Reviews, Vol. 2.3, Sept. 2008
Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2008
Paperback, 132 pp., $12
Review by Cynthia Reeser
Nylund is a practitioner, or perhaps an inventor, of sarcography, the act of understanding the world through its surfaces. “Sarcography” breaks down literally to mean “flesh writing,” and in Nylund the Sarcographer, a petite but loaded volume by Joyelle McSweeney from Tarpaulin Sky Press, the term is somewhat expanded to include rain, reading, one’s children or the idea of them, the senses, possibly more. McSweeney does not so much marry poetic with prosaic language in semi-fabulist form as bring it together in a collision.
The ordinary often devolves into the obscure, reaching from solid description outward into sentences that take on a mind of their own. Nylund’s mind, too, is susceptible to such effects—the mind, after all, exists as something to be written upon. He feels “his mind itself stretch and bend in sarcography.” The writing dips into obscurity and deliberate misspellings, only to arc up unexpectedly and peak into areas of concrete, more readily accessible narrative. The first chapter, “I’m a Lug,” begins, or perhaps simply continues, “What else could I be as I walked down the street but a sarcographer of raining. I had to build a cask around it, built like itself.”
As Nylund narrates what is supposed to be the story of his involvement in a murder plot and a situation involving his missing twin sister, his sarcographic nature leads him to envelop scene, setting and narrative into his own mind’s scripting. It may come as no shocking conclusion that his mind seems split. Dualities abound: in the language, where it fuses boundaries of poetry and prose; in his idea of selfhood, represented by his twin sister Daisy; and the twin-ness inherent in his thinking (“If only we could twin our behavior to oppositely arrive.”) Twinhood, it seems, sparks Nylund’s designation as a sarcographer; where there is twinning, there is by definition a split, duplication or division, which for Nylund, manifests in instances of paraphasia, or substitution of one word for another (the “name” of the neck instead of the “nape,” in one of several instances).
Similarly, Nylund’s perceptions are inverted. People, things, are expelled or extruded, rather than leaving or exiting (buildings, cars) of their own free will. An egg does not break, but rather, “The yolk exerts itself outwards.” Empty spaces and negatives are everywhere, a concept that appears to be inherent within the nature of sarcography, one of its prerequisites. Spaces are necessary for holding things within it, for acting as a shield or form for objects outside it. One example is interesting both for the poetic leaps it makes as well as for its implications of how sarcography applies to the self, and to duplicates and copies of the flesh:
The network, the extended family. He was winging away from them on the burst blades of a helicopter. He was cruising into them with his grown sons in tow, and with his ungrown sons, and with his children coiled in his belly. […] He lowed. He had his children in his mouth. His voice came out around them and there was a space for them in it shaped like themselves.
Joyelle McSweeney has not only created a unique concept—that of sarcography—she has illustrated it memorably with her redefinition of what can constitute prose. Nylund, as a character, becomes a sort of embodiment of writing, which is an extension of the self, in a sense, like a child can be—something deriving from a self that is given form and space, that takes up a space for all other matter to work around and interact with, something to be contained.