Thursday, July 12, 2012


An ouroboros? (From the excellent Fairy-wren tumblr -- see also.)

This week has been unpleasantly stressful -- partly a matter of bad luck; construction workers have been wandering in and out of my office all week "changing the windows," my desk is covered in plastic sheeting -- but at least it should all end on Saturday when I leave for Boston. I hope to be back on the grid mid-week-ish...

Monday, July 9, 2012

Rheumatic dewdrops

More parallel passages (gannet picture via Calista).

1. Pasternak, "September" (trans. Lowell):
The moment the sun rises, it disappears.
Last night, the marsh by the swimming-pool shivered with fever;
the last bell-flowers waste under the rheumatic dewdrop,
a dirty lilac stain souses the birches.

Cf. Geoffrey Hill, "Damon's lament for his Clorinda, Yorkshire 1654":
No sooner has the sun   
swung clear above earth’s rim than it is gone.   
We live like gleaners of its vestiges
There are also analogies with Hill's dove that "bursts through the leaves with an untidy sound" and Stevens's "pool of pink / clippered with lilies scudding the bright chromes," and with this.

2. Pasternak, "September" (a few lines further down):
The thinning birchwood has not ceased to water its color --
more and more watery, its once regal shade.
Hill, sounding oddly Audenesque, in his first book:
Though there are wild dogs 
Infesting the roads 
We have recitals, catalogues 
Of protected birds; 

And the rare pale sun
To water our days.
And, much more recently: "the watered gold that February drains / out of the overcast"

More relevantly, Charles Wright:
I remember the way the mimosa tree
                                                   buttered the shade
Outside the basement bedroom, soaked in its yellow bristles.
3. Pasternak, "For Anna Akhmatova" (again trans. Lowell): "I hear the soiled, dripping small talk of the roofs" -- and "the shallows smell like closets full of last summer's clothes." For the former, cf. Paul Muldoon's "soiled grey blanket of Irish rain"; for the latter, cf. Hollinghurst, "his own rectal smell -- a soft stench like stale flower-water."

Saturday, July 7, 2012

"We just can’t tell what they will do when they stop grinning"

Quoted out of context, for good use of short sentences -- Michael Wood in his essay on Yeats and violence (he is writing about this):
The soldiers are cold and tired and complaining. They have lost hope and they have blood-stained hands: they are soldiers. They die, and they tell us about dying. Then all at once they are grinning and saved. Well, they have arrived in paradise. No, in our paradise, the paradise of right or left, the saved bourgeois world or the new order after the revolution, neither of which would be glad to see the dirty soldiers of the earlier conflict again. That’s why the soldiers are grinning. They know how upset we are to see them. And they seem at the end to know who they are. They are not the drunken soldiery of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, but they are violent dead men who won’t die, who have been through several secular hells, and their grins promise all kinds of havoc in the place we thought was perfect. They are not ‘the worst rogues and rascals’; they are not even ‘weasels fighting in a hole’. They have been fighting in a hole, but they are not weasels. But they are anarchic enough, convincing enough, lively enough, to end any dream of order. We just can’t tell what they will do when they stop grinning.
Elsewhere in the piece, there is much to like, most valuably (for me) this Yeats poem, which I'd forgotten:
The Magi

Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

Spufford, Auden, Iceland, Food

I just discovered that Francis Spufford had written a "Letter to Wystan Auden" (pastiching L. to L. Byron). I guess I knew about the influence of Auden on Spufford -- Auden's fingerprints are all over the fairytale parts of The Child that Books Built, and Spufford even casually uses the phrase "the sexy airs of summer" somewhere -- but I am still delighted by the fact of the existence of this poem, it is the sort of object the universe might have concocted specifically for my sake. Unfortunately, the poem itself -- though it "adumbrates" various themes that resurface in the ice book and the books book -- is a little blah; rhyme royal doesn't go well with a villainous looseness of numbers. But here is the bit where he talks about the genesis of the ice book -- it rings very true; these are exactly the sorts of reasons why I've found the idea of novel-writing impossibly daunting:
I’m sure that if I tried to write a novel
    The cast party I held would be a flop.
I’d be the wallflower, or I’d simply grovel,
    And all the characters would never stop
    Gesticulating. An aged peer would try to hop;
A dour divine would Charleston; close to tears,
The strong and silent one would play on others’ fears.

A catastrophic prospect. Wiser, you will agree,
    To first try something rather smaller,
Requiring of these skills a less complete degree.
    That way my judgment may grow slowly taller,
    And I’ll learn how to entertain a caller –
Not one that I invented – someone real and dead
Whose passions need to be interpreted.

[...] I’d like to say that searching for my subject
    Was an exhausting task that lasted years;
I’d like to say that weary, pure and abject
    I brought myself close to the brink of tears,
    Burdened by severe stylistic cares.
It’s unfortunate for me that from my crib
I’ve not been capable of such a fib.

The truth’s just this: I knew exactly what
    I hoped to do to educate my heart.
I’ve been fascinated by each human jot
    Of POLAR EXPLORATION from the start,
    And wondered how on earth to tease apart
The knots their souls are tied in (reef or bowline)
Who think the good life’s found above the snowline.

The classic polar expedition’s personnel
    Were capable, Edwardian and intense;
Good sports; good diary-keepers; fit as hell;
    Trained by their education to think tents
    Were the natural sites for virtuous events.
Yet these solid types made journeys that involved
Odder qualities than toughness or resolve.

I see them walking, always in a line,
    Pursuing an abstraction through the snow;
Above (thanks to refraction) six suns shine
    And wrap them round in whiteness as they go,
    Skin blackened, feet wrecked, agonisedly slow.
But it isn’t meteorology, or nature’s wild trompe l’oeil,
That can explain their journal entries, indicating joy.

If I’m to understand at all, I need a way
    Of obtaining for my book a steady fix
On emotions that you don’t meet every day –
    The atavistic ones, the muscly ethics
    You tried to grasp yourself, ascending F6.
It’s especially hard to find out what they mean
Because the censorship of laughter intervenes:

(It might also be worthwhile to compare this with Donald Davie's "Remembering the Thirties.")

While I'm on this topic let me quote a bit from Letters from Iceland that I rediscovered today:
Dried fish is a staple food in Iceland. This should be shredded with the fingers and eaten with butter. It varies in toughness. The tougher kind tastes like toenails, and the softer kind like the skin off the soles of one's feet.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Everything he blanked was here

Philip Roth, famously, at the close of Sabbath's Theater:
And he couldn' t do it. He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here.

I just found out that he'd used almost the same construction in American Pastoral (his next novel):
The longing he would feel if he had to live in another country. Yes, everything that gave meaning to his accomplishments had been American. Everything he loved was here.
It is a truism nowadays to say that Am. Past. is worse on every dimension than Sabbath, but I was amused to see how this is explicitly so even at the level of the sentence. (Am. Past. was the first Roth I read, I think I was altogether too tolerant of it at the time because of some good long sentences -- this one, perhaps? -- in the homecoming scene early in the novel.)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Night, sleep, death and the stairs

Mostly a roundup of things tumbl'd.

1. Advice for Japanese tourists in Scotland:
Not all the advice in the Insider's Guide to Scotland is prohibitive, however. It recommends Mackie's honeycomb ice-cream and ginger marmalade, as well as Irn Bru. Lorne sausage, though – which is sliced and flat, and also known as square sausage – is best avoided.

The Japanese-language book, published by the Edinburgh-based Luath Press, notes the attraction of pub crawls, even urging visitors to get "merrily drunk" on whisky. 

2. Snouts:

A solenodon is "one of the few mammals with truly venomous saliva, and is also one of the rarest extant animals on earth."

3. Sarah Manguso's advice to young writers. Two bits that ring particularly true:
Don’t go to events; go to the receptions after the events. If possible, skip the receptions and go to the afterparties, where you can have a real conversation with someone. [...] Recognize those who would help you, and let them know who you are. Assemble a coterie of influence that will protect and serve you.
4. This Mary Ruefle piece is worth reading in full. I shall merely pull out a reminiscence about Yeats:
at the beginning of one class Mr. Moore asked us if we would like to see a picture of Yeats. We nodded, and he held up a photograph of Yeats taken when he was six months old, a baby dressed in a long white gown. Maybe he was even younger, maybe he was an infant. I thought it was the funniest thing anyone had ever done, the strangest, most ridiculous, absurd thing to have done. But nobody laughed and if Mr. Moore thought it was funny, you couldn’t tell by his face. I always liked him for that. The poems we were reading in class were not written by a baby. And yet whenever I think of Yeats, I see him as a tiny baby wearing a dress—that photograph is part of my conception of the great Irish poet. And I love that it is so. We are all so small.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


I have a nagging sense that I'm missing an important link; but I should post these while I still have them open:

1. I am intrigued by this book on midwifery in the seventeenth century ("with much "strugling [sic], halings, and enforcements" midwifes would attempt to pull babies out before labour had even begun, and a hooked stick, or "crotchet", was used in the place of forceps.") And of course I am tickled by the article's author being named Alison Flood.

2. Amazing fruit and vegetable skulls (via Jenny Davidson):

3. Dan Chiasson, reviewing Frederick Seidel, says something perceptive:
Seidel learned a lot about libido and its excruciations from John Berryman, the original “phallus-man.” The Berryman/Seidel predicament is as follows: to be a straight man is to want to have sex all the time; to want to have sex all the time is to be a buffoon; to be a buffoon is to occupy an amusing, though limited, point of view. The imagination, which ranges over all points of view and samples the full panoply of human appetites, finds the salivating buffoon it is tethered to pitiful, or sickening, or dangerous, or doomed. This makes self-caricature—the buffoon seen from the point of view of the imagination—the central mode in both Berryman’s and Seidel’s poems.
(I have been on a bit of a Seidel kick lately, I unearthed a Collected while packing & discarding books. I'd always known and admired "Poem by the bridge at Ten-Shin" but there is much more in that vein in the rest of his recent work.)

4. I liked the Deborah Eisenberg story in the new NYRB very much. (Here is an essentially random passage.)

5. This story about the Rushdie video game has done the rounds but I should still link to it; it hardly needs to be commented on.