Monday, August 31, 2009
It surprises me I can remember the names, faces and personalities of so many kids I haven’t seen in more than two months, none of whom I know intimately. The cashier’s son and my memories of his singing, mingled with the sudden arrival of September, remind me of these concluding lines from a sonnet:
“'Mid frost and snow, the instinctive joys of song,
And nobler cares than listless summer knew.”
They’re from the other great autumn poem written by an English Romantic poet – Wordsworth’s “September 1815”:
“While not a leaf seems faded; while the fields,
With ripening harvest prodigally fair,
In brightest sunshine bask; this nipping air,
Sent from some distant clime where Winter wields
His icy scimitar, a foretaste yields
Of bitter change, and bids the flowers beware;
And whispers to the silent birds, `Prepare
Against the threatening foe your trustiest shields.’
For me, who under kindlier laws belong
To Nature's tuneful quire, this rustling dry
Through leaves yet green, and yon crystalline sky,
Announce a season potent to renew,
'Mid frost and snow, the instinctive joys of song,
And nobler cares than listless summer knew.”
We feel fall before we see it, long before the calendar catches up. “Bitter change,” yes, but its “nobler cares” are congenial to a northern mind that finds comfort in the disciplines of solstice and equinox (as in the disciplines of metrical form). It’s a serious season:
“Full season’s come, yet filled trees keep the sky
And never scent the ground where they must lie.”
Go here and scroll down to read all of Louise Bogan’s “Simple Autumnal.”
Sunday, August 30, 2009
At 151 lines, plus an epigraph from Theodore Roethke, “Green: An Epistle” is too long to transcribe in toto and it appears not to be available online. Let the opening passage suffice:
“I write at last of the one forbidden topic
We, by a truce, have never touched upon:
Resentment, malice, hatred so inwrought
With moral inhibitions, so at odds with
The home-movie of yourself as patience, kindness,
And Charlton Heston playing Socrates,
That almost all of us were taken in,
Yourself not least, as to a giant Roxy,
Where the lights dimmed and the famous allegory
Of Good and Evil, clearly identified
By the unshaven surliness of the Bad Guys,
The virginal meekness of the ingénue,
Seduced us straight into that perfect world
Of Justice under God.”
This is withering, especially in light of the poem’s final line – in fact, its final two words. In 2001, the English publisher Between the Lines put out a book-length interview, Anthony Hecht in Conversation with Philip Hoy. Hecht discusses “Green: A Epistle” at length, saying it
“…is about the disguises of Pride. It is about how attempts to suppress the ego in behalf of some idealism or the desire to appear kind and generous will quietly and all unbeknownst to someone convert that suppression into a corruption of the soul, a deformity of spirit, and the longer the suppression goes on the more martyred and selfless one feels, and the more monstrous the deformity…The speaker…who is admittedly partly me, has succeeded in deceiving himself into believing that his long-suffering patience and forbearance, his stoic endurance, have paid off in the form of a noble and selfless character, and in this he is profoundly mistaken.”
Every honest reader will recognize himself and others in this gloss. After all, we see it daily in blogs, politics and families. Call it clandestine slippage into self-centeredness. In the interview, Hecht cites a passage from an 1887 story by Chekhov, “Enemies,” to bolster his case:
“In both men the egotism of the unhappy was powerfully evident. Unhappy people are egotistical, mean, unjust, cruel and less capable than stupid people of understanding each other. Rather than bringing people together, unhappiness drives them further apart, and even where it would seem that people ought to be joined by a similar cause of sorrow, they make themselves much more injustice and cruelty than in an environment in which people are relatively contented.”
I would suggest that cause and effect here can be readily confused. Selfishness creates unhappiness and unhappiness exacerbates pre-existing selfishness, and sometimes the states feed happily off each other.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
Auden, W. H.. The Double Man; Collected Shorter Poems
Blake, William. Poems.
Burke, Edmund. Speeches.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Cavalcanti, Guido. Donna Mi Prega.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. Troilus and Cressida; Canterbury Tales.
Cocteau, Jean. Poemes; Theatre; Essais critiques.
Coleridge, Samuel. Poems; Biographia Literaria.
Comtesse de Ségur. Les Malheurs de Sophie.
Corbière, Tristan. Les Amours jaunes.
cummings, e. e.. Eimi; Poems.
Dante. The Divine Comedy; La Vita Nuova.
Donne, John. Letters; Poems.
Dumas, Alexandre. Les Trois Mousquetiers.
Eliot, T. S. Poems; Plays; The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism.
Fabre, Jean-Henri. Souvenirs entomologiques; Littre.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary
Goldsmith, Oliver. Vicar of Wakefield; Plays; Poems.
Gregory, Horace. Criticism.
Hardy, Thomas. Poems; Tess of the d'Urbervilles; A Pair of Blue Eyes.
Hawthorne, Nathanial. Notebooks; Fiction.
Henryson, Robert. Poems and Fables.
Hopkins, Gerald Manley. Poems; Letters.
James, Henry. Prefaces; Letters; Novels.
Johnson, Samuel. Lives of the Poets.
Joyce, James. Poems; Novels; Dubliners.
Keats, John. Letters; Poems.
Lamb, Charles. Letters.
Lear, Edward. The Owl and the Pussycat.
Levin, Harry. Studies of Joyce; Stendhal; Flaubert; Balzac.
Maritain, Jacques. "Religion and the Intellectuals" (Partisan Review Symposium).
Melville, Herman. Poems; Short novels.
Nash, Ogden. Poems.
Niebuhr,Reinhold. The Dilemma of Modern Man.
Perrault, Charles. Contes.
Perse, Saint-John. Eloges; Exil.
Plato. The Dialogues.
Pope, Alexander. Essay on Criticism.
Potter, Beatrix. Peter Rabbit; Squirrel Nutkin.
Pound, Ezra. Translations of the Analects of Confucius; Poems.
Proust, Marcel. Maxims.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Italian Poets before Dante.
Sainte-Beuve. Portraits contemporains.
Saintsbury, George. A Short History of English Literature; The English Novel.
Shakespeare, William. Sonnets; Midsummer Night's Dream; Hamlet; Macbeth.
Sidney, Sir Philip. Defense of Poesie; Poems.
Smart, Christopher. Poems.
Stein, Gertrude. The Making of Americans; The Geographical History of America.
Stendhal. Le Rouge et le Noir; De l'Amour; Memoires d'un Touriste.
Stevens, Wallace. Poems; Prose commentaries.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver; Journal.
Trollope, Anthony. Autobiography; Phineas Finn.
Valery, Paul. La Soiree avec M. Teste; Poemes; Variete; Introduction a la Methode de Leonard de Vinci.
Various: Greek Reader (Viking Press).
Wilson, Edmund. Joyce; Axel's Castle.
Xenophon. On Hunting; Hipparchicus; On Horsemanship.
The list is eccentric for what it leaves out and includes. Melville but no Moby-Dick? Proust but no A la recherche du temps perdu? Horace Gregory? Harry Levin? Dumas? Moore was being both honest (James and Pound, of course) and slyly provocative. We read such lists for the same reason we follow a putative recipe for the world’s best chili con carne, with one difference: We hope an ideal library catalog assembled by Moore or any comparably gifted writer is a shortcut to genius. By reading it we may hope to further our understanding of the list-maker’s life and work, but also to flatter ourselves by having read much of what Moore deems essential. And listening to Mozart makes us smarter.
Friday morning my younger sons wanted me to see what they had been building. Around two books salvaged from my wife’s childhood – Tell Me Why: Answers to Hundreds of Questions Children Ask (1965) and Still More Tell Me Why (1968) – they had erected a scaffolding of Tinker Toys connected to another similar but empty scaffolding. The latter they placed over my head like a crown and commenced the countdown. It was, they said, a knowledge transference device. My 9-year-old called it a “cerebral enhancifier.” School starts Monday.
Friday, August 28, 2009
“City Island, connected to Rodman’s Neck by the City Avenue causeway, is an important boatyard. The dull rubbed brass of sextants gleams in the shop windows, and white sloops stand like herons in the cradles of the boatbuilders. Clam chowder and popcorn are sold.”
So much for the passive voice. By 1939, City Island is already glowing with quaintness and nostalgia for another age, like those sextants. The anonymous WPA drudge (one hopes it wasn’t Ralph Ellison, who worked on the volume) continues:
“A few of the City Islanders still call themselves `clam-diggers,’ and the island’s numerous seafood restaurants on its main thoroughfare…are almost as varied as the pocketbooks they are meant to accommodate. The inhabitants, boasting of the helpful climate, like to repeat the traditional apothegm of New England: `’Round here we don’t die. We just dry up and blow away.’”
This is purest Chamber-of-Commerce poshlust, defined by Nabokov as “not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive.” Mitchell treats Hugh G. Flood’s crankiness with a mingling of respect, amusement, deflation and irritation. Beneath Flood’s ornery bloviating lies a consuming fear of death. Age 93 when Mitchell is writing of him, Mr. Flood is obsessed with living until the afternoon of July 27, 1965, when he will turn 115:
“A young fishmonger in an Army uniform, on furlough and looking up his colleagues in the market, came in. Mr. Flood hadn’t seen him in a year or so. `Why, hello, Pop,’ the soldier said. `Are you still alive?’ Mr. Flood’s face fell. `Look here, son,’ he said. `That’s a rather personal question.’”
Between them, Mitchell and the other Joe, his oldest friend, A.J. Liebling, covered the waterfront and the rest of New York like nobody else. Now that Liebling has been certified as Literature by inclusion in the Library of America, I nominate Mitchell as the next inductee (if there’s still room on the shelf beside H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick). I suggested to my oldest son that he read Mitchell, now that he has lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. On his BlackBerry he wrote me:
“At an ice cream parlor on City Island, they played Big Mama Thornton's `Hound Dog’ followed by the Everly Brothers’ `All I Have to Do is Dream.’ Sounded really good, especially while enjoying cheesecake ice cream.”
Thursday, August 27, 2009
As kids we called them “locusts,” a common misnaming. True locusts are ravenous, swarming grasshoppers, a Biblical plague. The North American genus of cicadas, nicely named Magicicada, has life cycles of 13 and 17 years. The summer of 1964 was such an explosion in Northern Ohio. Millions of them swarmed harmlessly through trees and on sidewalks, where boys turned them into slick, skateable impasto. On a camping trip, my brother and I collected them by the bushel and devised novel means of torment, including roasting and boiling.
In Specimen Days, Whitman describes the insect chorus (“locust” here means cicada) in a passage dated Aug. 22, 1876:
“Reedy monotones of locust, or sounds of katydid—I hear the latter at night, and the other both day and night. I thought the morning and evening warble of birds delightful; but I find I can listen to these strange insects with just as much pleasure. A single locust is now heard near noon from a tree two hundred feet off, as I write—a long whirring, continued, quite loud noise graded in distinct whirls, or swinging circles, increasing in strength and rapidity up to a certain point, and then a fluttering, quietly tapering fall. Each strain is continued from one to two minutes. The locust-song is very appropriate to the scene—gushes, has meaning, is masculine, is like some fine old wine, not sweet, but far better than sweet.”
After a digression on the katydid and its “piquant utterances,” Whitman resumes:
“Let me say more about the song of the locust, even to repetition; a long, chromatic, tremulous crescendo, like a brass disk whirling round and round, emitting wave after wave of notes, beginning with a certain moderate beat or measure, rapidly increasing in speed and emphasis, reaching a point of great energy and significance, and then quickly and gracefully dropping down and out. Not the melody of the singing-bird—far from it; the common musician might think without melody, but surely having to the finer ear a harmony of its own; monotonous—but what a swing there is in that brassy drone, round and round, cymballine—or like the whirling of brass quoits.”
“But what a swing there is in that brassy drone.” Sounds like Glenn Miller.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Back here I visited one of the shiny chain stores, and not for the first time thought of Peter Kien in Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé:
“It was his custom on his morning walk, between seven and eight o’clock, to look into the windows of every book shop which he passed. He was thus able to assure himself, with a kind of pleasure, that smut and trash were daily gaining ground.”
Finding satisfaction in the decline of everything is a dubious pleasure, the self-indulgent folly of the middle-aged. In the library a book caught my eye because of a single word printed in white on the spine: Books. An omen? The author is Larry McMurtry, whose remarkably sprawling oeuvre I have never read, though I saw the film of The Last Picture Show a long time ago and enjoyed the Hank Williams soundtrack. I don’t intend to read Books cover-to-cover but I opened it at random to pages 136-37, the way people used to consult the Bible in search of signs and portents, and found this:
“I nowadays have the feeling that not only are most bookmen eccentrics, but even the act they support – reading – is itself an eccentricity now, if a mild one.”
I saw McMurtry’s observation confirmed Tuesday morning when I took the boys to a free showing of The Tale of Despereaux, a movie in which a mouse reads tales of chivalry and, like Don Quixote, is inspired to begin a quest. Unlike anyone else in the theater, the three of us had brought books to read before the film started – standard operating procedure in our family.
Back home I found an e-mail from a reader who had just read Guy Davenport's story “Veranda Hung with Wisteria” (collected in The Cardiff Team and The Death of Picasso) and wrote excitedly that it “contains four worlds in one paragraph.”
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
The implicit linkage of “something not himself” with “some scheme of values of which he partakes” is useful and profound. A writer committed exclusively to self-expression (most memoirs and blogs, most obviously), whether confessions, sermons or navel-gazing, is detached from the essential. The self unchecked is a perilous sovereignty, a rogue state. Self-regard is fated to self-annihilate. Writers as various as Chekhov, A.J. Liebling and Oliver Sacks revel in otherness and are most themselves when absorbed by something not themselves. For “grotesque perspectives” look to Virginia Woolf, John Barth and David Foster Wallace, among others.
“Homer so registered values and was the educator of Greece. It is the hardest and rarest of jobs. This or that novel which we in haste mistake for a mirror of the age – The Forsyte Saga, for instance – usually turns out to be a reflection in moving water. Language alters, connotations slither, the writer leans on what his audience understands, and that understanding does not endure.”
This is tricky. A writer is stuck with who he is and what he has, unless, through labor and imaginative reach, he transcends native limitations. The cheap way to accomplish this is to pander to readers, give ’em what, rightly or not, he thinks they want. The resulting commodity may sell but has the life expectancy of a fruit fly.
“…the point at which a writer defines something, whether one moral term – “wise passiveness” [Wordsworth] – or an entire civilization – Cummings’ Eimi – is the point at which he drives his peg into the cliff.”
We’ve lost our nerve. Confident of our “grotesque perspectives,” we step blithely off the cliff.
“Fiction finished has to bear the responsibility of its own meaning, it is its own memory. It is now a thing apart from the writer; like a letter mailed, it is nearer by now to its reader. If the writer has had luck, it has something of its own to travel on, something that can make it persist for a while, an identity, before it must fade.”
[The first three quoted passages are drawn from “Remember That I Have Remembered,” Hugh Kenner’s appraisal of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, published in Gnomon: Essays on Contemporary Literature, 1958. The final passage appears in “Words into Fiction,” an essay Eudora Welty wrote in 1965 and collected in The Eye of the Story, 1978.]
Monday, August 24, 2009
“A wooden spoon for stirring jam,
Dripping sweet tar, while in the pan
Plum magma's bubbles blather.
For someone who can't grasp the whole
There's salvation in the remembered detail.
What, back then, did I know about that?
The real, hard as a diamond,
Was to happen in the indefinable
Future, and everything seemed
Only a sign of what was to come. How naïve.
Now I know inattention is an unforgivable sin
And each particle of time has an ultimate dimension.”
Neither a young man’s poem nor the work of a childish middle-aged or elderly poet. The voice knows loss and regret. It is seasoned – morally, spiritually -- in a manner that doesn’t feel American, hermetic or glibly sentimental. In the wrong hands (in the hands of a poet unable to write “inattention is an unforgivable sin”), the poem could have turned into New Age treacle. Instead, it’s a species of wisdom literature composed by a writer with a good ear: “Plum magma's bubbles blather.”
The poem is “About a Boy Stirring Jam” by Janusz Szuber, born in Poland in 1947, between the deaths of Hitler and Stalin. It’s included in his first book in English, They Carry a Promise: Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009). The translation is by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough, who last spring published “In Zbigniew Herbert’s Garden” in The Threepenny Review. Why has so much modern Polish poetry been translated into English by women (Bogdana Carpenter, Alissa Valles)?
I hear more Milosz than Herbert in Szuber’s lines, more of a religious sensibility. “About a Boy Stirring Jam” reminds me of “Blacksmith Shop,” written by Milosz when he was 80:
“I liked the bellows operated by rope.
A hand or foot pedal – I don’t remember which.
But that blowing, and the blazing of the fire!
And a piece of iron in the fire, held there by tongs,
Red, softened for the anvil,
Beaten with a hammer, bent into a horseshoe,
Thrown into a bucket of water, sizzle, steam.
“And horses hitched to be shod,
Tossing their manes; and in the grass by the river
Plowshares, sledge runners, harrows waiting for repair
“At the entrance, my bare feet on the dirt floor,
Here, gusts of heat; at my back, white clouds.
I stare and stare. It seems I was called for this:
To glorify things just because they are.”
The speakers in each poem remember a childhood commonplace. As Szuber writes: “There's salvation in the remembered detail.” Note the religiously suggestive language, which makes Szuber an anomaly among contemporary poets: He is a mature writer writing for mature readers. Only one poem in the collection, “Cocks Crowing,” carries a dedication: “To Czeslaw Milosz”:
“Cocks crowing for a change of weather:
Under the purple cloud the purple testicles of plums
With gray coating and a sticky crack –
Sweet scabs of dirty amber.
“The tongue tries to smooth the coarseness of the pit
And years pass. But it still hurts the palate,
Promising that I’ll touch the essence – the bottom of that day
When cocks crowed for change of weather.”
Memory, detail, salvation.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
The final scenes of the film, showing the assembly-line murder of innocent men by pistol shots to the head, are difficult to watch. This is not Hollywood fantasy violence. The killers might be tightening bolts on an automobile chassis for all the emotion they express. Wajda follows the atrocity scenes in the only manner appropriate – two minutes of black screen before the credits roll.
The violence of the rest of the film is muted. We know what will happen but don’t know to whom or when. It’s a movie of small, intimate scenes, concentrating on a single family in Kraków. The father is an officer rounded up by the Soviets and held in a prison camp. He and a friend, another officer, speculate on their future, and one says, “Buttons. That’s all that will be left of us.” The line took me by surprise as it seems to allude to “Buttons,” published by Zbigniew Herbert in Rovigo in 1992. Here’s the poem as translated by Alissa Valles in The Complete Poems: 1956-1998:
“Only buttons witnesses to the crime
proved unyielding outlasting death
and as sole memorial on the grave
rise up from the depths of the earth
“they are a testimony it is for God
to count them and to be merciful
but what resurrection if each body
lies in the earth a clinging particle
“a bird flies over a cloud sails past
a leaf descends mallows grow lush
a mist drifts in the Smolensk forest
and up in the heights a deep hush
“only buttons proved unyielding
the mighty voice of a muted chorus
only buttons proved unyielding
buttons from coats and uniforms”
Smolensk is a Russian city about 15 miles west of the Katyń Forest, where most of the murders took place. Herbert dedicates the poem “In memory of Captain Edward Herbert,” the son of the poet’s paternal uncle. Edward Herbert was among the dead of Katyń, as was Wajda’s father.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
“i've deleted my blog. i considered copying some of the less-bad posts to Word but couldn't be bothered. i feel great relief to have got rid of all those damn words. Elberry no longer exists. i shan't blog again.”
I hope this is bravado or a hoax. Wit, intelligence, broad reading and good prose are rare in the blogosphere. Here’s a sample of quintessential Elberry, from an e-mail he sent me on August 12:
“My writing and my life has been an attempt to stay close to the truth note - i am surprised by people who are able to veer from that substance to emptiness, and don't seem to realise their loss - especially writers who suddenly launch into political harangues. i feel it is moral work to try only to speak & write truly - whether in fiction or not - because i think evil very rarely advertises itself, but always attempts to pass itself off as necessity or, more often, as good. If we could only stay true, as much as possible, not just in our words but in our actions, we would be better people. This is just about the only way i see art as moral - i heard the truth note in, for example, Conrad or TS Eliot in my youth, so i knew there was something true, amidst the morass of misused language. i think if we can make our words ring true, others might hear and feel ashamed of hollow, brassy talk. i suppose this is one reason why poets had such a hard time of it in the USSR. Just to write a good poem about a stone would be to show up the official stodge for what it is.”
Among the books Elberry has sent me is a nice early edition of Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly. This sentence, long a favorite, seems appropriate:
“But a man busy contemplating the wreckage of his past in the dawn of new hopes cannot be hungry whenever his rice is ready.”
ADDENDUM: Well, it wasn't precisely bravado or a hoax, but Elberry is back as Elberry's Ghost.
Friday, August 21, 2009
“Burchfield describes the pinched white souls of violets
Frothing the mouth of a derelict old mine
Just as an evil August night comes down,
All umber, but for one smudge of dusky carmine.
It is the sky of a peculiar sadness —
The other side perhaps of some rare gladness.”
Burchfield painted “White Violets and Coal Mine” in 1918 (he had graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art two years earlier). It’s a spooky painting. The cave is mouth-shaped, the violets are oversized and look like tormented cartoon fairies. A Freudian, no doubt, would have fun with it. I prefer to see it as a collision of the human and natural worlds. Visit any site where the earth has been torn and you’ll see a profusion of hardy, opportunistic weeds and wildflowers – chicory, dandelion, mullein, plantain, yarrow, curly dock and Queen Anne’s lace. As always, Burchfield blurs distinctions between realism and the visionary. Guy Davenport puts it like this in Charles Burchfield’s Seasons:
“His work is so rich that its periods can supply museums with large collections in which he might seem to be only a painter of Ohio small towns, or of mid-American industry, or of woods and forests in all weathers, or of domestic tranquility, or of Creation as the essence of all earthly beauty.”
Thursday, August 20, 2009
The final chapter in Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book is titled “August,” and in it she describes the early hints of autumn in Finland:
“It is still summer, but the summer is no longer alive. It has come to a standstill; nothing withers, and fall is not ready to begin.”
The autumnal equinox is more than a month away but the summer has been dry and some leaves on maples and magnolias have already changed color and fallen. It’s a time of mixed signals, not yet the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.”
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
I know from recent experience it’s possible to gather without knowing what you’re looking for. In Cleveland I gathered memories, ideas about American painting and its link to American writing and what my brother called “totems” – a white oak branch heavy with acorns, gingko fruit and leaves, a yellow-brown leaf from a tulip tree. I also know what Tove Jansson means in her novel The Summer Book, the source of the passage above. It seems a universal human trait, and a severely mixed blessing, to see what we want to see and discard the rest. I read The Summer Book this morning on the flight from Cleveland to Seattle, based on an endorsement from Nige:
“Unsentimental, brusque even, and often quite funny, it creates a self-contained world that entirely convinces - partly because of Jansson's gift for sharp close observation - and casts a spell that is all its own.”
The novel, perhaps the first by a Finn I have ever read, fit the flight perfectly. At 179 pages in the New York Review Books edition, I finished reading it about 30 minutes before landing, leaving time to finish the crossword puzzle in the airline magazine. The novels it most reminded me of were Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses and William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. All deal with children and are narrated in voices at once reticent and powerfully emotional. Midway through the novel Jansson writes:
“A person can find anything if he takes the time, that is, if he can afford to look. And while he’s looking, he’s free, and he finds things he never expected.”
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
The museum's American collection is small but excellent – Copley, Audubon, Thomas Cole, John Sloan, George Bellows, George Luks, Winslow Homer, Emil Carlsen, Thomas Eakins, Reginald Marsh, Carl Gaertner, Charles Burchfield, and so on.
The theme of the day was memento mori, first in an 1879 painting of that title by the American William Michael Harnett. A skull rests on a volume of Shakespeare's tragedies, beside an extinguished candle and a spent hourglass. Another volume lies open and inscribed on the inside of the front cover, nearly torn from the rest of the book, is a line spoken by Hamlet: “Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come.” Hamlet speaks this in the graveyard, not knowing Ophelia is already dead.
In another gallery hangs Hendrick ter Brugghen's “Saint Jerome,” painted around 1621.
The Bible translator is depicted as an old man with a white beard, weeping. In front of him rest an open book and a skull. The museum card says the image was once thought to represent Heraclitus, “largely because tears are part of the standard representation of this ancient thinker. However, Brugghen omits the other crucial key for identifying Heraclitus – a globe over which he weeps.” Among Davenport's translations from Heraclitus is this:
“The unseen design of things is more harmonious than the seen.”
Monday, August 17, 2009
“The passages of change that has no stop,
And thought the thought that Shakespeare thought a death;
But knew the charm for a temptation, when,
The next day, we came to the falls, a psyche
Manic from rock to rock and bank to bank,
Furious from the snow-cloud and the snow,
Running, as if all broken sound and mist,
Tormented to its punished happiness. ”
On the way to Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland we stopped at Mill Creek Falls, the tallest falls in Cuyahoga County at a mere 45 feet, and the place where the steel industry got its start in the city. One moment you're driving through a neighborhood that has known its share of “punished happiness,” and the next you're standing above a falls dashing down a terrace of slate. The effect is not Wordsworthian but Bowers-like – abrupt, tormented, unexpectedly sad – “a psyche / Manic.” Signs along a rail line paralleling the creek say “Chicago 605 Miles” and “Pittsburgh 167 Miles.” We saw sycamores and Ailanthus altissima, and I picked the hard, green fruit from a butternut tree.
Lake View Cemetery is the resting place of President James A. Garfield, assassinated in 1881. We climbed his monument and viewed his coffin and his wife's in the lower-level crypt. Buried in the same cemetery are John D. Rockefeller, Eliot Ness, Garrett Augustus Morgan (inventor of the gas mask and three-color traffic signal), Raymond J. Chapman (the only major league baseball player to die due to injuries suffered during a game) and many of Cleveland's city fathers and mothers.
Why do we leave the most beautiful landscapes to the dead? Lake View is called “Cleveland's Outdoor Museum,” and doubles as an arboretum. We saw buckeyes, tulip trees, tulip poplars, gingkos, white, black and red oaks, American beeches and Japanese thread-leaf maples. We saw two female white-tail deer, grazing by the side of a road, more beautiful than the Tiffany window we saw in Wade Chapel. Even Gray noticed the trees in his church-yard:
“Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.”
Sunday, August 16, 2009
My brother stores some of his book overflow on the shelves that once held Ball jars. Among them I found paperbacks that were mine 40 years ago, some with earlier incarnations of my signature. Here is the Signet Classic edition of Dead Souls in the MacAndrew translation (a novel I'm rereading in the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation); the Anchor edition of Selected Letters of Rilke (price: $1.45); the Dell edition of The Anarchists, edited by Irving L. Horowitz; and the Evergreen Black Cat edition of Revolution in a Revolution by Che Guevara's one-time protege Regis Debray.
Fortunately, we have continuity with our younger selves (Gogol, Rilke) as well as radical disconnection (anarchism, Debray). One unmixed with the other would imply a disturbing stasis or fluidity, respectively, in one's personality. I remember the kid attracted to radical politics in the late nineteen-sixties, but I'm glad he has evaporated. He, too, is a part of me. I prefer to claim the book-hungry teenager falling in love with Russian fiction and German poetry. His is the path I chose to follow (though more Russian than German). Thoreau had the gift of viewing his life as evolutionary. In his journal for Jan. 5, 1860, he writes that
“...a man receives only what he is ready to receive, whether physically or intellectually or morally....We hear and apprehend only what we already half know. If there is something which does not concern me, which is out of my line, which by experience or genius my attention is not drawn to, however novel and remarkable it may be, if it is spoken, we hear it not, if it is written we read it not, or if we read it, it does not detain us. Every man thus tracks himself through life, in all his hearing and reading and observation and travelling.”
In, say, 1969, the year I turned 17, I'd like to think I already half knew which path to follow and which to scorn: “If we read it, it does not detain us.”
Saturday, August 15, 2009
“John Aubrey, who wrote Brief Lives, was one of those people who went to country houses for the weekend, stayed sober, then went up to his room and wrote down what everyone had said. Very reprehensible.”
My brother is more gifted than I at perusing yard sales. On a table in his back yard I found two of his recent finds. Poland (2001), with text by Roman Marcinek, consists mostly of color photographs of that unexpectedly beautiful nation. The first sentence of the introduction is enticing: “History is best appreciated in the places where it was made – palace chambers, cathedral naves, castle courtyards, merchant houses, university colleges, monastery cloisters.”
The second book I dawdled over in the afternoon was Sailor's Language by W. Clark Russell, published in 1883 by Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington (Crown Buildings, 188, Fleet Street). I love lexicons, in particular those devoted to the specialized language of trades. The epigraph is from Maryat's 1834 novel Peter Simple:
“In short, what with dead-eyes and shrouds, cats and cat-blocks, dolphins and dolphin-strikers, whips and puddings, I was so puzzled with what I heard that I was about to leave the deck in absolute despair. `And, Mr. Chucks, recollect this afternoon that you bleed all the buoys.'”
Here's a sampler from Russell's dictionary:
Druxy: “Plank or timber in a decayed or spongy state.”
Grass-comber: “A countryman shipped as a sailor.”
Jibber the ribber: “A wrecker's trick of luring a ship to destruction by showing a false light.”
Rogue's yarn: “A yarn in a rope for detecting its theft.”
Russell, whose other books include A Sailor's Sweetheart and John Holdsworth (Chief Mate), would have made excellent company. He tells us in his preface:
“...it is certain that if a sailor has to talk about his calling, he must use the language of the sea. There are no synonyms for `sister-blocks,' `kevels,' `sennit,' `girt-line' and `French-fake,' and the rest of the vocabulary. If a lawyer cannot understand how the bight of a rope can be whipped into a snatch-block without passing the end through the sheave, there is nothing in language outside the terms of marine statements of the process to enable him to master the sailor's meaning.”
I've never heard it put more succinctly. As a bonus, tucked into the pages of Sailor's Language is “Passing of the Backhouse,” a poem about outhouses (privies, the jakes) by James Whitcomb Riley. Someone took the trouble to type the six-stanza poem on a sheet of rice paper. This is the final line:
“I'm now a man, but none the less, I'll try the children's hole.”
Friday, August 14, 2009
“The westbound train leaves Winesburg at seven forty-five in the morning. Tom Little is conductor. His train runs from Cleveland to where it connects with a great trunk line railroad with terminals in Chicago and New York. Tom has what in railroad circles is called an `easy run.’ Every evening he returns to his family. In the fall and spring he spends his Sundays fishing in Lake Erie. He has a round red face and small blue eyes. He knows the people in the towns along his railroad better than a city man knows the people who live in his apartment building.”
Overnight I reversed Tom Little’s route, flying east on a red-eye from Seattle to Cleveland. Not long before landing we flew over Clyde, Ohio, some 60 miles west of Cleveland, Sherwood Anderson’s boyhood home and model for Winesburg, Ohio. (Read what I’ve written about it here and here.) The passage above is from “Departure,” the final chapter in Winesburg, Ohio. Mine, too, was an easy run, an uneventful if exhausting journey home.
Throughout the flight I looked forward to breakfast at a diner near my brother’s house. The décor is chain-tacky but the menu is classically simple and American. Here’s what the artist Saul Steinberg, born in Romania but an American most of his life, said about breakfast in America in Reflections and Shadows, a transcription of talks with old friend Aldo Buzzi:
“The only really good meal here is breakfast. When I traveled I ate breakfast at noon, too, and in the evening. A coffee and a local Danish pastry, or even some agreeable novelties. Ham or bacon and well-cooked eggs with toast. This dish comes with tasty home-fried potatoes, cooked with bacon and onion, or with French fries, on which you put ketchup. Raw ham doesn’t exist, but the cooked kind is excellent: Virginia ham with pineapple, smoked ham from the South, or Canadian bacon, which is a cross between bacon and ham. And sausages, and crisp waffles, imprinted by hot irons, which look like the backside of someone who’s been sitting without his trousers on a straw-bottomed chair…”
Steinberg celebrates breakfast and American diners for another five pages, and they read like one of Whitman’s catalog reveries. Sometimes it takes an outsider to recognize what’s best about us. Such important incidentals are what I most enjoy about my annual returns to Cleveland. With another seasoned traveler, Zbigniew Herbert, I share a taste for the mundane and unrecognized. In “Delta,” an essay about his visits to Holland (collected in Still Life with a Bridle), he composes a paragraph that reads in toto:
“Petty events, small street-fragments of reality.”
Thursday, August 13, 2009
In the undated journal entries preceding the final one, Thoreau records the presence of a large hornets’ nest in a maple and the birth of four kittens. The latter “lay like stuffed skins of kittens in a heap, with pink feet; so flimsy and helpless they lie, yet blind, without any stiffness or ability to stand.” That’s the entire entry, and one notes the Thoreauvian tone of sympathy mingled with the clinical coolness of “stuffed skins.”
Thoreau next quotes an excerpt from the autobiography of Edward Lord Herbert, the First Baron Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), remarking on the sweetness of his breath before he smoked tobacco – no comment appended. Five paragraphs follow on the growth and behavior of the kittens. Thoreau concludes feline ear scratching is instinctive, not taught by the mother cat:
“You would say that this little creature was as perfectly protected by its instinct in its infancy as an old man can be by his wisdom.”
In the second-to-last paragraph Thoreau notes a “violent easterly storm” overnight that clears by noon: “I notice that the surface of the railroad causeway, composed of gravel, is singularly marked, as if stratified like some slate rocks, on their edges, so that I can tell within a small fraction of a degree from what quarter the rain came.”
He spends another two sentences, sounding remarkably like Sherlock Holmes, describing the impact of wind-driven rain on pebbles and gravel. Then comes the final sentence, the last 22 words of the more than 2 million in his journal:
“All this is perfectly distinct to the observant eye, and yet could easily pass unnoticed by most. Thus each wind is self-registering.”
This stands as a sort of epitaph for Thoreau the writer: “perfectly distinct to the observant eye.”
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
“In Milan many years ago, among the trees of our `Summer Garden,’ there was a Russian isba (a log house). I remember the great logs of dark wood, the veranda, where an old maidservant (perhaps I am getting this mixed up with Gogol) welcomed guests with a deep bow. It was not far from the zoo, where a Siberian wolf paced continually from one corner to the other of its cage, hoping obstinately to find a hole through which to go out into the steppe of Milan. A crow landed on the meadow and, as Chekhov says, `before planting itself on its feet, leaped a few times….’”
If you don’t keep reading after that taste, you and I have nothing to talk about. Buzzi is sometimes called a food writer and travel writer, but so was A.J. Liebling, and that tells us nothing about these essentially sui generis raconteurs in prose. Buzzi has no precise cognate among writers in English, though Charles Lamb and Patrick Leigh Fermor are helpfully suggestive, as is Liebling. All of these men worked outside the academy, reveled in their independence and knew something about life. Buzzi studied architecture in Milan, where he met the Romanian-born American artist Saul Steinberg, and worked for decades in the Italian film industry and as a publisher.
Prominent among Buzzi’s English-language advocates is James Marcus, proprietor of House of Mirth, who writes about him here, here and here. James has also translated a brief essay by Buzzi, “Key West,” about a visit with his old friend Steinberg. It appeared in the summer 2007 issue of Raritan and is not available online, but here’s an excerpt:
“I came late to writing, so now, despite my age, I can in a certain way consider myself a young writer, one who still learns by reading, not yet tired of learning. But nonetheless tired due to old age.”
“The restaurants are thronged, the candles lit on the tables. With the fork I push aside a quantity of diced papaya, jalapeño peppers, red peppers, mango, tomatoes, and several other unidentified items, and at the end I discover my fish. The tropical climate brings out a vein of coarse fantasy in the kitchen, producing dishes that suggest the monstrous flowers on the palm trees. `We’re eating parrots,’ says S.”
Happy birthday, Aldo, and thank you, James.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
“Beauty Salon is a dream-like account of a plague-ridden city and one hairstylist’s attempt to save as many of the sick as possible. This poetic tale of survival and seclusion, published in translation and written by renowned Mexican author Mario Bellatín, examines the process of death through the dual lens of the hairstylist’s collection of exotic fish, living and observing from their aquariums, as well as the dying passing through the salon.”
Señor Bellatín’s novel sounds like something Gilbert Sorrentino concocted for Mulligan Stew. Such pitches almost invariably involve the sort of titles Charles Lamb in “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading” calls “things in books’ clothing.”
We’ve forbidden our sons to read books during meals because macaroni and cheese is not an acceptable bookmark. The other day my 9-year-old was reduced to reading the ingredients on a can of fruit juice. Truly, I sympathize. The need to read can verge on pathology but even on an otherwise bookless international flight I wouldn’t resort to Beauty Salon or its literary cousins. Lamb observes and I concur:
“I can read any thing which I call a book. There are things in that shape which I cannot allow for such.”
Monday, August 10, 2009
“`Ignorance about those who have disappeared undermines the reality of the world.’ The Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert appears to have had the myriad European victims of the Second World War – or, perhaps, their survivors – foremost in his mind when he included that line in his poem `Mr. Cogito on the Need for Precision.’ But it was in Montevideo, Uruguay, just recently that the phrase kept returning to me.”
The Uruguayan generals who had dominated the country for two decades, Weschler writes, “were convinced, as a matter of doctrinal certainty, that theirs was but one battlefront in a Thirds World War that had already broken out – an absolute war, against Communism. Absolute wars leave absolute imperatives in their wake: Herbert’s imperative of remembrance, but also, and sometimes in diametrical opposition, the imperative of renewal.”
Weschler meets with Enrique Tarigo, the first civilian vice president of Uruguay (1985-1990) since military junta in 1973. He quotes the line from Herbert’s poem and asks if democracy can stand on a foundation of “undermined reality?” Tarigo answers that Spain in the post-Franco period had done so successfully. To have reviewed the events of the Spanish Civil War of 40 years earlier would have provoked “a whole new civil war.” Weschler quotes Tarigo as saying:
“Life continues, life is made up of things that are not pretty, that are not the subject of a beautiful poem. And the function of a government is not to write poetry but to build a real future. In response to your poet, I would cite the political theorist Max Weber who distinguished between individual ethics and the ethics of those in positions of responsibility. I understand the point of view of the victim’s family, but in the ethic of governance one has to weigh, for example, the question of justice for twenty or thirty individuals versus the possibility of losing democracy again in this country.”
We might call this applied literary criticism. In no conventional sense is Herbert’s poem “beautiful.” The word in Tarigo’s mouth drips contempt -- a man of power dismissing a man of words. Much of Herbert’s work, including “Mr. Cogito and the Need for Precision,” is devoted to “things that are not pretty.” In an interview he gave the Carpenters, his American translators, Herbert says:
“Writing—and in this I disagree with everybody—must teach men soberness: to be awake. [Spoken in English.] To make people sober. It does not mean, not to try. But with a small internal correction. I reject optimism despite all the theologians. Despair is a fruitful feeling. It is a cleanser, from desire, from hope. `Hope is the mother of the stupid.’ [This is a Polish proverb.] I don't like hope.”
Next, Weschler meets with Julio María Sanguinetti, the president of Uruguay (1985-1990, 1995-2000), and quotes to him a lengthier passage from Herbert’s poem:
“And yet in these matters
accuracy is essential
we must not be wrong
even by a single one
“we are despite everything
the guardians of our brothers
“ignorance about those who have disappeared
undermines the reality of the world.”
Weschler asks Sanguinetti if it’s possible to found “a secure democracy on the basis of a sort of willed mass ignorance.” The president’s answer is more sophisticated and learned than Tarigo’s, but equally dismissive of Herbert:
“The basis of democracy is the people's conviction that it’s the best system and that everyone can expect to exercise his rights…everyone has a place under the sun. As for your poet – Ernest Renan, the great nineteenth-century French historian, who was very influential here in the Southern Cone, once said…`Nations are a plebiscite every day, and they are constructed on the basis of great remembering and great forgetting.’ If the French were still thinking about the Night of St. Bartholomew, they’d be slaughtering each other to this day.”
Weschler cites Herbert’s poem one last time in his afterword. He notes the Polish dissidents who conceived of Solidarity as an expression of the subjectivity of the Polish nation: “…they meant its rediscovered capacity for acting as the subject rather than the object of history. As with the lines from Zbigniew Herbert, this was a formulation that kept recurring to me during my recent visits to Latin America.” Here are lines from Herbert’s five-page poem, not cited by Weschler, emphasizing the poem’s universality:
“because even what
is happening under our eyes
loses the human dimension
“somewhere there must be an error
a fatal defect in our tools
or a sin of memory”
Sunday, August 09, 2009
“Montaigne wrote in order to explore his mind in search of truth. Hazlitt wrote to expound the truth he thought he had arrived at. He has nothing of Montaigne's easy temper and tolerance. He tends to be a wise guy. He never was a wise man.”
All true, and Frank doesn’t even address Hazlitt’s ridiculous politics, but I still admire the man who could write “The Indian Jugglers,” among other things, including these lines:
“What abortions are these Essays! What errors, what ill-pieced transitions, what crooked reasons, what lame conclusions! How little is made out, and that little how ill! Yet they are the best I can do.”
This is less humility than Hazlitt’s histrionic false modesty (“a wise guy,” says Frank), but he’s being true to the etymological spirit of the essay as an attempt not necessarily successful. A good essay seems genuinely experimental, never dogmatic, shadowed by the writer and his effort to write it. While I prefer fiction to be somehow finished and self-contained (but for exceptions like Tristram Shandy), in essays I’m fond of a writer showing his hand, allowing the writing of the text to become part of its texture.
On Saturday we took the boys to a Cub Scout model-rocket launch. The site was a vast, flat, treeless park. Across the field, hobbyists were flying radio-controlled airplanes that buzzed like hornets and swooped like swallows. The scouts’ rockets were fueled by a fertilizer-like mixture and ignited with a battery charge. They whistled to an altitude of about 500 feet and drifted back on parachutes. I was bored in about two minutes so I walked to the edge of the field and discovered the hedgerow was mostly blackberry brambles, an old, woody growth with stalks two inches across at the base. Despite our dry summer, the thorny branches were heavy with fruit.
At first I ate what I picked, staining my lips and fingers magenta, then I searched the car for a container and found the fluorescent-orange traffic cones we had used at a bike rodeo two weeks ago. These are the small models – dunce caps for chimps – and I filled four of them. Back home they overflowed our colander – four quarts or more of free, tart-sweet blackberries, more than $15 worth at the grocery. I’m coming back next week with baskets and want to explore the overgrown apple orchard beyond. In Wild Fruits, Thoreau says the blackberry crop reaches its height in Concord around August 18. He writes:
“Surely the high blackberry is the finest berry that we have – whether we find their great masses of shining black fruit, mixed with red and green [that is, unripe berries], bent over amid the sweet fern and sumac on sunny hillsides, or growing more rankly and with larger fruit in low ground and by rich roadsides….they are perfectly fresh, black, and shining, ready to drop, with a spirited juice. Who will pretend that, plucked and eaten there, they are the same with those offered at the tea table? These are among the berries that are eaten by men.”
As I write, my fingers are still stained, seeds are stuck between my teeth and an e-mail has just arrived from Nige:
“So much rain here this summer that the berries and all other fruits are very plump and swollen - I had some Kentish cherries this week that were as large as small plums. And today, on Bookham Common, the blackberries positively voluptuous. I ate quite a few, but had nothing with me to collect them in, sadly (and no one else was picking - such a waste). Besides, I was there principally for the butterflies…”
This damned discursiveness is the essayist’s curse. I favor the elasticity of the form, stitched together, however inadequately, with sound, sensibility and happy serendipity. “Yet they are the best I can do.”
Saturday, August 08, 2009
“These berries have a very innocent ambrosial taste, as if made of the ether itself, as they plainly are colored with it…I can easily see still in my mind’s-eye the beautiful clusters of these berries as they appeared to me twenty or thirty years ago, when I came upon an undiscovered bed of them behind some higher bushes in a sproutland – the rich clusters drooping in the shade there and bluing all the ground, without a grain of their bloom disturbed. It was a thrilling discovery to find such ethereal fruits under the still, fresh green of oaks and hickory sprouts.”
This is from Wild Fruits, a late work not published until 138 years after his death. Thoreau is writing of the early low blueberry, which he notes is also called dwarf blueberry, Pennsylvania blueberry and Vaccinium pennsylvanicum. Thoreau christens it the “bluet” (also a wildflower, and meaning something like “small blue”). This blueberry grows naturally in the woods and fields around Concord, and I’ve eaten from it in the Adirondacks. Thoreau observed how it flourishes after a woodlot is cut down – “during the few years between one forest’s fall and another’s rise.”
Imagine, in mid-19th-century America, the anticipation people felt as they awaited the ripening of berries and other fruit. I remember my maternal grandmother, born in 1888 in upstate New York, describing the thrill of getting an orange as a Christmas present when she was a girl. It seemed like a fragrant, colorful miracle. So much prosperity – refrigeration, high-speed transportation – has blunted taste buds and clouded memories.
The bushes on the farm we visited Friday were planted in long, tight, parallel lines like hedgerows. Orb weavers and swallows harvested insects as we harvested berries. The swallows performed their customary acrobatics, and one dipped so low over my head I felt the wind of his passing. Here’s Thoreau again, from Wild Fruits:
“…some child of the woods is at your door with ripe blueberries, for didn’t you know that Mr. Blood cut off his woodlot on Pomciticut Hill winter before last? This act has more results than he wots [knows] of. It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good; and thus it happens that when the owner lays bare and deforms a hillside, and he alone appears to reap any advantage from it by a crop of wood, all the villagers and inhabitants of distant cities obtain some compensation in the crop of berries that it yields…Let alone your garden, cease your cultivation – and in how short a time will blueberries and huckleberries grow there!”
Friday, August 07, 2009
This is V.S. Pritchett on Chekhov in his essay “A Doctor,” the first thing I thought of when I read Nige’s account of reading “A Dreary Story” (in Ronald Hingley's translation). Nige also links to the portion of Pritchett’s Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free (1988) devoted to the story. On Thursday, the last day of Cub Scout camp, I reread “A Boring Story” (its title in the Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonsky translation) throughout the day, in the woods, surrounded by screaming boys.
A 62-year-old professor of medicine (the story is subtitled “From an Old Man’s Notes”), Nikolai Stepanovich, knows he is soon to die. Chekhov was a doctor and only 29 years old when he wrote “A Boring Story,” and it often has been read autobiographically. There’s truth to this, but it’s an oblique and fragmentary truth. Take this passage late in the 52-page story:
“In my predilection for science, in my wish to live, in this sitting on a strange bed and trying to know myself, in all the thoughts, feelings, and conceptions I form about everything, something general is lacking that would unite it all into a single whole. Each feeling and thought lives separately in me, and in all my opinions about science, the theater, literature, students, and in all the pictures drawn by my imagination, even the most skillful analyst would be unable to find what is known as a general idea or the god of the living man.”
On the story’s literal level, this is Nikolai Stepanovich castigating himself for his failures as physician, teacher and man, though it might also be read as Chekhov’s covert credo as an artist. Unlike other Russian writers – certainly unlike Tolstoy and Dostoevsky – Chekhov was constitutionally averse to general ideas, schemes and ideologies, whether political, social or religious. Nikolai Stepanovich’s confession reads like a condemnation of Chekhov’s stories and plays by one of his Russian critics. On a related theme, see “Chekhov & Tolstoy,” an essay by Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple) comparing “A Dreary Story” and Tolstoy’s better known and less successful “The Death of Ivan Illych”:
“`A Dreary Story’ offers no epiphany, no suggestion--as Tolstoy's story does--that if only men would learn to live in such and such a way, and not to chase after false gods, then their lives would be entirely satisfactory, without anxiety or a nagging sense of incompleteness.”
While eating my dinner and reading “A Boring Story,” an old man sat across from me at the picnic table. His grandsons are Cub Scouts and his son is a scout leader, and he seemed like a quietly affable fellow. I asked what he did for a living, and he said he had owned a construction company and built custom homes. I asked if he had sold the business, as he had spoken in the past tense, and he said, “When I lost my son…” and began to weep silently. His shoulders shook and he covered his eyes. He explained that his younger son, a 34-year-old track coach, had suffered a fatal heart attack five years ago. “After that, I didn’t care about anything,” he said. “There was nothing left.” In “A Doctor,” Pritchett writes:
“Like a great many, perhaps all Russian writers of the nineteenth century, Chekhov caught people at the point of idleness and inertia in their undramatic moment when time is seen passing through them and the inner life exposes itself unguardedly in speech. He caught people in their solitude.”
Thursday, August 06, 2009
“The accent and character of one’s native region live in the mind and heart just as in one’s speech.”
My native region is Cleveland, where I fly next week to visit my brother and his family, and rendezvous with my oldest son, who lives in New York City. The Cleveland accent is the rough-hewn lilt of the industrial working class of my youth, a culture that seems no longer to exist. The Cleveland character is rooted in practicality and hard work, trust in experience over abstraction, and distrust of pretension. That’s my inheritance, one I was once reluctant to accept though it constitutes some of what I most value in my “mind and heart.”
Bogan never came to a satisfactory truce with her shabby-genteel childhood – born Irish-Catholic in Maine, raised in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. I’ve loved her work for 40 years, in part, because of this sense of a shared past and because she ordered her turbulence in formal verse. She is never “confessional” in the vulgar sense. Bogan writes in her journal in 1961:
“The poet represses the outright narrative of his life. He absorbs it, along with life itself. The repressed becomes the poem. Actually, I have written down my experience in the closest detail. But the rough and vulgar facts are not there.”
Whining about one’s childhood is distasteful, disloyal and embarrassing. Mine, in ways I’ll never fathom, left me with a love of books and the natural world, and immunized me against boredom. In 1933, Bogan writes this enigmatic entry in her journal:
“Santayana’s classic world – the people in Chekhov `seen against the sky’: this is what I knew in childhood and had no word for: this is `the light falling down through the universe,’ the look and feeling of which has haunted me for so long –”
[On Wednesday, as a preview of things to come, my brother sent me a link to Dave Van Ronk performing Furry Lewis’ version of "Stackerlee.”]
Wednesday, August 05, 2009
this is the
rule of dogs
for whom there
are no fool’s
loop out and
come back is
good all alone.
It’s gravy to
carry a ball
or a bone.”
One of Ryan’s casual gifts is to remind us of the rich density of common English words. What can be “delivered”? Babies, newspapers, the mail, a right jab, pizza, punchlines, artillery rounds, Hebrews (Exodus 18:8) – poems, perhaps? Ryan describes the joy of doing for its own sake. On the immediate level, her poem confirms what we already know about dogs – their charming idiocy and eagerness to please. But Ryan is interested in more than canine psychology.
For a poet, for any writer who cares, there are no fool’s errands. Ryan often starts with the grit of such a cliché and builds a pearl around it. Every beginning, every first word (“A”), is a step into a dark room – hardwood floor or elevator shaft? “To / loop out and / come back is / good all alone.” (The coming back part is important.) “The journey is the destination”: a New Age bromide Ryan has probably used already. If the poet returns with a poem, even one good line or word, that’s gravy – the richer and more savory, the better. Ryan rhymes “alone” with “bone.”
I admire Ryan’s poems for their wit and pungency. Like another pungent wit, J.V. Cunningham, she writes short but leaves the impression of tons of marble left on the studio floor. Much life and learning is distilled by craft into a perfect miniature. Louise Bogan – troubled sister to Ryan and Cunningham – writes in her journal in 1937:
“Put me down as one to whom delicate apercus, Swift’s sentence structure, and Mozart’s music, meant as much as the starry firmament and the moral law, and stood for proof of life’s inner cleanliness, tenderness, and order.”
Tuesday, August 04, 2009
“Nothing orders our lives so smoothly and so subtly as the almost invisible ordinary. The simple habit of saying `thank you,’ and the notion of gratitude that underlies it, can be a key to understanding many of basic assumptions, preferences, and needs of Western culture…We often express dismay at an apparent drop in the `standards’ of gratitude in society as a whole (people have always tended to complain that gratitude seems to be dying out). But it continues to be a common virtue; otherwise, our society would show far worse signs of disintegration.”
I was tempted to complain about the near-extinction of gratitude (Traherne called it “a symptom of a happy life”) as exemplified by whining, sorely aggrieved Cub Scouts and some of their parents – but that seems needlessly ungrateful of me. I had a good, exhausting time, and Visser reminds me:
“Ingratitude….is disregard – paying no attention and so slighting – and disrespect. It rejects, disparages, or ignores gifts and favours. More importantly, it rejects the person giving them. It can also despise and reject what has come to us from the past: social arrangements, moral beliefs and attitudes, and artistic and other concrete achievements.”
Visser serves as a corrective to my slide toward self-righteousness, and her book is hefty enough (458 pages) to serve as an excellent press for leaves and wildflowers. Traherne again, from Centuries of Meditation:
“By the very right of your senses you enjoy the World. Is not the beauty of the Hemisphere present to your eye? Doth not the glory of the Sun pay tribute to your sight? Is not the vision of the World an amiable thing?”
Monday, August 03, 2009
This is the poet Amy Clampitt writing to her brother Philip from New York City on Feb. 3, 1955 – a time and place she makes sound beautifully, impossibly civilized and vibrant. This is the Manhattan of A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell, Seize the Day and Charlie Parker (who would die a month later, on March 12). Only an oaf would deride the United States in the nineteen-fifties as stifled or reactionary. Clampitt’s is a sensibly genteel world we’ll never see again.
“…but there was a window display on Henry James – a couple of minor first editions, a couple of pictures, and some lovingly selected quotations about him from Conrad and T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis; and since for years I have regarded Henry James as a sort of private guiding light as well as probably the greatest American novelist, there was nothing to do but drop in and pay my respects (almost the way a properly brought up Catholic will bend the knee before the altar every time he enters a church).”
I’ve never seen such an altar in a bookstore window in any city where I’ve made the rounds – Cleveland, Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Montreal, Houston, Seattle. Marketing has replaced literary reverence and celebration.
“There was nobody there but one of the partners, and pretty soon (he is, whoever he is, exceedingly learned, and I had hitherto thought, rather pedantic – but I guess I was wrong) we were talking about historians and I was realizing that after I finish Trevelyan’s History of England (which has sent me straight back to Shakespeare – the two Richards and both parts of Henry IV so far) I have got to read Macaulay and Carlyle – not for the facts, which I never retain in any detail for very long, but for the qualities of their minds.”
Ah, the dedicated reader’s dilemma and delight – books propagating promiscuously, the naughty things, one leading to another and another. Years ago, seated on adjoining stools in a Cleveland bar down the block from the bookstore where I worked, my brother and I figured out we read in the same way – trolling footnotes and bibliographies, decrypting allusions, looking for leads, for the next fix. What I most like here is Clampitt’s explanation, in effect, for why she reads: “for the qualities of their minds.” We read Keats and George Eliot for the sheer pleasure of their company, their Keatsian and Eliot-esque minds.
“Presently we got around to James again, and to the inexhaustibility of his quality of mind – every time I reread anything, as I have just reread The Wings of the Dove, I have the feeling that I hadn’t really understood it before, and this seems to be the experience of everybody who cares for him at all. (One of those lovingly selected quotes, I forget from whom, called him the most intelligent man of his generation – a queer kind of superlative, but possibly true.) Then the phone rang…”
We no longer have such bookstores or such conversations in them. We have blogs.
[Clampitt’s letter is from Love, Amy: The Selected Letters of Amy Clampitt (edited by Willard Spiegelman, Columbia University Press, 2005). As a bonus, look at the photo from 1989 of Clampitt standing with 18 other “Literary Lions” at the New York Public Library. In the second row enjoy the unlikely spectacle of Joseph Mitchell standing between Elmore Leonard and Hunter S. Thompson.]
Sunday, August 02, 2009
An army of beggars occupied most of the freeway access roads in Houston. In my experience, they weren’t aggressive, just part of the roadside scenery like palmettos and taquerias. In greater Seattle, beggars are scarcer and more genteel, usually better dressed. It’s easy to ignore them, unlike some of their New York City brethren.
As we were leaving the library I heard the scene at the entrance before I saw it – loud, emphatic talking, not quite yelling. I was surprised to see it was the beggar making the noise. “Don’t tell me what I’m doing here!” were the first words I could make out. And then: “I got nothing to do with you people.” One of the Laroucheites said something about “Wall Street,” and the boys and I moved toward the car. The last words I made out were the beggar’s: “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” By the time we were pulling out of the parking lot, library security guards were breaking things up.
I’m speculating here, filling in the missing dialogue, but I assume one of the crackpots used the beggar as an illustration of something or other, perhaps accusing him of being a tool of British intelligence, and the beggar objected. I don’t know his story, the legitimacy of his situation, the state of his mental health or his drug and alcohol habits. He was clean and well-groomed, polite and deferential, seemingly on a downward drift from the middle class. Lyndon Larouche’s followers are not renowned for tact, and the beggar was offended.
In his essay about London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew’s great four-volume chronicle of Victorian England’s lumpenproletariat, Auden writes:
“Yet, for all its harrowing descriptions of squalor, crime, injustice and suffering, the final impression of Mayhew’s great book is not depressing. From his many transcripts of conversations it is clear that Mayhew was that rare creature, a natural democrat; his first thought, that is to say, was never `This is an unfortunate wretch whom it is my duty, if possible, to help’ but always `This is a fellow human being whom it is fun to talk to.’ The reader’s final impression of the London poor is not of their misery but of their self-respect, courage and gaiety in conditions under which it seems incredible that such virtues could survive.”
Auden’s operative words are “fellow human being” and “fun.” Some people see not a beggar with an idiosyncratic history, mingling the good, bad and indifferent like the rest of us, but a case study, a social category, a specimen in a jar. One wouldn’t expect a Laroucheite to have the patience or decency to talk to a fellow human being, and certainly not to have a well-toned sense of fun.
Saturday, August 01, 2009
In the stare of the deer, in the ring of a hammer in the morning.
Seeing a bucket of perfectly lucid water
We fall to imagining prodigious honesties.”
There is, as well, a poignancy in these lines from Richard Wilbur’s “Clearness” (from Ceremony and Other Poems, 1950) and in others from his seven decades of work and, of course, in the ungainly sprawl of literature. One of the reasons we read is for such moments of poignant clarity, of one person’s living perception distilled. Remember Cleopatra’s howl when Antony dies:
“The crown o’ the earth doth melt. My lord!
O, wither’d is the garland of the war,
The soldier’s pole is fall’n: young boys and girls
Are level now with men. The odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon.”
Having read this once, and again, it mingles with the sorrow we know when exceptional people die, whether Edgar Bowers, Guy Davenport or an old friend. Literature, Kenneth Burke reminds us, reliably provides such “equipment for living.” A reader has passed along a copy of the introduction David Yezzi gave Wilbur at a reading in New York City in May. Among Yezzi’s observations are these:
“As Robert Frost knew well, `to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of’ is the poet’s ultimate ambition. And Wilbur has lodged with us an extraordinary number of poems, indelible and unforgettable.
“The teaming list of `moments’ that Wilbur has preserved will be different for each reader, since all of his poems perform the function in some way.”
Among them I would propose these lines from “Attention Makes Infinity” (from The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, 1947):
“Contagious of the solid make this day
An infiniteness any eye may prove.
Let asphalt bear us up to walk in love,
Electric towers shore the clouds away.”
And these, from “Winter Spring” (a title and poem that remind me of Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring”) in the same collection:
“And doubtless it is dangerous to love
This somersault of seasons;
But I am weary of
The winter way of loving things for reasons.”
Yezzi says in his introduction, “Wilbur’s poems are the mysterious product of the poet’s lifelong mastery over the momentary; they are stays against transience.” In March, Wilbur turned 88.