MacLeish Sq. by Dennis Must

Edward Said, writing about Beethoven’s late style, defined late style as that time wherein the artist freed from the expected cultural and historical restraints of form and content unleashes a newness that both confounds and instructs. Dennis Must has achieved that hour of newness in MacLeish Sq (Red Hen Press, 209 pages). With its visual complexities coupled to broad-ranging literary interconnections, Must’s writing raises the text to a “beyond” state where the readers have to let go of what they know. The readers must accept that their own hidden stories have been eclipsed and take this writing on its own without any pre-conceived notions of what “a novel” is or should be. Roland Barthes, now out of fashion to the post-post modern mind, wrote in his essays–Degrée zéro de l’écriture–that there are two kinds of writers which he called “l’écrivain and l’écrivant.” Must, in MacLeish Sq., brings us a third iteration of writer as his work approaches mythic status in which time, character, past, present, alive, dead—just a few of the literary polarities inhabiting this writing—interact at a level no reader can accept without relinquishing his/her own sense of person and being. Interweaving Dante, Melville, Hawthorne, Pirandello into a single narrative that seizes the essence of each, isn’t a style most readers will be comfortable with. Here, however, Must puts them together with such skill that the author lives on par with the masters. It will take an honest reader to admit–I have never read anything like this.

And this is why: Must gives us a writing that isn’t built on the usual dramatic structure with its twists and disguises, its dramatic plot points and ridiculous and predictable revelations, but a study in both style and structure that foregoes the ordinary and launches the reader on an experience perhaps unique in American writing. I have nothing but admiration for the chosen format in this writing although, as a novelist, I know that Must will run headlong into a cultural buzzsaw when this piece meets the mechanical mind where the puzzle, presented by the short line sections enclosing long-arcing philosophical aspects, will bring only the perceptive reader to a meaningful crossroads and a profound intellectual challenge. This writing is a form that generates its own dynamics. The artist here takes chances in structure while maintaining an absolute connection to the canonical language and in doing so produces in his late style a shining delicacy in a world that exists beyond its artistic past. Taken on its own and as it is, this writing brings rich rewards to the daring reader bored with living on the flat plain of latter-day American novels.

Jack Remick, author of Citadel 2017

Excerpt
I shadowed the throng out of MacLeish Sq. toward the river. A half-moon effected an icy overcast on the water. As they moved along its banks toward the Wood, the flickering votive candles suggested fireflies, a swarm of them in the thrall of a bright amber glow emanating from the lantern now suspended high from Ishmael’s scepter.

Within minutes, the Wood of the Suicides quivered with light.

Outside I waited for Ishmael to summon her presence.

Instead, there was no sound.

I saw only the votive lights scurrying among the trees in a demoniac frenzy, but the illumination from Ishmael’s lanterns, held aloft, never stirred. I envisioned his acolytes being swept about the trees by a violent wind. Yet there was no sound to indicate that or even an audible buzzing.

Deadly silence.

Until the votive lights, not unlike a ring around Saturn, returned to the cluster about the lantern’s amber glow.

As if in a moment of quiescence.

Then it came…the high-pitched lament that had induced the Basilica’s stained-glass windows to shudder.

A keen so penetrating that it froze the soul.

Amid this aria, the votive lights scurried haphazardly throughout the Wood.

The spirits of the suicides taking flight.

Only Ishmael’s amber lantern light shone motionless.

The piercing sound ceased.

Exiting the Wood one by one, each votive-candle holder walked separately back toward the Sq. Only after they’d disappeared did I see the lantern light extinguish and Ishmael reappear, dressed in street clothes. The black cloak, scepter, and unlit lantern he carried by his side.

I chose to hang back and considered entering the Wood.

Did I think I’d meet her there?

Like the embers of a waning fire, a haunting murmur caused the Wood to seem alive. As if Ishmael and his entourage had awakened those who had sought peace with its within its embrace. I feared who –or what—I might encounter among the singing trees for she had often talked about “going to another place.”

Had she called it Heaven so as not to terrify me? Is that the way despondent mothers broach the truth?

Instead, I walked away. At an earlier time, I would have been unable to resist running headlong into my worst fears, convincing myself I’d find her there…and then be forced to witness her anguish.
“Yes, I lied to you, Eli. I’ve been drawn to these woods since I was a child. Couldn’t you tell? Who would not dream of entering the wood where the trees weep?

The Basilica looked dark when I climbed its front steps. But when I entered, a lady in gray appeared and handed me a blanket like those other nights I’d taken refuge within its walls.

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