Sentences and Fragments: Sentences I Like

“Dining Room” from Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution (Coffee House, 2004):

“Willie called his daughters into the dining room. He picked up a dining room table chair and threw it into a closed window. The window shattered. He said, ‘That’s a lesson about virginity. Do you understand?’ to which they replied, ‘Yes sir.'”

Okay, wow, I’ve probably quoted this passage here on Big Other like six or seven times. What I love here is the economy of language. Yes, this is a poem, but it’s also a full story. We learn so much about Willie, about his daughters, about their psychologies. And I love the deadpan delivery, the sonic pleasures (called, daughters, dining, picked, dining, closed, window, window, shattered, said, do, understand, etc.).

from Lydia Millet’s My Happy Life (Soft Skull, 2007):

“Then he sprayed a can into the bag and tied it around his neck over his head. Flopping, he danced. With his face pinkly invisible. We could see his mouth stretched like an O between the letters of the pink writing on the bag, A&P. When he fell down and we were all of us crying, I, being the oldest, called Children’s Protective Services and said, ‘Mr Rubens put a bag on his head.'”

When I first read this book, and when I came to this passage, I think I had one of those formative moments. I liked reading again. I mean, I like to read, but I don’t always love what I read. I think so many students are forced to read books they don’t like, and then they’re taught “how” to read those books (probably as if there is a right or wrong way), and then they grow up hating reading. I was lucky. I had a few great English teachers, and I grew up reading, enjoying reading, long before that. But then there are those moments in my adult reading life where I feel like I’ve discovered something new about reading. That’s what this book did for me. And it has to do with the phrasings. What does it mean, out of context, that “Mr Rubens put a bag on his head”? Maybe it’s funny. Certainly “Flopping, he danced” is kind of funny. But not in this context. I love the simplicity of language, the precision of clarity, and yet the multi-layered reading experiences one can have.

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Contemporary Verse Novels: Carson, Saterstrom, Conrad, the Roubauds, Boully, and Ruefle

What is a beginning? What is an ending? What makes a particular grouping of words become a poem or a story or a fiction or a non-fiction? And do these labels, these distinctions, even matter?

For anyone who does not know, I’ve been reading and thinking about books that may or may not fit into the category of Contemporary Verse Novels. In attempting to define “contemporary verse novel,” I turned to several presses, books, and authors that I wanted to study and better understand.


Contemporary Verse Novel


Novel in Verse (vs. Novel vs. Poetry)

I first looked at Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution, and C. A. Conrad’s The Book of Frank. In grouping together these three books, I examined the role of family as both familiar and unfamiliar to readers. I spent some time discussing the mother/son relationship in Autobiography, the abusive father in Pink, and the strange mother who keeps jars of fetuses in Frank. In better understanding the families, readers also gain further entrance into the lives and minds of the protagonists. Whether fiction or non-fiction, poetry or short story collection, family is a solid theme that many authors write about.

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Contemporary Verse Novels and Anne Carson’s AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF RED, Selah Saterstrom’s THE PINK INSTITUTION, and C. A. Conrad’s THE BOOK OF FRANK

I’ve been reading and comparing Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution, and C. A. Conrad’s The Book of Frank. What these three books have in common (besides being among my top favorites) is that they offer, through short, fragmented sections, isolated snapshots of a family. It isn’t until the reader finishes the book (or perhaps we could call it an album) that s/he gains an overall sense of what these families are and how they operate. Additionally, these books are all verse novels; they deliver the pleasures of reading a novel while also paying an incredible amount of attention to sentences, lines, and syntax. There is as much to learn from these books’ white space (what’s left untold) as there is from the stories they do reveal.

For this post, I’m interested in the idea of family. All three books provide narrative from or about the child or children protagonist. It is the family that the child struggles against. For instance, Autobiography of Red provides this snapshot of little Geryon and his mother:

“Every second Tuesday in winter Geryon’s father and brother went to hockey practice. / Geryon and his mother had supper alone. / They grinned at each other as night climbed ashore. Turned on all the lights / even in rooms they weren’t using. / Geryon’s mother made their favorite meal, cling peaches from the can and toast / cut into fingers for dipping. / Lots of butter on the toast so a little oil slick floats out on top of the peach juice. / They took supper trays into the living room. / Geryon’s mother sat on the rug with magazines, cigarettes, and telephone. / Geryon worked beside her under the lamp. / He was gluing a cigarette to a tomato. [. . .] / He had ripped up some pieces of crispy paper he found in her purse to use for hair / and was gluing these to the top of the tomato. [. . . ] / She put her hand on top of his small luminous skull as she studied the tomato. / And bending she kissed him once on each eye / then picked up her bowl of peaches from the tray and handed Geryon his. / Maybe next time you could / use a one-dollar bill instead of a ten for the hair, she said as they began to eat.”

What I love about this passage is we learn so much about Geryon, his creativity, his preoccupations while his mother is on the  phone. But we also learn about his mother. She doesn’t get mad, she encourages his little project, and it’s clear she loves and appreciates him. This is how, later, we understand why Geryon is so attached to her. And I love that so much about these characters is so clearly portrayed in such small sections (or chapters).

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I can’t thank Mathias Svalina enough for introducing me to Selah Saterstrom. Her first novel, The Pink Institution (Coffee House Press, 2004), offers up such stark, spare language as to mimic the fragmented, but forever life-altering, moments in the lives of her (many generations of) women, not one of whom escapes her own special brand of suffering.

“Willie called his daughters into the dining room. He picked up a dining room table chair and threw it into a closed window. The window shattered. He said, “That’s a lesson about virginity. Do you understand?” to which they replied, “Yes sir.”

The chapter — yes, chapter — above is the first in the section “Maidenhood Objects,” which follows the section “Childhood Objects.” Perhaps the following is the most representative chapter from “Childhood Objects”:

“Azalea sent Aza to Toomsata to see if Willie was there. Aza walked into the house. She asked Dunbar if her father was there. Dunbar said, ‘He’s in the bed, you jealous little bitch.’ On several occasions the children watched Dunbar masturbate their drunk father while their mother, also drunk, slobbered on herself sitting in the corner.”

This is a painful novel, but it is beautiful and reminds me of Lydia Millet’s My Happy Life, and Kate Bernheimer’s The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold and The Complete Tales of Merry Gold. Buy it, check it out (check out all of them) from your library, and get reading at once. And if you’re an impatient type, try a little sneak preview action at Google books.

Thanks again, Mathias. I owe you one.