“Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction”

 

A Comparative Literature Senior Project by Jane Kathryn Simmons, ‘04

 

 

I wrote these poems between January and May of 2004, in conjunction with my first reading of the novel In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. I decided to do a project in poetry because I wanted to be able to synthesize the world that I was discovering through Proust’s mind, as well as express my personal reactions to his writing – some of the most profound and provocative writing I have ever encountered. All of the italicized lines, including titles, are direct quotations from Proust, as translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, published by The Modern Library.

 

In my experience, one of the most interesting debates in the field of Comparative Literature is the question of how much our work is “our own.” This project was an exploration for me -- a dance between my own writing and the themes, styles and images presented in In Search of Lost Time and the works of James Joyce, William Shakespeare and Wallace Stevens. I decided to adopt a Stevens title, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” for my project because these poems are “notes” toward a work of literature that was tremendously important to me as a student and as a reader. I would like to thank Professor Peter Rabinowitz for allowing me to do an independent and unconventional project, Professor Margie Thickstun for her help and generosity, Carlin Mallman for suggesting that I find a senior project that made me happy, and my parents, who introduced me to the universe of literature and shared my excitement for this project.

 

 

 

 

Combray

 

I. Night

For a long time I would go to bed early

A thousand deft moments were to take place in the night

But my body lay still as I waited, anticipating them

The stillness of the black room consumed me, like the

Closed mouth of a predator

I played the fish, waiting to be digested on the soft palate

Spine arched, pupils dilated, gills pumping silently

My mind turned in on itself, screaming and writhing

“Sleep,” it hissed, and the very thought

Pulsed through my veins like ice water

I could not read the outstretched arms on my watch

So I would strike a match, let my eyes adjust to the

Sudden burst of light, rest my gaze on the familiar face

Sulfur wafted around my bed, giving a more acrid taste

To the tingling sensation on my tongue

A sense of something much larger than me

Resided inside of me, perched at the tip of my spine

Obsessed with the exact hour, not comprehending the entirety of Time

Waiting, endlessly, for the night to end

To see light in the crack between the floor and the heavy wooden door

 

 

 

II. Day

That false joy which a friend or relative or woman we love can give us

Momentary lapse in an otherwise stolid moment

Fleeing adrenaline from an unexpected loss of control

We invent the face and composition of a body that is not ours

The form of an Other, more plausible self

Who catches the radiating vowels and consonants from that transitory god

Tapes them into frames of film, projects the images into their memory

And as the momentary savior leaves, our Other grows cold

We cling to him like a child

But find ourselves embracing cinders, gritty and lifeless under our fingertips

The energy that had passed along two ethereal strands of existence

After lighting a dim wattage in our Other, left us in the dark

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Madeleines

 

crumbs mixed with tea

tiny, floating leaves

dissolved into steamy water

my lips touch cold porcelain

and sweet-soaked morsels

flood my tongue with

flour, vanilla extract, milk

memories linger on my tongue

suddenly the tongue of

a blank-year-old child                

smacking his tea contentedly

studying the rivulets of

Auntie Léonies placid face

waiting to live a while longer

she and I are prisoners to

Time inside the ticking parlor room

 

I hadn’t remembered forgetting

this young mind

so eager and aware of itself

what else had I forgotten?

What phantoms had I

exorcised to become this

aging, haunted creature

inhabiting a body which

a thousand selves had occupied

each bringing their memories

and releasing them

into that void that I had abandoned

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deese      (Goddess)

 

the most jealous

the most self-infatuated of actresses

self-imposed on a stage

spotlights reflecting off the

lower shelf of her eyelashes

a trained performer,

she instructs her pupils to

accept the assault

cautiously advancing

towards prop landscapes

she dares to utter her first lines

vocal chords trembling deftly

pores open, veins pounding

an answer is spoken from an invisible mouth

she begins to breathe again

with lungs other than her own

the lungs of Phaedre

two globes more perfect and organic than her own

she flicks her wrists

light flashes from glittering silver bracelets

accessories of a stranger, a mere silhouette of a human

the faint outlines of the stage begin

to feel less like the steel jaws of traps

more like the perimeter of a bed frame at mid-morning

pages and ink keep her character

glued into a two-dimensional world

 

from the balcony

a young boy swims in her image

the entirety of her reflected through shimmering lenses

he forgets the plight of Phaedre,

forgets the thin lace shawl swinging from his grandmother’s arm

the beads of perspiration gathering on his temples

the sea of bodies swaying around him

he peers through magnifying glasses

and sees the actress

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Death

a parasite

to our waking life

lingering in our

Memory:

a universe being

born into itself

microscopic elements

expanding the

mass and contents

of our conscious self

 

Death

an infant child

peering out through

transitory eyes

within a fragile skull

enveloped by translucent skin

unnoticed, it ages

limbs becoming weak and thin

strong features dissolving

simmering in apathy

the world appears bleak

 

 

Death

one inhabitant

of our soul

is extinguished

as the next

scatters the ashes

and kindles a new flame

seated on a majestic throne

of impalpable regality

Death wraps itself in

swaddling clothes: nascent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

À l’incomparable ami

 

Mon douce ami

            sweetest friend

vous êtes mon seule chance

            you are my only chance

regarder cet monde sans mes yeux

            to see this world without my eyes

rester dans une minute calme

            to rest in a calm minute

comprend les idées silents et abstraîts

            understand silent and abstract ideas

 

 

mon entire vie j’ai lu

            my entire life I have read

tout le monde dans traductions

            the whole world in translations

mais vous n’êtes pas une langue

            but you are not a language

vous êtes juste un ésprit

            you are just a spirit

et pour ça, je suis profondement reconaissant

            and for that, I am profoundly thankful

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stillborn

 

I.

Little Rudy Bloom, ruddy-cheeked in his mother’s womb

Red light permeating his sleepy, unfocused watchings

Molly clicking long knitting needles as she weaves red wool for him

Feeling his small feet move against the inside of her

Tiny fetus dreams consume him, preparing him for the smell of blankets

 

II.

A man gently pats his lips with a red napkin

Eyes focused on a sea of clouds drifting behind high brick chimneys

Submerged in the sudden memory of hawthorn stalks rubbing together in a storm

Reaching small hands out towards fluttering pink petals

The scents of days long past curl into the low wings of his nostrils

 

III.

Eleven days. Eleven times the lifespan of a tiny creature emerging from a cocoon

Eleven hush-stained mornings of warmth and shadow creeping across floorboards

Eleven thousand heartbeats before night fell and the ducks abandoned the far pond

Eleven indicated by the long and short hands when she held him to her breast

Eleven days they watched his pink body sleeping in ruddy wool

 

IV.

Fragments of the novel were bound in his imagination

But loose pages drifted through the dark channels of his mind

Some were blank, others contained nothing but footnotes

Tediously he had suffered the contractions of his imagination

But once in ink, the memories never survived the night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boy Buoy

 

Once, when a widow had flung

herself

into the sea had been rescued against her

will

my grandmother had told me that she could think of nothing so

cruel

realizing that we could no longer understand her, she gave up

altogether

the attempt to speak and lay perfectly

still

 

imprisoned by our resistance, her distress and the snug fit of her fur

coat

she resigned to a state of repose and mourned for her

dignity

the invisible presence of electricity she had carried was no longer

palpable

and suddenly the deep wrinkles on her face and hands blurred her

familiarity

 

Françoise busied herself with endlessly intrusive primping, despite the hair’s

frailty

and we watched grandmother’s rolling white eyes for any sign of

reciprocity

her silence informed us that our faces were blank obstacles, purely

anonymous

and she became a stranger to the household, a body that did nothing but breathe and

wait

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering the Obituary

It was the same death whose

striking and specific strangeness had recurred to me

one evening when, as I ran my eye over the newspaper,

my attention was suddenly arrested

by the announcement of it

the name blazed against my retinas in meticulous print

scattering fear across my chest in prickling currents

heat ebbing through my veins in the same waving pattern

as a horizontal blanket shaken by four hands

my memory sought to reconstruct his body,

his form walking towards a bay window

I invented a smile for him, unable to recall the shape of his lips

yielding grief to a more palpable project--

recollection-- I struggled to project the sound of his voice

my throat contracted around the sudden taste of bile

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sister of Charity

this diversity of deaths makes so moving a paragraph in the newspapers

Monsieur Swann, a respected member of the Jockey Club

a steadfastly loyal friend, perished after a long illness

Sophia, mother of twins, sister of Charlotte

owner of the wide oak table upon which her grandmother’s crépes were served

admirer of the lace makers who told amusing stories as they worked

Henry, a devoted gambler, preferred odds to evens

played the clarinet on Wednesdays when he was young

entertaining the guests of the Van de Weils until he had enough money

to ride the train into Brussels and back

Theodore, a man who kept largely to himself

led a private life, adhering to common sense and propriety

sustained a lifelong delight in aesthetic pleasures

read novels in his garden, enjoying the sense that he was always

guarded by stone walls that had been crafted by unrushed masons

Mademoiselle Étienne, daughter of Claire and Johan

deliberately disobeyed her nursemaid one afternoon

left the front yard, forgetting to latch the gate behind her

with her uncle’s money, she bought the heel of a rye loaf

tore off small pieces for the grey-blue geese

and watched them float under the shadow of Judas trees

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I said to myself that everything is capable of transposition

and that a universe that was exclusively audible

might be as full of variety as the other

trusting my intuition, I lingered in the possibility

of voices mingling over the clatter of hooves on stone

a man whose only existence consisted of

the sound of his fingers tracing his forearm

symphonies of breakfast plates blending

with the roar of waves breaking, sending foam skyward

the illusion of visual security, once dissipated,

opens the opportunity of faceless encounters

our joys and curiosities are expressed

as the tinkle of brass pieces in a pocket

the thud of a large rock on a flat mossy space

voltage, hesitancy, astronomical phenomena, migrations

each containing a different pitch, feverish melodies

residing in the psychic, spontaneous core of our conscious self

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our blood is only internal survival of the primitive marine element

 

She lay still, dreaming of wading into a river’s current

to relieve the anxiety of processing her landscapes cerebrally

 

Water rushing over bare feet, toes gleaming under a white sun

Skin liberated and tender on lichen-covered stones

 

Her body is a desert, clinging to life

Absorbing what it can from sporadic thunderstorms

 

Excess water flooding her senses

The mind, once saturated, risks drowning

 

Her imagination extends from a sandy bank

A green shoot, slender and fragile

 

The water flowed in the opaline transparence of her bluish skin.

She smiled in the sun and became bluer still.

 

At such moments she was truly celestial.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caesura

 

In the presence of a Vermeer

understanding the shaft of light on a woman’s hair for the first time

frozen in a plane of shadows and textures

 

The sensation of leaning one’s frame

against carpets that have been rolled off the floors

and leaned against walls that witnessed one’s childhood

 

Standing on a dock, watching the ripples of a lake

turn into concentric circles after a rock

has interrupted its dark surface

 

Closing the curtains

after putting an anxious child to bed

obscuring his vision of phantoms with a white quilt

 

The end of a cello sonata

deft fingers suspending the bow over taught strings

air trembling from the memory of echoes

 

Shutting a book and resting it

in a folded palm, mind reeling from

the aesthetic journey it has just witnessed

 

Moments of experience

and overwhelming comprehension

the slightest intrusion / can shatter them / into a thousand fragments

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Habit made me a prisoner

 

I felt that there lay open before him –

before me, had not habit made me a prisoner –

all the routes in space, in life itself

he flew on

 

his beautiful winged machine

glinted in the low golden light of dusk

propelled upward through striations of blue and white

I clutched the lapel of my jacket, breathless

 

with every foot of altitude he gained

the harder my emotions pressed against my face

disbelief mingled with dim memories of magicians in black suits

 

Swam before my eyes like fragments

 

for a moment the barren rocks by which I was surrounded

and the sea that was visible between their jagged gaps

swam before my eyes

like fragments of another universe

 

waves collided with the shore

muscles in my horse’s shoulders shuddered against his saddle

the two of us were still, stoic observers collecting salt and wind in our hair

alienated in a cove of black rock and violent movement

 

if this setting had been painted onto a stretched canvas

the finest oils and tapered camel-hair brushes could not have captured

that sense of foreign activity and isolation

or the drone of a metal bird soaring over an agitated sea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minutiae

 

which was Elstir’s world

the world he saw

the world in which he lived

 

enshrouded by the clarifying hush

and gentle nuance he found in surfaces

a world of orchid pistils

 

tiny mountain peak ridges of oil paint

frozen branches tapping against sea-green glass

a woman’s coat billowing like a sail

 

two black olives resting together in a bowl

the worn suede on the inside of a hat’s brim

long glances exchanged over brandy snifters

 

diagrams of cut apples, seeds symmetrical

empty vases with dried leaves clinging to the insides

curtains winding around a rod iron railing on the balcony

 

upon completion of the portrait of Cottard’s smile

he turned the glittering canvas towards blank faces

they sought geometry in a blue shoulder, a sheaf of ice

 

he would not be understood until later, when he appeared

under the swirling vortex of Swann’s sleep as a stranger in a fez

walking along a path which followed the line of the coast and overhung the sea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Albertine in Bloom: Five Quatrains

 

and I sensed this motionless and living semicircle

in which a whole human life was contained

the only thing to which I attached any value;

I sensed that it was there in my despotic possession

 

I marveled at this sleeping phantasm of flesh and blood

curled into the position she had found before birth

a living spiral nebula, protecting her aging core with youthful arms

fingers trailing away into the void of the dark room

 

on the chair next to her, an unfinished scarf

I could sense her knitting more threads in her sleep

a universe of intricate loopholes connected by one Thread:

the lifeline from my Ariadne, glittering like a cobweb

 

my Minotaur resided in the labyrinth I had concealed within me

imprisoning Albertine far from the thin beaches of Crete

the smell of melting wax emanated from her pink nightdress

and I yearned to plug my ears with it and silence my Siren’s primordial cry

 

if I had merely been in search of pleasure

I would have gone to demand it of unknown women

but now what I had to do was to set out on a journey

was not even to leave my own house, but to return there

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Her Sleep, on the Margin of which He Remained Musing

 

She once stood under a vast starry sky

with wet sand covering her ankles in crescents

absorbing with her naked eye the energy

from a distant planet whose light had traveled billions of years

to illuminate whitecaps on the ocean

 

Marcel lingered every night

over the bed of his unassuming Albertine

drifting on the ocean of her oblivion

each breath escaping her parted lips

filled the starched sails of his understanding

 

one could listen for hours on end to the surf breaking and receding

at the moment when his ear absorbed

that divine sound, he felt that there was condensed

in it the whole person, the whole life of the

charming captive outstretched there before his eyes

 

earlier that night he had not conceived

that any sound but the pendulum of the clock

and a small spoon clattering against a saucer

would encroach on his silent monologue

but the waves crashing from her bedroom had beckoned him

 

he would lie down by her side, clasp her waist in one arm,

and place his lips upon her cheek and his free hand on her heart

so that it too was raised, like the pearls, by her breathing;

he himself was gently rocked by its regular motion:

he had embarked upon the tide of Albertine’s sleep

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A universe which had to be totally redrawn

 

it had always been there

the whole of that past which I was not aware

that I had carried about within me

memories and imaginary scenarios

blended together, merging truth and delirious hallucinations

images buried in my sleeping self

waiting for a noise or smell to re-awaken them

flooding my body with adrenaline

the thrill of an unexpected encounter with a lost friend

 

the most influential people in my lifetime

were neatly organized and stored next to the minutia of my mind’s eye

my mother’s voice reading to me, the taste of aged scotch

the terror of feet slipping on a rocky ledge

faceless strangers, imprinted by my desire to witness lives other than my own

incommunicable scents of cool mornings coated with rain

the writer witnessed it all, transcribing it neatly for my records

knowing when to write the truth unblinkingly and when to dull the edges with ambiguity

I busy myself with sensory catalysts, seeking portals to the libraries of my past