christine schutt

"something else, with it, in the sky"

This is Christine Schutt again, this time from the beginning of a story called “The Summer after Barbara Claffey,” from the collection Nightwork:

Here is the house at night, lit up tall and tallowy. And in the morning, here is Mother, first one up by hours and already in a swimsuit and weeding muddy beds on her hands and knees. She has mud on her back and in her hair, and streaks have dried behind an ear where Mother says she has been scratching. Her arms are scored with bleedy cuts, nails mud-dull and broken, and there are mean-looking bites on her back, white swellings where she must not feel or will not yet give in to touching, brave as Mother says she is to get hold of what she wants. I have seen shaggy weed ends spooled around my mother’s hand rope-tight. “But look,” she says, and wags off dirt from balled-up roots the size of shrunken heads.

How arresting: lit up tall and tallowy. 

(Gary Lutz talks about composing at the level of sentence. How he will enlarge his text to fill the screen as he works so he can stay at that level of focus with each sentence, each fragment. I think of him here, too.)

Consider the sound relationships Schutt sets up in this short paragraph. The l sounds prominent throughout, as above and then later: cuts are bleedy, nails are mud-dull. There are swellings she must not feel or will not give in to touching. And then in the last line, roots are balled-up (and likened rather grimly to shrunken heads.)

And the m sounds: morning, Mother, swimsuit, muddy beds; the word mud repeated, the word Mother repeated, bites are mean-looking.

She also uses certain sounds in close proximity, to great effect. In the first half of the paragraph, the long e: weeding, knees, bleedy. And in the second, the “ag” sound in shaggy and wags, and also the “sh” in shaggy and shrunken.

After reading Florida and the first half of Nightwork (the first story, “You Drive,” is so troubling and haunting and dark and perfect, I am almost incapable of speaking of it), I return to Anne Carson. Her reading of ancient Greek poet Simonides of Keos alongside the poet Paul Celan, called Economy of the Unlost, arrives in the mail and like my son, drawn from one activity to another by the promise of a new treat, I must attend to it.

I spend most of my reading time on Carson’s “Note on Method,” a two-page introduction that comes even before the Prologue. “There is too much self in my writing,” she says by way of beginning.

Carson, as she she often does, rewards my attentions with a paragraph so resonant, so relevant to an idea that I have been trying to hold in my own mind, that I feel a kind of physical relief in reading it:

Attention is a task we share, you and I. To keep attention strong means to keep it from settling. Partly for this reason I have chosen to talk about two men at once. They keep each other from settling. Moving and not settling, they are side by side in a conversation and yet no conversation takes place. Face to face, yet they do not know one another, did not live in the same era, never spoke the same language. With and against, aligned and adverse, each is placed like a surface on which the other may come into focus. Sometimes you can see a celestial object better by looking at something else, with it, in the sky.