30 April 2006

A running start

From "Aces and Eights" (my favorite essay of all time) in Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters:
Once, many years ago, there was a child of nine who loved Walter Milligan. Once Saturday morning she was walking in the neighborhood of her school. She walked and thought, "The plain fact is--as I have heard so many times--that in several years' time I will not love Walter Milligan. I will very probably marry someone else. I will be untrue; I will forget Walter Milligan."

Deeply, unforgettably, she thought that if what they said about Walter Milligan was true, then the rest went with it: that she would one day like her sister, and that she would be glad she had taken piano lessons. She was standing at the curb, waiting for the light to change. It was all she could do to remember not to get run over, so she would live to betray herself. For a series of connected notions presented themselves: if all these passions of mine be overturned, then what will become of me? Then what am I now?

She seemed real enough to herself, willful and conscious, but she had to consider the possibility--the likelihood, even--that she was a short-lived phenomenon, a fierce, vanishing thing like a hard shower, or a transitional form like a tadpole or winter bud--not the thing in itself but a running start on the thing--and that she was being borne helplessly and against all her wishes to suicide, to the certain loss of self and all she held dear. Herself and all that she held dear--this particular combination of love for Walter Milligan, hatred of sister and piano lessons, etc.--would vanish, destroyed against her wishes by her own hand.

When she changed, where will that other person have gone? Could anyone keep her alive, this person here on the street, and her passions? Will the unthinkable adult that she would become remember her? Will she think she is stupid? Will she laugh at her?

She was a willful one, and she made a vow. The light changed; she crossed the street and set off up the sloping sidewalk by the school. I must be loyal, for no one else is. If this is the system, then I will buck it. I will until I die ride my bike and walk along these very streets, where I belong. I will until I die love Walter Milligan and hate my sister and read and walk in the woods. And I will never, not I, sit and drink and smoke and do nothing but talk.

Foremost in her vow was this, that she would remember the vow itself. She woke to her surroundings; it was cold. Even walking so fiercely uphill, she was cold, and illuminated by a powerful energy. To her left was the stone elementary school, deserted on Saturday. Across the street was a dark row of houses, stone and brick, with their pillared porches. The porch floors were painted red or gray or green. This was not her own neighborhood, but it was her turf. She pushed uphill to the next corner. She committed to memory the look of that block, that neighborhood: the familar cracked sidewalk, how pale it was, how sand collected in its cracks; the sycamores; the muffled sky.
~ Annie Dillard, born on this day in 1945

All that remains

As promised, here is Brian Phillips' essay on Yeats (including more "stranger than fiction" facts):
On the same day that Yeats’s friends gathered around the makeshift grave in Roquebrune, Hitler stood before the German Reichstag and prophesied the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe. In September, the month George had settled on as the best time to transfer the remains, France declared war on Germany, forcing the poet’s family and friends to postpone the removal indefinitely.

But the end of the war brought a bizarre and unwelcome surprise. The body had disappeared. When Yeats’s last lover, Edith Shackleton Heald, returned to Roquebrune to visit the grave, she found that the grave was gone. A confused exchange of correspondence between the priest at Roquebrune, the undertaker’s office, and a small group of Yeats’s friends revealed that, apparently due to a clerical error and the priest’s ignorance of Yeats’s identity, the grave had been dug up and the poet’s remains taken to the ossuary, where anonymous bones were kept. It would be difficult to find the poet’s skeleton: in the ossuary skulls and limbs were stored separately.

A macabre comedy followed these strange revelations. Heald and a few of the poet’s English friends decided to cover up the disappearance and keep it secret from Yeats’s family in Ireland. They began implementing an elaborate and farcical scheme, swearing the priest to secrecy and designing a substitute gravestone (it portrayed a unicorn flying to the stars), while at the same time, George Yeats and the Irish authorities were conferring about the best way to bring the poet’s body to Sligo, to the landscape he had known as a boy, and the best way to stage an Irish funeral. In the end, the English contingent, which discovered the plan to return the remains to Ireland by way of an article in the Times, had no choice but to confess the case to George, who took it up with the French government. Authorities from Paris descended on Roquebrune, hastily identified and reassembled the poet’s bones, and arranged a ceremony in which the new coffin, draped in the Irish flag and escorted by a French guard of honor, was driven to Nice, where it joined an Irish naval vessel bound for Galway. Here it was met by the poet’s family and taken ashore before a large crowd. At Sligo, where it was escorted by a pipe band, it met another guard of honor, this one Irish, and lay in state for an hour before an enormous throng in front of the Town Hall. Then, finally, on September 17, 1948, Yeats was buried for the last time, in Drumcliff churchyard overlooking the dramatic peak of Ben Bulben. Down to the epitaph on his headstone, the situation of the grave was just as Yeats inscribed in his great death-anticipating poem “Under Ben Bulben”[.]
This Phillips piece is really a very reasoned review of R.F. Foster's biography, W.B. Yeats: A Life Volume II: The Arch-Poet 1915-1939. The reconciliation between life and art is beautifully analyzed:
There are always the poems, where the ungainly aggregations of the life are distilled into moments of airy and bluff and sweet and impossible beauty, and as long as the poems exist, the last word will be theirs. To laugh at Yeats’s life is to find oneself softly checkmated. The poems are things of such constant astonishment that they dismay description; flocks of adjectives graze on them and never see the ground. Reading the fourth section of “Vacillations” makes one understand very well how the split sense of the burial story could have come into existence, how the poet could appear simultaneously as a helpless collection of bones and a powerful guiding spirit. Its ten plain lines show how accident can be transfigured by inspiration.
My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessèd and could bless.

27 April 2006

The best news I've heard all month

Lifted entirely from the marvelous ReadySteadyBook:
Faber and Faber have announced the projected publication of a seven-volume edition of The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot, under the General Editorship of Ronald Schuchard and an advisory board comprising Warwick Gould, Archibald Henderson, Sir Frank Kermode, Edward Mendelson and Christopher Ricks.
The involvement of Schuchard, Kermode, and Ricks alone would tell me this is a definitive project--the "dream team" of Eliot scholars coming together to finally have it all in one place... Wow. I'm incredibly excited about this.

23 April 2006

Shameless gushing

I love Helen Vendler. Despite the recent "controversy" (which amounts to telenovela theatrics on the part of the press) regarding the stance she's taken against the newly-published Elizabeth Bishop material, this is a critic who loves poetry.

Today I spent a few hours finishing The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham in a café because I could not put it down. It is the first of her books I've had the pleasure to read. I'm no grad student, but any critic who says such things as, "It is because I am struck, always, by a naive wonder at the convincingness of a poem that I feel driven to ask how that memorable persuasive power has been gained," merits serious consideration (if not undying devotion). One of the best motives for close reading I've found yet--there is no murder in this dissection.

I've mentioned her section on Hopkins; now I read of Heaney and Graham. Her analyses made me love Heaney all over again, and now The End of Beauty is topping my wishlist. Why have I not read any of this before?

On Heaney's "Field Work":
I lick my thumb
and dip it in mould,
I anoint the anointed
leaf-shape. Mould
blooms and pigments
the back of your hand
like a birthmark--
my umber one,
you are stained, stained
to perfection.
What is it that has liberated the hesitant poet, trapped in states of impotent watching, into "verb, pure verb"? It is the discovery that perfection is not immaculate but maculate. These verbs--"I lick . . . and dip, . . . I anoint"--are ritual sacramental verbs, vaguely baptismal, vaguely confirmational. The reclaiming of the maculate body--male and female--under the signs of sticky leaf-juice (life-juice) and adhering earth ("dust thou art") enables decisive action at last for one who has long seen himself as an indecisive and yearing observer, estranged from his first, famous verb-declaration about his pen (a substitute for his father's spade)--"I'll dig with it."
On a related note, you can watch her Harvard lecture on Yeats' "Among School Children" or listen to a condensed analysis. (I'll have more to say about the Graham section later.)

22 April 2006

A new and different same

For some reason, I've been taken in by Spanish translations of Rilke in a vastly different way from the English versions of the poetry I've read. This 2000 edition of Poemas a la noche (Gedichte an die Nacht), translated by Jaime Ferreiro Alemparte, has kept me cornered for two weeks already. (And since books here are due every week, I'll probably be renewing it for a second time.) I cannot pinpoint the reason why this parallel translation (with the original German) has captivated me so. Encountering Rilke in Spanish has been an altogether different experience from sitting with him in English. I read and reread his lines with an ineffable sense of some poignant, ethereal beauty I'd missed:

Mas ahora será el ángel quien beba
así espaciosamente de mis rasgos
vino clarificado de los rostros.
Sediento, ¿quién desde aquí te hizo señas?

Ardes de sed, aunque la catarata
de Dios se precipita por tus venas.
¡Y que tú sigas aún sediento! Entrégate
a la sed. (Cómo has hecho presa en mí.)

Y fluyendo siento cuán seca estaba
tu mirada, y estoy tan inclinado
sobre tu sangre que mis ondas cubren
la alta, la pura orilla de tus cejas.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Even more curiously, I cannot find an English version of this volume. The preface alludes to the fact that these poems were written around the time of a cycle of the Duino Elegies (1913-14), but I need to search more to find out if these particular poems (partially inspired by his trip to Spain and the writings of St. John of the Cross) are included with other works in an English volume. It's a pleasant little mystery to be confronted with.

11 April 2006

Stranger than fiction

Marion Meade's engrossing account of the relationship between Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman ends with a morbid twist:
In the winter of 1987, after completing a biography of Parker, I was preparing to deliver the manuscript to my publisher when I made a curious discovery. One afternoon I was chatting on the phone with Hellman's attorney, O'Dwyer, who was sitting in his office on Wall Street. Because I routinely verify the whereabouts of my deceased subjects, I mentioned one remaining bit of business: a visit to Parker's grave at Ferncliff Cemetery, in Hartsdale.

"Oh, she's not there," O'Dwyer interrupted. "Of course she is," I began to argue. "No, no. I'm looking right at her." A funny thing had happened to Parker's ashes, he explained. They hadn't been claimed. "Excuse me?" I said. "Never buried?"

As it turned out, Ferncliff's periodic reminders to Hellman about the unpaid storage bill had gone unheeded. By the early '70s, no longer executor and presumably believing this kind of problem was not her business, Hellman had no intention of covering the cost or of paying for a spot in Ferncliff's urn garden. On the other hand, she feared a scandal if the crematory were to make good on its unspoken threat to throw the ashes away. In the end, she advised Ferncliff to package the remains and ship them to her attorneys. Upon receiving it, O'Dwyer and Bernstien stored the package in the bottom drawer of a file cabinet and stood by for further instructions, which never arrived. Hellman died in 1984.

So when O'Dwyer said he was staring right at Parker, he was correct. The file cabinet containing the ashes was located in his private office, a few feet behind his desk. At the time of our conversation, they had been sitting in there for fifteen years, which is not as odd as it might sound. In a busy law office, a package can easily be overlooked. As a result, the box and its unusual contents had been forgotten, though not completely, as O'Dwyer had once shown it to his friend the writer Malachy McCourt, making for an odd celebrity sighting if ever there was one. Years earlier, the young McCourt had met the sixty-seven-year-old Parker at a Hollywood party, proclaimed her unbearably sexy, and gaily propositioned her—and she had responded by calling him a big jerk. Far from starstruck, the jollying McCourt had no idea of her identity because she gave her name only as Dorothy and said she wrote "little things."

Insofar as can be known, McCourt is the only person to have paid his respects to Parker during her "file drawer" period.

Of course something had to be done. After hanging up, I thought about asking O'Dwyer for the ashes and trying to arrange for Parker to be buried alongside her parents at Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx. A biographer's taking possession of a subject's remains may be unusual, but these were unusual circumstances. Before I could propose this plan, however, O'Dwyer called a meeting at the Algonquin for the purpose of deciding a final resting place. People came from all over the country to offer suggestions ranging from the traditional to the fanciful: sprinkling the ashes from an airplane; combining them with oil in a painting; putting them on permanent display in one of the Algonquin's bars. Though the white-haired O'Dwyer, then eighty years old, felt an urgent need to resolve the situation, both he and the Parker estate found the proposals inappropriate. Finally, it was Dr. Benjamin Hooks, then executive director of the NAACP, who came forward to claim the ashes and insist upon a plan that would not trivialize the writer's life. He announced that the NAACP would construct a memorial garden on the grounds of its national headquarters in Baltimore. As Hooks noted, "The idea of a white woman leaving her entire estate . . . to the black cause was unparalleled. I can imagine the gesture was greeted with a raised eyebrow by many whites."

Undoubtedly—and some of the eyebrows belonged to Parker's friends. Now there were wags shaking their heads and likening Baltimore to a fate worse than death.

Was the denouement perfect? Perhaps not, but it was certainly sensible—and if nothing else, a lot better than a makeshift mausoleum in O'Dwyer's drawer.

October 20, 1988, was a sunny, gusty Thursday, with temperatures in Baltimore barely creeping into the fifties. That afternoon, Hooks and Kurt Schmoke, the city's mayor, lowered the forty-pound urn into a brick compartment. The monetary value of the circular garden of white pines, designed by the dean of the Howard University School of Architecture, amounted to ten thousand dollars. As befitted last rites for a major literary figure, the occasion was marked by earnest speeches citing Parker's commitment to civil rights and to the traditional friendship between blacks and Jews. (Parker's membership in the Communist Party and subsequent claim of her Fifth Amendment right not to self-incriminate were not mentioned.)

Parker was finally laid to rest twenty-one years, seven months, and thirteen days after her death. Her friends were unable to attend because nearly all of them were dead.
(via Chekhov's Mistress)

08 April 2006

And hiding away

Finally. The end of stress (for the time being), the beginning of Holy Week, and a new library card. I checked out parallel translations of Rilke (German and Spanish) to celebrate.

I never feel the need to excuse blog silence--it's my place to play, after all, not work. But I will say this: miraculously, I've discovered an actual café and have spent hours reading and sipping cappuccinos. After a year here, I'm finally beginning to truly feel at home...thanks to favorite haunts.

I'm making great headway in El amor en los tiempos del cólera, and have high hopes of eventually finishing my long-neglected Eco and Cortázar as well. (I've even felt ambitious enough to purchase the Spanish translation of José Saramago's The Cave.) For some reason, I've always found it easier to concentrate in coffee shops (for more reasons than the caffeine!). Libraries are too quiet and home is too distracting, so it's a wonderful, unexpected relief to finally be back to something familiar.

(I adore this Botero, don't you?)

02 April 2006

Clara Rilke

Qué cercanas y distintas
las hojas de un mismo árbol.

Crecen silenciosas
en la contemplación de sí,
de sus bordes,
en el trabajo minucioso del insecto
que las hiere.

Apenas unidas por un hilo de savia
a la corteza del mundo,
a su naturaleza vegetal.

El viento las obliga a inclinarse
sobre su propia sombra
y en el misterio único
de ser Sauce o Avellano,
se adhieren, se compenetran
sin perturbarse.
Así, recibirán a un tiempo
su gota de lluvia,
el beso ígneo del verano.

Caerán también bajo la misma luz,
rodearán como sílabas diversas
de un mismo alfabeto
la profundidad de las raíces,
la grieta oscura del tronco
que las vio levantarse
y permanecer.

~ Lucía Estrada

(English translation)

Hollow books

How To Make a Secret Hollow Book

(via Maud)

More Pessoa

Thanks to Mark Thwaite, I've added a new edition of Pessoa's poetry to my wish list (which is actually a ramshackle TBR list for when I head stateside for vacation). A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe is the "largest and richest volume of poetry by [Fernando] Pessoa available in English, featuring poems never before translated alongside many originally composed in English."

Lovely news!