Red Reader #4 : The Perquisites of Intervention by John Maher
In his attic, the writer Matthew Battles perched on a bar of unfinished wood, digging through a box labeled Tchotchkes. In a dream the night before he saw himself doing this, coated in the sawdusted light of afternoon, and watched his left arm pull from it a mysterious black cube. Battles recognized this as the Gnomon, a technomagical device featured in one of his own short stories, and upon waking from the dream he felt the odd shudder he imagined one felt when cupped in the hands of a god. The implications of the appearance of this device in his own dreams were, he had to admit, somewhat terrifying; in his story, the device conquers the minds of almost the entire human race. But he could not resist his curiosity, and ascended the old pine slats of the pull-down ladder that led to the attic.
At the bottom of the box he found the thing, though it was much smaller than he had thought it would be. Looking at it, he realized that it was very little like the apparatus he himself had dreamed up: the sides were a sleek ebony but there was nothing quite mysterious about them, and he felt no aura emanating from the depths of the device. After poking at it for fifteen minutes, he knew that he had no way of discovering for himself the powers of this cube, let alone the purpose behind his dream. He closed up the box and descended the ladder, carefully replacing the ladder and closing the hole in his ceiling. Looking at his watch, he realized that it was long past nine o’clock. He went to the kitchen, brewed himself a pot of coffee, and moved into the study to write, placing the faux-Gnomon to the side of his computer.
About midday, Battles began to notice a profound weariness in his hands. He continued working for another hour until his fingers felt too weighted for him to continue, his limbs so heavy that he could barely drag them from his keyboard. He moved his right hand slowly away from the keyboard, and when the knuckle of his right ring finger brushed slightly against the edge of the faux-Gnomon, he felt the weight quickly lessen. Nervous again about his discovery, Battles grabbed the device and moved to his workshop, where he put the thing under every physical test he could think up: hammer, vice, hacksaw, soldering iron, baseball bat, the heel of his boot. Again, nothing.
Battles ran his finger across the smooth edge of the Gnomon, admiring the craftsmanship despite his frustration. He was startled to find that as he did so, the thing began to heat quickly, soon becoming too hot to touch. Startled, he dropped it quickly, watching in amazement as the edges of the cube glowed a black-blue before slowly fading into a dark blur hovering over the workshop’s unfinished floor.
Sleeved in darkness, socketed to a pulsating elsewhere of dim relevance. The voice was strange, but the words were familiar—they were his own. But where were they—
From your head, Matthew. Where everything comes from.
He jolted and turned, but saw nothing. The voice was a woman’s, though he could not place it.
You don’t believe me? Here—let me help.
He had written frequently of bizarre happenings and apparitions, but seeing one for himself surprised him. The feet appeared first, both sketched from a dim translucent blue. Then the ankles, then, slowly, the rest, until the hologram-like rendering of the dark pleated skirts peaked narrowly at the neck, the head forming itself quickly, and the dark familiar eyes of a slender woman blinked distantly from under her dour and furrowed brow.
Do you know me?
Battles looked blankly for a moment at the too familiar face as realization dawned slowly.
Yes, Matthew. Emily Dickinson. One of three familiar personages you will have the pleasure of engaging in discourse with this evening. I am here to teach you on matters of diction.
Battles spoke then, haltingly: Is—is this some sort of Christmas Carol thing, then?
I suppose it is somewhat like that, yes. Shall I begin?
Excellent. As I said, I am here to teach you of diction.
In that it should be halting and punctuated with dashes?
In that it should be good. Read a line from “The Dogs in the Trees.”
The first, then.
No. The first two.
Right. “The first sighting of dogs in trees were reported not too long after the Fall equinox. Early rumor came in the form of videos shot at arms length and hastily uploaded—grainy, shaky, shot with cock-angled intensity, the palsied depth of field swimming as it sought purchase amidst limbs and leaves.”
“Swimming as it sought purchase amidst limbs and leaves.” The “-st” in “amidst” instead of the standard “amid,” providing that extra sibilance. The repeated long “a” with “grainy,” “shaky,” “-angled.” Your sentence winds like a river, Matthew. Excuse me, I sounded like Emerson there for a second. But it’s very good.
Of course. Let’s try another.
Whichever you prefer. Though I was thinking of “Camera Lucida”—“the frothy state of betwixt-and-between that gave the place its grain: sharp grass and velvet mud, rush of water and crunch of shell, placid exteriors and rough-planked rooms.”
What about it?
In particular? Again, the way you place certain sounds. They reflect the meaning you instill your words with. “Gave the place its grain.” The hard, gulping “g” sounds. “Grain” conjures up some Americana scene, and the graininess of old photos—
Were you even alive for photographs?
Irrelevant. And yes. Regardless, it is excellent. I have given you all I can.
Quiet, Matthew. Do not air your grievances so publicly, like a Frog, nor presume to tell spirits of themselves. “If Aims impel these Astral Ones, the ones allowed to know” are not the visited, but the visitors. Farewell.
The spirit faded into a blue burst of dark and smoke, and the Gnomon-thing glowed again with its bruised light before fading out. Battles looked at the clock, wondering if it was yet the time that the next spirit was due to arrive, then laughed at himself. He returned to his bedroom with the Gnomon and sat down again in the waning afternoon sun—it was later now, almost six o’clock—and again began to write.
A few minutes after the Gnomon again glowed its strange blue-black. Knowing what to expect, Battles carried the thing to his bed and sat on the edge as the image of another writer, equally dear to him, cobbled itself from the wisps of shadow emanating from the odd cube.
I trust Emily acclimated you to this process, Matthew.
As much as one can become acclimated to the spirits of dead authors appearing in one’s bedroom for the purposes of artistic erudition, yes.
Don’t be wise with me, Matthew. We are here to help you.
And how will you help me?
“Though we see the same world, we see it through different eyes. Any help we can give you must be different from that you can give yourselves, and perhaps the value of that help may lie in the fact of that difference.”
Yes, from “The Three Guineas.” But what help, exactly?
I am here to advocate the cascading beauty heralded by the stream-of-consciousness style, the winding curls of the roads of your awareness that bleed ink from pen-tip to page. Read to me from the title story of your new collection. Read to me from “The Sovereignties of Invention.”
Oh, Matthew, is it not obvious? “No, a sip from the stream—”
Ah, right. One moment. Let’s see: “No, a sip from the stream before it’s embodied, that’s the thing—a bugging of the mind, an eavesdropping on the song of the homunculus himself up there in his cranial habitat cool and removed.”
Listen to the way the language reaches out, to how it reacts in whorled ripples to the gentle prodding of your thoughts.
Oh, so, just the concrete stuff.
You describe here exactly what you should seek. Allow your mind to soak the page with itself and with the selves of the others you dream up out of sound and light. Listen to the song of your own mind and let it guide you. Farewell.
Battles watched as the spirit shrank back into the recesses of the Gnomon. It was late now, almost eight o’clock; it was as if time simply shrank in the presence of these apparitions. He went to the kitchen and set a pot of tea on boil but was surprisingly un-hungry, and so settled on a rustic dinner, a hunk of French bread and some gouda. He had just begun to eat when the whole house began to darken to the same charcoaled indigo of the night outside, and yet the lights still appeared to be working. Battles ran to his bedroom to confront the next spirit.
Hurry, Matthew. My time is short—not, of course, because I am limited at all by this object, but because I have no intention of remaining on this plane any longer than I must.
And why must you be here at—wait, are you Lorine Niedecker?
Yes, but you knew that. Why do you act surprised?
Virginia, Emily—they seem sort of obvious choices, right? I mean, as influences, and as the Virgil to my Dante sort of thing we’ve clearly got going here.
And I am not?
Well, of course you are, it’s just—
It’s just what?
Never mind. Carry on.
Good. Now that you’ve finished squandering my time, I can teach you about the value of the object.
As in Objectivism?
As in the Gnomon, or the pill that changes time, or the camera that, when in a certain place, can capture a picture of something not there, and yet present.
What about them?
An object in fiction and a work of fiction itself are equal, in a way. They are both invented—they are madethings. And they both allow us to view the world with clarity and honesty, with sincerity and accuracy.
Do not curdle this wisdom and change it to something else, Matthew. See your works and know what they do. See the work within your work and know what it does.
And what does it do?
It exists. The power of the Gnomon, of the pills and camera and dogs in trees, of the “lumberyard of the world,” is in its existence, in the existence of ideas. And you have been chosen to see and to craft them—to bear witness to them, and to release them. This, Matthew, is true sovereignty of invention.
The spirit vanished, and suddenly the room filled with light, a warm milky misted light that coated and soothed. It emanating from the Gnomon, which now glowed the palest of blues. Battles stood in his kitchen and felt the ground beneath him crumble, watched the walls around him disappear into the haze. He saw shapes appear in the swirls of light. Trees grew and bloomed in minutes—“limbs grow upward into wild air”—and dogs blossomed from the buds. A unicorn ambled slowly past, nudging at his thigh. He heard the snapping of cameras, the clicking of typewriters, the sibilant mumble of waves lapping against a shore. Tiny stars appeared in various shades of blue and circled around him. When he closed his eyes, he could see into himself.
Above the Gnomon, a figure took form, tall and cloaked in the whiteness of the room. Battles saw her face and yet could not see it. The face was a reflection of the three who had visited him, and yet nothing like any face he had ever seen—silvered, pixelated, constantly shifting. And she opened her mouth and all the sound around him stopped, the room and world catapulted into a silence fuller than any he had ever experienced, as if his ears had been taken from him, never to return. His mind and hers were one, then, and he knew her as the Archon.
And when the Archon spoke, still he heard nothing, yet the words came flowing into him, words that meant nothing, that were nothing, neither sentence nor paragraph nor story nor argument. And yet there they were within him, and they were everything: TREE EPOCHAL MAGIC BRANCHING; CANINE AESTHETICISM GRAIL. STORY/MORAL GATEWAY INTO ANGELIC OF SPARK SPACE/TIME, THE WORLD SWIRLING AND CONSCIOUSNESS IS—
It continued for a time he could never measure with words vaster and more weighty than he could ever repeat. The world about him stopped as she spoke, and her words flowed through him, filled veins and arteries no doctor could ever find. His eyes glowed blue with hers, though he could not see it, and into his awestruck open mouth Truth crept and slipped and they became one. And the Archon closed her mouth and smiled, and it was enough.
Battles looked at his feet at the quiet Gnomon, sitting in a final inanimacy upon his restored oak floor. He looked around himself, saw his typewriter and bed with the cool grey sheets. He heard the fan whirring on his desk and the floor creak beneath him. Everything the same and yet his world was new—he would ever be in awe. He picked up the Gnomon and placed the thing in his desk corner, somehow knowing that no further spirits would trouble or inspire him. He looked down at his feet, then around him again, then at his typewriter, and laughed. He could not write yet, no—too much life to see, to allow to seep deeply into his self. And he left his house then, Matthew Battles, running down the street and around the corner and down the path through the cemetery, lungs humming, mind whirring.
Mr. Maher was asked to explore Matthew Battles use of poetic phrasing and lyrical language. Initial attempts were rather staid affairs, essays almost clinical in their precision and dry in their analysis. Inspiration (Archonic?) finally took hold and this story is a result: a fascinating readerly connection with the text .A conversation of poets, all of which were declared as influences via email by Mr. Battles.
- Red Lemonade Team
John H. Maher is a Pittsburgh, PA-born poet and writer and recent graduate of Skidmore College, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in both English and history. He is the recent recipient of the Frances Steloff Poetry Prize, and his poems have been acclaimed by poet Mark Wunderlich as “Sharp, short, and striking, notable for their control and their certainty. I admire the endings of the poems in particular, with their modest flourishes, their brandished daggers.” He is an Eagle Scout, a studied amateur musician—voice, bassoon, saxophone—and a devoutly lapsed Catholic. His work has been featured in The Midwest Coast Review, Magnapoets, and The Adirondack Review. He currently lives in Rockville Centre, NY.