Friday, June 3, 2011

Posture and memory

For BL, posture interrupted,
and a young first-baseman, uprooted

There are people who say they like waltzing, and I believe them, but I do not think this is what they mean. I think they were happy when waltzing sometime, and wish to reproduce that state, which they associate with myriad conditions that probably were not relevant. I also do not think they were happy on that definitive occasion for more than an instant, an insightful one to be sure; but now, their happiness in waltzing is anticipatory, contingent, as fleeting as it was then, and sometimes rather pale. I may say this, because one did marry a young lady who was passionate about the waltz.

What I wish to propose is that the sense of happiness in waltzing can be revisited by the accident of adopting the posture one occupied at that defining moment. (I fear this posting will have to achieve its expected Offense of Taste by mere hypothesis). I give you James Agee on this proposition, without whose writings many, many of us would not know what we already know. We leave - by way of illustration but not of contradiction - the waltz, together with the experience of happiness, and visit the 6-year-old boy as he went to the movies with his father, not long ago.

We encounter that inevitable placing of a stone in the shoe of memory, which is simply a natural consequence of family life, if by no means the only one. It has to do with one's posture, and it is Mr Agee's genius not to tell us this happens, but to show it happening, and to astound, by the perspective of the narrative voice, with the unstated implication that the stone will be revisited as that posture is, and can be either smoothed, or cherished for the wrong reason. Or possibly one is simply reading too slowly; Agee's time signature is not that of the waltz. He is vulgar, in the truest sense. Who wouldn't be, if he could?

"Well," his father said, "reckon I'll hoist me a couple."
They turned through the swinging doors into a blast of odor and sound. There was no music: only the density of bodies and of the smell of market bar, of beer, whiskey and country bodies, salt and leather; no clamor, only the thick quietude of crumpled talk. Rufus stood looking at the light on a damp spittoon and he heard his father ask for whiskey, and he knew he was looking up and down the bar for men he might know .. He looked up his father's length and watched him bend backwards tossing one off in one jolt in a lordly manner, 

and a moment later heard him 
say to the man next to him, 
"That's my boy"; and felt 
a warmth of love.

Next moment he felt his father's hands under his armpits, and he was lifted, high, and seated on the bar, looking into a long row of huge bristling and bearded red faces. The eyes of the men nearest him were interested, and kind; some of them smiled; further away, the eyes were impersonal and questioning, but now even some of these began to smile.

Somewhat timidly, but feeling assured that his father was proud of him and that he was liked, and liked these men, he smiled back; and suddenly many of the men laughed. He was disconcerted by their laughter and lost his smile a moment; then, realizing it was friendly, smiled again; and again they laughed. His father smiled at him. "That's my boy," he said warmly. "Six years old, and he can already read like I couldn't read when I was twice his age."

Rufus felt a sudden hollowness in his voice, and all along the bar, and in his own heart. But how does he fight, he thought. You don't brag about smartness if your son is brave. He felt the anguish of shame, but his father did not seem to notice, except that as suddenly as he had lifted him up to the bar, he gently lifted him down again. "Reckon I'll have another," he said, and drank it more slowly; then, with a few good nights, they went out.

If I could fight, thought Rufus. If I were brave; he would never brag how I could read: Brag. Of course, "Don't you brag." That was it. What it meant. Don't brag you're smart if you're not brave. You've got nothing to brag about. Don't you brag."
.. There were no words, or even ideas, or formed emotions, of the kind that have been suggested here, no more in the man than in the boy child. These realizations moved clearly through the senses, the memory, the feelings, the mere feeling of the place they paused at, about a quarter of a mile from home, on a rock under a stray tree .. and above them, the trembling lanterns of the universe ..

James Agee
A Death in the Family
op. cit.

At a distance from the city ii

Speak with us in
the writing all
about you, Socrates;

Suppose it were Friday iii


  In the Summer Ivan Grigoryevich traveled to the seaside town where, beneath a green hill, his father's house had stood.
  The train went right along the shore. During a short stop, Ivan Grigoryevich got out and looked at the green-and-black water. It was always moving, and it smelled cool and salty.

  The wind and the sea had been there when the investigator summoned him for interrogations during the night. They had been there while a grave was being dug for a prisoner who had died in transit. They had been there while guard dogs barked beneath the barrack windows and the snow creaked beneath the boots of the guards.

  The sea was eternal, and the eternity of its freedom seemed to Ivan Grigoryevich to be akin to indifference. The sea had not cared about Ivan Grigoryevich when he was living beyond the Arctic Circle, nor would its thundering, splashing freedom care about him when he ceased to live. No, he thought, this is not freedom. This is astronomical space come down to earth, a splinter of eternity, indifferent, always in motion.

  The sea was not freedom; it was a likeness of freedom, a symbol of freedom .. How splendid freedom must be if a mere likeness of it, a mere reminder of it, is enough to fill a man with happiness.

Vasily Grossman
Everything Flows
op. post, 1964
Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler
  and Anna Astanyan, translators
New York Review Books, 2009©

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Playing with paint

i    Clément Chabernaud
ii   ciné
iii  Attilalou, photo Terestchenko

Otorhinolaryngology is the study of the ear, nose, and throat

Henry Purcell
The Fairy Queen
  Act II prelude
Sir Roger Norrington
London Classical Players
EMI, 1994©

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Is yours a bricked city ii: a renewed consensus for rosé

The fate of our more elegant red wine grapes - Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc - to endure neglect in Summer was early recognised to be not only an injustice to them but unendurable by their friends; whence, it was discovered that a timely reclamation of the blush of their skins would wring an agreable extract of their intensity in warm weather. For years, now, the Champagnes of Billecart-Salmon have been unavailable in Virginia; and their recent restoration to our shelf could not have come too soon, to respond to the predicament of the furnace at our borders' core, Richmond. The non-vintage rosé from Billecart (a good marriage for Mlle Salmon), a classic in the saignée transformation of the suavity of Pinot Noir, might respond to our estival sentimentality in Autumn, but to necessity when it's hot. 


At sea, two voices

And yet not boys but youth itself. Distance detached them, water unformed them, particularities washed away. The sea proposed an ideal, unindividuate, sublime. Above on my perch I sit and watch. Alone one man.

Not entirely alone, said Scrotes.

No, MacMurrough conceded. One is never 
alone with the ghost of a friend ..

And it was pleasant to speak of such things while on their windy prominence they sat. Below, the boys thithered and thenced to the raft and back. Three times, four times, five times, six. Like mating ducks they swam: parallel but one slightly ahead ..

You know, he said to Scrotes, I remember at my school the monks discouraged particular friendships .. Desire was there anyway. We all desired. We were riven with it. The monks policed friendships but all they effected was .. abandon. Instead of fumbling with love, we fumbled in the dark.

I have a friend, or rather I had one, he's dead now; but he believed that I existed .. You asked me earlier were there many of us about. The question for my friend was, were there any of us at all. 

Jamie O'Neill
At Swim, Two Boys
Scribner, 2001©

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Is yours a bricked city?

I'm to dine with an ex-pert in building mater-ials tomorrow. We will not literally be in Richmond, but the great furnace on the James has seemed to turn its brick ovens toward the Piedmont in recent days, and opened all the doors. The question of the hour, then, is, What do we do for an appetite?

Have we not found it expedient - those of us who prefer not to dine under refrigeration, that is - to think in mono-chrome under conditions where a plain imbalance in colour temperatures works nothing less than a metabolic disorientation? One's obligation, after all, is to be hungry.

At camp, two boys

Something in the comfort's manner, 
like homage. Holds Doyle's flute 
for him while Doyle attends his 
stockings. Quickly shines it with 
his cloth. Doyle takes it back, 
breathes a silent tune, Dryden's 
soft complaining flute. My hero.

Lovers none the less?

It is not impossible. 
They have youth.
Would age forbid them?

Rather youth permits. The not 
knowing and the slowness of the 
days. Lack of imagination may 
move mountains.

Gray morning dulled the bay.
Banks of clouds .. swollen
spumeless tide. Heads that
bobbed like floating gulls
and gulls that floating
bobbed like heads. Two heads.
At swim, two boys.

Jamie O'Neill
At Swim, Two Boys
Scribner, 2001©

Photos from a series by
David Sherman and Peter Stackpole,
lent from a Private Collection.
Rights reserved.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Steepily deepily sleepily down

But where was Doyler? Many evenings, after his deliveries, [Jim] pushed through the wind of the Point, down into the Forty Foot. In the dark, if he was certain of his solitude, he brought out his flute and played to the waves the music Doyler had learnt him there. Slipjigs mostly, those winding minor-keyed melodies, that seemed to say to him, sleepily on and over, sleepily stop - and on again; sleepily slow but surely, steepily deepily sleepily down. He'd pull his collar up round his neck and watch the Muglins light. It seemed as unlikely as sunshine that he'd swim to that island. 

That come the spring he'd go with Doyler and struggling against the stream they'd rise to those rocks, upon whose face they'd lie, and under the tumbling clouds all would be made clear.
All what would be made clear, he was not sure. There were words in the back of his mind, or in the sea that circled his mind, whose articulation, like his father with the Gaelic, his tongue could not get round.

He sometimes felt if he would close his eyes and dip below, he might catch those words, they were drifting there in the flotsam, and he could say them now, if only to himself, and he would understand what it was that troubled him. Troubled and thrilled him, so that they were the same sensation to feel, trouble and thrill, a single trepidation. Yet it was not right he should understand now. Only when he was ready, when Doyler would bring him to the island, only then was the time for understanding.

But as soon as he got this far, he started over, like he was swimming in his mind and had touched the raft and now must head for the cove again .. For it might so be nothing would await him on the island. Yet the hurry of his heart told the lie of that. And there were words in the back of his mind or in the sea that circled his mind which, if only he would catch them, would tell the truth. And his heart didn't need to be told but knew already .. 

Next day the news came that the British had evacuated from Gallipoli. "Without Single Loss of Life," the papers trumpeted .. Still Aunt Sawney would not hear of a card in the window. The black bordered the house instead.

Jamie O'Neill
At Swim, Two Boys
Scribner, 2001©

Steering clear

I learned about not doing up the bottom button on my waistcoat .. We wore the uniform all day and every day .. When the weather got cold we had to buy old Army or Air Force greatcoats because it wasn't allowed to have a winter jacket that didn't cover the tails.

I had been afraid of Manson, just like everybody else. None of us felt sure enough about ourselves that he could not find a chink in our armor and dig in with whatever sharp words he could find.

But lately I'd noticed that his spell over me was growing tired .. It seemed that the best way to pay back Manson's waterfall of constant mockery was to give him only silence in return .. Slowly, he began to understand, and I never had trouble again from Manson.

Paul Watkins
Stand Before your God
  An American Schoolboy in England
Faber & Faber, Ltd, 1993©

Vacant sneakers

One could not describe as perfect
a building .. durable and useful,
 [which] was not beautiful.

Andrea Palladio
I quattro libri ..
Witold Rybczynski
The Perfect House
Scribner, 2002©

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Tweeds & foulards & button-downs, & schoolboy-good gray flannels

The sound-quality of anguish has nothing to do with its volume. This is as true in a Mozart opera as in an interrogation centre .. I had to call on an Italian farmer very early and found him in his kitchen brewing coffee and inspecting his mousetraps. These were not sprung traps but pieces of thick paper spread with birdlime. On this particular morning there was a mouse stuck to a sheet of paper on the floor outside his larder, its ineffectual scrabbles of the night clearly legible in the dense glue surrounding it. As the farmer chatted about what the hail had done to his vines the previous afternoon he scrumpled up the paper, glue, mouse and all, and tossed the ball into the fire. I had not been paying much attention to what he was doing and from the mouse's necessary immobility had assumed it dead.

But then from the fireplace as the ball of paper caught there came a tiny appalling scream. I don't believe the farmer noticed it at all: it was less than the momentary squeak of steam from a damp log, the breath of a lobster in a restaurant kitchen. That minute bellow of unhelped pain still rings in my inner ear, set off by the finches ..

Our mother's baby half-brother wore tweeds and foulards and button-downs when staying with us, and sat on the floor with me to join me with crayons. One day, he drew for me a turtle, which I readily recognised from some rudimentary schooling; I doubt I'd ever seen a real turtle. He then drew a lantern on the turtle's shell, and I laughed in unforgotten delight at his magical interference with nature. He said to me, Oh, you mustn't laugh; the turtle doesn't think he's funny. I remember this man, who gave his heart to me. A note I crayonned to him was posted some time ago.

He went off and died, because he couldn't live with himself. We were told it was an auto accident; they were comprehensible enough. He looked a great deal like a contemporary of his, shown here. Two or three years after his death, I was taken to the movies by our father, where I saw this actor in this scene. I cannot forget it, either. Hare, hunter, field: make a sentence! The character in the movie was unable to do that, and so had been castrated by order of his government. Virginia used to do that, as the movie brought out. I didn't know what that was, but he portrayed pain to me, indignity that I could believe; he held up a picture of his mother to me, to plead for her; and this I could believe.

James Hamilton-Paterson
Playing with Water
New Amsterdam Books, 1987©

Montgomery Clift

Stanley Kramer, director
Abby Mann, screenplay
Judgment at Nuremberg
United Artists, 1961©

Stray molecule, pitch of the deck

Leona: Do you like being alone except for vicious pickups? The kind you go for? If I understand you correctly? .. Christ, you have terrible eyes, the expression in them. What are you looking at?

Quentin: The fish over the bar ..

You're changing the subject.

No, I'm not, not a bit .. Now suppose some night I woke up and I found that fantastic fish .. what is it?

Sailfish. What about it.

Suppose I woke up some midnight and found that peculiar thing swimming around in my bedroom? Up the Canyon?

In a fish bowl? Aquarium?

No, not in a bowl or aquarium: free, unconfined.


Granted. It's impossible. But suppose it occurred just the same, as so many impossible things do occur just the same. Suppose I woke up and discovered it there, swimming round and round in the darkness over my bed, with a faint phosphorescent glow in its big goggle-eyes and its gorgeously iridescent fins and tail making a swishing sound as it circles around and about and around and about right over my head in my bed.


Now suppose this admittedly preposterous thing did occur. What do you think I would say?

To the fish?

To myself and the fish .. I'll tell you what I would say, I would say: 'Oh, well ..'

What I would say is: 'Get the hell out of here, you goggle-eyed monstrosity of a mother,' that's what I would say ..

You don't see the point of my story?


Do you [turning to Bobby] see the point of my story? Well, maybe I don't either.

Then why'd you tell it?

Quentin: What is the thing that you mustn't lose in this world before you're ready to leave it? The one thing you mustn't lose ever?

Leona: Love?
Bobby: Interest?

Quentin: That's closer, much closer. Yes, that's almost it. The word that I had in mind, though, is surprise. The capacity for being surprised ..

Tennessee Williams
Small Craft Warnings
New Directions, 1970©

ii, Simon Nessman at cine
iv, Andrew Cooper and Will Chalker