Friday, March 19, 2010

Comments on Edmond Caldwell's Return to the Chateau

On Harp & Alter
The hill on which the hotel stood was like an island, except instead of the sea it was surrounded by tarmac. There was the little tarmac of the motorways and the big tarmac of the runways of the Charles de Gaulle Airport, and like the sea there was hissing and roaring, audible from this distance, among the hotels on the hill. If he shut the window he couldn’t hear the hissing and roaring because the windows were treble-paned, probably for just this purpose, he reasoned. The small hotel room felt entirely self-contained, like a pressurized cabin.

As it begins so it continues. Notice the meticulous attention to physical detail, the mediating and disassociative use of comparative similes ("like an island, except instead of the sea..."), and the minimal, repeated phrase "he reasoned" used to reference the surrogate POV channeled by the observer/narrator (who is rendered more visible later in the piece). Three elements, which Stephen Augustine aptly compares to thematic jazz riffs or contrapuntal voices of a fugue, their shifting relationship and interdependence being the essential subject rather than the things described or the action of the narrative.

For the past few months I've been preoccupied with similar concerns--ideas which have become central to my recent poems. As in the March 18 poem HERE, I will begin with a direct observation--in this case,  the rooftops... immediately altered in mind to a geometric figure of parallel lines receding toward their vanishing point, and from there, the recollection of Plato's description of Socrates drawing a geometric figure in sand to illustrate a point about the relationship between an Idea and its manifestation (though his toe replaced the stick he's said to have used because of other references to his habit of going barefoot); the generative force here being the tension created by an effort to stick to the physical--description of 'things,' and the intrusion of mind--as in Caldwell's story, in the form of suggested comparisons, which begin as spontaneous associations ("like an island"), and are then developed ('reasoned') into figurative conceits (from island to sea to the sounds of the sea to the sounds of traffic), and 'reason' as the compulsion to 'explain' what one has observed. In my poem, this latter reasoning is confined to a single line... a conjecture as to why the sparrows have broken their winter silence. Caldwell's story holds both figuration and reasoning to a disciplined subjection to physical detail, where my poem loses it... drifting off into chains of daydreaming associations. In each case, the controlling aesthetic idea takes the impossibility of unmediated perception as a given, and goes about generating structures around the interwoven elements: perceived object/action, associative context, and explanation.


  1. Edmond's going to have an acmegenesis when he reads this. I'm jealous!

  2. "their shifting relationship and interdependence being the essential subject rather than the things described or the action of the narrative..."

    Got it in one! Thank you so much for this attentive reading. I wanted to turn "interiority" inside-out, so that it had no more privileged status than description, so that all was surface, depthless. Your prospect-poem does take a different route (centripetal rather than centrifugal?) to a similar place, where our observing, registering consciousnesses are *trumped* by the signs that structure us into being (even if we've forgotten the tune).

  3. We seem to be on the same wave here... you know how it is for writers, seeing in the other what we want to see in our own work.

    I have to figure how to bring this back into my fiction as well.

    Yeah, shit... where are the editors who know how to read?