We’ll ride the waves of Virgil’s consciousness first as the poet arrives in port and is borne through Brundisium’s streets on a litter, then as he languishes through the night in torment over whether to destroy his unfinished epic, the Aeneid, and then the next morning as he argues with Augustus Caesar against Augustus’s insistence that he preserve it.
Carolyn Forché is now a celebrated American poet. But she was far from that on the day in the late 1970s when a car pulled up outside the remote California beach house that she was renting. The driver idled the engine, then finally turned it off. At that, Forché, alone in the house and busily typing, noticed the sudden silence and became apprehensive. In her gripping memoir What You Have Heard is True, she narrates what happened next.
Some months ago I decided to read Vergil’s Aeneid, all of it, in Latin. A rash idea, given my spotty knowledge of the language. But curiosity and the uneasiness of having missed some essential wisdom by not having met the Aeneid in Latin drove me on.
I’ve lain or languished on various gurneys in our local hospital’s ED in recent days—cardiac and GI disorders brought me there. But I’m not thinking now about the medical issues involved. I’m thinking rather about what enabled me to find joy and solace in what was otherwise a painful, tedious, disorienting, frightening experience. It all has to do with sounds, beautiful sounds, sounds echoing across centuries. Sounds that I’ve managed to memorize over the years.
Is it a curse? Or a blessing? I’ve been pondering this question for years, ever since I first heard in high school the expression “No pain, no gain.” Or maybe it was when I eyed a similar expression (my first experience of chiasmus?) in the notice tacked up on the wall of my high school boys’ locker room as we headed out for football practice or a game: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
Both Morgan Meis and Annie Dillard are trying, through the force of literary style, to peel through the layers of complacency with which we wrap, hide, and protect ourselves from the naked truth of our existence as created beings. For Dillard, the style is directed primarily at created things in nature. For Meis, the style is directed at created things mostly in museums: at paintings, to be exact.
On closer inspection, no piece of green or blue was exactly like another. Many other colors came into play as well. In fact, the closer we looked at each piece—and looking closely at pieces is what puzzling is all about—, the more variegated each piece’s color-play was. The more we looked, the more each piece looked like a painting of its own, an Impressionist painting in miniature.
I felt a shock the other day, seeing notice of him in The Guardian: “The road well travelled: 100 years of Jack Kerouac.” Why a shock? I think the shock has to do with the way Kerouac always surprises me, by which I mean emerges suddenly out of my own indifference or forgetfulness and then opens up everywhere in my imagination once he presents himself.
Recently, in the midst of my groping to understand what I was learning from art critic Michael Fried and philosopher Stanley Cavell about “absorption,” I stumbled upon a poem by C. K. Williams that has thrown light on the question for me. The poem is entitled “Self-Portrait with Rembrandt Self-Portrait.”
What really engages Rowan Williams in the three short plays included in Shakeshafte & Other Plays is the costly dynamic of artistic expression— a cost paid dearly by the artists represented in those three plays: by Shakespeare (in the first of the plays, Shakeshafte), by David Jones (in the second, The Flat Roof of the World), and by Jesus (in the third, Lazarus).
“Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances”— this title, of one of Walt Whitman’s poems, jumped out at me when I opened Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac recently. Somehow, for all of my admiration of Whitman, I had never noticed this poem before. Here it is. I wonder if you’ll react to it as I did.
This is my third time through a book I’ve admired since I first read it during my twenties and then reread it, with equal admiration, in my forties: Henry Adams’s The Education of Henry Adams (1905). And now, near eighty, I’m reading and admiring it again.
Fr. Slater’s book on Bernard of Clairvaux is precious to me not simply as a good friend’s fine accomplishment. It is, for me, preciously timely. That’s because I had just been puzzling once again why it is that Bernard plays such a climactic role in the unfolding of Dante’s The Divine Comedy.
As George Saunders so persuasively reminds us, in his engaging book about storytelling, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, a story is a way for a writer and a reader to think and imagine together.… “We imagine a story as a room-sized black box,” says Saunders. “The writer’s goal is to have the reader go into that box in one state of mind and come out in another. What happens in there has to be thrilling and non-trivial.”
That is the connection between Stevens and Nguyen. Nothing. Both writers are geniuses at revealing the revolutionary power of Nothing, Stevens for the literary, Nguyen for the political imagination. Nothing like nothing releases both imaginations from the dead end of habit and convention.
Morgan Meis, one of Close Reading’s bloggers, has written a book that forces me to ask, as few books have done in a long while, not only who I am but how I am to be. A book that puts me on the spot about what it means that I’m a mortal being, destined for death.
Even in our nation’s founding documents, the Inaugural Pronoun “We” has a hard time surviving the language that surrounds it. James Boyd White, in When Words Lose Their Meanings, brilliantly shows, in his close reading of both the Declaration and the Constitution, how nearly their respective “We’s” come to foundering in the turbulence of everyday reality.
God’s reading of us, while rooted in flesh and bone, is not limited to them. Or better said: flesh and bone, in God’s eyes, provide an absolutely reliable witness of our moral health (or lack thereof). No mystery there: God made human flesh and bone that way, as unambiguous representatives of who we are and of what we have made of ourselves.
I never intended to get Frost’s birds by heart. For some months I’d been memorizing various of Frost’s lyric poems, moving from one to the next without agenda, allowing my taste for Frost’s wit and craft to guide me. But before I knew it, there they were, his birds, some named, some not: quiet, without fanfare, easy to miss, almost wanting to be missed.
The initial reason is that Miss Irene Ashley, my ninth and tenth grade English teacher, told me (and her other students) that we had to. Her assignments: A selection from Hiawatha in ninth grade (“By the shores of Gitchee Gumee…”) and from Idylls of the King in tenth (“And slowly answered Arthur from the barge…”)