Angle of Repose

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“You yearned backward a good part of your life, and that produced another sort of Doppler Effect. Even while you paid attention to what you must do today and tomorrow, you heard the receding sound of what you had relinquished.”

“Routine work, that best of all anodynes which the twentieth century has tried its best to deprive itself of—that is what I most want.”

Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner

I have no idea why I started reading Angle of Repose, but I am not sure that any book I’ve read recently captured so perfectly that sense of wishing I could breathe life into my own late grandparents’ stories (or the stories of anyone who has left this life)… longing to bring all the details I never thought to ask to life again, to recreate their individual histories and the story they built together. To have, or at least imagine, all the answers to questions I never thought to ask. This history lost to time, as it is in all families. I was quite unexpectedly moved by this quite long book.

“My grandparents had to live their way out of one world and into another, or into several others, making new out of old the way corals live their reef upward. I am on my grandparents’ side. I believe in Time, as they did, and in the life chronological rather than in the life existential. We live in time and through it, we build our huts in its ruins, or used to, and we cannot afford all these abandonings.”

Perhaps the best of books do this to us – we don’t know what to expect going in, and we are constantly surprised, even when what we are confronted with is quite simple, but beautiful. Angle of Repose is certainly both, the richly historical fiction of the American West coupled with two rather tragic but unsentimental stories (one from the past, one in the present, which was, at the time of the book’s publication, the early 1970s.

Writing at turmoil’s gunpoint

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“We’re doing this thing on my timeline. My way.”
He looked at her with avuncular condescension. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Tired of listening to other voices, or writing in them, she walked out.

“My story, Sir Pen, is, to put it briefly: I’m a blank sheet of paper that no one will write on.” -from “Peer Gynt”, Henrik Ibsen

“But in these theories there always remained a void that no one knew how to fill, a zone of darkness between cause and effect; how does one arrive at the written page? By what route is the soul or history or society or the subconscious transformed into a series of black lines on a white page?” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

Turmoil sharpens syntax and diction, makes the willingness to hunt for the right words acute – heightens the senses like a hunter on the trail of his prey. You will know what I mean if you write when you feel anguish, pain or even the murky mist of questioning. When you revisit those distress-filled writings, you might not find answers, but you may find keen edges on your prose that you don’t find when you’re writing without emotional gags and bindings. It’s odd to consider that turmoil, which can render us helpless and not free, gives us the freedom of discipline (which sounds contradictory). Turmoil forces us to write, and ties our hands and our minds to make us only write about what it wants.

“For me, to write is self-deprecating, and yet I can’t quit doing it. Writing is like the drug I abhor and keep taking, the addiction I despise and depend on.”The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa

On the other hand, for a person so ‘haunted’ by the demand to write, only by writing through it can you make sense of your experience.

“By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.” –The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien

You may go back, as suggested, and see well-chosen words and sharp edges, but what you read might not fill you with the glee of someone who has written superlative, quality prose. No, in fact, it will probably read as self-pitying, naive, maudlin, even silly.

“There is no separating yourself from the things you make, he thought. If you are a cesspool, what else can your work be except shit?” –Before the Fall, Noah Hawley

You’re not doing it because you think it will be a masterpiece; you don’t even imagine anyone will ever see it.

You nevertheless were held hostage to the need to get it out.

nostalgia’s impotence

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“My bitterness over nostalgia’s impotence to revive and resurrect becomes a tearful rage against God, who created impossibilities, when I think about how the friends of my dreams – with whom I’ve shared so much in a make-believe life and with whom I’ve had so many stimulating conversations in imaginary cafés – have never had a space of their own where they could truly exist, independent of my consciousness of them!”-The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa

Nostalgia is no new topic here or anywhere. We dwell in nostalgia’s hallways and cellars too frequently – so frequently it is almost indecent, ignoring the obscenity of the inability to let go, elevating it in fact in many cultures and languages to be the highest form of memory and admiration.

“Even if time is just a manmade construct and has no inherent evil whatsoever. All that is truly deceptive about it is our human caprice and wont to waste time, playing games – or rather waste feelings, being petty and not doing what our heart really desires in life. Time and our perception of it imbues us with false confidence, with fear, with nostalgic sentimentality.”

In previous writings on the subject I had been writing about my memories of Japanese language camp, the passage of time and nostalgia without even touching on the Japanese-language term “natsukashi”, which is roughly the same as “nostalgia”, filled with the same push-pull of longing/sadness and sentimentality/if-only/some-other-life feeling. How many times have I spoken to a Japanese person who, with that telltale faraway look in their eye said wistfully, “Natsukashi…”, their voice trailing off as the mind traveled into the murky mists of the past. Even in citing Japanese poet Tamura and writing: “It is also the nostalgia – looking back at people, events – what has deeply affected and wounded us, things we carry for years, imprinted on us even when the person or event is long ago and the deep impression we have belies the brevity of these memorable encounters”, I still didn’t think of ‘natsukashi’.

But then ‘natsukashi’ leapt to mind yesterday when I had a long conversation about living in the past, not being able to let go, nostalgia and how difficult it is when one lives in her own conception of how the past was – her own nostalgia – and eventually faces the reality that the others who populated that storied past do not share the same perception of that past. It shouldn’t be necessary to reconcile one’s own view of the past and sense of longing for it with another’s view, in which longing plays no part. In fact without these mismatches, I imagine we’d have much less of the bittersweet poetry, literature and music we covet; I imagine we’d have nowhere near as much invested in nostalgia: in fact an integral part of nostalgia may in fact be that we are grasping for something that never really existed.

What Cannot Be
Odysseus Elytis

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Photo (c) 2017 – SD

“where shall we put our hope?”

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The cyclical nature of perception and improbable rehabilitation of historical figures (take a look at the youth of Russia venerating and admiring Stalin) makes me take a look at this poem by Finn Pentti Saarikoski. He writes ironically: “Marx’s mistake is Lenin/as Stalin is Lenin’s mistake/but Stalin didn’t make mistakes.” Today, it is just as likely that a young person with no tangible connection to history would read this and think, “Yes, of course. Stalin was a great leader.” (By the way, read Svetlana Alexievich‘s Secondhand Time: An Oral History of the Fall of the Soviet Union for more insight.)

from The Dance Floor on the Mountain
Pentti Saarikoski
XXIV Winter solstice
And the bees cling to each other
in the hive center
where Jesus is born a honey-scented child

The sun is setting
a scarlet winterball like a fatbellied man
our neighbor, the carpenter
will be rolling into bed

On the first day of year
I place two white porcelain jugs spout to spout
after thinking all night long
about Marx’s mistake

Marx’s mistake is Lenin
as Stalin is Lenin’s mistake
but Stalin didn’t make mistakes.

I construct a snowman
a sad fascist in the yard
so some image of this winter will remain
our neighbor the carpenter
bends his knee and takes a snap

A heavy snowfall
should mean a rich harvest

I’ll build
a cold church for the fascist
a warm one for Jesus

When with summer’s first ill-natured wind
the guests gone
we come down the mountain
with no protection but each other’s limbs
where shall we put our hope?

XXVI On St Stephen’s Day
I sit in their kitchen
drink some beer and listen to language
that’s their affair, their memories
and I scare: I say something
but it clatters
from mouth to floor like a horseshoe.

Telephone the power-house

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Her Lips are Copper Wire
Jean Toomer

Whisper of yellow globes
Gleaming on lamp-posts that sway
Like bootleg licker drinkers in the fog

And let your breath be moist against me
Like bright beads on yellow globes

Telephone the power-house
That the main wires are insulate

(her words play softly up and down
dewy corridors of billboards)

then with your tongue remove the tape
and press your lips to mine
till they are incandescent

true life

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Untitled
-Yehuda Amichai
People in the dark always see people
In the light. It’s an old truth, since sun and night
Were created, people and darkness, and electricity.
A truth exploited by those who make war
For easy killing in an ambush, a truth that enables
The unhappy to see the happy, and the lonely — people in love
In a brightly lit room.
Yet true life is led between dark and light:
“I locked the door,” you said,
An important sentence, full of destiny.
I still remember the words,
But I forgot on which side of the door they were said,
Inside or outside.
And from the only letter I wrote to you
I remember only the bitter taste of
The stamp’s glue on my tongue.

Photo (c) 2006 MDV used under Creative Commons license.

lucid moment

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…Don’t allow the lucid moment to dissolve
Adam Zagajewski

Don’t allow the lucid moment to dissolve
Let the radiant thought last in stillness
though the page is almost filled and the flame flickers
We haven’t risen yet to the level of ourselves
Knowledge grows slowly like a wisdom tooth
The stature of a man is still notched
high up on a white door
From far off, the joyful voice of a trumpet
and of a song rolled up like a cat
What passes doesn’t fall into a void
A stoker is still feeding coal into the fire
Don’t allow the lucid moment to dissolve
On a hard dry substance
you have to engrave the truth