An Dantomine Eerly, a novel by J.R.D. Middleton
Dark Coast Press, 2009
“Something was in the house,” remarks the narrator of this poignant and mysterious book, “The poems and letters that were in my hands trembled, then were folded.” The letters comprise a poem, “folded in thirds, knotted with a gold tassel.” If this reminds you if those beautiful volumes of poetry one sometimes finds in used bookstores, volumes of Shelley and Keats and Coleridge and Blake, you would not be far from the mark.
The “something” in the house is the ghost of a murdered woman. A woman the narrator yearns to discover, having had sexual relations with her spirit. Identities are never fully clear in this Gothic tale of romance and sex. The language that provides clues as to their appearance and character shines and shifts with something larger than beings of skin and bone. Its language is a liminal one, haunting the borders of life and death, ideas and reality, with a mournful, incendiary resonance. At the heart of this book is a deep romanticism, a dusky tenuity that thwarts and lures, conceals and reveals, confusing actuality with hallucination in a language that has a peculiar mid-Victorian veneer to it, as if Poe or Hawthorn were lurking in its shadows, or mediums in the author’s ink.
“Every style embodies an epistemological decision,” observed Susan Sontag, “an interpretation of how and what we perceive.” This is especially pertinent to Middleton’s novel. Events, yearnings, appearances, disappearances, everything that occurs in the theatre of this book occurs in a language colored with the hues of high emotion, intuitions, and imaginative surmises, the unfathomable sense of loss, and incompleteness, that Keat’s poetry arouses in us, sometimes amid outbursts of rapture, as if no emotion were possible without its obverse curve.
Middleton’s language is chimerical, but the exterior world it sometimes describes is crass. “The aesthetic crimes of neon-signs and halogen beamed their bath-confessionals from the vacant sides of liquor store lots, gas stations, and, farther up in the distance, the sky-world of highway cross bridges, off ramp dining holes, and worn out truck stops. The hazy illuminations sank dusk into the ground the way pins and roofing nails tack bedsheets to crackhouse windows.” It sounds as if Charles Bukowski had suddenly been possessed by the spirit of Matthew Arnold. As if Dover Beach suddenly became Venice Beach, and the acerbic barfly a quixotic scholar gypsy. As if they could somehow be both, in the same body.
One of the novel’s more seminal events occurs when the narrator is visited by female spirit during the night. Middleton’s prose turns purple with erotic intensity.
“You’re gentle to me,” she whispered, ethereal palms searched their way across my hips. Where do they rest in the moments where I am so taken? I emerged from beneath the blanket of her body which had been tossed on me from above. She crawled upon me and disrobed.
When the moonlight hit in gleaming silver, her back arched, blazoned; a slender line descending down into the center of her wet fire. “That line,” I said aloud. “O, that arched back is where I measure my despair!” It is the breaking back of us all that my hands slid down, along the liquid silver of night. From a distance, the far-off hill which I’ve departed rises, and with it my wish to return. But there she was, knelt above me, taking the fuck-drunk night’s perfumed air in through her open nostrils, … flushing her breasts with the sentiment of her sex and pushing them out into space,… her areolas fluttering and opening up,… budding, bee-ravaged stamens swaying in the fields,… nipples thick and crying for love,… for real teeth marks and red hand prints,… for the abusive cursive of force,… her thighs stung all over with it,… my eyes knifed by her beating tits, her falling chest,… our coming spirit fucks, body thrusts.
The narrator wakes to find the woman gone and his walls covered with poetry. With “black, cursive writing.” The narrator does not remember writing. Nor does the writing appear familiar. “It appeared as if a hundred voices had collided.” “But it was not me, I would never think in such a language, such terms, and I would certainly not scrawl my own tongue all over my own walls…”
And so begins a quest. A quest for the woman, a quest for the identity behind the strange, lunatic poetry, which he refers to as “the Voice within,“ and a quest for the everlasting secrets of the grave. Language, it has been said, always comes to us from elsewhere.
This is not Mickey Spillane. The narrator’s search begins not among mug shots but in the local library. Public registries, historical archives, consensus reports. It leads to the discovery a poet named Dallin, and a house address in the Northeastern Territory of, presumably, Canada. Dallin is, or was, married. His wife’s name was Aìsling. She was a painter. The name is Irish, and of Gaelic origin; it means “dream-vision,” or “vision-poem.” And so the course is set for the rest of the book. But the mystery becomes increasingly violent, murky, and macabre. The conflicts are phantasmal, but there is evidence of real physical suffering. Division between the real and unreal grows puzzling and vague. Underlying the narrator’s quest is an anxiety that his discovery will not be redemptive so much as catastrophic. A presentiment that the author is at once the agent of desolation, its harbinger, and its witness.
What I like best about this book is the notion that our largest adventures, our noblest conflicts, do not occur in the trenches of actual warfare or scaling, with frost-bitten fingers to the tops of Himalayan peaks, but occur within, are conflicts of self and soul, Eros and Thanatos.
“In looking at objects of nature while I am thinking,” observed Coleridge, “as at yonder moon dim-glimmering through the dewy window-pane, I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking for, a symbolical language for something within me that already and forever exists, than observing anything new.”