Gretchen E. Henderson is the author of two novels, The House Enters the Street (Starcherone Books, 2012) and Galerie de Difformité (&NOW Books, 2011), a print book that is networked online inviting readers to participate in its (de)formation across media. Her lyric collection of criticism, On Marvellous Things Heard (Green Lantern Press, 2011), explores literary appropriations of music and silence. Gretchen is a Mellon postdoctoral fellow at MIT and metaLAB fellow at Harvard.
An excerpt from her novel The House Enters the Street appears in Issue Thirty-Nine of The Collagist.
Here, Gretchen E. Henderson answers questions "in the form of excerpts" -- with further excerpts from The House Enters the Street. Enjoy!
1. What is writing like?
Home! Home! You’re going home! Not straight away, crow dart-of-an-arrow going home, but a curvaceous, loopy, round-about, colorful waving (good-bye, hello, good-) course of going home – to Love – not by plane, train, coach or car, but by foot through labyrinthine halls and echoing galleries, vibrating as marble statues lack legs, hands, noses (breathing); floor-to-ceiling canvases, blue nudes & strung guitars (listening), head-dressed gazelles with locked horns, beaded earflaps, iron mudfish in pendant masks (murmuring). Like a whorled conch, ringing:
You’re going home!
By following arrows. Arabesques. Next text. Next. Look! (the gallery, captions, your memory:) Where did it begin, & with whom? (Homing: Honing: Home:) And more: galleries don’t seem to end – one opens another, way leads to way, into way – you’ve been here often enough to know you could stay for life and not see everything (could have been yesterday, taped and braced, you were) navigating galleries, the park, sky, streets that lead to a key in the lock – you anticipate all, after being released from work early, after admitting “I give up” – after taking time (if nothing else) into your hands, to circumambulate the Met before meeting me at:
Home through the American Wing, flying past grandfather clocks, wing chairs, baseball cards, Madame X’s black V-neck, Wright’s arithmetical room & Tiffany glass lampshades before Arms and Armor. European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. Medieval Art. Almost crowing, dart-of-an-arrow (yet still loopy, round-about: would you wish for this straight?), you weave, verdant waving (good-bye, hello, good-) course of going home to Love through tessellated fountains, fired tiles & calligraphed niches & woven carpets – all tangled together like vines in a jungle – as you (the one who’s going home) unravel & ravel anew. You don’t have time to circumambulate all galleries today & must leave something to return to: another wing, another room, another skylight (like the one above Rodin’s marble chained prisoners, whose massive hands – you’re always noticing hands, opposable thumbs, driving forces behind human evolution & the creation of art, communication, technology, social organization – remind you of the French sculptor’s unfinished hands, arms, heads, legs & torsos, heaped in his studio & nicknamed “brushwood”), stopping only to glance out the window at leafage flitting (humming) among plumed petals, ocean foam, fluttering masts & hooked anchors (homing) on the other side of glass, in the park, light splintering inside clouds, as you think of:
2. What is writing not like?
A clock ticked against her hushed breath. Terra incognita. The mandala was on the screen, dotted by icons. She opened a new document, positioned her headset microphone, turned on the Sphinx, and said:
“cap Her life began with the see correct that s-e-a period”
The sentence finished, and the microphone pulsed red. She stayed silent, but words continued to write themselves.
“Scratch that,” she said.
The cursor stopped. Webbed marks retreated into blankness. A moment later, new words scurried across the page.
“Scratch that. Scratch that. Go to sleep.” She stared at the single sentence. Her life began with the sea. “Wake up,” she said, “cap Waves rolled outside her window comma watery raisins scratch that horizons period space space cap Her father had disappeared on a voyage into spell that t-e-r-r-a space i-n-c-o-g-n-i-t-a comma where horned no rails scratch that spell that n-a-r-w-h-a-l-e-s swam under rice correct that ice comma where music lulled into frozen flows delete that flows no no no,” Avra stopped narrating and took a breath, which generated “the.” The microphone pulsed and wrote “wind.” She said, “Select flows through wind delete that flows correct that f-l-o-e-s period space space cap She began to dream of loud scratch that cloud lagoons comma lead scratch that belied spell that b-e-l-l-i-e-d sales delete that sails comma end scratch that and sirens singing into wind period space space cap The wayfaring hate scratch that trait had been inherited period space space cap She decided to wonder scratch that wander period Go to sleep.” The cursor wrote, Goes leap. “Go to sleep,” she said, louder. Goats leap, it wrote, with the microphone pulsing. Frustrated, she yelled, “Go to sleep!” The microphone pulsed, as if she’d said nothing. Exhaling a long, tense but inaudible breath, she tried to quiet something deep in herself, saying in her steadiest voice, “Go to sleep.” The microphone stopped pulsing, turned yellow, and reclined.
Silence settled in the hush.
Waves rolled outside her window, watery horizons, she re-read. Her father had disappeared on a voyage into terra incognita, where horned narwhales swam under ice, where music lulled into frozen floes. She began to dream of cloud lagoons, bellied sails, and sirens singing into wind. The wayfaring trait had been inherited. She decided to wander. Goes leap. Goats leap.
The clock ticked, slower.
Moment by moment in that rhythm she heard, as if for the first time, what her mind hadn’t wrapped itself around, for as long as she could remember: the beat of her heart. It was pulsing.
3. When you do it, why?
Sift your fingers through double-braced barrels of kernels of corn. You have no trouble grasping, at this moment in time. Gather handfuls of kernels to fill the basin in your arms. At the village pump, swizzle the parched seeds. Keep water flowing. Pump and release, pump and release: the action requires repetition, muscles solidified by labor, strength you have not previously needed. After cleaning the kernels, shuttle the basin to a lean-to with a fire kindled before dawn. Twigs poke from a hollowed-out stone that will blister your touch, if you don’t take care. Beside the hot rock, there’s a tarnished grinder; grit grainy paste through the shredding sieve. The paste should hesitate, then curl before falling onto a rolling slab. With a pestle passed down through generations, urge the pulp flat, flatter. Gather the cohesion into a ball to shape between your palms. Turn it forward and forward, rotate and pat, again. Flat. Your circle is thin, but not supermarket thin, palm-sized sustenance that you place raw and imperfect (since you are learning) on the scorching stone to sizzle. Pockets of air rise as it heats, freckles and browns. Remove it to add to the growing pile of steaming disks wrapped in a cloth, warm.
You eat the tortillas with her, a grandmother. You talk of lost children and wait. As boiled milk cools, your tongue burns. Too hot: wait, so ground cinnamon won’t stick to your lips. The milk came from a goat across the lane, offered after it bleated and kicked and a knowing hand cradled its neck, to calm. The hand was not yours because you are a foreigner; you do not know how to assuage a goat, or the meaning of calm. You watch, hungry for knowledge not learned in books, imagining the wise fingers on your slender neck. Greedy eyes, she calls you in soft laughs, as she senses you want to be generous but are learning.
You forget that sunrise is a habit because you have no blinds on your windows. Instead of glass, wooden sockets frame a vegetable world. Banana trees, coffee plants, and palms grow lush among deheaded cornstalks, hollowed houses, stone-littered roads. In afternoons, thunder grumbles over the valley. Silence defines sound because it is evasive; there is always the undermurmur of cicadas and the river.
At night, too. There is always the undermurmer of cicadas; the river. Behind the buzz, breezes, bombs. Under murmur. Guns. Fire. Don’t breathe, or scream. This happens again, as before: through wooden shutters, skeins of sunlight sketch hammocks as colored cobwebs, pinned among sleeping bats, hidden wings. Droppings scatter a doorway, lit by dusk, an uninhabited yard: hollowed stone oven, an awning, rusted drainpipes, scuttling chickens, hole in the ground. Under your hammock, moonlight seeps around shifting bodies. Creaking beams. Snoring. Rustling. Screeching. Dark arcs slip out the door, flights soft as whispers. The sky cracks, stars. Falling on the ground, you crawl to a cracked wall to see: stars in the street, dancing; the neighboring house a flame.
Say-ee-say-a-day…not a word.
Cicada. Say, cigarra –
See guerra –
Sí, sí, sí –
Through the valley, the river rims a dusty road and twists from your surrogate community, Las Vueltas (“the turns,” you learn the meaning), to villages beyond the verdant ridge, pocked hills, mountains, camps, bordering there:
A route of repatriation.
Here, she comes behind the lean-to through the dirt yard. It’s night. A candlelight’s ringed glow catches her shadow as she raises her wrinkled hand to speak. To you. She trusts you with words: how the soldiers came and took her pregnant daughter, opened her on a rock, and made birth a double funeral. She thinks you will protect stories like you protect your own life, no, longer. You learn the fecundity of stories, how one gives birth to another, and cradle her words as she taught you to nurture tortillas, to rotate them, again and again. She grasps your unblemished fingers before disappearing into darkness.
4. When you don’t, why?
You consider the idea, now that you sense progress and can stand without your head unbearably top-heavy, now that you don’t feel like you’re moving through mud and can hold a book, sit to listen to a performance, even if you can’t play piano or type on a regular keyboard without regressing, without reawakening symptoms. Even if you can’t make music in the way you once knew, at least you can voice-activate words – trying to make a new kind of music – listening while walking through museums or to the grocers, where you find a can of Campbell’s Alphabet Soup, which you haven’t eaten in years.
It boils in a saucepan. Turn off the heat, and let it cool. While you’re waiting, read and rearrange letters: B, E, A, D, G, C, F, and the rest. Since the road to recovery isn’t straight, you can’t spell this out, write about it directly, or physically write it at all. You think of it as happening to someone else, or a tale where a body forgets to be a body and hides its heart in a tree, or a legend where someone cannot speak and puts stones in her mouth to learn to articulate. Or a story that stops and starts, stops and restarts, modulating, because the end keeps changing. Like you’ve improved and deteriorated, again and again. But because or in spite of the end or the beginning, you’ve learned to relish this moment in the middle. And at least, you can speak. You fall asleep, reimagining the story and how to tell it, in medias res, beginning with the young woman who wasn’t crying from sadness, beginning with her, the one saying goodbye to her old self, the one who’s going home: