In This Alone Impulse by Shya Scanlon
New to my life in the last few years are a pair of nieces. One is mine. One belongs to my girlfriend. Both are now in the twos, one very soon to hit three. So, new to my life in the last few years is the opportunity to observe the process of language acquisition.
On a recent early morning, I heard one of the nieces in her crib, waiting on her mother's arrival and her breakfast. She was repeating a single word to herself -- the word was "snowbear," the name of a stuffed polar bear she likes -- in a sing-songy way. She varied the stress, lengthened either of the two open syllables of the compound name she had attached to her stuffed toy. She was practicing, alone. Eventually her mother arrived, and she ended her game, and worked to communicate her needs and desires using what she had been practicing. She pointed to the shelf -- the one covered with stuffed animals -- and requested Snowbear with a point and the word.
Shya Scanlon's new book, In This Alone Impulse, is a collection of seven line -- well, prose things. On the back of the book, a line of shelving assistance from the publisher refers to it as "Poetry, kind of" -- a line that uses the book cover's second most interesting comma -- and this is as apt a description as can be given. The Scanlon work that I know, the work that I was introduced to before In This Alone Impulse, is narrative: a few short stories, and a novel (Forecast) serialized over a series of blogs -- including, full disclosure, my own -- and soon to be made a print book by Flatmancrooked. In This Alone Impulse is something very much different. And what it is is hard to say beyond this: it is interesting. It is very much worth reading.
What are the alone impulses? Among them are napping, drinking, masturbating, eating, jogging, crying, solo dancing, online shopping, and -- significant to this discussion -- writing. Scanlon's alone impulses may include all the others. But the book is the result of only one -- or, possibly two -- of these impulses. (The first and most interesting comma of the book cover is on the front, after the title, and leads into the authors name, creating this sentence: "In this alone impulse, Shya Scanlon." In other alone impulses, someone else perhaps.) And like the nation's many nieces, In This Alone Impulse seems an exploration first and foremost of the private practicing of word learning. Or word wallowing. Here, the beginning of the piece called "Stub toward": "I'm short some. I'm callow, caw. I'm cork. I'm grin about to grab you, grab about to take you home."
Scanlon alliterates methodically through the work, searching his dictionary for words to follow words that sound like the words they follow. For phrases to follow phrases that pick up cues from the previous phrases. But In This Alone Impulse is not merely a scattershot scat song dropping all meaning in favor of the joy of its own sound, it is a search for order and meaning somewhere -- somewhere -- within its oddball syntax, repetitions, and wordplay.
A favorite moment of mine in any Sonic Youth song is the breakdown where feedback and string wipes and finger freakouts overwhelm the tune. The drums tend to remain steady, though. The song breaks and the noise builds. The noise builds and the musicians get farther away from one another. The cacophony threatens to overwhelm the listener, and then a little silence, and little turn, and the song returns the way it was before the breakdown, proving that it was in there all along. The prose pieces of In This Alone Impulse work toward some kind of meaning. "Go beside, and speak" begins: "I am from I have been thinking. I am from it feels like. I am from seeing through something." Three places it is very difficult to be from. But by the third sentence in this trio, one can go back and get a sense of sense. The piece teaches you to read it, as the book does. When it turns and ends with "It is not something to see more than, always more than, a lip not there for kissing," the ambiguity falls away, and the foundation to the piece -- be it a concrete meaning or a harder to pin down feeling toward meaning -- shows you that it was there all along.
And the book works in the same way. As a single piece teaches you to read it and enjoy it -- and, in your own peculiar way, understand it -- the accumulation of pieces does much the same. Given time alone, this is the way words will sometimes work within us.
In This Alone Impulse is lively, funny, and intoxicating in this way. It is language moonshine, and when I say this, I refer both to the illicit corn whiskey snuck around back country roads, and the light reflected to us when we look up into the night sky and see that dear, familiar old rock looking down. There may be those who object to how much we enjoy In This Alone Impulse. And there may be those who object to our worship of a primal kind of creativity. Let the revenuers and the anti-pagans get so angry, they stammer and spit uncontrollably, though, until they cease to make sense. We'll turn the page and sing-song Snowbear.
In This Alone Impulse by Shya Scanlon