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
Book Auctions
Booksellers' Catalogues
Chasing Fireflies
Departure of Visitors
Doves in the Chimney
Finishing a Book
Flower Shop in the Night
Getting Rid
Hot Bath
  1. Of one's neighbors
  2. Of current literature
  3. Of gossip
  4. Of wickedness
Improving the Dictionary
Meals Out
  1. On the roof
  2. On the pavement
Not Going to Parties
Pretty Creatures
Shopping Abroad
Taking Umbrage
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.            

The author I am now reading, David Cecil, also mentions the Café Royal. After his first book was published he was invited there for lunch by Lytton Strachey. Just had to make a note of that fact, for serendipity's sake.
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