On a Sentence of Joe Ashby Porter
Paul Griffiths



In an earlier issue of this review (#6), James Tierney set the level high for any discussion of Joe Ashby Porter’s fiction, but left one challenge pending. “It strikes me in the moment as quite silly,” he wrote, “to separate out any sentence of Porter’s for close reading as they will nearly all require this if one intends to read him.” This comment comes, it must be said, in the context of exactly the kind of close reading it questions, and so the challenge is not so pending as all that; Tierney has covered this base, too. But at least his remark suggests there may be more to be said. And Porter’s newest book—All Aboard (Turtle Point, 2008), a collection of six stories, including two that have also appeared in these pages (“Reunion Eve,” #4, and “Dream On,”, #10)—provides an occasion on which to try to say some of it. Indeed, there is no need to go beyond the book’s first page to find a sentence inviting one to ponder its eminently Porteresque virtues:

“Out ivy sighing around her upstairs study oculus, Thea Hunt watched a pine siskin scratch and choose on the new supposedly squirrel-proof feeder ten yards away in open air suspended from a gumball elbow late in a cool doubtful morning.”

We could start with the first four words, a miniature ABBA form of echoing long vowels, vowels that convey the sound of sighing. Is it sound, though, that is at issue here? Ivy leaves, one might have thought, would rather flap or rustle, and perhaps the sighing is visual, a sagging of interwoven tendrils beneath this little window. Also, that word “oculus,” and then the “watched,” might encourage us to imagine Thea seeing rather than hearing the ivy, if seeing it out of the corner of an eye trained on the bird—a Thea, however unconsciously, ivy sighting. On the other hand, the sentence starts where we are, “out;” the viewpoint is wholly ours as readers (given that the siskin, which is also out, if differently, is not likely to be noticing anything but the provided food and any new danger). Then again, we may note how the long vowels in placid matched pairs get replaced by a rush of short “u” sounds, a rush finding its destination in Thea’s surname. On that level, the experience is aural after all.

To take some other examples of sound’s importance in this sentence, aside from the double alliteration of “siskin scratch and choose” that is almost onomatopoeic, the end of the twenty-third word suddenly comes up with a new phoneme that is immediately repeated at the start of the twenty-fourth, and then there is the slow dance of “b” (again a new phoneme) and “l” at “gumball elbow.” Now there are three figures to be wrapped together in the penultimate word: the “f,” in its only reappearance, together with the “b” and the “l,” but with the “b” neatly silenced, so that the sound of the sentence’s first word is repeated. Right from the first, then, the sentence seems to have had its eye (or its ear) on this “doubtful,” which is a very suitable goal for it to have had, since the story has to do with a moment of decision. Thea, in between observations of the siskin, is inspecting three photographs of a rose that has been bred in her garden, a rose that will be represented in a catalogue by one of these portraits. But which? She is choosing—and yet the word is not applied to her, having been picked for the siskin.

Unlike “choose,” the word “doubtful” does appear a second time (and, in another instance of calculated repetition, Thea will reproduce the ivy’s sigh), for there is another part of the story, interleaved with the ruminating birdwatcher’s. Her three garden workers, Ollie, Cindy, and Rafe, are taking their lunch break in the potting shed, and everything is different there. Within the story’s duration of only a few minutes—measured by the workers’ conversation and the siskin’s presence at the feeder—Thea spends much of the time looking outside, while the potting shed in closed to the outer world. Thea’s study, with its oculus, is a station from which she, as lady of the house, can inspect a cultivated vista that gives her pleasure; the potting shed is somewhere to escape from the same scene, which for the shed’s inhabitants is three-dimensional and their workplace. At the same time, the shed is part of the garden in which it is situated, filled with “indirect green noon light filtering through the ivied panes” (that creeper again, in yet another studied repeat, now covering, not surrounding, the glass), whereas the study is in every way separate: not only within the house but on a different level, “upstairs.” In another difference, the story, where Thea is concerned, tracks mental processes that are all internal, until she voices words right at the end, while Ollie, Cindy, and Rafe not only cogitate but speak right through.

What they say, about love and life, discloses their mutual bonds not so much of affection as of, perhaps more valuably, trust and care. They can talk about sex because it is not an issue within this threesome: Ollie is a widower and surely celibate; Cindy’s interests seem to be exclusively lesbian; and Rafe, young and a newcomer, has fields beyond to play. Here, in this “green air,” they are the first family of another Eden, innocent, and dependent on a god (Thea, above) whose attention they do not know lies elsewhere. Their flicker of uncertainty concerns only themselves, and ambiguities they relish. Rafe has announced that he is color-blind but has a compensating synaesthetic sense of acute hearing—hearing so acute he can hear a rainbow. (For him, a visual phenomenon creates an aural impression. For us, reading the story, it is the other way round, as when the siskin’s verbs skim a glimpse of avian movement.) Hearing a rainbow now, Rafe invites Ollie and Cindy to go out and see the proof. And this is where the word returns: “Ollie and Cindy watched each other enjoy the doubtful moment.”

The rainbow as sign adds another theological metaphor to the story, for Thea at her oculus is also Noah, watching an arriving bird, as much as she is the great arthur (Rafe’s word) of all, contemplating her creation and pronouncing it, in the story’s final words: “Well and good.” (Are these six stories for the six days, then? A strange and multiform creation this is, if so.)

We might be tempted to echo Thea’s words, having got to this point. No choice has been made—or at least, no choice has been revealed. Thea has not determined which of the three photographs to send off for printing. Ollie has not pronounced on the future of Rafe, whose probationary month ends today. Cindy is cooling it with Ruthie (who is into bondage), but not making a final break. Ollie and Cindy together remain in the potting shed, not yet having decided either to go out and look for the rainbow or not to, but still enjoying this joint survey of how far they believe what Rafe has said. The story ends in equipoise, and in that respect, too, conforms with the sentence about the sighing ivy and the scratching siskin, where “out” and “doubtful” are balanced on the fulcrum of “supposedly,” another word of doubt and decision, and where a whole phrase hovers “in open air” before its fixing is placed.

This is by no means a dystopian story (the same cannot be said of everything in All Aboard), but Tierney’s view holds up here as it does in those less calm of Porter’s inventions, that the sentences cast a protective glaze over the characters whose lives they unfold, and that they do so by virtue of their fastidiousness. Many writers would assume such fastidiousness through archaism, appealing to the more formal language of earlier times. Porter does not. His formality is his own, established by means of recurrent or answering sounds, of rhythmic patterns (the anapaests of “on the new supposedly squirrel-proof feeder”), and of unusual syntax, of which that long opening phrase provides an instance. Here is something else in this sentence that is suspended, its function and meaning in abeyance. We might, in retrospect, try to come up with a more immediately comprehensible paraphrase: “Outside the ivy sighed around her upstairs study oculus as Thea Hunt...,” or “With the ivy sighing outside around her upstairs study oculus, Thea Hunt....” But, of course, so much is lost—most of all, the outrageousness of that “out,” which not only puts us in our place (alas, no Porterian language shelters us) but also raises a question unanswered until with a rhyme near the sentence’s conclusion, that out doubt that ends in “doubt.”