A Protestant Reading of Valerie Sayer’s Brain Fever

Valerie Sayer’s Brain Fever is a very Catholic book in that it’s not quite Catholic enough for a Protestant reader to make ready religious sense of it. The characters, especially the leading man, Tim Rooney, an anti-hero, are constantly repositioning themselves relative to their waxing or waning Catholicity. Even so, no one really makes a “Here I stand” commitment for or against the Church. The characters are Catholic because their faith is an inheritance more so than an allegiance. They know it like the decor of their childhood homes, a decor they would gladly change but for the fear of insulting their mothers.

The plot of Brain Fever is simple enough. A literate, middle-aged Southerner slides into mania, leaves his fiancé and heads to the city of New York where he spends his time revisiting the places he frequented during his youth as a graduate student. Meanwhile the people that care about him move in and out of his territory, trying to find him, trying to help him, trying to make sense of his insanity and, ultimately, racing to save him from his own demise.

While pathetic, Tim Rooney is less than likeable. On the other hand, the cast of subordinate characters who try to help him are very likeable. As the book draws to a close, the reader will find that one worries more about the impact of Tim’s behavior on others than about the risks that Tim himself faces. Thus, Sayers has made of Mr. Rooney a very effective anti-hero. Comparatively, we know very little about the supporting characters, but what we know about the life and mind of the anti-hero makes us empathize with his friends. As a group, one might think of these folks as the Catholic communion–the lay people (a South Carolinian diaspora, in this case) who, wittingly or not, do their best to minister to the whole body of Christ, a body which includes the nearly toxic Tim Rooney.

The religiously illiterate Catholic community, therefore, is the hero of the book. Why do these characters love Tim? I’m not persuaded that any of them really know–and some of them wish that they didn’t. Were they to start thinking about it, Protestant style, it would drive them to some kind of Kierkegaardian madness at best and at worst they would succumb to the solipsism of the individual, the feverish idolatry of the self. In short, when you’re losing your mind it would be wise to have some habitual Catholics in your life.



Memory might be cultivated with care or it might be left to wither or spread as the seasons and circumstances permit. Most tend to it with some of the former and much of the latter. Perhaps I should not be surprised by the recent force of those weedy incidents from the first decade or so of my life. Many are of no real consequence, but seem to have a lasting force–a fig tree behind a garage in Arkansas, the odor of boxwood at Keeneland, asparagus in the fence rows in Versailles, and chicory in the front pasture of the family farm.

Rooted in my memory, the ephemeral morning blue of the chicory marks a season in which the lettuce beds have also gone to seed. The baby blue with hints of powder and lace open above improbable soil and jangly stems. Until noon they bloom a cool fog in the worst places–exit ramps, new construction, vacant lots. And now, though they flower thirty Junes on in the margins of my urban life, I can turn in the pasture of my childhood and feel the grade of the field, see the locust trees on the ridge, and wince at the mound of dirt where my father buried our favorite mare.

I must remember not to let summer pass without chicory or I would live as a stranger in exile from myself.

Amaranthus: Lycidas

And every flower that sad embroidery wears:
Bid Amaranthus all his beauty shed.

— John Milton, “Lycidas“. 148-149.

Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany

The amarant provides a good study of the-roster-or-the-chicken-or-the-egg problem in language. What came first? The myth, the metaphor, or the word? I speculate that the word, amarant, did not come first, but perhaps it came second. With its roots in Greek, the word means not-fading, incorruptible, or (as is said of many plants with long-lasting floral displays) “everlasting.” The modern, widely distributed genus, Amaranthus, is indeed an “everlasting” flower–although not truly “incorruptible,” it is also a vegetable and a pseudograin, but these facts are less to the point.

Amarant appears in two very old, very well-known texts. First, in Aesop’s fables (The rose and the amaranth, 6 BC) and later in the New Testament–although, as a word and not as a plant (1 Peter 5:4, about 100 AD, give or take a few decades). In both cases, the word refers to an everlasting, floral display of beauty. In Aesop, it possesses a persona and so begins its journey as myth; in the New Testament it serves metaphorically, but waits for Clement of Alexandria and others (like Milton) to plant it firmly in soil of Christian symbol and allegory. Having encountered its literary type long before finding the plant in a garden (if ever), many editors and annotators assume that the plant was first imagined and later given as a name to the genus. While it is true that Aesop precedes all Linnaean names for plants, I found no evidence to disprove that Aesop may have known an actual plant (possibly an amarant) which he contrasted favorably with the fading rose. After all, no one suggests that Aesop did not mean the rose of genus Rosa–i.e., no one would propose that Aesop meant an imaginary plant for great beauty that he just happened to name “rose.” Why should we not assume that Aesop had an amarant somewhere in gardens of his daily life? It is for this reason that I would guess that somewhere, many, many years before Aesop, people saw a plant, realized that its flowers were long-lasting, and named it “amarant.” Thus, the metaphor would have been first (this plant is like something that never fades), and the word second (let’s call it “amarant”) and the myth third (so, there’s this plant which is named “amarant,” and long, long ago in fable-land the amarant said to the rose …).

Milton muddles the matter with an inventive conceit in his great poem:

                                                                          [L]owly reverent
Towards either Throne they bow, and to the ground
With solemn adoration down they cast
Thir Crowns inwove with Amarant and Gold,
Immortal Amarant, a Flour which once
In Paradise, fast by the Tree of Life
Began to bloom, but soon for mans offence
To Heav’n remov’d where first it grew, there grows,
And flours aloft shading the Fount of Life,
And where the river of Bliss through midst of Heavn
Rowls o’re Elisian Flours her Amber stream;
With these that never fade the Spirits elect
Bind thir resplendent locks inwreath’d with beams. —Paradise Lost, III:349-61.

Russell M. Hillier makes a good case for the influence of Clement of Alexandria’s Paedogogus on this passage of Milton’s most famous poem. Milton places the plant (as does 1 Peter) in heaven; it adorns the crowns of the angels–but he also tells us why the flower is found in heaven and (presumably) not on earth. As it is “incorruptible,” it was transplanted from garden of Eden after the fall of Adam and Eve. In other words, after the fall, the earth was no place for a flower of everlasting beauty. Perhaps Milton knew an Amaranthus plant by a different name, but he does seem to assume that it was first a myth. Were Milton to find the plant in our gardens and whole-food stores, he would assure us that is was wrongly named.

In “Lycidas,” Milton uses the amarant with even less clarity. He calls for the everlasting flower to shed its beauty upon the hearse of his deceased friend, Edward King. Did Milton mean that the flowers would be everlastingly beautiful on the casket, even though departed from the plant? Did Milton intend that the amarant should humble itself at such an event of grief and loss … in other words, foreshadowing the conceit in Paradise Lost–a world without Edward King is no place for an incorruptible beauty? Of the two, the first seems more likely to me. Perhaps Milton hoped to send King to his imagined grave with the ornaments he might use to attire his heavenly crown or perhaps he meant to confirm the deceased’s salvation while also making a gesture toward the young man’s “immortality” in verse.

Whatever the case, I find the amaranth to be an ugly plant–especially the ornamental Love-lies-bleeding. On the plate, however, it is very interesting. The seeds are earthy and sweet, while the greens have just a bit of peppery bite. Last summer a local co-op farm grew a small crop, I hope they expect a larger harvest this year. In all its ugliness, the genus Amaranthus (even spiny pigweed) should out last Milton–a world without Milton would be a dire place; a world without an Amaranthus would be a dead place.

Hillier, Russell M. 2007. “To Say it with Flowers: Milton’s ‘Immortal Amarant’ Reconsidered (Paradise Lost, III.349–61).” Notes and Queries 54 (4) (December 1): 404 -408.

[Note: This is the eleventh post in a series. See also: The Flowers in Milton’s “Lycidas”, Primrose: Lycidas, Tufted Crow-toe: Lycidas, Pale Jasmine: Lycidas, White Pink: Lycidas, Not Your Freaking Pansy: Lycidas, The Glowing Violet: Lycidas, Musk-rose: Lycidas, Woodbine: Lycidas and Cowslips: Lycidas.]

Micah Ling’s Sweetgrass in 200 Words

SweetgrassHaving raced through Micah Ling’s Sweetgrass (Sunnyoutside, 2010) twice, I’m perplexed. Not by the material, which is sweet and, as is grass, light and easy, but by genre and intentions. While the short book expresses an honest affection for her Western encounters, and while a few pages demonstrate creative verve–the poem beginning “Listen: this is a stick up” is the best stand-alone lyric–on the whole, these untitled bits produce an unstructured essay. As it turns out, Sweetgrass is a dude ranch in Montana, so one might even wonder if the book belongs to the what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation genre. The voice of the book is that of a tourist, not of one who shares a deep knowledge of her subject, nor of one who has any real or lasting allegiances to the place. As readers we are pulled into a kind of voyeurism—uncomfortably, we watch someone we do not know have a really good time in Montana. Ling and her hosts seem like truly nice people, but what’s missing from the book is the work. Not the romanticized work of the cattle ranch, but the work of hosting its gawking visitors. Being under the gaze itself must be a chore.

Bishop’s Fishy Poem

On mulling over Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” something smells wrong. I have been slowly turning the poem about in my mind trying to identify the off note. Sometimes I think I have found the source of the stench, but then it slips away. Nonetheless, there’s something wrong with this classic, much read and taught, poem.

As a way to spend one’s days, I prefer fishing to most all other activities–perhaps, truth be told, even to reading and writing poetry. One might think, therefore, that I would have a greater than usual appreciation for Bishop’s fish story. I think, however, that it is this very first-hand appreciation of angling that makes me suspicious of Bishop’s poem.

My first inclination was to object that Elizabeth Bishop knew nothing of fish–that she, herself, did not go fishing often. About this, I was probably wrong. She spent much time in Nova Scotia and in Key West–and even mentions her fishing trips in a letter or two. Having discovered Bishop’s, at least, passing familiarity with fishing, I next objected that the fish of the poem was not a fish that poet saw with her own eyes. It never swam in the water, never took bait, never broke a line. Ronald E. McFarland,  excerpted at the beginning of the page at UIC’s Modern American Poetry Site, believes that such an objection may be easily dispatched. He refers, as all do, to her days lived near the water’s edge and even goes on to speculate about type of fish that Bishop might have meant for the poem–he puts his money, without much real evidence, on the grouper.

As it turns out, Bishop herself, in her letters, provides conflicting information about the fish. First, in an epistle to (the superior poet) Marianne Moore, Bishop writes nothing of a grouper and instead identifies the parrot fish, so named for its loud colors and hook-beaked mouth:

The other day I caught a parrot fish, almost by accident. They are ravishing fish – all iridescent, with a silver edge to each scale, and a real bill-like mouth just like turquoise; the eye is very big and wild, and the eyeball is turquoise too – they are very humorous-looking fish. A man on the dock immediately scraped off three scales, then threw him back; he was sure it wouldn’t hurt him. I’m enclosing one [scale], if I can find it. (January 14, 1939)

Later, in a letter to (the far, far superior poet) Robert Lowell, Bishop sends a post-card of the “Jew-fish” (a Goliath Grouper) to the poet, saying: “Dear Cal: These are the “Fish”…. (December 21, 1948)

Setting aside the confusion that Bishop’s two letters fosters, I still insist that the fish is not the fish that Bishop caught … if she caught a fish. Rather, what we find in the poem is a caricature of a fish. It is as if the poet could not or would not take the factual fish as her model and so chose a fanciful one instead. What we have here (to cut too close to the poem’s allegorical bone) is a not the oversimplified rendering of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but rather the cartoonish parodies of Michelangelo’s image that have become the common stock of our cultural short-hand. Although the tone of the entire poem, which differs in such a great degree from the more honest note to Marianne Moore, seems ill-fit and improbable for the average fishing trip, it is the final images of the creature which I find the most unlikely and most objectionable. I have caught many, many fish, but only one with a lure in its mouth and a few with bait in their guts. Fish dislodge these irritants, or they rust away (one would think the salt water would make very quick work of the lines in this fish’s mouth)–on any account, most fish do not feed until they are free of the foreign object. To be very plain about it, a fish with a hook in its mouth is a fish that will not bite and will not be caught–a fish with four lines and leaders of rainbow hue hanging out of its mouth might be found at a puppet show, but not at the side of the boat. Bishop did not catch this fish.

Very well, one might reply. Bishop caught a fish, released it, imagined quite another fish and wrote a poem about the latter. What’s the big deal? I agree, in that there’s nothing dishonest about placing an imaginary fish in a poem, but I object to letting one’s readers assume a narrative veracity that does not exist. If the fish is imagined, so is the poet–her feelings, her brief epiphany and her fishy little moral lesson at the end, all are mere fantasy.

This dishonesty on Bishop’s part allows her readers to cede to her a voice of moral authority that she does not have. See, for example, Thierry Ramais’s thoughts at the bottom of this page on UIC’s Modern American Poetry Site:

The poem obviously celebrates a moment in person’s life when his/her humanness goes as far as to recognize the humanity of nature itself, to consider nature not as “object” but as equally “subject”. (On “The Fish”: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/bishop/fish.htm)

The irony of this statement is lost on its author–as, perhaps, Bishop was oblivious to her own dishonesty. Nature has no “humanity” and when it does, it is smaller for it. (On the other hand “humanity” has much “nature”–clearly, humans are but one of nature’s many features.) Ramais and Bishop have empathies for creatures and for natures which do not exist and, as such, they do not respect the nature that does exist. The poet may make herself and a few of her readers feel better about their place in this world, but she has done so with forgery. I would much rather have the smell of fish on my hands.

What will come after Carrie Jerrell’s revival?

After the RevivalIn the mood for hawks, snakes, horses and lonely, but fierce women? Given up on contemporary poetry, poems written for poets, camps of code-talkers engaged in self-congratulating games of inter-reference? Try Carrie Jerrell’s After the Revival (WorldCat | Amazon). True, it suffers a bit from the usual first-book excesses–the occasional over-reaching, metaphors which try too hard, and (at times) a kind of garish urge to be odd. Nonetheless, Jerrell’s poems are carefully written lyrics with a keen narrative sensibility.

As for me, I have not given up on contemporary poetry; in fact, I write the worst of it–unreadable, insensible, too-inside for the insiders. And so, I admire Jerrell’s book (which I discovered on Marly Youmans’ blog) for other reasons. Foremost, perhaps, because I can think of no other contemporary poet who has written better love poems for rural Indiana. John Matthias will forever own the St. Joseph River valley, and Indianapolis deserves its waste land of bad taste, but the case could be made (on the strength of only a handful of poems) to make Carrie Jerrell the state’s next poet laureate. At the very least, give her all the blighted little towns south of Seymour. Of the poems which name Indiana, I am most fond of two. The first provides a hawk’s snapshot of a forlorn and lonely landscape, “Self-Portrait of the Artist as Glezen, Indiana”:

I’m 4 a.m. deer-piss-drenched camouflage,
the haunted woods, the doe’s brown eyes, the gun
and Tater Warner’s hardware store on Main
and Cherry, baseballs aisle five, a tent
beyond revival, organ out of tune,
“Amazing Grace” played back-pew Baptist flat,
potluck to follow. Flying red-tail high,
I’ve circled every furrowed field for life
and only seen my shadow, the willow swing
by Panther Creek, an empty gravel road,
an unchained shepherd taking the long way home.

I met a shepherd like this during one of my long runs. On a cold January day, it took us a good twenty minutes of threats and concessions before we could pass.

Although it ends less well, I’m equally drawn to “In an Indiana County Thick with Copperheads”. Had the poem been written 50 years earlier, it opens with what would be a picture of my mother (minus the meth), somewhere south of Bedford:

Tweaked out on her mother’s meth,
the twelve-year-old walks
the county roads of my childhood,
sees stars in a sky crow-feather black,
finds the pack of wild dogs, the teeth
of the mottled Lab less frightening than
her uncle and his bristle-brush whiskers.
There’s little left to do here but grow
long and mean, to meet each day
like a belly meets gravel.

In addition to the other fine poems which self-identify as set in Indiana (including: “For the Sparrows Who Lost Their Nests in the Southern Indiana Tornado” and “View of Petersburg from Bell’s Hill Strip Mine, Pike County, Indiana”), there are those which evoke the place. First read the book’s excellent and harrowing title poem, “After the Revival”, and then turn to the view from a cracked, rear view mirror in the well-timed “Love Letter Written While Speeding Past the City Limit Sign” (also entitled “Drive” at DIAGRAM). Perhaps Indiana also accounts for at least half of the setting for spiraling conceit in “The Fire Tower”.

I think Jerrell currently writes in Kentucky, but I doubt she will ever completely rid herself of Pike County, Indiana. I’ll be looking for more poems from this poet. It might be nice to see more of Jerrell and less of her personae in the future. Her sensual, religious meditations (although a bit too impersonal) are a promising turn. She chose one of these to end the book, and perhaps (following the title poem’s evocation of death) to end on a hopeful note. Likewise, hoping for more, I’ll end this review with the final poem in the book, “When the Rider is Truth”:

I am froth and lather, sent steaming
through jade fields while he sits
heavy in the saddle, beating love songs
on my flanks I’m slow to learn.
His snapped whip rings like church bells.
He prays my name. In different winds,
it rhymes with win and race. At night,
he rests against my neck and tells me
stars are born between my heartbeats,
though they’re unreachable this trip.
Still, with him I feel sure-footed
running on this soil of sand,
this miraculous green,
where every day is like no other
in its symmetry of hill and valley.
When shadows blend, I want the blinders on.
I want the spurs and speed. It’s then
I understand tight reins, the firm grip,
the bitter iron on my tongue,
the blood and sharper bit I’m driven with.

Jerrell, Carrie. 2009. After the revival. Ewell, UK: Waywiser.


Cowslips: Lycidas

“With Cowslips wan that hang the pensive hed,” John Milton, Lycidas. Ln. 147

Masaccio's "The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden"

With the addition of cowslips (Primula veris), Milton’s flower catalog parts from his Shakespearean sources, Oberon and Perdita. It’s not his first departure and (as was the first, the “crow-toe”) it is not an unwelcome one. Oberon’s flowers, which perfume Titania’s bower, include the oxlip (also a Primula). Milton might have used the oxlip, but its form is too close to its other cousin, the primrose. Edward King’s imagined mourners, therefore, would have adorned the casket with two flowers which (from their blooms alone) would have been nearly indistinguishable. Cowslips, on the other hand, are as Milton describes them, pendant, flower heads hung (not unlike the crow-toe) in a way that mirrors our own physical expressions of grief. (The grieved forms and “wan” faces of Adam and Eve in Masaccio’s The Expulsion and in William Blake’s The Expulsion come to mind.) In short, cowslips (which have always been more plentiful than oxlips) are a more fitting flower to be tossed on the dead poet’s hearse.

Curiously, however, Milton’s readers (if not Milton himself) had lost the flower’s baser etymology. The word “cowslip” has nothing to do with cattle slips or lips … nor slips, nor lips of any kind. The cowslip might be better named “cowslop”. Unlike the primrose, which prefers the shade, the cowslip grows in open pasture. Therefore, its gatherers (herbalists and cooks, when out “cowslipping”) would need to traverse paddy strewn fields. Cow manure comes with a lot of moisture (slop) and nutrients (instant mulch) and one might nearly expect to find healthy plants nearby. Fortunately, for Milton, cowslip had lost its slop … but, it would have been an altogether other-world had Milton honored the deceased with a rich pile of crows feet and a heap of manure.

[Note: This is the tenth post in a series. See also: The Flowers in Milton’s “Lycidas”, Primrose: Lycidas, Tufted Crow-toe: Lycidas, Pale Jasmine: Lycidas, White Pink: Lycidas, Not Your Freaking Pansy: Lycidas, The Glowing Violet: Lycidas, Musk-rose: Lycidas and Woodbine: Lycidas.]