Sunday, December 11, 2016

`He Is Implicit in the Inward Town'

Reading L.E. Sissman, I stumbled on E.A. Robinson:

“Far up the Sheepscot, where the tide goes out,
And leaves the river water free of salt,
And free to foster tame freshwater life,
Far from the sea’s tall terror, wave on wave
And tooth on tooth in the bone-handled jaws
Which ultramariners use as their laws,
I spy the first footprint of Robinson.
Though his birthplace gives little to go on,
He is implicit in the inward town
Where not a soul steps out of doors at noon
And no one stirs behind twelve-over-twelve
Panes in the windows.  Walk uphill yourself
And stand before the cluttered clapboard church
Signed `1830’ by its year of birth;
Look down through ash boughs on the whited town
Where they say he and his love slept alone
Under one roof for life, and where his moon
Singled him out, awake, each moonlight night
That spring tides steered upriver with their salt
And broke in these backwaters; feel his pulse
Still in the riverside and his strait house.”

Nice to see two of my favorite American poets getting along so well. One hopes for sympathy among friends. The poem is “Solo, Head Tide,” from Sissman’s second collection, Scattered Returns (1969). Like Robinson, Sissman doesn’t rely on the “I” to provide scaffolding and move things along. Their poems are seldom about themselves in the banal, transcriptive sense. When a poet or any writer chooses the first-person singular, he’d better justify doing so. (No one, after all, cares about your precious epiphanies and woes.) When another New Englander writes, “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well,” we snort. You really ought to get out more, Henry. Robinson, a lifelong bachelor, resides among the “isolatoes,” to use the word coined by Melville, likewise a member of that tribe. (I hear an echo of Melville in “the sea’s tall terror.”)

Robinson was born in the village of Head Tide, Maine, which took its name from its location at the headwaters of the Sheepscot River. When Sissman writes, “I spy the first footprint of Robinson,” one thinks of the other Robinson, the solitary Crusoe, who spied Friday’s footprint. The poem’s speaker, likewise, spies only circumstantial evidence of Robinson: “He is implicit in the inward town.” Sissman, a married man, was a more social being, at least until he became one of cancer’s isolatoes. In his essay “The Crystal Year” (Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the 70’s, 1975), Sissman writes:

“We are born alone. We live and die mainly alone. It is not given to us to share wholly the consciousness of another person. But in the long loom of marriage, and intimacy and interpenetration that have little to do with sexuality per se begin to operate.”

Saturday, December 10, 2016

`So Much Could Stay a Moment in So Little'

Once the biological necessities have been taken care of, what a human wants most is to be remembered. Memories are proof that we more than existed; we mattered. The urge is pure vanity, of course, but likewise a metaphysical imperative. It ought to mean that we wish to be remembered for our good deeds, but being human, we’ll settle for the less than good, the mediocre and trivial, even the evil. The dead – our personal dead and the notable public dead – deserve remembrance, and that’s the motive for much of what writers do.

I’m reading the late William F. Buckley’s A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century (ed. James Rosen, Crown Forum, 2016), a selection from the hundreds of eulogies he wrote. Among the friends he remembers are Vladimir Nabokov and Whittaker Chambers, veterans of Communism and authors of the two greatest American autobiographies. Buckley writes of William F. Buckley Sr., his father, that he “worshipped three earthly things: learning, beauty, and his family.” His friend Hugh Kenner he calls "a singular phenomenon." Buckley says of his favorite pianist, Rosalyn Tureck: "She and Bach devoted their lives to each other." He lauds Vladimir Horowitz’s “considerable polemical shrewdness” and packs enormous political insight into a brief assessment of President Truman: "Harry Truman made many grievous mistakes, but it is not his mistakes that are singled out for criticism, but his triumphs.”

X.J. Kennedy, now eighty-seven, is dismissed by some readers and critics as a lightweight because he writes light verse. That’s like calling Henry James a dabbler in local color. In his first collection of poems, Nude Descending a Staircase (1961), Kennedy includes a eulogy of sorts, “On a Child Who Lived One Minute,” first published in The New Yorker in 1958:

“Into a world where children shriek like suns
Sundered from other suns on their arrival,
She stared, and saw the waiting shape of evil,
But couldn't take its meaning in at once,
So fresh her understanding, and so fragile.

“Her first breath drew a fragrance from the air
And put it back. However hard her agile
Heart danced, however full the surgeon’s satchel
Of healing stuff, a blackness tiptoed in her
And snuffed the only candle of her castle.

“Oh, let us do away with elegiac
Drivel! Who can restore a thing so brittle,
So new in any jingle? Still I marvel
That, making light of mountainloads of logic,
So much could stay a moment in so little.”

The final stanza poses the nagging doubts faced by a eulogist: Is what we write “elegiac / Drivel”? A “jingle”? Am I wasting my time? Who remembers anyway? Who cares?

“So much could stay a moment in so little.”

Friday, December 09, 2016

`Hail, Ye Small, Sweet Courtesies of Life!'

I’ve been moved twenty feet down and across the hall to a new office, one that is the mirror image of my old office, minus the north-facing window. I miss the outdoor light. Now my computer table sits below a porthole-like window four feet in diameter that faces the building’s main corridor. Fortunately, the window comes with an almost opaque set of blinds. The move was seamless. I was without computer service for seven minutes. Four men moved my desk, table, gooseneck lamp, file cabinet and chairs. They seemed almost disappointed that I had so little to move. I forgot to mention Harry Plotter – the oversized printer that no longer works but takes up too much space and, when working, sounds like a cement truck. Un-fenestrated and re-plottered, I might have started whining. Instead:

A workman reattached my cork board to the wall (and shared three dirty jokes, two of which were good). Telephone service was uninterrupted (and I got a new cord for the receiver, one that doesn’t tangle). My boss scavenged a second lamp, with a shade and a 75-watt bulb. It casts a muted light that makes me think of Stan Getz records. The uncle of the professor now directly across the hall from my office was the trumpeter and cornetist Ruby Braff. As a neighborly gesture I sent him “Star Dust.” Best of all, my boss tells me they plan to move the plotter to the second floor, probably in January. Laurence Sterne opens a chapter in A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768) with these words:

“Hail, ye small, sweet courtesies of life! for smooth do ye make the road of it.”

Thursday, December 08, 2016

`Celery is Good for Rheumatism'

Andrew Rickard at Graveyard Masonry has posted some choice offerings from Putnam's Handbook of Expressions, published in 1915. My library doesn’t own a copy but does have Putnam’s Household Handbook (1916), compiled by Mae Savell Croy, who, I note, also authored 1000 Hints on Vegetable Gardening and 1000 Things a Mother Should Know With Reference to Tiny Babies and Growing Children (both 1917). One can think of many reasons for wanting to read a book – amusement, forgetting, remembering – but one reason we literary types frequently disregard is usefulness. I like books that tell me how to do things (field guides, cookbooks, dictionaries), and Croy (b. 1886) is a practical-minded utilitarian. No theorizing here:

“When work is waiting to be done, the busy housewife has not the time to read page after page for a suggestion, and it is with the thought of relieving her strain and not prolonging it, that the idea of this book was first conceived.”

Spare me your objections to “busy housewife.” Croy was writing four years before ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. That was a different world, and not always a less enlightened world. Croy was no creampuff. Fifty years ago, long after her day, boys in my school took wood shop in seventh grade and girls took home economics. To my knowledge, no one questioned the arrangement. By seventh grade I was already preparing meals for my family, helping with the laundry and completely lost in wood shop. Prose has no sex but Croy’s writing is notably straightforward, uncluttered, precise and confident – putatively masculine qualities. Here are some suggestions from her chapter titled “In the Sick-room”:

“Stew spring onions in coarse brown sugar and take a teaspoonful at night. This will not only produce sleep but is very healthful.”

[I’ve reproduced Croy’s italics, which on occasion are puzzling.]

“Lettuce is good for the nerves.”

“Celery is good for rheumatism.”

“A teaspoonful of salt to a pint of warm water rubbed into weak ankles strengthens them.”

“In cases of illness where hot compresses are needed there is always the danger of burning one’s hands when attempting to wring hot cloths out of boiling water. To avoid this use a potato ricer.”

But for the occasional appearance of such things as potato ricers, Croy’s book has a timeless quality. Seldom does history intrude. Here is a rare exception, also from “In the Sick-room”: “No disturbing news should ever be told to a patient and newspapers with their columns of distressing casualties should be kept out of reach.” World War I had started in 1914. In 1917, the year after Croy’s book was published, the U.S. entered the war in Europe on April 6. 

One can reasonably question some of Croy’s advice, though she writes with the utter confidence of a mathematician or con man: “Gasoline and plaster of Paris mixed together to the consistency of whipped cream will clean feathers beautifully. Dip the feathers in this mixture and press them together. Then hang in the open air until all of the gasoline is evaporated. Do not handle until perfectly dry. Next shake well and the result will be clean and fluffy feathers. White wings can also be treated in this manner.”

Of course, I can remember when most of my grandmother’s hats had feathers on them. Here is a timely Yuletide suggestion: 

“When children are to be around fireworks or candles on a Christmas tree, render their clothing non-inflammable by dipping it into a solution of ammonia phosphate. This is made by dissolving one pound of phosphate in one gallon of cold water. The garment should be soaked in this solution for five minutes, then taken out and allowed to dry, after which it may be worn with perfect safety.”

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

`A Morbid Obsession with the Future'

“Except for a contemporary placard or two, the place conspired to set me dreaming of the good old days I had never known.”

The place is a tavern, almost certainly somewhere in the upper Midwest. It’s a comfortable, unpretentious joint with a masculine patina. Conversation mingles English and German. Men play cards and talk. Strangers are rare. No women are present. Nothing fancy, no ferns or flat-screen televisions. The drink is beer. On the menu is “bread, butter, and a dish of beets.” Present are six characters and the narrator. For the latter, the “good old days” are suggested by “the cloudy mirrors, the grandiose mahogany bar, the tables and chairs ornate with spools and scrollwork . . . and swillish brown paintings, inevitable subjects, fat tippling friars in cellars,” and so forth. It’s the sort of place where H.L. Mencken and our grandfathers might have felt at home.

The author is J.F. Powers. The sentence at the top opens “Renner” in his first collection, Prince of Darkness and Other Stories (1947). I’ve read Powers’ stories many times over the years. His prose and surgical sense of irony bring him as close as an American writer has ever gotten to Evelyn Waugh, while remaining his own man. What surprised me is how inviting I found the setting of “Renner,” even though I no longer drink and rarely step into a tavern. I felt as though I might have written those opening words, including the final twist. Of late, I find myself peculiarly susceptible to fits of nostalgia, even for times and places I have never known. Normally, succumbing to nostalgia for me is repellent. Age-related soft-headedness is probably responsible, as it is for other lapses. But much in the past is valuable and some of it we have lost, whether through forgetting or willful, arrogant demolition. This juggling of respect for the past and distrust of nostalgia is tartly described by Sir Roger Scruton in On Hunting (St. Augustine’s Press, 1998):

“Nostalgia is an unhealthy state of mind. But the study, love and emulation of the past are necessary to our self-understanding. All that has gone most wrong in our century has proceeded from a morbid obsession with the future—a belief in `new dawns’, `revolutionary transformations’, and resurrected nations on the march. The past, unlike the future, can be known, understood and adapted to our current uses. When we cast ourselves free from it, we are swept away by outside forces, adrift on the oceanic tide of happening. The future, which we cannot describe, begins to seem inevitable. This surrender to the unknown persists, despite all the crime and destruction that have been wrought in its name.”

[See also “The Lost Structures of Civility” by Hadley Arkes.] 

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

`I Shall Sit Alone By the Fire'

Aline Murray, another forgotten poet, was born in 1888 in Norfolk, Va. Her father, Kenton C. Murray, was editor of the Norfolk Landmark newspaper and died when she was seven. Murray married Joyce Kilmer, a poet remembered for one poem, in 1908. The couple had five children. The second, Rose Kilburn Kilmer, was born in 1912, contracted polio shortly after birth, and died in 1917.  On July 30, 1918, at age thirty-one, Sgt. Joyce Kilmer was killed by a sniper’s bullet during the Second Battle of Marne.  He was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre and was buried in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial, near Fere-en-Tardenois in Picardy. The Kilmers’ second son, Michael, died at age ten in 1927.

I knew nothing about Aline Kilmer until I began reading about her husband, whose poem I have known for most of my life. In 1919, Aline published her first book of poetry, Candles That Burn, followed three years later by Vigils. Human sympathy demands that we read her poems, and literary rigor demands that we dismiss them. I make no claims for their poetic worth, only that after a century they document losses and grief most of us will never experience. With the biographical information supplied above, her poem “Christmas” (Candles That Burn) becomes almost unspeakably sad:

“`And shall you have a Tree,’ they say,
`Now one is dead and one away?’

“Oh, I shall have a Christmas Tree!
Brighter than ever it shall be;
Dressed out with coloured lights to make
The room all glorious for your sake.
And under the Tree a Child shall sleep
Near shepherds watching their wooden sheep.
Threads of silver and nets of gold,
Scarlet bubbles the Tree shall hold,
And little glass bells that tinkle clear.
I shall trim it alone but feel you near.

“And when Christmas Day is almost done,
When they all grow sleepy one by one,
When Kenton’s books have all been read,
When Deborah’s climbing the stairs to bed,

“I shall sit alone by the fire and see
Ghosts of you both come close to me.
For the dead and the absent always stay
With the one they love on Christmas Day.”

Joyce Kilmer was born on this date, Dec. 6, in 1886. Guy Davenport wrote of Kilmer’s “Trees,” written in 1913: “Almost immediately it became one of the most famous poems in English, the staple of school teachers and the one poem known by practically everybody.” Aline died in 1941 at age fifty-three. I learned “Trees” from Alfalfa.  Go to 13:20 to hear his version.

Monday, December 05, 2016

`Why One Has Been Happy'

Relationships are attenuated in the digital world, with electrons substituting for laughter and derisive snorts, but sensibility, if vibrant and strong, comes through the ether loud and clear. I never met Roger Forseth, a retired English professor of the old school, but sensed that we shared essential values and would have enjoyed each other’s company had we ever met. Most of my dealings with him arrived via his old friend Dave Lull.

From Dave I learned that Roger prepared for sleep each night by alternately reading a letter by Keats or one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He and his late wife annually reread A.J. Liebling’s Between Meals. Roger admired Cowper as man and poet, and had little use for Shelley (a sure sign of robust intellect). His tastes were attractively unpredictable. He favored Beckett, Coleridge (“in my permanent personal anthology”) and Raymond Chandler. Among his favorite novels was Daniel Deronda. When Roger’s wife died in 2013, lines by Keats appeared in the program for her memorial service and on the stone marking the Forseth family plot. Literature counts for nothing if it is not a vital part of life and death.

I remember that Roger, in his church’s newsletter, reviewed Arthur Kirsch’s Auden and Christianity (Yale University Press, 2005). It appears no longer available online, but I recall that Roger especially prized middle-period Auden, such poems as “Horae Canonicae” and “Good-Bye to the Mezzogiorno.” I know nothing of Roger’s spiritual life, and that clearly is none of my business, but I would guess that these lines from the latter poem would please him as a sort of epitaph:

“To bless this region, its vendages, and those
Who call it home: though one cannot always
Remember exactly why one has been happy,
There is no forgetting that one was.”

Roger died on Saturday at age eighty-nine.