Deal Me In Challenge: Week 4: Chekhov, “The Ninny”

This week I drew the King of Clubs, which corresponds to a very short story by Anton Chekhov, “The Ninny”.  It’s a bemusing story.  The scene is almost entirely dialogue between a governness, Yulia Vasilyevna, and her boss, the father of the children she cares for.  He is also the narrator of the story.  He commences:

“Just a few days ago I invited Yulia Vasilyevna, the governness of my children, to come to my study.  I wanted to settle my account with her.”

He then proceeds to underpay her.   It’s being just like Goneril and Regan when they reduce King Lear’s entourage of Knights down from 100 to zero very quickly.

He says she earns 30 rubles a month and when she replies it was 40 a month, he maintains it is 30.  He says she has been working for 2 months; when she says it’s 2 months plus five days, he says that’s nonsense.  He takes off money for the days her charges were ill and for the damage to a child’s trousers when he had climbed a tree.  “Then around New Year’s Day you broke a cup and saucer.  Subtract two rubles”.  At the end, he offers her 11 rubles for what should have been somewhat more than 80 rubles as previously agreed upon.

Finally she accepts the 11 rubles and thanks him.  He then proceeds to shout at her for not standing up for herself and demanding the 80 rubles.  He calls her a nitwit–a ninny–for agreeing to be thus robbed.  After shouting at her about her stupidity, he gives her the 80 rubles she has earned.

I felt some unease reading this story.  I adore Chekhov.  But is he depicting the woman as a nitwit or is he trying to suggest that the “nitwit” is the boss with all his capital and his standing?   He ends the story (remember he is the narrator) thinking “How very easy it is in this world to be strong.”

I hope that Chekhov is spinning the story around so that we think how very easy it is for the powerful and the wealthy to be strong.   They don’t need to fear unemployment; they don’t need to fear recriminations.  There is also the powerful male/less powerful female dynamic here.   He wants her to protest, but perhaps protest is too much of a luxury for her to embark upon.

Is Chekhov condemning the man for playing games with the hapless woman?  I like to think so and that the “ninny” is not the poor woman but the wealthy man who can devise his own Stanley Milgram obedience experiment in his own house.

 Several hours after posting this, I still am fuming. I keep thinking of all the ways the “boss” here is acting like Donald Trump–underpaying an employee, critiquing an employee, putting others into shameful situations.







“Faithful and Virtuous Night” by Louise by Louise Glück

Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glückfaithfulandvirtuousnight

This book of connected poems is a real tour de force.  The title comes from a book that the speaker’s brother is reading when they are young.  Perhaps the title refers to “knight” but the speaker takes it to be “night” and remembers the title of the book.  It is apt, for indeed the many nights of the speaker’s life turn out to be at least somewhat faithful and somewhat virtuous in that rich dreams populate the night, which faithfully arrives.

The cycle of poems tells a story but it is not always chronological nor is it always evident in which ways each poem might fit into the overarching chronicle—that of a painter (or his he/she a poet?) coming to terms with death—not only one’s own death, but the many deaths that end up strewn across the landscapes of our lives.

The first poem in the collection, “Parable,” begins with the question of purpose:

“First divesting ourselves of worldly good, as St. Francis teaches,

in order that our souls not be distracted

by gain and loss, and in order also

that our bodies be free to move

easily at the mountain passes…..”


is a call to travel along with the speaker/poet as


“we had changed although

we never moved, and one said, ah, behold how we have aged, traveling

from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed

in a strange way miraculous.  And those who believed we should have a purpose

believed this was the purpose, and those we felt we must remain free

in order to encounter truth felt it had been revealed.”


After this opening parable, the language becomes much more specific as we learn in “An Adventure” and in “The Past” that the speaker may be dying but also that the past is vivid with memories of the speaker’s dead mother, whose voice can make no sound as it passes through “nothing”.   As a child, the speaker apparently has lost his parents and his sister in a car accident.   The speaker is evidently a painter as an adult and his consciousness is pervaded with memories of his dead dear ones.
He thinks, as he lies in bed:



“It had occurred to me that all human beings are divided

into those who wish to move forward

and those who wish to go back.

Or you could say, those who wish to keep moving

and those who want to be stopped in their tracks

as by the blazing sword.”



And I think it is true that as we grow into mourning and then our own old age we are torn between the past and the future.  At one point the telephone rings in the middle of the night and “I lay in bed, trying to analyze / the ring.  It had / my mother’s persistence and my father’s  /

pained embarrassment.”   The line is dead.  Or, as he asks himself, “was the phone working and the caller dead?”


The book continues to reflect upon life, death, where we are and where we are going.


“I think here I will leave you. It has come to seem

there is no perfect ending.

Indeed, there are infinite endings.

Or perhaps, once one begins,

there are only endings.”


There are many characters who appear—the fortune teller, the old woman in the park, the house in Cornwall,  the analyst, the first flautist, the elderly writer, the “melancholy assistant,” Harry, the gentle boy.


Here is one of the several brief prose poems that are a part of the story, scattered through the volume:

“Long, long ago, before I was a tormented artist, afflicted with longing yet incapable of forming durable attachments, long before this, I was a glorious ruler uniting all of a divided country—so I was told by the fortune-teller who examined my palm. Great things, she said, are ahead of you, or perhaps behind you; it is difficult to be sure. And yet, she added, what is the difference? Right now you are a child holding hands with a fortune-teller. All the rest is hypothesis and dream.”


These stories within the larger story of the poem provide more parables in which the central themes—love, loss, death, and what happens in between—are examined.


“A word drops into the mist

like a child’s ball into high grass

where it remains seductively

flashing and glinting until

the gold bursts are revealed to be

simply field buttercups.


Word/mist, word/mist: thus it was with me.”


I found the volume fascinating.  I have read it three times already and it will stand much more reading.   Some readers may not like a certain indeterminacy and a certain melancholy.  But this is Glück for us—she is never simple or easy and almost always deep and fascinating.


This collection reminds me a little bit of a Proust volume reduced to 60 pages:  memory, thought, desire are mixed and mingled into an at times chillingly vivid meditation on the ordinary losses that we face as we march through life.   People come and go.


I recommend this volume especially to older readers and  to readers who resist sentimentality.  If you know that poetry does not come with a specific map and indices and if you can comprehend loss, your reading will be richly rewarded.


Typically I love the little horse and pony shows of rhyme, alliteration, and exciting metre, but Glück can get by on simply savvy brilliance and insight.


“The Couple in the Park”

A man walks alone in the park and beside him a woman walks, also alone.

How does one know? It is as though a line exists between them, like a line on

a playing field. And yet, in a photograph they might appear a married cou-

ple, weary of each other and of the many winters they have endured togeth-

  1. At another time, they might be strangers about to meet by accident. She

drops her book; stooping to pick it up, she touches, by accident, his hand and

her heart springs open like a child’s music box. And out of the box comes

a little ballerina made of wood. I have created this, the man thinks; though

she can only whirl in place, still she is a dancer of some kind, not simply a

block of wood. This must explain the puzzling music coming from the trees.”


This final prose poem hearkens back to the divisions, or lines, between the graves of the speaker’s parents.   I think this is Glück’s offering to us:  a dancer made of wood whirling in place in the puzzling music coming from the trees.




Note:  Poetry Reading Challenge,


Shareatea Challenge:  I drank a lot of Saint Isaac’s Blend when I read this book and wrote the review.


Faith Shearin: “Music at My Mother’s Funeral”

Music at My Mother’s Funeral

During the weeks when we all believed my mother
was likely to die she began to plan
her funeral and she wanted us, her children,
to consider the music we would play there. We remembered
the soundtrack of my mother’s life: the years when she swept
the floors to the tunes of an eight track cassette called Feelings,
the Christmas when she bought a Bing Crosby album
about a Bright Hawaiian Christmas Day. She got Stravinsky’s
Rite of Spring stuck in the tape deck of her car and for months
each errand was accompanied by some kind
of dramatic movement. After my brother was born,
there was a period during which she wore a muumuu
and devoted herself to King Sunny Ade and his
African beats. She ironed and wept to Evita, painted
to Italian opera. Then, older and heavier, she refused
to fasten her seatbelt and there was the music
of an automated bell going off every few minutes,
which annoyed the rest of us but did not seem to matter
to my mother who ignored its relentless disapproval,
its insistence that someone was unsafe.
Poem copyright ©2013 by the Alaska Quarterly Review.

I really like Faith Shearin’s works and I want to point them out as a retort to those who believe that modern poetry is not longer poetry because it lacks metre and rhyme.   What this poem manages to do is tell a story that sweeps up the reader into knowing much more about the mother than a more general remembrance would give us.

Shearin is specific and sincere.  I think I like that about some contemporary poets:  they paint a very specific picture and invite us to relate to it.   Without the self-conscious nodding and winking irony (that’s you, Billy Collins) or the sometimes very amorphous nature-worship (I look at your, Mary Oliver) we have a mother who has gone through various musical phases as she has grown older.
The segue between Evita and Italian opera and the music of the protesting car jolts us with the knowledge (which we already have) that this is the way the world ends for this mother.
The poem invites me to reflect upon the soundtrack of my mother’s life:  Frank Sinatra to Broadway musicals to blaring out Carmen to Beethoven to raptures over Franz Schubert and finally to deeply cherishing Vaughan-Williams, Faure, and Delius.  She went off to do a “Delius and Thomas Hardy” tour of England–old, widowed, but my God—she was really so young!

And for her 70th birthday celebration she wanted nothing more than to have her five remaining children sitting on a sofa watching her “conduct” the Ring Cycle.  That did not last long as you might imagine.   She beamed with pride and pleasure as she conducted the very slow, gradual start of Das Rheingold.  If her children would not pay attention to her very much, she could use her birthday to express herself without the dangerous medium of words.

And finally the final soundtrack—the beeps and blips of a hospital room, the urgent calls over the loudspeaker for Code Blue Stat and the general cacophony which is the music that accompanies most of our deaths.
Faith Shearin makes me partake most lovingly in memory.  Her poems invite us to share her point of view and her vision about many things.   They wander in the vast fields of “memory and desire” where I spend much of my life today.

“First Death of Her Life” by Elizabeth Taylor


In this week’s “Deal Me In” challenge I drew the four of hearts—although the deck was well-shuffled, it happened to be an adjacent card–and story–to the five of hearts I drew last week.  “First Death of her Life” is a brief (three pages) story about a young woman whose mother has just died in hospital and it reflects the rush of ambivalent feelings that engulf her.  In the midst of her tears she pauses to mentally compose a letter—“for her mind was always composing letters”–to her boss telling him that she will be away for four days for her mother’s funeral.  The nurse comes in:

The nurse came in. She took her patient’s wrist for a moment, replaced it, removed a jar of forced lilac from beside the bed as if this were no longer necessary, and went out again.

Lucy, our subject character, resumes her mental letter, starting anew.  She wonders how her father is doing–he is late.  He will have missed his wife’s death.   It is snowing and 4 PM on a winter’s day.  Lucy works hard to push away her negative memories of her mother because it was important that they “be sent away for ever” and “only loving-kindness” to remain.

She takes a tentative sip of the champagne from her mother’s glass by the bedside.  The family is clearly poor, but they have spent money on the champagne, the lilac, the private room.  After a “life of drabness and denial” on the “mean street where they lived” they wish her to have a little piece of luxury.  Lucy gathers up her mother’s handbag, the library book she had chosen, which would go unread, and takes a final sip of the champagne then leaves.

This story, like the previous one I read by Elizabeth Taylor, reminds me very  much of the kind of impressionistic moodiness of a story from Joyce’s “Dubliners”.   The dead mother gets her flowers, champagne, and library book before she is able to appreciate them.  As the story ends, Lucy leaves the hospital as her father arrives:  There is a sense of missed opportunities; of missed messages; of the collision-course between one’s duties to work and earn money and one’s duties to family, especially when they are ill, dying, dead.

“Opening the glass doors onto the snowy gardens, she thought it was like the end of a film. But no music rose up and engulfed her. Instead there was her father’s turning in at the gates. He propped his bicycle against the wall and began to run clumsily across the wet gravel.”

This is the end of life—no grand swelling of music; no majestic pomp.  And I am reminded again of one of my personal moments of bitterness:  having to work at the very moment my mother died because I had taken too much time away when she was ill.  And I remember my husband being fired from a job because he went to my sister’s funeral.  Most American employers don’t deal with death very well.

“The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens and My Own Mind of Winter with a note on Proust: Je suis Tante Leonie!


One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

This one-sentence poem never entirely yields up its wealth. Aside from its spectacular imagery, I puzzle pleasingly over the use of infinitives, prepositions, and the staggering quadruple negative in the final two lines. I turn more and more to Wallace Stevens and Philip Larkin as the bards of my old age: Stevens because he stands aloof from the despair of it and transform it into art and Larkin because he embraces and wallows in it. You need both an exterior and an interior view of having a mind-of-winter.

Right now my “mind-of-winter” is on trial:  I am in a bit of a febrile frenzy reading too much and not doing adequate service by any of it.

For book clubs and challenges I am juggling “The Claverings” by Trollope, “Pendennis” by Thackeray, “Affinity” by Sarah Waters, and “Far from the Madding Crowd” by Hardy.  I also try to spend time every day with Proust.


As I read Proust for the third time I am even more impressed.  The first time I read through Proust I was dashing a bit—trying to pack in the pages.  The second time I read Proust was more like a first time.  Now–I think I am coming at Proust the right way.   The Verdurans and their jolly little gang are amusing.  This time I regard the characters as great characters—not as people who must be looked up to because they were created by Proust.  The insipid fatuity of most “love” or most quests for social position and prestige finally strike me for what they are:  the jostling quest for self-importance as reflected by the “voices” of society or the beautiful people.

But I am now at the Aunt Leonie stage of life–Aunt Leonie with cats to boot!  The only redemption I find in my advanced case of Aunt Leonie-ness is that I have no nephews who are willing to listen to me.  My own Aunt Leonie led me  into crazed dutiful expenditures and was one of the final exhibits in the Case Against Trying to Save People.  I try on Aunt Leonie style fads to see how they work:  how much money would I save if I only wore nightgowns.  I find myself always in an “uncertain state of grief, physical debility, illness, obsession”.

In spite of my love for the other books I am reading, I cling more to Proust because he is the most potentially acidulous–for me, at my moment in life.   Art teaches me how NOT to behave more often than it teaches me how to behave at this late stage of my life.

There’s some brightness here:  I listened to Mozart’s Flute Concerto Number one earlier and it’s lovely (K 313) with all kinds of bright and silvery phrases.



Deal Me In 2017 Challenge: Week 2


This week I drew the 5 of Hearts, which corresponds to the impressionistic short story, “The Idea of Age” by Elizabeth Taylor.   The unnamed narrator is a ten year old girl who clearly has a lot of anxiety about getting older.  She has a great fear of her mother’s death which she expresses obliquely:  she likes to read books about children who have dead mothers provided that the woulds are healed.

She carefully guards her mother along with a “mother-figure” in the form of a dramatic Mrs. Vivaldi who summers in the same place that the girl and her family go.  Mrs. Vivaldi is a larger-than-life dramatic woman, who recites Shakespeare and plays with her long pearls.  Mrs. Vivaldi also speaks a lot about being old.

Our narrator resolves no mysteries here, but she does give us a compelling portrait of the anxieties of a pre-adolescent girl who is worried about the concept of age, of growing old, and of the potential segue into death.

“When I was a child, people’s aged did not matter; but age mattered.  Against the serious idea of age I did not match the grown-ups I knew—who had all an ageless quality—though time unspun itself from year to year, Christmases lay far apart from one another, birthdays ever further; but that time was running on was shown in many ways.  I ‘shot out’ of my frocks, as my mother put it.  By the time I was ten, I had begun to discard things form my heart and to fasten my attention on certain people whose personalities affected me in a heady and delicious way” begins the story.

And me too.  For some strange reason,  certain “celebrities” of all types grabbed my imagination which clung to them.  For some, it was a name:  C. Douglas Dillon–secretary of the treasury.  What could the C. stand for?   There was Liz and Eddie and Debbie.  JFK and Jackie.  I started reading newspapers and I lavished as much attention on The New York Times as I did on Photoplay.  T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost were alive.  At that age I could not and did not sort out the relative importance of Pat Boone and Nikita Krushchev; Edward Villella and Shirley Jones; Katherine Anne Porter and Princess Margaret Rose.  They were all, in sundry ways, Mrs. Vivaldis for me.



Ways of Seeing: John Berger

johnbergerWays of Seeing was on the syllabus.  I hardly approved.  My university was a place to read works from well before the twentieth century and I felt an ignorant dull pain at the thought of people like John Berger and Marshall McLuhan being taken seriously.  I resisted reading Ken Kesey and Kurt Vonnegut and I thought that art criticism had ended quite nicely with Ruskin and Pater, thank you very much.

But John Berger never went away for me because he said things too brilliant for me to ignore.  Just as assortment of his thoughts should be the best tribute to him.  He died 5 days ago at age 90.  He was always a presence–that rarity, a “public intellectual” who was also heart-breakingly perceptive.  I’ve accumulated the quotations below in a lazy way:  from

The final quotation has absorbed and provoked and comforted and angered me on many occasions.  It is the one that gets me more than any other.

“When we read a story, we inhabit it. The covers of the book are like a roof and four walls. What is to happen next will take place within the four walls of the story. And this is possible because the story’s voice makes everything its own.”
John Berger, Keeping a Rendezvous
“Autobiography begins with a sense of being alone. It is an orphan form.”
John Berger
“Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and in this hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman.”
“When we suffer anguish we return to early childhood because that is the period in which we first learnt to suffer the experience of total loss. It was more than that. It was the period in which we suffered more total losses than in all the rest of our life put together.”
“To be desired is perhaps the closest anybody in this life can reach to feeling immortal.”
“The past is the one thing we are not prisoners of. We can do with the past exactly what we wish. What we can’t do is to change its consequences.”
“The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied…but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which as beggar is a reminder of nothing.”
“I can’t tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten.
I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that amongst the people such art sometimes runs like a rumour and a legend because it makes sense of what life’s brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last. Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts and honour.”
John Berger


“What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together. They are strewn there pell-mell. One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis. (Against my broken ribs your breast like a flower.) The hundred bones of our feet are scattered like gravel. It is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.”
John Berger

And this place, of which Berger writes, can be totally invisible and incorporeal and yet remain a place.