Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A story, a prize, a summer

PHOTO: "Cloistered Assemblage" paperweight by Paul Stankard, glassblower and lover of words. I'm drawn to his floating orbs and tiny root people (look carefully at that tangle of roots) and mystical blossoms. For more, go to http://www.paulstankard.com/. Yes, you may send me one!

BRODKEY'S CEIL

The house had very large windows that went down quite close to the floor. These windows had drawn shades that were an inhumanly dun-yellow color, a color like that of old lions in the zoo, or the color of corn tassels, of cottonwood leaves after they have lain on the ground a while—that bleached and earthen clayey white-yellow.

Some time ago—I don’t remember when—I thought to rid myself of this sort of repetition of metaphor, rhythmical and hypnotic but redundant. It seemed to me a sort of tic of our time. The more metaphors one piled up, the more detailed and yet more diffuse the original subject became. They had no function; there was no adequate reason for their existence.
But in Harold Brodkey’s story, “Ceil,” that sort of repetitive piling-up of detail that cannot finally lead one to a single clear vision is the whole being of the story—structure, goal, impossible desire. The narrator’s struggle to bring into focus the mother who died when he was a baby is a heaping up of detail that cannot call her into being. It is all “useless significance.”

It seems that all flaws are usable.

By the end of the story, one finds that even living women are difficult to know. The narrator's gleanings, quoted from the woman who raised him, give way to a comments about her by a third woman. Ultimately, the truth about women—or, indeed, about any human being—proves slippery.

One of the things about the story that I find interesting is the way Brodkey moves from two tiny paragraphs: “I was born in her bedroom, at home” and “I feel her, I feel her moods” to a thing that the narrator believes to be a memory. A train passes and shakes the house.

One thing that interests me here is inheritance. The description of the train with its build-up and falling-away strikes me as one of those passages that owe their existence to Mark Twain’s famous description of the arrival and departure of a steamboat in Huckleberry Finn. In part that may because I’ve written a description of a train that reminded me of Twain. But if you are an American writer, you very likely can’t help remembering Twain when any human conveyance arrives with great bustle and departs, leaving a lull in its wake.

I think of Hemingway’s claim that all American literature descended from Mr. Mark Twain.

The long train passage appears to have some sort of correspondence with the simple statement that the narrator was born in the house. The steady shaking that moves with “quickening rhythm” toward “unremitting noise,” “battering waves,” and a state where the house “throbs in an aching shapelessness” is an analogue to his mother’s body and the uncontrollable rhythms of childbirth. All these details—so clear when placed together—are submerged in the larger description of the train. Afterward, in the next section, he remembers the country smell of the house. Then he recalls his mother’s torso in a print dress. The next section is the one quoted above, beginning with “the house had very large windows.” Juxtaposition makes one read the country house as a parallel the country-loving Ceil. Likewise, the closed-in house suggests an analogue to the “isolated” mother.

People are link-making creatures. The less “bald” the links are, the more satifying it is to leap the chasm.

***
SHAARA FROLICS

My penpal Howard Bahr has won The Michael Shaara Award for his novel, The Judas Field (Holt, 2006). Since most news on the literary front is discouraging—the decline of book review sections and the death of reading and poor sales seem to be the focus of book-related headlines these days—I feel very glad for this piece of news. It’s curious that Howard, my penpal Philip Lee Williams, and I have all won the Shaara. We’ll have to chalk it up to good taste and put up a clubhouse sign; I’d like a treehouse somewhere.

***
"MY SUMMER VACATION"

Summer has flown. Among other things, B and R experienced a certain amount of gainful employment. N attended a prodigious number of day camps and one away camp. While he was there, I went with R to the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. She was under their age limit, so I served as chaperone and sushi provider for a week—went to Steve Bissette’s movie night but otherwise kept my head down except at the end of the day, when I popped in to look at the work done. We stayed at the down-at-the-heels but pleasant Hotel Coolidge, just down the street. After it rained, a fire hose hung off the roof, discharging water in great arterial bursts. It was my easiest week of the summer. I worked on a book, walked, and had picnics.

At the end of the summer, the children and I zoomed off to North Carolina—to Cullowhee and afterward to Aiken, South Carolina and then to Sunset Beach, all with my mother; I regret that I didn’t make it to Chapel Hill, as I wanted to see many people. But it was lovely to spend time with my mother and one of my cousins, and my husband flew down for a stay at the shore. R was stung by jellyfish. How long does it take for that irritation to go away, I wonder? I had two especially grand days for poems at the beach, and came home with six new keepers. Good fishing!

***
FAE MALANIA

For those of you who were interested in Fae Malania and the reprint of her book, Fae is in the hospital. She is 88 now, a time when hospital visits are not so much of a surprise. Yesterday she seemed much better. I smuggled N over for a visit, as he is good for spreading cheer.

***
AT HUNTINGTON LIBRARY

Is it possible to talk about books and do a reading without meeting some young, aspiring writer? Only if he or she is shy and doesn’t speak, I suppose. I like talking to them but also feel a kind of sadness, since the path through publishing can be so thorny. One wants to warn them about peril and black slough and promises that are only a fine glitter. Perhaps their way of publishing will be altogether different from mine, given the flux of things.

13 comments:

  1. don't warn them (us) too much, or you may scare off the ones who have the chops to break through the thickets as long as they don't see the peril before they land.

    If you know the water's that cold, you may not jump. If you don't know the water's that cold, once you're in you'll just keep swimming. ;)

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  2. As always, the queen has laid out a feast for her visitors...so many delicious morsels!! i suppose i will begin with the last, as it hits so directly home with this
    writer and photographer who lives for and in the garden...and relies on others who care about words, images and gardens.

    i'm fairly certain that reading is about as "dead" as gardening is in the U.S. In others words: it's not. Even though the greedy giants are doing their best to fulfill their own prophecies.

    i'm sure the Queen is a kind teacher and cheerleader to young authors, or any other artists intent on trying to earn a living with their creations. It's tricky, attempting to be honest about the difficult and "thorny" realities to an eager, guileless student, without selfishly unloading on them too much of our own heart break. But for the young creator, it is a most generous act... opening their eyes and minds to the necessity of developing a courageous heart and adequately thick skin that can withstand the wicked, sharp brambles out there. Too many of us "sensitive creative" types were never taught how to protect the soft underbelly...how to recover from wounds and restore the heart.

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  3. Ah, I don't suppose one can scare that kind, Annie. I tend to be the encouraging sort, even if the prospect ahead is only dimly lit.

    "Greedy giants": strange monolithic powers at work! I don't imagine they have the key to your garden, zephyr.

    I think it is a genuine gift to be able to let attacks and wounds slide away, as if they had never happened. For most, it's best simply to avoid harm as best one can. If one is busy making, one just might not have time to be bruised.

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  4. yes, Marly...only i wish i could have "bounced back" rather than been as overly cautious as i've been...but i suppose "slow and steady wins the race" still applies?

    In regards to the first part of your post...those floating orbs are a marvel. Have you ever seen the totally amazing glass flowers on display in Harvard's Natural History museum?

    as always, after reading what you have to say about writing and writers and all that...wish i'd had a second prof as good as you somewhere along the line. My lit teacher in H.S. also had the gift of illuminating...i'm glad you're back.

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  5. You're back posting! And oy, I'm under workload pressure and can't do much else for a few days.

    But thanks for all the lovely bits to read about here. It will help me counterbalance the working whirl'd.

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  6. zephyr,

    Those flowers are (still, I think--will have to check) on loan to the Corning Museum of Glass. I have a membership there and may just mosey down and see them if I ever get a weekend that's "free." I had such a good time wandering around the museum and fooling with glass in the workshop. We all came home with something--a glass bead or a flower or a Christmas ornament.

    Yes, I like those orbs. He has some that float over a bit of blooming forest floor, the roots dangling. Stankard is both "rooted" and mystical, something I find very interesting in a lampworker and glassblower.

    Thank you very much for the compliment. I value it, coming from a word- and garden-loving soul. This is a drudgy sort of day, so it's pleasant to open that sort of present!

    As for "bouncing back," I am quite sure that it is possible to be so maimed or bent that everything you make afterward is twisted. But you are a gardener of light, I think. And sometimes the most beautiful leafy things in the garden are those that were cramped or windswept along the way.

    ***

    Lori,

    Would you be happy if you were not so astonishingly busy? I have a "try to do two big things well" rule (in my case, mother and writer.) I suppose your two things are the demanding job and the galaxy of drawing-photography-poetry-blog-school. That's two really big things. Maybe it's a lot more than two. You seem to be succeeding well at making school a new source for creativity.

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  7. Ah Marly, if I could only have limited myself whilst young to two things.
    But then possibly life would not have been quite so interesting.
    I love the glass botanicals, and yes, if some very wealthy person wanted to bring me one I wouldn't mind at all; they are marvels.
    And to catch 6 good poems in a day at the beach is wonderful.
    I don't think you can warn anyone. That's the thing about life, and the most poignant thing about having children of one's own or wistful writers at one's feet. One wants to spare them the thorns and jellyfish stings and roads that wander off and end up in a dark chasm--but you can't. Sometimes maybe you can send a bit of light ahead.

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  8. Jarvenpa,

    Whatever was it that Darcy said to Elizabeth--something about that no one, seeing her, could think that she had spent her time ill?

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  9. this a nice meaty post. It probably will take me a couple reads to mull it over. nice

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  10. Wonderful to see your nice juicy blog again MArly!

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  11. Meaty.

    Juicy


    I feel like a resident of Burgerdom!, fresh from the grill!

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  12. Yes, I agree about metaphors - sometimes there is a danger in being too rich - like a pudding with too much cream, a picture with too many colours, an orchestra with too many instruments...:-)

    Sounds like a pretty hectic summer in your household but glad you had a week to do bookish things.

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  13. Heh. I like your overstuffed plum pudding...

    Yes, it was summermania this year. N has such a dire need to be constantly busy that I am always hopping, even before I think about anybody else.

    We were just doing homework, and I was thinking how miraculous it is that we have just the right tilt to earth. Four seasons are a great gift, even though I get too much of one of them.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.