When I lived in the drained Owens Valley out in California and had the Serengeti in mind, had Beryl Markham in mind, flying in the dark over the heads of elephants, wildebeests, gnu, I decided to learn to fly. I would land my little plane in a river one day, bouncing over the backs of hippos. I would take off in craters, in rutted clearings, unshakeable—unashakeable, I want to say—unassailable, unafraid. My life would be widely punctuated. This was what my flight instructor said, he said: "Flight is hours of pure boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror." Punctuation as fear, as ecstasy. As puncture and disruption. Part of my training was spin recovery. You had to push the controls full forward and let go. I neglected to let go; I turned the plane upside down, and every last little thing in it came falling around our heads. "IT'S MY PLANE," he shouted, "LET GO."
A plane will fly if you just let go. Level out, ease up, fly right. Let. Go.
Punctuation can be the letting go, the deferring to a handy authority. I think as readily of punctuation as the spin and stall, the carburetor icing, the ape in the trees. It is a bore if you use it too lightly, a hazard if you use it too hard.
There are standards, and we can be obedient to them. We can ask punctuation to be of service to meaning, in service of clarification, a hand to hold, a breeze at our backs. Standard punctuation is easy and safe and encouraged. It becomes almost invisible. "It was good enough for Shakespeare," a teacher once told me, "it's good enough for you." Don't be silly, I think he was saying. Don't be a sophomore, or a sheep. Because he loved Bernhard and Beckett, too, their everlasting paragraphs induced by the substance and manner of what they had to say; there is nothing capricious about it. Nothing capricious about Merwin, whose unpunctuated, uncapitalized lines can look like leaves being blown from the page, light and dry and moving. Like wind in the fur of the foxes. These are considered decisions. These are not instances of throwing the controls full forward and neglecting to let go.
It's my plane. Isn't this largely what fiction hopes to be saying? It's my plane. Every good book is an experiment in living. Every good book is an experience of living. Could we call it experiential fiction, and accept the subjectiveness of it as necessary? Could we call it experiential fiction, and accept the irregularity of it, the flux of it, right down to the last dot, as necessary?
I think so. I think we are wise not to neglect our cases—our uppers and our lowers—our line breaks and our paragraph breaks, our periods and our commas, our excesses and our paucities, right down to the last dot. We are right to be afraid, and affectionate. We are right to scrutinize our habits of attention, to police the continuous compromise between the want to be recognizable and the want to be other; between the habitual approach that reduces perception to preperception, the ease of the unambiguous, the smooth ride of meaning, and the contrary cyclic wandery approach that can turn things to static and soup.
It's my plane. To have lift, you have to have motion. Some of this motion is inward. Good. It is inly and subjective; susceptible to wonder. "One of the things that is a very interesting thing to know is how you are feeling inside you to the words that are coming out to be outside of you," said Gertrude Stein.
Sensation and articulation. Submission and will.
Punctuation can guide, and happily misguide. There is profit in both, depending. The absence of the enfeebled comma, for instance, allows for mistakes and divisions of meaning, the conflation of assertion and address. As in: "Don't you ever stop with your thinking long enough ever to have any feeling Jeff Campbell." Not just feeling for others but the embracing of the feeling self. The feeling Jeff Campbell of Stein's Melanctha is Melanctha's momentary triumph: the triumph of a dispersal of attention that a lack of punctuation promotes. An innovative use of punctuation, best guided, I think, by the visceral, works on the reader to relinquish his sorry dull inflexible habits of attention. It invites the reader to see what he didn't mean to see, to become susceptible to the truth of ambiguity. It enacts a perceptual renovation.
If we want the mind to flex, if we want a limbering of association, the unconventional use of punctuation can provide a bodily gusto: it can louden, slow, accelerate, stop. Think of Anne Carson following every word with a period. The words are booming. Think of the colon in Faulkner, how it can emphasize and delineate time; how a semi-colon sustains length and lift, the long breathless drop between full stops. Think of Stein swept free of all of these: colons, semi-colons, commas, exclamation points, question marks, quotation marks. "The question mark is alright," she says, "when it is all alone when it is used as a brand on cattle
She might approve, I would think, of Saunders' work, where the question mark marks not a question but a declaration weirdly inflected. That is Saunders at the helm, punctuation at the service not of clarity but of sound. The affection for sound and sensation can yield a renovated experience of being. Stein again: "A comma by helping you along holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should lead it
commas are servile and they have no life of their own and their use is not a use, it is a way of replacing one's own interest
" Of giving way, is maybe another way to say it, to those habits of attention that obscure alien impressions.
Here is Stein's teacher, William James: "There is an everlasting struggle in every mind between the tendency to keep unchanged, and the tendency to renovate its ideas." Between Dionysus and Apollo, I suppose—no surprise—between promiscuous and conservative impulses, yielding and self-control. Punctuation—deliberately robustly freely used—promotes a copious record of life, an invigorated sense of what is possible. It promotes accidents of meaning far wiser than our muscly intentions, promotes the gaze, the quickened pulse, the exalted feeling we read for.
It is reckless and self-interested. Punctuation is what we are after. It is the orgasm in the plumped-up bed we have puddled in through years of marriage. It is the stop and the acceleration, the frontier crossed over, the belly-up plane. We are flying and we can feel it. Punctuation is when you feel it.