26 November 2007


And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Unless to think you'll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

~ Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level

25 November 2007

An epic elegy

Beowulf opened this weekend in Santa Marta and we went to see it last night. I wasn't overly impressed, but it certainly could have been worse (and there were some nice touches). One of the great things about it was how it sent me straight back to the text--and to what Tolkien had to say: "Disaster is foreboded. Defeat is the theme. Triumph over the foes of man’s precarious fortress is over, and we approach slowly and reluctantly the inevitable victory of death."

Cheery, huh? I guess that may be one of the reasons Gaiman and Avary chose to end the film in the middle of a choice. They were right in attempting to show the hollowness of "heroism" (although the hero's own demise is undeniably "heroic" and the result is more cautionary tale than lament). In the original, the battles with the three monsters only take up about one-third of the poem, making it more of an elegy than an epic.
And upon the hill-top        the warriors awoke
The mightiest of bale-fires.        Rose the wood-smoke,
Swart above the blazing.        And the roar of flame
Blended was with wailing,        as still the winds became,
Till, hot unto his heart, it broke        the Geat’s bone-frame.
Unglad of mood, in grief they mourned        their great Chief dead.
And his Wife, with hair bound,        her song of sorrow said,
Over and over:        how ‘t was hers to dread
Days of harm and hardship,        warriors’ fall and grame,
The terror of the raider,        captivity and shame.
        The sky the reek had swallowed.
The people's agony before Beowulf's pyre blends with the roar of the blaze until it becomes one keening force that quiets nature ("the winds") with its power. The grief and the fire become indistinguishable from each other, blurring the boundaries of physical fact and spiritual need to the point that it is unclear whether the disintegration of Beowulf’s body is the direct result of the flames, or the effect of his people’s agonized wailing, "hot unto his heart." It isn't just the loss of their hero that they're mourning, but the end of their way of life, the senselessness of war, and the void left by their gods. (I found it quite telling that the screenwriters decided to throw in Christ with the rest of them--he is notably absent from the original.)

I was lucky enough to hear Seamus Heaney speak while I was in college. His phrase, "Poetry is a plow that turns time up and over" brilliantly applies to the necessity of works such as Beowulf. He said that through poetry we are able to more fully comprehend the sorrow of an ancient people facing unconscionable tragedy. Contemporary news via the media slips past us much too easily to be absorbed. The agony of nations is effortlessly offered on the silver platter of the 30-second sound bite. Because worldwide suffering dwarfs modern society’s ability to assimilate it, we need art and poetry to help us keep hold of our humanity.


I have officially finished packing my books and have entered each one into a LibraryThing account while I was at it. (I've placed one of their nifty "cover" widgets a little further down the sidebar on the right.)

Now all I've got to do is move them...

Faulkner on poetry

From "Verse, Old and Nascent: A Pilgrimage":
Life is not different from what it was when Shelley drove like a swallow southward from the unbearable English winter; living may be different, but not life. Time changes us, but Time's self does not change. Here is the same air, the same sunlight in which Shelley dreamed of golden men and women immortal in a silver world and in which young John Keats wrote "Endymion" trying to gain enough silver to marry Fannie Brawne and set up an apothecary's shop. Is not there among us someone who can write something beautiful and passionate and sad instead of saddening?
Essays, Speeches & Public Letters

22 November 2007

Hay watch

Busy, busy, busy. Tomorrow is the very last day of school, so there is much to do (grading exams, finishing report cards, meeting with parents, sitting in staff meetings, packing, cleaning classrooms, planning for next year, etc.). Also, next week marks the end of my stay in the lovely apartment by the sea, which has been my home since April 2005. The 30th is the day I officially move out. I will miss it.

It doesn't feel much like Thanksgiving, but there is much to be thankful for. The program for the January 2008 Hay Festival in Cartagena is supposed to be up today. Nothing so far, but I will be updating this post as soon as I see it. (There was also a refreshing little article on Medellín in Newsweek.)

UPDATE: Still no news (11.25pm). Maybe tomorrow?

UPDATE 25.11.07: Still nothing. Maybe next month?

UPDATE 26.11: News! They've postponed the program unveiling for 3 December.

UPDATE 3.12 (4.00pm): Nothing yet...

UPDATE 11.12 (7.45am): Big surprise... Nothing. (I really hope this just means that they're getting some last-minute answers on their invites...)

UPDATE 15.12: It's here!! (Apparently, it went up early this week, but due to travel I didn't see it until just now. AMAZING line-up!! Now, to begin planning...)

11 November 2007

Nuances of a Theme by Williams


Shine alone, shine nakedly, shine like bronze,
that reflects neither my face nor any inner part
of my being, shine like fire, that mirrors nothing.


Lend no part to any humanity that suffuses
you in its own light.
Be not chimera of morning,
Half-man, half-star.
Be not an intelligence,
Like a widow's bird
Or an old horse.

~ Wallace Stevens

James Longenbach on "Nuances of a Theme by Williams" in The Resistance to Poetry:
Stevens is entering an inevitable dialectic in which the power of a word's untidy activity depends on our inability to recognize it dependably, in which the power of self-forgetfulness is contingent on the specter of self-loathing--the inability ever to forget ourselves. To deny a metaphor's ability to distract us from what it also says is to place ourselves at odds with the pleasure of poetry. But if the language of poetry were not haunted by failure, by its inability to distract us, we could never forget it.

Haunting humanity

(cross-posted at A Curious Singularity)

After reading Guy de Maupassant's "The Horla" I was struck by the narrator's awareness of his own isolation and role it plays in his descent into "madness":
Yesterday after doing some business and paying some visits, which instilled fresh and invigorating mental air into me, I wound up my evening at the Theatre Francais. A drama by Alexander Dumas the Younger was being acted, and his brilliant and powerful play completed my cure. Certainly solitude is dangerous for active minds. We need men who can think and can talk, around us. When we are alone for a long time, we people space with phantoms.
But almost immediately after admitting this to himself, he does an about-face and makes some pretty cold remarks about people:
July 14. Fete of the Republic. I walked through the streets, and the crackers and flags amused me like a child. Still, it is very foolish to make merry on a set date, by Government decree. People are like a flock of sheep, now steadily patient, now in ferocious revolt. Say to it: "Amuse yourself," and it amuses itself. Say to it: "Go and fight with your neighbor," and it goes and fights. Say to it: "Vote for the Emperor," and it votes for the Emperor; then say to it: "Vote for the Republic," and it votes for the Republic.

Those who direct it are stupid, too; but instead of obeying men they obey principles, a course which can only be foolish, ineffective, and false, for the very reason that principles are ideas which are considered as certain and unchangeable, whereas in this world one is certain of nothing, since light is an illusion and noise is deception.
Earlier this week, I read "Ghost Calf," a short story by Marcelo Ballvé, and had a realization about how easily we rationalize ourselves right into inhumanity and how "hauntings" can function as an echo of that lost humanity--either as a reminder of what's being lost or as an act of vengeance against our calloused perceptions.

As Litlove writes,
What this story performs so well is the loss of control it posits as one of the great fundamental fears of mankind. Our narrator finds the possibility of other races so convincing because he thinks of humanity as so weak, vulnerable and flawed. It would not take very much to create a race of beings superior to us, who would not be so limited or so powerless. It’s not much more than the thought of this that transforms our narrator, over the course of thirty pages or so, from a wealthy, advantaged young man to a gibbering wreck, half out of his mind with terror. The imagination – the power to invent this story, as well as the power to envisage new possibilities for mankind – is the internal instrument of our own disintegration as well as one of the greatest features of the human race.
Unfortunately for our narrator, the realization never comes. After setting fire to his own house, he hears
[A] cry, a horrible, shrill, heart-rending cry, a woman's cry, sounded through the night, and two garret windows were opened! I had forgotten the servants! I saw the terror-struck faces, and the frantic waving of their arms!
He remembers other people only when he has destroyed them. It is too late to save anyone, and so, without any evidence whatsoever, he makes the snap judgment that the Horla has survived and so he (the narrator) must kill himself. His guilt is so great that it is obvious to the narrator that his nemesis has survived. Of course he has. By severing his own last link to humanity (causing the death of his servants), he is utterly lost to the figure of his own demise.

P.S. Interestingly, it seems that this story helped inspire H.P. Lovecraft and was later "adapted" (read: mutilated) to film in 1963, starring (who else?) Vincent Price.

10 November 2007

Never alone

Junot Díaz in conversation with Michael Silverblatt:
JD: What I want is people to read and remember that reading--while we may practice it alone, in solitude--it arose out of a collective learning and out of a collective exchange. And that if somebody encounters a word--sure, you can go to Wikipedia, that's the short-circuit. If you encounter a word you don't know, or a phrase, that's a short-cut. That's ok. But part of me is hoping that that will encourage people to look up some of the books that this book is referencing, the book is mic-checking. Ask people what some of these things mean, return to the notion that it's not just you, a monk alone in a chamber--that it's you reading out of a collective, from a collective, you know. And I love that idea 'cause I never forgot how I learned to read.

MS: How did you learn to read?

JD: With a group of people--with teachers. I learned to read in kindergarten when I first moved to the United States, watching other kids make mistakes, do things right, and having access to a group of teachers who were committed. That moment--in A Wonderful Life--do you remember? The husband of the teacher punches him and he goes, "My wife taught your children to read!" And it is a debt--reading is a debt we owe to a collective, while we may practice it alone.
It's a marvelous interview, and this segment immediately reminded me of one of the reasons litblogs are so vital these days. It's about conversation, sharing--reading in conversation with other books and other readers as well. (John Donne has been right all along.)

(via Counterbalance)

Exile, revisited

In a response to a passage of William Gass', Brian Crabtree wondered,
While we have benefitted from modern life in many ways, it seems to have pushed us from the beauty we once viscerally knew to be there, hidden in the lines. We no longer toil, collectively, over the lines of a popular ballad, committing the pulses and unexpected variations of sound and color to memory--we don't even hear them; we no longer take words in, imbibe their many shades of meaning, taking joy in them all the while. Hart Crane seems emblematic of Gass' theme, use is abuse. You've got to quit trying to solve his words, trying to impress your own meaning. They simply are.

On a side note: if you're looking for it, you can almost hear echos of Orwellian ideology--who are we if the center of self is lost to us?
I'm reminded of another aspect of the situation. Elsewhere in "Exile" Gass admits,
This claim of mine concerning the centrality of the spoken word, is, of course, not believed. In our picture perfect time, who should believe it? So on your next date, draw a picture of your passion. Thus explain your needs. How far into real feeling will it take you? Will it not inadvertently possess a certain lavatory style? When next you are alone, and pondering some problem (should you call him? will she or won't she? does he like the amplified guitar better than the cradled bass? in what will she prefer that I express myself, chalk or crayon?), try posing your questions in terms of the flickering image so many say they love and is the future's salutary wave. Think through anything. Start small. Continue simple. But doodle the solution into being.
(From Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile)

06 November 2007

Like ice cream

Neil Gaiman on the history of fairy tales and Stardust:
I was fortunate in having Charles Vess, to my mind the finest fairy artist since Arthur Rackham, as the illustrator of Stardust, and many times I found myself writing scenes - a lion fighting a unicorn, a flying pirate ship - simply because I wanted to see how Charles would paint them. I was never disappointed.

The book came out, first in illustrated and then in unillustrated form. There seemed to be a general consensus that it was the most inconsequential of my novels. Fantasy fans, for example, wanted it to be an epic, which it took enormous pleasure in not being. Shortly after it was published, I wound up defending it to a journalist who had loved my previous novel, Neverwhere, particularly its social allegories. He had turned Stardust upside down and shaken it, looking for social allegories, and found absolutely nothing of any good purpose.

"What's it for?" he had asked, which is not a question you expect to be asked when you write fiction for a living.

"It's a fairytale," I told him. "It's like an ice cream. It's to make you feel happy when you finish it."

I don't think that I convinced him, not even a little bit. There was a French edition of Stardust some years later that contained translator's notes demonstrating that the whole of the novel was a gloss on Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, which I wish I had read at the time of the interview. I could have referred it to the journalist, even if I didn't believe a word.
(via Crooked House)

["And Into Faerie" image from Charles Vess' "Stardust Print Suite"]

05 November 2007


The exile that I personally know about is an exile far less gruesome than the fate which befell Saturn's children; it is not at all dramatic like the epic of Oedipus, not a bit lyric, either, like a ballad bemoaning the old days from the lute of a Slavic poet. It does not even concern the exile of a person whose speech was found to be offensive, and who was sent away where his message could be heard no more. I am talking about the loss of a use of language, in my opinion its fundamental employment--the poetic in the broadest sense--and how that limb of our language has been cut off and callously discarded.

This has been, of course, my subject all along. And someone may ask, so complete has been its disappearance, what is this special use of language, and what makes it so special? Alas, to answer would require another essay and an honesty absent from most hearts. It is, first of all, a use of language which refuses to be a use. Use is abuse. That should be the motto of every decent life. So it treats every word as a wonder, and a world in itself. And it walks between them, even over dizzy heights, as confidently as a worker on beams of steel. And it does not care to get on, but it dwells; it makes itself, as Rilke wrote, into a thing, mute as the statue of an orator. It reaches back into the general darkness we--crying--came from, retouches the terrors and comforts of childhood, but returns with a magician's skills to make the walls of the world dance.
~ William H. Gass, "Exile," Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile

01 November 2007

Representing the human

From Boldtype's interview with Junot Díaz:
Everybody always says, "I hate these footnotes, they jump me off the page." That's the point. This is a book about the terror of the single voice — of the dictatorship — and the footnotes completely undermine that authority. So unlike a lot of the postmodern white boys who use it to reinforce authority, to show their erudition, these footnotes are constantly undermining it. They jump in to give you some nonsense gossip or to say, "I got that thing in the first chapter wrong... oops!" But there's also Oscar himself. Fact is, among all these multiple voices, Oscar never really appears. We never encounter any of his direct words, and only at the very end do we get a letter from him. He's as big a ghost as his vanished ancestors, but the voice distracts you from that. It's a book about what happens when you are vaporized. Can you exist again? Can we use language to bring back what is gone? There's all these "Dr. Manhattan" jokes because in Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan is a vanished man. He pieces himself together again, but he's not human. When he reconstructs himself, an element is fucking missing. You know? And it's the same thing with Yunior and Oscar: no matter how hard he tries, something is missing. This book is not attempting to give you a real fucking human. It's attempting to give you Dr. Manhattan — this blue, ethereal ghost. In a way, that's as close as we can come as artists to representing the human. We can put the experience together, but it always comes up short.
There's also an execellent review of Samedi the Deafness.