How to lie down forever in a sentence, so that the sky above you breaks off into black and gold pieces. The sky falls down to the ground where you lay: posed, supine, and rained upon. Lie down inside a sentence, then.
It hurt me to write sentences at first. The activity of recursion, fundamental to a syntax, to the act of embedding meaning, always kept repeating, which is not good. Think of someone getting off an aeroplane, walking into the main terminal and buying a ticket to another country, without even stepping outside. I did that once in Bogota, trying to get home. I bought a tiny cup of coffee and drank it from a paper cup, standing in the door. I took one step beyond the air-conditioned hall, just to be outside for a bit, in another country, but the guard blocked me with his khaki gun. “Miss,” he said, “You don’t want do that.” Write a sentence that resembles an economic/emotional migration. Make sentences and acts of voluntary and involuntary migration match up. I am not saying my day in the airport in Colombia was any of these variants. My father was dying; I fled to him.
The sea absorbs memories of England when you fly over it. Which sea? Sometimes I think the red earth of the place I live now, in the U.S., has a similar, occult effect. Walking in the park, I am all snow and beyond that, I orient to the dovecote purr. The birds flutter and warp beneath their nets. Throw a net over the sentence, to amplify its guttural sounds.
Stephanie Luczajko interviewed me a few years ago for TINGE magazine. By e-mail, she asked me: “Dear Bhanu: What is the relationship between memory and narrative in your writing practice?” I had just watched the tragic BBC miniseries “South Riding,” which is set in Yorkshire, and so my reply was affected by the power of the televised landscape. “Dear Stephanie,” I wrote, “It is a vast question, like the downs are vast. The downs you come upon, driving or on horseback, in films. I was reading that day about protesters storming the British embassy in Tehran; they shouted: “Dirty little England!” So, my memories take place, partly/wholly, in a place (England) that, at the same time as I inhabited it, was in the process of expelling me. Every day, for a long period of two or three years, when we moved to a new neighborhood in north-west London, my mother was spat on — on the train. And the enormity of that indignity — the indignity of being non-white in a mostly white place — what else does an immigrant do except move up, somehow, in the world? — bore down upon my own mind, I sometimes think. So that I have a very visual memory, like staring hard at things, or the wrong things, towards a different reality or a way out of the one I was in. I think of the slate walls and the graveyards and the elms and the sky filled with rain the color of irises. My memories are about surfaces more than events — is that true? It is true in the novel I am writing, a novel of the “race riot” — a phrase that has less and less meaning as the last two years, since I began it, progress. In this novel, I write about the asphalt or street, the sidewalk, that a girl lies down upon, again and again. The event of the white boys who come upon her and take her under — under her own life — is a sound the book makes: a muffled sound, a roar below the level of speech. And what I write about is, in fact, the ivy: the ivy that the girl is staring at, her head on the ground — perhaps sideways. This is ivy from my own English memory bank re-performed as the ivy of the hallucination or scene of a girl who never was. She never was because she was never allowed to be. I am interested in the memories that are never received. Never written down or prevented, perhaps, at the instant that they form. This neutral and on-going disaster is, in its entirety, my idea of a writing practice. I hope I am not being too dramatic!”
At the Goddard residency in Port Townsend this July, a student asked me the same question. Another question about time and narrative: “How do you open the space of memory and still write forward into a new space?” Perhaps the sentence is the place where we get to work that out: the writing as a vector, moving directly or indirectly towards the period or full stop, while memory, perhaps, moves in the opposite direction, towards the beginning of the sentence, or the space or moment before we put our pen (or finger) to the page.
But perhaps I have written too much. The sentence, I should have said, is where you get to perform a lexicon, but never a syntax. “Grammar is emotional,” as we said at the residency, re-looping Stein. I like to make how the sentence is written, I could have said, be the same as or very near to: what it contains. It makes no sense to me, as I wrote to Stephanie, to pretend. To make the sentence be about containment or processing, when what is inside it can never be that. Bitty. Mica glinting in the oily curd of the asphalt.
Think of all the sentences you spat out, for example. That you licked off your teeth. I wanted to write sentences that were like my body: physical experiments, the surge towards a beloved and always, a low-key dream. I wanted this so badly that I said that this was how.
There is more I could say. But this is not a sentence. It’s a page, which has its own emergencies.