Allison Carter’s book of experimental prose isn’t, as Danielle Dutton suggests in the introduction to the slender volume, “a kind of writing that gets called ‘cross-genre’ because it pulls all the best aspects from poetry and all the best aspects from fiction.” A Fixed, Formal Arrangement is far beyond that in its originality of thought and image as to feel like a new genre altogether; something like a planet and a star colliding, fusing a third heavenly body in the process. No longer a star and a planet, they orbit away – a wondrously altered thing.
Carter’s book is divided into two parts: “In Your Spare Time” and “Garages.” The first section deals in concise and densely-packed blocks of print. At first, the pieces can seem overwhelming: novel syntax, alacrity of ideas, absolute sparseness, and undefined endings (often the last line punctuates in a comma, waving the reader on to the next piece). Very quickly, however, the reader settles into the cadence of the work, the syntax lending clarity to the Stein-like momentum of the lines, the surprise bursts of language and impromptu dialogue assigning immense pleasure to the reading.
The pieces of “In Your Spare Time” often take the form of sleep, dream, pre-dawn moments and the everydayness of interacting with a husband. Proving herself (over and over again) a champion of language, Carter conveys the speaker’s depth of attachment to her husband as, “feeling like somebody who is loved, romantically, loving pluots, buying two pluots, making a point of buying two of everything, one for husband, one for you, reserving private basement space in your enflamed cardiac mansion for the absent third pluot.” The sentiment in these lines is overwhelming: feeling wanted, romanced, but also in loving pluots (a plum-apricot hybrid), she is moved to buy one for her husband; maybe she spent the rest of the day shopping so she could bask in the delicious newness of buying two of everything. Then there is the tremendous language her words fire into at the end of the line – reserving space in her husband’s “enflamed cardiac mansion” for the smoldering happiness of a possible third pluot. It’s a spectacular fusion of intense emotion with the everyday details of a life.
“Recurring Dream” is a strong example of Carter’s ability to seize a seemingly mundane moment and infuse it with new life and intrigue:
“What about you,” asks a colleague, a man I know, after all, from work, “What do you do for a living,” as if we weren’t on the stoop outside the office, the weather having disappeared, “I mean, do you know what you want to do,” inversion through our eye sockets, he sneezes, blank space comes out, some gets on me, “I mean, for a job,”
Her description of the weather as “disappearing” and the “blank space” expelled from a sneeze are as delightful as they are exacting. Carter’s syntax is a landscape of hills and valleys, the caesuras lending the same conversational fluctuations to the speaker’s thoughts as they do to the colleague’s speech. The dialogue is refreshingly frank and real, and at the same time, a little faraway. Slowing the moment down to the frame-by-frame of dream-speed, Carter pinpoints one glimmering atom in the universe of our daily lives; this, as if to say: there is majesty even in somnolence.
The latter section of the book, “Garages,” is far and away my favorite part of the collection. In the mesmerizing tradition of the French philosopher Georges Perec, Carter’s driving questions revolve around types of “space.” How do we approach them? Inside. Outside. Mind-space. Heart-space. Empty. Full. The garage poems range from the very private happenings in a domestic garage: playing with her brother, a fear of driving (near-inability to leave the garage), making love, the irreversible death of a puppy, to the external thoughts on public spaces.
In an untitled fragment, seemingly one of two “after-thoughts” on the poem titled, “Garage Apartment #6,” Carter plays at what it’s like to navigate through a garage by outlining its opposites: “Moving through a garage is not like moving through a traffic pattern not like fishbowls / parade, kitchens / trunks or a map of USA, bellies or feet, graduation ceremonies, a million things similarly looking, or a ladder.”
What is a garage, exactly? Perec asserts that we define space by its utility: a coat closet exists to hold coats, and a kitchen for us to prepare food. Therefore a garage is a place where we shelter cars or store miscellaneous items. In some instances, however, the speaker in the garage poems parks her car on the street and removes nearly every box from its confines. Released from any defining characteristics, the garage becomes a blank space filled with the speaker’s painting, and a conduit for memories of childhood, adolescence and fantasy.
In “Public Garage #1,” the speaker attempts to explain her ideas of the shape and ways of space, but it becomes too much for the other person, and she slips away – into new space, an “edge” to the garage brightening off to the north:
In this garage I parked the car to tell her about the shape of space. Across the car was an easy foot of space. I parked the car to demonstrate one or two items in the concept of the shape of space. I sat with her across from a heavy mountain with a heavy heart. The shape of space is a heavy concept to teach…I parked the car to tell her about the shape of the car.
The speaker begins with the shape of space: how space can be defined for use, as in a parking space. Between the two people exists an easy cushion of space, a calmness. Then she begins to talk about the heaviness within her own heart-space; it’s difficult what she needs to tell the other person. She’s pulled the car into a parking spot so that the space itself can reveal something about the car; that their sharing heart-space teaches them something about themselves.
I told her, “I am teaching you the relationship between science and alchemy.” I am teaching you a lesson about empty spaces…” It was too late. She had a quick slide. A falling body is both heavy and consistent. This is a metaphor for science. The heavy mountain glowed like an icon in the shape of the northernmost horizon. The edge of the garage was bright.
The speaker attempts to explain the differences between defined concepts (science) and the enchantment or transformative powers of alchemy. Their relationship has become a science, and what the other person truly learns about is loss, or empty space. All at once, dropped from the speaker’s heart-space, the person’s fall is irreversible. The speaker is given to stare into the belly of a heavy mountain, while the reader is left to wonder at the edge of the garage, a brightness signifying unexplored spaces.
The poems in A Fixed, Formal Arrangement read as though one stares directly into the thought-center of the writer’s brain: experiencing every image, emotion and idea with the effortlessness of pure thought. One could lose themselves in the book for a whole afternoon or a day without looking up, the polished and immaculate writing a huge payoff for their investment.