A War With History: Kelly Lydick on Sandy Florian’s The Tree of No

The Tree of No, Sandy Florian, Action Books, 2008

The first page of Sandy Florian’s The Tree of No begins with the word “beastly” and gives readers a world bubbling and brimming and burgeoning with possibility of image and noun, “The high hitch of increase sways softly in the sun, here in our scarlet garden” and we meet the protagonist: “Beastly, I fall at Adam under the shade, un-clocked, first frocked, oven-ed at the core, from words no western man can wet.” On the second page, Sandy Florian continues “beastly” and dreamy, “replete and eaten” and I come upon a dream, a dream of a concept of time. And it is this second page that I become aware that language is related to time, which “becomes my authority.” And it is here that readers are introduced, dreamily and beastly, to the sign and signified, signifier and referent, and are reminded of Saussure’s Linguistics. Entering this world, the world of the word, the world that Florian has created, the world and word of the dream, and meet the protagonist “like wakening from sleep, like the beast” as dreamy and beastly, or moreover, human, as can be. And as the reader, I read, as this is good, and so I continue.

I continue, intrigued and enraptured, ensconced by the world on the pages, the words of this new world of protagonist and Montgomery, pulling me through time, and it is here on the fourth page that I realize “in this awkward position of…most awkward awakening” that “In the beginning was the word” and the word created the world, and the world we have entered is the kingdom of sign and signified, signifier and referent, absurd in its making, and in its abstract form, this story, this story made up of words has captured me in time, and I, I am now part of this brilliant world.

And just as God has created the world in the Bible, I soon learn that the characters here are creating, building, a city. Come on now, I am coaxed by the narrator, Let’s build ourselves a city. And in this city, let’s build a tower with its top to the heavens. Or else, we’ll be scattered namelessly all over the planet in our Euclidian screams. And so a city is built. Eve and Adam are there with Montgomery and Diana, and decide that no city would be complete without every kind of cattle nameable. And so a list is born: “Alentejana and the Allmogekor and the American and the American White Park…and the Damietta and the Dangi…and the Greek Steppe and the Groningen…and the Nelore and the Nguni.” Once again I am reminded of Saussure’s linguistics—that signifier and signified are connected arbitrarily. Here Montgomery’s list is a clear use of Florian’s hyperbole; species by species, a world is populated, word by word, letter by letter, this world, this city, is built.

In this world, there is also a flood, however this flood, unlike what is known of the traditional Noah story, is a flood of thoughts “rush[ing] in and my mind opens to the flowing tide with its ebb and flood, with is eighth, its quarter, its half moon, its half empty bowl, half full of fuller empty seas.” In creating a work parallel to the structure of the Bible itself, Florian inherently asks the unanswered questions: Who is the real author of the Bible? And how do we know, how can we prove it? Who [or what] is really the creator? And just because someone creates a work of art, does that mean they are God, or God-like? Or is this our “beastly” human arrogance:

In the first of the order books, I read the account of that first creation of this first
world, how in the beginning, the earth was void, how darkness was on the face of the deep, how the spirit of god moved on the face of the waters, like the spirit of Narcissus on the face of the lake. Then god said, Let there be light, and then there was light. Then god said let there be air, and let it distinguish the water.

Arrogant or not, the structure of The Tree of No makes it obvious that form follows function: what is language and how does one use (or overuse) it? If language is absurd, why not, then, create what we like, real or absurd alike…

Early on, Florian makes use of the following characters: Diana (30), Adam (29), Judah (22), Abraham (80), the fictitious Montgomery(2), Joseph (49), Homer (33), as if there are no differences between the characters known from Greek or Roman mythology, the characters depicted in Biblical text, fictitious characters, or actual literary figures. They are presented and regarded as the same. In this World, the world of The Tree of No, Diana is of no greater importance than Abraham, who is of no greater importance than Montgomery. In doing so, Florian invokes the questions: What do we considered canon? Where’s the literal in myth? Why are Biblical stories taken as literal, or truth? Can our canon be myth? And further: Where’s the proof?

It seems that Florian is also inherently asking: If someone can write the Bible, or specifically, a canon of any kind, and can create a world of characters, then why can’t I? And why, then, can’t my world, my fictional world, that I’ve created with sign and signifier, real and absurd, and with finite set of linguistic rules, be regarded as: Literal? Canon? Myth?

I asked my self as I read: Is Florian comparing, by way of her work, the tree of “no” to the tree of “life” or the tree of “knowledge”? But then later realized the answer: If knowledge is posited by language, and life can be described, articulated, remembered, created, or recreated by language, then, we must be able to create a fictional world through which we navigate and experience, just as Florian has done here. And if knowledge is illustrated and expressed, through language and the structure inherent in the system of language used, then, does it matter to which tree Florian is comparing?

Further into the work, Florian’s language seamlessly moves between narrative and borderline-exposition, and the reader is constantly surprised with what treatise-like prose comes next:

This is a true story. My actress is a dame, a doll, a devourer, a femme fatale. She has talons for feet, and the windstorm blows her wings and lioness hair in unambiguous cuneiform inscriptions, like the bones in the ankles of beasts. She is, of course, the beloved wife of Adam who seized the light. In my story, the husband and wife bicker in the bedroom. The she takes up lodging in the middle of a tree trunk.

And Florian’s use of language brilliantly leaves one tongue-tied:

Speech is the elegant postman of the mind. Eloquently speaking about the deliveries of Cicero. From the fiction to the failure. From the failure to the fall. From the fall to the flaw. From the monster of the body. Utility is the end of virtue. Justice the end of man. Of every act. Of every thought. Of every truth.

I read how thought is the thought of thought. How the soul is the form of forms. My legs ache. My eyes look. Plots are added to furnish the warning example that some men are birthed. Some are inspired. And since there can be no tragedy without motion, we walk side by side out of the scarlet garden as commas become signals for the sigh.

By virtue of the structure of language, one is bound and limited by the language we use. And to create—one is both liberated and confined by the very nature of la langue—by the tool we use to create. One can create infinitely with a finite set of terms: this is the paradox,

To approach the right light in spring. To sunbathe in the summer. To weave coats out of winter and snow. In the autumn, I see the comet catastrophe. Shooting between the words, Let there be, and There is. That is the local apocalypse. Presented by the universal blank.

Between creativity and creation there lies a calamity. So I may say, Let there be love, and in saying so, I imagine it and make it live.

Florian then takes this one step further. If language is absurd, and religion has been built upon the language of the Biblical canon, then religion itself must also be absurd. Florian comments on the literal biblical messages, the dogmatic constructs and societal rules that have been constructed, built, upon these meanings and taken as truth. The protagonist openly states: “I have a war with history.” And that “History is a meaningless enigma. The sooner it is stopped, the better off we are.” It’s statements such as these, that double as narrative and exposition, that brought my attention to the parallels between the absurdly fictionalized “Tree of No” world and the world in which we actually live.

As I near the end of the book, I encounter the section “Psalms.” Here the form of The Tree of No takes on a new and different tack; the linear, prosaic structure has been replaced by short, concise paragraphs, centered on the page. The narrator “Eve” sings:

I sing to give birth to the bread. I sing to give birth to the sommelier. My book is now called toward the pasture where every brother and sister will each pay a dollar for each dead page.

And prays:

At Christmas I pray so hallowed be thy name, Small turns, I take, I’m still becoming, but the sin in me says I.

And it appears, too, this comment is less about the fictional world and more a general social commentary.

Not only is The Tree of No a commentary on language and the use of language, it is a personal canon, a use of mimesis, a creative exploration, and a social commentary, through the eyes of one Sandy Florian. This work is an opportunity for Florian to vehemently state: this is the world that I have created, this is the world that I see, and that is how I see. I do not have to be bound by what has come before—NO—I can create the world—my reality—as I see fit. It can be real, it can be fictitious, it can be absurd.

And as I know this work is at “war with history” I am reminded that one is not bound by history, the reality that has come before, the city that was previously built, or rather, the literary canon that has come before. Inherent in the act of creation—in the building of this city, this tree—is hope:

Seven heads upon seven hills upon which one lone woman sits like a metropolis. I heard, Write this. Blessed are those who are invited to the supper. Then heaven opened to a new and brighter heaven and the earth to new soil, and when the oceans disappeared, I heard, Write this. I am making all things new.

In The Tree of No, where no thing is anything, the word is creation, and absurdity is normalcy, expected, surprisingly and unsurprisingly, for linguists and others alike, this book will leave you, dreamily, beastly, saying yes.


Kelly Lydick received her B.A. in Writing and Literature from Burlington College (VT), and her M.A. in Writing and Consciousness from the New College of California (San Francisco). Her writing has appeared in Twittering Machine, the Burlington College Poetry Journal, the New College Review and ditch. Kelly’s work has also been featured on KQED’s The Writers’ Block. She is the author of the chapbook We Once Were (Pure Carbon Publishing, AZ), and the experimental work, Mastering the Dream (Second Story Books, CA). Her website is: www.kellylydick.com.