Milton writes, “Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit / Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast / Brought Death into the World, and all our woe” (I.1-3). These first few lines don’t make a lot of sense until the reader arrives at line 6, which begins “Sing Heav’nly Muse” and even then the muse as noun may just sound like more nonsense tumbling down the page, like rocks, a hill. The reader may recognize and identify the ideas in the lines and relate death to the “Fruit,” but that’s not what the prolegomena wants. It wants narrative understanding.
To make sense, the syntactical elements of the lines have to be reordered: “Sing Heav’nly Muse of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit Of that Forbidden Tree.” Reading Milton is a continual, and often brutally difficult, act of reordering sound from one language and formal tradition to another: Latin verse structures to modern English conventions, where, for most of us, strict word orders or grammatical schemes have been enforced since grammar school.
The brain, we know in general, must reorder arbitrary sounds constantly into meaningful patterns. And people tend to learn how to read Paradise Lost, which is not really an act of reading English but of reordering grammatical patterns into the logics of poetry.
Tim Lockridge’s hypertext A Sky of Cinders published at New River, begins, unlike Milton’s poem, with a strict adherence to English language word order. The first reading space after the title page is shown below:
“It is the summer of ash” is about as straight forward as a writer can cut to establishing time. “It is” means it isn’t something else. For example, this is not winter. During this “summer of ash” we “stand beneath the broken sunset” in an environment where the clouds are no longer high, fluffy, and inviting, but tangible and, like the sunsets, breakable. The noun verb structures are tight, the sense units short. The second person address hammers us to the window. In this presentation, every word matters, and every gray text link is surrounded by pepper-colored symbols. The links are the color of the falling ash or the surrounding words are their smears.
In that first space, the reader is oriented to place, time, and texture. The aggregate image as a result is apocalyptic. “Summer of ash” could easily mean “Nuclear winter.” But in this space, whatever the grounding associations, we are left standing with ash on our shirts. And we can’t help but reach up and crush the clouds in our “fists.”
Clicking on the link “ash” takes us to the next reading space, found below:
The style of orientation in Lockridge’s hypertext is, up to this point, driven by point of view, similar to Carlos Fuentes’ novel Aura. Other readers may disclose more. “You” is the first read word. The reader learns more about “us” after clicking “ash.” The “you” collects books about the sky. Star patterns are held in “memory.” The first sentence assists the reader with an orientation to time by anchoring us to a specific now: “You begin to collect books about the sky” is a present moment, a starting point to the narrative after the original space orients us to the general conditions of the fictional world. I collect books. With these books, claims the second, longer sentence, I “commit constellations to memory” and when I close my eyes, I see the patterns of the stars in my inner, darker eye.
Yet, even in this short space, there are deeper gaps to think about or linger on. Lockridge avoids an article between “about sky,” framing sky in greater conceptual interpretability. The word “sky,” therefore, is a place to stop and reconsider. Sky sky sky, no “the.” What are these books about sky. I can see myself holding them, books about what is behind the clouds. Is the sky gone now, only known from books. Have the stars themselves disappeared from normal experience?
This “gap” between “about” and “sky” is critically important to reading hypertext or any other work, be it prose or poem or painting. We learn a lot from what isn’t revealed or made plain. “Sky” in this syntactical scheme is of enormous importance to Lockridge’s world because in that world “Sky” has been eliminated from human observational experience. Wow.
Clicking on the link “eyes,” the reader proceeds to the following space:
From the experience with books and memory, we move to “Cherry and Walnut,” where “A man sits” strumming “a guitar.” We are in this place for a good amount of time, observing and listening. The reader knows this because of the “tenseless” but time orienting “Between songs . . . ” As observers, we are provided no emotional responses, only images from observation. We bring with us the straining to recall constellations to a new place, where a man struggles with the ash, cleaning the strings of the guitar, cursing his dirty shoes. In between all this, we have a momentary vision of mystery, a shape “kicked away when he stretches his legs.”
In these three pages, the writer uses the framing window of the hypertext to nail us to a grimy world, sprinkles the sentence with ash-colored links, and orients us, as any writer would, even Milton, with opportunities to construct narrative order.
In these first three parts of my series, I’ve introduced readings of two hypertexts according to two basic principles: 1. the sentence as a sense unit and 2. a reading habit, the linger. More guiding principles will come and they will be used to frame readings, to create a context for reading hypertext. One issue that may develop is a problem with genre. It may become an issue that both Bottle of Beer and A Sky of Cinder draw from several traditions of the literary arts. The details and relations may not matter, but I do know that orientation happens and that, in some cases, “finishing” the hypertext is less important than lingering on the spaces in which their language is made available. In a house, we may not visit every room to know that we have experienced it. Still, the story arc is important, but for that I’ll have to wait till later entries, and I build on these starting points. I have, after all, just begun. I’m interested to know, where the things might end.