Song of a Tree

Amabel saw that she would never attract a man again; she would never be loved, for she had not held even the Colonel’s attention (61) 
-Mavis Gallant, New Year’s Eve from Varieties of Exile


Varieties of Exile is a collection of short stories by the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant published in 2003. The stories are told with a perfection of tone. Each protagonist is an isolated voice above the score; Gallant has the ear of a soloist.

 Mrs. Plummer suddenly said clearly to herself or to Amabel, “My mother used to make her children sing. If you sing, you must be happy. That was another idea of happiness” (62).

All of the stories are wonderful, terse and moving, exemplifying the power of the short story. But New Year’s Eve slayed me. It is simply told but deeply discordant. Colonel and Mrs. Plummer, currently residing in Russia, agree to have Amabel, their deceased daughter’s school chum, come to visit over the holiday. Amabel, recently divorced, on a stabbing whim, imagines, hopes, fantasizes that the Plummer’s will take her into their fold and sooth her lonely soul.

They stared at each other, as if they were strangers in a crush somewhere and her earring had caught on his coat. Their looks disentangled (56).

The story transpires over an evening spent at the opera. Amabel, having cut herself free from a desolate marriage is deafened by her now untethered heart; she’s incapable of hearing the contrapuntal recrimination and hostility throbbing between the Plummer’s. She throws herself onto their mercy and they barely notice. Amabel’s lonely awkwardness is wretchedly evinced by Gallant. Her reckless hope that the Plummers will love her is confused by the mutual and in some ways merciful inability to really communicate.

Tears stood in Amabel’s eyes and she had to hold her head as stiffly as Mrs. Plummer did; otherwise the tears might have spilled on her program and thousands of people would have heard them fall. Later, the Plummers would drop her at her hotel, which could have been in Toronto, in Caracas, or Amsterdam; where there was no one to talk to, and she was not loved (61).

A fugue without harmony, Gallant passes the narration around and around, with a slight tragicomic touch. Amabel, rootless, doesn’t belong anywhere or to anyone, her human desire to connect is so overwhelming, she can’t hear that the Plummers are reading off an entirely different score. Only the sound of loneliness reverberates. And the song is stuck in my head.

When [Amabel] hinted at her troubles, said something about a wasted life, Mrs. Plummer cut her off with, “Most lives are wasted. All are shortchanged. A few are tragic” (58).


Mazarine, Luteus, Vermilion

The other day at work in the library while prying apart two colossal artbooks- my left hand pushing the row as far over as it would budge, while holding between right thumb and forefinger another sizable tome, the remaining three fingers were left with thrusting the opposing mountain of books to the opposite side when Lo! a small book revealed itself recessed in the deep shadows of the imposing giants surrounding it. With all of my fingers engaged, I let out an exasperated sigh. With reluctance, I released the hard earned space I had created. I  deftly (more likely, spasmodically) slipped my left hand in before the hidden entrance snapped shut in the jungle of books squeezed onto the shelf. If it hadn’t been a high shelf I might have engaged my foot to keep that damn space, but alas, I do try to maintain a professional demeanor.

My wearied fingers just managed to coax the little book out. I had only intended to help it reclaim its allotted space, but when I read the title, The Primary Colors by Alexander Theroux, I had to take a look. That very morning I had finished reading The Manticore by Robertson Davies, so when his back-of-the-book-two-cents blurb promising essays of “prodigal and vagarious adventure” as oppose to the “terse and apophthegmatic” sort, well, I ask you – how could leave it on the shelf?

The word sings. You pout pronouncing it, form a kiss, moue slightly, blowing gracefully from the lips as if before candles on a birthday cake (3).

Blue. It can only be blue, of course. Theroux’s discursive, plaited, and enigmatic exaltation of the primary color is a crazy delight to read. In equal parts: laundry list, rapturous praise, historical, poetical, and literary- azure my love, and blue, blau, bleu…some 50 pages into the thicket of illusive, expensive, pensive, doleful, blithe, yet blissful blue, Theroux insouciantly begins a new paragraph by saying, “Speaking of blue…”

Georgiana Peacher in Mary Stuart’s Ravishment Descending Time may well have given us the greatest passage on yellow eyes ever written, which I include here for, among other things, the edification of those undermedicated hacks, shameless book-a-year novelists, and jug-headed commercialists yahoos whose predictable prose comes cranking out of the trafila of their heads like streams of common pasta (104).

Yellow seems the perfect color to evince such a vitriolic run of the pen. At once sickly and weak it just as easily turns to exuberant luster. The sultry and louche lemonade pucker in no way disturbs the energetic primordial yellow, “I was going into the yellow” as Theroux quotes Marlow looking at a map of the Belgian Congo, “I was going into the yellow” (157).

As to barbaric richness of color, Francis Bacon, who wanted, among other things, to make the human scream into something “which would have the intensity and beauty of a Monet sunset,” like the color of blood, whether Antioch-red or paintbox bright or cherry: “It’s nothing to do with mortality, but it’s to do with the great beauty of the color of meat” (193).

Indeed, it is not accidental, I think, that  “there is no red Necco wafer” (172). Of all the names for red: cochineal, carmine, rubious, crimson, scarlet, a seemingly endless array of nuance and aspects. The copse of all that red denotes, connotes or promotes seems to tangle Theroux a bit in the final essay. As if there is too much to feel in this – the true primary color (no matter the language, “red” is always the first color named after black and white). Love and death, fervor, pain, a blush, the saucy and tart – my heart! my heart! Cranberry that it is, bursting with bitterness, but ever awaiting the sweet start.


*luteous (from lutum, mud) one of those perfectly good English words completely ignored nowadays as pretentious and arch, except by literate people like Virgil, who in his day used the word “luteus” as a synonym for yellow (73).

** Print by Dana Jennings Rohn


A Frowsy Romance

“Cervantes thought that Romance was dying and that Reason might reasonably take its place. But I say that in our time Reason is dying, in that sense; and it is old age is really less respectable than the old romance. We want to recur to the more simple and direct attack. What we want now is somebody who does believe in tilting at giants.” (292)  – G.K. Chesterton, The Return of Don Quixote

IMG_1576I really want this book to be made into a film. What’s more- I really want to be in the film version- black and white, set in the late twenties when cocktails with intriguing names were always to be found in one’s hand and repartee flowed and bubbled.

“I say, do you know your own librarian by sight, by any chance?”
“What on earth have librarians got to do with it?” asked Rosamund in her matter-of-fact way.”Yes, of course, I know him. I don’t think anybody knows him well.”
“Sort of a book-worm, I suppose,” observed Archer. “Well, we’re all worms,” remarked Murrel cheerfully, “I suppose a book-worm shows a rather refined and superior taste in diet. But, look here, I rather want to catch that worm, like an early bird. I say, Rosamund, do be an early bird and catch him for me.”

I say, I do wish people spoke like this still. Such fun. Briefly stated,  this story, by G. K. Chesterton, balances on a librarian who is enlisted to fill in a part of a play set in the Medieval Age for a weekend party’s amusement. When the play is performed the heretofore retiring bookish librarian flat-out refuse to take his green tights off, or any other part of his costume, and the adventure, class wars, and asylum breakouts ensue.

But Murrel had something of the promptitude of a fencer leaping and lunging at the only loophole in what seemed like a labyrinth of parry and defence. He thrust into the aperture the wedge of a word” (123).

It’s not a book that moves deeply or alters one’s world view, but it is something of a madcap sprawl, (a jaunty hat) through the bizarreness of the struggle between reason and romance that Cervantes made so famous. The cheek and spot-on observations of Chesterton keep the story moving at a quick clip (strapped high heels clicking along the garden path….) but with a wonderfully effulgent elegance (long tight skirt, perhaps tweed?).

My dear Monkey, what’s the matter with you,” demanded Archer. “You seem to be quite sulky when everybody else is pleased.” “It’s not so offensive as being pleased when everybody else is sulky,” answered Murrel (251).

Somehow in this story everyone ends up happily coupled without ever having said very much at all about the matter. I’d love to learn that trick. Must be strictly an English trait of either complete genius or idiocy. Or perhaps that is Chesterton’s point, in matters of the heart, reason and its tools (words) are useless. I guess I’ll just straighten my (seamed) stockings and carry on tilting at giants.

For Mr. Douglas Murrel had by no means the intention of losing his faculty of enjoying the absurd with complete gravity (276).

Pulp Non-Fiction

With the first commercial production of corrugated cardboard boxes around the turn of the century – making it possible for paper safely to send itself to itself by itself – the Age of Paper had reached its zenith (12).
Ian Sansom,  Paper: An Elegy

Paper Mosaic by Victoria Accardi

Paper Mosaic by Victoria Accardi

Ah paper. It’s an addiction. Ubiquitous, inescapably handy, romantic, radical, and deeply pleasurable. Ian Sansom understands. More than offering his condolences and commiserations, however, he, as it turns out, is something of a pusher.

‘Junk,’ Burroughs writes, ‘is the ideal product….the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy…The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product…The addict…needs more and more junk to maintain a human form…[to] buy off the Monkey’ (47)

Burroughs? Wait a second…here I was innocently reading a book about paper – (the book itself, by the way, is a lovely specimen to hold: elegant proportions, not too large, thick cream-colored paper one’s fingers simply must caress [Fedrigoni Edizioni Cream to be exact] in [as the colophon tells us]  ITC Giovanni book typeface….but I digress).

The chances are, if you are reading this book, you are no better or worse than William S. Burroughs. The chances are, you have a serious problem: you’re an addict. You have been sold to a product. You have a monkey on your back. And that monkey is made of paper (47).

Damn it.

‘Paper is the material of temporary notation. It doesn’t make a big difference whether this is in writing or is three-dimensional…It’s a strange anything-material that can be anything, but is rarely itself…Basically it’s the “Zelig” of all materials’ (Thomas Demand quoted 128).

Sansom takes his readers on an irreverent but elucidating romp through the history and myriad uses of this most amazing material. Ephemera, toys, advertisements, art, cigarette and toilet paper, nothing is sacred. I got completely side tracked by a mere mention of an essay written by Junichiro Tanizaki  “In Praise of Shadows” in which Tanizaki drolly and bitterly explains his difficulty in designing a house that meets his cultural aesthetic while making use of advancements-in-comfort designed and perfected by Western aesthetics. It was mentioned in Paper: An Elegy in relation to paper used in Japanese architecture, which darken the available light…impractical perhaps, but after reading three or four pages on the garish hideousness of Western lighting habits, particularly where toilets and the attending “physiological delights,” (as the novelist Natsume Soseki wryly describes his morning visit to the toilet) involved are concern, I see his point. I may not turn the lights on in my bathroom every again: “how very crude and tasteless to expose the toilet to such excessive illumination” (Tanizaki 3). Indeed.

Where were we? Ah yes, paper. Sansom’s book is wonderful fun. His writing style is the sort of understated humor that I love, and he presents many obscure and interesting aspects of paper’s long history. Sometimes twisted. Origami, for instance, is not the innocent little craft it appears (although, personally, I find it infuriating, with its ridiculously useless instructions) nevertheless, it was fascinating to learn that it is more of an Upper East Side invention popularized and named by one Lillian Oppenheimer then having any real connection to a long standing Japanese art. Another important contributor to Origami’s popularity was, hilariously,  Gershon Legman, whom Sansom describes as “the maverick Jewish sexologist” (151). Credited with being one of the inventors of the vibrator is among some of his other racy biographical bullet points. Yes, indeedy…paper has a very steamy history. By the time we get to Mary Granville Pendarves Delany, a woman who in her seventies invented the craft of paper flowers, Sansom can’t help just dropping in this gem:

Over the next sixteen years Mrs Delany continued to work scissors and tweezers and bodkin to make more and more of her paper flowers, almost a thousand of them, collecting them alphabetically in albums, which she named her Flora Delanica. The images – ‘intense and vaginal’, according to one of her recent biographers…(165).

Okay then. Paper. Who knew?

Prepare You Victuals


Sweetness kindled
Push my heart
Prepare you victuals
Prepare you tart
Untwist the riddle
of the lame-wing’s dart
Let us meet in the middle
For to make a start

Coenesthesia of Art


All remarks as to the ways and means by which experiences arise or are brought about are technical, but critical remarks are about the values of experiences and the reasons for regarding them as valuable, or not valuable (23). - I.A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism

The book Principles of Literary Criticism was mentioned in The Story of Ain’t and for some reason, I felt I had to read it. Published in 1924, Richards seems to use perspectives in psychology to try to understand the value of the arts and outline principles with which to appreciate and critique them.

The basis of morality, as Shelley insisted, is laid not by preachers but by poets. Bad taste and crude responses are not mere flaws in an otherwise admirable person. They are actually a root evil from which other defects flow. No life can be excellent in which the elementary responses are disorganised and confused (62).

I came across Andrew Wyeth’s study for his painting Black Velvet the other day in the book Writers on Artists. The writer was John Updike and the focus of his essay was (mostly) on his complaining of the titillating speculation and hype surrounding the relationship between Wyeth and his long time model Helga Testorf (Black Velvet is one of the so-named “Helga Series”). I sent a picture of the finished painting via facebook to my daughter because she loves this series of works (I couldn’t find the above study online, for this post I scanned the image from the book). My oldest son commented on it, “that’s creepy.”

The two pillars upon which a theory of criticism must rest are an account of value and an account of communication. We do not sufficiently realise how great a part of our experience takes the form it does, because we are social beings and accustomed to communication from infancy (25).

I looked at the painting as it must have appeared to him, a woman lying corpse-like, almost being swallowed by a rich black background against which her hair, individually limned with golden light, glimmered intoxicatingly.

There is no kind of mental activity in which memory does not intervene (106).

But it was exactly her pose that had resonated with me. I told him: never mind the obvious reference to Manet’s Olympia, or the beautiful lines and (in the painting) the use of lights and darks – it is her pose! That it happens to be the exact position that I sleep in fascinates me, (as my children have, even a friend once checked to see if I was alive when we once shared a bed, I was so persistent in my odd, still repose).

Tragedy – is still the form under which the mind may most clearly and freely contemplate the human situation, its issues unclouded, its possibilities revealed (69).

The hands over her chest, wanting to cover her heart, her crossed limp feet, head turned away- it is evocative of a vulnerability, a melancholy and…becalmed spirit that so overwhelms. Quite the opposite of Olympia’s pointed command and assurance.

We rarely change our tastes, we rather find them changed (198).

My son’s two word reaction made me organise my thoughts about my own judgments. What made me stare at it, feel and think so deeply? For Richards, that is the very key – organising the chaos of our thoughts as a direct function of critique. Yes we all have thoughts and/or feelings, but it is the making sense of them and the communication of them with which the artist intuits and the viewer aspires to illume meaningful existence.

To put it briefly the best life is that in which as much as possible of our possible personalities is engaged. And of two personalities that one is the better in which there is more which can be engaged without confusion. We all know people of unusually wide and varied possibilities who pay for their width in disorder, and we know others who pay for their order with narrowness (288).

It doesn’t matter that my son and I had different reactions, only that we have an organized and expansive sense of ourselves with which to understand our reactions – because we always react. Literature and the arts engage sense and sensibility, order and organic harmony, through which we discover we are more than all that we see, hear and read. We are more than all this.


*title from Chapter XIII, Emotion and Coenesthesia:  In alluding to the coenesthesia we came very near to giving an account of emotion as an ingredient of consciousness (98). [...]  As a rule a process of extraordinary complexity takes place between perceiving the situation and finding a mode of meeting it. This complicated process contributes the rest of its peculiar flavour to an emotional experience (102).

The Mystery of Thing Three


Arch of Gallienus – Piranesi, 1756

My friend, eleven year old son, and I went to the Springfield Museum this weekend, ostensibly to see the current show on art forgeries. And see it we did. But the funny thing about going to a museum and seeing collections in person is that you never know…you can’t know what will grasp your imagination. We are all so used to choosing what we look at in this internet “bubble of one” (as Eli Pariser put it) that we lose sight of life’s best aspect- surprise.

Very briefly- the surprise was not the show concerning forgeries, rather we were all transfixed by a strange looming painting by Erastus Salisbury Field (what a name!). My friend, Tasha Depp, has written about it eloquently on her blog from an artist’s viewpoint.

At this point, you may have noticed that the picture with which I lead this post is not Erastus, but rather Giovanni Battista Piranesi. This etching was made some one hundred years before the epic work of Erastus, (pardon me for the informality, but I simply love the name) but I could not put the work of Piranesi out of my mind while viewing Erastus’ unusual and thematically similar work.


Historical Monument of the American Republic- Field, 1867-88


In concert, they strike me as one thing viewed from opposing directions. Piranesi’s work was all about the decrepitude, majesty and horror of the past: the “towering achievements” of mankind and nature’s momentary recapturing of ground. The glance is backwards, at once in awe of man’s splendour, as well as nature’s rebuke.

This tiny image on your screen of Erastus’s work was in fact something like nine feet by five (not sure why the brochure does not specify the size). The experience of standing close enough to read the text was completely different to standing back several feet and taking the whole world in at one time.

Like Piranesi (perhaps even artistically quoting him), Erastus makes use of art as an historical/political guide (including text, as well as a key to map out the historical events to which he represents -his painting focuses on the “conflict between the northern and southern states that culminated in the Civil War” [the hall where his work is hung has a handy brochure explaining his bio and specific detail of this work]), the towers of shame or enlightened achievement side by side leading to a fascinatingly weird railroad in the sky.

Perhaps it was the unexpectedness of seeing this odd work – it was the very first painting we came to after, as Tasha notes on her blog, spending some time in the Dr. Suess garden. In fact the order may have been key- we were mesmerized by a huge structure made of dried vines that had the look of Russian onion domes, then we loitered around bronze sculptures of  Thing One and Thing Two, and then- Erastus.

Our minds were prepped in a certain way….so that the combination of the hilariously neatly curbed foreground and the utopian skyway made me think this painting, a paeon to industry,  is one that is anticipating a glorious future made from the ground up by man’s reason. It has a “we can do it!” declaration that seems painfully earnest in hindsight. Perhaps if Erastus had taken Piranesi’s message a little more to heart he might have tempered his hopeful tone.

But…maybe the truth, or the beauty,  is- we don’t know. Call it foolish earnest hope, or the glory of mystery….At any moment we can walk into a room, turn a corner and be struck dumb with wonder.