"From Blank to Blank":
Excerpts from a Work in Regress
At the end of the winter term, I asked my American Literature students to tell me their favorite reading of the semester. After they gave me their answers, I mentioned that I know of one literature professor who asks his students, "What reading did you like least this semester, and what does that reveal about your shortcomings as a human being?" I said I thought that was a good question to consider, and since my students challenged me, here's my own answer:
My least favorite of the readings I assigned was Joyce Carol Oates' "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" I've never liked what I see as the conservative strain of the story, which I read as (in part) a cautionary tale against risk-taking, growing up too quickly, and engagement with the larger world around you. What does that reveal about my shortcomings? The more current a work is, the more personally I'm inclined to take it, and the more difficult it is for me to maintain an approximate objectivity about it. And on certain issues, and with certain time periods, I am still inclined to maintain the black-and-white perspective of a pseudo-revolutionary ideologue. The story has more complexity and sophistication than I generally give it credit for.
Surely there is some Gnostic Apocryphon that reveals the truth of Eden: it was not Eve's sustainable delight in the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that hastened mankind's fall, but Adam's presumptuous naming of the animals.
Ed McClanahan: The Natural Man
McClanahan creates a delicate and engaging balance of innocent nostalgia and R-rated humor, chronicling the adventures of bored (but never boring) high school students in a tiny, rural Kentucky town in the late 1940's. Charming, light-hearted, and well-written.
Marilynne Robinson: Gilead
Marilynne Robinson's wonderful first novel, "Housekeeping," was as much a poem as a novel. "Gilead" is, too, but in very different ways. The style of this second novel is less overtly lyrical, more transparent, though no less exceptional. It reminds me of a line from Mary Wilkins Freeman's story "The Revolt of Mother": "She was like an artist so perfect that he has apparently no art." As other reviews have noted, those looking for a plot-driven story, centered around action, will be disappointed. "Gilead" is the meditative study of a soul in twilight, alive to both the pain and the miracles in this world, to the sacred individuality within each of us, and to the "utterly vast spaces" inevitably opened up by that very individuality: "In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence."
Percival Everett: Cutting Lisa
Having thoroughly enjoyed Everett's novel "God's Country," I was eager to read more of his work. However, "Cutting Lisa" was a considerable disappointment. The premise itself is interesting - a retired doctor is disturbed by his son's troubled marriage at the same time that he is rediscovering his own capacity for life - but Everett's style here is frustratingly clumsy. This is the work of a promising but unpolished student, one who would go on to find far more interesting things to say and a much stronger voice with which to say them.
This afternoon I received in the mail a copy of the new Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry, edited by Jay Parini. I wasn't sure at first why it was sent to me, but as I started browsing through it I realized that it was a collection I (and at least a hundred other academic hacks) had read and commented on in manuscript, quite some time ago. It's actually a nicely selected and innovatively arranged anthology. I can't remember what specific comments I made about the manuscript, but the published book includes Langston Hughes' "The Black Clown" in its section on "Monologue and Dramatic Poetry," and I'm 96% sure that's the result of my suggestion.
When she was 22, Elizabeth Bishop captured her natural observations in precise detail:
As I waited I heard a multitude of small sounds, and knew simultaneously that I had been hearing them all along—sounds high in the air, of a faintly rhythmic regularity, yet resembling the retreat of innumerable small waves, lake-waves, rustling on sand.
Of course it was the birds going South. They were very high up, a fairly large sort of bird, I couldn't tell what, but almost speck-like, paying no attention to even the highest trees or steeples. They spread across a wide swath of sky, each rather alone, and at first their wings seemed all to be beating perfectly together. But by watching one bird, then another, I saw that some flew a little slower than others, some were trying to get ahead and some flew at an individual rubato; each seemed a variation, and yet altogether my eyes were deceived into thinking them perfectly precise and regular. I watched closely the spaces between the birds. It was as if there were an invisible thread joining all the outside birds and within this fragile network they possessed the sky.
Her description of the birds, seemingly a unified pattern but in fact a accumulation of variations, reminds me of a couple of passages from A. R. Ammons' poem "Corsons Inlet":
in nature there are few sharp lines: there are areas of
more or less dispersed;
disorderly orders of bayberry; between the rows
irregular swamps of reeds
though not reeds alone, but grass, bayberry, yarrow, all . . .
and even more to the point:
the news to my left over the dunes and
reeds and bayberry clumps was
fall: thousands of tree swallows
gathering for flight:
an order held
in constant change: a congregation
rich with entropy: nevertheless, separable, noticeable
as one event
Bishop draws our attention not only to the human tendency to impose a simplifying pattern (or narrative)—in Ammons' words, our "binds / of thought"—on an infinitely complex reality, but our tendency to miss the real connections between objects, the real condition of interbeing, because we fail to see "the spaces between the birds" (or hear the silence between the notes), an emptiness that Bishop recognizes (both here and in "In the Waiting Room") not as nothingness, but as a point of origin.