Thursday, March 8, 2018
Scott G.F. Bailey smartly follows my last post with two sentences about a chicken being eaten in a different story. The new bird comes from My Ántonia, 1918, by Willa Cather, a book I've never read but there are three copies of it at the Goodwill up the road so it must be on the curriculum at American universities. The lines he quotes are these: "While I was putting my horse away, I heard a rooster squawking. I looked at my watch and sighed; it was three o'clock, and I knew that I must eat him at six." This character, she has the mind of a French kitchen maid or pre-enlightened (if that's the word) upper-middle-class grandmother (Crevel, Babylon), I think when I read that, and then I look up the chapter and see the narrator is not a woman but a man or boy named Jimmy. The chapter seems interesting because nothing in it tells me why he is sighing. Nobody asks him to kill the rooster, as far as I can see, and he doesn't appear to know the bird personally, although that relationship might have been established in an earlier part of the book. Stop: maybe he has already been established as a chicken-killer and Cather knows she doesn't have to spell it out. All right, he'll kill the rooster, the little bastard. No wait, does the squawking mean the rooster is already in the process of being murdered? That's it: this is a death-squawk. Originally I thought it was just expressing itself. Oh I'm stupid. Whose rooster is it? "Cather takes predation and death for granted," writes Bailey. "The predator suffers, not the prey; the poor prey is fated to be relief for the predator, and there is only so far our sympathies should carry us." What a bitch this Willa Cather is, I think, which is interesting all over again because it puts me back in French kitchen labourer (Proust-Françoise) territory. World War II came about because of people like this Cather, I say to myself. Jimmy's sigh is offered up to his creator, the one who wants him to acknowledge his position of effort at the top of the food chain. The squawk was his last contact with the vital life-force of a unique bird, born in all its complexity from an amazing egg and going to all the trouble of eating seeds and muck for years only to die screaming at three o'clock so that this genuflecting creep can sink his teeth into him. Superbly horrible, looking at your watch. Is this rooster-slaughter inserted here to whet my mind for the anecdote Widow Steavens is about to tell Jimmy about Ántonia, who has been preyed on by a man in Denver? No one can mourn these birds innocently. "I am not a sign," rooster screams, "I am the present," but the predator sails on, seeing time ahead.
Thursday, February 15, 2018
Reading René Crevel's Babylon, 1927, tr. Kay Boyle in the afternoon, I believed that a line about "the blood of the chicken we were supposed to have for dinner" on page thirty of the Sun & Moon 1996 edition truthfully depicted the unseen side of the ending of Voltaire's dialogue between a hen and a rooster, which I had read the same morning in a translation by Theo Cuffe. It was good to see that the other partner in the chickens' experience - the humans - was exactly the way the rooster had predicted, a group of offhand murderers. The grandmother of Crevel's repressive household is hoping that the blood in the kitchen is that of the bird, not that of the cook, who has been tied up by burglars. These thieves have stolen a bracelet of the Empress Eugénie's hair. Startled by the sound of Françoise slaughtering a chicken, Proust's narrator tries to reconcile the artistry of the family servant with the irritation of this swearing killer who abuses the animal as it fights for life. Montaigne, looking at cannibals, observes that we are capable of many versions of rightness and all of them can seem alien to one another. Crevel, regarding Proust, said that knowing about the switch from an Albert to an Albertine in Lost Time made him "question the entire book and reject certain discoveries the author presented to me along the way". This was in My Body and I, 1925, tr. Robert Bononno. As I was reading Babylon, however, I thought the teenage girl's interest in the muscles of sailors might belong to a gay teenage boy. "The sailor's lips must be soft in that square patch of tan," writes Crevel in My Body as he remembers himself feeling roused at thirteen by the sight of a woman in the street kissing a sailor. Writing about the sailor's colleagues, he says, "Their necks have punctured their jackets and in the opening the powerful flesh is victorious." People will be free to love without worrying about European social mores, he suggests in Babylon: they should abandon their marriages, they should not mind being naked, they should be unconcerned with reproduction. In My Body he puts all of this into the figure of himself and stands alone nude in a field feeling sensuously aware and erotic. Then he is ashamed, worrying that a shepherd or cattleman might see him. The cook in Babylon remarks that the family has dissolved like butter in a pan. Voltaire put the point of focus on the greatest sufferers, the chickens.
Sunday, January 7, 2018
David Campbell's Evening Under Lamplight, 1976, begins with lyrical language and no dialogue: "When horses gallop at night, the sound is mysterious. There was Billy, frowzy with sleep, ambling through silence downhill on a drooping nighthorse. The frost, after a week of rain, had sharpened the hoof-falls. The horse's paunch creaked, and Billy was aware of the silence. He was aware of the cemetery on the dark ridge where the owls moped."
After a page and a half this lyricism vanishes and people speak ordinarily:
"It was easy, he said. "When Len's sick, I'll get the horses in every morning. You're only a girl."
"I'm older than you are."
"That doesn't count."
But Janet only smiled.
So on until the end of the book, though it comes back again a little in the last story while a settler in the bush is contemplating a fox: "The fox lived its own life and he lived his. And the gold trees grew from stone."* Most of the stories follow Billy the child, who is said by the introduction and the blurb to be a fictionalised version of Campbell himself (did Campbell ever say so or did he only let them believe it?), and the later ones tell you about men flying planes in World War II, where he himself flew planes.
Why is the entrance of Janet at breakfast like an ice age that cuts off an earlier way of life in the book?
David Malouf, who wrote the introduction to the 1987 edition, never lets dialogue get in the way of the contemplative-lyrical tone in his own books; he ploughs on through, and you remember the castaway in Remembering Babylon, 1993, meeting his compatriots in Australia after a long time with the indigenous people and getting his words confused so that he says, "I am a British object," instead of subject. And that has a penetrative meaning.
But the dialogue words in David Campbell do not try to have any kind of penetrative meaning. I don't think it occurred to him that they should have one, even though Malouf tells you that prose and poetry are one in the mind of a writer: they do not separate them: "it is the same world he is moving in … however different the demands of the medium he is the same man, bringing with him the same sensory equipment." And this is true because the dialogue in Campbell's poems is as plain as it is in the book – see Outback (No. 1) for example.
I wonder if this is part of his New Bulletin past, this Henry Lawson idea that the lyrical meaning in dialogue should be conferred through narrative events around the spoken language and not through the language itself, as at the end of The Drover's Wife, 1892, when the son says, "Mother, I won't never go drovin'; blarst me if I do," which makes a strong impact in light of everything that has happened. So that if people are lyrical it is not because you have rudely gone inside them and pretended to express their thoughts, but only because you have pointed to plain things around them which could be verified by other observers, though there are no other observers for you are the author, the only one who observes; and yet you are behaving as if there are observers who might accuse you of rudeness or lies, and so you are protecting yourself from the accusations of these non-existent people, the ones who know that Janet would not speak like the woman in the book I'm reading at the moment, who describes river water "spilling over the oar with a pure metallic lustre, like blood" (Narcyza Żmichowska, The Heathen, 1846, tr. Ursula Phillips). But if you can say that Billy on the nighthorse can feel inside him that "to his heartbeats the horses were suddenly galloping," then you can have him wholly and lyrically.
*When I say lyricism I am thinking of that kind of gold-and-stone language in which things are made of beautiful, solid substances and the characters' attention to small, distinct things like creaks is noted; everything is sensation and fluid but there is also a suggestion of eternity as well as attention to the way that a word like "ridge" sits against "moped."
Sunday, December 31, 2017
Water rumbles down the mountainside, gurgles in ditches and drainpipes, pours along the guttering that protrudes from the roof of our villa over the balconies and out across the garden, washing away in the sun an enormous icicle that hangs down the height of a half story and drips like a stalactite onto a second, planted below a tree, a freakish stalagmite overgrown with black branches. That tree is forever destined to bear its crystalline mistletoe – scarcely does one bunch melt in the sun, when another begins to grow and spread.
(Zofia Nałkowska, Choucas, 1927, tr. Ursula Phillips)
It is said that in times gone by
They formed forests and that birds
Also called dragonflies
Small creatures like singing hens
Looked down from them.
(Sarah Kirsch, Trees, from Ice Roses: Selected Poems, tr. Anne Stokes)
Friday, December 29, 2017
Before a busy day, one wants to "get" a lot of sleep.
(Lyn Hejinian, My Life, 1980)
Underneath the broad hat is the face of the Ambassador
He rides on a white horse through hell looking two ways.
Doors open before him and shut when he has passed.
He is master of the mysteries and in the marketplace
He is known. He stole the trident, the girdle,
The sword, the sceptre and many mechanical instruments.
Thieves honour him. In the underworld he rides carelessly.
Sometimes he rises in the air and flies silently.
(Stevie Smith, The Ambassador, from the New Selected Poems of Stevie Smith, 1988)
Thursday, December 28, 2017
Here, still sequestered, Penmon's sacred dome
Recalls to mind the inmates of the tomb
Who reared with pious zeal the massy pile
And filled with notes of praise the echoing aisle;
When Idwal, born of Cambria's regal race,
Beheld with guardian eye the happy place.
Alas! what is it now? the damp abode
Of slimy snails, the spider and the toad,
Where waking owls in screaming concert call
Their prowling mates when evening's shadows fall.
(Richard Llwyd, Beaumaris Bay, 1800)
If one is not in one's motions (drops out of these, separated) – by not attending, these motions don't even occur (in one) – one has the sense of not living in that instant or at all. Terror at night of not living at that instant at that night.
(Leslie Scalapino, Dahlia's Iris: Secret Autobiography + Fiction, 2003)
Wednesday, December 27, 2017
Up the hard road he chased his phantoms, neck and neck with fear. But the old mare was a stayer, and on the hill-crest day was breaking. Serpent-heads tossed in the first light; a breakaway gelding bucked, down in the skyline; but the mob came in to the whip. In the heavy stockyard the horses stood steaming, hock-deep in mud.
(David Campbell, Evening Under Lamplight: Selected Stories, 1976
The museum institutionalises the truly radical, atheistic, revolutionary violence that demonstrates the past is incurably dead. It is a purely materialistic death, without return – the aestheticized material corpse functions as a testimony to the impossibility of resurrection.
(Boris Groys, In the Flow, 2016)