Pamelyn Casto, Contributing Editor for Flash Discourse
A Close Reading of Fielding Dawson’s “The Vertical Fields”
Read the story online.
Read the story in Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories (Robert Shapard and James Thomas, eds.).
I chose this story in part because of the way Dawson uses language. His word choices and combinations are worth a close look. So often members of writing workshops assume that flash fiction means minimalist-language stories. They suggest writers cut adjectives and adverbs or shorten sentences. But there is plenty of room for more “lush” prose in flash and sudden fiction. Fielding Dawson’s story shows that quite well.
This story had a definite effect on me. Reading the story brought a delicate and rare tremble of recognition. Probably most of us have had such powerful feelings of agape-like love a few times. Such experiences are as difficult to express as they are rare. But not difficult for Fielding Dawson since he is able to demonstrates it so well in his memorable story.
So how did he work such magic? This close reading will focus mainly on word choices in the story. Wonderful and delicious words and combinations they are too. Fielding Dawson often works in a stream-of-consciousness style; his grammar is lax or relaxed and he uses minimal punctuation. Those characteristics are also evident in this story. Despite initial appearances the words in the story are carefully chosen, carefully used, and thoroughly artful. What is also surprising is that this story is done using just two long sentences. I read it a couple of times before realizing that.
Dawson uses careful and well-placed repetitions. For instance, “rear window and gazing down–Mary downward gazed, kneeling wisemen downward gazed, I gazed down,” make for effective repetitions. At times his style/ technique reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Moose” and the way in which she somehow creates a hypnogogic state in the reader. That is the state I feel that Dawson pulled me into as he introduced and then unfolded the vivid dream/ reality that took place in the story.
Dawson at times piles on the adjectives to outstanding effect, especially while describing in the throes of ecstatic moments of clarity and love. An example is “to join others at the warmly good noisy familiar threshold.” Also outstanding and effective is the way he repeats “and my buddy… and my buddy… and my buddy.” And I loved the surprise where he writes “I held the hymnbook open and my mother and sister and I sang in celebration of God the crowded and brightly decorated—pine boughs and holly wreaths hung around the walls with candles high . . . ” God the crowded and brightly decorated? Of course! Beautiful idea, beautiful expression (as the words all run together). A fine idea for an expression for the God/ agape love the boy is seeing, feeling, and registering. But the description goes beyond itself as well, since it feeds into other segments of the long sentence. I particularly admire the way the sentence segments run into other things– nothing is really disconnected in this spot where all times and directions appear to meet.
Again the boy waxes ecstatic, rhapsodic with “and I (eye) in see, hear me (I)” and “…I walked down the steps, my mother and sister and aunts again, again, once again it rushed through me taking my breath.”
His poetic alliteration, consonance and assonance are quite effective: “pungent green of pine gathered,” and “rich red hollyberry clusters, red” and “gleaming glittering eternally cubistic gold cross” and “powerfully sweeping upward–apex for the strange smoky pneuma” and “vast cold cold gaze”—all very fitting speech for a state of high rapture, bliss, and a highly poetic moment. The night depicted is eloquently believable to anyone who has experienced similar ecstatic and euphoric states.
Outstanding again in “beyond the church, beyond the front door, beyond the land of the last sentence in James Joyce’s Dubliners a distant door seemed to open away beyond …” The Joyce allusion seems quite fitting (though in this context given a more positive spin) as well as being highly alliterative too.
Dawson does so well beginning with a nice nostalgic, almost Norman Rockwellian, scene and speech. The boy seems happy to be part of this nice homey Christmas Eve family gathering. But as the night unfolds it becomes magic for him. And his language (Dawson’s word choices) changes and becomes more and more rhapsodic as we are led deeper and deeper into his ecstatic experience (related by the choices of words and sentence construction). Dawson did all this using just two sentences. Now that’s art. As readers we are taken out of the ordinary and brought into the extraordinary mystery of the cross (where the horizontal fields connect with the vertical fields) and of boundless agape-like love.
With the boy, coming back into the ordinary but alive with the extraordinary story and experience, I, as reader, breathe vapor (pneuma) onto this memory window. And like the boy I also want to sign my name. This writer displays his exceptional poetic skills in this unforgettable and warm Chirstmas story.
About the writer:
Pam Casto, a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), in Fiction Southeast, in Abstract Magazine, and in OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters. Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new collection titled Critical Insights: Flash Fiction (2017).
About Fielding Dawson:
Fielding Dawson was a short-story writer and novelist prominent in the BEAT era. He was also a painter and collagist.