Tuesday, June 29, 2010


A man stands alone on a street corner — but to say he's alone isn't true, in fact he's surrounded by a swirl of pedestrians and onlookers, some of whom are also standing motionless at the moment, it's just that he happens to be on the corner for reasons of his own, which he shares with nobody else in the crowd, reasons which we, the witnesses of the scene in which he is the principal and in fact sole protagonist, are also not privy to — and it's not quite true to say that he stands either, he's actually half-standing, half-leaning, supporting himself against an ornate cast-iron lamppost that rises from the sidewalk, ascends over the man's head, and then curves down gracefully to grasp in one solitary iron-vegetable claw an opaque white globe, which is not illuminated at the moment because it is afternoon, and in fact the sun is steadily burning through the stagnant haze of dust and exhaust fumes that hangs over the city, and the office workers on their lunch hours have loosened their ties and opened their shirt collars to give them some small respite from the stifling heat — but the man isn't wearing a tie at all, just a beige short-sleeved cotton shirt buttoned all the way to the neck, with a single breast pocket which, however, is empty — and on the streetcar that is rattling past, tethered to overhead wires, the passengers are leaning out of the windows and exits trying to get a little air, fanning themselves with newspapers, and the men have removed their jackets and you can see that their shirts are soaked with sweat, but the man on the corner shows no sign of discomfort, in fact he's so at peace that he may have closed his eyes behind his dark glasses, not that he's sleeping mind you let alone passed out drunk, but clearly he hasn't been exerting himself or been shut up all day in some airless bureau where the spinning metal fans that are whirring on every desk, creating a drone like a hive of bees, do little to relieve the suffocating atmosphere, more likely he's been sitting by himself at a table in the corner of some dark air-conditioned bar a few blocks away, and the taste of the cool, sweet concoction he had been drinking — possibly having more than one — is still lingering deliciously on his palate along with the traces of cigarette smoke from the interior of the bar, though he, himself, doesn't smoke, and it may well be that he has closed his eyes the better to picture in his mind the woman he had been dancing with the night before, a woman of his acquaintance and possibly his lover but certainly not his wife because he isn't married, it's quite certain, he has the look of someone who isn't married, who will never be married, who perhaps one day when he is old and ill and childless will feel a brief pang of regret at his state but who will shake it off, because when all is said and done the memory of the taste of rum in your mouth on a hot afternoon leaves precious little room for regrets.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Swallows and Amazons

I'm not big on boating and I've never had much of an urge to read any of these children's adventure stories, although I confess I am intrigued to learn that their author, Arthur Ransome, may have been a Soviet spy. One of these days I really should at least give the first one a shot. I do love these covers though. Ransome himself was responsible for both the jackets and their interior art; some of the books say "with help from Miss Nancy Blackett," but that's the author's little joke, as "Nancy Blackett" is in fact one of the characters in the series. (Ransome also named a yacht after her.)

The Godine editions in the US, which used to be the only ones I had seen, employ different cover art, very handsome in its own way, but the original hardcover jackets are still available in the UK; the full set can be seen [link no longer active] on the website of the Arthur Ransome Society. Some of the colors are more subtle on my copies, which are from the 1950s, by which time the books had already been reprinted dozens of times.

Shakers, Bohemians, and a Cat in a Cage

Family in tow, Lew Ney (Luther Emanuel Widen), writer, printer, and tireless self-promoter, takes an excursion into the hinterlands and visits, among other local worthies, the Shaker community of New Lebanon, NY. From the Chatham (NY) Courier, Jan 9. 1930 (PDF).

Lebanon Springs is played (sic) host to three distinguished writers this week, with the coming of Charles Willis Thompson, formerly connected with the New York Times; his son-in-law, Lew Ney, self-styled mayor of Greenwich Village, whose real name is Luther Emanuel Widen, and his wife, a daughter, Ruth, of Mr. Thompson.

They are visiting Mr. and Mrs. C. P. Browning, and Mr. Thompson is recuperating from a recent nervous breakdown. Mr. Ney is rewriting his book, "Mad Man."

Mrs. Widen is spending the week end arranging the manuscript for a first book of poems by Eva S. Browning, probably to be called "Cyclone and Other Poems," to be published by the Parnassus Press on March 1.

The New York visitors are spending several days communing with the Shakers. They have been entertained by Sarah Collins of the chair shop and have met numerous of the 30 or so surviving members of what was not so many years ago the most flourishing religious community in the world.

Mr. Thompson's book on the presidents and near-presidents he had known (these last including Bryan and Hanna) was published by the Macmillans. He is a regular contributor to the Commonwealth, the American Mercury and other current publications of literary quality. He still is an unofficial member of the Times' staff, writing reviews of books particularly those dealing with political events and personalities. He was a great friend and admirer of [Theodore] Roosevelt accompanying him in the great campaigns. With Wilson in his book he deals rather caustically.

One of the best known of Mrs. Ruth Widen's published works in entitled "In Praise of Pain" which has enjoyed extensive vogue and still is popular. Mr. Widen has just published a six-verse poem entitled "Sister Corinne," written by Sister Grace Ada Brown in memory of Sister Corinne Bishop who passed to her spirit home December 3, 1929.

Mr. Widen, in planning to come to the Berkshire country, had equipped himself in accordance with his impressions of what would be needed in the way of apparel to resist the rigors of a highland winter and was astonished upon arriving to find a spring flavor in the air. His knee-high boots, heavy coats and wraps would have been supplanted by more seasonable garments had he only known. He had with him his typewriter, a couple of grips containing his stationery, Christmas cards and so on and a caged cat.
I was at first surprised at the Courier's blunt allusion to Charles Willis Thompson's "nervous breakdown," but perhaps in that set it was regarded as a badge of honor. A copy of Sister Grace Ada Brown's brief tribute, printed by Lew Ney, is in the Shaker Collection of the New York State Library. Eva Browning's Cyclone and Other Poems was issued in 1930 in an edition of 320 copies. As far as I can tell Ney never published a book called Mad Man; perhaps, since he apparently pronounced his nickname Looney, it was intended to have been autobiographical.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

White and the River (Siv Cedering Fox)

And I am my father,
and I stop,
pull an orange from the pocket
and peel it,
throw the peelings in the snow,

pick up my gun
and ski back home,
hang my white killing
on a hook in the cellar
where bloodoranges lie

a crateful
of color
in winter.

Siv Cedering Fox, lines from "White and the River," from Cup of Cold Water.

When I was in my not yet jaded teens I came to know Siv Cedering Fox very slightly when she hosted a series of evening poetry workshops at a local library which I attended with a group of friends. At this point most of my memories of her are probably largely imaginary; in her mid thirties at the time, blonde, Swedish-born and speaking in a slightly accented English, she seemed to exude the mystique of both poetry and womanhood (a heady mix for me in those days), as well as wisps of the folklore of a not quite Christianized Scandinavia. For some reason I want to picture her wearing a necklace of white bones or fragments of seashells, but I'm fairly sure I'm just making that up.

Cup of Cold Water was published in 1973 by New Rivers Press, which still exists although the book is long out-of-print. It includes a number of black-and-white photographs, also by the poet. There was a vogue for that kind of thing in publishing for a while, but I think it has passed, no doubt because the market for poetry is no longer considered sufficient to justify the bother. Though I didn't know it at the time or had forgotten it, she was a painter as well.

"White and the River" is a poem in several sections, each told from the point of view of one member of a family. The section above, chosen because it works best self-contained, is the concluding one. The lines throughout are as crystal clear as the goblet on the cover, but the overall narrative is left somewhat enigmatic. I always more or less arbitrarily pair the poem with Glenda Adams's deliciously venomous short story "Sea." The two don't actually have much in common except that they deal with the mysteries of siblings, fathers, water, and death, but I must have read them first around the same time and the association has stuck.

Siv Cedering (she eventually dropped her married name) published a number of other books of poetry and children's books in English, as well as at least two novels in Swedish and a number of translations from one language to the other. She died in 2007.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Found in translation (Mark Strand)

Who cares if old age comes, what is old age?
Your shoulders are holding up the world
and it's lighter than a child's hand.
Wars, famine, family fights inside buildings
prove only that life goes on
and nobody will ever be free.
Some (the delicate ones) judging the spectacle cruel
will prefer to die.
A time comes when death doesn't help.
A time comes when life is an order.
Just life, without any escapes.

Carlos Drummond de Andrade, lines from "Your Shoulders Hold Up the World." Translation by Mark Strand, from Souvenir of the Ancient World, Antaeus Editions 1976.

We shall drink from the traitor's skull,
we shall wear his teeth as a necklace,
of his bones we shall make flutes,
of his skin we shall make a drum;
later, we'll dance.

"War Song." Translation by Mark Strand, from 18 Poems from the Quechua, Halty Ferguson 1971.

You must look for them
under the drop of wax that buries a word in a book
or the name at the end of a letter
that lies gathering dust.
Look for them
near a lost bottlecap,
near a shoe gone astray in the snow,
near a razorblade left at the edge of a cliff.

Rafael Alberti, lines from "The Dead Angels." Translation by Mark Strand, from The Owl's Insomnia, Atheneum 1973.

The contents of the three books above, with some corrections and additions, were later collected in the omnibus edition below.

Looking for Poetry: Poems by Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Rafael Alberti / Songs from the Quechua, Alfred A. Knopf 2002.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Owl & the Pussycat

At daybreak they stopped at the ocean
Took a walk as they watched the sun rise
In the palm of God's hand
They rolled in the sand
As the lazy foam danced in the tide

Corinne West, "The Road to No Compromise"

Though it's only an EP of six songs*, one of them a cover, this record is full of little mysteries and illuminations. I've been an on and off fan of Kelly Joe Phelps since his first record; Corinne West's name meant nothing to me until recently, though she's released three earlier CDs. They met late last year and are now touring together; whether they're "a couple" I have no idea but musically their alliance seems to have benefited both parties, Kelly Joe by bringing him down to earth and smoothing out some of his eccentricities, Corinne West by giving her songs (all of which she has recorded before) the fire and momentum lent by Kelly Joe's guitar playing, which has never been less than brilliant even when, in the past, some of his own material tended to be a little opaque. Compare the fairly tame version of "The Road to No Compromise" on Corinne's first record to the one on Magnetic Skyline and you'll appreciate the difference. His playing here is driving and relentless but never obtrusive.

But give full credit to Corinne West for her songwriting. In the week or so since this record arrived I've given repeated listens to "Whiskey Poet," "Mother to Child," and the other tracks and I keep finding more things hidden in their depths; since some of them first appeared almost ten years ago when she must have been pretty young she clearly has a gift. Time after time some little detail leaps out, like the brilliant and unexpected last line of "The Road to No Compromise."

To the lost child the road is a cradle
For the outlaw the road's where you hide
Takin' you in
You travel again
'Till blindness becomes sight

As for the title of this post, it first struck me when I was listening to this song that some of the stanzas seemed to capture the deft touch and rhythms of Edward Lear's timeless nursery rhyme, which ends, for those who don't remember it from their childhoods or those of their children, as follows:

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

Then it came to me that both compositions were, in the end, about lovers setting out together to find their place in the world, and even though Corinne West's song was written long before she and Kelly Joe Phelps met, Kelly Joe makes a very fine owl, though, things being different in our day, he's not the only one crooning over a "small guitar." I'm not a believer in metempsychosis, but I find appealing the idea that the wandering shade of Edward Lear, stranded in 21st-century California, might temporarily have made its abode in the body of a young woman writing a road song.

(By the way, kudos to the designer of the packaging, aprobertsarts.com, for the clever emblem containing the musicians' names. It's made to look like an old soda bottle cap; the back cover reproduces several antique bottle caps, made to appear as if they were affixed "magnetically" to a metal surface, possibly a weathered refrigerator magnet.)

*Soon to be expanded to a full album to be released by Tin Angel in the UK, reportedly in September 2010.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Approach to the City (7)

It was nearing dusk as he descended the steps into the city, and in the distance he could see the first scattered lights coming on across the river. A storm moved through and thundered briefly, leaving the paving-stones damp and the air thick as rising steam before moving off to the north. Except for a few stragglers everyone seemed to be having dinner, either at home or behind the windows of the restaurants along the plaza. He wasn't hungry, though, and he wanted to make it back to the street of red bricked houses before nightfall.

There was a light on in the front window this time, and when he rang the bell he heard the shuffling of shoe leather in addition to the alarms of the dog. A tall, withered man just over the cusp of old age answered the door, holding a newspaper in one hand, and ushered him in. He brushed the cocker spaniel aside and nodded at the advertisement. As he led his visitor up the winding stairway he explained that he was a widower with no children, and that the room was more than he needed now. The rent was low and he implied without quite saying so that he wanted someone to be there to watch out for him. He was gentle and soft-spoken and seemed unlikely to meddle; for its part the spaniel soon lost interest in the newcomer and retired.

The room was large and open and the walls bare. There were windows on two sides, one pair looking up the hill and the other over the rooftops to the water. They were open a few inches at the bottom and the breeze was lifting the bottom of the thin white curtains. The wooden floor had recently been swept clean, there was a bed and a dresser and a rocking chair, and a small bathroom with a freestanding tub lay off to one side; the man said there was another chair and a nightstand that he could bring up from the basement. A large porcelain lamp on the dresser, topped with a faded but clean and intact shade with a fringe along the edges, gave evidence of a woman's taste, he thought, and he wondered how long the wife had been gone.

They shook on it. He offered a month in advance but the man said not to worry. As he went to go back downstairs he turned and ask if he'd eaten, then invited him for a sandwich when he learned he hadn't. He left him to settle in, which didn't take long. He hung up his coat, unpacked a few things, washed his hands, and lay on the bed for a moment to test it out, which he hadn't thought of doing before. It seemed adequate so he got up and descended to join his landlord.

The dog was sleeping behind the front door and barely lifted its head as he stepped past. He could see now by its muzzle that it was old, as advanced in its term of years as the man. There was a platter of cold meat on the table and a jar of horseradish. He took two slices of bread from a paper package, fixed the sandwich, and finally, at his host's urging, helped himself to a bottle of beer from the refrigerator.

The old man was sitting in an arm chair turned away from the window, a pile of newspapers in a basket by his side. He had been doing a crossword puzzle but set it aside and turned his attention to the sandwich in his lap. His tenant sat across from him on the couch, setting his plate on the low wooden table in front of him, and the two men ate, mostly in silence but entirely at ease, as the darkness filled up the streets around them.

(The above is the last section, for now, of what may become an ongoing project.)