The Ignited Word
Medusa, Caravaggio, between 1592 and 1600
by Paul Rowe and Daniel Simonds
by Peter Caputo,
Boston, Massachusetts: Pen & Anvil Press, 74 pp.
Peter Caputo’s oneiric imagination divines prose poems capable of warding off the curse of having gazed upon too many shattered mirrors, broken lines. His Muse is Medusa herself: a priestess through whom he both speaks and sees himself unto reflection. The figure of Medusa becomes for Caputo an ultimately respectful lover of the illustriously contained love note that forever requires a complete, ever-present filling up, if adventitiously, of the hyperopic page.
“We never spoke to the open air, where we felt we did not belong,” Caputo writes in “Kafka’s Unburned Books,” the opening piece to Saint Medusa. Much like his literary forebear in Kafka, Caputo’s prose thrives from his precise use of internal dialogue. Often employing parataxis as a method toward a nearly thwarted parataxic of distortion, Caputo creates an anti-monolithic progression unto an immediate proximity to, and for, the enthralled reader of his typeset stone. Consequently, the human eye tends to crumble gladly into his enticing conjunctions; this close proximity is powerfully felt throughout the entirety of Saint Medusa. In that vein, we hope these stories begin to exist to readers as does the insatiability of the wind or the rain, that they remain transferable—as poet George Kalogeris notes in his eye-opening foreword on Caputo’s crafty precision—in their inexorable eloquence, in their “rhythm of the rain” penmanship. His prose transfers to readers “a rain that I seem to know, an ending I’m vaguely familiar with for no good reason.” Such lines exhibit Caputo’s Medusa-like eye for begetting bruised love in the face of an eager to be seen, hand-mirroring stranger. “How do you love someone you don’t know,” Caputo asks, as if through a proxy: both reader and writer complexly dream up a way—a post-mythical mode—through which to achieve this intimacy.
Peter Caputo is Kafka’s “child of sorrow” preparing for syntactic battle, and both writer and reader are better for it. The otherworldly tales of Saint Medusa point to an ultra-emotive epicenter of metastasis where one piece of raw, exhilarating dramatics moves to the next quicker than the reader can apprehend the achieved climaxes of any single clause. Yet, we believe readers return to these gripping passages with the urgency in which they were written, revisiting them like Homer’s scribe; simultaneously stalled and awed by the unfolding story. These numinous narratives are revealed through floodgates only a receptive reader can absorb without feeling the need to repair the porousness of their resplendent, gothic, surfaces. Nonetheless, any attempt to paraphrase these lines would make Medusa cringe back into stone, as Caputo has resurrected her into an ephemeral state of reanimation, worked by the rain, if only for a mischievous moment, with his odic voice. As Georges Olivier might report, he is a tender voyeur of more than his own emotions.
Caputo is an author in touch with the emotionally fertile world of self-reverence. Sentence by sentence, Caputo practices Hart Crane’s need for materials that are “organic and active factors in experience of our common race, time, and belief,” ethereally raising the metaphorical bridge between inward monotony, renewed or lost love, and spiritual enlightenment. His voice is frantically unwavering in its journey across chasmal metaphorical expanses. Although he can see his vision unfolding, he is far from narcissistic about its fruition, moving to the next utterance before the story can reflect too long on its own mega-importation. In “Best Man,” Caputo, somehow recalling Rimbaud in his gestures, “ruling by the motion of your hair,” does not curse pure beauty when it sits in his lap, but rather curses the devil’s beauty; the difference being that he sees himself as beauty’s guest, not Rimbaud’s more Icarian way around. Caputo instead writes to turn the tables in order to “name the Devil’s red, bless the angel’s down, tell the joke from the prayer, the magic show from the magic, marriage rings from gilded caskets.”
Of his reader, Caputo implores: “this [city] you must learn to love,” though it be an “ugly diagonal city,” the desperate chorus of his raw, interlinked, multiverse creations. Caputo writes as if un-slanting, in the Dickinsonian sense, what has been slant, or untrue, for far too long. As if from inside the latter-day ruins of the Theatre of Dionysus, Caputo asks the audience outside, “Who would I become if I told God what I knew,” and proceeds to tell Him, becoming the supreme creator’s heir apparent, somehow still a persona grata.
This narrator of dimensionalities un-removed feels altogether new. With fertile lines such as “how often have I made this trip, dark girl, and so strange to approach this shore with a passenger…” Caputo intuits that God is something that uses “roses” inside “black cotton jackets” in lieu of words, combatting God’s silence via the transmutation of “ivory invitations” to and from the “hardly reliable Devil,” so as to “turn the raucous straight into the silent slant, and blow the world backwards with our quiet.” Caputo propels his readers backwards with the sheer force of his command of language: he waits “till the embers settle and return to the surface at the feet of one lone reader baffled and clearing the ash before his eyes, and with the script on his skin again,” he begins the next terrifying and tender composition of Saint Medusa.
Part III of the collection, entitled “The Ignited Word,” opens with a question: “Who would I become if I told God what I knew,” a line from his story “If I Told,” one of many triumphant pieces of Saint Medusa. With this section, Caputo performs transformative miracles, becoming his own Medusa, turning the fruits of his indelible labor into shifting coral, as aptly noted by George Kalogeris. With the magnificent line, “In the small print of the hidden side of every country’s first summer flower is written the one story no man has put into words,” Caputo opens “The Untouched Secret of the Flowers,” a moving piece packed with lush wordplay and rich themes touching upon the nature of occult inspiration. This pre-confessional tale harkens readers back to the work of Borges and Ducornet. The woman on the beach bearing a secret knowledge embodies the flesh incarnate of Medusa, “although she’s never read a first summer flower, anywhere.” The power of her source of inspiration remains hidden within the corridor of her inner sanctum: the sovereign space of Caputo’s authorial coronation. “I’m a Listener like you and I know the one story crying beneath all the stories spoken or sung or written,” claims the fortuitous sailor whom she meets on the shore. “You’re a Listener, like me, one who knows that all the stories can speak if one story is silent.” The awed Listeners are more gifted than The Tellers here, and Caputo celebrates this quietude of unknowing: the yearning of silent dreamers patiently awaiting songs heard only in the dark currents of their astral clocks.
“Postcard Pony Express” is a dramatic, frantic, and daring work of percussive flash fiction brimming with “dream weavers with no inch for words in dreamless airless rooms.” With broad, expressionistic brush strokes, Caputo paints his suffocated speaker’s claustrophobic plea, pattering on the reader’s windowsill and rapping at the door like a desperate, uninvited guest. “Love me where all is jammed and space and time are dumb and gone,” commands this frustrated speaker. Building towards the work’s conclusion, this grasping voice cries out, “Forget this blood-flood heart, this vexing pulsation, just love these waves we love.” The crescendo we reach is an uncompromising summons for the seemingly impossible, and readers feel that the walls are closing in rapidly throughout this piece, delightfully the nearest Caputo ever comes to stream of consciousness throughout Saint Medusa.
Caputo shifts gears with the unforgettably haunting “Rain.” Here the speaker portends the inevitable return of “storyless sheets of vaguely familiar rain,” contending with these foreboding intimations head-on. Instead of merely speculating on the implications of this rain, nor washing his hands with it, the speaker focuses on the surprise of knowing that death is coming, and in a moment of negative capability, ponders what one can make of the rain through an artistic response. The vague memory of rain is paradoxically self-revealing. This theme recalls, and inverts, Wordsworth’s “Intimations Ode,” gently coaxing readers into a contemplative state of twilight. The results are tearfully enchanting: the speaker wonders what to make of these glimpses of primordial give-and-take, quite gorgeously questioning:
What if I give in to the rain and make it the warm water of a lover’s dream, or the rain on the morning of someone’s birth, or the rain itself dreaming of sunbreak or its unrequited gifts to the earth? What if it rains on my old age, washing me in a cool current to the past, to my youth? Will that do or will the rain simply choose its own terms and context? If I refuse to finish this story will the story finish itself in a virtuoso moonlight performance? When I wake up, if I wake up, what will I find?
The pulse of this passage mimics the cadence of rainfall, the continual return of a sinking feeling that one faces, confronts, and stands up to with dignity. Although the speaker “will sleep now and let it have its way,” the endless cycle of rainfall continuing ad infinitum, it falls on the speaker somehow altered: “same moisture, different alphabet.” We are left with the gut-wrenching, vertiginous notion that this voice has left as irrationally vague a premonition, and impression, on the rain as the rain has left on the speaker. We get the sense that this fatalistic rain is collecting and absorbing the speaker, journeying upwards to the clouds, confoundedly taking with it, and ultimately—like Caputo’s readers—gaining an intimate knowledge of life and death, love and hate.
Caputo takes on a menacing gait with his aptly titled “Spite,” a jagged shard synthesizing moments from the speaker’s past with potentialities for the reader’s future. This fragment forms a purgatorial middle ground where the words of others project a selfhood while self-expression inverts language into an outsider figure beyond the self. Rebellion rumbles through dually subversive lines such as “You laughed and wrote what never my words should,” “I use my lines to disrupt your line,” and “You ruined our silence and diagonals and I will ruin you.” The speaker takes on a different tone for section ii, offering a truce in the face of this hex of violent wordplay. “Let him tell our story,” says this narrator, revealing another aspect of this diamond sided personae. “Spite” ends with a coalescing of ending and beginning:
Once there were two lovers separated by diagonal lines and one man who wished to wed them in story. He loved them and couldn’t break the heart of either one, so he recites their story in his silent head, perhaps to please them both. Something will happen, he doesn’t know what. Crooked lines will collapse, or strengthen. He doesn’t know. He didn’t want, though here it is, the last word.
This bewildered narrator ends the story without knowing whether or not a true mediation of these oppositional forces has taken place, leaving readers with the phantasmal sense of aporia. Readers can’t help but encourage this figure’s doomed attempt at reunification and applaud Caputo for his sense of poetic intrigue. Unlike Perseus who resorted to drastic measures, we believe Caputo is able to “behold and draw again the breath of life,” turning rainfall into ichor, sublimating the blood flowing through reader and writer; ushering the supposedly invulnerable Medusa and—where it’s possible—repairing her chance for sentience, reassigning her once severed head for readers to inspect, and converse with, for better or worse.
“When They All Turn In” combines a myriad of voices, spawning a chorus from an outside realm. We are introduced to “the watcher” of the tale, an uncanny presence as impressionable as an Aeolian harp, conversely moved by, and putting into motion the potent world that he observes. The closing lines to this piece erupt with the expression of forces taught to speak by a master talent:
God help us, for we can no longer tell, we with our green skin and watchful eyes and the fog we feel as tellers, once tellers we think, fast fading into sleeping women and dissolving fallen men and leaves moving to the sound of our tales and redwood violins. We, God help us, can no longer tell, tell the fog we feel as tellers.
Caputo lends voices to the forces within us that know not what they are, or why they are speaking. We feel the courage of stepping forth into the dark, of sprinting through the rain, of entering labyrinthine caverns of antiquity where the forces of inspiration are as terrified as the tellers who know not why they speak. Thus, Caputo, far from “the overrated conjurer,” will keep you returning to the presences of his vatic and prosaic angels, “As if savage men pointed [you] home but [you] wouldn’t go.” Indeed, these tales are told with grace, control, and poignancy up until the close of Saint Medusa. We feel we have crossed the river from the primordial realm without words: we are generously offered a glimpse of the alchemical Ignited Word.
About the Authors:
Paul Rowe is a teaching assistant and graduate student in English Literature at the University of New Hampshire.
Daniel Simonds, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2014, is a graduate student in nonfiction at the University of New Hampshire.