Monday, August 12, 2013

`A Natty Peace'

I’ve only just started reading Ben Downing’s biography of a person I had never heard of, Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), but already I’m smitten: 

“…[Ross] went about her business matter-of-factly. All the same, she was a sort of accidental pioneer. Where the vision of bliss pursued by the [Tuscan expatriate] colony had been about passive absorption, ours today involves action and effort; we tend to aspire to a kind of rugged self-reliance. So too for Janet, who took more pleasure from doing things herself than from having them done for her. In her participatory enthusiasm, her preference for the rural, her esteem for the peasantry and its traditions, and the fact that she wrote about all this—she was the first to do so—she was a prototypical figure.” 

One mark of a good biography is feeling disappointment at not being able to meet its subject (Ross was born in 1842 and died in 1927). One page after the quote above and this reader’s infatuation is complete: 

“Though intelligent and learned, especially for an autodidact, she was by no means brilliant. She had little imagination or inner life, and she made no towering contribution to humanity [praise the Lord!]. Yet her life was singular…Now we might call her a node or hub, and so she was—but on a grand scale, her spokes radiating across the map.” 

Downing is co-editor of Parnassus: Poetry in Review, and I’ve waited for a book from him since I read (and bought) his first, The Calligraphy Shop (Zoo Press, 2003), a collection of poems. He’s one of our best reviewers. Go to his website and enjoy wandering about. In particular, read his remembrance of his friend Tom Disch. After you find a copy of The Calligraphy Shop, turn to page 3 and read “On First Looking into Bate’s Life of Johnson.” For now, here’s the fourth of the poem’s four sections, addressed to Dr. Johnson:

“Professor Bate has served you faithfully
despite being an American.
As you once ambered others, he has spun
A grease-stained halo round your memory,

“embalming you in neither the debauched
fluids of the ordinary Joe
nor the priggish ether of the hagio.
Half slob, half saint: your corpulence was lodged

“between the rock of faith and the hard spot
of being merely human – a Gordian knot
which you, no Alexander, couldn’t cut,
yet worked and worried in such intricate,

“persevering, poignantly futile ways
that your greatness beggars his. Epitome
of Adamites, the ur-Dr. J,
your frazzled life here finds a natty peace.”

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