Journal, Day One
The fortuitous conjunctions and rhymes of reading: the incinerated goldfinches of Australian poet Robert Adamson’s The Goldfinches of Baghdad (2006), and the terrible pathos of the dead goldfinch-in-a-cage near the end of Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge.
From Adamson’s title poem (and here a shout-out to his publisher, Flood Editions, and their wonderful sequence of books):
A goldfinch with a slashed throat
was the subject of a masterpiece painted in the
sixteenth century on the back of a highly
polished mother-of-pearl shell—
It burns tonight in Baghdad, along with the living,
caged birds. . . .
Those who cannot speak burn along with the
articulate . . .
We sing or die, singing death
as our songs feed the flames.
The body in pain, articulate and inarticulate.
From Hardy, the moment late in the novel when Elizabeth-Jane realizes how the bird and cage had come into her home: as an overlooked wedding gift from the benighted hero, her stepfather Henchard, who via the novel’s grinding machinery has been ground almost to the dust he now trudges:
“Nobody could tell her how the bird and cage had come there; though that the poor little songster had been starved to death was evident . . .
This was enough to set Elizabeth thinking, and in thinking she seized hold of the idea, at one feminine bound, that the caged bird had been brought by Henchard for her as a wedding gift and token of repentance. He had not expressed to her any regrets or excuses for what he had done in the past; but it was a part of his nature to extenuate nothing, and live on as one of his own worst accusers. She went out, looked at the cage, buried the starved little singer, and from that hour her heart softened towards the self-alienated man.”
Hardy writing from a position of insistent, almost marmoreal, impassivity. The lighthearted conniver Lucetta (part French, as so often in English novels!) conveniently dies, the long suffering sober and generous Elizabeth-Jane eventually lands her beloved: this no triumph of wish-fulfillment but a resolution in a minor key.
Hardy endorsing the wisdom of expecting little.
And also, from a wholly other angle, how un-Blakean! “Enough! or Too much.”
(William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.)
Angela Sorby remarking years ago in the offices of Chicago Review, “Before all else one has to be grateful.”
The particular sine-wave of a goldfinch’s flight across a field—
Up here in and around Essex, NY—a town on Lake Champlain in the “North Country,” within the Adirondack Park, across the lake from Burlington VT—the air thrums with birdsong, only some of which I can identify: the silvery thrush in the adjoining woods, the phoebe screeching open the morning; the redstarts chattering intermittently, and high on the hill closer to hedges and fields the red-winged blackbirds, their wingbars flashing by.
How does it matter where you are?
Lisa Robertson’s meditations on locale, weather, the political economy of place—some traces of this in her Journal entries from two weeks ago on this site, and fascinating elaborations in the Chicago Review issue dedicated to her: a poet and thinker new to me and one I hope to pursue.
Tom Pickard’s delicate lyric cartography and sonography in The Dark Months of May (Flood, 2004):
where to go
where the wind
Poems tracking the fierce, windblown area called Fiend's Fell in the North Pennine Hills on the English-Scottish border—
a breeze of rowan lifts
pale curtains of cloud
where hawks stake a claim
to a drifter’s sky
Pickard’s taxonomies of wind, his birds, his plaints and rude jokes, his archaeologies of Newcastle; Robert Adamson’s aviary (see above)—the avocet, cockatoo, parrot, mudlark winging through his poems.
I have a friend who never tires of announcing, “‘Nature,’ what’s that? It’s all culture!” Another who thrives in LA, exulting in the free-ways, the sprawl, the smog, the concrete, the triumph of glass, steel, signage, the paved and built late modernity—“I’d like to pave over every blade of grass!” Cf Frank O’Hara on grass.
The landscape is as made a thing as the skyscraper. A longer durée. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Looking at the lovely fields it is hard to think of enclosure
a grayscale of greens
held fast by hedgerows
the sheep just shorn
and cows in the clover
churches natural as trees
in a landscape longdead
hands their burls broke in
The chiseled green beauty of the Scottish Borders sculpted in part by the expulsion of small farmers, the importation of sheep. And that of the Highlands owing to an even greater devastation, the 18th C. Clearances, after the quashing of the second Jacobite rebellion in 1745: “clearances” (i.e. removal) of the now definitively dominated clan populations of the Highlands.
What was Robert Mugabe’s latest monstrous project? “Operation Murambatsvina”—“Clear Away the Trash”: destroying the houses of and forcibly removing the people from a shantytown outside Bulawayo.
“Beauty” as an index of alienation. To declaim on such a symptom of distance, ignorance, and privilege.
Consider Philip V. Bohlman on music:
Music is not beautiful in many cultures: there’s no reason why it should be. Beauty as a condition of music is a construct of modernity, a quality of the exchange value that accrued to it when technologies in the West made it possible to reproduce music as a commodity, a product in which the object, ‘beauty,’ could lodge. As a quality of Western aesthetics, beauty persistently makes its appearance in writings of the eighteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century, not least because of the intervention of Romanticism, beauty’s objectified status had come to permeate aesthetic thought so pervasively that composers were forced to succumb to it or openly reject it. In the twentieth century beauty has proliferated as a component of modernity, extending beyond the West and asserting its presence in the reproductive technologies of cassette culture or export industries that globalize world musics. For Indian classical music and Javanese gamelan repertories to achieve popularity as music in the West and to gain a position in the exchange of goods between Western economies and Indian or Indonesian export systems, it has been necessary to replace function with beauty. We have turned to world music in no short measure because we are able to imagine that it contains beauty.
—from “Ontologies of Music”
“In those cultures in which there is no need for beauty, there is also no open exchange of musical products as commodities.”
I died for Beauty—but was Scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb . . .
Yet why was I was both moved and fortified to read of Elizabeth Bishop that she became extremely upset—at some otherwise unremarkable dinner—during an argument about beauty: someone there dismissing it, and she staking her all on its possibility. This anecdote I believe was in Alice Quinn’s notes to her Edgar Allen Poe and the Jukebox. But I can’t check—
I brought only a couple of boxes of books up here this summer, though in the house there are many, allowing for all kinds of foraging: viz. Hardy. And a book on the Etruscans. A volume of selected French poetry. And some years ago, a book on Madame de Pompadour.
Mon Francais est contemptible!
But will I hope improve.
Today’s pop quiz:
A) How can we know the dancer from the dance?
B) If winter comes, can spring be far behind?
C) Did she put on his knowledge with his power?
D) Are you the leaf, the blossom, or the bole?
E) Johnny are you queer?
F) Vous-êtes écossaise?
Answers: A) When the dance is over; B) Yes; C) No; D) All of the Above; E) Yes; F) Non, je suis americaine.
Nominees for this season’s cant words and phrases, excluding the obvious candidates generated by Bush & Co.: “organic,” “community” (again, see Lisa Robertson’s post), “sustainable,” “international community” (see Shahab Ahmed’s remarks last spring at the Harvard Divinity School on the contretemps re: the “Muslim cartoons” in Denmark: we should speak of the “international system,” Ahmed says, not the “international community,” a phantasmatic pseudo-entity).
I am becoming positively querulous and cranky!
Not a surprise.
Damn braces, bless relaxes: Blake, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
The American historian and writer Dan Aaron, still going strong at 93 or so, observed some years ago that a friend of his always parsed that Blake proverb not as a curse and a blessing (i.e. Damn this, bless that) but rather as an observation:
[To] damn braces, [to] bless relaxes.
And the punctuation in my little Dover edition supports this: “Damn, braces: Bless relaxes.”
One needs bracing and relaxing both.
New Agers only orient to the latter.
Critique is absolutely required.
Mind-forg’d manacles need strong tools to bust!
Marianne Moore braces: “In Distrust of Merits,” “Marriage,” “The Octopus.”
Anne Carson too. Carson’s Mimnermos, in Plainwater: the staggering no’s of protest—against age, failure, night. Jamaica Kincaid: the prevalence of the syntax of negation in her work—cf Lucy: I was not that, did not want that, did not know that. I prefer not to. Ron Silliman, “Tjanting”: “Not this. What then?” A stringent negation its own kind of affirmation. Louise Glück, “Mock Orange”:
It is not the moon, I tell you.
It is these flowers
lighting the yard.
I hate them.
I hate them as I hate sex . . .
The oleaginous sensuality of certain poets: how to cut through? Sometimes I read Moore as a chaser. Or Horace. Or August Kleinzahler, who dances and feints and jabs his way along.
The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a
—Jack Spicer, “Sporting Life”
Favorite pop lyric encountered 2006:
The sounds of the engines and the smell of the grain
We go riding on the abolition grain train
Stephen A. Douglas was a great debater
Abraham Lincoln was the Great Emancipator.
—Sufjan Stevens, “Decatur,” Illinois
This album inspires hopes of a renewed civics via song. And before this, Bright Eyes, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. Though the intermittent dreary heroin/Brooklyn chic of the latter does weary.
And so to bed.
Maureen N. McLane grew up in upstate New York and was educated at Harvard University, Oxford University, and the University of Chicago. She is the author of five books of poetry: Some Say (FSG, 2017), Mz N: the serial: a poem-in-episodes (FSG, 2016), This Blue (FSG, 2014—Finalist for the National Book...