Day 3 of my Oulipo experiment. The vowels are the hardest, of course, but with “a” and “e” out of the way, and “i” today, the road may get easier (although of course consonants like “s” and “t” also present their own challenges. Here are pieces missing “g,” “h,” and “i,” all continuing the story of this shipwrecked person….
Have to not worry about the continuance of any action, have to remain firmly in the present. To visit the past would also be a mistake, he realized — too easy to slip into the warm embrace of memory, to try and live in a time before the shipwreck — a perilous temptation. So here he was, by the water. Days had passed. He had eaten a bit, more of the fruit that had stayed down, seemed not to require either an immediate return (on investment?) or to be forcibly ejected in the opposite direction. He could walk more easily, and while too much time in his head wasn’t a useful idea, he had formulated a partial idea — perhaps some flotsam from the wreck might have washed ashore? What had become of the ship itself, part of him wondered, had it sunk? Was that a possibility for a sunken ships in this day and time, or did their wrecks float on eternally, until they came ashore somewhere?
A hazy plan formulated; back to the shore, then back to water, dependent on what he had or hadn’t found. A broader plan could involve attempting to circle the island, yet even as he formulated it he realized he was terrified to leave the steam that had sustained his life behind — to make his way around the island only to die of dehydration seemed a stupid and avoidable fate.
And so back to the sand, to a tiny edge of ocean. Even as it appeared in imagination it grew larger and larger, island smaller and smaller, as if inside a camera’s iris, a lens drawing rapidly away from the planet, a sense of smallness burgeoning inside all Jim, all pained meat of being. Pulled up to feet, walking stick in grasp, faltering steps toward sunlight, toward sand, toward small imagining of rescue, salvation, another survivor, some assistance of some kind. Mental fingers crossed, mental energy directed toward only a solitary next step, a grasping forward of stick and legs. Almost like walking meditation, Jim reflected, almost like Ajahn Vim instructed back on deck, on cool mornings offering leisure time to passengers and travelers making for futures unseen.
He had a hard go, a challenge of a slog. To traverse the whole shore, he thought, would be more than he was capable of — seven steps along the way and he shook, the effort brought sweat all over the body, from scalp to calves, and when he paused to breathe small no-see-ums from the sandy ground would cloud around sweaty ankles and feast. They were more an annoyance than a real threat, but he hated them, rage red and throbbing, and had been able to bend and scratch, slap, push them away, bat them out of the wet atmosphere and back under the turf he would have do so, repeatedly. Trudged onward. Fought heavy damp, fought sun’s beat, fought roots that attempted to catch legs, swampy roots that dangled from banyans and clogged and cluttered the route.
Last post I began putting up some of my recent Oulipo experiment with a linguistic challenge — in each paragraph I have availed myself of the entire alphabet except for the letter mentioned. For me it allowed me to test out the boundaries of each letter, and what avoiding that one (of 26) did or didn’t allow for. So the paragraphs contain both story and a bit of reflection on what particular letters seem to demarcate — for example, without “e,” there can’t really be any gendering — no “he” or “she,” no “male” or “female” — as my entry below explores, without using that letter. (For letters A-C see my previous post, where the story that continues here began…)
He closes his eyes again, tries to sleep. Every noise startles him, his imagination can’t stop populating the blackness that fills the space with every kind of creature, real or imaginary, can’t stop imagining a hostile universe (even if it is a pocket universe, small, precisely the size of the little piece of rock and plants on which he now lives) more than eager to enact violence upon him and his barely alive shell.
Still, he strung together a bit of sleep through the night, or at least some shut-eye (he wasn’t sure which), and when he opened his eyes next it was morning, the jungle before him all green, a-speckle with sunlight where it was able to make its way through the leaves and branches to the floor. He was on the verge of where the beach met the jungle, where the beach, from solid yellow near the water, here gave way to palm trees with clusters of coconuts high in their branches; where the trees grew closer together the beach began to give way to jungle, other plants using the break from the monotonous sunlight which was given to them by the palms like a sort of magnanimous boon, so they were able to grow without the full force of the solar energy beating and burning them. And so beach gave way to palms gave way to jungle. Scooting on his butt he approaches the stream again, gulps heavily, so much so that he retches for a bit, strings of saliva seeming to tie his mouth to the mossy ground, stomach empty but still heaving.
A lack: a way to distinguish: child or adult? Girl or boy? Man or woman? No thought of which an individual would find capability to signify. I only know that I am trying, doing my utmost, and if you can do a significantly more apt job of it, you should run with it, I don’t doubt that at all. Look how much work all akin sounds must do now, to pick up slack from gaps I can hardly avoid driving through, as if ruining a car’s supporting parts. Sand: hot. Palms: shady. Bay: calm. Lianas dropping downward, plants thick. Air thick, living things sounding and calling, hooting and crying out. Mid-day: drowsy, thirsty, hungry, in pain, back aching, burns aching, dappling skin with lashing flush, burning blush (burning bush? Laughing at stupid puns). Dark: cooling wind off water, salty air, hoots and crying.
When he next awoke, he seemed slightly better, his head ok, his eyes ok — though it was early still, the dawn just breaking, as evinced by a lightening in the air around him, particularly out at sea, where he could see a mass of clouds gathering, one which seemed likely to offer rain later. He couldn’t worry about shelter at the moment, a little rain — or even a lot — was nothing he couldn’t handle. He needed to see about tracking down something to eat, some berries or something like that. He looked up at the coconuts high in the trees above him, clustered below the leaves were growing, but that seemed too challenging a task to take on at present. He drank some water, lay on the moss near the stream, then when he almost thought he was up to the task he hoisted his body to a standing position (using a tree to help with this). He leaned heavily against the tree, then with some work bent down and picked up a stick that looked like it might serve well to support him as he tried to walk. He put as much weight as he could on the stick — his right side wasn’t as strong as it should be, there was a kind of pulling that he didn’t like in his ribcage when he tried to stand up all the way and to take a deep breath; he hoped this was just a pulled muscle or a cracked rib, but whatever it was there wasn’t much he could do about it at this point. He hobbled along the margin of the jungle, scanning as he went, until he stumbled upon what seemed to be something edible, clusters of grape-like berries with a thick skin; with a little trial and error he was able to determine an easy way to remove the skin, digging a nail in at one of the ends and letting it kind of pop the edge of the skin, which helped the rest of it then peel away easily. He tried not to gorge himself despite how incredibly hungry he was, but knew that eating too much would probably make him sick.
(Because sometimes we are better at starting than finishing?)
The writers in the OuLiPo group (it’s a French acronym, roughly meaning “workshop of potential literature”) believed in taking on a range of challenges in their writing to spur their creativity, and to push their production beyond the bounds of what they might normally be capable.
Perhaps the most notable work produced by any of these writers was Georges Perec’s novel “A Void,” a full-length novel that does not contain the letter “e” — the most common letter in both English and French writing! (Ironically, the plot revolves in part around the vague sense that something is missing, though no one can figure out what…).
Inspired by Perec’s experiment, as part of my daily writing I thought I’d spend some time trying out paragraphs in this style, each omitting a different letter of the alphabet. Here is my beginning. (If you bear with me a few letters, you’ll see a story beginning to emerge, one which will continue on future days…)
No A: Tricky, this one. Common yet sometimes hidden, frequent yet it might turn out to be the truth that its commonness is less so if we just try, judiciously. I’d been down, been blue, been thinking nightly, been drinking frequently. I don’t possess the druthers to effectively tell you, this is like the other thing, this is more, this is less, there’s just too much missing, too much empty inside my mind, my body, even my muscles. I’m depressed, it’s true, keep hoping to rhyme, not quite on purpose, but not quite not on purpose either. The end of December is close by, lingering on the doorstep, loitering just beyond where my senses might detect it, even my Spidey sense, which is not so strong, since being bitten by spiders is something I try to keep from occurring. Let’s be honest, some tenses find themselves off limits now, like the end of the month they linger just beyond the threshold, it is difficult for me to begin doing something that I wish to continue, to hold something tightly in my fingers, like droplets of rain it simply slides out between the flesh, the fingertips try but in the end, they hold onto nothing. On Mergot Shore I don’t find connecting nothing to nothing possible, or it might turn out in the end that connecting nothing to nothing is the only thing we possess the strength to do, to misquote Eliot terribly. Connecting nothing to nothing, like spiders hurling lines into the void, noiseless spiders seeking to tie the emptiness together.
No B: Simpler, an easier task, clearly, though it foxes some of our range of action, our range of prepositions, things can take place with or against or happen for or through. Some of our objections are cut off as well, and one (minor?) tense, as well as the world of the infinite — or at least the world of the infinitive. Yet I don’t feel so alone anymore, don’t feel as incapacitated, or as challenged by my lack of range of motion. Perhaps (sigh with relief when uttering that ever so useful word!) it is like having one’s range of motion restored after an accident, having one’s speech or leg musculature now again freely open to oneself (so formal, all these “ones” and “oneselves,” just the way the cookie crumbles, I suppose). Walking is certainly an improvement over having found oneself confined to a chair, stationary, stuck in one place, although equally certainly there are plenty of folks who have found ways to make themselves free, having ended up confined to a chair, a seat, a place from where there was no standing or rising — freedom is always freedom within a range; as I used to say to my students when teaching English, the possible interpretations of a work of literature is indeed infinite, yet at the same time it has endpoints, in the same way that there are an infinite number of points sandwiched amidst zero and one on a line of integers, yet that range is confined within those endpoints. So too the possible interpretations of a work of literature finds itself within the range that the text allows: if you cannot find textual support for an interpretation, that interpretation cannot stand. If you can find textual support, even if it is partial or meagre, then that interpretation at least can claim that it is worthy of consideration, even if ultimately we dismiss it as lacking the proper support to find itself upheld.
No C: Lost at sea, ship tossed upon the waves, brought down by the hammer fist of a white-tipped indifferent hand of water, smashed to bits, floating upon bits and shards, flotsam and jetsam. He wakes to find himself rimed with salt, dried out and feeling like half a man and half a kind of squid jerky, not unlike that sold down at the piers by young boys bearing sticks of white-yellow formerly live, lively and brightly darting sea beings. It seems funny, in a way, that the sea is our setting here, perhaps (though I admit I’m not sure about this) one of the more difficult ones for this task, seemingly abundant with “sea” life. He drifts amidst the junk, sometimes rising high atop swells that lift and fall, sometimes settling into a gentle sleep when the water is almost tender in the way that it bears him, swings him like an infant borne along on its mother’s breast, bound there by swaddling. Finally, he is borne into a bay, settles upon the shore of an island, pulls himself with difficulty up the hot, heavy sand, and awakens next with his head set down upon moss beside a small brook that empties into the sea. He must have drunk, he must have sought shade, for he is burnt and dried out, he gulps water vigorously, at first using his hands to bring it to his lips, slurping it from them, and then when he feels able sliding his head nearer to the water and drinking directly from the stream.
When he wakes the next time his body is throbbing with burn, but his head isn’t hurting the way it was, and his eyes feel less dried out, more able to look around and see. He pulls himself to a sitting position and eases his tender spine, and the flesh around it, whose redness he hasn’t seen but is easily able to imagine, against the rough trunk of a nearby palm tree, supporting his weight. He shuts his eyes again. When he opens them it is later, nearly dark, at ground level everything is a hazy patina of shadows against shadows, ebon on ebon, though when he lifts his eyes to the sky he sees a deep blue, the first stars or planets just winking into visibility.