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

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Haunted Painting

I had a lovely All Hallows Eve trooping about with either Robin Hood or the Earl of Huntington, age 10, in his tights and bloomers (what are those things called?) and fine green cloak and velvet-lined green hat with a long pheasant feather (thank you, Mother, for the beautifully-made outfit and thanks to the Mighty Hunter for the feather.) I wore an a circa 1960 prim green coat with giant buttons and a pillbox hat made of fur (also circa 1960 and thank you, Gail, for hat and gold-and-white hatbox) and pearls. Just call me Jackie O. If not Jackie O, then call me the Queen. And if not Jackie O or the Queen, then call me Emily, the mother of the soon-to-be-mentioned boy with pants on his head. She told me ("You look like me!") that she had just bought the very same coat and hat, circa 2007 and now retro. I told her my elegant garb cost only four dollars. She was chagrined.

Later on, after Robin or the Earl frolicked and trick-or-treated for a while with a Death Jester and a boy with pants on his head (what was he supposed to be?), we picked up a gentleman in black velvet cap and cloak and long-nosed Venetian mask... That was the Earl's dad and Jackie O's husband. And the three of us went straight to a nearby house and asked for a treat, obtained by prior supplication: to see the haunted picture. The frame is bolted right through the walls of the house, so we had often paused to contemplate the bolts. The huge full-length portrait hangs on the wall in the stairwell and shows one of James Fenimore Cooper's great-nieces with a background of the sea at Newport. She has on a marvelous dress with transparent, heavily-crimped sleeves and a bonnet with a long blue river. She looks a bit severe and not quite pretty, but I think that is mostly the result of an old-fashioned hairstyle with a part straight down the middle and pulled tight to each side. Not too many of us would look attractive subjected to that particular fashion.

The village story of the painting says that after she died and her husband remarried, a good deal of poltergeist activity started up, until the they were forced to bolt the picture through the wall so that it would never be taken down. The current owner had a more prosaic story, so we'll not think about that!

The painting turned out to be by the German-born painter Carl Brandt, who was the first director of the Telfair in Savannah. The collection still includes a number of his paintings. My Aunt Sara used to take me to the museum when I stayed with her in the summers, so the link to childhood was a pleasant surprise.

As for the other letters in our family alphabet soup, B has been laid very low by a bug, and R seems to be fighting it off. We must not be sick for the musical! Cross your fingers and say your prayers.

* * *

October 30

The bulbs are in their bed
Feeding on their meal of bone.

The jack-o-lanterns bear
Brief, vegetable witness

As ghosts tap at the door
Still hungering after sweetness.

--from A. E. Stallings, "All Hallows," Archaic Smile (University of Evansville, 1999), The Richard Wilbur Award

A safe All Hallows Eve to you! N has gone to school in a black-and-red cap with a long tail of spikes, furry blue and green socks, and gold jester shoes. It is p. c. Crazy-Hat-&-Sock Day at the elementary school. I don't think that's so bad, since it means that children who are forbidden Halloween can frisk and play. Tonight he plans to be an insane Peter Pan. Next year is already covered: he'll be a tourist. Of course, once people start quarrying in the dress-up mountain, they often change their fickle minds and metamorphose five or six times.

* * *

Once more a book has vanished in mid-read. This time it was David Grossman's See Under: Love. I was in the Bruno Schulz section. In fact, I was at the point where Bruno Schulz disappears from his old life. Has this happened to anybody else while reading See Under: Love, I wonder? Perhaps no one has managed to read past the disappearance of Bruno Schulz because the book itself dissolves into air or is pilfered by aerial spirits.

All Hallows Eve is almost upon us. The disappearing might be work of this 1808 house and a pestering poltergeist appropriate to the season. We live on a haunted corner, and quite a number of ghosts make appearances in nearby houses. N is quite resistant to the idea of a "G," as he calls a ghost, but we were invited to come inspect a well-known haunted painting on Halloween night, so I hope he will go with me. I imagine it would give him some local fame among his elementary school cohorts.

Because I have not been finishing See Under: Love when not fetching pumpkins to carve or taking N to Peewee football or dropping B and R at musical practice or escorting some letter or another to piano class, I have been reading other things over the past weekend.

***

Paul Muldoon's Poems 1968-1998

Who's to know what's knowable?
Milk from the Virgin Mother's breast,
A feather off the Holy Ghost?
The fairy thorn? The holy well?

Our simple wish for there being more to life
Than a job, a car, a house, a wife--
The fixity of running water.

For I like to think, as I step these acres,
That a holy well is no more shallow
Nor plummetless than the pools of Shiloh,
The fairy thorn no less true than the Cross.

--from "Our Lady of Ardboe"

How Yeatsian the things of that little fragment are: the drop of milk, the Spirit feather, the fairy thorn, the saint's well, and the ordinary abashed by them all.

Tommaso Landolfi's "Gogol's Wife"

At this point, confronted with the whole complicated affair of Nikolai Vassilevitch's wife, I am overcome with hesitation. Have I any right to disclose something which is unknown to the whole world, which my unforgettable friend himself kept hidden from the world (and he had his reasons), and which I am sure will give rise to all sorts of malicious and stupid misunderstandings? Something, moreover, which will very probably offend the sensibilities of all sorts of base, hypocritical people, and possible of some honest people too, if there are any left?


The hook on the fly that has been tied so many times still finds his fish. The narrator's delay, his hesitancy to divulge, and the secret and its reasons still work. And we readers, we surely are not among those who are stupid and base; we will rise to this mysterious occasion.

Joe Hill recently published a story about an inflatable boy. Nikolai Vassilevitch's wife who is "a balloon" is surely his mother.

Ilse Aichinger's "The Bound Man"

His absurd steps and little jumps, his elementary exercises in movement, made the rope-dancer superfluous. [The bound man's] fame grew from village to village, but the motions he went through were few and always the same; they were really quite ordinary motions, which he had continually to practise in the day-time in the half-dark tent in order to retain his shackled freedom. In that he remained entirely within the limits set by his rope he was free of it, it did not confine him, but gave him wings and endowed his leaps and jumps with purpose....

I cannot help thinking of certain Kafka stories in which a strange art is created through its limitations. The poetry of constraint is mastered. And yet it is the sort of dream-like story that can summon other readings, other analogues that help to define what it is. I remembered the story of Kaspar Hauser that has appealed to so many writers and artists: the mysterious attack, the hampering restraint set on the young man, the sudden exodus. And I thought of Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Pigeons," in which the tale of an old man who feeds pigeons under a sky darkened by chimney stacks becomes a lament for the Holocaust. The inexplicable beating and binding of the protagonist, the learning of a way to live inside the cruel and mysterious rope, the closing that yokes growth and death with destruction of memory: all these reminded one that Ilse Aichinger was a young Austrian during World War II.

Vasily Aksenov, "Little Whale, Varnisher of Reality"

I got up, went into the bathroom, washed, and then stopped by the bedroom for a look at Whale. He slept like an infant hero, arms and legs flung wide. The creases of his baby fat had not quite faded away; they still marked his wrists, his dimpled paws. In his sleep he smiled a sly little smile, evidently busy completing various droll and delightful turnabouts in his kingdom.

I doubt that Aksenov could have gotten away with his paean to the charm of his little Whale if the narrator were not so busy dreading and contemplating an awful phone call, made by the end of the story, and if he were not so ever-conscious of his own past and current misdeeds. His desire not to spoil the Whale's "droll" vision of the world and his need to tell the truth to his child, as much as he can--though certainly not about the pretty, airy "Mam'selle" who Whale encounters--is another source of the tension that propels the story forward and keeps the story from becoming too laden with charm.

***

And that was the reading part of my weekend. The rest was Peewee football and the like, with brisk winds and yellow leaves.

If you have any ideas about where See Under: Love might have gone, tell me. You may have seen it flapping heavily past on its many thin wings. Perhaps its white leaves are turning to mulch in the nearby forest. Perhaps it is hibernating under the eaves of a distant house. As All Hallows approaches, a curious "G" may be curled up on a windowseat, nestled around the book.

***
Credits: Telfair photograph from www.tfaoi.com. Spooky photograph courtesy of www.sxc.hu and Jasper Greek Golangco of the Phillipines.

13 comments:

  1. Hmmmm,

    I lived in an old victorian house at one point that was truly haunted with a G. We "misplaced" several things while there too, things that never returned. I am afraid your book may at this point be in the netherworld, a world between, where your G. has taken it to read. Apparently it was most interesting to the G. and they simply MUST read it.

    One might also check with teenage children. Several of my books were confiscated by my older daughter and son when they were in their teens. I'd be reading a book then suddenly they were reading the same book, and I wasn't.

    Also, please visit my site and give me some feedback if you get a moment.

    Thanks

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  2. you are a shining beacon of hope.

    (and I even spell checked that so it would be right.)

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  3. Really?

    Susanna, I feel more like whining that shining this morning!

    But I'll have to try and live up to that idea.

    Well, Donna, I do find that when you pay for a lost library book, the thing will reappear. That suggests a mischeivous G. But this is my own book, so I've already paid for it. Perhaps the G likes books in translation.

    I suppose I could go poke about in children's rooms. They're reasonably tidy and not too dangerous at the moment.

    Will do.

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  4. we Z's also take bodily form (like G's sometimes do) every now and then, and our hands and feet can lead us into mischievous deeds...but i don't like to stay earthbound for long, if i can help it...and a lovely written passage is often my portal back into the ether.

    Claire and Little Jordan work their spell very nicely

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  5. zephyr,

    That was cheerful! Thanks. Today was the perfect day for pats on the head.

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  6. I have decided not to go down to my studio tonight. It's a bit lonley.

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  7. It is well known that there is an alternative universe visited by books when they get bored being read, or put aside and neglected.
    My bookstore has several connections to that universe, and weekly I put aside a book or two to have it slip away. Some never return, but many show up in strange places, obviously where no sane human would have placed them.
    And we are all sane humans here, surely?
    Well, the cats and the sole remaining dog doubt me.
    thanks for your kind comment on my still running and frisking Buddy. I seem better able to deal with the deaths of my human loves than my dogs, which says something dreadful about my soul, no doubt.
    I remember Emily's Carlos and her letter about his death--I think to that fool editor who told her not to publish.
    Oh, and your costume sounds ravishing. I had a coat like that when I was in junior high: green, huge buttons, very warm.

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  8. Robert,

    Are you like N, afraid of a G?

    I find that interesting! Perhaps the Three Graces will protect you...

    jarvenpa,

    I suppose unreserved love may be easier where there are no words. Tricky thing, the word.

    Perhaps this is the coat you had back in junior high? The brand has the wild name of "Shagmoor." Just imagine the Queen and the Earl of Huntington marching about, her Majesty with the word "Shagmoor" hidden inside her coat. Most peculiar. And more evidence that words are tricky.

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  9. I'm still trying to figure out the boy with the pants on his head! I didn't even know it was Halloween here...though the holiday is taking off in popularity and still rather innocent (in terms of attire).

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  10. Evidently it was a headdress of some kind--I heard his father send him running for another "costume" because it was "not very p. c." I'll leave it to your imagination.

    When he came back, he manifested as a very exuberant little boy. This is also how he appears at other times, though perhaps that one was a very subtle costume.

    When I lived in Chapel Hill, I knew a little girl who often went to school in creative attire, and very often with wildly-colored shorts worn on her head as a headdress. I always was interested to see her latest move.

    What I noticed this year was how many grown-ups were in costume in the village. There were a great many children in pixie, fairy, or princess duds, but a good number of homemade outfits that I liked. And there was a blessed absence of little girls in sexy costumes.

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  11. loved hearing about your all hallows eve,.

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  12. Well I sympathise with N but it had more to do with a nice warm bed upstairs being a little more attractive! Nevertheless don't we all get spooked in the right circumstances?

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  13. Hi Susanna, and thanks!

    Robert, I knew you were brave. I just couldn't resist the teasing.

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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.