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Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Plight of the Tall Girl

Drusilla wields her pistols.
Don't get me wrong; there are lots of really great things about being tall. I can reach the top shelf, see over heads in a movie theater, even look formidable without the torture of high heels. But there are times that, well, it's not so welcome. I'm finally reading Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, and boy, does he have something to say on the subject! Bear in mind, as you read the following, that I was born in Dallas, and that one of my nicknames in high school was actually "The Amazon". And, lest you think that this is something that has tortured me, a slight from adolescence that has permanently and negatively affected me for a decade, know that I recall it with the same sense of pride I felt when one of my favorite professors told me, "Madame, you are like Faulkner's character Drusilla from The Unvanquished, who carries two pistols, and knows how to use them."

She is magnificent with her split tooth and her Prince Val bangs split on her forehead. Gray eyes and wide black brows, a good arm and a fine swell of calf above her cellophane boot. One of those solitary Amazons one sees on Fifty-seventh Street in New York or in Nieman Marcus in Dallas. Our eyes meet. Am I mistaken or does the corner of her mouth tuck in ever so slightly and the petal of her lower lip curl out ever so richly? She is smiling -- at me! My mind hits upon half a dozen schemes to circumvent the terrible moment of separation. No doubt she is a Texan. They are nearly always bad judges of men, these splendid Amazons. Most men are afraid of them and so they fall victim to the first little Mickey Rooney that comes along. In a better world I should be able to speak to her: come, darling, you can see that I love you. If you are planning to meet some little Mickey, think better of it. What a tragedy it is that I do not know her, will probably never see her again. What good times we could have! This very afternoon we could go spinning along the Gulf Coast. What consideration and tenderness I could show her! If it were a movie, I would have only to wait. The bus would get lost or the city would be bombed and she and I would tend the wounded. As it is, I may as well stop thinking about her... I... forget about the girl. (12-13, Vintage Books)

I'll leave you to your own reflections.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Word "Entrammeled"

Every summer throws me headlong into a Keats mood. I'm not sure why that is, but I enjoy it very much. Over the last week I’ve been reading the letters he wrote to Fanny Brawne, with whom, judging by these letters, he was very much in love. Being the impractical poet that he was, he gave up the potentially lucrative practice of medicine in which he was trained so that he could devote himself full time to writing. Maybe he would have lived a little longer if he’d stayed in medicine… he died when he was 25, you know? Anyway, there are any number of delightful lines in these letters, though I can certainly see some people among my acquaintance rolling their eyes at how gushy he gets. I find that I don’t mind so much! But poor Fanny. Besides having been cursed with such an unfortunate name (and yes, I know it was quite popular in her day and age, but it isn’t anymore), I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for her to have someone so head over heels in love with her, and then to have him be utterly unable to support a family, marry her, or, more importantly, stay alive. But all of this aside, here’s part of one of his earlier letters to her:

Postmark: Newport, July 3, 1819
                                                                                                  Shanklin, Isle of Wight, Thursday My dearest Lady — I am glad I had not an opportunity of sending off a Letter which I wrote for you on Tuesday night—'twas too much like one out of Rousseau's Heloise. I am more reasonable this morning. The morning is the only proper time for me to write to a beautiful Girl whom I love so much: for at night, when the lonely day has closed, and the lonely, silent, unmusical Chamber is waiting to receive me as into a Sepulchre, then believe me my passion gets entirely the sway, then I would not have you see those Rhapsodies which I once thought it impossible I should ever give way to, and which I have often laughed at in another, for fear you should [think me] either too unhappy or perhaps a little mad… Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom. Will you confess this in the Letter you must write immediately, and do all you can to console me in it—make it rich as a draught of poppies to intoxicate me—write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been. For myself I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and liv'd but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain… Do write immediately. There is no Post from this Place, so you must address Post Office, Newport, Isle of Wight. I know before night I shall curse myself for having sent you so cold a Letter; yet it is better to do it as much in my senses as possible. Be as kind as the distance will permit to your

Present my Compliments to your mother, my love to Margaret and best remembrances to your Brother—if you please so.

“So cold” a letter? Wow. I wonder what the letters he wrote at night looked like. Now, the reason I chose to share this particular letter with you is because of the word “entrammelled” (that’s his spelling, not mine; as Andrew Jackson has it, it’s a damn small mind that can only think of one way to spell a word). This is a word which I have always found delightful and entrancing, one which conjures up associations with Andrew Marvell’s The Fair Singer, JW Waterhouse’s depiction of La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and yes, Rapunzel.  

"La Belle Dame Sans Merci"
I always want to call this movie Entrammeled.

 The Fair Singer is about a woman who is not only enchanting because of her physical appearance, but also because of the beauty of her voice, a voice which envelops the speaker of the poem in such a way that he is hopeless to resist. An excerpt for you:
I could have fled from one but singly fair,
My disentangled soul itself might save,
Breaking the curled trammels of her hair.
But how should I avoid to be her slave,
Whose subtle art invisibly can wreath
My fetters of the very air I breathe? source
The speaker is all tangled up in her, not only in “the curled trammels of her hair” but also the invisible, ethereal bonds of her voice. Being tangled up in hair makes Rapunzel come to mind for obvious reasons. From there, moving to Waterhouse’s depiction of Keats’ poem is easy enough. If ever a knight were entrammeled in hair, Waterhouse's knight surely is.

So, lots of good associations (fairy tales, beautiful women, handsome knights), but I suppose that, ultimately, the reason that I like this word so well is that it  seems to convey a sense of the captive being caught up in something that he loves or at least in some way desires. Even in Keats' poem, while La Belle Dame is a dangerous beauty, he is distraught to wake from his dream and find her gone; part of him wanted to remain enthralled by her. And surely the cruelty that Keats speaks of in his question to Fanny Brawne ("Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom") is a "cruelty" in which he delights. It is a freedom he is glad to surrender. I've said it before and I'm sure I'll say it again: we humans are meant to give ourselves to something. We're made to lay ourselves down for something, be it a cause or a person, that is more worth fighting for and in some way dying for than our own comforts. Maybe "entrammeled" doesn't dig quite so deep and heady as that, but it's in the same direction: being completely undone, being at peace with the surrender of freedom, being captivated, surrounded, enveloped and overcome by something lovely and strong, graceful and worthwhile, something far superior to ourselves.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Silken Tent - Robert Frost

Field Trip!
If you're ever up in New Hampshire, you should be sure to stop by the Robert Frost Farm in Derry. Also, it's about an hour north of Boston, so really, if you're ever in Boston, you should make the drive up. During the three years I lived in Manchester, I visited there a number of times, occasionally bringing students, sometimes taking a picnic with one or two fellow poetry lovers, and, of course, sometimes on my own. There are still some apple trees on the farm, very old, quite large, and stunning in late May. In addition to the trees, the farmhouse and old barn, there are paths through the surrounding woods, paths that take you right over Mending Wall and Hyla Brook. My second favorite thing on the farm, after one of the apple trees, is the big field behind the house. I suppose there's nothing objectively particularly remarkable about it; it's just a big field with some stone walls and woods around it, but whenever I see it I think about his poem The Silken Tent, and imagine the "she" of the poem to be pictured in this very field:

 She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one's going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware. 

Favorite words and phrases of the poem: "its pinnacle to heavenward...signifies the sureness of the soul"; "is loosely bound / by countless silken ties of love"; "capriciousness". The overall picture I have in my head is of a tall, graceful, strong, vaguely ethereal and nobly beautiful woman, a woman who is dependable, capable, hardy, full of love and goodness, fine in everything she does and is, but still human in that part of her that, when the summer breezes blow through, feels the littlest bit bound and trapped and desirous of life without bonds, even if they are bonds of love.

Here's the website for the farm, if the mood strikes:

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Excerpts: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

The author, Marisha Pessl
By now I'm well over 300 pages into Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and feel much better qualified than I did last time to say a bit about it. Marisha Pessl is an excellent writer. Like many contemporary novelists, she does have an unfortunate tendency to showcase how well read she is, though, given her skill, I find it more forgivable than I often do (see The Weird Sisters or Treasure Island!!!). And, after all, Dante did the same thing, right?

The story centers on Blue van Meer, the daughter of a highly intelligent, self-satisfied and sometimes scathing, but still very likable university professor whose wife died behind the wheel, tired out from butterfly collecting. After the death of his wife, Gareth van Meer moves himself and his seven year old daughter three to four times each year, teaching at small community colleges all over the country. In his words:

"Why should I waste my time teaching puffed-up teenagers whose minds are curdled by arrogance and materialism? No, I shall spend my energies enlightening America's unassuming and ordinary. 'There's majesty in no one but the Common Man.' " (When questioned by colleagues as to why he no longer wished to educate the Ivy League, Dad adored waxing poetic on the Common Man. And yet, sometimes in private, particularly while grading a frighteningly flawed final exam or widely off-the-mark research paper, even the illustrious, unspoiled Common Man could become, in Dad's eyes, a "half-wit," a "nimrod," a "monstrous misuse of matter.") (23)

Determined, however, that his daughter should attend Harvard University, as he did, he enrolls her in the elitist St. Gallway School, and settles in one town for Blue's senior year of high school. A delightful excerpt on how the school got its name:
The booklet also featured a delightfully eccentric blurb about Horatio Mills Gallway, a rags-to-riches paper industrialist who'd founded the school back in 1910, not in the name of altruistic principles like civic duty or the persistence of scholarship, but for a megalomaniacal desire to see Saint in front of his surname; establishing a private school proved to be the easiest way to achieve this. (62)
When she arrives at her new school, Blue, like any new student, is nervous, worried about making the right impression, and figures herself a cut above the company (and she's right on that last point, in many ways):
I'm obliged to reveal an old trick: implacable self-possession can be attained by all, not by pretending to look absorbed in what's clearly a blank spiral notebook; not by trying to convince yourself you're an undiscovered rock star, movie star, top model, tycoon, Bond, Bond Girl, Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth Bennett, or Eliza Doolittle at the Ambassador's Ball; not by imagining you're a long-lost member of the Vanderbilt family, nor by tilting up your chin fifteen to forty-five degrees and pretending to be Grace Kelly in her prime. These methods work in theory, but in practice they slip away, so one is left hideously naked with nothing but the stained sheet of self-confidence around one's feet. Instead, stately dignity can be possessed by all, in two ways: 1. Diverting the mind with a book or play; 2. Reciting Keats. (65)
Visual Aid 2.0 -- Blue is half-hidden
Despite Blue's obvious intelligence and clarity of vision, she does fall in with the cool crowd at school, a shiny, attractive, "mature" group of five kids whom she eventually discovers to be monumentally unhappy. Charles, Jade, Nigel, Milton and Leulah become her constant companions. I have yet to discover how it will all resolve, if there can possibly be a satisfactory conclusion to what is in many ways a very dark, very sad book. It is quite a bleak, though I think accurate picture of the emptiness behind "school popularity" and the ethereal hipster indie mystique. And yet, despite this emptiness, even to us audience up on our safe and sage observing tower, there's still something fascinating and entrancing about these five young people. Though it has taken me a while to get here, sharing these descriptions of Nigel, Milton and Leulah is actually why I started this post. Perhaps I'm reading the wrong things in general, but it seems to me that it's not often in contemporary literature that characters are introduced so vividly, so imaginatively, so tangibly:
Nigel was the cipher (see "Negative Space," Art Lessons, Trey, 1973, p. 29). At first glance (even at second and third), he was ordinary. His face – rather his entire being – was a buttonhole: small, narrow, uneventful. He stood no more than five-feet-five with a round face, brown hair, features weak and baby-feet pink (neither complemented nor marred by the wire glasses he wore). At school, he sported thin, tonguelike neckties in neon orange, a fashion statement I guessed was his effort to force people to take notice of him, much like a car's hazard lights. And yet, upon closer examination, the ordinariness was extraordinary: he bit his nails into thumbtacks; spoke in hushed spurts (uncolored guppies darting through a tank); in large groups, his smile could be a dying lightbulb (shining reluctantly, flickering, disappearing); and a single strand of his hair (once found on my skirt after sitting next to him), held directly under a light, shimmered with every color in a rainbow, including purple. And then there was Milton, sturdy and grim, with a big, cushiony body like someone's favorite reading chair in need of reupholstering (see "American Black Bear," Meat-Eating Land Animals, Richards, 1982). He was eighteen, but looked thirty. His face, cluttered with brown eyes, curly black hair, a swollen mouth, had a curdled handsomeness to it, as if, incredibly, it wasn't what it'd once been. He had an Orsen Wellesian quality, Gerardepardieuian too: one suspected his large, slightly overweight frame smothered some kind of dark genius and after a twenty-minute shower he'd still reek of cigarettes. He'd lived most of his life in a town called Riot in Alabama and thus spoke in a Southern accent so gooey and thick you could probably cut into it and spread it on dinner rolls. Like all Mysteriosos, he had an Achilles' heel: a giant tattoo on his upper arm. He refused to talk about it, went to great pains to conceal it – never removing his shirt, always wearing long sleeves – and if some clown during P. E. asked him what it was, he either stared at the kid as if he were a Price Is Right rerun, barley blinking, or replied in his molasses accent: "Nunna ya goddamn business."
 And then there was the delicate creature (see Juliet, JW Waterhouse, 1898). Leulah Maloney was pearl skinned, with skinny bird arms and long brown hair always worn in a braid, like one of those cords aristocracy pulled in the nineteenth century to summon servants. Hers was an eerie, old-fashioned beauty, a face at home in amulets or carved into cameos – a romantic look I actually used to wish I had whenever Dad and I were reading about Gloriana in The Faerie Queene (Spenser, 1596) or discussing Dante's love for Beatrice Portinari. (“Know how difficult it is to find a woman that looks like Beatrice in today's world?” asked Dad. “You've a better chance running at the speed of light.”) Early in the fall, when I least expected it, I'd see Leulah in a long dress (usually white or diaphanous blue) strolling the Commons in the middle of a downpour, holding her little antique face up to the rain while everyone else streaked past her screaming, textbooks or disintegrating Gallway Gazettes held over their heads. Twice I noticed her like this – another time, crouched in Elton House shrubbery, apparently fascinated by a piece of bark or tulip bulb – and I couldn't help but think such faerielike behavior was all very calculated and irritating. Dad had carried on a tedious five-day affair with a woman named Birch Peterson in Okush, New Mexico, and Birch, having been born outside Ontario in a "terrific" free-loving commune called Verve, was always entreating Dad and me to walk untroubled in the rain, bless mosquitoes, eat tofu. When she came for dinner she said a prayer before we "consumed," a fifteen-minute plea asking "Shod" to bless every slime mold and mollusk. "The word God is inherently male," said Birch, "so I came up with she, he, and God rolled into one. Shod exemplifies the truly genderless Higher Power." I concluded Leulah – Lu, as they all called her – with her gossamer dresses, reedy hair, decisions to skip daintily along everything but sidewalks, had to have Birch's persona of bean curd, that espirit de spirulina... ("There's something sour about her. She's totally past her Eat-by date," I heard Lucille Hunter remark in AP English). (90-91)
Well, if you're not sold after all that, I don't know what would get you hooked on this book. Give yourself some time (it's over 500 pages), brace yourself against the darkness, and bear in mind that it is quite humorous as well. Buy it! Read it! Talk to me about it.