I first came across the singular writings of Carole Maso about ten years ago, when she submitted to the journal I help edit a piece of what is known as poetic prose. Although we passed on the manuscript, it made such a strong impression on me that I decided to investigate Maso’s extant oeuvre. Nor was I disappointed. For the rest of her work, consisting at that point of several “novels,” turned out not only to equal but indeed to surpass the tantalizing sample I had seen. I began to follow her career with real interest, as she moved from Columbia to Brown (where until recently she directed the Creative Writing program), won a Lannan fellowship, and published yet more “novels,” among other books. Not that I’ve actually bought any of these. But each time I spy a new Maso production, I eagerly open it and drink in, like a great gust of Giorgio perfume, the unmistakable aroma emanating from its pages, until finally I slip into a sort of algolagniac delirium. I have become, in short, a Masoist.
Thus far my Masoism has remained a private depravity, but now I have resolved to share it with the world, in the hope of infecting a few others. Let me expose you, then, to the Masoan manner in all its potency. Take AVA, described by its jacket copy as follows: “Ava Klein, thirty-nine, lover of life, world traveler, professor of comparative literature, is dying. From her hospital bed on this, her last day on earth, she makes one final ecstatic voyage. People, places, offhand memories, and imaginary things drift in and out of Ava’s consciousness and weave their way through the narrative. The voices of her three former husbands emerge: Francesco, a filmmaker from Rome; Anatole, lost in the air over France; Carlos, a teenager from Granada. The ways people she loved expressed themselves in letters or at the beach or at the moment of desire return to her. There is Danilo, her current lover, a Czech novelist, and others, lovers of one night, as she sings the endless, joyous, erotic song cycles of her life.” Here is a sample:
Under the pomegranate tree. Entwined in the grape arbor. Nothing and nowhere off-limits.
He calls me with clicks and hisses.
My throbbing neck, my throbbing hair, throbbing fingertips. I’ve heard this is what happens to a woman in her mid-thirties.She finds herself on a foreign coast. A throbbing. A certain pulsing. She seethes.
How to characterize such prose? Thankfully, we need not make the attempt, because Maso does so for us in “Precious, Disappearing Things: on AVA,” included in Break Every Rule: Essays on Language, Longing, & Moments of Desire. It starts: “AVA is a living text. One that trembles and shudders. One that yearns.” Maso also treats us to an appreciation of another of her “novels,” Aureole. (This particular self-homage was written, she confides, in “Paris, city of light.” City of light! A writer of Maso’s originality can afford a few clichés.) “Aureole celebrates the resplendence of language and desire,” she explains. “It is a work of reverie and ruin. Pleasure. Oblivion. Joy.”
Yet Break Every Rule is not all sweetness and light; it also contains some withering denunciations. Mainstream fiction, in Maso’s view, represents nothing less than “a kind of totalitarianism, with its tyrannical plot lines,” and she is aghast at “the typical novelist’s almost total disregard for language” (by “language” she presumably means the exquisite words that count, such as desire). But what upsets her most is the reception accorded our few genuine novelists: “The real contempt is reserved for the real writer, the real artist. She hears the scoffing of the bourgeoisie.”
One might wonder how Maso came to triumph over such philistinism. In an astounding autobiographical essay called “The Shelter of the Alphabet,” she delights to tell us. The short answer: destiny. Her mother having had two miscarriages, Maso’s very conception was, she declares, “miraculous.” Born in Paterson, New Jersey just as William Carlos Williams was completing Book Five of Paterson, she logically concludes that “I was born in a modernist masterpiece… . Mysteriously [Williams] is handing this to me as I now begin to breathe … it seems like destiny to me… . He has sent me on this charmed path.” The first concrete sign of her preordination was an NEA that took her to France, where, naturally, she blossomed. Her unwilling return to “an America that loathes difference, otherness… . A country hostile to its art and artists” is heartbreaking to read of, as is the enforced nomadism of her teaching career. But weep not for Maso—as her title suggests, she has learned to take refuge in her ABCs: “I who live everywhere and nowhere have built a home of language… . A home of music and desire.”
From Maso’s home of music and desire there was, however, one thing missing: a child. As she recalls in The Room Lit by Roses: A Journal of Pregnancy and Birth, “I had become so entranced by the utterly hypnotic path I found myself on” that she had plumb forgotten to procreate. “From those weird, windy, solitary heights from [sic] which I worked now I watched the child wave, wave, and then finally vanish” (which calls irresistibly to mind that drifting fetus in 2001: A Space Odyssey). But wait! Suddenly a “wave of clarity … passed through me, propelling me into an utterly charmed and charged night to retrieve that little waving figure who was mine.” Hers, because the child already existed in her writing! “There she was at the periphery of every page … calling my name.” Yet how to translate the wee bairn from page to pram? Not only was Maso’s partner another woman, she herself was over forty. These obstacles notwithstanding, “the exact right moment with the exact right person came with strange speed—in an instant, in motion, and under a sky of enormous beauty and calm” (which must mean that the fateful copulation was an al fresco quickie). Even more incredibly, the lucky stud also leapt straight from Maso’s “novels”! “Did this mysterious l’étranger [sic] from a far-off land, who uncannily had also existed in my pages for many years, somehow see in me a brilliance, illuminated as I must have been by my longing?” (More to the point, was the étranger ever informed of his paternity?) That Maso was so easily impregnated is less surprising when one considers that she authored both father and child, and whatever lingering incredulity one may feel vanishes when she explains, “To conception I brought the same things I bring to my writing: focus, faith, will, intuition, license, rigor, and recklessness.”
Perhaps because I happened to stumble on The Room Lit by Roses when my wife was pregnant, I found it particularly strong stuff, and at the time I thought it represented the ne plus ultra. But I underestimated Maso. For in her new book, Beauty Is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo, which is described as “a vibrant series of prose poems,” she quite outstrips herself.
Could there be a more perfect pairing than Carole Maso and Frida Kahlo? Their very names chime. True, Maso is far from the first rapturously to identify with Kahlo. Nor can one overlook the coincidence of Beauty appearing almost simultaneously with Julie Taymor’s biopic. But banish any suspicion that Maso has merely jumped on this commodious Mexican bandwagon. As she makes clear in her Author’s Note, she enjoys a special affinity with Kahlo, such that Beauty is no mere book but a “communion.” During the “miraculous months of writing”—Maso’s proneness to miracle would seem to make her a shoo-in for canonization—“my own words and concerns intertwined with hers.”
Indeed, the verbal sensibility manifested in Kahlo’s diaries and letters, quotes from which Maso scatters through the book, is nearly indistinguishable from her own. Try to guess, for instance, who wrote the following: “He appreciates all that contains beauty, be it a woman or a mountain… . Like the cacti of his land, he grows strong and amazing either in sand or on rocks… . He lives with his strong sap in a ferocious environment.” Well, the complete sentences give it away, as do the cacti; but you see what I mean.
What of Beauty’s self-advertised poeticism? Although Maso has long rubbed up against poetry, this is the first time she has actually assumed the bardic mantle. As one would expect, the shift in genre yields new wonders. For example, a number of pages remain all but blank. One such contains only these words: “martyrdom of glass. the great nonsense.” I can’t convey the effect of all that vasty white space surrounding the words—indicative, you know, of silence—but rest assured that it is memorable; and of course those decapitalizations add their own layer of profundity.
It is only in her concluding elegy, however, that Maso truly transcends herself. Behold:
She nourishes the earth with her body, the woman with her body. She feeds the earth
fecund one. darling earthling.
She holds herself above her—lowers herself feeding folds and folds of fertile, gorgeous earth.
She smiles. You are sweet. And Diego too would like you. And she drags her down—rooted to the soil
vagina fused to the throbbing earth
The f-word! How pleasing it is, after all these years, to see Maso still elaborating her diction, still growing as a writer. A Los Angeles Times reviewer once gushed that Maso “epitomizes all that is great about American literature today.” She epitomizes something all right.
Ben Downings biography of Janet Ross is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux
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