Poetry Friday: Sharon Olds looks at 1937

I depart slightly from convention this weekend, to give you a poem about 1937 instead of a poem from 1937. I do this for two reasons: first, unlike 1936, 1937 is a year not very filled with great poetry to choose from (as far as I have yet seen), and second, I will be in 1937 for a long time (thanks to the length of Gone With the Wind) and I need to pace myself. Besides all that, this is a poem about May, about college students in springtime and graduation and all that entails, and given the time of year and where I work, it feels particularly appropriate. This is a poem by the brilliant Sharon Olds, entitled “I Go Back to May 1937”:

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks,
the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips aglow in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

Olds at her best captures the unstoppable motion of emotion, the rush of feelings that overcomes us when we feel really strongly about something, and it’s no different here. The poem builds from a very simple and slowly-paced depiction of an image—two college students in love in May, in love with May perhaps—into the restless, almost frantic tumble of words as Olds both reaches to tear them apart out of pity and to smash them together in order to create herself. It’s a remarkable poem, because it does so many things well. First, the deep immersion in the physical details of a scene—the tiny bricks, the open wrought-iron gate—but then more powerfully the descent into the abstract world of the psyche, where these two injured young people are going to damage each other brutally. The whole poem is suffused with that violence, from the way the tiles look like blood behind the young man’s head all the way to Olds’s penultimate act as she smashes them together to make fire. The echoes of Prometheus float through the poem, and it does seem in the final moments as though Olds is willing to consign her parents to Promethean levels of torment in order to be born from that crucible.

That’s the real power in the poem, I think—the moment that Olds can’t do it, can’t stop them, can’t avert disaster and pain for two people she loves, because she wants to live. It would be easy to dismiss this as fantasy because none of us can do this, walking backwards in time and having the choice to give ourselves life or non-existence. But there are powerful ways in which we face this choice throughout our lives: ways in which a future for us will only be real if we act for ourselves and not for others. Is Olds right to make the choice she does—is the tragedy of their marriage redeemed because it creates her, and because she is willing to tell their story? Or is it foolish to talk about redemption in this context? Olds’s world in this poem seems in some ways detached from that idea: it is a place of pain and of passion, but not of hope.

It’s a beautiful poem—the way she sees her parents as they must once have been, the way she holds them up with her words tenderly, compassionately, for a moment before she realizes there are lengths to which she cannot go. But it also depicts great pain—certainly the restraint in phrases like “you are going to do bad things to children” sucks out my breath. What will they do to you, Sharon? And what, for the sake of living, are you willing into being by letting them come together? It freezes my blood.

We can see in it, if we like, an acceptance of the free will, since Olds’s decision not to intervene seems like the act of a god who will not alter the courses chosen by mortals, however foolish. Although Olds’s action, then, in dashing them together seems to undercut that message, as though Olds is taking responsibility for their relationship now, and its outcomes, for her own sake. The truest thing I can say, I think, as a reader still finding all the corners of this poem, is that it is very large. Olds has given us, in a brief poem, an immense space in which to imagine: she does not make simple a marriage and a family that are clearly complicated. What that image does for me I can hardly say, and I’m curious what it does for you: I hope you’ll share thoughts and reactions if any arise.

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“Cean turned and lifted her hand briefly in farewell as she rode away beside Lonzo in the ox-cart.”

So begins Lamb in his Bosom, by Caroline Miller, the Pulitzer prize-winning novel for 1934.  And I have to say, I’m getting weary of the Pulitzer board’s tastes.

That’s not to say I’m not enjoying the novels: there have been some great discoveries so far, amid the dreck.  But this particular setup—young married couple, out on the land ready to pioneer it—is getting incredibly old.  I’ve watched with mild interest Selina DeJong’s marriage meander unhappily in the fields, I’ve waded painfully through the agonizingly offensive marriage of Wully McLaughlin, I’ve gazed curiously and sadly at the fragile falling-out of Claude and Enid, and more recently I slogged along as Wang Lung gradually crushed his long-suffering wife beneath his self-regard.  And that’s not even half of the examples.  So starting off in an ox-cart with the just-married Lonzo and Cean feels like the Pulitzers on auto-pilot, rattling down the rut they’ve dug for themselves.  Some of these stories are better than others, but I think it’s fair to say that, in general, the best of the novels were the ones most able to get free from the trials of young marriage and the perils of the farm.  I’m not saying there’s no good novel in either subject.  But they seem awfully elusive (and strangely compelling) to the novelists of this era.

Added to that is this novel’s weird (and off-putting, at present) obsession with sexuality—it reminds me of The Able McLaughlins at its very worst.  Within a page of the opener, we get a not-that-vaguely incestuous longing for Cean from her jealous younger brother who (I kid you not) is angry that she’s marrying Lonzo because he liked sharing a bed with his sister.  The brother is, as far as I can tell, more than old enough for this to be uncomfortably weird.  And the rest of the opening chapter follows Cean and Lonzo tensely to the home they will share.  Every few sentences Cean “notices” her husband as a sexual being—the sweat on his powerful neck, the thick black hair on his chest, etc.—and nearly crawls right off the edge of the ox-cart.  He seems painfully awkward around her also.  The chapter closes with him leaving the house while she undresses and crawls into bed to wait, silently and seemingly rigid with anxiety.  He walks around his land and the narrator keeps mentioning Lonzo’s thoughts turning to “planting his seed”.  Hmmm….could that possibly be a metaphor of some kind?  No, surely not.

All of the above—the young couple, the farm setting, the creepy sexual vibe (which seems to be totally dominated by the notion of sex as something a man “does” to a woman)—and a bit more thrown in (the usual 1930s dialect slang in the dialogue, an odd father-daughter dynamic between Lonzo and Cean…he keeps calling his newly-wed wife “little ‘un” in a way I find unsettling) make me think I’m being hurled from one of the best novels I’ve read thus far to something even Julia Peterkin wasn’t capable of.  First impressions can easily be wrong, of course—they were wrong about The Store, and about The Bridge of San Luis Rey—but I’m edgy about this one.  It appears to be relatively short, and we’ll see if that means speeding through becomes the necessary option.

“It was Wang Lung’s marriage day. …”

So begins the 1932 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.  In some respects, the novel looks very familiar—like Laughing Boy, it is an exploration (at least in its opening chapters) of a marriage between two young people who do not entirely understand each other, set in a culture that is foreign but fascinating to the middle-class American reader to whom the novel is seemingly addressed.  Regular readers of the blog will remember that I was initially skeptical but ultimately fully won over by Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy, because the author successfully brought to life characters I feared would be presented flat stereotypes.

Because of that success story, I am moderately less concerned about Buck’s novel, but I’ll admit the opening hasn’t really grabbed me.  The relationship thus far feels like a culture being observed from without, and Wang Lung’s inner life doesn’t feel as richly conceived as the work La Farge did with Laughing Boy.  I’m on the fence about the portrayal of women, since I’m hopeful that Pearl as a woman author is interested in exploring a society this openly hostile to women—certainly the narrative shows us that even the potentially sympathetic main character, Wang Lung, sees his wife as something like a good cow.  A nice investment, and you’re pleasantly surprised by how useful she is and how well she’ll breed, but you don’t really envision having a conversation about her feelings.  I don’t know yet what Buck will give me, or even what I want, really.  I think most of all I want a novel that will not delight in misogyny, but will not skip past it merrily as though it can all be overcome by true love.  Whether that’s more than the 1930s can deliver, who can say?

I’m curious about this book, which (unlike many other Pulitzer winners) became a big best-seller and remains a staple of English classes in schools across the country (though I think it’s gradually fading from the scene).  I’m curious about Buck, and her experiences in China that drove her to write the novel.  Based on my initial read of the first several chapters, I think this one can go quickly if I want it to…we’ll see whether, having read a bit more, I decide I want to skip past it pretty hastily, or whether I want to slow and savor a better novel than the Pulitzers as a whole have led me to expect.  Lastly, I’ll mention that I want to think about Asia and America in the context of the 1930s—particularly American attitudes about China (especially in the light of rhetoric about China in 2011).  I’m hoping the book provides some opportunities for reflection: we’ll see!

“I am not a Navajo; it is not given to me to do these things.”

What’s most remarkable about what La Farge is doing in Laughing Boy, in my opinion, is that he’s able to make the character of Slim Girl so compelling.  This is, after all, an emotionally detached young woman, whose love is at least 31% conniving, who resists displaying weakness as much as she can, whose life is so full of secrets that even I, the reader, can’t be positive what she does when she goes to town (though as I indicated previously, I am almost certain she works as a prostitute in some fashion).  It’s hard enough in the 21st Century to be able to get inside the head of a character like that—for a man, not of her race or generation or social class, writing in the late 1920s, to be able to do it as well as La Farge does is impressive.  I won’t call his performance flawless, but it’s certainly gripping.

The quotation used as this post’s title begins a remarkable internal monologue that I think is a great example of this.  She has taken up the art of weaving, a traditional Navajo skill, as a way of reaching out to her young husband (who is a skilled silversmith).  But she was raised in a boarding school, and has no real feel for the art.  She has made and destroyed numerous garments, eternally disappointed at her poor workmanship.  Finally, at the point where this monologue begins, she had leaped into weaving, inspired by a particular artistic vision and desperate to make it visible to the man she increasingly loves.  And now she is standing back from the blanket, which is yet another shoddy, half-realized creation.  Her thoughts pivot wildly between ideas.  She is struck at how easy it was for her Mother and yet how tough it is for her.  She thinks her husband will love her anyway because he is devoted to her.  She thinks he will leave her.  She remembers being praised for her drawing skills at the school.  She laments that her husband would not appreciate drawing, only weaving.  She wonders if perhaps he could accept drawing.  She then confronts the two plainest, most irreconcilable facts: she is an untalented weaver whose work will never satisfy her, and yet she feels a deep and irresistible urge to weave because weaving is part of the Navajo life inextricably.  This frustrates her so that she shouts “No use.  God damn it to hell!  God damn me!  Chindi, mai, shash, Jee Cri!”  (The italics are in the original.)  You can’t imagine how jarring this is until you’ve read a lot of 1920s novels…the appearance of what would today pass as relatively mild profanity leaps off the page with abandon.  I love that La Farge wants us to be this close to her—that he’s unafraid of letting her be coarse and angry and helpless because he trusts us to stick with her.  This is the most adventurous Pulitzer winner I’ve read so far, I think, and yet in some ways it is so mildly domestic and hopeful.

Yes, domestic and hopeful.  Laughing Boy comes home to her anger, and sees the poorly executed weaving.  And he quietly steps forward, wordlessly picking up a curry comb, and begins to slash at the weaving fiercely.  Slim Girl thinks for a moment he is trying to rip it apart, but she stands back, silent.  Eventually he steps away, and she can see how his comb has torn loose the nap of the wool, softening and blurring all the lines, pulling the wool together into a smooth surface.  Her weaving is beautiful.  It is just as she had hoped it would be.  And he turns to her, and says “I am not telling you a lot of things.  I am just letting you see something.  I think you understand it.”  This was an unbelievably beautiful moment for me.  La Farge tricks me as a reader—he lures me in with the harsh realism of her anger, only to show me that the blanket will not be a symbol of failure but of grace.  Laughing Boy’s restraint is such a luminous expression of his masculinity—he is a Navajo man, and (as far as that society is depicted in this novel, at least) there was never going to be an emotional conversation.  He does for her what he can, showing her the truth without condescending to her, allowing her to draw her own conclusions about what it means to be Slim Girl, what it means to be Navajo.  Because he says so little, that brief exchange says a lot to me; works on a lot of levels.

There’s a lot more to say about this novel, but it’s late, and I’m getting to like it well enough, anyway, that I’d rather not give it all away.  I think this book could still be a very solid YA novel (at least in the context of a middle or high school curriculum, if not just a pleasure read) even today, and I find La Farge’s depiction both of the relationship of a young married couple and of a changing native society to be really nuanced and authentic.  It’s still a novel from 1930, so there is still a bit of a sepia glow to it—the emotional parts can easily become a bit sentimental, the descriptions of the landscape can feel a bit too florid, etc.—but it is holding up well for me.  It’s crossed the threshold from being “surprisingly inoffensive about the Navajo for its time” past “surprisingly inoffensive about the Navajo” to “surprisingly sensitive to Navajo ways of understanding and being”.  I am not a Native American, of course, much less a member of the Navajo: it may be that La Farge’s depiction is still insufficiently accurate or fair.  But from what I’ve read and learned about the peoples of the Southwest, I feel like I can trust him more often than not, and that trust combined with two characters I am growing to love makes this a great read.  If you can find it at your local library, give it a shot—it’s not long, and I think it may surprise you too.

“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.)

“To her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and Burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.”

It’s nice to be back at my Pulitzer readings: Selina DeJong continues to be a plucky character, and someone I find it easy to cheer for.  As the above quotation rightly notes, there is something unsinkable about her—I don’t know if it’s true to say that the ability to find beauty in simple things is sufficient insulation against the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, but it’s an attractive thought.  Selina certainly doesn’t seem to give in to despair very easily.

And this is a woman with plenty to despair about.  Her marriage to Pervis DeJong was a mistake from the beginning—he loved her, true, and she loved him.  But neither of them knew how to show that love in ways the other would understand, and both of them seemed to think of the other as a sweet but naive person in need of “looking after”.  Love may conquer all, but not this kind of love.  We deceive ourselves too easily.

Pervis’s death is expected (the book begins, after all, with Selina alone with her son, Dirk “Sobig” DeJong), and not particularly sad.  It’s not that he’s a villain; he’s just an obstacle to the plot, and he’s cold enough outwardly that it’s hard to feel a connection to him.  I find his farm as isolating as Selina does, and I am as reluctantly relieved as she is to think that her world will become larger.

It’s a scary world, though, that she steps out into.  She has to figure out how to get goods to market and make sufficient sales to stay alive.  This is a world that doesn’t respect women in such a role, and the road to Chicago is long and dark.  No one will buy from her, and she and her son sleep out in the cold.  It’s fascinating to look at the Haymarket through her eyes–a chaotic flood of peddlers and maids dashing about buying fresh produce.  It hasn’t struck me before how profoundly supermarkets have changed our lives, but I’m certainly thinking about it now.  This was a tough experience, though, watching Selina sink deeper into the mire and believing that there would be no way out of disaster.  A delightful and somewhat unexpected discovery, though, clutches her out of danger, at least for the moment.  I’m hopeful that the story’s taking a good turn for her and little Dirk—this is a story where I’d be really glad to get a happy, storybook ending.  We’ll see if I get it.

“You can’t run away far enough. Except you stop living you can’t run away from life.”

Maartje Pool, for an overworked and thoroughly task-focused farmer’s wife, offers a very philosophical perspective to Selina on the eve of her wedding.  A true one, too, I’d say.  Selina’s sudden panic at the thought of tying herself to farm life in High Prairie forever is certainly understandable, but the heart has its reasons, I suppose.

In all honesty, I can understand her heart’s reasons in this case, as she prepares to marry the sturdy and kind Pervus De Jong.  He steps in to spare her embarassment in public in a surprisingly sweet way, and then pays her for reading lessons.  He’s a simple man, whose run of bad luck (whether we consider crop failures, the deaths of his first wife and their only child, etc.) is shockingly consistent.

I do like Edna Ferber’s work to keep the story grounded in reality. The courtship of Selina and Pervus is a bit too easy, but even there, Ferber offers a lot of context (especially in the attitudes of the Pool family, including Roelf, the 13 year old boy who is not-so-secretly in love with Selina) that keeps it from being a fairy tale.  And Selina’s life after the wedding is the rough, exhausting, never-ending drudge of a life that every woman in the community seems to lead.  These Great Lakes farms do not bear the storied amber waves of grain…they are lucky if good cabbages can be produced.  And Pervus is never lucky.

He refuses to take his wife’s advice on planting—her experience in it is all book learning, of course—preferring to trust the same techniques and practices his father used (and perhaps his father before him).  But he’s not a monster.  Pervus is exactly who he always was—a simple, kindly man who sincerely loves his young wife (and their newborn son, Dirk), but someone who has no concept, even, of the life that Selina wants to lead.  She is desperate to go back to “culture” and “society”, but she can’t even get Pervus to repaint their wagon.  They may be in love, but this was a poor match.

I don’t know if the tale is intended to be cautionary, but it certainly serves that purpose.  Selina, a young thing and full of passion, thinks that the rapid beating of her heart when Pervus is near will be enough.  I don’t think it will.  Even if she is loyal to him, and he to her, they will never really fulfill each other’s needs.  He will never be interested in the books she reads (let alone read any himself, for them to talk about), and she will never be the homemaker that Maartje Pool is.  I hate to be a downer about this…to say that love isn’t the all-conquering force that pop music and Hallmark want us to believe it is.  There’s no other way to account for the reality of relationships, though.

Oddly, this book is titled So Big, which, as noted before, is the nickname young Dirk De Jong gets as a toddler (his mother asks him “how big Baby is” and gets that stock response).  So, where will Selina, our central character for the book’s first 110+ pages, disappear to?  I know that novelists play with the idea of which character is the real protagonist; an idea perhaps most famously stated in the opening line of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”).  But given the otherwise straightforward nature of this book’s plot, it’s hard to see why and how Dirk “So Big” De Jong will supplant his mother—and honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine being able to transfer my emotional investment in her to him unless it’s done really skillfully.  We’ll see.

Oh, and I have to mention that the brief passages we get of her schoolteaching (before she’s married) are horrifying.  Maybe all teachers at the time really did demand their students to “parse” (or “diagram”) sentences on the fly.  But it strikes me as a rotten way to teach—people reminisce about the good old days, sometimes, but educationally, I ‘d say it appears to me we should be glad to get well clear of 1890s public education (at least in rural areas).