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Posts from the ‘William H. Gass’ Category

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 found 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

Gass and his Willie


“I held a small, limp pen.” – William H. Gass on the writing he did as a student at Kenyon College.

I want to devote two or three posts to a writer with a sporadic but intriguing relationship with photography: William H. Gass. I’ll start with the publication of his 1968 novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. In 1968, TriQuarterly magazine, which is still run out of Northwestern University, published the second of several independent “supplements” to their literary magazine. This supplement was Gass’s novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. The paper bound version, which was sent to subscribers, features front and back covers that have, respectively, frontal and rear photographs of a female nude. On the front cover, the undulating typography of the book’s title and author attribution gives the appearance that the text was projected onto the model’s body. So immediately, even before we’ve opened the book, we are presented with a strong correspondence between the physicality of the human body and of the work of literature, not to mention the overt sexualization of writing. Literature as a form of seduction.

Within the pages of the novella, which are printed on four different colors of paper, are more photographs of the nude model, along with faux coffee-cup stains. The provocative pin-up-like photographs, redolent of Playboy magazine, suggest an equally provocative text, but instead Gass subversively provides a text that provokes the reader into an almost bewildering confrontation with typography and multiple narrative streams. These narratives toy with the reader’s expectations and even, on occasion, playfully taunt the reader. One page boldly declares “From start to finish, you’ve been had.” To further confuse the reader,the narratives sometimes run parallel to each other on the page. One page is even printed in reversed type so that it is a mirror image of the facing page. Throughout, the act of writing is equated with sexual acts. I think it can be argued that the photographs, which replicate the male gaze over the female body, are so clichéed that we are meant to see them ironically, for Gass’s text subverts the terms of the male gaze. It is Willie’s lonely wife, not Willie himself, who is the primary narrator, serving as a kind of Molly Bloom voice, and it is the the poor penis that comes in for the most serious mockery. After sex, she says, men “fall asleep on me and shrivel up. I write the finis for them, close the covers, shelf the book.”


Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife was an entirely new way for a work of fiction to look. Its photographs were credited to Burton L. Rudman and its design to Lawrence Levy. Whatever precedent Gass, Rudman and Levy had in mind, if any, it would not have been found on the fiction shelves of the library. At the time, in fact, there were only a few examples of photographically-embedded fiction widely known in the United States and they were by Wright Morris (1910-1998).

It is curious that modern photographically-embedded fiction in America originates with two Midwesterners. Morris was born in Central City, Nebraska (current population less than 3,000) and Gass was born in 1924 in Fargo, North Dakota. Wright, a writer and photographer who was undoubtedly influenced by the seminal book by James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Know Praise Famous Men (1941), effectively invented a way for written text and photographs to coexist on an equal basis, often by letting each claim a page of their own across every two-page spread in books that he referred to as “photo-texts:” The Inhabitants (1946), The Home Place (1948), God’s Country and My People (1968), and Plains Song, for Female Voices (1980). But beyond accidents of birth and a lasting interest in the Midwest as a subject matter, the two writers approach to the photography that appeared in their work could hardly be more different. Morris himself photographed the images for his books, using his writing and photography as an act of preservation for the rural past that was rapidly disappearing. Gass, on the other hand, began his career as a post-modern experimentalist with a powerful interest in the philosophy of language and the role of the writer, and has only used photographs by others in his two photo-embedded works. This is in spite of the fact that Gass spent some time seriously trying to become a photographer. In an engrossing interview with John Madera over at Rain Taxi, Gass talks about a time when he was “doing a lot of photography” himself. But when he met Michael Eastman, who supplied the photographs for his 1998 novella Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s, Gass says he realized “I was a total amateur and no good, and so I stopped.”



Since 1968, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife has been reissued several times with slight variations in the design and is currently available in a new edition by Dalkey Archive. It has also become one of the more discussed and analyzed classics of postmodernist writing, so I won’t attempt further dissection here. The best place to start reading about the book is Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife by William H. Gass: A Casebook, an online resource created by Dalkey Archive, available by searching the Dalkey Archive website.

Interviewed just eight years later in 1976 by Thomas LeClair for the Paris Review, Gass was already back-pedaling a little on the experimental aspects of his novella, especially his failure to make a polyphonic piece with simultaneous voices.

Yes, I was trying out some things. Didn’t work. Most of them didn’t work. I was trying to find a spatial coordinate to go with the music, but my ability to manipulate the spatial and visual side of the medium was so hopelessly amateurish (I was skating on one galosh), and the work also had to go through so many hands, that the visual business was only occasionally successful, and most of that was due to the excellent design work of Larry Levy, not me. Too many of my ideas turned out to be only ideas—situations where the reader says, “Oh yeah, I get the idea,” but that’s all there is to get, the idea. I don’t give a shit for ideas—which in fiction represent inadequately embodied projects—I care only for affective effects. I’m still fooling around with visual business, but I am thinking of a way to make them sound. One problem, for instance, is trying to get the sense (in print) of different lines of language being sounded at the same time, or alternately, or at different speeds or pitch, as in music.


In interviews, Gass often talks about the process of writing as a physical act and he often equates literature with the body, as he does in the front and rear cover images in Willie. In the Paris Review interview he talks about deliberately changing his handwriting  one day during college. “I sat down with the greatest deliberation and thought how I would make each letter of the alphabet from that moment on. A strange thing to do. Really strange.”

As an artist you are dealing with a very abstract thing when you are dealing with language (and if you don’t realize that, you miss everything), yet suddenly it is there in your mouth with great particularity—drawl, lisp, spit. When the word passes out into the world, that particularity is ignored; print obliterates it; type has no drawl. But if you can write for that caressing, slurring, foulmouthed singing drunken voice . . . that’s a miracle.

With Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, Gass hijacked the production of his book from cover to cover and forced the images and text to physically interact, creating one of the core works of postmodern writing and metafiction. It’s a book without precedent and, perhaps more oddly, it’s a book that didn’t really spawn any successors.

Coming soon: “Emma Enters a Sentence (and loses her photographs),” on Gass’s novella Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s.