The Poetry of Cormac McCarthy

 

(These paragraphs that follow come from pp 5-6 in Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing [Knopf, 1994]. The first 100 or so pages involve little more than Billy's relationship with a wolf. Yet, these pages did more than hold my attention. They elevated my normal powers of attention, creating a kind of "reader's trance," unique to the writing arts. How was this effect produced? Since very little happens in this section of the novel (if you discount the murder of the boy's parents-a scene delivered with masterful understatement) it surely has to do with McCarthy's prose style. In the following passages, see if you can feel the lyric quality of the prose—a lyricism so intense that it takes flight in a burst of pure iambic phrasing, spiked with spondee, so that it can easily be read in poetic form. Here is the passage with the second paragraph rendered below in poetic form):

 

They crossed through the dried leaves in the river bed and rode till they came to a tank or pothole in the river and he dismounted and watered the horse while Boyd walked the shore looking for muskrat sign. The indian Boyd passed crouching on his heels did not even raise his eyes so that when he sensed him there and turned the indian was looking at his belt and did not lift his eyes even then until he'd stopped altogether. He could have reached and touched him. The indian squatting under a thin stand of Carrizo cane and not even hidden and yet Boyd had not seen him. He was holding across his knees an old singleshot 32 rimfire rifle and had been waiting in the dusk for something to come to water for him to kill. He looked into the eyes of the boy. The boy into his. Eyes so dark they seemed all pupil. Eyes in which the sun was setting. In which the child stood beside the sun.

          He had not known that you could see yourself in others' eyes nor see therein such things as suns. He stood twinned in those dark wells with hair so pale, so thin and strange, the selfsame child.  As if it were some cognate child to him that had been lost who now stood windowed away in another world where the red sun sank eternally. As if it were a maze where these orphans of his heart had miswandered in their journey in life and so arrived at last beyond the wall of that antique gaze from whence there could be no way back forever.

          From where he stood he could not see his brother or the horse. He could see the slow rings moving out over the water where the horse stood drinking beyond the stand of cane and he could see the slight flex of the muscle beneath the skin of the indian's lean and hairless jaw. 

 

 

He had not known that you could see yourself

in others' eyes

nor see therein such things as suns.

He stood twinned in those dark wells

with hair so pale, so thin and strange,

the selfsame child. 

As if it were some cognate child to him

that had been lost

who now stood windowed away in another world

where the red sun sank eternally.

As if it were a maze

where these orphans of his heart had miswandered

in their journey in life

and so arrived at last beyond the wall

of that antique gaze

from whence there could be no way back forever.

 

And it continues:

 

He  had  not  known

he  could  not  see his  brother  or  the  horse.

 

The "trance" this book produces has little to do with happiness, escape, or suspense. It is a space the poets talk about and open doors to as in the "drowsy numbness"  or the "wakeful anguish of the soul" spoken of by Keats, or the epiphanies of Joyce. In such cases, the "message" of the book is found in the "condition" it produces in us.

 

The Crossing is Volume 2 of a Border Trilogy which includes All The Pretty Horses and the concluding City of the Plains.