Thick with Her Own Threads: On Rosalind Brown’s “Practice”

Meara Sharma reviews Rosalind Brown’s “Practice.”

By Meara SharmaJune 26, 2024

Thick with Her Own Threads: On Rosalind Brown’s “Practice”

Practice by Rosalind Brown. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 208 pages.

IT IS A WELL-documented phenomenon that many a writer, upon sitting down to work on a rare, wide-open day, is seized by a ferocious desire to do anything but. First, warm drinks must be drunk. Articles must be consulted. Notes must be transcribed. Now, to the writing! But wait—there are bills to pay. Shirts to mend. Floors to mop. “What do you get when you cross a writer with a deadline?” asked a meme I saw recently. “A very clean house.”


Of course, this rigmarole is deeply guilt-inducing. But it also has another effect: it suspends the writer in a heightened state of hope. Because as long as the writing hasn’t happened yet, the outcome exists as glorious promise, unfettered possibility—in Annie Dillard’s words, “a glowing thing, a blurred thing of beauty.” Usually, in life, the need to actually produce something (an article, an essay, a book) eventually triumphs over whatever double-edged satisfaction may be found in the procrastinatory mode. Yet in the case of Rosalind Brown’s debut novel, Practice (2024), that realm of potential is—or at the very least forms a generative foundation for—the writing.


Practice recounts a day in the life of Annabel, an undergraduate student at Oxford staring down a deadline for an essay on Shakespeare’s sonnets. The novel begins with the ring of Annabel’s alarm—which goes off at “six o’clock in the morning, Sunday, at the worn-out end of January”—and ends with the shutting of her dorm-room window onto the British winter night. Between rising and retiring, she boils the kettle a lot, reads a few poems, jots down a few notes, constructs an elaborate salad, avoids making plans with her much-older boyfriend, meditates, goes for a walk, loses herself in erotic fantasies, takes a shower, and conducts various other business. Annabel purports to abide by a rigid schedule. Ostensibly, her days are defined by rules including which brewed beverage to drink first (peppermint tea before coffee) and when to meditate (after lunch, and before a walk, “to twist the dial marked Body and the dial marked Mind in opposite directions until they find each other again”), and is a bit smug about it all (“The things she does, she does properly”). What the reader observes, however, is the “tight weave of her routine” continually fraying.


Annabel avoids turning on the heater in her room, or any of her devices, striving for perfect, quiet solitude: a “chilled bright space in her head.” But, as readers, we’re inside that head—and it isn’t exactly a minimalist ice hotel. We’re privy to the “dense foliage” of thoughts that, “like tireless wolves[,] emerge from the trees and pad alongside her.” She’s frequently waylaid by an elaborate erotic fantasy about two characters named SCHOLAR and SEDUCER who in turns obliquely mimic Shakespeare’s obsession with the “Fair Youth” and Annabel’s own relationship with the aforementioned man twice her age. Meanwhile, we also witness behaviors that will be familiar to many a productivity-obsessed soul. Upon losing an hour to an unexpected walk, for instance: “With brute simplicity she calculates, an hour and eight minutes since she went out, so she will add an hour and eight minutes after lunch. The measurements of her routine will be thereby satisfied.” The backdrop of all this doing and not doing is Oxford, laden with prestige and expectation, rife with ancient, twisting alleys that feed Annabel’s tunneling mind.


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Unsurprisingly, Annabel doesn’t write the essay. But Brown renders what she does do with such rigor and lucidity that the rhythm of her actions become a reflection of Shakespeare’s poems themselves, as well as the sort of fine-grained textual analysis she aspires toward. At the end of the day, Annabel has produced but a single sentence, and she is happy. Because really, the regimen is scenery: for Annabel, simply being with the sonnets is the height of pleasure. Brown describes her “spending time with these poems: which are better company than people, they take your shape willingly, but still lightly, like a duvet does,” relating how “she lets them work on her mind, entering wholeheartedly into the spirit of them, hardly writing anything down: just reading.”


While Annabel attempts to settle on an essay topic, Brown skillfully evokes the seemingly arbitrary, indeterminate process by which ideas gradually crystallize: “Yes, amnesiac, that is a useful thought, she writes the word down and circles it. She also writes down disingenuous, and then also sly, and defiant.” In one delightfully nerdy digression, in which Annabel considers how the sonnets have been altered by contemporary punctuation, she momentarily envisions “an essay that knows all the subtleties of Jacobean printing conventions, traces beautifully how thoughts are lightly directed and compartmentalized by the original punctuation, and expresses with elegant sorrow the loss of this finesse in pedantic modern editions.” Indeed, many of the book’s most beautiful passages speak to the subtle, mysterious alchemy of scholarship: “All she is doing here,” writes Brown of Annabel’s attempts to think through the sonnets, “is pushing tiny pins into a tiny board and winding them thick with her own threads.”


As she continues to do anything but write her essay, Annabel’s fixation on the sonnets transmutes into a broader ethic of attention. Nuanced sensations bubble up from within her body. Everyday objects, like her homely coffee mug, glimmer with expanded meaning. And familiar, typically mundane routines are undertaken with such precision and intentionality that they assume the sacred, methodical quality of ritual. Take, for instance, Brown’s description of Annabel making a salad:


She arrays celery, cucumber, tomatoes, parsley, a packet of mozzarella. Levers two sticks of celery out from the base, brushes some dirt off them under the tap, lays them down, takes the knife and positions the blade in the inside curve of one stick: then slices it from end to end in one careful motion. Repeats with the other. The brief joy of the knife: if only more things were like the efficient sharp action of a knife through cellulose, feeling each fiber give to the blade edge.


Of her taking a shower:


Soaps herself all across the planes of her body and into all the creases, lathers up the three patches of hair, twists about rinsing herself under the water, peels her buttocks apart briefly to let the water in, tips her head back to send one last soak of heat down through her head.


Of her taking a shit:


It goes on and on, another splash and another, her muscles gasping and pulsing again, pushing to clear every last morsel […] Slowly she moves, glances back at the brown mess, and begins the tedious process of wiping herself, the repetition of smaller and smaller smears on white paper.


Such asides, rendered as they are in Brown’s austere yet rigorously observant prose, represent the real delights of Practice. Because, in lieu of producing an essay about Shakespeare’s poems, everything—literally everything—is imbued with the poetry’s distilled, percipient quality. The book makes the case that a particular kind of mindfulness is to be found in the space of possibility that precedes writing, the mode of wanting-to-write—to the extent that that its fizzing latency becomes its own vivid and extra sensitive orientation on the world, its own vital way of being.


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For me, Practice produced a feeling of double identification, as I expect it might for many writers. I am an inveterate procrastinator. (I have reluctantly begun to accept that faffing around for at least a day or two is simply part of my process when starting any new piece of writing.) But when it came time to write this review, I found myself relishing the act of procrastination—imbuing it, like Annabel, with a kind of hallowed, intertextual meaning. It was as though Brown’s book gave me permission not just to go through the usual nonsense when faced with a deadline—which in this case involved, among other things, drinking too many cups of coffee, eating strawberries, thinking about masturbating, getting a bikini wax, applying for a residency, and scraping moss from paving stones—but also to engage in these activities with a kind of lyrical intensity, thereby enacting my own transference between reading and living, between textual and experiential attention.


This is all to say that, at about 7:00 p.m. on day one, with, like Annabel, little material accomplishment to show for myself, I quickly wrote the sentence: It is always difficult to begin a text, but particularly difficult to begin a text about a text about a person trying to begin a text about a text, because in its very substance it reveals the impossibility of the whole enterprise, the fundamental, unbridgeable gap between subject and object, between my text and their text, a gap that, if contemplated too seriously, inspires desire as well as heartbreak. This done, I ate a large bowl of pasta and went to bed.


Last-ditch though that pronouncement was, it’s worth decoding—especially in the context of Brown’s novel. At one point, after various breaks and daydreams and hasty responses to texts from annoying friends and family members, Annabel determines that she must work: “And so. She spreads the six pages out on the desk. Six tight poems for her to lick with her mind in a long slow lick right up the spine of each one.” She doesn’t just want to read the poems, or write poetry herself—no, “she wants to be a poem.” Reading them is an erotic experience, an experience akin to romantic love. She wants to lick the text, swallow it, merge with it. No wonder she’s horny; criticism, the scholar Merve Emre has said, “is just relentless sublimation.”


But reading the sonnets—simply being with them, relishing her attraction to them, before Annabel has to truly assess their particularities, examine their compatibility, consider their future together—allows her to prolong the fantasy of total union. She is free to enjoy the infiltration of their voice, to steep in their shimmering and seductive aura. In the throes of young love, she sees the world through sonnet-colored glasses. What some might call procrastination, others might call foreplay.


In this way, Practice beautifully illustrates a tension at the heart of not just loving reading but loving writ large. At the beginning, we all want to “be the poem.” And to some extent, we are what we read, we are who and what we’ve loved—they all leave their marks, their various inscriptions. But also, we are not what we’ve read or loved. We are who we are, and a text or person or object is a text or person or object. The paradox is imbued with aching desire—don’t we all want we can’t quite reach? Barthes called a climactic moment with a text “jouissance”: bliss so all-consuming that it is a kind of death (jouissance is also a word for orgasm). I imagine Annabel longs to write the sort of text he advocated for, “the language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat”; to throw “the anonymous body of the actor into [her] ear: it granulates, it crackles, it caresses, it grates, it cuts, it comes.”


Inevitably, though, orgasms end. The sheen of novelty wears off. And the reality of the task sets in: the deadline is imminent; the piece must be written. For a little while, it’s thrilling to try to be the poem. Yet I’ve been told that for love to endure, you must look at your beloved from a distance and accept the fact of an uncrossable divide. Writing, like enduring love, isn’t a brief, self-obliterating moment of bliss—it’s a connection that’s hard-won and worked at, a distance that’s persevered against, and a relationship that’s honed over time. Writing, like love, is a practice.

LARB Contributor

Meara Sharma is an American-born, UK-based writer and artist.

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