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Sandy Florian
The Tree of No
reviewed by
Robert Savino Oventile
111 pp. Action Books. US $12. 9780979975523 paper

This review is about 4 printed pages long. It is copyright © Robert Savino Oventile and Jacket magazine 2009.
See our [»»] copyright notice.

Sandy Florian’s Recreations


As a reader of the King James Bible and of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, I never anticipated a contemporary author would, by reverse-engineering those works, simultaneously delineate anew their imaginal worlds and break into a realm of imaginative thought so singularly her own. But I had yet to read Sandy Florian’s The Tree of No.


An experimental lyric novel retelling the Biblical-Miltonic fall and its aftermath, The Tree of No arrives in the wake of Florian’s Telescope (Action Books, 2006) and 32 Pedals & 47 Stops (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2007), each a sequence of poems. Telescope meditates on aporias of reference, reification, and self-articulation. 32 Pedals anatomizes the disjunctions of selves from moments of potential revelation, selves unknowingly despairing of self-knowledge. Telescope and 32 Pedals demand and gratify the utmost attentiveness, as is the case with the sentences fruitfully multiplying throughout The Tree of No.

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The thoughts Florian articulates fully motivate the sportive intricacies characterizing the experiments with English her works pursue. The speedy bookworm might read either Telescope or 32 Pedals in one sitting and enjoy thoroughly ways with words elsewhere unavailable. This dictum applies also and especially to The Tree of No, the invigorating language of which buoyantly carries the reader along.


But, among several distinct readerly challenges, Florian weaves into The Tree of No invitations to listen for the echoes of myriad precursors’ words and thoughts, most notably Biblical resonances arcing from Genesis to Revelation and refracting from Paradise Lost’s close-ups of the Edenic garden where Adam and Eve fall into exile.


In preparation to encounter sentences from the overture of Florian’s novel, recall the openings of the Bible and of Milton’s epic. In Genesis, by commanding first the beasts and then the humans to “[b]e fruitful, and multiply” (1.22, 28), God asks them to continue the work of creation in which he lets himself engage, a work Genesis 1.1-27 articulates as a burgeoning, vital proliferation of differences, the birthing into distinct existence of light and dark, sea and land, fish and birds, and human males and females. Alluding to this parallel between the creatures’ fruitfulness and God’s, Milton opens Paradise Lost by describing how, in the act of creating the cosmos, God, as “Spirit,” “with mighty wings outspread / Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss / And mad’st it pregnant” (1.17, 20-22).


Now consider Florian’s opening sentences:


Beastly, I fall at Adam under the shade, unclocked, first frocked, ovened at the core, from words no western man can wet. Beastly, I fall at Adam under the shade, shaking shadows from the shadows, pretending, beastly, that toads aboard the oncoming train are throned, green toads of the goodliest worth. Beastly, debarred, hunted, wanton, I take refuge by the timber, entrapped in the awkward position of waking. (1)


In Genesis, having listened to the serpent’s wetting words, Eve eats the forbidden fruit, draws Adam into her act, and then hides from God among the shady trees, feeling as if scales have fallen from her eyes. In Paradise Lost, before the fall, Satan whispers into Eve’s ear a dream in which the angelically winged demon praises the fruit and declares his desire to eat: “This said he paused not, but with vent’rous arm / He plucked, he tasted” (5.64-5). Satan does not hesitate, and Eve only does so briefly, falling when her “sensual Appetite” usurps within her the place of “sovran Reason” (9.1129-30).


Milton has the archangel Raphael explain to Adam that he and Eve share in common with the beasts a capacity for pleasurable sensation, which Raphael opposes to what he argues the beasts lack: “Reason” (8.591). Only because of the capacity for free, rational choice are Adam and Eve “[s]ufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (3.99). Along with Milton’s Eve and Adam, Florian implicitly refuses the Miltonic God’s stratification of sensation under reason.


Florian explores the fall as an act undertaken willingly, with sensation fully open to reason and reason fully open to sensation, however much both border on the inexpressible. In The Tree of No, despite anticipating the female gender’s sufferance of less than Adamic “toads,” the narrator, anything but anorexic, does not hesitate:


Beastly, foaming, feral, foul, fit to stand, fit to fall, unhesitate to taste the waste. Beastly and with blistered fingers, bear the blossom from the blossom, pare the pleasure off the round, and taste, for the first time the adamantine sublimity, nine times the measure of day and night. (1-2)


How what Milton calls “Spirit” could participate (even metaphorically) in any impregnation should be a puzzle. Florian’s narrator ponders “Joseph the husband of Mary, who begets Jesus, by that little mechanical indiscretion that does not beget” (80). Christianity’s God must only contribute to immaculate conceptions, but in figuring Genesis’s event of creation as a “Dove” copulating with an “Abyss,” Milton half remembers the blank earth and deep waters of Genesis 1.2, certainly “without form, and void,” so for Milton an “Abyss,” but also fluid, prolific, and participant, the qualities the belated dogma of the creatio ex nihilo demands Bible readers forget entirely, as the contemporary theologian Catherine Keller forcefully contends. What the Immaculate Conception is to Christ, the creatio ex nihilo is to the cosmos.


“Beastly, foaming, feral, foul, fit to stand, fit to fall, unhesitate to taste the waste”: the Biblical-Miltonic fall, in Florian’s novel, becomes an event an act countersigns, the event-act (“I fall at Adam”) of an “I” unhesitatingly participant in the flourishing proliferation of the creation Genesis articulates but predominant Christian traditions strive to forget. Through the novel’s “I” swarm forces of creation the logic of the Immaculate Conception or the creatio ex nihilo would implicitly subordinate as “Beastly.” Florian superbly recovers those forces, but to conclude that her narrator personifies them would be misleading insofar as a reader thinks of personification as the human embodiment of some serenely static abstraction. Rather, the “I” of Florian’s novel emerges as the turbulent, actantial locus of an ongoing event of recreational inventiveness.


Exercising this inventiveness, the novel’s “I” articulates penetrating meditations on imagination, dreams, religion, war, civilization, and so on. Beginning with a redo of Eve and Adam’s fall, the novel moves on to the felling of trees to make way for roads and cities, continues through a set of Psalms, and arrives at a replay of Revelation only to finish with a post-apocalyptic affirmation: “But the sin in me says I” (111). Florian takes this statement from Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace (Trans. Arthur Wills; University of Nebraska Press, 1997), specifically from the aphoristic meditations Weil’s posthumous editor grouped under the title “The Self”: “The sin in me says ‘I’” (76).


Weil argues that, to heal the rift in being the distinct existence of the “I” constitutes, the “I” must relinquish back to God the existence God gives. The process accomplishing this giving back Weil calls decreation, to “make something pass into the uncreated,” as distinct from destruction, to “make something created pass into nothingness” (78). To return to “the uncreated” would be an act of love toward God on the part of the “I.”


In Decreation (Knopf, 2005), Anne Carson articulates the logic of Weil’s program for disappearance in finely eloquent detail and notes the complex irony writing about this program involves: “To tell is a function of self,” so telling of decreation remains in paradox to decreation, a paradox only heightened when the teller attempts to perform decreation by writing out a “dream of distance in which the self is displaced from the centre of the work and the teller disappears into the telling” (172, 173).


A full consideration of Florian’s departure from Carson’s reading of Weil awaits a work in progress of which this review will become a part. For now, consider the following thesis: The Tree of No’s narrating “I,” rather than simply either being or not being of the creation, recreates (in) the creation’s creation, a dynamic blossoming predominant strains of the Christian tradition learned to call “sin,” just as those strains learned to call the uncreated precedents of creation “nothing.” In The Tree of No, the teller betrays no compulsion to disappear into the telling. Indeed and to the contrary, in perusing The Tree of No’s sentences, the reader travels a path from the novel’s first two words, “Beastly, I,” to the novel’s closing word, “I.” In the interval, the reader enjoys marvelous recreations.

Robert Savino Oventile

Robert Savino Oventile

Robert Savino Oventile professes English literature and composition at Pasadena City College. He has published essays and reviews in Crossings, American@, Stirrings Still, Postmodern Culture, Comitatus, The Review of Communication, and inside english, among other journals. He is the author of Impossible Reading: Idolatry and Diversity in Literature (Davies Group, 2008).

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