When a friend of mine was dying, she told another friend who called to visit her that her call had come too late. She was “already in the flow,” our friend had said from the bardo of her deathbed, “she had already entered the flow,” so she couldn’t accept a visit. When I heard this story, I pictured a telephone with a coiled cord stretched between the two friends—no passing of cellphones for this exchange, but a cord attached to receivers that couldn’t possibly reach far enough. The cutting of a second cord already in progress and set to drift.
And I wondered about what my dying friend was telling us: if we enter the flow when we die, where is it that we live? On the shore; beneath the sky; at the table or the lathe; in interruption? Before the cup and saucer; at the casement window; ascending the hill? In the envelope of voice and mood, does writing anticipate the flow or work to staunch it? Run against its current or alongside it?
Pausing to interrupt the workshop vernacular of flow—as in “I like the way it flows”—I screech to breaking point: “Menstrual blood flows,” I say, and “milk is expressed. Let us dispense, therefore, with the application of these terms to discussions of writing.” You’d think I was averse to the female body what with my examples of its effluvium, glistening or matte. “The poet writes the history of his body,” Thoreau pronounced (or uddered) one liquid day before the invention of a sharpener for his pencil. Is it the Oscar parade of flowing gowns and ram-rod suits that makes me want to forget my body when I write, or at least get past it? Or past some hetero-norm of flows and sticks that break my bones and words that ever hurt me?
Where did this phrase come from—“it flows”? From music and the assumption that all writing be lyrical. From the idea of writing as a craft set to glide on still waters. From a romance with a several century’s old Coleridgean attitude of waft—Wordsworth’s poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of emotion.” From assembly line culture and factory output. From electricity and tears.
One kind of flow makes another sort of flow possible. Flow begets flow as when the stark O of my friend’s absence floods and drenches me. (“To set the eyes at flow”: to cause to weep).
One night I dream that dying is a coming into and out of consciousness until you can’t find the energy to come in: the energy instead becomes you. It could have been a dream of how to stay asleep without dying, or an image repertoire for the stuttered breathing of my snoring. On a busy street, I might add, because the setting was a city thorough-fare, thick with noise and people, and I remember thinking in the dream, “Why am I trying not to die on such a busy street? Why did I choose such an impossible place to die?”
The day before I had run into a friend and colleague whom I hadn’t seen in some time. Just before noticing her, I had been fighting a sort of autism I occasionally experience in grocery stores, when, frozen by the sensory over-load of rows of stacks of aisles of pyramids of vegetables and fruits, labels and prices and colors and shapes, I temporarily freeze and forget what I have come for. Seeing D—in a periphery partly broke my trance, and I wandered toward her, brightening, “It’s so good to see you”!
D— and I had been diagnosed with breast cancer in the same year, so whenever we saw one another there was always a degree of checking in to the land of our living. Though D— “looked great,” and seemed to be about her daily business, she said she wanted me to know that her cancer had metastasized. Pain flowed into her hands from her sternum, she explained: a sudden sign of cancer in her lungs and bones. She wanted me to hear this, she said; she wanted me just to know that cancer follows the flow of a pre-determined path we can never know.
There was no time to suggest we plan to get together, and at a certain point in the deepening of our conversation, I realized we were probably seeing each other for the last time. “I have really enjoyed knowing you all these years,” D— said, hugging me, while streams of shoppers flowed around us, bumping into us. This was clearly no place for such a conversation—“you’re in the way!” one woman blurted as, embracing, we blocked access to the tomatoes and the kumquats, the grapefruit and asparagus.
Strangely, we didn’t cry; we laughed a good deal. We were in the bardo of the dying, our thoughts and words even our bodies on a plain apart from the bustle and flow.
See how beautifully this paragraph misses the boat of its calling. Tune your intelligence to the drip drip drip of this novel’s leak. I won’t refuse the complement of a writing being compared to butter—also said of a second hand cashmere sweater by a store proprietor in Rhode Islandese, “It’s just like buttah!” Here’s to prose-like-butter better to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes, and breasts, and groins. We read to get lost in the flow.
We want the writing to flow because we want writing to complete or satiate us—complementi! We want it to flow because we want when we read to be met even though we know we will never be met, not ever fully, not really, that we will only be met halfway. I want writing to meet me as a cascade of swirls. I want writing to take me on board for fear that life is passing me by. I want writing’s surface to shimmer rather than reflect.
Writing isn’t flow: it is mood modulations, fine tunings, or coarse. Writing is not a flow but a vibration, not a pulse but a recombinant re-chording: the song we sing, orchestrate or divine, the duration of a here, and here, and here.
If it must flow, then why not praise it for its murmur, that low indistinct continuous sound as of a stream. No sullen discontent of a half-articulate voicing, why not say of writing, “it murmurs well,” “I like the way it murmurs.” I like the octave of its murmur, the hollow, hum, and buzz. I love its bumbled hovering between spoken-ness and flight. The way I have to strain to hear it, like the sounds we have to bend to hear beneath the surface of audible flow: on the thither side of complaint, a joyous murmuration.
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Thanks to poet Talvi Ansel for introducing me to murmurations of starlings, and to this beautiful video by Sophia Windsor Clive and Liberty Smith; and, thanks to Robin Keller, a student in my Honors seminar in “Literary Acoustics” at the University of Rhode Island who, in writing about the difference between murmurs and mumbles helped me to hear what voices do, anew. I come to the idea of the “bardo of the dying” by way of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s meditations on Tibetan Buddhism in the posthumous collection, The Weather in Proust (Duke University Press). “A privileged instance, but not the only one,” Sedgwick writes, “dying is one among a group of states—also including meditation, sleep, and dreams—that are called bardos, gaps or periods in which the possibility of realization is particularly available. Bar in Tibetan means in between, and do means suspended or thrown” (210).