This week is spring break at Kenyon, so I flew to St. Louis on Monday morning in the aftermath of an ice storm and my brother picked me up at the airport and drove me down to Cape Girardeau, the town where we grew up, to see my mother.
It was emergency time in Cape, where snow is rare and ice means you stay inside until it melts. My brother currently lives in Chicago, though, so Monday night he drove us around on a tour of closed restaurants until we found a chain one that was open and we had dinner and talked about where all we’d like to travel.
The next day, my brother left and my mother and I went out shopping. She gets around with a cane and still drives pretty well, and we managed to find parking places that were largely ice-free, although on one I had to scrape the slush away with the side of my shoe so she could get out with better footing.
On my last day there, we decided we wanted to go eat barbecue at a place down by the Mississippi river, but we couldn’t find any parking places that had been cleared enough for her to get out safely. Finally she pulled up into a place right in front of the floodwall and I did the slush/shoe thing so I could get out and came around to her side to help hold her in case of slipping. The ice had some texture, though, so we made it in and out of the restaurant, laughing about our Day of Living Dangerously.
The day after I got back after visiting my mother, I read “Otherwise” by Jane Kenyon, from a link at So Many Books, and thought it captured something of the precarious pleasure of my visit to my mother–thinking of places she still might be able to go, missing my father, and looking for spring clothes as a way of reassuring ourselves that spring is coming.
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
Neither of us have two strong legs, but we do have legs that work, and I’m afraid one day it will be otherwise. For now, we can still have a good time together and plan other days.
We are planning several trips, in fact. There’s nothing that says spring and summer to us like going somewhere. Are you going anywhere?
It is time for a bit of magical writing, I believe. I must do something to make February come to an end, and have decided that the only way to do that is to get a certain book out of my head by writing about it.
All winter long I have had Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin on my bedside table. I read about 400 of its 688 pages and then heard the movie was coming out, so I stopped. There’s no point reading a book right before the movie comes out; you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
Last weekend I went to see the movie by myself, and I was delighted by it. Magic! A flying horse! A love story with a very hot heroine (sorry, couldn’t help myself there—in the movie she melts snow with her feet which is funny even in the face of imminent great tragedy, kind of like the scene in The Princess Bride when Westley’s mostly-corpse is asked what’s so important and it says “true love” but it sounds like “to blave.”)
And that, in a nutshell, is what’s making lovers of the book and serious critics groan about the movie. The book is long and multi-layered and crammed with characters and symbols, and the movie takes a couple of the storylines and pumps up the characters like inflatable dolls and poses them for a couple of the most spectacular scenes. I love that! But a lot of what I love about it is that it’s funny. Will Smith as Lucifer? I’ll pay money to see that!
It’s also full of scenes that you wouldn’t think you’d ever see. Someone actually filmed Peter Lake’s lair above a train station complete with pinholes that look like stars if you think to look up? I want to look at it! And the flying horse, well. Let’s just say that you get more than one look at its wings.
This movie could be the next Rocky Horror Picture Show, if we would just give it a chance. Preferably at midnight, and well-fortified with whatever fortifies you.
Lovers of the book would probably like to see more of the unlikely scenes, like the places where the bad guys (“short tails”) meet early on:
“They felt privileged to convene on the piers of the Brooklyn Bridge, waist-deep in not entirely empty water tanks, nestled in terror between the spars of the Statue of Liberty’s crown, in the cellar beneath an opium den on Doyer Street, or at the edge of the central sewer fall, sitting like picnickers in the dark by the side of Niagara.”
Or the scene in which the good guy, Peter Lake, does what his mentor asks:
“’With all your strength, Peter Lake, strike now!’ Peter Lake struck an enormous blow, and waited for further instructions. He waited and waited—and when finally he looked behind the shield, he saw Mootfowl, smiling alertly, unusually still, serene, pinned through his heart to an oaken log.
‘Oh Lord,’ Peter Lake said, too shocked to feel any grief even for a man he had loved so much. He had stuck Mootfowl like a butterfly.
You could not drive an iron stake through the heart of a man of the cloth, and expect to go unpunished.”
Although the trappings are mystical, take any one of the elements from the book out of its immediate context, and it’s funny. Take for example the mysterious “Baymen,” who know the secret name of Peter Lake’s magical white horse and tell him that “there are ten songs….one learns them, beginning at age thirteen, one each decade….the third song, Peter Lake, is the song of Athansor.” Peter reflects that knowing the horse’s name doesn’t change their relationship, but…
“something had changed, or was changing. Everything always did, no matter how much he loved what he had. The only redemption would be if all the tumbling and rearrangement were to mean something. But he was aware of no pattern. If there were one great equality, one fine universal balance that he could understand, then he would know that there were others, and that someday the curtain of the world would lift onto a sunny springlike stillness and reveal that nothing—nothing—had been for nought….”
The great human romance of the book, between Peter Lake and Beverly Penn, is over by page 188, which gives you an idea of the great swathes of the book that are cut out and completely ignored by the movie.
The other romance is with the city of New York. Having just spent months playing a rather difficult and yet unrewarding twentieth-century composition for symphony entitled “Reflections on the Hudson” by Nancy Bloomer Deussen, I was uninclined to respond sympathetically to rhapsodies like this one:
“On the Hudson, there was always the opportunity to be educated deeply in the heart. The beauty of the landscape did the rest, along with the magic of the moon, the river’s hot and reedy bays, the glittering silver ice, days of summer or days of snow submerged in an ocean of clear blue air, fields never-ending, the wind from Canada, and the great city to the south.”
I am, however, delighted by chapters like “Nothing is Random,” which begins with the image of
“a long string of perfectly blue days that begin and end in golden dimness, the most seemingly chaotic political acts, the rise of a great city, the crystalline structure of a gem that has never seen the light, the distributions of fortune, what time the milkman gets up, the position of the electron, or the occurrence of one astonishingly frigid winter after another”
and ends with
“any event, no matter how small, is intimately and sensibly tied to all others. All rivers run to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is.”
I’m delighted in spite of the mention of the dead being brought back to life, even, as the magic in this book is of the sort that would shine a bright light on necromancy and reveal it entirely as a dirty, rotten parody of life.
Dark and light come together at the end of the book, with a new mayor who “was the first mayor ever to be elected without the bosses….they did not know what to expect from him. He might speak about winter’s charm, excoriate the evils of television, or wonder out loud about the city’s destiny….with exactly a month to go before the millennium, he chose in his inauguration address to discourse upon the metaphysical balance that informed all events and was so characteristic of the city as almost to be its hallmark.”
This is not to say that New York does not experience an apocalypse:
“Afraid to leave their cars and venture into the city of the poor, especially since pillars of fire were now twisting amid the rubble, most people locked themselves in, petrified with fear, as thousands of marauders streamed onto the highway. Cars were rocked, windows smashed, and lighted pieces of wood dropped into gas tanks. Families were pulled from their cars and dragged separately into the darkness. The shoulders of the road became a slaughterhouse in which trembling victims and shining blades met to produce rivers of blood.”
But a new city rises. One might almost say there is a vision of a city upon a hill.
The movie makers actually capture some of the tone of the book well, in the miniscule bit that they decided to tackle. And tackle it they did, pulling it down, keeping it there, succeeding in stopping it from getting across a goal line.
Still, though, they must have expected magic. And what we get is…Will Smith as Lucifer!
So, an end now, to Winter’s Tale. Time for spring…as I write, so mote it be.
For the hardy literary trivia lover, and about Thomas Hardy (from Who Killed Iago by James Walton).
As what is Michael Henchard known in the title of a Hardy novel?
Which Hardy novel takes its title from a phrase in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”?
Which Hardy novel opens on a Saturday in November, with twilight falling over Egdon Heath?
The savage critical reception of which book is generally agreed to be the reason Hardy gave up writing novels?
Anna from Diary of an Eccentric asked (in the comments to my 6th blogoversary post) which one is my favorite Emily Dickinson poem. I named three, and even posted a video of me singing the first stanza of one of them.
The more I thought about the poems of Emily Dickinson, though, the more I realized that this one is actually the one I think about most:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Perhaps it’s because I love the story about how Zeus came to Semele as a presence and she conceived Dionysus but then Semele (tricked by Hera) demanded to see him as he really is, and he’d sworn he’d do what she asked, and so even though he knew that the sight of his full glory would kill her, he appeared before her in his true form.
Perhaps it’s because I like the way the image of truth as a circuit plays with the idea of circling around what we know in an attempt to find truth and also makes me picture the light bulb that comes on when an electric circuit is completed.
Perhaps it’s because I like how far the play on the word “lies” can be stretched—all the way from a feeling of success in truth-telling to the feeling that one has left something out or obscured some part and so the attempt has resulted in “lies.”
Perhaps it’s because whatever “ease” is provided by knowing why something scary happens and how it works is uneasy, and because at first glance it seems impossible to be dazzled “gradually.”
For these and other reasons, the first line of this poem is in my head a lot.
It’s ironic that I circled around three other poems before realizing that this one is, in fact, probably my very favorite one.
We went to California in February and it rained the whole time…this, after months of drought.
It was forty degrees warmer than in Ohio, though, so I ventured out in the wet to ride on a cable car and walk around the Embarcadero and take a boat to Alcatraz with my friend Catriona. I think that Catriona and I were willing to take the tour of Alcatraz with each other because we trusted that the other one was not going to take too long in there—we expected it to be full of sad stories, and it was. There’s an audio tour of the prison, and I skipped some of the worst parts, going right to the library, which I figure must have been the only other thing besides the view that made prison life at all bearable.
The next day my friend Readers Guide drove to San Francisco in the rain to show me the city. We went to Ocean Beach, where I put my feet in the cold Pacific and we walked around the cliff beneath Cliff House and up to the end of the low tide beach, where we could see the remains of the Sutro Baths. Then, thoroughly soaked through from the driving rain, we had lunch at Louie’s, where it was so warm in contrast to how chilly it was getting outside that the windows steamed up. After lunch, we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and to Golden Gate Park, where we walked through the puddles in a Japanese tea garden and went up in the deYoung observation tower. On the following day, she showed us around Berkeley and the University, and she and her husband took us to dinner at Chez Panisse, where together we tried a good selection of everything on the daily menu and pronounced it all delicious by polishing the plates.
There are a lot of homeless people in San Francisco, especially around the touristy bits, although policemen periodically push them back. I was thinking about Jack Womack’s novel Random Acts of Senseless Violence, which I’d read on the airplane on the way out because it was so highly recommended in Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great. (See Walton’s review at Tor.com.) The novel is set in a Manhattan of the near future, and what’s so disturbing and fascinating about it is how near bits of that future can seem when you’re walking around a big city.
The main character of Random Acts of Senseless Violence is named Lola. She is turning twelve as the book begins and has been given a diary as a present. Lola lives on with her parents and a younger sister “on 86th Street near Park Avenue in New York City” and attends a private school for girls. She writes in her diary:
“I got a new bedroom for my birthday too. It’s not a surprise like my diary was. It’s not a new room but the maid’s old room. We had to let her go but I don’t know where she went….Mama and Daddy helped me move everything into my new room this morning after my new furniture came. I have a new bed and new lamp and new desk and chair. I also got new sweaters and shoes and a dictionary for school.”
She has two friends at school, Katherine and Lori, and she writes about them in the diary she names Anne.
The first thing that seems a bit different from our world is one of Lola’s younger sister’s toys. The sister’s nickname is Boob, and “Aunt Chrissie who lives in California sent it to her as a Hanukah present. My L’il Fetus is a doll baby that fits in a pack Boob ties around her stomach. When you press its button it kicks her like a real baby would. Mama and Daddy don’t like it but Boob loves it.” A little later, Lola talks about “an infomercial that shows pictures of dead babies in buckets while the narrator talks about liberal homosexual baby killers. It’s so gross but you just keep watching it because you can’t believe how disgusting it is. There’s one baby that looks like a codger with an axe in his head. They keep showing it till you want to heave but you keep watching….Mama’s sister Chrissie gives money to the Tombs of the Unborn Babies foundation and goes to protests constantly.”
Soon the little differences start to mount up. “After class we all had to get cholera shots because of the mess in the river from Long Island.” Lola’s friends have problems they can’t talk about, partly because Lola comes from a loving family and wouldn’t understand what is going on in her friends’ more dysfunctional families. As bill collectors begin to call and come by, however, Lola begins to understand some things: “I bet they spent the rent money on Hanukah and Christmas presents for us. I wonder how much all my new furniture and Boob’s stuff cost.” They move to a cheaper apartment in a worse part of town: “It’s a slum’ Boob said and Daddy said it wasn’t, it was student housing….Mama didn’t look very happy with the place but she didn’t say anything. I think she was doing more medication today than usual because she was very quiet and seemed to drift off all the time whenever she sat down….The buildings along Broadway where the campus is are all being strung up with barbed wire because the crime is so bad and the people at the gate looked like real policemen with machine guns like at the airport.”
The president keeps getting killed. The first time it happened, Lola got the day off of school, although “they buried the President a day sooner than they usually do because they couldn’t secure the Capitol enough to let him lie in state.”
The social contract continues to break down. One day Lola and her sister and mother get on the subway at rush hour: “The subway was so crowded it was hard to breathe. I got a seat and Boob sat on my lap and Mamma stood in front of us hanging onto the bar. Between 66th and 72nd Street the train stopped in the tunnel and the lights got dim and the air conditioning shut off. The conductor said something but the speaker was broken and he sounded like he was talking inside a drum. Then it got real quiet inside the car like it always does when the train stops. Suddenly a woman said ‘Watch your feet’ and a man said you watch. ‘I said you watch’ she said and he said his feet weren’t in the way it was her baby carriage. ‘My baby’s not in the way’ she said and he said the fuck it wasn’t. They started cursing each other back and forth and getting louder and louder. ‘Please quiet down’ another lady said and the man said fuck you too. ‘Don’t talk to me like that motherfucker’ the lady said and then a lot of people shouted no no and the crowd in our half of the car pushed back like they were being shoved and I thought Mama was going to fall on us. It was so crowded me and Boob couldn’t see what was happening. ‘He started it’ one of the ladies said and then everybody was saying be cool be cool. The crowd stopped crowding and some people muttered and everybody got quiet again. Then the second woman said ‘Dumbass motherfucker’ and people started screaming real loud and everyone started pushing into our half of the car like they were getting ready to come through the windows. Everyone was shouting no no don’t don’t and it must have worked because no one did. Then the lights and the air conditioning came back on and after a minute or so the train started up again. When it got to 72nd about half the people in our car got out and then it was quiet again so I think whoever was arguing got out too.”
Lola meets some girls from her new neighborhood, Iz and Jude and Weezie, and they save her from a gang of boys who use the fact that she’s wearing shorts on a ninety-degree day to feel her up and threaten worse. As they explain the situation “Streethangers after you cause they deadhead’ Jude said. ‘However you look. They fuck anything room temperature’ Iz said.”As Iz and Lola become better friends, Iz teaches her how to take care of herself. During one conversation about a local park, Iz warns Lola not to go there and tells her stories about why. “No Iz, truth me’ Lola says and she replies “Truthing plain.”
Lola is beginning to talk like her new friends when she is with them, but can still answer her father when he asks if she is unhappy in the new neighborhood by saying “I’m not as happy as I could be that’s all.” This is right before she goes to spend the night with Iz, whose mother won’t let her stay because Lola’s skin is too white, and the two girls run through a riot to get to Jude’s room in an abandoned building. The parents are drifting, assuming that Lola is as sheltered and safe as she was in her former neighborhood. Instead, she is learning that she can respond in kind when violence threatens. Her weekend activities include helping to deliver an expectant mother younger than herself to an older relative who subscribes to the hit-em-and-make-em-shut-up school of keeping children safe.
Lola, continually accused of being lesbian, isn’t old enough to be sure who she is attracted to, but she finally asks Iz “how do people know they love each other really” and gets the world-weary answer “if they bed together and nobody die, that’s love.”
With her father dead of overwork and her mother overdosing on tranquilizers, things get so bad that finally Lola’s mother agrees to send her sister to her Aunt Chrissie’s house: “We put Boob on the plane to San Francisco at the airport. Actually Boob put herself on the plane because the antiterrorist police wouldn’t let us terminal too far in. I wanted to word her this morning before she flew but I tonguetied and she kept forgetting making Mama double-check what she hauled so we never talked. I said I’d write her but I don’t know what I’ll say.”
Lola’s mother takes more tranquilizers, overdoses, and is sent home: “Mam says she missed me while she clinicked. She nearly comaed this morning till I walked her backforth and poured the coffee down her. Now she’s bedded eyeing ceilingways like if she looks long and hard enough she’ll viz what’s downcoming with time enough to duck.”
Lola herself has become a creature obsessed only with survival and revenge: “Shove do push and push do shove and everbody in this world leave lovelost hereafter” she thinks. She has become what she used to fear: “Eye cautious when you step out people cause I be running streetwild come nightside and nobody safes when I ride. I bite. Can’t cut me now. Can’t fuck me now. Can’t hurt me now.” And yet some of her final words are “Night night Anne” to her diary.
She is wild, lost, and unknowable, when months earlier we would have said she was the kind of twelve-year-old-girl we’re familiar with, one who would go on a tour of Alcatraz and feel overwhelmed by the horror, who would enjoy stepping on the stones across a stream at a Japanese garden and could use the right fork at a fancy restaurant. How far would any of us have to go before the policemen (blueboys, as she calls them) would begin to think that maybe we were the ones to be pushing back?
I thought April Smith’s new novel A Star for Mrs. Blake sounded interesting, and so I asked Knopf for an advance copy, which they provided. A few other bloggers have been reading it and writing about it, but none of them so far are the mothers of 17-year-old sons. That gave me a particular interest in the characters, “gold star” mothers whose American sons fought and died in France during World War I.
The main character is Cora Blake, a single mother whose son, Sammy, volunteered and died at the age of sixteen. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine, a place where “when conversation comes to its natural end you simply leave….No goodbyes or apologies are necessary; no future plans need to be made. It was understood the parties would naturally run into each other soon enough. It was an island, after all.” The smallness of her island makes her loss more poignant, especially since she can’t tell anyone the truth about Sammy’s father until after she has met the other gold star mothers.
The decision to bury her son in France rather than have the body shipped home to Maine is a difficult one, and the special pocket she sews into the dress she intends to wear to see Sammy’s grave contains “a handful of tiny shells” from the cove where she and her son used to go clamming. As she thinks about it, she wonders “How old was he when they stopped going to the cove together? When he’d go instead with his friends….” as I think all mothers start to wonder, at some point.
When Mrs. Blake meets the other gold star mothers, it becomes obvious that they are as thrown together from different walks of life as their sons must have been. One mother is led off to the separate accommodations for the “colored.” Another one has a younger son seeing her off at the train station, and he has a “withered leg” from polio which she says they regard as a blessing, since “he’ll never go to war.” The saddest one is a former tennis player and mental patient, routinely hospitalized because her father thought she “played like a man and should rely more on strategy and finesse” and because she called her husband’s other women “hussies.”
Meeting the other mothers and then a few of the people in France who have also been hurt by the war–one a man whose face was damaged—makes it easier for Mrs. Blake to tell the secret of how she raised her son and to find a new way to live without him. Seeing the battlefield and the cemetery gives all the mothers courage to face the worst they can imagine and then leave it behind. One dies trying, saying “where’s the rest of that Champagne?”
That mother’s death is blamed on someone who doesn’t deserve it, and the story ends with one character, the man with the damaged face, resolving to tell his own mother the truth about what happened to him in the war.
Mrs. Blake finds out one of her son’s secrets, a secret that she might have kept before she went to France. Now, however, she plans to reveal it as soon as she gets home to Maine, feeling defiant pride in her son’s choices—and by extension, her own.
It is heartening to a mother to see that her son lives up to the idealized picture she has of him even when she’s not there to see it, and humbling to realize that sometimes our children internalize lessons we didn’t mean to teach.
Can you link the following literary people or things? (from Who Killed Iago, by James Walton)
–The Edgar Allan Poe story that ends with the unnamed narrator confessing to the murder of an old man
–the first novel by Amy Tan
–the missing word from the title of a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The ___ as Big as the Ritz”
–the missing word from the first line of a much-mocked poem by William Wordsworth: “—! with which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands”
–Vikram Seth’s first novel
–Thornton Wilder’s 1927 bestseller, set in Peru
–Pierre Boulle’s 1952 bestseller, set in Burma
–the love between Robert Kincaid and Francesca Johnson
–the 1960 novel narrated by Jean Louise Finch
–“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit”
–Iain Banks’s 1992 road
–All Quiet on the Western Front
–The Satanic Verses
–Thomas Carlyle’s French Revolution