Friday, February 26, 2010

its little face, and the tassels on its cushion

At St. Vinnies I stopped myself buying another secondhand copy of David Copperfield. I think this would have been my fourth. "If you buy it you will only throw it away," I said to myself. "You will look at the cost of transporting your library overseas and you'll throw all of those Copperfields away except one, and the one you'll keep will be the red hardback with the illustrations, not this one, which is an ordinary Wordsworth Classics paperback with a hey-ho blue spine and no memories attached."

"Get rid of as many books as you can," has been in my head over the past couple of weeks as I try to imagine the price of transportation. Cataloguing them in LibraryThing, I think, at each title, "Do you like it so much that you will pay to keep it?" Sometimes I haven't read the book, and I don't know, so I go through it to find out. For this reason I have read Andrew O'Hagan's Be Near Me ("Longlisted for the Booker" says the cover), also Madeleine St. John's The Essence of the Thing ("Shortlisted for the Booker"), and Graham Swift's Last Orders ("Winner of the Booker"). Mary McGarry Morris' fat orange Songs in Ordinary Time turned out to be nothing but a melodrama, so I started skimming after page fifty to find out if they'd discover who the murderer was; meanwhile a self-published poetry book (I'll leave it nameless) adjective'd and adverb'd and cliché'd itself to death. Children were "bright-eyed," self-expression was "unfettered," colours were "vibrant:" you get the picture.*

Aneva Stout's The List was swift and sweet and I bought it in the first place because I wanted to examine the way she'd put the story together. It's all in questions, like this --

1. You will dream about meeting Mr. Right.
a. You'll be eleven
b. Twelve
c. Forty-six

2. Your first Mr. Right will be a rock star.

3. Your first Mr. Wrong will be a musician.

4. You will not learn from this.

5. You will get advice about men from your mother.
a. "It's as easy to love a rich man as a poor man."
b. "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach."
c. "Good luck."

When I looked around for reviews to see how other people had reacted to this question-style I found that almost everyone, independently, had used the word "cute," and yes, it is. The speed at which you can absorb the story through those questions compacts the book down to a nugget of cuteness -- it's cute as a dozen buttons on a knitted pink beanie on the head of a pug, a white dwarf star of cute.

He looked at the dog indulgently. "It's rather nice," he said. "A pug." "I expect it's expensive," she said. "Come on. But, oh, sweet. Look at its little face, and the tassels on its cushion." "Yes," said Jonathan.

(The Essence of the Thing)

It's rare to meet a book that uses all its cleverness (and this question-style, which mimics the style of a Cosmo quiz, is clever, not wise, no, I don't mean that it transforms the book into anything more profound than the happy fluff it wants to be, but clever) to make itself as shallow as possible. This is substanceless pop haiku with not an original thought in its head besides the style, but it is absolutely itself, which is, I think, something. I'm going to send the List out into the world again so that it can be cute to someone else.

Libby Hathorn's book-length story-in-poetry Volcano Boy is going too. Aimed at young adults, it's the kind of book they might have given to us in school when we were about twelve or thirteen, and I would have hated it. The idea that adults expected me to enjoy a book because the characters were my age (and having Real Life Issues, "like mine they assume," I thought) drove me into a scornful rage, which I never articulated, feeling that the teachers would disagree, or sigh and say, "What a bore, she is Expressing her Issues." I was under the impression that you had to second-guess not only the points a teacher liked you to make about a book, but also the esteem they wanted you to hold it in. This is one of the things that made school so exhausting -- not work on its own, but trying to guess, from your judgment of the person in front of you, what they wanted that work to be.

There was one book we had to read, I recall, narrated by a British boy whose father, believing that nuclear war was approaching, stockpiled tins of tuna, and then there was Phillippa Pearce's A Dog So Small (we must have been nine or ten), about a miserable boy who hallucinated a chihuahua. I had no time for any of these children and I preferred Buck in The Call of the Wild to the chihuahua.

I'll send Volcano Boy away to a place where it can be read by someone who will "[enjoy] this book because you really have to think about its context and what happens because you have to assume some of the story" (Annie, Year 10, Canberra, Australia), or call it "realistic and funny" (Simon, aged 14, Blacktown, Australia, whose sense of humour is evidently not mine, or who has a notion that his teacher will be appreciative if he finds the story of a boy's absent father, alcoholic mother, and suicidal sister, "funny").

I have five copies of Titus Alone and I don't even like the book.

* Occasionally she'll give us the same idea two or three times in a row -- "ordinary, everyday, workaday" for example, or "heart-wrenching, filled with tears, / unbearable" -- which, along with her love of noun-adjective pairings that have been summoned up from a shallow communal storehouse (cliches, near-cliches: "deep blue eyes," "noxious fumes," "quietly brooding"), makes me wonder if she imagined these poems being read aloud, rather than silently. Redundant words on the page are an invitation to let your mind wander, which is one of the last things a poet should be encouraging, but if you're listening to a piece of writing then that repetition has a purpose; it helps to carve the idea into your mind. You can't flip backwards and double-check, as you can in a book, but if the poet repeats the information, or makes it very familiar ("deep blue eyes") then it seems reasonable to assume you'd be likely to remember it. So Homer reinforces the attributes of his people when they appear. Ajax in The Iliad is more than once, "Ajax, son of Telamon."

I don't mean to suggest that this poet was imitating Homer, only that the rhythm of repetition and familiarity might have seemed comfortable to her because she was thinking of the words being chanted.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

return to me

In December last year the bloggers at The Auteurs Notebook posted lists of "fantasy double features": films that, they thought, deserved to appear together, like Miyazaki's Ponyo and Osamu Tezuka's Legend of the Forest, Part I. I thought: I wonder what it would look like if you used books.

And I dawdled over the idea for weeks until the Guardian book blog beat me to it.

A few suggestions:

Martin Boyd's Langton Quartet and Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time.

I haven't finished the Quartet, but unless the last part is dramatically different to the first, I think this would work. Both authors owe a debt to Proust; and the tone of voice in both cases seems to me similar, being decent, reflective, friendly, settled, British (even though Boyd is not), male, and fairly socially privileged. (Whispering Gums suggests similarities between Boyd and Austen.)

Colette's My Mother's House and Sido, and Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse.

The two writers remember their parents, taking particular notice of their mothers. Lucille Clifton's poem oh antic God could be inserted before the main feature to take the place of a short.

… return to me, oh Lord of then
and now, my mother's calling …

Clifton died recently. The Poetry Foundation website has a selection of her work.

For a more dramatic contrast: My Mother's House and The Man Who Loved Children.

Two poems: Cesário Verde's The Feelings of a Westerner and Bysshe Vanolis' City of Dreadful Night.

This double bill was inspired by the Wuthering Expectations blog's investigation of Vanolis, a Scot whose real name was James Thomson. Both poems are narrated by men who feel extravagant and distressing emotions as they walk through large cities; and both were written in the second half of the 1800s.

Daniachew Worku's The Thirteenth Sun and Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.

Worku takes the language of Faulkner's ideas and uses it to describe Ethiopia during the reign of Haile Selassie. You could also pair Worku's book with Williams Sassine's Wirriyamu, comparing the polemic fiction of African anti-colonialism to the pessimistic self-assessment of an African country that has not been colonised. (Calm pessimism is a luxury.)

George Eliot's Middlemarch, and Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.

You could mix these around with Bleak House, War and Peace, or any of those other books that try to swallow a whole country from the higher parts of society to the lower. A Suitable Boy perhaps?

Hannah Arendt's On Revolution and Melville's Billy Budd.

Arendt draws on Budd as she discusses the intersection between Rousseau's ideas about the native virtue of Natural Man, and the men who saw the French Revolution transform into the Reign of Terror.

Elizabeth Jolley's Lovesong and Alex Miller's Lovesong.

Purely for the titles. I haven't read Miller's book.

The Selected Poems of Gwen Harwood and Jolley's Lovesong.

Music is important to both books, and the two writers share an impressionistic or pointillist method of putting a piece of work together.

Pierre Louÿs' Aphrodite and Jacob's Room, by Woolf.

One writer's worship of the ancient world versus the other writer's sane and smiling glance at ancient-world worship. I would read them in that order too. Aphrodite contains the quintessential decadent line: "It is almost three hours since I arose; I am dying of fatigue," uttered by a character who has spent most of that three hours sitting in a chair or lying down in a bath.

En-hedu-ana's Inana and Ebih and Antar (or Antara, or Antarah, or 'Antarah Ibn Shaddād al-'Absī)'s The Poem of Antar.

Two warlike narrators and a chanting style, at least in translation. (I am thinking of this version of Inana and this Antar.)

Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate. Tolstoy's War and Peace.

Grossman's book would not have existed in its present shape without Tolstoy's. He is even faithful to the idea that we should spend intimate time with the leaders of both sides in his story's war. One of the book's daring surprises -- which I am about to ruin for you if you have not read it -- is the sudden plunge into Hitler.

Paul Theroux's The Mosquito Coast and Christina Stead's The People with the Dogs.

The two authors look at utopias. Theroux approaches the idea from one angle, Stead approaches it from others. His approach is quite clear and driven, hers surrounds the idea like an amoeba and bores into it.

Christina Stead's Letty Fox - Her Luck, and Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders.

Letty is like Moll, sexually pragmatic.

Two short stories: Alice Munro's Runaway and Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find.

Ovid's Metamorphoses and Satomi Ikazawa's Guru Guru Pon-Chan.

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and Fernanado Pessoa's Book of Disquiet.

Félix Fénéon's Novels in Three Lines and today's newspaper.

Friday, February 19, 2010


John Crowley's Love and Sleep takes Francesco Colonna's 1499 Venetian incunabula Hypnerotomachia Poliphili for a skeleton and how long has it been since I first read Love and Sleep? Years. Yet it wasn't until I came across an Amazon page dedicated to the new 1999 translation of the Hypnerotomachia (by Joscelyn Godwin, who I thought at first must be a woman, but no, a man, a musiclogist) that it occurred to me to look online for the older translation, an incomplete one published in 1592. This translation is attributed to someone whose initials were R.D., perhaps the courtier Robert Dallington -- they guess -- who died in 1636, leaving bread for the poor in his will and donating a large bell to the church of Geddington. Project Gutenberg has it.

The _Pægma_ base or subiect for this metaline machine to stand vpon, was of one solyde peece of marble … At the hinder end in like sort was a garland of deadly Woolfwoort, with this inscription, _Equus infælicitatis_. And vpon the right side there was ingrauen certaine figures, shapes, and representments of men and women dauncing together, byformed or faced, the formost smiling, the hynmost weeping: and dauncing in a ring, with theyr armes spred abrode, and hanfasted man, with man and woman with woman. One arme of the man vnder that of the woman, and the other aboue, and thus closing together, and houlding by the hands, they floung about one after another, that alwayes still in one place, a smyling countenance incountered a foregoing sad.

There's a nice completeness of the imagination in that description, in the mind's eye that sees not only people dancing in a circle, but also the detail that rounds out the object, "a smyling countenance incountered a foregoing sad," which reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's point about the flying elephants. It's the writer's exactness that makes an imagined thing seem real.

Some hours after I'd posted this, as I was watching my blood elf fly his dragonhawk across Northrend, I thought, "When does a person want to pay precise attention to a thing? When they feel a strong emotion towards it, when they love it or hate it, or, when they want to eat it."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

the 'impression' has been printed in us

I was feeling low and mildewy this evening about that book-length piece of writing I've mentioned here once before, the one that I've been poking at, poor object, like a bear-baiter trying to rouse his animal into a competitive mood. My writing, I reflected sorrowfully, was nothing like the writing of anyone I admired: "You don't have the vigour of Christina Stead, you don't have the romance of Bruno Schulz, you don't have the brains of Hannah Arendt," and so forth, "you don't sound like anybody. You can't put sentences together the way Proust did --" and it was then I remembered that Proust wrote about the value of writing like oneself, even while you were wishing you were one of your heroes. This was heartening, because I had a vision of him (subject of veneration, multiply translated, trusted, loved, adored) propped up in his bed sighing, "But I sound nothing like Ruskin, not even a French sort of Ruskin. Oh Ruskin, Ruskin!" -- and moping like that piano player in Sesame Street who can't get to the end of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star without beating his forehead against the keys in despair. "I'll never do it!" he shouts. "Never!" Clang, clang, clang.

So I went away and fooled around in Time Regained for a while, trying to find the quote I had remembered, and never seeing it anywhere. But the book had its effect nonetheless: I read it and the spectacle of passionate sense cheered me up.

How many for this reason turn aside from writing! What tasks do men not take upon themselves in order to evade this task! ... For instinct dictates our duty and the intellect supplies us with pretexts for evading it. But excuses have no place in art and intentions count for nothing: at every moment the artist has to listen to his instinct, and it is this that makes art the most real of all things, the most austere school of life, the last true judgment. This book, more laborious to decipher than any other, is also the only one that has been dictated to us by reality, the only one of which the 'impression' has been printed in us by reality itself. When an idea ... is left in us by life, its material pattern, the outline of the impression that it made upon us, remains behind as the token of its necessary truth. The ideas formed by the pure intelligence have no more than a logical, a possible truth, they are arbitrarily chosen. The book whose hieroglyphs are patterns not traced by us is the only book that really belongs to us.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

of this sort of speed

Madeleine St. John's The Essence of the Thing moves quickly. Why? How? Reading it felt almost effortless. It was like eating gelati. Annie Dillard's Teaching a Stone to Talk felt weightier. It seemed to take longer, even though it was fifty pages shorter than the Essence. Gelati versus cake. My copy of St. John's book ends at page two hundred and thirty-four. The Dillard ends at page one hundred and seventy-seven, like this:

The gust crosses the river and blackens the water where it passes, like a finger closing slats.

This impression of calm temporariness is a constant feature of Dillard's writing. As an essayist she's like that finger or that gust of wind, moving directly across a shifting surface, opening a slat of speculation, then flowing on. "What's the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab?" she wonders, "Are they not both saying Hello?", and then she continues at her usual even pace, without answering.

St. John ends with water too, come to think of it. Her leading lady leans over the railing of a bridge and stares down, feeling "an all-engulfing, and quite unutterable, sadness." If the other author had written that sentence I think she would have left out the commas. St. John uses commas, colons, and semi-colons to make her sentences hop along urgently. She's always promising to fling off into tangents and half-thoughts. Dillard goes in smooth sweeps. She writes like a woman with a destination in mind. St. John writes like a woman who might be diverted into another thought at any moment, or to whom new ideas keep occurring. So as she's writing "He drove her to Notting Hill" it comes to her that he was driving in a certain way.

He drove her, pretty fast, to Notting Hill and they chatted a little on the way; they discovered each other's occupations, but very little more.

But Dillard cruises straight ahead. She goes where she's going.

It was before dawn when we found a highway out of town and drove into the unfamiliar countryside. By the growing light we could see a band of cirrostratus clouds in the sky. Later the rising sun would clear those clouds before the eclipse came. We drove at random until we came to a range of unfenced hills. We pulled off the highway, bundled up, and climbed one of those hills.

So that's one answer. St. John lightens herself with that non-cruising breathlessness. (Also with the hesitant shrug of her non-committals: "pretty fast," not "fast," as if to say, "Well, not that it's utterly important, but sort of like this.") She's doesn't let you sit on the page. She likes to make you pop. Here's another answer: she writes long exchanges between characters who prefer to say as little as possible at any given time. Pages and half-pages go by like this:

"Are you doing anything tonight?"

"Not particularly."

"Can I come round after work?"

"Just you?"

"Yes. Just me."

"Is anything wrong?"


Of course this is faster to read than whole lines of description, which is what the reader finds in Dillard. There's something else too, though: there's the way St. John uses familiarity. Her people all come close to caricature. She assumes that her readers are so familiar with character types that all she needs to do is draw a light sketch and they'll be able to supply the rest. For instance she'll give the male lead's father a speech --

[O]f course you have better things to do of a Saturday than play cricket, why the hell should you? Let the village team go to the devil, who cares these days? I suppose you'd rather be pumping iron, isn't that what they call it, in some foul gymnasium, with a lot of blacks, and women wearing silver leotards.

-- and let us flesh him out: yes, an older man, stout -- I see him stout -- broad-faced, maybe a meaty neck, with a short haircut of course, because he thinks long hair is effeminate. St. John doesn't tell us this, but I know. I've seen this insular British bad-tempered father before in other books. He wears a shirt and trousers, never t-shirt and jeans, and he rattles the newspaper irritably at the breakfast table. If he picks up a book it will be non-fiction, not fiction, and probably a book about war.

In other words she builds the characters by accumulating conventions, as classical Chinese or Japanese artists make the established marks that mean reeds or mountains, trusting the audience to supply the rest for themselves. The question to ask of the artist is not, can you invent new marks, but, how well do you deploy those conventions? How well, how vividly, do you use them? If I were writing a review of the Essence of the Thing, this is the question I would ask.

St. John is not creating a character so much as she's reminding us that we've already created him. He's wandering around inside us and she lets him out. We've already done half the work. And so she pounces along rapidly.

Dillard spends her book witnessing astonishing events. She meditates on these events, she describes them to us, she juxtaposes them with other events, and then she wonders over them. Her description of an eclipse goes on for pages and incorporates a quote from Theodore Roethke. We learn how fast the moon's shadow moves as it crosses the earth

I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 18, 000 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed

The cold shadow hits her "like a slug of anaesthetic." "It was as though an enormous-loping god in the sky had reached down and slapped the earth's face." Dillard is constantly roused to awe like this. A weasel looks at her and she is "stunned into stillness." Searching for words that will describe the weasel, she finds an unusual comparison: it is "brown as fruitwood." St. John is never roused to awe. She never asks us to be roused to awe either. Dillard asserts new ideas; St. John reasserts old ones, and so we spring ahead with her, keeping pace easily and quickly, while Dillard asks us to stop with her, and think, and meditate, and witness. Most things, she says, are unknowable.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

don't rise no more

As I went wading around the laundry floor this afternoon, chasing storm-puddles with a towel, it occurred to me that by all the dramatic laws of D.H. Lawrence I should be having it off with a gypsy.

"All right!" he cried. "All right! The water don't rise no more! All right!"

Monday, February 8, 2010

some kind of minor literary resurrection

Ah'hm --

I am looking at the conclusion of yesterday's post. It sounds scolding, and I do not want to scold. No one could argue that the Fleece deserves to take up the space of its entire length in this kind of anthology. The person who put Eighteenth Century Verse together, Roger Lonsdale is his name, has gone beyond the call of ordinary duty, which would be to slap a few well-known poets together and leave it at that. "After several years of reading the 'submerged' poets of the period," he writes in the Introduction

"I can only hope that this anthology succeeds to some extent in conveying my own conviction that the world of eighteenth-century poetry is at once less predictable and more familiar than we have been led to believe … If, inevitably, I would like to believe that this anthology is in various ways more representative of the full range of eighteenth-century verse than most collections, I have no desire that it should some to seem in any way definitive, aware as I am of the arbitrary decisions I have had to make, particularly among the poets so long buried beneath the debris of history."

He goes on to say that he regrets leaving out so much of Pope. "Pope will, however, survive my attentions.

I am more haunted by the lingering memory of some of the totally forgotten men and women whose literary bones I disturbed after they had slumbered peacefully for some two hundred years … and for whom I had envisaged some kind of minor literary resurrection, but who necessarily fell back into the darkness of the centuries, perhaps irretrievably, at the last stage of my selection."

He was able to relieve a little of that feeling later, when Oxford commissioned another book of eighteenth century verse, this one devoted to women's poetry. (I am going to use this as an opportunity to point out the existence of Charlotte Smith, an early Romantic with a fine taste for Gothic melancholy. She's represented in Eighteenth Century Verse by her Sonnet Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex.

Press'd by the Moon, mute arbitress of tides,
While the loud equinox its power combines,
The sea no more its swelling surge confines,
But o'er the shrinking land sublimely rides.
The wild blast, rising from the Western cave,
Drives the huge billows from their heaving bed;
Tears from their grassy tombs the village dead,
And breaks the silent sabbath of the grave!
With shells and sea-weed mingled, on the shore
Lo! their bones whiten in the frequent wave;
But vain to them the winds and waters rave;
They hear the warring elements no more:
While I am doom'd—by life's long storm opprest,
To gaze with envy on their gloomy rest.

You can find links to examples of her work at the bottom of her Wikipedia page.)

I haven't been able to find a good copy of the fly poem online, only a Google Books scan of a collection so old that every ess looks like eff, but the one about St. Anthony and his pig can be read here.

Here is Grongar Hill.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

our woolly treasures amply stored

I'm going to mention the New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse again because I want to say a few words about John Dyer. He's represented here by three full poems and an excerpt from his long georgic, The Fleece. Grongar Hill is the poem that has kept his name popping up intermittently in British anthologies since his death in 1758, but it's the Fleece that prompts me to write about him; I have an affection for the Fleece. I'll get to it in a moment. First, Grongar Hill. Wordsworth was so impressed by Grongar Hill that he wrote a sonnet in its honour. Johnson called it "pleasing." It was the high point of Dyer's career; he seems never to have written another poem as successful. The secret of Grongar Hill lies in its simplicity, its easygoing rhyming couplets, and the sympathy between the poet and the landscape.

The fountain's fall, the river's flow,
The woody valleys, warm and low;
The windy summit, wild and high

Serious ideas are introduced without Dyer straining for effect:

And see the rivers how they run
Through woods and meads; in shade and sun
Sometimes swift, sometimes slow
Wave succeeding wave, they go
A various journey to the deep,
Like human life, to endless sleep.

Unexpectedly minorly famous for sweet simplicity, he ruined it with over-ambitious, unsimple follow-ups like The Ruins of Rome, which starts like this:

Enough of Grongar, and the shady dales,
Of winding Towy, Merlin's fabled haunt,
I sung inglorious.

He was a man who couldn't trust his own talent. Eighteenth Century Verse doesn't have Ruins, but it does include a negligible thing called To Clio. From Rome and a less negligible thing called My Ox Duke. The day is burning hot, the ox named Duke runs towards the shade of a barn, but stops at "a ridge of snow-white little pigs" lying asleep across the entrance.

He stands tormented at the shadow's edge

He might have trampled the piglets. Instead he noses them until they wake and move out of his way.

And breathed upon them, nosed them, touched them soft;
With lovely fear to hurt their tender sides

"Breathed upon them, nosed them, touched them soft" is beautifully done -- the poet approaching the pigs briefly, gently, three different ways (without hard sounds or hard repetition or anything hard at all) to mirror the action of the ox with the action of the language describing it. Dyer is moved by the sight and draws lessons. God, a power that treasures even the squashable, is working through the ox, and we should follow his example. Acts of mercy are beautiful.

Be meek thou child of man:
Who gives thee life, gives every worm to live,
Thy kindred of the dust.

The poem is otherwise so uncluttered that the invocation of God is unnecessary. His point would have been clear without it. Dyer kept a farm for a time and My Ox Duke has the naturalness of an observed incident. The four-book Fleece is firmest and plainest in its first part, where he discusses the farming of sheep.

Here it would avail,
At a meet distance from the upland ridge,
To sink a trench, and on the hedge-long bank
Sow frequent sand, with lime and dark manure

In fact the Encyclopaedia Britannica suggests that "sheep tending" is the sole subject of the poem but this is not true. The poet moves from sheep to wool, from wool to the weaving of wool, and then to the export of wool cloth from Britain to the rest of the globe. The terminal fourth of the poem sees British ships shooting around the planet in triumph.

Now with our woolly treasures amply stored,
Glide the tall fleets into the widening main,
A floating forest, every sail, unfurled,
Swells to the wind …

While gaily o'er the waves the mounting prows
Dance, like a shoal of dolphins, and begin
To streak with various paths the hoary deep.

Then Dyer starts describing countries he hasn't seen. His language loses the precision it had when he was addressing farming. It becomes romantic. The Caribbean is a "sea-wrapt garden of the dulcet reed." "The serpent hisses," in northern Russia, "while in thickets nigh / Loud howls the hungry wolf." Offshore there are "monsters of the deep / Porpoise, or grampus, or the ravenous shark." In Guinea he finds …

… yellow dust of gold
Which, with her rivers, rolls adown the sides
Of unknown hills, where fiery-wingèd winds,
And sandy deserts roused by sudden storms,
All search forbid.

Hottentots murder their parents, Samoyeds live in freezing caves, and Ceylon "also deemed / The ancient Ophir" possesses exciting volcanoes. Hugh l'Anson Fausset argues that this fourth book is the floppiest part of the poem, and so it is, if you take it on its own. However it is necessary to the Fleece as a whole. The wave of extravagance flings the story open. It gives the Fleece the shape of a cornucopia, spilling lush fruit. The start was narrow, detailed and particular, he was talking about subjects he knew well: sheep, the sicknesses of sheep, lambkins, sheep, sheep, rain, sheep, and soil cultivation. Now at the end he has leapt into the realm of fantasy. He's off, he's away. His voice follows the progress of the wool, not only in fact, but in tone. Wool drives Britons out into the world where they spread goodness to every nation they touch. They are supermen.

'Tis her delight
To fold the world with harmony, and spread
Among the habitations of mankind
The various wealth of toil, and what her fleece
To clothe the naked, and her skilful looms,
Peculiar give.

The Fleece is shaped like life, impossible, eternal life. It starts in a small place with a tight focus, a baby-sized thing, then expands, grows, takes on more accomplishments, bursts out in triumph, flawless successes; and stops before death comes. In the last lines "Britain's happy trade" is still expanding

Wide as the Atlantic and Pacific seas
Or as air's vital fluid o'er the globe.

It stops there. The happiness that worked on a small scale in Grongar Hill is thinner when it's punched up like this, given a flag to wave, and stretched across the planet like a stocking over a basketball, but there's glitter in this thinness and excitement in this picture of a earthly heaven -- humanity saved, saved, and all by wool! -- in spite of its alien jingoism, its improbability -- oh the innocence of it, and the thrill he gets out of his imaginary foreign travels, and the little touches, as when he pictures shells from Madagascar brought home to sit on London mantelpieces. The seriousness of the first part provides a firm grounding for the flight of fancy's liftoff.

Lo, from the simple fleece, how much proceeds.

Of course all of this is lost in Eighteenth Century Verse, where we only have a few pages from book three. A pity.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

of kafka and other stories

So, I stood in our local St. Vinnies, which is not, to me, the face of a gentle charitable institution that provides food and shelter to unhappy children, or a convenient social club for the elderly and disabled staff members who have nowhere else (you assume) to go, no other prospect of an assembly-room where cheerful faces wait to draw on their decades of accumulated skills -- perhaps without families, these people, perhaps lonely, suicidal, talking to their cats -- but instead a place where they once sold me the entire Alexandria Quartet for fifty cents -- therefore a business whose employees are slightly mad yet deserve to be treated with reverence, like deluded kings -- so there I stood by the video cassettes and a table of stuffed bears, thinking, "I must not buy these books. I must not buy any books." We're planning to move to the States at some point in the future, and I've been sorting out books to discard and books to leave behind. "If I buy any more books I will only have to worry about storing them in boxes and packing them and figuring out where they will go, and the cost of transportation, and what if they get lost …" and so on. "Put it back." So I put back Isaac Bashevis Singer's A Friend of Kafka and Other Stories, which would have cost me fifty cents with a photograph of the author on the back cover looking glum and squashy in a hat. "Put it back." So I replaced The Letters of Rachel Henning, with an introduction and illustrations by Norman Lindsay. Then there was Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, which I held in my hand as I moved around the shop, prowling undecided past an aisle of women's long-sleeved shirts. It was the tyranny of the Famous Name that had me. Again, as with George Meredith, I was held by the Famous Name that says to you from the cover of a book, "Look, you've heard of me. You must have heard of me for a reason. I must be good. Or even if I am not good, at least I am worth a dollar. A dollar! That's nothing."* I paused here to reflect with pleasure on a mistake made by George Perec in Life a User's Manual. He had Australian characters using dollars in the 1940s and the Australian dollar wasn't introduced until 1966. I picked up the mistake, hence the pleasure. Still, Perec wrote the whole User's Manual from start to finish and barely had to revise it after the first draft. A free and clever man. And here I am on the seventh draft of an interminable book-length thing I keep fiddling with. So who wins there? Perec surely. I still didn't know what to do with Henderson the Rain King. Finally I paid for it. On the way home I tried to threaten myself with punishments: "You'll have to throw out something else to make room for that. Why did you buy Henderson the Rain King? The U.S. is bursting with copies of Henderson the Rain King. America invented Henderson the Rain King." But the cover matches my copy of The Adventures of Augie March. "Since when did you care about matching covers? Since never. If you want all your books to match, go buy a Kindle." Nnh, they're not going to sell me the Alexandria Quartet for fifty cents. "No, and they're not going to leave you wondering where to store your boxes either. No boxes! Freedom! Dill."

Fall into reverie re. storms passing across the Arizona desert outside M.'s mother's house where there is nothing but cholla and hares for miles and all that weird storm-light across the bushes.

* But not quite like Meredith, because I'd already read several Bellows. Here it was the Famous Title. But why let it have this influence?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

floating on the fragrant wave

Some books stand on a shelf for months or years, meaning nothing, blanks, might as well be bricks, then in an instant they become the one thing in the world that has to be read -- that book -- that one there and no other -- read me, cries the spine firmly: this is my time, my hour: now. Following Persuasion, and after some time spent typing titles into LibraryThing, I poked around in the shelf near M.'s computer for a book to read and -- ha -- there was the New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse and it presented itself as the book that had to be read.

I wouldn't have picked it up if it hadn't been for one of my favourite anthologies, Chatto and Windus' Seventeenth Century Poetry. I had forgotten the century. "I like eighteenth century poetry," I told M. showing him Verse, then I paused, no, wait, did I mean eighteenth or seventeenth? The Milton one. Edited by John Hayward. A different century. But the new book was already off the shelf, and it had a number and teenth on the cover, so, close enough, and the people were dead, centuries dead, and being so profoundly dead confers a sort of importance -- think: all the millions of dead in the world, and here they are, these happy few, chosen for an anthology. There is an Iris Murdoch character in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine who feels tender toward the dead --

It was so important to think quiet loving thoughts about people in idle moments, especially perhaps about the dead, who, being substanceless so desperately need our thoughts.

Everyone walks all over her. This Eighteenth Century Verse was put together in accordance with a principle of inclusion that I came across for the first time in the New Oxford Book of Australian Verse edited by Les Murray. The idea is that the editor should look for unknown names as well as famous ones, that different points of view should be represented, that demotic-slang should be given a place next to culture-slang (this being your thees and thous and references to Greek and Roman myth, which is the style of the Hayward). So the Australian anthology incorporates not only Kenneth Slessor's Five Bells, which is an obligatory inclusion for every collection of Australian poems, but also children' rhymes, translations of song cycles from several different Aboriginal languages, and a number of anonymous colonial pieces, one of which, when I think of the baked yellow grass outside, seems pertinent:

O this weather! this weather!
It's more than a mortal can bear;
I fear we shall all melt together,
So dreadfully hot is the air.

Presumably this inclusiveness is a reaction to modern social movements: feminism rediscovering neglected women, people pointing out that the colonised had their histories too (several of the poems in Eighteenth Century Verse address slavery, Native Americans, the British in India) and a general feeling that history is (as Eliot said and Dickens suggested) about more than a few eminent names teetering grandly on pedestals -- that there is a larger, more generous picture -- life, life, life swarming around these names, which the names reflected partly but not fully. Relativity, suggests W.G. Sebald in a set of class notes published recently in Five Dials magazine: "suddenly [in twentieth century literature] there were other views. In the natural sciences the [twentieth] century saw the disproving of Newton and the introduction of the notion of relativity."

It is about being polite and curious, excited and not-lazy: willing to explore. Here, then -- among your usual Popes, your Goldsmiths, Johnson, Cowper regarding with fine dignity a dying oak -- here in Eighteenth Century there are poems about hot air ballooning, golf, the financial hardships inflicted on sailors and soldiers and soldiers' widows, there are poems by lights who, though lesser, had their moments -- there is a series of poems by Jonathan Richardson on the subject of My Late Dear Wife, all dated, all together showing a sensibility weakening over time, growing more consciously poetic as the death of his wife falls into the past. The first is the simplest and strongest and it is dated Jan 18, 1726.

Adieu, dear life! here I am left alone
The world is strangely changed since thou art gone,
Compose thyself to rest, all will be well;
I'll come to bed 'as fast as possible.'

The second, written several months later, is longer and less to the point:

Slumb'ring disturbed, appeared the well-known face,
Lovely, engaging, as she ever was;
I kissed and caught the phantom in my arms,
I knew it such, but such a shade has charms!
Devout, I thanked kind heaven …

And so on for twelve more lines, lacking the rushed personal touch of the first poem's speech, 'as fast as possible,' and the detail of the couple going to bed, which was moving because it was ordinary. The poet is no longer addressing the dead wife. Now he's turning towards a living audience. He is looking away. The third part of the series is longer still. There are other curiosities in the book, other things to notice. Alexander Pennecuik's A Marriage Betwixt Scrape, Monarch of the Maunders, and Blobberlips, Queen of the Gypsies is written partly in Polari --

The doxies turn up their keels and spelder,
Wapping till a kinch twang in the kelder

One anonymous poem is narrated by a ship's chaplain asking his on-board superiors for a better place to shit:

Say then, when pease, within the belly pent,
Roar at the port and struggle for a vent,
Say, shall I squat on dung remissly down,
And with unseemly ordure stain the gown?

One has St. Anthony talking to a pig.

O my pretty piggy-wiggy
More sweet than is the figgy
That grows on yonder twiggy
Or sugar candy;
My love for thee surpasses
All that which pretty lasses
Have for their looking-glasses,
Or Tristram Shandy.

Hannah More's The Riot: or, Half a Loaf is better than No Bread. In a Dialogue between Jack Anvil and Tom Hod, "supposedly," according to the Notes at the back of the book, "stopped a riot by colliers near Bristol" in 1795.

"What a whimsy to think thus our bellies to fill,
For we stop all the grinding by breaking the mill!
What a whimsy to think we shall get more to eat
By abusing the butchers who get us the meat!
What a whimsy to think we shall mend our spare diet
By breeding disturbance, by murder and riot!"

George Farewell celebrates the mussel.

Hail, happy shell! from heart-ache ever free!

In On the Great Fog in London, December 1762, James Eyre Weeks, classified elsewhere as one of the eighteenth century's "labouring-class poets," finds different ways to describe the blindness conferred by the fog, most beautifully and simply:

... from our ears we see

Like Turner he picks impressions out of murk.

... great St. Paul,
With his huge dome, and cupola, appears
A craggy precipice, rude, unformed;
Or like the ruin of an ancient fort
Upon a hill

The sun is "Like a red beacon on a foggy coast." The sunbeams

Like birds in storms, are dubious where to fly,
And waste their radiance on the tawny air.

The book is like that poem, touching eighteenth century Britain here and there, leaving an impression of largeness, of society swelling and murmuring around behind the words on the page. The New Oxford shows us the fort on the hill; somewhere below we might sense the building, and builders, and people inside, and the city around the building, hidden by time as by fog, but there, there, and the book is pointing to it -- there.

Hetty Wright despises wedlock.

Thou scorpion with a double face,
Thou lawful plague of human race

John Wolcot is sorry for a fly "taken out of a bowl of punch."

Ah! poor intoxicated little knave
Now senseless, floating on the fragrant wave

I chased a fly into a spiderweb earlier today. Now I discover I can't read the Wolcot without feeling guilty.

Go, join thy brothers on yon sunny board,
And rapture to thy family afford --
There wilt thou meet a mistress, or a wife,
That saw thee, drunk, drop senseless in the stream;
Who gave, perhaps, the wide-resounding scream,

(I feel terrible.)

And now sits groaning for thy precious life.

(Oh fly I am sorry.)

Yes, go and carry comfort to thy friends,
And wisely tell them thy imprudence ends.

It's at about the point where Wolcot eulogises its "little nose" that the guilt really starts to kick in.

And now thy little drunken eyes unclose
And now thou feelest for thy little nose

(Dear god, you'd think it was a kitten.)