Trumpus Possumus

Excerpt from The Secret Lodge Notebooks of the obscure Mr. Mizzle, stork, storekeeper and Walt Kelly scion

possum
[Trump.  I’ve been seeing and hearing this word on the wind lately, and I wasn’t sure if it was tramp , a trunk, a tromp or a reference to a temporarily designated powerful suit in some card games, maybe even an astonishing hair-do first seen in a Star Trek malefactor, or a realtor or a TV comedian who badmouths, browbeats then banishes masochistic minions with a wave of his wicked wand. As usual, when confounded by the mire of evidence before me, all further complexicated by my own native ignorance, I perambulate and bateau to the island to confab with my old mentor Pogo Possum of Okefenokee RFD and put the question to the nocturnal sage himself, who never fails to ponder powerful, muse mercilessly and shed substantial light, though he’s oft prone to hiss or drop off to dreamland if contradicted.

Pogo allowed as how a trump is a card that can whallop down or whup upon any other suit, though some using that name seem to be sporting suits which are not so suited to their configuration. And as a slang noun, it was once the word used to designate a fine fellow; as a verb, to excel or surpass. But these didn’t match up well with the palaver I’d been encountering, so Pogo pushed deeper into the swamp of my unknowing, saying that in Old High German it was trumba and meant a horn. Well, now we’re plowing a straight row, I thought. It also points to a kind of flower and a vine and a swan, all horn-shaped, excepting the swan, but I expect the old omnivore could guess by the dullness emanating from the windows to my soul that I still wasn’t able to line up my experience of the word with his information. So he sets in: Somehow trump’s an outlaw version of triumph, but a victory come by through other than gentlemaanly means. My eyes must of brightened up a bit, so he proceeded to add that the whole thing likely weasels around to us from the French.

Now I know how Mr. Twain felt about the French, but I decided to set that aside and take some heed anyway. “Do tell?” I said, encouraging like, “Dites moi.” “Tien,” says Pogo, in his best mud-Gallic accent, “eef vous go back to zee Meedle Engleach and Vieux Francais, you discover trompe, which eez meaning to deceive, hoodwink, dupe, hornswaggle. Vous have, sans doute, ecoutee of trumpery, weech eez twaddle, nonsense, zometheeng rubbishy. Zumwhere een zat word eez ‘rump,’ n’est-ce pas?”

I straightaway begged for mercy, merci, having had all the foreign lingo I could swallow for one season. “Shoot straight,” says I, and so Pogo reports the obvious. “Given le monde which we now find ourselves whiching in these days, trumpery is zee watchword of zee zeitgeist, ole buddy, zee flavor of zee decade, better than catfish and onions in a black moon iron skillet over a fire of cypress, cedar and driftwood.”

Pogo allowed as how in his Random House Webster’s trump is situated in a column between one column to the left with true in it (c’est vrai!) and a column to the right showing trust. Quelle fromage.

Sensing that my audience was likely at an end, as he produced a Ball jar of white squirrel-eye stockade from under one of his many stumps, I ventured a parting shot: “What about trumpet creeper? Isn’t that from China?” In betwixt swigs Pogo whispered, “Y’all got fooled on that one. It’s just a misspell. The old folks who dictionaried originally wrote trumpet creepier, like anthropaphagus, which is all I have to pronounce on the matter,” and then he was peregrinating off into the dark to canoodle with Miz Hepsibah, count his own spoondolicks or snout out some rare ripe deceased creature for a snack before Sarcophagus McArbre could spiral down on it. I could hear him humming through the ferns and ringlety mosses and the kent, kent of ghost ivory bills high on the dying trunks, “You get a line and I’ll get a poll, honey.” Bless his heart.

So I left that swamp a changed man, which is not to say a wiser one, but I got eat up by no see’ums and had to pick off ticks from first light to last – rowrbazzle! – so I’ve decided it’s useful if not vital for my self esteem if I reckon all this trinformation inextimably valuable, the tunnel at the end of the light. Thus self-persuaded, I felt compelled to share. Y’all come.

“We’ll go down to that écrevisse hole, honey oh baby mine.”]

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The Tennessee Waltz

tnsilThe Shadow Waltz

It’s hard to deny that Pee Wee King’s melody for “Tennessee Waltz” is haunting, mournful, not quite “Wayfaring Stranger,” but similar in its registration of heart-riving sorrow. It makes me lonesome just to listen to an instrumental version, and I’m not musicologist enough to offer a convincing explanation. I know it has darkness in it, a somber tempo and the nip of whiskey we like to imagine will temper loss but which often amplifies all the shivery yearning. The stately pace, repeated chords and weepy strings resist any attempt to buck dance, shag or hully-gully with that tune in the air.

TN authorsOther melodies have similar affects, but it’s Redd Stewart’s lyrics that really twist and wrench the listener, and not just for the narrative they unspool. The song offers an enigma as Mobius-like, trompe l’oeil and slight-of-hand as Wallace Stevens’s “I placed a jar in Tennessee.” Why is that?

Various artists have offered their renditions, most of them pretty similar (though I don’t really need Leonard Cohen’s spin on the story or Emmylou Harris’s more explicit version, especially the “it’s stronger than drink and deeper than sorrow”). It was written (partly on a matchbook, if Google has it right) in a limousine en route to Nashville in 1946 after the collaborators heard Monroe’s “Kentucky Waltz” on the radio, and you have to reckon timing and place played a substantial role. It was producer Fred Rose’s change from “O the Tennessee Waltz, O the Tennessee Waltz” to “I remember the night and the Tennessee Waltz” that intensified the nostalgia/regret theme and made the darkness explicit, and the song was recorded the next year by both King and Stewart’s Golden West Cowboys and Cowboy Copas (can you believe spellcheck doesn’t recognize “Copas”?). Both versions became C & W top 10 hits.

But it’s really with us and in us because Patti Page recorded it on the flip side of “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus” for Mercury near the close of 1950. Off and running. Page’s version ran for 30 weeks on Billboard’s pop chart and stayed at number 1 for 9 weeks. Legions of other musicians covered it and had hits (Kitty Wells, Pat Boone, Emmylou, James Brown, Elvis, college bands, African Ray Dylan on his album “Goeie Ou Country,” Tom Jones backed by the Chieftains!).

The standard version is Page’s, which follows, with two little changes [indicated by brackets] which we hear in Patsy Cline’s more desperate and achy (at least as I hear it) version. I recommend a visit to You Tube to listen to the exquisite pain.cline
*
Tennessee Waltz (note the lack of an article in the title)

I was dancing [waltzing] with my darling to the Tennessee Waltz
When an old friend I happened to see
I introduced her {or him} to my loved one
And while they were dancing
My friend stole my sweetheart from me

I remember the night and the Tennessee Waltz
Now I [Only you] know just how much [what] I have [‘ve] lost
Yes, I lost my little darling the night they were playing
The [That] beautiful Tennessee Waltz

I was dancing with my darling to the Tennessee Waltz
When an old friend I happened to see
I introduced her [him] to my loved one
And while they were dancing
My friend stole my sweetheart from me

I remember the night and the Tennessee Waltz
Now I [Only you] know just how much [what] I have lost
Yes, I lost my little darling the night they were playing
The beautiful Tennessee Waltz

*
A terrible beauty is born? Brevity is the soul of wit?
Some small change: * why, after “darling” and “sweetheart,” the demeaning or endearing “little darling,” back to “darling,” back to “sweetheart,” to end with “little darling”? Is this just the way that songwriters who say, “You decorated my life” or “You are the magnet; I am steel” differ from poets, who want to consider (some would say “micromanage”) ramifications and options, nuances and undertones? Call it “genre differences”; say musical accompaniment relaxes lexical responsibility; I can’t puzzle it out.
*Twice we’re told that the “old friend” (no comment) STOLE the sweetheart, but also twice we hear “I lost.” Sounds as if the narrator is torn between believing that the friend is a culprit, but four times there’s a suggestion of some blame for the narrator, two each in the four line stanzas. Ain’t that just the way of things? We can’t wholly resist the temptation to blame the victim, even if we’re the victim. Maybe especially.
* With Patsy’s preferred lyrics, we get implicated. “You” do. The “you” brings it all home, identifies the listener as a fellow sufferer, knowing and probably wounded kindred. It makes me feel buttonholed and drawn into the drama, a little like the wedding guest in Coleridge’s “Rime.” I mean, I’m just trying to get a beer here and rejoin my own sweetheart; why did you pick me to share this sad story? Which makes this song a cautionary tale, as well as a plaint. Maybe the “you know” is a little arch, faux-polite for “you’d better know, because those who don’t find out from hearing the story will have to live it.” Maybe we’re all really walking around in a country song and ought to remember what stuff happens in that free-fire zone.
*But my favorite aspect of the lyrics is that they name a song called “the Tennessee Waltz” which has no reality outside the song that names it. When I was younger, I was desperate to hear the song they were dancing to, because how could they be dancing to a song that already contains the narrative of the impending betrayal and torturous memories? But I’d never heard of Borges or seen a Renaissance painting of the artist painting that painting. Probably Pee Wee and Redd hadn’t either, but the air inside a limousine can have strange effects on people, pickers especially. Given the “you” in the Cline version, the singer’s not only in the song, but so am I. All makes me hear a lonesome whip-poor-will and feel I need to respond.TN sheet

But my responses are always somewhat tangled, and every thoughtful effort eventually overridden by a need to hum or sing the song, which dogs me like nothing else in Tennessee, Virginia, Carolina, Georgia, Alabama . . . Verona, Paris, the Forest of Arden.

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Is It a Sin to Kill a Watchman?

A question I’ve been hearing from students and acquaintances since winter is whether or not Nelle Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman ought to ever see the light of day. One source of the question seems to be an apprehension that the new book, which was Lee’s first attempt to write about the Finch family (sounds ornithological), would somehow tarnish the widely revered To Kill a Mockingbird. Although I haven’t yet seen the new (but older) book, I know a few things about it and read the first chapter in the Wall Street Journal last week. Adult Jean Louise’s narration is not so spellbinding as Scout’s, the background information is often mechanically wedged in, the impending drama forced, skids abound, though some gift is in evidence. Wise Blood’s train opening is better, though. Stylistically, Mockingbird displays an overall grace that Watchman might well lack, if the opening is representative. I don’t want to conclude too much from the sample, but it hasn’t altered my opinion about publication.

mock

Though the recently discovered narrative is likely to be disappointing, of course it should be available for those who want it, since the author and publisher are willing to show it. Students of the process of fiction are certainly curious, and I’m assuming that the earlier fears that Lee was being manipulated by lawyers and false friends were mostly hogwash. Lots of other lawyers and companions have weighed in, the Sybil herself is sometimes lucid and has spoken. Harper Collins does not act injudiciously, which is not to say “without greed,” which is indigenous to the publication business, because it is a business. The critics will raise the banner of caveat lector (I recommend Natasha Trethewey’s prudent and carefully considered review in the Washington Post), and devotees of Mockingbird should be guided by their own needs and fears, calculate their own sensitivities, read it now or later or never, then revisit the book they love, whether for its virtues or its forays into the sentimental and the “back in the day” atmospherics. Alabama’s motto is “We dare defend our rights.” The home guard is already mustered and armed. Let the games begin.

Reviewers are likely to discuss the altered natures of the characters (a now-flawed and more realistic Atticus [“from Attica, or Athens”], especially), the point of view, the novels’ different tactics for configuring the question of civil rights, pace, humor, childhood, human compassion, guardian angels, mob mentalities and the rights of man (and woman and child). What I want to recommend, aspirant owner of a copy that I am, is that we take the occasion of this book’s full public birth to consider what and how we think about the first one and what this volume has to show us about the mysterious way books get written.

First cobweb to clear away: Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel or a prequel, no progression from the finding of the One Ring to its casting into the flames. It’s action occurs long after the events of Mockingbird have transpired, but the appearance of passages identical to those in Mockingbird, accompanied by complete reboots of some events in the earlier publication, make it clear that the pair of books is not a sequence, not a relay, but rather two separate heats, two very different encounters with some basic material concerning where and when and who and why. Watchman was written first, and an amazingly perceptive editor named Tay Hohoff said something akin to, “Not yet, ma’am, but keep trying,” but also made a major suggestion, to focus more on Scout, her mind and her involvement with the central public narrative in Maycomb. So Lee set aside the typescript and went back into the same woods by a different path and different phase of the moon, seeing things from an altered perspective, one that charmed out of her a song that was far more spellbinding than the one she’d found for Watchman. Maybe the books are like fraternal twins, one just developed smarter and more beautiful than the other, but a reader can’t start cross-referencing and try to mesh them into one plot. From my seat of high ignorance about most of the text, that looks like a fool’s errand. The people have not simply gotten older, they started older, and by the way, they’re not people at all.
watch

Though based, sometimes loosely, sometimes precisely, on real people, who have been pulled apart and reconfigured by fictive imperatives and the prism of the imagination, Dill, Boo, Jem, Jean Louise and Atticus are constructs, fictional manifestations of a dream dreamed while waking and while working like a mule and a thoroughbred at once. This fact eludes many of the spellbound, who want to see the characters as subjects of a jigsaw biography of Monroeville. The Finches follow the rules of plot and character, rather than the rules of life and personality, and though those two fields are similar (else all fiction would be mere distraction and entertainment), they are not identical. I’d wager there’s a demographic who constitute almost a cult of devotees, not quite Trekkies (or Mockies), but people whose feelings about Atticus and his cadre are not primarily about an aesthetic appreciation of fine writing, the old verities, the whole question of how the narrative theater offers story as vicarious experience. They’ve left the “vicarious” behind and so admire Atticus that they might feel a hankering to sue or duel someone for defaming Galahad’s character. Maybe even sue his creator for meddling after the book became a public treasure.

I might have been one of those Mockies when I was young, but I was confused by something I suspect jangled quite a lot of Mockingbird fans from the start. I cannot now say whether I read the book before I saw the movie. The former is more about the coming of age story, human development and dignity; the latter is more about the trial and the civil rights conflict, the application of the concept of dignity to the explosive (then, now, let’s pray not forever or even much longer) question of race. And the movie has Gregory Peck, not to shortchange the exquisite performance of ten-year-old Mary Badham (who could not pass for the six-year-old prodigy of the novel, but who’s counting?). If I got the word imagery first, it was quickly complicated by the cinematic version, and I was more taken with picture shows back then than with books about serious moral dilemmas and atrocities. Even when I read the novel again about five years ago, the knot was too tight for me to untangle it – Gregory Finch. The novel and the film and what we know about Peck’s life and career have all created a strange piece of psychological architecture in a fashion that might resemble the Huckleberry Finn complex, except that the text in that example is so revolutionary and (even with is problematic ending) bold and brilliant that even Twain’s remarkable life doesn’t amplify or impede the text. Lee’s novel may be unique in the way it engages us, and the fact that she never wrote another book after Mockingbird feeds the speculative, myth-making crowd. We do love our intrigues.

While I don’t believe that Go Set a Watchman will very much alter the peculiar way American readers (we few, we happy few?) cherish (or chastise – see the opinions of writers like Francine Prose) To Kill a Mockingbird, I do believe that the conversations – about fiction, childhood, even race – will be refreshed in many healthy and useful ways, which is not to say that foolish things may be said, not even to guarantee that I haven’t just said some of them, but it’s too late, isn’t it, to post my own caveat lector sign? And yet: BEWARE OF BLOG.

n.b.  This morning I had a thought and prospected till I found my old Signet paperback of  Mockingbird.  Scout narrates the story of those early years from a distance: “When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.”  Readers of the novel know it was no accident that left Jem’s arm damaged, but Ewell’s vicious attack on the children, but besides the camouflaging rewrite of personal history, what Jean Louise reveals here, as the style of her narration does throughout Mockingbird, is that J. L. F.  is seeing these famous childhood events from an adult perspective, with the rhetorical powers of an adult.  She could be the same Jean Louise going home on the train at the beginning of Watchman.  The same, but more savvy and wise, as Lee probably was when she wrote the very good book, after she wrote the one that didn’t cut the mustard but which everyone’s wolfing down right now.

And the movie scene on the cover of my copy means the movie was out before I owned a copy.  But had I seen it yet?  I can’t afford the squad of shrinks needed to ferret that answer out.

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Ghost Cat

On a Christmas week in the early 70’s I solo hiked into Linville Gorge in the North Carolina mountains. Hatchet and knife, compass and tent, food and flint, mummy bag and canteens. I left my VW bug on the rough road that led to Wiseman’s view, where one could view the Brown Mountain Lights (spectral light from a servant’s lantern as he sought his lost master a century before – see the Tommy Faile song) and stars at night, the laurel-tangled wilderness and white Linville River by day. I wasn’t looking for ghosts but was on one of the many self-discovery treks and rides of the decade, the kind of “roughing it” that looks foolish and a little dangerous decades later. As I said, ghosts were not my pursuit, but I thought just for a spell that I “encountered” either a living eastern mountain lion or the ghost of one.

cougar

Panther, painter, catamount, puma (Quechua for “powerful”), cougar. We have many names for felis concolor, but when I was a young man the prevailing theory was that North America had given birth to two subspecies, one eastern and one western. The latter had thrived, and the former was vanishing due to diminishing food source (deer, coon, possum, squirrels, even grasshoppers) and shrinking territory, due to human encroachment. Although scores of residents of the far hollers, swales and peaks would swear on a Testament that they’d seen one, still photographs and film footage were rare and questionable, assigning the animal a legendary presence as much as a zoological one, much like the “Lord God bird,” or ivory-billed woodpecker of the swampland further south. In short, a ghost cat as much as a resident.

The cougar is a large and graceful “ambush predator” that can weigh 200 pounds and leap 20 feet, cover 25 miles in a night’s hunting and snap a neck with its mighty jaws. We still read of occasional attacks out west and see news clips of the effects – torn carcasses covered over with brush as caches for further feeding. The cats gravitate to high ground and love shadowed shelves, caves, crevices, Mostly solitary, they are born with blue eyes that turn green (legend says: at first kill; scientists say, if nope). They’re tawny as their African cousins but with white and bisque underside, black facial markings and a long, heavy, crow-tipped tail that drags and bounces on the ground, making their trail in snow more than the lobe-and-petal paw prints.

Besides their fierceness and near-invisibility (“rare” to “endangered,” and as of last month officially “extinct”), I believe the feature that keeps alive their presence or spirits hunting and haunting, feeding and filling the highland night in the minds of Appalachians and tourists is the scream. A panther’s vocal chords (closer to fiddle than bass) lack the range to roar , but it’s howl-scream is blood-chilling. You can’t hear it by extrapolating on what you know of house cats, and it’s generally claimed to sound something like a woman in labor just as she completes an excruciating birth. I’d heard it (or some facsimile) in movies and TV (often on the dependable Rawhide) since I was young, and it never fails to shiver through me and raise my neck hairs.

cougar

So there you have it, a putatively indigenous murderous night wanderer in the season of hibernation that puts some feasts out of reach, and an exhausted young man with substantial imagination and no firepower beyond sparking steels. I’d pitched my camp on the Linville’s shore by rugged rapids, collected wood and built a dry fire, eaten my beanie-weenies and apple, filled my canteen, read by flashlight from my beloved camp-rough copy of Treasure Island (young Jim’s pistol ball knocks Israel Hands from the crow’s nest again) and lay back against my branch-and-brush chairback to practice surveillance on the stars. It might have been nine or ten o’clock, and there was no moon. An hour or so later I heard it, but not the same as in the movies. The growl/yowl/scream/screech was the perfect chord of hunting. The three-part sound carried claws and fangs and the fetid breath of a big beast. Not just primal but primitive, and it carried a harsh note of absolute and immediate need. Upriver. A hundred yards away? Closer? I was terrified, and all I knew to do was hack away at the understory and feed the fire, let it do my roaring. Did I say it was cold? Must have been, given the way I was shaking. Flurries swirled off and on during the night, providing even more strangeness from which my eyes could conjure a cat from blurry foliage and adrenalin.

I passed a restless night, chopping, stirring the coals, sharpening a spear (futile but distracting) with my Gerber, seeing movement in shadows, green eyes in the night, always aware that the cougar is expert at stealth, with a sudden rush at the end. For a while I sat on a rock in mid-river because I knew the animal called by hill people the “catamount” did not much savor a swim, but I couldn’t stand the wet wind away from my fire, and I had to keep the flame high.

Before dawn I was so exhausted I crawled into the red tent with spear, sheath knife and hatchet all close at hand. I planned to feed the fire every half hour, but I soon fell asleep from effort and fear, and it was almost nine when I woke, the real snow having fallen late, maybe three inches. When I poked my blue-tobogganed head through the flap, three crows on a nearby limb seemed the remnant of night, everything else pristine, contoured, somehow comforting. I survived, through no art of my own. Maybe, I thought, I’ve just outlasted another fit of my imagination, a misinterpretation of wind honed on rock, but maybe the threat had been real, and dire.

I mustered my courage and began to scout upriver, spiraling, seeking signs. When I found the tracks about 150 yards away, I was double-punched, as I realized the animal had been there after the snowfall, while I was asleep. Talk about a chill running to the heart. But then I felt relief: by my reckoning the prints were too small, not deep enough, though the span of its leaps was too long for a cub. The answer had to be the bob-tailed common bobcat (Lynx rufus), a lesser critter, half the length of a panther, both more familiar to me (even these days, on winter nights, one will visit the stone wall around my property) and uninterested in as big a target as I present. The relief I felt was considerable, but not without a note of regret. A panther would have been of more consequence, both a more instructive memory and a better story.

bobcat

When I did see a panther in the wild, it was 1988 in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and I was walking along a dry ridge at midday, a day pack and Winchester slung over my shoulder. To the north, across an arroyo maybe an eighth of a mile away I noted, scanning with my field glasses, something irregular along the buff-colored ledge. Kneel, strip off my gear, focus. An unmistakable cougar/ mountain lion/ puma (Guinness lists some 40 names) in profile, larger than my 180 pounds and staring right back, probably – given the wind direction – smelling my sweat, my deodorant, my whole soup of human scents. Its head was turned to the side to scout my ridge, but it soon swiveled and walked along its path, no hurry, no concern, mutual disinterest. My pulse had raced at first glimpse, but that passed quickly. I had at least seen a western mountain lion in its native habitat, but it actually didn’t quite match the swarm of rubythroats which later that day developed such a threatening, diving interest in my scarlet long john top that I had to strip it off.

These narratives and speculations matter to me because, after holding out long after other agencies, the Fish and Wildlife Service has finally declared the eastern panther, if there ever was such a separate subspecies, extinct. Case closed. But I don’t want to give up on the ghost cat. Survival against the odds, a clever predator lurking and bounding on the margins, both mischief and mayhem. A magical being who, like Faulkner’s bear Old Ben, you will only see in the Appalachian deep woods if you stray, if you become like the cat “a wanderer.” I’m getting too old and infirm to get out there and see for myself, but I cling to our beautiful monsters, especially the indigenous ones. And it’s hard to prove a negative, a nothing that’s there. I keep my field glasses close to hand, just in case, but I’m also ready (if rain, if snow, if any wet weather allow) to pile on the fuel and let the flames claw at the sky.
snow cougar

 

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Goat Song and Horse Opera

sopho
The prospect of a Greek tragedy set in the nineteenth century American West appealed to me at first, even if the play in question were Sophokles’ unpopular Women of Trachis. I’m a fan of both westerns and what Flannery O’Connor (referring to her own work) called “large and startling figures,” which also populate the plays of Fifth Century B.C. Athens, and I could well imagine how the essential elements of the dramas (caveat lector: I’m a long way from an expert) might be preserved, even if the circumstances and means of expression were transformed, spun, subverted.

The translation in question is Keyne Cheshire’s Murder at Jagged Rock (The Word Works, 2015), a rendition of the story of Herakles’ demise at the hands of his jealous wife, who actually intends to resurrect his passion for her with a garment charmed by the blood of the centaur Nessus, who wishes to have revenge on Herakles and, knowing his hydra-tainted transfusion is toxic, lies to the young Deianira and claims he’s doing her a favor. But before the fatal poncho episode, the story of Herk’s destruction of the town of Selgun (the translation’s full of word play like this) to grab the lovely Violet Fatts (no kidding) has to come out, followed by speculation, windy messengers, hand-wringing worry, righteous indignation and choral odes that aren’t quite yippie-yi-yo-ki-yay must unfold.

cowboy

Meanwhile back at the ranch. I was disappointed by MaJR for several reasons, and it all began with the translator’s and editor’s prefaces. The form of the original configuration is pretty much retained, and the translation is pretty much line-by-line. But there’s also an unsettling literalness of vision in Cheshire’s project which is consigned to the category of “experiment” from Deanna’s opening speech. The tragedies of Sophokles’ era depend for their emotional impact upon a belief in the ritual of the goat song, or tragedy, which may have received its genre name from sacrifice or from the dedication of the theatrical mode to Dionysus, who tends to keep company with Pan, satyrs, other bucolic wine aficionados. It’s all a religious ritual, with appropriate ceremonial atmosphere (spectacle of dance, music, costume, scene), and since that element won’t translate effectively to a western vehicle, I think the attempt to follow the form is a mistake. Better to let the original text cast a strong and guiding shadow over a carefully told and vaguely similar story, wrought with bold originality. But that wouldn’t have actually been a “translation,” so I think the original miscalculation really limits the enterprise, or my eccentric appetite limits my willingness to suspend belief.

centaur

But a translation that’s an exercise in superimposing one culture over another is not necessarily a mistake. I think the other source of my objection, however, is more serious. Both editor and translator claim this version takes place in “the Wild West.” Trouble is, there’s no such place. There’s the Sedalia Trail and Abilene, Santa Fe and Denver, the Missouri Breaks and the Badlands. There’s even Medicine Bow (“When you call me that, smile!”) And there’s the 1840’s, 1870’s, 1890’s, or more to the point: just east of Durango in the fall of 1877. And the people who live in these places and these times speak – according to their class, ethnicity, education, age, profession, gender and so on – in specific and identifiable ways. When fictional or historical versions of them appear on the page, the degree to which they echo that speech plays an important role in both authenticity and a unity Aristotle doesn’t give much ink to.

In her editor’s introduction, Barbara Greenberg says that the characters of Murder at Jagged Rock speak “stylized cowboy lingo,” but anyone who’s read newspapers and letters from the nineteenth century has to be a little puzzled by this term. What we get on the page is, in fact, closer to what the script writers for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show would have contrived for ticket-buying eastern and European dudes, a language which ignores the entire notion of dialect – vocabulary, metaphors, syntax, inflection, rhythm – and substitutes for it grammatical errors, phonetic spellings of hickish pronunciation, the whole arsenal of homogenized errors meant to establish authentic ignorance, or draw a guffaw. The result here is closer to SNL than Roughing It or even an episode of Rawhide from the Sixties.

spur
Why does this matter to me, given the Jamesian rule of the “given”? The story of Deianira’s apprehension and suffering and Herakles’s folly and destruction is serious, though not without room for some mischief. Any story unfolding through Cheshire’s vaudevillian “stylized cowboy lingo” is going to elicit less empathy (and catharsis) than amusement and irritation. The translation has been performed, and the translator writes “the crowd was soon swept up in the story.” I won’t question his word, but I suspect that the dramatic trappings of live theater, a home crowd and a string band made crucial contributions. And to give him credit, Cheshire admits that “the Wild West has its hokey side,” but Jagged Rock has far more hoke than grit, spit, sweat, dust, hash and real slang.

But I’ve gotten to this point on thin ice, without citing examples of the troubling passages, which abound. In fact, the problem is compounded when a single speech by one character features language which has the force and dignity we associate with Sophokles, accompanied by the stylized palaver. In one choral ode the Girls of Jagged Rock say, with poignancy and antique gravity, “Broken, she sees only hell,” but on the next page offer, “We’s a-telling you,/ that ain’t the thing to do.”

It’s not impossible to swallow a slave or stranger saying, “You ain’t heard the truth of none of what you ought to./Now I – I’s got full knowledge of it all, I does!” However, when the wife (based on a queen in the original) of the hero says, “I won’t be pilin’ no more/ trouble top the pain she’s got already. Reckon/ she’s had enough,” it does stick in my craw.
The play contains some attempts at period diction, as when the chorus chants that “Aphrodite played the empire,” but even that seems off key to me.

If my objections seem unduly harsh, the source is my love for the music and poetry of the many strands of vernacular available for writers to explore. I also appreciate a writer’s willingness to do research in linguistic matters and to employ with some consistency and craft the levels of diction and range of trope he chooses. Not that I want Sut Lovingood’s speech, which is twisted as sweetgum grain and attempts to duplicate non-standard pronunciation, turns of phrase and butchered grammar until the reader stops laughing and cries for mercy. What I miss in MaJR is, rather, what Twain recommends, that the writer employ enough of the tongue of actual people to render on the page the impression of the dialect. A version of Women of Trachis that capitalized on an opportunity to convey ancient Greek sentiments in the argot of some genuine time and place in the West may have found in me an enthusiastic advocate. Jagged Rock, for all its admirable intentions, did not.

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A Shot Across the Bow: WE WERE BROTHERS is a memoir worth reading.

Anyone unfamiliar with Barry Moser’s art ought to summon him up on Google before reading this and just gawk at his wonderful prints and drawings of Dickinson, Poe, Quixote, Hawthorne, Faulkner, scenes Biblical and mythic, Alice, animals, birds. It’s an impressive body of work, would be even without his illustrations for great books by Dante, Melville, Carroll, which are formidable. He works in a mode reminiscent of Leonard Baskin but is alternately fierce and calm, elegant and grotesque in his own way. His balance of gravity and grace will long outlive both today’s commercial fine art of the NYC scene and the sly graphic play practiced by so many with the tools for perceiving and rendering, but not the heart and spirit for bringing light. No matter how closely he works with texts, “illustration” is too modest a word for his craft and the resulting work.

wewereBut We Were Brothers is not primarily about art, though the story of any artist’s life is bound to feature reminiscences of learning the craft and seeking graphic expression without video games or pyrotechnic movies in mind. This memoir, forthcoming from Algonquin in the fall, is one of the two satisfying volumes I’ve read this month from a genre that usually leaves me cold. Reluctant to indulge in the sentimental or the standard moonlight and magnolias of its place and time, We Were Brothers still warms me with a flame born of friction and fed on candor.

We Were Brothers does not attempt to explore Moser’s laudable career as a professional artist or to catalogue either an artsy tendency toward glamorous misbehavior or a hive of secrets about transgression and rescue. It’s not quite 200 pages long and tells just enough of the story of the boyhoods of the author and his bother Tommy, two nearly incompatible peas from the same pod. Southern (Chattanooga), not affluent, temperamental, these two misfits scrapped and snarled at each other for years, though the younger Barry usually wound up on the short end.

Who was Mother’s favorite? Who was Dad’s? Stepdad’s? Where did the money come from and go? Why a military school for two so unsuited for regimentation? And twisting through the entire introspective story is the question of black and white, how two of the same blood developed such radically opposed attitudes toward African-American strangers, a black playmate or, more importantly, their mother’s elegant and steely black friend and neighbor, Vernetta Gholston.

Black and white. Ink and paper. These became the primary colors of Moser’s palette, and his nearly-photographic drawings of family, places and planes punctuate the narrative, along with vivid sketches in words, which imprint on a reader’s memory and imagination. Just two examples. As a child in Will Haggard’s grocery, Vernetta weeps when she’s told that she can’t accompany her white playmates to the picture show. Then she runs to the flour barrel and thrusts her face in, emerging dusty white but unsuccessfully disguised. “Now can I go? Now can I go?” she pleads. That scene will stay with most readers, as will the unembellished account of a burning B-25 Mitchell streaking across the American sky, it’s crew bailing out as it lost altitude. The pilot’s chute failed to open, and he plummeted to the schoolyard, as the engine smashed through a house “bounced ten feet into the air, and then rolled smoking into the street.” The prose is spare, and Moser doesn’t spend much time explaining the impression this knowledge and sight of the swath left by the craft left on the boys and the community. But the reader gets it right at the core.

moserRoosters and TV, segregation and white Jesus, dogs and scuffles, plus ridicule (of Barry for his awkwardness and chubbiness, of Tommy for his eye problems and recklessness) permeate this chronicle of boyhood, but Moser makes certain readers understand that he was raised to be a racist and took some time to realize that his inherited view was unwise, unhealthy and unkind. The sibling rivalry is not unusual for two boys in a household, but the rift about race that amplified their estrangement gives the narrative a torque, underscores and taints many accounts of play, work, family misfortune and petty disputes.

How did the author begin to see the light? What were the benchmarks in this clash of world views as the pair grew older? Like a stone skipping across a still lake, the narrative touches still water, then rises again. Moser’s approach is a chronological sampling, gathering momentum rather than spending it, but headed for a surprising exchange of letters that brings two voices to life, cuts to the quick and, painfully, recalls what brotherhood is all about and how painful is the road to understanding.

What most attracted my empathy and seized my imagination in We Were Brothers is the way Moser achieves admissions of his own shortcomings without falling into a standard confessional mode. He sees himself as neither hero nor victim and recounts even horrifying lapses of humanity with more than a tincture of forgiveness. It’s a good story, as simple and complicated as most people’s lives, and Moser inspires confidence and teaches the lessons that he has learned without assuming the podium or the stage. He can do this partly because of his devotion to the atmosphere and the personalities of those around him, and there are times when you can feel the crackling heat and the mist off the river, see the “blizzard of blue and white feathers” that is a shotgunned jay. Overall, Moser has rendered a compassionate view of a passing world, mysterious and complicated as the South we know from the fiction of Welty or the photographs and constructions of William Christenberry.

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Facsimile: The Flannery O’Connor Stamp

I was disappointed when the U.S. Postal Service recently unveiled its new Flannery O’Connor stamp, which slightly resembles one extant photo of Ms. O’Connor as a co-ed but would not be recognizable to many people who are familiar with the most prevalent, and representative, photographs of her as an adult artist. Lawrence Downes in The New York Times has likened the stamp image to Betty Crocker, and Joyce Carol Oates Tweeted that the artist who painted the portrait which was digitalized for the stamp not only could never have seen a photo of Ms. O’Connor, but must, also, have never read a word the Georgia author wrote. I’m not sure I’m convinced of that, but this is certainly a missed opportunity to “put a face on” many of the most piercing and sadly humorous American short stories, certainly a dozen of my favorite pieces, genre aside, in world literature. Below are the stamp itself, the closest FOC image to the stamp and a photo from the series by Joe McTyre, one of many in which he saw her spirit:

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The picture which artist Sam Weber may have been working from was taken while O’Connor was a student at Georgia State College for Women, though the pearls may have been imported from one of the 1962 photographs taken at Andalusia by Atlanta Journal-Constitution photographer Joe McTyre. My favorite shot (McTyre’s favorite showed her sitting under a self-portrait with a partridge) displays her on that day (during the warm half of the year, if I read the vegetation correctly) seated in the parlor, smiling, somewhat scholarly in those signature cat-eye glasses, not looking frail at all, her crutches out of sight and an open book on her lap. I’m a little conflicted on the matter of the crutches, as they’re not necessary for a photo of a seated person, nor should this occasion be an opportunity to make a point about physical disabilities. Or should it? I’m of two minds. O’Connor was stricken by disease, smitten by the love of her God and beloved of the muse and whatever other dieties confer a capacity for sweat and vision. However tempting it is to focus on her process, her domestic circumstances, her struggle and personal steel, the real point is the work, which I think would be more effectively celebrated by an image of the writer during the time she was crafting it. Crafting it almost every morning, I might add, from just after mass till lunch at the Sanford House Tea Room (often shrimp and peppermint pie).

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Once lupus struck the young Flannery’s immune system, it damaged her body, her features, her stamina. The marvel is that it did not decrease her sense of mischief, theological seriousness, cultural understanding, caustic wit, originality of metaphor, allegorical logic, fierce discipline, compassion and instinct for the right words to “draw in large and startling figures for the blind.”

What I see in the portrait on the stamp is a more ordinary face, an unworldly young woman of the early fifties, somewhat blithe, the remarkableness of the heart and imagination not yet much in evidence in the eyes as she sits for a school picture (though the stamp artist has added some years, I think). I don’t really see the early signs of her vulnerability or her strength, which together with action and humor constitute character. Her Communion Day photo of 1932 reveals more grit and mischief in those windows to the soul than the co-ed shot.

But this is a tempest in a teapot, and I don’t think the trickster, cartoonist and satirist Mary Flannery O’Connor would have been very interested in either the postal image or my disappointment. We have the stamp (sadly, not the first class one I’d hoped for), which is a long-overdue tribute, and many who see it will say either “Who?” or “So that’s what she looked like.” Others will be reminded of Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away, “Revelation,” “Greenleaf,” “Good Country People,” while a few smile and suspect that “a good likeness is not hard to find.” Maybe someone will be moved to go out to the fields and read “A Circle in the Fire” aloud, “as if the prophets were dancing in the fiery furnace, in the circle the angel had cleared for them.” That would suit me.

[R. T. Smith has been editor of Shenandoah for20 years, over70 issues, including the 60th anniversary Flannery O’Connor issue.  He is the author of several books, including The Red Wolf: A Dream of Flannery O’Connor.  Smith’s article “Much Mischief Is Divinest Sense: My Flannery Visitation” will appear in the fall issue of The Flannery O’Connor Review.]

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Art, Just for the Holy Hell of It, 1 of 2

1. Memento Mori

Memorial Day: I had just come in from trimming and sweeping the deck wisteria’s ambitious scouts, which will, left to their own devices, extend and explore , insinuate among the lounge chairs, twine the arms and legs to claim the faux natural materials and (beckoning toward the treeline) whisper, “Brother, come with us, come home.” My wife was in the garden performing more arduous weeding chores, but I couldn’t get out of my mind what she’d told me an hour earlier. Mary Baldwin College’s Facebook hostesses had been scolded by a follower for posting a “Happy Memorial Day” message sporting the image of a squirrel (MBC’s mascot) armed with an American flag. The mild admonition was directed at the inappropriate whimsy and that “happy,” given what we’re officially supposed to be remembering beyond race cars, water sports and grilled meat.

I was feeling immune to that criticism, as I neither celebrate nor much register that holiday. Many have given the full measure, no few of them due to foolish miscalculation and misplaced enthusiasm from our generals and princes, but at my house we don’t seize the occasion to engage in family scrum, feasts, flag-waving or pyrotechnics, and I’m likely to spend the afternoon in my office or my reading chair. Sarah and I were planning to sup on fresh bread and a long-simmered soup of beans and sausage. I was reading a couple of books I enjoyed and planning to watch part of a TV miniseries, Texas Rising, on Sam Houston as Texas savior that night, and so to bed, as the chroniclers say. Not much thought dedicated to American victories and losses beyond my pilot light of disgust at our various administrations and their foreign adventures, which, mind you, doesn’t equal my anger at the current international felons and their jackal depravity, but I feel hamstrung and impotent in those matters. In short: the usual discontent and dismay, but thirst for distraction which would encourage me to focus on some “larger picture,” or smaller ones.

When I went into my study to change shoes after my Nemo-like battle with the squid-wisteria, I stopped longer than usual in front of a smaller picture, a painting sent to me by friend Billy Dunlap and hanging on the blue wall. I’ve seen it, as they say, a thousand, and Billy knows my mind enough to have guessed I’d be fixated by it. The title scrawled in white on the verso of the black canvas is “Sgt. Williams in the Moonlight,” and it’s dated 2007, accompanied by what’s called an appropriate sentiment about our mutual something-illegible, so I suppose I’ve had it 7-8 years. Now, here it is, on our livingroom table like a body ready to be cleaned:

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12” X 24” polymer paint on canvas
The image is a familiar one, the original photograph widely reprinted in the late 19th century, then in history books, as perhaps a cautionary emblem for those traveling west, or a reminder of the cost.  I have seen it on practicallyhistorical.net and grouped with images of Custer, though we have no photographs of the fatalities after that battle, so I’ll resist that interpretive path.  The cavalryman whose family came west (I’m projecting based on his name) from Wales, then further, was probably left behind by his enemies as a NO TRESPASSING sign. I’ve heard the larger field of the photograph shows a lonesome horse grazing in the background, but my artist friend has, I believe,  selected and composed (though maybe the source of that horse is one of Dunlap’s own constructions; trickster that he is), turning grim pastoral to both memento mori and an object of stern beauty.

Once Billy cast his artist’s eye beyond the Mississippi, where the bison and hawks different from Virginia and Mississippi denizens could be found, his archival instincts found this whole new trove of images, and he lit on this Sergeant Williams or was lit up by the sergeant and placed him, with or without his mount and the glowering Yahweh sky, on various panels and dedicated canvases for years (“Landscape and Variable: Indian Paint Brush” 1987; “Meditations on the Origins of Agriculture in America” same year; “Object Lesson Series: Willing Spirit/ Weak Flesh” 1991). Sometimes the panels or canvases have an actual arrow embedded in the images, usually not. The body – a soldier, a casualty, a guardian – of the non-com can appear in different lights and stages of decay; in one rendering his body appears to be mossed over, glowing verdigris, in others the wounds are fresher, more delineated, the ribs or facial features more prominent. The disposition and proportions of the body always approximate the “pose” in the original photograph.

At first, I couldn’t decide if he reminded me more of St. Sebastian or a misshapen porcupine. St. Porcupine? Clearly, I wanted to joke the impact into submission, to peer to the side, see the Dunlap Williams as subsidiary or peripheral. It is a disturbing image, though not really grisly, compared to, say, the grue-fetish zombie crap comics, popular TV and movies assail us with, hoping to scare-titillate us. There ought to be a word – scittilate – for that unimaginative enterprise. But Williams is ghostly in that deeply spiritual, but not religious, way which often leaves us blinking, if not transformed.

And he reminded me of the scene in Dances with Wolves when Costner/Dunbar and his muleskinner discover a Caucasian body long dwelling in the tall prairie grass, occasioning the wagonneer to quip, “Somewhere back home somebody’s wondering, ‘Why don’t he write?’” [This is approximate; I’m not ready to watch that film again to get the line exact.] While Sgt. Williams is not without identity, he’s still pretty much one of our unknown soldiers, but here he is also big A Art – emotional, highly wrought, mysterious, both sustaining and able to trigger serious hungers.

And the painting has outlasted my earlier associations and driven me deeper into meditations I never volunteered for. Billy is many things: painter with perfect visual pitch, sculptor, teacher, curator, wit, writer, raconteur, bon vivant, and so on. But at his core, he’s a trickster, and I find myself wishing I could decipher that word after “mutual” in the inscription.

Sergeant Will is moonwashed white, his flesh become bone, his face eluding recognition, but just expressive enough to occupy the threshold between mime and demon, and yet still human. He might be floating upon calm black waters, but the brushstrokes in muted colors complicating the backdrop suggest something more solid. His feet are pitiable, and you want to start covering him there and move the blanket up for privacy, yet in the whitening moonlight he has a profound dignity, the five arrows almost symbolic: one planted in the groin, a second in the belly, one in the heart, another just above the sternum, a final one in the left deltoid. They come from different angles and carry a hint of red on their fletching. The body also shows red wisps and splotches, enough blood on the right elbow to suggest blunt trauma.

Intriguing as the amateur forensics might be, the whole is so much more than . . . . Sergeant Williams is in repose. He has come face to face with death and become, for me, the face of death, even more than my maternal grandfather John P. Thaxton, whom I was always said to favor physically until I grew old and grayed old and took on my father’s features. (Temperamentally, I excite few comparisons to either man.) I remember seeing granddaddy the day he died in that back (west) room on the iron-framed feather bed I had so often slept in. Patchwork quilt of many blues, pillows thick as shoats.  I was six. He’d been suffering from lung cancer long enough to have grown even more sparse and sinewy than labor had made him.  Grizzled of cheek, chin and mien.  I’m now developing his hairline, but I never had his sinewy grit or lanky good nature. That’s wisdom, to my mind: grit and humor together, a strong dose of generosity doesn’t hurt.  Wisdom is humanitarian instincts spoken and then acted, I believe.   I’m just a poor facsimile. But I knew him as a child knows a local hero, not even aware until I was sixty that his “unexplained” disappearances and extended absences were binges the Baptist church wouldn’t much excuse in a farming carpenter. But at least they didn’t express their disapproval with archery.

I wonder if Sergeant Williams achieved wisdom? I think of the last line of Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan,” but twisting it, with death-in-flight replacing the assailant Zeus-goose. “Did [he] put on his knowledge. . . ?” Hard to believe a soldier of the sergeant’s era didn’t tipple a bit, which is a useful clarifying lens just before it becomes an occluding one. I’m guessing he was a scout, but as soon as I begin to speculate on his identity and function, I want to know who took the original damn picture. And what was left out. The records don’t show. Old Anonymous at it again. I wonder if it was someone whose curiosity about the human condition and respect for the final stages mirrored Sally Mann’s as she photographed her dying father and the corpses at the “Body Farm” where forensic scientists use to learn how the forces of nature reclaim various examples of our flesh and bones. Maybe it was just an artless journalist, but I’m skeptical about makers of images shooting from the hip with neither design nor agenda, intent being a natural instinct for our species.

A few years ago, my wife didn’t object when I asked if I could move the sarge to our bedroom, where I could study him from my own prone position. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit to arranging my body to mimic his position. I also thought of my grandfather’s position as he prepared for death and mine when I was laid up with the poisons of chemotherapy and radiation in the same room a decade ago. “Fallen man” is my phrase for the general posture, and I have stretched out on my deck in winter to seek his outline in the stars, though that constellation eludes me so far. I have found both terror and comfort in my morbid exercises, just as I find that pair in most activities.  O felix culpa?

Neither did Sarah object when I decided to move the painting back to the wall of my study, where there’s a scarlet, trumpet-blowing angel silhouette cut from sheet metal to greet him, to “Taps” and “Reveille” him. What I’m hoping in the long run is that I’ll be able to follow this meditative path when my time to cross the river comes along: wisteria, the sergeant resting in peace, the red angel blowing maybe a kind of jazz anthem of welcome. I read this anecdote somewhere. When Allen Ginsberg was dying, he was asked how he felt, and his answer was that, where he’d expected to be terrified, he was instead exhilarated. Smell of fresh grass and a lathered horse, twang of a bowstring, moonlight on the face . . . and just hope that first arrow is well-chosen and flies true.  “All fall down.”
*
The Mighty Billy D

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AVENGERS: SPASM DEUX: A DYNAMIC DUET

A DYNAMIC DUET

backtobackSo the first half of my Avenger ailment is simple: a kind of cantankerous geriatric resistance to the laws of probability, feasibility, possibility, rock-a-bility being not just stretched or suspended but shattered (or ignored); a hankering for sustainable shape, flexible wit, a vision (however winkingly presented) of a time and place where melodrama and pyrotechnics do not eclipse cause and effect. And well, I should say this: a hunger for fresh humor. The BBC The Avengers is funny, stylish, a spiffy spoof dominated by Patrick McNee and Diana Rigg, perhaps as mischievous a comic partnership as TV has given us. The show, at its peak, was kin to Get Smart, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and I Spy, but rhetorically more sophisticated, as if Noel Coward and Doyle might have collaborated. Or in some cases (the episode “The Joker,” for instance) written by Harold Pinter during his “Dumbwaiter”/ “Birthday Party” period.

In a signature moment the episode called “From Venus with Love,” the intrepid Steed dives into an open grave to escape a laser beam, which has managed to decapitate a funerary stature and send the loose stone head falling into the gaping grave. When Steed rises back into view, he is, in pensive mode, holding the statuary noggin in his palm and gazing eye-to-hollow-socket at the stone visage. One sidelong gaze at the camera, and that’s it. The writers know he doesn’t have to say “Alas, poor Yorick!” or provide any other prompts. The audience is trusted to “get it” or not, and the plot moves on. I also love the appearance in one episode of a surly gamekeeper is named Mellors, not to mention the discourse (same episode) on rose poems, including Herrick’s.

I know it’s unfair to compare these two pop phenomena on the basis of a shared name, and I should also admit that the TV show can be as goofy as the Marvel movies. In fact, the best scene in Ultron, involving Thor’s hammer as a gauge of macho power (bravo: the Excalibur parallel is unmistakable), seems to belong less to Lee than Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens, creators of the Steed-Peel adventures. In fact, there was an ill-fated film version of the TV show (guess the title) released in 1998 with the usually-adroit Ralph Fiennes as Steed and inimitable Uma Thurman as Peel, not to mention Connery as an evil meteorologist nemesis. A cast of sharp, brisk cosmopolitans costumed and equipped (Steed’s bowler, brolly, carnation, bon mots and joi de vivre; Peel’s effortless beauty, snazzy wardrobe, acerbic wit, and even a touch of her arsenal of impish gazes). But the film didn’t much work. It was almost impersonation, rather than acting, though as watchable with popcorn and soda as Josh Whedon’s effort. Throughout, it appeared that the producers had attempted to inflate a TV hour into a feature film.

emmaWhat is it about the “cult classic” (enter its internet world at your peril) that so charms someone like me, who is no anglophile and would normally prefer the Eastwood of Unforgiven or the Connery/Bond version of mayhem and wit to the amateur anthropologist/industrial magnate/judo/society diva Mrs. Peel and the dapper Steed (whose brand of unflappability and bemusement seems to me the model Roger Moore was aiming for with his Bondemeanor)? Steed and Peel can’t fly, fling vintage Bentleys around or speak the King’s tongue with aliens, though they often ride about in one of the above (when not in Emma’s Lotus or go-cart).  Sexuality between the principals enters the story only as innuendo and never develops beyond that, though never quite disappears. The number of bodies that mount up as P and S attempt to prevent espionage, destabilizing industrial monopoly and mass scale mind control is, well, euphemistic, by Lee-Whedon standards.

Panache – there, I’ve said it. It means, of course, “dash; swagger; verve,” but it’s ripped from the Latin for a bunch of feathers, as in a helmet plume. Emma the feather, John Steed the helmet (he’s former Special Branch, after all, a former major). But sometimes it’s the reverse, as they’re both wily and deft (which is both adroit and daft), durable and adaptable. Their gestures and inflections have texture, subtexture. At their best, even in the broadest jest, they’re artful.

And there’s the matter of form. The last refuge of scoundrels, or just an affection for symmetry and ritual? I won’t say that an episode of the TV Avengers works like a sonnet, that “moment’s monument,” but it has its demanding contours, regimen, dynamic, a reliable framework within which surprises may happen.steedcar

Here’s the drill. 1. Opening titles with champagne and bongo beat, close-ups of stars, saucy music, zero in on Steed’s accoutrements and boutonniere, Peel’s eyes and revolver. 2. A brief prologue, usually revealing in flagrante felony some naughty sociopath, quack scientist or Official Secrets thief, maybe a hypnotized giant striding with unswerving menace. 3. Standard bars of series anthem with title of episode (like “A Room Without a View,” “Mission . . . Highly Improbable,” “The Winged Avenger”) and (in half the technicolor episodes) two quirky sub-captions, such as “Steed Goes off the Rails; Mrs. Peel Finds Her Station in Life.” 4. Peel in her snazzy flat happily painting, sculpting, fencing; in short, busy. Steed appears almost ex nihilo to say, “Mrs. Peel, we’re needed.” In what medium he says this? Surprise, wit, untenable improvisation arise. Business card to skywriting out the window, a toy carrousel with knights who carry notecards. 5.-9. Context, investigation, confrontation, judo, duels of wit, discussion, eureka. All of this involving arcane or acerbic British types. 10. Solution revealed and tossed off with caprice. 11. Piano reprising the intro, then gliding into musical theme with our two contract sleuths riding into the distance in/on horseback, tractor, golf cart, Rolls, hot air balloon, etc. It’s as if, over the years, the final couplet before the end titles (12.) constitutes an essay on vehicular history. All in about 52 minutes.

But I’ve omitted something. Though this be madness . . . . Mischief, yes, but serious mischief. The stories that unfold touch on extrapolations from the science of the time (often nuclear or the psychological sort), earning the series the sub-genre label Spy-fi, or politics (either the ominous cold war assassin chess or the cost of a couple of centuries of imperialism doubling back to bite Merry Olde in the hinter parts). The package may be farcical and formal and sometimes Peter Maxx-goofy, designed with the psychedelic prejudices of the decade, but the undercurrent runs not too shallow, the themes thicker than water, and even when her ensembles are Barnaby, Mrs. Peel is all Dior.

emmagunI hope all this fiddle makes it clear: without resorting to the urge to cooperate in mass mayhem, the audience is invited to be in on the jokes, rather than be shocked and awed and July 4 WOWed by “special” effects. All nostalgia and bifocals –shawl over my shoulders, hearth at my back, teacup at hand, hound on my feet – I savor Steed and Peel and remember how they’re precious in the way real estate is: nobody’s making any more of it.

[Note: Lionsgate has released a sixteen-disc set of DVDs containing all 51 of the episodes featuring Diana Rigg.  Absolutely addictive, to some sorts of jasper.]

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Avengers Revisited, in Two Spasms

SPASM THE FIRST: TWO DIFFERENT WORLDS, ONE A FRENZIED GALLIMAUFRY OF THE FANTASTIC

I have little patience with some of the heroes called Avengers and a steady appetite for others. Which enemies of evil fall into which of those categories is likely a function of my generational tastes and my own twisted eccentricities, and yet, though this be madness, there’s some method to it. I was weary of the graphic versions of Thor, Ironman, the Hulk, Captain America et al before they came to the giant screen, but I can binge with the most fanatical fans over John Steed and Emma Peel. I even harbor some fondness for Peel’s antecedents and successors like Cathy Gale, Tara and Purdey. If this is a little cryptic to some readers, The Avengers was a British TV series about a team of blue-blooded agents back in the sixties, and at least three of the four women who took the lead female role would be familiar even now to most American pop culture followers. Honor Blackman quit the show to become Pussy Galore in the film Goldfinger, three years later Diana Rigg (as Mrs. Peel, the brightest star of the whole series) stepped away to become James Bond’s only (and very temporary) wife Tracy in the big screen’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Those too young for that film may well know Rigg from her Emmy-nominated performances in Game of Thrones. Joanna Lumley, a widely successful actress perhaps most remembered for the BBC comedy Absolutely Fabulous, was the last of the sixties femme-Avengers.

Now that we’re straight on the players, just what is it that leaves me cold about the Hollywood Avengers, beyond the possibility that much of the production is aimed at gamers and comic fans perhaps too young to drive? Despite the few attempts at off-color humor or drive-by high culture allusion (a quotation from Nietzsche, reference to a Eugene O’Neill title), the stories resemble evidence in a repetition-compulsion case study. Heroes from the Marvel Avenger team – one a Norse God, another an inventor, yet another an indestructible WWII G.I. altered in the kind of experiment sci-fi writers have been cooking up since Wells – engage in endless fights (building to the most recent Mother of All Brawls) with a few misguided mortals and legions of cyberthingies (none of which can chill me like Hal). These bouts involve a magical Viking war hammer, zap rays, Glocks, fists, exploding arrows and the hurling of everything from furniture and vehicles to whole plots of urban real estate. Irresistible forces meet immovable objects again and again, things fall apart, and “those that build them again are gay” (“gay” in the Yeatsian, near-obsolete sense; that is: “merry”). These durable combatants include computer programs, glittery facsimiles of the aurora borealis, robots and to some degree humans, the superheroes being more than resilient than mere mortals.

avengersI understand that this spectacle is all unfolding in the video-arcade post-realistic mode and with metaphorical implications with apocalyptic overtones, but I’m not stirred by the mix-tape version of which laws of physics are to be trusted and which not, when gravity works and what color button makes which items levitate or dissolve, all in the service of fleeting and sometimes indistinguishable steps in the tangled but plodding plot. In short, I don’t believe the creators of these Avengers are very interested in physics, astrophysics, metaphysics, phys ed or curative physic. And if the plot lines and character complications resemble WWW Raw, the cosmology is not too far off from the Scientologists’ version of our origin and destiny. Though I suspect that devotees of this kind of inventiveness may rush to the fore with charts, tables, Smart phones, cross-references, hard-drive burdening statistics that argue au contraire (and perhaps Tasers), I’m compelled to maintain that the boundaries and limitations of powers and faculties are viable only to the degree that they are systematic and successfully dramatized, which would require more clarity and less velocity than Stan Lee and his cadre are addicted to.

A central tenant in my impatience with the crew that Tony Stark funds and Nick Fury inspires is best caught in Coleridge’s phrase “the willing suspension of disbelief.” After all, if the aphorism that “religion is what we believe, even if we know it’s not so” carries any witty wisdom at all, then I’m prepared to suspend my skepticism and practical sense in order to entertain conceits like Marquez’s Macondo, Bond’s marksmanship, Erewhon, the magical Forest of Arden, Hannibal Lector, and certainly Renfield, if the improbabilities are marshaled meticulously and presented with originality and verve, which do not result from mere scale, volume, number, color and wholesale destruction. In other words, the film makers have to “sell it.” So the StanLeevengers leave me cold on a couple of counts: the plots are chess without rules played by characters whose physical limits are inhuman or superhuman but blithely undefined. I don’t even want to think about the psychology and motivation of gods, cybots, spybots, green Jekyll-Hulks and James Spader’s voice. Yet I’m sure they’re all calibrated just right for the comic books from which they leap with hands (or claws) outstretched to seize our admission fees.hammer

That’s all my wind and energy for now, but in a few days, Confessions of a Nostalgic Em-appeal Geezer. Enter at your own risk.

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