Thinking Reading Joe Porter

Toby Olson

In the near future we'll learn something of her life, then think of the exaggerated synecdoche of her introduction. A finger, sure. But even the blinds? And then the distance, which is only air, so often filled up in Porter's prose, to become bar­riers in the way of connection through metaphor and placement. " Sightlines cross the dark from Vince to a window in the whitish hump starting to loom above its picket fence. The lines run through screen wire and glass and past a perfumed finger that has lifted a cream vinyl slat." There's Gwen Runkle's eyes. And there too is the perversity in the conventional touch of suspense. Poor Mr. Porter. Like " My poor Gringoire, you'll never change!" The blatant metaphor of the clock running backward against time (like a reverse trans­lation?); Lil's pickles: " Another small thing, but at seventy-two you don't hold your breath for biggies;" in bed at sunrise with the Runkles: " ...light increases by insensible degrees, relentlessly." Relentless time of course. The trailers getting smaller is yet another measure, Lil's, and Vola's almost an absurdity, " an abandoned caboose plunked onto a postage-stamp plot abutting the zoom zoom freeway audible even under the spray." The freeway that brought them here, brought some down, others like Denise and Tink into God knows what. And watch that " zoom zoom" too.

There is no structural subtlety at all in this beginning in Manatee. There's casual suspense, the grace of the obvious which doesn't hide significance, and travels in space always marking time. And in circumscribed spaces, which materialize as oases in action, relationships, both to other characters and the past, get articulated in the physical, with subtlety. Where does Vince stand, sit and move, in Lil's little trailer, attempting to seduce her back? How does Vola " see" herself, with her " ...nose nearly against the mirror, [as she] does her eyes?" She can't see too well, though she can see the past well enough, and " Brent's hearing's not what it once was." The space between nose and mirror, between Vince and Brent in the pool. And another space, different in degree I think, but not kind. " Aw, you're the picture of health, Gramps. I guess I just always romanticized the two of you. I thought of you two in a golden mist down here and I wanted to impress Tink."

Who knows what will happen next, but so far it's Lil and Vola struggling in tight spaces with their makeup, Gwen " creaming her elbows," having created her space to be as creamy as she is, a kind of stasis against time. Even her clock might stand still, if glimpsed in that mirror, and Vince, the rambler, confined by no space at all. A good many of the objects in Gwen's trailer are easily banal, like brand names, but Porter doesn't laugh at them derisively, which would be banal too. He takes pleasure in their particularity, stays away from them through the delicacy of his prose, even celebrates them.
So it's " Bumpety bump bumpety bump," the orange coupe " wiggling her tailpipes," " Rattle rattle at the door," that " zoom zoom." These and so many others are distances too, Mr. Porter, like Gringoire, unfit for journalism, and staying so adamantly away from his characters, so that this may become, as poetry for Gringoire, a kind of lyrical idyll, one that harkens back, as in a reverse translation, to the beginning in Eelgrass.

Even in the adamantly domestic setting of Resident Aliens, in which sophisticated thought and repartee is the spine, re­lationship is often figured in placement in the environment:

Magical walls spring up between him and me when she's
present. Proscriptions and taboos of the most ordinary
things. When we're alone we're pretty much the way we always
were, but let her walk into the room and up go the force
fields--I'm not free to touch him even, or if I do it
amounts to a violation, almost a violence.

Quite literal there of course, but so often, at cocktail parties, in conversation, out in the woods, or in cities in Canada, relations to the world and other people to the self are pictured physically, in the close or far distance, be it across a coffee table or an inlet. Not don't touch me exactly, but let me not touch you, give up this freedom, but let me touch you.

And the prose is not another matter, the language most often slightly to the side or above the characters, each sentence a little machine out on its own, which is of necessity irony, the word inadequate here; maybe just distance is better, a great care in staying away from these creations, these people, because they have their own value and values. Think of this as a kind of maturity, which it is. Consider this sentence. " Gwendolyn Runkle lets the slat snap shut and interlaces her fingers under her chin." That spondaic care for the particularity of sound in the event, the formality of " interlaces," both artificialize and grant dignity at the same time. Consider most any sentence, then think of Mr. Seguin's poor goat and her freedom, which is most powerfully realized when " she came to the edge of a plateau with a laburnum blossom in her mouth...[and] saw Mr. Seguin's house with the pasture behind it, all the way down there in the plain." Beware. As Brent says: " What's done is done...and we mustn't let nostalgia overtake us." And I was wondering if the idyllic setting of Blanquette's gamboling might find an echo on the island of that other idyll, Eelgrass, published almost thirty years ago. I guess I wanted to come full circle, as a reverse translation does, starting at the end in order to get back to the beginning, which then becomes the ending, and I found the following.

Gail and Faye spent most of the hot day in shady parts of
the woods and when they performed chores like tending
their herb garden they were slow, wan, and faint. From
evergreens at the boathouse harbor they looked across
the inlet at Jane, who lay in a hammock fanning herself
with a newspaper. Faye and Gail elected not to visit the old
woman. Perhaps it was the stillness of the air, they were silent
as they walked among the trees. Descending a hillside covered
with day-lilies they wept.

Freedom is realized as it partakes in longing, often for things pictured, even quizzically and blankly, at a distance. Do the fay pushers see this, does the goat, do we? " Fan­ning herself with a newspaper," recently read presumably, which is engagement in a hammock without apparent longing. " ...all the way down there in the plain," the place of daily commerce, seeing it to realize the thrill of being free of it, and yet...alone? Weeping at the sight of day-lilies? Blanqette saw the beginning from the end, as if in the circle of a poet's vision against time. " E piei lou matin lou loup la mange."
" My poor Gringoire, you'll never change!"