Language flows, stutters, descends into chaos. Ascending into lyricism, it rarely (yet often enough), emerges into stillness. Beginnings, middles, endings: they must all be reined in, and each word demands to be set free. Animals bred over generations, they are easily tamed, cultivated into wildness.
There are ways in which these rhythms interact, intersect, implicate. When grasped and unleashed, they construct themselves; edifices that require nothing but air to penetrate, expand into, to collapse and dance upon the still point of loss. Words have an intuitive sense of these rhythms; the best ones know how they must be both captured and released, at different times, speeds, with different reasons, intentions, movements. How they must be allowed to maintain their own boundaries and yet remain bounded by our lowest common denominator:
Imagination: that marbled word. Chiseled over time, growing faster than the sculptor’s hands can carve, scrape, slice. Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach might serve as a remarkable example of animal imagination, of a kind that flows, stutters, descends, and finally arrives. It is a work that can be remembered for many things: the manner of exploration over time, time that is unbound by expectations of length, time that can span over two hours and remain clotted with layers of meaning. It can be remembered as an ode to the human condition, a frustration, as a chalk line drawn from the heart to the head to the last tips of the body. And yet I remain stuck on the fifth page, unable to move.
I am caught in a rhythm of perfect quality, words that dance over invisible floors and amongst invisible crowds. An ant in sweetest honey. Wildness cultivated beautifully; wildness like a child’s picture book. The chalk has barely moved from the head to the fingers, and as a child, I am fascinated by its slightest movement forward, at its teetering expulsion to a raft tied down to sea.
The little I have spoken of the larger themes of On Chesil Beach is sourced from reviews online, and my mind, as always, wishes to get to the end of the book before ruminating on the beginning. It wishes to taste that last, languorous sip of the last page, the point where the last few hours have led you, whether you hopped and skipped or slugged your way through- the ending is worth the struggle. I want to feel that weight; honey that only arrives at the properties of honey under the pressure of the last chapter’s gasp against closure.
There is a perfect reason I am caught here, a fly in a web; worlds have been born and collapsed for sentences less perfect than these. This might just be the first time that the fifth page weighs just about as much as the last:
“This was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine, but no one much minded at the time, except visitors from abroad. The formal meal began, as so many did then, with a slice of melon decorated by a single glazed cherry.”
- Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach
That’s it! Throw away the dictionary, the thesaurus, all your guidebooks for the endless paths of language. Throw out the Venn diagrams and the scribbles and the pet cat that sits atop the cabinet and watches the candle burn out in your glazing eyes. There is a dance to everything; each word in the lines above can be thrown into the flow, the stutter, and emerge, chaotically, lyrically, into the stillness of awe. We arrive with different intentions, reasons, movements. We leave with each word a god dropped in our palms; hold out your hand, child. This is for you:
This: An immediacy. THIS! We shout; the rooftops rattle in response. Waves swell: This is Me, this is Where I am. Witnessing as an act so grave it demands and is given a beautiful transposition: this, a stillness, and understanding. Invisible floors for invisible crowds. Suddenly, time stands still.
was not: NOT! A pen slices through paper. The candle burns a little lower. The cat hisses. Not, a knot, Gordian and shimmering. The perfect redundancy in a world of codes and domes that pound the sky. There is a past hovering above the word; an anvil anxiety.
a good moment: moment, a telescopic lurch into dawn horizons. Levels of life like balloons rising above the homes, steeples, mountain roads and clouds. A moment, like this, like now; time dances upon the still point of its own loss… in the history: HISTORY! A word weighs as much as the time it demands, and History, that word like a dense marble, compact, quiet, bottomless; when I was young my history ended in 1945, and the world thereafter was when Now began… of English cuisine,: And the marble cracks, worlds spin outward like genies from a lamp; English cuisine, that bland resurrection of Antionette’s ignorant and beautiful pride- a country that raided the world for spices and never bothered to use them. A perfection of language can only be achieved by the color and history of those who invented the word ‘ubiquity’; I am a fly, a fly in a web, and the fly speaks English and the web is the words, the words that wandered away.
but: Ah, the modifier. The excusable brutality; words that shaped decades in countries slashed like a stripe across the earth. Grab the map, we’re going hunting: from the beard of Alaska to the lakes of New Zealand- a bandage ripped and rotting. McEwan, one of the fifty greatest since 1945, and yet, where was the world in 1945? BUT- the proclamation as bland as the food; chaos, chaos, let us start over… no one much minded: Spines as strong as pigeon bones, gulping down thick gravy to grow stronger, smile breathing all teeth and milk and anger. Grotesque, an uncanny valley, a raft let loose on sea. Was that it? Or was it the ivory smoke between your fingers? Perhaps the right words have long since fallen overboard, flailing amongst the fish, the tremulous waves, the tigers, hawks, knights. Perhaps our wounds are clotted with too many meanings. Perhaps they mean nothing at all.
at the time,: was there a time after, a time before? The sun never sets on the British Empire, my dear, for even time doesn’t trust us in the dark. Us: that beautiful equalizer. The slashed stripe across the world- shall we rise up in anger? At the time. Bah. Inscribe yourselves in the present and the past will grow like poisonous mushrooms, out of the cracks. Words interact, intersect, animate animal imaginations. Words implicate and wither and survive. Your words are mine, my words are not my own. Your words are perfect. Bottomless historical marbles.
except visitors from abroad: Spin out, Dorothy. We aren’t in England anymore. The marble widens, cracks, billows into the endless paths of language. Blue spheres shoot around the room: what if bullets were made of tigerbone? A knife digs deep into the tiger’s fur, fur so soft, fur like fur for miles beneath. Black beards bristle at their otherness. If you plunge a knife into a different accent, is the blood still as thick? Laughter rings amongst the women holding tusks and tears and colonies of fears.
The formal meal: Formal, as gel-slicked hair and boots licked by several animals, each of which can lick but once. Formal, as a wooden table, as candles, as candles where they are supposed to be in a world that no longer needs candles. Formal as an unopened bottle of honey, formal as a world so easily tamed.
The writer’s eyes glaze over. The cat watches the flame. Formality pulls at its suspenders and straitjackets bland food to a dim and drunken evening. began,: As the universe began. With a bang, a whimper. This is the way it ends. Invisible hands for invisible throats. Cultivated wildness. Brutality descends, ascends into lyricism. Often enough. Often enough.
as so many did then,: If the atom bomb had been dropped on a country not ruled by a king, would democracy still be an answer? Meals began with a woman’s hands, hands that raised children, hands that held off a man’s, hands that beat and grasped and touched and loved and destroyed. So many hands. Butter was churned in the afternoons when boys kissed daughters in the endless Eden gardens. As we all roamed once. As only you can now, for hours and hours, on Chesil Beach. Ignorant and beautifully proud.
with a slice of melon: A slice of the world, sir. A slice, of everything. Freedom tastes like a cat’s yawl, a yawl that echoes through the night, as the candle burns down on a body caught by paper. A slice of melon; time as a tire rolling through the wind. The rooftops rattle in response.
decorated: as your generals were; as the world is, with us. From the fur of Alaska to the horns of New Zealand. But where does the Christmas tree belong? Baubles, we wander, flitting from branch to endless branch. A flow and a chaos. The cultivated wild.
by a single: SHHHHWP! Eternity descends into time. Alan Badiou- as you spayed love, as a god dropped in our palms. Singularity- the infinitesimal void poking at our noses for so long we never noticed it; like glasses, wind chimes, broken bottles like anger in the family garden… glazed: Escher, your face made sense in your self-portraits. I don’t think, if you were to walk down the street, anyone would recognize you. Glass ball, was it? What happens when you place your boot on a brown father’s face and bristle your mustache? The son remembers you. The rooftops rattle, settle under the heavy flow of blood, the blood of women destroying, clawing, falling. The blood of animals. The blood of rhythm.
cherry: red, blood, anger, viscera. Bandage ripped and rotting. This is a good moment in the history of hurting. Will my pain heal your wounds? Will I dance toward the end of your magnificent sentences, will I flow, stutter? Will I burst, sing, forgive? Will I remain here? Atop my mountain? Quiet? Forever?
Note: Image is taken from The New Yorker magazine.