Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tim Gautreaux: Bayou Poetry

An evil-smelling mocha puddle

Fly-haunted mules

Suits that fit like a hound’s skin

Guitar music that sounded like raindrops striking a trash pile of tin cans

Sun-gilded porch boards

The blind horse stood steaming like a hot rock

If all thrillers read like Tim Gautreaux’s The Clearing, I’d spend more time with them. The book reads like a rocket (or maybe a nutria on crack, to stick with a bayou image), and you can smell the swamp-rot coming off the pages.

This is a guy who knows his terrain, and the terrain’s been much the same throughout his novels and short stories: backwater Louisiana. I just finished reading the novel, Gautreaux’s second, and the book reminds me that there’s often a fine line between poetry and prose. But more, it brings back a thought I’ve had so many times: that having a native ground is vital to fiction writers, even if they aren’t really native to the place.

Having grown up as a foreign service brat, there’s no place on earth that I know so well as Gautreaux knows Louisiana. I never felt I got to know a place so well I could picture every inch of it, capture the dialect, delineate lines and hollows and alleys only natives know. I have little pieces of a hundred places, a patchwork of turf I’ll never revisit.

Such fragments are fine (maybe even an asset!) for writing poetry, but when I set out to work on a piece of fiction, I sometimes feel a little crippled about how to provide that sense of real habitation. I’m beginning to know D.C. pretty well, but it’s taken on-and-off visits and stays over a lifetime for that to happen, and when I read a book that depicts a place so intimately, I get a pang—not envy of the writing, but of the sense of being at home somewhere, even if the somewhere haunts you.

My favorite books for sense of place: Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. Okay, yes, I know it’s overly flowery and sentimental, but when I read that book at sixteen, I never wanted to shut it. I went back and read whole sections of it as I was going, just to keep it from ending. His images of the South Carolina lowcountry are baroque and sun-struck and stunning. Graham Swift’s Waterland. Jeffrey Eugenides The Virgin Suicides, pitch perfect on the emotional and actual topography of the suburbs. Most recently I’ve been digging John Burdette’s strange, kinky detective series set in Bangkok—rollercoaster plots and a great anchoring main character, but really, I’m reading them for the sense of having been dropped for hours at a time into seamy, steamy, ancient Thailand.

When it comes to fiction, plot and character are essential—but sometimes I can be satisfied just to find a place to hole up in.

What are your favorite literary geographies—poetry or prose?


Anonymous said...

" ... the heat forced us to find a shelter in the wood. i threw myself down beneath a tall hazel bush, above which a young and graceful maple had made a beautiful spread of its felled birch. ... Leaves fluttered slightly above, and their liquid, greenish shadows glided calmly to and fro over his puny figure ..."
turgenev, a random passage from "sketches from a hunter's album"
... great topic, carrie. so many writers write beautifully about place. turgenev is among my favorites not only because he writes beautifully. but also because i love the place he writes about, the land of the russian peasant. he does not write better than dickens or cather or garcia-marquez or joyce, but i like his particular place better than all of theirs. and it is always better to have horses instead of cars, candles instead of lamps, talking over tea instead of talking over the phone.
--- moose.

Maggie May said...

i love books that ooze atmosphere

M. C. Allan said...

Anon -- thanks for the great response! Do you think the affection for horses over cars, candle over lamps, etc. -- which I admit I often share -- is due to some idea about authenticity?

I don't know, but some of that seems like it might be connected to sense of place: the more cell phones, Internet, etc. come into fiction/poetry, the less of a sense of place I get from that writing. But that may indicate what you talked about in an earlier post: how much does geography matter now?

I'd be happy to see some pieces that defy that, though. I always struggle with the issue of contemporary references: how to write in a way that's contemporary without being temporary. But in some ways, I think it's a false dichotomy; I'm sure that much of the accessories that appear in Turgenev (and other greats of the past) were contemporary to them, but to us -- coming decades and sometimes centuries later -- seem classical in import. Tea is a good example, maybe? What seemed like the prime cultural activity then (like coffee shops or disco or raves or whatever did in their era) now seems old-fashioned and/or of greater gravitas simply because it's been around a while. Maybe in a century, text messaging will have all the ritual import of tea ceremonies and wakes, and writers will drop OMG and IDK references with no concerns about dating themselves :)

I'm being somewhat facetious here, of course, but I do think it's an issue for writers: being in the culture enough to be relevant without being so "with it" that a year will make the poem/story irrelevant.

M. C. Allan said...

maggie, what/who are some of your faves for atmosphere?

Anonymous said...

thanks, carrie, for the thoughtful response. the love for candles, tea and horses and distaste for, say, lightbulbs is at first instinctive. i see a lightbulb, a car, a phone in a novel, and i don't want to read it.
it is hard for me to analyze the repulsion but i do notice that many contemporary poets and novelists also seem to avoid electronics.
a fair number of them seem to set their works in the distant or primitive past. i am thinking of '100 years of solitude,' which i am reading now, but there are many other examples.
i think part of jane kenyon's desire to live on a farm was that the raw materials for poetry would be more attractive.
i do think the basic situation of one individual talking to another individual is inherently fascinating. electronics distances that interaction.
also, max beckmann, the painter, once wrote that the car would be the death of painting. of course, it wasn't. but there was truth to the statement. we now often see things as a blur of acceleration instead of with contemplative pace that walking (or trotting) demands. it changes the very nature of thought.
i'm aware of the ways in which our modern world is superior to that of the past. i couldn't do without at least one good shower everyday. but i'm susceptible to a certain naive nostalgia about the 19th century.
-- moose

M. C. Allan said...

I definitely think it changes the nature of thought. The other day at work, I sent 80 emails and received more than 150. That's pretty much an average day, and it leaves my brain feeling like Swiss cheese, without the cheese. Just holes pointing in different directions.

I have the same feeling about much of this, but I always feel like that's some escapist tendency on my part. I want to read books set in older times, but I'm not sure about writing them. There are some really excellent novels, especially, that include all the plastic and wiring of now. In fact, some of my favorites (Graham Swift, for example, whose novel "Out of this World" is at least partly about technology) are pretty good about sense of place. Richard Ford's novels (particularly the Frank Bascombe series) are loaded to the brim with details of right now, but I think they may also be lasting pieces of art, and certainly capture something dead-on about American life right now. When I read him, I feel claustrophobic and exhilarated at once because I think he gets details so exactly right.

I think the Kenyon idea is interesting -- it's true, being around elemental things makes me feel more in touch and elemental myself, but I sometimes worry that elemental can also become repetitive, and that it's shying away from the realities of the moment which need to be grappled with.

thanks for the great comments!

Angela said...

"A 'place' is, by definition, a somewhere that isn't going anywhere. After forty-one years spent calling northwestern Oregon my 'place,' it became painfully clear that, according to this definition, many places -- including much of northwestern Oregon -- are not places at all: they're a flux; an industrial by-product; an unending sequence of rapid, man-made changes." -- from Chapter 3, "The Non Sense of Place" of "My Story as Told by Water" by David James Duncan.

Brilliant writer on the west, and an Oregonian! I read his "A River Why" so long ago that the only thing I remember was a remarkable depiction of the rugged west and the crazy characters that fill it.

This is such a great topic, and one that constantly perplexes me. I doubt I could write authentically about D.C. as a place, but I like Duncan's idea of place being fluid, changing. On the surface, place is comprised of a seemingly simple set of lists. Nouns. But then you read on:

"It was easy to forget, during the mere two seasons that constitute an Oregon coast year (seven months of wet, five of dry) that like a long ago-injured woman who's learned to walk gracefully with a can, Earth leans ever so slightly on her axis, inclining now toward the sun, now away from it as she orbits, thereby causing the angle at which sunlight strikes her to change constantly..."

There's something that people who truly know a place capture: A stillness, perhaps; a sense of quiet belonging. Amazing.

The question of writing about modern things is fascinating to me too. I feel like this is what Don DeLillo does in White Noise. I just remember a stark sense of the modern, real world in that book. I was impressed but I wasn’t calm or relaxed. It didn’t take me away to anywhere special. And maybe that’s the distinction…

Great stuff, Carrie!

Anonymous said...

yes, angela, d.c. the ultimate nonplace, like many capitals (bonn, say, a former capital).
carrie: i should make clear that i think there are many astonishing modern writers. i would not necessarily consider turgenev "better" than bellow. it's just a matter of taste. and sense of place -- the props -- has everything to do with it.
... 'waterland,' which you recommended to me, was a book i much enjoyed while it was in the PAST. when the professor started having marital difficulties, i put it down. -- anon i. moose

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