In Jorge Luis Borges’ famous story, “The Aleph,” a character goes into a cellar and looks at a particular part of it, a mere point, and through it he sees the entire universe. It’s a dizzying concept that makes graduate students go, “Ooh,” when they read it, but it’s also a metaphor for how writing often works, especially descriptive passages. A single detail can provide a glimpse of something much larger—the universe or a relationship or the internal self. The problem is finding that detail and, when you do, knowing how to look through it.
A great example of how quickly a single detail can expand into a world can be found in Nicelle Davis’ poem “In a Note Not Given to the Addressee,” which is part of her new novel-in-poems, In the Circus of You. You can read it now at A cappella Zoo (it’s the third poem in the excerpt).
How the Poem Works
The poem begins with this line: “There is a hole the size of your fist in our bathroom door.” This is, of course, a powerful image, and, if you imagine it as an aleph and put your eye to that hole in the door, you can quickly imagine the sort of things you might see: violence, anger, fear, and all the ways they can appear. The next line seems to set up some of those emotions: “My fault, I’m told, for pushing the hinge towards your movements.” Imagine if the poem had looked through that hole and seen the speaker of the poem, hiding in the bathroom. What do you think the poem would see? The obvious answer is a kind of keyhole snapshot of a woman. But that’s not exactly where the poem goes.
Instead of peering through the hole and seeing the speaker the way that a camera would, the poem uses the hole to see into the speaker: “I used to dream of large machines with hands pounding apart concrete so a single seed could be sown.” This is a fitting image, as it keeps with the violence of the hole. But it also moves far beyond that original image, as do the next lines, which move forward in time and also outward, giving us a glimpse of the relationship over a long period of time:
After this spectacle of effort, I’d wake with a fever of 103. You never understood how I could be sick so often.
When I teach poetry to a lecture hall full of students required to take an English course, I talk about how poems often try to move as far as they can from line to line. The thrill in reading the poem, if you feel any thrill, is in appreciating how far it can jump and still maintain some sort of coherence. In the presence of undergrads, I usually refer to this quality as something particular to poetry, but the truth is that prose writers make these leaps as well. Just read Vladimir Nabokov, Toni Morrison, or Paul Harding.
It’s the same kind of leap that Borges made with the aleph. When you peer through a descriptive detail, what you see is not simply the next logical detail but something unexpected. The surprise we feel is often what pulls us through the writing, whether it’s prose or poetry.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s make intuitive leaps in description, using “In a Note Not Given to the Addressee” by Nicelle Davis as a model:
- Start with a scene that contains strong emotion. Davis’ scene contains anger and fear, but these aren’t your only options. Any emotion will work. The goal is to access a moment for a character, narrator, person, or speaker when they are ready to see or look beyond what is right in front of their faces. Those moments are usually accompanied by powerful feelings. This is true in life as well: when we’re feeling love or joy or satisfaction or anger, our minds tend to leap beyond the immediate circumstances to the past or future or places that don’t exist and never will. Anxiety is a perfect example of this: It’s a feeling that pulls you out of the moment and into some possible future. So, choose some scene in which you, the writer, or the character you’re writing about are feeling charged up.
- Find your aleph. Of course, you may be thinking, “Sure, I’ll just find that perfect, all-seeing, all-encompassing detail. Wait, what’s that in my pocket? Oh, there it is.” Most of us can’t find that detail in one try. So, start brainstorming. If you drop yourself into the scene, what do you see? Davis choose a point of impact (literally), where the emotion has erupted into action. This is a pretty direct image (though it’s not as direct as an image of the fist punching through the door). You can choose something that directly conveys the emotion, or you can look to the side, at something that is next to the thing that directly conveys the emotion. Regardless of what you choose, try looking through it. Does the image make you want to keep writing? Or do read it and feel your energy drop. This is hardly scientific, but that’s how writing often works. Look for an image that revs up or directs your already charged emotional state.
- Jump past the obvious next detail. Davis could have looked through the hole in the door and seen a woman. But that would be obvious. Of course that’s what is visible through the door. The reader understands the logic of the scene and can intuit that next step. So, move beyond it. You can move chronologically (what came before the scene or what comes after). You can move from the physical to the mental/emotional/spiritual (which is what Davis does). You can zoom out (which she also does) or zoom in. You can jump sideways to a moment or image that fits in some way with the image or moment where you began. Try all of these. Some will work and some won’t. You may find that once you make one intuitive jump, you’re able to make others. The first leap gives you and your writing permission to move out of the immediate scene and toward some detail that surprises not just the reader but you as well.
Good luck and have fun.