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Thursday, 29 May 2008

Andrew Marvell - The Garden

How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays ;
And their uncessant labors see
Crowned from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow-vergèd shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid ;
While all the flowers and trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence, thy sister dear!
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy companies of men :
Your sacred plants, if here below,
Only among the plants will grow ;
Society is all but rude,
To this delicious solitude.

No white nor red was ever seen
So amorous as this lovely green ;
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees their mistress' name.
Little, alas, they know or heed,
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair trees! wheresoe'er your barks I wound
No name shall but your own be found.

When we have run our passion's heat,
Love hither makes his best retreat :
The gods who mortal beauty chase,
Still in a tree did end their race.
Apollo hunted Daphne so,
Only that she might laurel grow,
And Pan did after Syrinx speed,
Not as a nymph, but for a reed.

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head ;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine ;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach ;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find ;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas ;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

Here at the fountain's sliding foot,
Or at some fruit-tree's mossy root,
Casting the body's vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide :
There like a bird it sits and sings,
Then whets and combs its silver wings ;
And, till prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Such was that happy garden-state,
While man there walked without a mate :
After a place so pure and sweet,
What other help could yet be meet!
But 'twas beyond a mortal's share
To wander solitary there :
Two paradises 'twere in one
To live in Paradise alone.

How well the skillful gard'ner drew
Of flowers and herbs this dial new ;
Where from above the milder sun
Does through a fragrant zodiac run ;
And, as it works, th' industrious bee
Computes its time as well as we.
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckoned but with herbs and flowers!

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Filling Station - Elizabeth Bishop

Filling Station
by Elizabeth Bishop

Oh, but it is dirty!

--this little filling station,

oil-soaked, oil-permeated

to a disturbing, over-all

black translucency.

Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,

oil-soaked monkey suit

that cuts him under the arms,

and several quick and saucy

and greasy sons assist him

(it's a family filling station),

all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?

It has a cement porch

behind the pumps, and on it

a set of crushed and grease-

impregnated wickerwork;

on the wicker sofa

a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide

the only note of color--

of certain color. They lie

upon a big dim doily

draping a taboret

(part of the set), beside

a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?

Why the taboret?

Why, oh why, the doily?

(Embroidered in daisy stitch

with marguerites, I think,

and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.

Somebody waters the plant,

or oils it, maybe. Somebody

arranges the rows of cans

so that they softly say:


to high-strung automobiles.

Somebody loves us all.

Il Conformista - Posters

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Mark Doty - A Display of Mackerel

A Display of Mackerel

They lie in parallel rows,
on ice, head to tail,
each a foot of luminosity

barred with black bands,
which divide the scales'
radiant sections

like seams of lead
in a Tiffany window.
Iridescent, watery

prismatics: think abalone,
the wildly rainbowed
mirror of a soapbubble sphere,

think sun on gasoline.
Splendor, and splendor,
and not a one in any way

distinguished from the other
--nothing about them
of individuality. Instead

they're all exact expressions
of one soul,
each a perfect fulfillment

of heaven's template,
mackerel essence. As if,
after a lifetime arriving

at this enameling, the jeweler's
made uncountable examples,
each as intricate

in its oily fabulation
as the one before.
Suppose we could iridesce,

like these, and lose ourselves
entirely in the universe
of shimmer--would you want

to be yourself only,
unduplicatable, doomed
to be lost? They'd prefer,

plainly, to be flashing participants,
multitudinous. Even now
they seem to be bolting

forward, heedless of stasis.
They don't care they're dead
and nearly frozen,

just as, presumably,
they didn't care that they were living:
all, all for all,

the rainbowed school
and its acres of brilliant classrooms,
in which no verb is singular,

or every one is. How happy they seem,
even on ice, to be together, selfless,
which is the price of gleaming.

Souls on Ice

Mark Doty reflects on his poem, 'A Display of Mackerel'

In the Stop 'n Shop in Orleans, Massachusetts, I was struck by the elegance of the mackerel in the fresh-fish display. They were rowed and stacked, brilliant against the white of the crushed ice; I loved how black and glistening the bands of dark scales were, and the prismed sheen of the patches between, and their shining flat eyes. I stood and looked at them for a while, just paying attention while I leaned on my cart--before I remembered where I was and realized that I was standing in someone's way.

Our metaphors go on ahead of us, they know before we do. And thank goodness for that, for if I were dependent on other ways of coming to knowledge I think I'd be a very slow study. I need something to serve as a container for emotion and idea, a vessel that can hold what's too slippery or charged or difficult to touch. Will doesn't have much to do with this; I can't choose what's going to serve as a compelling image for me. But I've learned to trust that part of my imagination that gropes forward, feeling its way toward what it needs; to watch for the signs of fascination, the sense of compelled attention (Look at me, something seems to say, closely) that indicates that there's something I need to attend to. Sometimes it seems to me as if metaphor were the advance guard of the mind; something in us reaches out, into the landscape in front of us, looking for the right vessel, the right vehicle, for whatever will serve.

Driving home from the grocery, I found myself thinking again about the fish, and even scribbled some phrases on an envelope in the car, something about stained glass, soapbubbles, while I was driving. It wasn't long--that same day? the next?--before I was at my desk, trying simply to describe what I had seen. I almost always begin with description, as a way of focusing on that compelling image, the poem's "given." I know that what I can see is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg; if I do my work of study and examination, and if I am lucky, the image which I've been intrigued by will become a metaphor, will yield depth and meaning, will lead me to insight. The goal here is inquiry, the attempt to get at what it is that's so interesting about what's struck me. Because it isn't just beauty; the world is full of lovely things and that in itself wouldn't compel me to write. There's something else, some gravity or charge to this image that makes me need to investigate it.

Exploratory description, then; I'm a scientist trying to measure and record what's seen. The first two sentences of the poem attempt sheer observation, but by the second's list of tropes (abalone, soapbubble skin, oil on a puddle) it's clear to me that these descriptive terms aren't merely there to chronicle the physical reality of the object. Like all descriptions, they reflect the psychic state of the observer; they aren't "neutral," though they might pretend to be, but instead suggest a point of view, a stance toward what is being seen. In this case one of the things suggested by these tropes is interchangeability; if you've seen one abalone shell or prismy soapbubble or psychedelic puddle, you've seen them all.

And thus my image began to unfold for me, in the evidence these terms provided, and I had a clue toward the focus my poem would take. Another day, another time in my life, the mackerel might have been metaphor for something else; they might have served as the crux for an entirely different examination. But now I began to see why they mattered for this poem; and the sentence that follows commences the poem's investigative process:

Splendor, and splendor,
and not a one in any way

distinguished from the other
--nothing about them
of individuality.

There's a terrific kind of exhilaration for me at this point in the unfolding of a poem, when a line of questioning has been launched, and the work has moved from evocation to meditation. A direction is coming clear, and it bears within it the energy that the image contained for me in the first pace. Now, I think, we're getting down to it. This élan carried me along through two more sentences, one that considers the fish as replications of the ideal, Platonic Mackerel, and one that likewise imagines them as the intricate creations of an obsessively repetitive jeweler.

Of course my process of unfolding the poem wasn't quite this neat. There were false starts, wrong turnings that I wound up throwing out when they didn't seem to lead anywhere. I can't remember now, because the poem has worked the charm of its craft on my memory; it convinces me that it is an artifact of a process of inquiry. The drama of the poem is its action of thinking through a question. Mimicking a sequence of perceptions and meditation, it tries to make us think that this feeling and thinking and knowing is taking place even as the poem is being written. Which, in a way, it is --just not this neatly or seamlessly! A poem is always a made version of experience.

Also, needless to say, my poem was full of repetitions, weak lines, unfinished phrases and extra descriptions, later trimmed, I like to work on a computer, because I can type quickly, put everything in, and still read the results later on, which isn't always true of my handwriting. I did feel early on that the poem seemed to want to be a short-lined one, I liked breaking the movement of these extended sentences over the clipped line, and the spotlight-bright focus the short line puts on individual terms felt right. "Iridescent, watery," for instance, pleased me as a line-unit, as did this stanza:

prismatics: think abalone,
the wildly rainbowed
mirror of a soapbubble sphere,

Short lines underline sonic textures, heightening tension. The short a's of prismatics and abalone ring more firmly, as do the o's of abalone, rainbowed and soapbubble. The rhyme of mirror and sphere at beginning and end of line engages me, and I'm also pleased by the way in which these short lines slow the poem down, parceling it out as it were to the reader, with the frequent pauses introduced by the stanza breaks between tercets adding lots of white space, a meditative pacing.

And there, on the jeweler's bench, my poem seemed to come to rest, though it was clear there was more to be done. Some further pressure needed to be placed on the poem's material to force it to yield its depths. I waited a while, I read it over. Again, in what I had already written, the clues contained in image pushed the poem forward.

Soul, heaven . . . The poem had already moved into the realm of theology, but the question that arose ("Suppose we could iridesce . . .") startled me nonetheless, because the notion of losing oneself "entirely in the universe/ of shimmer" referred both to these fish and to something quite other, something overwhelmingly close to home. The poem was written some six months after my partner of a dozen years had died of AIDS, and of course everything I wrote--everything I saw--was informed by that loss, by the overpowering emotional force of it. Epidemic was the central fact of the community in which I lived. Naively, I hadn't realized that my mackerel were already of a piece with the work I'd been writing for the previous couple of years--poems that wrestled, in one way or another, with the notion of limit, with the line between being someone and no one. What did it mean to be a self, when that self would be lost? To praise the collectivity of the fish, their common iden-tity as "flashing participants," is to make a sort of anti-elegy, to suggest that what matters is perhaps not our individual selves but our brief soldiering in the broad streaming school of humanity--which is composed of us, yes, but also goes on without us.

The one of a kind, the singular, like my dear lover, cannot last.

And yet the collective life, which is also us, shimmers on.

Once I realized the poem's subject-beneath-the-subject, the final stanzas of the poem opened swiftly out from there. The collective momentum of the fish is such that even death doesn't seem to still rob its forward movement; the singularity of each fish more or less doesn't really exist, it's "all for all," like the Three Musketeers. I could not have considered these ideas "nakedly," without the vehicle of mackerel to help me think about human identity. Nor, I think, could I have addressed these things without a certain playfulness of tone, which appeared first in the archness of "oily fabulation" and the neologism of "iridesce." It's the blessed permission distance gives that allows me to speak of such things at all; a little comedy can also help to hold terrific anxiety at bay. Thus the "rainbowed school/ and its acres of brilliant classrooms" is a joke, but one that's already collapsing on itself, since what is taught there--the limits of "me"--is our hardest lesson. No verb is singular because it is the school that acts, or the tribe, the group, the species; or every verb is singular because the only I there is is a we.

The poem held one more surprise for me, which was the final statement--it came as a bit of a shock, actually, and when I'd written it I knew I was done. It's a formulation of the theory that the poem has been moving toward all along: that our glory is not our individuality (much as we long for the Romantic self and its private golden heights) but our commonness. I do not like this idea. I would rather be one fish, sparkling in my own pond, but experience does not bear this out. And so I have tried to convince myself, here, that beauty lies in the whole and that therefore death, the loss of the part, is not so bad--is in, fact, almost nothing. What does our individual disappearance mean--or our love, or our desire--when, as the Marvelettes put it, "There's too many fish in the sea . . . ?"

I find this consoling, strangely, and maybe that's the best way to think of this poem--an attempt at cheering oneself up about the mystery of being both an individual and part of a group, an attempt on the part of the speaker in the poem (me) to convince himself that losing individuality, slipping into the life of the world, could be a good thing. All attempts to console ourselves, I believe, are doomed, because the world is more complicated than we are. Our explanations will fail, but it is our human work to make them. And my beautiful fish, limited though they may be as parable, do help me; they are an image I return to in order to remember, in the face of individual erasures, the burgeoning, good, common life. Even after my work of inquiry, my metaphor may still know more than I do; the bright eyes of those fish gleam on, in memory, brighter than what I've made of them.

From Introspections: Contemporary American Poets on One of Their Own Poems, ed. Robert Pack and Jay Parini. Middlebury College Press. Copyright © 1997 by Mark Doty.

Nadezhda Mandelstam

There was a time when Russian dissident literature was more widely recommended, and writers like Mandelstam, Ahkmatova, Brodsky and Solzenhitsyn were far more current. The end of the Cold War seems to have sated our fascination with their work and their lives, but they were were much more than creatures of historical interest, Nadezhda's two volumes of memoirs tell us as much about the poet, and the general condition of being a poet (and of living with one) as it does about life in C20 Russia - which it also does in detail and to chilling and mournful effect. The following essay is adapted from Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.

We all belonged to the same category marked down for absolute destruction. The astonishing thing is not that so many of us went to concentration camps or died there, but that some of us survived. Caution did not help. Only chance could save you.
Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned

Nadezhda Yakovlevna Khazina, known to us as Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899–1980), would have been sufficiently famous as the heroic wife and widow of Osip Mandelstam, one of the finest poets of 20th-­century Russia and therefore one of the most illustrious of Stalin's victims among the old intelligentsia who had stayed on in Russia in the mistaken belief that the Soviet regime would be an opportunity for culture. As the naïvely nonpolitical poet soon found, it would instead have been an opportunity for him to starve if Nadezhda's ability to translate the principal European languages had not helped to pay for the groceries. After the poet was arrested in 1934 (his "crime" had been to write a few satirical lines about Stalin), Nadezhda's translations from English were her only means of sustenance over the course of her long banishment to the provincial towns, during which time, in 1938, her husband finally perished in the Gulag.

Only after Nadezhda was permitted to return to Moscow, in 1964, did she begin to write Hope Against Hope, the magnificent book that puts her at the center of the liberal resistance under the Soviet Union and indeed at the center of the whole of 20th-­century literary and political history. Some would place her book even ahead of Primo Levi's If This Is a Man (unforgivably known, in the United States, under the ­feel-­good title of Survival in Auschwitz) and Jung Chang's Wild Swans as required preliminary reading for any prospective student enrolled at a university. A masterpiece of prose as well as a model of biographical narrative and social analysis, Hope Against Hope is mainly the story of the terrible last years of ­persecution and torment before her husband was murdered. Nadezhda and Osip are the most prominent characters, although there is a vivid portrait of Anna Akhmatova. The book's sequel, Hope Abandoned, is about the author's personal fate and is in some ways even more terrible, because, as the title implies, it is more about horror as a way of life than as an interruption to normal expectancy. Both volumes are superbly translated into English by Max Hayward. Until the collapse of the regime, they were available in the original language only in samizdat or else from printing houses situated outside the Soviet borders. As with Akhmatova's banned poem "Requiem," their full publication in Russia marked the day when the Soviet Union came to an end, and freedom—which Nadezhda, against mountainous evidence, had always said would one day return of its own accord—returned.

Hayward chose the English titles well for his magnificent translations: Hope Against Hope is about a gradual, reluctant but inexorable realization that despair is the only thing left to feel: It is the book of a process. Hope Abandoned is about what despair is like when even the memory of an alternative has been dispelled: the book of a result. The second book's subject is spiritual desolation as a way of life. Several times, Nadezhda proclaims her fear that the very idea of normality has gone from the world: "I shall not live to see the future, but I am haunted by the fear that it may be only a slightly modified version of the past." The memory of what happened can't even be passed on without ruining the lives of those called upon to understand. "If any brave young fellow with no experience of these things feels inclined to laugh at me," she writes, "I invite him back into the era we lived through, and I guarantee that he will need to taste only a hundredth part what we endured to wake up in the night in a cold sweat, ready to do anything to save his skin the next morning." Well, none of us brave young fellows back there in the comfortable West of the late 1960s and early 1970s felt inclined to laugh at her. Schopenhauer had said that a man is in a condition of despair when he thinks a thing will happen because he wants it not to and that what he wishes can never be. Nadezhda had provided two books to show how that felt.

As such, they were key chapters in the new bible that the 20th century had written for us. In a bible, it is not astonishing that some of the gospels should sound like each other and seem to tell the same story. In Primo Levi's books, the theme is often struck that the only real story about the Nazi extermination camps was the common fate of those who were obliterated: The story of the survivors was too atypical to be edifying, and to dwell on it could only lead to the heresy that Levi called Survivalism and damned as a perversion. Survival had nothing to do with anything except chance: There was no philosophy to be extracted from it and certainly no guide to behavior. In Russian instead of Italian, Nadezhda said exactly the same thing about life under Stalin: "Only chance could save you." It is the best thing ever said about life under state terror, and it took her to say it so directly, bravely, and unforgettably.

It was the dubious distinction of the Soviet Union to create, for the remnants of the Russian intelligentsia, conditions by which they could experience, in what passed for ordinary civilian life, the same uncertainties and terrors as the victims who would later be propelled into Nazi Germany's concentrated universe. The main difference was that in Nazi Europe the victims knew from the start who they were and eventually came to know that they were doomed. In the Soviet Union, the bourgeois elements could not even be certain that they were marked down for death. Like Kafka's victims in the Strafkolonie, they were in a perpetual state of trying to imagine what their crime might be. Was it to have read books? Was it to have red hair? Was it (the cruelest form of fear) to have submitted too eagerly? Other versions of the same story came out of China, North Korea, Romania, Albania, Cambodia. The same story came out of the Rome of Tiberius, but the 20th century gave something new to history when societies nominally dedicated to human betterment created a climate of universal fear.

In that respect, the Communist despotisms left even Hitler's Germany looking like a throwback. Hitler was hell on earth, but at least he never promised heaven: not to his victims, at any rate. It's the disappointment of what happened in the new Russia that Nadezhda captures and distills into an elixir. There were some mighty thinkers about the true nature of the Soviet incubus: Yevgeny Zam­yatin, Boris Souvarine, Victor Kravchenko, Evgenia Ginzburg, Varlan Shalamov, Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Roy Medvedev and Aleksandr Zinoviev are only a few. Generally, however, the artists, if they lived long enough to speak, spoke better than the philosophers. But it was Nadezhda's distinction to speak better than the artists. With no lyrical world in which to find refuge, she commanded a prose more potent even than her husband's poetry, and perhaps that made her the greatest artist of all. She found the means to express how an unprecedented historic experiment had changed the texture even of emotion.

Even the incandescently gifted Akhmatova, with whom Nadezhda had always been involved in intimate bonds of passion, jealousy, and respect, never quite grew out of the romantic nature that helped to make her one of the most justly loved of the modern Rus­sian poets. In "Requiem," Akhmatova encapsulated the anguish of millions of devastated women when she wrote "husband dead, son in jail: pray for me." But a romantic she remained, still believing in the imaginative validity of a love affair beyond time. In Hope Abandoned, Nadezhda was able to say firmly that her friend was mistaken. Love affairs beyond time were impossible to take seriously when violent separations in the present had become the stuff of reality. With real life so disturbed, the nature of romanticism had been changed. In the new reality, all love affairs were beyond time.

It is important not to reach conclusions too quickly about whom she means by we and us. An unreconstructed Stalinist, if we can suppose there were such a thing left, might say that she was identifying the class enemy. Quite early in the regime's career of permanent house cleaning—certainly no later than Lunacharsky's crackdown on the avant-­garde in 1929—anyone stemming from the ­pre-­revolutionary intelligentsia was automatically enrolled along with remnants of the bourgeoisie in the classification of "class enemy." Civilized articulacy was as deadly a giveaway as soft hands. (The Komsomols identified a victim's ability to defend himself verbally as certain evidence of guilt.) Eventually any kind of knowledge that had been acquired under the old order was enough to mark down its possessor. The Soviet "organs" discovered that even a knowledge of engineering was a threat to state security. (Solzhenitsyn, it will be recalled, was especially poignant about the fate of the engineers.) Any field of study with its own objective criteria was thought to be inherently subversive.

To this day, scholars puzzle over the reasons for Stalin's purging the Red Army of its best generals in the crucial years leading up to June 1941, but the answer might lie close to hand. The fact that military knowledge—strategy, tactics, and logistics—was a field of data and principles verifiable independently of ideology might have been more than enough to invite his hatred. In attacking his own army, of course, Stalin came close to demolishing the whole Soviet enterprise. But at the center of the totalitarian mentality is the fear that the internal enemy might go unapprehended.

A totalitarian regime's progressively expanding concept of the enemy is the thing to bear in mind when Nadezhda seems to be identifying herself as part of a class. She is really identifying herself as part of a category, and the category includes anyone who might offer a threat to the regime's monolithic authority—which means anyone capable of independent moral judgment. She does not go so far as to propose the possibility of independent moral behavior: Not even a hero can actively dissent if the penalty for recalcitrance is the suffering of loved ones. But she does believe that there is such a thing as independent moral judgment, a quality in perfect polarity with the regime, which has come into being to eliminate all such values.

Throughout her two books, Nadezhda looks for comfort to those whose memories go back to the ­pre-­revolutionary past. But her originality lies in her slowly dawning realization that decency is a human quality that can exist independently of social origins. Without that realization, she would never have been able to formulate the great, ringing message of her books, an unprecedented mixture of the poetic and the prophetic—the message that the truth will be born again of its own accord. She didn't live to see it happen: So the whole idea was an act of faith. Her inspiring contention is unverifiable; when, after the nightmare was at last over, the truth indeed reborn, it was hard to imagine that such a renaissance could have occurred without books like hers in the background.

But there weren't many like hers, and although it will always be useful to examine how the agents of change received their education in elementary benevolence, it might be just as valuable to consider her two main principles in the full range of their combined implications. One principle was that the forces of unreasoning inhumanity had won an overwhelming victory with effects more devastating than we could possibly imagine. The other was that reason and humanity would return. The first was an observation, the second was a guess, and it was the inconsolable bravery of the observation that made the guess into a song of love.

Nadezhda MandelstamNadezhda Mandelstam

Monday, 19 May 2008

Saturday, 17 May 2008

The Pilgrim Hawk - Glenway Wescott

Wescott's The Pilgrim Hawk is one of my favourite novels. Unlike most favourite novels, which are usually ones we discover early in life and revisit often, I came late to this slim, bitter wounding and exceptionally well-written book. A good thing: Wescott's novel may be wasted on the young unless they see in it a warning of which to take full heed. It isn't Wescott's sole book - there are others - but it is his best, and is among the very best written in the last century although it persists in being little known. Wescott's life - his career as a writer - fascinates me, too. You can find my review of Jerry Roscoe's biography of Wescott at Cercles and as a pdf on my website

Rather than detail my own response to the novel - the Cercles review suggests something of it - here is a short essay on the novel by Toby Litt.

One of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists, Toby Litt discusses The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott,

As time passes, we care less about how au courant, how zeigeisty, how 'hip' a work of art was when it first came into view; Bach was thought old-fashioned.

Glenway Wescott's The Pilgrim Hawk was first published in 1940, when most people's minds - in Europe anyway - were on other matters.

'Needless to say, the twenties were very different from the thirties, and now the forties have begun. In the twenties it was not unusual to meet foreigners in some country as foreign to them as to you, your peregrination just crossing theirs; and you did your best to know them in an afternoon or so; and perhaps you called that little lightning knowledge, friendship...'

The book aims for a 'little lightning knowledge'. But that's paragraph two; this is the opening:

'The Cullens were Irish; but it was in France that I met them and was able to form an impression of their love and their trouble. They were on their way to a property they had rented in Hungary; and one afternoon they came to Chancellet to see my great friend Alexandra Henry. That was in May of 1928 or 1929, before we all returned to America, and she met my brother and married him.'

The ghost of the paragraph is F. Scott Fitzgerald. He's there through and through, even crouched in the semi-colons.

But just as time makes us stop fretting over hipness, so indebtedness slowly becomes less of a demerit. With Fitzgerald's position firmly established as an all-time American classic, we can afford to spend a little time exploring his footnotes.

However, there is a temptation - at this point of distance - to overrate the minor for the sake of elevating yet further the major.

Glenway Wescott is minor, and he knows it - in lots of ways, I'd say, being minor is his subject, just as it was for Evelyn Waugh or Philip Larkin. He is also beautiful, subtle, slightly wearying and definitely worth reading.

There is such a thing as an Excuse Writer; that's what I call them, anyway. Their function - one of their functions is to reassure younger scribbling generations that a certain kind of prose-thing is worth doing.

Just as genre writers will look to Conan Doyle, H.G.Wells and Bram Stoker for reassurance, so the literary will gaze hopefully though a little more myopically back at Jack Kerouac, J.D.Salinger, Charles Bukowski. (This is the dominant American ground I'm discussing, as will become clear.)

Excuse Writers don't necessarily make it look easy, but they do make it look do-able.

Other models which could be taken, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Louis Borges, Franz Kafka, make it look impossible. They can be imitated, always badly, but that leads to stopping, stoppage. Excuse Writers flow, and cause flow; imitation of them can be worthwhile.

The Pilgrim Hawk was championed by Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex) in a book called Lost Classics: Writers on Books Loved and Lost. This edition is introduced by Michael Cunningham (The Hours) and comes with a cover puff from Christopher Isherwood: 'Truly a work of art, of the kind so rarely achieved or attempted nowadays...'

And so we're back to the out-of-dateness:

'Mrs. Cullen came down the left side of the pond, the long way. The sun, muffled all afternoon, was setting brightly. Some of its beams turned back up from the water, broken into a sparkle, through which we could not see her well. There were vague irises and something else up to her ankles; and branches of lilac occasionally hung between us and her. Her face looked to me calm, careless. Her hair still absurdly fell down one cheek; now and then she blew it out of her eyes. Dress disarranged and petticoat showing and stocking-feet and all, she walked back proudly, taking her time; a springy walk that reminded me of Isadora Duncan.'

Without wishing to give any of the plot away, this the high-point of The Pilgrim Hawk - a novella describing one afternoon, taking a hundred pages to do it. Slowness is one of its virtues. Mrs. Cullen is here seen in literary slo-mo; words usually used to deal with weeks or months - 'occasionally', 'now and then' - are used to describe seconds. The prose of this sample paragraph is no longer at all Victorian, formal, school-essayish. Instead it is studiedly relaxed, foppish. It pastiches the laxness of the twenties.

What it is saying, implicitly, is this: 'Don't worry about Modernism; it's over. You're safe again. You can be out-of-date and still triumph.'

Lessons have been learnt from Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway and even James Joyce; assimilations have taken place. But, now that the danger has passed, the novel can go on dealing with realistic people, their love and trouble. This is this Glenway Wescott's Excuse - and this is the comfort I see Michael Cunningham and Jeffrey Eugenides and all the dominant American ground taking from him.

The hawk of the title belongs to Mrs. Cullen, who prefers it to her rich, fat, Irish, unfaithful, alcoholic husband. Her bird of prey is described throughout with smug fastidiousness. (Compare this to the eagle-training sections in Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March.) Even the narrator, a generic wannabe-writer called Alwyn Tower, seems to become a little bored of what he comes to call the 'all-embracing symbolic bird'.

There is something truly original in this exhaustion, this growing self-hatred. It is a very twenties emotion:

'Half the time, I am afraid, my opinion of people is just guessing; cartooning. Again and again I give way to a kind of inexact and vengeful lyricism; I cannot tell what right I have to be avenged, and I am ashamed of it. Sometimes I entirely doubt my judgement in moral matters; and so long as I propose to be a story-teller, that is the whisper of the devil for me.'

On one of the very last pages, this door is opened back into the book; unreliability is its redemption.

As Philip Roth puts it in American Pastoral: 'The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful consideration, getting them wrong again.'

I don't quite agree with Litt's notion of Wescott as an Excuse writer. I like that term and I do believe such writers exist - for good and ill - but can't believe Wescott is one of them. For me, there is very little in The Pilgrim Hawk that seems easily 'do-able.'

A fascinating, if not the ideal way of reading The Pilgrim Hawk is to visit Harper's Magazine Archives, which has a fascimile of the first publication of Wescott's novel. It's worth subscribing to the site if there are other items of interests to you, but buying the book is a better idea.

Pablo Neruda: To the Foot From Its Child

The poet, Alica Stubbersfield, introduced me to this Neruda poem

To the Foot From Its Child

A child's foot doesn't know it's a foot yet
And it wants to be a butterfly or an apple
But then the rocks and pieces of glass,
the streets, the stairways
and the roads of hard earth
keep teaching the foot that it can't fly,
that it can't be a round fruit on a branch.
Then the child's foot
was defeated, it fell
in battle,
it was a prisoner,
condemned to life in a shoe.

Little by little without light
it got acquainted with the world in its own way
without knowing the other imprisoned foot
exploring life like a blind man.

Those smooth toe nails
of quartz in a bunch,
got harder, they changed into
an opaque substance, into hard horn
and the child's little petals
were crushed, lost their balance,
took the form of a reptile without eyes,
with triangular heads like a worm's.
And they had callused over,
they were covered
with tiny lava fields of death,
a hardening unasked for.
But this blind thing kept going
without surrender, without stopping
hour after hour.
One foot after another,
now as a man,
or a woman,
through the fields, the mines,
the stores, the government bureaus,
outside, inside,
this foot worked with its shoes,
it hardly had time
to be naked in love or in sleep
one foot walked, both feet walked
until the whole man stopped.

And then it went down
into the earth and didn't know anything
because there everything was dark,
it didn't know it was no longer a foot
or if they buried it so it could fly
or so it could
be an apple.

Eleanor Wilner

Reading the Bible Backwards
by Eleanor Wilner

All around the altar, huge lianas
curled, unfurled the dark green
of their leaves to complement the red
of blood spilled there—a kind of Christmas
decoration, overhung with heavy vines
and over them, the stars.
When the angels came, messengers like birds
but with the oiled flesh of men, they hung
over the scene with smoldering swords,
splashing the world when they beat
their rain-soaked wings against the turning sky.

The child was bright in his basket
as a lemon, with a bitter smell from his wet
swaddling clothes. His mother bent
above him, singing a lullaby
in the liquid tongue invented
for the very young—short syllables
like dripping from an eave
mixed with the first big drops of rain
that fell, like tiny silver pears, from
the glistening fronds of palm. The three
who gathered there—old kings uncrowned:
the cockroach, condor, and the leopard, lords
of the cracks below the ground, the mountain
pass and the grass-grown plain—were not
adorned, did not bear gifts, had not
come to adore; they were simply drawn
to gawk at this recurrent, awkward son
whom the wind had said would spell
the end of earth as it had been.

Somewhere north of this familiar scene
the polar caps were melting, the water was
advancing in its slow, relentless
lines, swallowing the old
landmarks, swelling the
seas that pulled
the flowers and the great steel cities down.
The dolphins sport in the rising sea,
anemones wave their many arms like hair
on a drowned gorgon’s head, her features
softened by the sea beyond all recognition.

On the desert’s edge where the oasis dies
in a wash of sand, the sphinx seems to shift
on her haunches of stone, and the rain, as it runs down,
completes the ruin of her face. The Nile
merges with the sea, the waters rise
and drown the noise of earth. At the forest’s
edge, where the child sleeps, the waters gather—
as if a hand were reaching for the curtain
to drop across the glowing, lit tableau.

When the waves closed over, completing the green
sweep of ocean, there was no time for mourning.
No final trump, no thunder to announce
the silent steal of waters; how soundlessly
it all went under: the little family
and the scene so easily mistaken
for an adoration. Above, more clouds poured in
and closed their ranks across the skies;
the angels, who had seemed so solid, turned
quicksilver in the rain.
Now, nothing but the wind
moves on the rain-pocked face
of the swollen waters, though far below
where giant squid lie hidden in shy tangles,
the whales, heavy-bodied as the angels,
their fins like vestiges of wings,
sing some mighty epic of their own—

a great day when the ships would all withdraw,
the harpoons fail of their aim, the land
dissolve into the waters, and they would swim
among the peaks of mountains, like eagles
of the deep, while far below them, the old
nightmares of earth would settle
into silt among the broken cities, the empty
basket of the child would float
abandoned in the seaweed until the work of water
unraveled it in filaments of straw,
till even that straw rotted
in the planetary thaw the whales prayed for,
sending their jets of water skyward
in the clear conviction they’d spill back
to ocean with their will accomplished
in the miracle of rain: And the earth
was without form and void, and darkness
was upon the face of the deep. And
the Spirit moved upon the face of the waters.

Eleanor Wilner, “Reading the Bible Backwards” from Reversing the Spell: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1997 by Eleanor Wilner. Reprinted with the permission of Copper Canyon Press, P. O. Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368-0271

Friday, 16 May 2008


Robert Pogue Harrison's latest book is Gardens: an Essay on the Human Condition.
In the first chapter he looks at the garden as Paradise - the preserve of immortals - and guesses at what a cold pastoral it might be for humankind.

Menelaus, for example, was exempted from death and from Hades, and granted direct transport to Elysium, because, married to Helen, he was son-in-law to Zeus. The Trojan War was not fought over Helen as such, but the passport her bloodline provided to eternal bliss: 'men, Harrison observes, 'have gone to war for less compelling reasons.'
And yet, Harrison also observes, Menelaus tarries on earth, and is still there when Telemachus calls on him in The Odyssey.

To explain this, Harrison relates an ancient Latin parable of how Care, before crossing a river, fashioned a figure from clay. Jupiter, passing by, granted her wish to give it spirit, but wanted, also, the figure to bear his name. Earth arose and demanded it be named after her, as it was fashioned from her. The three asked Saturn to judge the matter. As Jupiter had endowed it with spirit, so, Saturn decided, the figure would belong to Jupiter after death. Earth, which had given it body, would give it a home, and Care, having fashioned it, would possess it while it lived. The figure was named homo, after humus (soil).

Harrison suggests that care - in several of its senses, and as both a burden and a virtue - is what animates us and makes us human. Menelaus might have had eternal bliss for the asking, but he resides on earth. The Dante of Il Paradiso remains as energised by earthly concerns as spiritual ones. On Calypso's Island, Ulysses still yearns for home, that lesser Heaven. Achilles in Hades is racked by envy of the living; he would rather be a slave under the sun (i.e. on earth) than king of all the perished dead.

Harrison notes how careless the Adam and Eve of Genesis are, how unthinkingly they fall - but the Fall is what makes them human. And, in Art, he makes us look again at how the expulsion was depicted. Regretting the loss of Eden, they still often seem to be rushing for the exit gate. For Harrison, felix culpa is a happy fall, not out of an Augustinian regard for Christ's then necessary sacrifice, but because it was the means by which we became human. 'It made life matter.' Condemned to cultivate the earth where once he was its honoured and passive guest, Adam begins the process by which we became cultivated.

Care engages and commits us...binds us so passionately to our living world... (and is) so tenacious as to continue to torment us after death... the everyday blessings we so sorely miss once we lose them.

In the second chapter, Harrison continues the theme and redeems the character of Eve: 'Eve's transgression was the first true instance of human action,' he claims. Eden's chill and static landscape cannot accommodate the human. 'For where there is no death, there is no birth either.' With rich quotations from Stevens, Neruda and, a favoured poet of Harrison's, Eleanor Wilner, Eve's fecundity is shown not simply to be her curse, but also our gift. The loss of Eden made us win other gardens of our own from the earth.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Robert Pogue Harrison

Harrison's books, especially, for me, The Dominion of the Dead, remind me of
most of those books imaginative writers love more than academics; those odd, obsessive inquiries made by maverick minds who pick out a theme and make from it an intriguing lace: Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, Diane Ackerman’s The Natural History of the Senses, Charles Sprawson’s The Haunts of the Black Masseur, WG Sebald’s ghostly fiction-cum-essays, or Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space: revelatory, spirited works whose true effect is not to persuade but to promote deeper, more imaginative modes of thought.

The American poet, Mark Doty, said of Bachelard’s book that every page contains the matter for a poem. The same could be—and will be—said of The Dominion of the Dead. A review of The Dominion of the Dead can be found at Cercles and as a pdf at my website