Belinda’s Book Notes – August 2021
DOG DAYS AND DREAM DAYS WITH SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY
What better way to spend a hot August afternoon than to read ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’? – Shakespeare’s masterpiece of the most exquisite lyric poetry ever written, laughter and enchantment, merriment and magic, love and its jealousies, plays within plays, and confusion piled on confusion by the ever mischievous, but never malevolent, Puck. You can hear the laughter in his voice as he rains down judgement on us all – “Oh what fools these mortals be”. And how much in the moment – the forever moment – is Puck’s promise ‘to put a girdle round about the earth/ In forty minutes’. Has forty minutes ever been so witty and so tangible?
William Hazlitt, the 19th Century essayist and author of ‘Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays’, writes, ‘the reading of this play is like wandering in a grove by moonlight, the descriptions breathe sweetness like odours thrown from beds of flowers’. And again, ‘His (Shakespeare’s) delicacy and sportive gaiety are infinite’. That sweetness – that intimate immediacy – is found in Oberon’s ‘I know….’. Just in that ‘I know’ we are invited to know also, to know this place of enchantment; we are given the key to the dream:
‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows
Quite over-canopied with lush woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in:’ (Act II.i)
(A brief digression: ’Weed’ here means garment, and as you see, best fits the rhythm and meter of Oberon’s song. A romp through the O.E.D. reveals that Weed is an early, 9th century, Middle English word, probably derived from weave, and was widely used until it morphed, in the Nineteenth Century, to refer mostly to ‘widow’s weeds’ and all the heavy black sadness that the phrase connotes. A long step in language from that ‘enamelled skin’.that airy garment ‘wide enough to wrap a fairy in’.)
Moving to life in another key, all the heat of August (and another snake!) is in Andrew Marvell’s Mower poems, those mower songs of unrequited love in the dog days of summer. Here is Damon the Mower’s sad lament:
‘Oh what unusual heats are here,
Which thus our sunburned meadows sear!
The grasshopper its pipe gives o’er;
And hamstringed frogs can dance no more.
But in the brook the green frog wades;
And grasshoppers seek out the shades.
Only the snake, that kept within,
Now glitters in its second skin.’
‘This heat the sun could never raise,
Nor Dog Star so inflame the days.
Not July causeth these extremes,
But Juliana’s scorching beams.’
Yes, the poem is set in July, to match with the troublesome Juliana – but, since according to my almanac, the Dog Days begin in late July I think this fits the pattern without too much trouble?
Poor Damon! He gets in such a state that he ends up cutting his foot with his scythe.
In ‘The Mower to the Glowworms’ – a quite
lovely lyric of four rhyming quatrains in iambic tetrameter and, amazingly, one sentence – the glowworms ‘whose officious flame/to wandering mowers shows the way’
‘Your courteous lights in vain you waste,
Since Juliana here is come,
For she my mind has so displaced
That I shall never find my home’.
No Oberon or Puck here to make all things well. No midsummer night’s dream, just the heat of the dog days, and a broken heart.
Nearer our time and place, Twentieth Century New England, in Robert Frost’s sonnet ‘Mowing’ we still have fairies, and yet another snake, as we wander gently through a pastoral summer afternoon. We also have, in this dreamy moment of summer, something new. A sonnet, yes, fourteen lines with a ‘turn’ at the ninth, but with an irregular rhyme scheme and line length and the surprise in the movement from the satisfying act of swinging the scythe – ‘My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make’ – to a meditation on the creative act of writing poetry -‘The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.’ Frost breaking the mold once again. Making new, making what he called ‘the sound of sense’, letting us hear so clearly the sounds of summer. A Twentieth Century sensibility with a nod to Shakespeare.
‘There never was a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound-
And that is why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.’
But circling back to Shakespeare, let’s fast forward to Act V in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. The Duke, Theseus, and his betrothed, Hippolyta, have heard all the strange adventures of the four lovers, Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia and Helena. Theseus is skeptical and says: ‘as imagination bodies forth/The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen/ Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing /A local habitation and a name.’ But Hippolyta thinks there must be some truth in the story, she is brief and to the point: ‘But all the story of the night told over/And all their minds transfigured so together,/ More witnesseth than fancy’s images/And grows to something of great constancy;/But, howsoever, strange and admirable.’ Hippolyta gets the last word, never mind Theseus’ eloquence and his conquering sword!
Let the magic of August stay with us a little longer since, in Shakespeare’s words, ’summer’s lease has all too short a date’ – and turn to another Twentieth Century American poet, Richard Wilbur, and the last lines of his sonnet ‘Praise in Summer’:
‘To a praiseful eye
Should it not be enough of fresh and strange
That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,
And sparrows sweep the ceiling of the day?’
But perhaps the last word in this ‘wandering in a grove by moonlight’ goes to our familiar friend, the 17th Century physician and theologian Sir Thomas Browne, who so loved life’s ‘wingy mysteries’ and believed in the regenerative power of laughter. With him let us pause a moment and hear what he called ‘the unextinguishable laugh of heaven’. ( The Religio Medici)
Belinda’s Book Notes – July 2021
ON JULY 10TH 1871 Marcel Proust was born and this month we celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the author of In Search of Lost Time – À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu – three thousand pages in seven volumes, four of which appeared in print before his death on November 18, 1922, the remaining three between 1923 and 1927. He continued writing and revising his monumental life’s work until the day of his death. Roger Shattuck, the Proust scholar, in his illuminating study ‘Proust’s Way – a Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time’ describes ‘the sheer sense of life’ in the novel that ‘reawakens us to our own existence’ (p.xvii). In its pages we find art and music, characters made immortal by his pen, a vision of life that becomes the reader’s own.
For a moment though, reflecting on Proust takes us back to our own Library and our own community. James Merrill, when he was a student at Amherst ‘developed an obsession with memory and a transformative interest in Proust’. In an interview with J.D. McClatchy published in the Paris Review in 1982, Merrill agreed with McClatchy’s assessment that Proust had been the greatest influence on his career (Collected Prose, edited by J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser, Knopf, p.119). There are, for the interested reader, many references to Proust throughout this volume of Merrill’s prose. And here we are, in Stonington Free Library, a small library in a small East Coast village which probably has one of the most comprehensive collections of books by and about Proust anywhere outside of an academic library. This is entirely thanks to the gift to the Library of books from the collection of J.D. (Sandy) McClatchy, who shared James Merrill’s passion for Proust, now in the McClatchy Memorial Corner upstairs in the gallery. The Library also has in its holdings, thanks to the generosity of longtime Library supporter Charlie Clark, the complete In Search of Lost Time as a book on CD. Another way of discovering this twentieth century masterpiece.
And don’t forget that Sandy’s typewriter, the gift of friend and neighbor Robert Palm, is also there in the gallery, silent for over a year but waiting once again for poems to be written on it – what better way to celebrate our newly opening world?
But back to James Merrill and his moving tribute, his brilliant poem ‘For Proust’. The elegiac tone, heightened by the witty homonyms and stanzaic enjambments carry the narrative forward with a touching urgency as the dying Proust leaves his bed to go out into society one more time. In the third quatrain, the first line, with its pressing assonance, an internal rhyme and enjambment create an overwhelming sense of ‘fracas’ ‘until your palms/ Are moist with fear’ And then –
‘Back where you came from, up the strait stair, past
All understanding, bearing the whole past….
You make for one dim room without contour
And station yourself there, beyond the pale
Of cough or gardenia, erect, pale.
What has happened is becoming literature.’
But of the myriad of words written about Proust, for me those by the distinguished American poet Anthony Hecht (1923-2004) capture the essence of Proust most perfectly in his poem ‘Proust on Skates’. In this poem, the description of him skating reflects, in the manner of an homage, a sense of Proust’s creative process.
‘He glides with gaining confidence, inscribes
Tentative passages, thinks again, backtracks,
Comes to a minute point,
Then wheels about in widening sweeps and lobes,
Large Palmer cursives and smooth entrelacs,
On a subtle, long-drawn style and pliant script
Incised with twin steel blades and qualified
Perfectly to express,
With arms flung wide or gloved hands firmly gripped
Behind his back, attentively, clear-eyed,
A glancing happiness.
It will not last, that happiness; nothing lasts;
But will reduce in time to the clear brew
Of simmering memory
Nourished by shadowy gardens, music, guests,
Childhood affections, and, of Delft, a view
Steeped in a sip of tea.’
For much of his life, Hecht himself was haunted, too, by memories, though of a more horrific order. As a young soldier, he was part of the liberation of the Flossenbürg concentration camp in 1945. ‘The place, the suffering, the prisoners’ accounts, were beyond comprehension. For years after I would wake shrieking’. He addressed the Holocaust and the horrors of war in his large body of work, work which won him many awards including the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Award, and his appointment as National Poet Laureate. Perhaps the most painful of all Holocaust poems is his sestina ‘The Book of Yolek’. Yolek was five years old. Thanks to Anthony Hecht
‘Wherever you are, Yolek will be there too.
His unuttered name will interrupt your meal.
Prepare to receive him in your home some day.
Though they killed him in the camp they sent him to,
He will walk in as you’re sitting down to a meal’.
Just a reminder that you can access all these poems online at thepoetryfoundation.org, as well as finding them in the Library along with letters and criticism, including the newly published letters of James Merrill and Jonathan Post’s critical study of Anthony Hecht, The Thickness of Particulars, as well as his edition of Hecht’s letters.
But let’s circle back to Proust who exulted in life and its endless joys as he battled his own mortality. In the June Book Notes (below) I likened the lyrics of the 17th Century English poet Henry Vaughan to ‘a carving hidden away in the organ loft of a medieval cathedral, awaiting the seeing eye of the curious traveler.’ I realized later that it was Proust that I was recalling and his book of essays ‘Days of Reading’ where he describes his experience reading Ruskin. In a famous passage he quotes Ruskin’s description of ‘a small figure, a few centimeters high, lost amidst hundreds of minuscule figures, in the portal of the Booksellers in Rouen cathedral’. On Ruskin’s death Proust felt he must go and find this tiny figure – which, miraculously, he did. He felt that, in drawing the figure, Ruskin had conferred on it a kind of immortality. ‘The monstrous, inoffensive little figure was to be resurrected… from that death which seems more absolute than others, that disappearance into the midst of an infinite number made anonymous… I was touched to rediscover it there; nothing then dies of what has once lived, the sculptor’s thought any more than that of Ruskin.’ Proust calls the figure ‘poor little monster… your poor face, that I would never have noticed… ‘but somehow he finds a sense of resurrection here in this ‘smallest figure, framing a tiny quatrefoil, resurrected in its form, gazing at us with the same gaze that seems to fit inside no more than a millimeter of stone.’ ‘The fellow is vexed and puzzled in his malice; and his hand is pressed hard on his cheek bone, and the flesh of the cheek is wrinkled under the eye by the pressure. The whole indeed looks wretchedly coarse…. But considering it as a mere filling of an interstice on the outside of a cathedral gate…. It proves very noble vitality in the art of the time…’ (p. 25 in Days of Reading, Penguin Great Ideas series)
Proust devoted nine years to translating Ruskin, who had a profound influence on his development as a writer, especially in his conception of ‘artist as interpreter’ and his ‘belief that beauty resided “in the simplest of objects … [in] the most beloved sights that you see every summer evening along thousands of footpaths, the streams of water on the hillsides…. Of your old, familiar countryside.” (Monsieur Proust’s Library Anka Muhlstein, p.30). Proust understood the world through painting and music as well as literature and if you are not ready to read the novel itself there are many delightful windows on his world. Anka Muhlstein’s book is one, another is Paintings in Proust by Eric Karpeles, a collection of all the paintings that figure in the novel, fine color reproductions appearing alongside the relevant texts. It is a feast of a book whether you are already familiar with the novel or a newcomer to its treasures.
As John Ruskin wrote in The Bible of Amiens ‘The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and to tell what it saw in a plain way. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion – all in one’ This, as we have already seen, became Proust’s credo in his writing. More than three hundred years earlier, far removed from the worlds of both Ruskin and Proust, in an obscure English country parish, the poet/priest George Herbert wrote these lines in a plea for the soul to honor God by telling ‘what it saw in a plain way’.
‘Who says that fictions onely and false hair
Become a verse? Is there no truth in beautie?
Is all good structure in a winding stair?
May no lines passe, except they do their dutie
Not to a true, but painted chair?
Must all be vail’d, while he that reades, divines,
Catching the sense at two removes?’ Jordan (1)
Perhaps we can leave all three of these gifted and visionary minds on the same page and share in ‘A glancing happiness’?
Belinda’s Book Notes – June 2021
Travel, Travelers, Journeys of the Foot and the Heart
June 13th is the birthday of William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet and one of the greatest poets of the Twentieth Century. This is what he heard ‘in the deep heart’s core’ while standing on London’s ‘pavements grey’ –
‘I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine-bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.’
Lines so familiar and yet always fresh and new. For many of us, though, it is not within our gift to ‘arise and go now’, so I have been thinking about the gifts of travelers who have shared their journeys with us through their writings. In fact, ‘A Time of Gifts’ is the title of the first of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s many travel books, this one being the record of his journey on foot across Europe in the mid 1930s as it prepared for war. As well as being a gifted writer, he is the most observant and sensitive of traveling companions and probably the most charming of any you will ever meet.
Another of my perennial favorites among pioneer explorers/travelers is Freya Stark. Out of an early life blighted by tragedy and potential limitation, she became the first Western woman to travel alone through the Middle and Far East. Her writings, with their humanity and deep insights, give us a wide window on that world, some of it vanished, most of it present with us today. ‘Alexander’s Path’ and ‘Dust in the Lion’s Paw’ are among many that come to mind.
Yet of all the classic travel books, Charles Darwin’s ‘Voyage of the Beagle’ stands out as a surprising delight. An enthralling account by a young and enquiring mind venturing into the unknown with note book in hand,(he was 23 when he embarked on the Beagle on the 27th of December, 1831) – notes that would change our world forever.
This was one of the favorite books of Elizabeth Bishop, a poet possibly without peer among modern writers of travel poems. Her first poem in her first book is ‘The Map’, and for most of her life she was a traveler, physically and spiritually, always looking, like her ‘Sandpiper’, for ‘something, something, something.’ In her poem ‘Questions of Travel’ – she reflects on what it mean to be a tourist. ‘Is it right to be watching strangers in a play/in this strangest of theaters?’ – and her answer is in the last line of the earlier poem ‘Arrival at Santos’, /’We leave Santos at once;/ we are driving to the interior’. She was, in Herman Melville’s words, ‘a thought diver’,a traveler on a quest, asking questions of herself and us, the reader, not the tourist with ‘immodest demands for a different world,/and a better life, and complete comprehension/ of both at last, and immediately,’ (again ‘Arrival at Santos’)
In her quest to ‘go to the interior,’ Elizabeth Bishop was deeply read in the history and culture of Brazil, a quest that took her on a journey up the Amazon, a journey which, years later, produced her quintessential poem of Brazil, ‘Santarém’. ‘That golden evening I really wanted to go no further;/ more than anything else I wanted to stay awhile/ in that conflux of two great rivers, Tapajos, Amazon,’ …..’I liked the place; I liked the idea of the place./ Two rivers. Hadn’t two rivers sprung from the Garden of Eden? No, that was four/ and they’d diverged. Here only two/and coming together’……’in that watery, dazzling dialectic.’ There is an echo of Yeats in the yearning for a place as well as, in the language and tone, echoes of Milton. But, being Bishop, she ends her reminiscence on a note of practicality and humor, bringing herself, and us, back into the real world, waking from the dream of Santarém just as Eve woke from her dream in the Garden. ‘Then- my ship’s whistle blew. I couldn’t stay.’ The poem ends with the description of a gift of an empty wasp’s nest, ‘small, exquisite, clean matte white/ and hard as stucco’ – that she had admired ‘In the blue pharmacy’ and the pharmacist had given her. In the closing lines of the poem we too wake from this memory of Santarém, its vibrant color palette of blues and yellows and vignettes of life being so fully lived:
‘Back on board, a fellow-passenger, Mr. Swan,/ Dutch, the retiring head of Philips Electric,/ really a very nice old man,/ who wanted to see the Amazon before he died,/ asked, ‘What’s that ugly thing?
And so, for poet and for reader, the journey continues and the world awaits, but, as in so many of her poems, it ends on an open note, a music that continues.
In the reference to the Garden of Eden, another open note, another journey brought to mind by ‘Santarém’, involves the closing lines of Paradise Lost, not as an ending but a new beginning for Adam and Eve
‘The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and providence their guide;
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.’
This is the narrator, but within the poem, it is Eve who speaks the last heroic lines: ‘In me is no delay; with thee to go/ Is to stay here; without thee here to stay/ Is to go hence unwilling; thou to me/ Art all things under heaven, all places thou’ (Paradise Lost, Book XII ll. 615-618). Circling back to May you might recall that we left Ruth standing ‘amid the alien corn’ ‘and it is her promise to her bereft and beloved mother-in-law, Naomi, that is echoed here by Eve ‘…. whither thou goest I will go, where thou lodgest I will lodge’. And as with Eve, a new beginning for Ruth.
But all journeys are not forward, as we learn from the 17th Century poet Henry Vaughan, whose 400th anniversary, like Andrew Marvell’s, is celebrated this year. In his lyric ‘The Retreat’ he expresses the longing to return to his soul’s first home. ‘O, how I long to travel back /And tread again that ancient track!’ Within a tight structure of tetrameter rhyming couplets, we are offered a moment of private grace transmuted into art. So finely made, this poem reminds me of one of those details in a stained glass window that calls for our close attention, or an exquisite carving hidden away in the organ loft of a medieval cathedral, awaiting the seeing eye of the curious traveler.
‘Some men a forward motion love;
But I by backward steps would move,
And when this dust falls to the urn,
In that state I came, return.’
But let’s return to today and Sebastian Junger’s new book ‘Freedom’ that tells of the journey of four companions seeking freedom and healing from the noise and trauma of war that they have suffered.
Surely a journey of the foot and of the heart.
Belinda’s Book Notes – May 2021
Celebrating a Poet, Walking, Nightingales and Owls. Thinking of Immigrants, the Un-Sheltered. Looking at New Books and Books that are Old Friends.
This year marks the 400th Anniversary of the poet Andrew Marvell. His poem ‘Upon Appleton House’, 97 eight-line stanzas in tetrameter rhyming couplets, celebrates this English country house, its history, the grounds and its owner, Lord Fairfax, a famous political and military figure of the time, his wife, Lady Anne Vere Fairfax and Maria their daughter, Marvell’s pupil. It is indeed a symphony of a poem, but let us join the poet in a lyric interlude as he walks in the woods of Appleton House:
‘In fragrant gardens, shady woods,
Deep meadows, and transparent floods.
While with slow eyes (my italics)we these survey,
And on each pleasant footstep stay…..’
Take sanctuary in the wood…
The arching boughs unite between
The columns of the temple green;
And underneath the winged choirs
Echo about their tuned fires.
The nightingale does here make choice
To sing the trials of her voice.
…highest oaks stoop down to hear,
And listening elders prick the ear.
But I have for my music found
A sadder, yet more pleasing sound:
The stock-doves, whose fair necks are graced
With nuptial rings, their ensigns chaste.’
Staying with this lyrical world, recent additions to the Library collection are three books by the British nature writer John Lewis-Stempel: ‘Still Water: The deep life of the pond ’, ‘Glorious Life of the Oak’ and ‘The Secret Life of the Owl.’ These essays, full of information, quotes, references and charming illustrations, remind me of another gem – ‘The Natural History of Selborne’ by the 18th Century English cleric, Gilbert White. His observations and records of the natural world, day by day, season by season, are as alive and immediate today as when he made them. Verlyn Klinkenborg, the American naturalist and author, has written a book about a tortoise who lived in Gilbert White’s garden, ‘Timothy, or Notes of An Abject Reptile’ – ‘abject reptile’ being Gilbert White’s description of the tortoise. I remember recommending ‘Timothy’ to a patron who read it whenever life felt overwhelming. That tortoise helped her to get through the days. I would say the same about ‘The Natural History’. It is good to know that it is here at Stonington Free Library along with many other books on nature, gardens, birds and walks in the woods. Among old friends in this genre, there is Thoreau of course, but not just ‘Walden’. His account of climbing Mount Ktaadn is one of the most rewarding of armchair wilderness hikes, offering an experience of wild-ness, wonder and awe. Robert MacFarlane’s ‘The Old Ways’ is another classic, while two recent additions are ‘In Praise of Paths: Walking through Time and Nature’ and ‘In Praise of Walking: A new scientific exploration’. But, it being May, for pure magic – and perhaps with Marvell’s ‘slow eyes’ – I would join the young Marcel in his walk on the Meseglise Way, rejoicing in the hawthorn blossom. (‘Swann’s Way’ – Volume 1 of ‘In Search of Lost Time’ by Marcel Proust).
‘Swann’s Way’ takes me to a remembrance of how literature can sustain life. During World War II, the remnant of the Polish officer corps, imprisoned by the Soviets, starving, frozen, worked to the point of death, kept themselves from despair, turning their minds from the appalling conditions of their lives by taking turns to give, from memory, lectures on any subject for which they had a passion. By some miracle, notes from one of these lecture series survived and has been translated into English, ‘Lost Time, Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp’ by Jozef Czapski. These words remain forever a record of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of the unimaginable.
Which returns us to the present. How books and libraries have changed lives is a story often told, yet always new. Below is a link to a recent essay in the New York Times Book Review by Min Jin Lee, author of the best-selling novel of the immigrant experience, ‘Pachinko’
Here Ms. Lee recounts the experience of her family and the role that books and libraries played in shaping that experience and, as she says, rescuing them. Hardy’s ‘Jude the Obscure’ is among the books she mentions. Intrigued, I decided to re-read it, remembering it as a story of unbearable despair. It is! But reading it in today’s world and thinking of the young Min Jin Lee, I found it to be a story of how a life without options becomes, inevitably, one that only offers poor choices. Re-reading so often rewards us with new perspectives!
In May, the theme of the Library Book Display will be immigrant literature – the voices of the immigrant, the exile, the displaced, the outsider, the lost, the survivor. Hosseini, Ishiguro, Kincaid, Danticat, Nafisi, Lahiri are a few in a long list of Twentieth Century and contemporary authors. We also have the voices that come to us over time, telling us our story. I think of just two. Henry James, in his self-imposed, but, for him essential, exile, confronts the difficulties that face the American in Europe, the New World meeting the Old, particularly in ‘The American’ and ‘The Ambassadors’ and even in ‘The Aspern Papers’. Herman Melville, who on his voyages had lived among cannibals, celebrates our common humanity in the late-night meeting of Ishmael and Queequeg at the Spouter Inn (‘Moby Dick’ Chs. 3 & 4). In this moment Melville confronts the idea of ‘the stranger’ and gives us one of the great friendships in all literature.
Circling back to Marvell’s nightingale, we hear an echo in the ‘Ode to A Nightingale’ of John Keats:
‘The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the selfsame song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;’
Circling back yet again, this time to owls. In Lewis-Sempel’s ‘The Secret Life of the Owl’ there is a poem by the English poet Edward Thomas(p.79). Written shortly before his death in the First World War, Thomas describes his gratitude at finding food and shelter at the end of a day out walking –
‘All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry.
…one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.
And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.’
Lines that recall the moment in ‘David Copperfield’ when the young David has walked all the way from London to Dover, sleeping in the open for six nights, robbed, chased, hungry, ragged, dirty and footsore and is now safe with his aunt, Betsy Trotwood. ‘I thought of all the solitary places under the night sky where I had slept… I prayed that I never might be houseless anymore, and never might forget the houseless.’ Dickens is surely the genius of the human heart.
All this seems a long way from that lyrical moment in the Appleton woods, but thoughts and ideas have a way of wandering down unexpected paths. I hope you have enjoyed the walk and thank you for keeping me company.
Belinda’s Book Notes – April 2021
POETRY MONTH, NEW BOOKS FROM OLD FRIENDS, ‘TRIBUTES OF PLEASURE’ – SPRING!
‘The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.’ (George Herbert, ‘The Flower’)
That sense of a gift freely given is echoed in Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘A Cold Spring’, perhaps one of the loveliest of Spring poems – ‘Now, from the thick grass, the fireflies/begin to rise:/up, then down, then up again:/ lit on the ascending flight,/ drifting simultaneously to the same height,/ – exactly like the bubbles in champagne….. And your shadowy pastures will be able to offer/ these particular glowing tributes/ every evening now throughout the summer.’
As an added gift, the epigraph to ‘A Cold Spring’ is from Gerard Manley Hopkins sonnet ‘Spring’ – ‘Nothing is so beautiful as Spring’. All these poems can be found on Poetry Foundation.org.
So, in these Notes for April, I offer ‘tributes of pleasure’ to some of those who are contributing to the life of the Library, making it, in George Herbert’s words ‘new, tender, quick’, words from his poem ‘Love Unknown’ that belong to any time or season but somehow especially to now. Incidentally, his birthday is April 3rd! Something to celebrate!
‘Waking Up To The Earth’ is the title of the anthology that Connecticut Poet Laureate, Margaret Gibson, will be presenting on Sunday, April 11th with a group of Connecticut poets reading their poems. As Keats wrote ‘The poetry of earth is never dead’. Margaret is devoted to helping us hear that poetry, through her own work and as an advocate for that of others.
An exciting publishing event this month is a collection of James Merrill’s letters edited by Langdon Hammer and Stephen Yenser entitled ‘A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill’. It is hard to imagine two more qualified people to handle such a project – and that it is coming out on the anniversary of the death of James Merrill’s close friend and fellow poet Sandy McClatchy has a powerful significance. Life continues and is indeed ‘new, tender, quick’.
Gregory Dowling in his review of the letters in the Wall Street Journal (3/6/21) writes “the art, the music, the reading in esoteric subjects, the daily life of shopping and cooking – and, most important, the friendships…This book immerses us in that world, and enriches our understanding of the poetry that came out of it.” We have a taste of that friendship, food and poetry in James Merrill’s life here in Stonington – those parsnips in Eleanor Pereny’s garden immortalized in his poem From the Cupola – “Finally I reach a garden where I am to uproot/ the last parsnips for my sisters’ dinner….. I look at them a long while/ mealy and soiled…blind… with tender blindness. Then I bury them/ once more in memory of us.”
Other book news, local author, friend and neighbor, David Leeming, James Baldwin’s biographer and author of many books on myth, has two new books that will be published later this year. One is ‘a discussion of Native American creation myths in the context of and as opposed to American exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny and the reality of a nation built on stolen people and stolen land’. The second is in the Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction series and is on world mythology. It is a survey of the various cultural treatments of universal topics – deity, creation, the flood, the trickster and the hero. David has kindly agreed to give talks on both these books once we can have in person programs again.
Thanks to the thoughtful generosity of James Longenbach, we have some important additions to our poetry collection, his highly regarded works on the art of poetry as well as volumes of his own poetry. Here I want to pay tribute (‘tributes of pleasure’) to James’s father, artist and educator, Burton Longenbach, for his enchanting drawing on the cover of ‘Stone Cottage, Pound, Yeats & Modernism’, James’s acclaimed critical study of the friendship of Yeats and Pound. Mr Longenbach’s line drawing of Stone Cottage matches exactly the description of the cottage and Ashdown Forest and its history at the beginning of the book – Ashdown Forest, haunt of The Venerable Bede when he wasn’t at Lindisfarne, and home to the Five Hundred Acre Wood, scene of the adventures of Winnie the Pooh! Land of enchantments. No wonder it appealed to Yeats.
It also seems appropriate in Spring and in Poetry Month to recall Ezra Pound’s famous dictum ‘Make it New’ – which in turn echoes the 17th Century physician Sir Thomas Browne – inspiration to Herman Melville in his writing of ‘Moby Dick’ and a favorite author of Elizabeth Bishop’s. In his introduction to his essay ‘The Garden of Cyrus’, Browne wrote to his friend Nicholas Bacon, ‘of old things we write something new.’
Which brings me to another book donated by James Longenbach and just added to our collection – ‘Conversations with Joanna Scott’. In one of these interviews Joanna says ‘I have always appreciated the power of fiction to make us responsive…. To give us the ability to go out and see the world with freshness and intensity’. Again, new – new ways of seeing.
Jim and Joanna will be giving a reading for the Library from their new work on June 17th – Jim from his new book of poetry, ‘Forever’ and Joanna from her new collection of stories, ‘ Excuse Me While I Disappear’.
Still celebrating poetry, the ‘Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt’ has been added to the collection as has ‘Love Amy’, her selected letters. As I mentioned in an earlier Notes, Willard Spiegelman’s biography of Amy Clampitt will be published later this year, as will Jonathan Post’s ‘Elizabeth Bishop, A Very Short Introduction’. This is his second book in this Oxford University Press series following his study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Poems published in 2017 – a happy reminder that April is Shakespeare’s birthday – let ‘..sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy’s child/Warble his native wood-notes wild,’(Milton, ‘L’Allegro’).
Both Willard and Jonathan have kindly agreed to give talks on their much awaited books later this year. What a wealth of talent and generosity we enjoy. So much to look forward to. So much that is new happening at the Library – always!
Belinda’s Book Notes – March 2021
“I sing of the Spring flower-crowned,
I sing the praises of the Rose,
Friend, help me sing my song….”
An invitation to think Spring by the Greek, Anacreon (5th Century BCE) – quoted on the cover of a seed catalogue that Katherine White chose as her frontispiece in the first of her fourteen essays in the New Yorker, published on March 1st 1958. These essays were collected together after her death by her husband E. B. White (‘Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, et al) into one of the most enchanting gardening books ever written – “Onward and Upward in the Garden’. It is even more enchanting as it can be enjoyed and savored even if you have neither the opportunity nor the inclination to garden – enjoyed for its wit and wisdom, its warmth and wonderful writing, her voice as clear and real as when she first wrote.
Many will know Katherine White as the distinguished editor at the New Yorker whose correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop is among the finest of any epistolary exchanges, their voices and their friendship alive on the page. (The book is ‘Elizabeth Bishop at the New Yorker’ edited by Joelle Biele.) I recently came across a quote from the 20th Century English novelist, Henry Green – ‘Prose is an intimacy between strangers’. A comforting observation in this time of imposed isolation – especially as the word intimacy seems to cancel the idea of stranger and replace it with friend – the friend who will help us sing our song. (By the way, Henry Green’s novels are delightful if you don’t know them.)
When I read the first essay in ‘Onward and Upward in the Garden’, the paean of praise to the writers of seed catalogues, my mind leapt to our upcoming program on March 18th with Master Gardener Noreen Kepple!
Surely, everything does connect! Noreen has given delightfully informative presentations on gardening at the Library and it was she who established our very popular Seed Library several years ago – which our staff member Ivy Hope Burns, has kept going in spite of the pandemic restrictions. Thank you Ivy! It was these restrictions that made gardening and seed planting a number one activity for all ages last year and this Spring it will have the same life giving appeal.
Noreen’s program is the second in our new lecture series – at present still via Zoom – and it will follow Stuart Vyse’s talk on March 14th on his book ‘Superstition – A Very Short Introduction’– an engaging and fascinating read which I highly recommend. We are very grateful that he has agreed to do this for us. It promises to be both informative and entertaining!
Like superstitions, gardens have been around forever and maybe longer than that. Milton’s Eden was wondrously beautiful but very labor intensive, which caused Adam a lot of stress and then disagreements between him and his beloved (Bk IX) and, alas, as you know, things did not end well. On the other hand, the Roman poet, Ovid, (whose birthday is March 20th, 43 BCE) had a more relaxed approach and said that, when his time came, he would be content to die while planting his cabbages, and, what is more, did not care if he had not finished doing so! He and Adam should have had a chat. Meanwhile, a bit nearer our time, 18th Century Voltaire’s Candide concluded that the best answer when the world falls apart is that ‘We must cultivate our own garden’. What interesting shoes we walk in as we journey on into another Spring.
My other all time favorite book about gardening was written right here in our own backyard. ‘Green Thoughts – A Writer in the Garden’ by Eleanor Perenyi. Eleanor was a resident of Stonington for over thirty years until her death in 2009, author of a biography of Liszt and an enchanting memoir of her life in Hungary before the war, ‘More Was Lost’ – reprinted to much acclaim by the New York Review of Books in 2016 with an introduction by J.D. (Sandy) McClatchy.
Published in 1981, ‘Green Thoughts’ was republished in 2002 as a very attractive paperback by the Library of America and, like Katherine White’s book, can be read with enjoyment by gardeners and non-gardeners alike. Full of strong opinions, huge breadth of knowledge as well as an infectious passion for gardens, this book has that same quality – the experience for the reader of being in conversation and being the richer for it.
Eleanor and her mother, the novelist Grace Zaring Stone (‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen’ was one of her many novels) were large presences in the community and even make a cameo appearance in a James Merrill poem. In fact, in a delightful neighborly pas de deux, James Merrill makes an appearance in ‘Green Thoughts’ in a touching and lyrical passage in ‘From the Cupola’, a poem in the volume ‘Nights and Days’. I cannot quote it for copyright reasons, but if you go to Poetry.org you will find it, ‘Finally I reach a garden where I am to uproot the last parsnips’. Or look in ‘Green Thoughts’ under ‘Reward’ – the book has the easy charm of arranging each subject in alphabetical order. It is worth the trip I promise, as is Eleanor’s ecstatic comment – ‘The parsnips have made it into literature. Onward!’.
Friends helping each other sing their song. And talking of song, Eleanor took her title, as many of you will know, from the 17th Century poet Andrew Marvell’s beloved lyric poem ‘Thoughts in A Garden’
“Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that Ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.’
Which seems to be a perfect segue to April, Poetry Month, when Connecticut Poet Laureate and good friend to the Library, Margaret Gibson, will present poets reading from a new anthology ‘Waking Up The Earth’ on Sunday April 11th.
Friends, always more thoughts, more books, more connections as we help each other sing our song.
Belinda’s Book Notes – February 2021
‘Who would have thought my shriveled heart
Could have recovered greenness? It was gone
Quite underground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown,
Where they together
All the hard weather,
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.’ (George Herbert – ‘The Flower’)
Here at the Library, looking forward to Spring and our new programs, ‘recovered greenness’ is what I feel. Reaching out to the writers, poets, biographers, scholars all, in our community whose programs had to be cancelled due to the pandemic, I feel a sense of renewal and hope for new beginnings.
In his memorial tribute to Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill quoted the Italian poet and essayist Eugenio Montale – “The ancients said poetry is a staircase to God’ – maybe with our 21st Century sensitivity we might say it is a staircase to new ways of seeing.
It is this new way of Seeing that stands out as a theme in all that is happening around books old and new and friends old and new here at the Library.
Which leads me to “the famous eye’ of Elizabeth Bishop that Merrill refers to, quoting Robert Lowell, and the upcoming book about the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop by our neighbor and friend of the Library, Jonathan Post, that will be published by Oxford University Press later this year. We eagerly await his study of this, one of the greatest of American Twentieth Century Poets – her eye, a staircase to a new vision for all who read her – compassionate as in “Filling Station’ – (‘Somebody loves us all’) – visionary as in ‘The Moose’, painterly in detail as in ‘At The Fishhouses’, all seeing as in ‘Jeronimo’s House’, knowing as in ‘The Shampoo’ (“The still explosions on the rocks,/the lichens, grow/by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.’) heart wrenching in ‘The Armadillo’ and, oh, the birds, the sandpiper, the owls, the song sparrows.
‘life and the memory of it…
– the little that we get for free,
the little of our earthly trust. Not much.
About the size of our abidance
along with theirs: the munching cows,
the iris, crisp and shivering, the water
still standing from spring freshets,
the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese.
Elizabeth Bishop ‘Poem’
Professor Post’s other works include a critical study of Anthony Hecht, “A Thickness of Particulars”, and he is the editor of Hecht’s Letters. He has written extensively on English lyric poetry of the early 17th Century as well as Milton and Sir Thomas Browne and is a distinguished Shakespeare scholar. In 2019 he gave an illuminating talk at the Library on his book “Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Poems – A Very Short Introduction’ that is also a very engaging read, a delightful page turner for this general reader!
Continuing on the theme of seeing, our friend and neighbor Willard Spiegelman had his talk on his collection of essays on art -’If You See Something, Say Something’ – postponed by the pandemic and we look forward to the day when we can once again all gather in the Library and enjoy another of his lively and informative presentations. Meanwhile, however, Professor Spiegelman is working on a biography of the poet Amy Clampitt which will be published early next year. He writes: “AC was an inspiration to many because she was a patron saint for late bloomers. She lived in total obscurity for almost forty years before appearing on the literary scene. She made a splash, and was a major figure, but only for a decade and a half. Between 1978 and 1994, her poems appeared in The New Yorker. She gave readers things they had not seen in years, if ever. And even if she had never achieved fame, she would be an admirable figure in her private capacity as a reader, thinker, and consumer of high culture.”
Something we can all look forward to – meanwhile I find our collection is sadly wanting when it comes to Amy Clampitt’s books and this is being rapidly addressed! Willard’s books of delightful and surprising essays can be found in our catalogue, as can the books by Jonathan Post and those of all the writers mentioned here.
More immediately, former Merrill Poets in Residence and now neighbors, James Longenbach and Joanna Scott both have new books. Joanna, author of several acclaimed novels, has a collection of short stories -”Excuse Me While I Disappear”- coming out in April and James, a book of criticism, ‘The Lyric Now’, was recently published (as he explains, Now is a noun, ‘inviting readers into a nowness that makes itself new each time we read…’ ) and his new poetry collection -’Forever’ -is being published in June. Jim and Joanna will be giving a Library Zoom talk in June – many will remember their reading at the Library two years ago which gave us a foretaste of their new books – it is very exciting to welcome them back again!
On Sunday, March 14th Stuart Vyse, Connecticut College Professor, author of many books, Stonington resident, a familiar friend of the Library, will give a talk – this time via Zoom – that was postponed a year ago on his book “Superstition: A Very Short Introduction” – one of the Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction series. (We own quite a selection of this series and will be adding more.) In it Stuart ‘explores the nature and surprising history of superstition from antiquity to the present. …..He looks at the varieties of popular superstitious beliefs today and the psychological reasons behind their continued existence, as well as the likely future course of superstition in our increasingly connected world.’ Guaranteed, we will find ourselves looking at old things in a new way
Then, on Sunday, April 11th, (Poetry Month!) Connecticut Poet Laureate, Margaret Gibson, long time colleague and friend of the Library, will present a program of Connecticut poets reading from a new anthology, ‘Waking Up to the Earth’, that addresses the urgent and painful challenges of climate change. Margaret also has a new book of poetry, ‘The Glass Globe’, coming out in August and we hope very much to be able to welcome her to an in-person reading in the early Fall. In her introduction to the anthology Margaret brings us back to our theme of seeing, with echoes of Elizabeth Bishop –
“These poems call us home to ourselves as human inhabitants who are not separate from the other inhabitants on this earth, …”
‘Poetry allows us to wake up and to see; it teaches us how to sustain our gaze, paying attention…’
So my friends, I give you, from the heart of the Library, in this winter moment, thoughts of ‘recovered greenness’ and Montale’s staircase and hopes for a new day for us all.