Writing From the Pit: “a montage of implicit meaning”

a review of Notes From The Cistern, by Tom Bridwell /  Bloody Twin Press, ISBN: 0-9703268-0-7 / 2001, $12.00 + s&h from BTW 429 Upper Twin Creek Road, Blue Creek, OH  45616


From the text: entry One Hundred Two


I talked with Samara tonight about movies and books, and movies made from books (the context was Little Women) and she said: “Well, Dad, writing is not limited.” And this was my daughter, you know, so I was really proud, and shocked. As though she had been reading de Man or Derrida, and we might discuss post-structuralism. When I get off the phone, I dwell for an hour on how a hybrid text might breed its own formalism. How eloquence or persuasion might be a test. How unintelligibility is impossible. The whole time I’m thinking this discussion, it is also a dialogue with Sami that’s happening and it doesn’t seem strange at all. We examine the body of writing for valence. I steer her toward salient criticism. I explain that the stability of the text is an illusion. How I am become both narrative and narrator, overwhelmed by my creation. A kind of method acting, in which I lose control. The montage of implicit meaning takes control.


I quote this whole section in order to do several things important to this review: give the reader a sample of Tom Bridwell’s style, to also illustrate what is referred to here as “a hybrid text,” to introduce three of the main themes of this writing—the relationship the writer has with his children, with language (how, for instance, it becomes clear that a reference to, say, “post-structuralism” can, and should, lead the reader to think that “post” and “structure” are also essential terms in the building trade), and how the writer’s language honors the act of writing through initiating and continuing the assumption that the writing is also a dialogue with the reader, an on-going conversation about the craft of building a text while writing a building.       

            There are other essential themes not illustrated with this selection: the writer’s knowledge of the act of building a house, his ability to create a gourmet dinner from roadkill deer and rabbits, his knowledge of wine and music, his ability to weave into his writing his observations about building, reading Wittgenstein and Levi-Strauss, and his personal wounding, the sundering of relationship with his daughters’ mother.

            Notes From The Cistern essentially is about survival at essential psychic and physical levels. Bridwell shoots a crow or a squirrel with his slingshot. Basic food for a man building a house for hire but who has maxed out his credit cards. But the food must also be carefully prepared; in fact Cistern becomes a source book for frugal gourmet cooking. Survival also means making beauty out of the least materials that can be gathered, cooking becoming also an analog to poetry. The survival of essential family relationships is integral to every page of the text because his ability to sustain his family relationships depends on his ability to balance his time and energies over the pit, this cistern transformed into a house, in order to complete the building of the house and the building of the text of building the house.

            On the first page of the text Bridwell exposes the reader and himself to the materials of constructing this house:

Having sawn and jack-hammered a doorway through the twelve-inch thick walls, concrete as god intended, enough rebar for a small bridge, I enter the monoblock. 16x20 by 12 high, no roof for fifty years and it is a biosphere unique in my experience.

And in the opening paragraph Bridwell exposes not only the materials he must work with but also his method as builder and writer and his essential aloneness (again, as builder and writer):

Solving these problems on the fly. (The only way I know.) They could, I suppose be calculated, but I’m of that self-taught empirical school and trial-fitting is the method I usually employ. Worked for me, before, but not the pieces are larger and I’m older and I begin to think there must be a better way. Recalcitrant twenty foot steel I-beams at 800 lbs. each and oak timbers that would require a small Shaker army, everything way up in the air, requiring the mythical sky-hook. As for the army, I am still alone, with a back-hoe I don’t know how to operate. I can learn, I remind myself, digging practice holes and swinging the bucket like a man possessed. Equipage for every task, I must reform my Luddite self.

The drama unfolds throughout the text. It is a drama created from the tension of man-handling those I-beams, oak, stone, and concrete with the release the writer experiences in getting the materials (including the equally recalcitrant language) to fit, to fit in this hybrid building and text. This drama is as real as any staged production. How this reality, the reality of an audience that hangs on the writer’s every word, comes into being is the mystery and mastery of the writing act, an act that challenges the reader into the building process.

            Bridwell suggests that making a text and a building is risky, even dangerous, but that the risks are necessary for both activities promise self-discovery impossible to get from any other means. The writer is opened, approaching experience much like described by Keats’s negative capability:

Being removed. or removing myself so completely, has sensitized my experience of the world to such a degree that I become inappropriate. I must be very careful now, in what I say and do, leading, as I do, with my hands and head with no mediation. Leaking. I am changed by this experience in ways that I least expected, not hardened but softened, made porous and receptive where my first inclination was to seal-up an die. It is rare that we would reinvent ourself based on experience, without the need to conform to some other mold. Where we would find something new rather than cobbing together some patchwork repair.


Bridwell’s building and writing, the two essentially together, takes him out of his old self, into a new one that arises from the process of construction. The reader is given the option to come along for the ride, and everything, the offer and the contract that initiated this building, is built on trust. Bridwell continues:

I’ll tell you a story, it doesn’t matter whether it’s real or not. Let’s say it’s real, you trust me, right? If I say it’s real?

And, we do. We must, otherwise we have denied the text, denied our ability to read, denied ourselves.  In “VII. A Gloss” that follows his story of helping an adult golden eagle rescue herself from a trap, he gives this explanation of his building method, his writing method, and, inadvertently, our method of reading this text:

It is odd that the Chinese never discovered the truss. Triangulation issued to support cantilevers, but little else. I’m tricking out a way to support one end of the sub-fascia while I nail the other, and, hanging in space, I start thinking about Asian roof systems. It’s a calming device I use to fight my growing fear of heights. An attempt to remain statically stable. Planning the perfect dinner for one or reviewing the history of rice, pondering some preserved fragments of someone’s thought or imaging the structure of a page; where might occur that part of me that is afraid of falling. I might think about shear, or compression, or tension; I might think about you or the text.

We are left hanging in the space of this text. And it is up to us to try to remain “statically stable” in order to appreciate the dynamics of the story Bridwell has offered us. If we can do so, we will acknowledge that he has succeeded in establishing the formalism of his hybrid text through the terms he speculated about: eloquence and persuasion. I know writers who wish they had taken the opportunity, had the time, money, energy, took the time away from the time spent writing, to build their own house. Bridwell has spent years building houses for others. I’m looking forward to the text that will supplement this one, where he tells the story of building his own house. I’m reminded of Olson’s “he who walks with his house on his head is heaven.” Bridwell might then not be hanging in space; he might be floating. He might take us with him.

As should be expected, such care in building and in writing demands the same from building the book from the text. Brian Richards, the publisher, explains:

With Notes From The Cistern Bloody Twin Press initiates a series of books too lengthy to be hand made but too worthwhile to be left unpublished.