Monthly Archives: January 2010

Calendering

Returning from the Second World War, my grandfather found a job in a pulp and paper mill near his childhood home in southern Arkansas. He worked at the mill well into my adolescent years, but I never visited the place. He was not, then, much of a talker. His silence was one of desperation, not of temperament; he was broken, perhaps, by the war—silent by nerves. His weakness, his life in a demeaning marriage to a disparaging, bitter woman shaped my father. This shell-shocked inheritance presses (even now) like a bruise into the mental circuitry of four generations.

My siblings and I were never alone with what was left of the man. In fact, though he was rumored to be a war hero, though he kept a job for many decades and was a blue-collar supervisor of some sort, he held little or no authority in the family. We, his grandchildren, did not treat him as a peer, but he was neither paternal nor fraternal; like us, however, he was (in “his” house) a dependent.

The paper mill I never visited, the paper mill my grandfather couldn’t (wouldn’t?) describe is gone now. It resides, if at all, as it has all my life, in the imagination—a great dark room of vaguely lumbering machinery, vats of pulp, and vast cylinders pressing pine into white, meter width and heavy rolls. Presumably, these rolls were unwound from the thick cardboard tubes at their centers. I envision (again) the paper steamed, pressed and cut to standard, market size. At some point the machinery, or the factory line, lost efficiency and the diminished rolls were removed from the rotors. What was left on the cardboard tubes was a few inches of bleached, butcher-weight paper. I do not know what became of most of these, but we always had one in our house. A couple of times every year my father’s parents would pull a large car into the gravel driveway of our Kentucky farm. The whole family would gather to unload a trunk load of canned goods, raw peanuts, used clothing, and a big roll of paper—meter after meter for pencil and crayon. Everything carried the reek of southern Arkansas—pine needles and heat, the dust of a raked yard, a little house on concrete blocks, a leaky gas stove, and (most of all) the pulp mill’s sulfur and cellulose.

I imagine the man working, nameless, faceless, silent in the great pressure house. These paper rolls once served as a bridge, artifacts of a place and time just beyond reach. Material comfort of a life lived possibly whole.

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Primrose: Lycidas

Bring the rathe Primrose that forsaken dies.
— John Milton, Lycidas, ln 142

Twenty years ago, in Kentucky pastures, a “primrose” was a pink, five-petaled rose, growing close to the ground. This “primrose” (Rosa arkansana) grows, at best, waist high (with the support of a fence line), but grazing usually kept the plant to bellow the knee and often at the ankle. I am very fond of these flowers (which do not keep well when cut), but these were not the primroses Milton imagined.

Most likely, Milton was writing about Primula vulgaris (the common primrose and not a rose at all), but who will ever know with certainty. Primroses are common to English poetry; Spenser wrote of them (primroses made a pretty seat for “fayre Elisa, Queene of shepheardes all” in The Shepheardes Calender: April) and Shakespeare too (Perdita in The Winter’s Tale: “pale primroses / That die unmarried, ere they can behold / Bright Phoebus in his strength–a malady / Most incident to maids”,  Act IV, Scene IV). Milton, therefore, read of primroses (notice the similarity to Perdita’s lines), but it is also likely that Milton saw (prior to his blindness) primroses more often than do our contemporaries; the “wild” plant (although safe from grazing) suffers from over collection. I have seen a few growing in well-tended gardens, but usually in isolation. Primroses are available here in the States, online, in garden stores and even in the florist deli at the local grocery store. These primroses are often in garish, hybrid colors; the native color ranges somewhere between lemon and lime, with a white, moon-like glow. I tried growing Primula hybrids under lights twice. The first was purchased post-bloom and already half-dead and the second was a gift from my mother-in-law. It grew well and bloomed, fragrantly (citrus and sweet) straight through the late winter and early spring. By summer, however, a massive infestation of whiteflies persuaded me to place the plant outside under a hedge. The breeze and the predators made quick work of the flies, but the plant did not survive the heat. It passed, both “rathe” and “unmarried”.

Uneasy Comfort

The majority of my life (I’ve missed a day or a week, here and there) has been marked with time spent reading (or listening to a reading) of the Bible. I suspect, that if you read any book for that long and with that regularity, you would begin to associate; this book would become a part of your remembered life and would play a great role in how you frame your experiences–the metaphors you use to understand new things. Also, and avid music fans should understand what I’m getting at … if you spent your adolescence listening to a looped mix of your favorite songs, there’s a good chance that one of those songs has the power to bring back old feelings, to refresh the memory of events, happy and sad. The Bible works on me in that way, but I have also grown into it. The book has become a part of my life, and not without struggle, and not without the Communion, and (even were I to never read it again) there’s no way now to disentangle it, to root it out of the fibered mind. Nevertheless, at times, this life with the book is an uneasy comfort.

A few days ago I read, again, a passage that continues to haunt me:

O Lord, you know;
remember me and visit me,
and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors.
In your forbearance do not take me away;
know that on your account I suffer insult.
Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts.
I did not sit in the company of merrymakers,
nor did I rejoice;
under the weight of your hand I sat alone,
for you had filled me with indignation.
Why is my pain unceasing,
my wound incurable,
refusing to be healed?
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
like waters that fail.

Jeremiah 15:15-18 (NRSV)

These lines, in all their bitterness and devotion, hurt. I have made (inadvertently, I hope) the canker worse by including some of them in a poem. A poem that I wrote in fear and love and, as it turns, much that I feared has come, raging and foul, to be. Or perhaps, even now, this is only (false-)prophesy, self-fulfilled.

From time to time I meet people, who say (when they mean they are too sophisticated for God and embarrassed for me) something like: “Oh, your faith must be a real comfort for you”. I usually laugh. I just don’t know how to respond; “Yes, I’m an superstitious, unsophisticated, extremist”? There are times that I might say “yes” without hesitation and there are other times. So, if Jeremiah 15 is a “comfort”, yes. A lonely comfort at times, like the weight of God’s hand, like a wound that will not heal. An uneasy, painful comfort. These words, “a joy”, from Jeremiah hurt now, more than ever; which is, to say, in my life they are true. Perhaps it is the “true” that makes them a comfort.

The Flowers in Milton’s “Lycidas”

Bring the rathe Primrose that forsaken dies.
The tufted Crow-toe, and pale Jasmine,
The white Pink, and the Pansie freakt with jeat,
The glowing Violet.
The Musk-rose, and the well attir’d Woodbine,
With Cowslips wan that hang the pensive hed,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears:
Bid Amaranthus all his beauty shed,
And Daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
To strew the Laureat Herse where Lycid lies.

— John Milton, “Lycidas“. 142-151.

Why should we care what flowers Milton thought to toss on the “Laureat Herse” of Lycidas? If the young Edward King did have flowers at his memorial service, it is unlikely that he had the eleven species named in Milton’s poem. Furthermore, Milton declares “bring” these flowers; he doesn’t claim to document what flowers were in bloom or even available for Cambridge services in the month of August, 1637. (A victim of a shipwreck, King’s body was never found … perhaps a memorial service was not held in Cambridge; perhaps they waited until the Spring; I do not know.) Is it fair, therefore, to hold Milton’s imagined memorial accountable to the absolute possibilities of time and place? Probably not.

Nevertheless, readers find different paths, different entryways to the appreciation of a poem. For some of us, flowers suffice, but if flowers are not the object of your fascination, I still argue for the value of knowing what you are reading. To let the flowers pass you by as mere poetic convention is to reduce a good ten lines of the poem to mere mental shorthand. If you have no mental picture of the blooms Milton asks us to bring, the lines must amount to little more than “the bring the pretty flowers ….” Give the poem some respect.

It may also be the case, however, that Milton himself did not know the flowers he tossed into the poem. One of my first efforts at poetry (an adolescent poem for a girl–I never gave it to her) included a lonely buttercup on a hill. At the time, I had no idea what buttercups looked like, where or how they grew, but I did know that they were pretty … just like the girl I admired. I’m no Milton, but it is possible that he too borrowed his flowers from the common stock of poetic convention. Did he gather up a few pretty clichés to honor the death of his Cambridge classmate? Would it matter to us if he did?

Perhaps these are questions that I can not answer for every reader, but I plan to share, here, some of what is known of the flowers Milton would have us bring to a reading of “Lycidas”. I will take them in the order that the appear in the ten lines above, beginning with the Primrose and, eventually, ending with the Daffadillies.

To Be Reading

I recall the urge to read every volume in the small, school library of my rural hometown. I know now how much I would have missed, if I had chosen such a course. I also know that if I had succeeded, fulfilled that urge, and read every volume in the single room library, I would have read more than I have (to date) finished. I have never thought that I was the smartest reader (nor the fastest, by far), but I did think that devotion and hard work would allow me to keep up with faster readers–to, ultimately, read as much as did the teachers I admired and the writers I wanted to emulate. Now, I am at an age from which I imagine that I can see some foolishness in all that dreaming. (I also know that, given some future years of living, one day I will look back at this, what I am writing and thinking now, with some shame and scorn.) I do not have time to read every book in the library. I am blessed to have read and pondered what I have … even at the snails pace I keep. So, it is time to prune.

Here’s a (for what’s left of my) lifetime reading list. Names are here and not titles. Furthermore, I’d like to study these, not just re-read them; therefore, the name includes works by and about the author. I’m just trying to stay focused. Names appear on this list because they have been important to me as a reader in one way or another, some by affection, some by opposition, some by bafflement. I have these names in a hierarchy also, but I’m not going to share that with you. I think it is still too long. Perhaps it is also too prideful–did I put some names on here because I want to seem smart? I think I should cut another ten names off the list–a thorough reading of a some of these would, in and of themselves, take a lifetime. (All links to Wikipedia.)

Aristotle
W.H. Auden
Augustine of Hippo
Elizabeth Bishop
Sterling Allen Brown
John Calvin
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Geoffrey Chaucer
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Dante Alighieri
Charles Darwin
Emily Dickinson
Ralph Emmerson
Mirza Ghalib
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Homer
Samuel Johnson
David Jones
James Joyce
Immanuel Kant
Søren Kierkegaard
Martin Luther
John Matthias
John Milton
Ovid
Plato
Alexander Pope
Ezra Pound
Qur’an
William Shakespeare
Mary Shelley
Christopher Smart
Edmund Spencer
Walt Whitman
William Carlos Williams
Virginia Woolf

I don’t want to say that I will read these and only these authors. In fact, the one book that I read daily is not on the list. In fact, four of the last five books that I’ve recently read are not on the list. (But I expect that ratio to change.) Likewise this list is not permanent; I can change it when I want to. It’s here for my reference anyway.

As the Crow Flies

These winter evenings hundreds of crows congregate in the trees on the grounds of the President Benjamin Harrison home in Indianapolis. The sidewalks, the nearby parked cars, and much of the croquet yard are splattered with white droppings. I do not think they roost there, but they do gather … and with a good view of rush hour traffic. These crows (or, more probably, others) rise at dawn and fly west. Perhaps they are heading to the White River or maybe to the Eagle Creek reservoir. Perhaps they drop off, a few at a time, and land at their daytime feeding grounds. I do not know, but at this time of the year, I enter my workplace as they are flying overhead in a loosely ordered highway of crows. A “flyway”?

I’m willing to bet that most North American cities have crow highways. In my prior home city the crows flew over my house from the south and then, a half mile past, bowed off to the left—flying northwest and out of sight. In the same city, I had seen another crow path that seemed to bend with the curve of the river. I miss my old home and Indianapolis (even in this, my fifth winter here) feels foreign.

What now?

Here, notes. Mostly. Too soon to tell? Bits of poems unfinished. Clippings. Complaints, probably. A fool’s boasting, very likely. False humility and pride masked with self-deprecation, everywhere.

God give us peace, forgive us our tongues.