Wednesday, March 18, 2015

`In Cellophane Transparencies'

I used to have lunch with a rumpled-looking fellow who was inordinately impressed with me being a newspaper reporter. This was near Schenectady, N.Y., not the most benighted of backwaters. He was one of those blessed creatures who want to hear everything about you. About himself he was reticent. He never thought he was particularly interesting. We were mismatched, in some ways. One of the reasons I became a reporter was an inordinate interest in others. Like Adrian, I shy away from self-revelation. I’m the opposite of confessional. 

Across time, at our impromptu lunches, we got to know each other. Only slowly I learned he was an executive of sorts, the owner, with his brother, of a steel plant. Then I learned his son was a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, an English major who had studied with Stanley Elkin and Howard Nemerov. When I told him I had read and admired both of them, I thought he would start weeping. He was not a college graduate. I sensed his brother was the real force in the family business. Adrian might have been the brother to one of the main characters in an early Elkin novel. That I knew the work of his sons’ teachers came like a stamp of approval. He, and his son, had done something right. 

Books are crusted with associations. Often they come as a package deal. I remember the times and places I’ve read them before. They trail memories, often of my earlier selves. Now when I read Nemerov, Adrian walks in beside him, with his son whom I never met. Adrian meets me at the diner when I read  “Grace to Be Said at the Supermarket” (The Blue Swallows, 1967): 

This God of ours, the Great Geometer,
Does something for us here, where He hath put
(if you want to put it that way) things in shape,
Compressing the little lambs into orderly cubes,
Making the roast a decent cylinder,
Fairing the tin ellipsoid of a ham,
Getting the luncheon meat anonymous
In squares and oblongs with all the edges bevelled
Or rounded (streamlined, maybe, for greater speed).

“Praise Him, He hath conferred aesthetic distance
Upon our appetites, and on the bloody
Mess of our birthright, our unseemly need,
Imposed significant form. Through Him the brutes
Enter the pure Euclidean kingdom of number,
Free of their bulging and blood-swollen lives
They come to us holy, in cellophane
Transparencies, in the mystical body,
That we may look unflinchingly on death
As the greatest good, like a philosopher should.”

I don’t read it as a vegetarian screed. To my knowledge, Nemerov was not of that tribe. It’s more like thanksgiving for a blessing that makes it easier being human. We are carnivores. Some of us, though meat eaters, are queasy about what happens in the abattoir. We give thanks for the meal in front of us. Nemerov suggests we likewise thank those who bring it to us in a hygienic, convenient, palatable form. Extend the logic a little further and we can agree with Charles Lamb in “GraceBefore Meat”: 

“I own that I am disposed to say grace upon twenty other occasions in the course of the day besides my dinner. I want a form for setting out upon a pleasant walk, for a moonlight ramble, for a friendly meeting, or a solved problem. Why have we none for books, these spiritual repasts -- a grace before Milton -- a grace before Shakspeare -- a devotional exercise proper to be said before reading the Fairy Queen? -- but, the received ritual having prescribed these forms to the solitary ceremony of manducation, I shall confine my observations to the experience which I have had of the grace, properly so called; commending my new scheme for extension to a niche in the grand philosophical, poetical, and perchance in part heretical, liturgy, now compiling by my friend Homo Humanus, for the use of a certain snug congregation of Utopian Rabelaesian Christians, no matter where assembled.”

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