Tuesday, September 18, 2018

to illustrate my argument

When reading Himadri's post this morning, I felt a tremendous wave of fellow-feeling. Why write about books and reading, as a non-professional who has not formally studied literature, on a blog read by a handful of God knows what good people, me hastily typing up whatever thoughts pop into my head about whatever book is in my hand? Why do this?

For example, I am currently finishing up War and Peace. This is a great novel, but it's been around for what? 150 years or something? and everything worth saying about this great novel has already been said. Last night it occurred to me that the "war" sections of War and Peace form a brilliant comic novel, a satirical anti-war novel that is a clear precursor to Heller's Catch-22: the same buffoonery, the same self-important upper echelons of power, the same post facto claims that military blunders are really brilliant tactics, etc. I was going to write about that. I was going to quote both novels to illustrate my argument.

But why on earth would I do that? Anyone who has read War and Peace is already aware of this aspect of the book, and anyone who hasn't read War and Peace is not going to run out and buy a copy based on one of my blog posts in which I invoke Yossarian, because everyone already knows that War and Peace is not Catch-22, and interest in one novel does not necessarily lead to interest in the other. Besides, my life is currently too busy to write those sorts of posts; I barely have time to write this post about not writing that hypothetical post.

So why am I the proud owner of this blog at all? Who knows why, as Chekhov used to say, sipping his tea and stealing another sugar cookie when he thought nobody was looking. Perhaps I keep this blog so that I have an obscure but public place to mention that this morning, carrying my violin case from the train station and down the street to my office, I had a Proustian flashback to my youth, and for a moment I was 25 years old again, walking through a different city carrying an electric guitar in a case, young and handsome, elegant and purposeful. And cool. I was very cool. For two and a half minutes this morning, I was very cool again. I can say that here.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

too many prepositions


I reach out, seeking your face
but you are not in that familiar place
My fingers stumble where you should lie
as I listen for the faintest sigh
or wave of breath breaking in your sleep

My concentrated ear
probes the midnight shadows far and near
for water taps and rattling doors
feet whispering along cold floors
one sign of life within dark's deep

The moon will hide her light
this time of month, and so the night
is more opaque than any fear
a half-awakened man could bear
while watching black through blackness creep

Your pillow holds the scent of thirst
I remember now you lie inside the earth
Your empty limbs caress my fingertips
your name will not rise willing to my lips
and sleep's denial comes on before I weep

Perhaps a bit too Edgar Allen Poe "where is my dead wife" stuff. Still, I think the rhymes seem more natural these days. They feel less awkward and forced to me, at any rate. But here is something different, something about life, with no rhyme scheme. Possibly it's merely elevated sentimental prose and not a poem at all:

Garden Song

When the dark earth of the waning spring
is ground into your bare heels
and beneath your fingernails black
crescent moons cling

When two dried petals from a blown lily
and the papery brown leaf of an exhausted
dianthus are wound into a strand of your
hair, unnoticed

When the garden is once more in arrears
a work in progress which fluctuates from
April to October beneath a sky at moments
too hot for you to bear

When the cat sleeps beneath berry canes
and you sit quiet in transiting shadow
watching mason bees and wasps who
scatter gold among the blossoms

This is when I know how different
you and I are, for in my breast I have
no patience, not even for the crimson geraniums you
tend year by year

Nor patience for the slow creep of perennials
in their lazy beds, tangled with vines
demanding someone's ceaseless effort
effort not my own

But yours, you who constantly create this space
of green pierced by lances of sun
adorned with bursts of prismatic fire in the shade
behind our home.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Borodino, 1812

At first Prince Andrei, considering it his duty to rouse the courage of the men and to set them an example, walked about among the ranks, but he soon became convinced that this was unnecessary and that there was nothing he could teach them. All the powers of his soul, as of every soldier there, were unconsciously bent on avoiding the contemplation of the horrors of their situation. He walked along the meadow, dragging his feet, rustling the grass, and gazing at the dust that covered his boots; now he took big strides trying to keep to the footprints left on the meadow by the mowers, then he counted his steps, calculating how often he must walk from one strip to another to walk a mile, then he stripped the flowers from the wormwood that grew along a boundary rut, rubbed them in his palms, and smelled their pungent, sweetly bitter scent. Nothing remained of the previous day’s thoughts. He thought of nothing. He listened with weary ears to the ever-recurring sounds, distinguishing the whistle of flying projectiles from the booming of the reports, glanced at the tiresomely familiar faces of the men of the first battalion, and waited. “Here it comes . . . this one is coming our way again!” he thought, listening to an approaching whistle in the hidden region of smoke. “One, another! Again! It has hit. . . . ” He stopped and looked at the ranks. “No, it has gone over. But this one has hit!” And again he started trying to reach the boundary strip in sixteen paces. A whizz and a thud! Five paces from him, a cannon ball tore up the dry earth and disappeared. A chill ran down his back. Again he glanced at the ranks. Probably many had been hit — a large crowd had gathered near the second battalion.
  “Adjutant!” he shouted. “Order them not to crowd together.”
  The adjutant, having obeyed this instruction, approached Prince Andrei. From the other side a battalion commander rode up.
  “Look out!” came a frightened cry from a soldier and, like a bird whirring in rapid flight and alighting on the ground, a shell dropped with little noise within two steps of Prince Andrei and close to the battalion commander’s horse. The horse first, regardless of whether it was right or wrong to show fear, snorted, reared almost throwing the major, and galloped aside. The horse’s terror infected the men.
  “Lie down!” cried the adjutant, throwing himself flat on the ground.
  Prince Andrei hesitated. The smoking shell spun like a top between him and the prostrate adjutant, near a wormwood plant between the field and the meadow.
  “Can this be death?” thought Prince Andrei, looking with a quite new, envious glance at the grass, the wormwood, and the streamlet of smoke that curled up from the rotating black ball. “I cannot, I do not wish to die. I love life — I love this grass, this earth, this air. . . . ” He thought this, and at the same time remembered that people were looking at him.
  “It’s shameful, sir!” he said to the adjutant. “What . . . ”
  He did not finish speaking. At one and the same moment came the sound of an explosion, a whistle of splinters as from a breaking window frame, a suffocating smell of powder, and Prince Andrei started to one side, raising his arm, and fell on his chest. Several officers ran up to him. From the right side of his abdomen, blood was welling out making a large stain on the grass.


I first read War and Peace when I was sixteen, so forty years ago. This is the scene I've remembered most vividly during that forty years. I am alarmed and amused to discover how my memory of the scene is different from the actual words on the page. In terms of events, I remembered correctly, but I think of Andrei and the cannonball as a long scene, pages and pages in length, with a magical stoppage of time in that moment when Andrei stands looking down at the spinning cannonball, watching the burning fuse go around and around as he considers life anew. I remembered it as a deep meditation on the existential problem that seemed endless but took place within the span of a second or two before Andrei's belly is filled with shrapnel. But no, it's just a page of action. I think I probably have conflated this scene with the following scene in the field hospital:

  His very first, remotest recollections of childhood came back to Prince Andrei’s mind when the dresser with sleeves rolled up began hastily to undo the buttons of his clothes and undressed him. The doctor bent down over the wound, felt it, and sighed deeply. Then he made a sign to someone, and the torturing pain in his abdomen caused Prince Andrei to lose consciousness. When he came to himself the splintered portions of his thighbone had been extracted, the torn flesh cut away, and the wound bandaged. Water was being sprinkled on his face. As soon as Prince Andrei opened his eyes, the doctor bent over, kissed him silently on the lips, and hurried away.
  After the sufferings he had been enduring, Prince Andrei enjoyed a blissful feeling such as he had not experienced for a long time. All the best and happiest moments of his life — especially his earliest childhood, when he used to be undressed and put to bed, and when leaning over him his nurse sang him to sleep and he, burying his head in the pillow, felt happy in the mere consciousness of life — returned to his memory, not merely as something past but as something present.
  The doctors were busily engaged with the wounded man the shape of whose head seemed familiar to Prince Andrei: they were lifting him up and trying to quiet him.
  “Show it to me. . . . Oh, ooh . . . Oh! Oh, ooh!” his frightened moans could be heard, subdued by suffering and broken by sobs.
  Hearing those moans Prince Andrei wanted to weep. Whether because he was dying without glory, or because he was sorry to part with life, or because of those memories of a childhood that could not return, or because he was suffering and others were suffering and that man near him was groaning so piteously — he felt like weeping childlike, kindly, and almost happy tears.
  The wounded man was shown his amputated leg stained with clotted blood and with the boot still on.
  “Oh! Oh, ooh!” he sobbed, like a woman.
  The doctor who had been standing beside him, preventing Prince Andrei from seeing his face, moved away.
  “My God! What is this? Why is he here?” said Prince Andrei to himself.
  In the miserable, sobbing, enfeebled man whose leg had just been amputated, he recognized Anatole Kuragin. Men were supporting him in their arms and offering him a glass of water, but his trembling, swollen lips could not grasp its rim. Anatole was sobbing painfully. “Yes, it is he! Yes, that man is somehow closely and painfully connected with me,” thought Prince Andrei, not yet clearly grasping what he saw before him. “What is the connection of that man with my childhood and life?” he asked himself without finding an answer. And suddenly a new unexpected memory from that realm of pure and loving childhood presented itself to him. He remembered Natasha as he had seen her for the first time at the ball in 1810, with her slender neck and arms and with a frightened happy face ready for rapture, and love and tenderness for her, stronger and more vivid than ever, awoke in his soul. He now remembered the connection that existed between himself and this man who was dimly gazing at him through tears that filled his swollen eyes. He remembered everything, and ecstatic pity and love for that man overflowed his happy heart.
  Prince Andrei could no longer restrain himself and wept tender loving tears for his fellow men, for himself, and for his own and their errors.
  “Compassion, love of our brothers, for those who love us and for those who hate us, love of our enemies; yes, that love which God preached on earth and which Princess Mary taught me and I did not understand — that is what made me sorry to part with life, that is what remained for me had I lived. But now it is too late. I know it!”


This is also a good scene. A couple of chapters later, Andrei is reported dead. Andrei's friend Pierre will carry that news back to Moscow.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

breakfast in the Kremlin

   “All the points of our position are in the enemy’s hands and we cannot dislodge them for lack of troops, the men are running away and it is impossible to stop them,” he reported.
   Kutuzov ceased chewing and fixed an astonished gaze on Wolzogen, as if not understanding what was said to him. Wolzogen, noticing “the old gentleman’s” agitation, said with a smile:
   “I have not considered it right to conceal from your Serene Highness what I have seen. The troops are in complete disorder . . . ”
   “You have seen? You have seen? . . . ” Kutuzov shouted frowning, and rising quickly he went up to Wolzogen.
   “How . . . how dare you! . . . ” he shouted, choking and making a threatening gesture with his trembling arms: “How dare you, sir, say that to me? You know nothing about it. Tell General Barclay from me that his information is incorrect and that the real course of the battle is better known to me, the commander in chief, than to him.”
   Wolzogen was about to make a rejoinder, but Kutuzov interrupted him.
   “The enemy has been repulsed on the left and defeated on the right flank. If you have seen amiss, sir, do not allow yourself to say what you don’t know! Be so good as to ride to General Barclay and inform him of my firm intention to attack the enemy tomorrow,” said Kutuzov sternly.
   All were silent, and the only sound audible was the heavy breathing of the panting old general.
   “They are repulsed everywhere, for which I thank God and our brave army! The enemy is beaten, and tomorrow we shall drive him from the sacred soil of Russia,” said Kutuzov crossing himself, and he suddenly sobbed as his eyes filled with tears.

Modern day historians consider the battle of Borodino to have been a victory for the French, but Tolstoy calls it a victory for the Russians. It is true that soon after Borodino, Napoleon was having breakfast in the Kremlin, but he and his army found Moscow a ghost town rather than a prize, his forces had been greatly diminished at Borodino and he had no way to reinforce the army, and meanwhile General Kutuzov was out there somewhere, rebuilding the Russian army. Napolean sat for weeks in Moscow waiting for Russia to sue for peace, which it never did. The French army had marched 1600 miles to starve and freeze in a dead and burning city, and then they turned around and marched 1600 miles back home.

Tolstoy wrote electric battle scenes, spellbinding stuff. I read War and Peace about 40 years ago, and all I remembered of it were the battles. I am a couple of pages away from my favorite scene in the whole book.

Monday, September 10, 2018

no clear concept

Above Sunrise

We climbed slowly from the trailhead
step after step across dust and gravel
scrubby pine and dry wildflowers
sooty grouse start from wilting bowers
leagues before us still to travel

Tilting rightward a slope of talus
and dizzying cliff at our left hand
imagine tumbling, lying broken
temptation of death lying unspoken
shuffle past the strange demand

Miles of parched hard-packed landscape
as if wandering Mars or the moon
tumbled stones harbor smaller creatures
black-handed rodents with bearlike features
stand to sing an alien tune

Farther on a wide verdant basin
split by a creek running shallow and swift
fireworks of nature along the black banks
we cool our limbs and feast with thanks
then to our packs again heavy to lift

I do not like this one much; it's given me tremendous sass and will not do what I want it to do, which is to simply describe a hike on a mountainside. The last stanza especially bothers me, with the banks/thanks couplet. And there are those two instances of lying in the second stanza. This is real "open mic poetry night" quality stuff, which ain't good. I like the idea of the rhyme scheme here, though obviously I have no clear concept of meter and line. A real mess, badly done. One begins where one is.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

last days of summer

August drought

Eyes closed, I still know
we walk crabwise toward an edge
become greater strangers
wearing those habits of indifference
that better fit now than ever

O what’s become of us
where is that edenic heart
beating to the rhythm of our songs
where is that pillowing field where
we lay exhausted allies?

Our vision now travels past us
and we search elsewhere
but into what hollow distance
I cannot say, I cannot see

Let us halt this descent
and look at one another
and look at one another
just for a moment
pause to breathe that better air
of who we were

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

the same parties, too

Buying the Bones of John the Baptist

Cry out, cry out for
the little dancer who knew not
what she did

Wrap the silent gift
in seven glittering rags dropped
and then bid

A kingdom for a voice
honey and locusts for bones and teeth
take the lot

In other news, I'm about 730 pages into War and Peace, on my second go-round with this novel. It is a great novel; don't let anyone tell you differently. A real page turner, true edge of the seat stuff. I keep finding myself reading excerpts to Mighty Reader and giving her updates on both the soap opera "peace" side of the novel and the Napoleonic Wars (we have now finally reached 1812; Nikolai Rostov has relived one of his earlier battlefield scenes from years before but this time as the victor rather than as the frightened boy on the horse). An incredible book, just amazing. What I want to know, however, is why nobody points out that In Search of Lost Time is a version of War and Peace?