the coming night with its dying-deep but dazzling darkness

    Then voice: commanding, flaring in an ear.
    I could not speak, only heard and witnessed.
    The little animals and the big came
    Trotting with my teeth-grooved bones in their mouths.
    They laid the bones, each in its place. Sinews
    Were cauled around the spars. Glitter-fine, flecks
    Of skin were strewn and grew whole cloth, seamless
    And unmarred. The birds brought eyes, so I wept
    But knew no why. The voice swelled in my head
    Like an oracle blown into a shell.
    The winds were my hammock. I swung the air
    Like a bell. A Lazarus breath entered
    The gate, my mouth. And I came forth, ready
    To quit the ruins and the stained river,
    Braced to live before I died again.

In The Book of the Red King, Marly Youmans creates a complex poetry cycle set in a mythic kingdom that may exist a thousand years ago, or it may be here now (the cultural references in the city of the Red King run from armies on horseback to dogs on skateboards). The poems seem to grow out of the world's epic myths and legends (Gilgamesh is referenced by name, and the work can seem to be haunted by Spencer, Shakespeare, Malory, and Milton--and also maybe Wordsworth and Coleridge and I will try to stop comparing now), but this is not a reworking of old tales, nor even I think is it so much a new myth as it is an explication of the life and work of the artist (and possibly in this sense, Yeats' spirit also hovers over the book). Youmans is always powerful when she writes about art and artists, and The Book of the Red King strikes me as her most forceful (and possibly most personal) statement about art (and the artist's purpose) yet. Creativity, rebirth and transfiguration are the threads that stitch The Book of the Red King together.

And when, unseen, some Atlas dropped the skies,
Tumults of stars and feathers rushed, slammed
Against the Fool, air forward-gyrating
With power and a noise like muscled creeks,
While the cloud-buried sun sent fire as pale
As lightning bolts to dazzle snow and mist
And summons him to ends of mystery
Like the wheels within wheels of the whirlwinds.

(from "The Fool Glimpses the City")
and
Still the Fool kneels in the kitchen midden,
Making a city out of broken china.
By starlight, towers and shard cottages
Of crockery are glowing, luminous
Neighborhoods for the moon: how he trembles
From the chill air, or else from pilfering,
The bringing something out of things that are
Not--like syllables' juggled radiance.

(from "Wild to Make")

yes, that's how it is to be caught by the creative impulse. This is good stuff. This is what Youmans' book is like, and this is not what Youmans' book is like. It's interconnected, but open-ended, hard and specific and mysterious.

I promised myself that I was just going to point to the many ways The Book of the Red King has an attractive surface, how many of its pleasures are easily enjoyed just through the inventiveness of Youmans' characters and the angular, beautiful chemistry of her language. I promised myself that I was not going to, you know, interpret the poems here. The problem with that promise is that as a reader, I spend a lot of energy asking texts what they are about, what they think they are doing below the surface. So maybe we should just get that out of the way first. That's a joke; I've done nothing so far except interpret. I don't know any other way to write about art, because I assume that formal aspects of good art are bound up in meaning. And vice versa. I digress.

The Book of the Red King is a collection of poems and lyrics written by the Fool, a character presented as a jester in the court of the Red King. The Fool writes The Book partly as a gift to the Red King, and partly because this writing is what the Fool does, is compelled to do by the creative impulse. The role of the Fool-as-artist is informed by the role of the Fool-as-fool in a feudal court: he observes, he speaks, he tells the truth. He also creates beauty, points to beauty, loves and points to love, grieves and points to grief, is angry and points to anger, etc, all of this being the work of the artist. The Fool, I am telling you, is Marly Youmans (and Yeats and Shakespeare and Milton and let's say Matthew as well, why not). That's my theory; see the first paragraph of this increasingly-staggering little essay. You'll have to draw your own conclusions about the identity of the Red King. Youmans has said of him, "He is all the things he is at once, it seems."

[. . .] His are the hands that drift
Ever-so-slowly outward in what is
Not-time. Yet in that spaceless, hourless realm,
He weaves the cloth of starts and spins his threads,
Unreeling filaments of energy
That spiral through all people, things, and space.
In trance, he is the King of Paradox;
The universes are a cloak he wears,
Glinting behind him like a moonlit seal...

One distant fleck of stardust knows the trick
Of waking the Red King from gulfs of dream:
His Fool, with bells and baubles on a stick.

I'm only getting at the large-scale framework, and there are a number of other themes running through this cycle of poems, which I will not get into other than to say that redemption, striving for grace, and the fool-like nature of true faith are patterned into the work. A passing theme that caught my attention is that of dust. Adam, as we all know, was formed from "the dust of the ground." The Fool rises, in a way, from the earth itself in the first pages of the book. Draw your own conclusions. But dust is played with across several poems, an image worked to show the possibility of redemption, of grace.


Once was a particle of dust
Named Hob; and one day a big gust

[. . .] --the sky
Of stars seemed to be asking why

They were bright fire, when he was dust
That yearned but never would combust.

[. . .] A chilly vapor held
Him in its cloud: a mote be-spelled

By cold [. . .]

and he slipped
Into the white and perfect script

Of snow: the story of a star,
Six-armed, rainbowed, spinning from far
Realms of sky; sun rising at night;
In midwinter, this birth and light.

I know that it's almost impossible to excerpt a poem without doing it damage, but I am not quite willing to quote wholesale from the book, so this will have to do for you. There is also a lovely poem where dust motes in streaming sunlight are turned to a swimming veil of gold, a striking image.

Because Youmans always writes on a number of levels at once, this essay can only seem to diminish Youmans' artistry by so poorly describing it. I know that poetry has, even at the best of times, a limited audience, but The Book of the Red King deserves readers, and plucky Phoenicia Publishing deserves a reward for being brave enough to market collections that require thoughtful readers. A good deal of current American poetry is merely angry, woke, political, and shallow; or else it's merely pretty, saccharine, and shallow. And while Youmans' book could serve as a text for a contemporary course on the uses of beauty and empathy, she writes for the ages, which I think is in the long run a better idea. I don't know why Marly Youmans isn't much better known, for both her poetry and her novels. She always taps into the substrata of art and life. As she says at the end of her poem "Both Sides of the River":

Come closer to me, under
The wind-tossed shadow of leaves,
And listen: I can't whisper how to walk
On both sides of the singing river,
For riddles must be
Learned, earned in long
East-of-sun, west-of-moon
Mad fairy-tale journeys
Or starlit wrestlings with angels
Or sometimes by accident,
As when an innocent mind tumbles
Into the vertical blue of wells.
And if for one fleck of time
You stand tiptoe on both sides of a river,
You won’t master the mystery.
Always, there’s a residue, something
Hidden in sight,
Brimming with sunshine
Or collecting cloud-shadows
Like the leaf-silt, spell-silt
That fell through golds and ambers
In a fortuneteller’s teacup--
The scribe, the maker
Of resistant, radiant messages
Impossible to read.

"Both Sides of the River" is not from The Book of the Red King, but Red King is filled with resistant, radiant messages. And it's not so impossible to read.

the vision of Gideon and the lightning of Damascus

“We begin, in all probability, by telling the youth of fifteen or sixteen, that Nature is full of faults, and that he is to improve her; but that Raphael is perfection, and that the more he copies Raphael the better; that after much copying of Raphael, he is to try what he can do himself in a Raphaelesque, but yet highly original manner: that is to say he is to try to do something very clever, all out of his own head, but yet this clever something is to be properly subjected to Raphaelesque rules…This I say is the kind of teaching which the Royal Academy lecturing, press criticisms, public enthusiasms, and not least by solid weight of gold, we give to our young men. And we wonder we have no painters.”
"Raphael had neither religion nor originality enough to trace the spirit of poetry and the spirit of philosophy to the inspiration of the true God, as well as that of theology, but that, on the contrary, he elevated the creations of fancy on the one wall, to the same rank as the objects of faith upon the other; that in deliberate balanced opposition to the Rock of Mount Zion, he reared the rock of Parnassus, and the rock of the Acropolis; that, among the masters of poetry we find him enthroning Petrarch and Pindar, but not Isaiah nor David, and for lords over the domain of philosophy we find the masters of the School of Athens, but neither of those greater masters by the last of whom that school was rebuked- those who received their wisdom from heaven itself, in the vision of Gideon and the lightning of Damascus.”

This is Ruskin on Raphael, first in a defense of the Pre-Raphaelites, and next in a lecture called “Pre-Raphaelitism”, given at Edinburgh University in 1853. So Raphael, says our John, not only elevates art above nature, he commits the Renaissance sin of elevating art above religion, which is to say, he places Man at or above the level of God. That about wraps it up for Raphael, if you're John Ruskin. Ruskin leapt into the Art Wars in Victorian England, on the side of the realists, the naturalists, the Pre-Raphaelites. They had a point, I think, about subject matter and mannerism, though they seem to have also ended up focusing on mythological/historical/literary subjects and painting in a highly artificial manner. So who knows what was going on. And while I must say that Raphael is not my favorite painter, I quite like a number of his works (the portrait of Castiglione in the Louvre is a masterpiece, as are many of Raphael's portraits). And while I like a number of the Pre-Raphaelite works I've seen, I would rather look at Raphael.

Nonetheless, or perhaps because of all this cunundra, Mighty Reader and I went to an exhibit of Pre-Raphaelite works at the Seattle Art Museum last night. There was a Ruskin watercolor! I've never seen a Ruskin with my own eyes. I must say he was probably a better draughtsman than he was a painter, though this painting is not as blurry as my photo makes it appear. I was doubtless trembling with the excitement of seeing something Ruskin had touched.


The details are quite clear when you see them closely. The buildings on the lake shore are delicate and finely rendered:


The biggest influence Pre-Raphaelite work has had on me is my love for the graphic arts and especially the style of illustration that came out of the period. Here is an edition of Chaucer, with a gorgeous design and illustrations that remind me of every book I loved as a child:


I do not remember who the artist is. The image below is a detail from a large painting of a market square where a variety of tradespeople were preparing for the work day. Thomas Carlyle is painted off to the side, chatting no doubt about society with another philosopher, whose name I forget because I had never heard of him. Anyway, the forget-me-nots were lovely.


I leave you with a modern work hanging in the same gallery, a piece of anonymous post-Pre-Raphaelism:


The Victorian Art Wars and the rising ideas of naturalism versus artistic beauty dovetail nicely into the Zola essays I'm currently reading. Perhaps I'll write about those essays in the near future. Zola was not the clearest thinker, I am discovering.

the lettuces lounged in line with an air of careless indolence

Florent Laquerriere escapes from Devil's Island, where he has been wrongfully incarcerated by the government of  Louis Napoleon, and returns to Paris where he takes a position as one of the fish market inspectors in the immense new marketplace Les Halles. Devil's Island was a deforested purgatory of drought and starvation; Les Halles is a different sort of purgatory. The first chapter has Florent, upon his initial return to Paris, staggering around in Les Halles before the market opens, surrounded by food of every description (and Zola does, in fact, give every description of the food), weak and delirious from starvation. The book's first irony; there are countless more, for example this passage from a scene fairly late in the book, where Florent and Claude (a painter) visit a farm outside of Pars:

Florent paced backwards and forwards amidst the perfume of the thyme, which the sun was warming. He felt profoundly happy in the peacefulness and cleanliness of the garden. For nearly a year past he had only seen vegetables bruised and crushed by the jolting of the market-carts; vegetables torn up on the previous evening, and still bleeding. He rejoiced to find them at home, in peace in the dark mold, and sound in every part. The cabbages had a bulky, prosperous appearance; the carrots looked bright and gay; and the lettuces lounged in line with an air of careless indolence. And as he looked at them all, the markets which he had left behind him that morning seemed to him like a vast mortuary, an abode of death, where only corpses could be found, a charnel-house reeking with foul smells and putrefaction. He slackened his steps, and rested in that kitchen garden, as after a long perambulation amidst deafening noises and repulsive odors. The uproar and the sickening humidity of the fish market had departed from him; and he felt as though he were being born anew in the pure fresh air. Claude was right, he thought. The markets were a sphere of death. The soil was the life, the eternal cradle, the health of the world.

 Not that The Belly of Paris is a novel that condemns the city and urges us to some primitive life instead. The Belly of Paris is really about consumerism and acquisitiveness, which Zola describes as a battle between The Fat and The Thin. Fat and Thin do not mean Rich and Poor; it is about something deeper within humanity, more like gluttony versus...I don't know; what's the opposite of gluttony? moderation? abstinence? Maybe. Some people are just not hungry, even when they don't eat. In a metaphorical sense, that is. Perhaps this is a novel about materialism, then.

Zola gives a lot of pages over to descriptions of food. One of his narrative gambits is to carry the reader from a celebration of food, a glorious cornucopia of delight, to a suffocating and poisonous bacchanalia of death and rot. The book begins with page after page of wagons laden with fresh vegetables, entering Paris in the wee small hours of the morning, a caravan of good healthy stuff. As the book goes along, the the heaps of carrots and cabbages are replaced by bloody heaps of sheep's tongues, by cheeses melting and reeking in the sun, by a halfwit gleefully slitting the throats of forty pigeons as his bloodthirsty lover watches.

Meanwhile, Florent has become radicalized and has joined a revolutionary group who plan a coup against Louis Napoleon and his regime. This plot is mostly for comic relief, the revolutionaires being mostly idiots and police informants. The real action is the lower middle class squabbling of the women of the market, a collection of misogynist stereotypes Zola has brought together and animated with some amusing verve.

A tall female pushed the shop door open. It was the handsome fish-girl, Louise Mehudin, generally known as La Normande. She was a bold-looking beauty, with a delicate white skin, and was almost as plump as Lisa, but there was more effrontery in her glance, and her bosom heaved with warmer life. She came into the shop with a light swinging step, her gold chain jingling on her apron, her bare hair arranged in the latest style, and a bow at her throat, a lace bow, which made her one of the most coquettish-looking queens of the markets. She brought a vague odor of fish with her, and a herring-scale showed like a tiny patch of mother-of-pearl near the little finger of one of her hands. She and Lisa having lived in the same house in the Rue Pirouette, were intimate friends, linked by a touch of rivalry which kept each of them busy with thoughts of the other. In the neighborhood people spoke of “the beautiful Norman,” just as they spoke of “beautiful Lisa.” This brought them into opposition and comparison, and compelled each of them to do her utmost to sustain her reputation for beauty. Lisa from her counter could, by stooping a little, perceive the fish-girl amidst her salmon and turbot in the pavilion opposite; and each kept a watch on the other. Beautiful Lisa laced herself more tightly in her stays; and the beautiful Norman replied by placing additional rings on her fingers and additional bows on her shoulders. When they met they were very bland and unctuous and profuse in compliments; but all the while their eyes were furtively glancing from under their lowered lids, in the hope of discovering some flaw. They made a point of always dealing with each other, and professed great mutual affection.

A good deal of the action involving the women of Les Halles has to do with gossip, women making up stories about their neighbors, stories that take on essentially cash value: a good story will get you a free meal from one or more of the shops. A gossip with an established reputation for titillating stories can save a lot of money of groceries, and lives are made or broken in Les Halles on the strength of gossip.

I am not doing a good job of describing The Belly of Paris. For that, you should go read Tom's excellent posts at Wuthering Expectations. Meanwhile, yesterday I picked up a copy of L'Assommoir at a used bookshop yesterday afternoon, so apparently I plan to read more Zola. Zola was a student, you could say, of Flaubert. He took many of Flaubert's techniques and ran with them. Possibly he used them with less precision than Flaubert, or let's say with fewer strictures, and I'm going to say that I probably prefer Zola's writing to Flaubert's.

When the Father sends his Word, he always sends his Breath.


It would be possible to think of The Odyssey as a detective story rather than (as is more common) as the Hero's journey: while Odysseus makes his way west from Calypso's island back to Ithaca, Telemachus is making his way east across the Greek world in search of news, asking everyone he meets to tell him what they know of his father. This is the structure of the first half-ish of Homer's book. I would like, actually probably, to read a version of The Odyssey that brings these detective elements to the fore, a narrative that builds an image in the mind of Telemachus of his father based on what he is told, and how much of the tales he believes, and how that image fares when Telemachus is confronted by the man himself, washed ashore on Ithaca in the guise of a beggar. Telemachus evaluating the myth and the man. That could be pretty interesting. Someone may have already written this.

democracy in action



Celebrating the privilege of voting. The cocktail is a French 75, which contains gin, champagne, simple syrup, and lemon. Vive la liberté!



Casting our ballots at the Sunday farmer's market. Seattle has ballot drop boxes all over the city. You can also mail your ballot without the trouble of a postage stamp.

the clearest eye

“Make up a story... For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don't tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief's wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear's caul.”  
Toni Morrison, The Nobel Lecture In Literature, 1993

tricks only for the love of the trick

How is it possible to defeat not the authors but the functions of the author, the idea that behind each book there is someone who guarantees a truth in that world of ghosts and inventions by the mere fact of having invested in it his own truth, of having identified himself with that construction of words?
I'm reading Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, what I'm told is an experimental postmodernist novel. The novel is built around a couple of formal conceits, one being that chapters alternate between the story of a reader trying to find a complete copy of the book he's begun to read but who is frustrated and encounters instead the opening chapters of nine other novels (which are found in the alternating chapters). Metaphors of Ulysses' voyage or Dante's trip through the circles of Hell can be easily applied here, especially if you take into consideration the trope of the protagonist pursuing a love interest. Let's not forget the Scheherazade angle, either. So it's clever, is what this novel is.

In brief, this is the story of a reader who picks up the latest novel by Italo Calvino, a book called If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, and begins reading, only to discover that he is not reading a book by Italo Calvino. If On a Winter's Night a Traveler is by someone else, an author the reader has never heard of. Well, that's fine, the reader thinks, it's a pretty good novel. Unfortunately, there is a problem with the book: parts of If On a Winter's Night a Traveler have been bound with parts of a different novel, and it's impossible to finish If On a Winter's Night a Traveler. At this point, a reader might think of ETA Hoffman's Tomcat Muir. In any case, Outside the town of Malbork, the book that interrupts If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, seems pretty good, so the reader decides to read it instead. But Malbork is interrupted by a third novel, and so it goes, on and on as the reader attempts to finish any of the serial novels he comes across. After a while it becomes impossible to say who is the author of any of these books, and if any book has a "true" author once it's been processed through the machine of the publishing industry, about which Calvino appears to have some axes to grind.

So as well as being a novel that implies the fragmentary nature of reality and ridicules the artifice of fiction with self-contained constructions of reality and author-imposed order and closure, this is also a commentary on reading and writing and the publishing/academic worlds that surround books. A lot of ideas, and possibly there are too many things going on at once which may be deliberate on the part of Calvino, or it might just be sloppiness. I haven't decided, and if an author sets out to write a novel that illustrates the chaotic nature of reality, who am I to insist upon formal unity, right?

Alternatively, there are unities within the novel:
If on a winter's night a traveler, Outside the town of Malbork, Leaning from the steep slope, Without fear of wind or vertigo, Looks down in the gathering shadow, In a network of lines that enlace, In a network of lines that intersect, On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon, Around an empty grave, What story down there awaits its end?
The paragraph above is constructed of the titles of the chapters with actual names, which alternate with numbered chapters. The titles seem to form a story, a kind of logical internal frame for the entire work Calvino presents us. A novel is a machine the produces possibilities, not endings. A novel is not a closed system, it is a gaze outward or inward or both, a network of lines that enlace and intersect.

O, Pioneers!

Let America Be America Again


Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine—the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
--Langston Hughes