Tuesday, September 10, 2013

`The Things That Bring Oneself to Oneself'

I make many exceptions for the late Jonathan Williams (1929-2008), an exceptional man, poet, photographer, publisher and one-man impresario of culture. It’s in the last three roles he’ll probably be longest and best remembered, though The Magpie’s Bagpipe: Selected Essays of Jonathan Williams (North Point Press, 1982) is always a pleasure to revisit. “The Arts—a (Finger-Lickin’) Southern Experience,” written in 1967, is a celebration of Appalachian origins. This most cosmopolitan of artists was born in Asheville, N.C. (as his friend Guy Davenport was born two years earlier in Anderson, S.C., about ninety miles to the south), and never apologized: 

“We make our own ancestors, and mine are William Bartram and his `Franklin Tree,’ André Michaux and his shortia; I know that Vachel Lindsay must have walked the old road through the family orchard in 1906 from Dillard to Highlands, and that Béla Bartók and Charles Ives both visited Asheville and stayed at the Grove Park Inn to recover their health. That I was born in Asheville twenty-nine years after Thomas Wolfe is important to me. There is something in the water of the French Broad River—demanding that one go everywhere, eat everything, read everything, drink everything, know everything and everybody. Hopeless, hopeless, but it runs in our systems and we are all much more automatic than we imagine.” 

That gives you a taste of Williams’ polymathic appetites. He can be silly and tiresomely campy but also very funny. Distinctions between high and low culture, the academic and vernacular, are not so much destroyed or dismissed as ignored if they get in the way of a good story or sentence. He’s a rare writer who doesn’t condescend to rural Southerners, black or white. He writes often about a North Carolina neighbor, Uncle Iv Owens, who thinks Williams is in the “`poultry’ business”: “Poetry is not a word in Mr. Owens’s vocabulary—and why should it be? The old gentleman only knows a few verses of Scripture by heart and how to order off for a few things in the Sears catalog.” Of Uncle Iv’s conversation, Williams asks, “what could be better than this speech, solid, simple as a rock wall? It is like picking up amethyst crystals in the path. The era can find them perfectly formed.” Williams, the student of Pound and the other Williams (William Carlos), declares of Uncle Iv Owens, in a passage worthy of Thoreau’s journal that I’d like to commit to memory: 

“I have some symbiotic relation with a man like that, as I do with plants with amazing names like punktatum, ginseng, vipers bugloss, pipissewa, and bloodroot. There are certain things I must see, or I lose track of time, of what I am doing, of where I am. The April day when the bloodroot appears in its delicate white blur by the trail; the September day in the high mountains when the viburnum is in color (yellow/green/brown) too rare and too translucent to describe; the shade and quality of galax and dog hobble on crisp blue days in January along the icy creeks; the wood thrush at dusk in June; the mare’s-tail clouds in late afternoon in November; the meadow time of joe-pye weed, oxeyedaisy, and ironweed; the migration of the hawks over Wesser Bald at that same season. These are the things that bring oneself to oneself.” 

Punktatum, when translated into written English, is conventionally spelled “punctatum,” and refers to Rhododendron carolinianum. Ginseng you can buy at the Walgreen’s. Vipers bugloss is Echium vulgare or, even more vulgare, blueweed. Pipissewa is Chimaphila umbellate, a wildflower rich in medicinal lore. Bloodroot is Sanguinaria canadensis, surely the most beautiful flower in the world, as well as being a powerful emetic. Viburnum is everywhere, cultivated and wild. Galax is Galax urceolata, a flower called beetleweed by a naturalist I know in upstate New York. The aptly named dog hobble is Leucothoe fontanesiana. Its leaves and petals contain andromedotoxin, a substance that can prove fatal if ingested. I suppose everyone knows joe-pye weed, Eutrochium purpureum, and oxeye daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare, another perfect flower. Ironweed, Vernonia altissima, lent its name to William Kennedy’s 1983 novel. Kennedy takes one of his epigraphs from Dante and the other from an Audubon field guide which reports the flower takes its name from “the toughness of the stem."

In his next sentences, Williams writes: “Each man saves himself, in the given place, as best he can; that figures. I do it as, and when, I can.”

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