One of the primary reasons I read poetry is my delight in the unexpected line, the description, turn, or leap that seems so incredibly correct but had previously eluded me. It’s a feeling somewhat akin to catching the word that has been dangling just past the tip of your tongue. I love to write poetry for the same reason, the moment when it clicks. Fiction often has too much baggage to wade through to get to that moment, too much scene setting, character, plot, etc. I love all of those things, but they get in the way of that giddier, more textual, delight.
I spend a lot of time wondering how people arrive at images or metaphors. How the city in the evening is a patient etherized on the table for Eliot, to use a well-worn example. When I look back at my own writing (invariably when trying to recreate this moment of clicking) I have absolutely no idea where those lines with turns that remain unexpected to me came from. One of the ways to try and engineer an unexpected moment, though, is to take a moment/image/emotion and follow its thread through to the extreme. I always come back to Christopher Smart, the insane 17th century author of Jubilate Agno, with it’s most famous section considering the cat, Jeoffry. To watch a cat for 75-100 lines forces some unexpected leaps. It’s impossible to remain in the mundane description for that long. The mundane is there: “For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.” but then it goes, as it must, beyond the mundane: “For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.” It is only through the consideration, naming, and dismissal of the cleaning of the forepaws that Smart can arrive at electricity.
Edouard Leve’s Autoportrait is a similar project. Though not a wholly unheard of endeavor (Joe Brainard’s I Remember is obviously an earlier, and possibly greater, example of this. Lyn Hejinian’s My Life is probably the pinnacle of this type of project (I call it the pinnacle because it is, in my opinion, greater than the sum of its efforts in a way almost impossible by these stricter, more formulaic books.) Autoportrait is Leve writing down everything he can think of about his life. By referring you to Scott Esposito’s review of the book for The Quarterly Conversation I won’t go into detail about the way the language is structured, beyond saying that these are short, declarative sentences, most often not following each other with any logic. This is a catalogue, a list of a life.
And, like Brainard’s book, a list of a life makes for a very compelling read, although not in the way a piece of fiction is compelling. It’s compelling for those moments it spills past the mundane and Leve arrives, like Smart, at the unexpected electricity. I could quote often and with abandon from the book, but two examples on facing pages seem to suffice: “I am hostile to the concept of the aperitif.” and “I hope some day my friends might come and sit under my vine and my fig trees.” These quotes are offered without supporting information, without expansion or explanation. They arrive as if lightning, and are gone just as quick.
I initially wondered if Leve’s book would have been greater if this had been the first draft of a poem, if he had trimmed away 99% of this and left us only with these moments of greatness. Ultimately, I think not. I think the rest of it is essential to the power of these lines—their mystery is aided by coming within this great glut of text. On it’s own “I am hostile to the concept of the aperitif” could be read as a trite line. A cute piece of randomness, which seems to afflict many poets these days. It’s the rest that makes this sing, and it’s the fact that I feel as if I could read this book again and again, each time finding a different constellation of lines intriguing, that makes the whole thing seem worthwhile.
I don’t know if the art of Leve’s book is accidental or not. I somehow think were nearly anyone to undertake this type of project they would arrive, in moments, at genuinely excellent lines. But that might be half the glory of it, the willingness to abandon form within the embracing of an incredibly strict form. To fight (I assume) the compulsion to shape or control this cascade of information. What’s successful in this book happens because Leve opened himself up to the accidental, which might be all good writing needs to be.