Friday, November 30, 2012
fortune and misfortune
Life just keeps on happening, doesn't it? We had lovely and intricate Thankgiving plans, all of which were promptly abandoned when Ryan came down with a miserable cold. Instead of traveling hither and yon to spend time with worthy groups of beloved relatives (and pass along said cold to them), we instead had a quiet holiday meal at home, just us, for the first time ever. Delicious leftovers were plentiful, since I originally thought we wouldn't bother with all the fuss of cooking a lot, then thought again, wait just a freaking minute here, why wouldn't we treat ourselves as well on a holiday as we would treat others? In our very own home? Thus, holiday fare, and for a few days after we were blessed with sandwiches of leftover turkey, stuffing, and homemade cranberry sauce, with a bit of mayo, on anadama bread. And leftover pumpkin pie for breakfast. A week passed, and so amply fortified, I thought I had escaped getting sick myself. But no. I succumbed a few days ago and here I sit with hot tea and a pottery bowl full of all-natural cough drops and a box of tissues. Ah well.
I'm taking my cues from Hodge for the duration - sitting in warm patches of sun, draping myself with blankets, eating when hungry, sleeping when tired. Hanging out by the woodstove in the evenings. I'm also trying to take my own teabag-fortune advice, by working on a new(ish) project. I've wanted for ages and ages to make a little illustrated book, with watercolors and line drawings, not unlike my gardening journal. For about a year now I've had a folder full of ideas and sketches sitting around, so I have that spread out on the table now, and am finally putting something together. The teabag above is one of the sketches from that folder. The miniature scale of this book-to-be feels just right for the coming winter. Another attempt at a sustained creative endeavor, why not. I certainly have nothing to lose. Be brave!
Speaking of bravery, I still have Byron on the brain, even though I've finished reading his Letters and Journals. If you ever feel pity for yourself, or think you are having a particularly bad time of things, think of him. May 14th, 1821:
"Since last year... I have lost a lawsuit...- have occasioned a divorce - have had my poesy disparaged by Murray and the critics - my fortune refused to be placed on an advantageous settlement... by the trustees - my life threatened last month (they put about a paper here to excite an attempt at my assassination...) - and, finally, my mother-in-law recovered last fortnight, and my play was damned last week! These... must be borne. If I give in, it shall be after keeping up a spirit at least."
Murray was his own publisher, who wanted him in no uncertain terms to go back to writing verse to please the ladies. In his litany of woe, Byron forgot to even mention his own continuing ill health, both physical and psychological, often severe. That was apparently last on his list, bless him. He flew his flag with great humor and panache, despite all, and I love him for it.
Not to try to squeeze too much into one post today, or change the subject all willy-nilly, but I can't let November slip away without mentioning another personal hero once again, Ronald Blythe. He turned 90 this month and received a lovely birthday notice in the Guardian. The story is on this charming blog devoted to awareness of his weekly columns past and present. Blythe is one homebody I dearly love to read and re-read, a writer whose quiet heartfelt life I would happily emulate. Unlike Byron, whose worldly adventures are fascinating to read about but perhaps best encountered only on paper, Blythe lingers closer to home and we gladly join him in his garden, on his rural walks, in his book room. There are many ways to be brave, many kinds of ramparts, and sometimes staying home and facing your own self is a fine choice, is it not? Read Ronald Blythe and believe so.
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Here it comes again, our annual chat about gratitude, during this thanks-giving week. Just in time, too, because I've been moping around lately as I come to the end of Byron's Letters and Journals, all twelve volumes of them, and thinking a lot, as I always do, about lives well lived, causes worth fighting for, acceptance of the way life unfolds, and what the heck it all means, if anything. You know, the usual. I finished Byron over the weekend, and it was with great sadness that I read his last letter and set aside the final volume, as he lay dying of fever in a far-off country, at age 36. What more would he have done, had he lived to old age? I won't speculate, as he certainly gave life his all, and wrote repeatedly that he knew he was not long for this world.
Well, none of us are, in the big picture. So if there is something you want to do in life, don't wait. On that doleful note, I will turn to something short and sweet, a tiny tall book by an author I love, Anne Lamott. Her new book is Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (Riverhead 2012), and is just what I needed after a long and intense reading project. An hour or two spent with this yesterday evening re-set my internal clock so that all the hands are veering away from despair and pointing toward gratitude once again.
I am thankful for the amazing people who keep buying secondhand books from me, and from other used book dealers I know and love. Every month I receive a big printed list from the antiques mall where I offer my books for sale, and every month I read all the titles on the list and am lifted up and even astounded at the wonderful books people have purchased and apparently plan to read. (I also receive a check, which is fine too.)
I am thankful for people who want to live with art in their homes, and pay money to do so to the artists (painters, writers, musicians, etc) who do the creating and struggle to share their vision. It is a privilege to have the time and resources to bring one's heart's desire to fruition, and I find it incredible that in this day and age people can still make or find time to be centered and focused enough to write novels and poetry and songs, paint paintings, sculpt, knit, you name it. I am blessed with a workable amount of this spaciousness within my own life and wish it for everyone.
I am thankful for my husband Ryan and our cat Hodge, they make our home truly Home. My parents, hard-working people of integrity. My two sisters (I am the middle child of three), whom I look to for equilibrium. My extended family and far-flung friends, all examples of resilience in the face of everything both beautiful and terrible.
Speaking of family, and thankfulness, my sister Kate is blogging again from time to time, and is bravely forging ahead with parenthood as she approaches the due date for the arrival of a new baby. I am so proud of her! And my uncle John is also writing, but not a blog, instead he has self-published his first novel, and is now at work on another. He is responding to that inner call, saying, If not now, when. I am so proud of him! Both John and Kate, embodiments of so much I am grateful for, in life.
Thank you. Say it now, say it often.
Monday, November 12, 2012
reading the unreadable
At moments that's what poring over Lord Byron's poem Don Juan feels like. But only for moments, never for long, it's altogether too fascinating. Speaking of long, holy mackerel is this one long poem - sixteen cantos, with over two hundred stanzas in each of the first two cantos, then over a hundred stanzas in each of the remaining cantos, and a fragment of an unfinished seventeenth canto, found among Byron's papers after he died in Greece. The Riverside edition of Don Juan is around 500 pages long. On and on it meanders, this tale of a famous lover and observer of the world, and his adventures amatory and otherwise from Spain to Greece, then the near east and Russia, and finally to England. Byron meant to continue the poem indefinitely. He speaks in his letters of writing a hundred cantos or more.
What does make this poem so readable, far above and beyond the interesting and dramatic twists of fate our hero experiences, is firstly its form, and secondly its voice. The poetic form Byron uses is the ottava rima (abababcc) stanza, and throughout, its rhymes lull and please and surprise and delight. A sample:
Canto the Tenth, stanza XXVIII (p.302)
"I won't describe, - that is if I can help
Description; and I won't reflect, - that is
If I can stave off thought, which - as a whelp
Clings to its teat - sticks to me through the abyss
Of this odd labyrinth; or as the kelp
Holds by the rock; or as a lover's kiss
Drains its first draught of lips: - but, as I said,
I won't philosophize, and will be read."
That stanza is the perfect introduction to my main point about the reading adventure that is this poem, vis–à–vis Byron's voice, the voice of his narrator. Regarding this extraordinary voice, editor Leslie A. Marchand says in his introduction that "In conception and execution, Don Juan was freer even than the novel had been up to that time - it was essay, lyric, narrative, and dramatic poetry, philosophical discourse, and light-tempered moral fable all packed as Byron pleased into an endless string of cantos." (p.vii) To Marchand's list I would add autobiography, memoir, religious screed, sociological commentary, and most of all, this unique style of narration, meaning the use of a shockingly contemporary and ironical first-person narrator who breaks in on the "story" of the poem so often that the reader sometimes forgets that there even is a story. Byron did this in Childe Harold too, but that was much more formal and esoteric. The narrator in Don Juan is irreverent, ironical, conversational, critical, questioning, wondering, often omniscient. And the narrrator is not the hero Juan - Juan is just a character the narrator observes. That first-person voice is ultimately what kept me reading, because it causes the poem to sound like a slightly more formal version of his letters (which I have continued to read - alongside Don Juan, going back and forth between the two, as Byron finishes various cantos - and which I cannot get enough of, they are fantastic). So, to sum up, in Don Juan I found what I didn't expect to find. More of the real Byron. Not buckets of high-poetical language (O! Ah! Avaunt! etc.), instead, contemporary and intimate commentary on the state of himself, by himself, what he thought of everything under the sun, in the years just before his death, and in fact right up to his death. Riveting!
After all that effusion, a brief apologia: I read over what I've written and know I am not a literary critic, and as I remarked to a friend recently, every time I attempt to describe a book I'm in the middle of reading, I end in effusion. Or rather I begin and end in effusion. But, as I like to say lately, life is too short not to wear your heart on your sleeve. I think Byron would agree. End of apologia.
I've read many books of poems, but never a book-length poem (well, Leaves of Grass, but that's a story for another day), until now. I think, now that this experiment has shown me that I can successfully turn my mind to such a project, that I will eventually tackle Dante, and Spenser. I have on hand a first edition of Longfellow's translation of The Divine Comedy, and a lovely edition of The Faerie Queen, both asking politely to be read, as they have been for years now. But, again, that's for a time other than this one. Because I'm still at sea with Byron and hope to remain there a while yet. He's such good company:
Canto the Tenth, stanza IV (p.297)
"In the wind's eye I have sailed, and sail; but for
The stars, I own my telescope is dim;
But at the least I have shunned the common shore,
And leaving land far out of sight, would skim
The Ocean of Eternity: the roar
Of breakers has not daunted my slight, trim,
But still sea-worthy skiff; and she may float
Where ships have foundered, as doth many a boat."
Wednesday, November 07, 2012
pride of place
The election yesterday leaves me with a surfeit of deep happiness on so many levels, and though I don't often stray into political commentary here, I find I want to speak my gratitude aloud, instead of just doing a happy dance alone in the kitchen.
First, I was born and raised here in the great state of Maine and this morning finds me once again so happy and proud to live here. Maine has just made history by becoming the first state to legalize same-sex marriage through a voter referendum, a citizens' initiative. Maine voters choose equal rights for all. Maine voters reject bigotry and vote for families. The old slogan comes to mind, As Maine goes, so goes the nation - I hope this is just the beginning - and it certainly looks to be, as I read election results from around the country.
Second, I am happy for and proud of our former governor and new independent senator, Angus King. He's a great orator and his victory speech last night was a classic. Maine cannot be bought and sold; many Mainers gratefully choose the alternative to partisan politics. I heard him speaking on the radio this morning, and the announcers said they didn't know what to call him, Governor King, Senator King, Senator-elect King, and he cut them off and said he didn't care about all that, just call him Angus.
Third, President Obama's speech last night was too late for me (I did stay up long enough to find out that he had prevailed in the election itself, so I could actually, you know, sleep), but I watched it with tears in my eyes this morning. What an inspirational leader.
In short, proud Mainer here, and proud American. Not in a pride-full sense, rather with a sense that there is nowhere else I would rather live, no other life that could be better than here and now, in this time and place. Okay, now I have to fill the woodbox before the snow flies, take out the compost, try to balance the checkbook, and get back to the books. Business as usual, but with such a heartening difference - there is more love in the world, today.
Tuesday, November 06, 2012
the fine art of the book title
My last post found me thinking about the strength of single words, and my mind of course followed up with a few more words in quick succession - a gentle pondering about how we build language and meaning from just a handful of words and what they could imply. Put a few words next to each other and anything can happen. A love poem, a song, a curse, a declaration, even a book title.
With that in mind, here are a few of my favorite book titles of all time (not books mind you, book titles, although some of these certainly could fall within both categories - for the sake of brevity and a nice tidy-looking list I will mention only the titles and let the authors' names and publishing dates languish for now):
Far Away and Long Ago
Shine On, Bright & Dangerous Object
Sailing Alone Around the Room
Love in a Cold Climate
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept
Where Water Comes Together with Other Water
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
A Thousand Mornings
In Sunlight and in Shadow
The Towers of Trebizond
Dancer from the Dance
Always the Young Strangers
Epitaph of a Small Winner
Of Flowers & a Village
Leaves of Grass
My Family and Other Animals
I added a few in there that are quotations themselves, from other sources, but I love them anyway for being admired so much that they were borrowed and placed on center stage (are you listening, Billy Collins...?). These are just the few that come to mind as I look around my own bookshelves. I love the use of repetition and alliteration, and respond to romantic words with an melancholy uplift to them, so these are what speak to me. Of course I'd love to hear what I've forgotten (or better yet, what I need to know about in the first place), if anyone would like to join in.
Thursday, November 01, 2012
words and their ways
A few bookish blogs I look at from time to time, and A Bloomsbury Life is one such, very worth reading because of posts like this, Have Words, Will Travel. In this lovely paean to the redolence of single words and the entire worlds they often evoke within us, the author says: "I have a fantasy that if I lost all my worldly possessions in a fire, as long as I had my list of words, my life would still have beauty and meaning." We carry what matters most to us within us, do we not? And words, and books, serve as mere reminders.
An old friend asked me once what my favorite word was. Hers was monsoon. For its sounds and all its possible connotations. At that time, I loved the word armoir. And Samarkand. Also, radiance. And billowing. Elegy. Melancholy. I have a paint chip sample from a hardware store that I've held on to for years because of its subtle dusty rose color and its name, Venetian portico.
Now, I would say, my favorite word is reverie. Everything about it floods me with quiet happiness.