Routine Message of Survival

Flowering Plum

In spring from the black branches of the flowering plum tree

the woodthrush issues its routine

message of survival. Where does such happiness come from

as the neighbors’ daughter reads into that singing,

and matches? All afternoon she sits

in the partial shade of the plum tree, as the mild wind

floods her immaculate lap with blossoms, greenish white

and white, leaving no mark, unlike

the fruit that will inscribe

unraveling dark stains in heavier winds, in summer.

— Louise Gluck

Memorial Day weekend might as well be Hardwick Vermont Day.  Parade, fair, concessions.  My daughters were introduced to fried dough this afternoon, by a friend of my Older Daughter.  “Let me introduce you to a fine part of the world……”

The little, exquisite Jeudevine Library had a book sale, where I spent $1.50, rounded up to $2.00, and then released a few more dollars in the bake sale and coffee urn.  My own childhood library, the Goffstown Public Library, and the children’s librarian, Betsy Elliott (now long crossed over), are a place and a person prominent among my treasured memories.   I could go to the library everyday on the way home from school, check out books, read and return them, and check out more.  Some lucky days, Mrs. Elliott had even put aside new books for me!

Courtesy the book sale, here’s a Louise Gluck poem from The House on Marshland.  The woodthrush and I will be out in the garden early tomorrow morning, working on our routine message of survival: tomato plants, basil, cosmos and sweet peas, and that interior life.

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Photo by Molly S.

Rough Voice

Driving back from Burlington this afternoon, I listened to a CD my father had made and mailed me, of Peter Matthiessen reading The Snow Leopard.  Matthiessen’s voice is deep-hued and burled at the edges, reminding me not of a smoker’s rasp but of hands gnarled and split from hard physical work.  The passage he read had such sorrow, describing lying awake in a muddy and manure-filled hut in the rain, thinking of his eight-year-old son halfway around the world, a child who had lost his mother to cancer the previous year.  Matthiessen read a letter his boy had sent him, asking him please to return by Thanksgiving.  Matthiessen believes he will not be able to fulfill his son’s request.

Against this personal grief, Matthiessen contextualizes the abysmal poverty of India, the great and unmitigated human suffering of Calcutta, while he also sees a land saturated in hundreds of years of religion.  With his immense skill, Matthiessen writes with a profundity that neither glorifies his own misery, nor is abashed by the sheer scale of impoverishment.  His writing examines both his grief and a nation’s misery by keen attentiveness, and then he steps back, removes himself just one pace.

A few weeks ago, when I spoke with another adult about an occurrence in my younger daughter’s life, I felt a presence in my chest, a pressure against my ribs, real as flesh. Walking up the staircase in that old building, I thought, This is grief.  This is how it feels to hold grief in my body.  That same afternoon, driving through Hardwick, I passed a woman I knew by acquaintance.  She sat in her car, windows rolled up, one hand clenched over her lower jaw, her face contorted in grievous weeping.  I stopped for an errand in town and then walked back along the street, with no particular plan, only the mere thought to tap on her window and say, I know you.  You and I, we are much the same.  But I found only the empty space on the pavement and a smear of rain and split oil, with its dirty stamp of a rainbow.

Listening to Matthiessen read, I saw how he took his particular misfortune and, through writing, opened it up to the human arena of loss and desire, against a background of the beauty inherent in this transient world.

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The Mighty Asparagus

May is the season of asparagus in Vermont, the first of my garden to push up through the mulch straw, pointy green gems, the succulent stems.  The first of the garden’s offerings, and likely the most delicious.  Like everything else, the strength of the asparagus beds comes and goes.  A friend of mine remarked at a school board meeting the other night her asparagus beds were on the wane.  Mine, more recently sowed, are producing bountifully.

Our perfect handful of May days are now encroached by black flies, by either too much sun or cold rain:  but isn’t that the way of the world?  Mary Oliver in “Wild Geese” writes:

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Writing is like my asparagus beds, rich under the surface, nourishing and sweet, and yet tensile with organic strength, able to thrust through my poor and clayey soil to the world above of sunlight and rain, and my fingers, eager for a dinner harvest.

Every year, I forget just how good asparagus is.  Aim for that in writing, I think:  better than I might imagine.  How easily we get caught in the details of our lives — important and dear to us — and yet, overhead, all that sun and those clear pebbles of sun, if only we would lift our eyes.

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Saroyan and the (Stolen) White Horse

Today, in the weird way of New England weather, it’s fall again.  Cool, crisp, the leaves tossing in a breeze.  Yesterday, a scorcher, has already slid off the memory horizon.  Today, I built a fire again in the wood stove.  Tomorrow — who knows?  Maybe that memory of yesterday will reincarnate in tomorrow’s heat.

I remember reading a lot of Saroyan as a teenager.  His books I came across were all old and had been read many times, and, who knows, maybe some of them were out of print even then.  As one of my odd rules of thumb, whenever I come across Saroyan in a used bookstore, I generally buy the book.  I love reading him, for one thing; I don’t often these days come across either used bookstores or Saroyan; and an extra copy of Saroyan is always good to have on hand, because someone might need it.  Surely one of the best short story opening lines is from “The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse.”

One day back there in the good old days when I was nine and the world was full of every imaginable kind of magnificence, and life was still a delightful and mysterious dream, my cousin Mourad, who was considered crazy by everyone who knew him except me, came to my house at four in the morning and woke me up by tapping on the window of my room.

The story, and the entire story collection, unfolds from here.  “The Pomegranate Trees,” also in the collection whose image I’ve freely lifted below, remains one of my favorite stories. But sad, my own nine-year-old would protest.   Too sad.

But Saroyan’s also one of the funniest writers I’ve read, that profound sadness (he was Armenian, after all) tempered with a marvelous joy and comedy.  American life these days is often so stridently angry — justifiably so, perhaps, perhaps — and so serious, so often driven to compete and succeed, make something of yourself, and so on, etcetera. Imagine the unfettered joy you might have, if you were woken at the earliest dawn by your cousin and a beautiful white horse — stolen, no less, by your cousin whose family has been honest for “something like eleven centuries”?  Horse-crazy as you likely are, I hope you leap out that window and not let this opportunity gallop by.

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Taking Apart A Book, with apologies to Saroyan

I picked up a copy of William Saroyan’s The Secret Story for fifty cents.  No doubt out of print now, this copy must have been sold on a drugstore rack.  I paid double the original book cost:  one whole quarter.  Check out the garish cover below.  It’s so slutty I’m a little embarrassed to be seen reading it on the elementary school playground.

The novel, however, is classic Saroyan, and for anyone who loves Saroyan that means exquisite.  The story has a tender appreciation for its characters, particularly its children, who often figure prominently in Saroyan stories and are never trivialized or portrayed as naive.  The underlying adult relationships, however, are rife with sin — greed and lust and unfulfilled desire — often cataclysmically playing out.

When I learned to knit sweaters, every time I saw someone in a handknit sweater who was amenable to undressing a bit, I asked to have that sweater handed over.  Then I turned the garment inside out and ran my hands and eyes over the knitting and seaming, to figure out how the sweater was created.  Likewise, with writing, I can’t help but turn a novel inside out.  How is this piece of writing put together?  In this Saroyan novel, I immediately noticed the vocabulary is simple, just a handful of words really.  A well-placed image of weeds in an irrigation ditch comes and goes with the characters:  nothing flashy or show-offy, merely a ditch one-fifth full of water, and remarking whether or not to dredge weeds from the ditch.  The writing relies heavily on characters revealing themselves through their own dialogue, distinctive and natural to each character.

Yet, reading this novel is like journeying down into a very deep pond, clear and transparent at the surface, increasingly murky and filled with microscopic, teeming life as the journey progresses.

David Budbill’s advice to himself is:

                                    Never be deliberately obscure.
                                    Life is difficult enough.
                                    Don’t add to the confusion.

I’d add here that might mean:  rely on your material.  Rely on the craft of your material.

A word again on that cover.  How I wish novels were still a quarter a book.  Wouldn’t we all read more?  The Secret Story is a racy story, filled with illicit desire, a scandalous pregnancy, a husband’s rage.  But aren’t we drawn to those elements because wild desire is part of our human world?  Isn’t plot — story — one of the most engrossing elements of who we are?  Why not revel in story?  Why not seek our own redemption through story? Why not love reading?

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Savor This

This morning, when I reached up into my younger daughter’s bunk to wake her, this sweet child of mine sleeping the just and untroubled sleep of the almost-ten-year-old, I glanced through the little window in her bunk and saw a profundity of apple blossoms. Ivory white with centers the crimson of newborn babes’ mouths.

I’ve seen this old tree before our house bear hundreds of apples, and then, last year, exactly six — I mean six — apples.  We ate what the deer left.

Robert Frost, poet premier of stony soil, a farmer who knew this hard earth as well as anyone, wrote these spring lines:

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day; 
And give us not to think so far away 
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here 
All simply in the springing of the year.

Wholly lacking sentimentality, Frost knew what lay behind, and, knowing that, knew the intimation of what was to come.  In these warm days, the smear of Vermont dirt I find on my child’s foot is a glad sign we are in the springing of this year.  The bees humming on the blossoms just outside my kitchen window and the peepers thrumming in the little pond are the chorus of spring, of insistent, urgent beauty, of this brief season of youthful revel.  The wise poet savors that.  The breeze blowing up even now will whisk these tender petals away.

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