Sara Greenslit - Language is a bird, at times warm, close, pulsing in the hand, at others flying, soaring in the space of the unsayable

Sara Greenslit, The Blue of Her Body (Starcherone, 2007)

«Suffering from depression, a young woman leaves her lover, Kate, and flees the city where they lived, taking a job at an aviary. There, she learns how to handle birds of prey--hawk, kestrel, owl, eagle. Living alone, she dissects the path of her illness and her history with antidepressants. Beauty, wilderness, and danger are intertwined for a woman whose desire is nonetheless identifiably human: "All my life I have wanted my hands on a living thing." Artfully building powerful and poetic scene upon scene, The Blue of Her Body creates a memorable portrait of the human heart and its untamable nature, and the wonders of the activity of the human imagination we call love.»

The Blue of Her Body negotiates the difficulties of the muted raptures of love for a woman who anchors her life with raptors on the one hand and mood elevators on the other. In elliptical and lyrical fragments, Greenslit brings very real daily struggles into the domain of art, rendering them resonant and making them, somehow, all the more real. A powerful first novel." - Brian Evenson

“Experimental in syntax and structure, The Blue of Her Body maps a young woman's love for the natural world and her struggle with familial depression. Greenslit borrows from an array of sources, stalks her subjects with a poet/ documentarian's eye, registers shifts in diction, fractures time. Yoking ornithology and psychology, her achievement is a fictional, postmodern field guide to surviving genetics and making a home in language and world." - Robin Becker

“Language is a bird in this novel - at times warm, close, pulsing in the hand, at others flying, soaring in the space of the unsayable. Like Carole Maso, Sara Greenslit is an artist who makes the muteness of the body, of the world, sing.” - Elizabeth Sheffield

«On the one hand, it is easy enough to see how Sara Greenslit's The Blue of Her Body could be called a "poet's novel." It makes no effort to "tell a story" in the ponderous, pedestrian mode too often adopted by novelists who come to fiction through an interest in narrative (as exemplified either in other fiction they've read or in movies) rather than an engagement with language and the possibilities of language in creating verbal art and exploring fresh ways of representing experience. There's no facile psychologizing of characters portrayed as "real people," no faux-dramatic plot points, no perfunctorily inserted dialogue straining to be "believable." No exposition, rising and falling action, or contrived resolution of the artificially induced "conflict." Instead, The Blue of Her Body is an artfully arranged construction of words, a novel that asks the reader to infer the "story" between the lines of its brief prose passages.
On the other hand, one would not call this novel "poetic" because it indulges in conventional figurative phrasing, lunges after arresting tropes, offers up an ostentatious display of "fine writing." Greenslit's prose is more matter-of-fact, more objectively descriptive:
'Her rented house on the edge of town is small, chipped paint, all her own. She likes the windows, large and filled with trees. The morning light on the wood floor reminds her of her mother's caramel. The dog clatters through the house, pet hair collects in the corners. She no longer needs a vacuum. The broom is easier.
She has chosen birds over the soft other.
A week before her new job at the aviary starts, boxes are left stacked in the living room. She is afraid to put everything away. She fears the open space. She fears the silence she sought, the echoes. She had wanted these things, but now they loom and hover.
She brought only what was hers. But everything reminds her of Kate.'
One chapter consists entirely of mostly one-sentence "paragraphs":
'Whenever it was summer, I fell into a trance watching leaves on windy days
The sky was cloudless and blue like the spaces inside loved ones
Peregrine hacking box, nestling feather fuss down, eyes and beaks
Mother's summer garden: Asiatic lilies, red as a South American carnival, coneflowers about to unfold
When I was in love, I couldn't imagine any hands but yours. I smelled you while I worked, I saw you in our bed.
When I left, you wouldn't look me in the eye.
I was fool, fool to my mood.
I ate my pills day after day, unable to see.'
One could say that the novel unfolds in lines and stanzas, rather than sequential prose paragraphs that disappear in the narrative flow they are meant to serve, although this does not so much make it a kind of prose poem as provoke us into considering the sometimes fine line between prose and verse, fiction and poetry. Why can't a novel proceed via evocative, carefully crafted sentences rather than routine, narrative-bearing paragraphs? At what point does the novelist leave to the poet the care and tending of language at its most fundamental level, the habitation of the word, the phrase, the sentence?
Much of what The Blue of Her Body is "about" is expressed in the first-quoted passage above: "She has chosen birds over the soft other." The novel's unnamed narrator has broken up with her lover in the city and moved into the country to work at an aviary. In her isolation, she considers her own history of depression, broods on her relationship with her mother (also a depressive) and her failed relationship with Kate, and takes the opportunity to further cultivate her love of animals. The novel in effect chronicles the narrator's convalescence, concluding with a variation on Emily Dickinson: "Hope is a damaged bird. She heals and then stays..."
The narrator's dilemma and her attempt to work through it, however, are presented almost entirely through inference and suggestion. The story is purely backstory. In addition to the brief expository passages and the declarative sentences (sometimes stated in the third-person, sometimes in first-person), there are fragmentary accounts of the activity in the aviary, haiku-like descriptions of animals and of nature in general, and cumulative bits of information about the various efforts to treat the narrator's depression. While Greenslit thus avoids converting the narrator's circumstances into narrative melodrama, ultimately her novel does present a coherent and convincing, if oblique, portrait of its protagonist's struggle to gather her life into some semblance of order and purpose.
I believe that the future of prose fiction will only lead it closer to a kind of rapprochement with poetry, where the novel began as a splintering-off of narrative from the storytelling mode of epic poetry (just as drama appropriated the "dramatic" in dramatic poetry). Now that film and television (as well as what is called "creative nonfiction") have in turn taken over the storytelling function, at least for the mass audience, fiction's continued relevance, aside from those novels seemingly written with the film adaptation in mind, will perhaps require that it return to its origins in the poet's attention to language per se. Experimental fiction almost always points us in this direction, as challenges to the hegemony of conventional storytelling usually entail a reinvigoration of the resources of language, highlighting the capacity of prose fiction to do something else. The Blue of Her Body is an admirable addition to this effort.» - The Reading Experience

Excerpts:

"The blue slur of oncoming sleepiness. She wants to shut down and forget all the complications, the rugburn of communication, the loss of words and fighting, the drag and stop of language as she fails Kate again and again. She hates these moments of burn and anger, and bites her nails until they bleed, copper in her mouth."

"The habit of meals and sleep, the patterns of pattern. Hours and streets and seasons. Leaves, new growth, then falling. Failure. Capability and time line. Endpoint and/or circular."

"Humans only use 60% of the oxygen in their lungs; birds 99%."

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