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.


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


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).


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.


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.

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.


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


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

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