Tag Archives: American literature

A Plenty

Snowdie grieved for him, but the decent way you’d grieve for the dead, more like, and nobody wanted to think, around her, that he treated her that way. But how long can you humor the humored? Well, always.
—Eudora Welty, “Showers of Gold” (1)

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Tuesday I was standing in a packed NYC subway in alarmingly close intimacy with my fellow passengers, amazed at how well bodies fit into one another, reading a story about being in the woods (where I had been on Monday). I wrote of it to a friend of mine and he re-set my words into verse:

Subway
I was pressed up so tight against his backside
I only had to whisper in his ear,
“I am sorry, I am being pushed.”
But still I held my book above the fray
So that I could continue the story.

And what was this story that had me so enthralled with poetic devotion? A book of short stories, Golden Apples by Eudora Welty. The first story “Shower of Gold” is told with disarming charm by Miss Katie. I loved her no-nonsense ingenuousness. She told the story of Snowdie MacLain, an albino woman, whose husband would come and go without so much as a by your leave. Sometimes when he would come he’d let her know:

“Meet me in the woods.” No, he more invited her than told her to come–“Suppose you meet me in the woods.” And it was night time he supposed to her.  And Snowdie met him without asking “What for?” (4)

I guess I admire Miss Katie–she wants to know why. When her husband tells her he thinks that he saw the absconder husband, King MacLain, at a county parade she can’t believe he didn’t confirm much less confront him:

Men! I said if I’d been Governor Vardaman and spied King Maclain from Morgana marching in my parade as big as I was and no call for it, I’d have had the whole thing brought to a halt and called him to accounts. “Well, what good would it have done you?” my husband said. “A plenty,” I said.

yet, I think I understand Snowdie better. Welty enchants words, she’ll have you laughing out loud in a hot crowded subway, and then leave you a little lost on the platform of her phrasing musing over the devastating disappointments we endure. Some, like Snowdie, just take them quietly. I thought, after discussing the title of the story with another friend, that perhaps Ms. Welty, as fun and sharp as she made Miss Katie, saw things Snowdie’s way. That shower of gold was Snowdie’s news that she was expecting twins. Maybe she didn’t think she deserved more than a shower. Her husband just disappeared with no word or explanation and maybe she just took that as proof that she was just going to get what precipitation she did.  What good would it have done her to complain?

Each story in the book stands alone, and yet they are all set in the same fictional town, the same characters, the same disturbing inability to “know how to do about” as is Welty’s refrain in the story “June Recital.”

That’s the frightening thing. We are all trying so hard, but what if we just plum don’t know how to do about? I don’t mean algebra, or gardening, or spelling. I mean to say, when we don’t connect to one another when we, like Miss Eckhart, flail and fail in something so essential as love. When one looks into their own heart and has to admit–I don’t know how to do about you at all.

Both Miss Eckhart and Virgie Rainey were human beings terribly at large, roaming on the face of the earth. And there were others of them–human beings, roaming like lost beasts (“June Recital” 85).

What the Stars Sew

“Kit. Darling,” I called him, and he opened his eyes. Darling—there is magic in that word. Giles once addressed me as darling, in his letter to the Lighthouse, and the world changed its hue. 
—Sena Jeter Naslund, Ahab’s Wife: or, The Star Gazer (281)

print I made of cut foam, on fabric

print I made of cut foam, on fabric

Ahab’s Wife is a romantic, learned, and ambitious novel. I can not be sure if it was my mood or the book which matched, but I told a friend as I read it that if it had been  music, it would be a bass tone. A low note ran through the heart of the novel that resonated deeply. The tragedy of life pins us to the earth as the brilliance makes our hearts wish to soar.

At Margaret Fuller’s salon, women talked of magnificent ideas, of poetry and art, of science and travel. Never had I heard such discourse among women. Not one word of family of home or food or even sewing. I interjected the question did they not think that quilting could be an art form and perhaps the only art available to frontier women, and several, including Miss Fuller, quite agreed with me, although not all (375). 

By sheer coincidence I happen to have been participating in a pilot class, Critical Craft while reading this book. Throughout Jeter Nasland’s book she came back to sewing as a relevant and essential aspect of the protagonist Una’s life, so it was of wonderful interest to me that this point: the intersection of art and craft, as well as the function of crafts in people’s, particularly women’s lives came up.

In 1978 Lucy Lippard wrote a compelling article for the journal Heresies (reprinted in the book Craft in Action) called “Making Something from Nothing (toward a Definition of Women’s “Hobby Art”) in which she discussed many of the attitudes towards the ostensible lesser or lower art of craft.

The “overdecoration” of the home and the fondness for bric-a-brac often attributed to female fussiness or plain Bad Taste can just as well be attributed to creative restlessness. Since most homemade hobby objects are geared toward home improvement, they inspire less fear in the makers of being “selfish” or “self-indulgent,” there is no confusion about pretensions to Art, and the woman is freed to make anything she can imagine (Lippard 486).

She wrote of the lingering tendency of women being brought up with “an exaggerated sense of detail and needing to be “busy.”‘  The article highlights the “high end” art world’s turned-up nose in the face of some stunning and creative “crafts” made largely by women (often nameless women, as in textiles and decorative household goods) while embracing the male versions of bricolage, abstraction, and even fabric sculptures (she points to the work of Claes Oldenberg, whose wife, it should be noted, did the actual sewing!).

And this is not entirely a disadvantage. Not only does the amateur status of hobby art dispel the need for costly art lessons but it subverts the intimidation process that takes place when the male domain of “high” art is approached (Lippard 488).

In 2015 there is something of a renaissance of crafts. Curiously the word ‘hobby’ seems to be out of use….But, the hipsters have gotten involved! there are “craftivists” and a burgeoning cottage industry of high-end craft, which looks a hell of a lot like art to the likes of me (or at least costs as much…). The lines crumble.  And yet there is something in craft that reaches beyond ourselves. Often these are techniques and skills that are passed down from one generation to the next. Or, in a DYI spirit, one is free to create, in whatever manner one envisions the things they need, for themselves. The work involved is repetitive and mediative. There is also the sense of not only the connection with generations past, but also in the moment. And the lengths of time working on something acts as a marker of one’s own life: I knit that when I was pregnant, or, I made that when I was heartbroken that winter, or, I quilt that for my sister’s baby, I baked that cake for my daughter….our days are reflected back to us through these objects that are beautiful and precious because they mark our hand’s touch, our presence, our being.

Jeter Nasland’s book is a elegiac tale, intermixing historical figures, places and politics, with historical fictional figures. She takes her time in the telling, and although occasionally uneven, when the story is moving full sail the sweet wind of the storyteller is invigorating.

Beyond that, and more pertinent to this essay, she makes lovely use of the practice and metaphor of the crafts which surrounded her character’s lives. She uses Una’s defense and pride of her needlework to represent her independence of mind and connection to her body. The physical act of doing and making is what allows Una to be a “Star Gazer.” One must be connected to the mundane to let one’s spirit soar to the border of imagination: the star sewn heavens.

 

 

 

 

 

Survival is Temporary

Considerate la vostra semenza
fatti non foste vivre come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.

— Dante, quoted by Wallace Stegner, Crossing To Safety (256)

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As is my general habit, I didn’t read the paratext which accompanied The Modern Library edition of Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. But my eye caught, somewhere amongst the ancillary pages, on the word “rectitude.” I didn’t think too much on it as I devoured the lugubrious tale of friendship and marriages, but now, having finished my second Stegner novel, (Angle of Repose this past summer: read and adored) the word hangs heavily in the cold January air around me.

“Consider your birthright,” we told each other when fatigued or laziness threatened to slow our hungry slurping of culture. “Think who you are. You were not made to live like brutes, but to pursue virtue and knowledge.” Very high toned. We all hitched our wagons to the highest stars we could find (256).

Stegner’s genius, I think, is in the way that he melds high aristocratic intellect with a sort of Western American grit. It is subtly and beautifully rendered. In Crossing to Safety the story is told by Larry, a reasonably successful writer married to Sally. The book is the story of their friendship with married couple Charity and Sid. It is told with powerful intimacy, and yet there is that rectitude in Stegner’s style that can’t pretend, or debase, the privacy of people’s interior lives. What he creates is a story that ends up feeling like one’s own experience of life. It feels completely natural and real. Stegner’s use of language is remarkable. In a single sentence he adds layers to his characters until, it felt to me, as though they were right there, looking onto the page too, from the next seat over.

A big ringing laugh, as if parturition, which sometimes brought the clammy sweat of apprehension to Sally and me, were the most fun since Run Sheep Run (23).

The realism is pristinely maintained by a membrane of respect for the impossibility of ever knowing or feeling anything with absolute clarity and the futility of gratuitous detail.

The tension between chaos and order courses, every moment, through our pulsing fingertips. Stegner seems to have in his mind a firm understanding of that tension. He has no interest in sorting out the good from the bad, there is only the whole. The excruciation of a character like Charity is that she nearly has the energy to force life into some kind of order. The looker-ons can only stand by and watch, in pain, at her useless undertaking.

But what do we have? What are we left with? While Charity wants to write the book nice and neat, Stegner sneaks in the truth through Larry. We can’t do it. All we can do is offer each other mere letters, in the hope that we can build an “alphabet of gratitude” (326). No matter the peripeteia we all must endure, love stays. We are all just trying to survive, knowing that it is only temporary, but the alphabet is what gives understanding: a heavy heart is really, simply, a full heart, and that is always better than an empty one. It is our shared, good alphabet that leads to the wonder and permanence of love— in all its many forms.

 

 

Degrees of Difference

As you said, it was too good for mere dirt; you tried to apply it to your own wandering and uneasy life. It is the angle I am aiming for myself, and I don’t mean the rigid angle at which I rest in this chair. I wonder if you ever reached it (24). – Wallace Stegner, The Angle of Repose

IMG_1911One of the many wonderful things about Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose is the title itself. It is the reason, in fact, why I read this book (at a friend’s ardent recommendation). More than that, Stegner knew it. Unlike many books in which the title is a summation, or vague bit of poetical pointing,  Angle of Repose and what it means technically, as well as metaphorically, is addressed throughout the novel. And just exactly because it is a technical term that is given the freedom to expand its meaning to the characters’ philosophical  perspective of life, the reader alike, makes it a particularly meaningful part of the story.

Willingly or unwillingly, she collected experience and wrote it back East in letters. Perhaps she wrote so fully because she wanted to divert Augusta’s depression. Perhaps she was only indulging her own starved desire for talk (140).

I have far too many similarities to the characters in this book to write about it with any sense of comfort, but I can say that, for me, the angle of repose is that sweet spot where the force of gravity and inertia succumbs to a place of rest-  the rocks stop rolling, your place on this earth is found, and felt.

Down this drift, with Kendall walking ahead and the others steering her by the elbows, they made their way. Inevitably she thought of Dante, Virgil, and Beatrice, and up on top Tregoning, Charon of this vertical Styx; but the thought of how silly it would sound to speak that thought made her blot it out. About used up, I should think, Oliver might say (139).

What a wonder and comfort it is that we have our fellow humans to share our feelings, and what a strange and disconcerting thing it is that we persist in thwarting our repose- through pride, hubris, culturally induced concealment, and shame…So what if Dante, Virgil and Charon “used it up”? What’s true is true, and better that we share it than suffer in silence. Stegner so brilliantly and subtly dissects the mores of the ages: Victorian, the free loving 60’s, and the extremities betwixt the two- my heart ached for the protagonist/narrator, Lyman- the smart, sarcastic, stoic and sensitive man- with a capital ‘M,’ for whom the story revolves around. As a rather hopelessly devout reader, I have found that it is the moment in which I fall in love with the voice of a book that keeps me, holds me, and consoles me – like a lover: the language permeates the deepest parts of one’s mind and heart, my eyes race to meet the words, to leap and joyously roll over them, or linger with sorrow and empathy . It is a powerful gift for a writer to share with a reader. It is a powerful union between the two.

The literary device in Angle of Repose of  having the grandson, Lyman, write a history of his grandmother’s life, gives a long and nuanced view as to how unhappiness can take root. An errant or thoughtless figuring here and there, and before you know it, the amount of effort a reckoning would entail, distorts and separates all the equations.

In God’s name, Grandmother, I feel like saying to her, what was the matter with him? Did he have a harelip? Use bad language? Eat with his knife? You can do him harm, constantly adjusting his tie and correcting his grammar and telling him to stand up straight (68).

But Lyman, I feel like saying to him, isn’t it really true that there doesn’t have to be anything ‘wrong’ with him? It is all about the angles, and whether or not one is close enough to adjust their angle to meet another. The failure to try is tragic, but misjudging the difference of degrees between is equally so.

 

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When We Caught Fish

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He created his own Kool-aid reality and he was able to illuminate himself by it (10).

Well, that’s the trick, I guess. Trout Fishing in America is the seminal book of the American avant-garde,  circa 1960s, by Richard Brautigan. The title is the theme, heart, and soul of the book.

“Trout Fishing in America Shorty, Mon Amour” (63).

Brautigan references Resnais, of course, but his endearing character, Trout Fishing in America Shorty, is the perfect (quasi) hero of a dark age. For all of its humor, the  book is a lugubrious treatise on the psychic disconnect of a generation.  Any proper noun that is not removed (and demoted) by the article ‘the’ (i.e. ‘the’ woman I travel with, or, ‘the’ baby) is christened, ‘Trout Fishing in America.’ Hotels, people, locals….its all the same.

But I didn’t ruin my birthday by secretly thinking about it too hard (69).

No, no, don’t do that. Brautigan makes the Existentialists look downright cheery and some fifty years out, wanting. At a certain point, after all, the meaninglessness is meaningless.

After he graduated from college, he went to Paris and became an Existentialist. He had a photograph taken of Existentialism and himself sitting at a sidewalk cafe. Pard was wearing a beard and he looked as if he had a huge soul, with barely enough room in his body to contain it (92). 

Composed in a visually and intellectually arresting manner, Trout Fishing in America is a cry, a sob, for an innocence lost. The neurosis is a blinking eye, trying to resist the constraints of a world and society at odds with the simple pleasure of Trout Fishing in America.

We were all silent except for blink, blink, blink, blink, blink. Suddenly I could hear his God-damn eye blinking, It was very much like the sound of an insect laying the 1,000,000th egg of our disaster (39).

In the end, it is all sold off. Another commodity to sell. Aisle four, row whatever, doesn’t matter…the land of the for sale, home of the for hire…the only difference is, no one cares anymore.

 

 

Sense and Memorabilia

I remember, in the heart of passion once, trying to get a guy’s turtle-neck sweater off. But it turned out not to be a turtle-neck sweater. – Joe Brainard, I Remember (131). 

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I remember not being able to get any dessert but prune crostata when I lived in Parma. But not minding, really.

“In the heart of passion” – that probably says it all. I Remember, written in 1975 by Joe Brainard, is one of the sweetest, funniest books I have ever read. In fact, I caused the  fellow commuter sitting in the seat ahead of me some alarm as I intermittently burst into spasms of laughter reading this on my way home the other night. She rather ostentatiously turned around to see what I was on about, and then I caught her peeping into the reflection of the window several times assessing my mental health.

I remember a little girl who had a white rabbit coat and hat and muff. Actually, I don’t remember the little girl. I remember the coat and the hat and the muff (32).

The book is brilliantly conceived. Ridiculously and poignantly simple. It reads as a sort of poem with each stanza beginning with the refrain: I remember.

I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie (8).

There is something magical in it. Brainard, a child and adolescent of the 40s and 50s, relates  details that are lovely in their historicism, but it is the disarming simplicity of his raw memory data that connects the reader to this charming fellow.

I remember once my mother parading a bunch of women through the bathroom as I was taking a shit. Never have I been so embarrassed! (93)

I’m really glad I never did that. As a mother of (mostly) sons, my heart just about burst for this young boy and his beautiful, puriel, ernest mind.

I remember when I worked in a snack bar and how much I hated people who ordered malts (22).

As a human who endured adolescence and retains a frightening degree of it, my heart ached for our shared humiliations, tribulations, and confusions. It would seem that Mr. Brainard and I suffer from the same malady – our hearts stuck in the ‘on’ position.

I remember liver (16).

Me too.

I remember Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (so sad) in Meet Me in St. Louis (49).

It was his tender use of parenthetical commentary that convinced me that this man must have been a lovely, kind soul.

I remember a girl in Dayton, Ohio, who “taught” me what to do with your tongue, which, it turns out, is definitely what not to do with your tongue. You could really hurt somebody that way. (Strangulation.) (133)

It is his innocence and crass adolescent mind, (which never seems to really leave us, eh?) his sexual forays, observations, reactions, and random thoughts that fill his memoir. This is the stuff we are made of.

I remember my mother cornering me into the corners to squeeze out blackheads. (Hurt like hell.) (141)

Okay – but in my defense, as a mother, that is really hard to resist.

I remember not finding pumpkin pie very visually appealing (113).

The sensual strength of our memories, whether it be vision, touch, sound, taste or smell is fascinating, revealing, and true. This is how we experience our lives – our world. It’s beautiful. Joe Brainard’s, mine, and yours. Simply beautiful.

I remember trying to figure out what it’s all about. (Life.) (46)

 

* I Remember – published by Granary Books

 

 

 

 

Bon à Rien

The girl was not too deeply in love with Hector; but imagination counts for something (75, In and Out of Old Natchitoches
-Kate Chopin, Bayou Folk

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Kate Chopin’s collection of short stories, Bayou Folk is comprised of some 23 stories most of which take place, as the title suggests, amongst the Bayou folk: the Creole people in and about New Orleans. She writes about her topic of choice- men and women aching for love under the limiting constraints (for both sexes) of living in a man’s world. In Sabine confronts a woman’s happiness cruelly destroyed by her marriage to one man, and then saved by another:

He was wondering if it would really be a criminal act to go then and there and shoot the top of Bud Aiken’s head off. He himself would hardly have considered it a crime, but he was not sure of how others might regard the act (88, In Sabine)

But hardly any of her characters are ever autonomous enough to enjoy the freedom to love without regard to anything but one’s own insisting heart- and what is remarkable about Chopin’s writing in the late 19th century is her particularly keen voice describing the devastating effects this has on the subordinate woman of her age.

But he was not jesting. She saw it at once in the glance that penetrated her own; in the quiver of his sensitive lip and the quick beating of a swollen vein in his brown throat […] She had suddenly become a woman capable of love or sacrifice (307, A Lady of Bayou St. John).

The stories that make up Bayou Folk all touch on the poignancy of love and heartbreak but none are near the level of Chopin’s masterpiece, The Awakening – that book simply slays.

She’s a vrai sauvage, that’s w’at (186, Loka).

Nevertheless, the delightful vernacular of the characters populating these stories, the vibrancy of the people and landscape, taken together with Chopin’s supreme talent for articulating what if feels like to fall in love, or to be heartbroken, or just plain broken, is unique and lovely.

If she had hung for hours upon his neck telling him that she loved him, he could not have known it more surely than by this sign. Azenor felt as if some mysterious bond had all at once drawn them heart to heart and made them one. (191, Love on the Bon-Dieu)

Love that crosses the boundaries of what is euphemistically called “polite society” is at the heart of Chopin’s work. “Polite society” is a cruel, racist, sexist, classist, disingenuous master and Chopin was never afraid to politely, of course,  point that out.

A Polarized Flow, like love.

It is all a most artificial business of living according to prescription, keeping every impulse strangled, and ending where it begins, in materialism pure and simple.
– D.H. Lawrence, The Symbolic Meaning: Studies in Classic American Literature (55)

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“Yet the lovely cloud of green and summer lustre is within” (30)

Vincent Scully mentioned this D.H. Lawrence book in one of his essays on architecture. Perhaps my interests have some collecting force that draw me to and around Lawrence, but I find that he is referenced again and again in other books that I read. Here in The Symbolic Meaning is a group of essays on American Literature. Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, and Whitman are among the writers that Lawrence cites to discuss his theory of the American writer.

Only art-utterance reveals the whole truth of a people. And the American art-speech reveals what the American plain speech almost deliberately conceals.[…] And this, again, is one of the outstanding qualities of American literature: that deliberate ideas of the man veil, conceal, obscure that which the artist has to reveal. (18)

Lawrence hits hard on all of his most passionate philosophies and it’s interesting to read the introduction which seeks to untangle the different and sometimes opposing versions of each essay. It would seem that unlike many writers, when Lawrence revised he wholesale re-wrote – sometimes to ill effect. Lawrence was a unique thinker better left in his primary voice, as E. M. Foster so eloquently stated:

Lawrence “was both a preacher and a poet, and some people, myself included, do not sympathize with the preaching. Yet I feel that without the preaching the poetry could not exist. With some writers one can disentangle the two, with him they are inseparable.” (8)

While there are some 2013 politically incorrect moments, Lawrence is so forward at heart that he is easily forgiven. His essay on Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Novels (Last of the Mohicans, et all) is wonderful, perfectly describing what I loved about those books; his essay on the symbolism of the sea to American writers such as Melville is perceptive and fascinating; his appreciation for women, as discussed in the Hawthorne essay regarding The Scarlett Letter, as whole female humans is quite beyond the reach of most people still, depressingly,  to this day.

In the old days, when women turned in her terrible recoil, she became Astarte, the Syria Dea, Aphrodite Syriaca, the Scarlett Woman. To-day, in her recoil the Scarlet Woman becomes the Sister of Mercy. She cannot help it. She must, in her upper mind, keep true to the old faith that man has given her, the belief in love and self-sacrifice. To this she is, as it where, hypnotized or condemned. (132)

His humorous yet heartfelt remonstrations against the “great Greek-Christian will-to-knowledge” that result in such American respectables as the “admirable little monster of a Franklin,” (Yes, Benjamin) are what I love about his writing. When he states that the “modern virtue is a machine-principle,” we can only lament that things are far worse now. But he foresaw that.

 Now, after two thousand years, having established our knowledge and even our experience all in one sort, a halfness, we find ourselves in a prison. We reach the condition when we are so imprisoned in the cul de sac of our mutilated psyche that we are in the first stages of that madness and self-destruction into which the ancients fell when they were imprisoned and driven mad within the cul de sac of the sensual body. Quos vult perdere Jupiter, dementat prius. (71)

That Latin bit basically means- those that Jupiter (God) wishes to destroy, he first drives mad. And this is Lawrence’s point- which he never ceases to fit into whatever it is he is talking or writing about. He sees a duality and a disconnect. Where the pagans of old veered toward sensuality, the modern man veers towards knowledge. Both extremes are equally destructive.

Whereas there is a “magnificence of futurity flooding the heart,” in a liberated and appeased soul, the psychic toll to future generations when we cut ourselves off from one half of our soul is tragic.

What is the use to me if a man sacrifice and murder his living desires for me, only to return in death and demand the sacrifice again of me, tenfold? What is the use of a mother’s sacrificing herself for her children if after death her unappeased soul shall perforce return upon the child and exact from it all the fulfillment that should have been attained in the living flesh, and was not? (73)

Lawrence, of course, explores these esoteric themes in his novels to poignant and moving effect. If his deeply held passion for life was sometimes equaled by his profound disgust in his fellow man, there was at least a true commitment to finding our way back to the life force with a fervency of gratitude and communion. His work was influential to all serious thinkers and the artistically sensitive of his age and beyond. He believed in the vibrancy of life, not the stagnant extremes of the idea and the ideal which disturbed the “natural reciprocity and natural circuits” of the “breath of life.”

KNOWING and BEING are opposites, antagonistic states. The more you know, exactly, the less you are. The more you are, in being, the less you know.
This is the great cross of man, his dualism. The blood-self, and the nerve-brain self.
Knowing, then, is the slow death of being. Man has his epochs of being , and his epochs of knowing. It will always be a great oscillation. The goal is to know how not-to-know. (178)

Other books by or about D.H.Lawrence:

Women in Love – Fog of Love
Lady Chatterley’s Lover – Love’s Lambency
Sons and Lovers Part 1 – Kicking Against the Pricks
Sons and Lovers Part 2 – Flickering Sanity
Apocalypse – Start With The Sun
Lawrence, An Unprofessional Study by Anaïs Nin – On Impulse

*”A polarized flow, like love” from the essay Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast (181)

Was it all for nothing?

“They’d drive you nuts,” said Mac. “Men are bad enough, but the bugs’d drive you nuts.” (327)
– John Steinbeck, In Dubious Battle

DSCI0013Jim looked evenly at him. “Did you ever work at a job where, when you got enough skill to get a raise in pay, you were fired and a new man put in? Did you ever work at a place where they talked about loyalty to the firm, and loyalty meant spying on the people around you? Hell, I’ve got nothing to lose.”
“Nothing except hatred,” Harry said quietly. “You’re going to be surprised when you see that you stop hating people. I don’t know why that is, but that’s what usually happens.” (12)

A few weeks back, probably more but no matter, I was having a fun discussion with my comrade blogger Tocksin. We were talking about Steinbeck and he mentioned that Steinbeck had written his books at a “fourth grade level,” as he had wanted them to be completely accessible to the masses. I have a son in the fourth grade, I didn’t think my boy would get through a Steinbeck novel, but I wondered if he would listen to one read aloud to him. Tocksin suggested that I read In Dubious Battle to him, and as I am highly susceptible to suggestion, I did.

Mac said sharply, “You think we’re too important, and this little bang-up is too important. If the thing blew up right now it’d be worth it. A lot of the guys’ve been believing this crap about the noble American workingman, an’ the partnership of capital and labor. A lot of them are straight now. They know how much capital thinks of ’em, and how quick capital would poison ’em like a bunch of ants.” (321)

My son really seemed to enjoy it. He liked the somewhat coarse language and tough talk, and after a few primers on geo-politics, political systems, and a brief history of worker’s rights, he got into the drama of the apple orchard strike. I think he liked the idea of a huge campout, and he bore  the protracted discussions of how to keep people engaged in a fight and the morals of instigating and agitating for a higher cause admirably well.

His knuckles were white, where he gasped the rail. “Comrades! He didn’t want nothing for himself—” (343)

Last night we came to the final chapter. We had a bet going on how it would end: would the strikers high tail it, or would they stay and fight for their rights? As I read, he snuggled close to me and every four pages or so I would ask the little head tucked between my arm and body, “Are you still awake?” “Yes!” he would assure me with a small measure of offense. In the end we both lost the bet, because Steinbeck does not finish that particular question, but those painful, frightening questions like:  was it worth it? was it all for nothing?- those are the questions that haunt.  What was it all for? Why did we ever start? I looked down at my son, and — heard him softly snoring.

“But do you think they’ve got brains enough to see it?”
“Not brains, Jim. It don’t take brains. After it’s all over the thing’ll go on working down inside of ’em. They’ll know it without thinking it out.” (322)

I think that’s true. We can’t know what sticks in our guts, or in our hearts. Perhaps it helps to be awake, but even so, it’s in there- and my dramatic retelling at the breakfast table was…entertaining as well. We can’t really see what the seeds we sow today will grow up to be, but all these sweet moments, and the hard ones too- they work down inside of us.

maybe probably

To think is to speculate with images. Aristotle, Aristotle, Aristotle.
– John Crowley, Love and Sleep (236)

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“Hiding” with permission by Tony Donovan, The Ivoryton Studio

My life, most likely as yours, can be told in many different ways. One story involves a barefoot girl, with tangled hair and a rat trap for a foot-rest, hiding. This photo of myself endures, partly because I can refer physically to the image, and also because it’s true. That is me. Maybe probably. As I read the first part of John Crowley’s Love and Sleep, this picture occupied a corner of mind.

“Oh all right,” he said at last, annoyed at himself for being unable to refuse; he had never been good at refusing. If he could not evade or avoid, he usually assented. (175)

Also me. But there are other tales. Another story involves my very dignified Irish American grandmother giving me many books in my teenage years—she loved historical fiction, and I read more about the various kings, queens, princes and dukes of the United Kingdom and Europe than I had any understanding or pedantic interest. One that stayed with me was of Mary Queen of Scots. I thought of that book and the little I vividly recall of it: Mary’s trusted Italian adviser, and also her horrendously botched beheading—”Jesú,” she said after the first non-fatal whack, while I read the second part of Love and Sleep. These stored images created out of books I have read, pages from the careful folds of my mind, would appear as I read Crowley’s complex tale.

Why was he here? How could he have come to be here?[…] Just because a world-age is governed by certain laws—the iron laws of tragic necessity, or the wooden ones of melodrama, or outlandish, constant Coincidence—does not mean we do not marvel to find ourselves subject to them. (466)

Love and Sleep, the second of Crowley’s AEgypt Cycle quartet fascinates me. This book’s focus is…magic. Alchemy and astrology, history, dreams, Eros, and angels. Perhaps focus is too strong a word. The book, like one of the threads or themes that Crowley intertwines, cycles in and out of the mind and heart. Perspicacity grows in hindsight, the cycle can only be seen once its passed. But there is a subtlety to the way the novel is told. It’s not that it ever shakes or stabs violently at the heart, it is more an assassin that swiftly runs by, from out of nowhere, and with one deft stroke runs you through. Pin point precision through the heart with a solid gold blade.

“Love-sick, ” Pierce said. His own heart had begun the steady rapid beat, little hard fist knocking at a cell-door, that had come to be nearly constant, had alarmed him enough to send him to a doctor, a real modern one, who listened and told him to relax.
“The soul ceases to be able to think of anything else, because the spirit can’t reflect anything else. The phantasmal reflection of the other person, let loose in your spirit, takes on a sort of phony autonomy.” (500)

” A real modern one” —I love that detail. And it’s those details that connect me on a strangely personal level to these stories—finding shared threads that match my own; weaving Crowley’s threads into the tapestry of my own history. There is a neatness,  a quiet controlled quality to his prose, and yet, his book is a Gordian knot: tightening then loosening, and tightening again, always a problem to be worked out, worked over.

He and all those who ransacked their vocabularies (in Latin, Italian, French, English) for words that meant what logos means in Greek — “word,” “idea,” “reason,” none of them right or large enough. Maybe because they had no word such as Meaning has since become in English.  (259)

I read Middlemarch years and years ago, but what I most remember is the way that that book snuck up on me, by the end —something of a beginning —I found I had given myself entirely to the story, and it to me. Love and Sleep shares that quality. It’s the glimpse of Meaning: the overall effect is a wind storm through the soul.

Magic is love: nothing but the power of love in the heart of the operator can move the souls of others; nothing but love can command the intelligences of the air. Without love even the simplest Art of Memory could not operate; without attraction and revulsion, what attaches the soul to images? (420)

This spring events large and larger have swept me further out to sea, perhaps towards an Unknown Island. The books I read associate themselves with my stories and memories, and they become a gust of wind, a part of my tale. My life is a story, a series of stories, and many stories shared. True,  Melancholy needs distraction (227) and I will take it. But more than that, because reading is not, for me,  mere distraction, reading is also connection—I gladly accept the gift of the gale. Let me see what tomorrow’s page will bring.

There had not been one, not one wish since childhood that his heart had been poured into, that was not about love. – John Crowley, Love and Sleep