Decomposition I don't know and I don't know what to do about it. There was just a point where I lost heart for judgments and was swept into the voluptuous, harrowing complexities composing a single breath. —Jim Dodge, Rain on the River
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean --
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down --
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I once almost visited Atlanta — made it to a vague part of what I recall to be the northwestern outskirts — in 1972. It is an enduring memory, fogged as it is with the exhaustion and anxiety that attended the episode and a certain amount of lingering regret.
You’d like to hear more — exhaustion? anxiety? regret? — but I’m not going to go into all that right this minute.
I’m in Atlanta for real now for the wedding of a former KQED colleague. And while I have not done a lot of exploring as of yet, I can say that I like the woodsy corner of the city I’ve landed in. The neighborhood is called Kirkwood, adjacent (or at least close) to Decatur in Atlanta’s northeastern quadrant.
One notable finding when I walked to breakfast late this morning — a discovery that may be entirely commonplace to the locals — is the profusion of mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) hereabouts.
Checking my own mockingbird history, I see I have posted on them before — in 2014 and again last year. So there’s something about the birds, including the poem “Thus Spake the Mockingbird” and my memory of how brilliantly Kate reads it, that stops me and makes me listen. A passage from said verse:
…I am Lester Young’s sidewinding sax, sending that Pony Express
message out west in the Marconi tube hidden in every torso
tied tight in the corset of do and don’t, high and low, yes and no. I am
the radio, first god of the twentieth century, broadcasting
the news, the blues, the death counts, the mothers wailing
when everyone’s gone home. …
So, here is a Kirkwood variation on the mockingbird’s never-ending solo.
“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
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”
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.
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):
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.
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.
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.”
“…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,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me. …”
* * *
“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.”
* * *
“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.”
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.