A Perfect Sentence

The perfect sentence doesn’t exist. Nonetheless sometimes I read a line of prose I can’t imagine being better, one in which, to quote George Eliot, “knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge.” The sentence conjures the sense of my growing in both space and time, in an enlarged mind and body thought and felt to merge with those who live and have died.

Such fleeting bliss occurs as I read a sentence in The Pigeon Wars of Damascus by Marius Kociejowski. First, the set-up: early on in his journey through people of Damascus, the author detours into the Syrian coastal town of Tartus and sits at an outdoor café among the castle ruins of former Crusaders. He sees built into its inner walls the wooden doors of current tenements and approves of such forms of appropriating the past, “when ancient stone intrudes upon one’s own actual time.” He imagines the grief that might have passed through the minds of Knights Templar who, during the First Crusade, failed there to establish another outremer. Conceding the anachronistic nature of his thinking, still he wonders if the knights might “have heard the ticking away of a clock that must have sounded like permanence.”

Meantime, nearby in front of a “modern wooden pavilion,” a group of children at play are running in circles. His reverie of the past is ripped away when their playful screaming turns to cries of war. All the children flee but one, a five- or six-year-old boy who stares at a shoe a friend left behind. It lies on its side before him. The boy turns the shoe upright as he drifts into that “solitary world that a very young child is able to enter with ease.” And then in one calm, gentle motion, he undoes his pants and pisses into the shoe. The author is struck both by the boy’s steady aim and his “happy mathematical chance” of filling “the shoe exactly and no more.” Is the child’s revenge “utterly crude or absolutely exquisite”?

An idea as yet ineffable seizes first the author’s intellect, then his feelings. Past and present blend in the castle ruins as youth fuses with age and together form a sentence that ends the chapter:

A small lever in the brain, as fine as any in the workings of a Swiss watch, moved just a fraction of a degree and a brightly wrapped idea, which nobody had ever had before, slid down a spiral chute, and the small thump it made when it hit bottom caused a shutter in the heart to open and then, as if everything inside me had been clotted for ages, my blood began to race.

Here the author offers a rare gift, a sentence that enacts what it describes. Words like “lever” and “watch” and “chute” and “shutter” shape the mechanism of inspiration. Mechanical one- and two-syllable diction moves with syntactical fluidity through commas that calibrate each clause, like excited gulps of air. The mind’s breathing expands and accelerates as it sounds a “thump” to awaken and absorb the heart. The erosion of diction in fluid syntax achieves embodiment when the author’s “clotted” blood starts to flow.

The sentence contrives an image of excellence to which for moments I can always return. Down its “spiral chute” joining thought to feeling I plunge back into a childish time of total immersion, back to a long-dead state that grown-ups who call themselves “artists spend their adult lives trying to recreate.”

Marko Sijan