Thursday, May 18, 2017

It was beyond explanation - late late James bends time

A bit more late late James before my long long vacation, if that is what it is.  I’ll be back in June.  Let me know what you want me to bring you back from Lyon.

I have been enjoying the way the fiction writers of the first decades of the 20th century have freed themselves from the constraints of time.  Henry James is out there with the experimenters, responding not, as far as I can tell, to anything but his own concept of what his stories are trying to do.

“The Bench of Desolation” (1909) appears to be, and for about ten pages is, about a man being sued for breach of promise.  He has moved on to another girlfriend; he has nothing but his used bookshop but would rather just pay something and get it over with.  Social change and so on, that could be a story.

But the third chapter, just a few pages in, frantically accelerates into a chronicle of high-speed misery.  Herbert loses his business.  He marries, in the face of his poverty, the woman he loves, resulting in “the most dismal years, the three of the loss of their two children, the long stretch of sordid embarrassment ending in her death.”  In six pages “a dozen dismal years having worn themselves away, he sat single and scraped bare again, as if his long wave of misfortune had washed him far beyond everything and then conspicuously retreated.”  This metaphor is not as mysterious as the one’s I wondered about yesterday.  At least Herbert, when sitting on that bench, “stared at the grey-green sea.”

Then, in a jolt, comes the scene I mentioned yesterday, where it takes Herbert three pages to walk fifty yards and start up another story, a sequel to the story of the first two chapters.  The elasticity of time in the story is – well, it is common stuff now, but I was fascinated to see it come out of the egg.  The break James throws into the middle of this piece is bold.

His last story is more of a schematic thing, but it has a break right in the middle, too, in the fourth chapter of seven.  Mark Monteith has returned to New York City from Europe because his financial advisor has stolen some of his money.  The first three chapters each have a separate visit (I have to abuse the term a bit to make chapter I fit – Mark’s doctor visits him) which point him to the single, consequential, even melodramatic single visit of the last three chapters.  But the middle is just two pages of Mark walking around New York, thinking.

I would wonder if James were moving towards abstraction, to some kind of fiction of pure thought, but “A Round of Visits” also features a pistol, policemen, and some pretty wild plotty business by the end.  Check out this crazy Jamesian sentence:

It was beyond explanation, but the very act of blinking thus in an attempt at showy steadiness became one and the same thing with an optical excursion lasting the millionth of a minute and making him aware that the edge of a rug, at the point where an armchair, pushed a little out of position, over-straddled it, happened just not wholly to have covered in something small and queer, neat and bright, crooked and compact, in spite of the strong toe-tip surreptitiously applied to giving it the right lift.

The “small and queer” thing is the pistol, which Mark has glimpsed and his friend is trying to conceal.  Raymond Chandler would have described this moment a little differently.

James is nearing the end of a fifty year career, and he is still pushing, changing, figuring out how to turn his sensibilities into prose.  It is a heck of a thing to see.

I believe they have internet in France, so please comment, or not, as usual, and I will eventually respond.  “Great comment!” etc.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

vague with a perverse intensity suggesting design - the late late style of Henry James

I’ve been reading some of the last stories of Henry James – “Julia Bride” (1908), “Crapy Cornelia” (1909), “The Bench of Desolation” (1909) and “A Round of Visits” (1910) – all very much in his late style, his late late style, even.  The single tic of James that drives me the furthest up the wall is his fussy, ludicrous stage-directing of dialogue.  From a couple of pages of “Julia Bride”:

… he almost fluted.

He ever so comically attenuated.

… he humorously wailed…

That kind of thing.  Real Jamesians must develop a taste for it?  Or an immunity?  To the extent that I understand it as comedy, I enjoy it myself, in smallish doses, and my point is that a few passages aside, late late James has lost interest in dialogue.

He will instead spend three pages moving a character fifty yards.  He is approaching a bench (“The Bench of Desolation”), he sees a lady on the bench, he recognizes her, and then not a hint of exterior movement for several pages as the character thinks.

The lady indeed thus thrust upon Herbert’s vision might have struck an observer either as not quite vague or as vague with a perverse intensity suggesting design.  (Ch. 4)

The constant slippage from the character’s thought is part of why a short walk takes so long.  I need to know not just what Herbert sees in some detail, but what other, theoretical, people might see, and also what Herbert does not see.  The second observer, by the way, is correct – there is design, and it is perverse in more ways than one.

The stories are generally on the perverse side.  In “Bench,” the vague lady has sued Herbert for breach of promise and drained money from him, ruining his life and that of his (eventual, short-lived) wife and children.  She is now returning the money with interest, which was her plan all along, because although she truly loved him she knew he would never make anything of the money himself.  Which is certainly true, since at the beginning of the story Herbert operates a used book store.  Still, it is hard to recognize the vague lady as quite human.

“Julia Bride” is desperate to convince an ex-boyfriend, and perhaps also a former stepfather, the fluty fellow up above, to persuade her current boyfriend that her six previous engagements did not really mean anything.  A real social issue, the rise of divorce and other changes in permissiveness, are swamped in this story less by the oddness of the characters than by the remarkable variety of metaphorical language applied to Julia’s every move and thought.  She has just learned that the ex-boyfriend is marrying.  It is like a deluge, and she

was positively to find on the bosom of her flood a plank under aid of which she kept in a manner and for the time afloat.  She took ten minutes to pant, to blow gently, to paddle disguisedly, to accommodate herself, in a word, to the elements she had let loose…

All of that activity is presumably describing conversation, which is what I meant to say James has lost interest in dialogue.  He is at this point much more likely to describe a conversation.  By the end of this long paragraph, Julia is (metaphorically) climbing a pedestal.  At the beginning of the next:

… her consciousness had become, by an extraordinary turn, a music-box in which, its lid well down, the most remarkable tunes were sounding.  It played for her ear alone, and the lid, as she might have figured, was her firm plan of holding out till she got home, of not betraying – to her companion at least – the extent to which she was demoralised.

I thought about writing a post that just listed the metaphors in order.  The story is packed with them, built out of them.  Maybe that would give me a clue about how James moves from the flood to the music box and its lid.  I was baffled, often impressed by the originality of James’s invention but with no understanding of where any of it came from, what the language had to do with this character.

Presumably as and if I re-read, the design will become less vague and perverse.  The first time through any complex text, this sort of thing is so hard to see, yet here I go after it, again and again.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

"Who the devil was he? - Conrad tells his story

The most remarkable single chapter of Nostromo is Part III, Chapter 10, about five-sixths of the way in, which in a properly structured novel would be where the action ramps up and races to a thrilling conclusion.  That is exactly what Joseph Conrad does, but in his own perverse way.

At this point, the great action scene in the novel has involved three men on a boat in the dark, keep perfectly still, perfectly quiet, while trying to make out the actions of another boat that is perfectly still and quiet.  The scene is tense and terrifying, but also so static that it is amusing, in retrospect, to think of how exciting it was.  Well, now there ought to be some more action.  There has been a revolution in Sulaco, and the title character, thought to be killed, but no!, has been sent off to the rescue.

In this chapter, the fussy Captain Mitchell takes a guest on a tour of the city.  Conrad has flung the chapter into the future – how far is not clear – so that the Captain is telling his guest about the story that I thought I was going to read in a more direct fashion.  Conrad is deliberately telling, not showing, and the teller only has the most general comprehension of the events he is relating.  Even though it would seem that the Captain knows more than I do, having the privilege of living in the future, he understands less, so that as the blowhard fills me in, the gap between what I know and what he knows expands.  Irony, is what I mean.

Much of Conrad’s previous fiction was narrated by a master ironist, his stand-in Marlow, a story-teller so skilled that his dexterity raised suspicions.  What is Marlow not telling me?  He always seems to know more than I do.  Captain Mitchell is a parody, a pedant and a fool.  He tells too much, and not enough.  As he tells the story – how the hero Nostromo made his way to the allied army, how the revolution was suppressed, and so on – Conrad slips more and more over to the poor sap stuck on the tour along with me:

‘Abominable Pedrito!  Who the devil was he?’ would wonder the distinguished bird of passage hovering on the confines of waking and sleep with resolutely open eyes and a faint but amiable curl upon his lips, from between which stuck out the eighteenth or twentieth cigar of that memorable day.  (III.10)

What a strange sentence.  Pure Conrad.  The “distinguished bird of passage” is the visitor, bored out of his mind, stupefied by tobacco; the abominable Pedrito is a major figure in the revolution but a minor character in the novel, meaning that the distinguished bird is a deliberate substitute for the poor reader who just wants to know if Nostromo made his way back and if the silver mine was dynamited or not and whatever happened to that poor French fop Martin Decoud after the accident with the boat.  No, first, I get Pedrito.  Nothing wrong with asking who the devil he was.

Since Conrad’s narrator is genuinely omnipotent, and is more interested in irony than suspense, before the chapter ends I do get answers to all of my questions, including plenty of detail that no one alive would know, things even Marlow could not tell me.  Conrad never cheats.

I have read a number of other novels like Nostromo, but they were all written later, by people who had read it.

Monday, May 15, 2017

his profound knowledge of men and things - notes on Nostromo

What a relief – I have been reading Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo (1904) – that some novelist finally figured out that 1) stories do not have to be told like a medieval chronicle – “and then, and then” – and 2) that entire scenes – important­ scenes – can simply be skipped.  And there the story is, as intact, as told, as ever.

Henry James had figured this out around the same time as Conrad, as I saw in The Wings of the Dove.  I know, we can think of plenty – well, some – earlier examples. There’s that sequence in Ivanhoe (1820) of parallel chapters, right?  At the siege?  You know.

Nostromo is a bit of a thriller, even a bit of a heist story, so the time jumps could be used for suspense, but are instead generally used for irony.  Conrad moves me forward in one strand of the story so that when he goes back to pick up another strand, I know more than the characters.  This is a form of suspense, I suppose, but the question is what events will erupt when the characters learn what I know.  I bet they’ll be surprised!

The first chapter is hardly something that belongs in a novel at all.  It is more of a geography, but of a fictional town in a fictional country, Costaguana, that has some resemblance to Colombia.  Much of the chapter is about the exact arrangement of the islands in the harbor, some of which can be immediately forgotten, some of which is crucial to understanding the story.  A little inset tale about the ghosts of doomed treasure-hunters foreshadows the plot, but otherwise there are barely people in this chapter.

The second introduces some people, including Captain Mitchell, “’Fussy Joe’ for the commanders of the Company’s Ships, Captain Joseph Mitchell prided himself on his profound knowledge of men and things in the country – cosas de Costaguana” (I.2).

All of the Conrad I have read, aside from The Secret Agent (1907) and “The Secret Sharer” (1908) has been from the fertile period of 1897 to 1902, the time of the southeast Asian seas or his stand-in narrator Marlow or both, in Lord Jim (1900), say.  My understanding is that Conrad had something of an artistic crisis that moved him elsewhere, to the London anarchists of The Secret Agent and here, earlier, to the remote Pacific province of a South American country that he had visited once, twenty-five years earlier, and that he mostly patched together from a couple of books.  He fooled me, at least.  I was convinced.  Some of the extraneous history Conrad includes made me think that that Nostromo was a precursor of The Lord of the Rings.  World-building is what I believe people call this.

The other break is the Captain Mitchell character, an anti-Marlow.  In a novel by an ironist, we can guess that anyone who prides himself on his profound knowledge is actually a fool, which makes Captain Mitchell a great recurring narrative device: when Conrad needs someone who does not really understand what is going on, here he is.  Irony ensues.

Patrick Kurp writes that he is currently reading Nostromo for “moral education.”  I wonder what he is learning.  I will likely write one more repetitive post about how events are not quite in order.  That’s what I learned.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

All with a sense of the ridiculous, keen yet charitable - Thomas Hardy's Human Shows

Thomas Hardy’s Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles (1925) is the second of the three books Hardy wrote and assembled in his eighties.  It is almost exactly like the first one, Late Lyrics and Earlier, with Many Other Verses (1922).  There are a few poems, polished up, I assume, originating in the 1860s, a few from later in the 19th century, a few about Hardy’s first wife, a few about the war.  Mostly, though, the poems were written since the last book.  (These last two sentences describe both collections, and I bet will work for Hardy’s last book, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (1928) as well.

The verse is all formal, and in a variety of forms, with lots of surprising line breaks and line lengths, lots for the eye and ear to do.  The subjects are failed love affairs, graces, and music.  Some Wessex, some London.  Two poems are narrated by dogs, which I believe is a new touch:

‘Why She Moved House’

          (The Dog Muses)

Why she moved house, without a word,
    I cannot understand;
She’d mirrors, flowers, she’d book and bird,
    And callers in a band.

And where she is she gets no sun,
    No flowers, no book, no glass;
Of callers I am the only one,
    And I but pause and pass.

In his “Introductory Note” to his next book, Hardy complains about critics missing the “flippant, not to say farcical pieces in this collection [meaning Human Shows],” although he will not say they had “wilfully misrepresented the book… knowing well that they could not have read it,” which seems like a wise guess about a lot of criticism.

Anyway, there is a lot of humor in Human Shows, of the human folly type:

All with a sense of the ridiculous, keen yet charitable;
In brief, a rich, profuse attractiveness unnarratable.

This is from “A Watering-place Lady Inventoried,” which as the title suggests is satirical, although of whom, I wonder, given these lines:

Till a cynic would find her amiability provoking,
Tempting him to indulge in mean and wicked joking.

A six-poem sequence of winter poems was a highlight for me, winters from the 1920s, winters from the past:

    The steps are a blanched slope,
    Up which, with feeble hope,
A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin;
        And we take him in.  (from “Snow in the Suburbs”)

Come to think of it, there is more love of animals in this collection than usual, including a poem written to support the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  Here’s more snow:

The snow-feathers so gently swoop that though
            But half an hour ago
The road was brown, and now is starkly white,
A watcher would have failed defining quite
            When it was transformed so.  (from “A Light Snow-fall after Frost”)

And how about one that ends, to remind me that this is Hardy, with a long-ago death:

While she who grieved
At the sad lot
Of her pretty plants –
Cold, iced, forgot –
Herself is colder,
And knows it not.  (from “The Frozen Greenhouse”)

If I were assembling a long selection of Hardy’s poems, I would include lots from Human Shows; if a short selection, possibly none, since I would have already picked plenty of similar poems from earlier books.  Here, said Hardy, have more, which from a man his age was a gift.

Friday, May 12, 2017

“It’s so sad! The cranes have flown away!” - Bunin turns memory into prose

The Ivan Bunin that Graham Hettlinger translates in Collected Stories is a nostalgist.  His longing for a vanished Russian was reinforced but not caused by the Russian Revolution and Bunin’s emigration.  He had lost his Russia a long time ago.

The first story in the book, “The Scent of Apples” (1900) is openly nostalgic.  “The early days of a lovely autumn come back to me.”  This is barely a story, but more a series of childhood experiences, of sensory impressions.

You dress slowly, winder in the garden, find a cold, wet apple that’s been forgotten among the leaves.  For some reason it’s remarkably delicious; it seems unlike any other apple.  (13)

I remind myself that “The Scent of Apples” is the single representative in the collection of the first twenty years of Bunin’s writing, and may be a freak.  But it sure sounds like the later writer, and it feels like a poet’s prose.

And so I see myself once more in the country.  Deep fall.  Cloudy, dove-grey days.  (15)

The sky, in Bunin, is perpetually dove-grey, at least in the north.  Look at the language in “Caucasus” (1937), about adulterous lovers who sneak away to the south for an idyll (this is an unusual Bunin story in that catastrophe strikes not the lovers but the husband):

The plain went on and on in all its emptiness: burial mounds and native graves under the dry, killing sun; the sky itself like a cloud of dust, the rising ghosts of mountains…

Fireflies drifted like topaz in the murky dark; the songs of tree toads rang like small glass bells…

How wonderfully the falling water flashed, scattering itself like glass among the stones at that secret hour when the late moon comes from behind the mountains and the woods like a divinity, and looks down watchfully.  (284)

This is the lushness of the sexual idyll, contrasted with the plain despair of the husband: “Then he went back to his room, lay down on the couch, put a pistol to each of his temples, and fired.”

The language is not always so poetical.  Bunin has other modes of intensification, always grounded in material things, though.  “He ate half-sour pickles with dill and downed four shots of vodka, thinking he’d willingly die tomorrow if some miracle would let him bring her back, let him spend one more day with her just so he could tell her everything” (“Sunstroke,” 193).  Suffering, with pickles.  This is another story where a love affair, the sexual act, makes the entire world more sensorially interesting to the character.  He now perceives what he had not, not just in himself but all around him.  “How terrible and savage everything mundane and ordinary becomes when the heart’s been destroyed – yes, he understood that now – destroyed by sunstroke, destroyed by too much happiness and love” (194).  All of the description enacts the word “everything” in prose.

A number of pieces are less than a page, sketches or anecdotes, a brief setup leading to a kind of punch line, for example:

“Sir,” he shouts into the dirt.  “Sir, the cranes!”  He waves his arms in despair.  “It’s so sad!  The cranes have flown away!”  And shaking his head, he chokes on drunken tears.  (“Cranes,” 1930, 110)

And for a moment, it is sad, ridiculous, but sad.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Ivan Bunin stops time - But already it was passing, the fall of 1916

Ivan Bunin was a prolific short story writer for most of his life.  Early on he was best known as a poet.  He wrote novels, a book about Chekhov, a book about Tolstoy – he wrote a lot.  And here I have Graham Hettlinger’s Collected Stories (2007), 360 pages of short fiction, from which I will generalize.  What errors I will make!

In my defense, a century of English translations of Bunin keep returning to the same stories, and Hettlinger presumably selected this set for a reason.  Hettlinger skips Bunin’s first decade, and then after “The Scent of Apples” skips the next decade.  About a third of the book is from the 1946 collection Dark Avenues.  Most of the rest is from the 1920s.

Here is what I see:

1. Bunin writes in the tradition of Turgenev and Chekhov.  He is if anything at times too derivative of Chekhov, although his style is less plain.  His stories are mostly set in a Russia – “The Gentleman from San Francisco” is an aberration – that is instantly recognizable as that of Turgenev etc., just updated a bit.  Country estates, students home from Moscow or St. Petersburg.

And love affairs, first loves – as per the 1860 Turgenev novella, First Love – first sex, often followed by catastrophe.  If first sexual encounters led to suicide as often as they do in Bunin, there would be many fewer people on Earth.

I don’t want to count, but I will bet that a majority of the stories in this book are variations on this theme.  The novella “Mitya’s Love” (1924), then “Sunstroke” (1925), this time a one night stand between a soldier and a married woman, then “The Elagin Affair” (1925), with a soldier and a femme fatale actress – Bunin’s writes the story over and over.  He is in his seventies, barely scraping by in Nazi-occupied France, and he writes the story over and over.

2.  I said he updates Chekhov’s Russia “a bit,” and I mean it seriously.  Bunin left Russia for France in 1920 and never returned.  I assumed that many of the stories written after that date would be set in the world of the Russian émigrés in Paris, much as Vladimir Nabokov’s stories are set in Russian Berlin, the world in which he lived.  Oh no.  A single story, “In Paris” (1940), is about Russians in exile, a general and a waitress at a Russian restaurant.  It’s a lovely, sad story, about a kind of first love.

Every other story is set in Russia before the Revolution, and generally before the war.  It was surprising to see Bunin end the half-page sketch “The Eve” (1930), about the passengers on a train, end with “But already it was passing, the fall of 1916.”  It was almost shocking when “Tanya” (1940), another heart-breaking version of “first love” ends:

That was in February, in the terrible year of 1917.  He was in the countryside for the last time in his life.

At least the reason this particular mismatched couple cannot stay together is not their fault.

In the stories written in the 1920s, this did not stand out so much, but as the chronology pushed along, as Bunin wrote surrounded by a second war, it began to seem pretty strange.  “Cleansing Monday” (1944) is, aside from the “first love / single sexual encounter leads to etc.” story, a marvelous portrait of Moscow, with the young couple enjoying everything: “boxes of chocolates, new books by Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, Tetmajer, and Przybyszewski,” a lecture by Andrey Bely “which he delivered in song as he ran and danced around the stage,” a performance by Stanislavski, and a range of restaurants.  Those blini!  They visit the grave of Chekhov; they read medieval Russian chronicles.  And they visit churches.  There is more religious language and imagery in this story than usual.  It ends in a church.

May 12, 1944, is the date attached to this story.  It may well be some kind of patriotic response to the war, but the Moscow Bunin describes is long gone, destroyed by the Soviets, not the Nazis.

This frozen quality of Bunin, the obsession with late adolescence circa 1910, began to overwhelm whatever else was in the stories.

But maybe this is an effect created by the translator.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Quietude and calm settled on the island - Ivan Bunin's "Death on Capri"

“The Gentleman from San Francisco” (1915) is Ivan Bunin’s most famous story at this point, I think, although I do not remember ever seeing it anthologized anywhere.  The title character, never named “– no one really learned his name in Naples or Capri –” is taking his wife and adult daughter on a long tour of Europe.  Grown rich on the back of Chinese labor, “he decided it was time to rest.”

The first seven pages of the nineteen page story are set on the ocean liner and in Naples.  It takes another six pages to move the characters from Naples to Capri, and to get them settled in at their hotel.  The tone throughout is lightly ironic, mildly satirical, and observant:

During one of the stops he rose up on the couch, and saw a wretched mass of little stone houses with mildewed walls stacked on top of one another at the water’s edge below a rocky slope, saw boats and piles of rags, tin cans, brown nets – and fell into despair, remembering that this was the authentic Italy to which he’d come in order to enjoy himself.

In the gentleman’s defense, the sea between Naples and Capri is rough and he is seasick.  Even Italy loses its savor when seasick.  They land: “The earth smells sweet in Italy after rain, and the scent of every island is distinct.”  That’s more like it.

Let me add up those pages.  Bunin has six pages to go.  What is this story going to be about?  Will the gentleman learn a lesson about what it means to live, toe really live (“He hadn’t lived before – he had only existed”)?  Will he have an epiphany of some kind?

Not exactly.  Reading the newspaper before dinner (“a few sentences about the endless Balkan War”) he instead has a stroke, and dies.  Most of the remaining pages are about what happens in a nice Italian hotel when a guest dies.  The family members appear, but as problems to be managed.  Soon enough, they are all, alive or dead, back on the ocean liner, bound for home.  “Quietude and calm settled on the island in its wake.”  Then comes a paragraph as startling as any in the story:

Two thousand years ago that island was inhabited by a man who somehow held power over millions of people.  He gratified his lust in ways that are repugnant beyond words, and carried out immeasurable atrocities against his subjects.

Why the change of scale?  Why has Emperor Tiberius appeared in the story?  Because tourist to Capri visit “the ruins of his stone house on one of the island’s highest peaks.”  The trip is arduous enough to require a good night’s sleep, and now that “the dead old man from San Francisco – who’d planned to make the trip with all the others, but wound up only frightening them with an unpleasant reminded about mortality – had now been sent away to Naples, the guests slept very soundly.”

The long last paragraph is like something out of Kipling, with a lot of detail – well, not a Kipling level of detail – about the ocean liner’s engines and driveshafts, and about the dancing in the ballroom, where no one thinks or knows about “what lay deep, deep below them, in the blackness of the hold.”

The only hint that the story is written by a Russian is the appearance on Capri of “a few disheveled, bearded Russian who had settled on the island, all of them wearing glasses and looking absent-minded, the collars raised on their threadbare coats.”  One of these Capri Russians is presumably the author.  I mean of course the only hint in the English version, translated by Graham Hettlinger.

Monday, May 8, 2017

My only care my language on Homer’s shores - Odysseus Elytis finds his subject - He was a brave young man

After reading a book of the poems of Angelos Sikelianos, I pushed on into modern Greek poetry a bit with the 1981 Selected Poems of Odysseus Elytis, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard in response to Elytis’s 1979 Nobel prize.

By chance, Keeley has a poem in the current Hudson Review (Spring 2017), titled “The Village Called Kolonaki,” which contrasts the Athens he clearly loves, a touristy place where a waiter recites the specials “in a modern epic mode,” with images of

the dark sides of disaster
of migrants crawling through holes
in barbed-wire fences
or falling off flimsy rafts
to drown in the once-blue Aegean.  (pp. 38-40)

His image of Greece is built of “certain charming clichés” which can be hard to surrender.

Odysseus Elytis was a descendant of Sikelianos, another poet who wrote against classical Greek reason.  He found his way through French surrealism, which he pulled into Greek.  The results, in his first books from 1940 and 1943, at least as seen in this selection, often look like clichés rearranged.  Take some images, some strong, some the usual stuff, shake them up, and sprinkle some Greek content – Santorini, Helen, the Aegean.  Maybe the English makes it too flat, I don’t know.

Then Elytis wrote the “Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign” (1945).  My prejudice, confirmed here, is that surrealism is a great training ground for young writers with no subject.  His war experiences, fighting the Germans, gave him a subject.  Elytis was also a second lieutenant, for what that is worth, and was likely lost in his own way, but not, like the hero of the poem, killed and left on an Albanian mountainside.

The mountains of Albania thundered
Then they melted snow to wash
His body, dawn’s silent shipwreck
And his hands, open space of solitude
The mountains of Albania thundered
They did not weep
Why should they weep?
He was a brave young man.  (stanza VI)

The poem is like Pindaric ode to a fallen soldier rather than a victorious athlete.  Much of the poem describes the lieutenant’s apotheosis, his ascent to some kind of heaven.  He is Hercules; he is Orpheus.

Hermaphroditic flowers salute him secretly
And with soft voices that fade into the air they speak to him
Love-sick trees bend towards him
With nests sunk in their armpits
And their branches dipped in the sun’s oil
Miracle – what a miracle – down on earth
White tribes with blue ploughshares engrave the fields
Peaks shine in the background
And, deeper still, the inaccessible dreams of spring mountains.  (XII)

The imagery is a mix of the pagan and Christian.  The last words of the poem are “Easter of God.”

In his next book, The Axion Esti (1959), Elytis plunges deeply into the language of the Greek Orthodox church.  The long poem is a liturgy mixed with prose passages that are autobiographical, from Elytis’s war – “First Reading: The March toward the Front” – and more traditional poems, or elements of the service turned into different kinds of poems:

from “The Passion”

     Greek the language they gave me;
poor the house on Homer’s shores.
    My only care my language on Homer’s shores.

The language transforms, though, and by the end of this passage, though, his only care is “my language with the first words of the Hymn!”

Keeley and Sherrard only sample The Axion Esti.  I would like to read the whole thing someday.

The poems from the 1970s, well, Elytis is back to poems I do not understand.  That middle period, though!

The supersubtleties and arch-refinements of The Wings of the Dove - parts doubtless magnified and parts certainly vague

In his 1909 Preface to Wings of the Dove, Henry James writes:

But my use of windows and balconies is doubtless at best an extravagance by itself, and as to what there may be to note, of this and that supersubtleties, other arch-refinements, of tact and taste, of design and instinct, in “The Wings of the Dove,” I become conscious of overstepping my space without having brought the full quantity to light.

So, first, there is apparently a “windows and balconies” theme that I completely missed, and that even now, looking for balconies in an electronic text, I do not understand at all, and second, “supersubtleties” and “arch-refinements”!  Is Henry James, in the end, just an elaborate parody of Henry James?  Is that not the fate we all will suffer?

I would not have minded if James had worked his way through the balcony thing for me, at least.

There is a point where Milly Theale is new to London high society and does not really understand it, even though she is told she has conquered it: “the girl read into it [her being told etc.] more of an approach to a meaning” (5.4).  How I identified with Milly at that moment.

Just as an example, in 5.3 Milly is at the doctor’s office, she and James both carefully avoiding any discussion of anything related to the practice of medicine.  Diagnosed with an unspecified mortal illness, she instead fears the pity of the doctor (of everyone):

… and when pity held up its tell-tale face like a head on a pike, in a French revolution, bobbing before a window, what was the inference but that the patient was bad?  He might say what he would now – she would always have seen the head at the window; and in fact from this moment she only wanted him to say what he would.

Again, the immediate subject is Milly’s imminent death, but the graphic intrusion of a victim of the guillotine is a shock.  Where did that come from?  The antecedent of the image appears again at the end of the novel, as Martin Densher worries about the dying Milly:

Milly had held with passion to her dream of a future, and she was separated from it, not shrieking indeed, but grimly, awfully silent, as one might imagine some noble young victim of the scaffold, in the French Revolution, separated at the prison-door from some object clutched for resistance.  (10.1)

What Milly thinks has been a complete mystery for almost a hundred pages at this point.  The correspondence of imagery is due to coincidence, or telepathy, or some discussion Martin and Milly had that James does not report, plus, obviously, the conscious art of Henry James.  Otherwise, Densher’s specificity about the French Revolution is entirely arbitrary.  I still don’t understand the supersubtlety of this one, what line is created by the two points, but there it is.

Rather easier to grasp is the language surrounding Aunt Maud’s furniture.  She had already been described by Kate Croy, Densher’s girlfriend, as “prodigious,” looming – “in the thick foglike air of her arranged existence, there were parts doubtless magnified and parts certainly vague” (1.2).  This is exactly what Densher finds when he meets Aunt Maud, who is the great obstacle to his marriage with Kate and something of a villain in the novel.  He (Densher, and also James) spends a page describing her furniture:

It was the language of the house itself that spoke to him, writing out for him [Densher thinks in terms of texts], with surpassing breadth and freedom, the associations and conceptions, the ideals and possibilities of the mistress.  Never, he flattered himself, had he seen anything so gregariously ugly – operatively, ominously so cruel.  (2.2)

He calls the pieces of furniture “heavy horrors” and lists their materials without naming a single piece:

They constituted an order and they abounded in rare material – precious woods, metals, stuffs, stones. He had never dreamed of anything so fringed and scalloped, so buttoned and corded, drawn everywhere so tight, and curled everywhere so thick.  He had never dreamed of so much gilt and glass, so much satin and plush, so much rosewood and marble and malachite. But it was, above all, the solid forms, the wasted finish, the misguided cost, the general attestation of morality and money, a good conscience and a big balance.  These things finally represented for him a portentous negation of his own world of thought…

This passage is one of the comic high points of the novel.  It is both packed with detail and yet describes nothing specific.  It ends in another of the novel’s abysses.

There is just no way to sort through all this on one reading.  I’ll repeat this exercise in incomprehension later this summer, with The Golden Bowl.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Imagery in The Wings of the Dove, ethical and aesthetic - vague faint snatches, mere ghosts of sound, of old-fashioned melancholy music

When Mrs. Stringham sees Milly Theale on the edge of an abyss, she imagines that Milly is contemplating suicide, but she also imagines that Milly “was looking down on the kingdoms of the earth, and though indeed that of itself might well go to the brain, it wouldn’t be with a view of renouncing them” (3.1).  There are other possibilities, I know, but given the location Mrs. Stringham is thinking Matthew 4:8, which makes Milly, a wealthy twenty-two-year-old American woman into a Christ figure.  Whatever kind of Satan is tempting her is not visible to her friend.

Milly is surrounded by figurative language of the abyss, but also with Biblical language.  She is the dove of the title.  She has “lien among the pots” yet shall be “as the wings of a dove covered with silver,” assuming that Psalm 68:13 is the correct reference.  So then she should be the wings, but characters repeatedly refer to Milly as the dove, not the wings, as one would.

Milly’s actions towards the end of the novel, one or more of which might be considered a sacrifice, either redeem one or both of the couple that was trying to grift her, or destroys them, as a couple, or perhaps individually.  Or maybe one thief is saved and the other damned.  I do not know how to reconcile the contradictions of the two sets of endings, or the multiple possibilities of the ending.  Nor did James, I suppose, which is why he wrote the novel.

Another set of images attached to Milly aestheticize her.  She is frequently like someone in a painting, sometimes religious, but in a key scene, not.  “She was the image of the wonderful Bronzino, which she must have a look at on every ground.”  And she is, in fact Milly looks exactly like the woman in this portrait, because it is on the cover of the edition of the novel I read, and I am told the resemblance is uncanny, and there we are.

The lady in question, at all events, with her slightly Michael-angel-esque squareness, her eyes of other days, her full lips, her long neck, her recorded [?] jewels, her brocaded and wasted [?] reds, was a very great personage – only unaccompanied by a joy.  And she was dead, dead, dead.  Milly recognised her exactly in words that had nothing to do with her.  “I shall never be better than this.”  (5.2)

The way that the mortally ill Milly’s recognition is not of herself but of death – or that she only recognizes herself through death – is a great moment, one of the surprising yet exactly right psychological insights that suit fiction so well.  But I picked the quotation because it begins the strange process by which everyone else aestheticizes Milly, one more for example of the novel’s distances, while she transforms aesthetics into ethics.  She uses here wealth to become the Renaissance noblewoman in the painting, moving to a Venetian palace and so on.  But she does it as a way to live.

As with many ideas in James, where this falls between utterly bizarre and ingeniously insightful is unknown to me.

Maybe the answer is in the great scene at the National Gallery (5.7), where Milly wonders if she could “’lose myself’” among the paintings, where “[i]t was immense, outside, the personal question.”  She wants more aesthetic distance.

I could pursue a related set of images that are associated with Martin Densher, a journalist, engaged to Kate Croy but in pursuit of Milly, who compares people to texts.  His girlfriend, for example:

“You’re a whole library of the unknown, the uncut.”  He almost moaned, he ached from the depth of his content.  “Upon my word I’ve a subscription!”  (6.6)

Hilarious.  Or how about 8.1, where Densher thinks that he does not want to “read[] the romance of his existence in a cheap edition.”  Getting dangerously meta-fictional there, Henry.

Milly is not text to him, though, but music: “her whole attitude had, to his imagination, meanings that hung about it, waiting upon her, hovering, dropping and quavering forth again, like vague faint snatches, mere ghosts of sound, of old-fashioned melancholy music” (8.1).

I do not yet understand Henry James’s use of imagery, but at least I have learned to look for it.

Friday, May 5, 2017

more to the proof than tenderness and vagueness could permit - some of the abysses of The Wings of the Dove

The Wings of the Dove is built out of distances and gaps.  James approaches the central characters, the central story, from a distance, and then backs away from it just as he appears about to show it clearly.  The first chapter is a confrontation between the beautiful, troubled Kate Croy and her worthless father – he gambles, maybe, or drinks, or smuggles cigarettes, or fixes boxing matches; James never specifies – is given plenty if life but then never appears again.  He is barely mentioned again until the end of the book, and never appears because, apparently, he likes to sleep late.  He is memorable, is what I am trying to say, and gets a lot of artistic attention from Henry James, and is then tossed aside.  That is not the story.  It looks like it might be, but it is not.

Milly Theale, the young, rich, orphaned American with tuberculosis or cancer or circulatory collapse, or whatever she has – James never specifies – appears at the 20% mark, accompanied by Mrs. Stringham, and more to my point viewed by Mrs. Stringham.  The companion is a lady writer from Boston who is absolutely incapable of conveying even the simplest information directly.  The first view she gives me of Milly is of her taking in a Swiss “view of great extent and beauty, but thrown forward and vertiginous,” seated on “a short promontory or excrescence that merely pointed off to the right at gulfs of air” (3.1).  It is the first of the many “abysses” confronted by Milly, a motif that is built into a structural principle.

Milly takes over the novel for a while, and I found her personal story of high interest.  She confronts death more directly than I remember from much other James fiction.  She is a version of Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors, wondering how she can really live, insisting that she can, in the face of what is likely a short life.  At the edge of this first abyss, Mrs. Stringham wonders if Milly is contemplating suicide, but thinks instead “[i]t was a question of taking full in the face the whole assault of life.”

Why wonder, why speculate?  Much of the novel is from Milly’s point of view, including much pure thought.  And then she is, essentially, a ghost, a hovering presence over the other characters.  She becomes, in her absence, the subject of the last part of the novel.  James creeps up on her introduction and then slips away from her exit, going so far as to create plotty obstacles – messages thrown into fires and so on – to ensure that Milly’s point of view about the later events of the novel cannot be known.

I mean, they could be known.  Who is in charge here?

Milly's assumption was immense, and the difficulty for her friend [Mrs. Stringham] was that of not being able to gainsay it without bringing it more to the proof than tenderness and vagueness could permit. (7.1)

The reference is to Milly’s illness.  Mrs. Stringham appears to have the moral high ground here.  “Tenderness and vagueness” are moral principles in The Wings of the Dove.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

he turned off his vagueness - which sounded indeed vaguer still - the hybrid Wings of the Dove

The piece about The Ambassadors in The Cambridge Companion to Henry James (1998) was all about sex.  The chapter on The Wings of the Dove by William Stowe is title “James’s Elusive Wings” is all about how the book is hard to understand – how the sentences are hard to understand.  What I wrote about yesterday, in other words.  Stowe begins with the same William James and Willian Dean Howells quotes!

Stowe has the advantage over William James, and me, of having read the book several times and worked on the secondary literature with all of the skill an expert can give it.  So, again, if this guy is having trouble…

Despite its melodramatic plot, furthermore, the book’s language is notoriously difficult, sometimes even undecidably obscure; sentences wind interminably on, pronouns lack definite antecedents, characters use words like “everything” and “nothing” and phrases like “Well, there you are,” which simultaneously suggest and obscure meanings and conclusions that they may or may not have reached.  (188)

Stowe is interested in the hybridity of the text, the combination of the melodrama with an interiorized, modernistic whatever it is, that functions in “traditional humanistic terms as a moral or spiritual fable” but at the same time is “a radically elusive text that entices the reader into an unendable process of supplementation and (over-)reading” (189).  And we wouldn’t want any of that, for certain specific groups of “we,” and we would and do want it, those of us in this other “we.”

The melodrama is the devious attempt by a pair of English grifters to get into the good graces of a rich, dying American girl, perhaps even to marry her, so that the grifters, once enriched with her estate, can marry each other.  Some variation of this story must be the base of a thousand bad plays and a hundred good farces.  The Wings of the Dove did not feel, to me, remotely like a melodrama, nor is that plot description one that would be recognized by the characters themselves, at least not until the end of the novel, when at least one has a moral epiphany – these are the “traditional humanistic terms” – that he has done something terribly wrong.

“I suppose I’m in trouble – I suppose that’s it.”  He said this with so odd a suddenness of simplicity that she could only stare for it – which he as promptly saw.  So he turned off as he could his vagueness.  “And yet I oughtn’t to be.”  Which sounded indeed vaguer still.  (10.4)

The bit I put in bold is both splendid and magnificent.  It is not that James is not aware of how he sounds.

At times the frankly pleasant, lovely, and in other circumstances entirely sympathetic young couple I am libeling as “grifters” act like they are playing at decadence.  At times it was like I was reading a version of Dangerous Liaisons with characters who were new to the whole thing, not jaded to the point of exhaustion.  At times I wondered if the couple really were, at least as a couple, ethically dubious, an example of some kind of dominant-submissive relationship with occasional rebellions by the submissive side to keep things interesting.  Maybe what appears to be, through the last fifth of the novel, an ethical struggle is in fact just a power struggle between these people.  Maybe Stowe’s article should have been about sex.

How did I not know that The Good Soldier (1916) is an elaborate parody of late James?  But I had not read the right James books, so even if told directly how would I really know?  Now I know.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The expensive vagueness of The Wings of the Dove - It almost destroyed me, thinking it all out

So it’s not just me.  I’m glad to know that.  Here is William James writing to his brother in 1902:

I have read The Wings of the Dove (for which all thanks!) but what shall I say of a book constructed on a method which so belies everything that I acknowledge as law?  You’ve reversed every traditional canon of story-telling (especially the fundamental one of telling the story, which you carefully avoid) and have created a new genre littéraire which I can’t help thinking perverse, but in which you nevertheless succeed, for I read with interest to the end (many pages, and innumerable sentences twice over to see what the dickens they could possibly mean)…  At any rate it is your own…

My premise is that William James has first, the intelligence of William James, and second, at this point almost forty years of experience reading the complete works of Henry James, so if he had this kind of trouble, I should not be surprised at my own.

I have the advantage of having read a century’s worth of subsequent novels that avoid their stories even more ruthlessly than those of James – am I ever used to that – but the writers I think of as the most Jamesian don’t write sentences like those.  Saul Bellow or Alan Hollinghurst or Hotel du Lac, those are examples I have in mind.  The sentences do not make me swear on the name of Dickens.  Maybe you know some more cryptic examples.

This is William Dean Howells, also smart and used to James, in “Mr. James’s Later Work” (1903), which he partly writes as a dialogue with “a weary woman” – she is speaking:

’There they are,’ as he keeps making his people say in all his late books, when they are not calling one another dear lady, and dear man, and prodigious and magnificent, and of a vagueness or a richness, or a sympathy, or an opacity.  No, he is of a tremendosity, but he worries me to death; he kills me; he really gives me a headache.  He fascinates me, but I have no patience with him.”

I took the liberty of adding italics to the words that are directly borrowed from James.  I think some of the others are jokes.  “Tremendosity” is definitely a joke; “opacity” is not in The Wings of the Dove, at least; as for “vagueness,” this is practically a description of the novel:

an impenetrable ring fence, within which there reigned a kind of expensive vagueness made up of smiles and silences and beautiful fictions and priceless arrangements, all strained to breaking  (9.4)

I had wondered if some of the adjectives that James’s characters fling at each other – “wonderful” – were perhaps examples of current slang, something he heard at dinner parties, but I guess not, or at least they were not at the parties Howells attended.  They are mostly signals that I am in James-world, which is not exactly like this one ever was.  The weary woman again:

“We could not bear to lose a word; every word – and there were a good many! – seemed to tell.  If you took one away you seemed to miss something important.  It almost destroyed me, thinking it all out.  I went round days, with my hand to my forehead; and I don’t believe I understand it perfectly yet.  Do you?”

No.  I have two other differences from Howells’s magnificent invention.  First, when I left all the words in I still thought I was missing something important, and second, it turns out I have endless patience with James, so I will bang on about him until I run out of babble.  I didn’t take a fifth as many notes as I did with The Ambassadors, so I won’t go on as long as that.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile under the Tsars - Daniel Beer fills the gaps

Daniel Beer’s The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile under the Tsars (2017) filled a major gap in my understanding of Russian history.  An idea that had been almost entirely abstract, or worse, overwhelmed by accounts of the Soviet Gulag, now seems somewhat less abstract.  Beer’s book is filled with specific stories, specific people, specific punishments – so, then, much less abstract.

Could I not read, instead, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead (1862) and achieve the same level of concreteness?  No, not exactly.  Chapter 7, “The Penal Fort,” is built around Dostoevsky’s experiences, and book, but is more generally about life in a Siberian prison, different than other kinds of exile, of which Dostoevsky’s was among the more brutal.  You wanted to stay out of a prison, out of the mines, and out of Sakhalin Island, the subject of Anton Chekhov’s 1893 book of investigative journalism.  But there were many kinds of exile, and many kinds of exiles.

The story of The House of the Dead is how the system changes over time, how the kinds of exiles change, and how the different types adapt to their punishment.  The 1825 Decemberists adapt to Siberia, working to move it closer to their own ideals.  The bomb-throwers and Communists of the 1890s and 1900s continue their fight by the same means that got them to Siberia.  Lenin used his three years of exile to write The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899).  “[W]hen he finally left Siberia at the beginning of 1900, he took with him 225 kilogrammes of book” (Ch. 14).  Now that is the way to measure books.

Lenin’s story suggests how incompetent the successive tsars were at punishing their enemies.  The response was generally too much, creating martyrs and public backlash among the more Europeanized Western Russians.  Any improvement in infrastructure or technology – the railroad, for example – only meant that the state could pack more criminals, vagabonds, suspicious characters, revolutionaries, and complete innocents into the Siberian camps, prisons, settlements, and frontiers.

The wildest section is Chapter 9, “General Cuckoo’s Army,” about the “hunchbacks,” the escaped convicts, who, in the vastness of Siberia, numbered in the tens of thousands at any given point.  They were a mix of people desperate to get back to European Russia (where they were forbidden to live), beggars, petty criminals, and murderous psychos.  The peasants who were there as voluntary settlers responded in kind.  At times I felt that I was reading a parody of the settlement of the American West.  I would love to read a book contrasting the settlement of the American West and Siberia.

Maybe that book exists.  I wouldn’t know.  My library only had Beer’s book as an electronic book, so I read it in part as an experiment.  The difficulties of moving around in the book killed any interest in checking sources in the footnotes.  At least some of the book is original archival research by Beer.  Which parts? I don’t know.  It was too tedious to find out.

Beer writes in an efficient but plain style, which sets up a pleasing contrast to his extensive use of more rhetorically interesting quotations from Dostoevsky, Chekhov, George Kennan, and a wide variety of other exiles, Russian and Polish, from across the 19th and early 20th century.  Beer is good with numbers, but there were many places where he would have benefitted by inserting a dang table – number of new exiles per decade, that kind of thing – but I suppose that is forbidden for commercial reasons.  The book would have looked too much like social history, which (don’t tell anybody) it is, a good one.

Friday, April 28, 2017

And here I am, ridiculously alive - Juan Ramón Jiménez poems

I usually write up these ragbag poetry posts when a poet is giving me trouble – which is most of the time.  Pick out some good scraps – so, first, tear the poor poet to scraps – patch them together and take a look at the resulting quilt.  It looks like something, mostly.

Juan Ramón Jiménez looks like the kind of poet with whom I have the most trouble.  He was prolific beyond belief, with multiple styles or periods, apparently the cause of great disagreement among later Spanish poets – which are the best periods? even: which are the good periods? – although speaking generally, Jiménez is beloved.  He wrote that book about the donkey.

Jiménez often works with big symbolic words detached from any context but the poem.  It is a kind of abstraction.  Hard times for me, and likely for any translator. Jiménez becomes plain in translation:

from The Poet to His Soul

    Day after day you keep the branch protected
in case the rose may come; you go alert
day after day, your ear warm at the gate
of your body, for the arrow unexpected.
[snip]
    Your rose shall be the pattern of all roses;
your ear, of harmony; of every light
your thought; of every waking star, your state.  (1914)

I am on p. 47 of Fifty Spanish Poems (1951), translated by J. B. Trend.  I know, “arrow unexpected,” a Hispanicism (“la fleche inesperada”) kept for the sake of the rhyme (the poem is a sonnet, a pretty one).  But the Spanish mostly seems a lot like the English.  Maybe Trend is too literal.  I often see the word “simple” attached to Jiménez’s style, for what that’s worth.  Rose, soul, light.

To compound my troubles I read, alongside the fifty-poem, career-wide overview, a Jiménez book that Trend would not even have known about, Invisible Reality (1983, written 1917-23, translated by Antonio T. de Nicolás), a set of poems that sometimes seem like fragments or gestures but with a coherent voice and poetics.  So it is a book, whatever Jiménez meant to do with it.

Compared to the published poems, Invisible Reality looks like an experiment in compressed personal mysticism.  A vision, for example, of a twilight in which “joyful gold” becomes “a cloud of ashes” in “the dirty light of gasoline” leads to a cry of ecstasy, or anguish:

I was not ready to give up.
I cried for it; I forced it.  I saw the ridiculous
irrationality of this candid fraternity
of man and life,
death and man.

And here I am, ridiculously alive, waiting
ridiculously dead, for death!  

The next poem revisits the twilight – the same one?  It’s just four lines, or five if the parenthetical counts:

Twilight
                                      (Insistence)
That mauve cloud
pierced by the gold of twilight,
is it not, perhaps, my sad heart
pierced by the light of a love that is leaving?

In the next poem, Jiménez imagines he has a tree inside him.  Should I think of these poems as a sequence.  I picked these out not just because they were striking, but because a long stretch of poems seemed to tell an amorphous story.  Maybe they all do.

Ideal Epitaph

Book just read,
my own fallen flesh,
underground plough of my life!

A poet’s spiritual autobiography, perhaps, or a spiritual poet’s autobiography.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Most of what we call insane is just stupid - some selected poems of Max Jacob

Max Jacob was a painter, friend of the famous (once the friends became more famous than him), and master, or at least writer, of the strange and irritating form, the prose poem.  Several months ago I read a chunk of his first book, The Dice Cup (1916), an inspired mix of puns, shaggy dogs, nonsense, and proto-surrealism. Now I have added The Selected Poems of Max Jacob (1999) as translated by William Kulik, a book that is less wacky and less fun, but more instructive.

This book has just 102 pages of Jacob’s pieces.  A third are from The Dice Cup, a third from the posthumous Last Poems (1946), and a third scattered through the 1920s and 1930s.  The date of Last Poems tells the sad end of the story of Max Jacob, who was both Jewish (though a Catholic convert) and openly gay:

Loving Thy Neighbor

Who’s watched a toad cross the street?  He looks like a very small man: no bigger than a doll.  He crawls along on his knees: do we say he looks ashamed?... no!  That he’s got rheumatism.  A leg draws behind, he pulls it forward. Where’s he headed like this?  He came up out of the sewer, poor clown.  No one noticed him on the street.  Long time ago no one noticed me.  Now the children mock my yellow star.  Lucky toad, you don’t have a yellow star.  (1946, ellipses in original)

This piece’s swerve to a more openly personal statement is hard to find in the poet of 1916, but common in the Jacob of the Occupation.  The “poor clown” – even before he said so, I knew that that was Max, or also Max.  That had been his role for decades.  A contemporary piece is title “’Max is a Lunatic’ (Everyone)” – and he is, he had been, but this poem ends with:

I think it’s time to go lie down.  Most of what we call insane is just stupid.

The middle of the book surprised me in two ways, first that Jacob wrote verse as well as prose poems – one is title “To Mr. Modigliani to Prove I’m a Poet” – and second that Jacob’s conversion to Catholicism was serious enough that he becomes something that I saw no hint of in The Dice Cup, a French Catholic writer.  He is a screwy version of the type, as he perhaps says directly in “Glass of Blood” (1921):

Our ideas at Brocken our hearts at Calvary
The ones the color of time
The others of blood
I drank half a glass of your blood
Threw the rest into the sea

Jacob declares himself a witch, dancing at the Brocken Walpurgisnacht, but only abstractly, in the realm of ideas.  He is a poet full of doubt and disillusion, but only about earthly things.  He does not doubt that the Christian God exists, but that the world exists.

But Jacob was a painter, too.  It is all representation.  Different kinds of representation.

A View in Perspective

Mountain view of the turreted white house
It’s dark, with one lighted window
And two turrets, two turtledove turrets.
Behind the window in the house
Is the fiery light of love!
Plenty of it, winged, eloquent
On the third story
In another room
Unlit, lies a dead man
And all the sorrow of death,
Sorrow’s plenty,
Sorrow’s wings,
Sorrow’s eloquence
View in perspective of a turreted white house.  (1921)

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

I am perched solidly / on nothing’s branch - the poems of Attila Jószef

Today the short book of translated poetry at hand is Perched on Nothing’s Branch: Selected Poems (1986) by Attila Jószef (1905-37).  Ah, those horrible dates.  Jószef’s early childhood was miserable, his later childhood in wartime Budapest if anything worse, and his later years cursed by mental health issues.  His life finally ending under a train, a suicide.

In between he was for a time a great Hungarian poet.  The 1999 White Pine Press edition has an introduction by Maxine Kumin where she calls the poems “brief, sharp, but invariably built on a scaffolding of arresting images” (13).  It is the images that come through in Peter Hargitai’s translation:

A raspberry bush squats,
cradles the greasy paper
slumbering in her arms.  (from “Dew,” 84)

Outside the window an old man
pitches manure to clucking chickens.
Muddy potatoes cower in hay needles.
The thatch roof bristles, holy soup ascends
toward the ceiling.
Jesus, in a playpen of yellow down,
is mirthful among the paper sheep.  (from “Bethlehem,” 29)

Yes, a grim sort of Christmas poem, that last one.  But I quoted it for the animation of not just the toy Jesus but the thatch and the potatoes, which are likely not as cowardly as Jószef imagines.  His signature, in the book’s selections, is this sense that the world is active, even as entropy works against it, and us, as in this gleefully gray autumn poem:

Autumn fog is scraping
bald interlacing branches,
frost squints on the railing.
[snip]
Autumn was already lurking
about the yard, drooling
between the bricks. (32)

Jószef is often described as a surrealist, and this is why.  It’s not the branches that scrape, but the fog; frost squints; autumn lurks and drools.  Everything is doing something it should not do.  This stuff can seem a facile reversal game that anyone could do, or it can seem like the world has been refreshed.  Hargitai chooses his collection’s title from a line that is like a statement of purpose:

I am perched solidly
on nothing’s branch.
The small body shivers
to receive heaven.  (from “Perched on Nothing’s Branch,” 82)

It is the surreal word, the paradox, “solidly,” that clenches the poem for me.  This poem ends “There’s no one out here / to hear – ,” a good example of Jószef sounding like Samuel Beckett.

Jószef’s formalism, to the extent that it is visible, is amusing.  Modernism means that a poet can write a sonnet called, and about a, “Drunk on the Tracks”:

There’s no room for the sun, the sky is ashes.
Only a drunk is lying on the tracks,
and from far away, the slow boom of the earth.  (78)

Those are the last lines, which presumably, in Hungarian, contain some rhyme words.  As for the subject, Jószef’s death makes it almost too painful to read, although less so than this book’s final poem, “Nothing,” which begins like Shakespeare:

Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.
Let it be, so it won’t be…

And ends, with “no luggage,” at the train station, “where there’s nothing at all.”  What despair.

Monday, April 24, 2017

ready to collect the blood from the wounds - Angelos Sikelianos and the old gods

From the Greek section of Willis Barnstone’s Modern European Poetry anthology (1966), I have picked up the idea, likely wrong, that the great and glorious tradition of Classical Greek literature and mythology was something of a curse for modern Greek poets.  Were they allowed to write about anything else?  But maybe I should come at the problem from the other direction – to be a great modern Greek poet, you really had to earn it.

Angelos Sikelianos (1884-51) earned it through a genuine poetic mysticism.  He was devoted to ancient Greek literature as to ancient Greek religion, and he searched for its surviving remnants.  Thus, poems about the Eleusinian Mysteries or like the long “Hymn to Artemis Orthia,” a cryptic, strange invocation of a mystery cult that I did not think I had even heard of (but I had, since it is in the background of the Iphigenia at Aulis and Iphigenia at Taurus of Euripides):

O Orthia,
like the workman
who collects resin
from cedar or pine
incised for the purpose,
You hold Your cupped hand ready
to collect the blood from the wounds.  (81)

Sikelianos embraces the raw, bloody Greece, more Spartan than Athenian, with erotic deities rising form the sea:

O but the sudden breaths of earth, filling my breasts, rousing me
                  from head to foot.
O Zeus, the sea is heavy, and my loosened hair drags me
                  down like a stone.  (“Aphrodite Rising,” 21)

… on the very edge where spray dissolves,
                 and leaning motionless,

upper lip pulled back so that his teeth shone,
                 he stood
huge, erect, smelling the white-crested sea
                until sunset.   (“Pan,” who else, 29)

The poet’s job, as mystic or seer, is to pull the reader of his poem a step or two closer to the lost or hidden state in which these gods and rituals function.  Or perhaps he is just an anthropologist, as in another long one, “The Village Wedding,” an occasion where, if anywhere, the old ways still have some force.

Before the bride enters,
the bridegroom’s mother
 anoints the threshold with honey,
breaks the pomegranate on the lintel.  (59)

Sikelianos wrote plays, too, and organized festivals.  He has some interesting resemblances to Yeats, the public Yeats, showing the people their gods.

I read the Selected Poems (1979) as translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.  The translators do not supply any dates.  The first poems of Sikelianos are from 1909, the last from the 1940s.  The last poem is an imagined parable of Christ’s, and it is easy to guess that it is from 1941, the Nazi conquest of Greece.  Jesus has come across a garbage pit, and is examining the corpse of a dog.  “’Look how that dog’s teeth glitter in the sun: / like hailstones, like a lily, beyond decay.’”  The poet ponders Christ’s words, thinking that

…  the world from end to end is all ruins, garbage,
all unburied corpses choking the sacred
springs of breath, inside and outside the city…  (139)

He prays for something “above the putrefaction / beyond the world’s decay,” for “Justice.”  The poet is no longer the mystic, but another of the supplicants.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Swinburne's last twenty years in letters

Have you glanced at what few, I should think, would read through – the mighty mass of Coleridge’s collected letters?  It is of course a profoundly depressing book…  (p. 82, Swinburne to William Rossetti, June 16, 1895)

Overcoming some logistical difficulties (the library hid the book from me for a while) I have finished the sixth volume, and therefore all six volumes, about 1,800 pages, of Algernon Swinburne’s letters (ed. Cecil Lang, Yale UP, 1962), this time taking Swinburne from 1890 to his death in 1909.

Swinburne came close to drinking himself to death in 1879, but his friends and family dried him out and kept him dry.  Kept him away from bottles.  This is Edmund Gosse writing about Swinburne:

… he would gradually fix his stare upon the bottle as if he wished to fascinate it, and then, in a moment, flash or pounce upon it, like a mongoose on a snake, drawing it towards him as though it resisted and had to be struggled with.  Then, if no one had the presence of mind to interfere, a tumbler was filled in a moment, and Swinburne had drained it to the last drop, sucking in the liquid with a sort of fiery gluttony, tilting the glass into his shaking lips, and violently opening and shutting his eyelids.  It was an extraordinary sight, and one which never failed to fill me with alarm, for after that the Bacchic transition might come at any moment.  (p. 241)

But that, although described so vividly in an appendix to this final volume, is in the distant past.  Every year after Swinburne’s illness was treated was, as we say, gravy.

I probably at some point described Swinburne’s letters as “like a novel,” meaning that, as Gosse’s memoir suggests, they had vivid characters and a strong narrative interest.  The last two volumes of letters are not much like a novel.  They are the happy ending, in fiction compressed into a two-page denouement, but here filling five hundred pages.  Swinburne is, for the twenty years of these letters, a professional writer.  He mostly writes articles, literary essays, for magazines and encyclopedias.  He engages in controversies in the letters pages of newspapers.  People ask him if they can put a poem in an anthology.  He ages; his friends and family die; his deafness keeps him at home.  He for some reason almost wins the Nobel.  He lives through writing, and lives, and lives some more.

Just as Swinburne’s letters to Dante Gabriel Rossetti were the highlights of earlier volumes, many of the best this time are to William Rossetti.  They are often about Gabriel, or about his wife Lizzie Siddal.  He describes reading her a John Fletcher play (“of course with occasional skips” – these Victorians) – “I can hear the music of her laugher to this day” (93, Dec. 4, 1895).

Thomas Hardy begins sending his books to Swinburne, who is appreciative.  “… for Balzac is dead, and there has been no such tragedy in fiction – on anything like the same lines – since he died” (91, Nov. 5, 1895).  Always interesting.

I strongly recommend that you read Swinburne’s letters – let’s see – in a 500-page edition of selections that also includes illustrations, a smattering of poems, relevant essays about Swinburne, and biographical sections covering the gaps.  This book exists only in my imagination, but it is quite good, and it might exist in reality someday.

Friday, April 21, 2017

the kind of ugliness appropriate to each rank in life - Gertrude Stein's Three Lives

Should I try to write about Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives (1909)?  Do I have anything to say about it?  I don’t know – answer to both questions.

Two longish short stories about German-American women who work as servants surround a novella about an African-American woman who has some money of her own.  None of these characters are the normal stuff of American fiction at this point.  The Baltimore setting, to the extent that the setting matters, is also unusual.

Anna knew so well the kind of ugliness appropriate to each rank in life.

If taken ironically, that could be a statement of purpose.  One purpose.

The book begins with a quote from Jules Laforgue, in French, which post-T. S. Eliot is a good way to establish High Modernist credentials, but this is pre-Eliot.  How many American readers in 1909 knew who the heck Laforgue was?  I have no idea. “Donc je suis malheureux et ce n'est ni ma faute ni celle de la vie” – “So I am unfortunate and it’s neither my fault nor that of life.”  The people in Stein’s stories are ordinary, a lot of things just happen to them, and the things they choose – well, they are the way they are.  The worldview is fatalistic.

Yet the German women are “The Good Anna” and “The Gentle Lena,” and Melanctha is good and gentle, too.  Lena, in the final story, is close to a saint, if a perfectly normal person can be a saint.  Her arranged marriage causes her suffering, something like a suppression of her personality, and eventually her death, but it seems that her husband and children are in some way saved through her.

Anna love animals and children and helpless people, and devotes her life to helping them.  “She knew too, that Anna had a feeling heart.”  The word “feeling” is used constantly in these stories.  From “Melanctha”:

Jeff was at last beginning to know what it was to have deep feeling…  He was very tired and all the world was very dreary to him, and he knew very well now at last, he was really feeling…  He was very sick all these days, and his heart was very heavy in him, and he knew very well that now at last he had learned what it was to have deep feeling.

All of this from a single paragraph, about Dr. Jeff Campbell learning how to feel through his treatment by the deep but restless and willful Melanctha.  Maybe she is also a kind of saint, like Lena.  Maybe all of the characters are saints.

“The Good Anna” has some resemblance to Gustave Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” (1877).  The simple, kind-hearted servant in that story achieves an apotheosis by means of her beloved pet parrot.  And here is Anna, a servant, who loves animals, and oh lordy – I am re-enacting my reading of the story – Stein has just given Anna a parrot.  In a parodistic move, though, the parrot does not really work out:

… and soon they were all content.  All except the parrot, for Miss Mathilda did not like its scream.  Baby [a dog] was all right but not the parrot.  But then Anna never really loved the parrot…

All right, so if “The Good Anna” is parallel to “A Simple Heart” – what “if,” it is – then are the other two stories in Three Lives related to the other two stories in Flaubert’s Three Tales?  “Gentle Lena” is like Saint Julian, and “Melanctha” is somehow connected to “Hérodias”?  If so, I don’t get it.  But now I wonder what I missed.

The prose style is plain and repetitive, but across rather than within sentences.  The “feeling” passage above gives a sense of how this sounds.  It is rhythmic, but not the rhythm of poetry.  Entire sentences recur.    The prose at times pulses.  I don’t think anyone had written anything quite like it.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

I’m a bit of a pig, a lot, even - Alphonse Allais's I Am Sarcey

Every time I write about Doug Skinner’s translations of Alphonse Allais – the new one is I Am Sarcey (2017, contents 1886-97) – I say that the Allais’s humor columns and so on ought to be period pieces, historical ephemera, but are better than that, are good.  Still funny; still fun.  This is my only idea about Allais, apparently.  If anything this is even more the case with I Am Sarcey – more ephemeral yet not, but even more so.

Francisque Sarcey was for decades the most powerful theater critic in France, like Frank Rich in the distant old days in New York City.  A rebel in his youth, he became more plump and bourgeois as he aged.  To the young cabaret Bohemians and artists of Montmartre, he was made for mockery.

Alphonse Allais mocked him by writing a newspaper column under Sarcey’s name.  I don’t know much about the “real” Sarcey, but Allais’s Sarcey is a great comic creation.  Conventional, banal, inadvertently self-revealing, lecherous, pompous yet deeply ignorant.

Zola doesn’t commit obscenities in his life, but fills his books with them.

Me, in my articles, never a dirty word, but how I make up for it in private!

For – and this is no secret to anyone – I’m a bit of a pig, a lot, even.

Well then!  I’d rather be the way I am, than be like Zola.  (30, 1887)

Allais has no qualms about being vulgarly insulting, but the banality is the primary insult.  There follows a digression about where to buy chickens:

…  go see my cousin in Dourdan.  He’ll take care of you, and it won’t be expensive.

He also sells little baby chicks, and eggs to be hatched.

But I’m chattering, chattering, and I forgot what I was talking about.  (31)

Sarcey is as digressive as Tristram Shandy.  He has the habit of digressing into explanations of the most ordinary things – common card games, or how steam power works (“Few people, outside those in the profession, know what steam is,” 111).  He spends an entire column describing how he was out without an umbrella, and got “as soaked as soup.”

So what do I do now, after that adventure?

I’ll tell you.

Whether it’s a fine day or a bad one, I don’t go out without an umbrella.  (155, 1893)

That is the main source of humor, I suppose – that this powerful man is a friendly, talkative idiot.  What is funniest is the conversational, self-satisfied voice applied to trivia.

A terrific running joke involves Sarcey 1) bragging about how he no longer writes any of the other columns that bear his name, meaning those written by the “real” Sarcey, having handed them off to ghostwriters like a butcher from his neighborhood, and 2) complaining about people writing fraudulent columns, filled with the grossest stupidities, as if they are by him.  Sometimes Allais seems so stunned by the “real” Sarcey’s genuine idiocies that he has trouble inventing fake idiocies.

I suppose these pieces benefit from more notes than usual, more identification of newspaper and Bohemians and so on.  Skinner’s notes are themselves amusing and surprising, so this is hardly a problem.  But Allais’s Sarcey becomes plump and lifelike without much extra help.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

I thought again of Dickens - Hope Jahren's science memoir Lab Girl

Through a mix of Twitter flattery and reverse psychology, influential biologist Hope Jahren tricked me into reading her memoir Lab Girl (2016).  It is an unusually good book.  (Other authors, please do not try this again – each spell works only once).

Jahren and her longtime lab manager Bill collect large samples of material – soil, moss, fossils – and run them through a mass spectrometer or some such machine.  Thus, the lab, her own lab, a series of labs that she and Bill have built from scratch and scraps.  The series of labs are one of the frames on which Jahren builds the book.

Another frame is a series of short chapters about tree biology.  All of the tree science is in these little chapters, but the trees are also clear-cut for metaphor.  Pulped for metaphor.  Jahren is as a rule good with metaphor – “The students spilled out of the van like an undone bag of marbles” (114) – but the tree chapters do something well beyond the single image.  Some of the extended metaphors are more obvious than others, but I am looking at the fascinating 2.3, about the symbiotic relationship between trees and certain fungi – “the best – and really only – friends that trees ever had” (104) – where her friend Bill is (also) the fungus.  “Why are they together, the tree and the fungus?”  It’s a dang allegory.

This is like that.  But I have written before about how scientists need metaphor as much as anyone in literature.

In Chapter 1.4, Jahren writes about her first science-like job, preparing intravenous medicine in a hospital pharmacy, a job that is not exactly David Copperfield’s child labor in the bottle-washing factory but with the empty bottles, labels and seals is like it, enough like it that Jahren interlards the chapter with direct quotations from the Dickens novel.

Lydia was magnificent at her workstation, possibly because she’d been doing this sixty hours a week for almost twenty years.  Watching her sort, clean, and inject was like watching a ballerina defy gravity.  I watched her hands fly and thought… in an easy amateur way, and without any book (he seemed to me to know everything by heart), from chapter seven.  (44)

Lydia is a great character, one of those Dickensian creations that are called caricatures by readers who have limited acquaintance with the variety of humanity.   Here is another David Copperfield quotation, upon visiting the hospital psych ward:

What originally struck me as cryptic in chapter fifty-nine was now mundane: they are turned inward, to feed upon their own hearts, and their own hearts are very bad feeling.  (49)

Not only is the chapter full of David Copperfield quotations, but they all contain the word “heart.”  Jahren says she was working on a paper for her English class, making this a truly heroic feat of undergraduate recycling.  I suppose this could look like a gimmick; to me, it looked like a triumph.  The chapter could stand on its own as a short story.

The book is much funnier than I have suggested.  See the chapter with the trip to Monkey Jungle, a Florida tourist “attraction”:

Three Java Macaques that had been straining their brains over some problem that they could neither solve nor abandon propelled themselves toward us, supposing that we somehow represented an answer.  A white-handed gibbon was draped limply across our walkway, either asleep or dead or someplace in between…  A single howler monkey sat high on a branch in the back, wailing out the entire Book of Job in his native tongue while periodically raising his arms in an age-old supplication for an explanation as to why the righteous must suffer.  (116-7, the ellipses conceal a Beckett reference)

But the Dickens chapter was the only part of this fine that I really wanted to write about, surprise surprise.

I stole the title of the post from a later chapter, p. 61.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

It is time to rediscover Conrad Aiken

The piece of Aiken appreciation that appeared earlier today on the Los Angeles Times website for some reason puts that in the form of a question, perhaps because its author, Tyler Malone, does not want the rediscovery to occur until the publication, now imminent, of the new issue of his magazine, The Scofield, which for some unlikely reason is entirely devoted to Aiken.

I plan to study the magazine with close attention, but I say let’s rediscover Aiken right now!  In this very blog post!  Which will be about Aiken’s The House of Dust: A Symphony (1920), Aiken’s sixth book of poems in seven years.  All of the poetry T. S. Eliot published during the 1910s and 1920s would fit inside any single Aiken book from the same period.  Aiken published roughly ten times as much poetry as Eliot at this time.

I mention Eliot because Aiken can be so derivative of Eliot, although by this point he has his own voice – Eliot is possibly influenced by Aiken now – which he developed incrementally, book by book, each one a variation on the previous.  Sweeney-like men agonizing about women, books labeled “symphonies” with poems organized in four movements, and recurring motifs that may well be music-like.  Is the third “movement” of The House of Dust meant to be a scherzo, with its climatic witches' Sabbath?  I find these conceptual musical claims hard to see.

One recurring motif is dust, the stuff of which of which me are made and to which we will return, but also – see title – the stuff of which our buildings are made:

What did we build it for?  Was it all a dream…
Ghostly above us in lamplight the towers gleam…
And after a while they will fall to dust and rain;
Or else we will tear them down with impatient hands;
And hew rocks out of the earth, and build them again.  (last lines, ellipses in original)

I would love to interpret this as Aiken writing about his previous books of poems.

The characters are the best part of the book.  House of Dust is like a Spoon River Anthology of a single New York City block.  A construction worker, building a high rise, experiences vertigo (“The Fulfilled Dream”).  An actress, pregnant and unmarried, imagines suicide.  A poet’s dream girl steps out of a Hiroshige print, rewarding his devotion.  A couple steps into a movie – or perhaps it is just the poet, the Sweeney figure finding another dream girl on screen.  Only Aiken and Vachel Lindsay seemed to really get movies this early:

The music ends.  The screen grows dark.  We hurry
To go our devious secret ways, forgetting
Those many lives…  We loved, we laughed, we killed,
We danced in fire, we drowned in a whirl of sea-waves.
The flutes are stilled, and a thousand dreams are stilled.  (“Cinema,” IV.vi)

Those “flutes” are from the movie theater’s organ.  This is not exactly as much fun as Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924) but it’s pretty good.

Let’s see, next up is Punch: The Immortal Liar, Documents in His History (1921) and then Priapus and the Pool (1922).  Maybe the reason to read Aiken in a collected or selected volume is to get some distance from his terrible titles.

A holiday approaches, so I will recede for a few days.  Next post on Tuesday.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Thus he stabs ‘em; there, they lie. - Robert Graves in 1921

The Pier-Glass (1921) is the third book of poems by Robert Graves, or sixth if I count three chapbooks.  That’s a book of some kind every year since 1916.  The Pier-Glass is only fifty-three pages, counting just the poems, heading towards chapbook territory.  Graves, judging by his bibliography, hustles at this pace as a poet for another ten years, and then only somewhat more slowly for another forty.

The memoir and novels and all of the Greek stuff is in the future.  Graves is still a charming poet.  The great devotee of the White Goddess has begun to show himself, though, just barely, as in the poem “Raising the Stone,” in which druids are raising a menhir by moonlight.  It topples, crushing one of them,

              but we who live raise a shrill chant
Of joy for sacrifice cleansing us all.
    Once more we heave.  Erect in earth we plant,
The interpreter of our dumb furious call,
    Outraging Heaven, pointing
            “I want, I want.”

Less charming than terrifying, and an inversion of William Blake’s engraving.

The next poem, “The Treasure Box,” is Graves at his most charming.  “Ann in chill moonlight” – just like the ancient druids – “unlocks \ Her polished brassbound treasure-box.”  Most of the poem is just a list of the treasures: ribbons tied in a knot, little gloves that “fold in a walnut shell,” dried flowers, a scrap of lace,

A Chelsea gift-bird; a toy whistle;
A halfpenny stamped with the Scots thistle…

Are these the treasures of a child?

Her mother’s thin-worn wedding ring;
A straw box full of hard smooth sweets;
A book, the Poems of John Keats

No, not a child.  An older woman.  There is also a packet of letters, the greatest treasure, the record of an old love affair so sad that, when the woman tries to read them by moonlight, “the old moon blinks \ And softly from the window shrinks.”

In “The Troll’s Nosegay,” a troll picks a bouquet; in “The Pier-Glass” an old ghost is saved from despair by bees; in “The Gnat” a tormented shepherd, thinking he is dying, murders his beloved horse.  Graves the poet has a strong narrative imagination, an odd one.  I always enjoyed the surprises of his little stories even when I was not sure what they meant.

The last poem, “The Coronation Murder,” is perhaps oddest of all.  It is in four parts, from four points of view: the woman who murders the lecherous, “rat-soul’d” Becker; the victim himself – “His bones are tufted with mildew”; his son, who confronts his father’s ghost; and a parrot, who hears the woman confess in her sleep and thus reveals her crime, maybe:

Soon, when sunlight warms his cage,
    He plots to cheer the passers-by
With burlesque of murderous rage,
    Acting how his victims die:
Thus he stabs ‘em; there, they lie.

It’s a revenge tragedy in five pages.  The war is over, and Graves is no longer a trench poet, but some kind of war continues.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The city corrodes out of sight - D. H. Lawrence wonders what it is like to be a seed

Prolific poets circa 1920 will I believe be my subject for the next few days.  Today: D. H. Lawrence’s New Poems (1918), his fourth book of poems.  The last two, in 1916 and 1917, covered, respectively, his engagement and his honeymoon, often written, the latter book especially, in an especially free free verse that was not afraid to sound absurd as part of sounding like Lawrence.

In New Poems, Lawrence is back in England, or perhaps he is back in the past a bit and has not yet left, and the poems are all in formal clothes – rhymes and so on.  Thus, in a magnificently Lawrentian gesture, the American edition of the book (1920) begins with an almost unreadable preface defending free verse.

This is the unrestful, ungraspable poetry of the sheer present, poetry whose very permanency lies in its wind-like transit.  (v)

But in free verse we look for the insurgent naked throb of the instant moment.  (viii)

And so on, ending with the admission that “[a]ll this should have come as a preface to ‘Look We have Come Through!,’” the previous book.  Hilarious.  When I turn to the poems, they look like this:

from Flat Suburbs, S.W., in the Morning

The new red houses spring like plants
        In level rows
Of reddish herbage that bristles and slants
       Its square shadows.

Bare stems of street-lamps stiffly stand
        At random, desolate twigs,
To testify to a blight on the land
       That has stripped their sprigs.

Rhyme, rhythm, and an imagistic conceit that both has insight into how things actually look and is developed into a worldview, as if Lawrence is a Metaphysical Poet.

Lawrence tours the suburbs, London, and elsewhere.  Some of the poems form a rough sequence.  The mood is alienated:

from Parliament Hill in the Evening

The hopeless, wintry twilight fades,
    The city corrodes out of sight
As the body corrodes when death invades
    That citadel of delight.

The spread of the city lights is described as “verdigris smoulderings,” in case I had forgotten who I was reading.

Browsing the book, it is grimmer than I remember:

from Palimpsest of Twilight

The night-stock oozes scent,
    And a moon-blue moth goes flittering by:
All that the worldly day has meant
    Wastes like a lie.

Geez, David, the sun goes down every day, you know.

The red houses in the suburbs make an oblique return in “School on the Outskirts”:

How different, in the middle of snows the great school rises red!
    A red rock silent and shadowless, clung round with clusters of shouting lads…

This red building is a refuge in a wasteland, “this weary land the winter burns and makes blind,” to the few real students, “obstinate dark monads,” who cling to it, as Lawrence once did.

The season of the poems shifts, near the end of the book, from winter to – no, not spring, too cheery – to autumn, which is just as sad.  “Débâcle” is about, no kidding, the biological struggle of seeds – “all the myriad houseless seeds… \ Moan softly with autumnal parturition.”  They fall “bitterly,” and “Bitterly into corrosion bitterly travel.”  The word “corrosion” is repeated several times, as the angry seeds rot away, their little spark of life wasted, “committed to hold and wait… \ only forbidden to expire.”

Then, of course, some of them sprout, but that is outside of this poem.  For me, this kind of thing is Lawrence at his best, when he works through a conceit that seems crazy but in fact is based on a serious and complex understanding of the world around him.  The poem is full of Lawrence, but it is also really about seeds.  The secret, imagined life of seeds.

I am pretty sure that “Piano” is the best-known poem in New Poems (“I weep like a child for the past”), but I am always happier when Lawrence gets outside of himself a little.