William H. Gass is an eminent theorist and practitioner of postmodern metafiction, self-reflexive, performative fictions that emphasize the writing process itself by directing the reader’s attention to the author’s shaping presence in the showy deployment of literary strategies and conventions. But “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is perhaps more indebted to the older tradition of the prose poem for its relatively plotless alternations of preoccupation and mood and its intricate pattern of recurring verbal phrases and imagery (eyes, windows, wings, wires, worms, flies, flying, and spilling—all of which are implicated in a sustained dialectic of the prepositions beyond and in). A monologic narration, it has the sketchy, notational structure of a poet’s daybook, and it might seem a hodgepodge of lyrical reveries; aphoristic, even gnomic, maxims about love and loss; and more prosaic quasi-ethnographic comments on a deteriorating small Indiana community where the narrator, a poet, spent his happy boyhood and youth and to which he has returned in order to recover emotional and artistic virility.
Feeling “spilled, bewildered, quite mislaid,” the narrator adjures, “I must pull myself together . . . there is nothing left of me but mouth” (202). He feels “bereft” with multiple, interrelated losses: of love, family, job, youth, health, self-respect, and sense of vocational purpose or inspiration (“wings withering . . . I’ve fallen” 179). His ostensibly jotted, but often lapidarian, notes seem intended as a vehicle of recovery, being addressed both to himself and to a lost lover who is also in some sense his lost best self—the boy in him. “In retirement from love,” he claims, “the fool’s position of having love left over which I’d like to lose” and asks scornfully, “What good is it now to me” (173). He also mocks poetry as lying and derides the objects of its rhetorical inflation. Thus “Childhood is a lie of poetry” (205) and his lost beloved a “fiction,” a mere literary trope (179). And yet he cannot resist repeatedly evoking the “perpetual summer” of his love affair in terms of a literary child, Huckleberry Finn: “I dreamed my lips would drift down your back like a skiff on a river” (179); “we are adrift on a raft; your back is our river” (188). He knows he must restrain his poet’s predilection for hyperbole, “another lie of poetry” (202). Realizing that he is too prone to poetic posturing and embellishing even the minutest details, he tells himself, “I must stop making up things. I must give myself to life; let it mold me,” rather than vice versa. Yet he also realizes in his self-conscious pride as an intellectual that such platitudes are “what they say in Wisdom’s Monthly Digest every day” (187). Poetry is archaic, perpetrating and perpetuating myths that belie contemporary reality. For example, the Nature it extols hardly exists and no longer matters as a standard by which to evaluate human endeavor, superseded, even among farmers, by machinery, chemistry, and accounting (194). Poetic images are but cenotaphs on emotions, “stones . . . memorials” laid over the things in themselves; the “wild flood of words” that bursts from the dam of loneliness cannot adequately apprehend the world as it is: “Beneath this sea lies sea” (179, 195).
The inadequacies of poetry and the deceits of poets partially explain why some of the narrator’s descriptive observations seem projections of his inner state, as when he calls telephone wires “where sparrows sit like fists” (190). These wires “offend” because they fence off the landscape, “enclosing the crows,” yet not feeling free himself and resenting what escapes him, he resents “all the beyond birds” (174). That said, the narrator’s own acutely felt condition also heightens fellow feeling, giving him empathetic intimations of the human condition he shares with his neighbors, Billy Holsclaw and Mrs. Desmond. This conflation of projection and empathetic feeling-into is exemplified by the way he describes dilapidated, decaying houses as reflections of the afflicted condition of their inmates: “These houses are now dying like the bereaved who inhabit them; they are slowly losing their senses,” becoming blind, decrepit, and insecure (181). The ubiquity of this imagery confesses the narrator’s obsessive preoccupation with a debilitated and rehabilitated willingness to see: “Our eyes have been driven in like the eyes of the old men. And there’s no one to have mercy on us” (176). (It should also be noted that he endorses an early 19th-century account of smalltown Indiana that indicts the “wormish blindness” of its inhabitants ). The narrator acknowledges that there is “no way of knowing . . . whether [Billy is] as vacant and barren and loveless as the rest of us are—here in the heart of the heart of the country” (180). But Billy seems to return to his attention as a dark alter ego and portent: “His house and his body are dying together,” and, suffering from glaucoma, “His windows are boarded” (200–201). The writer’s, perhaps any writer’s, ambivalence—a combination of compassionate sensitivity and exploitative desire to make use—can be heard in his annotation: “I’m not sure what his presence means to me . . . or to anyone. Nevertheless, I keep wondering whether given time, I might not someday find a figure in our language which would serve him faithfully, and furnish his poverty and loneliness richly out” (190).
Both Billy and Mrs. Desmond are in their loneliness greedy talkers, just as the narrator is in his journal. Mrs. Desmond, a habitually fretful “life-deaf old lady,” reminisces compulsively in an unsuccessful attempt to draw down the shade and fence off an equally compulsive awareness of death lurking in time. It is noteworthy that Mrs. Desmond is disturbed by Mr. Tick, the poet’s cat. Much like the poet Christopher Smart’s cat Jeoffrey (in Jubilate Agno), Mr. Tick is, in his electric mobility, an embodiment of poetry as it might be, “his long tail rhyming with his paws” (183). His strong, practical application of his tongue is implicitly contrasted to the poet’s stymied and impotent use of his own (185). More fundamentally, Mr. Tick is the very embodiment of living in—a mode of being undisturbed by the superfluity of consciousness. Thus, the narrator addresses him with a mixture of praise and lament: “You are alive, alive exactly, and it means nothing to you—much to me. . . . You are a cat so easily. Your nature is not something you must rise to. You, not I, live in: in house, in skin, in shrubbery” (184). This complete occupation of one’s being—famously celebrated in and exemplified by the late poetry of Rainer Marie Rilke, whom Gass has translated and sympathetically analyzed—seems the goal of the narrator’s life project: “That is poetry: to bring within about, to change” (197). This is the significance of the narrator’s reference to “my house, this place and body, I’ve come in mourning to be born in” (179). His observations trigger reminiscences that in turn heighten his perceptions so that present and past conflate. He begins to occupy the past in the present, asserting, somewhat hopefully, “I am learning to restore myself, my house, my body, by paying court to gardens, cats,” and other aspects of everyday life (183). Momentarily recovering lost modes of being and feeling states, he realizes, “This country takes me over in the way I occupy myself when I am well . . . completely—to the edge of both my house and body” (179). On such occasions he feels, “I’ve lost my years . . . as though I were living at last in my eyes, as I have always dreamed of doing” (173).
It is within the terms of the narrator’s preoccupation with the way looking may or may not promote being that his persistent evocations of windows must be understood. These are his parameters: “the world beyond my window, me in front of my reflection, above this page, my shade” (i.e., the pall cast by selfawareness, generally, and, more particularly, by awareness that he is dead in the spirit). Scrutiny blurs into uncanny directives: “And my blear floats out to visible against the glass, befog its country and bespill myself” (195). Windows are many things to the narrator. They are ambiguous symbols of passive, promiscuous receptivity: “What do the sightless windows see, I wonder, when the sun throws a passerby against them?” (189). In this sense they are extensions of his eyes inasmuch as they too “see what blunders into them . . . I’m empty or I’m full . . . depending; and I cannot choose” (182). And, in keeping with the poetic convention that eyes are the windows to the soul, he avers, “My window is a grave, and all that lies within it’s dead” (195). Yet windows can also be wings when they become vehicles for transcending the petty cares and inadequacies of a petty self through acts of dynamized attention. This is because movement—the leaves that “move in the glass” (175), the transports of the gaze—constitutes the essence of being that has been liberated and redeemed: “Let out like Mr. Tick, my eyes sink in the shrubbery. I am not here: I’ve passed the glass . . . flown by branches” (183). However, in the deceptive transparency that offers the mirage of vistas, “bewitching windows” can also be barriers that protectively shut the narrator in by shutting life out (179). The narrator captures this conflation of promise and delusion, this dialectic of connection and divorcement, in the enigmatic remark “We meet on this window, the world and I, inelegantly, swimmers of the glass; and swung wrong way round to one another, the world seems in” (196). All of these shifting meanings are implicit in the ambivalence that characterizes the narrator’s claim that even as a child, “after the manner approved by Plato, I had intercourse by eye” (202).
Contemplating how he had gone wrong, the narrator indicates, through a pun that turns mouth into genital, that misdirected energy has led to his present impotence: “It’s there where I fail—at the roots of my experience” (202). Elsewhere he deploys more explicitly visceral images. He castigates the arrogant ambition and vindictive pettiness that drove him to use writing to raise himself above others so that “when I shit I won’t miss anybody” (189). He even describes poetry itself as a mode of excretion. Neither poets nor teachers are true lovers, he suggests, because their verbal paeans displace the pulsations of being like those who “faucet-off while pissing heartily to preach upon the force and fullness of that stream, or pause from vomiting to praise the purity and passion of their puke” (175). He mocks his former posturing, self-deluded aspiration to be “a [poet] of the spiritual,” evidently having recognized that “poetry, like love, is—in and out—a physical caress. I can’t tolerate any more of my sophistries about spirit, mind, and breath. Body equals being” (202). And yet the compulsive palaver of the poet proceeds apace despite the fact that status as a lover, as must other aspects of merely bodily being, must die away, leaving “love-ill fools like me lying alongside the last bone of their former selves, as full of spirit and speech, nonetheless” (201). He concludes that pastiche of decadent romantic declamation with the morose assertion that “though my inner organs were devoured long ago, the worm which swallowed down my parts still throbs and glows like a crystal palace”—by which he seems to mean “the endless worm of words I’ve written, a hundred million emissions” in a lifetime of spilled, masturbatory “spew” (201).
But the narrator’s notes emerge from the heart of the heart of the country, not from a Dostoevskian underground, and therefore the images of worms and flies that swarm the penultimate section of his journal are ultimately not pestiferous. The narrator’s description of infestation is virtually a parable in which an Edenic fullness of being is momentarily retrieved as a consequence of untenable innocence. Amid his apple and pear trees, the narrator discovers with horror the “falls” of fruit. He recognizes that “the worms had them all” because aesthetic preoccupations led him to overlook the need for practical vigilance; he had “acclaimed the blossoms” but had failed to spray them (202–203). He begins to “gather remains” as if to pull himself together, and this in turn returns him via childhood memories of swatting flies to a “small Dakota town I knew as a kid; knew as I dreamed I’d know your body, as I’ve known nothing, before or since; knew as the flies knew, in the honest, unchaste sense” (203). The pure carnality of their mode of being appeals to him; such “flies have always impressed me; they are so persistently alive” (203). They become figures for the actualized authentic poet living in, at home in, the contingency of things: “Inside, they fed. . . . apples like a hive for them” (204). Coating his juicedrenched hands with their dynamic presence, flies and beetles give him “indifferently complete” caresses that “despite my distaste” left “my arm . . . never . . . more alive” (204–205).
It is useful to compare the poet’s metaphorical description of insects “explosively ris[ing], like monads . . . windowless, certainly, with respect to one another, sugar their harmony” (205) and his subsequent description of “neighbors” at a basketball game “joining in to form a single pulsing ululation—a cry of the whole community” as “each body becomes the bodies beside it, pressed as they are together, thigh to thigh, and the same shudder runs through all of them, and runs toward the same release” (205). However, the story does not end with any affirmation of community or thigh-to-thigh carnality. It concludes, again parabolically, with the narrator’s description of himself alone among the “bedizened” windows and vacated streets of downtown during the Christmas season. He thinks he hears “Joy to the World,” but though he tries to pay attention, he cannot be certain: “Perhaps the record’s playing something else” (206). Gass seems to imply, by analogy, that the usefulness of literary musings as a guide to living remains equivocal and dubious, as much for the writer as for any other reader.
Gass, William H. In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.
———. “The Origin of Extermination in the Imagination.” In Habitations of the Word: Essays. New York: Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster, 1985.
———. Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
Hix, H. L. Understanding William Gass. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.
Saltzman, Arthur. The Fiction of William Gass: The Consolation of Language. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.