Notes on Jessica Sequeira’s “A Furious Oyster”

20180916_100653I was reading Jessica Sequeira’s debut novel, “A Furious Oyster” (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018), when the 30 August London Review of Books arrived in the day’s mail. A book review should reveal something unexpected, but to do that the book under consideration must be heard in a whisper.

I turned to the review of Zadie Smith’s latest collection of essays; the LRB reviewer, Thomas Chatterton Williams, quotes from Zadie’s foreword:

“‘I have no real qualifications to write as I do. Not a philosopher or sociologist, not a real professor of literature or film, not a political scientist, professional music critic or trained journalist … My evidence – such as it is – is almost always intimate. I feel this – do you? I’m struck by this thought – are you?’”

Later in the review, we might recall that quote and think Zadie is telling us something more, but on the slant, that where she comes from, who she is, who her parents were, the various markings often used for identity, also don’t necessarily serve as “real qualifications”:

“‘Who am I to speak of this painting? I am a laywoman, a casual appreciator of painting, a dilettante novelist, a non-expert – not to mention a woman of lower birth than the personage here depicted … I am still the type of person who will tend, if I am in a public gallery, to whisper as I stand in front of the art.’”

That ‘whisper’ is often precisely both unexpected and unheard. The whisper follows no code of style. The whisper comes after the existence of the writer, and describes her essence, her choices, her existential leanings, what she has decided to follow. The whisper is the writer’s breath. The whisper might also be how something is said, and is often paradoxical. The whisper breaks the piece, ruins the lecture, calls from the pit, stops the show. The whisper might be a prayer of praise or a heckle in time with popular opinions.

There’s something else, too, about the whisper; it’s what most of us do who have no real qualifications. And out of all those whispers (the all but silent blogs, the self-published and distributed broadside, the furious but funny poem in the on-line lit-wall), which ones should we home in on? And why would someone whisper when already no one’s listening?

Sometimes, of course, the whisper “goes viral,” bounces and echoes off walls, scampers up trees, drifts through subway tunnels. But who or what is the host for that sometimes poison, at times the scent of lavender? And it’s well known, though often not accepted, the virus does not respond to antibiotics, the stubborn use of which weakens the resistance.

All noise dissipates into whisper, so it should not surprise us that John Cage’s 4’ 33’’ goes briefly viral upon each new discovery. We realize even the Big Bang was a silent singularity. Not only might the world end not with a bang but a whisper, as Eliot almost said in “The Hollow Men,” but the world probably began with a whisper.

A whisper is not a whimper. A whimper is what comes out of a giant mouth at the end of a rant. A whisper is a careful timing of breath, a largo escape, patient. The whisper goes easy and around.

“Although that isn’t quite right either: how to describe something like the voice of a person just out of sight?” (A Furious Oyster, 92).

Hilda Mundy’s voice was far out of sight when Jessica Sequeira brought it back: “I don’t want them to punish me with comments” (Mundy, Pyrotechnics, trans. Sequeira, We Heard You Like Books, 2017, 17). “Them,” the “three-dozen readers laughing at the pages of my failure” (17).

The whisper never fails: “I began to hear people whispering things to help me, advice. I don’t know whether those voices were really there or not, but they brought me serenity. They helped talk me through my situation, suggesting new paths, pointing out what I needed to do” (A Furious Oyster, 92).

“I have great respect, in contrast, for the metaphor. This is that” (118). So when we are told Pablo Neruda has ridden a wave of energy from an earthquake or the ocean or some great storm to enter the realm of the living, we believe. “This is my body.” This voice, this word. The metaphor transfigures.

Sequeira’s “A Furious Oyster” is diary, memoir, investigation, document, thesis, mystery, love story. Let’s “be clear,” there are “other realities” (55). The reality of the metaphor, for example. “Strong wills work even in the shadows of the afterlife” (Mundy, Pyrotechnics, 29). Does every word contain its erotic origin? “How pleasant and suggestive a couple in love is!” (Mundy, 34). “Would I want to live forever in this particular moment, this precise patch of time?…Her kisses alternate, soft and hard. I wrap my arms around her, but already her shoulders feel less firm; our time is nearly up. We must go back now, I know, I know. I know, and how I wish I did not” (A Furious Oyster, 38).

“A Furious Oyster” is a story of two famous poets in Chile, Pablo Neruda and Pablo de Rokha, literary adversaries, it seems, but both driven by the sufferings and loves of the people of a place, a land, a geography, a structure, to reach out, to reach. The geography of Sequeira’s book reveals her interests in shapes: “Sometimes at night, I dreamed of these theoretical shapes – the rhombuses, the ovals, the diamonds, the ellipses of sub-arguments within the prose. I kept only one notebook, and the diary of my personal life merged smoothly into the most abstract of notes on these Chilean poets, here and gone before my time” (55). “A Furious Oyster” is also the story of a writer researching, composing, working, in a relationship, watching, listening. And it’s the story of a place, Santiago de Chile.

Sequeira possesses that most unique of minds, the one able ambidextrously to move easily from the hard academic to the soft poet (or is it the soft academic to the hard poet?) within the same shape. The flow of “A Furious Oyster,” its style, is redolent of the Duras of the “Four Novels,” or Lispector’s way of creating mystery while unveiling surprises. I also thought of the modernism of Djuna Barnes and Anais Nin. Jessica Sequeira is a translator, a scholar, a writer. She both understands and comprehends literature. For those of us who can only comprehend, but feel we are indeed also “struck with this thought,” we can only whisper in her shadow that you really should read “A Furious Oyster.”

Poetry, Politics, and the Mail; or, Fishing Without a License

Why does anyone want to be a poet, and what events of chance make it possible? “It’s more original being a postman,” Pablo advises Mario.

There’s something wrong with Mario. He’s a fisherman allergic to boats and the sea. So he takes a public servant job; he becomes a postman. But not just any postman. He’s the personal postman to Pablo Neruda at the time of the Chilean statesman-poet’s exile.

Mario comes to poetry by accident, inspired not by poetic works but by desire for the women he hopes to attract and impress by simply being a poet. This is not so unusual; men do all sorts of silly things for the same reason, and Mario has seen that most of Pablo’s letters are from women and concludes they are amorous admirers of the poet.

“It began as a mistake,” Bukowski’s Chinaski explains of his becoming a postman in the first line of Post Office, his novel about his experiences working postal jobs in the waning of post-WWII Los Angeles. Chinaski begins enthusiastically, thinking, like Mario, there might be women in his future.

“This is the job for me, oh yes yes yes,” chirps Chinaski. Except that things don’t work out as expected. Just like Mario, Chinaski “didn’t even have a uniform, just a cap,” perhaps the first sign Chinaski would reject postal grace. He comes and goes in a kind of anti-route, and one imagines him chucking the letters, bills, and adverts and delivering instead poems like fish lures to casually selected homes.

Indeed, “poets can do a lot of damage to people,” the politician Di Cosimo cautions Mario. Yes, and it’s no accident. The local politicians have been promising water for the island residents with every new election, only to renege once elected. The poet promises water, too.

“Mail, over any length of time,” poet Charles Olson said in his The Post Office: A Memoir of His Father, “will tell secrets a neighbor could not guess. Nor do I mean the reading of postcards or the ‘lamping’ of letters. Nor what a man hears over coffee. Or that a man’s mail does not always come to his house, or a woman’s either. It lies more in the manner in which people look for, ask for, receive their mail. And talk about it.” We begin to see where Olson got his penchant for writing poetry. The postal bosses disliked Olson’s father for his strong work ethic and his union activity, and they tormented him until the route inspector finished him off, and he dies like a dead letter his son spends a lifetime searching for.

Of the three, the only one who gets free is Chinaski, who wakes up alive to write a novel.

The brick that’s pulled from Mario’s wall and explains his fall is his ability to read, unusual on the dry island, and explains the accident that follows: his winning poem prized by the communists who invite him to read at the political rally that erupts into a riot where he’s trampled and killed, a poet of the people, his paper dissipated under panicked feet, for every poem is a fish caught without a license.

Plato, Pablo, and the Poetics of Health Care

Plato considered poets dangerous and banned them from his Republic, and Il Postino (1994) illustrates his point, yet also shows that we are all poets, all who use language – to love and berate, to tackle and persuade, to testify and exhort. The movie, from the book Burning Patience, by Antonio Skarmeta, a fiction set on an island of Pablo Neruda’s temporary exile, is about the democracy of language, how metaphor permeates our lives, and the consequences inherent in desiring more than our own voices can bear, even through poetry. 

Is contemporary poetry outside the margins of popular US culture? Maybe, but the creation of metaphor is still the heart of language and language the heart of culture. In the film, this is ironically dramatized by Aunt Rosa. During her hilarious visit to Pablo to complain of his contributing to the poetic delinquency of Beatrice, she lets loose with an invective that ably employs a fishnet of metaphors to describe Pablo’s bad influence on Mario and Mario’s hypnotizing effect on her niece. The blame falls on the poet for stirring the emotions of the tainted republic of the island. 

Poetry sleeps around, moving through Plato’s five regimes. Democracy gives way to tyranny; Plato should have banned lobbyists – then maybe the Republic, though awash in a bath of poetry, might at least have a decent health care system, not to mention an adequate water supply.