Monday, March 30, 2015
literary jumble sale
A brief section of James Schuyler's long poem The Crystal Lithium surfaces in my mind this time of year (from his Collected Poems, Farrar, Straus, Giroux 1993, p.117):
"...January, laid out on a bed of ice, disgorging
February, shaped like a flounder, and March with her steel bead pocketbook,
And April, goofy and under-dressed and with a loud laugh, and May
Who will of course be voted Miss Best Liked (she expects it)..."
The whole poem is here if anyone wishes to wade through its often beautiful and usually opaque imagery. Poetry. I return to it again and again, both the reading of it and the writing of it. Like all art forms it communicates directly and obliquely at the same time, and echoes around the room and inside the heart long after it is read or written. Some of the scraps of ancient poetry I read over the winter continue to haunt me, but as the snow slowly melts I find myself turning away from the classical, away from this winter's reading project, leaving a collection of Pindar unread, and most of Petrarch. And all of Herodotus. In the past few weeks I've spent less time with classical authors and more time with Rose Macaulay, in her odd book of essays Personal Pleasures (softcover reprint from The Akadine Press), Peter Quennell, in his memoir The Marble Foot (Viking 1976), Michael Palin, in the third volume of his diaries, Travelling to Work: Diaries 1988-98 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2014), and, to bring us back to poetry, a re-read of most of Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler 1951-1991 (Turtle Point Press 2004). I could write separate blog posts about each of these books, and even intended to, but all month the painting studio called, and my handwritten diaries asked for attention, and the rawness of this changeover season found me even more inward-looking than usual. There are only so many hours in the day, as the saying goes, and it held true in March, here in Maine. So I did only what I had the energy to do, after this long wild winter.
Of course I can't let those books I just mentioned slip away without some kind of commemoration. Personal Pleasures, for instance, which I read immediately after finishing her aforementioned Pleasure of Ruins. An alphabetical collection of very short essays on what brings her pleasure, each seasoned with the dash of bitterness that is every pleasure's inevitable flip side. The titles of the essays alone must be enough to make any reader and booklover really want to READ. My selection:
Bakery in the Night
Departure of Visitors
Doves in the Chimney
Finishing a Book
Flower Shop in the Night
1. Of one's neighbors
2. Of current literature
3. Of gossip
4. Of wickedness
Improving the Dictionary
1. On the roof
2. On the pavement
Not Going to Parties
Telling Travellers' Tales
Just casting eyes on that list makes me want to read them all over again! Each essay is two or three pages, some a bit longer. Each ends with that note of wry bitterness, which, if you have read anything about Macaulay's personal life, is completely understandable. A bit from the essay Reading, since I can't resist noting her ebullience on this fine topic (p.337):
"What is the extraordinary pleasure that we derive from this pastime? Why do we forget everything for it, feel by it transported, enlarged, enslaved, freed, impassioned, enlivened, soothed, drugged, delighted, distressed, entertained, sharpened in wits, ennobled in soul, winged in imagination, gratified in humour, stirred to pity, rage, love, rapture, enthusiasm, creation, zeal for learning, infinite zest and curiosity for life? I do not know, nor anyone."
In this book she mentions Herodotus three times. (Who does that?) Next winter, I swear, Herodotus it is. My lovely hardcover copy of the History will wait patiently for me, I hope.
The other books will go unmentioned for now, other than to say I hope Michael Palin's publisher continues to release his diaries indefinitely. I could read on and on, forever, they suit me so well. They go forward just as the days themselves do. Something happens, write it down. Repeat. I do the same in my own diaries. His entries are much more interesting, as is the scope of his worldly life. His sense of humor, of course, is front and center. But his self-doubt often appears, which is endearing and I can surely relate to it. From a day in 1994, while working on a novel he subsequently abandoned (p.326):
"I feel worn out with the effort of not achieving a lot."
One final note, about the things one notices when reading several books back to back - seemingly unrelated, and yet... Rose Macaulay, Peter Quennell, and Michael Palin all mention eating at the Café Royal. Such a little thing to mention but it seems to help tie my disparate reading threads together in an orderly way. Disparate, though? Now that I really think about it, I wonder. All are British, all travel, all are passionate readers and busy writers of books, those wonderful things that offer us both solitude and connection, change and continuity.
Well, after that literary jumble sale of topics I seem to have gotten awfully far away from the poem I began with, but the steel bead pocketbook month is on its way out, April will be National Poetry Month, and we are finally seeing the earliest signs of spring here. No robins yet, but one wavery skein of migrating wild geese at dusk last night, far overhead, and one inch's worth of crocus and daffodil stalks emerging from the snowbank that is their garden bed, by the low stone wall on the south side of our house. The neighbors are tapping their maple trees. I bought a lovely pile of secondhand books at a local thrift shop over the weekend. Sweetness is on approach.
Monday, March 16, 2015
The impulse is never far from the surface with me, no matter what the season. I recognize that I have a generally tidy disposition. To wit, this month I've been cleaning out my painting studio, airing everything out, looking at old work, and preparing for new work. What a lot of stuff I seem to have made in the past 25 years, and beyond (I even have a portfolio full of childhood drawings and books I made, which my mother gave to me some years back when she was cleaning out). Stuff. Made by me. Drawings, paintings, collages, handmade books, diaries. Blog entries. What's it all for? All this making? Best not to examine that question too closely, and simply forge ahead. (Although: Because I love it, might be a fine answer, for now.) The same goes for reading. I enjoy it; I would rather read than watch tv or noodle around on the internet or go out. At about seven p.m. every evening I stop whatever it is I'm doing because I realize I could be reading a book instead. And then I do just that. Books, books! Shall we have a long book chat, since it's quite been some time since my last writing? Okay, then. My winter reading project is winding down, and I still haven't made it through the introduction of the History of Herodotus. Other ancient authors wait too, but a few weeks ago I veered off on a tangent and have yet to return from it. I read The Hill of Kronos (Dutton 1980) by Peter Levi. Synopsis: young Jesuit-in-training goes abroad in search of ancient Greece. Fascinating book and gosh does it contain some beautiful sentences. Here are two (p.19):
"We passed Calabria, painted green and hung out to dry for a thousand years. The sun sank exactly behind us, and the ship sailed under stars that sparkled like sea-salt in the dark."
After a too-brief first sojourn in Greece, he returns to England, where, unsurprisingly (p.114):
"It was a difficult winter. The snow fell as it always does."
Man, I hear you. Levi yearns to live among classical ruins, and visits and re-visits Greece over two decades. His book makes me long for sun and dust.
Next I spent two weeks slowly reading Rose Macaulay's odd dense thicket of a book, Pleasure of Ruins (Thames and Hudson reprint of the 1953 first edition). It shouldn't have taken me two weeks, but Ryan and I were simultaneously watching archaeology shows online dealing with many of the sites I was reading about. Despite my bias about tv I must say it was dreamy to see in color some of the ancient landscapes Macaulay spends 450+ pages rhapsodizing about. Rome, Persepolis, Carthage...but I'm getting ahead of myself. Before I started Pleasure of Ruins proper I read another book, entitled Roloff Beny Interprets in Photographs Rose Macaulay's Pleasure of Ruins (Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1977), which I picked up in a local bookshop for four dollars last month, because I wanted to look at more photographs of the sites I'd been reading about in all the classics. Well, in the brief preface by Roloff Beny (and I must say, what a terrific name) he hooked me, line and sinker, by saying (p.25):
"My copy of Pleasure of Ruins, now battered and travel-stained, had been my constant companion for nine years. I had been dedicating a good part of my waking dreams to an almost predestined pursuit of the itineraries explored by Rose Macaulay..."
After investigating his photographs and reading the brief selections excerpted from the original Pleasure of Ruins, and acknowledging their general exellence, I decided I'd better read the whole thing. Luckily I have a copy. One of the great joys of having a home library - you often have on hand exactly what you wish you had on hand. In this case, a softcover unabridged reprint, picked up some years back for four dollars. The only other book I've ever read by Macaulay is her novel The Towers of Trebizond (which I read back in 2008 and wrote about here). Also about travel, archaeology, religion, ancient sites, and melancholy, but in fictional form, versus this difficult-to-describe colossus of a book, which combines all of the above with her overarching theme of Ruin-lust, the feeling of delicious romantic desolation that overcomes one when one contemplates the crumbling remains of civilizations (delectatio morosa, she says, p.249). The book really is an extended meditation on this feeling - gazing at the remains of the past, and the attendant emotions that inevitably must arise in the viewer in response to all that gazing. She spends time contemplating (p.40):
"...Troy...Crete, Mycenae, Tyre, Nineveh, Babylon, Thebes, Rome, Byzantium, Carthage, and every temple, theatre and broken column of classical Greece..."
Fearsomely intelligent and learned, she uses about eight other languages (most untranslated) when quoting, and she quotes at length across many centuries, from authors who loved ruins as much as she, and also travelled to see them. Parts of her book read like a who's who of travel narratives and I found myself taking notes, to see if I could find reprints of some of her sources.
Dreams, waking thoughts and incidents by William Beckford (1785);
Rare Adventures and Painfull Perigrinations by William Lithgow (1632);
the travel guide to ancient Greek sites by Pausanias, which Rose Macaulay and Peter Levi both go on and on about at great length;
Chateaubriand's travel memoirs which sound wonderfully high-flown and romantic;
a hundred other sources, from ancient times up to some familiar names like the beloved Byrons (Lord and Robert) and Henry James, well into the twentieth century.
So much to read next it's an embarrassment of riches! Speaking of which, Pleasure of Ruins is so very quotable I must indulge in a few, before we set aside Macaulay for now. In the unpaginated introduction, she writes:
"... this broken beauty is all we have of that ancient magnificence; we cherish it like the extant fragments of some lost and noble poem."
She continues to revel in (p.9):
"... that blend of pleasure and the romantic gloom which has always been the basic element in ruin-sensibility..."
All this ruin-talk echoes so strongly in me. Have I ever mentioned that my first home was built atop a ruin? Before I was born my parents moved to Maine and built a house on the foundation of an old demolished summer house. The remains were very much like a kind of archaeological site. It was fascinating then, when I was a child, and it remains so today, even though (and especially since) that home is long gone, lost to me in every way except memory. It's on my mind because I've been trying to write about it, rather unsuccessfully. More about that later, perhaps, as well as my ongoing spring cleaning efforts, which also continue to occupy my mind. I mean, I could go on and on right now, but it's well after seven p.m. and, as I mentioned earlier, instead of sitting here at this computer, I could be reading a book.