Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Syntax Club: "Red Meat: Fragments of Stesichoros"

Syntax Club: Autobiography of Red

Please see here for yesterday's inaugural Syntax Club post; 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 (Lord forgive me for having just now suggested that we use a hashtag, but here I stand); so then, let's get to it!

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 what are framed as translations of fragments from Stesichoros' Geryoneis. These "translations" are presented in a manner which deliberately foregrounds both their fragmentary nature and lightly imitate the stylistic conventions of classical Greek poetry (texts then were written in what we now call scriptio continua with no punctuation, no distinction between uppercase and lowercase, and usually no spaces between words: CANYOUREADTHIS, more or less; it sounds alien to us but works somewhat smoothly if you bear in mind that almost all reading during those periods, even reading done alone, was vocalized). The fragments are short, highly lyricized scenes which establish Geryon's life as a red boy on his red island, as a gay boy (even here, before the modern re-working, the centaur who comprises "Geryon's Weekend" is a "him", as a boy with a caring mother, as a boy destined to be murdered (though perhaps "reversibly") by Herakles. The degree to which these can be considered translations is a big question; some analysis indicates that they are almost purely inventions, with perhaps minor details from Stesichoros, though other commentators approach them as broad translations. I tend to think of Carson as engaging in something similar to what we sometimes call "found forms" or "hermit crab essays".

Questions

Is this an essay?

Probably not, although I find it some of the most interesting writing in the book. Even if we think there is a connection or similarity between Carson inventing pseudo-translations and the ways essayists use found forms or "hermit crabs" I'm not totally convinced the sort of meta move at work here engages in the kind of thinking we call "essay."

What's valuable to an essayist here, then?

Really good sentences! Also: the found form/stylistic imitation stuff (using various techniques to re-enact an equivalent experience to reading classical Greek) is interesting, now that I think about it more--compare Carson's approach to creating an equivalent experience to scripta continua to, say, an index essay or Ander's outline essay. How do each of these things embody or inhabit aspects of a voice or form? Something to think about, maybe.

How do we feel about the slipperiness of this approach?

Love it! Or at least I do. I find these sorts of moves intriguing ways of complicating the relationship between text, reader, and authority (in multiple senses: text as authority, authority (and even authorship) over/of text, etc). Back in grad school I wrote a weird, fake, deliberately unhelpful and unrealistic text about how to seduce straight guys & then attached a set of essayistic annotations to it in a totally different voice, but, alas, "Tentative Annotations on a Guide to Gay Sex with Straight Boys" is still yet to find a home, so maybe that's a sign one way or another. To each their own; all manner of things shall be well in their own way, given enough time.

And obviously Essay Daily is a welcome home for this type of stuff, but you were probably already aware of that?

Sentences

Geryon was a monster everything about him was red
Put his snout out of the covers in the morning it was red
How stiff the red landscape where his cattle scraped against
Their hobbles in the red wind (9)

Here we see the primacy of the adjective: red red red red. Carson is playing around with epithets (i.e., fixed adjectives, tools for naming, those latches of being--think rosy-fingered dawn in Homer and all that other stuff from high school) and epistrophe (repetition at the end of a line, clause, sentence, section, etc: "...was red", "...was red", "...in the red wind"). Even if you don't know the term epistrophe there's a chance you probably make regular use of it (it's a pretty natural form of parallelism for English speakers, as is the counterpart anaphora--repetition at the start of a line/phrase/clause/sentence/whatever). Geryon isn't just incidentally red, recall--his homeland is literally Red Place--he is coextensive with red, he suffuses red and it suffuses him. By extension Geryon is coextensive with the Red Place Island, and so whenever Herakles shows up to murder him it isn't just a really well-done murder, it is a conquest of a whole 'nother realm--a red one. Carson wants us to feel this connection, so she thrusts red upon us over and over and over in the first few lines.

Carson's heavy repetition here does good work to set up some of the ideas she's working with, and the epistrophe, especially when combined with her spare, laconic style, smooths out what might otherwise feel over-the-top or excessive. Red is what, a little over 10% of the words in that excerpt? Difficult to pull off without a syntactic device of some kind to structure it as a parallel repetition.

Secret pup At the front end of another red day (9)

Another of Carson's strongest skills: the unexpected, unexplained, unexplainable, perfect adjective. Do I know why the pup is secret? No. Does Carson do any work to explain why the pup is secret? No. Do I love that the pup is secret? Yes.

Across the salt knobs it was Him
Knew about the homegold
Had sighted red smoke above the red spires (9)

Two things that I admire here; the first is homegold to describe treasure of sorts. There is probably a technical term to describe this particular sort of word-combining, but I can't remember it at the moment. Compare to Joyce's snotgreen and scrotumtightening sea. Or compare to the Anglo-Saxon device known as kennings, e.g., "whale-road" for "sea" (though those do a different level of metaphoric work). Combining the two--home and gold--into a single word neatly draws our attention to the components and significance of the treasure. Carson uses this sort of combination frequently in her work.

I also love the sonic quality of the last line: had sighted red smoke above the red spires. Red smoke and red spires are elegant parallels (same adjective + the sibilant sound, S, alliterating the nouns) though they run the risk of seeming obvious, trite, heavy-handed, etc. Carson neatly side-steps this by sticking the plosive (i.e., the puff of air with P, B, etc sounds--put your hand in front of your mouth and read the line out loud, you'll feel it) above between them as a kind of sonic pivot. Our takeaway: sonic variation is important to the balance of a sentence.

Geryon walked the red length of his mind and answered No
It was murder And torn to see the cattle lay
All these darlings said Geryon And now me (10)

These unmarked, slippery shifts between poetic description/narration and internal dialog are interesting to me, and I think effective at heightening the pathos of the moment. Look at where and torn to see the cattle lay comes in the sequence, right smack in the middle of Geryon's thoughts, which would be "No. It was murder. All these darlings. And now me." if rendered as explicit dialog in, like, a "normal" style. And torn to see the cattle lay belongs to the same level as walked the red length of his mind; Carson is describing Geryon's mental and emotional activity but omits any sort of marker one would might use to indicate a return to that descriptive level from dialog--no "and he was torn" or "Geryon, torn to see" or etc. Carson (knowing full well that she is screwing around with the difficulties and ambiguities of this "pseudo-imitation of ANCIENTGREEKSTYLE") just silently drops it in the middle. Good stuff. And on a thematic level it is interesting that Geryon has a sort of pre-emptive knowledge of his demise--destiny? premonition? awareness of inevitable cosmic fixity? Something.

His mother saw it mothers are like that
Trust me she said Engineer of his softness (10)

Here the phrase Engineer of his softness is basically working like an unusually placed appositive (a noun or noun phrase which renames another noun or pronoun; in this case the phrase renames "she"), and it's a very effective one for several reasons, primarily the variance in diction. The appositive is comparatively lush: engineer and softness hit very different registers and than say, mother and trust, the other noteworthy words in those lines. We drop into something more elevated, more Latinate in etymology, more willing to make use fancy words dependent on nominalization (soft becoming softness) at precisely the moment his wise forseeing mother displays a kind of concern (and think about this in relation to the title--"reversible destiny", given to us right after "death begins").

Athena was looking down through the floor
Of the glass-bottomed boat Athena pointed
Zeus looked Him (11)

A simpler one: I love the long pacing of this before it lands on the ominous pronoun: HIM

Reddish yellow small alive animal
Not a bee moved up Geryon's spine on the inside (11)

Catalog (i.e., list) is an important device when thinking about pretentious classical stuff, and I like how the withholding of conjunctions or punctuation in this micro-catalog shifts the pace of this adjective-heavy description (it sort of mirrors the physical sensation itself, almost).

Are there many little boys who think they are a
Monster? But in my case I am right said Geryon to the
Dog they were sitting on the bluffs The dog regarded him
Joyfully (12)

Similar to secret pup: regarded him joyfully is unexpected and perfect.

Steps off a scraped March sky and sinks
Up into the blind Atlantic morning (13)

Sinks up! What a move! The description is highly effective (you can see a winged Geryon sinking up into the sky right now, can't you?) even though the word's denotation and connotation are precisely the opposite. You certainly can't sink up, the act of sinking is rarely associated with something beautiful and elegant like flight, and either way your upward movement wouldn't take you into the Atlantic (a body of water here beautifully marshaled into service as an adjective not for marine life but rather morning). And yet despite violating all sorts of "rules" the bit works rather well. Carson is unafraid to bend and bully language when she needs to, and we shouldn't be afraid either.

I realize now too that the moment of contradiction--sinks up--is also split apart by enjambment--she's using lineation to foreground the moments she applies muscle to the language.

Arrow means kill It parted Geryon's skill like a comb Made
The boy neck lean At an odd slow angle sideways as when a
Poppy shames itself in a whip of Nude Breeze (13)

Much to admire here: the short, brutal simplicity of linking the noun arrow with the verb kill; the visceral simile of a skull cracking open like hair parted by a comb; the way in which the slowed-down, mouth-filling assonance (note the frequency of full, round O and A sounds) in the phrase odd slow angle sideways anticipates the visual movement of the poppy head thrown totally back. What I like best, however, is boy neck. Not boy's neck, notice--she deftly converts the possessive into an adjective, suggesting a whole type or category of neck to be imagined.

The red world And corresponding red breezes
Went on Geryon did not (14)

Corresponding is an excellent choice and a wonderful variation in the typical diction of this passage. By juxtaposition it makes the final line all the more powerful in its simplicity, at once sparsely melancholic and somehow serene.

Exercises


Verb Inversion

Take a verb and use it in a way that willfully goes against the typical connotations (see: sinking up). See if you can make a sentence which substantially and meaningfully hinges on a verb that does so.

New Coinage

Experiment with combining nouns and/or adjectives (see: homegold). This is a trickier one for an author to pull off without seeming insufferable, I admit, but it may be a worthwhile practice.

Adjectival Screwing

Take a piece of information that would normally communicate possession, action, position, something like that and convert it into a sort of category adjective (as Carson does with boy neck). Don't worry if it seems odd, or expansive, or unusual--build a sentence around it, internalize the vibe and aesthetics of that sentence, and then start generating new work in that mode. Sometimes we need to skew things, no?

Appositives

Practice writing noun or noun phrases which rename things close to them (see: engineer of his softness). If you already feel comfortable writing appositives, screw around with their placement in the syntax of your work and see what new effects you can achieve.

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Tomorrow we do Appendixes A, B, and C.


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

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