Dissent by Descent—Diving into the Madness and Rejecting Genre Boundaries
April 20, 2021
Part One: Descent
“Reading can be freefall,” says Anne Carson, speaking generally but also about Float, her poetry/list/meditation/excerpt collection described by NPR as “an unconventional medium to suit the message.” Carson gives her readers the freedom to read in any order the small chapbooks, contained in a clear plastic case, that make up the collection, in order to preserve their independence since they originally were separate pieces of performance art.
Freefall. Mary Ruefle also knows something about this. In her book of collected lectures titled Madness, Rack, and Honey, she reflects upon a conversation between her friend, who designed a brochure for an M.F.A. program, and the institution’s public relations artistic director. After explaining that the designer had incorporated too much text and not enough images, that images are more profitable than text (even when marketed to writers), the director said, “‘I’m not making this up. People have written about it, you know’” (138-139). Ruefle, in response to this and directed toward us, her hopeful, eager readers, writes, “We have come to the madness of it now. We have come to the madness, so let us descend” (139). This madness, the idea that writing “comes more naturally to [some of us] than speaking” (138), that “in the middle of nuclear carnage a man should remember a poem from thirty years ago and have an insight into its nature” (139), is necessary in writing, Ruefle suggests. It’s clear that a descent is a part of it, too, but do we descend into or out of the madness when we write? Ruefle seems to think, and I’d agree, we must go down into this madness. That that’s where it all happens. Carson’s freefall can be applied to writing, too—a careful, purposeful freefall. Into the madness.
Clarice Lispector is another writer who embraces this madness, who calls upon it to set her free in her writing. In Agua Viva, she descends in many ways, the most important, arguably, down into her dreams, incorporating just one type of madness—although the general madness we deal with when we write might be, more simply put, the subconscious. Maybe that’s where we want to reside, to explore, when we’re descending into the madness Ruefle discusses. Agua Viva walks a faint line between fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, much like Carson’s Float. “Life is supernatural,” Lispector writes, and she gets closer to the supernatural by placing herself at “the edge of [her] dream” (61). The madness is in this claim: “Before I organise myself, I must disorganize myself internally” (61). Like falling in order to fly, descent as a way to ascend. Diving into dreamworlds gives her a way to overcome difficulties in both writing and coping, or just to surface, even, with more knowledge, awareness, a fuller perspective. When writers do this, they can find ways to tell their readers things they didn’t know they wanted to say. It provides new ways to connect to an audience. It’s freeing to realize I don’t have to set out with a clean plan when I write; I can fall into it, let the madness guide me. Lispector wants to have freedom; she wants the freedom to “err, fall and get up again” (61). Falling into her dreams, taking “the plunge,” as she calls it, into the madness, provides her with this freedom—her dreams inform her writing and allow her to enjoy “that first and fleeting primary state of freedom” (61). She plunges into the mysteries of life and death, the mystical, the epic questions. This is one type of descent, one way to dive into the madness to write. This isn’t to suggest that Lispector’s—or Ruefle’s or Carson’s—writing lacks careful attention. Not at all. The dive itself can be a careful move into the guts of what’s important, what matters to us most, what begs our attention the most.
Hélène Cixous, in her Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing,argues that there are three schools for writing—these have to do with death, with dreams, and with roots, and this craft text has turned out to be quite relevant in looking at descent. It comes as no surprise that Cixous expresses a fascination with Clarice Lispector, as Lispector had a clear fixation on both death and dreams, and roots inevitably inform her writing (and, arguably, all creative work—our families are roots, as are our artistic and literary influences), sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly. In writing, we can return to our roots to connect more wholly to our audiences, to create intertextuality, which I find to be inevitable. “Clarice had died with flowers,” Cixous writes in her chapter “The School of Roots” (153). This sounds right to me after reading Agua Viva, in which Lispector spends almost four pages writing about what she calls “the sadness of flowers” (49). In this section, she anthropomorphizes the flowers, using them as a vehicle, it seems, to continue her meditations on life and its mysteries, while also shifting the gaze, giving her preoccupations some kind of physical ground. She compares the flowers to us, to humans—and aren’t they similar to us? They’re grounded in their roots, just as we are. We can’t escape ours any more effectively than they can theirs. But descending into those roots is how we find heart. The heart. Cixous discusses the bits Lispector wrote as she gave into death, flowers all around her, white lilies on her bosom: “‘the lilies’ petals would burn against the warmth of my body [ . . . ] I will have to die, otherwise my petals will burn’” (154). We are like the flowers—we die despite our seemingly relentless and deceptively vulnerable roots. Cixous suggests that flowers lead us, “by their way of getting through the earth, with their roots, to the core of the matter,” that they lead us “back to the origins,” where we are all a “family” (154). (Descent also means ancestry, after all.) This certainly is what I want to do when I write—I want to fall into those roots, in hopes of finding others like me, so we can all be guided together.
In thinking about descending into our roots in order to write, to narrate, I can’t help but bring up Maggie Nelson’s essay titled “A Sort of Leaning Against: Writing With, From, and For Others.” Nelson shares Alice Notley’s poem “Lady Poverty,” from which Nelson has taken a line for her essay’s title. Notley, according to Nelson, “venerate[s] interdependency,” and Nelson argues that this reverence is a “fairly standard feminist one, as feminists have been insisting for at least fifty years now that the intersubjective be considered as the true ground of human subjectivity, rather than fixating on a (hopeless) fantasy of complete individuation” (85). So we have learned to lean against one another out of necessity, but the results go far beyond what we ever could have imagined. This leaning against, although it might be somewhat unavoidable since “despite our best efforts to repress, disavow, or outgrow that dependence, we remain dependent creatures to some extent all our lives” (Nelson 85), is valuable in its fruitfulness—by leaning against one another in our art, we (women and feminists, especially, keeping Nelson’s thoughts in mind) are able to create a network of artists and thinkers stronger than any one being. This means going back to our roots. Descending down into our roots, treating the intersubjective as a type of necessary madness, whether it be overtly or quietly.
Of the three writers I’ve highlighted here, Mary Ruefle and Anne Carson especially display an appreciation for this intersubjectivity (OED defines intersubjective, in philosophy, as “existing between conscious minds; shared by more than one conscious mind”). In “My Emily Dickinson,” a chapter of Madness, Rack, and Honey, Ruefle writes, “J.D. Salinger once remarked, ‘A writer, when he’s asked to discuss his craft, ought to get up and call out in a loud voice just the names of the writers he loves’” (although Ruefle also notes that only one of the sixteen names was a woman when Salinger did this himself—the woman’s name was Emily) (150). Anne Carson calls on Joan of Arc, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Hegel, and Husserl, among many others, unafraid, embracing these influences and connections, all the while contemplating and celebrating freedom in Float. “Be I free,” says Chorus 4 (the piece calls for four Gertrude Steins who “resemble Picasso’s portrait of her”—a leaning against in multiple directions) near the end of the collection’s “Uncle Falling,” sandwiching the repetitive “I am as I am and so will I be” of Chorus 1. We are who we are but we are who we are because of our roots—and perhaps there’s nothing wrong with embracing those roots. It can be liberating to dive into them, to celebrate them.
Let’s get back to dreams. Does it make sense—the thought of descending into our dreams? I think so. It’s like sinking into another realm. Lispector seems to think so, as she contemplates “the plunge” that includes “comprehension and especially incomprehension” in Agua Viva (61). Getting into our dreams, letting our dreams get to us, is a type of diving into the madness—plunging into their contradictions, their newness, their familiarity, their revelations, their ridiculousness. “[P]erhaps dreaming and writing do have to do with traversing the forest, journeying through the world, using all the available means of transport, using your own body as a form of transport,” Cixous writes in “The School of Dreams” (64). For me, that journey is necessary in writing and inevitable in dreaming. Of course the two tend to work well together. Later in the chapter Cixous says about the future and death, “[w]riting has at its horizon this possibility, prompting us to explore all ages” (66). Thinking ahead, thinking to the side, thinking below, above, thinking about possibilities different from our realities—that’s where dreams come in. “Our books are dream children,” she writes. She considers the ways in which children actually “adopt us,” how “we obey,” then we “abandon the child, though in fact it is the child who abandons us” (79). This is what we do with our books, too, Cixous argues—or what they do for, with, and to us. They become our dreams.
Lispector discusses dreams as a kind of freedom, or a way to freedom, in Agua Viva. She writes that she knows “a way of life that is gentle pride, grace in movements, slight and continuous frustration,” but that she also knows “a way of life that is slight shadow unfurled in the wind and swaying slightly over the ground: life that is floating shadow, levitation and dreams in the open day”; “I live the richness of the earth,” she continues. (62). Levitation—a type of flotage that comes before a dive into the earth? Or maybe after. Or maybe both. Lispector lived this richness; she insisted upon “that fleeting freedom of life” that dreams offer, day and night. (62) Early in the text she introduces her stream-of-consciousness prose as a form of improvisation—“I know what I am doing here: I’m improvising. But what’s wrong with that? improvising as in jazz they improvise music, jazz in fury, improvising in front of the crowd” (16). As she improvises she “plunge[s] into the almost pain of an intense happiness” (17). Again, the word plunge. She gets back to this idea of improvisation in the final pages of the book:
Ah this flash of instants never ends. My chant of the it never ends? I’ll finish it deliberately by a voluntary act. But it will keep going in constant improvisation, always and always creating the present that is future. / This improvisation is. / Do you want to see how it goes on? Last night—it’s hard to explain to you—last night I dreamed that I was dreaming. Could it be like that after death? the dream of a dream of a dream of a dream?
Dreams are fruitful for this improvisation that is, the improvisation necessary to this type of writing, writing that guides us as much as we guide it. Dreams are freedom; dreams concern us in the way death does. Dreams inform us the way death does, faraway and foreign despite their familiarity.
In “A Strange Thing,” Mary Ruefle opens with not only a dream, but also with a reference to a widely influential piece of literature: “Maybe I read this, or dreamt it, for my mind wanders as I age, but I have always believed Odysseus, when he heard the sirens, was hearing the Odyssey being sung, and in fear of being seduced by his own story he had himself bound” (My Private Property 103). Here’s that intersubjective; here’s a dive into some of Ruefle’s roots. She might have read or dreamt this scenario; the world of reading and writing and the world of dreams are, without a doubt, related, connected. They inform each other. Dreams are madness; to explore them is to descend, to dive into the bizarre, the intricate, the mystical—the stuff of stories. Hélène Cixous finishes “The School of Roots” with this advice: “You have to take a rock, put it under your head, and let the dream ladder grow. It grows down—toward the depths” (108). One of my intentions is to go toward, down into, the madness, in order to build upon my dreams when I write.
Although Mary Ruefle addresses issues that arise in the writing of poetry in her book of craft lectures, she, like both Carson and Lispector, tends to worry more about setting herself free than about staying true to any genre in My Private Property. The collection is made up of several short essays and prose poems, meditations, riffs on dreams, on art, on colors—you name it. Throughout the collection we see clearly that freedom is important to Ruefle, both as a thematic element and as a guideline for her own writing. In “Take Frank,” a short piece (of fiction, presumably) about a smart but lazy high school student, a teacher urges the student, Frank, to read “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and write about it, thinking it’ll be the perfect assignment for stubborn Frank. But Frank refuses again and again, saying, “I would prefer not to,” which the teacher recognizes immediately, of course, as the famous words of Bartleby (29). The piece ends with a sort of meditation on Frank’s freedom following that exchange—“his mind was intact, he was doing exactly what he wanted to be doing, he was in his own world, free, not trapped between the pages of a book,” while the teacher felt sorry for him, for himself, for Herman Melville, for literature’s sad fate and inability to save the world. (29-30). In this short piece we see Ruefle’s interplay with other writers, the freedom this interplay brings her, the freedom of her characters, and—and a kind of descent into the madness of dreams (and of her roots), both in her writing process and in the story itself.
In getting back to Cixous’s three steps, I’ll discuss death and its madness, the ways in which a writer may dive into matters of death to write. In Madness, Rack, and Honey, Ruefle explores death and its connection to language, to writing, to storytelling, in the aforementioned chapter titled “My Emily Dickinson.” “Self-consciousness,” she argues, includes the consciousness of “self-death” (169). A writer or a reader, a “highly literate” individual, she writes, “dwells more and more on his or her own death” (170). This seems to ring especially true of Clarice Lispector, in Agua Viva as well as in her various other works. By the end of Agua Viva, Lispector suggests that death might even be desirable—and death moves her writing along, connecting to birth (roots?), dreams, the fantastic—anything that might guide or be guided by her narrative. “Ah living is so uncomfortable,” she writes, following a meditation on dreams, on the idea that simply “something exists” (86). “Everything pinches,” she continues, “the body demands, the spirit doesn’t stop”; for her, living is “bothersome” because you can’t “walk naked either in body or in spirit” (87). Death can be freeing, she tries to tell us. Her descent into this meditation on death itself must be freeing—there’s madness in it. In “Short Lecture on the Dead,” too, from Madness, Rack, and Honey, Ruefle contemplates death and its effect on poetry. She notes that we don’t learn how to write poetry from lectures—and, furthermore, that we can’t. After questioning this she writes, “I think it is because poets are people—no matter what camp they sleep in—who are obsessed with the one thing no one knows anything about” (253). And what is that thing? That thing is death. We learn how to write poetry (or within any genre, I posit), mostly, from the dead, she tells us, because we obsess over death and therefore the dead—they’re the only ones who know it, who have come in contact, truly, with the obsession. But Ruefle sinks farther into this: “I think it’s because the minute [the poets] are dead all of their poems about death become poems about being alive” (254). She suggests that since we are alive, we can learn from this. It’s a kind of madness—“I can’t really explain it, being alive and all,” she says to end the chapter (254).
In an interview about Float for NPR, Scott Simon asks Anne Carson about hope, if it’s something poets can find even in things that are hopeless. Carson responds: “Sort of. Well, I don’t know. I guess they do. I guess they do because if your way of life is writing, then everything that happens becomes a sentence.” She continues: “And so it’s—it moves down into that other level of problem-solving, which is grammar and syntax. And that can always come out somewhere—I mean, somewhere you didn’t know it would come out—which is perhaps hopeful.” Notice that she uses the phrase move down when discussing these elements of writing. Can the search for hope, that supposed forward and upward movement, come from venturing down? In “Uncle Falling,” one of Float’s chapbooks, a person called Lecturer II says, “this is a lecture on falling.” The lecturer continues: “a human is born by falling [ . . . ] we fall again at the end: what starts on the ground will end up soaking into the ground forever.” We fall in birth and we fall in death—maybe falling isn’t hopeful as much as it is inevitable. Lecturer II goes on, later in the text, to discuss the techniques of Elizabeth Streb, a choreographer from Brooklyn who encourages her students to “fall straight down”—“they fall as fast as stars,” the lecturer says. In doing this, they “redeem the shame” of falling. What a thought. Perhaps that’s what we do when we write—we descend to ascend, in a way, even if our falls are “according to plan” like the dancers’ are. I want to write about and fall into not only my dreams, my death and that of those around me, my roots, my madnesses—but also my lowest lows, and by doing this, I want use language to connect to others in their lowest times, or to those who have lived through their lowest times—or to those who fear those times. The lecturer notices that there is a “spare but efficacious” language that connects Streb’s dancers—I think that’s what we (writers and humans) have too, although it doesn’t have to be spare and it’s not always efficacious. The lecturer provides us with Streb’s take on the falling: “‘What’s important isn’t falling, it’s how you take the hit,’ she said. ‘That’s the zone of interesting human complication.’” There’s the madness—there’s the descent we want. A human descent, all of its complications, all of its intrigue, its inevitability. The choruses end the piece riffing on this thought:
If you have to fall
Chorus 1, 3 4
(And you do have to fall)
Do your best to fall
Like a thought
Like a trial balance
No debt not duration
No regret no revision
As if life were a simple sample
Of a means to an end
And here we are, back at death. Death from life, death by descent. Death via the descent of life. And there’s the madness.
And so, yes, maybe birth is a descent as much as death is, as Carson’s character suggests—to obsess over death, essentially, is to obsess over life. Agua Viva was written not long before Lispector’s death, and throughout the text she dwells on the fact of death but also consistently alludes to birth, its process, its effects, its lasting impressions. Within the text (and about creating it, presumably) she says the writing world is “tangled up in creepers, syllables, woodbine, colors and words—[a] threshold of an ancestral cavern that is the womb of the world and from it I shall be born” (8). This is the beginning of myriad references to the womb, to birth, the beginning of the descent of life. Lispector shares with us later in the text that she once was told that a cat who has just given birth will eat only her own placenta for the next four days—and nothing else. Throughout the rest of the book she riffs on this idea, she comes back to it, bringing herself into the cat’s experience. She describes a cat’s birth as she has seen it: after the kitten emerges in a fluid sac, the mother, or the “mother-creator-cat,” uses her teeth to break the cord, then, Lispector writes, “another fact appears in the world [ . . . ] I am not joking. I am earnest. Because I am free. I am so simple” (28). Lispector, in writing this text, is as free as the new baby kitten, but she is also like the mother, providing her readers with life, with this freedom: “I am giving freedom to you. First I rip the sack of fluid. Then I cut the umbilical cord. And you are alive on your own account. / When I am born, I become free” (28). In writing this somewhat indefinable text (notice I’ve used stanza breaks in the example above, although we wouldn’t call the work poetry, really, despite its blockish paragraphs, its lack of indentations) she sets herself free but also attempts to set us free. Free as the fall of birth; free as the fall of death (and from life), to get back at Carson’s lecturer’s words.
The connection between birth and death also comes to play in Lispector’s Selected Crônicas—not surprisingly, she was a skilled journalist as well. “Birth was the death of one being dividing into two solitary beings” (45). Being born is falling into our roots—dying is something like falling from our roots. Lispector gets at this, too: “Being born is like this: / The sunflowers slowly turn their corollas toward the sun. The wheat is ripe. The bread is eaten with sweetness. My impulse connects to that of the roots of the trees” (36). Lispector falls into this madness to write about it, to connect with her audience. Falling is a kind of rising: “[M]y canticle is profound. Slow. But rising. Rising still. If it rises much more it will become full moon and silence, and phantasmagoric lunar soil” (37). We get back to the roots, to the soil, after we have risen. The madness.
So how do we connect this information to craft? How, as writers, do we dive, do we keep true to this idea of descent? I would argue that just when we think we’ve descended enough, gone deeply enough, we must go further. Further and farther into our roots, further into our madness, further into death and into the mystical, into our dreams. We connect by descending into the depths. We connect this way by first disconnecting, by indulging ourselves, then by surfacing with a fresh perspective on and relationship to our readers, our fellow humans, fellow breathers and feelers. These descents create movement in our stories, create narrative. The fear of becoming stagnant, slow, boring, becomes less of a worry when we’re in descent—as long as we’re moving, our stories find new places to go, new avenues to travel. When we descend, it’s almost as though we let the fall guide us—or maybe it’s that the falling is our co-pilot. Our roots, our fears of and experiences with death, our dreams and our imaginations—all of this, arguably, our madnesses, not only provide common ground for our readers, but also keep our stories moving, keep them from becoming stale, stuck. Sometimes, in order to liberate myself, I have to turn off my editor brain. I have to turn off my academia brain. We’re diving into the heart here—don’t worry, because the rules we’ve learned stay with us, in our subconscious even when we try to ignore them. A writer can (and usually should) always go back and clean up a draft to make the editor brain happy. A writer can always make something look more like fiction, less like poetry if there’s pressure for a piece to be more definable. But you can start by setting yourself free, by diving. Find that dreamworld down there; find death; find your influences, find the places your genes came from, the essences of your obsessions—fall into these madnesses. When you’re stuck, when the story just isn’t coming, descend. I like to use a language of descent in my stories; I like to have my characters literally and figuratively fall. I let my obsession with downward motion guide me. I want to find and use the improvisation that is. And I try to remind myself I can always rein in what I’ve written later if necessary.
Part Two: Dissent
Now we have the question of dissent—how is all of this a kind of dissent if we’re talking about the integral aspects, the necessities, of writing, of storytelling? One thing Clarice Lispector, Anne Carson, and Mary Ruefle have in common is that they refuse to be bound by genre. Clarice Lispector is known as a fiction writer, but she also has worked as a journalist, and Agua Viva is difficult to categorize—the back of my New Directions Press copy refers to it as an “unordered meditation on the nature of life and time,” which to me sounds almost like its own genre (although I don’t suggest that it would be entirely alone in this category). The pages look like prose poetry, with small blocks of text surrounded by more white space than many of us are used to seeing in fiction. No indentations. Like a letter—a letter of poetry, a letter in poetry, by poetry.
My Private Property, as I mentioned earlier, is also a text that showcases Ruefle’s freedoms, and it’s one that isn’t much concerned with genre. The same goes for Float—and all three of these texts at hand are widely referred to as meditations, or collections of meditations. These writers haven’t set out to write anything within a certain category—as Anne Carson says in Float’s “Possessive Used as Drink,” “naming is heavy; naming may be slightly shaming.” Is there too much pressure on a piece of writing when we put a label on it? Not necessarily, but I think there can be. I’m interested in these specific texts because they’re somewhat free of labels, free from the boundaries we set for genre. Freedom becomes a thematic element, too, all throughout these works. Lispector, Carson, and Ruefle seem to enjoy a certain liberty in authoring these texts, and they keep us thinking about freedom as we read. And they set themselves free by breaking through the boundaries of genre.
When (if) I tell people I write, I’m frequently asked, “Oh, are you a poet?” and, historically, this has irked me. “No,” I usually say, “I write short stories. I could never be a poet.” Why? This is what I want to interrogate here, especially as my own fiction is looking more and more like poetry every day. In creative writing academia we’re expected to focus on specific genres—and I understand why, but it’s been crucial for me to consider the intersecting and blending of genre inherent in many texts, including my own drafts. After years of rejecting the idea of being a poet, thinking a poet is something I could never be, I want to dissent—and I say dissent because that’s what it feels like to me after years of having to answer the genre question—a little here. I don’t want to claim just one. Although writers of all kinds are questioning genre boundaries now as they have been for years and years and years, I continue to think of it an important kind of dissent. I don’t want to say “I could never be a poet” anymore, just because I think I have to in order to better define what it is I enjoy writing or where it is I think I excel. I want to give myself the freedom to write without boundaries, and to fall without a net as I do so—even if revising means reining in a little, getting a little closer to a more definable genre. And within any genre, I want to interrogate the ways in which a story can be told.
In “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” Carson writes of Joan of Arc, of how she “rage[d] against the cliché,” how catastrophe was her answer to the “conventional narrative [ . . . ] susceptible to conventional disproof” she wanted to avoid. Carson calls this rage “genius.” She goes on to discuss Francis Bacon, how he wanted to “defeat narrative wherever it seeks to arise” in his painting. This isn’t exactly what Carson does in Float—each piece has a type of narrative, but the chapbooks don’t cling to narrative as they unfold. And they jump from narrative to narrative, allowing us to read in freefall. What Carson gets us thinking about here is the questioning of narrative, how it works, how it can work, what its importance is. Narrative doesn’t have to be as formulaic as I was taught as a child, as an undergrad. Storytellers can dissent—that is, reject traditional genre and narrative—and the story still can work, can thrive. We don’t have to “extinguish” narrative as Bacon does, but maybe that can be the first step in discovering new ways of telling a story. We can play with it. The free form (freefall) of the pieces in Float works to express Carson’s themes of freedom, of raging against the cliché. I want this freedom to dissent, to find a new way to tell a story, keeping in mind, always, that my roots are there to ground me no matter what.
In Agua Viva, also, Lispector concerns herself with liberty. She writes:
When you see, the act of seeing has no form—what you see sometimes has form and sometimes doesn’t. The act of seeing is ineffable. And sometimes what is seen is also ineffable. And that’s how it is with a certain kind of thinking-feeling that I’ll call “freedom,” just to give it a name. Real freedom—as an act of perception—has no form. [ . . . ] Beatitude starts in the moment when the act of thinking has freed itself from the necessity of form. (82)
It’s as though she’s bringing to light exactly the work she’s doing with the text itself. Agua Viva thrives nearly formlessly; the text gives her the room to move through, to dive into, a kind of “thinking-feeling” (although she makes it clear that “[t]he true thought seems to have no author”; the thinking-feeling, when totally free, comes through as part of a kind of collective consciousness—in a way, the author should be invisible (82).
Here Lispector, as she often does, leads us down into sleepland. Sleeping, she argues, “brings us very close to this empty and yet full thought” (82). This delivers us to the “freedom of the state of grace” (83). But from that point we are granted access into dreamland, which actually brings us to what Clarice calls a “primary thought” following sleep’s “nothingness”: it brings us to imagination (82). Imagination calls for the “madness of free invention” (83); and here we are, back in the madness, where it all starts. So we descend. Lispector dips beyond sleep, into dreams, here:
And beyond the freedom, beyond the certain void I create the calmest of repeating musical waves. The madness of free invention. Do you want to see it with me? Landscape where this music happens? air, green stems, the spread-out sea, silence of a Sunday morning. A slender man with only one foot has one great transparent eye in the middle of his forehead. A feminine entity slinks up on all fours, says in a voice that seems to come from another space, voice that sounds not like the first voice but in echo of a primary voice that was never heard.
Another example of going further. She dives into this world—into and maybe even beyond dreams, beyond freedom, according to the author herself. It liberates her and more.
When I write this way, when I let myself descend, set myself free to say something as it begs to be said, to tell a story as it unfolds for me—to let the something, the story, guide me, really—I learn as I go, and I can’t think of anything better to ask of my time spent typing, scrawling, note-taking, shutting the world out after ample time inviting it in. In “Pointless Scandal,” from Lispector’s collected essays, her crônicas, she describes her experience interviewing a woman she calls Madame X from a hostel “for women of dubious reputation” (27). She didn’t receive the answer she wanted from the interview, and after expressing this to a friend, he responded, “That’s where the writer comes in.” Clarice’s response (to us, at least): “But I am not a writer. I am a person who is curious about the world” (29). Writers are curious and so they write—they notice things, but some of us must write to process them, to understand. In Carson’s “Cassandra Float Can,” Cassandra is described as follows: “Like spacetime, she is nonlinear, nonnarrative, and the most beautiful of Priam’s daughters according to Homer”; “everywhere [she] ran she found she could float”; “everywhere [she] ran she found she was already there.” Cassandra sounds like Carson’s writing, like Lispector’s and Ruefle’s too, their meditations, their deep streams of thought, of emotion, of heart. This type of writing leads some writers where we need to go—it leads us to unexpected territory; it leads us everywhere. Later in the text Carson contemplates “cuttings”; “disruptions”; the idea of “cut[ting a] thing free from use and let[ting] it disappear into its own presence”; “‘liberating’ the compressed force of a building simply by making a hole” (which resulted in a “revolutionary new genre of behavioral architecture”). Near the end of this particular text, Cassandra removes walls and floorboards—“Site demolished and removed”—she tests our whole way of knowing the truth about some things. Carson writes, “So it goes with the prophets. You see them float and how they float and how can they,” followed later by thoughts on “the way we float and how we float and can we float. Cassandra can.” We all float. We float, then we fall. We fall then we float. She’s dealing with liberty; she’s dealing with new genres. The texts in Float say so much about Float’s style, about Carson and the freedom she enjoys—or she insists upon—or that is inevitable—in her writing, in her storytelling. And that’s not to say that her freedom isn’t careful, that this collection isn’t carefully crafted. Carson is careful. She’s incredibly, enviably attentive as she descends.
This kind of dissent (which is just almost too harsh, too strong, a word for it, because plenty of writers, now especially, bend genres, write what we’d call here “freely”) continues to be important—haven’t we heard again and again, anyway, that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism” (although these words, which are commonly and mistakenly attributed to Thomas Jefferson, belong to Howard Zinn)? Carson, Lispector, and Ruefle don’t disrespect the traditional narrative by dissenting; they don’t devalue the norms—they test them, rather. They push boundaries. They test—and dive into—the waters of liberty. They learn as they go. Ruefle has said, in a Bookworm interview, that she starts a poem with nothing to say. But then it always unravels. It says what it needs to say. Its madness comes through. In the aforementioned NPR interview, Carson says to Scott Simon, “Comfortable means gradually more and more flattened [ . . . ] more blunt—less and less sharp and biting into you.” Comfortable doesn’t quite do the job. We have to reach further down into ourselves to find the bite. When asked about her connection to ancient Greece, Carson explains how the newness of the language was effective for earlier cultures—for us, she says, “by now, it’s all kind of a dusty superstructure. But [the ancient Greeks] were down in the roots of it.” And now we’re back to the roots. We must dive, keep diving, to avoid the dust, to play in the dirt.
“There are many ways to tell a story,” Carson reminds us in Float’s ultra-short “108.” She also gets back to—or maybe introduces us to (it’s hard to say; the reading here is freefall)—the idea of the power of falling: “to fall would be an action.” Carson is letting us in on a secret, a key—not only to writing, but to life itself. And these things are connected for many of us (if not all); Lispector says in a 1977 interview, “When I am not writing, I am dead.” I want to fall, purposefully, both in life and into my arts, my crafts, my work, to live, to create freely, truly, newly. Writing can be like a “chute down which we tumble” into “sheer descent” (“Possessive,” Carson). We can reclaim falling. Falling can be mine, be yours; the fall can take us, guide us, show us. If you’ll let me fall into my own madness here, I’d like to share with you even more of Carson’s language of descent in Float’s “Uncle Falling,” which we visited earlier—the piece falls into its madness and uses a language of descent in doing so: “He holds himself so straight he seems to be falling backward into the vault”; “dancers fall straight down [ . . . ] as if flying”; “fall as fast as stars and look like gods for an instant”; “Human falling has two kinds of speed” (one of them being that of the “descent-pattern of a whole life”). Carson persuades me to embrace the fall, to indulge in the fall, to the let fall take hold. Because that’s where it all happens. Again, this text gives thematic clues into Carson’s writing process, her process marked by freedom, by a kind of freefall (a very intentional freefall), a descent, which allows her readers to both fall freely and float.
There are, of course, many ways to tell a story. But, to get back to Cixous, let us keep in mind that “[w]e must work. The earth of writing. To the point of becoming the earth. Without reward. Except joy” (156). It’s really about getting to that earth, those roots. The dirt of it all, thedepths. Lispector’s words from Agua Viva are relevant here: “[m]y anarchy obeys subterraneously a law in which I deal occultly with astronomy, mathematics and mechanics” (34). We must work madly, subterraneously. We must work with the subconscious. Dive in—go constantly further, farther, to reach the heart, as though our consciousnesses are collected in some kind of living grave, living roots, below. The Odyssey might find itself in your story in a variety of ways, but why not, as Mary Ruefle does, call upon the stuff of dreams to do the telling—that’s not to say to we should steal from our dreams, but to let the type of madness that makes up our dreams guide us—let it lead us down, deeper than we ever thought we could go. Lispector’s last line of Agua Viva reads “What I’m writing to you goes on and I am bewitched” (88). I intend to learn as I descend—and hopefully the descent continues, hopefully it leads to an uphill slope, both immediately and long after I’ve written. That’s the most I can hope for.
“Anne Carson’s Poetry Collection ‘Float’ In Unconventional Medium to Suit the Message.” Interview by Scott Simon. NPR. NPR, 22 Oct. 2016. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.
Carson, Anne. Float. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. Print.
Cixous, Helene, Sarah Cornell, and Susan Sellers. Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. New York. N.Y. ; Chichester: Columbia UP, 1993. Print.
Lispector, Clarice, and Giovanni Pontiero. Selected Cronicas. New York, NY: New Directions Pub., 1996. Print.
Lispector, Clarice, and Stefan Tobler. Agua Viva. New York, NY: New Directions, 2012. Print.
“Mary Ruefle: Madness, Rack, and Honey.” Interview by Michael Silverblatt. KCRW. 30 Aug. 2012. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.
Nelson, Maggie. “A Sort of Leaning Against.” Writer’s Notebook II: Tin House, 2012. Print.
Ruefle, Mary. Madness, Rack and Honey: Collected Lectures. Seattle: Wave, 2012. Print.
Ruefle, Mary. My Private Property. S.l.: Wave, 2017. Print.