Friday, May 09, 2014

`The Only Joys We Can Call Our Own'

“The way in which the world looks sensible and final at any moment masks the vertiginous process of its continuous creation and destruction. Our feeling of being somehow above that, or a beneficiary of it, lasts at best until middle life.” 

Les Murray writes not of the geological or cosmological scales, which remain beyond understanding for most mortals, but more humbly. Call it the homely human scale, the mundane place where we dwell day to day. In “Generation of Changes” (Blocks and Tackles: Articles and Essays, 1982-90, 1990), Murray describes moving to Bunyah, the rural district in New South Wales where he grew up, after living for almost thirty years in Sydney, Canberra and elsewhere. The poet was forty-seven when he returned home in 1985, and began making informal lists of the changes he observed. I know from experience that alterations in once-familiar landscapes, whether absences or new arrivals, are what we see first, followed by what has been preserved. The changes, which can feel like desecrations, are disorienting to memory, like seeing an old friend after many years whose hair has turned white or fallen out. Murray writes:

“I didn’t know whether I’d ever publish my lists – but of course pretty well everything a writer writes is in some sense meant for publication, or at least wears its clean underwear in case.” 

He reproduces five lists, filling six pages, in these categories: “things which have increased or become prevalent,” “things which have decreased or become less common,” “things which appeared during my absence,” “things which vanished during the same period,” “things which had vanished before my time but are still remembered.” Murray is the most sensory-minded of poets, an encyclopedist of smell. His lists straddle the human and natural realms, and often seem exotic to an American sensibility. In the category of things that have increased since the nineteen-fifties, he includes kangaroos, bandicoots (lovely word), bathrooms in rural houses, wine drinking, “the word `lunch’ in place of dinner and `dinner’ in place of `supper’ or `tea,’” moleskin pants, roast chicken without stuffing, shoes on schoolchildren, dandelions and, beautifully and sadly, “the loom of artificial light along horizons at night.” 

When I return to Cleveland to visit my brother in the house we grew up in, the fields behind it are gone, replaced by dense thickets of softwoods and sparse grass. The woods are crowded with white-tail deer, an animal I never saw as a kid. During a recent phone conversation with my brother, he counted fourteen of them visible from the back yard – and this in a heavily developed suburb. Gone are most of the silver and red maples on the street, claimed by old age, rot and storms. So too, television antennas. Gone are steel garbage cans, fluted on the sides and with a handle on top, replaced by plastic bins. Long gone are men coming home at 5 or 6 p.m., in work shirts and trousers of matching colors (green, gray, blue), carrying metal lunch boxes. Some absences are not technological or societal – no marigolds or portulaca growing along the driveway, with seeds I harvested in the fall, stored in tobacco tins and sown in the spring. One can read unspoken disapproval or disappointment in some of the changes Murray notes, though he says “I have refrained from internal commentary.” Vanished from his oldest landscape are: 

Zinc butter coolers, meatsafes, shingle and bark roofs, cream separators, boots worn without socks, cyanide gas for rabbit burrows, “greasing of working boots, usually with dripping or mutton fat,” eucalyptus and sugar as treatment for disease, corn plasters, rural tennis clubs, “use of pumpkin seed kernels as a cure for intestinal worms,” and public recitation of poems. 

Why should I find another man’s catalogue of memories, of losses and changes, many utterly foreign to my experience, so moving? Dr. Johnson offers an explanation Murray might appreciate: 

“…the future is pliant and ductile, and will be easily moulded by a strong fancy into any form. But the images which memory presents are of a stubborn and untractable nature, the objects of remembrance have already existed, and left their signature behind them impressed upon the mind, so as to defy all attempts of erasure or of change. As the satisfactions, therefore, arising from memory are less arbitrary, they are more solid, and are, indeed, the only joys which we can call our own.”

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