Weihenmayer: inspirational as a concept is a double-edged sword. People can say, “look at that inspirational person over there, he’s different from me.” And it separates one person from another, and becomes a defense mechanism, because someone can say “I don’t have to do amazing things or have growth in my life, because I’m not one of those inspirational people.” So I refused to write an inspirational book. I wanted to write an honest book.
I wore a white leotard in that part,
which is the most exposed
that you can get, a white
leotard and nothing
else. And then there
was the short, tight,
fluffy, white tutu,
and hiding nothing,
the white flowered
bikini top and bottom.
He dressed me in
white for twenty years.
I realized that I could
leave the stage only on
I meant to invite you
to my confession
and maybe I did
have gotten lost in the mail
or in the back
of my mouth
who can keep track of such
I was so focused on what
I would confess
and in whose language
I know if I were
love me less
but today I demand both
the iron general
and the iron horse he rides
like a witch boiling a corpse
down to its oils
it’s possible to reduce a life
to its worst sin
the work is unsavory yes
it has a thousand uses
On October 25, 2016, Paul Beatty was announced as the most recent winner of the Man Booker Prize. This outcome surprised many observers because Beatty’s novel The Sellout is not conventional Booker material. For one thing, it is not a historical novel, like previous winners The English Patient, Midnight’s Children, or Hilary Mantel’s two fictions about Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry viii. It is instead a contemporary tale, fantastically detached from the sensation of reality. Mordant and scarifying, it also manages to be laugh-out-loud funny. In its forty-seven-year history, the Booker Prize has not often shown much interest in comedy and, when it has, it has favored a wry version, a collection of mild ironies in the Henry-James-does- humor mode.
More significantly, Paul Beatty is an American, the first to win the Booker Prize since it opened to U.S. writers starting with the 2014 competition. It was clear from that moment that it would take a brave jury and a richly deserving novel to breach the long-standing barrier against American novelists. On a somewhat less momentous but still striking note: Beatty is African American, so, following the previous year’s award to Jamaican Marlon James for A Brief History of Seven Killings, two consecutive winners have come from the African diaspora.
The judges who named Beatty the winner dared to fulfill chilling prophecies of American co-option of a British prize, risking complaints of competitive asymmetry, since Brits cannot win the Pulitzer. Amanda Foreman, a historian, chaired the committee. Other members included the academics and writers David Harsent and Jon Day, the novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, and Olivia Williams, an actor. As chair, it came down to Foreman to announce the winner and to explain the thinking behind the choice. She declared, “this is a book that nails the reader to the cross with cheerful abandon. That is why the book works — because while you’re being nailed, you’re being tickled.” The decision was reported to be unanimous, but, since the judges took four hours to reach it, it may not have been easy.
Beatty’s novel, along with Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, was one of two American finalists. The rest of the short list comprised Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, All That Man Is by David Szalay, and His Bloody Project by Graham Macrae Burnet. Burnet and Levy are British — Scottish in Burnet’s case, while Levy is a transplanted South African. Szalay, born in Canada and brought up in England, now lives in Hungary. Thien is Canadian.
I used up all my capital for this: a visit to my sister’s house at the junction of Nowhere and No Reason. Panic, which started ticking when I told Myra that Frank and I were coming, took over on the flight from Durham to Winston-Salem, and by the time we get to her house I’m chewing gum and smoking at the same time, my foot rattling like a machine gun. Every building in town is a dull cube, the Hanes factory squatting in the water tower’s shadow. Frank never would have agreed to come if he’d had a recording session, a movie, a single foxhole he could hide in. But these days it’s his wife who’s paying the bills, and I get to insist on a trip that I myself have never made since I left North Carolina with a bad suitcase and a drawl. I got rid of them both.
It seems the whole town is in Myra’s house. By herself, Myra has cooked enough to feed the tenth battalion, and still everybody arrived with a covered dish. Four boxes are stacked next to the sink, each holding a red velvet cake. After the kitchen table was covered with dishes, my cousin balanced a plank on chairs so we wouldn’t have to put food on the floor. Frank’s eyes are darting around the room while he talks to my cousins, their friends, every salesman and gas-pump jockey in fifty miles. I need to get him a drink now. And one for me, too.
I say, “Betty Louise, just look at you! You could be a princess.” Betty Louise, who was my friend, opens her mouth and closes it again. She blushes and says, “Look who finally came home.” “I’m happy to be here.”
“Bringing glamour to poor old Winston-Salem.” “It’s good to be out of Hollywood.”
“I can’t think why.”
“You’re my people, Betty Louise.” I try to hold her gaze, but she won’t let me, fingering her flimsy skirt. If Edith Head had tried to dress me like “my people,” she wouldn’t have come close to these rayon floral dresses in brown and purple. Everyone is wearing their best. I think about the mink Frank got me and I want to vomit. “How’s your mama, Betty Louise?”
“What’s it like, in Hollywood? Are there — ” her face goes so red it’s almost purple, “orgies?”
“Not that I know about. Listen, Betty Louise — do you think there’s any hooch around here?”
“Not that I know about.”
When a woman leaves, you shouldn’t let her come back home. But how was I supposed to ignore her if she stayed out there all night? She knocked, and I said, Who’s there? When she didn’t answer, I told her, Go away. I heard her woolen coat rub against the wooden door as she slid down to a sitting position on the step. I imagined her hugging the bag she’d left with, that big weekend bag, the one we used when it occurred to us to leave the city. I threw the eggs into the frying pan; the sizzling of the oil drowned out the sound of her blowing her nose. It was November, and at this altitude it’s always cold at night. She got all stuffed up with it. I took the eggs out of the pan and put them on a plate with a slice of ham — the last slice. Since she left, I buy very little. I’d never done the shopping before, and at first I’d order a half kilo, but after a week, when I had to throw out most of the cold cuts because they’d gone all slimy and green, I realized that one hundred grams was enough. I started to enjoy going to the supermarket. It was clean, well-lit. At home, I only turned on the lights in the TV room and the bedroom. Never again did I turn on the little lantern at the front door where Marta was now huddled in the shadows.
I attacked the yolks with a piece of bread, and then gazed deeply into the yellow magma as it slid into the coagulated whites. It annoyed me to hear her breathing out there. We never should have bought this house, with its cheap materials. You can hear everything. When we moved here, we could even hear the neighbors flush the toilet, and with our last unmarried kid, Julian, still in the house, we would try to guess who it had been. Marta would laugh. Back then, with Julian at home, she used to laugh a lot. He spoiled her, and she did the same to him. Girls. It would have been easier if we’d had a girl to spoil me. I always suspected that the son-of-a-bitch she left with was just like Julian: cheerful, affectionate. But flattery and the lingering hug are not my cup of tea. For me, a penetrating look is enough, like when I said goodbye to Marta as she was putting on her brown coat.
“You’re not going to stop me?” she had asked, hurt. “You want to leave. There’s nothing to do about it.” “Maybe you think that it’s paradise living here with you?” “It’s just here, with me.”
Why are you there behind the door? Three months apart weren’t enough to stitch up my soul. The pain bubbled up like the yolks that I kept wolfing down, as if I were trying to eradicate her inevitable return with my jaws.
If she’s a bitch, let her sleep like a bitch, I thought, finishing off the beer that I drank every night to put myself to sleep. It’s hard not to indulge in melodrama and to accept how difficult it is to sleep without Marta’s body next to me every night, without her smell of creams and dried-up woman. I felt the shameless desire to say goodnight to her as I shuffled upstairs in my slippered feet.
At the restaurant, you linger in front of the lectern and examine the menu’s offerings.
The décor is attractive, a high-tech bistro style. Its entrance opens onto the hotel’s lobby. It’s mid-afternoon, so there aren’t any dinner guests to make uncomfortable when you peek in. The waiters are busy putting out the place settings and flower arrangements.
In hotels, dinner service begins at six o’clock. At a table underneath a small lamp attached to the wall, a man catches sight of you and nods in greeting. You smile and feel a strong urge to leave, since you already had a look around, but he signals you with his hand to come closer. He seems like the manager, with his navy-blue jacket and red tie. You say hello and tell him that the place is very lovely, that you hadn’t known about it. We just remodeled it, he answers, and asks you to sit down. I came to get a gift from Larios, you say, hedging. He tells you it’ll just take a few minutes, that he wants you to taste a few dishes, that everything’s new, the menu, the chef. Faced with his calm smile and slate-blue eyes, you weakly tell him that you’re not hungry. He reaches out his big hands—you take note of just how big they are—and he orders the waiter to bring a few sample dishes. You think, why not? You like to eat, and this man wants your opinion.
It’s five o’clock, and the waiter sets down two wine glasses and pours a splash into the glass of the man in the blue jacket. He buries his nose in it, inhales, and then asks you if you wouldn’t mind accompanying him in a little tasting. It would be a pleasure, you say, and he explains what a good year it was for this French wine, the harvest of that vintage was fantastic, that this sort of pinot noir goes well with a tuna steak, a little serving of redfish, nearly raw and crusted with pepper, an intensely-flavored slice that your tongue lingers over and that you swallow with your eyes half-closed, afterwards taking a sip from your glass. He watches you, having not even tried his own serving, and he catches you in your gesture, a pleasant expression in the eyes, a pleased sigh. The servings—loin of lamb in puff pastry, a bit of endive with goat cheese, veal with morels—all flow delicately and each in its turn across the white tablecloth and your palate. He tells you that he used to be a dishwasher, and now he’s the restaurant’s manager. The story intrigues you. He’s been to wine tastings all over the world, he personally knows sommeliers who have identified regions, varieties, and vintages while blindfolded.
Lucy Allen was sitting in the window seat in the dining room, reading “Undine,” when she saw the car come through the gate and start slowly up the drive: a dark blue convertible, its top lowered; a big, red-headed man was bent over the wheel.
It was three o’clock in the afternoon. Lucy had that morning returned from a two-day visit to her friend, Evelyn Chase, who lived in the near-by town of Gloversville. They had gone to the movies on both Wednesday and Thursday afternoons and at the end of each matinee had gone to Grimstead’s Drug Store to eat banana splits. Evelyn’s sister, Margery, had been invited to a dance at the Country Club on Thursday night. They had stayed in her room to watch the long, ice-blue satin frock that her mother had just finished sewing slide over her blonde head, and after she departed for the dance had lain in her bed and talked far into the night. Evelyn thought that if a boy ever wanted to kiss her she would let him do it. Lucy said that there were boys in their class at school whom she would not allow to kiss her big toe. Evelyn maintained that Lucy was in reality of the same mind as she was and only pretended to think differently. That was because Lucy was “around grown people” so much, she observed. Her own mother had said that she was surprised that Lucy wasn’t queerer than she was. As for Lucy’s pretense of being reluctant to be kissed, it deceived nobody and only spoiled the fun. There was no use in “talking” unless you told everything. . . When Lucy came at noon into her own, cool, high-ceilinged brick house she had carried a book to the luncheon table and had read surreptitiously throughout the meal.
It was three o’clock now, and she was halfway through “Undine.” The sun blazed on the gravelled drive, the leaves on the maple trees hung furled. The cook, who was ordinarily her companion at this hour of the day, had gone to her cabin right after lunch, announcing that she had a tooth-ache and was going to sleep it off. In their bedroom on the second floor Lucy’s father and mother were asleep, too. “Time to take a nap. . . just time. . .” they had said as rose from the table. Her father, as usual, looked abstracted. Her mother had seemed excited. One of them had uttered the name of the guest who was expected—there had evidently been a long distance telephone call just before she arrived—but she had been busy concealing her book under the table cloth and had not listened to they were saying.
She frowned and shook her long, light hair back from her face before she put her book down and went out on to the front porch. The car had halted beside the crape myrtle bush. The red-headed man sat staring at the river.
The screen door creaked as it went shut behind her. He turned his head and gazed at her calmly for a second. A delighted smile came over his face. He sprang out of the car and up the step seizing her in his arms swung her high above his head.
A thin scream burst from Lucy. Horror-struck, she compressed her lips and looked down stoically into his upturned face. His brows were shaggy and rufous. His light brown eyes were flecked with green. She shut her own eyes and did not open them until she felt herself being set down gently on the floor.
He was kneeling on the floor beside her, putting out a big to give her shoulder a quick pressure. His green-brown eyes darted merry glances at her. He said:
“Two—weeks—ago—today—where do you suppose I was?”
She resisted the impulse to draw away. “I don’t know,” she said faintly.
“At Rumpelmeyer’s!” he said.
She did not answer.
“At Rumpelmeyer’s,” he repeated. “There was a fat man sitting at our table. A fat man in a fez. . . What do you suppose that old devil was eating?”
To look into his eyes long was like falling into tumbling water. She lowered her own gaze to the porch railings. “I don’t know,” she said again.
He released her shoulder and straightening himself to his full height, shook his head slowly from side to side. “A Monte Carlo,” he said, “I’m damned if he wasn’t eating a Monte Carlo! As I went past I just up-ended it. ‘Sir,’ I said, ‘do you mind if I turn down this empty glass?’ ”
There were hurried steps in the hall. Her father and mother came tumultuously through the front door. Her father was dressed, but her mother’s dark hair hung over her shoulders in two long braids and she wore only a thin green robe drawn over her nightgown. She shrieked and stood on tip-toe to throw her arms about the visitor’s neck. “It’s so divine you’ve come, Tubby,” she said, “so divine. . .” As she stepped aside to let the two men shake hands—only Tubby put his arm around Daddy’s neck and hugged him, too—Sarah Allen bent on Lucy the candid, radiant smile she usually reserved for adults. “Isn’t it wonderful Uncle Tubby’s here?” she asked.
Lucy did not answer. The four of them entered the hall, which at this time of day was darkened for the sake of coolness. The visitor carried his head high and took long steps. It seemed that he might stride right through the hall and off the hill before her father opened the east door and they walked out on to the river gallery.
He stood and gazed at the river, glinting green through the willows and then at the far meadow and the corn fields that stretched on to the bend in the river before he turned and gazed at Stephen Allen.
“You didn’t tell me you were in the money!” he said.
Stephen Allen’s lean face flushed. “Not exactly,” he said.
His wife went quickly up to him and hung on his arm, swaying a little and laughing. “We’re ‘way above our raising!” she said.
Uncle Tubby looked at Lucy. “That’s why she’s so cold to me! An heiress, hunh?” He again bent his shaggy head over her. “Je demande une lawleepawp” he uttered in a finicking tone. “You may laugh off Rumpelmeyer’s but what about that Tabac on the Place de l’Odeon? Heavens, Woman, I have witnesses! We were seen entering it practically every Thursday—when Madame Combet was at Confession. . . I suppose next thing you’ll be telling me that
you don’t remember her?”
“I don’t remember her very much,” Lucy muttered.
He made with his huge, outstretched hands a gesture that indicated that he had heard enough. “A regular belle dame sans merci!” he exclaimed.
Sarah Allen let go of her husband’s arm and slipping her arm around Lucy’s shoulder, drew her toward her. “The poor child’s been dragged around so, from pillar to post. . . And you know, they forget it on the boat. Really, they do.”
Uncle Tubby was looking at the columns made of rose-colored brick that supported the gallery. “Damn creditable pillars!” he said. ”And what a pleasure—to me, who was with you in the ships at Mylae!—to see you provided with an establishment suited to persons of your quality. . .” He broke off, shouting: “Pompey! You black rascal!”
“It was Steve’s rich brother,” Sarah said, “gave us the house and a hundred acres of land. Wasn’t it darling of him?”
“I long to know that fellow,” Uncle Tubby said. “I long to shake him by the hand. Everybody ought to have a brother like that.”
Her father laughed. “Well, you’ve got one now. Brother Warren B. Zaalberg.”
Uncle Tubby laughed, too, and threw his head back so sharply that a tendril of trumpet vine was jarred from its place on the pillar. The green spray, curving back upon itself, its first and last leaves actually intertwined, gave Lucy for a second the impression of a wrreath set upon the coarse, clotted curls that were the exact color and consistency of the hairs in the tail of her grandmother’s buggy horse. He was more the color of a horse than a man. All sorrel.
Wreaths were put upon horses’ necks when they won a race. You could imagine him winning all the races, the Derby, even. . . He was still laughing about Warren B. Zaalberg.
“I’ve given him of my blood and he’s given me a modicum of his’n. But I can’t look on him as a blood brother. Still, we’ll drink to him. . . . Brother Ben Allen! Brother Warren B. Zaalberg!” He batted his eyes and roared: “Pompey. . . Pompey!”
“We’ll get your bags in, first,” her father said and had started through the door when Uncle Tubby roared “Pompey!” again and, pushing past him, ran through the hall and down the front steps to where his car was parked.
“I’ve got to get something on,” Sarah Allen said and went into her bedroom and shut the door. She opened it immediately to say: “Lucy, will you tell Uncle Tubby where to go?”
“Well, where,” Lucy demanded.
“In the room across from you,” her mother said and shut her door.
Lucy stood in the hall and watched Uncle Tubby coming up the steps, carrying a big pigskin bag easily in each hand. He had disappeared down the steep flight of stairs that led to the lower floor. She could hear the refrigerator door slam and the sound of water running over the ice-cubes that her father would by have taken out of the refrigerator. Uncle Tubby came abreast of her. She motioned to him to ascend the stairs to the third floor, where there was a little guest room, across the hall from bedroom. He thanked her with a low bow, even while with a wave of his hand he dismissed his imaginary companion. “Be off, sir. To the quarters!”
Lucy could see the colored man—he was not more than eighteen years old and wore a red swallow-tailed coat over a pair of pink and white striped trousers—running down the stairs. Involuntarily she pressed back against the wall while a ripple of laughter went through her. Uncle Tubby, halfway up the stairs, heard the minute sound and turned and smiled at her.
“Where’d you get him?” she asked before she realized was doing.
He had come to the landing. He set both bags down and grasped the brown railing with both hands. For a moment he looked as if he might spring over it and land in the hall beside her, but he only leaned far over, to say in a hoarse whisper:
“In a poker game. From General Nathan Bedford Forrest.”
“General Forrest!” she said scornfully. “He don’t ever play no cards.”
He leaned still farther over, to look through the open door to where beyond the river, on the white highway, the cars kept spinning all day long.
“You never saw him in Paris?” he said. In the spring. . . You’d be surprised!”
Her mother came out of her room, in blue jeans, but with her face made up and her hair freshly braided. “Don’t you want to go downstairs and help Daddy?” she asked.
“No, I don’t,” Lucy said and walked out on the gallery and sat down in the swing. The dachshund who slept there in a nest of pillows groaned softly and rolled over on his back, all four paws extended in the air. She bent and laid her face against his warm muzzle, and said in the high, thin tone both she and her mother used when addressing him: “Borcke. . . Borcke. . .Borcke Dog!” thinking how, when she got her pony and rode him along the he could run beside them. . . But they couldn’t buy the pony till another check came in, Daddy said. . . If they bought it then. . . .Couldn’t you wait till next summer? You’ve got Borck and the cats. Couldn’t you just wait till next summer? You’ll be nine years old then. . . Yes, if I’m not dead with all y’all’s goings on. . .
Her father came through the door, holding a tray full of bottles and glasses. Her mother came after him, bearing a bowl full of ice-cubes. “Lucy,” she said crisply, “will you run downstairs me some limes—three limes—out of the refrigerator?”
When Lucy came back with the limes Sarah was lying in the hammock and Uncle Tubby was sitting in the swing beside Borcke, glass in his hand. He had taken off his coat. His shirt, which was almost the color of his hair, was open at the throat. He said to her father:
“Where’re you operating now?”
Her father smiled absently and looked off over the fields for a second before he answered:
“I’m still in the Wilderness. . . . Grant has just made his first move by the left flank. Toward Spotsylvania.”
“Then Longstreet has just rolled up his left flank,” Uncle Tubby said. “If Lee hadn’t waited to re-form his troops he might have routed Grant. I make something of that in the poem, you remember.”
“I don’t know . . .” Stephen Allen said, “There weren’t sufficient reserves, as a matter of fact. The half of Grant’s army that he had left was as big as Lee’s whole army. . . .”
Sarah Allen, swaying forward in the hammock, fixed the visitor’s face with her dark eyes. “But where would If It Takes All Summer be if Lee had won?. . . Honest, Tubby, did they really pay you sixty thousand dollars for that poem?”
“Did it really take you all summer to write it?” Lucy asked and bit her lip as she realized that she was speaking at the same time as her mother.
Sarah clapped her hand over her mouth. Lines in her cheek went taut, then smoothed out again as she let her hand fall into her lap. “It took him all winter, too,” she said severely. “You don’t just dash off a poem of five thousand lines, Lucy. . . . Tubby, how much was your take?”
“It was the damnedest thing you ever heard of,” Tubby “You know they’d already paid twenty thousand for the title?
“Yes,” Sarah said, “we read that in the Times”
“It was just after I’d got the NOW job,” Tubby said, “but I four weeks to kill. Wimscott has been out there three years, you know. He’d been so darned nice about the whole thing, I thought this was a good time to make him a visit. . . Of course after I got there he had to take me around some. . . .”
“So you met all the producers?”
“Hell, no. I met Zaalberg.” He threw his head back and emitted his raucous laugh. “But I was drunk as a coot. Have to Wimsy’s word for what happened.”
“Well, what did happen?”
“Zaalberg was coming to dinner. But I didn’t have any illusions about that. I knew they’d just bought the title because they scared to leave any Civil War stuff lying around loose, after
Gone with the Wind. So I didn’t think anything about Zaalberg. We going on to some gambling place after dinner—Wimscott has to lose a thousand dollars every night or so or he gets restless. But Zaalberg got to brooding and Wimsy didn’t seem to like to disturb him. We just sat in the patio while Zaalberg went on brooding. Seems he’s been low lately, on account of Gone. It is hard on the fellow. . .”
“Simply damnable,” Sarah said. “I don’t see how he stands it.”
Uncle Tubby made a sudden movement. Lucy felt that if he had got out of the swing he would have caught her mother up and swung her high over his head, the way he had swung her; but he sank back, saying only: “Oh, you. . . ! Want to hear what really happened?”
“That’s exactly what I want to hear,” Sarah said.
“Well, there was a pool in the patio. I went to sleep on the springboard. Seems I kept diving in, trying to sober up, but couldn’t make it. Zaalberg kept on brooding over how much money MGM was making and finally Wimsy told him he was the feeb of world, had a property worth just as much as Gone all the time and didn’t know it. . . Zaalberg comes out of his trance enough to ask Where and Wimscott—so he says—sat down and read him If It Takes. . . And there I was, snoring away on the spring-board and didn’t hear a word of it!”
“Figuerez-vous!” Sarah said. “I don’t suppose Zaalberg did, either.”
“He called me up at ten o’clock the next morning! Says, ‘Is this Mr. Madden, the poet?’ ‘Yes,’ I says. ‘Mr. Madden,’ says he, I very much admire your long poem, If It Takes All Summer. I particularly admire the fiftieth stanza. . .'” He had been looking at Sarah as he spoke but his gaze went now to Stephen Allen. “The fiftieth,” he said.
Stephen Allen’s head tilted slowly to one side. “Well, I’m damned,” he said. “That’s the best stanza.”
“That was what he told me. Then he said that their Mr. Form would like to talk to my agent some time during the week when I said I didn’t have an agent he laughed and said that in that case Mr. Forman would like to talk to me some time during the day and was six o’clock all right? And I said it was. And Forman came around at six. . . In addition to the twenty thousand they’d already paid for the title they paid another sixty thousand.”
“Eighty thousand dollars for a poem,” Stephen Allen said. “Yea, Bo! That calls for a drink.” He rose and went over to the table where he had set the tray.
“Don’t put any sugar in mine,” his wife said. “My God, Tubby! I just simply can’t take it all in. . . Then you went on to India and interviewed the Mahatma. . . What made you come back Paris so soon?”
“There was a damsel there in distress,” Uncle Tubby said. He glanced at Lucy and then back at her mother. “All General Forrest’s fault. You know how chivalrous he is. Nothing would him but we must go over and help her out.”
“Was it a damsel we know?” Sarah asked.
“Sure,” he said. “Isabel.”
“Isabel. . . ?”
“I don’t believe I know her,” Sarah said.
“Oh, yes, you do. She thinks Steve is the greatest poet ever lived. . . Isabel Shaw she was.”
“Isabel Shaw!” Sarah said. “The one who wrote ‘The Water Bearer’? Oh, come, Tubby!”
“She’s pretty good,” Tubby said, “at least she used to be. She hasn’t written anything for a long time now.”
“I suppose she has an unsympathetic husband. . . ” Sarah said “Well, it never was anything but watered down Millay.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Stephen Allen said, “more like Katherine Phillips.”
There was a silence till Sarah said, “Well, who is she married to now?”
“Same person. Dan Reardon.”
“Dan Reardon!” Sarah said. “We went to a party there once. The bar was full of tuberoses. There was a Papal countess made passes at Steve. . . And three or four of the Guinness girls.”
“I thought they were dead,” Stephen Allen said.
“The Guinness girls?”
“No. Isabel and Dan Reardon.”
“They were in the hospital for months. Isabel had to learn to walk all over again.”
“I remember,” Sarah Allen said, “they’d been at the Weavers’ and they all got drunk and drove up that mountain and it’s a one way road and they met a car. . . Weren’t there a lot of other people with them?”
“Two. A movie actor and his girl. They were both killed. . . Isabel and Dan lay out in the woods all night. . . ”
“What’s he like, really?” Sarah asked. “I can’t remember him that night, except just walking around and smiling at people. I suppose he was dreadfully drunk. I do remember now! He sat down in an old lady’s lap. Steve was frightfully annoyed. She was a cousin of the Duc de Guise and Steve was having a heavy conversation with her about her great uncle who was over here as an observer during the war. . . ”
“The Civil War, I take it?” Tubby said.
She smiled at him. “Your war,” she said.
“Touché!” Tubby said. “Well, he doesn’t drink now.”
“What’s the matter? Can’t he? I knew a man in Paris once had a silver plate in his head and every time he took a drink he . . .”
“I wouldn’t know what’s the matter with Dan Reardon,” Tubby said, “I can’t figure him. . . ”
“What does he do that’s so funny?” Sarah asked.
Tubby shook his head. “Art Pearce knew him at Harvard. Says he’s been a different fellow ever since he got hit on the head in that wreck. . . ”
“Like Hans’ father, in The Silver Skates,” Lucy said. “They thought he was loony and then they operated on him and he had just as much sense as anybody else, and Hans and his sister. . . ”
“They’ll probably have to lock him up,” Mama said and laughed. “Isabel can on to somebody else then.”
Uncle Tubby looked at Mama thoughtfully. “That’s what I tell her,” he said, “but life is fell strange, you know. There are complications.”
“What kind of complications?”
“Well, we needn’t go into them now.” He glanced at Lucy again. “How’s Lady Souse?” he asked. “How’s Stutts Watts, the poet?”
Lucy smothered a yawn. “I don’t know,” she said, “I don’t know anything about those old people,” and it was true that they were now nothing to her but names, imaginary companions, who, her father and mother told her, had traveled all over Europe with them. But she had been five years old then. Uncle Tubby was thirty-two and still had “that black rascal, Pompey” and General Forrest. Per haps it took boys longer to grow up than girls.
She leaned back in her deep chair and thought of all the far places Uncle Tubby had been in. To Hollywood, to see about his long poem that was being made into a movie and after that to India, to interview the Mahatma Gandhi for a magazine he worked on called NOW, and then from India he had gone to Paris. In an aeroplane.
He was talking now about what he and she had done in Paris. Every morning, he said, he had walked with her and her nurse, Madame Combet, to the Gardens. On their way they had stopped at the church of Saint Sulpice for Mass. He said that he still had callouses on his knees—he would show them to her as soon as he got into shorts—from kneeling on those cold, stone floors. He was surprised when she said that she did not remember Monsieur l’Abbé. He well remembered being presented to that worthy by Lucy herself, at the corner of Ferou and Vaugirard, right under the windows, it happened, of Monsieur l’Abbé’s parishioner, Monsieur Hemingway. After that, under Lucy’s direction, he had saved all his stamps for Monsieur l’Abbé—until Lucy bestowed her affections elsewhere, on one Ramon, the patron’s son, after which he had ceased saving stamps for Monsieur l’Abbé and had even given him the cut direct when they met in the formerly sacred purlieus.
“The purlieus” were the streets around the church of Saint Sulpice. Every time he said “Saint Sulpice” it was as if a great bell started tolling somewhere and she was moving, with many other people, into a vast, chill place where candlelight flickered on stone. But she could not really remember the church, or even call Madame Combet to mind, though she had been told often how much the old loved her and there was in her room at this moment a little New Testament in French, with a book mark, a picture showing one end of a crosscut saw, a little child on the other, with the motto: “Tout est facile quand Jesus aide,” that Madam had said she must keep always. She would look at it sometimes and say to herself: “Madame Combet. . . Madame Combe. . . ” but nothing came back, except running fast on the street to keep hold of a warm, dry hand, or stopping sometimes beside something black that was higher than her head, while a hand—paper-white now—disappeared into a black bag and came up holding something—the stamps, probably, for Monsieur l’Abbé. She thought all at once that if it had been winter and Uncle Tubby wearing a heavy woolen suit and she sitting beside him on a sofa she might have remembered him better. For she had sat on a sofa, in front of a fire, close up against somebody who bent over her, to read from a book that open on her knee:
So now you know why Henry sleeps
And why his mourning mother weeps
And why his weeping mother mourns
He was not kind to unicorns. . . .
A unicorn was an animal you read about in books, white, usually with a horn in the middle of its forehead. . . A little horse. . . If they would only quit talking—and drinking, for the drank the more they talked—there would still be time to drive out to Mr. Warfleet’s and look at the pony that he had said would do so nicely for her. . . “You got only one child? Then I’d advise a Shetland. Rather bite than eat. . . Now this pony is part Morgan and part Arabian. See the deer look to her head?”
Her father was trying to catch her eye. He wanted downstairs and get some more ice. She stared past him and fished three slim cubes out of the water and dropped them into Uncle Tubby’s third drink. Uncle Tubby pretended that Pompey had handed it to him and with a “Thank you, my lad,” began pacing up and down the gallery, talking on and on about people they had known in Paris.
. . .Thirteen hands high. Brown, with white spots. A star on the forehead, a white stocking and one white splotch on the barrel. The mane was half white, half brown, but the tail. . . the tail pure white and rippled. . .
She opened her mouth too suddenly. Air, rushing into her windpipe, made her gulp. Her mother started and set her glass down the floor beside the hammock. “Lucy,” she said vaguely, “Lucy, why don’t you go and comb your hair?”
“You’ve got to dress from the skin out,” Lucy said.
Her mother looked down at her jeans-clad legs. “Tubby,” said, “how would you like to drive out in the country and look a pony? We can’t buy it yet,” she added hastily, “but we could just look at it.”
Uncle Tubby brought up short in his pacing. “What’s the matter with it here?” he said. “Thish admirable porch!” He looked about him, at the far fields and then at her father’s and mother’s flushed faces, and suddenly let his hand drop on her father’s shoulder. “Why, it’s as good as Cassis!” he said.
It was at Cassis that Uncle Tubby had written the long poem that was going to be made into a movie. The poem was in a black book, on the top shelf by Daddy’s desk; gilt letters went in a column straight up one side of it: If It Takes All Summer. Her father had read out loud from the letter that said Uncle Tubby was g to get eighty thousand dollars for the poem. “That’s a hell of lot of money for a poem,” he had said. Her mother had frowned and looked out of the window. “Do you think he can take it?” she asked. “He can take it if anybody can” her father said but he was frowning when he got up from his desk. . .
They were talking now about a picnic they had gone to at Cassis. It had lasted three days. The man who made the bouillabaisse sang a different opera every day. Her father and Uncle Tubby had cited their own poems, and an old gentleman named Monsieur l’Ermite had recited Racine. He had walked over the mountains, bringing seven different vintages of wine in a hamper. Four of his hounds had come with him. She had been in Paris, then, with her nurse, but when they talked about how, after supper, they would go out in the bay and, wearing special glasses, dive to look at the flowers that grew on the bottom of the sea she could see the flowers, too: pink and blue and purple, star-shaped, some of them round, like little Banksia roses.
The town clock struck four. It was coming across all those fields and the water that made the sound so mellow. She got up and walked to the bannister. Patterson’s barn, which all afternoon had glowed silver in the sun, turned lavender as a ragged cloud drifted over it. The sumac bushes that fringed the lawn were shaking. Two heads appeared, surrounded by foliage of a lighter green than the sumac leaves.
“Mr. MacDonogh has got Mr. Lancaster to help him,” she said.
Uncle Tubby stopped pacing and came and stood beside her, looking down at the two men who walked slowly across the lawn, each bearing on his back a great, rope-tied bundle of fresh-cut boughs.
“What are they going to do with those branches?” he asked.
“It’s for the bush arbor meeting,” she told him.
Her father had come oyer and was standing beside them. “The Holy Roller meeting,” he said, “starts tonight.”
Uncle Tubby’s glass swung out in an arc so wide that a few bright drops fell in the wake of the men passing just then beneath the gallery. “Why do these holy men gather in your back yard?” he asked. “Is it your fame—or your impiety—that attracts them?”
“They set fire to Judge Rives’ woods last summer,” Stephen said. “Had to find a new place. . . You better attend, Tubby. You might get converted.”
Lucy stared at her father. His eyes were clear and as yet no little veins showed in his lean cheeks. It was when he spoke that you realized that he had had three Tom Collinses since lunch time. He was leaning over the rail, shouting, as if Mr. MacDonogh were a mile away and not right there under the porch. “Better hurry! You won’t get ’em up in time.”
One of the men gave no sign that he had heard. The other turned up a thin face, encircled by a ragged auburn beard. He laughed. “Yes sir,” he said and laughed again, revealing in the
wider rictus sharp, stunted teeth that might have been a child’s. “You better come on and help us,” he added and, ducking as if he were afraid of what the sally might bring forth, followed his companion around the corner of the house.
“That’s Mr. MacDonogh,” Lucy said. “He don’t eat mutton . . . or lamb.”
Uncle Tubby was looking at her father. “She’s kidding me.”
Stephen Allen shook his head. “Agnus Dei. . . qui tollis peccata mundi. . . His life is one long Eucharist.”
“Aren’t any of the children saved except Ruby,” Lucy said, “but Mr. and Mrs. MacDonogh are. . .”
“And Sanctified,” her mother said from the hammock.
Lucy turned around. Her voice sounded shrill in her own ears after its long disuse. “That’s what you think! Mrs. MacDonogh’s Sanctified, but Mr. MacDonogh isn’t.”
Sarah Allen sat up in the hammock. One of her dark braids had slipped from its pins and hung rakishly over her shoulder. She held her hairpins in her mouth and spoke through them quickly. “Lucy, Mr. MacDonogh is a great deal more religious than Mrs. MacDonogh. . . Mrs. MacDonogh chews tobacco.” She hesitated a moment and added, “And she had a child before she was married.”
“She’s seen Jesus flying through the air on wings!” Lucy said.
Her father and mother were looking at each other. Uncle Tubby’s eyes were bright on her face. “How do you know, Lucy?” he asked.
“Ruby told me, and so did Mary Magdalene.”
The hammock creaked as her mother lay back among the pillows. “If she said she saw Jesus flying through the air on wings, she saw him, as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “She wouldn’t steal a pin.”
Uncle Tubby laughed. “Why should she go around stealing pins?” Sarah Allen turned her head and looked at him reflectively. “I expect they’re hard put to it to find a safety pin sometimes. With all those babies.”
“Who’s the other fellow?” Madden asked, looking at her husband.
“Mr. Lancaster. He’s quite a worldly fellow. An agnostic, in fact.”
“But he’s got a magnificent tenor voice,” Sarah said.
“Do you go to the meetings?” Uncle Tubby asked Lucy.
“I am this time.” She looked at her mother who just then extended an empty glass to her husband. “That’s your third drink,” she said. “If you take three drinks you can’t drive. Can she, Daddy?”
But her father was looking past her into the hall.
“Somebody’s coming,” he said.
“Oh, God!” Sarah said. She got up hastily out of the hammock and standing on one foot shook down first one and then pants leg. “Go peep and see who it is,” she said to Lucy.
Lucy tiptoed through the hall and sliding behind the door peered out on to the circular driveway. A car had been parked on the other side of the lilac bush. Two women were coming up the brick walk. A young woman wore a green flowered and a big hat and walked slowly, supporting a smaller, older woman, dressed all in grey. Lucy ran back to the porch.
“It’s club women,” she said.
Stephen Allen picked up a tray from the table and beckoning to Madden, silently retreated through the hall and down the back stairs. Sarah, too, ran through the hall. Lucy was alone on the porch. She heard quick footsteps and then the sound of a dresser opening. Her mother would be putting on fresh lipstick or perhaps changing from the jeans to a dress. But she couldn’t do about the way she smelled. She looked down at the skirt of her dark blue gingham. There was a grass stain on the hem. She had wanted to change her dress right after lunch, but her mother had told her to wait until they went out to Mr. Warfleet’s. If these ladies stayed a long time it would be too late to go to Mr. Waterfleet’s. . .
The knocker sounded. Lucy advanced slowly to the door. Her mother was ushering two ladies into the hall. She hadn’t changed to a dress, after all, and she couldn’t have had time to braid her hair, either, but it was pinned up neatly and her sun-burned skin glowed smooth through fresh make-up.
The young lady had eyes as dark as Mama’s. The eye shadow she used made her lids shine. She looked about the square hall, with the Confederate flag draped over the mirror, and then at the river and the fields framed in the doorway. “I love this house,” she said. “Miss Grace, did you know that Jim and I almost bought this house?”
The old lady was smiling at Lucy. Sarah drew Lucy forward. The gin smell rose sharply above the mingled fresh odors of powder and the rose perfume Sarah had brought from France. She ought not to use that when she’s drinking, Lucy thought, and was about to curtsey—disregarding her mother’s commands, she did it only on impulse—when the young lady put out a hand and gave her a friendly jab on the shoulder. Lucy arrested the bending of her knee and muttering “How-do?” slipped ahead of them into the parlor and seated herself on the haircloth-covered sofa that occupied the center of the room, then, as they entered, was about to get to her feet when she realized that her mother, sitting forward on the chair, her hands clasped between her denim-clad legs, was giving her whole attention to the young lady, Mrs. Eglinton.
“. . . stopped the car there on the other side of the river to you, Jim said. He can make up his mind just like that. . .” Diamonds to the size of your thumb were clustered on Mrs. Eglinton’s ring finger; her wedding ring was platinum, inset with diamonds. “I said, Jim, you just bring me out here to torture me. . . No place to put another bedroom. . . Without spoiling it, I mean. And then Daddy gave us that lot in Englewood. . .” Her cheeks were as softly grained as rose petals. Her hat was of dark brown straw, looped with narrow black velvet ribbon. In the gloom of its brim her face took on a flowery pallor. Her lips opened wider until her whole face swayed at you, like a flower on its stalk. “I told Daddy he did it just for meanness. . .”
“. . . bathrooms, either,” Sarah said. “That one downstairs, they were using it for a henhouse. A hen roost going up to it from outside and a row of nests along the way. A setting of eggs in one of them. . .”
“Did you put one on this floor?”
“Eggs? . . . Oh! Bathrooms? No, you always have to go upstairs or downstairs when you want to go to the bathroom. It’s dreadful. . .” She was looking at the old lady. “You’re Mrs. Merritt she said. “You live in the house with the iron balconies.”
The old lady’s laugh ran through the room like a breeze. “They’ve fallen to ruin. I told Tom the other day that we ought to rip them off.”
Her hair had a deep, soft wave in it and shone like silver. Her skin was as fine as tissue paper that somebody had squeezed into a ball and then smoothed out again. She sat down slowly in the red armchair. There were long ruffles sewed to the sides of her grey voile dress. One of them fell to the floor. She lifted it and folded it carefully across her knee. “Out-moded elegance,” she said, “I don’t know why people in Gloversville had all that iron work shipped up here from New Orleans. It served no purpose whatsoever.”
The young lady, Mrs. Eglinton, still stood, looking first at yellow curtains and then at the white mantel, whose wide shelf and fluted columns had been carved, Lucy knew, “by slave labor.” She saw Lucy looking at her and winked. All the time she was talking she stood a little way off and looked at herself and every now and then she realized that you might not like what she was saying; it was then that she turned her prettiness off so you would have a chance to see what she was really like. Her hips were as trim as a quail’s under the green silk as she crossed the room to stand before a picture that hung on the west wall. Lucy turned her head and stared, too. There was something in the center of the canvas that was intended, she knew, for a patch-work quilt. A figure lay it, arms and legs wide spread, while around it other figures revolved: Daddy, in a big straw hat, mowing the lawn, she and Wigwam, the dog she had had before he was run over, skipping in front of Electra, the cook they had had before Jenny, standing, in a blue dress, before the block rolling out biscuits, a young poet swimming in the river, which, in the picture, was blue and not muddy, the way it was at this time of the year, her hens, Red Lily and Leaf Flower, with the red rooster Mammy had given her, the pony that she had only one night—he bit her leg so badly that they had to take him back to the man they had bought him from—some visitor going down the brick walk, with his wife, and she herself and the four MacDonogh children crouched beside one of the columns in the gallery. She wondered whether Mrs. Eglinton would know the rose-colored blob there beside the column was Lucy Allen. She hadn’t recognized herself till they told her who it was, but ever since she had liked to come in here from time to time and seem to see herself walking about in the picture.
Sarah had risen to stand beside the guest. “It’s called ‘Life at Benfolly,’ ” she said.
The old lady laughed. “It looks like a merry-go-round.”
“That’s what it’s intended for,” Sarah said.
Mrs. Eglinton winked at her. “Did you paint it?”
“Heavens, no! It’s a Biala. She visited here one summer. I suppose that’s the way life here impressed her. It was a hectic summer. . .” She sketched a circle in the air with a thin, nervous hand.
“Do you know Melvin Archambault?” Mrs. Eglinton asked.
Sarah shook her head.
“He’s from Chicago,” Mrs. Eglinton said, “but he had a show last year at Palm Beach. The most livid greens! Jim says, ‘Lou can’t possibly like that stuff,’ but I, said, ‘Jim, I really do. . .’ We bought one water color. . . Miss Grace, I’m going to hang it in little place between the dining room and the living room. . . Have you ever made any talks on art?”
“No,” Sarah said, “I don’t know anything about it.”
“She’s always painting, though,” Lucy said, “but they aren’t any good, and she has to tear ’em up.”
The old lady smiled at her, folding her hands. They were swollen at the knuckles, like Mammy’s. “When I was twelve years old I used to come out here to take china painting lessons from Miss Clara Swanton. . . Sarah, does this room still sway when you get people dancing in it?”
“We haven’t done much dancing,” Sarah said. “Really, we don’t have much company.”
“One night we danced so hard that old Mr. Swanton made us stop,” Mrs. Merritt said. “Around four o’clock in the morning, I must say, in justice to him. And the next day he had those iron bars driven through the walls. He said the house might last then till Belle got married. . . But poor Belle. . . ”
“She was the one went crazy, wasn’t she?” Mrs. Eglinton asked. “But Miss Grace, I’ve always heard that she was so attractive.”
“All the Swanton girls were attractive,” Mrs. Merritt said. “. . . Sarah, how does your grandmother like your house?”
“She never has seen it,” Sarah said. “She stays out there and sometimes six weeks goes by and she doesn’t see a white face.” She laughed. “But she sent one of her niggers over here the other day, with an old bed she was giving me, and when he got back she said, ‘Well, Morris, how do you like Miss Sally’s house?’ and he says, ‘Miss Sally, I sure do hate to think of Little Miss Sally living in a place like that.'”
“Why, it’s a perfectly beautiful house!” Mrs. Eglinton said.
“I know, but he didn’t look at the house, just saw how poor the land is. The hogs have rooted the foundation out from under Ma’s house, but he never has noticed that. . . ”
“It’s the roof’s the worst,” Lucy said. “She has to put spittoons on the stairs to catch the rain.”
“I haven’t been out there in years,” Mrs. Merritt said. “. . . Twenty years. . . ” She straightened her shoulders and looked first at Mrs. Eglinton and then at Sarah. “Sarah, Louise Eglinton here is just as smart as she can be. . . ”
“It’s modern poetry this year,” Mrs. Eglinton said. “We had T.S. Eliot the last meeting in April. . . ” Her beautiful eyes rolled sidewise in her head. “You ought to hear me read ‘Sweeney Agonistes’! . . . They want me to read Mr. Allen for the first meeting in the Fall. But I said, ‘Y’all are crazy,’ I said. ‘The man’s right out there on the hill. I’m going to make him come in and read them himself. . . . The first meeting is in September. Will the seventeenth be all right?”
“Steve’s just up to his ears,” Sarah said, moving her shoulders nervously.
“Well, he can spare one little old afternoon,” Mrs. Eglinton said. “Do either of you play Contract? . . . There are eight of us. Meet Friday night. But Marie Evans has got to go to Birmingham to live. . . ”
“. . . You wouldn’t play with me. . . ” Sarah said. “I tell you now he’s not going to do it! He’s one of the meanest white men ever lived.”
Mrs. Eglinton’s flower lips opened. She swayed forward on her green stalk. “Let me ask him.”
Sarah’s eyes dodged aside, like somebody coming around the corner of the house on something they mustn’t look at. She drove them back to the lady’s face. “He’s in Nashville,” she said. “I’ make him write you a letter. As soon as he gets back I’ll make him write you a letter.”
Mrs. Eglinton winked bravely. “Or call me up,” she said. “Tell him I’d at least like to hear his voice on the ‘phone.”
Mrs. Merritt stood up in a flutter of voile. “Louise, I told Tom I’d be back by four o’clock.” Sarah and Lucy both stood up. Mrs. Merritt laid her hand on Lucy’s shoulder. “This child isn’t a Fayerlee, and she doesn’t look like Professor Maury, either. Is she like her father’s people?”
“She’s got his coloring,” Sarah said, “but not his features, or mine, either, thank Heaven. She’s sort of a changeling. Aren’t you, darling?” Her hand, too, rested on Lucy’s shoulder. Lucy could feel the fingers trembling.
They were in the hall. Through the door which had been flung wide open when they came in you could see the willow tree. Under its drooping boughs Daddy and Uncle Tubby stood facing each other. Uncle Tubby had taken off his coat; his shirt sleeves were rolled up; he held a glass in his hand. Daddy still had on his checked shirt and those old blue fisherman’s pants that he had brought from Concarneau and on his bare feet sandals that were held on by two crossed leather thongs. The fisherman’s pants had two big patches on them that Lucy had never noticed before.
He heard them coming and turned so that his back was toward them. Uncle Tubby glanced up at the porch and went on talking. He was asking Daddy something. Little points suddenly showed in his eyes, he thrust his face closer to Daddy’s. Daddy’s back stayed stiff and still. Lucy knew what his eyes would be like if you were around there where you could see into them, the fair brows drawn straight across and the eyes a cold blue, like a pond frozen over in the night.
Uncle Tubby looked at Mrs. Eglinton and bowed as the ladies went past, but Daddy didn’t turn around or make any sign. They were past them and at the lilac bush. Mrs. Eglinton helped Mrs. Merritt into the car and then got in herself. She put on fawn colored gloves. Her face shone pink as a camellia as she tossed her head back under the big hat. Her hands took hold of the wheel. The car started moving. Mrs. Merritt sat hunched in the seat, looking straight ahead until it started, then she straightened up and smiled and waved her hand.
Sarah took two steps beside the car. “Goodbye . . . Goodbye . . . Miss Grace, I’m so glad y’all came.”
They stood there, watching, until the car had passed through the gate and was headed back toward town, then Mama drew a deep breath and started up the brick walk.
Lucy followed her. “You told a lie,” she said.
Mama didn’t answer. She went on around the corner of the house. Daddy and Uncle Tubby were on the lower gallery, Daddy sitting on the chicken feed box, Uncle Tubby standing in front of him, talking. Mama stood there and looked at them and then she fell down on her back on the ground and kicked her legs in the air.
“My God!” she said.
Daddy sat where he was on the feed-box, but Uncle Tubby came and stood over her. “That was quite a boner we pulled, wasn’t it?” he asked.
Mama stopped kicking and sat up. She put her hands up to her face, first, and then she clasped her stomach in, tight. “I make the supreme sacrifice,” she said, “and you two louts won’t even stay out of sight!”
Daddy looked sulky, the way he always did when anybody said there was anything wrong with him. “They thought I was Mr. Mac Donogh,” he said. “That was why I didn’t turn around.”
“Mr. MacDonogh wouldn’t be caught dead in those pants!” Mama shrieked.
Uncle Tubby was looking at Mama. “Did you know those ladies?” he asked.
“Oh God,” Mama said, “I don’t know them but I know who they are. And they know who I am. . . ”
“Who are you?” Uncle Tubby asked.
“I’m Professor Maury’s daughter fallen among thieves,” she said. “Oh God, you louts!”
“She had to go to school with the boys. That’s what makes her so peculiar,” Lucy said and was afraid Mama would be angry, but Mama said only: “One of the things. . . ” and looked at Daddy. “I didn’t care about that Lassiter girl, but Mrs. Merritt is a friend of my mother’s. . . ”
Daddy still looked sulky. “Old bitches” he said, “I’m not going to have them hounding me.”
“Mrs. Merritt is not a bitch,” Mama said. “She’s a lovely lady of the old school.”
“Was Mrs. Lassiter the one who served her face up to you on a platter?” Uncle Tubby asked. “I thought she had a lot of stuff.”
“She was born a Lassiter. Married Jim Eglinton. All those Lassiter girls are perfectly beautiful,” Mama said. She looked at Daddy. “She’s going to interpret your works for the Dilettante club—unless you do it yourself.”
“Why don’t you do it?” Uncle Tubby asked. “Tell ’em what’s what.”
“Did you tell her to go jump in the river?” Daddy asked.
“I told her a lie. Told her you were in Nashville.” She clasped her stomach again. “My God! Sometimes I feel like we’re criminals in hiding. Having to skulk through town, scared all the time run into somebody we know. . . ”
“You have committed a crime,” Uncle Tubby said. “Every time Steve sits down at his desk he challenges the existing order.”
Daddy grinned. “They’d ride you out of town on a rail,” he “if they knew that you didn’t believe in the existence of private property.”
“I haven’t got any immediate designs on their property,” Uncle Tubby said. “What do they think of you?”
“They think we’re nuts,” Lucy said and was a little taken aback to hear her voice sound so loud and clear.
“They think we’re Nudists!” Mama said. “When we bought the place word went around that we were going to found a Nudist camp. . . Poor things! I reckon they hoped we would.”
“Had you been guilty of any indecent exposures?” Uncle Tubby asked.
“Not any more than usual. . . Well, those sandals of Steve’s. I heard that Miss Minnie Wellfleet doesn’t like them.”
“He wears them to town,” Lucy said.
“Whereas I go dowdy,” Mama said, “and he can’t get it into his head where the center of town is. Made a U turn right by the bank the other day, with Mr. Tom Davis standing there looking at him.”
“Who’s Mr. Tom Davis?”
You would have thought from the way Mama looked at Uncle Tubby that he was the one she was angry with. She said in a rasping voice: “He’s a man that the Yankee newspapers are always writing up for being a benefactor of the Southern farmer. . . ”
“He’s the president of the bank,” Daddy said. He walked over and handed her a cigarette. He was still not in a good humor but he was afraid she would say something else about Yankees. She took it without thanking him and stood, holding it in her hand and looking off over the river. “He’s the great-grandson of our old slave trader,” she said.
Uncle Tubby slapped his thigh. “Gad, that’s symbolic!”
“It’s going to be mighty symbolic when we have to try to borrow money from him,” Mama said.
“Well, we’ve still got four hundred of the advance left,” Daddy said. “Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it.”
Lucy went over and stood beside Mama. “Shall I wear my blue linen?” she asked.
Mama started. “What?” she said. Lucy thought that she was talking to her and repeated, “Shall I wear my blue linen?” but Mama was looking past her at Uncle Tubby. “What did you say?” she asked again.
Uncle Tubby laughed and looked across the river to the long white road. “I said the Reardons ought to be rolling in pretty soon.”
“The Reardons?” Mama said.
Uncle Tubby looked at her and then he looked away quickly. “The Daniel B. Reardons,” he said, “of New York and Paris and the Villa Marthe. They were visiting in the neighborhood, so I told ‘em to come down here. I thought you wouldn’t mind. . . As long as they were this near. . . ”
“No,” Mama said, “of course not. . . ” She looked as if she were about to say something else but Daddy went over hold of her arm. “If you’re going out to Warfleet’s you’d better start,” he said. “It’s nearly five o’clock.”
Mama looked at him. “Warfleet’s?” she said.
Lucy felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. She cried out: “You said you’d go this afternoon. To look at the pony. You said. . .” but Mama was walking toward the house.
Daddy looked after her and then he looked at Uncle Tubby “Tubby, you want a drink?” he asked.
“I don’t mind,” Uncle Tubby said and they, too, went house.
Lucy stood there and looked down at the river. You could see the near bank only through the gaps in the willows but on the other bank, where it overflowed every year into Patterson’s bottoms, there was a long stretch where there weren’t any trees, just a shelf of yellow, blistered mud. Daddy said that copperheads sunned themselves there on the flat rocks. . . She had known all along, (she always knew when they weren’t going to do what they had said they would do), she had known when Uncle Tubby stepped out of his car that they would forget all about the pony, but all afternoon, sitting up there on the gallery, listening to them drinking and talking, she had kept hoping. It was no use now.
She walked slowly over the grass and, crossing the porch, stepped into the kitchen. Uncle Tubby must be drinking all by himself upstairs for Daddy was in there, with Mama. He was leaning against the sink. She stood in the middle of the floor, looking as wild as a buck.
As Lucy came in she put her hand to her forehead. “I could take some of that chicken and cream it,” she said. “And Mrs. MacDonogh would lend me some tomatoes. . . ”
“And there’s plenty of gin,” Daddy said. He laughed. “Old Tubby is sure in fine spirits.”
“He makes me nervous with all that schizoid talk,” Mama said.
“He’s not any worse than you are, talking for Borcke,” Lucy said. “Half the time that isn’t what he thinks, either.”
Mama glanced at her absent-mindedly. “That’s different, Lucy,” she said. “. . . I wish he wouldn’t get fat.”
“He’s not fat,” Daddy said.
“He’s lost that quattrocento look. One trouble with the fleshpots is they always make people fleshy. . . Come on, honey!”
“What do you want?” Daddy asked.
“We’ve got to get everything out of Tubby’s room and the beds all changed before they come.”
Daddy looked stubborn. “I don’t see any point in that.”
Mama flipped her cigarette, still burning, into the open garbage can, where, for a second, it hissed softly against a fresh-cut orange peel.
“I can’t put Isabel and her husband in the same room,” she said.
Mama shut her eyes for a second, the way you do when you think somebody else is the biggest fool in the world. “Honey, I couldn’t do that to Tubby.”
“Tubby!” Daddy said. “What in the hell has he got to do with it?”
Mama batted her eyes again. “Darling, didn’t you hear what he said about that damsel in distress?”
“You mean Isabel is the damsel?”
“Well, suppose he is having a flirtation with Isabel Shaw? That doesn’t mean that he’s got to sleep in the same room with her.”
“It’s none of my business, of course,” Mama said.
“It certainly isn’t.”
“That’s why I’m putting everybody in separate rooms,” Mama said.
“Without any consideration of how much trouble it makes.”
Mama screwed her face up. “Don’t worry me!” she said. “For God’s sake, don’t worry me now. . . Chicken. . . and salad. . . And we could have some black bean soup. . . .”
“Down in her house. With a tooth-ache. . . Wouldn’t you know that he’d go for a man-eating tigress?”
“She’s probably not any worse than any other lady poet,” Daddy said.
“Good God!” Mama said. “Why, the sands are white with bones!” Her eyes suddenly grew very bright. “And she thinks you’re the greatest poet ever lived. . . !”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Daddy said, “don’t start that!”
Lucy looked hard at Mama, hoping that Mama would know what she was thinking, but Mama didn’t seem to know that she was in the room. “I knew all along,” Lucy said slowly, “I knew all along we wouldn’t go.”
“Lucy!” Mama said, “I’ve got to get dinner for five people.”
“You needn’t get me no damn dinner,” Lucy said.
Mama shut her lips so tight for a second that none of the red showed. “Lucy,” she said, “Daddy and I have got to move Uncle Tubby. Now you take him for a walk or something.”
“I’m tired of him,” Lucy said.
Daddy set his glass down on the table. “Go on,” he said, “I’ll come out after a while and we’ll look at the stars.”
“My God!” Lucy said. “There won’t be any for hours.”
Daddy took a step toward her. “What did you say?”
“I said there wouldn’t be any for a long time yet.”
“Well, we’ll look at them when they do come out. . . Go on. . . You hear me?”
Lucy walked out of the kitchen and around to the front of the house. Borcke had come out and sat on the top step, slowly slanting his nose this way and that, to catch the wind. She sat down beside him. A faint smell of horse manure came up to her—he would roll in it. She pulled him up into her lap. He struggled for a second, then, when he found that she would not let him go, sank back but kept turning his head as the breeze shifted.
Uncle Tubby came down the steps. “Where are the slave quarters?” he asked.
Lucy pointed to a plantation of locusts on their right. “They used to be over there but they blew off the hill. A long time ago.”
He sat down on the step below her and took out his pipe. “All wreathed in trumpet vine,” he said, “just like the big house. . . I intend that Pompey shall sleep there tonight.”
“Does he sleep in the bed with you?” Lucy asked.
“God forbid! He sleeps on the floor. On a pallet on the floor. But he snores like the devil.”
“So does Borcke,” Lucy said.
Uncle Tubby turned around and bent his head to sniff Borcke’s back. “Horse. . .” he said. “You know, the minute I laid eyes on that dog I knew he slept in the bed with you.”
“Mama’s got to take more care of him when I get the pony,” Lucy said.
Uncle Tubby turned around again and clasped her ankle in his big, warm hand and shook it. “Ah, sweet melody of love!” he said. “The exercising, the currying, the deliberation as to whether it ought to be eight ears of corn or six. . .”
“Four is about right for a pony,” Lucy said, “unless they’re nubbins. . . But nubbins,” she added dreamily, “are often wormy. I wouldn’t give ’em to my horse.”
They were silent. Uncle Tubby sat hunched over, smoking. At the foot of the long slope the sun was setting behind the woods. In its red glow the beech trees stood out black, like twigs somebody had thrown into a giant grate. Lucy stopped thinking about the pony in order to savor her bitterness. The witch. . . the witch that lives in the woods. She will roast us in her great, red oven and tear us limb from limb. But what difference does it make? I am not anybody to save. I am just a changeling. My mother said I was a changeling. . .
Uncle Tubby stood up and knocked out his pipe and reached a hand to her. “How long will it be before dinner?” he asked.
“A long time,” she said, “Mama’s got to get it.”
“What say we take a short run in the woods, then?”
She rose and laid her hand in his for a moment before she let it drop at her side. They went through the garden gate and took the short cut down the hill, past the MacDonoghs’ cabin. Through the open window they could see the MacDonoghs still gathered around the table.
“What are they doing?” Uncle Tubby asked.
Lucy laughed. “They’re eating dinner.”
“Isn’t it rather early?”
“They eat breakfast at four o’clock in the morning,” Lucu said.
“And when do they eat lunch?”
“They don’t have any lunch.”
He shook his head. “Such odd hours they keep! Do you it’s to get an early start on their matins?”
“I don’t know,” Lucy said, “it’s just the way they do.”
“Strange country,” he said, “strange, magical country! his head back and laughed. “Why, I never saw such a country! But they do have some good ideas, those MacDonoghs. Now that bush arbor. . .” He walked closer to her and catching hold of her hand, swung it between them as they walked. “Il y avait un viel ermite qui s’appellait St. Brendan. Il quitta son pays et traversa l’ocean jusqu’en Bretagne. Lorsqu’il y arriva il traina son bateau sur la plage et il était si fatigue qu’il partit dans les bois et s’étendit par terre. Mais avant de s’endormir il regarda le ciel et il lui sembla qu’il pourrait pleuvoir avant le jour. Il prit donc deux arbustes et les lia l’un á l’autre avec un rameau de saule. Alors il considéra son ouvrage et il pensa que la pluie pourrait pénétrer; il inclina deux arbustes de plus, les lia l’un a l’autre. . .”
Borcke was digging in the loose dirt between two spreading roots. Lucy stopped and picked him up and shook him and set on the path.
Uncle Tubby had stopped, too, and was drawing two in arcs in the dirt with a stick. “Et lorsqu’il se réveilla le lendemain matin, il avait une église. Comprends-tu?”
“I don’t speak it,” Lucy said.
“Tu le parlais le temps lorsque tu étais en France. Pourquoi ne veux tu pas le parler maintenant?”
“I forgot it coming over on the boat,” Lucy said.
They had passed through the plum thicket and were in the woods. The crimson glow was just sunlight washing the trunks of the trees now. Uncle Tubby was still looking at her. “Je pense que tu es la plus belle petite fille que j’ai vu depuis longtemps,” he said.
“Magadalene MacDonogh is a heap prettier’n I am,” Lucy said.
“I bet she hasn’t got that look in her eye. . . What do you suppose gives it to you?”
“Tending to my own business,” Lucy said.
If he had had dark hair and long ears he would have looked like Borcke then, his head on one side, his eyes in the leafy light dark as soft and as sad as Borcke’s eyes. “All right, young lady,” he said after a little.
They walked on. It was the first time he had called her “young lady.” He wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t spoken sharply to him. She told herself that she was not sorry. Grown people didn’t expect you to answer what they said to you. Half the time when they said anything they were not talking to you but to themselves. She had found that out long ago.
The path wound downhill, between beeches whose huge boles were roughened by carvings, initials, dates, the inscriptions often enclosed in hearts or winged with arrows. Uncle Tubby walked with his head thrown back, gazing up into the leaves which would not turn yellow for months. Suddenly he stopped, lifted his foot, examined the sole of his shoe and put his foot down again. He did not know that he was walking on top of a branch. Everywhere around here the earth was soggy because a branch flowed under it. It went underground a little below the waterfall and flowed under the cornfield to emerge again as a spring in a wild chasm on the river bank.
He stopped. “I’m damned if I don’t carve my name,” he said. “Yours, too.”
He took a pen-knife out of his pocket and wandered off among the trees. Lucy sat down on a rock. A clump of sweet fern came up beside it. She plucked a frond and crushed it in her fist and thought of the stream flowing secretly under the rock, under dead leaves, making even the pebbles in the path glisten under a light film of water. A little way off in the woods was the waterfall. She did not know whether she wanted to go there today. Some days she did not feel like going there. When you felt that way it didn’t make any difference whether you went or not. Sometimes you went and afterwards you couldn’t imagine how it would have been if you hadn’t gone. It made a difference, too, who went with you. She and her mother came here often. The stream flowed in a narrow channel up there on the bluff, then suddenly dived between two tall, leaning rocks and fell ten or fifteen feet to a flat ledge below. That was what made the waterfall. Her mother would stand, clasping the trunk of a tree and stare and stare until you were afraid she would forget who you were and you her and took her arm and said “Mama”. . . Her father had come here with them once. In the spring, soon after they bought the place. . . He said that he would come back again some time.
Uncle Tubby had found a young beech tree whose bark shone like grey satin. He was carving LA and EM, each in the center of its own heart, but with the hearts intertwined. . . The next time Evelyn came to visit her she would bring her here. She wouldn’t say how old he was or anything about him, just “a man from New York. . .”
He had begun another carving, a very small heart, pierced by an arrow and now he was carving tiny initials in the center. “Who’s that?” she asked.
He looked at her, smiling, like a person who knows a secret he isn’t going to tell. “Imogene,” he said, “Imogene. . . Marie. . . Louise . . . Lointaine. Don’t you think that’s a pretty name?”
“I think Lointaine’s a funny name,” Lucy said.
“It’s her mother’s family name,” he said absently.
“Whose?” she said and kicked her heels against the rocks. “Whose family name?”
“My little girl’s.”
“You haven’t got any little girl,” she said, “you’re not even mar. . .” She stopped abruptly, remembering what her father had said: Ripe for a disastrous marriage. “You haven’t got any little girl,” she repeated to cover her confusion.
“You’d think I had if you could see her bills. The things that girl buys!”
He had finished the last flourish on the L and was putting a period beside it. “What does she buy?” Lucy asked.
“Oh. . . mink. . . and vair. . . and samovair. . . and Lucite. Let her stroll through Saks Fifth Avenue and she will order a thousand Lucite bubbles, each one in its own filigree box. . .” He fell silent, absorbed in his carving.
“What does she do with them?” Lucy asked.
“Breaks them on people’s heads. Or sometimes she lets them float out of the window and then they fall down on the heads of the people passing by and break. The police are at the door, night and day. But we pay no attention to them.”
“Does she go to school?”
“She did, for a while, but she came home one day and said that Miss Plobscote was an old pelican. Naturally I couldn’t deny that.”
He shut his pen-knife up and put it in his pocket. “How does it happen that the MacDonoghs go to school in August?” he asked.
“They start then, after the crops are laid by. And then they get out early in the spring. . .”
“So they can put the crops in again? No wonder they get up at four o’clock in the morning. . . And where do you go to school?”
“In town. Daddy says I’m not learning a thing.”
“Well, are you?”
Lucy shook her head. “Not much,” she said. “Miss Simpson is the dumbest old thing you ever saw in your life. But Mama says it’s vulgar to complain about the teacher.”
He looked for a second as if he were about to laugh. He said: “Your mother is a wonderful woman. Fearfully and wonderfully made. . . I shouldn’t think she’d be much help in leading your so to speak own life.”
“She’s got more fool ideas than any white woman I ever knew,” Lucy said.
“Yes,” Uncle Tubby said absently. “What are some more of her ideas?”
“She just hates Yankees,” Lucy said. “She doesn’t think that anything Yankees do is right.”
“I’ve noticed that,” he said before she had time to be embarrassed.
“She won’t use cube sugar,” Lucy said, “and she thinks it’s vulgar to have your garage fastened on to your house. And Christmas wreaths! We can get ’em out of the woods but we can’t buy ’em. . . She don’t like electric lights on Christmas trees, even.”
They had started walking on again. “Lord, Lord!” he said. “Why, my little girl has the whole house wired for Christmas—pink and green.” He pointed to a big-bellied oak that thrust its trunk out into the path, like a pompous person demanding attention, Lucy had always thought. “What’s over there?” he asked.
“The waterfall,” she said.
“A waterfall!” he said. We’ll have to see that.”
They passed the pompous oak and were on a bluff overlooking the stream. The trees about them were tall and slim, second growth her father had said, but down in the gorge were more big beeches and, glimmering as white as the water that dashed beside it, a giant sycamore that was so old its trunk had split in two.
He stood and stared. “Good Lord!” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me you had this up your sleeve?”
Lucy laughed in delight. “It’s not in my sleeve, it’s in the woods.”
But he had grasped her hand and was dragging her with him down the path, slipping, sliding, sometimes falling to their knees, rising to keep on at the same pace until finally on the brink of the falls he caught hold of a low-hanging sycamore bough and, steadying himself, released her hand.
“There!” he said. “Look what I did for you!”
“Look what I did for you!” Lucy retorted.
They stood there and watched the water rushing down between the two leaning rocks to fall on the ledge below. It struck so hard that every drop of water that fell leaped off the rock straight into the air, to re-descend more gently, others bouncing off into spray. Lucy moved over and stood between him and the falls and felt the cold needles of spray beat against her skin. The rock showed darkest where the water was churned into the wildest froth. She put up her hand to feel how chill her cheek had grown and as she did so he raised his eyes from the water, his nostrils widening. “What’s that I smell?” he asked.
She looked at her hand, from which, somewhere on the way, the crushed frond had fallen. “Sweet fern,” she said and held her hand out so that he could see the green stain on her palm. He smiled and shook his head. “I told you,” he said.
“Told me what?”
“That you were a belle dame sans merci. Carrying sweet fern! Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”
“No,” Lucy said, and heard her own laughter tinkle, high and frail like the spray. “No,” she repeated, “I’m not a bit ashamed of myself,” and she ran over and stood before the sycamore tree, not looking back over her shoulder, for she knew that he would follow.
The tree was so old that its trunk was almost hollow. It had, perhaps, been struck by lightning many years ago. That was what her father said, though her great-uncle maintained that lightning never struck a sycamore. At any rate, it had received an injury which had resulted in a cleavage of its bark and outer fibers. But time had smoothed the edges of the wound and curled them back, scroll-wise, to show the dark, decaying heart.
It was dark red and damply pitted by millions of little holes, the homes and high-roads of insects. He stooped and gazed into the glistening cave, then straightened up, sighing. “You could slip in there,” he said. “Have you ever been in there?”
She nodded. She and Ruby—the most daring of the MacDonoghs, though she had become more sedate since she had turned thirteen—had squeezed in and had stood for a few seconds with their bare feet sunk in the moist, rotting stuff that was heaped high inside. But not for more than a few seconds before Ruby had turned to her and whispered “Snakes!” and they wriggled out to stand in the daylight, with only the feel of the wet, rotting stuff still on their ankles to keep them from forgetting that they had been inside. . . But it would be different to stand in there with a grown man beside you.
She stretched out her hand. He caught it and held it with a warm, even pressure. “This strange light,” he said, “and all these great trees. . . Everything so magical!” He looked down at her. He smiled. “You are a belle dame sans merci!” he said.
She smiled back at him. A few feet from where they stood a jewel weed, growing on the brink of the waterfall, trembled and bent toward the water, straightened up and trembling, bent again. The pressure of his hand on hers grew warmer, closer, then suddenly slackened. Their hands fell to their sides, as if struck apart. Mellow notes from some giant anvil were sounding through the wood. “. . . Six. . .” he said. “Good Lord!”
“Dinner won’t be ready for a long time yet,” Lucy said.
But he had already started up the path. “Shall we go back the way we came?” he was asking.
She looked about her vaguely and did not answer.
He took a few more steps. “This same path?” he asked.
She roused herself then. “No,” she said, “there’s a short cut.” She called Borcke and they walked along the stream until they came to a foot-log. It was the only foot-log she knew of in the whole country round. He did not notice it and she did not call his attention to it. He looked back once, toward the falls, after they had crossed on the footlog, but he did not say anything else about the falls and she did not tell him that they were passing within a few feet of where the stream sank underground.
They made their way to the top of the bluff. Up here where the ground was level there were no big trees, only third-growth oaks, hackberries, dogwoods, gums and a few hickories; they been able to get wagons and saws in here and had lumbered off the whole bluff.
They left the woods and entered the plum thicket. The path was one made by small game. He pushed the bushes to one side as he went, but did not stop to hold them back for her. Sometimes the green closed in over the path so thick that she could not see his orange-colored shirt. She stopped and looked about her. The woods still blazed in the setting sun. Ahead the eastern sky was still faintly rosy from the reflection. There were no lights on as yet. The house crouched on the hill like an old grey horse lain down to rest. This was the time of day she loved best, when the sun was down but the light had not yet left the hill, the time of evening when the MacDonoghs sometimes suddenly came up over the side of the hill and without a word they would all start running through the thin, cool air while the bats veered overhead. She broke a switch from a plum tree and peeled it. The dog came panting out of the bushes and lay down in the path. She bent and brushed the top of his head gently with her switch and walked on. The edges of all the plum trees were rimmed with light, like the dew that sparkled on them sometimes in the morning. . . Full beautiful. . . A fairy child. . . She walked more slowly, and as she went touched a leaf here and there with her wand.
. . . She would be tall, as tall as the knight if she stood up, but she would be sitting sidewise on the steed, leaning a little down. Her hair fell over her shoulder in one long wave. Her eyes were grey and shone always with the same light. . .
“Hey!” he cried suddenly and raised his hand high in the air. “Come on!” he cried and without looking around raced up the slope. Lucy ran, too. Under the willow tree her father and mother stood talking with a lady and gentleman who had just got out of a car.
“Where have you been?” her mother said. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
His eyes were fixed on the lady but he laid his hand for a second on Lucy’s shoulder. “She took me to her elfin grot,” he said.
The lady looked at Lucy before she looked at him. She was tall and thinner, even, than Mama. She shook her head and her hair fell farther back on her shoulders. It was the same color as Lucy’s and the same length. Her eyes were grey.
She said, “Tubby, don’t shut your wild, wild eyes!” but you couldn’t hear the rest of what she said for Uncle Tubby had put his arm around her and was kissing her. As Lucy gazed at them she would have wept but that all eyes were upon her.
Difficult to recall an emotion that is dead,
Particularly so among these unbelieved fanfares
And admonitions from a camouflaged sky.
I should have remained burdened with destinations
Perhaps, or stayed quite drunk, or obeyed
The undertaker, who was fairly charming, after all.
Or was there a room like that one, worn
With our whispers, and a great tree blossoming
Outside blue windows, warm rain blowing in the night?
There seems to be some doubt. No doubt, however,
Of the chilled and empty tissues of the mind
—Cold, cold, a great gray winter entering—
Like spines of air, frozen in an icecube.
In the city that ruled me
The heads turn to another head.
I am forgotten like a year.
Was I good? was I happy?
Who is there to care?
I was a dream, a dream, the dream of the dead.
Had you sucked no more sense than I
From that undifferentiating misery
The new beast draws home
Old to his old blood: to blood brackish, not with tears
But with the salt of that first hopeful sea
That saw commence as one and new
The old and separate you and me?
What were you? It is too late to learn
And it does not matter. I thought you
Mine, that was not true, I thought you
All that I had, all that I could ever
Wish to have or have, and that was true.
And that does not matter either. What were you?
What does it matter? I love you
And who knows now, who would care if he knew?
I’m sure it must be still the same,
Year after year, the faded room
Upstairs out of the afternoon,
The spidery hands, stalking and cautious
Round and round the airless light,
The few words like the dust settling
Across the quiet, the shadows waiting
Intent and still around the table
For the ivory click, the sleeves stirring,
Swirling the smoke, the hats circling
Remote and hazy above the light,
The board creaking, then hushed again.
Trains from the sea-board rattle past,
And from St. Louis and points west,
But nothing changes their concern,
Hurries or calls them. They must think
The whole world is nothing more
Than their gainless harmless pastime
Of utter patience protectively
Absorbed around one smooth table
Safe in its ring of dusty light
Where the real dark can never come.
After thirty suspect miles, I called,
a rusty PURE sign creaking overhead,
and we were right: we were wrong.
The sign had been a sign, we sighed sourly,
as the storm we were trying to beat
beat down on us. By the time we slid, white-faced,
into the gravel drive of the fix-it shop,
the icy trees burned with horizontal light
amplified over fields of sleet.
The used TV couldn’t get a signal
out here, the woman said, but it worked fine,
and we could always bring it back. All night
we huddled in our coats on the shop’s gold shag
and shivered underneath a brown plaid blanket.
At eight she handed us a pot of watery lentils,
spiked with small twigs, maybe rosemary—
we didn’t know. You looked at me and said,
“Hansel.” “Gretel,” I chuckled drowsily.
At dawn we skittered to the interstate,
and at a Waffle House split a scrambled egg
till the road cleared or we thought it had.
and drank, for almost an hour, our bottomless cup.
Flashlight in hand, I stand just inside the door
in my starched white shirt, red jacket nailed shut
by six gold buttons, and a plastic black bow tie,
a sort of smaller movie screen reflecting back
the larger one. Is that really you? says Mrs. Pierce,
my Latin teacher, as I lead her to her seat
between the Neiderlands, our neighbors, and Mickey Breen,
who owns the liquor store. Walking back, I see
their faces bright and childlike in the mirrored glare
of a hard winter New York sky. I know them all,
these small-town worried faces, these natives of the known,
the real, a highway and brown fields; and New York
is a foreign land-the waterfront, unions, priests,
the tugboat’s moan–exotic as Siam or Casablanca.
I have seen this movie seven times, memorized the lines:
Edie, raised by nuns, pleading-praying really
Isn’t everyone a part of everybody else?
and Terry, angry, stunned with guilt, Quit worrying
about the truth. Worry about yourself, while I,
in this one-movie Kansas town where everyone
is a part of everybody else, am waiting darkly
for a self to worry over, a name, a place,
New York, on 52nd Street between the Five Spot
and Jimmy Ryan’s where bebop and blue neon lights
would fill my room, and I would wear a porkpie hat and
play tenor saxophone like Lester Young, but now, however,
I am lost, and Edie, too, and Charlie,
Father Barry, Pop, even Terry because he worried more
about the truth than he did about himself,
and I scan the little mounds of bodies now lost even to
themselves as the movie rushes to its end,
car lights winging down an alley, quick shadows
fluttering across this East River of familiar faces
like storm clouds cluttering a wheat field or geese
in autumn plowing through the sun, that honking,
that moan of a boat in fog. I walk outside
to cop a smoke, I could have been a contender,
I could have been somebody instead of who I am, and
look across the street at the Army-Navy store where
we would try on gas masks, and Elmer Fox would let
us hold the Purple Hearts, but it’s over now, and they
are leaving, Goodnight, Mr. Neiderland,
Goodnight, Mrs. Neiderland, Goodnight, Mick, Goodnight,
Mrs. Pierce, as she, a woman who has lived alone
for forty years and for two of those has suffered through
my botched translations from the Latin tongue, smiles,
Nosce te ipsum, and I have no idea what she means.
The review of The Waste Land, with the above title, came out in The New Republic on February 7, 1923, in other words, four months after the poem’s appearance in The Criterion of October, 1922; and I suspect it was the first full-length favorable review the poem had then received—at any rate, I do not remember any predecessors. To be sure, I had the advantage of having known Eliot intimately for fifteen years—since my freshman year at Harvard and had already, in 1917 and 1921, apropos of Prufrock and The Sacred Wood, heralded him as the fugleman of many things to come. Of Prufrock I said that in its wonderfully varied use of rhymed free verse there was a probable solution of the quarrel, at that time as violent as it is now, about the usefulness of rhyme or verse at all; the Imagists, and Others, including of course Williams and his eternal Object, were already hard at it. I think Prufrock still has its way.
As to The Waste Land and my review, it might be helpful for the general picture if I record here two episodes with Eliot, one before he had written the poem, and one after.
In the winter of 1921-22 I was in London, living in Bayswater, and Eliot and myself lunched together two or three times a week in the City, near his bank: thus resuming a habit we had formed many years before, in Cambridge. He always had with him his pocket edition of Dante. And of course we discussed the literary scene, with some acerbity and hilarity, and with the immense advantage of being outsiders (though both of us were already contributing to the English reviews); discussing also the then-just-beginning possibility of The Criterion, through the generosity of Lady Rothermere. And it was at one of these meetings, in midwinter, that he told me one day, and with visible concern, that although every evening he went home to his flat hoping that he could start writing again, and with every confidence that the material was there and waiting, night after night the hope proved illusory: the sharpened pencil lay unused by the untouched sheet of paper. What could be the matter? He didn’t know. He asked me if I had ever experienced any such thing. And of course my reply that I hadn’t wasn’t calculated to make him feel any happier.
But it worried me, as it worried him. And so, not unnaturally, I mentioned it to a very good friend of mine, Dilston·Radcliffe, who was at that time being analyzed by the remarkable American lay analyst, Homer Lane. Radcliffe, himself something of a poet, was at once very much interested, and volunteered, at his next meeting with Lane, to ask him what he thought of it. And a few days later came the somewhat startling answer from Lane: “Tell your friend Aiken to tell his friend Eliot that all that’s stopping him is his fear of putting anything down that is short of perfection. He thinks he’s God.”
The result was, I suppose, foreseeable, though I didn’t foresee it. For when I told Eliot of Lane’s opinion, he was literally speechless with rage, both at Lane and myself. The intrusion, quite simply, was one that was intolerable. But ever since I have been entirely convinced that it did the trick, it broke the log-jam. A month or two later he went to Switzerland, and there wrote The Waste Land.
Which in due course appeared in the first issue of The Criterion, by that time endowed by Lady Rothermere, and again in due course came to me from The New Republic, for review. And once more, it was as we proceeded from Lloyd’s bank to our favorite pub, by the Cannon Street Station, for grilled rump steak and a pint of Bass, that another explosion occurred.
For I said, “You know, I’ve called my long review of your poem ‘An Anatomy of Melancholy’.”
He turned on me with that icy fury of which he alone was capable, and said fiercely: “There is nothing melancholy about it!”
To which I in turn replied: “The reference, Tom, was to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy,and the quite extraordinary amount of quotation it contains!”
The joke was acceptable, and we both roared with laughter. To all of which I think I need add one small regret about that review. How could I mention that I had long been familiar with such passages as “A woman drew her long black hair out tight,” which I had seen as poems, or part-poems, in themselves? And now saw inserted into The Waste Land as into a mosaic. This would be to make use of private knowledge, a betrayal. Just the same, it should perhaps have been done, and the conclusion drawn: that they were not organically a part of the total measuring.
Mr. T. S. Eliot is one of the most individual of contemporary poets, and at the same time, anomalously, one of the most “traditional.” By individual I mean that he can be, and often is (distressingly, to some), aware in his own way; as when he observes of a woman (in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”) that the door “opens on her like a grin” and that the corner of her eye “Twists like a crooked pin.” Everywhere, in the very small body of his work, is similar evidence of a delicate sensibility, somewhat shrinking, somewhat injured, and always sharply itself. But also, with this capacity or necessity for being aware in his own way, Mr. Eliot has a haunting, a tyrannous awareness that there have been many other awarenesses before; and that the extent of his own awareness, and perhaps even the nature of it, is a consequence of these. He is, more than most poets, conscious of his roots. If this consciousness had not become acute in “Prufrock” or the “Portrait of a Lady,” it was nevertheless probably there: and the roots were quite conspicuously French, and dated, say, 1870-1900. A little later, as his sense of the past had become more pressing, it seemed that he was positively redirecting his roots-urging them to draw a morbid dramatic sharpness from Webster and Donne, a faded dry gilt of cynicism and formality from the Restoration. This search of the tomb produced “Sweeney” and “Whispers of Immortality.” And finally, in The Waste Land, Mr. Eliot’s sense of the literary past has become so overmastering as almost to constitute the motive of the work. It is as if, in conjunction with the Mr. Pound of the Cantos, he wanted to make a “literature of literature”—a poetry actuated not more by life itself than by poetry; as if he had concluded that the characteristic awareness of a poet of the twentieth century must inevitably, or ideally, be a very complex and very literary awareness, able to speak only, or best, in terms of the literary past, the terms which had molded its tongue. This involves a kind of idolatry of literature with which it is a little difficult to sympathize. In positing, as it seems to, that there is nothing left for literature to do but become a kind of parasitic growth on literature, a sort of mistletoe, it involves, I think, a definite astigmatism-a distortion. But the theory is interesting if only because it has colored an important and brilliant piece of work.
The Waste Land is unquestionably important, unquestionably brilliant. It is important partly because its 433 lines summarize Mr. Eliot, for the moment, and demonstrate that he is an even better poet than most had thought; and partly because it embodies the theory just touched upon, the theory of the “allusive” method in poetry. The Waste Land is, indeed, a poem of allusion all compact. It purports to be symbolical; most of its symbols are drawn from literature or legend; and Mr. Eliot has thought it necessary to supply, in notes, a list of the many quotations, references, and translations with which it bristles. He observes candidly that the poem presents “difficulties,” and requires “elucidation.” This serves to raise, at once, the question whether these difficulties, in which perhaps Mr. Eliot takes a little pride, are so much the result of complexity, a fine elaborateness, as of confusion. The poem has been compared, by one reviewer, to a “full-rigged ship built in a bottle,” the suggestion being that it is a perfect piece of construction. But is it a perfect piece of construction? Is the complex material mastered, and made coherent? Or, if the poem is not successful in that way, in what way is it successful? Has it the formal and intellectual complex unity of a microscopic Divine Comedy; or is its unity-supposing it to have one-of another sort?
If we leave aside for the moment all other consideration, and read the poem solely with the intention of understanding, with the aid of notes, the symbolism; of making out what it is that is symbolized, and how these symbolized feelings are brought into relation with each other and with other matters in the poem; I think we must, with reservations, and with no invidiousness, conclude that the poem is not, in any formal sense, coherent. We cannot feel that all the symbolisms belong quite inevitably where they have been put; that the order of the parts is an inevitable order; that there is anything more than a rudimentary progress from one theme to another; nor that the relation between the more symbolic parts and the less is always as definite as it should be. What we feel is that Mr. Eliot has not wholly annealed the allusive matter, has left it unabsorbed, lodged in gleaming fragments amid material alien to it. Again, there is a distinct weak ness consequent on the use of allusions which may have both intellectual and emotional value for Mr. Eliot, but (even with the notes) none for us. The “Waste Land” of the Grail Legend might be a good symbol, if it were something with which we were sufficiently familiar. But it can never, even when explained, be a good symbol, simply because it has no immediate associations for us. It might, of course, be a good· theme. In that case it would be given us. But Mr. Eliot uses it for purposes of overtone; he refers to it; and as overtone it quite clearly fails.
He gives us, superbly, a waste land-not the waste land. Why, then, refer to the latter at all-if he is not, in the poem, really going to use it? Hyacinth fails in the same way. So does the Fisher King. So does the Hanged Man, which Mr. Eliot tells us he associates with Frazer’s Hanged God-we take his word for it. But if the precise association is worth anything, it is worth putting into the poem; otherwise there can be no purpose in mentioning it. Why, again, Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata? Or Shantih? Do they not say a good deal less for us than “Give: sympathize: control” or “Peace”? Of course; but Mr. Eliot replies that he wants them not merely to mean those particular things, but also to mean them in a particular way—that is, to be remembered in connection with a· Upanishad. Unfortunately, we have none of us this memory, nor can he give it to us; and in the upshot he gives us only a series of agreeable sounds which might as well have been nonsense. What we get at, and I think it is important, is that in none of these particular cases does the reference, the allusion, justify itself intrinsically, make itself felt. When we are aware of these references at all (sometimes they are unidentifiable) we are aware of them simply as something unintelligible but suggestive. When they have been explained, we are aware of the material referred to, the fact (for instance, a vegetation ceremony), as something useless for our enjoyment or understanding of the poem, something distinctly “dragged in,” and only, per haps, of interest as having suggested a pleasantly ambiguous line. For unless an allusion is made to live identifiably, to flower where transplanted, it is otiose. We admit the beauty of the implicational or allusive method; but the key to an implication should be in the implication itself, not outside of it. We admit the value of the esoteric pattern; but the pattern should disclose its secret, should not be dependent on a cypher. Mr. Eliot assumes for his allusions, and for the fact that they actually allude to something, an importance which the allusions themselves do not, as expressed, aesthetically command, nor, as explained, logically command; which is pretentious. He is a little pretentious, too, in his “plan”—pourtant n’existe pas. If it is a plan, then its principle is oddly akin to planlessness. Here and there, in the wilderness, a broken finger-post.
I enumerate these objections not, I must emphasize, in derogation of the poem, but to dispel, if possible, an allusion as to its nature. It is perhaps important to note that Mr. Eliot, with his comment on the “plan,” and several critics, with their admiration of the poem’s woven complexity, minister to the idea that The Waste Land is, precisely, a kind of epic in a walnut shell: elaborate, ordered, unfolded with a logic at every joint discernible; but it is also important to note that this idea is false. With or with out the notes the poem belongs rather to that symbolical order in which one may justly say that the “meaning” is not explicitly, or exactly, worked out. Mr. Eliot’s net is wide, its meshes are small; and he catches a good deal more-thank heaven-than he pretends to. If space permitted one could pick out many lines and passages and parodies and quotations which do not demonstrably, in any “logical” sense, carry forward the theme, passages which unjustifiably, but happily, “expand” beyond its purpose. Thus the poem has an emotional value far clearer and richer than its arbitrary and rather unworkable logical value. One might assume that it originally consisted of a number of separate poems which have been telescoped-given a kind of forced unity. The Waste Land conception offered itself as a generous net which would, if not unify, at any rate contain these varied elements. We are aware of this superficial “binding”—we observe the anticipation and repetition of themes, motifs; “Fear death by water” anticipates the episode of Phlebas, the cry of the nightingale is repeated; but these are pretty flimsy links, and do not genuinely bind because they do not reappear naturally, but arbitrarily. This suggests, indeed, that Mr. Eliot is perhaps attempting a kind of program music in words, endeavoring to rule out “emotional accidents” by supplying his readers, in notes, with only those associations which are correct. He himself hints at the musical analogy when he observes that “In the first part of Part V three themes are employed.”
I think, therefore, that the poem must be taken—most invitingly offers itself—as a brilliant and kaleidoscopic confusion; as a series of sharp, discrete, slightly related perceptions and feelings, dramatically and lyrically presented, and violently juxtaposed (for effect of dissonance), so as to give us an impression of an intensely modern, intensely literary consciousness which perceives itself to be not a unit but a chance correlation or conglomerate of mutually discolorative fragments. We are invited into a mind, a world, which is a “broken bundle of mirrors,” a “heap of broken images.” Isn’t it that Mr. Eliot, finding it “impossible to say just what he means”—to recapitulate, to enumerate all the events and discoveries and memories that make a consciousness—has emulated the “magic lantern” that throws “the nerves in pattern on a screen”? If we perceive the poem in this light, as a series of brilliant, brief, unrelated or dimly related pictures by which a consciousness empties itself of its characteristic contents, then we also perceive that, anomalously, though the dropping out of any one picture would not in the least affect the logic or ”meaning” of the whole, it would seriously detract from the value of the portrait. The “plan” of the poem would not greatly suffer, one makes bold to assert, by the elimination of “April is the cruellest month” or Phlebas, or the Thames daughters, or Sosostris or “You gave me hyacinths” or “A woman drew her long black hair out tight”; nor would it matter if it did. These things are not important parts of an important or careful intellectual pattern; but they are important parts of an important emotional ensemble. The relations between Tiresias (who is said to unify the poem, in a sense, as spectator) and the Waste Land, or Mr. Eugenides, or Hyacinth, or any other fragment, is a dim and tonal one, not exact. It will not bear analysis, it is not always operating, nor can one say with assurance, at any given point, how much it is operating. In this sense The Waste Land· is a series of separate poems ot passages, not perhaps all written at one time or with one aim, to which a spurious but happy sequence has been given. This spurious sequence has a value-it creates the necessary superficial formal unity; but it need not be stressed, as the Notes stress it. Could one not wholly rely for one’s unity-as Mr. Eliot has largely relied-simply on the dim unity of “personality” which would underlie the retailed contents of a single consciousness? Unless one is going to carry unification very far, weave and interweave very closely, it would perhaps be as well not to unify it at all; to dispense, for example, with arbitrary repetitions.
We reach thus the conclusion that the poem succeeds-as it brilliantly does-by virtue of its incoherence, not of its plan; by virtue of its ambiguities, not of its explanations. Its incoherence is a virtue because its donnee is incoherence. Its rich, vivid, crowded use of implication is a virtue, as implication is always a virtue—it shimmers, it suggests, it gives the desired strangeness. But when, as often, Mr. Eliot uses an implication beautifully—conveys by means of a picture-symbol or action-symbol a feeling—we do not require to be told that he had in mind a passage in the Encyclopedia, or the color of his nursery wall; the information is disquieting, has a sour air of pedantry. We accept the poem as we would accept a powerful, melancholy· tone-poem. We do not want to be told what occurs; nor is it more than mildly amusing to know what passages are, in the Straussian manner, echoes or parodies. We cannot believe that every syllable has an algebraic inevitability, nor would we wish it so. We could dispense with the French, Italian, Latin, and Hindu phrases—they are irritating. But when our reservations have all been made we accept The Waste Land as one of the most moving and original poems of our time. It captures us. And we sigh, with a dubious eye on the notes and “plan,” our bewilderment that after so fine a performance Mr. Eliot should have thought it an occasion for calling “Tullia’s ape a marmosyte.” Tullia’s ape is good enough.
Here’s the simplest advice I can offer to a writer in the midst of composing a novel: for God’s sake, read what you’ve already written. Read it often—daily, if need be. Read it all. Read it thoroughly. Read it always with a keen and critical eye.
I suspect this advice applies to the creation of short stories and poems and plays as well, but it’s my experience that the novelists among us are the most reluctant to follow it. We like to say, “Well, I’ve finished the first six chapters of my novel.” Or, “I only have three more chapters to write.” We like to feel the heft of our “first two hundred pages,” warm from the printer—like fresh-baked bread, like a bundled up newborn—and say, “Here’s what I’ve completed so far.” “Completed,” meaning, of course, finished, perfected. Don’t have to read it again. Don’t have to change a thing.
Until the work of your heart and your mind and your hands meets the printer’s work of paper and ink and binding, your novel is a fluid thing, an unpredictable thing, and every page, every paragraph, every sentence you add to it runs the delightful risk of changing everything that has come before. Read what you’ve already written before you add something new. And then read it again in light of what’s been added. Add more. Repeat.
As a college sophomore I took a Shakespeare course from a mild-mannered professor who looked more like an insurance salesman than an academic: crew cut, horn-rimmed glasses, plaid sport coat. On the first day of class,
For a man who observes the world without giving up his place in it, it is very difficult to think always the way Chamfort did. For example, it is difficult to admit that superiority always makes enemies, that genius is necessarily solitary. These are things people say to flatter genius or themselves. But they are by no means true. Superiority is compatible with friendship; genius is frequently good company. Solitude is not peculiar to genius: a genius is alone only when he wants to be.
It is very difficult also to follow Chamfort in one of the most commonplace and stupid notions in the world, namely, scorn for women in general. There is no such thing as scorn or enthusiasm· in general. Every judgment must rest upon pertinent and concrete facts. Moreover, misanthropy seems to me a futile and ill-advised attitude, and I heartily deprecate Chamfort’s surliness, his snappishness, his all-inclusive despair. Yet, to complete the paradox, I must affirm that in spite of everything Chamfort seems to me one of the most enlightening of French moralists. But let me say right away that when he indulges in very general judgments, he is false to the basic principles of his art. Usually, however, he follows a quite different procedure, and herein lie his originality and his depth.
Our greatest moralists are not makers of maxims, but novelists. Now what is a moralist? Let us say simply that he is a man who has dedicated his life to the study of the human heart. But what is the human heart? That is difficult to define, one can only assume that it is the most individual thing in the world. This is why, in spite of appearances, it is very difficult to learn anything about human conduct by reading the maxims of La Rochefoucauld. These beautifully balanced sentences, these carefully-wrought antitheses, this vanity exalted to the plane of universal reason, are far removed from the hidden complexities and whims which make up the experiences of a man. I would willingly give the whole book of Maxims for a felicitous phrase from La Princess de Cleves and for two or three true little facts such as Stendhal knew how to collect. “One often goes from love to ambition, but one can scarcely come back from ambition to love,” said La Rochefoucauld, and I know nothing more about these two passions, for the phrase can easily be turned around. Julien Sorel ruining his career through two love affairs, each so different, tells me far more in his every act. Our real moralists have not made phrases, they have observed, and have observed themselves. They have not made laws, they have painted. And in so doing they have done more to explain the conduct of man than if they had patiently polished, for a few wits, a hundred or so set formulas doomed to be material for academic theses. For only a novel is faithful to the particular. Its objective is not to sum up conclusions about life, but to depict its very unfolding. In a word, it is more modest, and as such it is classic. At least, as such it is a source of knowledge far more valuable than either mathematics or maxims, which are both mere intellectual pastimes.
Now what is a maxim? We might call it, by simplification, an equation1 in which the elements of the first term reappear in the second, but in a different order. This is why the ideal maxim can always be turned around. Its whole truth lies within itself and has no more to do with experience than an algebraic formula. We can do with it what we please until all possible combinations of the terms are exhausted, whether these terms be love, hate, self-interest or pity, liberty or justice. We can even, just as in algebra, gather from one of these combinations an idea regarding experience. But there is nothing real in such things because everything is general.
What interests us in Chamfort is that, with few exceptions, he
really does not write maxims. And, save for giving way to fits of bad humor when discussing women or solitude, he never generalizes. If we look closely at what we are pleased to call his thoughts, we see clearly that neither antithesis nor formula is cultivated. The man who writes “The philosopher who wishes to silence passion is like the blacksmith who wishes to put out his fire” is a kindred spirit of the man who, about the same time, makes the following capital observation: “We inveigh against the passions without realizing that it is from their flame that philosophy lights her own.” Both writers express themselves, not through maxims but through remarks which would not be out of place in a narrative. They are sallies,” flashes of insight, but not laws. Each one deals with a subject about which there is nothing to make laws and everything to paint. Indeed, we can seek a long time before finding in the writings of our professional moralists a text which goes so far or offers more in practical wisdom than the following, the last part of which seems exceedingly appropriate to our society: “There are errors in deportment which nowadays we are rarely guilty of. We have become so refined that, with our mind where our heart should be, even a base person, however little given to reflection, avoids certain platitudes which formerly might have been successful. I have seen dishonorable men bear themselves proudly and in seemly fashion before a prince or a minister, never bending the knee, etc. . . . Such behavior deceives inexperienced people who do not know, or else forget, that a man must be judged on his principles or his character as a whole.”
But we see at the same time that we are in no wise dealing with the art of the maxim. Chamfort does not reduce life to a formula. His great artistry consists, rather, in amazingly accurate strokes the implications of which” the mind can explore afterwards. In this he immediately recalls Stendhal who also sought man where he could be found, namely in society, and truth where it lurks, namely in the particular. But the resemblance does not stop here, and we may, without paradox, think of Chamfort as a novelist. A thousand flashes of a similar insight add up to a sort of unorganized novel, a collective chronicle which appears here in the form of the commentaries which it might call forth. I refer to the Maxims. But if we consider also the Anecdotes, in which now the characters are not suggested by the judgments relative to them, but rather depicted in their concrete particulars, we may get a better idea of this unavowed novel.
By putting together the Anecdotes and the Maxims, we have enough complete material, characters and commentaries, for a sort of great “Social Comedy” complete with plot and hero. Merely by establishing a coherence which the author chose not to give it, one would create a work far superior to the collection of thoughts which it seems on the surface to be, a true book of human experience the pathos and cruelty of which cause its vain injustices to be forgotten. We can at least point out the possibility of such an understanding. It would show that Chamfort, unlike La Rochefoucauld,” is as penetrating a moralist as Mme. de Lafayette or Benjamin Constant, and that he takes his place, in spite of and because of his instances of passionate blindness, among the greatest creators of an art in which truthfulness to life has at no time been sacrificed to linguistic artifices.
The action takes place toward the end of the Eighteenth Century, amid a weak though charming society whose sole occupation seems to have been dancing on volcanoes. The setting of the novel is laid in what was then referred to as society. Let us note from the start that this removes Chamfort’s observations from the sphere of the general. The hasty reader is often inclined to attribute to the human heart what the author says only of certain erratic characters. So the famous sentence on love being reduced to the contact between two epidermises, incomprehensible in a man who has said so many profound things about passion, may be understood only in the light of what Chamfort himself adds: “Love, as it exists in society . . .”
What Chamfort’s chronicle attacks is a social class, a minority separated from the rest of the nation, blind and deaf, bent on pleasure. This class provides the characters for the novel, the setting, and the objects of satire. For, at first glance, it is a satirical novel. The Anecdotes supply the precise details. The king, the court, Madame the king’s daughter being astonished that the maid has, even as she, five fingers; Louis XV wincing on his death-bed because his doctor presumes to use the expression “you must”; the Duchess de Rohan taking for granted that bearing a Rohan is an honor; the courtiers preferring to rejoice at the king’s good health rather than to deplore five de feats suffered by the French armies, the I run fathomable stupidity, their incredible pretentiousness in designating God as “the gentleman above,” the colossal ignorance of a class in which d’Alembert is nobody compared to the Venetian ambassador; Berrier having poison administered to the man who warned him of Damiens’ attack and ignoring the warning; M. de Maugeron having an innocent scullion hanged in place of a guilty cook only because he was fond of the latter’s cooking; and still others. These are portraits, pictures in which the same characters often reappear. Having to deal with a society congealed in the abstractions of etiquette, Chamfort has chosen to depict them as marionettes, seen from the outside. Except for two or three instances when he leans toward the theater, his technique is that of the novel and even the modern novel. Per sons are always depicted through their deeds. His sallies offer no conclusions; they merely indicate characters.
In the midst of all these characters the hero is Chamfort himself. His biography could provide us with interesting data. But it is superfluous since he has depicted himself in the Anecdotes and Maxims, and always in keeping with the novelistic technique, that is to say, indirectly. Indeed, if we were to collect all the references to a certain M…, we should have a rather complete portrait of the character for whom Chamfort invented the word “sarcasmatic” and whose conduct in an unreal and mad society he painstakingly describes. This individual has reached the time of life when youth is fleeing and taking with it the companions who had always been regarded as a source of everlasting delight. In capable of accepting the consolation of religion, having tasted everything and now enjoying nothing, he would consider himself an empty shell, were it not for two things which give his life interest: the memory of love and a devotion to character. It is not for nothing that Chamfort be stowed such a haughty title upon one section of his maxims: “On the Enjoyment of Solitude and the Dignity of Character.” There is nothing about a man that he rated more highly, and his only error is perhaps to have confused character with solitude. This is also the subject of his secret book which we will have occasion to return to later. We will, however, interpret correctly Chamfort’s emphasis on character if we recognize it as the obvious reaction of a man surrounded by a decadent society in which wit abounds, but great lessons of will are not to be taken seriously. But in establishing this supreme quality, Cham fort avoids the arbitrary or the general. He tempers his postulate by reference to experience: “It is imprudent,” he says, “to set for oneself principles stronger than one’s character.”
The reason is not far to seek. This individual so deeply concerned with lofty moral qualities is no stranger to passion and its wounds. The very man who wrote one of the proudest maxims ever conceived by a French mind: “If good fortune is to come to me, she will have to submit to the conditions which my character imposes,” he nevertheless shows his delicate sensitivity on every page. In short, and here our man reveals his full stature, he has achieved a combination of will and passion which constitutes the tragic character and sets Chamfort considerably ahead of his century. In writing the following, he becomes a contemporary of Byron and Nietzsche: “I have seen very few cases of pride which pleased me. The best example I know is of Satan in Paradise Lost.” Here we recognize the tragic tone and the stamp of what Nietzsche called the free spirit. Let us only keep in mind the society to which this spirit belongs in spite of himself, and on which, to his misfortune, he has been unable to resist passing judgment. We can then well imagine the experience of scorn and despair in store for a soul of this stature in a world which he holds in contempt. Thus we perceive the novel for which Chamfort left us the elements. It is a novel of denial, a tale of total negation which finally encompasses a negation of self, a flight toward the absolute which ends in a paroxysm of annihilation.
Such a tale can be understood only in the light of the impulsive enthusiasm which colored Chamfort’s youth. He was, they say, as handsome as a god. Success came early. Women fell in love with him; his first works, however mediocre, won over the salons and even gained royal favor. Society did not in fact act very harshly toward him, and even the illegitimacy of his birth was not a hindrance. If the expression “social success” has any meaning, we can say that in the beginning Chamfort’s life is a brilliant success. But as a matter of fact it is not certain that the word has any meaning. At least this is the message of Chamfort’s novel, which is the story of a solitary life. For social success means nothing if one does not believe in society. And there is in Chamfort a certain tragic disposition which will prevent him from ever believing in society, as well as a certain sensitivity which will keep him apart from a class which might hold his origins against him. He is one of those temperaments whose great and brilliant qualities put them in a position to conquer all, but who have another bitterer quality which leads them to reject the very thing which has just been conquered. Let us add further that his environment is a society contemptible even to those whose profession it is to believe in it. What attitude can a man take toward a world which he scorns? If his character is superior, he will set for himself standards such as cannot be met in this world. Not to make himself a model, but merely to act consistently. If every plot must have a basic motive, the motive of this story will be found in the author’s moral bent.”
We behold our hero lodged in the midst of his successes and his disdain for a corrupt society. The only thing which moves him to action is his personal ethics. Immediately he singles out for attack his very own interests. He owes his living to pensions, but calls for their suppression; he collects his fees for attending meetings of the Academie, but attacks it violently and calls for its dissolution. A man of the old regime, he casts his lot with the party which will ultimately cause his death. He draws away and rejects everything, he spares neither himself nor anyone else: we have before us a tragedy of honor. His solitude once achieved, he reveals himself the rabid foe of the only comfort to which a solitary man may have recourse; never has unbelief been declared in such vigorous accents: Not even his physical appearance remains unmolested: his countenance, once so engaging, becomes “altered, then hideous.”
Our hero will proceed still further, for renouncing his own interests is nothing and destroying his body is little compared to the destruction of his very soul. Here, in the last analysis, lies the greatness of Chamfort and the astonishing beauty of the novel he sketches for us. Scorn of mankind often indicates merely a vulgar mind, for it is usually accompanied by self-satisfaction. It can be defended only when it is based upon scorn of self. “Man is a stupid beast,” says Chamfort, “I can judge from myself.” For this reason he seems to me a moralist of rebellion, in so much as he has experienced rebellion to the full by turning it against himself, his ideal being a sort of hopeless saintliness. Such an extreme, uncompromising attitude was to lead him eventually to silence, the ultimate negation: “M . . . who was asked to talk on various public or private abuses replied coldly: No day goes by that I do not add to the list of things about which I shall never speak. The longest list belongs to the greatest philosopher.” This conviction was to bring him to deny the work of art and even the uncorrupted force of language which, within himself, had been striving so long to try to forge for his rebellion a matchless expression. He did not fail, to be sure, and here we have the final negation. He attributes the following words to one of his characters who is reproved for not taking any interest in his own talent: “My self-concern perished in the shipwreck of the interest which I had in mankind.” Nothing could be more logical. Art is the opposite of silence, it is one of the signs of a complicity which links us with the rest of mankind in our common struggle. For one—who has renounced this complicity and set his face completely against his fellow men neither language nor art has any meaning. Doubtless that is why this novel of negation was never written. For it was precisely a novel of negation. ·v..re can perceive in this art those very principles which were to lead him up to a negation of self. Perhaps Chamfort never wrote a novel because it was not customary to do so. But the fundamental reason is that he loved neither mankind nor him self. It is hard to imagine a novelist who has no fondness for any of his characters. Not one of our great novels can be understood except in the light of a great sympathy for mankind. The example of Chamfort, unique in French literature, offers adequate testimony to that. In any case, it is here that this great “social comedy” ends, belying the futile title which it bears.
We must turn to Chamfort’s biography to learn the end of this tale. In its entirety and in its details it presents a picture of utmost tragedy and consistency. For when Chamfort flung himself completely into the Revolution he was but giving logical expression to his convictions. No longer able to speak, he acted, and instead of the novel which he never wrote, he occupied his talents with lampoons and pamphlets. But it is obvious that he was concerned only with the negative aspect of the Revolution. He was drawn too much toward an ideal justice actually to accept injustice as such, inseparable from all action. Here again he was bound to fall. For anyone like Chamfort, tempted by the absolute and incapable of achieving it through mankind, the rest remains only to die. And this is exactly what he did, but in circumstances so horrible as to give its proper dimension to this ethical tragedy: it concludes in utter butchery. The mania of purity fuses here with the madness of destruction. The day when Chamfort thinks that the Revolution has condemned him, faced with complete failure, he draws a pistol upon himself, smashing his nose and putting out his right eye. Still alive, he returns to the attack, cuts his throat with a razor and slashes the flesh to bits. Covered with blood, he buries his weapon in his chest and finally, opening the veins of his legs and wrists, collapses in a pool of blood which eventually trickles under the doors and gives the alarm. Such a frenzy of suicide, such delirium of destruction, surpass ordinary imagination. But the Maxims offer a commentary: “Violent decisions frighten; but they befit strong minds, and robust characters are at ease in extremes.” It is just such a cult of the extreme and the impossible which Chamfort’s novel depicts. This precisely is what Chamfort’s peculiar moral bent amounts to. Only, this novel of a superior morality is consummated in torrents of blood, in the midst of a topsy-turvy world in which every day a dozen heads bounce into the bottom of a basket. Compared to the conventional pictures which we are shown of this period, Chamfort’s gives us a deeper understanding of himself and of morality.
For the profession of moralist cannot proceed without upheavals, without transports, without sacrifices—or else it is only an odious sham. That is why Chamfort seems to me one of our rare great moralists: morality, the great torment of mankind, is with him a personal passion which he carried out logically, even unto death. On all sides I have read condemnation of his bitterness. But really I prefer this bitterness bathed in the full light of a great conception of mankind, to the dry philosophy of the great lord who wrote this unforgivable maxim: “Manual labor delivers one from mental chores, and that is what makes the poor so happy.” “Even in his most sweeping denunciations, Chamfort never forsook the cause of the vanquished. He harmed no one but himself, and this for lofty reasons. Most assuredly I can see the weakness in his point of view. He believed that renunciation indicates character, and there are times when character must say yes. How can superiority be imagined, separate from mankind? Yet that is the sort which Chamfort, and after him Nietzsche (who admired him so much), chose. But both he and Nietzsche paid dearly, proving that the adventure of an intelligence in quest of a profound justice can be as bloody as the greatest conquests. It is an idea which compels respect. It is likewise an idea which has a bearing on us and our world. Let us remember in this connection that Chamfort is a classic writer. But if coherence, reason, logic even unto death, stubborn adherence to morality are classic virtues, we must admit that the way Chamfort chose to be classic was to die of it. This restores to the classic ideal the immensity and the thrill which it could mean to our great centuries, and which it must not lose for us.
Translated by LAURENCE LeSAGE
I. THE PERFECT FORMS
Here is Socrates, born under Pisces,
Smiling, complacent as a phallus,
Or Buddha, whose one thought fills immensity:
Visage of Priapus: the undying tail-swinging
Stupidity of the donkey
That carries Christ. How carefully he nurses
This six-day abortion of the Absolute
No better for the fosterings
Of fish, reptile and tree-leaper throughout
Their ages of God-forsaken darkness
This monstrous-headed difficult child!
Of such is the kingdom of heaven.
Those stars are the fleshed forbears
Of these dark hills, bowed like laborers,
And of my blood.
The death of a gnat is a star’s mouth: its skin,
Like Mary’s or Semele’s, thin
As the skin of fire:
A star fell on her, a sun devoured her.
Will you, considering the life I have borne,
the nights twisting cold strings of panic,
other nights (and whole days) the heart racing
and stalling with terror, fury, and desire,
will you, I said, at this point in a life I’ve
cursed and thought to throw away, a life
I have hushed in darkness as my own error
and devising, will you now in a last chastening,
a humbling like humiliation, require me to come
up to the hills of openness and announce my
life yours, as given by you and to be given back
to you by me, my gratitude at last for what is
not my own spoken forth, said into the place that
hears and cares to hear nothing because it is
sound’s own source: my god, my redemption: here
is the dark breakage I have held, not knowing you
made it dumb for speech, not knowing its mix and
constitution just: take this final pride away.
Marriage of Many Years
Most of what happens happens beyond words.
The lexicon of lip and fingertip
defies translation into common speech. I
recognize the musk of your dark hair.
It always thrills me, though I can’t describe it.
My finger on your thigh does not touch skin— it
touches your skin warming to my touch.
You are a language I have learned by heart.
This intimate patois will vanish with us, its
only native speakers. Does it matter?
Our tribal chants, our dances round the fire
performed the sorcery we most required.
They bound us in a spell time could not break.
Let the young vaunt their ecstasy. We keep
our tribe of two in sovereign secrecy.
What must be lost was never lost on us.
Sea Pebbles: An Elegy
My love, how time makes hardness shine.
They come in every color, pure or mixed,
gray-green of basalt, blood-soaked jasper, quartz,
granite and feldspar, even bits of glass,
smoothed by the patient jeweler of the tides.
shaven by glaciers, wind-carved, heat-cracked,
stratified, speckled, bright in the wet surf—
no two alike, all torn from the dry land
tossed up in millions on this empty shore.
How small death seems among the rocks. It drifts
light as a splintered bone the tide uncovers.
It glints among the shattered oyster shells,
gutted by gulls, bleached by salt and sun—
the broken crockery of living things.
Cormorants glide across the quiet bay.
A falcon watches from the ridge, indifferent
to the burdens I have carried here.
No point in walking further, so I sit,
hollow as driftwood, dead as any stone.
On the branch of a large dead tree
a vulture sits, stinking of carrion.
She is ripe with the perfume of her fertility.
Half a dozen males circle above her,
slowly gliding on the thermals.
One by one, the huge birds settle
stiffly beside her on the limb,
stretching their wings, inflating their chests,
holding their red scabrous heads erect.
Their nostrils dilate with desire.
The ritual goes on for hours.
These bald scavengers pay court politely—
like overdressed princes in an old romance—
circling, stretching, yearning,
waiting for her to choose.
The stink and splendor of fertility
arouses the world. The rotting log
flowers with green moss. The fallen chestnut
splits and drives its root into the soil.
The golden air pours down its pollen.
Desire brings all things back to earth,
charging them to circle, stretch, and preen—
the buzzard or the princess, the scorpion, the rose—
each damp and fecund bud yearning to burst,
to burn, to blossom, to begin.
Here the jack-hammer jabs into the ocean; / My heart, you race and stagger and demand, / More blood-gangs for your nigger-brass percussions, / Till I, the stunned machine of your devotion, / Clanging upon this cymbal of a hand, / Am rattled screw and footloose.
Now when the Lion, sated, leaves the feast,
The Jackal and Hyena come a-gnawin’;
With such apology, O Regal Beast,
I offer these translations of John Owen.
I. Expansive Poetry
Can I express how much I cherish you
In just one line? Not possible. Take two.
II. To a Reluctant Donor
Nothing you give me, but this—I’m in your will.
—That’s less than nothing, for you aren’t ill!
A gift that is swiftly given doubly pleases:
My gift for you? The swiftest of fatal diseases.
III. On Epigrams
“’What ‘art of brevity’? It’s Art diminished!”
—Yet trust me, it’s not easy to be brief,
To give, from lengthy dullness, some relief—
This poem may be boring—but it’s finished.
IV. Ars Amatoria
The young read Ovid for his tender art,
But what he knows of Love is no great matter,
For Nature teaches matters of the heart
Through our eyes, not through some poet’s chatter.
V. On “The Lives of the Saints”
Merely to read of virtue is in vain?
Not if their virtue is to entertain.
VI. The Courtier’s Ladder
A courtier by many small steps rises,
Yet, for a single misstep, his demise is.
A courtier by many small steps rises—
Yet, for his fall, one misstep suffices.
VII. Marital Colloquy
“Cuckolds,” says Pontius, “should be ducked in ponds—”
“Learn how to swim then,” his Pontia responds
Two evils, monstrous either one apart, / Possessed me, and were long and loath at going: / A cry of Absence, Absence, in the heart, / And in the wood the furious winter blowing.
Since the early 1960s American poetry has constituted something quite different from the high modernist work of Eliot, Tate, the early Lowell, and others. Two of the most prominent practitioners of this new poetry are Robert Creeley and A. R. Ammons. The first characteristic you notice about the change to which Creeley and Ammons have contributed is a shrinkage in margins that has produced a stylish, highly marketable thinness. For two decades one of the most publishable forms for poetry seems to have been the lyric broken into lines that would fit in a newspaper column. Editors are always cramped for room to include everything they would like to publish, but more than a question of space is involved here. At the same time its margins have narrowed, this poetry has been restricted in other ways. It is thin in more senses than one.
The publication of Life Studies in 1959 announced that something drastic in American poetry had happened. At a time when the influence of existentialism had led to a premium’s being placed upon authenticity, Lowell deserted the traditionalism of T. S. Eliot for the immediacy of William Carlos Williams. A general change in poetry was under way. Haut bourgeois was out, declasse in. The rigors of poetic form amounted, it was now thought, to an inauthentic treatment of experience that, understood existentially, had to stand outside conventions as a unique moment. The isolated poet now set traditional categories of thought aside; the scales were removed from the shaman’s eyes, and poems about one’s return to origins (which, like victims, are always innocent and good) proliferated. Moments from one’s formative childhood and from dreams were accompanied by primitive objects, stones, bones, caves, and other items that seemed irreducible and thus appeared as the indices of the unconscious, the essential man. What could be less ordered there fore more existentially authentic than the unconscious? Like a caveman’s experience it was free of the clutterings of intellect and culture that stood between the eye and its object. The primitive, representing the unconscious, became a means for projection downward to dramatize human meaning much as religious belief and the traditional use of allegory had been an upward projection for transcendent meaning.
A change in poetic style is always connected to a change in thought. I have argued elsewhere that just as existentialism reached full stride Lowell’s personal experience seemed to parallel much that Sartre and others were saying. Lowell’s disillusionment over the allied bombing of civilian targets during World War n, the loss of his parents, his own mental difficulties, his departure from the church, his divorce from Jean Stafford (who also was a Catholic), and his marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick (who was not religious)—all of these events contributed to a shift in Lowell’s thinking which in turn was reflected by a change in his poetic style. From the 1940s until the end of his life Lowell was a highly celebrated poet, and the scaled-down poetry of Life Studies significantly affected other poets. What Lowell’s example urged was that poets should cease using classical and Christian allusions to constitute meaning, especially through the use of allegory, and should turn instead to experience. Having left the church and faced his own dark world of the unconscious, Lowell began writing out of personal experience, his family’s experience, and the history of New England. The Christian myth, a basis for timeless meaning, had been replaced by mundane history and personal dislocation.
The urgency, however, to make experience intelligible in a time-ridden era (whether one should use myth, as Eliot suggested, reason, as Yvor Winters urged, or Jungian depth imagery) did not change with the shift in style that Lowell and others undertook. On the surface the classroom virtues of irony, paradox, and ambiguity taught by Cleanth Brooks and other influential critics half a generation earlier seemed to have been set aside. Beneath that surface, in fact, the problems the Brooksian categories addressed did not disappear; and poetry continued to respond to them. Whether one was concerned with religious experience (as Eliot was), with “preternatural” experience (as Winters said at times he was), or with the unconscious mind, poetry’s task continued to be that of ferreting order out of apparent disorder. What actually happened was that a poor man’s version of irony, paradox, and ambiguity sprouted as part of an excessive reliance upon enjambment. An abbreviated version of the Brooksian virtues appeared as the result of the use of excessively short lines, and it did so in the poetry of those who had rejected the New Criticism. We are familiar with the Brooks version; here is a variation on it:
As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,—John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.
This is Robert Creeley’s “I Know a Man.” It presents us with a speaker worrying about one’s movement through the dark, the unintelligible. For Brooks and the New Critics words are linked with their particular bits of cultural baggage, and out of the various torsions that these words generate as a group a greater, more complex meaning is constructed. Irony, paradox, and ambiguity are the results of a building up, of putting words in tension with one another. In contrast Creeley’s method in “I Know a Man” is to break down. Ambiguity is created because the poem’s foreshortened lines frustrate the reader’s syntactical expectations. A mechanical substitution is offered for an intellectual problem. The lines are so short they cannot function as run-on lines, only as syntactical interruptions. The reader teeters between the end of one line and the beginning of another with the vague feeling that things are ambiguous, ironical, or paradoxical because the units of language to which he is accustomed have been interrupted. Rather than irony, paradox, and ambiguity existing as a nexus of meaning, one is given the impression of these elements. Being a physical disruption rather than an intellectual complication, the trick is similar to the surprise generated by the home movie that is reversed just after a child dives into a swimming pool.
Creeley’s excessive line breaks leave the reader struggling to get through the poem. Line breaks separate subjects from their verbs, interrupt phrases, and split individual words into lesser parts. The reader’s pace is slowed to such an extent that what would be recognized as a commonplace when confronted at ordinary mental speed sounds oracular at this halting pace. Robert Creeley speaks with as much facility as anyone—when he is not reading a poem. Give him a poem, however, one of his poems, and he stammers as though so fraught with emotion he can barely get the words over his lower teeth. Someone only casually familiar with poetry may think he has heard a great primal truth pulled from so deep within that the poet is barely capable of utterance. Actually he has heard an affectation made possible by foreshortened lines.
Here is another poem by Creeley, “Quick-Step”:
More gaily, dance
with such ladies make
a circumstance of dancing.
Let them lead
around and around, all
an easy grace gained
from falling forward
in time, in
simple time to
all their graces.
This poem might well never have been written had William Carlos Williams not already written “The Dance,” particularly the phrase “they go round and/ around.” There are some nice moments in “Quick-Step,” though it is at best a wistful lyric. It creates the clear impression, however, of being much more than wistful. As an individual’s exaggeration in dress and movement will hold our attention and suspend our ordinary goings-about-our-business, the truncated lines in this poem work against the forward pressure of what the poem says as it moves at an exaggeratedly halting pace. We are briefly arrested, slowed, and charmed more by the slowing than by what we are told. A major element in Creeley’s method is to call greater attention to what is visual in the poem than we would normally grant it. Stumbling over line break after line-break, you tend only to picture things that have been named because so little is being said about them. In “Quick-Step” the act of dancing seems more vivid because so little else is there to compete with it, not even the momentum of the poem’s own language.
Here is the same poem put into conventional lines:
More gaily, dance with such ladies
make a circumstance of dancing.
Let them lead around and around,
all awkwardness apart.
There is an easy grace gained
from falling forward in time,
in simple time to all their graces
Given breadth, the language in “Quick-Step” demonstrates the same accented-unaccented alternation that has been with us since “Beowulf.” Yet Greeley’s use of foreshortened lines means that he was not seeking this sort of rhythm when he wrote the poem. The lines Greeley settled upon are too short for rhythm to work. But it exists in the language, whether the poet hears it or not.
Though greater momentum is generated by the use of conventional line lengths in “Quick-Step,” the poem still produces a very ordinary event. Nothing can be done about what Greeley’s enjambed method of composition did to the poem’s content, particularly its overreliance upon that which is visual. There is a question as to how one should read the poem at the end of the first line because punctuation is needed there. (Greeley would say the point is that punctuation should not be there. He is interrupting our syntactical expectations with the absence of punctuation as well as with line-breaks.) Generally, however, the reader can move through the regularized version of the poem at a speed close to that at which we normally think. Doing so demonstrates the poem’s essential slightness, in content as well as form.
Written with the oracular effect that excessive enjambment creates as an organizing principle, “Quick-Step” presents us with a characteristic trick in the first line; “such ladies” pretends to a specificity that does not exist. In addition, the final word in the poem, “graces,” is made to carry more significance than it can bear. The preceding words “awkwardness,” “grace,” and “falling” do not create a context for the ladies’ “graces” to close the poem with anything definite enough to be meaningful. One is reminded of a vague, unrealistic, and high-handed male attitude that recent feminists have been so quick to identify. Greeley’s poem is an unfocused wish directed toward an indefinite object. It is sentimental.
Creeley’s use of enjambment disguises much that is objectionable in the poem because his line-breaks disturb the reader with a serious problem—the reliability of language to provide both a rational and truthful approximation of what is real. Initially you may not feel that Creeley’s poem is simplistic because Creeley has skewed his writing so that the way he says things becomes the object of contention rather than what he says. Often the way a poem says what it means is nearly as important as what it does say, but in such situations the manner of statement, or suggestion, does not take the place of meaning. Creeley’s willingness to expose himself to linguistic chance in his poetry is a source not of strength but of weakness. Too often what his truncated lines create is an unjustified multiplication of a passing wistful thought, an oracular leap from the commonplace to the commonplace squared. He is a master of the emaciated poem.
Amidst many variations there are two distinguishing marks in poetry written since the late fifties: Assumed primitivism in style and content, and an overreliance on the image that results in abandoning poetry as an auditory art. Much of the attraction these characteristics hold for poets stems from their desire to ferret meaning from the dreams of the unconscious mind. The influence of psychology has led us to a new sort of allegory (though there are other instances of the allegorical impulse, science fiction and children’s literature for example). Poems now bridge the gap between the conscious and unconscious mind rather than that between a physical and metaphysical world. The world of dreams is generally a silent one, thus the exclusion of auditory concerns in poetry; it is primitive, and it is usually experienced visually-thus the excessive reliance upon imagery.
H. Auden’s lines from “In Praise of Limestone” provide an appropriate comment here: “The poet,/ Admired for his earnest habit of calling/The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle.”
Auden is acknowledging the openness and capacity for wonder that are essential if one is to write poetry, whether the poet be open to reason, belief, the unconscious, or all of these. He is not urging ignorance as the basis for authenticity, however. The worst result of the poetic shift being considered has been the shamanism of poets like Allen Ginsberg, Robert Bly, and (too often) Robert Creeley. The best result of this shift has been the adjustments made by poets like Auden, who have stood ready on the one hand to exploit conventional poetic modes and ready on the other hand to accept the mind as “Puzzle” and to regard experience from a position outside accepted categories of thought, causality for example. Anthony Hecht, Howard Nemerov, and Richard Wilbur have been the most successful at practicing this kind of poetry.
Yvor Winters faulted Allen Tate for an excessive use of enjambment. Though he had accurately identified a departure from end-stopped lines that was soon to be taken to an extreme, Winters was too scrupulous where Tate was concerned. As with Robert Lowell’s early work, Tate’s poetry grew out of a sustained rhetoric that overran the boundaries of end-stopped lines as a natural result of its own momentum. The headlong pace of such rhetoric compounded meaning almost as quickly as a cluster of images might, though with one important difference. Where an image conveys a nexus of meaning immediately, as with Pound’s “black bough” or Williams’s “red wheel/barrow,” the use of rhetoric in a poem requires time as meaning is built synthetically from moment to moment.
Rather than seeing the truth as though it were projected on a screen, the way Milton’s angels were supposed to have done, Tate, Lowell, and others generated meaning out of the ongoingness of their own language. In part we have a distinction between poetry that generates meaning synchronically, with imagery, and poetry that operates diachronically, with rhetoric. The latter uses images also, but they are only part of the recipe. The rest of the formula includes statements, questions, all sorts of syntactical units. It also exploits the rhythms inherent in our language in a way that is dis cussed most successfully with the aid of phonetics.
Another element in the synthetic poetry of Tate and Lowell should be mentioned. The emotional thrust of the headlong pace of such poetry contributes greatly to the way that it affects the reader. As Winters knew, the rhythm in a poem reinforces meaning on an emotional level. What Winters saw toward the end of his life, however, was the growth of a poetry devoid of rhythm. Thin, usually very brief poems populating the pages of various periodicals ignored the rhythmical possibilities in language, relying instead upon imagery. Their lines were too short for effective movement to be established, the voice having no chance to gain momentum. What these lines did establish was the dominance of enjambment. End-stopped lines were the norm that gave significance to the reservation Winters made about Tate’s and, indirectly, Lowell’s use of enjambment, as they have been an essential part of poetry for centuries. But with the general turn made by poets to foreshortened lines enjambment was taken to such an extreme that its use was no longer significant. The rhythm to which it contributed could no longer be heard.
The momentum of language enables a poem’s ending to stand on the ground of immediate conviction. The systematic disruption of that momentum by line-breaks, however, can leave a poem standing on the ground of immediate doubt. For us doubt is a familiar condition. But is the disruption of language that occurs in the poems discussed here a significant expression of doubt, or is it simply the incongruent exertion of an individual will? Showing that there are gaps in language is meaningful only if one’s over-all purpose is to close them in some way. Language is self-sealing, and to a remarkable degree naming gaps seems to close them. In contrast the excessive use of enjambment makes you feel there are empty spaces in language, but that feeling names nothing, discloses nothing. It is the result of contrivance rather than an honest attempt to articulate a linguistic short fall and correct it.
Irony, paradox, and ambiguity are intellectual answers to various linguistic shortfalls. They do not provide a complete solution to the problem of meaning, but they contribute to one. And they do so, finally, in an additive manner. As modes of thought they depend upon the extensiveness of meaning contained in language. The overuse of enjambed foreshortened lines for syntactical disruption is a physical response not grounded in the extensiveness of meaning but dependent upon the reader’s expectations and the writer’s will, the momentary surprise created by that will. Both methods are skeptical responses to experience. But the Brooksian formula proceeds additively on the assumption that language works, that it grasps what is really before us. The second formula proceeds subalternately on the assumption that reasoned language is arbitrary and inauthentic.
Here is a poem by A. R. Ammons, “Loss”:
When the sun
falls behind the sumac
in diffuse evening shade
half-wild with loss
any way the wind does
and lift their
off their stems
Though it is quite different from the poetry of Eliot, Tate, and early Lowell, the method used in this poem is not new. On the one hand we are provided an example of the pathetic fallacy, a phrase invented by Ruskin; on the other hand “Loss” is reminiscent of what the Imagists were doing more than sixty years ago, and in some ways the Decadents before that. In a Paterian mood Lionel Johnson would say what he said when defining English decadence in The Century Guild Hobby Horse—that Ammons is trying “to catch the precise aspect of a thing, as you see or feel it.” The most striking characteristic in Ammons’s poetry is that he restricts himself to literal imagery almost all the way through a poem, reserving only one or two moments when he breaks out into figurative imagery. His previous restraint makes this shift all the more effective, though his reliance upon this method is one reason his poems are not successful when read aloud. In fact, the shift from literal imagery to figurative imagery is a mode of thought that seems suited to painting, and Ammons has turned to painting in recent years. Poetry’s affinity with painting is a matter of long standing. If we look no farther than the pre-Raphaelites, “Loss” reminds us of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Woodspurge.” In other ways, however, it is much closer to an imagist poem, particularly in avoiding conventional rhythms through using foreshortened enjambed lines.
As in Creeley’s poems, the fragmentation of normal syntactical units in “Loss” gives priority to the poem’s imagery.
Greater amounts of time are created for smaller units of language as the reader is encouraged to meet experience visually with hierarchies, categories, or presuppositions set aside.
“Loss” is primarily an artistic exercise in nominalism. Forcing us to focus on the particulars of nature more than on its patterns, the approach Ammons uses is skeptical, particularly because of its minimal expectations. As part of this skeptical or minimal point of view sentimentality creeps in, “daisies . . . half-wild with loss.” In fact not much is being lost here.
Though in part we are provided a play on the daisies’ wildness mentioned earlier in the poem, the emotion of this statement outstrips its meaning.
Rather than finding a matrix for meaning in an image, “Loss” dramatizes the incoherence that will always result when we fix upon a thing subject to process. In this circumstance Ammons has dramatized a few moments in an isolated consciousness that happens to be looking at daisies. The poem generates a self-fulfilling prophecy for that consciousness: it uses imagery to give permanence within its own boundaries to daisies that, we are told, are nevertheless subject to time. A sense of loss is inevitable if not trustworthy.
Eliot’s contention that the use of myth can make modern experience intelligible is based on assumptions about permanence similar to those made by Ammons and others when imagery is concerned. In both cases a spatial priority is established for what is being said, but with an important difference. We should not confuse the synchronic impulse to freeze predicaments spatially by using an image with a nevertheless similar tendency that occurs in the use of myth. Freezing a temporal predicament through the use of myth is a different matter because myths are stories and thus have duration: they carry histories. Images are often extensive, parts in networks of meaning, but characteristically their significance is not born of the past or of a supposed past. When an allusion is made to a myth, the reader familiar with that myth suddenly recalls a chain of events: time is gathered. When an image is used, relations rather than events are invoked. The projection of a temporal predicament into an atemporal image, which is the method Ammons and many others use, voids the problem of time rather than addressing it. The reader is offered a mechanical solution for an intellectual problem that is basic to our process-minded era. In “Loss” the disruption of our syntactical expectations through enjambment and the overreliance upon imagery operate on the basis of the same trick in timing that one finds in Creeley’s “I Know a Man” and “Quick-Step.” These poems are written to be read much the way Burma Shave signs were placed to greet travelers along the highway.
A wide range of excellent poetry has been written over the last thirty years, some of the best of it in free verse. Marvin Bell, William Matthews, W. S. Merwin, Linda Pastan, and Mark Strand come to mind as examples of the continuing vitality of free verse.
In the restrictiveness of its short lines, however, the emaciated poem is not free but rigid. The lines are not long enough for rhythm to be established. I suspect that Creeley and Ammons would say that their thin poems are honest and authentic and that Eliot, Tate, and company wrote poetry that was self-consciously learned and bulky, thus posed and inauthentic. The question of authenticity, however, is predicated upon doubt, the same uncertainty about oneself and the world one inhabits that caused Robert Lowell’s poetic shift. Though the most influential recent episode has been the existentialists’ alertness to the absurd, there is nothing new about doubt in our thought. Using the cogito, we have hrrned our predicament into our method: uncertainty has become our most reliable means for certainty as we have learned to rely upon the self-sealing character of language, which by allowing us to name a problem allows us in some way to move beyond that problem. Since we begin with uncertainty rather than belief, we must emphasize existence rather than essence. Because of the self’s precarious position, as an entity standing in a world of process which dissolves entities, misshapen exertions of the will are inevitable, the most common of these being a very old and familiar exertion—sentimentality.
Writing an emaciated poem is not the only way to slow a reader and emphasize images. Reversing the rhythm in a line or placing a caesura in a line or both—these are common ways to achieve the same effect and to do so without creating an interrupted surface that distracts the reader from what is being said. Here is the first stanza of “Painting a Mountain Stream” by Howard Nemerov:
Running and standing still at once
is the whole truth. Raveled or combed,
wrinkled or clear, it gets its force
from losing force. Going it stays.
Opening with the bold statement of a paradox, rather than a vague feeling of contradiction created by truncated lines, this is an ambitious poem. It entails the mutual dependence of apparent opposites. We think of a stream as nominal; thus we try to paint it. The real nature of that stream, however, is its ongoingness, which defies being fixed in a painting within a frame. Nemerov’s answer to the intellectual problem of forcing something that is diachronic into synchronic terms in order to understand it is to say “paint this rhythm, not this thing.” In other words the narrow thingness of Dr. Williams’s red wheelbarrow is quickly exhausted, and we must move up to a level of abstraction—namely to the process within which wheelbarrows, boughs, daisies, and streams exist, in order to understand what we see. Having made such a move, we are capable of making more satisfactory statements. Having made a statement, Nemerov succeeds where Ammons fails. As a quiet part of what he is telling us, Nemerov sets up metrical reversals: they appear throughout the second line, in the first half of the third line, and in the second half of the fourth line. Anyone who wishes can break this poem into truncated lines, but doing so is unnecessary and would be cumbersome. Nemerov has already satisfied his poem’s need for reversals, and has done so in a way that directs you to the meaning he intends rather than distracting you with syntactical interruptions.
For those intent on other ways of creating pauses here is an even quieter use of the caesura, taken from Nemerov’s “The Blue Swallows”:
Across the millstream below the bridge
Seven blue swallows divide the air
In shapes invisible and evanescent,
Kaleidoscopic beyond the mind’s
Or memory’s power to keep them there.
The first, second, and fourth lines have an extra unstressed syllable each, placed after the second foot as a vestigial caesura. An interruption or slowing occurs, but its force does not exceed the surprise created by what is being said. Line breaks substituted for Nemerov’s caesuras not only would sacrifice the convincingness created by the poem’s rhythm: being heavy-handed, they would be the first step toward sentimentality, the emotional force given the statement exceeding the significance of that statement. “The Blue Swallows” ends with a Kantian answer to the sort of position Pater took in the “Conclusion” to The Renaissance—that nothing external to the mind has any meaning other than what is provided it by the mind, because meaning is completely subjective, even imprisoning. Rather than making experience the object of his poetry, as Creeley and Ammons do in a way resembling Pater and the Decadents, Nemerov has relation as his object. Acknowledging external patterns (and their vast multiplicity) as well as internal ones, Nemerov is concerned finally with appropriateness—the appropriate relation between mind and thing, or things. Consistent with this concern, his poem demonstrates an appropriate balance between perception and articulation.
With the exception of Lowell and Roethke the most talented (if not as a group the most influential) poets writing since World War II have continued to write poetry that takes advantage of traditional modes, a poetry that is successful auditorially as well as visually. Consider Louise Bogan, Edgar Bowers, J. V. Cunningham, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, A. D. Hope, Elizabeth Jennings, Donald Justice, Maxine Kumin, James Merrill, Howard Nemerov, Robert Pack, Mona Van Duyn, Derek Walcott, Margaret Walker, Richard Wilbur, Reed Whittemore, and Judith Wright. Rather than using one poetic technique to the exclusion of others, these poets have been quick to exploit a wide range of tools traditionally available to poetry—rhyme, assonance, consonance, rhythm regular enough to function as rhythm, lines long enough to allow that rhythm to work, images, even symbols. In addition, these poets have been likely to be interested more in ideas about relations than in the “precise aspect” or nominalistic detail of an isolated experience.
There are variations on the shift in poetry I have described. Some poets write lines not shortened but elongated to the point that one seems to be reading prose—for example Whitman’s windy descendant Allen Ginsberg. The existence of “poetic prose” is one truism among many that have been used to break down the altogether real distinction between poetry and prose. The prose poem, the one-word poem (which is four words), the concrete poem, and the emaciated poem have all resulted from half-truths. Though most often the image has been the basis, first one then another characteristic of poetry has been taken, to the exclusion of the rest of what constitutes poetry, and expanded to make a poetics. Because the method is easy to use, its results are easy to find.
Linked with the role the image plays in these variations is a question of talent that partly originates in the influence painting has had on the poetry of this century. In its silence and spatial fixity painting is vastly different from poetry, which is auditory and, like music, exists first in time. Seeking a quantity of output that reminds one of manufacturing, many poets writing emaciated poems are geared to the visual in poetry because the image is easy to use, as a visit to the typical workshop will demonstrate. At the same time poets writing overly thin poems have failed to employ some of the most effective poetic tools the language provides. And their poetry has suffered accordingly. Everyone recognizes the limitations of a painter who is color-blind. What about a poet who is tone-deaf or who lacks a sense of rhythm? For too many poets publishing today, creating the kind of poetry that Nemerov, Wilbur, and the others have written is not a realistic possibility. These poets will argue that what they are doing is the authentic thing to do. For those who have no choice, of course it is.
We are to tell one man tonight goodbye.
Therefore in little glasses Scotch, therefore
Inane talk on the chaise lounge by the door,
Therefore the loud man, the man small and shy
Who squats, the hostess as she has a nut
Laughing like ancestor. Hard, hard to find
In thirteen bodies one appropriate mind,
It is hard to find a knife that we can cut.
The dog is wandering among the men
And wander may: who knows where who will be,
Under what master, in what company,
When what we hope has not come again
For the last time? Schedules, nerves will crack
In the distortion of that ultimate loss;
Sad eyes at frenzied eyes will look across,
Blink, be resigned. The men then will come back.
How many of these are destined there? Not one
But may be there, staring, but some may trick
By attack or by some prodigy of luck
The sly dog. McPherson in the Chinese sun
May achieve the annihilation of his will;
The urbane and bitter Miles at Harvard may
Discover in time an acid holiday
And let the long wound of his birth lie still.
Possibilities, dreams, in a crowded room.
Fantasy for the academic man,
Release, distinction. Let the man who can,
Does any peace know, now arise and come
Out of the highballs, past the dog, forward.
(I hope you will be happier where you go
Than you or we were here, and learn to know
What satisfactions there are.) No one heard.
Leaving Ireland was no wrench at all. I took the mail boat, like most others, sat up all night, watched the drinking, the spilling, walked the deck, remembered how Thackeray and Heinrich Boll had come in by boat to write leisurely about it, remembered the myriad others, natives, who had gone out to forget. Euston Station was a jungle, grim and impersonal, the very pigeons looked manmade; and when I saw the faces of the English I thought not of the long catalogue of blood-letting history but of murder stories I had read in the Sunday papers and of that swarthy visiting Englishwoman from long ago who brought corn caps and a powder puff stitched into her hanky.
This was to be home. It had nothing to recommend it. Unhealthy, unfriendly, mortarish, and to my ignorant eye morbid because I kept seeing wreaths and did not know that there was such a thing in England as Remembrance Sunday.
But I had got away. That was my victory. The real quarrel with Ireland began to burgeon in me then; I had thought of how it had warped me, and those around me, and their parents before them, all stooped by a variety of fears-fear of church, fear of gombeenism, fear of phantoms, fear of ridicule, fear of hunger, fear of annihilation, and fear of their own deeply ingrained aggression that can only strike a blow at one another, not having the innate authority to strike at those who are higher. Pity arose too, pity for a land so often denuded, pity for a people reluctant to admit that there is anything wrong. That is why we leave. Because we beg to diller. Because we dread the psychological choke. But leaving is only conditional. The person you are is anathema to the person you would like to be.
But time changes everything, including our attitude to a place. There is no such thing as a perpetual hatred any more than there are unambiguous states of earthly love. Hour after hour I can think of Ireland; I can imagine without going far wrong what is happening in any one of the little towns by day or by night; can see the tillage and the walled garden, see the spilt porter foam along the counters; I can hear argument and ballads, hear the elevation bell and the prayers for the dead. I can almost tell what any one of my friends might be doing at any hour-so steadfast is the rhythm of life there. I open a book, a school book maybe, or a book of superstition, or a book of place-names; and I have only to see the names of Ballyhooly or Raheen to be plunged into that world from which I have derived such a richness and an unquenchable grief. The tinkers at Rathkeale will be driving back to their settlement by now I say, and the woman who tells for tunes in her caravan will be sending her child down for the tenth loaf of sliced bread, while a mile or two away in her domain Lady So-and-So will tell the groomsman how yet again she got her horse into a lather, and in some door in a town a little black crepe scarf dangling from a knocker will have on it a handwritten black-edged card stating at what time the remains will be removed, while the hideous bald bungalows will be mushrooming along the main roadsides. The men will be trying as always to distance their fate through either drink or dirty stories, and the older women will be filled with the knowledge of how crushing their bur dens are, while young girls will be gabbling, to invent diversion for themselves.
It is true that a country encapsulates our childhood, and those lanes, byres, fields, flowers, insects, suns, moons, and stars are forever recurring and tantalizing with a possibility of a golden key which would lead beyond birth to the roots of one’s lineage. Irish? In truth I would not want to be any thing else. It is a state of mind as well as an actual country. It is being at odds with other nationalities, having quite a different philosophy about pleasure, about punishment, about life, and about death. At least it does not leave one pusillanimous.
Ireland for me is moments of its history and its geography a few people who embody its strange quality, the feature of a face, a holler, a line from a Synge play, the whiff of night air, but Ireland insubstantial like the goddesses that poets dream of, who lead them down into strange circles. I live out of Ireland because something in me warns me that I might stop if I lived there, that I might cease to feel what it has meant to have such a heritage, might grow placid when in fact I want yet again and for indefinable reasons to trace that same route, that trenchant childhood route, in the hope of finding some clue that will, or would, or could, make possible the leap that would restore one to one’s original place and state of consciousness, to the miraculous innocence of the moment just before birth.
Leaving Ireland was no wrench at all. I took the mail boat, like most others, sat up all night, watched the drinking, the spilling, walked the deck, remembered how Thackeray and Heinrich Boll had come in by boat to write leisurely about it, remembered the myriad others, natives, who had gone out to forget.
Most of the time, I haven’t had time
In general, time has not been there to hold me
For much of my life, I haven’t felt that I am special to time
I have rarely had time give me sound advice
I find myself clinging to time because I am afraid it will leave
I need time so much I worry about losing it
I worry that time will abandon me
When I feel time pulling away from me, I get desperate
Sometimes I am so worried about time I think I drive it away
I feel that time will take advantage of me
I can’t let my guard down in the presence of time
It is only a matter of time
I am quite suspicious of time
I am usually on the lookout for time’s ulterior motives
I don’t fit into time
I’m fundamentally different from time
I’m a loner when it comes to time
I have a difficult time demanding that my rights be respected by time
The wrist. The waist. The black-and-white western.
The whispering thistle. The trembling vessel.
The whistle, the pistol, the whimpering waiter.
The tumbling bouncer. The pink topless dancer.
The smirk and the snicker. The flickering nightlight.
The cake in the hallway. The musical tie tack.
The reason for laughter. The negligent night owl.
The hoop and the holler. The glasses. The dishtowel.
The end of the hallway. The door with the mirror.
The firemen, the con men, the pimps and the winos.
The vase with the ashes. The girl in the closet.
The plate and the gate and the slow-dripping faucet.
The fog and the shadows. The owl on the tree branch.
The frightened prospector with holes in his pockets.
The men in the diner. The thin nervous waitress.
The pilot, the policeman, the empty light sockets.
I was wandering through downtown El Paso, not far from the old neighborhood of Chihuahuita, when I saw the white van. It was parked in the shade, under a tree, and spray painted across the side was the word YAHWEH. I parked and walked over. Two people were sitting inside, a black man and a white woman. Their son was asleep in the back. I asked about the words on their van. They told me to read the other side, so I walked around that way. YAHWEH SAID: GIVE ME YOUR HANDS!! EXO CHAP 20. The handles of the van’s doors formed exclamation points.
They were travelers, coming from California and heading back toward Ohio. We talked about God for a little while, and I had a hard time following what the man was saying. I asked them what they thought about the whole border situation. The man looked at me and said he didn’t want to go all Nazi or anything, but it wasn’t anything a few machine guns couldn’t take care of. He wasn’t talking about the drug smugglers.
And God said, Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you. If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it. And do not go up to my altar on steps, or your private parts may be exposed.
Later that day I met Rudy Garcia for the first time. He gave me a tour of his mountain shrine, a very high altar indeed. I came back a few months later, on the last Saturday in October 2011, the day before the annual pilgrimage of Mt. Cristo Rey, a mountain straddling the Mexican border just west of El Paso, crowned with a forty-two-foot-high statue of Jesus standing before his cross. Up to thirty thousand pilgrims were expected on Sunday, and preparations were under way. Garcia, a longtime member of the Mt. Cristo Rey Restoration Committee, had invited me to spend the night on the summit with him to guard against the depredations of what he called “the Satanics from Juárez.” No barrier other than the mountain itself would protect us from the most dangerous city on earth.
I arrived shortly before ten A.M. after driving west through El Paso alongside the Rio Grande on Paisano Drive, a stretch of road that only a decade before had been subject to cross-border bandit attacks, past a weedy, dilapidated park commemorating the spot where in 1598 Don Juan de Oñate forded the river with his colonists and his army and his priests to give El Paso its name, past the remaining buildings of Old Fort Bliss, now converted into seedy apartment buildings. An enormous smokestack displaying the word “ASARCO” dominated the view, not quite rivaled by the novelty of the fifteen-foot-high Homeland Security border fence looming over the roadway. Eventually, after crossing the Rio Grande into the state of New Mexico, I turned off the macadam onto a gravel road that led through the bleak and blasted landscape of a defunct silica mine where paleontologists study lithified dinosaur remains. The winding road led me across the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad and up to the base of my destination, the jagged Cristo Rey pluton, an igneous intrusion exposed by eons of erosion, jutting upward from its ancient cradle in the sediment of shallow seas. I left my rental car along the edge of an empty parking area and walked up toward a rock, cement, and galvanized-steel shelter surrounded by human figures. It was already getting hot. Jeeps and pickups drove this way and that. Fine powdery dust billowed and hung in the air. Several ranks of blue portable toilets stood off to the side, and the doors of storage sheds and containers swung open, disgorging their contents. A dozen or more men and women busied themselves with obscure tasks, laughing and calling out to one another in Spanish and English. Walkie-talkies crackled, and power tools whined. The music was loud.
A bull, dead in a field, this field, just before dusk, the giant creature mangled, broken. Its backbone was snapped mid-way down and its neck snapped, too, red jags of bone sticking out, flies and yellow jackets congregating at the torn hide. Miller stood up for a different angle, cocking his head. He’d tied his handkerchief around his nose against the smell—old York said he’d only found King, the bull, that morning. And only then because he’d followed the buzzards, some now standing back a ways, watching and stinking, others that lazed across the sky, shadows dragging below.
“How long since you last seen him?” Miller asked over his shoulder. “Alive, I mean.”
York cleared his throat and blocked his baseball cap. “Tomorrow morning be two days.”
He wore a blue dungaree shirt and blue jeans. Cowboy boots. Exactly what Miller, twenty years his junior, wore, except Miller wore a cowboy hat too and, today, a .357 magnum on his hip. Mostly he left it in the truck, but out in these back lands you never knew what you might run up on: a timber rattler, a bobcat, a coyote or, now, a thing that could break a bull like balsa.
Miller squatted in front of the bull’s massive head, which was twisted to the side and jammed into the dirt, one horn stabbed into the grass. That side eye was closed but the other gazed out, glassy. Miller wondered about the last thing it had seen. He looked closer at the hair between the horns.
He squinted and bent closer still, batting away flies. A big gash between the bull’s horns, a cut to the bone. It had knocked the hell out of something. Like a tree. Had it cracked its own skull? What would drive it to such a length? Maybe there was some rogue matador running about, turning his red cape into a pecan tree with a flip of the wrist. Miller took his logbook from his pocket, unwrapped its leather cord, and opened it to nearly the end, his mechanical pencil serving as bookmark. He began to sketch the bull’s head.