In a Yellow Wood

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not takenAlthough I pretty much know it by heart (or at least by memory), I’ve never been a devotee of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”  Among his shorter poems, give me “Stopping by Woods . . . ,” “Design,” “Provide, Provide,” “The Silken Tent,” “Hyla Brook,” “After Apple-Picking,” “Out, Out – ,” if those last two can be called shorter.  It’s clear that extra-poetic forces run through my enthusiasms side-by-side with matters of the poems’ craft and ambition, and I’m not very trustworthy when it comes to identifying those currents of need and circumstance that shape my taste.  With “The Road Not Taken,” however, I’m pretty sure what extracurricular vectors interfered with my overall love for Frost’s successes and his “mistakes” in that widely beloved piece.

road notFortunately, along comes David Orr’s little book (from Penguin in 2015), which takes the poem’s title for its own and adds the subtitle “Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong.”  About two thirds of that book holds me in thrall and instructs me, though the remainder of the book, to my mind, loses the name of action, as it explores the nature of choice and self in both serious psychology and the pop variety.  Nothing wrong with such an investigation, but it seems off task here and diverging from the poem as focus and crucible.  And the project of the chapters “The Choice” and “The Chooser” require both more space and a more technical philosophical vocabulary to do justice.

In brief, however, here’s the problem that Orr has cured for me.  Frost’s poem, most everyone agrees, presents a narrator who has come to a fork in the road, deliberated on which one to take, this deliberation extended because one is “just as fair” as the other, they are worn “really about the same” and “both that morning equally lay.”  It’s a more complicated matter than six of one, half dozen of the other, but the traveler plays some tricks with himself, thinking he’ll be able to take the one not chosen another day, while already doubting he “should ever come back” to this place, certainly not this moment.

At this point, the poem has always delighted me.  The tense shifts from past to future, and the storyteller speculates what and how he will report this choice in the future, while       suggesting that he’ll come to believe it made a lot of difference, or none.  So far so good.  But the appetite for codger wisdom and stoic individualism leads many Americans, indeed most non-academics and non-practitioners of the mortal sport of poetry, to embrace the idea that the narrator must have chosen the more demanding path, which shows he’s gritty and likes challenges, wants to blaze a trail.  That’s why so many get the title wrong: it’s not “The Road Less Traveled.”  Enter my inner Puck, who has long been whispering, “These readers are desperate for their bumper sticker slogans to be confirmed, their commonsense American perspective to be rewarded by the most American of major poets who’s offering a little parable to confirm their belief in themselves as pioneers.  What fools these mortals be.”

roadlessbookCertainly the puca and I have not been “fair” to the poet and the poem, for aberrant readings will arise, no matter what.  The poet can influence but not determine how people read.  Usually we call aberrations “misreadings” or hasty readings or incomplete ones, and move on, enjoying the merits of the poem as we see them.  But Orr’s little book offers astonishing evidence that the hoi polloi are in thid case in the vast majority, and they love the twenty lines so much that there must be more to the issue than all this fiddle.  Expert opinions are not the only opinions.  Orr claims, and demonstrates to my satisfaction, that this little hike poem is the most widely known and revered icon of American culture in history, no matter what Marvel Comics administrators might say, or MJ fans (Jordan or Jackson) or Kardashian addicts.  Surely I need to rethink my conviction that the poem’s heart is that shift in tense and the disingenuous assessment that the narrator will tell – well, who?  His heirs, his fans, himself?  All “ages and ages hence.”  In an acorn shell, here’s what I felt the poem was about: after the facts are in, the memory (with ego in the pilot seat) rewrites history to report that the narrator goes the way most people wouldn’t, which is how we create rich lives or histories, become legends in our own minds, how we win.  He knows he’ll lie a little, though what the “that” in the last line refers to – the telling, the traveling, the choosing, the sighing – is ambiguous.

I was for years, with vacillating enthusiasm, irritated that Frost loaded the deck so heavily for inattentive or over-agenda-ed readers to misconstrue and find unwarranted satisfaction by identifying with the speaker, whom they take to be blood-flesh-and-bone (and that sunstruck, windblown inauguration laureate hair) Frost (who does write in prose about a walk in the woods, but it’s quite different, and appears in Orr’s book).  I felt that Frost had made it too easy for the stitchers of samplers and sellers of inspirational posters to use the poem to incite cheers of USA, USA, USA.  Maybe he was just entrapping them to have a little more Frost Fun. But as Orr speculates, old Yankee wit Bob has done something more and better, not provided A) a dead end about choosing the unusual road, or B) a vital line of thought about revisionism, the ego and the urge to glorify one’s own past.  He’s built a poem full of feints, near conundrums and ambiguities, all pulled along by his usual team of work horses, metaphor and theater.  He takes away as he gives.  He offers a poem which can soothe without raising too many questions or can penetrate to the nature of deliberation, choice, memory, but only with the investment of a fiercely attentive reading and the willingness to live with a set of twisty ambiguities.  There’s something to be said for the show dog who can also herd.

So many poems announce their subjects as poetry itself or the making of poems, but most signpostlessof the ars poetica poems that capture my fancy keep the writing business in the subtext, the peripheral, and only seem to be about the making of poetry to people who practice that craft, making it all a pretty crafty business.“The Road Not Taken” may also be about all those “visions and revisions which a minute will reverse,” and I’ve decided to add that to my file of possibilities to ponder.  Is there a way, through subtext, ambiguity, reversal, semantics and so on that the woodkern can take both roads, that a poem can mean in forking ways?

I’ll leave it to those who take up Orr’s book to decide this, and I’m convinced that, if you don’t hate poetry (or maybe even if you do), half of Orr’s book will delight and instruct you, and the other half is not half bad, either.  Beats Tom Clancy.  Besides, it’s full of fascinating information about the literary mob, Frost’s life, the whole question of the crisis of the crossroads, which Oedipus came to appreciate too late.*

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Dilly Blog: Message from the Nostalgia Frontier

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th.jpsimonDear Boss,

I heard that “’Neath” in “The Sounds of Silence” back in the Sixties, and I realized that elf guy Simon was up to something in the neighborhood of poetry, the neighborhood where good walls mattered and lilacs by the dooryard bloomed, Nobodies fessed up and neither farmers nor horses cared about Hubris Icarus falling.  You don’t say “’neath” without you have some secret designs on your auditors.  Like I say, poetry.

That vinyl’s title song was about some hipster who had a dream vision, and he was trying to sound the alarm about zombies, despite the widespread practices of ennui and silence.  Not the kind of zombies that slink about and aim to feast on brains, but the kind that wanted to numb your brain, doze you.  Zombies that talk without speaking and hear without listening.  Dulling zombies, Xanax zombies.  That song was a pretty obvious warning, and I raised my private terror alert level to woodpecker red.

I zoomed in on “The Dangling Conversation” on that same album, and it was more personal with cups of tea and pretty images, but also indifference and superficial sighs.  It all rang a bell, but what really got my attention was the poetry business again – “And you read your Emily Dickinson/ And I my Robert Frost/ And we mark out places with bookmarks/ That measure what we’ve lost.”

emilyI had just gotten free of high school, and I had a kind of suspicious respect for poetry, which I understood not at all (despite some pretty fancy bulletin boards) but knew it was not Sunday School or the Friday night lights, sock hops or fist fights behind the gym, not home ec pies nor organic chem.  Poetry meant to mean something, and I knew from American lit that Bob and Em and Walt were not normal.  Whether on the upside or the downer, who could say?  But they meant to mean right and left, east and west, 24/7.  Her life was a loaded gun, though she couldn’t stop for Death.  Bob liked to traipse off into the woods and bend trees, scare birds, watch spiders (along with Walt) and think of ghosts and strangling marriages.

But what I wanted to know lickety-split was if Elf Simon thought it a waste of time reading Em’s tiny twisty poems and Robert Lee Frost’s Uncle Wiseguy ones with chainsaws, dark and deep woods and apples, snow all over the place.  How do those bookmarks “measure what we’ve lost”?  Do the markers mean the time spent getting that far along through those poems was just wasted, digging a hole to fill it, or do they mean that the puzzles on the pages hint that time spent doing other, unpoetry things is lost, and reading the books should wake us up?  Elf was big on alarms and reveilles.  Just as I was beginning to find some sense in Em and Bob, it hit me that maybe two people in the same room reading putatively great literature (you know Twain n “classics”) and using bookmarks were losing at a pretty speedy rate, pretending to culture but missing it, while they missed each other too, like my mother said, “with your nose stuck in a book.”  But maybe they were catching something, as well.

frostContagious, I guess.  I caught something too and went on to dabble in the poesy racket a little myself, you know, but it wasn’t till I was thirty that I got untangled from what Simon says and learned to stop worrying.  You see (maybe), it had come to me that ole Paul was maybe writing a poem himself, syncopation and images, emotions and all that, with more than one possible meaning hovering in the air over the page without slapping at each other.  But were lyrics and poetry identical, similar, overlapping, twins or kissing cousins?  None of the above?  When Kenny Rogers sang, “You decorated my life,” I knew he’d gone under the bar poetry-wise, as decoration is pretty superficial, and the rest of the song was pointing at something deeper, or trying to.  He wasn’t writing anything nearly as careful as poems were rumored to be.  Well, it was a conundrum for quite a spell.

But relief came when I saw the puck himself on The Dick Cavett (or Civet of something) Show.  If you missed Little Richard’s interviews with all sorts of Mailers, Buckley Juniors, Hepburns, Capotes and so on (even Jack the Kerouac doing a soft shoe routine and singing “flat foot floogie with a floy floy, yeah”) you should make an appointment with Dr. Google and catch up.  Dickie bird was something of a wag and a wit and not very interested in the dieting habits of  date movie ingénues, so he set out on one of the untrodden paths by telling Paul how much he admired the poetry in his sensitive songs.

Get ready for a little shock, which was about 110 and not likely to scorch you too much.  Wise Simon said that he wrote song lyrics, not poetry.  So anybody who wanted poetry should go to Dylan Thomas.  Well, that shook me up, but in a good way.  When I was young and easy in the mercy of his means , , ,” – that lilty vividry and shiver.  Also hard to unsnarl, but rewarding.  He encouraged me to enjoy the work of saying it and listening into it and giving poetry a lot of my late nights at the kitchen table, which keeps me off the streets when I have miles to go before I sleep.
Well, now it’s back to the front lines where I predict the past that’s not dead or even past.

Your part-time assistant and culture correspondent on specious assignment in So-So, Mississippi,

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Novelist Patricia Highsmith: A Quirky Introduction

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strangers movie Until the release of the film Carol last year, I had given little thought to Patricia Highsmith, who was born Mary Patricia Plangman, in Fort Worth.  I had read her novel The Talented Mr. Ripley with interest and mild “guilty-pleasure” enjoyment and thought maybe Graham Greene was onto something when he called her “the poet of apprehension.”  When I saw the film version with Matt Damon as Tom Ripley, I was impressed, though skeptical sometimes of the role luck and coincidence play in the storyline.  Could the cunning protagonist of this picaresque tale really be so perfectly configured for the ruses he perpetuates?  Could he improvise so swiftly, precisely and effectively?  It hardly matters, as Minghella has given us a version of Tom even more villainously seductive (and twisted) than the novelist created, and I was willing to suspend my disbelief.  No matter how sharp are the edges of  his essential “HARM” that press from within the slight camouflaging of Tom’s “CHARM,” I was charmed, intrigued almost (or just barely) to the point of empathy.

highsmith2I did not realize that Strangers on a Train, the novel from which Hitchcock sculpted his famous film, was also Highsmith’s, her first, but it explores a theme or proposition that runs not just through TTMR, but through Ripley Under Water, Ripley Under Ground and Ripley’s Game.  I have not read The Boy Who Followed Ripley, but I expect similar features permeate it.  The abiding motif that moves Highsmith’s people and plots concerns the existence of evil and sociopathic behavior melded into the most civilized of people.  “Good” people like Guy Haines  do bad things; we know that from the media and from Twain’s warning that “virtue is often another name for the lack of opportunity,” but Highsmith is interested in the ways that amoral behavior, right down to regretless murder, can lie dormant in people whose cultivation would seem to leave little room or inclination for smashing a guest with a wine bottle (in the wine cellar) till his legs quit wiggling (a scene clearly nodding to Poe, if not Clue).  Recognizing these elements in action, The New Yorker once called her “peerlessly disturbing.”

price of saltHowever, we are familiar with this kind of story by now because of Hannibal Lector.  All his Mozart and rare merlot fail to mitigate his, well, appetite for vengeance, as well as the thrill of descending ex nihilo into the lives of the guilty and innocent alike.  I didn’t make this connection between Thomas Harris and Patricia Highsmith right away, as Carol (from the novel The Price of Salt, published under the nom de plume Claire Morgan) is not so concerned with this twisted mix, and the villains in that piece are not the focal characters.  Hitchcock’s version of Strangers on a Train is a little off track, too, as he compresses the second half of the novel (the hands too soiled for all the perfumes of Araby to cleanse them, that extended regret bit) and focuses, rightly, on a special feature of Highsmith’s story.

That feature is a kind of moral (and mortal) chiasmus: “Hey, stranger, if you agree to kill my intolerable father, I’ll kill your malicious estranged wife, and the police will never suspect, as neither of us has a motive beyond this confidential and strangers onunlikely pact.”  The problem, of course, lies in the asymmetry: Bruno, the proposer of this vile swap, is one of those cultured and idle (but still boorish, in this case, and off-putting) very rich who are not like the rest of us, and the other is an essentially decent-leaning architect who must be coerced and driven to uphold “his” end of a bargain he never actually agreed to.  The premise is engaging, if only for the narrative structure, and Hitchcock’ s trimming and additions (especially the carrousel imagery) fit the concept nicely.  Highsmith is more interested in exploring what might drive her protagonist Guy (or Everyman?) to fall under Bruno’s spell and how his act might gnaw and abrade Guy’s soul, agenbite of inwit, so to speak.  It’s also hard to fault her vision of the spoiled brat monster who starts the plot in motion.

ripleyWhat does it mean to slip “involuntarily” into crime and out of the moral community?  How do minds in the midst of that transaction operate?  Interesting question, and prominent in TTMR, but less so in the other Ripley books, after Tom has plenty of blood on his hands, a settled life in France, a healthy cash flow.  In the later Ripley books, it’s his involvement with art forgery that interests me.  The counterfeit Derwatts and the conspiracy of impersonations and extravagant lies that foist them onto a somewhat deserving cadre of connoisseurs lead Tom to conduct himself as blithely and conniving as a Bunburying Wilde mischief maker.  But it all runs to leftover stew in most of the Ripley books, as Highsmith is not a careful stylist (too fond of “thriftily” and worse) or a convincing orchestrator of forensic suspense.  The information in the separate books overlaps too much for my taste, but what she is exquisitely configured for are the many delays before the anticipated inevitable other shoe drops.  She provides and relishes domestic details, harpsichord lessons, art chat, gardening, sartorial options, travel pointers and culinary details, plus the stolidly agreeable antics of Mme. Annette, the loyal housekeeper, to keep the reader pondering that old question: where’s the beef?  Or the body?  As Time noted, she is highly skilled at “eliciting the menace that lurks in the familiar surroundings.”  Once Tom ceases to be the ambitious young con artist on the make and evolves to the dragon protecting his trove, he loses zest and novelty, and the questions of his conscience are long ossified to givens.

I also read about two dozen of Highsmith’s short stories, which are mostly anecdotal or parable-like, scenarios almost right for Hitch’s TV series, but Highsmith doesn’t very often render the narratives convergent or epiphanic, and the supernatural is seldom invoked.  They’re quirky and driven by circumstance, permeated with mood but neither moving nor intriguing.  Stories in The Black House and Mermaids on the Golf Course offer more complexity than the other collections, but they still read more like aperitifs than courses.  Still, they’re good enough to demonstrate that writing text for comic books didn’t diminish her cunning.

For those who want to know a bit about the author, she was born in Texas, preferred to live in Europe (England, France, Switzerland) and was an actively gay woman in a time when she must have encountered many obstacles, which did not come close to defeating her, though she was often, according to the dense biography, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson, unhappy.  It would be hard not to admire her intrepid nature, and her pursuit of the questions and characters who captured her imagination might have made her apprehensive herself concerning the poor bare forked animal.  Her work ethic and dedication to following or breaking conventions according to her own muse, however, were unassailable.

One anomaly among Highsmith’s novels, The Glass Cell (1964), deserves consideration in its sub-genre, the prison novel.  It recounts the experiences of the naïve Philip Carter, who is convicted of fraud he did not commit.  Once released, he finds that the six years in the calaboose have left him more suspicious and violent than he ever imagined.  His creator was a great lover of Kafka, but the transformation of Carter is less allegorical and mysterious and more recognizable.

highsmith owlBefore closing the dossier (though there are more Highsmith novels about, and I can’t say I’ll always be able to resist them), I want to recommend another of her books that stands apart from her oeuvre (which includes twenty novels and a battalion of short stories).  Her eighth novel, The Cry of the Owl, strikes me as driven more by curiosity concerning a lonely man’s marginal behavior than by moral equations and hypotheses.  I actually saw the film in its early and foreign rendition (La cri du hibou) years ago and never even noted the author.  After I read the novel, I Netflixed the English film derived from both the French Canadian movie and the novel and liked it very much, despite some inexpert accounts of gunfights and fist fights.  (Action scenes are not her strong suit.)

The novel is set in the U.S. (like SOAT) but in the East, rather than Texas, and its protagonist and his travails ring, even half a century later, true enough to be unsettling, especially on a dreary night.  And just to remove a needless element of suspense, the title does refer to the folkloric – an owl’s cry predicts something ominous, probably a death.  Considering how many owls I hear where I live and how many people die, it seems a fair association to me, but I’m no folklore statistician nor ornithologist.

The larger structure of the story may remind some of SOAT.  Here, a gloomy and aimless young man begins spying on a young woman, Jenny, who lives alone in a wooded area.  He’s not exactly a stalker, but he derives satisfaction from watching through a window as she cheerily conducts her housework.  No aggression and nothing sexual.  He almost sleepwalking, desperate for something to distract him from his own depression.  She catches him, and with that structural instinct, Highsmith soon reverses the situation, though Jenny’s agenda is more specific than the protagonist’s.  So, the criss-crossing again.

highsmithHighsmith has in Robert Forester created a decent, damaged, sympathetic character who has no interest in transgression but finds himself. for all his dedication to calm and deliberateness, drawn into irrationality, violence, police business, travesty and tragedy.  For all his attempts at meditation and caution, he finds the world given to the Lord of Misrule, and harm follows.

It’s probably no mistake that Robert is reminiscent of Camus’ Meursault; Highsmith was an admirer of the existentialist writers and would very likely have been smitten with both Camus’ signature novel and his play “Le Malentendu.”  But what drew me into the story and held me were her renderings of place, weather, mood, fragile details and Robert’s slow-motion, scrupulous mind, understanding too late how much momentum has gathered and is unleashed.  It’s a novel of disaffection and helplessness, of disguised bad choices and the long memory of bad luck.  A New Yorker critic praised the book for its brand of fear, “the dread of humiliation,” and I was entranced (and shaken in my recognition) by that feature, but I have to admit that I also loved hating Nickie, Robert’s unscrupulous and indefatigable estranged wife.  She’s a sniper with memorable and horrifying skills.  Jenny is far more sympathetic and intriguing, but now and then it’s a treat to have unsympathetic nasties like Nickie and Jenny’s frustrated paramour Greg.strangers movie 2

But it’s time to move on.  I have a ghost story I want to read, another Appalachian novel by Robert Morgan, a big book of Walt Kelly’s Pogo cartoons and Audubon’s Missouri River Journals.  And I plan to be more whimsical and less driven in some future posts.  For now, Sample Highsmith and see if she fits your pistol.  Comments are welcome below.  A demain.

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Team Trump and Not MY LITTLE PONY: Kidnapping Language

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Most Americans get exercised over plagiarism only when one rock band (like Led Zepp) is suing another over lyrics or melody, or when a scolding note comes home from Hunter’s or Kendle’s teacher, and there are as many popular notions and technical definitions of the offense as there are putative authorities.  They almost all seem to have in common intention, some unquestionable textual appropriation and claim of credit by the chronologically second host of the text.  In the literatosphere, plagiarism is viewed as theft, and royalties, penalties, reputations, allegiances – all are on the line.plag

The term is Latin in origin, and its Roman users meant “kidnapped” or “kidnapper” when they said it.  This is not a casual concept, maybe not even a misdemeanor, so it’s no wonder that eyebrows and hackles rose when listeners to First Wife Melania Trump’s carefully calibrated values speech at the RNC heard whole paragraphs that echoed (and to some degree duplicated) Michelle Obama’s speech on just such an occasion eight years before.  And without crediting the current First Lady.  A former Bush speechwriter was quick to say in an interview that, while we want our public figures to be inspired by the speeches of the past, we do not wish that they be dependent upon them.  Ms. Trump’s speech fell, to his ear, clearly into the latter category, though she did omit the phrase about treating adversaries “with dignity.”  So last night’s speech, while derivative, did not follow the Michelle Obama script exactly.  In fact, much of it was less elegant and memorable, but those three passages raise some serious questions.

The gallant Republican defenders said “coincidence, common phrases, accident,” even, “You can find these words in My Little Pony,” while the Democratic kibitzers cried “theft.”  And what a peculiar theft it would be, if in fact Melania were thinking, “Gee, that Muslim Obama woman was so right about our hopes for our children and so on,” since her Donald, with his scary-voiced schoolyard “there’s something going on here,” has all but called Obama a clueless traitor and a devil, maybe the Devil.  But at least the two parties now have something in common, some of the most heartfelt and captivating sentences in a speech.  Is it plagiarism?  If this were an academic context, we have web sites we can employ to measure the closeness of particular passages and parameters, as well as precedents, for the teacher or other adjudicator to apply.

What really interests me here are three questions, the first a frivolous thing but mine own.  In early modern western literature, allusion, appropriation, citation, downright hijacking played a role in the “next-to-newest new” process of constructing a text.  But magpie gathering wasn’t really the invention of Eliot, Joyce and their ilk; the pirated phrases, scenes, character relations in Shakespeare are the subject of a storeroom of dissertations, articles and books, and Melville pillages the Bible and Lear to shore up his whale tale.  But Eliot and Joyce were more concerned that their audience “get it,” that they be able to connect the dots, feel the layering, see the wires jumping from enhanced voltage and follow the electricity back to Dante, Milton, Homer and Chaucer.  It was part of their project, to hitch their wagons to a star or stars, working with the assumption that the rising tide would float all the boats.  Importantly, they ran the old passages of language through the prisms of their imaginations to provide a fresh perspective.  Perhaps that’s what the author(s) of Melania’s speech had in mind.  But I can almost see the furrowed brows and scowls out there in virtual audienceland.  That’s probably not what she was doing, as she (or he or whoever, probably they) provided no apparatus in the text for us to make the link, no pattern of allusion or reference, and instead of refreshment, Ms. Trump’s replication features just a few slips where the power of the rhetoric is diminished by a turn of grammar or an omitted word.

jefferson polygraphSo scrap that.  The other questions I would raise are “Who wrote the speech in question?” and in the context of this election, “How big a deal is it?”  Tempest in a teapot?  Core sample of the campaign, or something in between?


Who?  If a fairly a-political, honest and innocent wife just delivered a professionally constructed speech, then we have no significant quarrel with her.  She’s a victim.  But in an interview the day of the values speech, Ms. Trump told Matt Lauer of CNBC that she wrote the speech herself straight through in one go, read it over and was satisfied that it revealed her life experiences and beliefs.  Yet the next day, when the shouts had hit the fan, Farcebook, Twitter and so on, Paul Manafort said that a team of writers interviewed Ms. T. and then cobbled together the speech.  Later we got so many conflicting stories that they add up to an epic clusteredit with no real author.  Maybe it was a combination, but when I hear two separate explanations so disparate, I suspect one is either mistaken or a lie.  I can’t help wondering if we’ll ever know whose lie.

Anyone who maintains that it was all just a freak coincidence needs to be, what, waterboarded?  Maybe just a good wrist twist will do.  But if (as I suspect) surrogates, mouthpieces, spokesfolk and minions wrote it, they have to be outed and assigned the Walk of Shame.  If Melania wrote the speech flash-bang once and done, then she has to bear the onus of dishonesty, face up to it as Joe Biden and many others of us have done for transgressions written or spoken, no matter how long ago.  But then William Jefferson Clinton never took back that “never inhaled,” and he slept at a posh address for eight years.  So, suppose she shows that she is capable of error and apology, or the ghost writers do, and forgiveness is requested?  It would be embarrassing, but it might reveal the best of the Trump package to be a little more honest, accuracy-driven and fair-minded than they now appear.

And compared to “I know more about Isis than the generals,” I’m worth ten billion dollars,” “Mexico will pay for it” and “I never actually said that, I just retweeted it,” why does it matter if Trump’s high-priced wife or her assistants/minions/cribbers slipped in a few nicely lapidary phrases so  solid in their emotions and thinking that no one would disagree with them and someone might have actually said them before?  Let’s go with the premise that she did not write the speech, which I believe to be the case, though unproven as yet.  That Monday night moment was meant to roll out and substantiate the human, familial, gracious and charming (“spectacular looking,” as one Trump surrogate said in an interview) side of Team Trump, the generous and cultured, eloquent and fine arts-educated face of a hit squad that generally “watches the shows” for information, doesn’t read books, consults with itself and is willing to exclude, expel, bomb, waterboard, snarl at or shoot from 5th Avenue anyone who does not share its agenda and prejudices.  And the softening and smoothing almost worked, until the appropriated sentences revealed just how low the operatives of Team Trump were willing to go in order to score points.  Rhetorically, it was foolish and cheap, morally it was reprehensible.  But these are desperate times, and they call for desperate measures, which everyone in the dirty game understands.  When a member of Congress was allowed to shout out with impunity during the State of the Union Address “you lie” to a sitting president, the civilized code of conduct began to fray faster, and the rules of engagement altered.

conventionSomeone in the Trumperial Guard, perhaps even the C.E.O. himself, needs to apologize and name the guilty parties so we can move on, try to repair our endangered national dialogue and be guided by our ideal mode of conduct, instead of the ruthless language we’ve been using like a blunt instrument.  Forgiveness seems in order, once mistakes are admitted and we know whom to forgive.

But given Trump’s businesslike, bartering mind, perhaps these kidnapped sentiments and sentences will have to be ransomed, as he likes only good deals, fabulous deals you can’t even imagine, the best deals ever, and we have his wife’s (or somebody’s wife’s) word concerning his “word is [his] bond” and of  “the strength of [his] dreams.”  What else can we suppose he wants?  Is it too much for us, to stretch the metaphor to its breaking point sense, like the family of a hostage to ask for a little proof of life?

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Dulcimer Redux

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dulcimer 4I was raised a flatlander (“cracker,” we used to say), a mouth-harp wheezer, and did not come to the mountain dulcimer on the porch or in the parlor.  Instead, I read of Coleridge’s “Abyssinian maid” with a dulcimer on Mt. Abora (probably a zither akin to the hammered dulcimer Malcolm Dalglish played so well on Banish Misfortune).  Read it for a college English class, but before I’d reckoned what sort of music the coke-dream damsel strummed, the folk revival flowed over me like a freshet, and I started listening to the Vanguard albums in which Richard and Mimi Farina played and sang his dulcimer tunes like “Dandelion River Run,” “Pack up Your Sorrows,” “The Falcon” and “Reno Nevada,” not at all the traditional highlands dulcimer repertoire.  They employed dulcimers, played with plectrums and fingers, along with guitar and autoharp and backed by a range of sounds from John Hammond’s mouth harp to a celesta and an electric bass.  It was all bluesy and Dylanesque, espresso, lyrical/political and supposedly earthy.


dulcimer 1Well, I was smitten, and Farina became a hero, especially after I’d read his brilliant (I don’t use it lightly) novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me.  But by the time I discovered that book, he was already dead.  My dulcimer interest, however, expanded quickly to more traditional players like Jean Ritchie and Oskar Brand, and I was no scholar, so I didn’t pursue much about the construction, origins, tunings and styles of dulcimers and their material.  But I pushed on, and after I moved to the Blue Ridge for the first time in the seventies, dulcimers began to creep into my writing and my life, and I discovered that I had a grandmother who’d had one, no more discussed than the fiddle my father (a barefoot boy and not the F.B.I. agent he became) had played with the Ku Klux Klan dance band.  I bought my first dulcy in 1975 (a three-string Ralph Hodges hourglass model with heart sound holes) and quickly learned to play it badly.  The good news is that I’m not deluded on this matter and have become a front row audience member rather than pursuing stage time, since getting real melody out of me is like trying to milk an owl.


dulcimer 2In grad school at Appalachian State I learned a bit (more dancing than making or playing) from Willard Watson, and dulcimers abounded, but my knowledge remained sketchy, random, information marbled artfully with misinformation, even though I own a couple of good dulcimer primers.  After years of loose ends, what finally set me on the right track was Ralph Lee Smith’s recent The Story of the Dulcimer (U. of TN Press), 2nd edition.  I missed the first one entirely, but edition two has absorbed my attention for the last couple of weeks. Ralph Lee is a scholar, a collector, a devotee and musicological bloodhound, also energetic as a worker bee and smart as a whip.


This book is not for every general reader; sometimes I think it’s not for me.  The abundance and intricacy of the variations in design and tuning, the geographical eccentricities, the incremental evolution – it’s a lot to put together with all the dimensions, statistics and photographs of dulcimers, and though it’s not completely accurate to say so, there are nearly no two alike.  After all, they are not mass produced but handcrafted, and even before you hear one’s voice responding to skillful fingers, it’s easy to see why so many people are eager to say they are not products or merchandise or toys; they are art, with utility.  A hand-hewn cradle can qualify like that, a forged and polished skinning knife.  And yet some people aren’t content without a mitigating adjective – “folk art.”  If the term “folk” diminishes a noun for you, may God have mercy. . . .


I can say that this book delivers what Brother Ralph promises.  It supports claims that the instrument is “a specimen of American folk craftsmanship.”  It elucidates what kind of music the implement is capable of producing and the place of that sound in the spectrum of world music.  It reveals the crucial role the dulcimer played “in the broader history of the Appalachian frontier.”


dulcimer 5So suppose you’re not a player or (not yet) an aficionado?  Here’s what I think you’ll come away appreciating.  The history of the instrument, as it evolved from the German Sheitholt and became an altogether different instrument when it was taken down the Great Wagon Road into Virginia and then west into the frontier, is fascinating.  That history is revealed both in the author’s narrative and in the many photographs of sheitholts and dulcimers throughout the hundred-page volume.  I loved reading how the settlement schools like Hindman (where I briefly taught) served as hotbeds and enclaves for the dulcimer, how (but not why) the Scotch-Irish preferred an instrument with a raised and centered fretboard and tuning pegs that were wood rather than metal, flat rather than vertical.  Both instruments are zithers and can accommodate various numbers of strings.  The possible shapes and materials (from a cardboard box to a wild cherry coffer) are endless.  Who sees one, even in a picture, and doesn’t want to stroke it and strum it and be blessed?


Because the photographs are black and white, I can concentrate on the shapes – pegs, frets, strum hollows, scrolls, the overall contours of the creature – instead of (as is my wont) getting caught up in the various colors and grains of the poplar, cherry, spruce, butternut, rosewood, bloodwood, ash.  And there are plenty of places to see the wood in full splendor.  The B&W images probably help keep the price of the paperback book modest, which I value.


dulcimer 3Whenever the technical threatens to get tedious (usually due to my lack of erudition), I crave an anecdote, a stream of narrative to confer a local habitation and a name.  The Story of . . . offers several of those.  After all, it is a story.  I enjoyed the tale of the transaction that took Granny Lee’s instrument to John Blankenbeckler, the account of traveling luthier Uncle Ed Thomas, whose dulcimers sold for about three and a half bucks and whose knowledge of how to make them was never explained, the chronicle of Jethro Amburgey of Hindman who was written up in The Times in the 30’s and the legacy of collector and preserver Henry Mercer who knew early on to value the dulcimer as more than a quirk or a whim.  Ferrum’s Roddy Moore’s contribution to the lore and preservation also runs throughout the book, but my favorite narrative tells of Betsey Maggard Creech, who lost her husband Gilbert in the Civil War and traveled with her children to Big Leatherwood Creek near Perry, KY to play a tune at Gilbert’s graveside, then returned home to the Cumberland.  Quite a trek, but they say the path shortens when you have a mission.


courtingMy only unfilled wish for the book would be a short section of the courting dulcimer, my favorite kind for its ingenious employment.  Sometimes a young man might come calling to the homeplace of a sweetheart whose family wanted to allow the couple some private time but who were still wary of the mischief that can kindle when romance is in the air.  They might allow the couple to be alone in a room with a courting dulcimer (probably on a table between them).  Instead of relying on steady chatter, which is known to falter amid amorous stares, the parents listened to hear that both sets of strings were singing, all hands busy making the music, no idle ones to become the devil’s workshop.  I’ve seen only five or six of those devices which help delay the honeymoon till after the vows, and I would love to know more about their history and frequency.  Might even derive some satisfaction from knowing if they worked, though I am not choosing sides.

It’s worth noting that Smith makes no claim for The Story of the Dulcimer as definitive.  He suggests it be read along with Allen Smith’s Catalogue of Pre-revival Appalachian Dulcimers (U. of MO Press), and I’d add Jean Ritchie’s classic The Dulcimer Book (Oak Music) and Neal Hellman’s Dulcimer Songbook (Oak).  And of course, you’ll want an instrument on hand to give the whole session dimensions (Dr. Google can help you find what you want.), including depth and sound, but the images, anecdotes, explanations and examples of Ralph Smith’s account will likely lure you, so to speak, deep into the wildwood flowers of dulcet lore.  I recommend the enterprise.

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Narration & Invention: THE GOOD LORD BIRD, Part 2

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catesbyivoryJames McBride’s GLB is a wild ride, part historical novel, part fantasy, legend, cultural core sample, narrative experiment, part stylistic stunt.  In short, it is not a realistic account or a psychological revelation.  Though it employs facts, often as backdrop, sometimes as touchstones, often as shadows, securing from it a balanced historical truth would be harder than getting milk from an owl.  Such evasiveness and jazzing about is maybe what I want a large portion of the novels I read to achieve.

Here’s McBride’s method of attack.  The prologue is a supposed newspaper article from 1966 claiming that a fireproof box rescued from the ruins of a burned Negro church in Delaware contains some Confederate money, “ a rare feather from an ivory-billed woodpecker” and notebooks of a congregant who recorded the life of former slave and orphan Mr. Henry Shackleford, who lived to be over a hundred.  Shackleford, as a child and under the nom de guerre “the Onion” and the guise of a female, rode and fought with John Brown in his rowdy days, observed him, admired him, feared him but sometimes faced up to him.

The narrator is Henry/Onion from Kansas, and his/her struggles with identity, loyalty, belief and the slings and errors of outrageous fortune drive the narrative of antebellum bellicosity, religion, politics and night riding.

I don’t know if this somewhat picaresque premise is preposterous or postposterous, but it allows for some antic battle scenes, understated violence (and excessive violence), inventively obscene language and nightmare adventures.  At times McBride seems to be channeling Cormac McCarthy or Pinckney Benedict, which may be rich but risky.

enginehouseThe language and dark humor are at the heart of this story, the blood frolic and moral combustion.  Some of the brightest moments occur when the Onion cuts through the tangle of verbiage and employs understatement, and when the book falters, the plot stalls and wheels spin, it’s usually because we’re in the midst of intentional overwriting meant to convey the un-savvy mind of a former slave about twelve or fourteen years old trying to negotiate through questions of sexuality, freedom, righteousness.  The thematic waters are deep, but the characters don’t match up to them.  A comic bent doesn’t always undermine the serious wind, but here it happens more often than I wanted.

Maybe I’m trying too hard here not to be a spoiler.  We know what Brown’s history in the border wars of Kansas was, the hostilities at Pottawatomie and the depredations at Osawatomie, and the Onion is along as a kind of aide-de-camp and sounding board, as well as a pet who has strong feelings about many of the Brown clan and a range of diction that outstrips her/his range of action.  The big figures of history (Frederick Douglass, for one, portrayed as an equivocator, drunk and potential molester) enter and leave obliquely, and Brown is portrayed sometimes as a monster, sometimes as a card-carrying idiot and on other occasions as an terrifying and inspiring leader like the one in John Steuart Curry’s famous painting of a cruciform prophet with outstretched arms, Bible and rifle in hand, tornadoes and flames behind, Negroes, Yanks and Rebs all around.  On occasion, however, Brown seems genuinely reflective and tender, even funny.  His recitations from imagined books of the Bible are slyly ridiculous, and McBride seems engaged in a disclosure of how zealotry can go berserk and burlesque.  It doesn’t hurt that the naïve yet cunning Onion is a sympathetic, resourceful, sometimes hilarious guide.  If only he had more Huck-gumption, but then that may be unfair, as the book I seem to be preferring has already been written and can be read again, if I need to.

Just when I would feel this Gordian knot of the oracular and vernacular less satisfying than frustrating, the author provides a bridge to the history of fiction about slavery, channels Twain a bit (though not as intent of issues of moral gravity and character complexity).  He knows his history, and ingesting it is sometimes nourishing enough to forgive GLB its inconsistencies of  period vernacular (like “a legend in your own mind” in the 1840s?), its easy jokes (like “Judge Fuggett”), anachronisms (like the 1950’s monkey wrench) or its absurdities, such as the capture of “sorghum syrup from sugar maple trees,” which is not presented as the confused boy/girl’s memory but that of the older man narrating his memoir.

JohnBBut then you get the Onion saying Brown was “smooth business in the woods, quiet as a deer,” and it sounds pitch-perfect.  So here’s a large slice of the problem.  We’re expected to sift through the language of the notebooks and sort out  Higgins from the Onion from the mature and reflective Shackleford to the declining Shackleford in his ancient of days manifestation, all in the service of weighing credibility and verisimilitude.  It like to give me the fantods.

Lampoon, folktale, metaphoric history, cartoon?  This is not a book very much about slavery but about a sometimes-addled adolescent crossdresser’s understanding of an enigmatic giant of American history.  Complete with extended digressions and catalogues, several epic gestures.  Perhaps it’s time to say that the phantasmagoria and grand guignol of the volume reflect that volatile period of American history more conventional historians usually shy away from.

Here’s a note of clarity and sanity.  As the book reaches its third and final section (about half the 400-odd pages) it gallops toward more familiar ground for me – the Kennedy House, Harper’s Ferry, the unrealistic strategies and expectations, the intricate unfolding of events – it fairly races, working hard to infuse (stuff, really) the story with the actual names and times, weather, geography of the town and so on.  At first I was relieved to be in this less swampy linguistic ground, to see cause-and-effect running on all four wheels, but after a hundred pages of that, I yearned a bit for the Keystone Cops abolitionists and Jethro Bodine slavers.  I missed the kink and romp of the earlier episodes and the invitation to speculate how the Onion will keep identity secret here or turn a Brown to reason or hornswoggle one of the Madam he serves  in a frontier brothel.  SO I am of two minds (or half a one) on this book.  It offers pleasures and irritations, but it is seldom dull reading or sleepy writing, and I wish I saw its ilk more often. . . if you can get ilk from an owl.

Maybe it’s best to say of Henry Shackleford (got that name, right?), “He had a dream and it shot him.”  Or to accept the judgement of the Mad Hatter: “We are all mad here.”

But no need, as McBride’s dedication of the book reads: “For Ma and Jade,/ who loved a good whopper.”  At least, he’s not trying to pull the sheep over our eyes.

However, since I dealt this hand, I should say something more about the bird, it’s disappearance from nature but occasional flights through the story.  Almost none of this tale unfolds even close to the nineteenth century habitat of the Campephilus principalis, often called the Lord God Bird, Grail Bird or the Good Lord Bird.  But a dead one appears long enough to be, off-stage, disassembled, its feathers distributed as talismans and credentials among the freedom fighters who are also terrorists.  Maybe there’s a systematic metaphorical intent here, but I can’t untangle it.  The bird is still  extant in the middle of the nineteenth century but now extinct (so they say) due to loss of habitat and collectors.  I can’t quite see that parallel as appropriate to develop either Brown or Shackleford, though I will keep looking.

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Of John Brown, the Onion, Woodpeckers and Peckerwoods: McBride’s novel THE GOOD LORD BIRD

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I delight in reading about the ivory bill woodpecker and pine to see one in flight or hammering away.  Unfortunately, they’re evidently extinct, according to all but the most optimistic lost-cause birders.  Fortunately, however, a pair of pileated woodpeckers – similar in silhouette but smaller, less musical and different in coloring from their vanished cousins – haunt the woods I live in.  I keep my eye peeled for them and discovered last year that two juveniles were foraging in the area as well. When I want to inquire deeper into matters ornithological, I go to a source like The Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Phillip Hoose, Tim Gallagher’s The Grail Bird or Michael K. Steinberg’s Stalking the Ghost Bird.  There’s a good but desperately hopeful documentary film about possible Arkansas survivors, too.  (And I wonder why my bookshelves runneth over. . . .)

JohnBThat rarum avis (and zealot and rebel, liberator, charismatic terrorist) John Brown has long fascinated me, as well, and about two decades ago I served for two months as the first (maybe only, as it turns out) writer-in-residence at the Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park.  I read Robert Penn Warren’s John Brown: The Making of a Martyr while I was there, along with Stephen B. Oates’s hagiographic To Purge this Land with Blood (which is more admiring of Brown than I can be) and was on hand to examine (with gloves) a newly-loaned artifact for display, the Sharps carbine Brown probably carried during his quixotic (but in some ways right-minded) raid on the Federal arsenal as HF.  I studied the landscape, the maps, the artifacts, the various accounts in books and on park videos.  I spent afternoons at the Kennedy Farm (nearby lurk headquarters) across the river in MD and even made a cobbler from fruit (both dark purple and white) off the mulberry trees there.  I had already read Russell Banks’ brilliant (and again, admiring of the subject) Cloudsplitter, as powerful a historical novel as I know, and followed the fictional account that presented Brown as a hybrid bred from Moses, Ahab, one dupe and maybe three demons, while still painting him as a real and inevitable, if infuriating, man.  Needless to say, I hated to leave that haunted corner of W. VA. when my time there expired, and I left with all my senses and inquiries sharpened..

Where is this headed?  Oh ye of little faith. . . .

When I saw in 2013 that James McBride had written a novel entitled The Good Lord Bird and that it was about John Brown, I couldn’t believe my luck.  Salt-cured ham and sweet potato on the same plate!  So I ordered a copy and, true to form, swiftly misplaced it.  Well, as Frostian way leads on to way, I followed the distraction trail to dabble in and read other things, while the book received kudos and McBride collected his National Book Award.  My memory serves no master, so the book’s existence melted like ice in July.  But then, serendipity, I stumbled upon another reference to the book and recovered my resolve to read it, despite my commitment to a summer of Patricia Highsmith novels and stories.  And luck was with me: for some reason – probably that NBA – our college library had a copy, which was available.

The timing was right.  Just three years since the acclaimed film of Twelve Years a Slave threw the spotlight on the original (if ghostwritten) book, a year since Tom Piazza’s challenging novel A Free State explored ante-bellum identity through a mixed race runaway eluding capture while masquerading as a very dark African while playing exhilarating banjo in a minstrel show.  And this summer we have a new Roots miniseries.  Add these to Banks’ established and provocative Cloudsplitter and William Styron’s much-debated Confessions of Nat Turner, and you have an exciting and controversial literary landscape of historical novels on similar subjects, many of them thriving under the vast canopy of Huckleberry Finn.  But none of them have the ivory bill.

ibory billNor does McBride’s book very much have the bird, though feathers materialize and are brandished on occasion.  And it’s not likely to become a movie, because it’s a novel about narrative voice as much as anything else, and MacBride gallops in where angels fear to tread on the matter of whether or not to use language that is authentically offensive or offensively authentic.  In the current political/rhetorical climate in which book banners are sour because book BURNING has been given such a bad name, McBride weighs in on the side of offensive language but with a tactical mind.  He out-offends anything Twain’s wife would let him write, but he does it with high and low, outrageous mischief, The Good Lord Bird being a rollicking, twisted discourse on obscenity, grittiness, ultra-violence and insanity, all wrapped in a historical blanket.  I won’t say it makes David Milch’s HBO Deadwood look tame, but that series appears less radical in juxtaposition to McBride’s Brown/bird/cross-dressing (yes, Caitlin’s transformation is almost anticipated) gallimaufry.

So the stage is set, but do I recommend McBride’s novel, which is presented as a long-lost document narrated or written by a former slave who lives to be a hundred (shades of Berger’s Jack Crabbe)?  It’s certainly an ambitious book with pleasures and frustrations to offer, but for my conflicted and enigmatic scorecard will have to wait for the next post.  I’ll try not to be away too long.  Stay tuned.

[P.S. If you want something to do in the meantime, I recommend The Life and Letters of Captain John Brown, edited by Richard Webb and published in London in 1861.  The book was re-issued by Negro Universities Press in 1972, and there’s a copy of the original edition in the Duke University Library.]

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Here a Quack, There a Quack (a whimsy)

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The current media blitzkrieg reminds me of a time when the American icon called Donald was a duck.  A Disney character often scolding or combating his cricket-capped nephews Huey, Dewy and Louie or some other zoomorphic nemesis, that Donald wore a sailor suit (though he never seemed to claim a nautical background, even in his romantic life) and seemed pretty middle class.  He was not the best or the greatest at anything, was in fact, a simple enough bird, though one who enjoyed his creature comforts and feathering his nest. He did not savor opposition.  DD was amusing and sometimes admirable, not excessively addicted to the truth.  He is also the most widely broadcast comic character outside the superhero genre.

What I most miss about that Donald is not his huge bill nor his inclination to belittle those not like him or those opposed to him.  Though he didn’t seem to have huge hands, I don’t miss his big feet or his greed.  And this is the moment I experience some passing regrets about copyright protection.  I would love to post right HERE an image of DD displaying the mode which, as a kid, I most enjoyed: the ghost-white duck in mid-tantrum.  Such a posting might be reckless, though.  [I should mention that DD was most famously drawn by the trio of Taliaferro, Banks and Rose.]  I loved those renderings of our hero in full hissy fit, leaping and stomping, spit and pin feathers flying, as if he were scrapping with some invisible force.  His bill might sprout fangs, he might spit lightning, he would squawk and stammer, with squiggles in the air around him to signal that he was employing transgressive and downright unprintable language as he wheezed and yammered like Rumpelstiltskin in full fury or a Celtic war poet screaming his scorn song against an enemy fortification.  He was impressive, and I was enchanted.  Even the other animals like Mickey and DD’s own moneybags-rich Uncle Scrooge McDuck might recoil in awe, though they did not seem smitten by his persona, all that ire and twisted inconsistency, all that verbal shrapnel and dragonfire.  They indulged him or gave him space till the fits passed, the feathers settled, and soon the Peaceable Kingdom would be, for a spell, restored.  He was, after all, a decent fowl at heart and perhaps the founder of Ducks Unlimited.

Much as I delighted in the whirlwind of the Tasmanian devil or the stormy outbursts of Elmer Fudd, it is Donald Duck with that orange-ish broad bill that I wish the satellite TV networks would resurrect more often.  Entertaining as he was, he remained somewhat marginal, as he lacked the good heart of Steamboat Willie (the inevitable M. Mouse), the ingenuity of Tweety-bird, the enterprise of the coyote, the wit and percussion of the woodpecker.  Plunging into my morning Cheerios, I keep wishing he were not disrespected, ignored, short shrifted, wondering if it’s not time for a movement, as the general atmosphere we now swim in suggests that Donald Duck’s hour has come round at last to slouch toward Hollywood or the Beltway to be reborn.  That bat signal good old Commissioner Gordon used to summon his nocturnal hero to Gothem — somebody needs to get to work on a Duck call right away.

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I’m Nobody

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frogJune already, moon and croon, the peepers singing their tune in the trees, the understory, the pond, ubiquitous and to my untrained ear, only slightly melodic, but my iota of biological understanding insinuates they’re saying their names, or some version of “me, here, now, wow!”  June, so the miniscule amphibians put me in mind of Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody” poem:

I’m Nobody!  Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s just the pair of us!
Don’t tell!  They’d advertise – you know.

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
(J # 260)

Context aside, sounds to me like she’s warning us about the perils of Facebook posting – maybe she means “admiring Brag” – though I admit to seeing the advantages of social media if you’re trying to sell something, plan a big party, cast a glamour over your readers (“friends” and fiends alike) or overthrow a country.  Her first stanza seems whispered, conspiratorial, and even paranoid.  Or mock-paranoid.  The children’s secret game under the draped dining table, and a search for some small society to select before shutting the door.  Comfort in numbers, if the number is two.  If the anonymous They gets wind of the secret emptiness of being Somebody (as in: “that loud guy with the weird hair, red cap and flashy suit, surely he’s Somebody!) they’ll be eager to handle mad subversives with a chain (and off to the brig).  It’s divine sense to keep such secrets, herkos odonton, as the Greeks put it, figuratively “behind the teeth.”  Silence is golden (but the duct tape is silver).emily


But perhaps worse than being found out to be Nobody is the sentence to be Somebody.  Be and say and yammer-yammer-yellowhammer night and day screaming for attention like the kid doing wheelies in the driveway.  But what’s the penalty for celebrity?  Celebrity.  Pretty (midnight) dreary business, likely to lead to delusion and hubris.  The croaking frogs of Aristophanes find anonymity in their surge, become one entity, the Borg, the Balrog, if not the Bog (or the morphing green being from Steve McQueen’s early film The Blob).  Now I’m aware that Dickinson is usually above naked sarcasm, but that admiring (which might seem the cousin of the advertising in stanza one) bog (or even blog!) is probably sneering and smirking behind the parlor flirt’s lace fan, if only because the grenouille chorus is competing with all the myriad choruses of the other self-namers.  The result is a cacophony of selfies, a clustercroak of memes and memoirs and “je suis-je suis.”  And, admittedly, I have an account (however dormant) and am not qualified to cast the first stone, though I’m not disassembling my cairn, just in case.

Perhaps E.D. has foreheard Steinbeck over half a century later saying, “Writers should be read, not heard.”  Or even herd, I suspect.

KeatsOr perhaps she’s suggesting that she’s not anybody finite and specific, in concord with a practice (and feat) Keats explained in a letter to Ben Bailey (which E.D. could not have read, as it was, well, confidential for decades).  It’s that negative capability business: “. . . if a sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.”  Not just projection or imagination, but something more magical, maybe Kafkaesque.  I’m sure a few have the gift of such radical identification in which moments of transformation occur.  Keats and Dickinson seem candidates who make their art not quite by liking or sharing but by committing a fervent attention to the Other so consuming that those two poets are safe from falling in with the mobile vulgus.  Better a singular startling sparrow fully occupied in survival than a host of frogs at their revival hymning their “come hither” and credentials.

Exhausting, all this psycho-musical analysis and mischief, but fortunately we’re approaching not livelong but liveshort June (just 30 twilights), and by the way, where I live there’s a great shoal of cicadas due to celebrate another seventeenth this year, beginning some night soon.  That should drown out the public frogs, but where does that leave Nobody?  Maybe hidden among the nothing that isn’t there.

[Nota bene: C. Manson also quoted D.’s opening to this poem.  So, the Devil can cite . . . .]




There, I’ve once again said more than I know.

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peregrine book

November 30th. . Two kills by the river: kingfisher and snipe.  The snipe lay half submerged in flooded grass, cryptic even in death.  The kingfisher shone even in mud at the river’s edge, like a brilliant eye.


When Kirk Follo asked me if I’d read J. A. Baker’s book The Peregrine, I first wondered if it was kin to The Maltese Falcon, and my curiosity was piqued.  After five minutes of Kirk’s enthusiastic recommendation, I was sold on the book, but soon learned I was unable to buy it in Tiny Town.  The college library, however, rescued me, as the book was a New York Review classic paperback in ’67, long before I knew what peregrine meant.  And the library had it.  Kirk is a demanding and discerning reader and critic, but I still doubted I’d have the same life-enhancing experience I’d had with Jonathan Maslow’s The Owl Papers on Cumberland Island, GA over two decades ago, one of my two most exciting nature book reads (the other? Barry Lopez’s Of Men and Wolves).  Maybe I was wrong about that.


John Alec Baker has been something of a mystery man, the author of only two books, putatively a longtime librarian (but now Wiki says an auto company employee) born in 1926 and deceased, well, the literary world was unsure about that when the paperback was issued.  His life span dates in the book are listed as (1926-?), which is pretty unusual, since he was still alive and writing in 1967, though his hawk book suggests he had recently received a dire personal prognosis.  Turns out – rheumatoid arthritis, eventually followed by cancer from the arthritis drugs.  But I stray.


For a decade Baker was possessed by the shrinking population of English peregrines, and for almost a year (October to March, a kind of “peregrine year”) Baker traipsed about the fields, marshes and woodlands of a small coastal region in East Anglia, where he “hunted” (with field glasses and a notebook) and documented the local peregrines, a small population likely destined to follow their cousins to the undiscovered country via agricultural chemicals.  The slender volume he left detailing the flights and feedings, matings and general peregrinations [from L for wandering or foreign; I couldn’t resist] of the birds, which are paragons of hunting efficiency and beauty, their in-flight kills elegant, their mantling, plucking and feeding nearly ritualistic, their life force exciting and inspiring.  They have running (soaring) scrimmages with crows, who like to mob them, and seem prone to gambol and play, as well as simply to observe the comings and goings of other avians with British names like godwit, knot, fieldfare, the many plovers, gulls and other fishers that haunt estuarial territories.  Their primary provender is the woodpigeon, and almost without exception these hawks take their prey in flight, often by a steep vertical stoop at about a hundred miles an hour.


Look them up in Sibley or the Audubon guide, and you’ll find some specimen images a gray slate with black highlights, others the colors of a light-phase copperhead, but not until you read Baker describing them will you think that many writers have ever done justice to describing a bird, tweedy in pattern or arrowhead-schemed, moustached, hook-beaked, lethal-taloned.


So who needs to know so much about a bird?  Well, the subject is fascinating, the matter, but that’s almost collateral.  What truly matters is manner, the manner of observation and of rendering.  Both Pound and Stevens insisted that the test of sincerity is craft, Pound adding that absolute attention is prayer.  But Baker is not a snazzy or mandarin stylist, he’s not even aiming for the kind of magical flair Lopez brings to “nature writing.”  He just observes with such a quiet ferocity of spirit and mastery of material that the sentences, which often contain subtle incremental repetitions, spiel out as if they are the beautiful presences, instead of descriptions of those presences.  He’s not particularly clever or ornate, but he observes, describes, juxtaposes and reveals his discoveries in a manner that seldom approaches embellishment.


And he’s not there.  He’s the ghost voice, the transparent eyeball that delivers the is.  Except, perhaps, in the matter of color, all the nuances and overtones, undertones.  His writing has a kind of painter’s pentimento that mixes the colors of marshweeds, mudflats, the chill air across which the tierce (male) or falcon (female) etches its signature and swoops down to snatch the life from its prey.  Reading the descriptions of the raptors’ acts are near rapture, as if this book were the casebook meant to prove the truth of James Dickey’s “The Heaven of Animals,” in which he imagines the predator’s “descent/ Upon the bright backs of their prey// . . . In a sovereign floating of joy.”


Four or five hours’ reading, a penitential act for anyone who suspects he or she has loved and looked too glibly or pretended to master a body of knowledge never truly penetrated to its heartbeat.  But a providential exercise, as well.  The intricate stitchery by which the world has made itself, without flourish or boast, no vita to flaunt, but just the turning ceremony of each successive day seen by the most ravenous eye imaginable and delivered with one of the most earnest and unself-righteous hands conceivable.


There’s not much plot to this story, as Baker resists the temptation to anthropomorphize the creatures that spellbind him (but which he never claims to “love”), but reading it I feel that I have requested, echoing Robert Penn Warren, “Tell me a story of deep delight,” and that I’ve been heard by someone or something actually able to deliver the goods.  Owls, pileateds, and the red kites of Wales have long been my favorite birds, but Baker has offered a new candidate, and I’m all Zeissed-up, wide-eyed and ready to see for myself.  All I need is a map.

peregrine book 2

Here’s the beginning of Baker’s October 39 entry:

The wind-shred banner of the autumn sky spanned the green headland between the two estuaries.   The east wind drove drenching grey and silver showers through the frozen cider sky.  Birds rose from ploughland as a merlin flew above them, small and brown and swift, lifting dark against the sky, dipping and swerving down along the furrows.  All brown or stubbled fields shivered and glittered with larks; all green were plied with plover.  Quiet lanes brindled with drifting leaves.

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