Friday Forge-on: Wallace Stevens

Friday, September 26, 2014

What the heck is a "Friday Forge-on," you ask? Just a little treat I dreamed up to lead my readers gracefully into the weekend. You can read about it here.


Without meaning to sound contrary, I don't like being asked what my "favourites" are: colours, movies, flowers, even books. I just can't decide on one!

There is one exception, however: for the past year I've prized one poet about all others. By the title of this post, you've probably guessed that it's Wallace Stevens. I fell into him a year ago, and I'm almost afraid of that day when he loses his position as the poet for me. 

I'll offer more biographic detail of him for you one day, but for now you can savour one of my favourites (and one of Stevens' best known) poems.

The Idea of Order at Key West

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask.  No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard.
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this?  we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone.  But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea. 
 It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang.  And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.  Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh!  Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Author Spotlight: Barbara Pym

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Let's say it's a drizzly, early fall afternoon in London, 1948. In a flat in Pimlico, a woman sits quietly revising a novel.

We ring the bell and, although uninvited, the kettle is put on, bread and butter are brought out, and we sit down to chat with author Barbara Pym.

Should I stop this little fantasy here? Maybe you haven't heard of Pym? I hadn't until Alexandra McCall Smith (Mr. No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency) championed her 1952 novel, Excellent Women, in a 2008 article in The Guardian.

What luck I did find her! Pym is an author whose oeuvre I dread finishing, only to know that I will read her again and again.

Great you say. But what what does this Pym write about? First of all, if you're into the school of "write what you know," Pym's your woman. What she knew, broadly, was this: church life, academic life (she read English Literature at St. Hilda's College, Oxford), Italy and the Wrens (she was posted to Naples in 1944), and anthropology (from her work at the International African Institute in London).

From this collection of experiences, Pym sets down a group of characters (the more you read, the more familiar they become) and lets their lives cyclically unwind across the seasons of a year.

Much has been made of Pym's focus on the everything, the small detail (it's hard to find her named without coming across Jane Austen at the same time). This is true. The minutia of life is gently and methodically enacted in her works but, despite the cups of tea and cake, the clergymen, and the -- dare I say it -- feminine details, Pym is not saccharine. She offers dry humor and a touch of modern existentialism, but always with a deft hand. There is never too much of anything in Pym's world. Moderation rules. I think this is what is attractive to me, at least, in her work. Just as she lays her plots against the natural balance of the year's unfolding, her characters' navigate a post-WWII world that, through glimpses, we can see is precarious, but which we also discover was liveable and well-lived.

For more Barbara Pym:

The Barbara Pym Society (must of the above biographic details are taken from their excellent site).
Alexander McCall Smith's article

And finally, two of my favourites:

Mystery Monday: The Haunted Bookshop

Monday, September 22, 2014

     THIS SHOP IS HAUNTED by the ghosts
     Of all great literature, in hosts;

     We sell no fakes or trashes.
     Lovers of books are welcome here,
     No clerks will babble in your ear,

     Please smoke--but don't drop ashes!
     Browse as long as you like.
     Prices of all books plainly marked.
     If you want to ask questions, you'll find the proprietor
           where the tobacco smoke is thickest.
     We pay cash for books.
     We have what you want, though you may not know you want it.

          Malnutrition of the reading faculty is a serious thing.

     Let us prescribe for you.

     By R. & H. MIFFLIN,

(From The Haunted Bookshop) 
Tomorrow is the autumnal equinox, which maybe explains why I've started to "draw in," if only mentally. I love a bit of cozy: warm fires, woven blankets, and books. Books that ooze indoor comforts and give me a little excuse to put the kettle on just a few more times a day.

One of the best for doing this is my old friend The Haunted Bookshop. Written in 1919 (handy because the book is now in the public domain) by Christopher Morley, it features a suspenseful little mystery that's really just a vehicle to let our hero, bookstore owner Roger Mifflin, extol the power and wonder of books. There are plenty of warm fires to be had in this Brooklyn shop, and Mr. Mifflin would be happy for you to join him in front of one. I come every year and he's always happy to see me.

Review: Catch-22

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

I find it difficult to review a book that, in the period since its 1961 publication, has become a modern classic. Whatever I want to say comes out like an essay and, hallelujah, having graduated in May, I'm on a break from those.

Thus (oh no: essay speak) I'm going to offer not another critical analysis of this worthy piece of writing, but my emotional, almost immediate impression of it.

But first, what is Joseph Heller's most famous work about?

That is not so easy a question as a basic synopsis would suggest. Heller uses a very particular non-chronological narration to his plot: nothing is in order, events overlap, jumping backwards and forewords through time and place, and merge in the most outlandish ways. (Do you remember the fictional "War Room" in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove? I somehow picture Heller needing a massive screen like that on which to project his convoluted, yet masterfully controlled plot.)

Let's say this:
Time: World War II
Place: The island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean
Characters: U.S. Air Force personnel
Main Character: loosely, Captain John Yossarian (the novel circles around a number of other characters).
General theme: How do the Air Force men fulfill their increasing number of missions while attempting to retain their sanity?

I should also say that it is a satire. And, yes, it's going to remind you of M*A*S*H. You will laugh, probably heartily.

You will do far more than that, however: Catch-22 is a visceral ride (I am going to use flight analogies here, be warned). By the end -- which took me three months to reach -- you will be hung out, wrenched dry, and probably heaving (from laughter and nausea). I was bored -- the generals and colonels made me want to run in circles and chase my own tail -- and awed. I was haunted, not just after the fact, but during the reading: what happened to Snowden and Yossarian, after all? And the ending. I was prepared for a tremendous decline, a last falling drop. But Heller has a kind of last burst to propel us out with. Why not end with frenetic elation and possibility? Catch-22 has something of the retro-fantastic about it. You can't believe it, but you're not reading a fantasy either. That's one of it's powers, of course -- Heller's hurtling insistence that you must believe.

One last note: What of the phrase "catch-22?" Heller did invent it, although his original choice was "catch-18." Read the novel to create for yourself a full-bodied definition.


Mystery Monday: I Spy Edition

Monday, September 15, 2014

I never really liked playing "I Spy" when I was younger, but I did love the I Spy Books by Jean Marzollo and Walter Wick. Do you remember them, those meticulously planned photographs and rhyming riddles?

For this week's Mystery Monday, we are playing a more grownup version of those much-loved childhood favorites. The library above is from the Manhattan apartment I cited in a previous blog post. Your challenge? Find the copy of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises the owner of this library has wisely chosen to include on their shelves.

A Friday Forge-On Treat

Friday, September 12, 2014

"When that I was and a little tiny [girl]" to paraphrase Twelfth Night, my mom used to reward my sister and me for forging through another week of school (we were not enthusiastic scholars). This happy treat was named a "friday forge-on." It was generally something food related. My favourite was tea with scones, the latter liberally heaped with clotted cream and jam. (All served by a very jolly Scottish women who one night suddenly closed her shop, leaving me bereft of my very best Friday joy. I suppose there is not much profit to be made in tea and scones these days.)

Still, the phrase "Friday forge-on" lives on. Yes, maybe it's more of a G&T and a glass of sherry these days, but it's the idea, darlings: something to reward yourself with for slogging through what can sometimes be the murk of life.

While I sip my sherry, I'm here to offer you a little literary Friday forge-on. If you like it, perhaps we can make it a weekly treat?

Today's comes courtesy of the poet Amy Lowell. I've been reading her collection, "A Dome of Many-Colored Glass," and this one is from that 1912 volume.

             Behind a Wall 
        I own a solace shut within my heart,
           A garden full of many a quaint delight
           And warm with drowsy, poppied sunshine; bright,
          Flaming with lilies out of whose cups dart
              Shining things
              With powdered wings.

          Here terrace sinks to terrace, arbors close
           The ends of dreaming paths; a wanton wind
           Jostles the half-ripe pears, and then, unkind,
          Tumbles a-slumber in a pillar rose,
              With content
              Grown indolent.

          By night my garden is o'erhung with gems
           Fixed in an onyx setting.  Fireflies
           Flicker their lanterns in my dazzled eyes.
          In serried rows I guess the straight, stiff stems
              Of hollyhocks
              Against the rocks.

          So far and still it is that, listening,
           I hear the flowers talking in the dawn;
           And where a sunken basin cuts the lawn,
          Cinctured with iris, pale and glistening,
              The sudden swish
              Of a waking fish