Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Literary perturbations: math, rhythm, and the unforgettable sentence

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I want to write about perturbations created by literature, how when you’re reading something that connects to you, you can feel shaken, disoriented almost, like everything in the world has suddenly stopped. I’m sitting by myself in the dark right now. My son is sleeping in the next room. I have a stack of my favourite books beside me, and I’m looking up some of my favourite passages, paragraphs that I’ve read and re-read a million times before, whispering parts to myself, and still I feel it. It’s like an earthquake has just hit. Like I’m looking around to ask everyone, “did you feel that? do you feel it too?” even though I’m all alone and reading by laptop light.

In the book Such Stuff as Dreams, when Dr. Keith Oately (see last post) wrote about how literature has the power the change personality, he referred to moments of destabilization. I think that the theory is that personality is quite fixed; the self has to feel destabilized before changes can be made. He wrote that artistic works might be able to destabilize individuals enough to allow them to change. I think I know precisely what that means. I feel destabilized sometimes, when reading. For me, it often has to do with the rhythms of the words. The content is important too, of course – the words themselves and the musicality of the language are a coupled system, and they can combine to make me feel a sort of perturbation, a feeling that the ground is shifting, the world is moving, or maybe the world has stopped moving, and I’ve kept on going. (These are ridiculous metaphors, and I apologize, but the feelings that I get from these passages are so strong and so visceral.)

I want to know how all this works. I want to know how universal it is. I’ve collected some passages that have affected me. I’m going to quote some of them here. I’m including them without the stories and poetry that should be behind them, but these quotes, naked on my computer screen, still make me stop. Rewriting them takes ages. I could read them again and again for hours. Do they work for you too?

The first example is from "The Ocean Dreams of Incendiary Things" by Jacob McArthur Mooney (from the collection Folk).

I read this poem, even just the rhythm of the title, and I stop.

“A solar flare. A break
in the beacon speak of lights.
All seabirds and sailors
blinked in perfect unison. From chutzpah
into flail, from hum
into sizzle crash,
the come-apart
was counterpunch, the wheeze
of pressurized air was heraldry,
a droop
in the fuselage
that focuses the heart (…)”

It’s like a song. It’s more than that. It’s like I’m taken away from the world for a moment. Not put somewhere else, but just stopped, just myself, and by myself. Here, I think, I have the possibility to make changes. In so many of Jake’s poems, the words and the rhythms kill me. He’s working on a novel that’s full of these too, passages that stop me and put me back into myself, but better. Also, I married him, so there’s that.

This next example is taken from Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.

“What he liked about his brother, he said, is that he made people become what they didn't think they could become. He twisted something in their hearts. Gave them new places to go.(…)

There are rocks deep enough in the earth that no matter what the rupture, they will never see the surface.
There is, I think, a fear of love.
There is a fear of love.”

I whisper this to myself sometimes. “There is, I think, a fear of love. There is a fear of love.” It wouldn’t be so beautiful without the repetition. It wouldn’t be so beautiful without the commas there, those thoughtful pauses, that sincerity or hesitation or fear before the whispered admission. The whole paragraph resonates so thoroughly with the story that precedes it, with so much in my own life. Oh god, and
I’m falling in love with it again.

And here’s another one from the same book, and I think it describes my reaction to this kind of writing.

“He felt for a moment uncreated. Another kind of awake.”

I’m dying. I’ve read this a million times, and still. When I read these passages, I feel uncreated too. Maybe this is the phenomenon that Dr. Oately writes about.

This example is from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

“That year I found myself to be drowning in the news reports of murder. I was aware that these murders very often did not land upon the intended targets but fell upon great-aunts, PTA mothers, overtime uncles, and joyful children—fell upon them random and relentless, like great sheets of rain.”

This book is full of sentences like this. The words are musical, and gorgeously constructed sentences build into beautifully constructed paragraphs, and the whole book builds and builds and builds in this unbelievable, relentless way. It trips me up, not in a way that slows down my reading, but in a way that slows down my thinking.

Here is an example from the poem "Summer Grass" by Roo Borson (from the collection Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida)

“The willows are thinking again about thickness,
slowness, lizard skin on hot rock,
and day by day this imaging transforms them
into what we see: dragons in leaf, draped scales
alongside the river of harried, spring-stirred silt.
The magpie recites Scriabin in early morning as a mating song,
and home is just a place you started out,
the only place you still know how to think from,
so that that place is mated to this
by necessity as well as choice,
though now you have to start again from here,
and it isn’t home. (…) “

I love this so much. The words, the line breaks, the punctuation and the rhythm everything builds to create. They take me somewhere new, even after having read this a million times before.

Here are some examples from Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. This book. These passages. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to describe my reaction. They’re long sections, and they have wonderful stories behind them that I can’t possibly include here, but read them, please just read them.

“He is thinking about asymmetry. This is a world, he is thinking, where you can lie in bed, listening to a song as you dream about someone you love, and your feelings and the music will resonate so powerfully and completely that it seems impossible that the beloved, whoever and wherever he or she might be, should not know, should not pick up this signal as it pulsates from your heart, as if you and the music and the love and the whole universe have merged into one force that can be channeled out into the darkness to bring them this message. But in actuality, not only will he or she not know, there is nothing to stop that other person from lying on his or her bed at the exact same moment listing to the exact same song and thinking about someone else entirely - from aiming those identical feelings in some completely opposite direction, at some totally other person, who may in turn be lying in the same dark thinking of another person still, a fourth, who is thinking of a fifth, and so on, and so on; so that rather than a universe of neatly reciprocating pairs, love and love-returned fluttering through space nicely and symmetrically like so many pairs of butterfly wings, instead we get chains or yearning, which sprawl and meander and culminate in an infinite number of dead ends.”

And here’s another, equally beautiful, equally destroying:

“They find themselves swept up by its sentiments - sentiments that, separated from their r n b arrangement and grafted onto this melancholic spiraling music three hundred years old, reveal themselves as both heart-rending and also somehow comforting - because their sadness is a sadness everyone can recognize, a sadness that is binding and homelike.

And the sun don't shine and the rain don't rain
And the dogs don't bark and the lights don't change
And the night don't fall and the birds don't sing
And your door don't open and my phone don't ring

So that as the chorus comes around once more, you can hear young voices emerge from the darkness, singing along:

I wish you were beside me just so I could let you know
I wish you were beside me I would never let you go
If I had three wishes I would give away two,
Cos I only need one, cos I only need you

- so that for these few moments it actually seems that Ruprecht could be right, that everything, or at least everything that is the Seabrook Sports Hall, is resonating to the same chord, the same feeling, the one that over a lifetime you learn a million ways to camouflage but never quite to banish - the feeling of living in a world of apartness, of distances you cannot overcome; it's almost as if the strange out-of-nowhere voice is the universe itself, some hidden aspect of it that rises momentarily over the motorway-roar of space and time to console you, to remind you that although you can't overcome the distances, you can still sing the song - out into the darkness, over the separating voids, toward a fleeting moment of harmony...”

It could be that the rhythm of my thoughts doesn’t match other people’s internal rhythms. These quotes could mean nothing to you at all. But they meant so much to me that I needed to share them, as examples of perturbations.

I’ve fought people over commas before. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. Oh and I geek out over punctuation regularly. I could never quite explain why the words and the particular punctuation were important to me, but this is, I think, the beginning of an understanding. I was looking for a special kind of music, a harmony between my thoughts and something else, I don’t know what. I was always too embarrassed or too afraid to think too much about it, but I think that I should try harder to figure it out. “There is, I think, a fear of love. There is a fear of love.”

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Alexis von Konigslow

Alexis von Konigslow has degrees in mathematics from Queen's and creative writing from Guelph. Her debut novel, The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, was recently called Arcadia for the connected age. She lives in Toronto.

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