Saturday, September 07, 2019

'But Here Is Artifice in Every Line'

Happy serendipity brought me to a stock of good poems at a site called The North American Anglican. Daniel Rattelle’s “The Bookcase” is especially good. The dedication reads “For my dead father 1957-2017”:

“Here is artifice: these books, this grain—
The knots and notches severed from a pine,
The gilded words on every leather spine,
The lumber scraped and straightened by your plane.
You’d measure twice, cut once, then dull your pain
With work and whisky, sharp as turpentine.
But here is artifice in every line.
Unlike the iamb natural to the rain,
The din of tools sounds something like a dirge,
As if you’re still in the garage, head down
And muttering some short, improper noun.
I’m at my desk. I’m waiting to emerge
With words like Yeats’ I look at you and I sigh;
Or other foolish words: Death, thou shalt die.”

Memories of family don’t make a poem. Sentiment will never suffice. Rattelle knows this and isn’t parading his tender feelings. Likening a carpenter’s job to a poet’s is appropriate. Both demand precision. Neither can afford sloppiness or approximation. Evelyn Waugh contemplated both vocations and became a novelist. I built a bookshelf in seventh-grade wood shop. It took me an entire semester, wouldn’t stand level, and was knocked and gouged by my clumsiness and indifference. My father welded a bookcase for me out of half-inch steel rods. It was heavy yet airy. At the top he welded an upper-case K inside a circle, all made of steel rod. It stood for Kurp, OK, KO and probably Kafka. Chapter 4 of Osip Mandelstam’s The Noise of Time (trans. Clarence Brown, p. 77, The Prose of Osip Mandelstam, 1965) is also titled “The Bookcase”:

“The arrangement of its shelves, the choice of books, the colors of the spines are for him the color, height, and arrangement of world literature itself. And as for books which were not included in that first bookcase— they were never to force their way into the universe of world literature. Every book in the first bookcase is, willy-nilly, a classic, and not one of them can ever be expelled.”

Mandelstam is reclaiming a past, his own and that of all Russian Jews, or all Jews everywhere. The lowest shelf was “chaotic”: “This was the Judaic chaos thrown into the dust. This was the level to which my Hebrew primer, which I never mastered, quickly fell.” Mandelstam is an archeologist of memory. On the next higher shelf, “above these Jewish ruins,” are the German volumes – of course, more orderly. Next, his mother’s Russian books – Pushkin, Lermontov, Turgenev, Dostoevsky and a writer less familiar in the West: Semyon Yakovlevich Nadson (1862–1887). Mandelstam calls the Nadson volume “the key to the epoch, the book that had become positively white-hot from handling, the book that would not under any circumstances agree to die, that lay like someone alive in the narrow coffin of the 1890s.” Nadson was a Jew, and his verse was popular to a degree unprecedented among Russian readers.

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