April is Poetry Month!

sylvia-plathMetaphors

I’m a riddle in nine syllables.
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.

–Sylvia Plath

Plath is not best known for her humor. Many critics comment on the resentment seething in this poem.

But is it not possible that she’s created a little jocundity of nineness? And the poem is a riddle. Many readers do not first understand that all of the metaphors, all of the syllables in each line, the number of lines, even the number of letters in the word metaphors all add up to a “nineness” or a “novecissimo” comment on pregnancy and its 9 months. Plath could indeed be funny–the triolets of her poem “Mushrooms,” for example, or “Balloons” are archly sportive.

To begin poetry month on the first of April, I thought I’d post a brief and amusing poem.

Happy Birthday to Robert Frost

Today Robert Frost would have been 143 years old.  I remember him well as the celebrated elder statesman of American poetry.  He could fill a football stadium.  So could T.S. Eliot.  FrostRobertYouth

When I was young many academics paid scant attention to him, dismissing him as some sort of country bumpkin farmer poet.  But one, Prof. Arthur Mizener, paid close attention to Frost in a class and taught us to look for the complexity and craft in such ostensibly simple language.

Here’s a significant contrast to John Milton; Frost gives us a sonnet and not an epic.

“Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same”

“He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tone of meaning but without the words.
Admittedly an eloquence so soft
Could only have had an influence on birds
When call or laughter carried it aloft.
Be that as may be, she was in their song.
Moreover her voice upon their voices crossed
Had now persisted in the woods so long
That probably it never would be lost.
Never again would birds’ song be the same.
And to do that to birds was why she came.”

The coming of Eve and her voice has changed the sounds of the songs of nature; these sounds will be forever mediated by human sensibility.  Readers are accustomed to the great bird songs of poetry that change their listeners:  Keats’s nightingale, Hardy’s thrush, Shelley’s skylark, Yeats’s indignant desert birds.  Birds have been the ur-poets and singers and their song has come down over centuries.  But Frost reminds us that the “oversound” of birds can have taken on a certain eloquence of the human voice.    Traditionally Eve is thought of as the weak tempted female, besotted by sin, giving way to an apple and that feminine love of carbohydrates.  Here we have Eve as an important influencer of the birds.

The poem uses intriguing words that seem to either undercut or add to the complexity by their own lack of declaration:  “would,” “could,” “Admittedly,” “could only,” “Be that as it may,”  “Moreover,” “probably”.   Is this Adam a complex thinker?  Somebody whose mind is roiled about with interpretive possibilities?  I think so.  And did any poet make so much of simple monosyllables in that devastating final line: “And to do that to birds was why she came?”

The poem is also wistful:  if Eve has changed bird song for the better, there’s also the irretrievable fact that we can no longer hear the bird song that existed previously; something has been lost to us and nostalgia for what we cannot have known pervades the sonnet.

Frost is among the least-self indulgent poets I know of, by which I mean that he does not stand on a ledge above his readers and tacitly proclaim that there’s no room for you up here, reader.  His poetry is filled with music we can all appreciate and it also invites us to dig deeper into the various moods that pervade his work.  Apples can be joyful and also can lead to confusion.  Birch trees can be beautiful and also their branches can trail to the ground confounded by the works of winter.   He invites us into a world of speculation in which both delight and depression can co-exist as needful companions.   In an early poem, “The Pasture,” Frost extends an invitation:  “You come too.”  He’ll keep us from obstructions and from falling on our feet.

 

robertfrost

 

 

Grief is the Thing with Feathers

Grief-is-the-Thing-with-Feathers

This is a remarkable book, the first by Max Porter.   It’s bound to appeal to all sorts of readers without being facile or treacly or academic.   The poetic story ranges into all sorts of diction.

A woman has died.  She’s left her two sons, the brothers, and her husband.  The books is divided into short segments in which we hear the voices of the brothers, the husband, and the Crow, who has come over from the book by Ted Hughes to talk this family through—as advisor and savant and a “doctor or a ghost”.   The father/widower is writing a book on Hughes, and the parallel story of Hughes  and his two children losing Sylvia Plath pervades the text as a diatonic underscore that never seizes control of the main dirge.  The book is entitled Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch:  A Wild Analysis.

As the mourners have left, the main speaker, the “Dad” is left alone with his mourning.  But the crow comes to call:  “There was a rich small of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast”.   The Crow tells Dad that “I won’t leave until you don’t need me anymore.”

The brothers try hard to be cleaner and nicer.  But sometimes they are overwhelmed with the impulse towards bad behavior.  “We used to think she would turn up one day and say it had all been a test.”  “We used to think we would both die at the same age she had.”  They fear that their Dad will die.

“The one son went for drawing, furiously concentrating like a little waist-high fresco painter scrabbling hands and knees on the scaffold. Thirty-seven taped-together sheets of A4 paper and the full rainbow of crayons, pencils and pens, his front teeth biting down on his lower lip. Heavy nasal sighing as he adjusted the eyes, scrapped them, started again, working his way down, happy with the hands, happy with the legs.

The second son went for assemblage, a model of the woman made from cutlery, ribbons, stationery, toys, buttons and books, manically adjusting – leaping up, lying down – like a mechanic in the pits. Clicking and tutting as he worked his way around the mosaic mum, happy with the face, happy with the height.”

Crow himself has known grief:  “I lost a wife once, and once is as many timas as a crow can lose a wife….He flew a genuflection Tintagel-Carlyle cross Morecambe-Orford, wonky, trying to poison himself with forbidden berries and pretty churches, but England’s litter saves him.  Ley lines flung him cross-country with no time for grief, power cables catapulted loose bouquets of tar-black gone and feather and other crows rained down from the sky, a dead crow storm, a tor top burnt bird bath…Blackberry, redcurrant, loganberry, sloe.  Damson, plum-pear, crab-apple, bruises.  Clots, phlegm, tumours and quince.”

As a grief counselor, Crow lets Dad know that there is no “moving on.”  “Any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project.”

At a spare 115 pages, this book reads like both a prose poem and a riveting thriller.

I don’t know if the references to Hughes and Plath are essential.  I don’t know Hughes’s crow, nor did I feel I needed to.

Porter has added a fresh, original voice to the literature of death and grief.  The book is generated, in part, by his own experience of losing his father when he was a 6 year old and of his fascination with Hughes and Emily Dickinson.  I recommend it highly and know I will reread it.

Deal Me In: Week 11, Elizabeth Taylor: “Spry Old Character”

3ofheartspeter

Taylor continues her streak of heart-breaking stories with “Spry Old Character,” about a man, Harry, who has been forced by circumstances (his sister’s death) to live in “The Home For The Blind,” where not a week passes without some “dispiriting jollity being forced upon him.”

Going blind was not easy for him:  “This orderly aspetic world was not only new to him, but beyond him imagining.  Food and talk had lost their richness; central-heating provided no warmth.”

He is juvenilized by the staff; he has been unable to learn Braille; and he decides that the other inmates are quite unfit for him because they are so virtuous, so wholesome, so upright–always turning off the radio when anything “suggestive” is on.  Miss Arbuthnot is a particular nemesis:  “She had been a governess in Russia in the Tsarist days and had taken tea with Rasputin”.   She describes her English Ascot experience as being “The cream of the cream, as one might say, but; dear, dear me…my poor feet. I wore some pale grey buckskin shoes…”

Harry finds a way to escape his insipid companions by learning how to make his way to the bus stop with his white cane.  There, bus drivers take sympathy on him and permit him to ride the bus route for free.   He finds a sense of true fellowship there:  “In their company he opened out, became garrulous, waggish, his old manner returning.”

He loves the bus, but the bus-drivers and the regular riders feel as if they’ve been “saddled” with an “old geezer”.

There are so many ways in which people fail to fit into the respective worlds into which fate has flung them.  Miss Arbuthnot is the “Queen” of the Home for the Blind, but perhaps only in her own head.   Harry feels that he’s in a community with the bus drivers, but they tolerate him and the warm feelings he had with his cockney friends in his youth are not reciprocated here.

Instead of remaining individual people, the elderly and infirm become “characters”.   That Taylor makes his feel fiercely in favour of Harry  as person and not merely “spry old character” speaks to her eloquence and skill as an author.

 

 

 

Deal Me In: Week 10: “A Red Letter Day” by Elizabeth Taylor

jackofhearts

The Jack of Hearts returns me to Elizabeth Taylor and her “A Red Letter Day” is a triumph of astute character revelation.   Tory, the divorced mother of an eleven year old boy, is going alone to a parent’s visiting day at his school.  The atmosphere could not be less propitious:
It’s a “malevolent landscape” with “wastes of rotting cabbages, flint cottages with riakish privies, rubbish heaps, grey napkins drooping on clothes-lines, the soil like plum cake.  Even turning in at the rather superior school-gates, the mossy stone, the smell of fungus” is dismaying.

Tory has caught one of the last cabs because, she thinks she has “no man to exert authority for her.”  At home, she had spent too much time trying to figure out what to wear so that having tried on so many hats and flinging them, rejected, on the bed, “It resembled a new grave with its mound of wreathed flowers.”

Tory has one child and she begins to hate a rather random woman who “looked as if she had what is often called a teeming womb.”   She thinks of her “spitefully” and imagines all the fun her sons must have.  Tory’s own “love for her son was painful, shadowed by guilt.”  She thinks to herself, disparagingly about her son, “Between Edward and me there is no promise of love, none at all, nothing taken for granted, as between most sons and mothers.”  It’s very painful reading:  Tory does love her son, but has no idea how to spend an afternoon with him.

Edward tells her that he is not popular with the other boys–“unbearable news for any mother,” but she is not able to respond.  They go to a museum and are bored together.  For Edward, “sinking down within him are the lees of despair….alone with his mother he felt unsafe, wounded and wounding” and thinks of death.

“So lovely, Darling,” she remarks to him as she drops him back at school.

The story is heart-wrenching because both the mother and the son have been caught in traps of self-loathing, depression, and despair.   Edward seems to think he’s the worst child at school and Tory has an inferiority complex that emerges in spite towards others.

There seems to be no way out.  Tory, as a mother of an eleven-year-old, deserves to be scolded for her lack of empathy for his plight; for her perhaps associating him (by indirect contamination) with his father, who has left her.   She’s stuck to far into her slough-of-despond which has become a quicksandish quagmire.  Both Tory and Edward are thinking of death — prematurely — and seem to have no way to escape the entrapment they feel around each other.

Taylor knows her to dangle her readers between judgment and sympathy in her exquisitely wrought stories about people who are unable to connect.  She has a clear empathy for young people as the story I read last week about the young girl who does not want to drink alcohol despite her parent’s expectations indicates.

 

 

Classics Club “Spin” Number 15 is Coming Soon! And the number is 12

Here’s my list:

  1.  Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann
  2. Kept in the Dark by Anthony Trollope
  3. Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  4. Walden by Thoreau
  5. Esther Waters by George Moore
  6. Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  7.  A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey
  8.  Things Fall Apart by Achebe
  9. Howards End by Forster
  10. The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym
  11. The Man of Property by John Galwworthy
  12. DAISY MILLER by Henry James  to be read
  13. Benito Cereno by Melville
  14. Look at Me by Anita Brookner
  15. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey
  16.  Jazz by Toni Morrison
  17. The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns
  18. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
  19. The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James
  20. March the Ninth by R.C. Hutchinson

 

Recent Book Reviews: Brookner, Waters, Trollope

anitabrookner

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner is a fine book.  It introduces us to the world of the seemingly repressed but actually seething Edith Hope who writes successful  romance novels under a nom de plume – “a more thrusting name”.  Brookner’s writing is a joy to read for its clean lines and wonderful vocabulary.  Its character descriptions are delightful.   There’s nobody to fall in love with here, although one can sympathize more and more with Edith as the plot progresses.  Edith had elderly female relatives who used to cry out “Schrecklich!  Ach, du Schreck!” (dreadful!) and her life too has become dreadful to her.  She’s in love with a married man who cares little for her.  She is tired of carefully being in the background.  When she attempts to marry somebody else, she realizes that she cannot go through with it and does not arrive at the wedding.  She is self-reliant and independent, but still would love a marriage.

I enjoyed her literary allusions:  as she is being driven  to the airport she writes in a letter “A cold coming I had of it”

Described variously as looking like Virginia Woolf or Princess Anne (now the Princess Royal), Edith is spending some time at the Hotel du Lac, a family hotel in Switzerland that is simply a retreat – it is really a hotel.  But the atmosphere conjured up a sort of Magic Mountain where the disease is narcissism and various degrees of stupidity.  Edith comes to the point of making a demonic pact – but stops short of the Full Faust.

“Fiction, the time-honoured resource of the ill-at-ease, would have to come to her aid,”

I simply do not know anyone who has a lifestyle. What does it mean? It implies that everything you own was bought at exactly the same time, about five years ago, at the most. – Pp. 26-27

― Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac

*********************

Affinity by Sarah Waters

This darkly sinister novel is a repository of information about women’s prisons, the spiritualism that became quite a fad in the mid to late Victorian period (See Robert Browning’s “Mr. Sludge, the Medium”), and the dark confinement of women in general and in particular women in mourning. The Victorians had to a large extent “domesticated” death and post-mortem photographs and mourning rings and mourning clothing were customary.

In this novel we meet an upper-class lady who lives on Cheyne Walk, no less, named Margaret Prior who, after a probable nervous breakdown relating to the death of her father, decided to find some activity. There’s little for an upper-class or upper-middle class unmarried lady to do, so she becomes a “lady visitor” at the Millbank Prison. The prison is as dankly miserable as you might imagine. Although the women are closeted in their cells, affinities are bound to occur.

Selina Dawes, a medium, who has been used by a spirit named Peter Quick (I kept thinking of “The Turn of the Screw” and Peter Quint) is in jail for fraud and being involved in the murder, by Peter Quick, the spirit, of her patroness. We meet also the women jailers such as Mrs. Jelf (I kept thinking Miss Jessel from “Turn of the Screw”) who have a demanding job. They may get to go home after their long day’s work, but do they have any money?

Finally, the novel engages in so many turns of its screw and so many potential “affinities” that it’s difficult to unravel the truth from a strong invitation to suspend our disbelief and know the power of an “affinity”.

It’s difficult to write a review because to go far is to spoil. My only criticism of the book is that it takes a while to gain momentum. Once it does, it’s difficult to put down

 

****************

_The Claverings_, one of the later works by my besten, Anthony Trollope, is similar to a late Shakespeare play: full of problems that defy categorization. It might be easy for the Trollope reader to overlook this novel because it’s not in either of his superb series, the Pallisers or the Barchester series, nor has there been a mini-series made.

The novel looks closely at civil engineering. Sorry–it really does not, but one character studies that profession. It also looks at about 8 or 9 “love” relationships and tries to answer the question of what might constitute a successful marriage. How best to court a potential partner? What kind of past might ruin a person’s chances? What happens if one is attracted to two people at the same time (not an uncommon quandary). What do you do if you don’t have enough money? Does it take money to achieve happiness?

We see marriages based on money, religious faith, true companionship, titles, and children. Many marriages are unhappy but the mid-Victorian period does not permit divorce. The stakes are high.

And just as in a problem play, one must consider: Are we really happy when the Duke announces his impending marriage to Isabella in “Measure for Measure”? What about the chance of future happiness for Leontes and Hermione in “A Winter’s Tale?” What about Paulina’s life as a widow (her husband was last seen pursued by a bear)? What about Bertram and Helena in “All’s Well That End’s Well?” Do you think that they can be happy?

Finally we are invited to have a mature response to people who vacillate and who make mistakes. They are not condemned out of hand and Trollope, with his usual generosity, seems to understand that characters can be legitimately torn in two directions.

Well-done!