Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine
Stanley G. Crawford
Dalkey Archive, 2009
Reviewed by John Madera
Message in a Bottle: Stanley G. Crawford’s Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine
Regarding Stanley G. Crawford’s Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine, one could begin by saying it’s an incredibly bizarre tale of two mariners adrift for decades on a sea barge documented in log entries begun after one of the mariners sees the other commit suicide. One could marvel at how the characters travel on what amounts to a floating landfill from which they grow a dense forest, home to hundreds of birds, and how Unguentine, in a fit of inspired madness, destroys this Edenic garden and replaces it with an artificial one made with painted planks, pulleys, levers, and other assorted contraptions. One could comment on the mysterious, disturbing, oneiric, and sometimes surreal relationship between Unguentine and his wife, how they live without a word spoken between them for years. With the narrative’s numerous references to fertility, harvest, growth, and rebirth, a tidy parable can probably be teased out from it. You could also talk about how it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world and how it celebrates iconoclasm, individualism, etc. But none of this really gets at how this story comes together.
Rick Moody could have been describing Stanley G. Crawford when he wrote “It’s all about the sentences. It’s about the way the sentences move in the paragraphs. It’s about rhythm. It’s about the way emotion, in difficult circumstances, gets captured in language. It’s about instants of consciousness. It’s about besieged consciousness. It’s about love trouble. It’s about death. It’s about suicide. It’s about the body. It’s about skepticism. It’s against sentimentality. It’s against cheap sentiment. It’s about regret. It’s about survival. It’s about sentences used to enact and defend survival.” But whereas Amy Hempel relies on space, concision, brevity, Crawford’s effusive lyricism—his rolling, spiraling cadences, its alternating plaintive and plangent sentences—is really what this whole novel is about.
Have you ever “peeled” a baseball, removed its cowhide covering? I did once and found tightly-wound string wrapped around a cork and rubber sphere. Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine is like that. There are strings and strings of words here. The language is so compact and dense that you wonder how it doesn’t unravel itself from the pressure, from its sheer intensity. Take for instance Mrs. Unguentine’s description of their vessel. It
was a barge, a barge such as is used to tow garbage out to sea with. It was the only way I would go out to sea again, I said. We got the thing for a song, garbage and all, rot, stink, and a flock of squabbling seagulls. We had the garbage covered with earth and planted trees and flowers, and there was a great canvas with brass fittings to cover it all up from the wind and the waves, and thus we set sail upon a course that kept us to temperate zones, for the sake of my plants. And many times we were halted by hostile navies who had never seen such a sight; once we were claimed by an impoverished government which sought an island cheap by virtue of confiscation. While I watered my plants, Unguentine drank. On some equator or other I added dogs and a cat who ate fish and provided fecal matter for my garden which came to flourish to such a degree that it grew impenetrable in places, while vine-reinforced leafy boughs overhung virtually the whole barge and we could go on for days on end without seeing each other, amused at our respective ends by visitations of uncanny birds.
Passages like these are set within even larger unbroken paragraphs and move like massive ice floes that slowly make its way somewhere across the earth’s surface. The log begins tentatively with several terse and almost stoic entries about their life, but they slowly develop into ravishing passages. At various points Mrs. Unguentine makes brief references to their destroyed world, a world of continual foul weather, brown fogs over cities, “land, that shambles, was a sorry surface unfit for the conduct of anything but a harrowing traffic.” But we’re given nothing more than that. Her thoughts are reserved strictly for their life on the barge, her husband’s many eccentricities, her thoughtful insights into the absurd dynamics of their relationship and communication. As the novel developed, I felt thoroughly inundated by the commanding waves of language, language full of desire, empathy, fascination, grief, and rapture. Even the simplest of things, like descriptions of daily routines, are suffused with lyricism. Mrs. Unguentine after marveling at the geodesic dome they had recently built on their barge relates how they “always rose early and ate just before sunrise in the mists like mildew on the surface of the sea, on colourless waters, on waters lightly tinted blue or pink, or sometimes yellow, calm waters flecked here and there with blue leaves and silver lips where a breeze would drive a ripple up. Several hundred yards out, that white line of foam which marked the border between fresh water and salt, for the vegetation of our barge generated so much fresh water that we were perpetually ringed by a sort of inner tube of it, a lake floating in the sea, over seventy feet deep, and where swam hundreds of carp-like descendants of goldfish that once lived in our fish-ponds, also minnows, guppies, angelfish, bluegills.” These are Melvillean cascades by way of Anne Michaels. But there’s also the list upon lists of Whitman, the rolling, rolling, rolling on the river of Twain, and the dark clouds forever on the horizon of Faulkner.
Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine demands total surrender. And there are so many gripping sentences that beg to be read aloud. Like these for instance, from the novel’s concluding paragraph where Mrs. Unguentine lays alone suffering from delusions on their deteriorating ship:
I submitted to fantasies of pregnancy, some comfort in my lethargy and waiting, of an elderly childbirth upon one of Unguentine’s old sperm which till now had lain dormant within my body like a grain entombed, to burst into germination long after all the old walls had fallen. And when the pains finally grew sharp I thought that death should come like that, like childbirth, into the birth of silence and no light—and I stood up one last time and pushed the curtains apart to have a glimpse across the gardens, my fence, to the waves upon waves of velvet green beyond. I fell then. Someone screamed, I heard sobs, I heard coughing; suddenly I wanted to sleep. But the light from the window was too bright. When I raised my head from the floor, my mouth agape and some strange noise lowly pouring from it, I looked across my huge stomach heaving with contractions and thought to see Unguentine flow slowly out from between my legs and crowd my knees, or a somewhat dwarfish version of him, yet with the white beard, the flowing white hair. He was crouching now, I saw his eyes blink open, I saw a smile flash across his damp face the instant before his features went rigid and he toppled over backwards with a heavy thud. I could no longer raise my head, see where he was; yet I knew now he had come back to me only to die, was dead, to smile only, no more. A rivulet of my blood was soon flowing across the floor in pursuit of him. Soon myself, my body. Thus I joined him.
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.