- Nonfiction, Reading, Writing

Up Against the World: Resisting Sarki in His Mewl House, by Ken Sparling

 

Sometimes a person writes something so completely different from anything you’re used to reading that you aren’t in a position to consider how it might be changed. How do you change something so alien that it makes no reference to any authorities you’re used to referencing? How can you find a place to change something that doesn’t seem to claim to want to be better by any authority you understand?

I wanted to notice things about Sarki’s books when I read them. I wanted to notice things about Sarki’s books that other people might not have noticed. I made this my adventure at night when I settled into bed: to find out things about Sarki that no one else had noticed.

I try to write what I don’t understand. Then I read what I write and try to make it better. But if my aim is to write what I don’t understand, how can I make my writing better? By what authority can I claim to make something better if I don’t understand what might make it good in the first place?

“Peter Tell,” the last poem in Sarki’s Mewl House, is about a group of words that get together for a small gathering. These words that gather together at the end of Sarki’s book are old words. They’re old friends. They seek each other out like old friends; old friends who, when considered in certain contexts, might seem comfortable with one another. These are words that have been around a while. Words that all of us have used. These words are words like: “touch”; “angel”; and “Jesus”. But there’s more to it: These words aren’t just old words that have been around a while and that all of us have used and that have become friends that are comfortable with each other. These are heavy words. These are words that Sarki has ordered in a way that tries to resist how heavy they are, that tries to resist the friendship they seek among themselves, that tries to mess with their comfort.

If you understand what a piece of writing aims to do, you can make it better by improving its aim. But what if you never pretended to understand what a piece of writing was aiming to do? How do you make a piece of writing better if you don’t understand what the writing is aiming to do?

The words that gather together at the end of Sarki’s book are words heavy in much the same way that collecting a life, and seeing it come together in a certain order, and feeling a sense of relentlessness in that order, can seem to be heavy.

Writing is a kind of blinking, an almost imperceptible disruption in the order of things, a shift that occurs in the space of the blink of an eye. When you open your eyes again after you blink, something has changed.

Sarki’s touch is never quite what he hoped it might be in gathering these words together. He does not quite bring to the gathering what the words themselves might have brought had they come to the gathering of their own accord.

When I write, it sometimes feels like I am searching for a way to keep something in reserve when all I want to do is smash myself up against the world like someone who has thrown himself against the front end of a subway train. Once you’re in the air above the tracks, and the train has entered the station, where do you go?

Sarki is like another word among the words of his poems. He brings new meaning to their gathering by his presence, by how he positions himself, one word among many, and this bringing of meaning through position is the crux of his struggle with words.

Death wants to fuck me. Death wants to get me in its mouth and hold me there till I can’t breathe, and then it wants to hold me a moment longer, till, finally, I can’t breathe anymore and death has fucked me to death.

The things other people don’t notice about Sarki’s books are often things so obvious that, when I point them out, people say: Yeah, I noticed that.

It’s weird to postulate the structures we use to give language cohesion as obstacles to giving language our care. It’s almost as if we are afraid to look directly at the language, so we look at these ideas that stand outside language, ideas like plot and character, ideas that allow us to understand language as an example. The very ideas we trade in when we profess our passion for writing are the things that keep us from truly showing care.

For a moment sometimes, Sarki’s words will look familiar to me. For a moment, Sarki’s words will come together in a way that seems familiar. For a moment, Sarki’s words will make sense.

When Sarki’s words make sense, they make sense in a way that makes Sarki’s words seem like words that make sense without Sarki being there to make sense of them.

To craft something isn’t a kind of refinement. To craft something is to take something and make it into something that it isn’t. To craft means to get out from inside. To stand apart.

Sarki’s words sometimes make sense like words that made sense a long time ago, words that have continued to make sense till Sarki brought them together to make sense of them again a long time later.

The craft of writing is the craft of finding ways to make words hate each other, of finding ways to cause words to get a divorce.

Sometimes Sarki’s words make sense in compelling ways, the way things that made sense a long time ago compel. Sometimes Sarki’s words make sense in ways that compel as no words seem able to compel anymore. Sometimes it seems as if Sarki has brought sense to these words, as if sense was a thing that had anything to do with writing.

Some poets let what comes before suggest what comes next. Others let what’s coming next suggest what comes next.

It looks like Sarki is trying to resist something big in Mewl House. It looks to me like Sarki is trying to resist the expanse of white paper that surrounds each of the poems in Mewl House. It looks, in Mewl House,ouHH as if Sarki is trying to keep from drowning in the white expanse that surrounds each of the poems.

When you fuse words together on a page, you revel in their separateness. If you ignore their separateness, you might see a story.

A friend is someone who resists. Sarki’s friend in Mewl House is words. Sarki is a word among his friends in Mewl House. In Mewl House, words resist. Words resist saying the big things Sarki wants to say. Sarki aligns himself with words, makes of himself a word by practicing his own form of resistance. Sarki sees his friends, sees how his friends, these words he puts in his poems, resist, and, like in any good friendship, Sarki follows his friend’s example. For a long time now Sarki has admired his friends the words. But for how long can a person resist before the big thing inside him starts to hurt? For how long can a person follow his friends and go on resisting the big thing inside him before the big thing inside him hurts so much it can’t be resisted anymore?

Believing that you’ll get to where you want to be by going there is the same as wanting to die.

Sarki told me that one day he would like to meet me in person. I don’t know if that will ever happen. But I do know that if I ever meet Sarki in person, it will be harder to follow the example of our friends, these words we use in our poems, and resist the things I practice resisting in my writing. I continue to write because of new possibilities words seem to offer in the way of resistance. Meeting a person face-to-face, a person who has previously known me only in my words, requires a different form of resistance, one I haven’t been terribly successful at in the past.

Maybe, between this word and the next, there is a space like death, and maybe that space like death is what you’re looking for. The distance between this word and the next can be measured by the spacebar on a keyboard. The space a spacebar creates is infinite. The drop between one word and the next is limitless.

I met Sarki again in his book called Diary of a Modern God. Together, Sarki and I looked at some places Sarki had found. We looked at places Sarki had framed in photographs. Sarki explained some things to me. I tried to listen. I tried to hear what Sarki was saying.

There was a great amount of water in everything Sarki had to show me and to say to me in Diary, and this water spread until it was impossible to see where the water ended and the land began.

 

It’s like crossing a river on stepping stones that are each the size of the ball of your foot. If you stop, you fall. The river is already there. You don’t bring the river into existence by crossing over it.

 

Poetry is like water. You can dip yourself in, but you can’t stay there. Eventually, you have to come back to land. In Diary, Sarki takes his reader for a little swim. Sarki dips us in water. But then, after he dips us in a little water, Sarki emerges back onto land, and it feels as if all the water in Sarki’s poetry is being drained away until all that’s left is land; except that Sarki tells us it’s old-style barns that are disappearing, and not the water in his poetry.

 

We see ourselves only by making of ourselves something we are able to see. We don’t enable ourselves to see what we are by bringing ourselves to see, but by bringing ourselves to be something that can be seen.

 

Diary is about the skin on the surface of a stagnant pond. It’s about how sometimes you can’t get back in. Diary is an exploration of resistance, an effort to see where the writer stands in relation to resistance at the surface of the pond. Diary is an effort to answer the question: Where does resistance begin and the writer end?

 

We are who we are because of our terrible need to be seen.

 

In the end, I began again, but this time I tried to see how Sarki might have crafted his words. I tried to see how Diary of a Modern God might be a kind of gift, how what it gives might be stronger than just an explanation.

 

***

 

I first read Sarki’s poem “Mewl House in September” in his poetry book called Mewl House. As I read the poem, I imagined a man and a woman. The man and the woman I imagined awoke to “the beauty of the date, the clearness of the morning’s possibility that destroyed our well-being.” Then the man hung a “fiery bird” from a word for the woman. It was a gesture of love in the face of the beautiful morning that somehow destroyed their well-being. The “largeness of dread” and “humanity scrambling” and the “dust and the violence of futility” attack this couple as they sit in bed on this devastatingly clear morning, until they hear in a “cloud of horror” the “order to go about our day.” I imagined this poem as a gathering of love between two people in the simple moments we sometimes experience early in the morning before the day lays claim.

In Diary of a Modern God, Sarki explains that he wrote “Mewl House in September” with the express intention of publishing it in The New Yorker. He says that the poem is about September 11, 2001. I hadn’t seen that in the poem at all when I read it in Mewl House. Maybe the clue to what Sarki meant for the poem is in the title. Maybe there are clues throughout the poem. Maybe the clue is in the relationship between the poem and other poems about September 11, 2001. But I didn’t see any of that.

I didn’t know what a Mewl House was when I read the poem. I still don’t.

Sarki’s poems often have words in them that I don’t understand. I never look these words up or try to figure out what they mean. It doesn’t seem to matter, because I don’t quite understand Sarki’s poems even when I do know what all the words mean.

Not understanding Sarki’s poems leaves me hanging out in space at the end of each line, scrambling to make meaning.

The space at the end of a line of poetry might be a space into which the reader falls, a space the reader falls through, grasping to capture meaning as he clings to the next line; only to find himself, at the end of the next line, falling into the space at the end of that line.

 

Ken Sparling

About Ken Sparling

Ken Sparling's latest book is This Poem Is a House.
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