Eating Up All That is Human and Divine: Some Notes on Peter Conners’ Emily Ate the Wind

by Doug Martin



Peter Conners, Emily Ate the Wind
(Marick Press, 2008) 

Set in New York in late fall or early winter, Peter Conners’ Emily Ate the Wind centers around The Bar.  In the first scene, we find Dan, a Bar regular, beaten and dying in the bar’s parking lot.  Then, through stories, sketches, question and answers, prose poems, short newspaper articles, break-up letters from a lover, and vignettes, Conners, in the following chapters, takes us into the tragic lives of a group of people who frequent The Bar. Yet, amidst all the misfortune, moments of humor and transcendentalism surface, and Conners’ soundscapes more than win over the reader for 110 pages.

Numerous times in Emily Ate the Wind, humor offsets the characters’ universal gloom.  Take this passage where Toby, a druggie who skips school, is making the moves on Lucinda, a married real estate agent:

I got this chick dog-style over the end of grandma’s couch and she’s looking for a spanking.  So fine.  That’s what she’s into.  I start slapping her ass.  But grandma’s got The Clapper hooked up to the lights and tv.  So every time I whack this chick’s ass the light go off, the tv goes off, everything.  I whack her again and they go back on.  Every whack: off, on, off, on, off. on. 

Besides the brilliant pun on gonorrhea, what makes this passage even more hilarious is that Lucinda is checking Toby’s pulse the whole time, to make sure he’s not lying.

Still, transcendentalism counterbalances this humor. Examine this Zen-like question and answer session between a mountain and a beach, the tone of which suggests is taking place in the afterlife.  Here, the mountain is describing how, after having been woken by his mother at the beach, he realizes he has been sunburnt: 

Q: And were you?

A: I was.  I pushed the sandy saliva cement off my face, raised up on one elbow, and looked around the beach.  Four seagulls.   A cracked horseshoe crab shell.  Innumerable grains of sand.  Empty paper bag.  I looked down at my stomach:  the sun blazing in through the crossbeam supports of the lifeguard tower had scorched one diagonal line and one horizontal line across my chest.  It looked like a red windowpane.  I looked like a man with a red window burned into his chest.

Q: But you were not.

A: No, I suppose I was not.

One can’t help but recall Chuang Tzu’s dream of being a butterfly and, upon waking, wondering if he is a man who has dreamt of being a butterfly or now a butterfly dreaming he is a man.  In fact, Conners’ whole Q & A section is ambiguous.  Although we are told at chapter’s beginning that the answers are given by a mountain, many of the answers throughout sound like they could be spoken by a beach.  Gary Lutz, in a blurb for the book, takes this chapter literally as an interview with a human sunburn victim. Regardless of interpretation, Conners implies that everything—and everyone—is united in the universe.

In reality, this pantheistic idea is transported throughout the book.  The very first chapter, in which Dan has been beaten and is dying outside the Bar, ends on this Upanishadic, obsessive-compulsive mantra, which Dan seems to be repeating to himself:

Dan is God.

God is Dan.

Dan is nothing less than God.

In God there is Danliness.

In Dan there is Godliness.

If God is Dan and Dan is God…

Add to all this Conners’ syntax and sound-sense, and the book shines more.  Conners measures every sentence, very much aware of language’s unconscious impact on readers.   Case in point, “The Mountains and the Beaches” chapter again—a scene of a girl riding a bicycle—with its overtly sensual “f” and “b” alliterations.  Here, with the “f” alliterations, we are close to Old English prosody:

 There was a constellation of eight freckles forming what looked like a face on the back     

 of her left biceps.  (32)

Or this unique insight, where a fly becomes Coltrane in the buzz of the cigarette smoke:

A fly jazzes in the smoke.  (47)

And this long blast of sound and substance:

The omnipresent twinkling of formless, dying starlight scattered and transmitted across the universe through hypodermic holes incalculable, bleeding out the dark arm of nature’s junkie thin vein. (53)

In this instance, the language is a fix of sound rushing through the reader’s entire body.

In many more passages, one is reminded of Faulkner’s sound-pyrotechnics in As I Lay Dying.  Conners has studied language as well as he has studied the human condition.

All in all, among the tragedy, Conners serves up, in Emily Ate the Wind, a pantheism much like Whitman’s, where each sketch and each character grows like a field of lettuce, each speaking its own unique language and story, yet part of the universal mumble.  And these stories are worth reading over and over, whether you are a Whitman or Faulkner fan or not. If you haven’t read Peter Conners’ work before, or if you are a huge fan, you will find this book startling in its complexity, and holding the most beautiful black holes and sparkles that make us human and God.