Monday, October 04, 2010

`What I Did Was Small But Good'

Word at last from my friend and reader who left more than a month ago for a two-year posting in Sudan, a country whose terrain is described as “generally flat, featureless plain; mountains in far south, northeast and west; desert dominates the north.” My friend works for a relief agency in a country that has known little relief for decades. He writes:

“Here in south Sudan I find dysfunction all around, on all sides, all hours. Yet life goes on, work goes on. Camus has his protagonist doctor say in The Plague that the essential is to do well one's métier.”

Anecdotal Evidence has always been about gifts, giving and receiving them, and my friend is always generous. Because he’s missing the glories of autumn in our hemisphere, and I have only words, here is “The Fall of Leaves” by one of my October Poets, Yvor Winters, who wrote about the deserts and mountains of the American West:

"The green has suddenly
Divided to pure flame,
Leaf-tongued from tree to tree.
Yea, where we stood it came.

"This change may have no name.
Yet it was like a word;
Spoken and none to blame,
Alive where shadow stirred.

"So was the instant blurred.
But as we waited there,
The slow cry of a bird
Built up a scheme of air.

"The vision of despair
Starts at the moment's bound,
Seethes from the vibrant air
With slow autumnal sound

“Into the burning ground."

In my friend I see the stoicism of Winters’ speaker, the diminishment of one’s sense of importance, the acceptance of larger cycles, including mortality. October is my birth month, and my friend and I are almost the same age, we both hear the “slow autumnal sound.” A late poem by Winters, “Two Old-Fashioned Songs,” is divided into “Danse Macabre” and “A Dream Vision.” Here is the latter of the second’s four stanzas:

“I had grown away from youth,
Shedding error where I could;
I was now essential wood,
Concentrating into truth;
What I did was small but good.”

I think of “essential wood” as heartwood, once called xylem, the portion of a tree’s interior most resistant to decay. Botanists debate whether heartwood is, strictly speaking, still living or something else. My friend concludes his note: “Bonne continuation, mon frere.”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

A truly beautiful post – so much elided and so much included. The Winters’ poem (and the way you put words upon it) has a strong resonance for me, too. The rhymes do collect a bit too much of the meaning, as would be expected with the elaborate (terza rima?) rhyme scheme, but the overall effect is of a poignant holding back the “mere anarchy unloosed upon the world,” the flames of life moving inexplicably forward in front of the dumb observer.

Your friend, as well, how inspiring - to do things not because they make a difference, but because they need to be done. Everything makes a difference - that’s why the difficult choices – the perplexing and quixotic – can be the most important ones.

The lovely scent of fall, beginning, in the echo of Proust. "Le véritable voyage de découverte ne consiste pas à chercher de nouveaux paysages, mais à avoir de nouveaux yeux."