On Long Form, Collective Unconscious, and Light in August

Reading Light in August by William Faulkner makes me pine for long form, the craft of the long sentence or the novel. The book is emblematic of a genre of American literature beginning to delve into the theme of collective unconscious narrative voice, especially slave narratives and African American voice. The character Christmas in the book, who is half black, experiences what can only be described as collective post-traumatic stress from his ancestor’s slave history, a narrative that Toni Morrison perfects in her novel Beloved fifty-five years later. It is fun to see the theme make an appearance in Faulkner’s writing in 1932 and hold a torch through the literary century to appear again in the 1980s.

Below is a glimpse into memory as Faulkner begins its navigation in the first paragraph of Chapter 6 of Light in August (a beautiful gem of a long sentence), followed by the mirror concept of rememory in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. An incomplete critical comparison, but literary nerdery on a sunny day at the end of March, nevertheless:

“Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows remembers believes a corridor in a big long garbled cold echoing building of dark red brick stootbleakened by more chimneys than its own, set in a grassless cinderstrewnpacked compound surrounded by smoking factory purlieus and enclosed by a ten foot steel-and-wire fence like a penitentiary or a zoo, where in random erratic surges, with sparrowlike childtrebling, orphans in identical and uniform blue denim in and out of remembering but in knowing constant as the beak walls, the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears” (Page 119, William Faulkner, Light in August, Vintage Books 1989).

Faulkner_signature“I used to think to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place–the picture of it–stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened” (Toni Morrison, Beloved).

Happy long form, Saturday!

What We Give

It is no coincidence the last essay I posted occurred the day before my mother passed in mid-March. I have been trying to find the angle and energy through which to write and I am beginning to suspect that it involves nothing more than simply being.

That day was quiet, and I took the time to write and reflect on a book I had read the night before. I might have stayed in my pajamas all day. I am in my pajamas today. It is raining. I have made an early afternoon coffee. It is hard to type these words.  

Today is the Buddha’s birthday, or Hanamatsuri, and I attended the Zen Buddhist Temple in Chicago this morning, a practice I vowed to keep on Sundays once I returned to the city. That was two months ago. But I arrived at the temple wearing the old purple shirt Shannon had painted for me years before, Katie’s running pants, a sports bra, no shoes, a new tattoo, and a slight disappointment at the loss of the zafus.

In those early moments of meditation, I wonder why I am there. Why I awoke so early to travel in the cold and the rain to sit in a room full of strangers, to quietly seek or to pray. After the second meditation sitting, after the chanting, after my mind twists and turns in its tangles into its high and dangerous places, the senior Buddhist begins the Dharma talk and wells at her own understanding of the importance of protection, of the importance of protecting what is cherished within us. The Buddha, the jewel, the being that is ours that stumbles and waffles and collapses and bears and gives and loves and nourishes and nurtures and needs.

What is not tradition on the Buddha’s birthday is the recitation of a poem.

But the yellowed pages of an old book cracked open and I am grateful, relieved at what language I understand. The teacher read an excerpt from the poem I read in memory of my mother on the day of her funeral. 


Because I don’t know what else to say, and because what we find profound sometimes has no words, except for the ones that sneak up on us, and follow us, and remind us how right we are no matter how wrong we would have liked to have been.

What I can’t forget, what I forgive, and what I can give, for my mother, on the day before spring.

The Summer Day 

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?