The Mirror in the Well
Micheline Aharonian Marcom
Dalkey Archive, 2009
Reviewed by John Madera
Lust and Found: “Outside of Language and Into Being”
Language is nothing but meanings, and meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts. Such contexts rarely coalesce into images, rarely come to terms. They are transitions, transmutations, the endless radiating of denotation into relation.
—Lyn Hejinian, Introduction to The Language of Inquiry
Language gives structure to awareness. And in doing so it blurs, and perhaps even effaces, the distinction between subject and object, since language is neither, being intermediate between the two.
—Lyn Hejinian, Preface to Writing Is an Aid to Memory.
Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s novella The Mirror in the Well is a wellspring of words, a work as much about sensuality and intimacy as it is about distancing and fragmentation. Her book reveals how profanity and vulgarity, and a throwing of all caution to the wind total surrender to the flesh, may be a portal for redemption and self-awareness, while simultaneously suggesting that this may also lead to uncertainty and loss. According to Henry Miller, no stranger to erotica, “Obscenity is a cleansing process, whereas pornography only adds to the murk.” If The Mirror in the Well is a cleansing, than it is an exorcism. To paraphrase Miller, a true understanding of humanity results in a realization that there are no limits to one’s sublimity and baseness. Miller once asked, “Why are we so full of restraint? Why do we not give in all directions? Is it fear of losing ourselves? Until we do lose ourselves there is no hope of finding ourselves.”
In The Mirror, America is a place where “people live in their self-made tunnels, their eyes covered by cultural mores membranes, like technological steel moles.” The woman’s eyes-wide-open trespassing of and transgression against these cultural membranes toward the place, space, state of mind, state of being where she “knows to what for what she was born,” as well as the hope of meaningful discovery, of finding oneself “without the boundaries of polite American society, without its self-consciousness,” are the driving forces of this character’s quest. But her quest is not without challenges and conflicts. The unnamed protagonist, whose morality is unhinged from puritanical conventions, who surrenders herself to a hedonistic self-gratification, seems to be free of absolutes, but again and again she doubts herself and yearns for another kind of love.
Through oneiric temporal displacements we learn how the main character, a businesswoman unhappy and bored with her lackluster marriage and sex life, begins her new life of infidelity, extreme exploration of her body, and an incantatory arousal of her vast sexual appetites. Beneath all the intensity and vulgarity, however, we find that she simply “listened to a quiet need inside of her that loudly raged for years inside of her,” and also that her journey is not without guilt, grief, doubt, fear, and desperation. In the midst of her escapades she chastises herself for her betrayals, she doubts her own ability to give and receive love. She describes herself at one point as “a sow in her mud (of loneliness) and covers herself in it…” She talks about the “black mottled filth which could be her guilt now, her fear and hoary nightsweats.” At various points in the story she is dissatisfied with, even revolted by, her lover, and describes her life with him as a “dark labyrinth.”
Marcom’s use of the second-person narration in the novella is particularly effective in communicating the main character’s attempts to bring clarity, reason, and perspective on an often euphoric, desultory, decadent, and yes, even sometimes transcendent illicit sexual life. The familiar elements of Marcom’s style, namely streams of thoughts, asides, reveries, and lyricism are present, but in this work her prose reaches such a feverish intensity that the page can barely bear its weight and tension. Marcom’s sentences are not tethered by conventional grammar and syntax; words run on and over, and flow in rushing streams, daring the reader to breathe them in. They’re jammed together through inspired punctuation and explode in breathless heaves. Sometimes elegiac, sometimes mournful, usually melancholic, they veer wildly, careen with lyricism, and cavort with expressionism. Yes, she’s certainly drunk from the rivers of Faulkner, Joyce, and Woolf, but there’s a relentless edginess here that is Marcom’s own. We also find Marcom’s signature use of “mashups” like “out-joy,” “refeels,” “notasked,” “unteaching,” “unsad,” “before-rains water,” etc. Marcom wisely breaks the narrative up into small blocks that allow the reader to rest. I read every break as a kind of reflective caesura from the inundation of the main character’s thoughts and feelings.
There are also intermittent metafictional elements which serve to remind the reader of the artifice of the story, a story that is about sex as an act creation, recreation, and re-creation. During the course of the story, we discover that the woman may in fact be writing this story and we find her struggling to find a language that encapsulates the glories, the vicissitudes, the waves of doubt and despair, the longing, the yearning, the absolute abandon, the contradictions of and in her life. And who is the narrator of the third-person limited chapters? The lover? The husband? Another lover? The one she calls “the writer who writes, the hand which sings, the maker of phrases who makes me?” As past, present, and dreams spill into each other (she dreams of orbiting planets, of thinning pubic hair, her Maman, satyrs, etc.), intersect in innumerable ways, she recognizes that “the language of it is lost to it.” Caught in a whirlpool of conflicting thoughts, emotions, and desires
she begins to read the old books, the possessions by the gods, The Thousand Nights and One Night is by her bedside, to understand, or the devils, how it is that you remade her in your workroom that afternoon in August, carved and cut an ancient woman, your mother, sister and the nymphs on the lintels of old European buildings—the language can hardly say it any longer: but with your cock inside her cunt and you are pushing it in and her orgasm opened a river inside of her and she would like it beyond language you are grunting in her ear, filling her mouth with your tongue, cunt with cock, spittle and urine and a piston inside of its fleshy destiny and she would like to die with you in this moment and to kill you, squeeze the breath from you you ask her to put her hands around your neck as she rides your cock and you ask without asking, place her hands around your neck and press her white blue-veined fingers into your trachea, cut off your breath then your orgasm and your breathing again and you have not died and she rides you longer until she slaps your face comes on your cock, pisses and cries into your shoulder. And when she is feeling sad and melancholic as she often does at her job and on the week-ends with her family, she remembers that eternal moment, returns to you the endlessly in her dreams and then also in her car as she makes the drive south to your workplace and the floor upon which you will fuck her week after week month after month during your affair.
Here we find allusions to the Japanese erotic film “In the Realm of the Senses,” a film depicting a former prostitute and her boss’ bizarre relationship hinged on sexual experimentation, sadomasochistic play, and drinking. The film ends with the woman choking her lover (at his request) to death while making love. She then cuts off his genitals and writes, “Sada and Kichi, now one,” in blood on his chest. A direct reference is made to the film toward the end of the novella.
Struggling to find a language for her experience the woman thinks, “Outside of the words between them breath arrives on the edges of the alphabet…what mysteries lie there? what ecstasy? which god?” Her lover provides one answer as he initiates her into sex as an act of creation and recreation and re-creation. “When you are making her,” she says to him, “when you are a god and she is also a god, the nymph visiting from the other world is pushing out of her mouth and breast. The nymph’s fluids are her own; the nymph’s red and pink lips kiss your mouth sweetly. The girl with the dark hair and eyes and you with your blue blind irises. A snake at the base of the spine unfolds in the dark afternoon in the wood dust and motes.” The lover makes her but not without demands, pressures, and expectations:
But perhaps as you make her you do make her fall in. The girl falls in to love, as if love were, what exactly?, the underground stone palace where the lover has hidden the beloved? the deepest well where the serpent lives? And you expect it, demand it: Stop fucking your husband, you tell her, I can’t bear it (fall in to love with me). She stares at you; she is silent and dark looking in the eyes. I love you, you say, and thrust this inside her like your cock: love me back love me back love me only in this possession.” He teaches her “to love her cunt because the cunt is her center, the cunt is pleasure, the cunt knows and knew him, picked him from a cavalcade of other men.
But there are also moments when she recognizes in their lovemaking the reciprocal act of creation, where she suspects that she too is creator. “Perhaps I made you,” she tells her lover, “I called to you and you arrived.”
Birds return as a motif in this novella. There are robins, blue jays, crows, hummingbirds, a blue heron, etc. Watching hundreds of small grey birds, she wants to travel like them, that she “would like some kind of flight, would like an outside of her ideas, the labyrinth of codes and conduct which keeps her close, inside of a closed circuit.” And her lover “has leaked her soul out onto the air again, like the small pockets of air beneath the bird-grey wings and lifting them, today, outside of the girl’s window and into the sky.” Later, she yearns for “the unmomented moment when the yellow-billed-not-robins, time and outness which is inness, rush out, as if the world and all of her life were limitless and love a tangible flight outside of words and outside of her life as she knew it before…” These birds return again and again as a metaphor of freedom, of release.
She repeatedly makes references to literature as she attempts to make sense of her experiences. Various mythologies and archetypes converge in the novella. In addition to Scheherazade, she likens herself to Leda’s daughter. Tristan and Isolde are exhumed. There are nymphs, satyrs, banshees, dervishes, djinns, cyclops, a minotaur, maenad, gods, and dæmons. And there are various parallels to religions. She describes herself as her lover’s acolyte and imagines him “prostrate at the altar of her sex.” His presence is likened to a sacrificial offering. At times she believes that she is possessed. “She is possessed by a river, or a river god, and she goes down the strong current, follows her emotions like a fish into the waters, she wants to be struck from the water, struck by her husband her lover, by this river dæmon who possesses her and makes her speak in so many tongues.” She describes their connection as a hum as vibrations, where “everything is seeable in its nature, the essences emerge, each man and woman is an icon, an idol…” In bed, where “gods descend,” her lover is “a thousand years old and she is his night and the darkness makes them eternal lovers and everything is right and good and joy moves from her form out into the night skies stars which she doesn’t see in her city and back again as light moves.” This may be a reference to Shiva and the Goddess who made love for thousands of years. In the myth, Agni the fire god was sent to remind them that sex is not only for pleasure, but for procreation as well. Part of the woman’s awakening is the recognition of three or four iconic figures that have shaped her character. The woman sees “her father her school professor her first boyfriend husband and now her lover joins in the company of men in her mind, merges with them into the old one, the god-man.” But as she reflects on them, they seem more like the possessed man who accosted Christ in his travels to the Gergesenes. When Christ asked the man his name, he answered, “We are legion, for we are many.”
In her essay “A Thought Is the Bride of What Thinking,” Lyn Hejinian writes: “Certainty is given to the simple-minded. To know what one thinks under all circumstances, to have definite and final opinions, is a matter of doubt to the ethical intellect. It is matter for doubt. (This doesn’t deprive one of the capacity for making decisions, which come in the thick of things, though maybe arbitrarily.) Toward the end of The Mirror, the question, “How can a book such as this one end?” is asked. While there are numerous insights interspersed throughout the story like this one: “Time is illusory, a construction like a wall or canonical texts—this book lasts forever her orgasm is like this book this phrase this moment when words cannot do anything, all of the vibrations are in the blood then, everything is in her fluids and his,” the woman’s quest remains unresolved and filled with uncertainty. But we do learn that, for at least one time, the woman finds fulfillment when, after making love, “she is happiest than she can ever remember and for the first time in her memory her inner cosmos the dream-lover and her outside life, her white skinned blue-eyed fat bellied lover meet have merged at the top of her skin inside of her sex which is inside outside of her body her mind or the spirit and she has taken communion with him, lost her mind and given her flesh for his, for this, today.”
John Madera lives in New York City. His work has appeared in elimae, Bookslut, New Pages, Open Letters Monthly, The Quarterly Conversation, The Rumpus, and is forthcoming in The Diagram, Little White Poetry Journal, and Underground Voices. You may find him at hitherandthithering waters and editing The Chapbook Review. He sings and plays guitar for Mother Flux.