Delivering the Moment: A Review of Sandy Florian's Prelude to Air from Water
By Robert Savino Oventile
Florian, Sandy. Prelude to Air from Water. Denver: Elixir, 2010.
Life consists of rare individual moments of the highest significance and countless intervals in which at best the phantoms of those moments hover about us. Love, spring, a beautiful melody, the mountains, the moon, the sea--they all speak truly to our heart only once: if they ever do in fact truly find speech. For many people never experience these moments at all but are themselves intervals and pauses in the symphony of real life.
Exhibiting a marvelous writerly sprezzatura, Sandy Florian makes English her instrument for her seemingly effortless yet beautifully composed and forcefully imaginative Prelude to Air from Water. A set of prose poems, Prelude dramatizes characters grappling with given moments in time. The work challenges the reader to confront the moments the characters often rebuff, bungle, or suffer. In bending for the reader aesthetic sensation, cosmological speculation, and self-revelation toward their asymptotic rendezvous in the moment, Prelude joins traditions of thought about the moment tagged with such names as Plato, Boethius, Dante, Goethe, Kierkegaard, and Woolf. For such authors, in various ways, the realization of irrecoverable chances to encounter beauty, the cosmos, and the self depends on the sojourner's stance toward the moment and toward the others crossing the moment. So very much rides on reading the moment.
Prelude's three-score or so episodes improvise variations on a few patterns for anatomizing a moment, the book's coda being an important departure from these patterns. Each prose poem meditates not so much on a moment as on a moment's happening to yet slipping past those caught up in it: twin girls, truck drivers, lovers, tourists, plentiful ghosts, a bride and groom, and so on. While Prelude excels at detonating in the reader a moment's achingly saturate phenomena, each piece establishes for the reader a combined flowchart and Venn diagram of the given moment, laying out the event's complex interactions. The reader thus has a very different perspective on the moments than do the characters.
Instead of a title, an ellipsis heads each meditation: empty intervals differentiate one moment from another or perhaps the moment from itself. Each meditation starts with a paragraph introducing the given characters and their situation, the setting for their moment, even if a moment in endless abeyance. The setting includes some sign or another: "Printed in bold type letters, the sign reads, 'Checkout: 11:00 am'" (20). Typically, in the second paragraph, but sometimes in the third, the moment arrives: "Someone enters the garden. It is The Moment" (31). A common noun becomes proper: the moment becomes The Moment. This anthropomorphism occurs for the reader but not for the characters. No particular entity but every entity's temporal locus, The Moment parallels a person of myriad traits who reduces to none of them. Prelude's anthropomorphism proceeds as if The Moment were a person any reification would compromise.
Yet reification defines the encounters between the characters and The Moment. Also in the paragraph where The Moment arrives, The Moment and the characters consider one another through metaphors: "To The Moment, the senior ladies are single spokes in a spinning wheel. To the ladies, The Moment is a cloud, a continuous cloud, silver lined and nimbus" (45). These metaphors are catachrestic, delightfully farfetched yet abusive in treating the incommensurate as commensurate, as if The Moment or persons were comparable to their traits or to a thing. These catachrestic figurations suggest that between The Moment and the characters what Boethius names the nunc stans, the Christian god's eternal now, remains unavailable, making any equation of The Moment with that god thankfully problematic (Ward 6).
For the god of medieval European Christian theology, the nunc stans corresponds to the totum simul, the eternal co-presence of every moment, of what for the fallen are the fleeting instants of the nunc fluens (Miller 50). In a mystic's or anyone's experience of the nunc stans, time's hectic pace eases into a moment's intersection with eternity. The sunlight becomes suddenly softer yet clearer, fellow pedestrians begin to walk in slow motion, and they, the surrounding buildings, and the passing birds, cars, and clouds all for a moment partake in a graceful harmony. All is in all, so for an element of the moment, say a bird, to stand for the moment would be unthinkable in the nunc stans. Even the phrase "an element of the moment" exhibits a reifying departure from the nunc stans by implying the bird, as a detachable "element," could exist separately from a moment. "To the wizened man and the young woman, The Moment is a staccato ray of light drumming bright through the window" (56): such catachreses reify The Moment as "an element of the moment," again a phrase already implying reification.
The relations among Prelude's characters are ambivalent. The characters' mutual misrecognition occurs as a distortion in mirroring that schematizes via idealization ("To each, the other is an object of wonder, a perfect paradigm, a prime example" ) or degradation ("To each, the other seems a caricature replete with parody, satire and two-dimensionality" ). Or the misrecognition may involve some more evenhanded or benign affective tonality. But generally, just as the catachrestic metaphors evidence with inventive gusto the reification of The Moment for the characters and the characters for The Moment, so the misrecognitions waver between the self's avowal and disavowal while courting the other's abjection. Each prose poem closes with a character enunciating a postscript expressive of the character's dilemmas with companions, self, and fate. Lighthearted and unflinching, Prelude, through its baffled wanderers, gives the reader acute insights into Walter Pater's admonition: "Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening" (197).
Readers who enter Prelude's labyrinth in quest of a meaning will find ample opportunities to gratify their wish and to test their interpretive dexterity. The panoply of literary theories will find Prelude a bracing workout. For example, should readers concerned with colonialism log on to Google Earth and type in the longitude and latitude of the town of Paia on Maui, they can enjoy a god's-eye view of "the corner of Baldwin and Melia" and even survey the "United States Post Office" located there--The Moment often sits at a post-office desk piled with letters (42). In Prelude, the moment that plays out at that corner takes the critique of the Hawaiian Islands' colonization toward a consideration of the latest communications technologies: what happens to a colonial situation when a national, print-oriented communications system (the US postal service) undergoes displacement by a simulacra-oriented global wireless network earth-orbiting satellites relay? In less than two pages, Prelude explores this question in a very condensed and provocative manner, also bringing into consideration its inevitable religious valences.
Readers concerned with articulating desire's impasses by way of Jacques Lacan's psychoanalytic writings will find Prelude's narratives quite interpretively responsive to Lacan's categories of the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real. The characters can be read as pinballing among the identifications reflections precipitate, the accessions to authority symbolic orders impose, and the traumas encounters with the real involve.
Prelude also calls for readers who study the literary histories of the sonnet and the short story. While mashing up these two genres, Florian samples and rewrites specific stories (works by Joyce, Hemingway, and Faulkner are in evidence) and often incorporates the English sonnet's form (prose "quatrains," a concluding "couplet") as well as sonneteers' themes (love, love's strife) and quotations from Shakespeare's sequence. Deploying the term "sonnet" loosely, the readers in question here could argue that Prelude makes several impressive contributions to the tradition of the sonnet of sublimity and melancholy. Fans of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Lift Not the Painted Veil" or Jay Wright's "Leaving the Buenos Aires Cemetery" will find Prelude's moment contrasting priest and poet and the moment occurring in a centuries-old starlit cemetery quite to their taste (41, 26). But when, in a sublimely melancholic sonnet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti grandly proclaims, "A Sonnet is a moment's monument" (1), the reader open to Prelude's most difficult soliciting will pause to wonder: are not all monuments ruins in waiting?
Prelude will fully reward hermeneutists in search of this or that meaning. Nevertheless, Prelude also leads the reader to question the pursuit of meaning. This pursuit does have respectable motives. Grasp a moment's every intricacy, and a theodicy might result: a vision justifying existence, with each part manifesting the whole (Rennie 29). In attempting to reduce the time of the moment to the space of wholeness, such a disclosure would correlate to reading a passage from Prelude as a symbol of the work's organic unity. This Coleridgean assumption of wholeness slides toward the thought that all the book's moments belong together before an all-encompassing gaze enacting the aforesaid totum simul: the Christian deity congregating every moment into eternity (62). In this gaze's readerly version, each of Prelude's words would find a syntactic relation with every other word. The book would thus form a totality bearing a semantic center, a meaning.
A writerly version of the totum simul would be for an author to let no error pass unnoticed and uncorrected. Most authors fake such omniscience by asking proofreaders to spot errors, and even then many authors in an introduction take responsibility for errors that may have slipped by, as if to be less than the all-knowing overseer of their texts would entail culpability. An author who let the writing moment's infelicities stand would disown the persona of omniscience. Defying pedants, Florian takes this route, undercutting the values the totum simul implies. How does Florian's preserving errors of the moment (or perhaps staging such) relate to the odd totum simul of Prelude's last paragraph?
The predominant Christian traditions define sin as error, and Paul equates sin with the letter, so the letter becomes sinful error's marker, while the spirit attains to perfection: cleansed of error, cleansed of sin (Romans 2-7, 2 Corinthians 3.6). Entering the spirit, believers fuse into oneness, free of the difference or alterity encountered by those mired in the flesh (Galatians 3.28). As Ernst Bloch explains, medieval theologians conceived of the nunc stans as a purgation of the fleshly letter attaining to pure spirit, and so as a state without difference and "without otherness" (1300-01). The Christian god "dies by being born" into the absolute "immediacy of the moment," with any alterity spirited away in the undifferentiated, never-ending existence all becomes in the nunc stans and so in the totum simul (1300-01).
The Hebrew Scriptures offer an alternate perspective on such existence. Consider the resigned acceptance of Ecclesiastes's "there is nothing new under the sun" (1.9). In Ecclesiastes, this "nothing new" defines existence as an endless continuity implacably erasing into oblivion all memories, hopes, achievements, loves, and distinctions (2.1-23). Keying in on this inexorable and nullifying actuality, Samuel Beckett begins his novel Murphy: "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new" (1). The milieu of Beckett's later novels, this "nothing new" the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas describes as the "impersonal, anonymous, yet inextinguishable" and ever-returning existence that "murmurs in the depths of nothingness" and that Lévinas designates the "there is" (il y a) (Existence, 57). Any relation to persons or to things, with volition and significance abiding in a world, presupposes yet admits interruption or suspension by the "incomparable event" of one's "birth" or exposure to the there is, an event occurring at "each moment" (21-22). Thwarting attempts to secure meaning by negating the "nothing new," an incessant awareness of the unremitting there is turns up in Prelude's postscripts: "Clouds Pass. / Continuously"; "And There are Always / Skies of Blue"; "The Sun. / Is Shining. Always" (21, 43, 56).
The there is persists in the final page of Prelude. This page describes The Moment as standing "outside an old art museum" among the "monuments of men and their gods clad in stiff stone robes" (67). A "stone imitation of Michelangelo's David" is nearby (67). In one direction, "a wide arch" opens to a view of a "wide river," while in the opposite direction "a larger piazza" is visible (67). So, haunting the open-air statue gallery between the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace) and the Uffizi, which abuts the river Arno, The Moment ends up in Florence, where, loving "art for its own sake," Pater sought aesthetic moments: "For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake" (199).
Certainly Pater would have appreciated the melancholy wonder at beauty's splendor Prelude is careful to provoke in the reader. Yet The Moment's final paragraph, Prelude's second to last, ends as follows: "Both the gallery and the piazza are cold with stone floors. The river, on the other hand, ripples with waves" (67). The river's flowing "ripples" contrast with the statuary's "stiff stone robes," the stony attire of the monumental ideal, that is, as Lévinas might claim, the proprietary "I" as "a virility, a pride and a sovereignty," as the "master of existing," as a masculinist "hypostasis" that would overcome the there is with a monument (Time, 54-55). Lévinas finds that among the Greek philosophers, Cratylus best evokes the there is by claiming that in Heraclitus's river "one cannot bathe even once," the river being so deconstitutive of form, unity, and distinction (49). The reader of Prelude discovers The Moment outside the Uffizi, rather than within, lost in thought before Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, a painting of a moment born from waves yet on the edge of statuary. Is the aesthetic Prelude articulates a fleeting moment between the there is and the hypostasis, between anonymous flux and monumental reification, between the "nothing new" and the totum simul?
Following the scene of The Moment in Florence, Prelude's ultimate paragraph invites paradox. In every episode but the last, the first paragraph describes a setting without mentioning The Moment, and, except for the dream episodes, which omit the words "The Moment" altogether, a succeeding paragraph begins with sentences like: "Someone enters the room. It is The Moment" (41). In a kind of reversal, the two-paragraph final episode's first paragraph mentions The Moment and describes a Florentine setting. The second paragraph, the book's last, then begins: "Someone enters the piazza. Someone crosses the street. Someone exits the gallery" and continues on with such sentences, the list of "Someone" sentences perhaps implying the various actions happen simultaneously (67). Given the pattern the book has established up to this point, after the sentence, "Someone enters the piazza," the reader anticipates but does find the next to be: "It is The Moment."
So do these "Someone" sentences invite Prelude's every reader to take up the writing by completing the implicit sentence pairs ("Someone enters the piazza." It is The Moment.) and inventing moments? But since The Moment already stands there in Florence, wouldn't writing, "It is The Moment" in response to "Someone enters the gallery" situate The Moment facing The Moment in an iterative mise en abîme (67)? Or, since Florian gives none of these "Someone" sentences the anticipated "It is The Moment," shouldn't the reader let the implicit suspension of the "The" happen? Notice how these three options all imply that the final paragraph stages a totum simul in exploding dispersal, a dissemination of moments.
Snippets of characters' speech from previous pages also show up in the finale. Prelude's last remaining sentences (they should not be called closing sentences) form an example. These sentences echo sentences from an episode early in Prelude about a "Russian man and his wife" (11). This episode rewrites Vladimir Nabokov's short story "Signs and Symbols," which originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1948. The story tells of an elderly Jewish couple, émigrés living in what seems New York. Their difficult path to America forms the back-story. After the Bolshevik revolution, the couple fled from their native Russia to Germany. Some years later, they immigrated to the United States, survivors of Nazism. In the US, the long-gestating madness of their son leads to his institutionalization. A straightforward narrative of family travails, "Signs and Symbols" upon scrutiny emerges as also a baroque and abyssal palimpsest. "Referential mania," the son's diagnosis, entails the patient's belief that "everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence" (Nabokov 69). After their institutionalized son's latest suicide attempt thwarts a birthday visit, the distraught parents return to their apartment, where a female caller twice phones asking for "Charlie" (74). Responding to the second call, the wife explains, "You have the incorrect number. I will tell you what you are doing: you are turning the letter O instead of the zero" (74). The story ends with the phone ringing a third time.
The last sentences of Prelude are as follows, with the last word being zero, and the last letter being O: "You are dialing the letter O. You are dialing the letter O. I'll tell you what you are doing. You are dialing the letter O instead of zero" (67). Interpretation comes down to a letter, an O aberrantly displacing yet inhabiting the zero. This O repeatedly arrives or returns persistently as an error. To find a meaning in this errant O, in the error confusing O for 0, might exhibit referential mania or perhaps a clinician's compulsion to normalize the errant, a hermeneutist's wish to recuperate textual anomalies in and for meaning, a heritage's will to spirit away the letter ...
So, as opposed to any totalizing, monumental, syntactic option for reading Prelude, consider a paratactic, dispersive alternative: each moment stands to the others in an arbitrary, metonymic juxtaposition, like grains of sand strewn across time, the only relation among the moments being their contingent lack of any relation. Such a baseless contiguity would imply reading Prelude as a dispersion of signs across a page, and then another, page after page, to the end. Letters would escape the semantic unity the term "word" implies: "In the beginning was the Word" (John 1.1). The reader could take Prelude's errant O as an example of an a-semantic letter, a cipher of signification's zero point, but only at the risk of attributing to the O the meaningfulness of being an example. As a whirling blizzard of marks tending toward whiteout, Prelude, bearing nothing like semantic cohesion, would approach meaninglessness. The issue of theodicy would achieve no articulation.
Prelude slyly tempts the reader ardently to pursue both a totalizing, syntactic reading and a dispersive, paratactic reading of the book's moments, only to bring the reader to the anguishing delight of realizing that in reference to Prelude both types of reading happen exclusively in their mutual imbrication, deferral, or blockage. The one becomes the receding mirage of the other until, by letting go of the wish for either's comfort ("living and dying are meaningful; living and dying are meaningless"), the reader accedes to the sharpest moment of reading Prelude solicits: living and dying just are, an existence readers obfuscate or flee in positing meaning's simple absence or presence.
Both bound and unbound from meaning, singular reading-events will happen in any given bookworm's inimitable encounter with Prelude's idiom. Undoubtedly, this review essay can only hope to report just one such event. Yet, having undergone said event, I can testify with conviction that, read to very the limits of pleasure and instruction, Prelude delivers the reader to the moment.
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