Madison Morrison's Web / Literary Correspondence / Ross: Forwards and backwards to the center

Forwards and backwards to the center

The aventure rubric for interpreting the Sentence I find very illuminating.
All its books in a sense express the special dynamic of "adventure."
Each of the 26 books, however, is also unique and therefore
different from the remaining 25. One way to emphasize
this variety is to read the Sentence simultaneously
from both ends toward its central point, which
occurs between the books of the diptych
Engendering Her
(reading forwards)
Her Engendering
(reading backwards).
Thirteen pairs result by reading simultaneously
forwards, from Sleep to Engendering,
and backwards, from Life to Her:
Sleep and Life
O and Excelling
Light and This
U and In
Need and Divine
A and Or
Revolution and Renewed
Each and Happening
Second and Possibly
Every and All
Magic and Regarding
Realization and Exists
Engendering and Her


The first two books, Sleep and Life, are at once correlative and opposed. Sleep (as Donne says) is a “little death,” but it also represents that greater life of the unconscious, wherein lies poetry’s source. In the forward reading, Life, the twenty-sixth book in the sequence, is the last in Sentence of the Gods, but in the retrograde reading it is the first. Life is the principle that the Sentence celebrates. In representing Life MM has chosen to emphasize those vital Northeast and Southeast Asian cultures that rival and may eventually supersede the European cultures. Life also includes interviews conducted in the USA and in Europe: in England, Belgium, Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy). Its pieces about Oklahoma look back to the central sequence of books about the state (Engendering, the first half of Her and Exists). In Sleep the author is a mental traveler. Its surreal method predicts many other techniques in the Sentence.

In the second pair, O and Excelling, the former is based upon photography, the latter, upon cinematography. O is solar, its circle an emblem of the sun itself (or of the Helios within Apollo). It is sunny in disposition and presents for the most part daytime scenes. Insofar as its major sequences represent Chicago, Boston and New York, O is essentially American, as Excelling is essentially Chinese. Both titles are ambiguous. Does the “O” stand for a fullness, or for an emptiness? Is China excelling the world, or is MM excelling China? O journeys through time as well as space, its 60 poems corresponding to the 60 minutes in an hour, the 60 seconds in a minute. Excelling takes the reader by boat from Hong Kong to Shanghai, thence by plane to Congqing, up the Yangzi by boat, on to Chengdu and Kungming by train and from there to Guangzhou by plane. The two books’ geographies, Chinese and American, are limited to single regions.

In the third pair Light and This are both amalgamations. The first amalgamates day and night, as SOL and LUNA unite in a mythic, oneiric, alchemical synthesis. More artificially the second fuses ancient Rome and medieval Japan: Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Lady Murasaki’s Diary. Japanese and Roman history are here for the first time synthesized. Ovid is taken as solar, Murasaki as lunar. Ovid expresses the exuberantly naked sunlit dance of the Mediterranean; Murasaki, the perfumed pussy of East Asia. This occurs within the APHRODITE sequence; its solar, masculine “this” implies a lunar, feminine “that.” Life is greater than This, as the title of the trilogy, Life Excelling This suggests. But read the opposite way (This Excelling Life), This modifies Life (as does Excelling). Light culminates two sequences (Sleep O Light and A Need U Light). The two L’s, Light and Life are related, but so are Light and This, This and Light.

The fourth pair, U and In, is realistic, the first book satirical, the second deadpan. U is an urban idyll (as in Theocritus), In, a modern pastoral (as in Vergil). Scandinavia is no less exotic than Arcadia. U is a work of imagination, its 1000 lines composed one a day for as many days. In is a work of realistic in situ registration, one of two books with virtually no intertext. Both methods are severe and uncompromising, but both books are also joyously adventuresome. U was composed at night; In, during the day. U is set in a single country; In is set in four. U represents diversity within unity; In, unity within diversity. The Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and Danes are alike but are also irreconcilably different. U describes a provincial town; In, national capitals: Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, Copenhagen, though the book also includes many provincial towns. U depicts five members of a nuclear family; In, four of the five Scandinavian countries.

The fifth pair, Need and Divine, is archetypal. Need imagines a myth, whereas Divine recapitulates an existing myth. Alexander and “she,” the two protagonists of Need (this second 1000-line poem composed one line a day for 1000 days) are deliberate archetypes. “Alexander” represents man, “she,” woman, as Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost or in the book of Genesis. Dante’s Commedia counters with Dante himself and the virgin Beatrice, to which in Divine MM counters with himself and Qian-hui. Need is an adventure, its plot, like that of U, unforeseen at the outset of composition. Divine follows an itinerary, beginning in Rome; traveling to Siena, Bologna and Ferrara; Venice, Verona and Florence; returning to Rome. And it refers to a larger myth: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso. Its seven cities are allegories. Divine is a book of daytime consciousness, Need, a book of dream, of dream within dream within dream.

The sixth pair, A and Or, is unusually dry. A represents the darkness of the moon. Or, alterity, both yokes Renewed and Divine and separates them. Semantically Or and A are incomplete. This siccity (dryness/thusness) contrasts with the haecceity of This and the opulence of Divine. The dance of seven veils that constitutes A (like the seven-day week in Chapter 6 of Revolution) echoes the numerology of the Sentence at large, with its seven stages. A’s number is nine (81, its number of pages in manuscript, served to complete the 365 required for SOLUNA’s magnus annum). Nine times nine is also three to the fourth power. Or’s three principal sorties echo the three sorties of Don Quixote (and of Possibly); like the Comedy (and like Divine) it is tripartite. Unlike Divine, however, Or is secular. To its three major sorties are added three minor outings in Bangkok, Thailand’s modern capital, and one to Ayutthaya, its ancient capital.

The seventh pair, Revolution and Renewed, includes two studies in comparative cultural anthropology that take as their objects of investigation mature civilizations. Revolution, in its first four chapters establishes four settings: America Today, Ancient China, Revolutionary France and France Today. Progressively these are combined, two each in the next four chapters, three each in the final four. Renewed studies three loci of Egyptian history: Alexandria, the Nile and Cairo. The Hellenistic revival, the Roman appropriation of ancient Egypt and the rise of Islam provide its themes. Revolution is political but it also embeds Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist, along with Democratic, doctrine. Renewed is contemporary in its observation but comparative in its study of past and present. Revolution is a Menippean satire that includes many genres: diary, conte orientale, postmodern novel. Renewed elaborates its material into a new genre.

The eighth pair, Each and Happening, as befits epic, is concerned with history, but otherwise the two books are antithetical. Whereas the latter is a modern epic of India, the former bears a zany relationship to history. Happening interlards its primary text with early historical accounts of India. Each, though it includes transposed versions of World Wars I and II (along with other European history), is based in the main on an avant-garde text of Raymond Roussel’s: the Nouvelles impressions d’Afrique, a poem concerned neither with Africa nor with his earlier novel, Impressions d’Afrique. MM relies not on its text, which he refrained from reading, but on illustrations for the text commissioned by Roussel to fill out the pages of a private edition. Happening provides a realistic counterpart to this imaginative strategy, tracking in great detail the itineraries of the author and his supplementary reading in search Indian reality.

The ninth pair, Second and Possibly, is concerned, in the one instance, with the past, in the other, with the future. Second imitates Homer’s epics (and, in a coda, the person of Vergil), Possibly imitates the person of Cervantes, who is the hypertext of Possibly, as Dante is of Divine and Ovid, of Renewed. To the hypertext of Homer Second adds the intertexts of Iliad and Odyssey, the subtext of Vergil, Homer’s greatest imitator, and the pretext of Milton, who serves as a bridge between Homer’s epics and the Bible, the subject of Every, the other book in the diptych. Every Second traces a route from Israel to Turkey, through the Aegean islands to the Peliponnisos and thence on to Naples. Possibly traces a transatlantic route from Miami to the Amazon, thence to four other South American countries, and on to Spain and Portugal. Possibly is concerned with the fictive and the possible; Second, with how to follow great precedents.

The tenth pair, Every and All, occurs within a non-consecutive sequence: A, Each, Every, Engendering, Exists and All, thus leading us philosophically from Quine’s “existential quantification,” the positing of A, to everything, das All, the Cosmos. Every occurs at the midpoint of this process. The book studies an unsympathetic pair of historically related religions, monotheistic Judaism and Christianity. All embodies, and so expresses, the highest reach of the polytheistic trimuthi, which begins with Brahma, the Creator, continues with Vishnu, the Sustainer, and concludes with Shiva, the Destroyer. Every is part of the HERMES sequence, in which classic religious texts are interwoven with in situ description. All, which also initiates APHRODITE, culminates the three books of HERA concerned with the American landscape, texts that lack intertexts but take as their subtexts dynastic modes of Chinese landscape painting.

The eleventh pair, Magic and Regarding, is likewise drawn from the HERMES and HERA sequences, though Regarding, like All (which also expresses Aphrodite), embodies not only Hera but one of her brothers, Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, and shadows Vishnu. Regarding and Magic are related in their concern with the Self, which Magic defines by a process of autobiography, whereby MM traces his life backwards from age 14 to conception, then forwards from age 15 to 28, its narrative interweaving, in Part 1, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, in Part 2, the Poimandres, a text drawn from the neoplatonic Corpus Hermeticum. Regarding has no intertext, but it depends distantly on the subtext of Southern Sung landscape painting to limn the mighty landscapes of New Mexico (as All had depended on Ming, and Exists on Yuan, subtexts to represent the landscapes of Arizona and Oklahoma). Regarding embodies the Self in Nature.

The twelfth pair, Realization and Exists, represents Becoming and Being. Both books are tripartite. Realization takes us from Norman, Oklahoma to Houston and back, to Boston and back, and to San Francisco and back, interweaving three Indic texts: the Upanishads, the Dhammapada and the Bhagavad Gita. Exists is set in Oklahoma but excludes Norman (see Engendering) and Oklahoma City (see the first half of Her). It includes Oklahoma landscapes, along with glimpses of Tulsa and Lawton. Is realization a three-fold process? The Upanishads define the principles of Brahman and Atman, the Pali Dhammapada, Buddhist morality, whereas the Gita gloriously combines both spirituality and morality. Is existence three-fold? The city, town and countryside of Exists suggest as much. Realization, with its vast geography, represents an extensive treatment of the USA; Exists, limited to one state, an intensive treatment of Oklahoma.

The thirteenth pair consists of Engendering and Her, which form the diptych that joins the halves of the Sentence. Reading forwards, Her is engendered by Realization. Reading backwards, Her and Engendering modify Realization. This triptych is part of a triptych of triptychs that begins at the juncture of APHRODITE and HERA and concludes at the end of HERMES: All Regarding Exists, Her Engendering Realization, Magic Every Second. In Her MM engenders an archetype of the feminine. In the diptych Khmer, along with Greek and Chinese, traditions are juxtaposed. Formally, the study of Norman, Oklahoma is cast in prose, the study of Oklahoma City, in verse. The second part of Her returns us to prose but retains the sonnet’s template of octave and sestet, here reversed. As Engendering reconciles Confucius and Lao-zi, so Her marries myth and science. In various ways the book epitomizes Sentence of the Gods.