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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Shiver in the Curtain of the World

A few weeks ago, a salesman popped through one of the side entrances of the palace—a dark, Poesque little tunnel with aphorisms taped to the cobwebby walls—and tried to sell perfume and mineral makeup and motorcycles and assorted whatnot. I told him that he was not allowed to sell here, and that a footman would accompany him to the nearest door. To comfort him, I sent the footman in mineral makeup and an attractive perfume compounded from a lost buttercup and the remains of an exploded star, and I had the Pot Boy (who was standing around looking decorative and useless) wheel a beautiful motorcyle, sweet as perfume and as shiny as a bottle, to meet him at the door. Attorney Clendon had not yet vanished, and so served him with a writ; the salesman named Eric may not return in the guise of a salesman, although he may drop by for tea and books.

The infinite library of the web has shifts the world and set things askew. We have entered the world of magic. I say that I have a footman; he promptly appears and escorts my visitor away in an excess of politeness. He is an under-footman. I suspect that he wears mineral makeup because his skin is bad, although he is good-looking in a Jaggerish sort of way—the so-ugly-he’s-cute mode. Mack is his name. Mack the footman. I do not think that Mack is his real name. His pants are creased a little too sharply and fall without even the merest little twitch of a wrinkle. I am afraid that he is ambitious, but for what I do not understand. If I knew fully, I might be a little afraid.

Now don’t these unexpected encounters rock the world, just a little bit? The line between real and unreal, technology and magic is abraded and grows shadowy. Won't people quickly grow accustomed to this dreamy zone between what has been called real and what has been called imaginary? And won’t literature be changed because of it, for good or ill? Strange elements are seeping into the mainstream, sweetening or poisoning the waters that have long run the same, the very same.

Perhaps we will at last swim out of the fishnet of Modernism-and-after, into the deep green veins of the river. And there we may find ourselves more ourselves, though more strange. We may even meet the dreams of the past made fresh and new--Beowulf's monster, the Green Knight, Arcadian shepherds, and Mary with the sweet Medieval dew dropping onto her thigh.

The perfume bottles are courtesy of Laurelines.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Rage for Order at the Palace

I have returned from a visit to my stomping grounds in Cullowhee, North Carolina, where I saw only a little snow; here, I find the same old, same old snow plus a little more. However, I managed to go to the theatre, visit with my mother and friends, see crocuses and daffodils and pansies, fool around in galleries, make a fairy house on top of a mountain with children, etc. All this despite R's History Day paper on Jehanne d'Arc!

Blogging thoughts: I will be slashing a path through a wildwood of posts in the next month. Much will be skewered and purged, ne'er (no, not e'er) to be seen again. I may resurrect a few things from the depths of the past--back when I was no doubt doing nothing but keeping a sort of aerial diary, read only by the accidental sort of tourist--but many others will quietly drift away into the ether or spring into their constituent particles.

"A transition from an author's book to his conversation is too often like an entrance into a large city, after a distant prospect. Remotely, we see nothing but spires of temples and turrets of palaces, and imagine it the residence of splendour, grandeur, and magnificence; but when we have passed the gates, we find it perplexed with narrow passages, disgraced with despicable cottages, embarrassed with obstructions, and clouded with smoke."

--Samuel Johnson, The Rambler no. 14 (5 May 1750)

The sword-wielding, order-setting woman is a bronze Jehanne d' Arc by Marie d'Orleans in a watercolor rendition by Laura Murphy Frankstone of Laurelines.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Paean to The Long Grass Books, no. 3: Bilge Karasu's Night

A note found on the floor of the chamber belonging to Attorney Clendon. The good man is missing, and much nameless havoc is feared.

* * *

Night slowly comes on. Descends. Already it has begun filling the hollows. Once these are full and it empties onto the plain, everything will turn gray. For a while no light will go on, in the hollows or out beyond. The glow on the hills will seem for a time to suffice; then the hills too will sink into darkness.

Some weeks ago I read a very interesting book by Bilge Karasu, translated by Guneli Gun. I took many careful, tedious notes, as I was trained to do. Unlike my fellows in the comment trade, I was not confused by the separate characters, nor by the way they began to blur and dance and re-configure. I noted with scrupulous attention the place where a second character began to be identified by the letter N. I kept the triple strand of character separated, I followed each to his lair through a labyrinth with monsters. I suffered trial, love, intricate wanderings, violence, metamorphosis, paradox, and reversals. I came face to face—or face to faces—with the Author. The book with its twists and turns stood bared to light in my mind, and I was satisfied with my understanding.

The book seemed to me a worthwhile journey, and though it lacked—because of its surreal, intellectual windings—a certain heart, I found it satisfying. Perhaps, you may say, it is because I am myself a compendium of dry dust from law books, crumbling writs, and shadows of events that do not belong to me. In some moods, I find myself so.

Yesterday evening something strange happened.

I picked up the book; it held a bookmark made from a folded shadow. When I looked closer, I saw that gloom had gathered into letters, and it seemed to me that it was a warrant for my arrest. When I looked again, the letters were gone, and the events of the book had fallen into darkness.

At 2:00 a.m., I woke to see three people standing around my nightstand. They were spooning more darkness into the pages with tarnished silver spoons. The substance flowed like honey into an extractor, spilling down the legs of the nightstand and onto the valuable Turkish carpet on the floor. I cried out in surprise and felt a sudden jabbing pain in my arm, as though a knife blade had swept its length. The three faces lifted only slowly and then fused into a single face: I recognized the suffering, intelligent face of the late Bilge Karasu in a flash of light. Then a cloud swept over the moon, and all was lost in shadow.

I write this by a thin starlight. The darkness has almost reached the steps, and I hear the distant tread of a party of soldiers . . .

--Athanasius Clendon


Saturday, February 17, 2007

Treasures in books, the Messiah, the Big Snow

What is the strangest--or the most grotesque or the most beautiful--thing that you have ever found in a book. Pressed flowers? Old letters? A beaten tissue of gold?

Recently I felt the decided impulse to read The Messiah of Stockholm. What should I find inside but a letter from Cynthia Ozick, which I immediately devoured in the way that one does, when surprised by finding something in the book--some possible mystery, some welcome curlicue in a bland day.

It was not the original but a xerox of a letter from November of 1985, full of sympathy and charm and heart. The letter held compliments for a dead man, no longer useful to him but sweet to share with others, and some for the living as well: hence the xerox. The words clicked and sang well together.

Had it been there along? Had I seen it once before and then forgot? And what do I do with such a thing? It was a bit naughty to read the thing. Do I keep it, send it to the author, bury it in the Messiah until the next time I take down the book to read again? And if I forget it, will I have the same marvelous sense of chance and discovery, or will I simply think that my mind is gone, gone, gone?

What is, I wonder, the most wonderful thing that has been found in a book? The words, of course, but what about the most wonderful thing that was not supposed to be there? Money, old baptismal certificates, marriage licenses, and prayer cards: these things are often left deliberately. But was is the loveliest accident ever to befall a book?

Illustration: a self-portrait of Bruno Schulz, artist and author of The Street of Crocodiles, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, and the lost book, The Messiah.

It was the shooting that drew her. The shooting; the murder. Shot in the streets! Lars suspected that Heidi cared more for his father's death than for his father's tales, where savagely crafty nouns and verbs were set on a crooked road to take on engorgements and transmogrifications: a bicycle ascends into the zodiac, rooms in houses are misplaced, wallpaper hisses, the calendar acquires a thirteenth month. Losses, metamorphoses, degradations. In one of the stories the father turns into a pincered crab; the mother boils it and serves it to the family on a dish. Heidi shouldered all that aside: it was the catastrophe of fact she wanted, Lars's father gunned down in the gutters of Drohobycz along with two hundred and thirty other Jews. A Thursday in 1942, as it happened: the nineteenth of November. Lars's father was bringing home a loaf of bread.

--from Ozick's The Messiah of Stockholm


Thanks for the notes and emails--we survived the storm. Judging by the snow on the van, we hit right at a yard in Cooperstown. Pretty impressive for a day. Close by, Roseboom had 38 inches and beat us. With that sort of fall, ramparts rise up after the plows come through. At midnight Wednesday we staggered down to the lake, wading through waist-high snow on the sidewalks. The stairs up to the townhouses were flowing Gaudi-esque slides, and the village library's bactrian made of steel ribbons was buried in dunes--the ribbons of his upper body sending long twisting shadows over the snow. I may be a Southerner, but that was a snow worth seeing! It was pristine, thatching every house, making sculpture out of the ancient crabapple trees, filling squares of lawn outlined with fence or hedge as neatly as sugar in a box. N has been having fun quarrying tunnels and snow caves into the mountain ranges thrown up by the plows.

So far the bad side of a snowstorm at my house means: that the snow's weight broke a window, promptly repaired; that I didn't leave on a trip; that when the boys and I dug out the van, the brake line was damaged; that nobody can do a little auto repair because they're inundated with banged-up cars and half the mechanics can't get in; and that three children have made a cheerful wreck of the house. Must climb up and clear off the porch roofs, but I can't even begin to think about the Other Car, down an alley and under another big shining hill. That one can wait until the big thaw! Should come by April or May, I'd guess...


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A gift for St. Valentine's Day

May the good saint sprinkle your path with candy hearts and sweet-smelling flowers and sparkles of Spirit!

I, being less good, give you borrowed pictures from Laurelines and a tiny, sharp shard of a poem. It is a mere fragment, about a quarter of a longer poem. You may regard it as the bright splinter of a once-broken heart, since it is Valentine's Day. It is not that, but you may as well see it that way, in honor of love--the thing that makes my world go round.

* * *
You come to me in fall
And lie with me, and take
Me utterly by force--
By dew, by leaves, by light.
My flesh is transparent,
Your dew is upon me,
Your leaves under me,
And all of me is light.
How can I turn away,
When all my reasoning
And all the tears of things
Are burned away by light?
--from "Power & Light"

Friday, February 09, 2007

Reader, I did not marry him--

Old Point Loma

The Backyard Zoo
(praying mantis)

(a "Mississippi Garden Spider" in its stabili-mentum?)

Gryphon & Dog Statue

These are a few of the pictures that one of my cousins has sent me this year. Frank Morris provides me with lots of lovely, warm Charleston shots, as he lives part of the time in Charleston and part of the time in Jacksonville. It sounds like a darn good idea to me.

When I was little, I was quite sure that I would marry Frank when I grew up. We used to run away from his red-haired sister Nancy, who pinched the most powerful and potent pinches ever pinched in the history of childhood. We'd grab some boiled peanuts or figs off the tree and run away from our grandmother's lovely Queen Anne house in Collins, Georgia, down to the railroad tracks where the puff briars bloom. And there we would ramble and hop along the tracks, watching for the next train with its endless Southern Serves the South boxcars and keeping an eye out for Nancy and her pernicious pinches.

She and I were really alike, though, skinny with long fat braids and the mandatory cat-eye glasses and a mania for reading. I had an intense scissors phobia (you knew writers were weird, even when they were children), and so my hair grew and grew until it tickled below my knees. Yes, I had to put on Mother's blue-and-green corduroy bathrobe and take down the rippling Rapunzel hair, all to play Mary in the nativity pageant. You guessed that, too, no doubt.

Before 6th grade, they finally chopped off my hair and gave me a permanent: I looked the fool.

Be afraid of scissors.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Cromlechs of snow

It is 24 degrees below zero, counting the wind chill factor. This is not the clime for magnolia blossoms. I have a great desire to sit under a magnolia tree in July heat and listen for the petals arching open.

Today I wore my immense Blueberry (a jacket so fat with feathers that it can stand up on its own like a great blue headless dwarf) on an outing to Oneonta--a queenly procession to Royal Chrysler. The solenoid has not been my friend of late.

Despite the fact that taking cars for repairs is one of my least favorite things to do--and that I spent eight aggravating hours doing it last week--I had a marvelous drive. Delicate white falls tumbled from roofs on either hand. Snow whipped in streams over the road, and on the way back I saw fairy-like snow devils and huge rings of dancing veils, like light, effervescent spirits released from some Megalithic cromlech. Long ago I remember seeing the stone circle called "Dancing Maidens." Local folklore declared that young girls had been dancing on Sunday and so were turned to stone . . . I pulled over by a field of snow and stubble to watch three ethereal merry-go-rounds of snow flying up and dissolving and forming again. The scene was utterly joyous and lovely, with a touch of the dangerous, and seemed to speak of the everlasting vigor that pours through the broken, beautiful world.


O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

--Yeats, again
The pictures are from the Fairbanks Ice Festival, and are among a large batch that landed in my email. If anybody knows the proper source to credit, please tell me! The rest are wonderful, but both of these are right for today because they are cold but "dance."
If you missed my piece on Drum Hadley, please pop down for a read . . .

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Chamber of Cloud and Tears

For those of you who pop by frequently (commenters and lurkers alike), you may like to know that two people featured here in the past few weeks are in mourning. We rarely wear a black band on our sleeves these days; the 21st-century mourner announces a death on his or her blog.

"Susangalique" has suffered a great loss. Her father died unexpectedly. A message left at her blog reads: "Susanna's father passed away last night. His life was a grand adventure, and like all good books, his story was a story that one never wanted to end. Please keep Susanna and her family in your prayers as they endure this difficult time."

I picked Susanna Leberman--susangalique--for the first interview in "I Interview My Visitors," and many people were charmed and entertained and moved by what she had to say.

A few days ago Clare Dudman's mother-in-law began to ebb while Clare was off doing a talk in Hull. She died not long after Clare returned home. Clare also appeared in these "pages" recently, because her novel, 98 Reasons for Being, was the first one featured in my Long Grass Books series-in-progress.

I'm always glad to see the name of either woman--the aspiring historian and vim-filled Alabamian or the Welsh novelist whose words I admire--on a calling card in my little e-palace. To each, much strength and sympathy, many aerial bouquets of snowdrops and cloud.

The blogosphere is a cunning little world, made of something and nothing and people. A distant fall in the web can touch us across the world.

Pax tecum.

I chose the lovely face above because it struck me immediately as a one seen through distances of time. Let it stand as an emblem of memory.

It is unmistakably a picture by Laura Frankstone Murphy, this time of her daughter C as a child. Thanks to Laura for the image.


I heard the old, old men say,
'Everything alters,
And one by one we drop away.'
They had hands like claws, and their knees
Were twisted like the old thorn-trees
By the waters.
'All that's beautiful drifts away
Like the waters.'

--W. B. Yeats