Freeze Time in Counting and Sweethearts
Both Counting and Sweethearts consist of stories or fragments of stories that are two pages or less. In fact, more than half of Sweethearts appears unchanged in Black Tickets. Of the sixteen shorter stories (two pages or less) in Black Tickets, thirteen appeared originally in Sweethearts. One of the common complaints critics had about Black Tickets when it was first published was that many of these shorter “stories” were simply too short to be worthwhile. “The shorter tales are, I think, on the whole less impressive than the longer,” writes Peter Prescott in his review, “too often they seem no more than showcases for their author’s surprising imagination and for her experiments in overwrought prose” (116). Likewise, John Irving complains that “too many of these miniatures, these showoff pieces, mar the rougher and more wholly rendered stories in the book” (13). Garrett Epps explains that, for him, many of these short “short stories” (as well as a few of the longer ones in Black Tickets) fail “because they are not stories at all but static prose poems . . . verbal indulgences in which nothing happens, no characters are revealed, and no time passes” (C10). Walter Cummins, though not being negative, agrees that “the stories have a static quality. Phillips evokes a situation, a state of being, rather than presenting an action” (468). David Remnick describes Phillips’s shorter works as “voices or monologues rather than short stories” (9).
These critics are not wrong. These shorter tales, in their fragmented separateness, do not work as short stories, not at least in a conventional sense. There is no development of character, no rising action, no climax, no beginning, nor middle, nor end. Many are simply descriptions. Perhaps, if readers wish to understand these stories, they would be wise to take up Epps’s claim that these are “static prose poems” and read them as such, absolving them of narrative responsibility. In fact, many of these “stories,” such as “Happy” and “Wedding Picture,” appeared originally as prose poems in such publications as the Paris Review and New Letters.
While climax, character development, rising action, beginning, middle, and end may be the characteristics of short stories, the conventions of the prose poem are quite different. For one, the subjects of prose poems, according to Jonathan Monroe in his book A Poverty of Objects, tend to be “ordinary everyday objects of the physical world” (36). Much of Phillips’s work, of course, is about such “ordinariness,” about the mundane lives of everyday people in West Virginia. If not that, then her work is about outsiders, people on the edges of society: strippers, hookers, druggies, homosexuals, and so on. Whether dealing with outsiders or the mundane, each story, as Peter Prescott says, attempts to “endow the inarticulate with a convincing eloquence” (116). In this same way, the prose poem, in its tendency to draw in and alter “other genres or modes of discourse as part of its own peculiar self-definition” (Murphy 3), becomes, as Margueritte Murphy writes, “a vehicle for the introduction of nonliterary prose into ‘poetic’ discourse—the prose of the street, the pulpit, the newsrooms, the political arena, the psychiatrist’s office, and so on” (4). This tendency “to open itself up to previously excluded forms of discourse and the social groups associated with them” means that the prose poem absorbs the “previously marginalized” (Monroe 20) and unifies the aesthetic/individual language of poetry with the useful/collective language of prose (Monroe 22). The prose poem, therefore, “not only in its form but in its essence, is based on the union of opposites” (Todorov 61). As a result, the prose poem, as we shall see in this chapter and in chapter 2, seems an appropriate medium through which to reconcile the “outsiders” with mainstream society, to, in a sense, give those that have escaped a home.
Another characteristic of the prose poem to consider is its form and its corresponding thematic concerns. Margueritte Murphy claims that “what often distinguishes these [prose poem] pieces from short stories, fairy tales, and orderly and complete description is their resistance to closure, finality, their fragmentary nature” (18). This fragmentary nature, this lack of concern for the “ending” necessary to a short story, lends itself to a concern with, and an expression of, single moments or “states of being,” as Walter Cummins writes of Phillips’s work, rather than actions.
The concern for single moments stems ultimately from modernism and, indeed, from the foundations of the prose poem. Accordingly to Clare Hanson, “the emphasis of modernist short fiction was on a single moment of intense or significant experience” (55). This single moment served as a “focus, a structural equivalent for conventional resolution of plot” (Hanson 7), what Joyce would call an epiphany, the recording of “the most delicate and evanescent of moments” (qtd. in Hanson 58). Postmodernists have worked in a similar direction by “breaking experience down into smaller and smaller units” (Hanson 141). What the prose poem does is to concentrate this effect, giving the whole text—rather than the climax or focus of the text—over to the recording of the passing “moment.” “The prose poem’s author,” to quote Suzzanne Bernard, “seeks a kind of static perfection, a state of order and balance—or else an anarchic disorganization of the universe, from out of which he can call up another universe, recreate a world” (qtd. in Todorov 61). Jayne Anne Phillips agrees with such an aesthetic. “I like to create stories that are monologues,” she writes in an afterword to an anthologized version of her story “Bess,” “but monologues that create a whole world” (qtd. in Norris 251). What this means is that the prose poem seeks to express some kind of transcendent state, to, as Octavio Paz writes of poetry, “transcend language,” to use language to move beyond it to something “inexplicable” (qtd. in Beaujour 50). This is similar to Joyce’s epiphany in that a prose poem expresses the same “sudden spiritual manifestation” (Hanson 58) but different from an epiphany in that a prose poem records only the epiphanic moment without the surrounding detail.
The means to this transcendence is through the freezing of a “present” moment. Tzvetan Todorov claims that one of the characteristics of the prose poem is this relation to time “or more precisely, [its] way of escaping time’s grasp. . . . [I]t can only exist as a poem if it reduces all duration into an ‘eternal present’ of art, if it congeals the process of becoming into atemporal forms” (62). Such a reduction is also a concern of much contemporary fiction. “Short story writers see by the light of the flash,” writes Nadine Gordimer, “theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of—the present moment” (qtd. in Hanson 57). This “eternal now,” at least in Phillips’s work, is akin to the transcendent Nirvana state of Zen Buddhism, a philosophy that Phillips both studied and with which she claims to have an allegiance (Douglas 188).
In the Zen state of Nirvana, there is “no time.” This is because, in Zen, all opposites arise mutually with conceptions. Such conceptions are really illusions created by culture and language. To define, as language forces us to do, is to set bounds, and as a result, it is always, as Alan Watts puts it, an act “of division and thus of duality, for as soon as a boundary is defined it has two sides” (Way 39). This means that past, present, and future are also illusions because, as Watts states, “this moment can be called ‘present’ only in relation to past and future” (Way 201). Time, therefore, has “only a relative, not a true existence” (Evans-Wentz 7). What this means is that “no time” is also “all time” or the “eternal present” in which we always live. Past and future become “abstractions without any concrete reality” (Way 199).
A person experiences “Awakening” (also called “Satori” or “Nirvana”) when he or she truly recognizes this fact and lives life with this understanding. Like the modernist “epiphany,” Awakening occurs in a “sudden flash of insight” (Way 83). Furthermore, both find expression in the ordinary world. An epiphany, Joyce claims, for example, can manifest itself “in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture” (qtd. in Hanson 57). Likewise, Watts says that Awakening “is consistent with the affairs of everyday life” (Way 81), and according the Camille Paglia, it consists in “seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary” (“East and West” 150). As a result, Zen art and literature, like much modernist art and literature, favors “the expression of a lived moment in its pure ‘suchness’“ (Way 183), or as the poet Ezra Pound puts it, the “image” over the discursive (Hanson 2).1
This idea of capturing a “moment,” of expressing the “eternal now” of it, is also hinted at as one of Phillips’s goals. In an interview with Thomas Douglas, Phillips claims that “the function of fiction is basically religious. It has to do with redemption really” (187). What writers redeem is the past—what is lost, what inevitably changes. But they do so by moving back into the “center of it” (Douglas 187). “Fiction,” Phillips goes on to say in the same interview, “holds things in place, lights things up long enough that we can see and feel and sense what might already be lost” (Douglas 187). Essentially, then, fiction captures an evanescent moment and lets us stay in it. Fiction thereby becomes, as Phillips claims in an essay for the New York Times, “the saving of a version of events that is emotionally real, that can’t ever recede or be lost” (“Was This” 22). What characters do as a result, Phillips claims in a review of Carver’s What We Talk about When We Talk about Love that seems to illuminate her work as much as it does his, is “attempt to discover or communicate the moment, talking to one another or directly to the reader” (“Secret” 77). And indeed, many readers will find, as Michael Gorra does in writing of Black Tickets and by extension of Counting and Sweethearts, that plot for Phillips is “far less important than a character’s voice” (20). It is this voice that captures a moment in time. The voice does this by attempting to communicate this moment to a listener so that this moment becomes the listener’s as well, so that the listener, too, carries it around with him- or herself. The author, by writing the voice down, preserves both it and, in turn, the passing state of being expressed in that voice.
Both Counting and Sweethearts are meditations, both in terms of narrative structure and motif and thematic concerns, on the attempt to circumvent this passage of time—to remain always present without a loss to the past. This desire to circumvent time in both works is also, in turn, a desire to find or return to a home. Phillips, in her interview with Thomas Douglas, places home in the memory and in what we see (188). By capturing a moment in a voice, characters are able to “find” their homes wherever they are.
Concerns about losses to the passage of time, about aging and death, run throughout Counting and Sweethearts. Images of death, in fact, come up throughout Sweethearts. Phillips introduces this motif into the book even before the title page with an introductory poem titled “Aging.” The title seems rather strange seeing as most of the poem is largely a description of the “Day of the slaughter”2 of what are probably hogs (the animal is never specified). What happens in the poem is the men are charged with hanging, gutting, and boiling the animals, while the women remain “in the houses.” At the poem’s end, the little boys are sent out of the houses, hinting that this confrontation with death, with killing, as well as this leaving of home, is “aging.”
During the first half of the collection “Sweethearts”—the collection is divided into two parts—Phillips continues to connect death and killing images with children and, thus, with their rites of passage into the adult world. In “A Few Feet Away,” for example, the narrator’s father prepares for his “move out” of the house, a growing-up point in any child’s life, by divvying up the family’s two rifles—one for the father, the other for the narrator’s two brothers. The father’s main concern, as he expresses it to the boys, seems to be which gun is best for killing “rabbits and birds.” The story/poem ends with him telling the boys how to “go after deer.”
In “1960,” an old woman calls the narrator into her house to take care of a “problem.” “Something keeps pouring out,” the old woman says. What is pouring out, we learn, is blood mixed with water—the result of a running tap and “a chicken, stump of its neck hanging over the basin, bleeding a steady furled cloud into the water.” The event occurs in summer, when “the fields are tall,” and the narrator’s foray into the old woman’s house—a house with “a smell shut up too long”—seems a reminder of the eventual aging of the child narrator and the eventual harvesting of the field at the end of the summer.
“Toad” also blends childhood and death by recounting the accidental killing of a frog by the narrator’s brother and the resulting sandpile funeral following. At first, the narrator finds herself “afraid of [the toad’s] yellow eyes,” but with time, this fear grows into an obsession to confront death, and by the story/poem’s end, the narrator finds herself digging into the toad’s grave.
“Satisfaction” again demonstrates the connection between aging and death and animal slaughter. In the tale, the narrator and a friend dress “like old men” for Halloween. Later, while walking through the neighborhood trick or treating, they stop to watch an old woman listening to a gospel show on the radio. When the old woman notices the children’s commotion outside, she mistakes them for varmints and tells her dogs to “kill them rabbits . . . Brings em here.”
“Under the Boardwalk” further connects birth with this concern for aging and death. In the tale/poem, a teen by the name of Joyce Casto kills her illegitimate baby—the result of a sexual encounter with her brother—at its birth. Phillips places the baby’s existence and killing on the same level with the animals being gutted at the start of the book. Like a hog, the girl uses a “scythe” to “harvest” her child in the field. Later, at the end of the story/poem, dogs—like the humans who kill and eat—come into the house “with pieces in their mouths.” All of this Phillips describes matter of factly, the girl reacting more to the Drifters’ music she listens to than to the fact that the dogs have returned her child in piecemeal form. Giving birth, here, like death, becomes, as Thomas Edwards notes in his review of Black Tickets, “a brief participation in the natural order” of aging and change (44).
Other stories about birthing in the collection are similarly gruesome, similarly connected to death. In “Pickens,” the narrator listens to the assistant to Elva Lowry, the town midwife, recount a breech birth at the Pickens’ place. Again, birth is placed on the level of mundane, everyday concerns. Women blather “about jams, about hookberries,” while the husband of the pregnant woman fries fat in the kitchen, seemingly more concerned about eating (another creature) than the birth of his twin sons, upon which Elva is working so hard. Again, the tale ends with a death—the second baby comes out “blue,” and Elva lays it down. Similarly, “Night in Gracie’s Face” recounts four deaths and two births—the loss of a son to diphtheria, the death of Gracie’s husband in an insane asylum, the burial of stillborn twins. Here, through the accounts of the disappearance of various family members, death becomes synonymous with the loss of home and the passing of time quite directly.
In the second half of the collection, “Slaves,” death becomes no longer connected as much with childhood as with sex and the desires for sex and escape. In addition, references to death become more metaphoric, less grounded in incident and happening. “Inside him an acrobat tumbled over death” is the way Phillips describes a man’s state during sex with his lover in “Happy,” the story/poem about a woman who wants to please her man sexually, yet who remains unconvinced of her sexual power over him. In “Stripper,” a stripper, “speaking” to the men she performs for, describes their ecstasy and her job this way: “Baby stick em up Baby don’t touch Baby I’m a star an you are dyin.” In “Swimming,” Phillips conflates unfulfilled sexual longing with a desire to drown through the story of a girl who enjoys dancing with her female friend Jancy.
“What It Takes to Keep a Young Girl Alive” describes several “modes” of escape. It starts with physical escape as the main character, Kay, tries “to leave home” by signing up to work a summer at Maple Point, an amusement park “trying to outdo Disneyland.” To those working at the park, however, the place falls far short of the vacation escapade a Disneyland claims to supply. “The boys in the kitchen [keep] a list of everyone who crie[s]” because of the managers’ harsh words. The girls live in an army barracks with “a red storm fence around the perimeter strung with barb wire,” supposedly meant to protect those inside but seemingly also to keep them in. Escape then turns to attempts to leave the park—not physically but through death and sex. A girl commits suicide when she cannot handle the pressure anymore. The tale ends with masturbation as escape, Kay “laying in the top bunk naked with the light off. Fan on full aimed at her crotch,” Rod Stewart’s voice accompanying her.
In “Blind Girls,” a girl named Jesse tells horror stories with the familiar mix of sex and gore to a party of females, while boys spy on them from the surrounding field. Here, danger becomes both sexual and deadly. Within the “favorite” story that Jesse tells, for example, a girl and her boyfriend park on a country road, probably to “make out” in a place away from their parents, but the girl becomes scared—not so much at the idea of sex—but at the wind, which “sounds like something scratching the car.” When the couple reaches home in the story, the distinction between death and sex and even between the story told and the party at which Jesse tells the story is almost completely lost. “At home they find the hook of a crazed amputee caught in the door,” Phillips writes. “Jesse described his yellow face, putrid, and his blotchy stump. She described him panting in the grass, crying and looking for something. She could feel him smelling of raw vegetables, a rejected bleeding cowboy with wheat hair, and she was unfocused. Moaning in the dark and falsetto voices. Don’t don’t please don’t. Nervous laughter.” While the amputee obviously appeals to the “gory” element of the story told by Jesse, the “moaning in the dark” could seemingly belong to either the couple (scared or having sex), the amputee (the “moaning” being another one of his “cries” in the grass), the girls at the party in the grips of terror because of the story, or the boys surrounding and spying on them. Likewise, “Don’t don’t please don’t” could refer to either a girl trying to put off sex, as in the story told, or to the girls at the party—specifically Sally—too scared to listen to the rest of the story. At this point, Jesse breaks off her story for Sally because “[t]he grass [outside] is moving. . . . Something’s crawling in it.” Again, now in the storyteller’s life, Phillips conflates physical danger with sex. The grass’s movement, via the horror story, has become the movement of a psychotic, while in reality, “It’s just the boys trying to scare us.” The black “snakes” that lie in the field, in the end, serve this same double purpose, representing both the danger inherent in most people’s feelings about snakes and the phalluses of the watching boys.
“Strangers in the Night,” the last story/poem of Sweethearts, however, is the most direct in connecting sex with death. Its use of the “death” metaphor is so dense, I can best serve my purpose by quoting the first half of it: “Like everyone else, she thought a lot about eating and sleeping. When she was sleeping she felt like death floating free, a white seed over the water. Eating, she thought about sex and chewed pears as though they were conscious. When she was making love she felt she was dancing in a churning water, floating, but attached to something else. Once she almost died and went so far she saw how free the planet floated.”
Desire is also a large theme of Counting as the book recounts a love affair from its burgeoning to its aftermath. But here, too, images of aging and death, loss and passing time, fill the text. Concerns with age are evident from the start of the first chapter. “He is twenty-six,” Phillips begins. “His lover is an aging dancer” (1). Later, readers find out the woman is fifteen years older than the man, no doubt a major factor in understanding the relationship. Images of death and desire are also present in the first chapter. Indeed, Phillips titles the chapter “Hungry,” a title that seems to lend itself not so much to physical hunger (“He has little food but he is seldom hungry,” Phillips writes) as to sexual longing. The lover, as readers learn later, has left the man forever. Death has a presence as well, though small, through the description of the man’s room: “In his room a bed and one round table. Photograph of an elephant graveyard in Kenya.”
Concerns with the passage of time also close the book. The man, still wanting his old lover, feeling her “disappearing[,] [h]is desire com[ing] on like acid” (18), finds himself “at loose ends and visits his family” (16). While there, an old woman (probably his mother, though this is never made explicit) gives him a gun and tells him to shoot a mad dog. It is the preparation for this shooting, this killing, this death, which ends the book—a chapter appropriately titled, “Counting.” The “counting” refers in part to the countdown to the kill, but it also refers in part to the count of a clock. Phillips makes this explicit in her description: “The distance [between him and the dog] is yawning, unimaginable. It is stronger than flesh or the odor of flesh, it dwarfs all things. It ticks like a clock in the mouth. It has him at the center of his breath, he is alone.” This distance, coming at the end of the tale and connected to the fact that “[h]e is alone,” also becomes indicative of the growing distance the man feels from his lover, both in space and time, as his memory recedes.
In between the start and end, Phillips throws in plenty of other references to aging and loss. These take on particular significance when the man and the woman return to their homes, both literally and in their thoughts. In each case, the childhood home is lost—banished to memory. When the man returns to his family, for example, Phillips notes: “They are old. Even the cousins are sixty, all of it old” (16). Phillips compounds this sense of aging and its accompanying loss with a description of a spray of forsythia that “the old woman” fingers: “It is the way deep yellow of butter melted to a puddle and then frozen” (16). This dwindling plant life hearkens back to an earlier comparison of the lover to “a bowl of . . . fresh picked cherries” (13). Love, like the couple’s families and homes, is doomed to rot because it ages, because it can be counted in years.
Likewise, the woman, though not returning home literally, knows it is gone, despite the fact that she owns it now. “She never goes back to claim it,” Phillips tells us, “the house falls in, drops its boards” (14). Two further images of loss compound this refusal, this inability, to return home. The first involves what happens at home before the woman leaves. Like the grandmother in “Night in Gracie’s Face,” the female lover’s mother births stillborn twins. These, the father keeps in formaldehyde for a week, attempting to preserve the sons he has already lost. The second image involves the woman’s return by train to New York in chapter 17, the train being a metaphor for the passage of not only space but time. Phillips explicitly follows this passage throughout the chapter, starting with dawn (“The morning settles its rust”) and continuing into the shadows of afternoon (“Lengthening noon, the long tunnels”). The woman’s state on the train mirrors this passage. At the start of the chapter, the woman “thinks her sight is failing”—a reference to her growing older. By the end of the chapter, she realizes that she can see “cleanly,” but what she sees is “an old man sit[ting] in a wheelchair. Cock in his lap a limpid flower. . . . His face burns her” (17). The implication, of course, is that without her lover, she is on her way toward being as sexually impotent as the old man. Soon after, in the next chapter, in which she figures, readers find her, not surprisingly, sending random letters, random “calls for connection,” to people in the phone book (20). Via such incidents and descriptions, time’s passage throughout the text seems both inevitable and ugly.
Both Sweethearts and Counting, however, struggle to contain and circumvent this passage through their respective narrative structures. Sweethearts does this through its use of prose poem techniques, especially the freezing of particular moments, ideas and emotions in time. Phillips groups these “moments” and “ideas” as they appear in Sweethearts into two sections: “Sweethearts” and “Slaves.” The “Sweethearts” section records moments as opposed to the ideas and desires grouped in the second section. These moments are all first-person and are arguably all written accounts from the same person’s life—a young woman remembering her home life.3 “Slaves,” on the other hand, is almost entirely third-person and concentrates most of its subject matter on the sexual desires of various young women—women who have escaped the “family home” of “Sweethearts,” yet yearn for a new family or home via their lovers. What “Slaves” records are not so much moments as lists of these yearnings, plus emotional states and occasionally vocal monologues. Both “Sweethearts” and “Slaves” contain no stories longer than a page, and as a result, both fit the prose poem requirements.
“Sweethearts,” in its attention to single moments of a family life, seems most akin to Phillips’s theory of writing as “redemption,” the saving of a version of events so that the events cannot be lost. Indeed, much of Phillips’s uncollected poetry, published oftentimes beside work that would later appear in Sweethearts, is about attempting to hold a person and, by extension, time in place. “Village Girl,” for example, published alongside “Happy” in the Paris Review, starts with the narrator stating, “Tell her you’ll do anything to keep her” (200). Phillips then contrasts this and the image of a dress, upon which the narrator fixates for the moment, with passing time in the next line: “The red dress twisted under her is the last of her mother’s history” (200). Then again, in the line after this, Phillips reminds us: “You want to keep her always” (200).
Similarly, a poem titled “Asleep in the Past,” published in Epoch in 1979, concentrates on a sister’s image of her brother having sex in a field with a girl. Again, come poem’s end, Phillips emphasizes the desire to hold the moment despite the passage of time. “Even in repose,” she writes, “he is abundant, you cannot / hold him. You want to sleep beside his face” (19). “Holding,” a poem about a daughter visiting her father in the hospital, likewise concentrates on the desire to hold the moment still and thereby maintain connection between the two characters. At the poem’s start, for example, the narrator claims, “I want to put my hard weight against you” (54), the implications being that by doing so, she can hold the father in place even while death threatens to take him away.
Phillips uses similar techniques throughout “Sweethearts,” concentrating on either an image or two or on a single incident for each story/poem. A good example of this is “Snowcloud.” Phillips starts the tale with two paragraphs of exposition in which a mother tells a younger girl not to watch a prostitute who passes regularly up and down the road. Despite this, the girl seems adequately aware of the prostitute’s usual movements through the accounts of others in the neighborhood. In the final paragraph, the young girl rides a bicycle by the prostitute’s home and crashes. What Phillips closes with is the brief “moment” of connection between the two individuals: “When I wake up she bends over me, face and hands yellow with pollen. Hair flaming about her face, she obscures the sun. The road is empty. Blood is a syrup on my cheeks. She stands gazing down and releases her ragged gold.” The scene, the connection, as it appears in print is static, forever “present tense,” even though we know as readers that the incident has long passed into oblivion. What Phillips has done here is essentially to record, to make permanent, a moment as evanescent as the “Snowcloud” to which the title refers. She has transformed “memory,” as Phyllis Lassner writes, “of these characters’ chaotic lives into a pattern of continuity and connection” (193).
In “Cheers,” Phillips records, not just a single image, but a solid string of moments connecting the young girl with another older lady. In this case, the narrator visits a sewing woman to have her cheerleading outfit adjusted. The incident is tawdry enough, and there is no great illumination, climax, or epiphany at the tale’s end. Instead, what the reader receives at the end is a comment of the sewing woman: “Lord, she said. You do look pretty.” Interestingly, the other children in the tale/poem are watching Queen for a Day at this time. Like the queens who are no longer, the girl is no longer the same “pretty” that she was. But also like the queens, whose moment of honor is permanent on film, this girl’s moment of prettiness always “is” in print.
Perhaps the best example of the prose poem as redemption in this collection occurs in a piece titled “Pretty.” This story/poem is nothing more than a couple of lines of dialogue from the narrator’s father about the narrator’s birthday as a young girl and a description of the people and things surrounding the dialogue. Her father’s statements stress the passage of time. “How old are you this birthday Miss? Thirteen?” he asks. “Thirteen,” he repeats. “Pretty soon you’ll be fifty-three and won’t know where the time went.” Yet the description surrounding these lines stops time, allowing the narrator to in a sense remain “home” forever. “The things you select to remember, are what home really is,” Phillips states in her interview with Thomas Douglas (186). The narrator makes this selection of memory overt in “Pretty” by stating at the start of the tale/poem: “It was my birthday. I was half child, sensing by their feel which scenes I would remember.” What she remembers, Phillips’s narrator then records: “My mother tore wet lettuce with her brown hands. My brothers, hurrying to wash up, ran through the kitchen smelling of sweat and crushed grass. Outside my father stood over the grill, weight on one foot, hand on hip holding a hot pad I’d made at six. Chicken, basted red, crackled and smoked.” This freezing of time becomes even more explicit at the tale/poem’s end when the narrator describes her father’s fishing cap: “On its bill a pink striped trout jumped gracefully from the water, hooked tense body a glistening, deathless curve.” Like the fish that can remain forever airborne in still image, Phillips’s writing allows the narrator to perennially return to, to perennially recapture, “thirteen” in the still imagery of the prose poem.
While “Sweethearts” captures home in the single moments and keeps it always present, “Slaves” seems much less optimistic. Unlike “Sweethearts,” “Slaves” does not concentrate on single moments but instead, as I noted before, on strings of emotions and desires, occasionally veering into summaries of long periods of time. The reason for this difference should be clear from the subject matter. The protagonists are women who have escaped home, who are no longer “stuck” there. But these are also women who lack the connections one sustains in those evanescent moments—connections such as that between father and daughter in “Pretty” and even that between prostitute and young girl in “Snowcloud.” What these women have instead are desires for moments of connection. “Slaves” demonstrates such desires from the start, from the very first story/poem of the second half, “Happy”: “She knew if she loved him she could make him happy, but she didn’t. Or she did, but it sank into itself like a hole and curled up content. Surrounded by the blur of her own movements, the thought of making him happy was very dear to her.” What we have here is a desire on the woman’s part to fulfill her lover’s every need, to connect to him, yet simultaneously, an uncertainty about her ability to do so. Indeed, there is uncertainty whether she loves at all. All she has are her “own movements” and “the thought of making him happy.” It is this “thought,” not actual fulfillment, that the rest of this story/poem and the most of the rest of the text of “Slaves” explores. Connection and freezing time is possible here only in the imagination.
Images of masturbation throughout “Slaves” further this theme of disconnection. I’ve already noted how “What It Takes to Keep a Young Girl Alive” ends with a girl masturbating to Rod Stewart as an escape from a horrid summer camp. “Swimming” is yet another tale/poem involving a young girl who masturbates. This story/poem, about a girl who likes to dance with her best friend Jancy, suggests loneliness for both girls in two ways: first, through the girls choosing to dance with each other in the absence of the male partners they would prefer—the only males they can associate with here are the singers to which they listen, the male “crybaby” voices on a record player, which cross “I’m just a soldier, a luh-honely soldier.” Second, the story/poem suggests loneliness through one of the girl’s habits of masturbating with a three-foot-tall doll when younger. “She slept with the doll at night,” we are told, “embraced, kissing the plastic mouth. One night her mother saw the doll in her bed. . . . Its foot pressed against her cunt.” Girl/girl relations and relations with dolls become the only means to connection in a world where the desired boy/girl relations do not exist in a physical sense.
Two other, less narrative-based story/poems, “Slave” and “Here We Go Round,” consider masturbation as a major, if not the main, subject. In both, sex appears “as an especially dense transfer point for relations of power between men and women” (Foucault 103). This concern for power relates to the characters’ desire to remain escapees. The connection these women long for is also the creation of the “home” that will confine them and keep them away from the free, “independent” selves they believe they have managed to obtain.
“Slave,” from which the second half of Sweethearts draws its name, is explicit about this concern with power. In it, a girl uses masturbation to fulfill her sexual desires. “When she masturbated,” Phillips writes, “she always had a brief intense orgasm, turning over ten times and fell asleep released.” This, in turn, allows her to gain “power” over her male lovers by not having to depend on them for sexual satisfaction. In fact, Phillips writes, “she seldom ha[s] orgasms with her men.” Instead, she gains pleasure by watching “her men have orgasms with their eyes closed, sailing on their breath, and gone. She ha[s] the pleasure of helping them leave, and [i]s left in possession of them until they [return].”
What occurs is in many ways a reversal of the usual male/female sex roles in terms of the (largely male-dominated) world of pornography, wherein the male watches the female have an orgasm. Here, the woman is the pornographer in possession of the male image, the secret “memorized faces in that moment of unconsciousness.” Yet as Alan Soble notes in his book on pornography, pornography holds within it, not just the power of the male possessor, but ultimately his powerlessness (84). “[While] pornography,” Soble argues, “allows men to gain a sense of control . . . [by providing] sexual experiences without the entanglements, mistakes, imperfections, hassles, and misunderstanding that interfere with pleasure and that accompany sex with a wife [or girlfriend]” (80), it relegates such control, such power, to the world of fantasy. The same ultimately occurs in “Slave.” In a relationship near the end of the tale/poem, the woman “expose[s] and solidifie[s]” her power by confessing to a close male friend that “although she like[s] men she never ha[s] orgasms with them but only with herself.” This, in turn, makes him want to make love to her more, but she, now knowing that “her power over him happen[s] because of her power over herself,” cannot allow it. Instead of a healthy, loving sexual relationship, the woman, in an attempt to keep power, ends up the slave of her own need to possess and sustain this power, which, in turn, makes her alone and disconnected.
In “Here We Go Round,” another woman feels this same unwillingness to let go of the power over herself and, as a result, has the same inability to connect. In this case, the woman grounds her power in sexual experience—experience that she has but is unwilling to share because “when one deals with someone whose experience is of a different level, that exchange implies assuming responsibility for that person.” Not wanting the responsibility that connection, love, or sex implies, she turns down a possible relationship with a new man. Instead, she chooses “to take responsibility for her own needs,” rather than letting someone “help” her. “Wouldn’t that mean,” the narrator explains about such “help,” “giving up her experience, whose grounded weight was known and supportive, for another experience, or someone’s hole where experience would be?” Of course, this unwillingness to risk responsibility or experience ironically means that the woman gains neither any new experiences nor any relationships.
The result of this constant disconnection is that there is not transcendence of time or space, no single moment appropriate to demonstrate connection between two characters. Only two narratives in “Slaves” seem to utilize narrative structure in a way similar to the first half of the collection to circumvent the disconnection that the passage of time creates. These two story/poems, “Stripper” and “Accidents,” however, freeze not “moments” of connection but voices—monologues—that express to their listeners a desire for this moment of connection. The results are texts that simultaneously demonstrate connection and disconnection, love and longing.
In one of these, “Stripper,” a stripper, Marlene, recounts the instructions on nude dancing that she received when younger from her elder cousin, Phoebe. The text is a mix of Phoebe’s and Marlene’s voices: “When I was fifteen back in Charleston, my cousin Phoebe taught me to strip. She was older than my mother but she had some body. When I watched her she’d laugh, say That’s all right Honey sex is sex. It don’t matter if you do it with monkeys.” As the story/poem continues, the difference between the two voices becomes almost indistinguishable, implying not so much a freezing of a moment as a loss of distinction between the two cousins. When later the narrator proclaims, “Once in Laramie, I was in one of those spotted motels after a show an a man’s shadow fell across the window,” the “I” could apply to Phoebe or Marlene. In fact, Marlene, one could argue, is not the narrator at all, but Phoebe’s stage name—for it is only on stage that the name occurs. “Now Marlene’s gonna slip ya into a little darkness,” the M.C. announces.
Despite this connection, the subject matter has written within it the disconnection and the longing that stripping implies. Not only do men watch the stripper, desiring her, but the stripper (whether taken for Marlene or Phoebe) finds herself fearful of her customers and tries to avoid them. Toward the middle of the story/poem, for example, the stripper recounts a man coming near her motel room. Nervous, she locks herself in the bathroom and waits for him to leave. The man becomes emblematic of all her customers. “Now I’m feeling his shadow fall across stages in Denver and Cheyenne,” she says. To counteract this nervousness on stage, she “close[s her] eyes an dance[s] faster, like [she] used to dance blind an happy in Pop’s closet.”
But it is also this blind dancing that allows the stripper to transcend time, to freeze a past and make it once again present. Right after the narrator states that she “used to dance blind an happy in Pop’s closet,” she, for a moment, transports herself back there through description: “His suits hangin faceless on the racks with their big woolly arms empty.” This motif of dancing runs through much of Phillips’s work, including such examples as the two girls dancing in “Swimming,” the narrator of “Accidents” proclaiming that she wishes to dance with a lover, and one of the major characters in Counting being identified as a dancer.
What may seem odd about this motif is that dancing appears to be just the opposite of “stop time” or “stasis.” It is “movement.” Yet dance, particularly modern dance, as many dance theories point out, aims for this same capturing of a “moment.” To understand how, we must return to Eastern philosophy, from which many contemporary theorists and dancers, such as Erich Hawkins, draw their thinking. Unlike the West, which often views change as “an insoluble problem and a major source of psychosomatic distress” (Jacobson 6), in the East, Buddhists and others recognize change as “one of the ontological realities of life” (Jacobson 6). All, as Junjiro Takakusu puts it, is always “dynamic becoming” (36), and there is only, as noted before, the “eternal present,” which is always in a state of “becoming.” Dancing expresses this eternal present, this becoming, in its movement. It “points toward our moving and perishable embodied existence,” as Sondra Fraleigh explains, “holding it before us, filling and freeing present time that we may dwell whole within it” (xvii). Because the dancer is “present-centered, or pre-reflective” (Fraleigh 13), he or she experiences everything through the immediate senses without recoil to thought. In this way, he or she achieves a kind of Zen nirvana state of “no thought,” or a “clear place,” as Erich Hawkins puts it (71). This state, in turn, allows the dancer to transcend, to “move beyond the confines of the self” (Fraleigh xxii). This liberation is ultimately a liberation from the constant flight between desire for home and escape. It allows one to find home in the “now” of becoming, while also allowing escape from the tyranny of a socially created self.
Yet the problem here is that every time the stripper opens her eyes, she is once again objectified, once again disconnected from the audience through their looking upon her. As a result, dancing in this story becomes both a means of transcendence (with fellow dancers, with a past made present) and a means of re-establishing Otherness and, thus, disconnection (through the gaze of the audience).
In “Accidents,” the other frozen-voice story/poem of “Slaves,” a woman recounts her “accidents” in an attempt to seduce a lover—any lover. Here, however, the narrator does not merge with her listener in the way that Phoebe and Marlene merge into each other. From start to end, the narrator merely expresses her wants. “I wanna dance,” she says, halfway through. “I wanna just wrap my legs around you like those rings are round the moon. Lemme press my mouth against you like the rain against the glass it’s see-through.” At the end, she again expresses her desire and explicitly requests its fulfillment, when she says, “I wanna feel a hand on my waist. He and I are through, why don’t you come over?” But the narrator’s dependence on telling about her “accidents” to make her male listener “sympathetic,” to make him “fall in love” with her, is unfortunate—for as we discover, the narrator cannot tell a sustained story. The narrative itself is almost impossible to follow, full of juxtaposition of a wandering mind. The narrator even acknowledges at one point, “I keep dropping how things went, which story goes where. This week and next week and next week. Somewhere out there’s a winner but I’m losing track. I try to stay home and turn the pages in my books. But the words are a dark crusted black that cracks.” Ultimately, because this narrator, unlike the narrator in the first half of the collection, cannot tell a story, she cannot freeze moments or redeem a past to connect herself to others.
While Sweethearts shows both successful and unsuccessful attempts to circumvent the passage of time through narrative by splitting the text into two distinct sections, one that records moments of connection and one that records desires to connect, one that records “home” and one that records “escape,” Counting shows both the circumvention of time through narrative and that narrative’s inability to do so in the real world simultaneously. The way it does this is by following two narrative tracks at the same time, one following a Buddhist Samsaric birth-death-rebirth spiral and the other following, via its fragmentation into a series of moments, the prose poem’s freezing of the “eternal present.”
I’ve already noted how Counting concerns itself with death, loss, and the passage of time through its motifs and its concerns for the ages of its characters. Phillips furthers this theme via the overall arch of the plot, with its recounting of the relationship between an aging dancer and a younger man from its inception to its aftermath. This “love relationship” parallels the process of Samsara as defined in Eastern religion. Samsara is, as Alan Watts writes, “the everlasting Round of birth-and-death” (Way 45) from which practitioners of Eastern religion seek liberation when they “seek” Nirvana (though, of course, to seek Nirvana is to never attain it—since Nirvana is the attainment of nonseeking, or nondesire). What imprisons one in this round of birth and death is desire, which in turn causes suffering. Desire can only occur, however, when an individual recognizes a difference between himself or herself and the external world. As already noted, such difference must arise mutually. In Zen and other Eastern religions, this difference is an illusion—the external is internal. This is not to say we have some sort of mystical control over the events in the world, but rather that all we know and feel about the external world is what is inside us. Alan Watts, in Psychotherapy East and West, explains this better than I can: “all our sensory experiences are states of the nervous system. The field of vision, which we take to be outside the organism, is in fact inside it because it is a translation of the external world into the form of the eye and the optical nerves. What we see is therefore a state of the organism, a state of ourselves” (79). In other words, the only “external” world we know is the world inside us, the world that touches our various senses, the world that we create via our various ideas and feelings about it. As a result, all that one desires is already a part of oneself, for the desire is not external to us but internal. Not to recognize this is to continue desiring and, thus, to continue suffering, to continue in the round of Samsara.4
To desire, furthermore, causes us to “ignore the most powerful motivation of all, the need to be faithful to the fundamental creativity of life” (Jacobson 90). This creativity of life stems from being “present-centered” (Jacobson 24). When one wishes for a “lost love,” one wishes for a past that is impossible to regain or a future over which one has little or no control. Yet, as we shall see, it is through such unattained desires that Phillips shows the passage of time.
In Tantra: The Indian Cult of Ecstasy, Philip Rawson discusses a common Indian metaphor for Samsara: the love relationship between a man (Shiva) and a woman (Shakti). The relationship occurs in five stages. In the first, “The pair are so closely embraced that neither is fully aware of the other as distinct . . . [and] Shakti is said to ‘have her eyes closed,’ in total bliss, because she has not awoken to the state of separateness” (18). In the second, “Shakti’s eyes have opened, though the couple are still united. She is now in the first state of realized separation. The Shiva-self, the subject, has been ‘presented’ . . . with a separate active object, a ‘that’ distinct from his ‘I’“ (18). Rawson goes on to describe the last three stages:
At the next stage down the couple move out of union into distinct parts. Only their mutual sexual attraction reminds them that they belong to each other, that self and world are really only complementary aspects of the same reality. And now Shakti can really begin to function. She becomes in the next lower stage that beautiful female dancer, whose dance weaves the fabric of the world. The patterns of the dance are not pure illusion, but neither are they “real” in the sense of being independent concrete facts. The self is so fascinated by her performance that it believes it is seeing all kinds of different things which are really her movements and gestures. Most important of all, it begins to think—because of her bewildering activity—that is itself not one, but many, male and female. (18)
Counting involves a similar process. Though the first chapter starts after the couple has already split up, the story itself recounts the way they meet (“at a bookstore, near Union Square” ), their sexual union (“There was a hard edge to their fucking. She was immersed” ), her “opening of her eyes” (“She was awake, she wanted no knowledge. At night she sat by the window while he slept. She would leave him” ), and her “moving out” into a distinct part when she does leave him.
Concerns with Eastern religion are not limited, however, merely to the narrative form. Phillips makes the ties she has placed within the text explicit throughout the story. The aging female is, in fact, a Zen practitioner and a dancer. Phillips even titles chapter 3 “Samsara.” It is in this chapter, in fact, that the dancer first states her Zen leanings. “To cry is to resign yourself,” she states. “That’s why you are bitter. You have accepted so little” (3). The event itself, though early in the text, chronologically falls toward the center—right after the woman has told the man she’s leaving him. Thus Phillips connects, early on, the story’s theme of desire as the cause of suffering (through the above quote) with Samsara and Zen (through the chapter’s title). This connection continues throughout the text. In each case, the male lover appears tied to Western modes of thought, and as a result, to the suffering caused by desire, by the separation of “I” and “thou,” and by the desire that comes from the loss of that “thou.”
In chapter 4, for instance, the man tells his lover, “I supposed we were born with desires,” while the woman, expressing the Buddhist line of reasoning, says, “We are born with nothing” (4). Again, the male’s Western mode of thought finds expression in chapter 18 when he finds himself wishing for his love:
Interestingly, Phillips titles this chapter “Circle.” The title comes from the account of a lion circling in its cage in the chapter’s center. Yet the description resonates on several levels. The man himself is this lion, imprisoned in his desire to his attachments to the past. The “circle,” furthermore, is another word for Samsara—the round of birth and death.
Unlike the man, the woman strives to release herself from such attachments, to escape Samsara. Her Zen beliefs blanket the text. They are, in fact, one reason she leaves the man. In chapter 10, she awakens and finds that she wants “no knowledge,” and then decides to leave him. “No knowledge” is the equivalent of the Zen “no mind,” wherein one strives to purify one’s mind of “all kinds of intellectual nonsense and passional rubbish” in order to free oneself of attachments that make one “miserable and [make one] groan under the feeling of bondage” (Suzuki 339). By leaving her lover, the woman rids herself of physical attachments, which, in turn, should give her the freedom and power that the characters of “Slaves” try to maintain by escaping the cycle of “need and responsibility.” Like those characters, however, the woman, though able to leave her physical possessions—symbols of her attachment to the world—with the man (11), finds that she cannot escape her need for interconnection with others. By chapter 20, she is keeping the letters her ex-lover writes to her in a box and sending out letters to random people. Her desire to remain unattached yet also to connect causes her simultaneously to send out letters with words, “Open this,” across their faces and to refuse to actually write anything on the paper inside the envelopes—it remains “blank as pebble” (20).
Phillips offsets this movement of time created by the mirroring of the Samsara birth-and-death cycle with the fragmentary mode of recording the narrative. Like the first half of Sweethearts, most of these fragments revolve around single moments. And also like Sweethearts, the fragments are nonchronological—thus stressing an episodic, moment-based structure over a climactic one. The story does, of course, have a “sense” of climax, but this climax is not via a chronological plot.
Once again, the capturing of passing moments in a written text serves to circumvent the passage of time. Chapter 2, “Landing,” for instance, stresses a ride home in a taxi, or rather, the “windows” that the male lover remembers from that night. These windows become the means through which the male returns to a time in which he was still in love, a time just before the breakup. “He is haunted by the speckled windows of taxis,” the chapter begins. Later, as the couple ready to enter their apartment (having left the taxi), he remembers, “Blank windows of the buildings were a color he could not explain. Shadowed gray, sides of oxen. If he touched the glass panes, he felt they would move back slow beneath his hand” (2).
In chapter 21, “Bridge,” driving, something the male does habitually at night once he has returned to his parents’ home, becomes the means to restore lost moments, rather than windows. “Cars hunched in the dark” remind him of childhood love affairs—they are “sexual,” the text reads. The hay fields he drives “smell of adolescence.” A bridge he crosses takes him back to age 14, to the night a driver of one of his father’s trucks “pitched into the water.” At the end of the passage, the difference between past and present blurs as he remembers or feels “shivering on the bridge, aware of his contracted sex.” The shivering could refer to the cold of the morning that he and his father dragged the river for the truck or to the “shuddering” of the bridges as he crosses it. Phillips furthers this loss of difference between periods of time via the implied metaphor of “falling off the bridge” to the loss of lovers both in the distant past and the recent past. Through memory, the man dispels this loss, “crossing over” into times before breakups, before his bridges were severed.
In both Sweethearts and Counting, Phillips furthers these attempts to stop time by drawing upon the similarities between photographs and prose poems. Photographs, and specifically descriptions of photographs, take a prominent position in both texts. This shouldn’t be of much surprise since, like the prose poem, photography captures single moments of ordinary experience. Phillips’s use of prose poem structure is in many ways analogous to creating a book of photographs. The photograph, in fact, seems an appropriate metaphor for Phillips’s goals as a writer and the way in which she sees fiction as a means of “holding things in place long enough to examine” (Douglas 187). Susan Sontag, in On Photography, describes photography in a way similar to the way Phillips describes fiction. “Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality,” Sontag writes, “of making it stand still” (163). Photography is also similar to Zen art and to the prose poem in its seeming ability to express the “pure suchness of a lived moment” in that “[p]oetry’s commitment to concreteness and to the autonomy of the poem’s language parallels photography’s commitment to pure seeing” (Sontag 96). “Photographed images,” as a result, as Sontag notes elsewhere, “do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it” (4). What this means is that, like writing, “photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal” (Sontag 9), yet also like writing, “by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt” (Sontag 15). The photograph, thereby, is simultaneously “pseudo-presence and a token of absence” (Sontag 16), just as words stand in the place of objects in their absence. Finally, like narrative, the selection of images for a photograph confers “a kind of immortality (and importance) [on an event] it would never otherwise have enjoyed” (Sontag 11), and thus, like narrative, photographs can, as Sontag notes, “be used to make a substitute world” (162). Through this substitute world, each family constructs “a portrait chronicle of itself—a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness [even while . . .] in the industrializing countries of Europe and America, the very institution of family starts undergoing radical surgery” (Sontag 8-9).
This radical surgery is the destruction of the family unit as we know it. Photographs, like writing, allow for the continued connection of families through their ability to act as permanent witnesses to events. These acts of witnessing, as Phyllis Lassner notes, are of great importance in Phillips’s fiction because they, through their being recorded, erase “emotional, temporal, and spatial boundaries between self and other while ensuring the self’s individuality” (197). By freezing moments, photographs, like narratives, escape and witness time’s passage, allowing characters to meet the need both to return home and to escape it, to live in the past as well as the present. It should be no surprise, then, that at least one critic, Doris Grumbach, compares Phillips’s short fiction to a series of “vignettes that reminds us of a camera that can take only one of the many possible pictures to record a person or persons, their lives or a moment in them” (9). Phillips, in fact, seems to express this aesthetic in her review of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk about When We Talk about Love. “He possesses a splendid ability to isolate a moment and render it completely,” she writes in praise: “Motion and time are captured as in freeze-frame of a stopped film and a distillation of experience is revealed. The moment itself is a recurrent fascination. What is the texture of memory? What is saved and what is meant?” (77). “Meaning and resolution may remain secret,” she muses later in the review, “but the image itself exists indelibly” (77). She could as easily have been speaking of her own work.
Photographs, in fact, start both Sweethearts and Counting, as well as her later collection, Black Tickets. The “photograph” in Sweethearts and Black Tickets is the prose poem “Wedding Picture.” Knowing that the narrative structure will attempt to circumvent time and that each “poem” attempts to capture a moment, the use of a photograph, which attempts the same, seems highly appropriate with which to begin. As a mere description of a wedding photo (which, in fact, appears on the cover of Sweethearts and an early edition of Black Tickets), there is no “story” or plot structure, and therefore, no action to denote the passage of time—the piece remains static. Yet within this stasis, Phillips manages to convey “all time.” She does this by integrating memories—specifically other images—connected to the photograph. She starts with a description of a mother, then moves to the father, and then quickly into his past through a similar image: “My father stands beside her in his brown suit and two-tone shoes. He stands also by the plane in New Guinea in 1944.” This image then connects to another: “On its [the plane’s] side there is a girl on a swing wearing spike heels and short shorts.” Through one image, Phillips enters a whole string of images, and thereby, an entire universe, transcending all time barriers, in the same way that one girl’s painted breast can “balloon” so that “the sky opens inside them.”
Counting, likewise, starts with a photograph, only here the photograph is only mentioned, not described. It is, as noted earlier, a photo of “an elephant graveyard in Kenya” (1), a photograph that is important insofar as it suggests the feel of loss that blankets the entire story and the way in which the collection attempts to capture such loss. Yet Counting is not without its own lengthy description of a photograph. It simply occurs later, in chapter 12, “Camera.” This chapter starts with an account of how the male lover steals the photograph when the woman leaves, the photo becoming a physical manifestation of the memories he carries with him. The description of the photograph makes this connection to memory explicit: “In the picture she is nineteen, backed against slick white walls of a shower. Her face surfaces in long wet hair. At first glance she is a child living someone’s memory of her.” Like “Wedding Picture,” the photograph description opens out into further images, in a fuller containment of time. In this case, the image becomes the cameraman himself as he takes the picture, which in turn connects to the woman’s memories of an even more distant love affair.
Though Phillips’s choice of the photographic prose poem structure over the longer short story structure attempts a freezing, a circumvention of time, the ability to actually prevent “loss” remains questionable in both of Phillips’s two earliest book-length works. We see this chiefly through the numerous references to loss already noted in this chapter. Indeed, even the photographs and the images and memories they evoke seem to suggest such loss. The narrator of “Wedding Picture,” for example, cannot help but note that the photo was taken “[f]ive years [after] the [narrator’s mother’s] high school lover crumpled on the bathroom floor, his sweet heart raw” and that the photos was taken at the same moment that “her [the woman in the photograph’s] mother’s sick, it’s time”—the time for mothers to die, time to marry, time to take the photo. Through mention of these dark undertones within a frozen moment, the photograph becomes the embodiment of both the loss that death implies and the connection implied by marriage. “Camera,” in Counting, contains a similar undertone of loss. In this case, the memory that the photograph evokes is of the woman’s early love affair with an over-fifty-year-old man, and more specifically of a singular sexual incident between the two. What the narrator notes last has a bittersweet ring to it: “When he speaks to her they pretend he will live forever.” What the text implies here is both a permanence—as demonstrated by the sexual moment forever sealed in the photograph—and the impossibility of such permanence in reality—as embodied in the word “pretend.”
It seems, therefore, that characters in these two texts are given no choice but to lose their homes, to escape or be stripped of their literal physical pasts, whether they wish to or not. Change, in the end, imprisons them. At the same time, home almost constantly remains with them through memory, through their views of the world, no matter how far away they try to run from it. Ultimately, their ego self stems from the world view handed to them by their homes and their pasts. “We carry home around with us in the way we perceive things,” Phillips has said in interviews, “in the way we look at things. Your view of the world, the kinds of things you notice, the things you select to remember, are what home really is” (Douglas 186). To escape such a home is to lose the ego self, to escape the mind, to float completely without any stabilizing structure. While this, of course, is the goal of the liberated or enlightened mind, in Eastern religion, such loss remains terrifying to many in the Western world because it suggests, as Watts writes, a “lost control of everything” and means an individual can “no longer trust himself or others to behave consistently” (Psychotherapy 35). So instead of lasting enlightenment, what Phillips leaves her characters with are mere moments of enlightenment, snapshots of connection and harmony with others. These snapshots find form in her written text, and it is this written text that allows the “enlightenment” to find permanent form in the ever-changing present.
A thesis by Jon Morgan Davies