Category Archives: Literature

Talking About the Weather

“When two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what they must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.”

–Samuel Johnson, quoted in “The Invention of Clouds,” by Richard Hamblyn

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Today, Twelve Years Ago

Borrowing from Michiko Kakutani in this morning’s New York Times:

“A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now. It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it’s all theater. … He’s afraid of the way the glass will fall–soon–it will be a spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace. But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.”

–Thomas Pynchon, “Gravity’s Rainbow”

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Guest Observation: Colum McCann

The other morning, the soon to be late and already lamented “Talk of the Nation” featured the Irish novelist Colum McCann. He was talking about a new work, “Transatlantic,” which features fictional stories of historical figures who made the crossing, one way or the other, between Ireland and the New World. (One story involves a historic adventure I’d never heard of before, the first aviators to fly nonstop across the Atlantic: Alcock and Brown, eight years before Lindbergh (who made the first solo nonstop flight).

Former Maine Senator George Mitchell and his role in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland is one of the other “Transatlantic” subjects. McCann read a brief, poetic passage of the Mitchell section of the book:

“This is a section where I just wanted to create a myth for the idea of what he was doing, which was receiving all the words.

“It is as if, in a myth, he has visited an empty grain silo. In the beginning, he stood at the bottom in the resounding dark. Several figures gathered at the top of the silo. They peered down, shaded their eyes, began to drop their pieces of grain upon him. Words. A small rain at first, full of vanity, and history, and rancor, clattering in the emptiness.

“He stood and let it sound, metallic, around him, till it began to pour, and the grain took on a different sound, and he had to reach up and keep knocking the words aside just to get a little space to breathe, dust and chaff in the air all around him. From their very own fields, they were pouring down their winnowed bitterness, and in his silence, he just kept thrashing, spluttering, pushing the words away, a refusal to drown.

“What nobody noticed, not even himself, was that the grain kept rising, and the silo filled, but he kept rising with it, and the sounds grew different, word upon word falling around him, building beneath him, and now, at the top of the silo, he has clawed himself up and dusted himself off, and he stands there, equal with the pourers, who are astounded by the language that lies below them.

“They glance at each other. There are three ways down from the silo. They can fall into the grain and drown. They can jump off the edge and abandon it. Or they can learn to sow it very slowly at their feet.”

Neil Conan’s interview with McCann, embedded below, is a good one. His reading of the passage above takes place after the 12:00 mark in the audio.

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Understanding Too Late

It’s early yet, but the teams I follow in the major leagues of North American baseball seem headed in opposite directions: The Cubs south, having dropped six of their first nine, demonstrating a penchant for losing from in front: the A’s north, winning eight in a row after playing their first two games of the season without bats; the A’s play far from perfect baseball but when things are going their way, they look like a bunch of kids, no cares in the world.

While watching the A’s take apart the American League franchise from Anaheim on Wednesday night–I find few things in televised sports are more fun to watch than a glutted, money-besotted team fall flat on its face the way the Angels did to the underpaid Athletics–Kate pulled out a book of baseball poetry, “Hummers, Knucklers, and Slow Curves.” She turned to a poem we’ve read many times in the past, “Pitcher,” by Robert Francis (1901-1987).

Here it is, reproduced without permission (but believe me, not for profit):

Pitcher

His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,

His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.

The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.

Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.

Not to, yet still, still to communicate
Making the batter understand too late.

That is a gem, a perfect description of something you can watch inning after inning, game after game, season after season and still not see how different appearance is from intent. And that’s where I think I tend to read poetry, too–on the surface. In poking around to see if I could find a copy of “The Pitcher” online, I came across a nice analysis that looks beneath the appearance of the couplets to examine the poem as a metaphor for writing poetry (I found a more technical analysis here).

Why didn’t I see that? Now that you say it, it’s obvious, like the way an inside fastball can set up a slider low and away. Or another inside fastball.

Here’s another Francis poem, “Catch.” Maybe what’s going on here–I’m talking about intent, not technique, about which I know nothing–is a little clearer.

Catch

Two boys uncoached are tossing a poem together,
Overhand, underhand, backhand, sleight-of-hand, every hand,
Teasing with attitudes, latitudes, interludes, altitudes,
High, make him fly off the ground for it, low, make him stoop,
Make him scoop it up, make him as-almost-as-possible-miss it,
Fast, let him sting from it, now, now fool him slowly,
Anything, everything tricky, risky, nonchalant,
Anything under the sun to outwit the prosy,
Over the tree and the long sweet cadence down,
Over his head, make him scramble to pick up the meaning,
And now, like a posey, a pretty plump one in his hands.

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‘Always on Christmas Night …’

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The closing lines of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” My favorite part of one of my favorite poems. Merry Christmas, wherever you are on this Christmas night.

“… Always on Christmas night there was music.
An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang
‘Cherry Ripe,’ and another uncle sang ‘Drake’s Drum.’
It was very warm in the little house.
Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip
wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death,
and then another in which she said her heart
was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody
laughed again; and then I went to bed.

“Looking out my bedroom window, out into
the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow,
I could see the lights in the windows
of all the other houses on our hill and hear
the music rising from them up the long, steadily
falling night. I turned the gas down, I got
into bed. I said some words to the close and
holy darkness, and then I slept.”

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For Dad: Three Readings

“…When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me. …”

Stanley Kunitz

* * *

“I sauntered about from rock to rock, from grove to grove, from stream to stream, and whenever I met a new plant I would sit down beside it for a minute or a day, to make its acquaintance, hear what it had to tell. I asked the boulders where they had been and whither they were going, and when night found me, there I camped. I took no more heed to save time or to make haste than did the trees or the stars. This is true freedom, a good, practical sort of immortality.”

John Muir

* * *
“The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me—he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable;
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me;
It flings my likeness after the rest, and true as any, on the shadow’d wilds;
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air—I shake my white locks at the runaway sun;
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeathe myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.”

Walt Whitman

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‘The Smallest Minds … The Cowardliest Hearts’

Current reading: “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian,” by Wallace Stegner. It’s a biography of John Wesley Powell, known popularly for making the first boat trip through the Grand Canyon (in 1869), for being among the founders of the U.S. Geological Survey, for his thorough and sympathetic study of Native Americans and their culture, and for promoting a rational approach to the settlement of the arid West. (Among other details I didn’t know, Powell was also a faculty member at the college that became Illinois State University, in Normal, and lived in Bloomington).

Anyway, at one juncture, Stegner stops to contemplate federal government policy on the West. He quotes Mark Twain’s “portrait of the Congressman: ‘the smallest mind and the selfishest soul and the cowardliest heart that God makes.’ ” Harsh, but apt for our time, I thought (and sure, there are some who would say it’s a description with eternal currency).

I wanted to know the source of the quote. One’s first Google search turns up the fact it’s widely cited (to express disgust with today’s crop of solons) though the source is hard to come by. The closest you can get is along the lines of “an 1891 letter to an unknown correspondent.”

Twain died in 1910, and in 1912, someone named Albert Bigelow Paine came out with a massive biography that reprints the letter in full (or nearly full–there’s no salutation, thus the name of the recipient, if any, is unknown, and it begins with an ellipsis). The letter appeared five years later in a collection of Twain’s letters. The subject is the Twain’s real-life experience and how it has fitted him for the profession of novelist. Here’s the paragraph that’s the source of Stegner’s quote:

So, the quote was more expansive and changed somewhat as it passed through the many hands between Twain, Paine, and Stegner. Or maybe not. Stegner cites an edition of “The Portable Mark Twain” edited by his friend and mentor, the historian Bernard De Voto, as his source, and De Voto’s quote was identical to those printed earlier. Stegner appears to have cleaned it up and narrowed the context to fit his needs.

In any case, the original message was: Those lawmaker-government types–they’re all bums.

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Guest Observation: More on Crazy Horse

I just re-read Ian Frazier’s “Great Plains.” I had forgotten that among the many subjects he focuses on is Crazy Horse, the Lakota Oglala chief (how times change: a generation ago, his predominant identification among the wasichu would have been Sioux. I digress. Back to Frazier …). He’s got a chapter that ranges from a street in Manhattan, where he encounters a man who says he’s the grandson of Crazy Horse, to Fort Robinson, Nebraska, where Crazy Horse was killed. Here’s the end of the chapter, which I love for the way he reaches beyond a recitation of facts and tries to bring into the open the sentiment and emotion and meaning the facts inspire for him.

“Some, both Indian and non-Indian, regard him with a reverence that borders on the holy. Others do not get the point at all. George Hyde, who has written perhaps the best books about the western Sioux, says of the admirers of Crazy Horse, ‘They depict Crazy Horse as the kind of being never seen on earth: a genius in war, yet a lover of peace; a statesman, who apparently never thought of the interests of any human being outside his own camp; a dreamer, a mystic, and a kind of Sioux Christ, who was betrayed in the end by his own disciples–Little Big Man, Touch the Clouds … and the rest. One is inclined to ask, what is it all about?’

“Personally, I love Crazy Horse because even the most basic outline of his life shows how great he was; because he remained himself from the moment of his birth to the moment he died; because he knew exactly where he wanted to live, and never left; because he may have surrendered, but was was never defeated in battle; because, although he was killed, even the Army admitted he was never captured; because he was so free that he didn’t know what a jail looked like; because at the most desperate moment of his life he only cut Little Big Man on the hand; because, unlike many people all over the world, when he met white men he was not diminished by the encounter; because his dislike of the oncoming civilization was prophetic; because the idea of becoming a farmer apparently never crossed his mind; because he didn’t end up in the Dry Tortugas; because he never met the President; because he never rode on a train, slept in a boardinghouse, ate at a table; because he never wore a medal or a top hat or any other thing that white men gave him; because he made sure that his wife was safe before going to where he expected to die; because although Indian agents, among themselves, sometimes referred to Red Cloud as ‘Red’ and Spotted Tail as ‘Spot,’ they never used a diminutive for him; because, deprived of freedom, power, occupation, culture, trapped in a situation where bravery was invisible, he was still brave; because he fought in self-defense, and took no one with him when he died; because, like the rings of Saturn, the carbon atom, and the underwater reef, he belonged to a category of phenomena which our technology had not then advanced far enough to photograph; because no photograph or painting or even sketch of him exists; because he is not the Indian on the nickel, the tobacco pouch, or the apple crate. Crazy Horse was a slim man of medium height with brown hair hanging below his waist and a scar above his lip. Now, in the mind of each person who imagines him, he looks different.

“I believe that when Crazy Horse was killed, something more than a man’s life was snuffed out. Once, America’s size in the imagination was limitless. After Europeans settled and changed it, working from the coasts inland, its size in the imagination shrank. Like the center of a dying fire, the Great Plains held that original vision longest. Just as people finally came to the Great Plains and changed them, so they came to where Crazy Horse lived and killed him. Crazy Horse had the misfortune to live in a place which existed both in reality and in the dreams of people far away; he managed to leave both the real and the imaginary place unbetrayed. What I return to most often when I think of Crazy Horse is the fact that in the adjutant’s office he refused to lie on the cot. Mortally wounded, frothing at the mouth, grinding his teeth in pain, he chose the floor instead. What a distance there is between that cot and the floor! On the cot, he would have been, in some sense, ‘ours’: an object of pity, an accident victim, ‘the noble red man, the last of his race, etc. etc.’ But on the floor Crazy Horse was Crazy Horse still. On the floor, he began to hurt as the morphine wore off. On the floor, he remembered Agent Lee, summoned him, forgave him. On the floor, unable to rise, he was guarded by soldiers even then. On the floor, he said goodbye to his father and Touch the Clouds, the last of the thousands that once followed him. And on the floor, still as far from white men as the limitless continent they once dreamed of, he died. Touch the Clouds pulled the blanket over his face: ‘That is the lodge of Crazy Horse.’ Lying where he chose, Crazy Horse showed the rest of us where we are standing. With his body, he demonstrated that the floor of an Army office was part of the land, and that the land was still his.”

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‘A Ruin in Reverse’

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Last June, I drove from Seattle to Omaha with my son Eamon and my daughter-in-law Sakura. Our first day took us into western Montana. The second day saw us get to western South Dakota after a stop at the Little Big Horn. And the third day we started out with a quick blast through the Black Hills. We stopped in Deadwood, then headed to the Crazy Horse monument. That’s the picture above. If you pay a little extra when you visit the memorial, you can take a bus ride right up close to where the work on the monument is going on.

I had been to Crazy Horse once before, back in 1988, with my dad, when we were on our way to the Little Big Horn. Back then, you had to take the artists’ word that something would emerge from the mountain they were blasting away. At the visitors center, we paid a dollar for a chunk of granite from the rubble, faced with mica and shot through with what look like nodules of pyrite. The rock’s here on the dining room table as I write this. Twenty-three years later, something dramatic has been brought out of the mountain, and the scene around the area has changed, too. The site is now approached on a route that’s turned into a major highway, and the turnoff is controlled by the kind of traffic signal you see on expressways in San Jose. There’s an entrance plaza with maybe six lanes, just like going into a stadium parking lot. After that, there’s plenty of parking, a museum, shops, and beyond that, the mountain. Lots of people were visiting the early June day we stopped, though I wouldn’t say the place was overrun.

A few days ago, I came across Ian Frazier’s account of his visit to Crazy Horse, probably within a year or so of when we were there. Here’s what he saw, as recounted in his book “Great Plains“:

“In the Black Hills, near the town of Custer, South Dakota, sculptors are carving a statue of Crazy Horse from a six-hundred-foot-high mountain of granite. The rock, called Thunderhead Mountain, is near Mt. Rushmore. The man who began the statue was a Boston-born sculptor named Korczak Ziolkowski, and he became inspired to the work after receiving a letter from Henry Standing Bear, a Sioux chief, in 1939. Standing Bear asked Ziolkowski if he would be interested in carving a memorial to Crazy Horse as a way of honoring heroes of the Indian people. The idea so appealed to Ziolkowski that he decided to make the largest statue in the world: Crazy Horse, on horseback, with his left arm outstretched and pointing. From Crazy Horse’s shoulder to the tip of his index finger would be 263 feet. A forty-four-foot stone feather would rise above his head. Ziolkowski worked on the statue from 1947 until his death in 1982. As the project progressed, he added an Indian museum and a university and medical school for Indians to his plans for the grounds around the statue. Since his death, his wife and children have carried on the work.

“The Black Hills, sacred to generations of Sioux and Cheyenne, are now filled with T-shirt stores, reptile gardens, talking wood carvings, wax museums, gravity mystery areas (‘See and feel COSMOS–the only gravity mystery area that is family approved’), etc. Before I went there, I thought the Crazy Horse monument would be just another attraction. But it is wonderful. In all his years of blasting, bulldozing, and chipping, Ziolkowski removed over eight million tons of rock. You can just begin to tell. There is an outline of the planned sculpture on the mountain, and parts of the arm and the rider’s head are beginning to emerge. The rest of the figure still waits within Thunderhead Mountain–Ziolkowski’s descendants will doubtless be working away in the year 2150. This makes the statue in its present state an unusual attraction, one which draws a million visitors annually: it is a ruin, only in reverse. Instead of looking at it and imagining what it used to be, people stand at the observation deck and say, ‘Boy, that’s really going to be great someday.’ The gift shop is extensive and prosperous, buses with ‘Crazy Horse’ in the destination window bring tourists from nearby Rapid City; Indian chants play on speakers in the Indian museum; Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, local residents, and American Indians get in free. The Crazy Horse monument is the one place on the plains where I saw lots of Indians smiling.”

If you happen to go to the monument in the fall, there’s a walk to Korczak Ziokowski’s tomb every year on October 20, the anniversary of his death. Also interred there: his daughter Anne, who died last year just a few week’s before we visited. Her obituary, brief as it is, speaks volumes about the family’s commitment to the Black Hills.

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First of All Martyrs, King of All Birds

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze,
Although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give him a treat.
—"The Wren"

Of course, in Ireland and like parts, the "king of all birds" was singled out for some rough treatment the day after Christmas. A somewhat sanitized version of the song, on The Chieftain's "Bells of Dublin" album, alludes to the death of the wren, but doesn't explain how it came to expire. Liam Clancy's much earlier recording of a traditional number, "The Wran Song," doesn't leave much doubt about what had happened to the bird: "I met a wren upon the wall/Up with me wattle and knocked him down." In fact, if you're inclined to explore further the Irish (and fellow Celts') Christmastime wren customs, here's a book for you, "Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird to Symbol."

A brief passage on the traditions of the wren hunt: "Typically, on the appointed 'wren day' a group of boys and men went out armed with sticks, beating the hednges from both sides and throwing clubs or other objects at the wren whenever it appeared. Eyewitnesses described the hunting of the wren in Ireland in the 1840s:

For some weeks preceding Christmas, crowds of village boys may be seen peering into hedges in search of the tiny wren; and when one is discovered the whole assemble and give eager chase to, until they have slain the little bird. In the hunt the utmost excitement prevails, shouting, screeching, and rushing; all sorts of missiles are flung at the puny mark and not infrequently they light upon the head of some less innocent being. From bush to bush, from hedge to hedge is the wren pursued and bagged with as much pride and pleasure as the cock of the woods by more ambitious sportsmen."

And why is the wren "the king"? According to the book above, the appellation goes back to a fable apparently current in several cultures and in Greece and Roman tradition ascribed to Aesop: various birds vied with the eagle for the title of the king of birds. One by one, the eagle out-soared them. But the wren–the wren concealed itself in the eagle's feathers, and as it sensed the eagle was tiring, flew up and away, farther than the eagle could reach.

But enough of the wren. I really want to talk about December 26, also known as Boxing Day (what's that about? Here's a rather tart view from early 19th century London) and St. Stephen's Day. The latter is of special note for me, since my dad's first name, and mine, are Stephen. A few years ago, my friend Pete offered up a find from an encyclopedia on Roman Catholicism on the life and times of St. Stephen, who is remembered as the first Christian martyr. The capsule version of his trouble is recounted in the New Testament book of Acts. Therein, it's recorded that locals in the Greater Holy Land area didn't appreciate everything Stephen, whom Jesus's apostles had appointed a deacon and put in charge of distributing alms to poorer members of the community, had to say on theological matters. He was accused of blasphemy, hauled before the Local Religious Tribunal, and tried. During the trial, he continued to outrage his accusers, whereupon, according to Acts 8:

"…They were cut to the heart: and they gnashed with their teeth at him. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looking up steadfastly to heaven, saw the glory of God and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And he said: Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. And they, crying out with a loud voice, stopped their ears and with one accord ran violently upon him. And casting him forth without the city, they stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, invoking and saying: Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice, saying: Lord, lay not this sin to their charge: And when he had said this, he fell asleep in the Lord…."

A few years ago, I was in Paris and after wandering through the Latin Quarter and up toward the Pantheon, landed in front of a church where the denouement of this story is depicted above the entrance. I only slowly put the name of the church, St. Etienne du Mont, together with the story of St. Stephen (Stephen=Etienne en français). I stand by my earlier description of the scene (picture below): "Immediately above the doorway … Stephen is about to earn his way onto the church calendar despite the presence of an angel who, though appearing benificent, doesn't seem the least inclined to stay the hands of a bunch of guys who look not at all hesitant to cast the first stone." One detail of this image I didn't notice before: The sculpture was done in 1863, a good 240 years after the church was dedicated.

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