the dirt resists you

6 06 2009

Image and Imagination: Georgia O'Keeffe by John Loengard

Image and Imagination: Georgia O’Keeffe by John Loengard by John Loengard

I’ve been trying to pick up a few more art books — I often steer away from them because they seem pricy.

This book pairs evocative pictures of Georgia O’Keefe with some of her most enigmatic images, and a little text about her life. I enjoyed it; the art of the photographer brings insight into the artist and her art. I’ve always only really liked her flower paintings, (I have one on the wall in my living room.) but I enjoyed the motifs of skull and stone and desert house much more in this context than alone.

The pictures are beautiful, O’Keefe is fascinating to see in the life she has made for herself — at 80, one can fairly be held responsible for one’s surroundings.

Here’s a quote, from a book with little text, but still worth reading:

I’m a newcomer to Abiquiu, that’s one of the lower forms of life. The Spanish people have been here since the 18thcentury. The house was a pigpen when I got it in 1946. The roof was falling in, the doors were falling off. But it had a beautiful view.

I wanted to make it my house, but I’ll tell you the dirt resists you. It is very hard to make the earth your own. The ranch is really home to me. I’ve done much less to try to make it mine. All my association with it is a kind of freedom. Yet it’s hard to live at the ranch. When I first came here, I had to go 70 miles on a dirt road to get supplies. Nobody would go by in two weeks. I thought the ranch would be good for me because nothing can grow here and I wouldn’t be able to use up my time gardening. But I got tired of canned vegetables so now I grow everything I need for the year at Abiquiu. I like to get up when the dawn comes. The dogs start talking to me and I like to make a fire and maybe some tea and then sit in bed and watch the sun come up. The morning is the best time, there are no people around. My pleasant disposition likes the world with nobody in it.

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catching up

26 05 2008

 

Well, so far I’ve done fairly well at sticking to my formal New Year’s resolution on the health and fitness side. But my goal of keeping up with writing about my reading here, poetic and otherwise, fell by the wayside as I got swept up in a bunch of new projects — working many hours to see if my ideas will pan out. Came out from under that in the last week or two, and I find that I’ve read quite a few books without writing them. Now, I write about the books here for myself as much as for any audience — I like looking back over my comments about the books I’ve read — the details of a book fade with time, and although I’m sure that each makes an impression, what I’ve written acts like snapshots of a vacation — triggers for the memory. But I’m doing this for fun, and all of the energy that would have gone here ended up invested in my work, and that would have made this feel like work…

 

I still want to go back over most of these and write at least a few words of what stood out. But I also have stacks of books here and there that I’d like to put somewhere else, so I’m going to jot down a few titles here. The good news (I suppose) is that I’ve started lots and lots and lots of books that I haven’t yet finished (but will!) so I don’t have to write those down. I also have my trip to Arizona, rock hounding, hiking and nature walking to write about. It was actually just before that trip that I last wrote here…

 

Anyway, here are some of the books

 

The Commitments, Roddy Doyle

The movie may actually be better, but, then, the movie is one of my favorites!

The Godfather, Mario Puzo

A reread, but then, I’ve seen the movie twice, also!

Titan, by Ron Chernow

Fat biography of Ron Chernow that was a weekend project — never would have read this without the recommendation of Tim — it will get its own entry)

The Immortal Cell by Michael D. West.

Stem cells and aging and telomerase and so on — I think this book has been on my shelf since it was new in 2003, I got several books on this subject and didn’t read this one.

The WORST-CASE SCENARIO Survival Handbook by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht.

Is there a guy who doesn’t want to imagine that he is prepared should he end up in the water with an alligator, or in need of ramming another car, or lost in the desert? I enjoyed reading most of these — it’s interesting to me which evoked a sense of dread and which evoked interest.

Master & Commander by Patrick O’Brian.

Avoid Boring People by James D. Watson (“Winner of the Nobel Prize”)

Lessons from a Life in Science. The title is two different rules. If you can’t think of both, read it again. OK, I’ll give you a hint: is boring an adjective or a verb?

The Complete Peanuts, 1953-1954. by Charles Schultz

More than just this volume — read through several of these at bedtimes.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie R. King

Picked it up because of the beekeeping angle and the Sherlock Holmes angle. I’m not much of a mystery fan any more, but this feminist take, with it’s conceit of a retired Sherlock Holmes and the  strong female Watson was entertaining and true to my memories of the stories. (Although to call her Watson is to insult her — Watson was a mere foil for Holmes, while she is his equal.)

Why Orwell Matters, by Christopher Hitchens

Argumentative, flexing his intellectual muscles, but to good effect.

Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge

Disappointing, but memorable. Not his best science fiction at all.

Two Lives, a memoir, by Vikram Seth

Literary Occasions (essays), by V.S. Naipaul

From Heaven Lake, by Vikram Seth

 

I’m sure that’s not but half of them, but at least I’ve got started here again!

 

Also, without a doubt, the album of the last few months has been dream BIG by Ryan Shupe and the Rubberband.

 

Oh, and I finished the trail with the kids when they were here — not to mountain biking quality, but it’s traversable, and hidden so that people on the logging road won’t come down it and make my neighbor upset.

 





To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow.

11 02 2008

Finished today: Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson

 

Although this book is not a  miracle like Marilynne Robinson’s more recent  Gilead, which I would recommend without hesitating to any lover of literature, (besides my recommendation, it also merits the Pulitzer Prize for literature, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a recommendation from my friend Amanda), this book, Housekeeping (which won the PEN/Hemingway award) shares something of the later book’s style, paragraphs stretched taut with imaginative poetic prose. Gilead had a directness in its poetry that made it an easy read (this nonchalant ease is part of what makes Gilead something of a miracle); Housekeeping demands more from the reader — it’s more literary and conscious of its own significance (perhaps the 23 years gap between the two lent a greater maturity to Gilead). Today was at least the third time that I’ve picked it up to read, but I’m glad I read it today, in the midst of my new “poetic phase.”

 

I think the mood of the book is best summed up by the main character near the end:

If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation. I expected–an arrival, an explanation, an apology. There had never been one, a fact I could have accepted, were it not true that, just when I had got used to the limits and dimensions of one moment, I was expelled into the next and made to wonder again if any shapes hid in its shadows. That most moments were substantially the same did not detract at all from the possibility that the next moment might be utterly different. And so the ordinary demanded unblinking attention.

The mood of this book is one of expectation. Deliberately, almost obviously, poetic, tightly-wound, full of possibilities, mostly worrisome ones. As in earlier postings, this is no review, if you want some background on the story, go to the link at the top…

 

The woods themselves disturbed us. We liked the little clearing, the burned-off places where wild strawberries grew. Buttercups are the materialization of the humid yellow light one finds in such places. (Buttercups in those mountains are rare and delicate, bright, lacquered, and big on short stems. People delve them up, earth and all, and bring them home like trophies. Newspapers give prizes for the earliest ones. In gardens they perish.) But the deep woods are as dark and stiff and as full of their own odors as the parlor of an old house. We would walk among these great legs, hearing the enthralled and incessant murmurings far above our heads, like children at a funeral.

I wanted this paragraph just because of “the deep woods are as dark and stiff and as full of their own odors as the parlor of an old house,” but the themes in this paragraph and this poetic use of language fill the book.

It was as if the light had coaxed a flowering from the frost, which before seemed barren and parched as salt. The grass shone with petal colors, and water drops spilled from all the trees as innumerably as petals. “I told you it was nice,” Sylvie said.

 

Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water–peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing–the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s har is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, long, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.

I chose this not because I am sure of its truth, but because of the language and the images…and perhaps because I am attuned to salt, both because of some slight dislocations in my health (that make me crave it) and because I’ve recently been reading Neruda, who seems to find salt a potently symbolic substance.

 

This last paragraph I preserve here today strikes me as discerning a truth. The authorities are close to removing the orphaned narrator from the custody of her eccentric, formerly itinerant, not quite sane aunt Sylvie:

Sylvie did not want to lose me. She did not want me to grow gigantic and multiple, so that I seemed to fill the whole house [EB: as memories can], and she did not wish me to turn subtle and miscible, so that I could pass through the membranes that separate dream and dream. She did not wish to remember me. She much preferred my simple, ordinary presence, silent and ungainly though I might be. For she could regard me without strong emotion–a familiar shape, a familiar face, a familiar silence. She could forget I was in the room. She could speak to herself, or to someone in her thoughts, with peasure and animation, even while I sat beside her–this was the measure of our intimacy, that she gave almost no thought to me at all.

But if she lost me, I would become extraordinary by my vanishing…

 There is much of loneliness in this book, most of which didn’t cut me, because I am generally comfortable with my own company, and find myself happy alone. But there are separations–for me, it is from my kids, who I must separate from over and over again–that are the exact opposite of the ‘sweet sorrow’ experienced by young lovers from before Shakespeare’s time, lovers who may prefer the separation, with its pangs, a release from the excitement and stress of the possibilities of a new relationship which must be tended each moment together, especially since the return to a lover’s arms comes with a surge of pleasure. To be with someone and not be proving your worth, not be trying to impress, or even thinking about the impression you give, not swooning, but sharing life, is a pleasure that is always best experienced, and longing for it is no sweet pleasure.





Heart Earth

9 02 2008

Finished (and started) yesterday: Heart Earth, by Ivan Doig

 

This isn’t the first Ivan Doig book I’ve read, and it probably shouldn’t be a first introduction to his works. It’s more revelation than narrative — the flashes of life seen in the pages of this book are the raw materials input to the factory of his creative intellect that eventually produced his great Montana novels. This story is told in two voices — the memories of youth that, Doig,  an old man recreates, and the recovered letters of his mother, sent to her brother aboard a destroyer in the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan. Together he merges the present and the past, his memories and those letters into a brilliant sketch of that brief World War II stretch of Ivan’s life, the short time he had with his mother before she died — on his sixth birthday.

 

I think this book succeeds for me because Doig doesn’t have to persuade me to listen — I know his voice already from the first two volumes of his McCaskill trilogy. I know this hard land of shepherds and this hard life where life is filled with aching beauty, but does you no favors. I know it because it is Montana that seems more real to me than the real thing, the Montana he created in those two books and in the also excellent book The Whistling Season. Certainly there are parts of this book that would appeal to any reader, but it would be a shame if this were your first introduction to Doig because you would fail to appreciate the implication of so many elements of this story, the events whose echoes ring more clearly in his fiction than in this memoir.  So, read, if you can stand the painful reality of it, Dancing at the Rascal Fair, and then (you must, you will) read English Creek. Or if the thought that a beautiful story could be loaded with a share of pain concerns you, then read his most recent book, published just last year, the wonderfully perfect story The Whistling Season (although no great story is all rose petals and spring rain, certainly not one set in Montana in the first half of the century…). I wish I had the time and memory to do justice to those books, or even to write a brief summary of how they handle the issues of love, loss, and the dynamic of a man and a woman, and of a father and son, but tonight is for Heart Earth, and the things I want to hang on to from it.

 

New word from this book: caryatids-

A caryatid is a sculpted female figure serving as an architectural support taking the place of a column or a pillar supporting an entablature on her head.

Pasted from <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caryatids> — go there for a picture!

 

Such civic women are caryatids of so much of that hard Montana past, they carry the sky.

Clever turn of a phrase: “The lariat proletariat, where my grandparents and parents started out, was done in by mechanization, ending up in town jobs or none.”

 

Two extended quotes, the first from Winter in Montana:

 

….World War Two and its songs on the radio had come, and I was the combination of kid who could listen to mairzy doats and dozy doats, and little lambsie divy, and staidly tell you, sure, everybody knows mares eat oats and a doe could too, and lambs would take to ivy; then go outside and disappear into fathoms of imagination the rest of the day. Tough and thorough, doctrinaire and dreamy, healthy as a moose calf, I seem to have sailed through the Faulkner Creek years with my adults giving to me generously from their days. Words on a page became clear to me there, long before school; somebody in the revolving cast of busy parents and young Ringer uncles hired to do the ranch chores and a visiting grandmother checking up on us from Moss Agate, one or another of those had to have been steadily reading to me. My immersion into print, the time indoors with books and a voice willing to teach me all the words, surely I owe to that ranch’s long winters.

 

Winter also brought out the trapper, to be watched from our kitchen window in the snow-roofed house, tending the trapline on Faulkner Creek.

 

The bundled figure sieves in and out of the creek-side willows, a dead jackrabbit in hand for bait. Gray to catch white, for weasels in their snowy winter coats are the quarry, their pelts fetching a prime price from the fur buyer in Helena.

 

The weasels hunt along the creek in invisibility against the snow, terror to grouse and mice, or dart up to the ranch buildings, murder in the chickenhouse; their sylph bodies are such ferocious little combustion tubes that they have to eat with feverish frequency to live. Wherever the double dots of weasel tracks indicate, the trapper sets a small contraption of jaws and trigger and neatly baits it with a bloody morsel of rabbit. Ritual as old as any tribe–though these traps are springsteel, bought from a catalogue–but every trapper possesses a trademark and this one distinctively takes the trouble to bend a bow of branch in attachment to each trap. When the animal sets off the trap, the branch will yank the entire apparatus up into the cold air and the weasel will die a quicker, less contorted death.

 

One after another the traps are attended to this way, an even dozen in all. The trapsetting impulse evidently is the same as in catching fish, the snarer hates to quit on an odd number.

 

Not nearly all the visited traps hold weasels this day but enough do, each frozen ermine form dropped in careful triumph into the gunnysack at the trapper’s waist. At last, from the end of the trapline the figure turns back up the creek, again toward the ranch house with the meringue of snow upon its roof. The trapper is my mother.

 

The second of the freedom his mother gifted him as a child

Any bloodline is a carving river and parents are its nearest shores. At the Faulkner Creek ranch I had learned to try out my mother’s limits by running as fast as I could down the sharp shale slope of the ridge next to the ranch house. How I ever found it out without cartwheeling myself to multiple fractures is a mystery, but the avalanche angle of that slope was precisely as much plunge as I could handle as a headlong four- and five-year-old. The first time my visiting grandmother saw one of my races with the law of gravity, she refused ever to watch again. Even my father, with his survivor’s-eye view from all the times life had banged him up, even he was given pause by those vertical dashes of mine, tyke roaring drunk on momentum. But my mother let me risk. Watched out her kitchen window my every wild downhiller, hugged herself to bruises while doing so, but let me. Because she knew something of what was ahead? Can it have been that clear to her, that reasoned? The way I would grow up, after, was contained in those freefall moments down that shale-bladed slope. In such plunge, if you use your ricochets right, you steal a kind of balance for yourself; you make equilibrium moment by moment because you have to. Amid the people and places I was to live with, I practiced that bouncing equilibrium and carried it on into a life of writing, free-falling through the language. My father’s turn at seeing me toward gravitational independence would come. But my mother’s came first and it came early, in her determination that I should fly free of the close coddling she’d had as an ill child. At the Faulkner Creek place she turned me loose in that downhill spree.

 

They head to Arizona, and his mother writes “I always thought a desert is just nothing, but have changed my mind…It is really beautiful here, in the desert way.”

 

And a  question — can desert dwellers really see this?

Everything so green, my mother’s pen granted. It wasn’t just our outlander imaginations that the saguaro cacti looked more portly every day; they indeed were fattening on the rain, the precious moisture cameled up inside their accordion-style inner works.





standard “emetic units”

6 02 2008

Finished today:

Moth Catcher, by Michael M. Collins

 

The kind of book that you should read if and only if the subtitle “An Evolutionist’s Journey Through Canyon and Pass” sounds like your kind of book — this book doesn’t rise above the expectations set by that title, nor does it fail in the end to meet them, either.

 

For the most part, it’s just the story of the “ordinary” life of a modern scientist — following and illuminating his passion for caterpillars and moths, describing the work of a lifetime in the span of a 150 pages, the bits and pieces of the real contributions Collins has made to science. Not earth-shattering or sky-splitting, but a valuable gleaning of facts contributing to a better understanding of speciation and hybridization.

 

eupackardia calleta

Pasted from <http://photo.net/photodb/photo?photo_id=5784219>

This is a Eupackardia calleta larva. “The gaudy color and pattern suggest warning coloration , as does the blood chemistry.”

 

He describes one experiment in the book that bears repeating (in fact, I’ve already repeated it to my son.) Nestling blue jays were raised

…as naïve predators, feeding them palatable viceroy butterflies, a supposed mimic of the poisonous monarch. The birds eagerly accepted the viceroys and learned to recognize them by their color and pattern When they were then offered monarch, the jays at first could not discriminate them from viceroys. Each time they attacked a monarch they quickly spat it out and retched in response to the cardiac glycosides these butterflies sequester from milkweed during the larval stage. (Revealing his wry humor, Brower [one of the scientists] quantified glycoside levels in standard “emetic units.”) Still reeling from the experiement, the wretched brids subsequently refused to feed on viceroy adults, presumably solely on the basis of their visual resemblance to monarchs. More than a century after Henry Walter Bates proposed the idea of micry, the Browers and their students linked together plant biochemistry and predatoation to explain the evolution of warning coloration in the monarch model and of convergent patterns on the wings of the viceroy mimic.

 

Such is the progress of science — proving or disproving, logic isn’t enough; although one feels a bit of sympathy for those poor jays.

 

Near the end of the book, the tone suddenly shifts from memoir to science article with a closely reasoned and intellectually stimulating description of the debate over the meaning of species — essentially, where you draw the line. It’s clear from reading this, by the way, that humans at this point in time are all one species, although he doesn’t address this question.

 

One question I would pose to him, though. He says “The longer two species evolve along separate lineages, the more genetic differences they accumulate and the less successful their hybrids will be.” But my understanding is that after a “short” separation, crosses are more successful leading to hybrid vigor. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hybrid_vigor )

 

Post-script — one interesting fact.

He usually collects his butterflies and moths in traps, baiting the traps with females raised from captured  caterpillars that he hopes will lure the males he is interested in. There goes my vision of chasing around fields with butterfly nets — although that does happen at one point, it’s not the norm. 🙂

 

This book was mentioned in an earlier post: Tracks of Tracks in the Snow





Was there ever such a man before?

5 02 2008

This was the reaction of the French Ambassador to the United States to Theodore Roosevelt on a day shortly after the President’s 50th birthday, in the waning days of his remarkable presidency. He’d come to tea and couldn’t escape the president conversational clasp until after 8. Roosevelt, while having his portrait painted, discussed his effect on Taft’s campaign (his hand-picked successor, alas unlikely to measure up) in the form of advice:

I told “him  he must treat the political audience as one coming, not to see an etching, but a poster,” … “He must, therefore, have streaks of blue, yellow, and red to catch the eye, and eliminate all fine lines and soft colors.”

..he then continued on to discuss the lecture he’d been invited to give at Oxford after his planned post-presidential safari… “He was already deep into paleontological and sociological research. To save time, he was dictating the lecture while Joseph De Camp painted his portrait. He wanted both it and another paper, commissioned by the Sorbonne, to be well in hand before he devoted himself entirely to safari preparations.” This incredible energy and breadth was what drew forth the comment above. His appetite for life — especially reading, writing, and the outdoors were incredible (he ate a good deal and drank lots of coffee, as well!)

 

Note: this isn’t a review — it’s just some of my thoughts and mementos of the experience of reading the Edmund Morris book, Theodore Rex   which I finished today as I took a brief walk around the block at work in the chill of early evening. I’ve placed some interesting background info at the bottom, though, if you didin’t just finish reading a TR biography and want some context.

 

Theodore Rex spans just the whirlwind that was TR’s presidency, from 1901 to 1909.

 

Roosevelt on his role as president:

“Here is the thing you  must bear in mind,” Roosevelt said, clearly irritated. “I do not represent public opinion: I represent the public. There is a wide difference between the two, between the real interests of the public, an d the public’s opinion of these interests.”

 

us-atlantic-fleet-1907.jpg

Here’s the “Great White Fleet” — Roosevelt flexing his muscle and waving that big stick of American military power — sending four squadrons of battleships on a trip around the world — so that he wouldn’t have to use that stick…and, I believe, just because he thought it was something amazing to do — he was such a kid in so many ways. That’s an impression this book leaves me with — Roosevelt laughing and running through the mud, taking foreign diplomats out for late-night jaunts — hikes, really. Roosevelt  swimming cold rivers, trying to scramble across slippery drainage pipes, rushing up and down mountains, shooting at innumerable creatures…learning 3 or 4 different martial arts, playing Tennis in the rain, and heading to Panama  — the fist sitting president — to sit on big earth-moving equipment and admire “his” canal. Or the way he went about “inspecting” his new official vessel

…sailors were swabbing the Mayflower’s decks, and its officers were dressing below, when a rowboat began to splash across the bay. Pulling the oars was a stocky man in a sleeveless swimsuit. The sailors paid no attention until there was a creaking of the gangway ladder, and the President appeared beaming in their midst.

“Bully! Bully!” Roosevelt exclaimed, as he rushed around admiring fixtures and fittings. By the time the officers came on deck in their hastily buttoned tunics, he was already rowing back to Sagamore Hill for breakfast.

trpp28.jpg

He understood kids as well — in Summer…

Cabinet officers and Congressmen found that strange rules of protocol applied in the President’s house:

SMALL BOY

(reproachfully) Cousin Theodore, it’s after four.

ROOSEVELT

By Jove, so it is! Why didn’t you call me sooner? One of you boys get my rifle. (Apologetically) I must ask you to excuse me….I never keep boys waiting.

 

He could be a difficult man to deal with as well.  I identify with some of his failings — his tendency to jump from topic to topic with a suddenness that was hard for some to follow and, in his own words, comparing himself with Taft, “No one could accuse me of having a charming personality” (Perhaps he speaks for me as well!)

 

Like so many (all?) truly successful men, he had an amazing wife.

 

“You only have to live with me,” she periodically reminded him, “while I have to live with you.”

 

He commanded incredible loyalty from all those who knew him and seemed to go through life making an impact on every life he encountered. There is so much more of interest — more dog-eared pages that I’ll likely never note. And it’s impossible to find online images to match the clarity of the wonderful reproductions of turn-of-the-century black and white photos.

img_58f8bac4.gif

For background here’s a brief outline of his life that I pulled up for my friend Misha at work from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery – I was looking for a picture of TR reading in his cabin from the book that I wanted to post here, but it was not easily found.

 

The life of Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) was one of constant activity, immense energy, and enduring accomplishments. As the twenty-sixth President of the United States, Roosevelt was the wielder of the Big Stick, the builder of the Panama Canal, an avid conservationist, and the nemesis of the corporate trusts that threatened to monopolize American business at the start of the century. His exploits as a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War and as a cowboy in the Dakota Territory were indicative of his spirit of adventure and love of the outdoors. Reading and hunting were lifelong passions of his; writing was a lifelong compulsion. Roosevelt wrote more than three dozen books on topics as different as naval history and African big game. Whatever his interest, he pursued it with extraordinary zeal. “I always believe in going hard at everything,” he preached time and again. This was the basis for living what he called the “strenuous life,” and he exhorted it for both the individual and the nation.

Roosevelt’s engaging personality enhanced his popularity. Aided by scores of photographers, cartoonists, and portrait artists, his features became symbols of national recognition; mail addressed only with drawings of teeth and spectacles arrived at the White House without delay. TR continued to be newsworthy in retirement, especially during the historic Bull Moose campaign of 1912, while pursuing an elusive third presidential term. He remains relevant today.

 

Continues here (links at bottom of page)

http://www.npg.si.edu/exh/roosevelt/trintro2.htm

trsargent.jpg





his safe smell was all around and he told me he was so sorry he would drink up every bit of water in Dresser’s Pond if that would make it all unhappen. it can’t

3 02 2008

LEARNING TO SWIM is a painful narrative of poems that — truly — I expected to hate as soon as I read the first page. I could see where they were going from that first page — as the poet intends —  and I didn’t think I had any desire to travel there.

 

I’ve only just begun to understand how to read poetry — reading particularly each word and phrase, not just the ideas and content, bringing a concentration that is unnecessary for comprehension but allows me to appreciate the art. It is not necessary to study a painting to understand what is portrayed, or even to appreciate it at some level. But if you do study it, and the artist has invested his skill in the painting, then you will be rewarded for your contemplation, especially if you have taken the time to educate your eye. This concentrated reading, I find, means that painful poetry has more power than painful prose.  And I’ve read enough “important” stories of trauma to have a distaste for it in literary form. So I set this book down when it got distasteful and ugly. I don’t feel that a book or a story has to be about some terrible act in order to be important, and I feel a distaste for the easy importance that clothes such stories. But that false patina of power is not what I found when I picked it up again — hoping to read swiftly until I found this passage, the one that had caught my eye in the first place:

 

There are veils

over the high bush blueberries,

like huge white wings

brushing the ground.

Mother and I scrooge under,

tin cans in hand,

and pull the berries down

so fast they rattle

and fill to the brim.

I hate their sour taste

but love being hidden

under the netting

where no one can see

me.

 

But as I quickly read, I found myself drawn in and found the story in these narrative poems so true as to be compelling. And these poems are true, reflecting not only the pain of the assault, but the eventual cleansing and moving on that happens in real life. A recovery that doesn’t make the original act any less repugnant, but is not a permanent destruction of youth and childhood either.

 

In the prologue, she says

 

This is what I remember:

that hot room,

your strange body,

your hands hurting,

and harsh words

telling me terrible things

would happen

if I ever

told.

 

But now you can’t

find me or reach me

or hurt me ever

again and once I tell the words

I am going to kick

you off my porch

and learn to breathe

again.

 

Perhaps you find this a promising beginning. I did not. But the speaker recovers, and so does the poetry.

Or, rather, first the poetry, then the person.

I hate the color yellow.

I hate limp curtains.

I hate iron bedsteads

and thick boys in shorts.

When I grow up

I will have a green room

with a soft, mounded bed

and white curtains

blowing in the windows.

In my room

there will never be

a thick boy in shorts.

 

For me this recovery was even more appreciated because I didn’t quite believe it was going to come, so fully, either in the story or especially in the almost poetry — I call it that just this once because it has so little besides formatting and intensity to make it such. Perhaps it is more fairly poetry that is almost not poetry…

 

Daddy held my hand

as we scrambled down

the path to Dresser’s Pond.

We waded in together,

and I thought of white, bony

things I could not see,

of a lake octopus waiting

to sucker its tentacles

around my skinny legs.

Daddy said,

“You are learning to swim,”

and I let go of his hand.

“I am learning to swim,”

I chanted

and when the bottom

fell away,

I bobbed on top,

my face like a white flower

before me.

 

Perhaps it is realistic because it is real — the book is subtitled A memoir. Perhaps parts are painful to read because they were painful to live — and to write, the author said that starting these poems was like eating ground glass (although I doubt she can truly make the comparison, I believe this right is included in the poet’s license.). The good thing to reflect on, is that perhaps she recovers so fully because that is what people do.

 

In the end, I don’t find this poetry to be many things that I want poetry to be. It is painful and uncomfortable in many places. But it’s true in a sense that includes emotions and goes beyond facts, and that is something.

 

LEARNING TO SWIM: a memoir by ann turner

ann turner’s books