Queen of Spades: “Greenleaf” by Flannery O’Connor

 

It’s week 8 of the “Deal Me In” challenge and I finally selected a spade.  The Queen of Spades is Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Greenleaf.”queenofspades

Mrs. May is one of those quintessential O’Connor women.  She’s similar to the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and Mrs. Hopewell in “Good Country People”.    As the story begins a bull has invaded her space.    Right outside her bedroom window, she sees him “chewing steadily with a hedge-wreath that he had ripped loose for himself caught in the tip of his horns.”  He seems to emanate a “pink glow” and “bars of light” are created on him as Mrs May lifts the Venetian blinds.    This bull is acting like an “uncouth country suitor”, “gaunt and long-legged.”  If you have read much by O’Connor, a Catholic living amidst the Georgia baptists, you might as well be given a big sign that says “Christ Figure” on top of the bull’s wreath.

But that would be an over-simplification of O’Connor’s understanding of faith.

Mrs May has had a worker, Mr. Greenleaf, for some fifteen years.  Much of the story contrasts Mrs. May and her two sons and the Greenleaf family and their sons.  Mrs. May’s sons are surly and named Wesley and Scofield, two Prostestant theologians:  “Scofield was a business type and Wesley was an intellectual.”  The ‘boys’ are in their 30’s and still live at home which would not mean anything today but this story was written in 1956.

Mrs. Greenleaf is her nemesis in large part because she is a faith-healer and calls out to Jesus.  Mrs May comments that “Jesus would be ashamed of you.”   We know that Mrs. May is a “good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

The contrast between the Greenleaf way of belief and the May way of non-belief underscores the narrative.  Mrs. May thinks that the Greenleaf twins, inexplicably named O.T.and E.T. Greenleaf–who are younger than her sons got lucky during the war and became “some kind of sergeants”.   They had both married nice French girls and it rankles Mrs. May that “they had both managed to get wounded and now they both had pensions.”  Her son Wesley got out of serving because of a heart condition and Scofield never made it past private.

Mrs. May bitterly contemplates that fact that the Greenleaf family is likely to climb high in “society.”  They already have their own “milking room” which is a “spotless white concrete room … filled with sunlight.”

Although O.T. and E.T. are the apparent owners of the bull, they don’t seem to be in a hurry to catch him.  Mrs May comments to her sons that “I’m the victim.  I’ve always been the victim.”   While her sons get into a fist-fight and smash the crockery about, Mr. Greenleaf promises that he will get rid of the bull.

But Mrs. May’s animosity intervenes and she has a final date with the bull who becomes like her “wild tormented lover.”  He holds her in “an unbreakable grip”.

Mrs. May has been in the hating business a long time.  Her sons are overaged disgraces.  They taunt her and each other as if they were 10 years old.  Mrs. May looks down on the Greenleafs as “scrub-human” and she tells her sons bitterly that within twenty years the Greenleafs will be a family in “society”.  As Mr. Greenleaf says, “I thank Gawd for every-thang.”

Mrs. May seems to be getting a well-deserved come-uppance in the world as her fortunes fall while the Greenleafs’s fortunes improve.  She strikes me as the quintessential Trump voter–60 years premature.

 

 

 

“Dead Man’s Float” by Jim Harrison

jimharrisonJim Harrison’s final collection of poetry, Dead Man’s Float, seems to have been written in the full knowledge that he did not have much longer to live.   Approaching age 80, the poet sings of death and birds.  The opening poem is our vade mecum:

“Where Is Jim Harrison?”

He fell off the cliff of a seven-inch zafu.

He couldn’t get up because of his surgery.

He believes in the Resurrection mostly

because he was never taught how not to.

 

The poems that follow will deal with these themes—falling, Eastern concepts, surgery, hospitals, the possibility of an afterlife, and what he was and was not taught.  He (or his narrator)  was certainly taught to observe the dead and the earlier poems in the book are filled with images of his own death and dying as he sings a “bedsore cantata” while being “endlessly sacrifices at the medical gizmo altar.”  His “spine aches from top to bottom” and his “shingles burn, a special punishment”.   “The old bugaboo of depression” is there along with the sound of cellos.  “I wanted to be a cello.  I hear cellos when I’m trout fishing.”

 

But in the  midst of death life can come rushing in:

“Time rushes toward me—

it has no brakes.  Still

the radishes are good this year.

run them through butter,

Add a little salt”

 

It is a burden to know that one has no clear expiration date, but that it must be rushing at one.  The poet notices dead bodies of animals and thinks about dead people:  “I pray for Mandelstam hiding / covered with snow in a ditch.”  “Elsa’s head torn off / and her eyes stayed open….She was a find gardener with a sweet,  / warm voice.”  “Molly was the bravest…one day / her body was found down by the weir.”   “A cow is screaming across the arroyo….Next morning she’s dead, / already smelling badly in the heat.” “so many American Indians freeze / walking home from bars on the reservation edge. / A friend died learning and dozing against / his mailbox, so near home.”

The poems are sometimes unpoetical little stories about death, corpses, illness, and old age.   While  I realize that this review is not likely to win Harrison new readers, I think that would be wrong.  Harrison speaks honestly to his life.  He has a great book of essays forthcoming  called A Really Big Lunch:  Meditations on Food and Life from the Roving Gourmand.

This book of poems, however, is a serious guide to the life of the elderly.  The second part of the book triumphantly returns (mostly) to life and especially to birds and flowers.  In “Tiny Bird” Harrison write “Birds are poems I haven’t caught yet”.  He’s a part of the poetic tradition of paying homage to the artistry of birds and bird songs.  He praises the “two gorgeous / yellow warblers nesting in the honeysuckle bush….In a month or so, when the reach the size / of bumblebees they’ll fly to Costa Rica without a map.”

This book is not an easy book to read in many ways but it’s a necessary one for those who are wondering about death:  when and why it comes.  It offers no reassurance of an afterlife but acknowledges the possibility.  If we are lucky, we will become old enough to embrace these poems with their wisdom.  Without ever once becoming didactic, Harrison offers us lessons in what to see and what to watch and what to think about as we age into the sometimes crotchety, sometimes genial, characters we will become as we leave this world.

“Deal Me In Challenge: Week 7” Katherine Mansfield, “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”

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“The Daughters of the Late Colonel” by Katherine Mansfield was my lucky draw this week.  Mansfield’s daughters, Josephine and Constantia, are very close and very paralyzed because their lives have been dominated by their father.  As the story opens, their father, Colonel Pinner, has died and in 12 brief parts, we see the sisters trying to deal with the reality of his death.  They are caught up in domestic issues;  what should they do with his top-hat?  What about his watch?  What if he’s not really dead?    Because their mother has died, apparently from a snake-bite, a long time ago Josephine and Constantia have allowed themselves to become their father’s care-givers and have not really grown up.

Written in a modernist style with shifting sensibilities and points-of-view we see the sisters vacillate in their preoccupations.  Making decisions is difficult for them.  Constantia thinks that Josephine should make the decisions because she is older.  Josephine, on the other hand, believes that Constantia should make decisions because she is “taller’.

In part one Constantia identifies with mice–“a spasm of pity squeezed her heart.  Poor little thing!  She wished she’d left a tiny piece of biscuit on the dressing table”…..”I can’t think how they manage to live at all,” she laments about the lives of mice.  The food and animal motif continues.  Perhaps sympathy for mice is engendered by their mother’s death from a snake bite?

In Part 2 of the story they decide to keep the nurse around for a week because they don’t quite have the courage to ask her to go.  Keeping their father’s nurse with them is also a small way of denying his death.  One of them thinks:  “Nurse Andrews was simply fearful about butter.  Really they couldn’t help feeling that about butter, at least, she took advantage of their kindness…” Nurse Andrews tells that that “When I was with LAdy Tukes…she had such a dainty little contrayvance for the buttah.  It was a silvah Cupid balanced on the –on the bordah of a glass dish, holding a tayny fork….”

For the pudding they have a “terrified blancmange” which is a lovely description.

They have a maid who thinks of them as “old tabbies”.

The two sisters are a huddled mass, clinging together in fear and incompetence.   They cannot yet know how to grieve their father’s death.  If it is a liberation for them, they are left with few liberties to take—beyond the age of marriage, beyond the age of experience, they rather fear servants and undoubtedly put people off with their juvenile ways.  Their nephew, Cyril, who has visited his grandfather, their grandfather, is impatient because their only topic of discussion is merengue.

The story is like a Chekhovian tragi-comedy.  Are they going to be able to have lives and ideas of their own after they realize that their father is really dead, and not just hiding in a chest of drawers?

 

 

Thomas Lux, RIP: 1946-2017

refrigerator1957

Refrigerator, 1957

More like a vault — you pull the handle out
and on the shelves: not a lot,
and what there is (a boiled potato
in a bag, a chicken carcass
under foil) looking dispirited,
drained, mugged. This is not
a place to go in hope or hunger.
But, just to the right of the middle
of the middle door shelf, on fire, a lit-from-within red,
heart red, sexual red, wet neon red,
shining red in their liquid, exotic,
aloof, slumming
in such company: a jar
of maraschino cherries. Three-quarters
full, fiery globes, like strippers
at a church social. Maraschino cherries, maraschino,
the only foreign word I knew. Not once
did I see these cherries employed: not
in a drink, nor on top
of a glob of ice cream,
or just pop one in your mouth. Not once.
The same jar there through an entire
childhood of dull dinners — bald meat,
pocked peas and, see above,
boiled potatoes. Maybe
they came over from the old country,
family heirlooms, or were status symbols
bought with a piece of the first paycheck
from a sweatshop,
which beat the pig farm in Bohemia,
handed down from my grandparents
to my parents
to be someday mine,
then my child’s?
They were beautiful
and, if I never ate one,
it was because I knew it might be missed
or because I knew it would not be replaced
and because you do not eat
that which rips your heart with joy.

Thomas Lux
I have followed the career of Thomas Lux with much pleasure.  The details of his poems often give me that moment of keen memory mixed with desire and clarity:  I too had it;  the dull refrigerator where only the maraschino cherries glowed like beacons flaring on a dark road.  Unlike Lux’s speaker, however, I did eat.  He says:  “you do not eat / that which rips your heart with joy.”
I could not resist and late one night removed one little cherrie from the glass jar.  The top was difficult to remove:  it had ossified into place.  Under cover of a piece of toilet paper (the only disguiser I could find:  a napkin would have been noticed) I took the small cherry up to my bedroom on the third-floor.    There were no festivities in my house and I have no idea how the cherries made their way in.  I slept in the former servants’s quarters.  We had no money but we had a true barn of a Victorian home:  the carriage house was huge, the servants’s quarters were perfect lodging for the children, and the dumbwaiter had to be locked up by my father after one too children got stuck in it.  And the back stairs–plain, unornamented, cold–were the perfect place to hide.
Lux’s poem opens up a world of memory for me.  I feel such kinship to the boy who was strong enough to resist the cherries.   Read more of his poetry.  You won’t regret it.

thomas_lux

Deal Me In: Week 6, 6 of Clubs: “Requiem” by Anton Chekhov

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It’s the third week in a row that I’ve drawn Chekhov.  “Requiem” tells the story of a man, Andrey Andreyitch, who submits a note to Father Grigory in church.  The Father confronts him:

“Then it was you wrote this? You?” And Father Grigory angrily thrust before his eyes the little note.

And on this little note, handed in by Andrey Andreyitch before mass, was written in big, as it were staggering, letters:

“For the rest of the soul of the servant of God, the harlot Mariya.”

“Yes, certainly I wrote it, . . .” answered the shopkeeper.

“How dared you write it?” whispered the priest, and in his husky whisper there was a note of wrath and alarm.

Who is this “harlot” Mariya?  She was Andrey Andreyitch’s daughter, who had become a well-known actress.  Her death has been reported in leading newspapers.  For some reason her father would prefer to call her “harlot” rather than “actress”.

After being reproached by Father Grigory:   “The shopkeeper’s amazement was so great that his fat face spread in all directions like spilt dough.

“How dared you?” repeated the priest.

“Wha . . . what?” asked Andrey Andreyitch in bewilderment.”

He cannot seem to understand the distinction between “harlot” and “actress” and has judged his own daughter most harshly.  He has been a neglectful father who spent little time with her when she was growing up.  About three years previous to her death she has come to visit him and expressed great pleasure in the beauties of the country town.    She thinks it is a lovely place; her father thinks it is “simply taking up room.”

The story certainly points out the way some people looked down upon actresses and saw their work as no different that prostitution.   Chekhov, married to the actress Olga Knipper, must have picked up on the negativity that some foolish people felt about actresses.   He was able to create complex characters, such as Madame Arkadina in “The Seabull” who were actresses.  In this story, “Requiem,” although the actress is dead, her dignity soars above that of her earth-bound troglodyte of a father.

Deal Me In: Week 5: Jack of Clubs: Chekhov: “A Doctor’s Visit”

jackofclubs

For the second week in a row I’ve drawn a Chekhov story that criticizes the madness of capitalism in the extreme.  A young doctor, Korolyov,  is called to see a patient==a twenty year old young woman who suffers from heart palpitations and yet no doctor has found anything untoward with her heart.

She lives with her mother and a governness.   And they are wealthy:  the mother and daughter own a complex of factories and have thousands of workers.  The doctor is at first repulsed by the “senseless and haphazard” luxuries in which the three women wallow while all the factory workers live in noisy, grimy conditions.  How can this possibly be a healthy life?  Chekhov comments about the doctor:

“As a doctor accustomed to judging correctly of chronic complaints, the radical cause of which was incomprehensible and incurable, he looked upon factories as something baffling, the cause of which also was obscure and not removable, and all the improvements in the life of the factory hands he looked upon not as superfluous, but as comparable with the treatment of incurable illnesses.”

He sees the factory and factory life an an illness, and this is where he starts to develop also some sympathetic insight into the girl’s condition.   It is not merely the factory workers,

“living on the verge of starvation…. a hundred people act as overseers, and the whole life of that hundred is spent in imposing fines, in abuse, in injustice, and only two or three so-called owners enjoy the profits, though they don’t work at all, and despise the wretched cotton. But what are the profits, and how do they enjoy them? Madame Lyalikov and her daughter are unhappy — it makes one wretched to look at them; the only one who enjoys her life is Christina Dmitryevna, a stupid, middle-aged maiden lady in pince-nez. And so it appears that all these five blocks of buildings are at work, and inferior cotton is sold in the Eastern markets, simply that Christina Dmitryevna may eat sterlet and drink Madeira.”

Logically the only beneficiary of  all of this work is the governess.

The doctor finds the entire affair wicked:

 

“Korolyov sat down on the planks and went on thinking.

“The only person who feels happy here is the governess, and the factory hands are working for her gratification. But that’s only apparent: she is only the figurehead. The real person, for whom everything is being done, is the devil.”

 

The following morning, he sees his patient again.  He tells her that she needs to leave as

 

“quickly as possible to give up the five buildings and the million if she had it — to leave that devil that looked out at night; it was clear to him, too, that she thought so herself, and was only waiting for some one she trusted to confirm her.”

Her diagnosis is “affluenza” as we might say today.  Dr.Korolyov is like one of Chekhov’s young dreamers in his plays who see that the future will be a vast improvement when men are free and income is evenly distributed.  Like Trofimov and Anya in “The Cherry Orchard” or Dr. Astrov in “Uncle Vanya” or like Chekhov himself, the idealist is introspective and appalled by the crazed injustice of the economic striations.  In this story, the oppressive class is suffering from heart pains and throbbings as a displacement for the guilt about being an oppressor.

Chekhov is an idealist himself.  The history of the world in the 113 years since he died has not nudged us much towards  economic equality as he would have wished.

 

 

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.