Sunday, November 23, 2014

To Purify the Language of the Tribe

The French poet Stephane MallarmĂ© once opined (T.S. Eliot would echo him in his magisterial Four Quartets) that poetry’s object was to “purify the language of the tribe.” I’ve been thinking about that lately– less, though, in response to any poetic text than to a wonderful prose one, Henry Beston’s Northern Farm (1949), a chronicle of seasonal life in and around the house that the author and his wife shared on Lake Damariscotta in Maine.

Anyone who has ever considered her- or himself in the least a naturalist writer knows Beston’s classic The Outermost House; by her own account, for example, this was the only book that directly influenced Rachel Carson’s composition of Silent Spring, itself so influential. Yet I was ignorant of Northern Farm until it turned up on a shelf at my late, wonderful mother-in-law’s house in western Massachusetts. Much of the author’s prose simply stuns me, and I am in sympathy with many of its tendencies. Consider the following:

One of the greater mischiefs which confront us today is the growing debasement of the language. Our speech is a mere shadow of its incomparable richness, having on the one hand become vulgarized and on the other corrupted with a particularly odious academic jargon. Now this is dangerous. A civilization which loses its power over its own language has lost its power over the instrument by which it thinks.

Amen, said I to myself as I pondered these assertions...a response that among other things surely proves, as I must acknowledge, how men and women of an age like mine have always thought and will always think “the world nowadays is going to hell.” But.

But what is meant, for example, by “Chevrolet, an American revolution”? Was it General Motors that impelled Washington across the Delaware in that cold, crucial winter? For shame. Or “Love– it’s what makes as Subaru a Subaru.” Did Dante drive an Outback?

This is the sort of thing that Beston called vulgarization. Loathsome though it be, however, it can’t compare to a passage like the following, cobbled together by a professor– Lord, help us– of English at a prestigious university:

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious  authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational,  enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.

Contemporary literary theorists such as our professor here have pointed out that words never bear more than an oblique relation to what they are meant to signify. (To arrive at this conclusion, evident to any poet or fiction writer within the first day or so of trying out her art, the intelligentsia must have invented a reader so dumb or so rapt as perhaps to have seen a written word like “hamburger” and then tried to eat it.) But it is unclear to me exactly what the obfuscatory words just cited may refer to, even obliquely.

In reading Henry Beston, in relishing his straightforward yet lyrical style, it occurred to me –hardly for the first time– that alienation from the tangible world, including the alienation of language from that world, is, as he says, dangerous. I am more and more convinced that the farther we get from our physical realities, the more radically we make the (false) distinction between our bodily and spiritual lives, the more we pay for it.

We can turn to– well, silliness, the kind evinced, in my opinion, by the unreadable prose of the English professor just quoted, though his is only an instance, and sadly not a particularly extreme one, of the argot used by the academic theorists who have carried the day in our humanities departments. These tend to be men and women who speak so densely and abstractly –and all but exclusively to one another– that their language bears no palpable relation to the world of people who live in very different circumstances. Theory among the academicians, I surmise, is so motivated by their need to say something new (an imperative that would have baffled, even alarmed, the scholars of antiquity, by the way) that I can’t help supposing they must themselves at times feel suspicion of their own assertions.

Here’s Henry Beston again:

When I am here by myself..., I read the agricultural papers and journals which have been put aside in the kitchen cupboard for just such a solitary night. I never read (these) without being struck by the good, sound, honest English of the writing, by the directness and simplicity of the narratives...Whether the topic be tomatoes or ten-penny nails, their writers know how to say things and say them well.

But wait: I am not mounting an argument for simplism any more than Beston is; I scarcely regret that Emily Dickinson, for instance, was not a poultry farmer. I am simply reiterating my claim that disembodiment, alienation from our physical and natural world, results not in higher thinking but in impoverishment or obfuscation or, again, silliness. This seems to me even truer for poetry than for most modes of discourse. I’m put in mind of Ezra Pound’s claim, which, granted, is only a half-truth, even if the true half is deeply compelling: “the natural object is always the adequate symbol.”

Speaking of which, could anyone, as poet, fictionist, or practitioner any other sort of language, be more eloquent than Beston in this passage from Northern Farm?

A gold and scarlet leaf floating solitary on the clear, black water of the morning rain             barrel can catch the emotion of a whole season, and chimney smoke blowing across             the winter moon can be a symbol of all that is mysterious in human life.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

I am pleased to say that my twelfth book of poems, NO DOUBT THE NAMELESS, will appear next year from the excellent Four Way Books, my favorite of the nine different publishers that have issued my work in various genres.

I am also excited that my fourth collection of lyrical essays (as I prefer to call them, rather than using the hideous contemporary term "creative nonfiction") will be published by a new and exciting Vermont Publisher, Green Writers Press, directed by the very able Dede Cummings. It will be called WHAT'S THE STORY? SHORT TAKES ON A LIFE GROWN LONG.  The following is an excerpt.

County Home: An Iraqui Suite, 2004
                                                        –in mem. Robert Bagley, and for the Reverend Ms. Susan Tarantino

            I. Hex on the Vampire

Months back, the preacher told me I should go and see him, because our left-wing Christian sect requires “the ministry of the people.” So here I am to pick up Robert at the county home, to speed with him in near absolute quiet to the truck stop. We arrive, and he shuffles beside me, feeble, a brad-thin arm hooked under mine, as we make our slow way through the idling 18-wheelers in the lot, then into the unsmiling company of their drivers, rough-hewn QuĂ©becois. This is the first truck stop south of the lately terror-stricken, closely guarded border.

Please God, I think, don’t let me be a vampire, whatever in my art may prompt me to be. I will force myself to be silent, letting the old guy order for himself, attending his articulations, the dark den of his mouth twisted by– no, I won’t tell you. I won’t tell anyone, at least for now, what happened to make him this way some years ago.

We eat, still unspeaking, and I don’t wipe the egg from his one and only necktie. No. The writer won’t comment on how Robert’s doing as his trousers ride up his milk-blue shins and he keeps on smiling. I’ll tell you only that he may just be doing better than you or I: he’ll take the world as it is. He’s alone, he's dirt poor, he's ancient and lame, and is nonetheless a man who, unlike me too often, seems to understand the difference between acceptance and resignation.

I’m hungry. I order the “Big Rig Platter,” steak and eggs, with bulky bread and the bottomless cup of good strong coffee. I mean to leave things at filling my healthy gut like a truck, forgetting about subject matter. He’s taught me a thing or two, this shambles, this shell, though it’s often a struggle to remember them. You see, I’m not doing good here. In the good-for-good department, Robert outpaces me, fueled by a meal of soft-scrambled eggs, crustless toast, and –it being a big day, in fact his birthday– tomato soup.

Robert’s shirt is cross-buttoned, his trousers climb those shanks, his dank and slow-grown hair is harum-scarum.

Awkwardly, I pray, Please God, don’t let some literary effort of mine reflect on those crumpled shoulders, the head that lolls and allows the white, bowed neck to present its length, as if for my teeth.

            II. Dated story

On my way in, I see the two women whom I think of –without irony, I hope– as the Sleeping Beauties, small in their nineties to the cusp almost of infinity, and always resting, always utterly quiet, thus apparently peaceful. And peace is, after all, a rare thing of beauty.

A war’s still on, and Rumsfeld’s “Saddened” By Criticism of Iraq Policy. So says this morning’s headline above the syndicated article in our small local newspaper.

When I get to Frenchy’s room, I notice his daughter has woven a handsome Boston Red Sox blanket with "For Daddy" stitched at the top. A small, crocheted stocking shows on every door in the hall. It’s just before Christmas.

Frenchy was born in 1918, which was until now the last year the Sox were World Series champions. It’ll be a good holiday, then. Fact is, he’s not saddened. Not at all. Fact is, he tells me, he’s happy as a bull with a heifer. Despite my poor ears and his spectral voice, I hear and I laugh.

One of my older neighbors recalls Frenchy’s gas station in the 1950s, which he’d bought and run for a long spell because even then Vermont’s family hill farms were in trouble. She tells me Frenchy was a very nice man.

Frenchy is a very nice man, and not all that ill; he’s just old, is all. He jokes that when he was a boy, “That Big Dipper wa’n’t nothin’ but a little cup.” He laughs again, a sound like gentle wind among reeds on the river, as I used to hear it from blinds when the duck hunting was a lot better. I laugh again myself, even if I’m a touch wistful. I was a fitter, younger man when I hunted those ducks, so I get to thinking of time’s velocity.

As for Mr. Secretary, he claims that time is precisely the issue, not will, and in another context I’d agree, because true enough, time is a killer. But Rummy isn't talking of philosophy but of making armor plating for our soldiers’ Humvees, which his department could not, apparently, manage to provide before the U.S. invasion.

He has advised our troops that “you go to war with the army you have and not with the one you may wish you had,” no matter it seems clear as death to an ignorant man like me that he and his cronies had all the time in the world in which to plan their precious assault. Frenchy doesn’t have that kind of time; but then, as far as I know, he bears no responsibility for a single death, either.

“By God we did it!” Frenchy calls out loud, or as loud as he can, while I’m leaving. You might think he had driven in runs himself, or pitched scoreless innings, or turned double plays, and so had helped to whip the hated foes. But it’s just the ironist in me that notes such a thing, and I’ve become ironic only because so many people’s claims are –excuse me– bullshit, whereas Frenchy’s joy is real, I think, and I know I am right, and his joy is not petty, because there’s no such thing as a petty joy in the world.
            III. Unspent

There’s been more snow in March alone than there was all the rest of the winter, so I’m guarding against the ice that forms beneath its cover after rain or thaw swells brooks and then a freeze drops in to sheet the surface over. In time, the brooks subside, the water drops, the drum-ice turns into a trap.

Not me, goddamn you! I shout into still air. I probe with a ski-pole. That ice is thin as a dollar, I suddenly think, and having thought it, I go on to think of old Reed at the home.

Reed said last week he had unspent cash in his wallet. He showed me a bill so worn you could scarcely make out the figures on the bills. “Older’n God, he sighed. So I took him down to the general store, because he’d been in no store for ages and had forgotten what it was like to visit one. A store! A store was all, for the love of God. And I’ve got nothing to do this Saturday afterwards but poke around with a pole and swear.

Today, the president told the public he was on a mission to change Social Security. Reform. That’s the word he used. His plan would put all retirement accounts into the hands of Wall Street’s brokers. The brokers love it. Now it’s true enough, Reed’s benefits can’t pay for any care but what he gets in his tiny room at the county home, which not that long ago was known as The Residence for the Poor, but will Wall Street help that? I have my doubts. By now the home’s name has been softened, and its staff’s damned good, as good anyhow as it can be under the circumstances. A decent staff is not the point, however.

The only stock Reed’s ever gotten over the counter is his stock of drugs, whose manufacturers are likewise fond of so-called reform. Most of the time, the pharmaceuticals keep Reed from hitting bottom with seizures. I mutter and keep right at my probing. I don’t want to sink into some neck-deep pit with a crash. Whenever I find a patch of drum-ice I just bash the living hell out of it, then hop across the brook or ditch as I still can do, praise God.

In that general store I figured I should let Reed spend his money, because, just for a change, he wanted to buy whatever he could himself. He fished up two of those pale bucks for doughnuts and tea.

I’m out here by myself for now. Not for good. For now. A person needs some dignity, I think, but I'm standing alone in woods, where that issue isn’t an issue, where only ravens and rodents hear me curse and flail, and wish out loud I could see the reformers spend one year at making bread, loaf after loaf, as Reed kept doing for forty years and more, so that his hands are forever locked in a curl, as if he were still kneading dough.

Then those who rhapsodize on an ownership society would spend one week in the home, good staff or none, where Reed sits quietly waiting for somebody to join him in front of the lone TV, on whose screen the owners keep prosing away, their discourse full of high-sounding bromides. Dignity. Responsibility. Freedom. So on. Each day for Reed is like treading that dollar-thin ice. Each day is a day is a day is a day in the home. I crash my crude weapon against the goddamned ice until the croaking and chattering wild things scatter, as if I possessed not a pole but a gun.

            IV. 6-9-9-1

6 is for the number of strokes that left Joe what he is: one big stroke, then five of those little ones called by letters. I forget which letters, but one is I, for incident, as I recall.

You wouldn’t think Joe’s mouth could be so black, so hollow. I like to see him smile, and at the same time don’t. You wouldn’t think a back could be so bent, either. And yet, whenever I arrive, he straightens as best he can to present himself to me.

I’ve been with him this morning for a few minutes, which, I scold myself, aren’t enough. Yet I keep on punching the code.

9 now. What else can I do, after all? He can’t walk, he can’t talk, it will have to be enough, –won’t it?– that I come to visit once a week and after only a while I return to this great metal door and punch the numbers, whose order he’s not allowed to know, though he couldn’t escape if he tried.

These short visits are all I offer Joe. He has no one else on earth. So am I a hero?  You bet I’m not. Not at all, but he does notice me there, I believe. He’s aware that I stand by him now and then to hear the Bingo numbers, say, and to help him put down his chips, gently slapping him on his back when he wins. Today he didn’t win.

So I have walked down this Pine-Sol-and-urine-reeking hall and I’m punching these other numbers on the big, cold door. Oh, here I am again at my blessed 6-9-9-1, I think, and although it can’t be right, I feel I’m free at last.

I’m still only at the second 9. I’m much younger than Joe but I’m slow with the code because my eyes don’t do well in such low light. He was a roofer down in Concord and probably known by his full name there, not just Joe. I don’t know the other name myself.

Joe and I are friends by now, to call it friendship, and you always want, of course, to help a friend or any fellow human as much as you can– except you can’t. Or maybe you can but you don’t know how. For instance, I have only held Joe’s shriveled claw and shouted at him to nod if he needed anything and pointed to his shirt, shoe, toothbrush, and so on. He didn’t nod. I didn’t ask about the T.V. or radio because he can’t quite hear them anyway, and his roommate is asleep. All he does is sleep. He won’t be watching or listening to anything. At least Joe sits there waiting.

I push this last number, the 1, which could stand for I  too, I suppose, and once I touch it –poof– I’m gone.