Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Syntax Club: "XIV. Red Patience"; "XV. Pair"

Syntax Club: Autobiography of Red

Please see here for previous installments of Syntax Club; feel free to post comments and thoughts and sentences you love here on the site or Twitter; if you try an exercise feel free to Tweet some of your results using the #SyntaxClub tag.

Frame

--How is this work essayistic, or possibly of value to essayists?
--What is distinctive, noteworthy, excellent, or interesting about the sentences in this work?

Argument

Geryon finds himself inexplicably transfixed by an especially unusual volcano photograph (entitled "Red Patience" involving a fifteen minute exposure; Geryon finds that his wings are struggling anew (a pain not felt since childhood) as he and Herakles find themselves this odd pair engaged in a mutual sort of watching; in other words, our adolescent protagonist is reckoning with time, intimacy, distance, and vision.

Questions

What's valuable to an essayist here?

Probably gonna start shifting the question approach up tomorrow, since ultimately I am starting to repeat in unhelpful ways, but for now let's emphasize that these sections are doing significant work about the nature of time (long photo exposure) and the relationship between distance, sight, and intimacy (Geryon's relative inability to render himself as anything other than odd to Herakles, the ways in which his wings serve as a locus for difference, otherness, monstrosity, etc). The latter of those is something more or less all essays grapple with in a way.

Sentences

A fifteen-minute exposure that recorded both the general shape of the cone
with its surroundings (best seen by day)
and the rain of incandescent bombs tossed into the air and rolling down its slopes
(visible in the dark). (51)

Gorgeous elongation, but I'm most drawn by two things here: the sonic & connotative choice underpinning bombs (emphasizing the sudden, violent spectacle through an explosive and a plosive--that puff of air with the b providing a nice contrast to the more languid incandescent) and the ways in which the parenthetical interruptions provide a sort of dichotomy (day & night).

Geryon could see a row of pine skeletons
killed by falling ash. (51)

and ash moving down
and pines in the kill process. (51)

Skeletons killed continues the violent connotations from above, but notice how Carson recalls, extends, reworks it into willful strangeness later on: killed becomes in the kill process.

he kept going back to it.
It was not that he found it an especially pleasing photograph.
It was not that he
did not understand how such photographs are made.
He kept going back to it. (51)

Significant & effective use of repetition here (he kept going back to it; it was not that) to emphasize both the intensity with which Geryon is drawn to the photograph and the inexplicability of the draw. I like too that we get what can be called a chiasmus or antimetabole (repetition of elements in an inverted order; an AB:BA pattern; don't stress too much about which one is which, many rhetoricians and scholars use the terms inconsistently).

His wings were struggling. They tore against each other on his shoulders
like the little mindless red animals they were.
With a piece of wooden plank he'd found in the basement Geryon made a back brace
and lashed the wings tight.
Then he put his jacket back on. (53)

Variance in syntactic length is what struck me here--Carson is describing a single situation/sequence of action (Geryon's wings are bothersome and so he makes a brace to restrain them) with sentence patterns more or less Short->Long->Long->Short (similar to our ABBA chiasmus action above). Interesting that Carson confines the moment of commentary (like the little mindless red animals they were) to the long and keeps the short sentences framing the whole action simple and direct.

The jacket shifted. Geryon peered out. (53)

We saw a similar move to this--Geryon being a little obscured, rendered partially in terms of a moving or speaking object--in some earlier sections with the fruit bowl. Interesting that Carson chooses to repeat the move here, especially given that the next section will contain the first sexual consummation of Geryon and Herakles' relationship.


Exercises
Parenthetical Pairs
Compose a single sentence which contains two different parenthetical interludes that somehow serve as contrasts or counterpoints on the level of diction, subject, or theme (see: day and night above).

Recall and Rework
Establish a through-line of diction across several words (see: the violence implicit in skeletons, bombs, killed by falling ash, etc) and then recall and rework the same through-line later on in a passage (see: how killed becomes kill process).

Short Long Long Short
See how imitating Carson's syntactic variance affects the pacing of your own writing; describe a single sequence or action in short and long sentences according to an ABBA pattern (and maybe experiment with it the other way, too).


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Tomorrow we do Grooming and Walls.

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Will Slattery helps curate things here on Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery

Monday, May 25, 2020

Sheryl St. Germain on Risk, Grief, Healing, and Recovery amidst a Cancelled Book Tour

I started planning an eight-week book tour for Fifty Miles in early 2019. With the help and generosity of friends and colleagues, I’d managed to put together a tour for 2020 that would span nine cities and seven states. Fifty Miles is a memoir about addiction, grief and healing that focuses on my son Gray, who died in 2014 of a heroin overdose, and my own struggles with substance abuse and recovery. I knew it was going to be difficult to read from it, night after night, but it felt important to spread some compassionate and what I hoped would be read as thoughtful lyricism about those we love who fall into the river of addiction. In conversation with a fellow poet, Ed Hirsch, who lost his own young son to drugs and wrote a poetry book inspired by him, Ed said to me that we can’t market books like these, rather we have to hope that they will fall into the hands of those that need them. I hoped this book tour might help find those hands.

The tour started with a book launch in early spring in Pittsburgh, my current home, and a reading at nearby Wilkes-Barre, home of Etruscan. I then flew to New York City for another reading. A close friend of my son, the artist, Morgan Everhart, came to this reading, which made it especially meaningful. We had used a painting she did inspired by Gray on the cover of a book of my poems that had come out in 2018, The Small Door of Your Death (Autumn House).

On March 1 we left for the first (driving) leg of the tour, with my generous husband Teake driving. We knew about the virus, but none of my events had been cancelled yet, and we hadn’t yet realized how bad it was going to get. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs was still planning to hold its conference in San Antonio, where I was scheduled to do a signing with Etruscan for Fifty Miles, so I figured it couldn’t be that bad. Two days later we were in Dallas, and things had quickly worsened. I had a reading at a bookstore there, and spent a few days with old friends and former students. I lived for 13 years in Dallas and spent my first teaching years there. I was moved to see some of the very first students I taught in the audience at the reading.  Meanwhile, more disturbing information was coming forward about COVID-19 and its danger to the elderly. We were headed to San Antonio to do the signing, then our plan was to drive to New Orleans where we had just placed my mother in an assisted living facility. We planned to spend a couple weeks in New Orleans helping my mother, selling her house and hosting an estate sale before I participated in the annual Tennessee Williams Festival.

But as we readied to leave Dallas for San Antonio, I began to have second thoughts. What if I picked something up at the conference and brought it to my mother? I decided the risk was too great, and with sadness informed Etruscan that I was going to skip AWP. Instead, we headed straight to Louisiana.

We had lots of time in the car, while driving, to listen to NPR and catch up on what was happening with the virus. Although there weren’t many cases in New Orleans yet, I began to think about how quickly it might spread there. Having been born and raised in New Orleans, I knew how important huge festivals like Mardi Gras were, but also that there were lots of spring festivals where there would be large gatherings of people. And I knew how my community there loved to drink and party and be in large crowds. As of this date Louisiana is one of the three hot spots for the virus in the U.S. with 9,150 cases and 310 deaths as of this writing, the majority of which are in the New Orleans area.

We arrived in New Orleans March 8. We sold my mother’s house on March 11, and the family went out to eat lunch—raw oysters, gumbo and po-boys—with my mother at our favorite restaurant. Meanwhile, emails from Georgia, Illinois, Iowa and Maryland slowly trickled in saying that all of my events had been cancelled.

A couple of days after we closed on the house, my mother’s assisted living facility went on lock down. We were not going to be able to see her for the forseeable future. We would learn later that a resident and staff member both tested positive for the virus, and the former would die. We hosted a two-day estate sale that weekend for my mother’s possessions, which included thousands of books and old records. I wore gloves and tried to be as careful as possible during the sale, but there were times when 40 or so people seemed crammed into my mother’s tiny house. I gave away a few copies of Fifty Miles to a few special people who took books and were interested in learning about my mother because her book collection was so vast and rich.

During the estate sale I received a communication from the organizers of the Tennessee Williams Festival that they were cancelling the festival. Meanwhile the number of confirmed cases in New Orleans was increasing drastically, and I was worried about our getting stick and being stuck in New Orleans, unable to see my mother, and in an old, tiny house with almost no furniture, still lots of books, but also heaps of rat and roach poison sprinkled everywhere. We packed up what we could, including all the copies of Fifty Miles I had hoped to sell, and started the two-day drive home. The first night on the road my husband developed a cough and 101 fever. We pushed through the next day, sharing driving. We both fell ill with flu-like symptoms for two weeks, but tested negative for COVID-19, and are feeling better now.

What started as a journey to spread the word about the epidemic of drug overdoses, inspired by personal experience and my son’s death, morphed into a journey dominated by the fear of the growing epidemic of a new virus strain. For now, my words of grief, healing and recovery are muted by a currently more aggressive disease. I’m grateful to Etruscan, and all the friends and colleagues who were willing to help try to get this book into the hands of those that need it, and hopeful that in the future this virus will lessen its grip on us and the book will fall into more hands of those that need it.

If you’re interested in learning more about Fifty Miles, take a look at this recent piece published in D Magazine.


(This brief essay was originally published in the Spring 2020 Etruscan Press newsletter; we're reprinting it here because it feels timely, and because it ties in to a conversation we'll be publishing shortly with Sheryl St. Germain. —Editors) 



Sheryl St. Germain has published six poetry books, three essay collections, and co-edited two anthologies.  Her latest collection of essays, Fifty Miles, appeared in January 2020 with Etruscan Press. She lives in Pittsburgh where she is co-founder of the Words Without Walls program. In addition to numerous awards for her work, including two NEA grants, in 2018 she was the recipient of The Louisiana Writer Award, presented annually by the Louisiana Center for the Book.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Syntax Club: "XII. Lava"; "XIII. Somnambula"

Syntax Club: Autobiography of Red

Apologies again for the skewed schedule, but in good news I am now ~done~ with grading for the term and ~mostly done~ with peripheral end of year tasks, so hopefully things will be smoother for the rest of the novel. Please see here for previous installments of Syntax Club; feel free to post comments and thoughts and sentences you love here on the site or Twitter; if you try an exercise feel free to Tweet some of your results using the #SyntaxClub tag.

Frame

--How is this work essayistic, or possibly of value to essayists?
--What is distinctive, noteworthy, excellent, or interesting about the sentences in this work?

Argument

Geryon finds himself in a sort of strange, restless, liminal space (hot and motionless) both physically, mentally, and in terms of his relationship with Herakles. The young man is growing, pushing, breaking out, starting to crack--and we still haven't yet hit the sex or the volcano (though we will soon).

Questions

What's valuable to an essayist here?

I may alter the questions a little bit more in the future, as I feel these sections may be getting redundant as we move through the novel-in-verse. In today's readings I'm predominantly interested in that phenomenally intricate and complex thinking going on when Geryon imagines what is it like to be a woman listening in the dark and the answers we receive are placed in relation to sexual assault and the image of slow, forceful, inevitable lava.

Sentences

Black central stalled night. (48)

Another example of effective fragmentation on Carson's part; it's an evocative atmospheric detail pared down to the smallest, tightest phrasing. Stalled is particularly interesting to describe a kind of listless evening.

He lay hot and motionless, that is, motion
was a memory he could not recover
(among others) from the bottom of the vast blind kitchen where he was buried. (48)

Although we've talked mostly about her minimalism, Carson is also perfectly willing to work (or deliberate over-work) the hell out of a sentence when it suits her purposes. Motionless is precisely the type of "tight" or "neat" descriptor that in ordinary MFA-land Craft Discourse would not be amenable to further explication or working. But Carson sticks in a that is (which is what i.e. translates to in English) and, rather than giving us just a basic explanation of the term (what one normally does with i.e.) she draws out and willfully extends the metaphoric action, converting motion to a memory and characterizing Geryon's situation as a vast blind kitchen. A move which is indulgent in the best possible way, I think.

He could feel the house of sleepers
around him like loaves on shelves. (48)

I love how unexpected and yet also plain, matter-of-fact, even guileless the loaf simile is here.

He thought of women.
What is it like to be a woman
listening in the dark?
Ascent of the rapist up the stairs seems as slow as lava. She listens
to the blank space 
where his consciousness is, moving towards her. Lava can move as slow as
nine hours per inch.
Color and fluidity vary with its temperature from dark red and hard
(below 1,800 degrees centigrade)
to brilliant yellow and completely fluid (above 1,950 degrees centigrade).
She wonders if
he is listening too. The cruel thing is, she falls asleep listening. (48)

So much going on here! I'm not going to offer a complete account of all the movement here, but roughly we get Geryon imagining life as a woman and then a voice (either Geryon's, or Carson's, or a combination there-of) thinking through the dark menace of sexual assault in terms of lava. Note the range of implications here: dark, burning, inexorable, slow, destructive, apocalyptic, inevitable (didn't Geryon have an awareness of his death from a young age? And didn't he know of the role Herakles would play before he ever met him? Again we see a sort of cosmic fixity at work, maybe). What I'm most interested in are the rapid shifts in thinking. After the simile is introduced we move to the blank space, a thinking-through of the psychology involved--but then Carson pivots us without transition or warning to a literal, scientific set of details about the movement of lava. Those sentences in the 2nd half, coming after the extended metaphor or conceit of lava has been introduced, deliberately evade "connective tissue" fleshing out the metaphor in the ways we might expect. Carson sets the simile up and then uses "raw", predominately factual details in a totally different register (brilliant yellow and above 1,9000 degrees centigrade come from a totally different world than ascent of the rapist). And then we move back again: she wonders. I find this sort of movement--shifting between registers within a given metaphoric framework but without explicit transitioning or connecting--interesting, unexpected, and rather powerful. Would love to hear more about y'all's take on this section.

Hot pressure morning. (49)

Another excellent piece of fragmentation to close us out, similar to the night which opened these two sections.


Exercises
That Is, (Over)-Working

Take a look at all the work Carson hinges on to the descriptor motionless. Write (or pull from a manuscript) a sentence or two on a topic you know well. Scan for a modifier that seems as if it does not need elaboration or essaying, like her motionless. Append a that is to the modifier and write a phrase or clause to attach which deliberately draws out or expands on the original modifier in a way that either does some serious essaying or takes the seemingly-obvious original modifier in a new, interesting, or charged direction.

Extended Metaphors & Register Shifts

Establish a conceit or extended metaphor within a few sentences (let's say ~5 max). Experiment with moving between the different elements of this framework (e.g., Carson's woman/sexual assault/lava). Try to use multiple registers of description or narration (scientific, lyric, whatever are appropriate to your materials) to correspond to the different elements of the framework. See what effects you can achieve by sharply pivoting between registers as you work through the component elements of the metaphor/conceit. Avoid treating the elements with the same style/register/tone/"voice"/whatever.


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Next week let's plan on:
Tuesday-Red Patience; Pair
Wednesday-Grooming; Walls
Thursday-She; From the Archaic Self to the Fast Self

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Will Slattery helps curate things here on Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Syntax Club: "X. Sex Question"; "XI. Hades"

Syntax Club: Autobiography of Red

Apologies again for the skewed schedule, but in good news I am now ~done~ with grading for the term and ~mostly done~ with peripheral end of year tasks, so hopefully things will be smoother for the rest of the novel. Please see here for previous installments of Syntax Club; feel free to post comments and thoughts and sentences you love here on the site or Twitter; if you try an exercise feel free to Tweet some of your results using the #SyntaxClub tag.

Frame

--How is this work essayistic, or possibly of value to essayists?
--What is distinctive, noteworthy, excellent, or interesting about the sentences in this work?

Argument

Geryon's relationship with Herakles approaches a new. identity-sorting fulcrum--sex--although the relationship doesn't arrive there yet, Geryon and Herakles embrace a renegade youth that is somewhere between artistic and low-grade deliquent; Geryon and Herakles prepare to visit Herakles' hometown of Hades, which features a central geographic metaphor: the volcano.

Questions

What's valuable to an essayist here?
Probably less we can learn on the broad essayistic level here in these two short sections, though there is another interesting aphoristic move at the start of the Hades section (the claim, or mantra, or whatever they spraypaint on the high school wall. Going to focus more so on sentences today.


Sentences

Cold night smell
coming in the windows. New moon floating white as a rib at the edge of the sky. (44)

There's an interesting omission here; Carson completely drops the articles most people would lead with. Not a cold night smell or the new moon--just the thing itself: cold night smell and new moon. On a "craft" level it's an easy, neat way of shortening and sharpening the sentences, but it also renders these two pieces of imagery more lyric, more ecstatic, more mythic; removing the particularizing articles has (at least for me) an effect that makes the images totalized, super-saturated, etc. Interesting to think about in light of how adjectives in this novel are, after all, latches of being (and ones unhinged or let loose by Stesichoros). And interesting too that we get night as a sort of category adjective, similar to boy neck from the Red Meat portions (I need a better phrase for this thing I keep describing so poorly!), in the first sentence, rather than cold night's smell or smell of cold night or etc.

He was fourteen.
Sex is a way of getting to know someone,
Herakles had said. he was sixteen. (44)

Strong, clear, simple use of syntactical parallelism to communicate the important and powerful difference in position between our two young gayboys in a very small number of words.

Hot unsorted parts of the question
were licking up from every crack in Geryon,
he beat at them as a nervous laugh escaped him. (44)

I love the sheer strangeness of this one--the question's parts are hot and unsorted, but also capable of licking up through cracks--images setting us up for all the fun volcano time we will have together later in the novel, maybe--but ultimately these hot unsorted parts are things to be beaten down. Again it seems Carson has a fondness for wide and fast movement when doing descriptive or metaphoric work.

Not touching
but joined in astonishment as two cuts lie parallel in the same flesh. (45)

A different sort of omission: rather than removing articles Carson leaves out the actual grammatical subject of the sentence (what exactly is not touching but joined? the two boys), giving us a long fragment containing that fantastic, astonishing comparison to parallel cuts. There's a definite power to casually dropping in such a bomb.

SPIRIT RULES SECRETLY ALONE THE BODY ACHIEVES NOTHING
is something you know instinctively at fourteen and can still remember even with hell in your head
at sixteen. (46)

This particular aphoristic move exists on multiple levels: the ALL CAPS representing what is getting literally spray-painted segues to normal typography as Carson expands on the actual claim in a more essayistic fashion. Notice the way she uses you as a universal stand-in (a very common thing for us essayists, I think). And note too how it's possible to make a long, relatively elegant sentence with a minimum of punctuation.



Exercises

Omission
Compose several descriptive sentences (or select several from an existing manuscript). Experiment with re-writing them in ways that deliberately omit normal grammatical features (articles, subjects, predicates, etc). See: cold night smell and new moon, or not touching but... for examples. Play around with what tonal or thematic effects you can heighten in this way.



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Tomorrow we do Lava & Somnambula

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Will Slattery helps curate things here on Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Syntax Club: "VII. Change"; "VIII. Click"; "IX. Space and Time"

Syntax Club: Autobiography of Red

Apologies again for the skewed schedule, but in good news I am now ~done~ with grading for the term and ~mostly done~ with peripheral end of year tasks, so hopefully things will be smoother for the rest of the novel. Please see here for previous installments of Syntax Club; feel free to post comments and thoughts and sentences you love here on the site or Twitter; if you try an exercise feel free to Tweet some of your results using the #SyntaxClub tag.

Frame

--How is this work essayistic, or possibly of value to essayists?
--What is distinctive, noteworthy, excellent, or interesting about the sentences in this work?

Argument

Geryon "somehow" makes it to adolescence: he meets a boy (Herakles) and finds himself immediately smitten and lovestruck. Entering adolescence somewhat complicates Geryon's family relationships, and he draws away from his mother to cling more closely to both Herakles and his new hobby/artistic discipline: photography.


Questions

What's valuable to an essayist here?

We get several moments of Big Idea or Aphorism or Gesture in these sections regarding the self, the other, and distance. I don't quite have a full grasp on how these are all functioning here, but it seems to be that Carson is presenting Geryon's burgeoning relationship with Herakles as an occasion "up against" a radically different being, i.e., another person, and so a relationship which clarifies, illuminates, or re-evaluates the self. Given that our whole shtick as essayists is, well, making ourselves (or at least the activity of our minds) legible to others, these notions of identity, distance, and intimacy seem pretty relevant.

Sentences

Then he met Herakles and the kingdoms of his life all shifted down a few notches.
They were two superiors eels
at the bottom of the tank and they recognized each other like italics. (39)

I love the interplay between these totally unexpected metaphors: kingdoms shifting downward, eels at the bottom of a tank like italics. Describing the contours of Geryon's life as kingdoms is interesting and unexpected in that throws a grandiose, mythic light back on our coming-of-age moody gayboy subject. But it also sets us up for the animal metaphor (think biology and taxonomy) when we get to eels, who eventually recognize each other as italics, sometime else entirely. There's a ton of movement here (kingdom to eels to italics in just two dozen words or so), really--although Carson tends to avoid overtly flashy syntactical pyrotechnics she definitely makes forceful and compellingly brazen moves at times.

and there it was one of those moments

that is the opposite of blindness. (39)

Describing the first romantic recognition as sight or light or something similar would feel very overplayed, but Carson achieves a similar effect through negation or opposition; she circles around the thing. I'm reminded very indirectly of apophatic or negative theology, an entire discipline based around description via opposition or negation.

The huge night moved overhead
scattering drops of itself. (39)

A nice moment of personification (night doesn't move or scatter, after all) which creates a strong sense of atmosphere (the drizzling rain isn't just rain--it's night itself--the warm dark lull in which our two gayboys meet (where else) in a bus station.

He put Geryon's hands inside his shirt. (39)

Honestly difficult for me to think of a stronger encapsulation of gay male desire than this moment.

He had recently relinquished speech. (40)

Notice the combination of sympathy, irony, elevation, and sarcasm at work here, all jumbled together. Relinquished is a lofty way of describing teenaged sullenness, but it's also the type of phrase a clever, artistic youth might use quite seriously (compared with, say, Stephen Dedalus from Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Joyce incidentally is absolutely definitively 110& the most essayistic fiction writer in the English language, maybe someday when I have more time, more energy, or more self-loathing we can take a look at some of his stuff together)). Carson is gently mocking Geryon's behavior. But the use of such a lofty verb also brings us back to the heroic-mythic dimension Carson has created, which exists alongside and intermingled with a contemporary coming-of-age tale. It's honestly an extraordinary act of balance to be able to maintain these things, and this verb choice does an excellent job of helping with the act.

The words dropped behind him as he went banging out the screen door. (41)

Love the way the participle banging sort, of, well, bangs its way into the middle of this otherwise middle-of-the-road sentence.

Up against another human being one's own procedures take on definition. (42)

Here we see a Big Idea or Aphorism or whatever--notice that as Carson leans more into the essayistic or thinky realm we start to see more gestures of involvement or implication: one's own could easily mean us, after all.

The instant of nature
forming between them drained every drop from the walls of his life
leaving behind just ghosts
rustling like an old map. (42)

Another example of a sentence with a phenomenal amount of movement in the metaphors.

"How does distance look" is a simple direct question. (43)

Wait--since when do we get *quotation marks* in this novel? Who is speaking this, who are they targeting it to, what is prompting it, etc? The poet makes an aside as they are thinking through something, I suppose--and that's essaying, right? Anytime I write a sentence that doesn't totally suck the poets always tell me "it is really a poem at heart", so anytime they do any amount of serious thinking at all I'm going to say "it is really an essay at heart." & notice too how seamlessly the text moves back to the level of narration after this--just a simple pivot on multiple senses of the word light.

Exercises

Via Negativa

Describe an intense emotion, experience, or event through negation or opposition or contrast (see: opposite of blindness). Avoid directly referencing the thing itself.

Keep it Moving

Writing about any subject you know well, attempt 3 or more metaphoric comparisons (see: kingdoms, eels, italics) in 1-2 sentences max. Avoid "connective tissue"--let the suddenness and jarringness work in your favor if possible.

Verbs, Irony, and Sympathy

Take a sentence in a draft (a sentence you are fond of and which describes a meaningful action somehow) and rewrite it so that the verbs involved convey simultaneously a sense of sympathy/understanding for and amusement/irony/sarcasm/etc for the agent accomplishing the action.


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Tomorrow we do Sex Question and Hades--what a pair.

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Will Slattery helps curate things here on Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery

Monday, May 18, 2020

What Happened on 12.21.19: Dorian Fox

Remember our What Happened on 12.21.19 project? Looks like we're still posting these, so if you're still working on yours, send it in! —Editors

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We got on the road late. Our goal was Boston to Pittsburgh by 10 p.m., and I hadn’t packed the night before. Maggie worried about making good time and I worried about feeling rushed. My worst fear is doing a bad job, on whatever schedule, and her worst fear is failing to do the scheduled thing at all. Not so different, but sometimes our neuroses interfere with each other.

Road coffees and doughnuts made us feel better, along with the increasing distance from our daily routines. We weren’t ready for carols yet, so Maggie put on Lizzo. We plotted a course that included some scenic byways.

In Danbury, CT, we had lunch at the New Holiday Diner, which was pretty on the nose. I wished more of life were on the nose. We sat in a booth by windows. Maggie ordered a Coke and a burger and I got a chicken club and a chocolate milkshake. Across the street, kids toddled outside a railroad museum under a giant Uncle Sam. By that point Maggie was crying, missing her parents, who had escaped to Florida for two weeks, but mostly missing her sister, who is no longer alive. We talked about family and grief and money and health care. I was concerned I’d snap at my dad over politics in the coming days.

At a cafĂ© in Milford, PA, the bar was decorated with strings of lights and a video board with festive drink specials. The bartender said, “Welcome to Rudolph’s,” and then we walked off to use the bathrooms, and when we circled back he said “Welcome to Rudolph’s” again. We ordered hot ciders and I joked about wanting the alcoholic kind but having to drive.

In an antique shop, I found a small statue of a fox wearing fox-hunting clothes. It was also a bottle opener. At the register, I told the clerk my dad’s birthday is on Christmas and his last name is Fox (both true). She didn’t seem to think it was very clever, but she was polite and wrapped the gift carefully in tissue paper. In another shop, we bought a dress for my niece and a cutting board made of Italian olive wood for my sister and brother-in-law.

We passed through Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, our main reason for taking the route we took. Maggie worried we’d miss the light, which on this shortest day of the year would be gone by around 3:30, our phones said. The timing worked, though. We drove alongside bare trees and foggy fields, and even though we were headed southwest, not west, an orange sky rippled out in front of us. For thirty miles it felt like the coming year, and maybe the future in general, might be okay.

After that, three more hours of highways. Holiday albums by bluegrass bands and RuPaul. Andy Williams, Nat King Cole and Mariah Carey on the radio. In Altoona, PA, we stopped at a satellite franchise version of a famous Pittsburgh sandwich shop. Football on every screen, and in the back a large party whooped it up for some occasion. At the bar, a young bearded server looked overwhelmed. “Are you two complicated?” he asked. We said we didn’t think so. We ordered two lagers, hot wings and a capicola and cheese.

I drove the last dark leg to Pittsburgh, and we saw the city lights rise up over the hills. Then more darkness in the suburbs. Around 11 we pulled up to the beige colonial my mom sometimes calls a Hallmark house. In fairness, it did look like a Hallmark house. Red bow on the lamppost, electric candles in every window. My parents were at a Christmas party, so we found the key under the mat, dragged some luggage inside and went to check on my grandma on the sunporch, where she now spends almost all her time. She’s eighty-seven and sleeps in my childhood bed. We hugged her and she seemed surprised, but glad. “I wish I had natural waves like that,” she said, and touched my hair. She says it every time she sees me, lamenting her years of curlers and perms. Maggie laughed and disappeared upstairs, where I’d later find her swaddled in lacy blankets.

In the meantime I sat with my grandma. We watched a holiday concert: blue stage lighting and poinsettias like sprays of paint. “Is your mum around?” “No gram, she’s at a party.” Sometimes she asks for her own mother. She still feels like the same person to me, but maybe that’s another thing I won’t look at straight on. Before my parents got home in their party clothes – the garage door’s rumble, then bells on the kitchen knob jangling – I kissed her face, which felt like cool, damp silk.

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Dorian Fox is a writer and freelance editor in Boston, where he teaches creative writing courses at GrubStreet.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Syntax Club: "III. Rhinestones"; "IV. Tuesday"; "V. Screendoor"; "VI. Ideas"

Syntax Club: Autobiography of Red

Sorry about the schedule shuffling on this week's posts (I'm in the midst of "high school final exams" season). Please see here for previous installments of Syntax Club; feel free to post comments and thoughts and sentences you love here on the site or Twitter; if you try an exercise feel free to Tweet some of your results using the #SyntaxClub tag.

Frame

--How is this work essayistic, or possibly of value to essayists?
--What is distinctive, noteworthy, excellent, or interesting about the sentences in this work?

Argument

Carson presents us with various scenes from Geryon's youth, which emphasize his close relationship with his mother, his odd experience of the world, and the general asshole status of his brother. We see Geryon both struggling to communicate his experience of the world verbally and attempting early forays into art (composition journal, tomato sculpture, etc.)


Questions

What's valuable to an essayist here?

These sections are pretty straightforwardly (well, as straightforward as anything Carson does) narrative/novel-like; Carson doesn't lean too heavily on the Big Idea or Aphorism toolkits in these sections. However, the continued references to interior/exterior are worth thinking about as essayists (and "interiority" is kind of our whole deal, right?). Additionally, the ways in which she skews narrative distance back and forth (sometimes the style is closely imitating Geryon's mind, a la free indirect discourse, other times it is a removed-but-opinionated narrative style) are useful to think about. Essayists don't have precisely the same relationship to narrative distance, but distance is still a major factor for us.

Sentences

rhinestoning past on her way to the door. (30)

Interesting type of conversion here; rhinestone, a noun, becomes a verb: rhinestoning (Google tells me this is called "anthimeria"; the inverse, using a verb as a noun, is of course our good friend the gerund). Conversationally we do this all the time, but mostly with boring technology nouns: Skyping, Zooming, Facebooking, etc. Using it for an actually interesting noun is powerfully evocative here.

He knew he must not cry. And he knew the sound
of the door closing
had to be kept out of him. (30)

I love how Carson alters the structure of these sentences to communicate something about agency. Both have the same subject and basic action: he knew. The first sentence is a straightforward, internal imperative: don't cry, man, that'll make it worse. But the second sentence renders him passive and emphasizes his emotional powerlessness; the sound had to be kept out of him, but how? and by whom?

He chose to pass over this distinction. (31)

Note the narrative distance: the voice (can we say the voice *is* Carson? This is a novel, sure, but the narrating voice feels co-extensive with the author we see in the nonfictive sections--maybe that's how this is an essay after all!) is observing, editorializing maybe with a bit of humor.

said the fruit bowl. (31)

But here we get a very different sort of humor (identifying the voice with the bowl covering the kid's head), one much more embedded in the visual experience of the scene. I'm finding the sliding sense of distance more and more interesting throughout this read-through.

Geryon's brother was regarding her with one eye closed his mode of total attention. (33)

Interesting here to note that Carson, famously fancy and pretentious and etc, is actually often kind of a minimalist; there's no punctuation setting off his mode of total attention. Normally you'd do a comma if you were working in a "normal" style, or a colon or a dash if you wanted to perform a bit and draw attention to it, but Carson gives us no mark at all! I'm reminded of the 2 or 3 times in my education I had to read the Hemingway story about the abortion--"Hills like White Elephants?" something like that--and how he uses omission or removal in a similar way.

Maria (34)

Probably worthwhile to track who gets names and who doesn't (i.e., mother and brother).

He had ripped up some pieces of crispy paper he found in her purse to use for hair (35)

A "close" moment in terms of distance; Geryon thinks of it as crispy paper, the punchline is, as we learn at the end, that he's cut up a 10 dollar bill.

Outside the dark pink air
was already hot and alive with cries. (36)

Dark pink air is a great example of Carson's tendency to combine contrasting or conflicting elements (obviously pink can have darker and lighter shades, but it's odd to see it together like this, no?). And hot and alive with cries is a fantastic way of describing Geryon's odd, strange, spastic, lyrical, probably synaesthetic experience of the world.

neatened his little red wings and pushed him
out the door. (36)

A pleasingly wholesome moment, honestly, given how tough Geryon has it.

FINALLY
Geryon had a little red dog Herakles killed that too. (37)

I love how Carson breaks the form (QUESTIONS is followed by ANSWERS is followed by FINALLY). And note again the punctuation minimalism--Herakles killing the dog is simply set alongside the fact that Geryon had a dog in the first place, no explict linkage or relationship established outside that final too. Greatly sharpens the pathos.

Also: what's actually up with Geryon? Or rather, the Geryons? This version is not quite the same as the one from the fake Greek poetry, but both versions seem to have a mystical awareness or sense of cosmic fixity or something (recall that novel-Geryon hasn't actually met Herakles yet).

Exercises

Conversion, Antimeria, Gerunds

Compose a sentence on a topic of your choosing (or select a pre-existing one). Rewrite the sentence in at least 3 different ways, striving each time to use verbs as nouns (these are gerunds: swim becomes swimming, eat becomes eating, etc) or nouns as verbs (general conversion/anthimeria: rhinestone becomes rhinestoning, etc). Note that because of the way English makes use of -ing for present participles too it can be tricky to tell at a glance how any given -ing word in a sentence is functioning. Typing this has reminded me why I am very grateful to no longer teach 8th grade grammar for a living.

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Next week's schedule, God and Final Exam Grading willing:
Tuesday: Change, Click, Space and Time
Wednesday:Sex Question, Hades
Thursday: Lava, Somnambula


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Will Slattery helps curate things here on Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery