In the fictional universe, where I spend so much of my time, parents get old and die when their children leave home and start making their marks in the world. The next generation takes up any cause left undecided, and the camera pans away…twenty years of living quietly are covered in a couple of pages…parents impart their wisdom and fade gracefully out of the picture.
I’ve never been very good at quiet or graceful. We drove home in a storm the other night, hearing the tornado sirens, both to see it and to avoid having to sit in our friends’ basement. It’s not that we don’t value our lives; it’s that such caution seems excessive now, like adding a packet of chemicals to a vase, the kind designed to make cut flowers last longer.
Here is a poem about cut flowers and mortality, by Cynthia Huntington:
Though the cut flowers wilt
and the leaves wither, blanching
in the vase for days, still
they remind me of fields, the loveliness
of fading part by part, so many
changes, not sudden the cutting
down, not brutal but a way of
undoing. A fulfillment.
Merciful, you could say,
the cutting down and then
the slow undoing, which returns
forms to their beginning
as they go, petal by petal, and leaf
curling, how one shrivels
and falls. A blossom
that folds in on itself, remembering
the bud. Complete in its beginning.
As we say the flower is perfect,
and I feel my soul in danger
if I believe this because I am
a flower, no, a field of imperfections
and I may yet be cut down.
Be mercifully undone.
I’m sitting by the window and it is night;
I smell the cut grass, and gasoline
burning in cars that pass, and an insinuation
of skunk—these frighten me
because I cannot join them; they are not
sorrow or undoing, they are life fulfilling itself,
and I cannot settle my mind
from this ungainly sadness.
The window is open;
the flowers lean away from it, wilting.
A wish that I might be, not spared,
but taken back into this
night garden, made part of
something. This “I” a blossom
that opens and falls,
taken into a smell of cut grass,
whatever comes to me, for me,
across night, flown to this
single window, lit
from within by lamplight.
A faintest fragrance of fields
persists in these flowers, still lovely,
wilting without sorrow, without knowing loss.
And yet grief lives in the corners
and under our hair and nails, private
and untended against the world’s machine.
It prevails, this grief,
wrapped in moderation, and making small
gestures toward what breaks
the heart. But everything breaks the heart!
It is here to break, only invented to be
the fist of blood that bursts in the fire.
Why I love the wilting
flowers and the greens rotting
in the yellowing water, not gently,
not gently at all, but like some dead animal
held in the hand. It is not
merciful, I was wrong
to say “merciful,” that was wish only.
I have come to a place
here at the kitchen table where nothing
consoles me but these flowers
detonating silently by the window.
Somewhere a meadow strewn
with flowers untidy as stars, shimmers
in light. A meadow uncut, never turned.
I think I am talking about fear
and I know fear is only ignorance
of our true nature, mistaking
the loss of ourselves for an end
of being. The flowers stand up in the air
beside the window. They were not slain,
they were not rolled in heaps
into ditches to lie upon one another;
they stand up in the air beside the window,
as life wanes, in normal use, not in terror.
I am sitting by the window.
I am looking at the flowers.
The night air is cool and I breathe it
into every cell. Molecules of
darkness become me.
When “everything breaks the heart” there’s no point in protecting it, or in making a big deal about it, really. Simply to “stand up in the air beside the window” is a victory, some days. Just breathing makes “molecules of/darkness become me.” It’s a second adolescence, perhaps–we’re going to take risks again; we’re not going to go gentle.
What risks have you taken lately?
I got a copy of Deutschland, by Martin Wagner, with the compliments of Pinter & Martin publishers in London, after reading Charlie’s review and getting interested. Her review promised interlocking short stories, and and I guess that’s fair enough, but I found the description of the stories as “dark” a bit understated.
This is one of the darkest short novels I’ve ever read. It reminds me a bit of The Wasp Factory, except that instead of seeing the world through the eyes of one twisted character who has a secret, I’m seeing it through the eyes of three—and the suggestion is that there are many more, most ranging somewhere on the scale between indifferent to active participant in the suffering of others.
The oldest character, Richard, participated in the actual Milgram obedience experiment and is married to Suzannah, a concentration camp survivor. Her daughter, Kate, hones her talent for finding the right order to give the current one in her series of boyfriends in order to drive him away. Her granddaughter, Sam, works to stay passive in the face of the invented obedience games her older brother, Tony, inflicts daily on both her and her younger brother, Jeff. None of this cruelty has any real purpose; the characters simply want to see how far they can go.
I found it disheartening at first, and then sickening. We’re introduced to Tony’s first game when the children go to the beach and build a fire, the purpose of which is to test who can hold a hand or an arm over it the longest. “Sam felt her smarting arm. She knew she didn’t really have to do this, but if she won today, Tony would forget about the game. He would probably think of another one, but until he did, they’d have some breathing space.” Her life is a living hell, and all she can hope for is a day to heal from one “game” before another will begin.
Kate’s horror of the country mentioned in the title, Germany, seems out of place to her when she travels there with her boyfriend. “Kate was disappointed to see that everyone was being waved through. No need for passports any more. I wouldn’t have minded a stamp in mine, she thought, but we all live in one country now.” The suggestion is that, as Milton puts it in Paradise Lost, “the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” Kate sees the world as bleak, and goes out to find others who agree:
“’When you English and the Americans came and won the war in ‘forty-five,’ he continued, ‘everyone thought we Germans would change overnight. From murderers and Nazi sympathizers to holy people who would never harm a fly. But why should we change? Just because we see some pictures in the newspapers and hear stories about how evil we were? I don’t know how people can expect others to change that easily.’
‘But it’s not like you’re hiding it,’ Steve said. ‘You are talking about it all the time, trying to remember, so it can’t ever happen again.’
‘But it can happen again, anywhere, any time.’ Kate was almost shouting….’It is happening now.’”
Kate makes it happen.
Richard keeps his secret. Suzannah paints “a portrait of him, not the way he was but maybe the way she remembered him.” The reader, however, knows that, like the portrait of Dorian Gray, this portrait will appear uglier to her after the almost inevitable point when his secret is revealed. Or on the slight chance that it isn’t, the ugliness will still be there, nascent, waiting.
A chilling book, full of ordinary, pedestrian cruelties. If you like to be shaken up, this is just the book for you.
from Literary Trivia by Riehard Lederer and Michael Gilleland:
“We’ll pull out the red carpet and award you a blue ribbon and gold star if you can get your gray matter to identify the colorful titles created by the following authors.”
Arthur Conan Doyle
Edgar Allan Poe
Arthur Conan Doyle
As I said in my post about How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, I love time travel stories. Last night I watched an episode of Fringe called “White Tulip” in which Denethor (John Noble) tells Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) that necromancy never pays. It’s poignant, because the mad scientist played by Peter Weller has recently learned how to bend time so he can travel through it to the moment before his fiancée dies, and the mad scientist played by John Noble has already learned how to travel in an alternate universe to the moment before the alternate version of his son will die, and is still dealing with the consequences of his actions there.
In my own attempt to travel back in time from the Saturday I spent with Walker at Oberlin watching Ender’s Game, looking at prints in the art museum, and hearing the Oberlin trio play Tower, Bach, and Mendelssohn, to the same Saturday at Kenyon, when the poet Carl Phillips gave a reading, I was in the Kenyon library yesterday leafing through an anthology which includes poems by Phillips. The anthology is called Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, and in it I found a time travel poem by A. Van Jordan entitled “The Flash Reverses Time.”
At first I thought it was about Flash Gordon, which is my own time travel version of reading the poem, since my father used to tell me stories about the Flash Gordon cartoons he saw at the movies every week, each one ending with a cliffhanger to make him want to come back the next week. It is not about Flash Gordon, though (a normal human created in 1934 as a spinoff of Buck Rogers who travels to another planet and becomes a hero). It is about The Flash, a superhero who runs at superhuman speeds, created in 1940 as a spinoff character with one of Superman’s powers. My friend Joe tells me there have been several different incarnations of this character; the one in the poem has learned how to travel through time with his super speed.
On a discussion board about “how does the flash perceive time?” I found out that The Flash must have control of the temporal aspects of his speed powers because it would otherwise be intolerable to be faster than everything around him and have no control over how he is able to perceive it–such a perceptual state would show things around him as immobile objects, frozen in time. He must have the ability to alter his perception of the passage of time, slowing or speeding it up in relationship to himself.
Here’s the poem, which brings time travel back from the technical level to a level of memory–in this poem, The Flash is both speaker and recollection:
The Flash Reverses Time
DC Comics, November 1990, #44
“Never Look Back, Flash
Your Life Might Be Gaining On You”
When I’m running across the city
on the crowded streets
to home, when, in a blur,
the grass turns brown
beneath my feet, the asphalt
steams under every step
and the maple leaves sway
on the branches in my wake,
and the people look,
look in that bewildered way,
in my direction, I imagine
walking slowly into my past
among them at a pace
at which we can look one another in the eye
and begin to make changes in the future
from our memories of the past—
the bottom of a bottomless well,
you may think, but why not dream a little:
our past doesn’t contradict our future;
they’re swatches of the same fabric
stretching across our minds,
one image sewn into another,
like the relationship between a foot and a boot,
covariant in space and time—
one moves along with the other,
like an actor in a shadow play—
like a streak of scarlet light
across the skyline of your city
sweeping the debris, which is simply confetti,
candy wrappers, a can of soda,
all the experience of a day discarded
and now picked up
even down to the youthful screams of play
that put smiles on the faces of the adults
who hear remnants of their own voices
through a doorway leading back
to a sunrise they faintly remember.
The word “covariant” works nicely to set the technical details of time travel against the personal memories, the relationship defined by the simile of the foot and boot, which is also introducing the idea of one moving along with the other, “like an actor in a shadow play” to give you more of an image, and then, finally, like The Flash himself: “like a streak of scarlet light/across the skyline.”
Just that fast, the poem suggests, a motion—maybe one caught only out of the corner of your eye—is a new hook on which we stretch the fabric of memory into a larger shape, one that catches on the experience of sweeping past as it continues to sweep forward. The smell of a particular kind of soda, the sound of the timbre of a child’s voice, or the sight of a brand name on a candy wrapper can bring it all rushing back for a moment.
What has created that kind of “doorway leading back” for you lately?
Even though I said I haven’t been reading as much Young Adult fiction lately, I have been wanting to get to the third in Kristin Cashore’s series that began with Graceling and continued in Fire. The third one, which pulls together a few threads from the previous two, is entitled Bitterblue. Eleanor and Memory read it ages ago and recommended it to me, but I had forgotten about it until recently, when I picked it up in Eleanor’s room while watering the plants she’s left here while she’s cavorting around London meeting David Tennant and seeing the Thor 2 stars at their Leicester Square premiere and going to plays with Rupert Grint, Ben Whishaw and Colin Morgan in them.
I devoured the book mostly uncritically, without marking places to comment, so let me explain. “No, there is too much; let me sum up.” Bitterblue is a young queen whose parents are dead; her mother died protecting her from her father, who could control peoples’ minds and make them do what he willed, even making them forget afterwards. Now Bitterblue’s entire country is in shock; no one can quite remember what they’ve done or forgive themselves for what they did or were unable to do. She begins the story by sneaking out of her castle to listen to her people tell each other stories, meets a printer, finds out that many people in the kingdom can’t read, and begins organizing the work of sorting out different versions of the truth.
There’s ciphering, and sword-fighting and hiding, and there are good dreams. In the end, Bitterblue sees that some of the man-made things in her kingdom “have little reason to exist, except as a monument to the truth of all that’s happened, and because they’re beautiful.” It’s an appealing idea, that even a ruler who forces others to evil can order works of art to be made that are so beautiful that they should be preserved beyond his lifetime. Beauty is truth, truth beauty. When Bitterblue says she wants “to have the heart and mind of a queen….But I’m only pretending. I can’t find the feeling of it inside me” you know that method acting works, and that the story she has been telling herself will come true.
Sometimes it seems to me that the fictions I immerse myself in are more real than the rest of my life, especially since Ron and I have been driving around listening to an audiobook of Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer. Have you ever felt that way–like seeing the street you’re driving down mentioned in a book or pictured in a movie makes the experience seem more real? Like reading about a familiar emotion can make you, like the hero of The Moviegoer, feel less “sunk in the everydayness of his own life”?
from Who Killed Iago? by James Walton: Literary Twosomes, Couples, and Double Acts
1. Which two German academics gave Disney the plots for Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Sleeping Beauty?
2. The New York cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, created which fictional detective–whose name they also used as their joint pseudonym?
3. Who wrote the 1965 play The Odd Couple?
4. As whom are Proteus and Valentine better known in a play of the 1950s?
5. Whose crime novels include Knots & Crosses, Black & Blue, and Hide & Seek?
6. Which same two emotions feature in the titles of two books published by Hunter S. Thompson in 1972 and 1973?
7. Which couple provide the title for a 1988 novel by Peter Carey?
8. Who were the parents of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein?
9. Which two poets published Lyrical Ballads in 1798?
10. Whose first novel, in 1939, was called At Swim-Two-Birds?
Sometimes I look around me and try to see Ohio through the eyes of friends like ReadersGuide, who is lucky enough to live on the west coast where it never gets cold but who grew up in the northeast U.S. and misses the changing seasons. I’ve been walking around two college campuses and my neighborhood, taking some foliage photos with her in mind, and then I found this poem by Tishani Doshi in a book at the Kenyon library:
By October the reach of sky is complete.
Everything longs for escape—
The snow geese weaving their way south,
the pigs in the yard,
Somewhere across the valley
there must be another life—
a woman drawing her children a bath,
a husband returned to this picture of wife.
If we believed in seasons
how easily we could hold to this:
this falling away and returning.
with perpetual dying—
we, who are impervious to birdsong,
we must imagine the sound of love
as something of a deafness—
a single vowel of longing scratched across the sky.
Usually our sky is “complete” by the end of October–in the sense that you can see all of it through the bare tree branches–but this year the leaves are hanging on a little later, maybe because we had such a long, chilly spring and early summer.
I like the image of the trees being shamed by having only half-foliage, and being “replete,” which only happens when someone is fully fed and loved and warmed, as if the trees are warmed by the flaming colors of their own leaves.
Here, we don’t have to believe in seasons; we have photographic proof, at least of the “falling away,” so far in this academic year. Perhaps love of place is, for many of us, a bit of deafness. We talk about what we remember so loud we drown out the quiet pleasures of where we are. Stanley Plumly, when I moved here, told me I’d learn to love Ohio. Maybe what he meant is that I would someday be able to learn to listen.