Skip to content

Emma Enters a Sentence (and loses her photographs)


…not knowing where
      or how she had arrived at her decision to lie down in a line of verse and be buried there, that is to say, be born again as a simple set of words, “the bubble in the spirit-level.” So, said she to her remaining self, which words were they to be? grave behaving words, map signs
      That became Miss Emma Bishop’s project: to find another body for her bones, bones she could at first scarcely see, but which were now ridgy, forming Ws, Ys and Zs…

Thirty years after William H. Gass published his photo-embedded novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (which I wrote about recently), he published another novella with photographs. I first read Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s in Conjunctions issue 30 (1998), where the story contains eight photographs by Michael Eastman. It’s a memorable piece of writing  and an unusually thoughtful example of an author carefully embedding photographs within a text. Eastman’s images seemed to have been custom-made for Gass’s story and each appeared to have been placed with precision on the pages of Conjunctions. But when the story appeared later that year in his book Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas (Knopf, 1998), the photographs had disappeared. In the book’s Acknowledgements,Gass referred to the missing photographs but he didn’t explain their absence and for years I have wondered what this meant. Were the photographs not as integral as I had thought? Why were they so expendable?

Cartesian Sonata cover

“I write because I hate. A lot. Hard.” William H. Gass in his 1976 Paris Review interview.

Emma is a wonderfully poetic and sometimes puzzling text. At the center of the novella, is Emma Bishop, a self-described “old maid” who was raised on a remote and poor Iowa farm as the lone child of two extremely unhappy parents. Her father had a cruel habit of visually inspecting her undressed body, to see if she had the wherewithal to attract as husband, all the while deriding the shortcomings he found in her inadequate feminine attributes. Emma (“one half of her a fiction, she thought, the other half a poet”) escapes to read beneath an ash tree and lose herself in the poetry of women: Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Edith Sitwell, Emily Dickinson, Elinor Wylie, Louise Bogan. She buys their books through the mail and the lines of their poems roll around inside her head like marbles, representing a fearful sort of escape and freedom. “Words redeemed the world,” Emma thinks, early on in the story. Poetry provided Emma with a way of moving beyond the brute dullness of her parent’s lives.

Her father farmed by tearing at the earth, seeding soy with steel sticks, interested in neither the soil nor the beans, but only in what the beans would bring…The creek overflowed once and flooded a meadow. He saw only a flooded field. He didn’t see a sheet of bright light lying like a banner over the plowed ground. And the light darkened where the lumps neared the surface. Emma watched the wind roughen the water so that sometimes the top of a clod would emerge like new land. Crusoe in England? in Iowa. She imagined.

And her mother scrubbed their clothes to remove the dirt, not to restore the garments; and wiped up the dust to displace it, not to release the reflection in the mirror or the view through the glass or the gleam from the wood.

When Emma’s mother dies, her coffin is an old wooden footlocker stuffed with mothballs. As Emma and her father stand over the grave he has just dug in a field behind the house, she delivers an impromptu eulogy to a wasted life:

She was small and thin and bitter, my mother. No one could cheer her up. A dress a drink a roast chicken were all the same to her. She went about her house without hope, without air. Her face was closed as a nut, closed as a careful snail’s. I saw her smile once but it was not nice, more like a crack in a plate. What on earth had she done to have so little done for her? She sewed my clothes but all the hems were crooked.

Is Emma a murderess? This is one of the unresolved threads of this tale in which the boundary between reality and imagination is extremely porous. Twice it is suggested that her father died alone, unaided, in a field. And twice it is written that one day Emma impetuously walloped her father with the same shovel that buried her mother. “That’s it,” she declares,after apparently killing him, “rage redeems.” Not poetry. 

Poetry might redeem the inner spirit, but it couldn’t, in fact, change the harsh facts of life. In fact, poetry isn’t even nourishing. Emma’s daily meal seems to consist of “a bit of plainsong and a spoon of common word,” causing her to literally wither away. Her hope to become thin enough “to slip into a sentence of the poet’s like a spring frock” and, ultimately, to “be buried in a book,” is essentially an act of slow suicide. 

The central question in the novella is what exactly does poetry do for Emma. Much of the time Gass says that Emma doesn’t read closely and doesn’t understand much of what she reads. “I also read mostly first verses, first chapters, and careened through the rest,” she admits. “She couldn’t really claim to have understood Elizabeth Bishop, or to have read Elizabeth Bishop’s poems properly, or fathomed her friend Marianne Moore either.” And yet: “the words she read and fled from were all that kept her alive.” What is clear is that Emma consistently equates poetry with sexuality and it is sexuality that she fears more than anything. One poem suggests to her how “making love the way she imagined it would be if it were properly done. Everyone was entered. No one was under.”

Emma’s eye would light upon a phrase like “deep from raw throats,” her skin would grow paler as if on a gray walk a light snow had sifted, whereupon the couplet would close on her stifled cry, stifled by a small fist she placed inside her congruously wide, wide-open mouth…She was fearful for she felt the hawk’s eye on her. She was fearful of the weasel ‘tween her knees. fearful.” 

So, poetry doesn’t nourish, it doesn’t redeem, and it frightens Emma. Even the tree beneath which Emma seeks sanctuary to read is dangerous. An ash tree, it “sucked all the water from the ground,” preventing anything else from living beneath its branches. And one day the tree attacks her. A branch falls and stabs her ankle. “Emma bawled, not from pain or even shock, but because she’d been betrayed.” Most of the time she doesn’t seem capable of reading attentively and yet, Gass writes, “poetry taught her to pay attention” and helps her reach “serenity” and “selfless unconcern.” Really? Emma is a remarkable, compelling character, but Gass struggles to control her. At one point he has her arguing in her imagination with Marianne Moore over the fine points of pianist Walter Gieseking and his interpretations of Scarlatti and Mozart (“Gieseking was at his best playing a depedaled Mozart”). This doesn’t seem like the Emma we have seen anywhere else in the novella.

Emma continuously crosses over into the territory of poetry. Gass’s story is literally interwoven by short individual phrases that, brought together, comprise a single sentence. Given the title of the story, one would expect that this was a sentence written by Elizabeth Bishop, but it appears that the sentence that Emma enters was written by Gass, not by Elizabeth Bishop: 

The slow fall of ash far from the flame, a residue of rain on morning grass, snow still in air, wounds we have had, dust on the sill there, dew, snowflake, scab: light, linger, leave, like a swatted fly, trace to be grieved, dot where it died. 

There are eight photographs in the original story. The opening image shows a stark log cabin set in the middle of a treeless prairie beneath a sky of dark clouds. (A color version of this image is on the front of the dust jacket of Cartesian Sonata.) A few pages later there is a pair of facing photographs that relate to a key element of the story: one photograph shows a tree stump surrounded by a swirling pattern of leaves and the other shows a fallen tree cut into a dozen or so sections. The tree stump photograph is placed almost squarely in the center of the page, forcing Gass’s text to form a box around the photograph, echoing the way the leaves are arranged around the stump. Later in the story, after a full page of text consisting of evocative plant names, there are five full-page close-up studies of silhouetted plant shapes, reminiscent of the images seen in Karl Blossfeldt’s landmark 1928 book of plant photographs Urformen der Kunst.



Michael Eastman Plant Forms 2

A few weeks ago I ran across a newly uploaded video interview with Gass from 2000, in which he talks at length with Michael Silverblatt, of KCRW’s excellent Bookworm radio program. About thirty-four minutes into the program, Gass and Silverblatt begin to talk about Emma and the photographs by his longtime friend and neighbor Michael Eastman. Gass explains the lack of photographs in Cartesian Sonata by saying that he felt Eastman’s photographs simply didn’t reproduce well enough on the paper typically used for books. “The paper we can afford to use is simply too porous, it doesn’t take the image well enough and so I hate to ask him …he’s a very fine artist and to not have his work presented as perfectly as possible is hard for me to ask him to do…” So if we take Gass at his word, then the disappearing photographs can be attributed to his desire that the photographer’s works receive proper treatment.

Emma actually appeared in a much earlier version in The Iowa Review 24:2 (Spring-Summer 1994), which can be read online. That version, which Gass refers to as a “short sketch,” has neither illustrations nor the enveloping sentence (“The slow fall of ash…”) nor the parents (except for one brief mention of “dad”) who play such large roles in the final version.

It’s worth noting that, in Gass’s 1995 book The Tunnel, published three years before the Conjunctions version of Emma, he had already used the same typography-box that I show at the top of this post – except that in The Tunnel the box is an empty tunnel into the text rather than a photograph.

Gass Tunnel Page Box


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: