Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


reading behind the lines

It seems like everybody loves a backstory. This week's New Yorker has Updike on Cheever (and over at the NYTimes blogs Cavett on both on Cavett) and DTMax on DFWallace; the latter, in the entanglement of life and style, reminds of Clive James on F.Scott Fitzgerald in Cultural Amnesia, which prompted me to read The Crack-Up, Edmund Wilson's compilation of FSF's essays, notebook fragments, and letters from the descent (a history in which the first act was farce, the second tragedy); Clive concludes, "... there is a principle that can't be taught in creative writing class and is hard enough to teach in the regular English faculty, but it's worth a try: his disaster robbed us of more books as wonderful as The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, but we wouldn't have those if he hadn't been like that. Fitzgerald's prose style can be called ravishing because it brings anguish with its enchantment. He always wrote that way, even when, by his own later standards, he could as yet hardly write at all. He could still write that way when death was at his shoulder. He wrote that way because he was that way: the style was the man." Nonetheless, I found The Crack-Up but a footnote on the man, placing him more among his peers than among his words. Not that there aren't gems among the essays and fragments ("A girl who could send tear-stained telegrams" will be updated by e-mail). Another thought: will The Pale King be DFW's The Last Tycoon?

Another writer's early self-chronicle, Heinrich Heine's Travel Pictures (trans Peter Wortsman) was wonderfully wicked, traversing the Harz Mountains, the North Sea and Lucca only incidentally for more incisive observations. Heine was my first exposure to lyric poetry (courtesy of Untermeyer's translation in Heritage Press, as part of my extracurricular primary education) so it was surprising to me that the lyric note could be so well maintained against high irony.

Which leads me to poetry I'd almost forgotten was on the shelf, Virginia Hamilton Adair's Ants on the Melon: A Collection of Poems; Alice Quinn had put her on the radar, but it took a reminder from Oliver Sacks in TED Q&A to reopen my eyes:

There was a fine poet called Virginia Adair.
She published a lot as a young woman
But then became a teacher of English.

But then she lost her vision
And started hallucinating in her 80s
And this started up her poetic voice again.

And she published her first book of poems
When she was 83. So she was able to use
Her Charles Bonnet hallucinations
Very creatively—

Quite a lot of her poems are about
The amazing cascade of images
Which would rush through her mind.

Quite a lot of her poems aren't, and her poetic voice was never stilled, it was just that publication was by the by. The selection reflects a life long pondered and wondered at, the writing technically sure, simple and direct, a sense of which can be bracketed by an early and a late poem, the latter the last of the book (in the section "Make Light of Darkness"), both of which appeared in the NYTimes, though in separate articles:

Railway Tempo

Now vanish, nameless village, tossed
Into the oblivion of our wake.

Swiftly, the high road that we crossed
And blotted out, the lake, the thickets,
And the wide meadow, for our sake
—We being arbiters of time
Whose end is punched on one-way tickets—
These idle images must recede
Beyond our sphere of plush and grime.

For we, the here and now, command
Collapse to follow our fierce speed,
And only the final town to stand.

Take My Hand, Anna K.

My mother wept in church, Episcopalian;
Over her far-off town the sun shone bright.
Her New York City child, I felt an alien.
Coming to a crossing the train cried in the night.

My only home is in the poems I write
Who now am exiled by my failing sight.
Words vanish like a flock of birds in flight.
Coming to a crossing the train cries in the night.

Here end my tracks of passion, reason, rhyme
Before the terminal rush and roar of light,
All go together under the wheels of Time.
Coming to a crossing the train cries in the night.

It is in the writing that the writer's life resides, but it's the backstory that seems to bring visitors in train.