When my daughter was three, in those young mothering years of just her and I, the vibrant autumn days when we walked along our Vermont dirt road, picking knotty apples from wild roadside trees, and out of sheer rural loneliness I wished for someone to stop and talk, I wrote a novel. I had spurts of moments—naptime and early mornings before her small feet rushed down the stairs, late at night drinking beer while she sprawled in sleep—and I wrote only to write, with no ambition but the writing itself. In those endless winter mornings, she pedaled her trike around the kitchen.
With my husband at the time, we invested in a maple sugaring business that ate at every bit of us. Wolves scuffled at the door. We lived in—I exaggerate not—a tar-papered hunting shack where gray mice ran riot, and firewood sizzled eternally green. Kneeling on the altar of maple syrup as salvation, I laid my manuscript in a box. But the book didn’t abandon me. Somewhere in that long unspooling of years, as my daughter lengthened into her growing body, her cheeks cherry-red and glowing, and I birthed a second tiny daughter, I lifted that cardboard lid again.
I knew the book had failed to soar. As I proceeded through my everydayness of pinching iridescent playdough pots and sweeping cinders from beneath the woodstove, my mind wandered in and out and all through that book. Where was the answer? By chance, sorting through papers from my former academic life, I found a slim book my father had sent me years before. Ezra Pound’s name, editor, caught my eye. The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, by Ernest Fenollosa, a dry and unassuming title. Where did I read those pages? Standing in front of the woodstove with a coffee cup in one hand? Beneath my farmers’ market canopy, one eye sharp on syrup customers? No matter. When I finished, I knew how to rewrite my novel.
I began with my main character, naming her after the clenched fiddleheads around my house opening delicate fronds, spreading chlorophyll-green, burgeoning into the deceptively strong ferns populating our woods. From this female, I sprung upward and rewrote from the thematic bridge, then spiraled all the way down to the sentence level, pushing the verbs, not fattening the book, but conditioning it to run hard, glossy-sleek with rich muscle, panting with frothy energy, rearing its sweat-slick and mighty head.
Fenollosa cast me back to my undergraduate days, to my love affair with Plato, and beyond that to my teenage infatuation with Holden Caulfield and my inherent distrust of illusion. Verb, queen of the language, I came to believe was artifice, as was noun, adjective, adverb: mere constructs of one long continuous stream of language. My book, as my life, surged as one seamless movement, whether waking or dreaming or passing from one to the other. “In nature,” Fenollosa writes, “there is no completeness.” What a revolutionary idea for me, this middleclass white American woman, brought up on a public school diet of rugged individualism. How hard our culture indoctrinates survival of the fittest; success is wisest won by commanding your own fate and jerking up those leathery bootstraps. With our liner view of time, we perceive ourselves each as one inviolate piece, ever heading upwards to a desired pinnacle of stillness, where this elusive American dream has been achieved, a vista complete with possibly golf courses and certainly stuffed bank accounts.
Fern is not one single piece, a magazine cut-out snipped from a magazine or a child’s paperdoll. Her motherness is driven so profoundly into her that she cannot be understood apart from her childhood. Equally enmeshed in this young woman is the thin Vermont soil beneath her feet, starry heavens above, the hard-worn wood of her front door. With this absence of completeness or finite endings, however, is a dearth of static. The entire book hums in one undulation, even the pauses where Fern ponders the nighttime windows.
From the opening sentence, the book arcs as a metaphorical unfolding of a fiddlehead, from youth’s smallness to the generous flourish of a mature woman. Fenollosa writes, “A true noun, an isolated thing, does not exist in nature…. Neither can a pure verb, an abstract motion, be possible in nature. The eye sees noun and verb as one: things in motion, motion in things….” In Hidden View’s opening lines, late winter sunlight glints harshly over icy snow, and cowshit tracked by boots erodes the pure white. A mixture of shit and beauty winds all through this book; opposites, as the yinyang symbol reminds us, do not exist as discrete entities in nature. The conundrum of how our fairest aspects are equally suffused with our foulest elements rises to the forefront as the novel climaxes. I imagined my characters as ascending, grappling birds. As they fought with each other—husband and wife—brother and brother—their interior natures battled, too: would decency and kindness prevail, or fear and its loathsome clutches? How would it settle out for Fern? For her husband? How would her love affair with her husband’s brother resolve?
While this spiritual tousling pinwheels through the plot, the metaphors and imagery rise from the book’s geography, unifying language and landscape. No screeching subway appears in these pages; instead, for example, “I saw the moon hung in the bedroom window, a chipped teardrop, pale white, a grub unearthed, a piece severed off, by a shovel’s blade.” The images illuminate and also bind the novel as a whole. One of the loveliest passages in Fenollosa’s piece compares the English word bright to a literal translation in Chinese. Fenollosa writes that, in Chinese, a bright cup is literally “the sun and moon of the cup,” or “sun-and-moon cup.” So when Fern stands abjectly beneath Lady Moon, the light suns-and-moons over her tear-streaked face, with all the variation and vicissitudes of meaning within that light, nothing flat at all. “Lovely Lady Moon, my faithful companion sailing through my years of nights. I had poured my misery and uncertainty into her streaming pearly presence, her shine ever ebbing and waxing, varying from a thin arctic trickle to a bounty of light vanquishing the rural dark. Her Ladyship’s moonshine glowed as a force beyond wild, so iridescently luminous that in her presence the universe chorused an ethereal rainshower of light-gems…”
In the end, as I rewrote and reworked, with no thought of completion save to craft the truest and strongest book I could, I came to see the book as a sphere, the farm’s glacial-strewn soil curving up to meet the bend of the sky, with a world inside comprised of sunlight and driving rain, snow and lilac blossoms, a handful of humans with their beating, hungry hearts. In the process, I myself grew, my marriage stretching and shattering, and I came to know both happiness and sorrow as tangibles, as a broken heart aches in the chest and a satisfied child giggles in her sleep. Likewise, my novel’s denouement holds no solid closure, no shut door, but merely pauses as Fern breathes in, glancing over her shoulder.
Writing this book (and rewriting and rewriting, all those myriad hours with my pages) shifted the way I perceive the world, too. No longer did I see myself as a solitary woman walking head down along a rural dirt road, trailing a young child. Instead, I saw myself as an integral part of the universe, with loneliness, yes, with sorrow, yes, with laughter, too, but I was not defined any of those. I defined myself by my motion, my hands caressing my daughter’s silky hair, or stacking autumn’s firewood and carrying it armload by armload into the house, all winter long, keeping our hearth alive. Would I hold my heart tight with resentment and anger, bitter disappointment? My book was no longer a discrete thing, but myself, too. Perhaps this is the unacknowledged gem of writing, that the books we write are first and foremost our own, as the life we save is our very own. And yet, at the same time, this book I wrote is no longer mine, as the life I’ve fought so hard to soulfully save is un-possessable by me. All experience, all life, is fleeting as morning mist, present but for a moment, and art echoes those ripples.
As this novel, Hidden View, now flies from my own rookery into the world, I’ll let it go, from one reader’s hand to another. In the end, of course, my books will fold back into the earth, one way or another, as will I, as will you, in the unceasing, unstoppable, and infinite motion of this good great universe.