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Sentences and Fragments: “Your Borders, Your Rivers, Your Tiny Villages” by Amy Bloom

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written a lot here about “Contemporary Verse Novels” and concluded with the idea that a contemporary verse novel is, like the prose poem, subversive. If the prose poem is subversive to prose and poetry, then it is also true that a verse novel is subversive to verse and novels. Ultimately, though, I realized that I’m more interested in hybridity than labels.

So, moving away from “Contemporary Verse Novels” now, I’ll start a little series here called “Sentences and Fragments,” if for no other reason than to explore and think about sentences, their function as a unit of measure, and how they are fragments of larger prose pieces. Really, I want to look at these sentences in their capacity as fragments. (True, if I were a better poet, I’d focus instead on the poetic line as a fragment, and its function as a unit of measure, and how the line is a fragment of the sentence or the stanza or the poem. But I’m into sentences these days, so sentences it is.)

Let’s just go with this, then, that an individual sentence is like a fragment within a chapter or story. Take, for instance, the opening sentence of the opening story in Amy Bloom’s Where the God of Love Hangs Out (Granta Books, 2011):

“At two o’clock in the morning, no one is to blame.”
Fiction writers have heard forever that opening sentences are crucial. They have to hook the reader; they have to pull double or triple duty — create suspense and make the reader want to read more, establish a setting or maybe what will be point A of a character’s developmental trajectory, establish the language — the pace and tone and style of the rest of story to come.

So what about “At two o’clock in the morning, no one is to blame”?

I find it to be an effective hook. I feel it reveals something about the narrator, as well. I definitely read more. And what followed was a story about a married woman sitting on a couch beside a married man who is not her husband. Their spouses sleep in other rooms, unaware of what is happening on this couch. It is a lovely story, full of emotion. Classic Amy Bloom. If you haven’t read her, you should. Here’s the story’s final passage, which takes place outside:

“The moon lit up the whole yard and William, white beneath me. I folded my robe and tucked it under his head. Tiny leaves shook loose, bronze snow floating down upon us, sticking gently in my hair and his, until we were almost covered.”

Although this is the final passage, the story’s end, we can still look a these three sentences as fragments of the paragraph, and then at the paragraph as a fragment of the story.

The function of the first sentence I excerpted is to establish setting and physical, spatial relationships. The narrator is on top of William. The moon is out and bright. She can see the entire yard. They are on the ground.

The second sentence establishes something tender, an act of kindness, reveals more about this character because she removes her robe and makes a pillow of it. She is concerned about William’s comfort. Perhaps even at her own expense. Is she cold? She could be.

The final sentence tells us how long they stay there, outside, on the ground, together with William beneath her. It suggests many lovely images to end on — leaves covering their bodies, leaves as a kind of snow, shared burial and/or entombment. The death of their former, non-cheating lives, suggested by the burial aspect of being covered, but perhaps “almost covered” implies, more simply, their need for privacy. They have, after all, moved from their highly visible location on the couch to the out of doors, off the porch. They could easily hear someone open the porch door, walk the length of the porch, and extricate themselves from their guilty position on the ground.

Why is it so difficult for me to read poetry? I don’t know, but I’m sure I’m not alone. Reading prose is just never as difficult; this stuff makes more sense to me, and even if my reading is off the mark, at least I know I had the basic skills to give it a go. A reading is only as good as the argument behind it, but it’s much easier for me to try and make sentences work toward an argument than lines. Lines confuse me. Not so much necessarily with narrative poems, but definitely with non-narrative poetry. Fuck it. Back to Bloom.

You know what’s even better about this collection? The first story, the one I’ve been analyzing here, “Your Borders, Your Rivers, Your Tiny Villages,” is just the first of four stories about these characters, William and Clare. Fans of Bloom know that she often does this, writes several stories about the same characters, and I was thrilled to learn that she does this again in her newest collection.

Even better, Lionel and Julia are back with four more stories. I do not have Bloom’s previous collections before me (they’re on my shelf in the other room), but I remember Lionel and Julia. Who wouldn’t? Julia, a bit younger than her husband, is a bit older than his son, Lionel. She helps to raise Lionel, who is a young man when his father dies. After the funeral, in a moment of intense shared grieving, Julia and Lionel sleep together.

I’ve only read the opening story of Where the God of Love Hangs Out, but let me tell you:  I am very excited to finish this collection, to catch up with Lionel and Julia, see what’s happened to them in these many years, and to read more about William and Clare, too. And, almost like extras, there are also a few stand-alone stories in this collection, which, you never know with Bloom, could become the inspiration for future stories — which would be awesome and wonderful, should she choose to expand.

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