IT IS NO SURPRISE that almost everyone who comments on Lewis Nordan's work refers in some way or another to the "music" of his prose. The titles of his last four books all suggest music of a sort and thus invite such a description-Music of the Swamp, Wolf Whistle, The Sharpshooter Blues, Lightning Song. But it is the writing itself, what Blake Maher calls "the strange and stunning mix of lyric and offbeat language," that most reminds readers of music in Nordan's works (113).
Having grown up listening to Elton John, the Beatles, and other pop singers of the 1960s and '70s, I do not have the competence to make comparisons between Nordan's prose and the rhythms of Elvis Presley, Bessie Smith, or gospel music. I can only say that when I read Lewis Nordan's work I become aware of a rhythm and a music behind the writing, much as Sugar learns of the "under-music" from Al the piano player in "A Hank of Hair, A Piece of Bone." A blues poetic of the sort Albert Murray and others after him have put forth would go a long way to disclosing both the structure and content of Nordan's prose; but that is another paper for another time and another place-and probably another person.
I am interested in Nordan's rhythm and blues, but I want to come at his music from different sort of poetics, one that touches on the thought of a graduate student's dissertation on Shakespeare some thirty years ago. The graduate student's first line of the introduction to his dissertation reads: "To hear the poetry of the last plays of Shakespeare is to hear a music vastly different from that of the earlier work." Later in the introduction, as the writer ponders the effects of sounds in poetry, he writes: "The emotionally persuasive qualities of verbal resemblances seem related less to the actual sounds produced than to the cumulative effect of the sounds, whatever they may be." The grad student is, of course, Lewis Nordan. Although I have not noticed that Nordan has "confessed" to a PhD in any of his interviews, as did Charles Frazier in Newsweek after the success of Cold Mountain, it is fairly well-known that Nordan earned a PhD from Auburn University in 1973 and that he wrote on "Shakespeare's Dramatic Poetry." I thank him, in any case, for not feeling obliged to "confess" to such a degree. It makes my own seem all the more valuable, and it will keep me from feeling obliged, Catholic that I am working and teaching at a Catholic college, to find yet another reason to make a trip to the confessional.
Nordan begins his "novel-in-stories"-Music of the Swamp-with what I take to be an enactment of what he says in his dissertation about sounds in poetry:
The instant Sugar Mecklin opened his eyes on that Sunday morning, he believed that this was a special day and that something new and completely different from anything he had ever known before was about to jump out at him from somewhere unexpected, a willow shade, a beehive, a birds nest, the bream beds in Roebuck Lake, a watermelon patch, the bray of the iceman's mule, the cry of herons in the swamp, he did not know from where, but wherever it came from he believed it would be transforming, it would open up worlds to him that before today had been closed. (3)
What makes this passage work? Aside from an echo of Faulkner's attempt to put all the world into one sentence, and besides a cataloging of the sort Whitman uses in Song of Myself, Nordan employs "verbal resemblances" that lead to a "cumulative effect of sounds" that create the "music" he seeks. In the catalog, for example, the "w" in "willow," resembles the "wh" in "somewhere," finds continuance in the "h" of "hive" and later in that of "heron." The "p" in "unexpected" anticipates the alliteration in "beehive," "bird's nest," "bream beds, and "Roebuck Lake," part of a list that includes another "w" and another "p" in "watermelon patch" before it picks up another "b" in "bray." The long "a" in "bray," moreover, recalls the one in "Lake" and the long "I" in "iceman" points back to the one in "hive." Similarly, the repetition of "m" in "iceman's mule" points forward to the "m" sound in "swamp"-which includes yet another "p" sound-and backward to the "m" in "watermelon." Furthermore, the juxtapositioning of words such as "something" and "anything"; "somewhere," "where," "wherever"; and "closed" and "open" creates a rhythm that leads to the "cumulative effect" of the passage. Nordan's music, in effect, is a prose poetry that enacts the traits he uncovers in the dramatic poetry of Shakespeare.
Nordan tells readers that even before Sugar had awakened on that fate-filled Sunday morning, he had heard mice singing. In a dream he saw himself standing on the shore of Roebuck Lake and its "water . . . was exactly as it was in real life, slick and opaque as a black mirror, with the trees and high clouds reflected perfectly in the surface." In the dream he
walked out to the end of a short pier, the one that in real life he had built, and saw a beautiful creature of some kind, a mermaid maybe, rise up from the water. Her breasts were bare, and she was singing directly to him as she combed her long hair with a comb the color of bone, and in the other hand held a mirror as dark and fathomless as the mirror-surface of Roebuck Lake. (3)
This is a beautifully dense passage. Aside from its own music, which could be parsed out much like the catalog from the opening paragraph of the book, it includes two references to singing-the mice and the mermaid-and two to mirrors, the lake and the mirror the mermaid holds in her hand. The singing is Nordan's language, the music he creates or hopes to create in the writing itself. Sugar sees and hears the mermaid at the end of the pier "that in real life he had built." The pier, which takes him out over the "mirror-like" waters of Roebuck Lake-waters, furthermore, described as "fathomless"-is an image of the book, which in real life Nordan has "built." The singing mermaid who holds the mirror at the end of the pier reinforces this reading because it is the book, too, that sings and holds a mirror up for all who read it.
One of Shakespeare's most famous characters, Hamlet, reminds us that literature is a mirror held up to nature. Hamlet tells the players who are about to enact The Mousetrap that they should not overdo it because such poor acting distracts one from what he calls the "purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure" (3.2.20-24). Just as the mirror-like surface of the lake gives form and pressure to its surroundings-and hides its own depths-the mermaid's singing while holding a mirror suggests Nordan's attempt to create a fathomless music in the book. Because it is a type of mirror, the book promises to reflect the fathomlessness of Sugar Mecklin and whoever cares to hear his story. After all, she is singing "directly to him." The book, in short, seeks to give "form and pressure" to Sugar and to those who venture inside his tale.
When asked in an interview what he believes is the "essence of [his] elemental story," Nordan says the following:
The story I'm telling can be summed up in the very image you just mentioned, the mirror-like water in that lake. . . . When you looked into that water, all you saw was yourself and whatever was behind you, like the trees or the clouds. What I am doing in the elemental story I mean to tell is to have each character face the mirrored water, and before the end of the story be beneath its surface to confront all of its joys and all of its terrors. (Ingram and Ledbetter 75)
Readers are carried along with Nordan's characters to experience the joys and terrors beneath the surface of themselves as reflected in Roebuck Lake.
It needs no ghost from the grave to tell us that the mermaid, like the mirror, is a traditional symbol in literature. The mermaid's song lures and captivates its hearers such that one cannot easily free oneself of its spell. A mermaid's contact with human beings often includes a transformative event-sometimes on the part of the mermaid, as in Hans Christian Andersen's story-or, more often, on the part of the hearer of the mermaid's song, as when one is given the possibility of new life with the help of a mermaid or her song. Shakespeare plays off this tradition in one of his earliest plays, A Comedy of Errors. The Syracusan Antipholus, caught in the home of his lost twin and doubting his own identity, finds himself seduced by the music of his brother's sister-in-law:
Are you a god? Would you create me new?
Transform me then, and to your pow're I'll yield.
But if that I am I, then well I know
Your weeping sister is not wife of mine,
Nor to her bed no homage do I owe:
Far more, far more, to you do I decline.
O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note,
To drown me in thy sister's flood of tears.
Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote;
Spread o'er the silver waves thy golden hairs,
And as a bed, I'll take them, and there lie, . . . (3.2.39-49)
Nordan's reference to the mermaid at the beginning of Music of the Swamp follows this theme of transformation, for Sugar believes that whatever jumps out at him unexpectedly will "be transforming." Of course, what does jump out at him and Sweet Austin as they row through the waters of Roebuck Lake is not a mermaid but a corpse, a "floater." Like the threat of death that pervades Shakespeare's comedy, or any classical comedy, the threat in Nordan's work, though frightening, finds itself transformed by the power of his prose. Joy and terror commingle, and death's presence at the beginning of the book sets the stage for its various appearances throughout the book's remaining stories.
I have suggested elsewhere that this opening story of Music of the Swamp serves much the same function as the overture to an opera (Dupuy 99). It sets forth the themes that will be picked up, varied, and repeated throughout the rest of the work. Nordan's mermaid, who "combed her long hair with a comb the color of bone" finds variations in Dixie Dawn of "The Cabbage Patch Opera," in the refrain of Fortunata Conroy in "The Cellar of Runt Conroy," in Sugar's mother throughout the book, and in his lover in the Epilogue. But perhaps the most notable reincarnation of the figure of the mermaid occurs in "A Hank of Hair, A Piece of Bone," a title which is itself the title of a song that finds a place in the polyphonic opening story.
The title refers both to the description of the mermaid's hair and to her bone-colored comb. More importantly, though, "A Hank of Hair, A Piece of Bone," sings a mermaid's song of transformation. Sugar transforms his father's drunken statement-"The Delta is filled up with death" (Music 53), also a retrieval of the death mentioned in the opening story-into a hero's summons to action. He digs-in the yard, by Roebuck Lake, under his house. But the digging, too, is transformed. It becomes a metaphor for the writer's probing of memory (Dupuy 107). When the digging brings him to his climactic discovery-what he reports as a woman buried in a glass coffin beneath his house (yet another image of death)-Sugar tells us "only what [he] saw, not what [he] know[s] to have been there." And a few paragraphs later, as Sugar the writer reflects on Sugar the boy's experience of this episode, he says that he is "not sure what was real and what [his] mind invented" (Music 61, 63). In short, he acknowledges the transformative power of memory and then memory's transformation into language. The "real" truth of the woman's existence is not as important as its transformation in memory and language, for once Sugar discovers and/or constructs the coffin with the woman inside it, he understands many things: his parents' destructive love, the hopelessness of love, and the rhythm that serves as the undercurrent to all music-the boogie-woogie beat. He even understands plumbing.
This variation of the figure of the mermaid in "A Hank of Hair, A Piece of Bone" also includes a variation on the mirror she holds. For Sugar suggests that the coffin may have been a "glass window into the past or into [his] own troubled heart" (Music 62). The purpose of his digging, something he questions throughout the story, becomes clear. He digs, just as he later writes, because it will provide him his own "form and pressure," a transformation of the formlessness of his troubled youth. The glass coffin, like the mirror, becomes an emblem both of his self-construction and transformation-the story, after all, is a coming of age story-and of the act of writing itself. The writing is a mirror, to be sure, but it is also a window, a vehicle for the exploration, retrieval, and construction of possibilities before unknown both to writer and reader. In his dissertation, Nordan writes that "all persons are possessed of [the] faculty of choosing resemblances. . . . At the center of [our] existence," he continues, "is the need to arrange" ("Shakespeare" 15). Things begin to make sense to Sugar as he patterns-arranges-his story. And, like the mermaid and her mirror, or like the woman in the glass coffin, the pattern is both a reflection and a construction.
At the beginning of his chapter on The Tempest, Nordan writes: "Shakespeare's purpose is to lead his audience at every step to a tragicomic view of the action and, in the overview, especially by means of the poetry, to convince his audience that tragicomedy, in addition to its dramatic importance, carries profound significance as a view of life" ("Shakespeare" 207). It is fitting that Nordan's prose, poetic in its cumulative effect of sound, also leads his audience to a tragicomic view of life. When we read Nordan, we hear the captivating music of the mermaid in the swamp, and in her mirror, we see, like Sugar, the joys and terrors of ourselves transformed by the power of language. In Nordan's works, we have all the tragicomedy Shakespeare ever dreamed of.
But this richly textured book displays even more than all of this. Other parallels to Shakespeare are present. Recall Duke Theseus's words about poets, lunatics, and lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Theseus claims that the three have "such shaping fantasies" they "apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends" (5.1.5-6). All three types are, according to Theseus, "of imagination all compact" (5.1.8). The madman "sees more devils than vast hell can hold," while the lover "sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt" (5.1.9,11). The poet, for his or her part, "Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; / And as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen / Turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing / A local habitation and a name" (5.1.13-17). Theseus, the supposed voice of reason, likens poets to lunatics and lovers because they all see things that rational people possessed of "cool reason" do not see. Poets transform reality into something that rationality cannot support, so Theseus feels obliged to make light of their trade.
And yet, as in so many other parts of Shakespeare's comedic masterpiece, Theseus's supposed voice of authority and reason is undercut by his own words. In a play that includes fairies as part of its plot, the poet who has shaped them and given them "reality"-a local habitation and a name-has the last word. Theseus may think he has the final word on what is real, but Shakespeare suggests that reality really is more varied and diverse than "cool reason ever comprehends." As Hamlet tells Horatio, "There are more things in heaven and earth . . . / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (1.5.165-66). Hamlet suggests that the reality poets "mirror" contains more than reason can comprehend. And as I have argued by means of Music of the Swamp, poets do more than mirror reality. They also transform it. In such transformation, furthermore, poets construct a new reality-or at least a new type of reality. What Theseus says about poets is true-they do take "aery nothing" and give it a place and a name. Sugar, for example, takes the airy nothing of memory and transforms it into language, which when shaped into his book is also a type of airy nothing. Puck, the fairy from A Midsummer Night's Dream who really does have the last word, is himself an airy nothing who says at the end of the play that everything the audience has seen can be viewed as a space in which one can slumber. The play is a dream put on by shadows: "If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended, / That you have but slumb'red here / While these vision did appear. / And this weak and idle theme, / No more yielding but a dream, / Gentles do not reprehend" (5.1.423-29).
Nordan's Music of the Swamp, like Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, is an airy nothing that provides for its author and its readers a local habitation and a name. Shakespeare's play is to a large degree a play about the nature of plays. It reflects on plays even as it exists as-really is-a play. It seeks not only to tell about Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, Helena, Titania, and Oberon and their crooked course of love, but it tells about the telling. It seeks, that is, to name and give a local habitation to the act of storytelling itself. In a similar fashion Nordan's book, which has been made by a "shaping fantasie," reflects not only on the "crooked course" of his parent's destructive love, but also on the reality of telling. Sugar has shaped his past, transformed it into language, so that he might inhabit it. But in his shaping, he also patterns a story about the telling of stories. He names, that is to say, the act of telling a story. The best way to do so, as Shakespeare and Nordan's work suggest, is by means of the transformative power of language in a story. It turns out that "what [is] real" is the same as "what [one's] mind invent[s] " (63). There are more things in the reality of a story than are "dreamt" of in Theseus's philosophy. Poets and storytellers may be like lunatics and lovers, but their "lunacy" derives from their love of the power of language, which transforms airy nothing into shapes that speak. To paraphrase Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream: "Things base and vile, holding no quantity, / Love [in language] can transpose to form and dignity" (1.1.232-33).
Dupuy, Edward J. "Memory, Death, the Delta, and St. Augustine: Autobiography in Lewis Nordan's The [sic] Music of the Swamp. Southern Literary Journal 30.2 (1998): 96-108.
Ingram, Russell, and Mark Ledbetter. "An Interview with Lewis Nordan. Missouri Review 70.1 (1997): 73-89.
Maher, Blake. "An Interview with Lewis Nordan." Southern Quarterly 34.1 (1995): 113-23.
Nordan, Lewis. Music of the Swamp. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 1991.
_____. "Shakespeare's Dramatic Poetry: Its Development (1591-1606) and Its Specialization in Cymbeline and The Tempest." Diss. Auburn University, 1973.
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd Ed. Gen. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton, 1997.
EDWARD J. DUPUY is Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Our Lady of Holy Cross College in New Orleans. He is the author of Autobiography in Walker Percy: Repetition, Recovery, and Redemption (Louisiana State UP, 1996), and his essays and reveiws have appeared in various journals dealing with the literature of the American South and religion and literature.…