“It was slow work grubbing them up amid the sand,”Henry David Thoreau said of digging lily-roots in The Maine Woods, “and the mosquitoes were all the while feasting on me.”I can’t help but imagine the walker of Walden Pond slapping and cursing and fleeing. “Mosquitoes, black flies, etc., pursued us in mid-channel,” he continues, “and we were glad sometimes to get into violent rapids, for then we escaped them.” The writing is typical Thoreau even if the response is not; the sentence itself is performative, as those pesky bugs drive Thoreau away from his primary topic, never to return to it.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to make sense of the city around me, especially the nonsensical, nonlinear nature of events, whether that’s a ‘light’ rush-hour coupled with a sudden spring-like day or a five-alarm apartment fire sparked by a welder’s torch; an artist painting the crape myrtle trunks blue on the parkway or thieves bashing in car windows night after night along my street. Then things get tricky and hard to put into words—ineffable. This is the impossible task that writers grapple with fairly regularly. How do we get at ‘the beyond’ part of a scene we have just encountered, a conversation we have just had, in words that will do the thing justice?
“Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited. He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat. ‘It’s good to eat something,’ he said, watching them. ‘There’s more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There’s all the rolls in the world in here.’”
—from “A Small, Good Thing” by Raymond Carver