Music, Mirrors, and Mermaids: Shakespeare and the Transformative Power of Language in Lewis Nordan's Music of the Swamp

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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. …