Wednesday, October 23, 2013

`Embanked in Tiers of Books'

The gifts we cherish most are unsought and unexpected. The stuff we plot after and wheedle out of others is never so gratifying. Without knowing Saturday is my birthday, Bob Barth has sent a small library of chapbooks, many of which he published out of his home in Kentucky. Elegantly printed, each is a work of art in its own right. Particularly pleasing is J.V. Cunningham’s  To What Strangers, What Welcome, the 1964 first edition from Alan Swallow of Denver. The fifteen poems in the sequence elliptically trace a journey from New England to California and back. The unusual title is a reconstituted allusion to Hamlet, after seeing the ghost, speaking to the baffled Horatio: 

“And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Here is the first poem in Cunningham’s sequence: 

“I drive Westward. Tumble and loco weed
Persist. And in the vacancies of need,
The leisure of desire, whirlwinds a face
As luminous as love, lost as this place.” 

Another Barth gift is a previously unpublished thirty-four-line poem, “A House,” by Yvor Winters. The original is held by the Special Collections of the Stanford University Libraries. Barth and Scienter Press of Louisville, Ky. published it for the first time in 2004. It echoes the themes and even the phrasing of other poems from Winters’ most accomplished period, the nineteen-thirties and –forties. Readers will hear echoes of such poems as “Time and the Garden,” “The Slow Pacific Swell,” “A Summer Commentary” and “In Praise of California Wines.”“A House” starts with a quintessential California scene: “Here on the lower slopes above the bay, /Is Bret Harte’s country,” referring to Harte’s long story “Maruja” (1885), which begins: “Morning was breaking on the highroad to San José.” The speaker buys a plot of land once owned by the fictional Maruja and Pereo, “their rancho, vegetative, vast, / Now but a maze of little plots of roses.” Winters loves cataloging the trees and other plants he cultivates: 

“…planted loquats, figs, and tangerines,
Cherries and almond trees for sustenance;
Shall have a hedge of trees against my neighbors,
Shall grow Italian laurel, and native bay,
Red-flowering pomegranate, an olive tree,
Shadowy as asphodel where all is bright.” 

We come to see that Winters is describing a pastoral sanctuary, a Mediterranean refuge in Northern California, a place where his family and thoughts can flourish: 

“That I, embanked in tiers of books, may view
The peace of earth alone; that I may dwell
With wife and child, in simplified relation,
In little space; at times invite some few—
Initiate souls who have seen the ways of men
As they were seen by Motley and by Gibbon;
Who know that life is still precarious.
That the spirit is precious, that most men are base;
Who, ere the traffic sweep this clean away,
Will yet convene together here in quiet,
And see the earth in a garden, man in books,
And speak with Plato and with Thomas More.” 

Winters’ lines are beautiful, tender, tough and precise. The references to John Lathrop Motley and Edward Gibbon are true to his passions. The poet Donald Hall, a onetime student of Winters’ at Stanford, writes in an essay on Henry Adams (Principal Products of Portugal: Prose Pieces, 1997): 

“Among literary critics, only Yvor Winters has recognized and promoted the American historians—very much including the masterwork of Henry Adams. Although one may quarrel abut particulars of his judgments (Winters overvalues the melodramatic Motley) one understands again that Winters, in his lifetime routinely ridiculed by everyone who did not canonize him, was righter than almost anyone else.” 

A Barthian surprise is “An Essay on True and Apparent Beauty in Which From Settled Principles is Rendered the Grounds for Choosing and Rejecting Epigrams” by Pierre Nicole (1625-1695). The work was translated by Cunningham in 1950 and reprinted by Barth in 1997. Barth includes three chapbooks by Warren Hope, two by Turner Cassity, and one each by Maurine Smith and Margaret Peterson. From No Dead Lines, a press in Portola, Ca., he sends The Ancient Ones (1979) by Janet Lewis. War and Peace (2005) from Scienter Press consists of two epigrams by Barth. The first, “The Troops Deploy”: 

“The troops deploy. Above, the stars
Wheel over mankind’s little wars.
If there’s a deity, it’s Mars.” 

And “Epitaph for a Patrol Leader”: 

“The medals did not signify—
No more than his suntan—
Nor the promotions; simply say,
`He never lost a man.’” 

To the second poem Barth appends de se – “of oneself.”

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