Tag Archives: nature

The Fuse Held

This was the time in her life that she fell upon books as the only door out of her cell. They became half her world.
—Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient (7)

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In between the purity—the depth and quiet—of our natural world, and the chaos and horror of humankind’s cruelest deeds, there is a fuse. Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient balances on the pinnacle between what is de-fused and what ignites—exploding in one’s hands.

In the desert the most loved waters, like a lover’s name, are carried blue in your hands, enter your throat. One swallows absence (141).

Simply stated: it is a beautifully written book. Some of the lines are just devastatingly lovely. Many years ago I saw the film, which I liked, and I had the book somewhere in my mental-book-queue to read. But it wasn’t until my step-father mentioned he was reading it (and highly enjoying it) that I hurried over to the library. I swear, when the library has the book I want on the shelf I sometimes skip and hum a tune!— it is akin to the joy that only a best friend can bring. But I digress…although, not too much because the blood and sinew of The English Patient really is books.

‘This history of mine,’ Herodotus says, ‘has from the beginning sought  out the supplementary to the main argument.’ What you find in him are cul-de-sacs within the sweep of history—how people betray each other for the sake of nations, how people fall in love….How old did you say you were?
“Twenty.”
“I was much older when I fell in love” (119).

It is the books that sooth and alter with unthreatening loyalty. The story sways from post-WWII Italy, with a mysterious, gruesomely burnt, “English patient,” a nurse, an Indian bomb defuser, and a former thief/spy, to the pre-WWII deserts of Africa and a wrenching adulterous love affair.

After that month in Cairo she was muted, read constantly, kept to herself, as if something had occurred or she realized suddenly that wondrous thing about the human being, it can change (230).

On the heels of her honeymoon with her very blue-blooded husband, Clifton, Catherine falls devastatingly in love with Almásy. How does this happen? “How does this happen? To fall in love and be disassembled (158)? I am sure I don’t know, but I wonder too… “Who lays the crumbs of food that tempt you? Towards a person you never considered. A dream. Then later another series of dreams (150). When one’s own mind and heart are as fathomlessly mysterious as a desert perhaps this is what makes an unquenchable desire for knowledge to bloom, a seeking thirst that books, at least, seem to temporarily abate and rectify.

She was discovering herself. It was painful to watch, because Clifton could not see it, her self-education. She read everything about the desert. She could talk about Uweinat and the lost oasis, had even hunted down marginal articles (230). 

Of course there is much more to this story than the mystery of love. But perhaps everything is subordinate—so much of the action of life is dependant on love. Love is the logical casing in which everything else is shaped: treachery, pain, torture, slaughter, nationhood, racism, religion, emptiness, caring, tenderness, melancholy and mirth—it is all encased or exiled from a simple thing—the unity (in unity) of love. What does our love serve? If we are not defusing bombs, then the detonation is inevitable— horrifyingly so. But life is complex; passion is a powerful thing, and love—love is the essential thing. How do we know whom to trust, where our hearts are safe from devious trip wires?

When someone speaks he looks at a mouth, not eyes and their colors, which, it seems to him, will always alter depending on the light of a room, the minute of the day. Mouths reveal insecurity or smugness or any other point on the spectrum of character (219). 

The impersonal majesty of nature, (in the case of this story—the desert) lifts and joins our souls, yes, and books orient and expand our minds, ah but it is love, love, that unifies and mends our hearts, body and soul.

But all parts of the body must be ready for the other, all atoms must jump in one direction for desire to occur (259).

 

 

 

Dissimulate Days

IMG_0006Bitter Lemons

In an island of bitter lemons
Where the moon’s cool fevers burn
From the dark globes of the fruit,

And the dry grass underfoot
Tortures memory and revises
Habits half a lifetime dead

Better leave the rest unsaid,
Beauty, darkness, vehemence
Let the old sea-nurse keep

Their memorials of sleep
And the Greek sea’s curly head
Keep its calms like tears unshed

Keep its calms like tears unshed.

– Lawrence Durrell

Lawrence Durrell’s non-fiction book, of the same title as his poem, Bitter Lemons, describing his time spent living in Cyprus (1953-56), is a beautiful account of one man’s attempt to assimilate himself into a culture not his own, to understand and illustrate through words what traveling does to one’s interior as well as exterior being.

How sad it is that so many of our national characteristics are misinterpreted! Our timidity and lack of imagination seem to foreigners to be churlishness, taciturnity the deepest misanthropy. But are these choking suburbanizes with which we seem infused when we are abroad any worse than the tireless dissimulation and insincerity of the Mediterranean way of life? (35)

The joy with which he describes the landscape, the people, the mood, and the air of Cyprus is wonderful. The difference between his English humor and the humor of Greek island people is some sort of beautiful mathematical equation.

His name is Frangos,’ he said, with an air of a man who explains everything in a single word. (39)

If you have read Lawrence’s brother, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, then you might find, as I did, a revisiting of a similar spirit in the first half of this book. But this is not a book told (retrospectively) from the eyes of a ten year old. As events and relations between England and Cyprus deteriorate, it takes on a much more lugubrious tone. Fear and paranoia permeate the air, but as happens, people forget to remember their grudges, especially once they have got to know and like one another. The tension within each person to toe the national line and conjure up hostilities for former friends is sad and moving, if not predictable.

My one cavil is that if I hadn’t read Amateurs in Eden (biography about the marriage between Nancy and Lawrence written by Nancy, but not Lawrence’s daughter) I never would have known that Nancy was with Lawrence for the duration of this period. In fact, if I’m not mistaken it is her simple and lovely line drawings that end each chapter, although, again I could find no credit given in Bitter Lemons that confirms the identity of the illustrator. That is strange. And unsettling. I wish I didn’t even have that piece of information because the amount of extra energy such an omission in an autobiographical piece of literature requires is so great as to perversely focus my attention where Lawrence clearly did not want it to go.

She walked about the harbor at Kyrenia with a book and with the distracted air which betokened to my inexpert eye evidence of some terrible preoccupation- perhaps one of those love-affairs which mark one for life. (97)

Durrell’s eye for subtle details and succinct suggestions of what lies beneath a look, posture, or smile is powerful.  I found the above quote haunting. Is there such a thing? To be marked for life? The sensitivity of Durrell’s observations are arresting, entertaining, and at times, simply profound.

The Decisive Drop


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The Question, sloping down the wet black blocks
calling the name that pounds the dark
Keep off, it said, we’ll always be apart
Had I grasped the decisive drop
held it close, never asked,
would I  have kept
the water
dammed

JR/2013

Using intuition you ask your artistic question and decide almost simultaneously. – Henri Cartier-Bresson

 

 

Under This Sun

It would flood her, steal her breath.
But then it would pass. The moment would pass. Leave her deflated, feeling nothing but a vague
restlessness.
-Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns (168)

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I took a short break from reading Giovanni Verga’s Little Novels of Sicily to read a book my daughter gave me, A Thousand Splendid Suns. It was after Verga’s Story of the Saint Joseph’s Ass, when there, written in faint cursive script, someone had written, “depressing.” I laughed out loud because this story fell in the middle of the book and to be honest, we were well beyond depressing. D.H. Lawrence translated the novel of the Sicilian novelist and playwright born in Catania in 1840. The stories are like parables, except there is no consolation of sorrows to be found, rather a confirmation of pities. Each story is a wry, subtle social criticism pointing out the grinding down of humanity under the hard stone of poverty.

However, wherever there is malaria there is earth blessed by God. – Little Novels of Sicily, Malaria (70)

A Thousand Splendid Suns is not exactly a cheerful romp however, the story of two women’s lives amidst the upheaval and cruelties of Afghanistan 1960-2003… you kind of know going in that it’s going to be heartbreaking.

And it is, but as my daughter said, “Keep reading.” Some days are more splendid than others, and there’s just no knowing.

The attachment to the land of one’s birth is a strong component in each book, and one that I have difficulty relating to. As far as I can tell, the sun shines with equal beauty in all directions. To me it seems just one more chain of self imposed rigidity. Nationality, race, religion, should not a man make. But we do so need to belong….if not to someone, than to something.

A striking difference between these two books  is that one, Hosseini’s, is ultimately a hopeful story, because where there is love, there is always hope. Signor Verga, on the other hand, tempts my cynical misanthropic side: the greedy folly of men, the slow but sure slide into a dust of nothingness, helplessness that sours into hopelessness over the centuries are the realities that he builds his tales upon. His characters, like many people’s actual lives, are sadly lacking in love, the pursuit of a piece of bread is all consuming. Ignorance is all damning. Mere existence is a kind of purgatory, where the shock of lovelessness has worn off. In Hosseini’s story the rays of love, even if they are intermittent shards reflecting bits of warmth in between the horrors, are all sustaining.

Hosseini’s redemptive tale, in the end, is beautifully heart warming. The appeal of the Verga tales, on the other hand, for me, and perhaps for Lawrence, (based on what I’ve read of his works) is the cautionary aspect, the dry humor, a kind-hearted condolence to the unfortunate, and angry outrage at those that abuse their power. Lawrence’s writing is full of a call to love, of finding the meaning and worth of our lives in the connections made to other people. Through Lawrence’s translation of Verga’s stories we see the alternative, we feel the chill of our inhumanity that has the power to blot out our shared sun.

My children’s Sicilian grandmother would sometimes wag her finger and say, “Shamey, shamey, shamey.” Verga’s Little Novels of Sicily is just such a pointing finger.

You Are Here

It was eerie to have stepped into this silence of the desert, and I wished to get clear away. Yet, since there did not seem to be an adequate reason for absconding, I took a place at the table and resigned myself to the inevitable.
Stefan Zweig, Moonbeam Alley (139)

IMG_0506A green paperback. Four words. The title: Kaleidiscope One, and the author: Stefan Zweig.

The main motive is dread of solitude, of the terrible feeling of aloofness which severs us one from another -Transfiguration (202)

I was trying to navigate a new library, all of the books had call numbers that I could not make sense of. YF? Was I in the Youth Fiction section? I am stereotypically male-like in my reticence to ask for directions, but I was flummoxed and the awkwardness of looking so obviously lost clinched it- I would ask the pony-tailed librarian brimming with helpful alacrity for assistance. I was of course deeply impressed with his enthusiastic explanation of their filing system- Cutter Seventh Classification.

I rejoiced to know that my feelings had merely been paralysed, and were not utterly dead; that somewhere beneath the smooth surface of my indifference volcanic passion must still be raging. -Transfiguration (189)

Earnestly and nearly embarrassedly fascinated, I listened, raptly, while he extolled the difference. This guy Cutter (an actual librarian at the library in question 1894-1903, Forbes Library) developed a system for organizing books, but somehow , over time Mr Dewey Decimal gained popularity, meanwhile the Library of Congress knew a good thing when they saw it and based their system after Cutter’s, except they, cruelly, added in decimals which is the bane of the Liberian’s assistant (or maybe just mine) shelving existence, although it seemed also to be the reason why this young man was singing the praises of Cutter Seventh Classification to me- why, I think we almost had a connection….

…behind me I heard the laughter of a woman, the bright and somewhat agitated laughter I so dearly love in women-laughter that issues from the burning bush of voluptuousness. – Transfiguration (171)

But no, I had to face the stacks alone, and while I now had an appreciation for the system, I still didn’t quite grasp it, and I so when I saw this plain green book, with the familiar name-I just grabbed it. When I got home I realized it was a series of short stories, most of which I have already read. But, that’s okay there were a few new ones in there.

Touching, too, was the eagerness with which she would scan the shabby books in the hotel library… – The Fowler Snared (270)

I skipped to Moonbeam Alley in which I was able to assemble the most comprehensive list of words to describe a wanton women I’ve ever made (strumpet- love it, harlot- a favorite, vixen, weak-minded wench, slatternly, blowzy…blowzy?) Let me quickly add that Zweig has an innate sympathy for women, despite his creative use of synonyms, the subtle and not so subtle subjugating conditions of the female were repeating themes in his work.

But as I went along, I began to understand something about Zweig and my interest in his writing. Transfiguration is a long one, but it perfectly exemplifies what it is I felt. In all of his stories there is an urgency, a burning desire for something, even if it is simply to tell the tale. The fever of his characters is palatable. His passions awaken the reader, and are well suited to the short story format he favored. Whether resolved tragically or happily (yes there are a few) his heated breathless pace warms the soul by its cautionary or sympathetic call to those that open their hearts to sense and human passion: it’s our very humanity and Zweig’s writing is a spark.

Indeed, I now realize what was still hidden from me when I took up my pen ten minutes ago, that my sole object in writing this account of the incidents is that I may hold them fast, may have them so to speak concretized before me, may enjoy their rehearsal at once emotionally and intellectually. – Transfiguration (159)

It occurred to me, as I’m currently reading Sartre’s Existentialism and Human Emotions (found in my college’s L of C system- they use the DD as well depending on the book), that literature speaks directly to essence, while libraries speak to existence. The conditions are the same for book or person- we are here, and so…what’s the essence of the pages or our hours? That burning ember within us, that the books lack, is the freedom to choose (or not choose) how to live our lives. But the books, the books can give oxygen- their whispers remind, plead, scold or extol. It is their essence that fuels our fire.

But one who understands will not judge, and will have no pride. -Transfiguration (218)

* Kaleidoscope One translated from German by Eden and Cedar Paul, Hallam Edition

What I Remember

It never occurs to anybody that she might have loved someone and the love meant something to her.
Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (95)

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I am a person who laughs a lot: on the brink of despair, over a shared meal, once over an open grave, lollygagging on a patch of grass with my children, writhing in pain that time I fell down the stairs and broke my butt- there’s rarely a reason not to laugh. Milan Kundera’s novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a series of seven stories that explores lives defined by loss. Its tone is melancholy and thoughtful; the searching and mapping of love, laughter and meaning overlapping throughout the stories.

Kundera’s musings on the origin and purpose of laughter is captivating- the devil’s invention and the misinterpretation of the angel’s imitation breaking one concept into two. The Devil’s laughter came first, according to the book, and was born of malice and relief, the angel’s is a reactive laughter of joy.

Whereas the Devil’s laughter pointed up the meaninglessness of things, the angel’s shout rejoiced in how rationally organized, well conceived, beautiful, good, and sensible everything on earth was. (62)

One word and concept to describe two very different ways of absorbing the world in all its complex horror and wonder. I can’t help believing that in navigating life, both are essential, and yet to think of laughter as having two opposing origins is fascinating, not least of all because it reminds us of the limits of our language in expressing the true depth of our real emotional lives.

But the word “border” in the common geographical sense of the term conjured up another border as well, an intangible and immaterial border he had been thinking of more and more lately. (206)

Kundera’s fascination, in this novel, with borders stems specifically from his status as a man with no country, as well as a man who has lost his father. I am mesmerized as well by the concept of borders, the tangible as well as intangible. As a species we spend an inordinate amount of time constructing them, and then an equal amount of time defining religions or philosophies that will aid us in forgetting them. All that demarcates and describes us comes down to a border. Whether it be nation, country, patrimony, love or hate. Where do I begin and end? Where do we overlap?

We are all prisoners of a rigid conception of what is important and what is not. (197)

Because we do overlap. In every way, messy and neat, we are joined together and it is the “rigid conceptions,” the intangibles that manifest into tangibles that really hurt us. There are no borders that can’t be laughed away. Even if laughter is a means of forgetting, it also brings us to a relief of exultation, the border between the two opposing concepts is just as porous as all the rest.

What’s beautiful about forgetting is that it softens the rigidity. Laughter’s beauty is our remembrance of our absurdity as well as our joy.

Circling Fly

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Ode To The Book

When I close a book
I open life.
I hear
faltering cries
among harbors.
Copper ingots
slide down sand-pits
to Tocopilla.
Night time.
Among the islands
our ocean
throbs with fish,
touches the feet, the thighs,
the chalk ribs
of my country.
The whole of night
clings to its shores, by dawn
it wakes up singing
as if it had excited a guitar.

The ocean’s surge is calling.
The wind
calls me
and Rodriguez calls,
and Jose Antonio–
I got a telegram
from the “Mine” Union
and the one I love
(whose name I won’t let out)
expects me in Bucalemu.

No book has been able
to wrap me in paper,
to fill me up
with typography,
with heavenly imprints
or was ever able
to bind my eyes,
I come out of books to people orchards
with the hoarse family of my song,
to work the burning metals
or to eat smoked beef
by mountain firesides.
I love adventurous
books,
books of forest or snow,
depth or sky
but hate
the spider book
in which thought
has laid poisonous wires
to trap the juvenile
and circling fly.
Book, let me go.
I won’t go clothed
in volumes,
I don’t come out
of collected works,
my poems
have not eaten poems–
they devour
exciting happenings,
feed on rough weather,
and dig their food
out of earth and men.
I’m on my way
with dust in my shoes
free of mythology:
send books back to their shelves,
I’m going down into the streets.
I learned about life
from life itself,
love I learned in a single kiss
and could teach no one anything
except that I have lived
with something in common among men,
when fighting with them,
when saying all their say in my song.

– Pablo Neruda