A novella in pictures: Lives of Passion
Gene McCormick’s Lives of Passion: Edward and Antoinette (Rockford, Illinois: RWG Press, 2013), the author’s thirteenth book, is a series of interlocking prose poems that tell, in seventeen short pieces, the story of an ordinary couple–mid-century figures whose lives have run together–from childhood on. The meanings of “passion” here include a strong connection to life through physical experience and contact with things: the sensations of childhood, when everything touched is an experiment or discovery and time seems long, or the sensuality that persists in the characters even when only manifested through Edward’s mild voyeurism or Antoinette’s taste for wine. Passion also signals the slow erosion of their bond and their bodies as they struggle against, but also toward death.
The bright and impersonal light that bursts on the characters when, as children, they come up from play in a darkened basement, “back up the stairs, through the empty kitchen into the wide sunny yard” (II) is not mentioned directly but appears to break again after Antoinette’s lonely death in a dim apartment—
It is a broad avenue of young cars, of people of an age to possess them, of dusty dreams long ago set aside. Antoinette lived on this passageway, and so did Edward, but they don’t anymore.
These changes in light are also the indices of time that structure this collection in a complex rhythm. Between youth and middle age decades flash by, and we only catch glimpses of the couple’s lives. Sections of days, on the other hand, are slow and richly drawn, with a painterly emphasis on lines and dimensions, color, shadow, and luminosity:
On a straight-back wooden chair alone in her bedroom, Antoinette lifts her bare leg as high as it will go—not straight like a horizon line but bent sharply, knee-to-ankle hanging vertically as a faded orange swath painted on air.
The room is enveloped in dusk-gray, with dim white lights bordering the mirror. Focusing, she draws a Band-Aid on her right wrist with a mascara brush, rendering it not at all life-like.
Painterly as well is the weight given physical objects, and the treatment of the characters as figures in a visual field. Textures are thrown into relief as our eye is drawn in close, while tableaux like photographs come into view as we step back. Subtle shifts in perspective work to create a thickly layered realism:
On Tuesday mornings the elderly lady shops for discounted fruits and vegetables, near-rotted and priced at a dollar a box. Other shoppers bump her ankles with their carts and reach and grab items from in front of her. It is terrifying.
Things have as much substance as people, and are granted equal weight. Visual tension is tight and the characters’ struggle with the material world (or the inanimate, or what comes before words and lies beyond them) is closely framed--
. . . do you remember the primordial days of school . . . when teachers awarded gold stars for accomplishments and they had glue on the back you had to lick anyway and fell off . . . and when you tried to pick them off the ground . . . or even the top of your shoe, the corners would get bent because your stubby fingers weren’t adroit?
There are conversations in this book but we do not hear the characters reflect, or speak to themselves except, perhaps, in this passage, where Edward contemplates the Taiwanese girl he hired the night before:
A half-empty wine glass sits on the edge of the nightstand, her underwear is beside the bed and other clothes scattered about. Christ, he says to himself, running a hand through matted hair, Christ.
Instead we see them act and dissimulate. The scenes they set as mirrors in which to form themselves and later, to keep up appearances are also spaces of investigation, or frames for a kind of quest. Passion is this search, purposeful even if not explained as these complicit, isolated, only apparently aimless characters contemplate first each other, then the dark.
Edward disappears from the narrative before Antoinette, whom we last perceive in a precarious old age. The soup can in her cabinet is now the only object in the house etched clearly. The narrow dank of this life at its end makes the series’ last shot, of the avenue of “young cars” where Antoinette and Edward once lived, but “don’t anymore,” seem almost a spiritual revelation. It may not be news that the world is made of small lives and draws its depth from this, but the vista still startles.
These characters are not interesting or even particularly likeable as people, and there are sordid undercurrents in their life together from early on. Unlike Antoinette’s family friends (III) they do not entirely avoid interaction, do not keep things under control; this is why their wavering path through the world becomes an addition to it.
McCormick’s poetic prose hits no false notes, and he sketches the story out as quickly as we can follow it. Read straight through the narrative is heady, taking us in just a few minutes from the “primordial days” of childhood to the world as it appears after death. Each piece also stands on its own and entices the reader to look long and look again, as with a set of installations, souls built word by word.
Reviewed by Leslie Bary. Leslie's training is in Comparative Literature, and she has worked primarily in modern poetry and poetics as well as literary translation. She is on the faculty in Hispanic Studies at the University of Louisian at Lafayette. Her current book project is That Discerning Eye: Vision, Race, and the State in Modern Latin American Literature. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.