Sunday, December 9, 2018

Sunday at dawn: cold and still: chimneys silhouetted like blunt paper dolls against the flat sky: bare grassy earth like iron: fringes of ice along the sidewalks: blank windows: a single gull flicking its long pinions, sailing low over the roofs: and now an invisible cacophony of crows: power lines crisscrossing the street like cat's-cradle string: streetlamp a tight ball of light: the slam, somewhere, of a car door: and now a motor cranking, catching, roaring, vanishing: and now silence: now the cold closes its fist: and the day hesitates:

Saturday, December 8, 2018

A cold morning, promising to be bright. I've been awake most of the night, falling asleep only to dream about car crashes, so I'd just as soon turn my thoughts to sunshine. I've got packages to mail, cards to write, trim to paint, a novel to edit. Here's hoping that all of it makes me very tired by the time 1 a.m. comes around again.

I'm still splashing and wallowing in The Birth of the Modern. I love a big messy history-of-everything, and this is a classic . . . one excellent anecdote after another. Here, for instance, is some fake news, 1814-style:

"[Robert] Fulton's battleship carried thirty 32-lb guns firing red-hot shot and was also equipped to fire 100-lb projectiles below the waterline. With its 120 horsepower developing a speed of up to 5mph and independent of the wind, it theoretically outclassed any vessel in the British fleet. Stories of this terrifying monster, which was launched on the East River on 29 June 1814, reached Britain and grew in the telling. The Edinburgh Evening Courant doubled the ship's size and credited her with 44 guns, including four giant 100-pounders. The newspaper added: "To annoy an enemy attempting to board it can discharge 100 gallons of boiling water a minute and, by mechanism, brandishing 300 cutlasses with the utmost regularity over her gunwales and works also an equal number of heavy iron pikes of great length, darting them from her sides with prodigious force." [Weird grammar in the original]

If any of you care to make a scale model of this, I'd be glad to see it.

Friday, December 7, 2018

This morning I'll be heading south for a planning meeting for a high school writing residency . . . step 1 in my forthcoming extreme teaching schedule. This particular job is going to involve a long commute, which does not delight me, though when I think back to my Harmony car life, I don't know why I'm complaining. I drove the better part of two hours every day to pick up my kid at school. But it's been easy to lapse into no-driving, and that is doubtless why Tina the Subaru required a visit from AAA's battery guy yesterday.

One thing about having all my books around me again: I can't stop taking them off the shelf and diving into them. So I've decided to let that approach run rampant. I spent a few days with the Bate bio of Keats, and now I'm swimming in Paul Johnson's The Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1815-1830, a wonderful messy tome that stews together war, poetry, typhus, colonial expansion, music, the uses of horses, obstetrical medicine, et al., into a giant pot of historical minestrone. [What a silly metaphor.]

Anyway, here's a couple of quotations you might enjoy . . . and find disturbingly familiar:

"One of [Andrew Jackson's] early biographers, James Parton, wrote that his 'ignorance of . . . everything which he who governs a country ought to know, was extreme. . . . His ignorance was a wall around him, high, impenetrable. He was imprisoned in his ignorance, and sometimes raged round his little, dim enclosure like a tiger in his den." A powerful image, but perhaps misleading. Jackson, like Cecil Rhodes at the end of the century, lacked schooling, but, as with Rhodes, a powerful intelligence and an even stronger will gave a strange force to his writing and still more to his speech. Throughout his life, it helped to inspire dread in his opponents, racial and political." [Unfortunately, we now have a so-called president who fits that description far better than Jackson did . . . and without any caveats about "powerful intelligence."]

"[Jackson] was an orphan at fifteen. Two years later he turned to a life in the law, which was in practice a blend of land grabbing, wheeler-dealing, office seeking and dueling, and perhaps could not have occurred in precisely this combination at any other time or place." [Maybe things were different in 1991, when Johnson publishing the book, but this description of lawyer seems to describe Cohen and Avenatti and Giuliani and their ilk pretty well . . . sans the dueling. Would more lawyer dueling mean less trouble for the American people?]

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Poetry-writing season is over for me, at least for the moment. I have now fallen back down the editing rabbit hole, where I'm frantically copyediting a 500-page translated novel on an extremely short deadline. It's a good thing I've had so much practice reading giant novels.

Meanwhile, I'm sewing and mixing up cookie batter and trying to keep my plans pulled together for the forthcoming family onslaught. And poor Tom does nothing but fix things--all day long for other people, all evening long for us.
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But in darkness the Christmas lights glow; the candles flicker in the windows; the fire purrs in its little stove. In daylight, the northern sun washes over the blue walls of my tiny study. I am glad to be here . . . glad without reservation, these days.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The living room is dim, except for the glowing string of Christmas lights wrapping the stair balusters. On the street, a few cars slide past. In the sky, bright Venus nods at a shallow bowl of moon. My white cup and saucer are phosphorescent in the gloom. The kitchen clock ticks. Upstairs, Tom stirs among the sheets.

I'm thinking of poems, and of this passage in Bate's biography of Keats, and wondering if it's true:
For most beginning poets, the fashionable models--at least among their own contemporaries--have usually been no better than those followed by Keats, however different they might be in kind.
I am no longer a beginning poet, but when I was, I was in love with Keats. I knew so little about contemporary poetry. And now I am a contemporary poet. The situation is ironic, but also confusing to me. Am I now one of the poets "no better than those followed by Keats"? What happens when the eager apprentice becomes the imperfect model?

Monday, December 3, 2018

Richard III: Conversation (Act III, Scenes 5 & 6)

"Whether we want it or not, the massive legacy of past literature is ours. We cannot give it away. Moreover, it increases with each generation. Inevitably, we must work from it, and often by means of it. But even if we resist paralysis and do try to work from and by means of it, the question at once arises, does the habitual (and almost always sole) nourishment of the imagination by the great literature of the past lead to the creation of more poetry of equal value?"

--from John Keats, by Walter Jackson Bate

* * *

Perhaps the above quotation is not strictly relevant to our Richard III assignment (which addresses your thoughts about Hastings's life and death within the play, your thoughts about the meaning of liberty), but I think it does capture some of the difficulties that I at least have struggled with over the course of my entire reading life. How do I--the diffident I, the ambitious I, the fearful I--"resist paralysis" and "try to work from and by means of" this "massive legacy of past literature"? For Keats, Shakespeare was a significant element of the quandary. And here we are, two hundred years later, struggling with the same legacy . . . plus the weight of the two centuries that have passed in the interim.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

We will have eleven people celebrating Christmas at our little Alcott House, and Tom is engaged in an intense holiday countdown. Yesterday he finished cutting various found/scavenged/broken pieces of slate and marble into temporary countertop covers. He put a last coat of paint on the door to the unfinished upstairs bathroom and scavenged a beautiful porcelain doorknob from the hardware box at work. He bought plumbing supplies so that he can hook up the bathroom sink, which means, believe it or not, visitors will actually be able to close the door and wash their hands. He ordered window shades for the bedroom and the guest quarters--no more kitchen towels as curtains! He is putting up a banister and an outside light. In the midst of all this, he is making Christmas cards.

I've been sewing Christmas presents and trying to limit my shopping to mostly locally based small gifts. The focus is on meals, comfort, and nobody falling down the stairs. So yesterday I replaced the couch pillows, bought a new bathmat, fidgeted about candles and lighting, unpacked the nativity set my Aunt Rose made in her ceramics class in the 1980s and the styrofoam gingerbread boys my parents bought for one of their first holidays together in the early 1960s. Today I'll put a second coat of paint on some trim Tom has repaired.

We both seem to be equally committed to the project of making our house at least passably welcoming, which is good but also kind of whirlwindy and overwhelming. There's still so much unfinished business: no doors on the cellar, the upstairs rooms, the dining room closet; no trim in the kitchen; no grout on the kitchen tiles; no cupboard doors or real countertop. But when I consider what a mess things were last year, as we were getting ready to move into this place, I'm astonished.