Sunday, December 6, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar: Dec 6, Caryl Pagel, Already Read: Notes on Angela Woodward's "Dearth"

What? The woman turns, stirring something meaty with red sauce. She’s lost in thought, remembering Women Talking while listening to Jack. Spoon in hand, she leans over, pushing her face closer to the screen where she lops off the end of a stranger’s sentence to speed up the scene. 

In March, right when it started, there was Axiomatic. Then Pain Studies, Minor Feelings, and crisply relevant Arena, fresh from the printer. Spring held Travesty Generator, Wicked Enchantment, Weather, and The Appendix Project. To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life was summer’s sentence. It was their promises—their wiles, syntax, precedents—that got her up, that accompanied her consciousness like the vent’s hum. 

Elbow!, yells the toddler, brandishing a butcher knife, headed too swiftly, some might think, around the corner toward the dog. 


In “Dearth,” which the woman discovers mid-way through the summer, Angela Woodward recalls the ancient ache of thinking there’s nothing left to read, a dreaded dearth. Woodward connects this lack not only to books but the absence of access to the kind of person who can tell you what text to find next, who can lead you through a personal syllabus like nobody’s business. In the essay, those who possess this secret knowledge, this special psychic vision of literature, appear in many forms: one is a man living in the vicinity of St. Mark’s Bookshop, one the elderly mother of a friend, one a radiant academic, and one, charmingly, Kathy Acker. These readers can zero in on the zeitgeist, are in the right place at the right time, or are simply able—like an oracle—to divine the specifics of one’s literary desire, to conjure a list of unknown authors as prophetic tonic.    
Woodward describes her reading preferences, her specific taste in prose, as that which is tethered to “a living system of European modernism,” writing similar to what one might call, these days, in the parlance of publishing, “innovative” or “lyric” or “experimental,” dense and dizzying sentences, intellectual and bewildering plots, books with a distinctive sensibility, ineffable darkness, transcendent style. She’s already read, she fears at some point, all of the good ones: Barthes, Gombrowicz, Schultz (we’re rabid for the others), and grows dismayed by the slow familiar building panic of the problem of the end of a good book, especially in times, as the essay infers, of loneliness and crisis. “Her list wasn’t required reading,” Woodward writes of the professor who provided the first list, “She gave us suggestions for after we left her behind.” Woodward goes on to detail the trajectory of a particularly moving story that the professor once read in public, which has no name in the essay, and was possibly never published, precluding the possibility of Woodward’s readers unearthing it, the story now subsumed into this private magical moment of listening—a dream a dream a dream of an experience—made remote and dazzling forever.  


The libraries close for a while, then reopen. They let the books on loan from other campuses sit three days after being transported from other counties in the state, just in case. You can do contactless pick up. In the middle of each book is a ticket that tells you not to microwave it. After seven years of borrowing from this location, she has finally earned a fine ($6.36), but there seems to be no way of paying it, just vaguely pleading emails and broken links. 

A Princess Magic Presto Spell arrives in the mail; of colour’s on the way. She carries a pile of Catherine Wagner books two miles east, leaving them with friends in exchange for Natural Wonders. In the essay, which the woman thinks of often, Woodward writes that in recent years she’s experienced a surfeit of extraordinary books (Mantel, Reyes, Mréjen; we’re rabid for the others), and that it’s only the recent dangers and discombobulations of the pandemic that have recalled her to past circumstances in which “slim, harsh stories of female life and death” were harder to come by. 

“Dearth” is an essay about reading. About arranging one’s life around reading. About one’s dependency, desire, and dread of books. The ways they help us, hold us, make fools of us. To some people, literature is everything. It is never enough. To store one’s spirit in the language of others is, what? (Ah, the meaty red sauce!) Fantasy, frame, conversation, cowardice, empathy, voyage, resistance?  


The stranger’s sentence was lovely; lopping was part of the job. Trimming like a tailor trusted with someone else’s garb. She studied the next paragraph. The numbers were going up. 

On a walk around the neighborhood the woman passes a masked child, gusts of plastic, and signs sporting the names of people who’d just been elected. Acorns make rumble strips for the stroller. She wonders, not for the first time, where it is that we are when we read, and who we are when we’re there. Often, the woman reads sitting in a square grey chair, or upstairs, or walking around the block, like now, her body public, interruptible, visible, okay. But where is her character, her mind? When she resurfaces, when she returns, she’s frequently changed, different to herself, an altered brain. Can the baby tell?

She recalls that some of her thinking on this subject exists in the pooled imaginative space between Sven Birkert’s “The Woman in the Garden” and Mary Ruefle’s “Someone Reading a Book Is A Sign of Order in the World,” and that if she needs to remember what she thinks about where she is when she’s reading and how she should consider what to read next—how life imitates art or language as spell—she can return to those essays (as well as “Dearth”) and find a version of her understanding there, her accrued ruminations levitating from their assorted considerations. For most of her life, the woman’s kept her ideas inside the act of reading—right there, where she can find them. 


The baby’s climbed his naked body into a child-sized rocking chair and is swaying back and forth, holding on to the arm of the empty adult-sized rocking chair, peacefully swinging, humming a high song, beside no one. Bee bah bo. Bee bah bo. After a minute he scrambles down, retrieves Go Dog Go, and flips to the back, studies the tree party. 


The woman has struggled with having thoughts. One day, she has a thought. She opens the document where she occasionally types thoughts. It’s been a few weeks since she’s seen it. The last entry is a transcription of the same thought. 


Perhaps a dearth sets your mind adrift—but surplus obscures it? 


People Who Led to My Plays, Three Women, The Years, Insecurity System, Chelsea Girls (again), The Glass Eye, Slingshot. She means to ship an order for a press she works with and, standing at the kitchen table, unintentionally reads the entire book, for the millionth time, before sliding it into a recycled #2 Kraft envelope, confirming the order in the ether, and taping on the stamp. It’s Images for Radical Politics. She takes a picture of a panel from Good Talk and texts it to a friend. Cassandra at the Wedding in her headphones as she walks to the blue box. Home, she orders White Blood, Gut Lust, You Exist Too Much, and Sweet Days of Discipline. At an online reading later in the week she recommends “Fish, Pole!” as response to the host’s thoughtful inquiries about coping. She hears herself say that the essay, brilliant and timely, can be found somewhere (sees her hand waving, vaguely, around) on the internet. Blinks into the camera. 

It was the end of “Dearth” that she thought about for weeks. It would arise in her mind as she was falling asleep. Woodward recounts an incident from a time in which she was a young mother, just leaving the doctor’s office after her daughter’s vaccines, when—overwhelmed, in a hurry, having forgotten something—she asks a stranger, an old man on a stoop, for help watching her son while she runs back into the clinic, looking for a toy duck.

The old man wants to talk, he wants to tell her a story. He has fled Poland, he has fled war, he has walked unimaginable distances, survived unimaginable hardships to be there, on that stoop, talking to her. But Woodward has to run, she has to leave. She has children. She can’t hear it. Can’t stay there, patient, waiting. It’s all too much. An encounter of this sort is less available, thinks the woman. Will it return to them? Her own interactions are infrequent and managed; she’s barely in public. The story sits in the woman’s stomach for weeks, the feeling of that scene. It contained something hard and sustaining, something needed. Maybe she couldn’t say exactly what, but she knew now where she’d be when she was gone again later. 


Caryl Pagel is the author of the essay collection Out of Nowhere Into Nothing, published by FC2 in 2020. 

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