, malls. It’s wanting to not be left behind. Houses shimmer together with weather. There’s a kind of earthy gravity to the weather. I uncover this fact by accidental research. I figure I might have an internal architecture, with buttresses, abundance, possibility, or an intestinal space in which nothing works the way it should, like buildings built on botanical models, or buildings based on your own DNA, or whole rooms built to laugh in, or sticky gardens with the usual material but brighter, or more dull.
We expand, we stretch out in the grass but first we park illegally, and before and after (and during?) we procreate. We design then build apartment units with ground-floor commercial use. The external and internal architectures seem to rise up in shared spaces. “Houses shimmer together with weather.” The speaker does not distinguish the house from the weather, nudging this reader to consider the more destructive repercussions of the American suburban project (or the human project, I guess)—we view the landscape as “open plots” as opposed to a dynamic, living, ever-changing ecosystem upon which many animal and plant beings depend. We are nature. We develop more and more land. The earth is this exposed body we dig up, dismantle, cover anew with cement and throw-away housing and malls built in strips filled with shops with names like “Massage Envy,” “Curves,” “Gentle Dental.” A poet friend who’s also a pharmacist told me drug companies like to create names for drugs using words with as many Z’s and X’s as possible because they—words with these infrequently used letters, the open land of the alphabet—have proven to increase the bottom line. Have we hit the bottom yet? And why so much expansion, why all the cheap materials? Why can’t we sit with ourselves in the spaces we already inhabit? It’s wanting to not be left behind. It’s ordinary loneliness—we want others to include us—and it’s a loneliness tapping into a core problem with existence: we won’t always exist. And by spreading out as if land does not end, by racing to the Plaid Pantry for a pack of American Spirits and a sleeve of Pringles rather than sitting with ourselves, and by replicating our flailing again and again, everything becomes indistinct thus forgotten. We don’t have to die to be forgotten. We already are.
There is a ruthless realism to the way we breathe, the way we sit at the table, the way we fuck, or eat breakfast, or sleep next to each other or next to thousands of strangers. This place has forgotten people living in other towns. We hardly recognize ourselves. (105)
I can tell you for certain after my son and I returned from Ikea with his new green rug and desk chair and lamp, both of us were in a very, very bright mood. Now I am reminded of Lydia in The Birds (played beautifully by Jessica Tandy). Lydia’s son Mitch falls in love with Melanie Daniels, and Lydia’s not jealous of Melanie, that her son’s attention is elsewhere. Lydia does not want to be abandoned. She does not want her son to leave her and his little sister in Bodega Bay. Sprawl is not an essay but feels like essay—spreading out one’s thinking on the page, on many pages, to feel the accumulation of thought, motion of consciousness, its emotional mixtures and fresh perceptions, how it knows and un-knows at once, at twice, at thrice, O the rise and fall of one’s thoughts speeding towards the slow, slow drip, into blank page spaces. I’m talking about the variety of human consciousness, cogitation as action, contradictory thought tissues as plot with emotional, dramatic, and thematic resonances. On the page of essay, we encounter not ourselves but a voluminous representation of something like ourselves that makes us feel visible to ourselves and to others and connected to something totally other that may or may not be sentient. It’s wanting to not be left behind. Our ancestors we never knew who suffered and who felt pleasure, alone and with others. Of course we are left behind, but in the moment of composition—and perhaps replicated when we read the work of others—we feel something other, the touch of another. Thank you, Ms. Dutton, for making this book, Sprawl. I am alone but not feeling lonely.

August 22, 2016 
Cafebreria El Pendulo. I buy a book of poems by Coral Bracho (Marfa) from which I intend to translate. A woman asks me to watch her computer. I say, "Si, yo puedo," and noting my broken Spanish, she says, "Thank you." I continue to reread Bolaño's The Savage Detectives while consulting the map on my laptop computer for whereabouts of streets Bolaño describes: Bucarelli, Colima, Paseo de la Reforma. When I step out onto Alvaro Oberon, I walk without intention, without destination, I walk for three or four hours without knowing at all where I am. I don't look at the map and I'm not sure why other than I want to be a part of the city's density, one body in a crowd of bodies walking on sidewalks, crossing busy avenues filled with passing taxi cabs and motorcycles, people crowding around food stands selling tacos and cups of fruit topped with whipped cream. To look at a map I'd have to stop walking and my body wants only motion, wants the invisibility of one body blending in with other bodies. All bodies. I know I have walked into other neighborhoods and these neighborhoods have names I don't yet know and somehow I find my way back to Roma Sur. At my apartment, lying on the wood floors, I listen to the sound of the traffic and voices of passersby on Huatabampo. Then the rains begin. Late summer and early autumn, the monsoon season here. I had no idea.

I don’t know what exactly I am doing here. Am I writing about the city or the suburb and what really is the difference? Am I writing about being alone or feeling lonely? Am I writing about a novel or a poem? Sprawl is not nonfiction, does not gesture towards autobiography, but its central method of characterization is close, expansive, associative interiority—deep revelation through a sprawling show of idiosyncratic, eccentric consciousness. How I write. The Wave Books reissue includes an afterword by another amazing thinker-proser-maker Renee Gladman. I haven’t read Renee Gladman’s afterword yet. I will read it only after I have finished writing this piece. I purchased the Siglio Press edition in 2010 at a small-press bookstore on Capitol Hill (Seattle) called (maybe) Pilot Bookshop (now closed, think it was closing shortly after I was there). And here a brief shout-out to my other Seattle friends at Open Books Poetry Emporium, the best book shop on the planet Earth. I do recall what drew my attention immediately (still does) was Ms. Dutton’s unparagraphed prose. Sprawl is presented in a single paragraph, or as I enjoy calling it, and I didn’t make this up, an unparagraph. In 2013, late January I think, I presented to a roomful of other human beings at Columbia College some of my crude thinking about unparagraphing, and here, courtesy of Puerto Del Sol who later published these unkempt thoughts, is some text from said lecture:
Today I want to consider the Unparagraph, which I define as prose NOT organized into manageable chunks separated by white space. In an unparagraph one writes within a single block of prose till completion (whatever that means), only making use of white space around and inside the letters and between and around the words and that precedes the first word and follows the last. Here an avid, livid inclusion guides compositional method; the prose reads on the page as crowded, capacious consciousness. I try to spill out as much of what passes through my noggin onto the page, and the thought of organizing this lovely spillage into manageable, focused chunks for readers often seems like trying to kill not only thought but heart too. The operative word here is spill, which means in its intransitive form to flow, run, or fall out over one place into another. Writing feels like an expansion or unfurling of self, not a diminution of self—for that I can go to the bank or the next faculty meeting. Simply put: one moves the mess of contradictory thoughts feelings dreams perceptions sounds from one’s head to the page. Things fall out of our bodies and the able writer must let them. The page, once blank and tidy, gets covered with my shit, my shit is all over the place. The page is the only space in my life in which I feel utterly comfortable making a giant mess. It might seem like the sentence contains or carries thought, perhaps true, but sentence and thought shape each other, that is to say, in writing and speech, thought materializes through the sentence. Sentence reveals thought. Sentence forms thought. Without sentence, thought is barely formed, ephemeral, a seemingly endless tape of word, sensorium, feeling, traces of memory and dream. The essay is that page space for prowling searching quivering turning thought, for received thought that seems to rise out of the void, that discovers and holds contradictions of a single consciousness, made manifest in the sentence at hand.
In Sprawl Dutton’s unparagraph stitches together “internal and external architectures,” which is to say, we build the suburb as the suburb builds us. Space-time collapses. Yesterday is today is five weeks ago and 96 years from now. The front- and backyards, sidewalks and shady lanes (O Pavement!), parking lots and shopping malls and parks, bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms—the spaces the speaker inhabits seem to reflect and refract at once. Then they perforate, pouring into one another (imagine lacing fingers of lovers) just as all the modes of consciousness, the soul modes—dream, story, thought, perception—blend into one another to form a single tape of unfurling selves within self. If the suburb shrinks us through its sterility, depersonalization, and sameness—“we hardly recognize ourselves…”—the unparagraph re-conjures the speaker’s idiosyncratic way of being in the world, enlarging the speaker’s humanity horizontally (the sprawl across the page) and vertically, which is to say, it reveals her personality, its proclivities and contradictions, what makes her singular, unique voice and unique breath shaping voice. Dutton’s speaker devotes herself to encountering the suburban’s surface through keen attention to its varied signs, phenomena, actions, and dynamics. Her attention tends to be miniature in scale—the senses perceiving closely all the smaller bits, an eye for fragments, an eye that fragments—and from these impressions, she lifts her gaze to consider impacts and origins, elucidating the broader implications of our need to sprawl, or she expresses a deepening within herself, revealing private, musical thoughts and dreams, miscellany, and dispatches from her eccentric interactions with (in)sentient world.
Today I imagine busily dusting furniture. Then I imagine throwing furniture out a window instead of dusting it. I imagine dust gathering on broken furniture and horse shit on the ground. Meanwhile, the countertop is crammed with apple and orange peels. A half-eaten lollipop rests on its clear wrapper beside a pestle and mortar, also a white plate dirty from a slice of cherry pie, several aspirin cut into quarters, and an empty glass container. Before lunchtime, alone on the sidewalk, the world rolls by like a magical ride. The ice-cream truck jingles as I pass and all the lawn gnomes offer a cheerful ‘Hello.’ They look out with dead aim at the perfect beauty of lawn care, car pools, mailmen, etc… (21)
She sees the surface so closely that she ends up seeing beyond the surface, It’s a kind of double (or triple [or quadruple]) seeing. Like looking out through your eyes to see your face with all the other faces and non-faces. Her capacity to see particle(s) and body and beyond body—this, I think, is instructive to us essay makers. I’m not sure what I even mean other than we dig deeper into ourselves to get beyond ourselves—to you. The speaker attends closely to the detritus, the remains inside and outside her house, things left on tables, on lawns, sidewalks, streets. She mixes the aftermath of sprawling with the act of sprawling farther. This is kind of like saying look at the deceased body in the casket next to other bodies in decline lined up to look at the deceased body in the casket. One might mention this book’s plot line of the speaker’s marriage to her husband coming undone. Her husband’s name is Haywood—Hey, Wood! The marriage plot here is compressed, fragmented, volatile and depersonalized by turns, and, in the end, like marriage, unresolved. More so Ms. Dutton’s book explores the human condition of being alone in America:
Afterward, I take the leftover bread from my sandwich to feed to squirrels and crows in the park. I bend over and roll the bread across the grass. One squirrel runs away from the rolling bread, but the crows don’t move at all, but then they do move, toward the bread, sort of nonchalantly. That night I dream I have roots in me and a pot of buried gold, my own buried treasure and I carry it around in my stomach. In the morning I plant petunias and find a marble in the dirt. I chop broccoli at the kitchen counter and with its clean, bitter smell I continue to sharpen and realize. I enjoy the energy the knife gives me, which is somehow constricting and stupid. Later I wash dishes and hum softly and think of old sex-partners, different positions, or beds, how one was just a mattress on the floor and one was in a closet. That one imprinted itself on my memory due to a series of odd gestures involving a sweater and a cock, as well as the calculated intercession of photography. Some photos are destined to be kept in boxes or closed dresser drawers. And some photographs people won’t give back even when you ask for them. Still, there are all kinds of pictures displayed on walls and shelves. (23)
What seems unique, dignified too, and perhaps runs counter to the sprawling body, is the speaker’s capacity for presence in quiet, ordinary moments. This presence nourishes her relationship to the world, the many selves encountering the world. The broccoli’s smell (clean, bitter) sharpens her presence, and she realizes, another way of saying she becomes visible to herself. She keeps herself company. We follow the speaker’s mind through perceptions of ordinary tasks, dreams of splendor, salacious memories, and a meditation on photos as remains. Her mind is so elastic that it takes us readers, at once, further and farther, and what’s that line from Richard Siken’s poem, can’t recall the title, something about seeing “…your true face, the back of your head.” We apprehend not only what the speaker perceives but how she perceives along with the human qualities shaping her sensory receptors. She sees lots of edges, for example:
On the edge of the countertop, lined up along the edge, is a plastic cutting board with dried tomato pulp, a mixing bowl, a crumpled paper towel, a ramekin, a stack of plates, two tumblers, three spoons, a cold saucepan, a rubber band, a portion of lemon skin, and the cap to a bottle of vinegar. 24
I stand on the edge of the dining room table, all bathed in light, for nearly twenty minutes, which seems to freeze time. 51
The sugar bowl with blue lace patterns sits at the edge of the table. It might even hover centimeters above the linen tablecloth. 59 
Gathered together on one small section of the kitchen table is a stack of bills, a plate with a shell of hard-boiled egg, orange peels, two glasses, one linen napkin, one spoon, and near the edge is an empty box of chocolates (gold foil). 61 
I leave the plate and the peel on the edge of the counter and drink water from a tumbler and wipe my hands on my pants. 103
What sits at the edge might fall over. Or not. The narrator’s marriage breaks apart but not fully. The narrator tells the story not of her life but of her mind, the life of her mind sprawling within a body connected to other bodies sprawling and extending without limit or restraint across America, and who’s going to report back to us living in garden apartments? Who’s going to let me know what the darkest days say to the lightest days? How can I know if I’m doing the right or wrong things?
I had better tell you where I am, and why. I am sitting in a high-ceilinged room in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu watching the long translucent curtains billow in the trade wind and trying to put my life back together. My husband is here, and our daughter, age three. She is blonde and barefoot, a child of paradise in a frangipani lei, and she does not understand why she cannot go to the beach. She cannot go to the beach because there has been an earthquake in the Aleutians, 7.5 on the Richter scale, and a tidal wave is expected… My husband switches off the television set and stares out the window. I avoid his eyes, and brush the baby’s hair. In the absence of a natural disaster we are left again to our own uneasy devices. We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce… 133-134
—says Joan Didion in her essay “In the Islands,” and then in the documentary The Center Will Not Hold:
Joan Didion’s nephew: Did he [Didion’s husband] read that?” 
Joan Didion: He edited that. 
Joan Didion: You used your material… You wrote what you had.  
Jay: If she cannot hold me, then I can hold myself. I can put my arms around my shoulders and squeeze tightly. What do you think about this idea, Mrs. Wick? 
Speaker from Sprawl (on page 7): Meanwhile, the crows in the yard act like dogs and Mrs. Wick leans over to tell me she’s on a journey she likes to call “Mrs. Wick.” 
Joan Didion: That was what I happened to have at the moment. 
Speaker from Sprawl (on page 49): There are strawberry stems on the tablecloth, several juice glasses, a half-eaten bran muffin, a pink napkin, a net. There are crumbs and stains, and the morning light devours what it sees. I take a walk in the garden, which is just like the countryside. I write letters to people elsewhere in America, idealizing simple faith, fidelity, and pastoral elements from the past. Then I look out for woodchucks.

August 25, 2016 
I stumble upon an entire retail district—three or four dedicated blocks plus cross streets—of lights in every possible color, size, shape, e.g., bulbs, fixtures, CFL’s, fluorescent tubes, lamps, chandeliers. Every shop glows with electric light. I pass a sleek black panel displaying oblong-shaped colored bulbs flashing, dropping light down to the ground in undulating waves then extinguishing momentarily before rising back up to the top only to disappear again. Without consulting a map, I realize how close I might be to Centro Historico but there’s always the chance I’m not close at all. Illumination abounds.

Alone is a condition that can shape one’s sense of self, form half-selves and multi-selves nesting within a single way of being. I’m talking about identity, and I am talking about more than identity. How we come to know ourselves is connected to and separate from the ways others know us. I suppose the danger with any sense of identity is how it can fasten one to a single way of being. This is who I am, this is not who I am, etc... If we view ourselves as alone in the world, we may not see the incremental ways we connect to family members, lovers, friends, acquaintances, complete strangers. Ramekin is a small dish for baking and serving an individual portion of food. Art, among other things, tries (tires) to inhabit these gaps around identity. Even though the speaker shares space-time with others (her neighbors and her spouse) and, yes, she recalls in more expressive prose childhood memories of her and her friend Lisle, the speaker mostly sees herself as alone—in her house, neighborhood, and suburb outside of the city to which she occasionally refers and considers both present and beyond her reach:
I hope to inform you what a triumph the big city has become. (3) 
I sit at the kitchen counter with the cat at my feet and watch the lights of the city in the distance and a skyscraper. Helicopters and plans revolve around it in peculiar orbit. (4)
In the distance the city flickers. (35) 
We have a distinctive ecology involving cows, furniture, farms, real estate, azaleas, fires, corn, curtains, dust, passion, malefactors, milk, meat, cherries, wasps, mayors, pipe fitters, fences. Still, the city resists and defines us. (39) 
Hate and fear rise out of the metropolis; I glimpse it from my bathroom window when the wind blows the trees just right. (49)  
We could take a train together and disappear in the city outside. (85)
O even when we live in the city we cannot be part of the city, cannot become the city. The city squeezes us into scuttling compactions overpaying for coffee and forgetting our key fobs at the gym. The city is forever a dream for which we reach and reach and reach. In our lives, we shall spend so much time alone, with and without others, in our houses, in cafes and restaurants, on airplanes, inside our cars, walking down sidewalks, running on paths through the forest, in the bathroom on the toilet or taking a shower, in our thoughts and feelings through which we walk ill-equipped, determined to trace fully (never fully, no) the beautifully imperfect edges of our bodies and be in touch, consensual, reciprocal touch, with the bodies of others and the objects we make and the landscape from which we’ve sprung, to feel our bodies in motion, in mystery, all this alone space-time perhaps preparation for the ultimate alone space-time, of dying, crossing over into death, this place to which we can only travel alone even if we are fortunate enough to be surrounded by others whom we love and who love us and many people do not have this fortune, many people die surrounded by complete strangers. In the face of death and uncertainty surrounding our deaths, we make things. Poems, spicy artichoke dip, Visions of Johanna, portraits of refugees, lending libraries for those who live outside, carnivals in Prague. O Karl Ove! Sprawl’s speaker writes letters to the women who share with her this suburb. The letters are often hilarious, insightful, emotional, demonstrative, detached from emotion, etc... The narrator also makes strange, silly performances, in private, in public, on and off the page, and to clarify, “silly” is a compliment in my book:
I walk through the doorway wearing my aggressively orange hat. I do it over and over. I do it as a kind of series and then I do it in reverse. I do it as an indicator of a particular lifestyle, to redefine myself and exclude others. First I do it in a red pantsuit and then I do it in the nude. I do it and I say, “I doubt it.” I twirl a little when I do it. I do it and am striking when I do it because I do it in a frilly dress like meringue. (3).
O summer of jumpsuits! O autumn of sweater dresses! And in this moment, I would like to define the essay as vocal sprawl, thinking, expressing various qualities of voice in the service of revealing so many selves, e.g., vulnerable, guarded, performative, detached, searching, uncertain, ironic, silly, wistful, receptive (when words have ears!), overconfident, quiet, defensive, jocular, sincere, blind, visionary, distracted, prowling, and taken together these selves contradict, un-know, mystify, surprise, feel inevitable. Human behavior is dynamic, fluid, largely unknowable. The speaker’s voice toggles between sincerity and irony, between hyper-detailing and abstract imagination, between sense and sound. At moments the speaker is so immersed in the suburban surface, the illusion of immortality throbs, and here the reader senses a dreamy irony, and then in the next sentence or within the same sentence, the speaker shifts to sincere insight:
We listen to one member of the family who talks about airport safety. Then we go into hidden parts of the house or yard and cross-fertilize like birds and squirrels or like the work in any beanfield. Pesky neighbors show up on our lawn after dinner. This is evidence of the demise of my easy world, which seems like it’s easy. For dinner I serve roots, pumpkins, radishes, and kale. I garnish it with red onions, parsley, and mint. We are culpable, hateful. We sit back and pick off spiders walking the circumference of our town during the autumn months. But sometimes we share a vision, we pick out a criticism, we plunge ourselves into compassions of indistinct sensation: change, transfer, dazzling. (87)
The speaker understands living is not easy, yet protects this illusion of ease by decorating it, garnishing it “with red onions, parsley, and mint,” only to be punctured by the speaker’s direct, sincere admission of culpability and hatred. Suddenly, no matter where you live, you are implicated in this need for illusion. In Mexico City, I walked around by myself for 10 days, phone off, chasing ghosts from Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. When I am alone, a distance in space-time separates my body from the body my body wants to touch and be touched by. Words keep me company. Dreams keep me company. A marionberry cacao latte keeps me company. Memories keep me company. Walking through my neighborhood. Correspondence (I owe Brandon a letter). Fern fronds. Lupine. Yarrow feather. Memories of 2 Rue Tardieu. To send my thoughts out to what cannot be is to send my thoughts on a journey I like to call, Mr. Ponteri. Being alone is the condition of the writer in the act of writing. When you feel the particular edges of your body at the same time you feel the motion of your body sprawling across the landscape it inhabits, then you feel the space in between things, you feel the human machine, you feel the joy of sitting with yourself, the joy of needing nothing but what surrounds you and what’s inside of you. No matter what we cannot separate ourselves from our fauna pack spreading about and across the landscape, leaving in its wake desensitization, detachment, destruction, decline, disparity, despair:
To celebrate we want another parking lot, a bigger lot, with bigger spaces, and many good spaces close to the entrance. It takes paperwork and months and more paper. The mayor says, “Indefatigable!” We bulldoze small and inconvenient fields of strawberries or corn and replace them with the increasing complexity of everyday life: promised lands, the right of “choice,” boundaries, color schemes, paper mills, etc. There are golf courses, chain restaurants, six brand-new gated communities, and, in the edge-towns to the north, there is a debate about public housing and how to shift responsibility for the poor. The book calls it “suburbanizing the conventional inner city,” and argues that it is “excessively intentional.” But this place is a flat surface. The place is distinct from other places and at the same time isn’t. This place is really convenient. There are all sorts of differences that already exist. The book tells us we resemble virtual neighborhoods and according to the experts the virtual is “more compelling” than we are. I walk through the streets and look in windows to witness cheerfully painted walls and vertical lamps, high technical quality and surround sound, mystery, beauty, fry baskets, fried chicken legs, joy sticks, shelves, ovens, beans. 78-79
The speaker flickers between illusion and the truth beyond, and this motion between the two is a kind of locale, an orienting point, in the way traveling home is home, or like searching a map and finding the phrase, You are here, and understanding the word “here,” the point on the map beneath this word, and where you actually are happen to be three discrete spaces, all shared and separate. Like our bodies. Perhaps we might call such an intersection love. Speaking of love, I would be remiss if I didn’t consider the speaker’s love of lists. Another poet I know, the poet Erin Nelson, considers the lists better than I ever could.
Danielle Dutton’s epic prose poem “Sprawl” has a particular and distinct tone and vocality. Sentences both sprawl and contain—contain words, lists, and objects, and contain a palpable lack of emotion. I keep coming back to the refrigerator. I imagine sentences and lists posted to the refrigerator door. The kitchen staple. Not unique to the suburbs, but perhaps especially expansive and numerous are the refrigerator models present in the suburbs. Some houses may have more than one. Several varieties even. A garage refrigerator for beer. A spare freezer to stock with bulk shopping items. The list upon list. Dutton’s lists go on into absurdity, as the contents of the refrigerator accumulate and weigh down spoil and weigh weigh weigh but don’t go away. They reveal the divided self, the need for human connection and nourishment, also the emotional rejection and remove. Loom. Tip. Stretch. The poem stretches across nearly 140 pages. The sprawling poem the sprawling list. A series of arranged scenes. Words arranged, food arranged, items of the suburban home arranged. The prose calls me in, like the warm refrigerator. 
I had better tell you where I am, and why. I am sitting on a black-cushioned couch in a café called Good Coffee on SE Division Street in Portland, Oregon. I am watching people ride by on bikes, inside moving cars, on foot. Everybody looks busy, content, at ease, and amidst feelings of loneliness—I don’t want to be left behind—I feel outside of it all, excluded. I’m trying to put my life back together, trying to remember how to be alone because somewhere along the way I lost this.

August 27, 2016
I lie on the wood floor. Sunlight shines through the sheer curtains pulled across tall windows of my apartment. I live on Huatabampo. Next to Jardin Ramon Lopez Velarde. The neighborhood is called Roma Sur. I move to the tiny kitchen to boil water for coffee. Pink tiles, cool against my feet. Nobody within one thousand miles knows who I am. Later breakfast at Cafebreria El Pendulo (reading more Bolaño), then I set out to find the cloister where Mexican poetess Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz lived. Occasionally I step out of the crowded sidewalks to stand back against a building or in a locked-up doorway where I can retrieve my guide book with map from my backpack. I can't match the street on which I find myself with any street names on the map. I check the map's key to make sure it says "Mexico City" and it does. Then I look around Paseo de la Reforma for any signs that might read "Cuidad de Mexico.” Am I indeed in the city I believe myself to be? And perhaps I am using this map too literally? Perhaps I need to read this map more like I read a poem? I don’t think the point is to lose myself but is the point to find myself? Or somewhere in between? Always more questions than answers.


Jay Ponteri’s memoir, Wedlocked, was published by Hawthorne Books and received the 2014 Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. His chapbook of short prose, Darkmouth Strikes Again, was published by Future Tense Books. LOBE is forthcoming in 2020 by Widow Orphan Books. His essay “Listen to this” was mentioned as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2010, and more recently, “On Navel Gazing” was mentioned as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2015. He has published prose in Gaze; Oregon Humanities; Puerto Del Sol; Knee-Jerk; Essay Daily; Ghost Proposal; Seattle Review; Salamander; and Forklift, Ohio; among others.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Beauty, Love, and Reconciliation for the Gift We are Denied: David Foster Wallace on Tennis

You’ve heard Robert Frost’s condescending quote about free verse, saying, he’d rather “play tennis with the net down.” And perhaps those familiar with Infinite Jest, or David Foster Wallace’s most well-known tennis essay, “Federer as Religious Experience,” might presume to have heard enough of him on the sport. But, in case you didn’t get around to picking up String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis, posthumously published two years ago, with an introduction by John Jeremiah Sullivan, go for it. If you’re ever going to read about tennis, this is the time as the 50th US Open continues.
Just as Frost preferred working in the structure of meter, Wallace excelled playing in the 78’ x 27’ “sharply precise divisions and boundaries” of a court as a competitive “near-great junior tennis player.” The five essays in String Theory are worthy of your time because Wallace does what all great essayists do with their apparent subject—he takes something we are tangentially familiar with and complicates it. The tennis we see on TV, for example, compared “to live tennis” is “pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love.”
For most of us, tennis is a game we occasionally hear about or watch on screens, however the speaker of these essays is uniquely positioned as a former player and gifted writer with a press pass who animates the otherwise unseen, or not yet-perceived. Reading what Wallace wrote about tennis can awaken the nonfan to the swirling insights, associations, and beauty he describes.
In 1968, when Arthur Ashe won the first men’s United States Open Tennis Championship, Wallace was six years-old, living in a farmland town of East-Central Illinois that “meteorologists call Tornado Alley.” The gusts of wind that smacked his young face and gave him his “earliest nightmares” later became an asset in his tennis game. “By thirteen,” he recalls, “I’d found a way not just to accommodate but to employ the heavy summer winds in matches.”
One knock on Wallace’s writing is the frequency with which he employs bursts of long complicated sentence structures. I’d argue that one, these discursive thoughts are part of the associative power of an essayist’s mind at work, and two, Wallace ultimately lands a significant point. In “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grostesquerie, and Human Completeness,” an essay first published in Esquire, 22 years ago, more simply as, “The String Theory,” Wallace asserts that tennis is “the most beautiful sport there is,” calling “serious tennis” a “kind of art.”
He explores beauty more fully in “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” when Wallace challenges masculine athletic norms saying, “no one ever talks about beauty, or grace, or the body” in professional sports, unless it’s tied to aggression or violence. What TV viewers also lose is the intimacy of taking in “the sheer physicality of top tennis” and “a sense of the speeds at which the ball is moving and the players reacting.” You will most likely not stumble upon an advertisement from the USTA touting the intimacy of physical beauty that you’re missing by not buying tickets to watch the US Open at Flushing Meadows’ National Tennis Center.
The TV cameras take in the action overhead and behind the baseline which diminishes the actual size of the court and pace of play. Wallace emphasizes the universal appeal to human beauty, specifically, by arguing that watching the “deceptively effortless” grace of Federer is about coming to terms with his own physical talents and limitations both as a tennis player and a corporeal self. Watching great tennis players “is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”
In “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” Wallace wonders why people continue to fall for the allure of sports autobiographies when over and over again the promises made to readers on the flaps of book jackets are not kept by the author. “Maybe” readers “automatically expect people who are geniuses as athletes to be geniuses also as speakers and writers, to be articulate preceptive, truthful, profound.” Yes, he contends, most athletes are either laconic, or “stunningly inarticulate.”  We see this expectation for the triumphant jock to make sense with words what he or she just achieved with their body after most professional games when sideline correspondents shove microphones in their faces before the first piece of confetti lands. Why do “we naively expect geniuses-in-motion to be also geniuses-in-reflection”?
When athletes speak to the media in clichés I’ve assumed they are fulfilling an obligation to talk to the press without actually saying anything at all, which protects their personal boundaries and avoids controversy. Wallace, however, considers that “for top athletes, clichés present themselves not as trite but simply as true, or perhaps not even as declarative expressions with qualities like depth or triteness or falsehood or truth but as simple imperatives that are either useful or not, and if useful to be invoked and obeyed and that’s all there is to it.”
Conversely, the analytical mind is a detriment, an inhibiting characteristic that gets in the way of athletic performance. As Wallace’s teenage peers grew into taller, hairier, more talented tennis players, he began losing confidence. One coach even told him he had, “a bad head,” because he thought too much during matches.  
You don’t need me to tell you sports metaphors are some of the most strained comparisons thrown around in platitudes of everyday conversation and published in more developed language by too many sports reporters. The worst sports comparisons are to war where people lose limbs and brain function and life versus games where the outcomes shift emotion, but Wallace suggests a reason for their ubiquity. Men resort to “war codes” because they are “safer” and therefore they are more comfortable professing their “‘love’ of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war.” This reader could do without them altogether. Wallace occasionally slips into them, for example when he compares the flight of tennis balls to “artillery and airstrikes.”
It’s fair to call David Foster Wallace one of the greatest tennis writers, but in less hagiographic terms, we should consider him a gifted translator “between doing and being,” the rare combination of an experienced player and a talented author who communicates “the gift we are denied.”


James M. Chesbro’s debut collection, A Lion in the Snow: Essays on a Father’s Journey Home, will be published by Woodhall Press next month.