Arvidson '08 merges poetry, prose, memory in senior thesis

by Worthy Dye | 5/6/08 1:47am

Arvidson chose to write a 'multimedia novel,' titled
by Joanne Cheung / The Dartmouth

"I like to write early in the morning or late at night, when I'm half-awake and too lazy to filter ideas but also open so I can sit down and just write," Arvidson said. "My writing can flow freely because I'm not editing as I go."

Arvidson has produced a strangely seductive piece with a poetic rhythm that lures the reader into a webbed narrative. The layered story spins around the almost genetic impulses of a long line of flighty women, focusing on the youngest runaway granddaughter, Prayerie. Within the young girl's journey is the story of her grandmother's escape from the religious oppression of Italy and her own mother's abandonment.

Many of these fictional interpretations were influenced by Arvidson's own life. As a child, Arvidson made several attempts at running away, and last summer she discovered Robert Frost's poem "The Hill Wife," which discusses a woman in flight from her husband. Arvidson described the poem as "uncanny" and said it invariably found its way into the novel.

The character of the grandmother, Vedova, is loosely based on Arvidson's own grandmother, who converted to Pentecostalism from Catholicism and subsequently immigrated to America. Arvidson recalled the moment when her grandmother handed over her first Bible, warning sternly not to "give into temptation." Arvidson also admitted that her grandmother at one point in her life had spoken in tongues. These experiences with religion left an indelible mark on Arvidson, who describes herself as "vaguely Protestant."

Her grandmother raised her with stories from her past. It's from these gripping tales that Arvidson draws her recording of oral history, which she describes as "capturing the tongues on the page, pinning them down wriggling and alive."

In her novel, Arvidson expresses the rhythms of oral history, a feeling of sound hard to replicate in the text of "Eleven."

"Her words had hooks. 'Let me tell you about ...' I had to listen. I had no choice. I suspended myself in her sound; wrists and ankles tied to moors shifting in her waves; joints pulling in and out," her novel reads.

Arvidson uses an interactive approach, focusing on various facets that contribute to the perception of the reader. In this sense, the reader can hear the words, see the images and feel the poetic rhythm that color this history.

Arvidson achieves this phonic effect by utilizing the multilingual mixture of Italian and English phrases she heard from her grandmother. Through the dialect, the sounds can emerge from the layers of voices in both poetry and prose. In Italian in particular, there is a play with pitch and sound texture.

"Italian has this sensual quality," Arvidson said. "Half of the communication is in the inflection and tone. English is much more monotone -- the meaning is in the word."

The various references to "mia nonna," Italian for my grandmother, and Italian songs add an exotic and dream-like quality to the text. Arvidson admits that much of what her grandmother said could not be translated because of the dialect, and it's that same feeling of confusion and the desire to understand that she wanted to express in her novel -- "as our eight legs whisper thread, the fireflies hear only wind. To translate sounds like spitting; to men, like insects singing."

Most of the transfixing cadence of the prose emerges in Arvidson's poetry.

"I would write whole scenes in poetry, then workshop them, trying to figure out the process of prose versus poetry," Arvidson said.

She would then revise some of her poems into prose with the intent of retaining the entire poetic experience. In fact, Arvidson leaves some of the lines as poems within the text.

"Some things are better said with poetry," she explained. "Prose is a constant stream, while poetry slows things down to breathe."

In one passage, which retains its line breaks, Arvidson's theme of escape again crops up: "To escape / she ran into the woods, / she could relax her muscles / and she could let her blood run over the threshold / and mingle with the dirt. / Il bosco era il suo primo amante / The forest was her first lover."

From the negative space created by poetry, to the size and form of the text, Arvidson consciously establishes a visual aspect to her work that she felt is often disregarded by contemporary writers and poets. What the reader actually sees on the page and how the page is experienced is not overlooked.

Arvidson also draws on her artistic abilities to impress upon the reader various images from the novel. She said she is using the prints she is making in her printmaking course as first impressions before each of the 11 sections of her novel.

Two particularly captivating images are a spider and a boot that suggest the seductive Tarantella, an Italian dance originally used to cure venomous spider bites. The way the ink bleeds to form a spider perched over miniscule prey and a sharply pointed boot relate to the fatal attraction and almost magical quality associated with the women of the novel.

The hard work Arvidson has put into her art is evident.

"I had to commit myself, like waking up at the crack of dawn," she said. "If you take your work seriously, others will."

Arvidson is the founder of "Untamed," a feminist publication on campus she started in 2006 to prioritize what she feels are often neglected women and gender issues. She hopes to continue to work through teaching fellowships and hopefully publish in the future. Arvidson believes her thesis will need further editing before it's ready for publication.

"This novel's purpose was to convince me that I could do it," she said.

Through her effort to convince herself, Arvidson has produced a tantalizing work that seduces the reader into the webbed world of "mia nonna."