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Rapture, a Bull-Hook, a Puzzle, by Rikki Ducornet

 

Focused on fearless inquiry into the Armenian genocide of 1915–1923, Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s Three Apples Fell from Heaven is the first in a trilogy from a novelist who writes like a house on fire, in a state of emergency—yet with uncanny buoyancy, and this because of the beauty of the writing, the writer’s unfailing courage and compassion. Book after book, she dares engage the seemingly infinite and unstoppable misfortunes our faltering species imposes upon itself: the horrors of war, of massacre, deportation, abduction—let alone the interminable assaults upon the environment. Marcom reminds us—she will not look away—that war and all it entails means the annihilation of entire families, that the child who survives genocide has lost not only her parents, her siblings, her neighbors, her entire community, but he has lost his home, his culture, his country, his way of being, his identity. Her destiny has been possibly irretrievably shattered beyond reclaiming. If a child enters into the world with the expectation that she will find loving kindness—that quintessential immensity—the child whom war has crippled is broken. He will not, cannot—to use a phrase of William Gass’s—“grow up in good excitement.”[1] Banished from her house, a place resonant, intelligible and significant, the orphaned child enters the unknowable; she enters incoherence.

Marcom’s trilogy tells us that our species is in extremity. One by one we are closing the portals of the self. The horrors of war are chronic and ubiquitous; they happen in places where war has no business: the schoolyard, the nursery, the hospital, the places of worship, the marketplace. Like a parasite within the body, the horrors of war are not easy to cast out.

 

The Daydreaming Boy

The Daydreaming Boy begins with a sorrowful fucking. Raised in a “stink-hole orphanage” (8) and knowing nothing of love, Vahé does it “like some terrible jungle monkey” (11), even if he wants to be some other sort of man. Yet his is irretrievably an “orphan Body” (12), a body punished for being a body, a body he wears like a wire cage. Too much a coward to die, he lives like the kenneled ape he has befriended at the public menagerie. The orphan of a people “erased from the land like one erases pencil drawings from coarse paper” (50), he is a sick animal who dreams of being a boy again, of casting off his adult body and, simultaneously, of freeing the monkey whose only pleasure in life is smoking the proffered cigarette. Yet if Vahé dreams of being a boy again, he cannot escape the fact that he had, himself, been twisted out of shape, had been made into a boy who caused another boy to suffer immeasurably in body and mind, a boy (and his name was Vosto) who had been reduced to nothing but a vessel for all the orphaned boys’ pain. If his body could be given a name, that name would be: Pain.

Behind the bunkhouse he is their trained circus boy. They drop their pants and he, like a wind-up monkey boy, opens his mouth . . . I see him kneeling before them. His mouth open wide. (27)

The terrible image of Vosto on his knees is compounded by a question Vahé, sequestered in the cage of his own inescapable reflections, asks himself: “[D]id I take your bread? Double my own meager portion and belt you when you cried?” (33). Compounded by the image of all those motherless boys cruelly scrubbed by the nuns who are motivated more by their need to punish than to bathe them. Each boy longs for the touch of the one who will do the job with gentleness. Vahé’s own longing for his vanished mother’s love is so intense, so vast, that just to have her bones would do; “Your bones,” he informs us from the depths of his famishment, “would be enough . . . your bones sifted out” (98).

The rape of children, Marcom reminds us, is, as is so much else, most often left undocumented. As is the rape of children by those who would protect them. We need to acknowledge that one of the undiagnosed impulses of war is to seize and detain children for the purpose of sexual predation—Syria, a prime example. War is, after all, a Sadean enterprise. It sets the stage for the abuse of those who are the most vulnerable. Says Vahé: “The war begins its wage in me, the boy made from war and returning to the contest of his birth” (38).

And what does he dream this boy made from war? He dreams he is “sitting atop the elephant swinging a ball and chain. The elephant falls to the ground and I beat his flanks with my chain, the bull-hook snares his hide and up we go again” (28).

Early on in The Daydreaming Boy, Vahé asks: “Where are the gods? And without them: where are we?” (41). He continues: “There is no desire today or yesterday. Days without desire and no matter the amount of manipulate and draw upon and stimulus: I cannot create the force to pull me into the world . . . I have never thought so much about color as I do now in this world devoid of color” (43). And then he takes us to the crux of it: “I am the man seeking love” (44).

 

A Brief History of Yes

When in A Brief History of Yes the existentially compromised lover says: “I used to rock myself to sleep at night. Each night . . . for many years, I would kneel on my mattress on hands and knees and rocking thereby begin to hit my head against the wooden headboard to put myself to sleep” (28)—it could be Vahé speaking. And like The Daydreaming Boy, A Brief History of Yes bites its own tail. Its central character is marked by thirst from start to finish, the book beginning and ending in a “dry season.” Parched from the initial encounter, the love affair between two crippled people persists within the stringent rules of negation, the Yes of Eros undone long before the affair begins, by the pale lover’s loveless mother, the dark mistress’s abusive father. If the affair lives out a season, it is only because the mistress, Maria, does what she has always done—give and give again. Maria’s heart is like the moon, “that hangs in the sky” (39) forever resurging. In the attempt—and it is hopeless—to heal a wounded man and in this way be—at long last!—visible, acknowledged, embraced and adored. If Maria is all heart, her lover is literally heartless:

He bears a deformity across his chest where the bones and cartilage did not form properly across his heart . . . She sees his concave chest area, the hollow . . . He is a man with a concave chest, he is someone who needs love . . . I’ll fix your heart, she thinks. (12–13)

And:

“There is a wound inside your chest cavity,” she says, “and I could have been its balm.”

“No,” he replied. (57)

From time to time, briefly—and it is miraculous—they are visible to one another, acknowledge their uniqueness, the uniqueness of their shared moment. An affirmation surging from absence. An absence that is nothing less than death and life. In such moments, “love [is] like a river between them” (17).

They fall asleep, Maria dreams of a ghost who complains to her of its loneliness, its sadness, and asks for her help. She sees a fresh grave in the garden, knows the ghost is her father’s ghost—alone, cold and sad. The ghost of the father who told her “You are not good” (26). Just as her lover whispers his own “you are no goods” (22).

“There is a daemon, Mariazinha,” her lover tells her, “who possesses me. This daemon speaks in tongues: says: This girl . . . is not-right no-good, the match is rotten” (38).

Writes Roberto Calasso, a writer who has had a powerful influence on Marcom’s own process: “Every lover loves first and foremost, an absentee. Absence precedes presence in the hierarchical order of things. Presence is just a special case in the category of absence.”[2]

 

The Brick House

 

The Puzzle

HE AWAKENS IN THE MIDDLE of the night and he has found the solution. He will try and recall it for morning. Sleeps again; falls in. The problem is the labyrinth and he is inside it when he thinks that he is out; the in and out unfollowing in and out regulations so that in is not inner, and out is never available, or the feeling of out is like awakening from a dream which is another dream inside a box of the dream, and dreams inside of dream boxes, larger inside of smaller, like nesting dolls which do not follow the laws of classical mechanics and are synchronic mythical structures about which he briefly understood something, as if finding a solution to a problem, and then he slept again and forgot it by morning. (45)

Dreamed in The Brick House, “The Puzzle” could well belong to the lover in A Brief History of Yes whose bitterness assures the affair’s inclemency; the woman who dreams in a room not far from him often recalls Maria: “[S]he begins to feel afraid, for there is always unaccountable dread at the threshold. It climbs up into her visions and the old father, the old lovers, return. They beat her, berate her, tell her that it is all for naught. And then the old husband arrives: he has walked through the mud and stands at the embankment; he shakes his tired black fist toward her from a distance: Bitch, he says, not for you; you open your legs too callously, dirty” (49).

The Brick House offers a series of simultaneous sequences, variations on themes revitalized and reconsidered. In this way we are swept along in the author’s own process of imagining and her ongoing quest to unpuzzle the dilemma love poses. The Brick House provides the portal into dreamlife, visionary experience, storytelling, and the making of myths. Its wandering displacements serve to illuminate and even contradict previous metaphysical readings of the world, at times achieving a fascinating asymmetry. Writes Roberto Calasso: “Without Rapture the meters (the words, the telling, the singing, the Breath) would remain inert.”[3] It is with rapture that Marcom leads us into The Brick House, assuring an experience that is fluid, porous, and malleable. Past, present, and future are not sequestered from one another but instead seamlessly confounded. The book slides through one portal into another, from distress to ecstasy, from the collapse of the world body to its resurgence, from the nightmare of disintegration to a luminous vision of what is to come, has, in fact, always been. As our disorder, disruption and collapse, ecstasy and the marvelous are the children of space and time. And as the man and the woman who, at the book’s beginning, settle into their rooms for the night, so do we enter a house that is at journey’s end the mirror of their joy and the resurgence of a world sparked by love’s innumerable forms. Sparked by Rapture, the words sing:

Dream of the earth. Dream of dying (which is also to live). Dream of the Sitka spruce, lighter green western hemlocks, of red cedars and a yellow. See the rare yellow wood as it burns. Dream of the forest, of animals with lungs the size of your body, and of the humpback who surfaced just as he and then you breathed in unison. Dream of the air. Dream the mystery of photosynthesis. Dream of trees and of not of shaping them into futures, removing them like plastic dolls from plastic shelves. Dream of what is to come. Of laughter on the edges of things. Of holy love in the holy cunt and cock: love in all the forms. Of the interstitial lovers: the girl in the byre and the hunter who came for her. Dream of the hunter who is now armed with rifles, submarines, trapeze bomber planes, money-filled bank accounts, and of how he forgot his name.

Dream of places apart. Of the coastal grasslands and the sedges and rushes where the brown bear rambles eating them in late summer (the cohos have not yet returned and he is ravenous). Dream of knowledge as you would of candy. Dream of fucking all of the hunters with your maiden fantasy. Dream of books like boats (books are portals): they lift the dreamer out of the gyre. Undream the gyre. Undream the cutted woodlands. Undream steam engines and combustion engines, quarterly profits, and the miracle of petrol. Undream department store chains, fast food chains, the International Monetary Fund, and the factories where men are concentrated like vermin at a fish-and-tackle store. Dream behind the city; dream the rivers behind the unrivered lands; dream on top of mountains, of clouds which sit lazily like girls on their peaks in white-gray formations. And the sea, fill it to again. And the mountains, the forest, the place at the base of the spine. There is a black striped coho at the creek head: dream the coho leaping with his muscular urge out of the water. Silver and red-sided he turns, uncaught, uneaten, until the brown bear reaches the bank; the coho has returned to his origins from his exile at sea when the bear grabs him from the water; coho blood on the long claws. And in the bear mouth, the glassy, now unseeing, fish eyes of the old salmon—who only moments ago glared, enraged and exalted, as he furiously swam homeward with his white clouds of spermatozoa tucked into his flesh in search of the reds of orange, newly deposited eye-eggs he could fertilize—have transformed. (75–76)

 

Sources:

[1] William Gass, Omensetter’s Luck (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 251.

[2] Roberto Calasso, Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India, trans. Tim Parks (New York: Vintage Books), 89.

[3] Roberto Calasso, Literature and the Gods, trans. Tim Parks (New York: Vintage, 2001), 150.

 

Note: This essay is part of Big Other Folio: Micheline Aharonian Marcom.

 

The author of nine novels, three collections of short fiction, two books of essays and five books of poetry, Rikki Ducornet has received both a Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award For Fiction. She has received the Bard College Arts and Letters award and, in 2008, an Academy Award in Literature. Her work is widely published abroad.

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