when a writer is found inside the pages of her own novel: Elizabeth Hand in RADIANT DAYS

Monday, February 9, 2015

I suppose, as with books, there can only be one single beginning to a blog post. The problem here is that I don't know which beginning to choose.

I could start with my introduction to Elizabeth Hand, through my friend Collen Mondoor—Read Illyria, Colleen whispered, and I did. I wrote of it here.

My appreciation for that book and its author fueled a friendship with Liz, so much so that once, too long ago, this Maine-besotted writer traveled all the way to Philly on book tour and spent some time with me. We walked the parking lot of a strip mall on a rainy day. Up and back. Up and back. The rain in our hair. It could have gone on all day.

Then Liz went back to her world and I to mine. I knew that she was working on a book that mattered deeply to her—a book that had her hero, Arthur Rimbaud, at its heart. I knew that she was studying the man, translating his poetry, finding a way to make this French poet of the late 19th century come alive (this young genius declared a genius by the genius Patti Smith) for teen readers today. I knew about the project, but mostly what Liz and I began to write of then were our lives off the pages—hers in her rural world, mine in suburbia. Lives. This is what we spoke about.

So here is another beginning. A week or so ago, a padded envelope appeared at my front door—a gift from the Viking editor Sharyn November. We'd been talking about books that matter. I was naming titles, she was naming titles, we were having the kind of conversation two lovers of books have; it was that simple. Here, in this envelope, were books that Sharyn loved. There, in the mix, was Elizabeth Hand, her Rimbaud book, Radiant Days, a book that Sharyn edited (Sharyn edited Illyria as well).

Which I finished reading this morning—a smile on my face. For Liz has done it, found a way to tell this story about a renegade poet of the 1870s and a 1978 painter, also renegade, who has dropped out of Corcoran to find her way. She's armed herself with cans of spray paint.

Time melts for these two characters. They meet—and Liz makes it believable. Washington, DC, and Paris bend, and the scenes are impeccably drawn, believable. Uniting the two is a former rock star named Ted Kampfert, a homeless guitarist who says, among so much else, "Magic isn't something you do. It's something you make. And if you don't make something and leave it behind, it's not just that it's gone. You're gone."

This book, Liz Hand, is magic made.

Here is Merle, musing on the wonder of this otherworldly collision with Arthur Rimbaud:
I wasn't sure what had changed—if Arthur's presence had somehow altered the sidewalks and back alleys around us, the way his poem had shaken something loose inside of me, something I couldn't articulate and maybe couldn't even paint: not so much a different way of seeing the world as a different way of feeling it. Maybe because when I was with him, I didn't need to explain who I was; maybe because he seemed even more out of place in the streets of Georgetown than I was. With him, I felt the way I did when I gazed at The Temptation of Saint Anthony—as though the world held a secret that I was on the verge of discovering. 
Here is part of the world they inhabit, during their one glorious burning night:
Behind the Dumpster a narrow alley wound between an overgrown hedge and a brick wall, so encrusted with ivy it was like burrowing into a green tunnel. Moonlight seeped through the tangled branches overhead, and there was a pallid yellow glow from the upper windows of a nearby row house. After twenty feet or so the alley widened into a tiny courtyard surrounded by buildings in varying stages of decay. Cracked flagstones covered the ground, along with dead leaves and several plastic chairs that had blown over. Small tables were pushed against the rear of a warehouse, its windows boarded shut. A tattered CLOSED sign flapped from a door chained with a padlock.

Note: I might have also launched this blog post with the news that I had been holding, in my hands, another graffiti novel. I don't know how many of them there are, but Merle, Liz's contemporary character, has herself a mean tag (Radiant Days) and glorious command of color and meaning. I wished, as I read Liz's powerful graffiti passages, that my Ada (of Going Over) could time warp and meet Liz's Merle. That they could stand together and talk about art and about the people who are missing from their lives.

Because, in meeting Merle, I know that I am also meeting, anew, Liz Hand—a brilliant woman whose life has been seeped in art and Rimbaud and who makes unusual and therefore lasting books because she (and this is rare) can.


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