the birthdates of my daughters and me go by sevens: 7, 14, 21
mine’s in the middle
Clara’s is today
Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise.
(Ezra Pound, from Canto CXX)
the birthdates of my daughters and me go by sevens: 7, 14, 21
mine’s in the middle
Clara’s is today
Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise.
(Ezra Pound, from Canto CXX)
Robert Pogue Harrison on Eve and “natality,” Hannah Arendt’s term for the “initiation of new beginnings through human action”:
Eve was created as a Stepford wife of sorts, with everything provided for her except the prospect of self-fulfillment. The same was true in a sense for Adam, yet, impressionistically speaking, Adam seems to have been less at odds with the mindless, ultimately feckless happiness the couple was expected to enjoy in their garden of ennui. This is evidenced by the intuition of several artists who have depicted the expulsion, among them [Michelangelo, Dürer, and others]. It is invariably Eve who is moving toward the exit first [see below], as if in eager anticipation of her new future, while Adam, looking forlorn, seems in dread of what’s to come. Adam, no doubt, did not hear the call of natality as intensely as Eve. Indeed, it is doubtful that he ever would have taken the initiative when it came to the forbidden fruit. Eve’s transgression was the first true instance of human action, properly understood. It was in itself already an act of motherhood, for through it she gave birth to the mortal human self, which realizes its potential in the unfolding of time, be it though work, procreation, art, or the contemplation of things divine.
From Harrison’s Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (U of Chicago P, 1972), 14-15.
…for Pat Taylor
“This writer is writing a sacred text.”
The sentence is from Stanley Cavell’s The Senses of Walden. “This writer” is Henry David Thoreau, the “sacred text,” Walden.
For Father’s Day this past June, my daughter Charlotte gave me a copy of The Senses of Walden. I’d read it rather hurriedly several years ago during graduate school and I knew I wanted to return to it someday. A couple of weeks ago I traveled to the Boston area to take Charlotte to college, and it seemed like a good time to begin re-reading it. It was.
Cavell’s book isn’t long (119 pages in my edition), but it demands deliberate and careful, and thus slow, reading; his writing is marked by an intense and intricate focus, and, just as his title incorporates the title of Thoreau’s book, his text is closely interwoven and interlaced with Thoreau’s writing. One of Cavell’s main themes is that Walden is, above all, a book about writing. But Senses of Walden is, it seems to me, mostly about reading, and it’s reading that I want to think about here.
As a book about writing, Walden also has much to say about reading. Its glorious third chapter, “Reading,” gives a sense of the kind of reading that Thoreau and Cavell (and I) have in mind. To read what he calls “the heroic books,” we must “laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have” (III,3). Reading is effortful, an active, “laborious” process:
To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. […] Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written. (III,3)
But the work is not enough; we must also apply whatever “wisdom and valor and generosity” we can muster:
The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them. They have only been read as the multitude read the stars, at most astrologically, not astronomically. Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to. (III,7)
As he so often does, Thoreau enjoins us to be “awake” and alive and present, to our selves and to the world. This is astronomy, not astrology; we must go beyond arithmetic into realms of mathematics. It’s the work of the “nobler faculties.”
Thoreau is unabashed in his reverence for the ancient “classics,” “the noblest recorded thoughts of man” (III,3). This sort of reverence runs counter to the prevailing sensibilities of our own time; as Cavell puts it, this may all sound like “a pious sentiment,” something that “book clubs like to cite to express their high-mindedness” (4). But Cavell’s point is that throughout Walden Thoreau is showing us how to read Walden, for, he says, Walden is possessed of an epic ambition. It aims to be among the “heroic works” that it talks about. It’s an epic and its hero is named Thoreau. He is busy in Walden with his farming and building and walking and surveying, but all these things return us to Thoreau as a writer:
It is hard to keep in mind that the hero of this book is its writer […] that the “I” of the book declares himself to be a writer. This is hard to keep in mind because we seem to be shown this hero doing everything under the sun but, except very infrequently, writing. It takes a while to recognize that each of his actions is the act of a writer, that every word in which he identifies himself or describes his work and his world is the identification and description of what he understands his literary enterprise to require. (5)
Thus, says Cavell, when Thoreau talks about hoeing his bean fields, he’s talking not just about hoeing but also about writing. This goes for reading as well: as Cavell says, reading for Thoreau is not “merely the other side of writing, its eventual fate” but rather “another metaphor of writing itself” (28). So, in Cavell’s reading of Walden, if Thoreau is ultimately a writer, and Thoreau is the hero of his epic, then the hero is its writer and it’s as a writer that he is heroic. More broadly speaking, arriving at this understanding of Walden is a demonstration of how “to read true books in a true spirit.”
I think that Cavell’s statement of his specific aims as a reader of Walden can serve as guide to good reading generally:
My subject is nothing apart from sensing the specific weight of these words as they sink; and that means knowing the specific identities of the writer through his metamorphoses, and defining the audiences in me which those identities address, and so create; and hence understanding who I am that I should be called upon in these ways, and who this writer is that he takes his presumption of intimacy and station upon himself. (11-12)
Notice the verbs that Cavell brings to bear, the actions of cognition and perception they denote, their active and transitive forms; their objects, the things they act upon; and the logic of his long sentence: his “subject” as a reader is (1) to sense the weight of words, which requires him (2) to know the writer’s identities and to define certain audiences in himself, which in turn require that he (3) understand who he is and who the writer is.
I first read (or tried to read) Walden when I was a teenager (probably shortly after the first publication of Senses of Walden in 1972), and I’ve read it several times since. But it was only by reading The Senses of Walden for the first time, relatively recently, that I took proper notice of this remarkable sentence in Walden:
If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. (II, 22)
In terms of my reading of Walden, I have come to understand the passage as a striking image of Thoreau’s ideas about seeing, wakefulness, and being present. At the same time, what Cavell says about it is enormously important in my understanding of what reading is. He reports that the passage led him to “come to trust Walden and to trust its accuracy to its intentions.” As we have seen, he regards Walden as a “sacred text.” I understand Cavell to say that, having so commanded his trust, Walden has earned a reciprocal commitment from him, namely the obligation to read “deliberately and reservedly.” Cavell acknowledges that there have been occasions in his reading of Walden that have not afforded him the feeling of the blade’s “sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow.” On such occasions, however, he says that, with his trust of the book and “its accuracy to its intentions,” “I am not quick to determine whether it is failing me, or I it” (11).
Thoreau declares in the “Higher Laws” chapter that “our whole life is startlingly moral” (XI, 10).) I see Cavell’s “not quick to determine” as an ethical standard of action that guides good and purposeful reading, especially the reading of “sacred text.” If we don’t get it, let us not be “quick to determine” that the problem is with the book rather than with our selves.
Page references are to Stanley Cavell, The Senses of Walden: An Expanded Edition (University of Chicago Press, 1992). My title is quoted from page 14 of that book.
References to Walden are to chapter and paragraph numbers. An online edition is available at The Thoreau Reader.
What I’ve written here was prompted by the “Quotes to Write By” category of try101.org, for which I’m immensely grateful.
I’m also immensely grateful to TJ Beitelman, well, just generally, but also specifically for his having gotten me thinking—and writing—about “sacred text.”
To TJ Beitelman, before going with him and two or maybe three other people to Clarksdale, Mississppi, and maybe other places, and maybe to a church service on Sunday morning and maybe not.
You asked “where do you live?” When I’m not at P’s, I live in the land of unlikeness.
My question: So what if we get there and we’re not disappointed? Won’t that be disappointing?
Now I know we don’t have any preconceived notions of what we’ll do and see, and how we’ll feel about it. Because it’s a journey, and journeys are all about the getting there, and the arrival itself is just a part of getting there, as is the return, because the notion of “return” is—well, there’s just no such thing as returning. One “returns” to a different time, a different place, and one is a different person.
But, if we did—just if we did, hypothetically,—have a projected emotional status on arrival, would it be a certain of species of disappointment we’d be after, or just disappointment generally, capital-d Disappointment, that kingdom of emotion that bears weight, that always feels heavy no matter what, that imparts a certain flavor of valence even though each individual disappointment has its own valence that’s different in kind from any other, ever, in the history of human being, even before the people who made hand prints inside caves a long long time ago.
So if not the latter, then, what species of disappointment would we, or each of us individually, to the extent we may be said to be “individuals,” be after?
Of course, one need not have eyes to see.
The familiar hymn “Amazing Grace” rejoices in the experience of grace even in the life of “a wretch like me.” It’s as though one had been blind; with salvation, one “now can see.” I must confess that both the tune and the words are overly-familiar to me, yet it all felt new and fresh when I came upon a rendition by Doc Watson shortly after hearing of his death last May. I suppose much of its poignancy lies in the awareness that Watson himself was blind, having lost his vision in his infancy due to an eye infection. He introduces the tune hauntingly on harmonica. Then it’s his voice, both alone and joined with the audience’s collective singing.
John Milton lost his eyesight relatively late in life, at around age forty-four. His blindness is the subject of his Sonnet XVI, where he laments being bereft of that one faculty which he feels is his only means of serving God. He is consoled (as I read the poem) by grace:
….God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best; his state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.
He claims only to “stand and wait,” yet in the very utterance of the poem Milton acts, singing God’s praises. Perhaps this is what “waiting” consists in.
In a manner of speaking, Bob Dylan also “stands and waits” in the song “Blind Willie McTell.” In doing so he sees, hears, and smells the past:
See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
These impressions provide part of the context for the speaker’s meditations:
Well, God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s His
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell.
Though “gazing out the window,” the speaker is searching, looking, wondering. What he sees, or thinks he sees, is that “power and greed and corruptible seed” are “all that there is.” What he knows is that Blind Willie McTell can see into the heart of pain and sorrow and “can sing the blues” like no one else.
Gazing, standing, waiting, singing the blues, singing praises. Varieties of seeing, varieties of bearing light.
[This is the first of what I think will be a few more sets of thoughts about seeing and light and eyes.]
Yesterday I came across a very fine review by Laura Kolbe (whose name is new to me) of recently-published poetry collections by Charles Wright and Robert Pinsky. Evoking the image of Yeats’ archetypal spiral, she provides an exquisite description of Wright’s work:
Wright’s poetic gyre is tight and small, returning again and again to the same settings and subjects — the Appalachian South, Italy, the cycle of the seasons, the presence-in-absence of God — so every poem seems to modify a gesture or opinion voiced five or six poems back, like a bell tower’s helical staircase that keeps returning the ascender to, say, the tower’s east face, but elevated slightly higher each time.
Of late I’ve been thinking about what I think about Charles Wright. Ten years ago I didn’t like Charles Wright. I’ve come to think differently.
Wright was born 1935 and is about the same age as my father. Wright and my father and I all grew up in small towns in Tennessee.
Wright lived and taught in Italy for a long time and he aligns himself closely with Italian poetic tradition. Over the past few years I’ve developed a strong attraction to the Italian language and to Italian poetry and cinema. Ten years ago I didn’t like the fact that Wright included bits of Italian in his poems. Now I do like that fact.
Perhaps back when I didn’t like Charles Wright it was because I wanted to be Charles Wright. Perhaps that’s why I ignored evidence of my admiration of him, for example when I was awestruck at a reading he gave in Sewanee.
A month or two ago I began poking about in his 2004 collection called Buffalo Yoga. On the cover of the book is a reproduction of a painting by Mark Rothko from 1968, very late in Rothko’s career (he died in 1970). It’s often noted that Rothko’s paintings became increasingly darker in his late work; this painting feels like dusk descending, in nuances and shadows and shades of darkness. I love Rothko’s paintings.
“Poet Laureate of the Twilight”. That’s the title of a 2009 article about Wright’s then-forthcoming book Sestets.
I love the music of Morton Feldman. In an article in the New Yorker, Alex Ross describes many of the things I love about it:
In the noisiest century in history, Feldman chose to be glacially slow and snowily soft. Chords arrive one after another, in seemingly haphazard sequence, interspersed with silences. Harmonies hover in a no man’s land between consonance and dissonance, paradise and oblivion. Rhythms are irregular and overlapping, so that the music floats above the beat. Simple figures repeat for a long time, then disappear. There is no exposition or development of themes, no clear formal structure. Certain later works unfold over extraordinarily lengthy spans of time, straining the capabilities of performers to play them and audiences to hear them. More than a dozen pieces last between one and two hours, and “For Philip Guston” and “String Quartet (II)” go on for much longer… Legend has it that after one group of players had crept their way as quietly as possible through a score of his Feldman barked, “It’s too fuckin’ loud, and it’s too fuckin’ fast.”
I love the glacial slowness and snowy softness of Feldman’s music. How it can reveal–unveil–a beauty that’s founded deeply deeply within emotion’s interiority, a place where the world is no longer fast, no longer loud, where the noise has played itself out.
I love Feldman’s composition titled “Rothko Chapel.” Here’s how Ross describes it:
[It] was written in 1971, for Rothko’s octagonal array of paintings in Houston. Rothko had committed suicide the previous year, and Feldman, who had become his close friend, responded with his most personal, affecting work. It is scored for viola, solo soprano, chorus, percussion, and celesta. There are voices, but no words. As is so often the case in Feldman’s music, chords and melodic fragments hover like shrouded forms, surrounded by thick silence….
Here are some things about Wright that I more or less know. Perhaps it’s better to say that these are hypotheses:
I don’t love Charles Wright. Right now, that is.
I probably will continue not to love Charles Wright so long as I continue wanting to be Charles Wright.
I don’t want to continue wanting to be Charles Wright.
Some things about one’s self are very resistant to change.
I’m me. I’m not Charles Wright.
I don’t think my poetry sounds anything like Wright’s. No one has every said, “hey this poem sounds kind of like Charles Wright.”
Charles Wright is among our great poets.
Whether or not I love Charles Wright has no bearing on his status as one of our great poets.
There’s a Paris Review interview of Wright by J.S. McClatchy. I love the fact that, early on, Wright quotes from the Purgatorio, in Italian, in the midst of talking about his family’s move from Tennessee to Arkansas in the 1800s.
I love the fact that when McClatchy asks him to talk about why he tends to “shy away from straight narrative,” Wright says, “It’s simple, really. I can’t tell a story. Only Southerner I know who can’t. And, in truth, I have no real interest in telling one.” (Here it will be noted that Charles Wright doesn’t know me, another Southerner who can’t tell a story. Unlike Wright, however, I am interested in telling stories. It’s just that when I try they become something other than stories. I’m not sure what it is that they become, but I’m pretty sure they’re not stories. It’s McClatchy’s “straight narrative” feature of stories, a feature totally foreign to my nonlinear modes of thinking, that trips me up ever time. Basically, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as a straight narrative. Everything’s much more like a gyre for those interesting artists (usually but not always poets) who  fully experience experiences and  fully recollect on experiences they’ve experienced.)
I love this observation Wright makes about himself: “One of my problems has always been that I can’t remember things that require sequence. I seem to remember only consequence. Which is to say I can’t seem to remember ideas or principles or how to do things. I remember incidents, I remember details.”
I like Charles Wright, sometimes very much, and I think I’m growing to like him more and more. Things are looking up between Charles Wright and me. And that’s good. I might love Charles Wright someday. I hope so. If it happens, I’m going to write him a letter and tell him all about it.
A photograph of Clara and Charlotte, from around 2001 (?), by Tom Petras:
Lines from the Portuguese poet Vincius de Moraes, translated by Richard Wilbur:
Never take her away,
The daughter whom you gave me,
And who, in the night-time, calls me
In the saddest voice that can be
Father, father, and tells me
Of the love she feels for me.
Don’t let her go away,
Her whom you gave—my daughter—
A photo I took at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham, where Clara is buried:
Some other stuff I wrote is here. TJ Beitleman graciously posted it on his excellent site a few weeks ago. The last section of it relates specifically to Clara.
you wrote me a beautiful note on a beautiful card you gave me lovely funny things you honor me beyond all saying
I cherish your gifts because they’re your gifts.
And I cherish them as tokens of your constant gift of your presence, your miracle, the fact that you are.
And as an outwardness and visibleness in unity with the communion of tenacious embrace with Clara, whom we hold, tight and tight, never to let go, who holds us too, tight and tight, never to let go. We are and we are always-more-already and we live enwrapped in the heart of the perpetual becoming and the forever being.
And as another pledge of your steadfast assurance that we can dwell in possibility, in that good kind of possibility, a possibility that someday our tears will be wiped from our eyes, a possibility that someday we’ll be comforted and consoled and held in an everlasting care, a possibility of a someday when there is no more mourning nor sadness nor pain.
And that you bear the burden of knowing all this, that without you I might miss the possibility, or I might forget, and that it seems as if it’s OK for you to bear it.
–an infinitude, some profound real-ness, a plenitude of grace and peace and truth; an abiding sanctum mysterium of water running deep and deep, deep in the cave of the heart, water of clarity absolute, of life and hope; a grace past all possible imagining, past all understanding, all deserving, a peace–
that’s the best I can do now, to tell in words what it feels like to love you, my Charlotte.
concerning the yinyang symbol:
Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate, from the Compendium of Diagrams (detail), 1623
Zhang Huang (1527-1608)
Woodblock-printed book; ink on paper 26.3 x 15.5 cm (each page)
© The University of Chicago Library, East Asian Collection
accessed 29 june 2011
entities multiplied past all necessity
The silence smells of the river
and charred oxen. Yesterday I dis-
covered severe strangers, misbegotten
one became the pleasure of being
above the treeline in the grey
bouldershade that countenances
one’s becoming was divineness
their quiet. Their speechless words.
They recite that forever story—
the strange heart remote, self-conceived
— and I wither in rainy breezes
one’s being became divineness
when they fan
my solemn, long, mad blaze. I possess.
one was the madness of becoming
I’d wished for breath, a silence
magnificent, exquisite, useless,
a becoming blue blur. Yet this, this air.
This is a poem Clara wrote when she was sixteen. It was published in her high school’s literary magazine.
Stare at the naked sun with me again
Until we think we’re going blind
Because of our burning eyes,
Rather than some gnawing hunger.
It seems like years ago that our
Blue flames were smothered
With regret hidden in pillows
Like medicine in ice cream.
It was only back when scraped skin
Made tears, but we could chew
chocolate and savor the taste.
Soft words made soft hearts.
And soft heads were a delicacy
Rather than worry. It was back when
We stuck our our dirty tongues
Just to catch a dirty raindrop.
It was back when blood on hands
Could be cleaned by an apology
And when once we loved without impurities.
Now days drag behind like a
Silent airplane ride and
The only things that satisfy
Are those we have to hide.
I haven’t read this poem in nearly four years. To me it’s nearly unbearably haunting in its sad beauty, its lament for the lost time when one “loved without impurities,” its starkly strict meter in the concluding lines that sort of culminate the pulse of the poem’s quatrains.
“Stare with me.” The poem begins as supplication (not, as I read it, a command), asking us to share a blinding that is perhaps a relief from a “gnawing hunger.” Bodily, sensory experiences constitute the heart of the poem, and bodily harms make manifest other harms, those interior and permanent.
Once when she was away, I sent Clara some of my fingernail clippings. I wanted some sort of physical presence with her, and I hoped also that the oddity of it might please her. I think it did. She has a similar sort of presence with me, in some of her hair that’s saved in my drawer where I keep stuff that’s particularly important to me. The funeral home supplied small vinyl zippered bags, which I guess they keep on hand for this kind of thing. I’m so very glad that my papa thought of this.
“Stare with me.” The poem begins with an implicit “you.” I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our need for other people, and particularly the humanness of helping and needing help. I think it’s important in this poem that the speaker does not feel alone.
In the days, weeks, months, years following her death, one of my recurring griefs has been that she knew she needed help, and sought it, that I had been one of those trying and trying to answer her and help her, that she was receiving help. But my help wasn’t good enough and then suddenly I could no longer help her. Everyone I tell this to kindly reminds me of what is logically true. I suppose that it wasn’t my “fault,” that I “did all that I could,” and so on.
I’ve had the beginning cantos of Dante’s Inferno in my mind over the past year or so. He’s trapped in dark night in the selva oscura, prevented by strange beasts from climbing a hill toward the rising sun. All that’s left is to cry out for help. The Virgin Mary hears his cry, and, via the good offices of St. Lucy (bearer of vision) and Beatrice (beatific), sends Virgil to guide him through hell. With his help, Dante makes it to the light on the other side.