Poetry Friday: 1927 (part 4)

As much as I want to post another Don Marquis poem (and may, if 1927 lasts long enough), I shift now to another American poet, Sherwood Anderson, I have never read before but am impressed by.  In 1927, Anderson published an anthology called A New Testament, and it’s a strange but compelling set of poems.  I think the format is almost that of “prose poetry”, but I hope those of you who know what that means will tell me if I’m correct.  Here’s a poem to ponder: “The Man with the Trumpet”—

I stated it as definitely as I could.
I was in a room with them.
They had tongues like me, and hair and eyes.
I got up out of my chair and said it as definitely as I could.

Their eyes wavered. Something slipped out of their grasp. Had I been white and strong and young enough I might have plunged through walls, gone outward into nights and days, gone onto prairies, into distances—gone outward to the doorstep of the house of God, gone into God’s throne room with their hands in mine.

What I am trying to say is this…
By God I made their minds flee out of them.
Their minds came out of them as clear and straight as anything could be.

I said they might build temples to their lives.
I threw my words at faces floating in a street.
I threw my words like stones, like building stones.
I scattered words in alleyways like seeds.
I crept at night and threw my words in empty rooms of houses in a street.
I said that life was life, that men in streets and cities might build temples to their souls.

I whispered words at night into a telephone.
I told my people life was sweet, that men might live.

I said a million temples might be built, that doorsteps might be cleansed.
At their fleeing harried minds I hurled a stone.
I said they might build temples to themselves.

“For a moment he had come very near to being a husband who might interest his wife.”

The subject of that sentence, of course, is Anson Pentland, Olivia’s bitter and dried-up husband, seemingly old despite being in his 40s with so much life still ahead of him.  But Bromfield’s only using him to reveal aspects of Olivia’s character—to show what matters to her and what doesn’t, to open a window into what her life has been like thus far.  The underlying sense is that Anson has not been abusive or cruel to her (with perhaps the exception of a conversation I’ve quoted in a previous post)…it’s hard to see, however, that he’s ever given her a minute of joy or love.  How they married is beyond me.

The interest O’Hara felt for Olivia (and had expressed to her sister-in-law, Sabine) has finally come to her attention.  At a dreadful dinner party thrown by Sabine, Olivia escaped stultifying after-dinner conversation by slipping out into the yard, where she could see the garden, and the distant dunes, and the white fringe of the ocean surf.  She sat there in the twilight and then O’Hara is suddenly next to her, leaning on the tree that overhangs the stone bench she’s seated on.  They have a wonderfully breathless conversation—Bromfield paces things beautifully to allow O’Hara to express his interest at the right moment, and for Olivia to respond just as she should (that is, she neither storms off as though Elizabeth Bennett, nor does she leap into the arms of the man as though the star of a Harlequin novel).  She is uncertain but flattered; he is pleasant and calm.  The conversation continues with a really delightful sense of tension (will she agree to see him? will she finally get up and go?), and then it drifts, almost as though waking out of a dream, until they’re back inside and nothing is settled.  He’s very good, honestly—no beautifully quotable lines, but great pacing and character development.  In the end, he hasn’t had to reveal much about either character for me to want to see where this goes.

And I haven’t done much to call attention to allusions, but I have to point this out.  The whole conversation between Olivia and O’Hara takes place outdoors.  Olivia is separated from her husband.  She remains seated beneath the tree—an apple tree.  He stands/leans against that tree, so that to address him she’s looking up into the apple boughs.  Not only are they in the garden, but it’s a brand-new garden (one O’Hara has had planted, a fact he calls attention to).  Now, I don’t know what is meant by all this Eden symbolism.  O’Hara, in this symbolic conversation, is both God (creator of the Garden) and the Devil (the tempter of the woman)…what can we do with that?  Olivia is tempted a little by the offer, but ultimately leaves the garden without having given in (though she does eventually go riding with O’Hara, in the company of Sybil, her daughter; and she does play bridge with him, as his partner, at Sabine’s house later that summer).  So I can’t say how to interpret this (if, on the basis of this description, you have a theory, I’d love to hear it!), but I think it is clearly intentional.

There are more things brewing.  Olivia’s sickly son, Jack, who was never expected to live to adulthood, has passed in a strangely unemotional way (though there is a nice scene at the deathbed, with Olivia alone).  And inexplicable things are happening—the same night that Olivia hears O’Hara profess his love for her, she sees her groom (that is, the servant who cares for the horses) in a secret woodland tryst with a young woman (he runs away when the lights of her motorcar land upon them), and late that night, she sees her mother-in-law, the insane invalid, strangely lucid.  Her mother-in-law climbs into the attic in search of something she hid there that will “save them all” but she can’t remember what it is or where she put it.  She tells Olivia she trusts her.  And then the nurse comes rushing in to drag the invalid back to her room, apologizing and explaining that she’d just run downstairs for some coffee….but Olivia notices later that the nurse’s dressing gown is on over the outfit she would normally wear outdoors for a visit to town.  Why would Miss Egan be so dressed up in the wee hours of the morning?  I like the way Bromfield’s writing this book, and I think it’s going somewhere interesting–at last, another Pulitzer discovery! (I hope.)

Poetry Friday: 1927 (part 3)

I will admit, part of the reason I’m posting another Don Marquis poem is that I didn’t have time today to return archy and mehitabel and find another collection of poetry published in 1927.  But part of the reason is that I really find him powerful and interesting—the first real “discovery” of Poetry Friday, for me (some poets have risen in my estimation, but nobody that I hadn’t read before).  Marquis’s poems, in order, compose a lengthy and consistent (if not coherent) narrative, told to the human owner of the typewriter (always referred to as “boss”) from the perspective of archy, the cockroach who believes he was once a vers libre poet, although he does write on behalf of mehitabel (a somewhat dangerous cat who believes she is the reincarnation of Cleopatra) in her voice, at times.  Anyway, I don’t know if this guy works for you as well as he works for me—if not, I apologize—but regardless, here’s another of archy’s poems from 1927: “viii: a spider and a fly”

i heard a spider
and a fly arguing
wait said the fly
do not eat me
i serve a great purpose
in the world

you will have to
show me said the spider

i scurry around
gutters and sewers
and garbage cans
said the fly and gather
up the germs of
typhoid influenza
and pneumonia on my feet
and wings
then i carry these germs
into the households of men
and give them diseases
all the people who
have lived the right
sort of life recover
from the diseases
and the old soaks who
have weakened their systems
with liquor and iniquity
succumb it is my mission
to help rid the world
of these wicked persons
i am a vessel of righteousness
scattering seeds of justice
and serving the noblest uses

it is true said the spider
that you are more
useful in a plodding
material sort of way
than i am but i do not
serve the utilitarian deities
i serve the gods of beauty
look at the gossamer webs
i weave they float in the sun
like filaments of song
if you get what i mean
i do not work at anything
i play all the time
i am busy with the stuff
of enchantment and the materials
of fairyland my works
transcend utility
i am the artist
a creator and a demi god
it is ridiculous to suppose
that i should be denied
the food i need in order
to continue to create
beauty i tell you
plainly mister fly it is all
damned nonsense for that food
to rear up on its hind legs
and say it should not be eaten

you have convinced me
said the fly say no more
and shutting all his eyes
he prepared himself for dinner
and yet he said i could
have made out a case
for myself too if i had
had a better line of talk

of course you could said the spider
clutching a sirloin from him
but the end would have been
just the same if neither of
us had spoken at all

boss i am afraid that what
the spider said is true
and it gives me to think
furiously upon the futility
of literature

archy

“She experienced a sudden intoxicating sense of power, of having all the tools at hand, of being the dea ex machina of the calamity.”

Sabine, the outsider returned to Durham after decades away, is realizing her pivotal opportunity to break open the little world of the Pentlands…whether or not she’ll take the chance is hard to guess.  What opportunity?  I’ll explain in a moment.

Bromfield’s growing on me as an author.  He gives Olivia Pentland some really rich relationships—her relationship to her husband is really rocky (as I mentioned in the last post), but her relationship to her father-in-law is very close.  It’s a strange relationship, not loving so much as trusting.  Old John Pentland can’t bring himself to trust much of anyone, but when there are decisions to be made, he doesn’t turn to his sister or his son, but rather to his daughter-in-law, the Irish girl who may never belong but whose strength it seems the family could not do without.  Bromfield is good at the slow reveal with Old John…we know from the beginning that it’s a bit scandalous that he shows so much attention to a local woman he’s been friends with for years (they play cards together).  It seemed at first like it was a class issue—no Pentland ought to be associating with someone low, but no one can challenge Old John, the paterfamilias.  But occasional off-handed mentions of “her”, and needing to care for “her”, build a realization that John’s wife is still living…that she has lived out the last 20 or 30 years as an invalid, so mentally unstable that the family lives in fear of having to have her committed.  And yet John is no Mr. Rochester.  He visits his wife every morning, despite her inability to connect with him or have a meaningful conversation.  And then he goes for a ride on his cantankerous old mare, and perhaps looks in on that woman friend of his, old Mrs. Soames.  I get the sense that nothing has ever happened between them; that nothing ever could happen.  It’s an interesting scenario.

And this is not the only interesting scenario.  Briefly, the power alluded to at the beginning of this post, the power Sabine has, relates to the Boston Irish O’Hara, who has bought Sabine’s old family home and refurbished it.  He scandalizes good old members of society (like Aunt Cassie, who is the most vocal defender of the Pentland family honor) simply by being.  Anson Pentland is horrified that O’Hara is taking an interest in Anson and Olivia’s daughter, Sybil, by riding with her in the afternoons—he wants it stopped.  But O’Hara has revealed to Sabine that what really interests him is the radiant and lively Olivia Pentland: he is in love, he says, and he wants Sabine to help him find a chance to talk with Olivia alone.  She wonders what to do—she asks him if this is quite moral, and of course he cannot answer yes, but only that he’d thought she would understand.

I like where the book has taken me so far.  It’s not The Age Of Innocence, which was about whether a person can escape this kind of rule-bound confining society.  It wants to explore something else…how long these societies can last, burdened under the weight of hypocrisy and secrecy.  If John runs off with Mrs. Soames, and Olivia with O’Hara, that will be the end of whatever “Durham society” has been for centuries, and poor old Aunt Cassie will probably keel over into an early grave.  But I think society’s stronger than that, and I wonder how these tensions will play out.  Bromfield’s got me hooked—I want to know what happens next.

A Poem for Ash Wednesday

Actually, a portion of a poem—T.S. Eliot’s “Ash-Wednesday”, which is too long to reproduce here in full (but I encourage you to go looking for it).  Below, I offer part VI of the poem, and wish you a blessed Ash Wednesday:

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

“I will not have my daughter marry a shanty Irishman . . . there is enough of that in the family.”

What is most grippingly terrible about the above quotation is that it is spoken by Anson Pentland to his wife Olivia at the end of a very strained exchange…and that Olivia was born Olivia McConnell, to a Scotch-Irish family of wealth but not status, not a status that a Pentland would ever acknowledge as equal to theirs.  The cold hatred he is capable of wielding against his wife is intense to read, and their conversation as a whole (in which Olivia finally allows herself to say many things she’s longed to—about the Pentlands, about Anson’s aging father and his lovelife, about propriety) is really well done.  My only complaint is that it comes too early: Bromfield hasn’t yet established the dynamic between the two characters, and so Olivia’s willingness to transgress implicit boundaries is something the third-person narrator has to keep explaining along the way.  It would have been far better to make this the third or fourth exchange between the characters, after we’ve seen Olivia bite her tongue until she can’t stand it any longer.

So, so far, Bromfield reveals himself to be handy with dialogue and characterization, but to be a little unsteady when it comes to pacing…cause for some optimism, I think.  I like the larger view he’s taking of this little world…it’s not society New York, but rather the shifting world of the small New England town of Durham, where the Pentlands have long “ruled” socially, but that rule is coming to an end.  It is “early Autumn” indeed…late Autumn, more like.  The old Congregationalist church is long since gone, and in its place, the feeble ties the Pentlands (and the other old families) have forged to Unitarians and Episcopalians are getting swept aside by an influx of Catholics.  The vaunted “Protestant work ethic” of the New England Puritans seems in short supply.  The true industriousness of the town is now a “Catholic work ethic”—hard-working immmigrants from Poland and Austria-Hungary building lives for themselves, and prosperous Boston Irish families like the O’Haras sweeping in to buy old manors and make them lively again.  Bromfield is good at showing the village’s changes through the eyes of Olivia, who is an insider that’s never really been let “inside”.  Given my bias (reading these, as I am, with a strong interest in what they reveal about the country at the time), this deep immersion into the setting is really great.  I hope he’s laying groundwork to do something with it, since there’s a lot of possibility in what Bromfield is describing.

And I should note that we have our first cross-reference of the journey thus far—Olivia, in remembering her globe-trotting mother (whose widowhood was apparently a long series of transatlantic trips before her death in an Italian village stranded Olivia with an insufferable aunt), reflects that she envisioned her mother “less as a real person than a character out of a novel by Mrs. Wharton.”  This (combined with a note that Olivia’s aunt “talked incessantly of the plush, camphor-smelling splendor of a New York which no longer existed“) sets me up for an interesting perspective.  Bromfield seems to suggest that his novel will tell the truths around the edges of a more “unreal” society life described by Wharton.  It’s a big target to take on, and I’m not convinced he’s got the chops to actually do this.  But ambition isn’t a bad thing, and we’ve started well enough that I’m willing to believe in his project for now.  I’m perhaps 1/6 of the way into the novel, though, and I’m not convinced yet whose story this is, or where it’s going…hopefully clearer indications appear soon.

Poll #1: How Do You Feel About Polls?