It had better be big

Daniel Soar

  • Notable American Women by Ben Marcus
    Vintage, 243 pp, US $12.50, March 2002, ISBN 0 375 71378 6
  • Assorted Fire Events by David Means
    Fourth Estate, 165 pp, £10.00, March 2002, ISBN 0 00 713506 8

In an exam I once took we were presented with a passage that began: ‘To see the wind, with a man his eyes, it is impossible, the nature of it is so fine.’ I found that sentence so distractingly meaningless, and lovely, that it was hard to concentrate on the rest of the passage, which (much more comprehensibly) described a snowy field over which a light wind was blowing; tiny particles of snow were picked up by the wind and carried short distances in complicated patterns, so that the way the wind blew was suddenly visible, in the same way that dye in water makes visible the flow of hidden currents. Part of the test was, supposedly, to determine when the passage would have been written, and by whom, to contextualise it without external clues. Was this deliberately distorted language, newly written? I had no idea; mesmerised by that sentence, I panicked. Years later, I discovered that the source was Roger Ascham’s Toxophilus (1545), ostensibly a book about the pleasures of archery. Ascham was a schoolmaster. His mission, he felt, was to make writing accessible for an audience that knew little Latin but longed to be educated. Now that everything is available on the Internet, the passage appears online in multiple past papers on university websites from Florida to Michigan. In order to test the ability of the must-be-educated to find the context, examiners clearly study other exam papers and transplant words from one contextless context into another, copying also the (deliberately?) misleading modernised spelling that makes you read the words the wrong way. The passage’s original purpose – to be understood – seems to be lost on those setting the tests. But perhaps it had lost its context in any case: as a record of a moment during a walk from one parish to the next, it seems to belong to a class of Romantic epiphanies; there is nothing like it in the writing of its own time. It should have been less Wordsworthian; it’s unclassifiable.

It doesn’t take much to stop seeing through words to their meaning. With a sentence like Ascham’s, the sound gets in the way. Words don’t always say what they’re meant to. I like the sign at the foot of escalators that reads: ‘Dogs must be carried.’ (‘Quick! Must find a dog.’) I understand the pleasure of footnotes and parentheses. In certain states of mind – distracted, tired – the sound of words means more than their content; there are reassuring rhythms. I bought Ben Marcus’s first book, The Age of Wire and String, in a remainder shop soon after it was published, without knowing what kind of thing it was. I liked the way it sounded:

Certain weather is not recognised by the land it is practised on; funnel clouds necessarily unravel or bank off any crusted terrain, hailstones and other atmospheric shale burn into water before the city receives them, whole temperate zones dissipate over a lake and suck upward. The act of riding procures a medical wind to heal these stagnations. The lark, the griffin and the mallard, all birds of indeterminate temperature and vapour content, function as ignitors of the tide.

The calm assertiveness of these rhythms is permission not to understand. Patterns recur: ‘the land it is practised on’ fits a metrical formula Hopkins discovered in Shakespeare – he called it an ‘outriding foot’ – which he underlined whenever he found it; he liked strong caesuras, and believed that the two final (unstressed) syllables enforced a powerful emphasis on the previous one. Marcus’s sentences sound as though they belong in an encyclopedia or scientific text; it’s as if he’d merely replaced words you might expect to find (and therefore take for granted) with nonsensical others. But he preserves a sense, if not the fact, of accuracy: ‘unravel or bank off’ feels like precision, in that the second could be a qualifying alternative to the first, or they could be a statement of two possible sets of circumstances. It isn’t entirely nonsense semantically: words like ‘terrain’, ‘shale’, ‘temperate zones’ and ‘vapour content’ imply geography. Elsewhere, there are dictionary sections, which seem to suggest a system of some sort. It’s a comforting book to read.

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