War and Nuns and Peace and Soldiers

I returned to the Iris Murdoch novel (Nuns and Soldiers) on the train this morning. That book, it's getting to have a lot of the crazy in its head. It's sort of like a Jane Austen novel on acid. Everyone is falling in and out of love, and wondering about the larger meaning of it, and slipping into metaphorical realities. Also meeting Christ in the kitchen. Anne the nun is now in love with Peter, the Polish count. She is trying to revise her personal history to convince herself that she's always been in love with him, from first sight. I am close to being convinced that Peter is a Satan-in-the-garden character, though his backstory (which takes up the first hundred or so pages of the novel) would make it seem otherwise. Still, Murdoch describes his eyes as "snakelike." What's that mean? No idea.

Meanwhile, in War and Peace, Rostov (the cavalry officer who fell off his horse and ran from the French) has been promoted and is taking a leave in Moscow, where he's broken up with his girl and now goes to houses of ill repute with his fellow officers. Rostov feels quite heroic and adult, and has bought a pair of extremely pointed boots. The battle scenes in War and Peace are riveting, exciting stuff. Tolstoy mocks ideas of grand strategy and command, and blurs the line between cowardice and bravery: it all turns out to be happenstance, and even cowards can find themselves in a state of having no fear of death when they fall under the spell of the romance of battle, essentially a fiction someone writes about himself.

This fiction one writes about one's self is also taken up in the Murdoch novel, where characters endlessly tell themselves that whatever they are doing was inevitable, and that waffling violently between possibilities was merely self denial of a course they knew at heart they would follow. Murdoch, I think, has strong doubts about this inevitability; she thinks we are spun about by life, and land where we are dropped, left to fabricate a story of personal intention.

The "and peace" half of the Tolstoy is a quite sharp satire of Russian aristocracy in the first part of the 19th century. I am not sure who the soldiers are in Murdoch's novel. Tim and Peter? There is a vague allegory in the first half of the book wherein Gertrude's husband is, I think, a Christ figure. When he dies, a cast of apostles is left behind. Is Peter the head of the church? Is Gertrude the church? It's all a bit murky. Later, Ann the nun feels she must choose between loving Peter and loving Christ. Does Murdoch imply that organized religion is a turning away from God? Or is her prima facie story all there is?

beyond my reach

Another poem. I wrote this during the first of the endless heat waves we've been having here in Seattle. It's not good, but it might be the general direction I find it easiest to travel. Which I take as a sign that writing poems like this is the lazy man's way and I should really embrace the discipline of meter and rhyme. Meter and rhyme are killing me, though. Actually, the whole poetry project is beating me up pretty much. On Tuesday evening, as I was exiting the train station downtown, I realized that I will never write a real poem, that the truth of poetry's actions are beyond my reach as reader and writer. Then, predictably enough, I had an idea for a poem that I had to stop and scribble down. Really, that's just the way of it, all the time. Maddening. Anyway, here's this poem, more obvious debt to Lawrence.


Beyond the Euphrates

In this heat
we are mirage, blur, smoke
creeping low across the dry grass, we
squint, stumble, gasp
I see the gray corpse of a crow
rotten on its back in the muck of a drying pond
wings akimbo, breastbone to the sky
feathers struck down

In this heat
we tread the thirsting skin of the earth
cracked open crumbling
evaporate clay
You tell me this is how
we too will disintegrate if no rain comes
pulverized Adam
desiccated Eve

the whole matrix shifts

  The two women turned back, walking on the grey stones near to the foam which was racing in bubbles to their feet. The wet stones were almost black. The dry stones were an absolute grey in which even the brightest sunshine could kindle no hint of any other colour. Anne picked up a stone. They were so similar, yet so dissimilar, like counters in a game played by some god. The shapes, very like, were never exactly the same. Each one, if carefully examined, revealed some tiny significant individuating mark, a shallow depression or chipped end, a short almost invisible line. Anne said to herself, what do my thoughts matter, what do their details matter, what does it matter whether Jesus Christ redeemed the world or not, it doesn't matter, our minds can't grasp such things, it's all to obscure, too vague, the whole matrix shifts and we shift with it. What does anything matter except helping one or two people who are nearby, doing what's obvious? We can see so little of the great game. Look at these stones. My Lord and my God. She said aloud, "My God."
  "What?"
  "Just look at these stones," said Anne. She dropped the one she had been holding, then with a sort of animistic possessiveness turned to pick it up again, but she could not now discern which one it had been.
  "Yes," said Gertrude. "There they are. What about them?"

This is from Nuns and Soldiers, by Iris Murdoch. An interesting investigation into individual will. I like Anne here, who has just recently left a convent after fifteen years cloistered, almost but not quite imagining a God who knows we humans are unique individuals but can't quite tell us apart, because from his point of view we all look the same. A nice passing moment. This novel is filled with such passing ideas. I haven't read much Murdoch, but the more of her I read, the more I see how much Antonia Byatt was influenced by her. I've read a good chunk of Byatt.

this confusion is quite interesting

I continue to make vague gestures in the general direction of poetry, but I don't kid myself that I'm writing actual poems. Not yet. Maybe someday, in a decade or so. I am starting to fool around with rhyme but I think I've read too much unrhymed poetry to really understand what I ought to be doing, what's possible and why. This confusion is quite interesting. The entire experience of blundering about is interesting. Not that I don't have plenty of opportunities to blunder about in my daily life, but here I'm doing it deliberately, willfully starting at zero with no illusions that I have natural talent and am going to, any moment now, reveal myself as a prodigy. No, I'm just mucking about, seeing what it's like.

In Formation

A clamorous vee of geese flies past
straining against the summer haze
the birds' curving bellies and dipping wings
are ships of Greeks rowed off to raze
Troy or Sicily

Else all I see are veteran birds
training heirs in the avian arts
while this summer half remains to them
before the assembled flock departs
to Banff or Yellowknife

The second stanza is weak, especially the third and forth lines. arts/departs gave me some trouble for a few days, but I've surrendered momentarily (or declared an armistice, maybe). I'm also looking for a better title. These things I'm writing are constantly being revised, bit by bit, here and there, and I have always enjoyed the revision process. It's where the real writing takes place. I haven't believed in inspiration for a long time.

haven't written enough fiction

I continue to write poems. I've written four now. An unimaginably high number, I know. They are not good poems, but writing them has been interesting. They remind me of other poems, of poems that I've read. I tell myself that this is a good thing, that I am doing less plagiarizing than I am working with what I've absorbed of the poetic mode. This, if true, is a direct rebuke of Bloom's claim that the primary inspiration behind a poem is another poem.

I think that I've discovered a way of being honest in a poem that I was unable to achieve in a novel. This discovery--or whatever it is--is a recent thing, in fact it dates back maybe ten minutes as I write this post, and so I'm not at all sure what I mean by it. But there seems to be far less artifice in these poems than in the novels and stories I write. I cannot just now be more specific with definitions of "honest" and "artifice," but I am sure I'm right. Possibly this is because I've promised myself that I will only write true things in these poems, that I won't write toward cliches or whatever, toward an idea of a poem being a beautiful artwork about beauty and love, that sort of thing. No, you're right, I don't quite know what I mean. But I sense a directness, a sincere connection to what I'm writing, that I do not get with novels and stories. Possibly it's that the idea of "fiction" is missing from these poems, and were I to try my hand at an epic tale told in verse, I'd be back to the dishonesty and artifice inherent in fiction. Could be. I haven't written enough poems to really know yet. Maybe I also haven't written enough fiction.

At this point, I've also noticed that I'm paying a lot more attention to word choice and structure in my writing. It's taking a long time to write anything, because I look out for specificity and effect much more now than I did a week ago. I swear that the poems are much less vague than this post.