SxS: The Irretrievable and Unnamed

For the past couple of years, just before the holiday break, I have read Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" aloud with my students. As we give voice to the story, passing the reading around the room, I ask my students to note with a pen any of Capote's sentences that they admire and find particularly effective (beautiful, memorable). We finish the story, sigh, and then go around the room again, this time reading out loud only the sentences that drew special attention. To hear the constructions gather in the air — these selected bests, free of their narrative context but reactivating in the imagination moments in Capote's story — is a special pleasure. Why? I suppose the discrete sentences make me feel closer to the making; I hear the pieces rather than thinking of the whole. 

This year, as I drove home from class, I was considering the design and operation of the sentence that delivers the unforgettably affecting loss in the story. Buddy is recalling, in continued present tense, when he learned that his friend had died, on a "leafless birdless" November morning:

A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. 

The effect of the sentence-ending simile draws my attention first. It may not be the freshest image, but contextually, it carries great meaning. Buddy and his friend have a long history of making kites for each other for Christmas and, in a pasture below their house, flying them together — "feeling them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind" (read that aloud, and feel the satisfyingly erratic tension on the line!).

Then I pan back to appreciate the complete sentence. The first half presents an arrival, a reception and confirmation. But the phrasing is nonspecific: "a piece of news" and "some secret vein." We don't see or hear about the message itself. It comes in whatever words, somehow expected.

And then, immediately, something — also vague — goes, something ineffable: "an irreplaceable part of myself." There is no defining this loss. How can you possibly put words to what's now not there, not anywhere, this deeply personal, private connection and history, this fundamental sense of stability and home in another person? 

So we have an image. The closing simile works against the nonspecific language, or emerges from it. We see the picture, as simple as it is, and by seeing it, we feel it. The kite is pushed this way and that, "loose," upward and away in the wind, trailing its broken string. What we feel is the irretrievability. It will never be back. We hold the other end of that piece of string as Buddy holds the "piece of news." Every moment, the part of himself that is no longer part of himself moves farther away. 

Not until I had spent a while feeling this irretrievability and beginning to write about it did I realize that Buddy — or Capote — never gives the friend's name. Buddy is seven in the story. She is "sixty-something." "We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember," Buddy tells us near the start. "We are each other's best friend." Every reference in the story is to "we" or "us" or "she" or "my friend." Had I forgotten this absence of a name? Or this avoidance? Reading through again, I see my friend, my friend, my friend, my friend.... The discovery compounds the loss. 

SxS: How Did I Get Here from There?

Johnny Hake, the eponymous thief in John Cheever’s “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” has just returned home in the dark from his burglary in the bedroom of Carl and Sheila Warburton:

Back in my own dark kitchen, I drank three or four glasses of water. I must have stood by the kitchen sink for a half hour or longer before I thought of looking in Carl’s wallet. I went into the cellarway and shut the cellar door before I turned on the light. There was a little over nine hundred dollars. I turned the light off and went back into the dark kitchen. Oh, I never knew that a man could be so miserable and that the mind could open up so many chambers and fill them with self-reproach! Where were the trout streams of my youth, and other innocent pleasures? The wet-leather smell of the loud waters and the keen woods after a smashing rain; or at opening day the summer breezes smelling like the grassy breath of Holsteins — your head would swim — and all the brooks full then (or so I imagined, in the dark kitchen) of trout, our sunken treasure. I was crying.

I should have warned you: after you lift the lid on this paragraph and pour the water into Johnny at the top, some of it will come leaking out the bottom, in tears. In between, though, how expertly Johnny and you are moved under Cheever’s direction. Likely, you’re not a housebreaker, but don’t tell me you haven’t been caught in one of those complicated emotional binds that has prompted you to remember, longingly, and uselessly, when everything was much simpler. And certainly you’ve confronted the accompanying question, How did I get here from there?

I enjoy considering the spaces Cheever moves us into and out of, from the dark, still, troubled, enclosed present to the pungent, open, vibrant settings of irretrievable childhood. And I appreciate the play with fullness — full is that wallet, and the woods and waters of long-ago, but filling also are rooms of the mind, “with self-reproach.”

What most draws my interest, though, is the close of the paragraph, in particular that 52-word fragment that helps us break with Hake into the fresh outdoor freedom of his youth, before we are returned to the dark kitchen with the three-word, grieving endpoint: “I was crying.”

The wet-leather smell of the loud waters and the keen woods after a smashing rain; or at opening day the summer breezes smelling like the grassy breath of Holsteins—your head would swim—and all the brooks full then (or so I imagined, in the dark kitchen) of trout, our sunken treasure.

Cheever interrupts the fragment twice. First, having brought to our noses that “wet-leather smell” of the rushing streams and rain-sharpened forest, and the “grassy breath of Holsteins” in the warm air blowing over the baseball field, he takes us one step further in to Johnny’s boyhood with the second-person invitation: “your head would swim.” For this moment, it’s as if Hake is talking directly to us; we’re nearly there with him. And then we’re withdrawing; our mental swimming leads back to the water, the brooks, which are full. I find it fascinating that right here Cheever inserts the second interruption: “or so I imagined, in the dark kitchen.” It’s an explanatory note, a reminder from the despairing present, separating the brooks from what they were full of, or imagined to be full of — trout, that innocent treasure. Sunken then, and moreso now. (The intruding parentheses, by the way, deliver a clever suggestion of Johnny’s present entrapment.) Though just delightfully aswim, we’ve got a kitchen floor under us, and darkness around us, and tears. How deep a sense of loss opens at Johnny’s moment of gain (nine hundred dollars!).  

This I steal for admiration: that the most complicated construction in the paragraph is a fragment depicting a simpler time. And what follows it is the simplest of complete sentences, from the most complicated of predicaments. 

Not Progress, but Circulation

A couple of years ago, I designed and taught a nonfiction-writing course I called Object Studies, compelled by poet Heather McHugh’s reflection that, depending on the viewer, “every object has a field of force.”

In the past week, I feel as if I’ve stumbled into a related field of force in my own reading. It all began with that suede glove on the front-hall table ... 

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On Returning Home

It is a pleasure to move Sentence x Sentence into its new home here within Hillside Writing. Although Hillside has just launched, the vision of it has been around for several years. And so pulling up the Sentence x Sentence posts and moving them from their original ground on Tumblr can feel more like a homecoming than a replanting. 

And this has me recalling some of the most useful and sustaining words I know about returning home and the practice of writing. In the preface to his collected stories, All the Days and Nights, William Maxwell writes: 

... I had no idea that three-quarters of the material I would need for the rest of my writing life was already at my disposal. My father and mother. My brothers. The cast of larger-than-life-size characters — affectionate aunts, friends of the family, neighbors white and black — that I was presented with when I came into the world. The look of things. The weather. Men and women long at rest in the cemetery but vividly remembered. The Natural History of home: the suede glove on the front-hall table, the unfinished game of solitaire, the oriole's nest suspended from the tip of the outermost branch of the elm tree, dandelions in the grass. All there, waiting for me to learn my trade and recognize instinctively what would make a story or sustain the complicated cross-weaving of longer fiction. 

Good guidance for a writer of any age, whatever the genre or project. That there is an enduring imaginative promise in details from home — details that are always "waiting" there — is particularly instructive and encouraging for young writers, I've found. Willa Cather put it more succinctly: “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” As a teacher and a writing coach, I find the practice of helping another to discover and sort through what's concretely there and compelling in the memory of home to be an especially satisfying pursuit.