by Anna Keesey
If you've somehow missed Anna Keesey's wonderful novel of 19th century rangeland Oregon, now is the time to pick up Little Century in paperback. Keesey's novel takes its rightful place with Molly Gloss's flawless The Jump-Off Creek in its depiction of new-to-Oregon women. Esther Chambers has lived eighteen years in Chicago. After her mother dies, she heads West. Carolyn See, of the Washington Post, proclaims that "Keesey’s words are clear as lake water" -- and she's right. The New York Times Book Review also gets it right: "Fluid and restrained prose, solid plotting, and a keen eye for detail." It's a great read.
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Thursday, August 22, 2013
A Scripture of Crows
by Charles Goodrich
Silverfish Review Press, 2013, $16.
Charles Goodrich’s A Scripture of Crows makes what its title suggests: a holy book of cloud, breath, creatures, thunderstorms and their mornings after, “the air scrubbed clean and all quiet // until some little clod of dirt / starts chirping for joy.” Thus is the grandeur of Genesis become birdsong at morning – in the right season neither distant nor rare.
As celebratory as the poems in the book often are, the real pleasure on offer here comes from tracing the motions of a nimble, inquisitive, bemused, sometimes laconic mind. Thus the distant relative in “A Distant Relative” is identified first as “A tiny pouch / with legs // and a wicked assortment of surgical tools in its mouth: / it’s a tick / clinging to my sock.” Later, “Its face / looks rather like a hole saw.” By the end of this poem (it’s only a page long), this tick has also been associated with “my great-aunt Aggie’s / great-great-uncle, / the family’s legendary / parasite …” It’s that word parasite that makes the link. So what starts out as a poem about finding a tick turns into a short disquisition on what it means to be a parasite. This meaning is not simple. Aggie’s great great uncle is a Civil War veteran, a man “who came home from Chancellorsville / toothless, emaciated, one-eyed, and crazy.” Unable to do any sort of work, he “just wandered the pastures all day / chanting poems to the sheep // and like this tick / he died young / and none of his poems survive.”
Goodrich’s central interest – one of them anyway – has to do with this paradox: nature is not thing so much as process, yet within a world of process and change, what stays, what survives? In a significantly degraded natural world, what survives is absence, as in the poem “Touched,” with its litany of absences: absence of geese, absence of bear and butterflies and the songbird “that no longer visits our town.” The poem’s title effectively works its own ambiguity: to be touched is one way of indicating some mental instability. It’s also a phrase registering emotional impact. In this second meaning, we usually refer to being touched by some act of kindness or generosity – we mean phrase as a part of giving thanks. As a writer, Goodrich knows and exploits all of this.
In a world defined by natural process, what also survives is just that: process. “Morning Song at Billy Meadows” traces the steps of a morning, always observing the outer world for traces or echoes or indications that somehow mirror or answer the human inner world. Or, in plain linguistic terms, this is a poem that keeps trying to place it’s “I” in relationship to all outside it – the flow of air, the “overnight rain,” grasses that “suffer the vanity of being plain,” house cricket and field cricket. The poem presents five short sections, each making some connection between “I” and the natural world, ending with section six: “And sometimes you realize / that the blood you gave to mosquito / is what makes the bluebird / so blue.” Though perhaps this claims a little bit too much literal credit for human blood, the point is clear enough and in its way comforting: we, too, have yet some part to play in this morning song.
Though this book never resorts to shrillness, and though it is much more frequently than not interested in correspondences and how metaphors communicate partial but significant truths, this book also carries a challenge in that it asks us to consider our own environmental impacts. But Goodrich construes “environmental” in the widest possible way. In these poems, the influences of family and friends also constitute environmental impacts. Thus a number of poems speak in celebration of various compatriots – gardeners, rock collectors, piano tuners, carpenters, fellow writers and readers who enrich a life. But given the characteristic close attention nature gets in a Charles Goodrich poem, it’s almost inevitable that this book must also include the sometimes sardonic, sometimes sarcastic, always troubled poems registering deep concern at the changes wrought by human technologies and our eagerness to alter natural processes for our own short-term benefit. Of these poems, “Ghost River” may be the most effective. It uses the trope of a dreamer who wakes only to discover a new dream: “I went to the sink and opened the tap. Clear water / spilled out, cool and fresh. It had all been a dream. The river was leaping with fish, muscled with joy. / I was so pleased. I was innocent. I was still asleep.”
In its entirety, A Scripture of Crows presumes, asserts, interrogates and articulates the human intellect’s bodily continuity with all the other sentient life on this planet – from Douglas squirrels to worms, scrub jays, centipedes, turkey vultures and to like-minded people. Most surely in intention and in fact this is a capacious form of love. His is a way of seeing the world as animate and rarely at rest. Within such a conception, even “those lumbering yellow road graders, / bulldozers, and belly scrapers” take on a wonderful quiet at night, “bedded down / in the moonshade of scorched oaks / like perfect beasts.” Within such a conception, this book asserts and often finds within daily life just that sense of wholeness and connection. The result, however, is perhaps as elusive as it is large and endlessly variable. As “Camped in the Olympics” puts it describing an evening’s “hilarious / silence” under stars, “It’s possible / I’ve never been so wholly / awake, but that laughing / isn’t me, it isn’t wolves, / and it isn’t loons.”
Saturday, August 17, 2013
The Pequod’s appearance ought to have been a warning: “She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies… A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy!” Nobility and cannibalism – that Melville yolks the two in his description of the Pequod amounts almost to blasphemy. To eat human flesh corrupts the central sacramental action of the Mass: the changing of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. “Take this and eat it; this is my Body…” With sperm whale teeth for belaying pins, the Pequod becomes a physical example of cannibalism – of an odd sort. In this version, the whale is the thing consumed; the Pequod receives its oil and displays its teeth in unholy communion, as though the whale is a god.
Having boarded the Pequod to inquire about signing on, the young sailor discovers one of the ship’s owners, Captain Peleg. His discussion with Peleg ought to have sent him running: “I was thinking of shipping,” says YS, to which Peleg replies “Ever been on a stove boat?” which prompts from YS, “No, Sir, I never have… I want to see what whaling is… I want to see the world.” Peleg’s reply, “Want to see what whaling is, eh? Have ye clapped eye on Captain Ahab?” The lessons couldn't be clearer: this boat will sink; whaling is losing a leg and not having the sense to quit.
Peleg (and Melville) cannot let pass YS’s “I want to see the world.” Peleg asks YS to “take a peep over the weather-bow, and then back to me and tell me what ye see there.” To which YS reports that he saw “not much… nothing but water; considerable horizon though, and there’s a squall coming up, I think.” Peleg’s response: “Can’t ye see the world where you stand?”
This business of signing concluded, YS is walking away when he realizes he's not seen the captain who will command this multi-year voyage. He turns back and asks Peleg for a meeting with the captain, saying "I should like to see him." Ahab, Peleg reports, is unavailable. "He keeps close inside his house." And why is he reclusive? "He ain't sick; but no, he isn't well either… He's a queer man, Captain Ahab – so some think – but a good one… He's a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab; doesn't speak much; but when he does speak, then you may well listen… " And later, "I know that on the passage home, he was a little out of his mind for a spell; but it was the sharp shooting pains in his bleeding stump that brought that about… I know, too, that ever since he lost his leg last voyage by that accursed whale, he’s been a kind of moody – desperate moody, and savage sometimes; but that will all pass off." And we learn a last thing of some import: "He has a wife – not three voyages wedded – a sweet, resigned girl. Think of that; by that sweet girl that old man has a child; hold ye then there can be any utter hopeless harm in Ahab? No, no, my lad; stricken, blasted, if he be, Ahab has his humanities."
"A grand, ungodly, godlike man" – this man will be his captain, the "absolute dictator" (as referred to in ch. 20) of his voyage! No wonder YS walks away "full of thoughtfulness." His new captain was out of his mind but seems to have recovered. He was out of his mind from losing a leg to a whale's jaw. But he's married, with a young child. YS walks away trying to sort out his responses, among them a "strange awe… I do not know what it was.” The difference between young sailor's ignorance of Ahab and Ishmael's knowledge of him informs all that follows.
YS wants to know whaling and see the world. Ishmael wants to make sense of his experience and thereby reclaim his past. And Melville? He wants a book that confronts the enormities, one that pursues the human condition and tells all the truth. He funnels all his own shipboard experiences through the crucible of this narrator's experience. And he is simultaneously talking back -- adding to the conversation already well engaged by the likes of Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne. The Pequod, leaves the harbor at noon on Christmas day. Some hours later, as the pilot boat veers back towards Nantucket, the crew gives “three heavy-hearted cheers,” and plunges “blindly … like fate into the lone Atlantic."
Of all who set sail on the Pequod, only one traumatized soul will return. He will never again be comfortable on land. Like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, his story will ever compel him. Eventually he will write, “Call me Ishmael.” This begins the story of a narrator working desperately hard to find the eloquence, technique, form and conceptions sufficient to the experience he has lived and which he is now committed to somehow remake so that it stands apart from him, thus becoming something seen in its own right, a story to be examined and revisited, and perhaps, at last, a story understood.
#16 And Then
It takes 22 chapters before the Pequod finally sets sail. In all that follows, the action story and the effort to make sense of it will sometimes run together, sometimes apart. In chapters like Cetology or The Whiteness of the Whale or even The Great Heidelburgh Tun, action gives way to either meditation or factual reporting. Such chapters stall the action story, but they’re often crucial to the narrator’s effort at finding meaning in that story. Readers’ patience with such chapters will vary, but their purposes are clear enough once you see them as essential to the narrator’s effort to interrogate and make sense of a very large experience.
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Whaling is a crazy-dangerous enterprise. Whatever his inexperience as a whaler, YS knows that “few are the moody fishermen, shortly bound for the Indian Ocean or Pacific, who fail to make a Sunday visit” to the Whaleman’s Chapel. It's a scary place, that Chapel, full of memorials to whalemen who did not return. Maybe the visit counts as insurance?
Father Mapple ascends to his pulpit via rigging sailors climb at sea. It's almost too obvious: understand the whaling ship as a site of religious enactment. Mapple's sermon is best read with the entirety of the book in mind. Without knowledge of later events, the sermon can seem irritatingly over-long; you wonder why you need to hear it. Still, a few sentences jump out: "God is everywhere," and "Jonah did the Almighty's bidding. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the Face of Falsehood! That was it!" In short, everything has meaning, and there's a religious duty to tell the truth to the face of falsehood. Yet how account for God’s presence in the series of characters and events Ishamael knows? Moby-Dick shoulders these burdens. Mapple notes that such preaching is not easy: "Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal." This reads almost as Melville talking to himself. Placing this sermon early in the text, Melville lets all of the remaining events of the book play against its assertions.
For a moment, as Mapple ends the sermon, his subject becomes that particular delight known by the truthful teller: "Delight is to him – a far, far upward, and inward delight – who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self. Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him." Whether or not Melville's narrator knows this delight is difficult to say. Melville himself must have known at least enough of it to write Fr. Mapple's sermon.
Can Queequeg read? It seems unlikely, for he merely counts the pages of a large book, beginning again after he reaches 50, that being the highest count he can manage. So, unable to read the pages, Queequeg does with them what he can do – he counts them. Though Melville doesn't outright say so, he might as well: We may not understand the book of experience, might not be able to fully read it, but we can at least turn the pages one by one and try to keep count. Queequeg's determination fascinates YS, who notes that "you cannot hide the soul." In other words, the effort to read – even if it means only the effort to count pages – makes the soul visible. Still, Queequeg remains an enigma. He does not socialize. He is, YS realizes, miles from home and all he knows, yet he seems "entirely at his ease; preserving the utmost serenity; content with his own companionship; always equal to himself." Is this the condition to which YS and Ishmael aspire? Possibly. For merely to observe Queequeg produces a calming effect: "No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it." Even the recollection of Queequeg's self-possession calms Ishmael's mania. And here, as in any description of any of the Pequod’s crew, Ishmael writes of the dead, conscious that now only his words give them any semblance of life.
Sunday, August 11, 2013
YS needs a bed for the night, but there’s only half of one available. Thus he meets Queequeg, tattooed harpooner, Pacific islander, yet “on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal… a human being just as I am.” Queequeg may be the central human cypher of this tale. Devout but not Christian, powerful killer of whales yet twice savior of men, homeless except perhaps on a whaler, Queequeg stays always his sane, visible and inscrutable self. He wears his beliefs, perhaps his entire human identity, in dense tattoos that neither YS nor Ishmael can read. Though Melville himself had been to the South Seas and already written about that in his first book, Typee, he here casts his young sailor as ignorant of such places or their inhabitants. For YS, Queequeg represents knowledge of whaling grounds, knowledge of whaling itself, knowledge of what it means to kill a mammal of such size. No wonder YS seeks Queequeg’s friendship; it will serve as a bulwark against both YS’s ignorance and his terror.
Is the relationship of Queequeg and YS more than friendship? In a crowed inn, they share a bed – itself unsurprising for the times. Yet there is also talk of being “bosom friends,” with “Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back; so entirely sociable and free and easy were we…” Melville surely knew what some of his contemporaries would make of this, and one can surmise that he didn’t care. We can read in whatever we like. Perhaps the real point is that this narrator, Ishmael, is determined to tell what he knew and what he felt, and tell it as fully and truthfully as he’s able.
With the exception of its very end, Moby-Dick is a book in which almost nothing happens without the effort to reflect upon it. One need read no further than Breakfast (ch. 5) to see this. Queequeg and YS go downstairs to eat breakfast, which is served at one large table. YS expects to hear some good stories about whaling, but “to my no small surprise, nearly every man maintained a profound silence. And not only that, but they looked embarrassed.” One could argue that indeed ch. 5 is one in which no action occurs at all, except the consumption of breakfast. Yet it stands as a good early example of this book’s habit of reflection. Here, as elsewhere, one point seems to be that what we might expect is not what experience offers. YS expects the common understanding to be true: “They say that men who have seen the world, thereby become quite at ease in manner, quiet self-possessed in company.” But that’s not what happens. The whalers at The Spouter seem ill at ease; they eat their breakfast – coffee and hot rolls – in silence. Queequeg, however, sits at the head of the table and eats beefsteaks, conveying them to his plate via the use of his harpoon, the same implement he earlier used to shave himself. Queequeg, skilled harpooner, killer of some of the largest of earth's mammals.
Wednesday, August 07, 2013
"Say you are in the country, in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries – stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region… Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever."
So this will be an action story, by and by. But it begins as meditation. Even some of the action will look like meditation. When the action entirely takes over, when meditation entirely disappears – that's when this narrator felt truly erased and, afterwards, truly terrified.