Monday, March 07, 2011

`Deep in the Watery Clarities'

“Wild blossoms on the river banks
Sway yellow in the rising wind:
See—their images loom too,
Deep in the watery clarities.”

Frederick Morgan’s lines serve as epigraph to Paula Deitz’s Of Gardens: Selected Essays (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011). They’re drawn from “Recollections of Japan,” a poem in Morgan’s final collection, The One Abiding, published in 2003. He died the following year, age eighty-one. Morgan was a founding editor of The Hudson Review in 1948, which is now edited by Deitz, his widow. Her book carries this dedication: “For Fred, in loving memory.” She might have chosen the first stanza of “Recollections of Japan” as an appropriate epigraph to her new book, though “watery clarities” would be difficult to resist:

“The garden in the hills
shadowy still at dawn
shows no trace of footprints.
And yet, spring has arrived:
the snow is melting patchily.”

I learned of Deitz’s book from Elizabeth Barlow Rogers’ review in the March issue of The New Criterion. Her name was unfamiliar but the review accomplished a rare feat, at least for this reader: I wanted immediately to read the book, and felt an ache because I wouldn’t be able to visit the library for several days. Deitz starts a brief essay, “Autumn in New England,” like this:

“Whenever I sit down for a cozy reread of a favorite book, invariably a few dry but still brightly colored pressed leaves spill from its pages into my lap. Each one recalls a happy autumnal trek through New England to view the fiery reds and brilliant yellows of the spectacular fall foliage.”

Deitz cites a scene from Henry James' Roderick Hudson set in the part of western Massachusetts she visits on a day James describes as “when summer seems to balance in the scale with autumn.” I thought of another James volume, The American Scene, and its lovely first chapter, “New England: An Autumn Impression”:

“…the way the colour begins in those days to be dabbed, the way, here and there, for a start, a solitary maple on a woodside flames in single scarlet, recalls nothing so much as the daughter of a noble house dressed for a fancy-ball, with the whole family gathered round to admire her before she goes.”

Deitz’s prose is clean, precise and purple-free, and laced with allusions to botany, history, landscaping and architecture, yes, but also literature, painting and the other riches populating a civilized mind. She proves once again that a gifted writer can animate any subject by writing up, not down, to her readers. Deitz relates Roderick Hudson to a painting by Thomas Cole of a bend in the Connecticut River, “The Oxbow,” and concludes her essay like this:

“I flew back to Boston in the copilot’s seat of a small plane that felt like a chariot riding over the islands—a red-streaked sunset on one side and the harvest moon piercing the clouds on the other. I thought of Henry James and his fictional description of the river valley visit: `This is an American day, an American landscape, an American atmosphere.’”

Where was this essay first published? In the Dec. 1993-Jan. 1994 issue of Gardens Illustrated.

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