“He looks like the sort of person who takes pride in his ability to get things done. His skin is pale (as though he spends most of his time indoors), his gaze penetrating, and his expression formidable—a poker face that reveals nothing. He could be plotting against his enemies, reading the mind of the king [Henry VIII], or preparing a brief for the law courts.”
I gazed at Holbein’s painting and read Dr. Cole’s gloss while sitting in the hospital waiting room, waiting to have blood drawn. The magazine selection was narrow – JAMA, People – so I was pleased to see the hospital encourages customers to consult the profession’s best-known publication, a sort of Consumer Reports for the halt and lame. More than twenty years ago, covering medicine for a newspaper in upstate New York, I subscribed to JAMA and read everything in it I came close to understanding. Despite the noun-rich jargon and its embrace of political correctness, I enjoyed the journal’s veneer of William Osler-like civility and learning.
In the same issue as Cole’s essay, in the “Humanities” section, JAMA publishes under the rubric “Poetry and Medicine” a poem by Joannie Kervran Stangeland, "Mantilla." I’m not sure I understand much of it but I like “An old woman said an apple / should never be eaten alone. / Could this be Biblical?” The question, I assume, is rhetorical. Stangeland concludes with “Later you can set out the Manzanillas.” The last word, from the Spanish for “little apples,” refers to a Spanish sherry.
In “Shaker Light,” an essay collected in The Hunter Gracchus (1996), Guy Davenport recalls the entwined apple and pear trees that stood in a yard around the corner from his house in Lexington, Ky., growing in a “double spiral.” Throughout his work, Davenport treats apple and pear as primal symbols embedded in Western culture. In the Shaker essay he writes, “Apple is the symbol of the Fall, pear of Redemption. Apple is the world, pear heaven. Apple is tragic.” Like Joyce, Davenport venerates true symbols, and treats them with the respect due reality. He concludes the essay with these lines:
“The day before yesterday this intertwined apple and pear were in full bloom. In every season these trees have been lovely, in autumn with their fruit, in winter a naked grace, in summer a round green puzzle of two kinds of leaves; but in spring they have always been a glory of white, something like what I expect an angel to look like when I see one. But I shall not see these trees again. Some developer has bought the property and cut down the embracing apple and pear, in full bloom, with a power saw, the whining growl of which is surely the language of devils at their business, which is to cancel creation.”
Born Nov. 23, 1927, Davenport died on this date, Jan. 4, in 2005. I don’t have it here, but in a letter he wrote to me around 1991 after I’d sent him the draft of an essay I was working on, Guy reminded me not to be beholden to anyone, not even to my own “mind-forg’d manacles,” only to the words. David Myers puts it like this in Thursday’s barn-burner of a post:
“For the writer (whose best readers are among the dead), freedom is an absolute.”