Why I Write Narrative
But, first: why not? A chain of telling that requires discrete and distinct figures, already in some sense familiar, acting across a background, largely unexamined and abandoned merely to suggestion, towards the achievement of, or the failure to achieve, certain goals, whose importance holds the earlier periods in suspense until in some final resolution all that is significant crystallizes in a perfection of plot and motivation, and all the rest, wanting any real brush with language, retreats once more to ground: that's narrative as I knew it thirty years ago, and it seemed then, as it does now, inadequate to the world of my experience.
To avoid the fate of perpetrating such stuff, I instead wrote a poetry which found itself increasingly characterized by argument, deploration, pleading, threats, until I realized that I didn't like how that worked either, and stopped writing altogether for about twenty years.
But I went on thinking and planning and testing and learning, though largely just in imagination. I took a shine to the detective genre in which, in theory, any object or event can be a clue and, as such, be exalted into meaning as the everyday world sifts through the riddle of observation, inference and deduction. But, even there, the world existed only towards an end in which all might be revealed, and the head of Holmes had a strictly limited inventory capacity.
Eventually, it was only in the parallel forensics of Gombrowicz's "Cosmos" that I found some satisfaction with detection, since nothing is revealed there, and the patterns and clues are rubbish and trivial chatter remains fraught, even on rereading.
I had by this time resumed writing poetry, though with conventional narrative either expunged or twisted, and temporal change borne instead by repetition, either incremental or with calculated variation. My models for this were in the refrain structures of folk-song, often mediated through the likes of Yeats or Lorca, and in the interplay of stasis and movement in Chinese parallel verse. I was forced to recognize, however, that the 'lyric' mode which I practiced was quite as prone to exclude the incoherent world as was the mannered narrative I so distrusted. I had also encountered Cage for a second time, and with more understanding of how the play of ambient noise across the receptivity of his spaces might circumvent those exclusions and admit what might otherwise not be acknowledged.
I wrote a longish 'bicameral' piece called Syzygy, consisting of two halves, The Drift and The Net respectively. The Drift consists of twelve compact, elliptical, but distinctly 'lyric' poems. The Net is a single poem of 72 long lines, comprising 24 three-line stanzas. Significantly these two sections are made up of exactly the same phrases reordered, rigorously and exhaustively mapped through a one-to-one matrix, the exact structuring of which is not directly relevant here. There is a brief set of notes added, which ground some of the detailed references of The Drift within the empirical world.
For me, much of the significance of the poem is in the way in which sequences of phrases in The Net, arrived at through the blind deploymen of predetermined procedures, carry a force both of lyricism and of narrative, intense though severely fragmented in both cases, which revealed a meaning different from and additional to anything I had deliberately written into the work. Having lived with it for over two years now, I have come to understand that "with the first dream of fire they hunt the cold" and how "devastation fell attending headbone the high" while "outside the foundries the clumsy the deadlocked disintegrates" though "not a tremor manifests the rare the quickening across these settlements" . So, I had confirmed for myself that a densely overdetermined language, functioning in its most intensely personal mode of the lyric, could survive radical disruption and return from that alienation a yield which the reader might gather. It gave the world an in.
I had meanwhile read all the Fu Manchu novels of Sax Rohmer, intrigued the Chinese Doctor's ceaseless attempts to appropriate the world by abducting experts in all fields, whose task was to analyse and replicate in enhanced form all aspects of the workaday world. It matched my sense as a child that what I saw in mirrors was a world diligently assembled by unseen agents to match that which I inhabited, and I watched carefully for small discrepancies to justify that sense, but never found them, and the specialists of Fu Manchu's underworld empire attended only to the great realms of science, technology, politics, always were disbanded by resurgent law before their analysis could address the classified advertisments in the newspapers, the torn betting slips outside a bookie's shop, the inconsequential gabbling of drunks in a pub. The workings of what I came to know, through Marx, Adorno and Benjamin, as phantasmagoria fascinated and appalled me. And how is responsibility to be assigned across mock-worlds if not through the causal chains which are narrative's stock-in-trade?
while detailed depositions state
how further on
within the wood
. . .
the bright axe
the long bones lever
up from it like anthers
and beyond the startling
calyx of teeth
an avid buzzing perishable
fruit set thicken
to load with sweet
of afflicting gold
their remote cells . . .
Here is not just one narrative, but two. Firstly, the sequence of blossoming, the detail of anther and calyx expanding, the fruiting adumbrated in the gathering of bees about the flower, and their dispersal to the hive where they load the cells with honey. This apparently natural and value-free sequence is overlaid on another causal chain, which starts with the felling of a tree by a logger with an axe (commercial or strategic deforestation has a long and significant history in Ireland as in much of the developing world today). From this action, the causal sequence is run backwards, seeking earlier sources where responsibility may be assigned: the long bones of the arm, the gasping jaw of the labourer, give way to the investors depositing their profits in banks. This single instance is simple, but the structure of reversed causality running back from an act of violence against the person or ecological ruin, masked meanwhile by a natural sequence of a bird fledging or a mineral cystallizing, is repeated twice more in the poem, broken by cases for and against the possibility of asylum amid such wilderness. Here, I began again to write narrative because the forensic process it allows seemed to me necessary to any possibility of living ethically, of recognizing and fulfilling due responsibility.
Another narrative genre which interested me is that of scientific experiment, where the researcher actively intervenes in the course of nature, attempting to limit the causal influences at work, so that one element may be manipulated, and the change in another, dependent element, observed and measured. It is intended that the record of correct prediction and accurate calculation of effect may then grant understanding of what was previously obscure.
"A body thrown vertically down from the top of a tower moves through a distance of 88 feet during the third second of its flight. Calculate, then, the speed of projection, and determine the speed at which the sleeve begins to move upwards."
And yet, it is in a field complex with uncertainty, that we attempt to understand, to categorize, to measure, and the experimenter must attempt to exclude all forces not considered relevant to the investigation, and accurately account for all that ensues.
"When he attempted to speak to her, the patient jumped off the bridge falling some 30 feet into about 20 feet of water. There is always a chance therefore that the critical act or change may take place when the observer's eyes are withdrawn."
Yet we must dispassionately observe, measure and record.
"Mild plethora of the face ensued, it being divided into three parts, namely: the forehead, fair complected, one; the nose, another, sand present in abundance there admixed with small crustacean shells; and from the nose to chin, exhibiting extensive tooth loss though with roots intact, another. Notice the blood tinged fluid coming from mouth. Red is warm and radiates across the ground."
In such a manner, sometimes we come to face what can scarcely be countenanced.
"It may happen that we are not aware of all the conditions under which our researches are made. Some substance may be present or some power may be in action, which escapes the most vigilant examination. Not being aware of its existence, we are unable to take proper measures to exclude it, and thus determine the share which it has in the results of our experiments."
Though the outcome be uncertain, may we still presume to have advanced knowledge in certain quarters? Lacking the machinery of suspense, to what end may such a narrative aspire?
"A man has several bones in all, and beauty is lost when meaning and form are split asunder. The handsome man must be swarthy, and the woman fair, etc., the genitalia, both internal and external, without injury. Provisional diagnosis: probable drowning. And had we exhausted all the known phenomena of a mechanical problem, how can we tell that hidden phenomena, as yet undetected, do not intervene in the commonest actions? I will not tell you about the irrational animals, because you will never discover any system of proportion in them."
The plausibility of narrative is increasingly an issue for me, and not without reason, perhaps, given the dominance of contending master-narratives in the interpretation of the Irish past and, consequently, in my present world. From such master-narratives it seems worth trying to retrieve as much as may still have value. I have tried this in a recent long work called Trem Neulpart prose, part 'verse'which I see as, in part, an attempt to recoup part of the history of my world from what Beckett terms 'the uniform memory of intelligence'. "Genealogies. The elementary tables. Dictionaries, assembled in blind frosts. Grammar and chronology. Libraries. Index: the Encyclopaedia, damascened with ice. So is the perfect body of knowledge dislimned."
How may one conduct a narrative of change, of loss and recovery, of breakage and continuity, without presuming the existence of distinct agents, freeing them incredibly from their ground, and committing a plotwork of events, utterly plausible because familiar and foreknown? Scholarship has shown us how the integrity and closure of the human agent was arrived at in early Greek poetry, must we take that achieved unity as more than provisional? Can we not tell without it?
"We build ourselves through the world and each through other, and this proceeds to death as the world alters with experience." The bodies in this plot are not distinct, either from one another or from their ground, they emerge to make themselves, enjoy a transitory closure, and then resolve again into a ground which offers further figures. "When the biology of your body breaks down, the skin has to be cut so as to give access to the inside. Later it has to be sewn back like memory, when it may house all knowledge. Memory is our comfort and our attire. Fashioned with our hands it is the accomplishment of our dreams and lapses; always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of sub-patterns. Pretend I'm lost and try to find me."
Because I wish to work comprehensively with the world which I inhabit, however, and because that world is current with named identities, I have admitted one such, and one specific narrating voice to speak of him. I have permitted myself also two specific occasions in time, one exactly situated starting at about 11 a.m. on February 15th. 1838), one not. Between the two is a connection, and my essay is to account for that, to recount it. "Do not think it coincidental that memory should begin to fail just as taxonomies become a prominent tool for thought."
As, I believe Braudel and the Annales school refocused history on the wholeness of ordinary lives, their habits, orientations and crises, by attending patiently to things left, I see my present course, of rendering the experience of connectedness, as being sustainable only through exercising a similar patience with language. No longer expecting to find there an exact mirror-image of the world I know, but rather to have it deliver me one I don't.
We will read
in the afternoon
When shall we learn
We shall soon
I once went
but I do not now
what I saw
It is in preferring to concentrate on the unpredictable ground rather than to people it with puppets of my own making that I have elected in these more recent pieces to work increasingly through collage. Each fragment of language I adopt is already tale-bearing, a vector: carrier from a prior host, director of action also across the space of my world. And the point of such a narrative? Interim figures on an interim ground; preservation of the complex weave of actions, not denouement; attachment understood embraced abandoned; wanting executive or summary.
1 All quotations are from Syzygy (Wild Honey Press, Dublin, 1998), available on the web at the Sound Eye site http://indigo.ie/~tjac/Poets/Trevor_Joyce/Syzygy/syzygy.htm
2 Without Asylum (Wild Honey Press, Dublin, 1998)
3 Damaged, we bleed time. This is the central one of a sequence of three prose-poems called Hopeful Monsters (Wild Honey Press, Dublin, 1999, forthcoming). This section is available on the web at the Alsop Review site http://www.alsopreview.com/tjdamaged.html
8 Samuel Beckett: Proust (Calder and Boyars, London) p.32
9 Trem Neul, section XLII. The complete text will be included in my forthcoming collected poems, with the first dream of fire they hunt the cold (New Writers' Press, Dublin, 1999). The title is from a phrase in the Irish language, meaning "through my dreams".
10 I have in mind the first chapters of Bruno Snell's The Discovery of the Mind (Harper and Row, New York), and of E.R.Dodds The Greeks and the Irrational (University of California Press, California).
11 Trem Neul, section XI.
12 Ibid, section XV.
13 Ibid, section XXXI
14 Ibid, section XXVII
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