Tag Archives: back out there

Julia Alvarez’s “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents”–another perspective on the revolution from “The Farming of Bones”

Some time back, I wrote a post on Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones with the subtitle “There is no such thing as a small massacre.”  Julia Alvarez’s book How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is another perspective on the same political situation in the Dominican Republic/Haiti island; it is told not from the viewpoint of the countless number of Haitians who suffered in the massacre which came about at Trujillo’s command, but from the supposedly advantaged perspective of some rich Dominicans who, because of political sympathies which were in line with those of the Haitians, were also deprived of their homes and livelihoods, though the characters in this book in particular were lucky enough to escape without losing their lives or suffering imprisonment.  Instead, they went to the United States as immigrants, and were able to re-establish themselves there.  This advantage also had attendant disadvantages, however, which is part of the unspooling tale Julia Alvarez unwinds, from the beginning present tense in the novel, when thirty-nine-year old Yolanda (known as Yoyo to her friends and family), the third child in the family of four children, revisits her roots.  The tale then moves on from section through section to the family’s past.

Alvarez has cleverly and significantly timed the tale so that she paints the picture not only of small revolutions going on in the family itself (such as when the four daughters, Carla, Sandi, Yoyo, and Fifi, rebel against their Mami and Papi during the sixties and seventies by becoming “offensively” American in their ways of thinking and behaving, and act much as other rebelling youths did during that time period), but she has also slotted the backward-developing story into the space of time such that it is during the girls’ late pre-adolescent period, just before they go to America, that they become aware that their Papi is a Dominican rebel, wealthy and privileged though he may be (he shares this status and these beliefs with many of the other men of the huge de la Torre clan, too).  This gradual retrospective story method allows for the girls’ own innocence as pampered rich children in the Dominican Republic to emerge also little by little, showing perhaps what some of the original causes of the revolution were, though there is never any overt or heavy-handed preaching of political views or goals.  Papi is just Papi, with his political preferences and his strong love of family.

Beginning with a section describing Yoyo’s present-day visit back to the island from the U. S., the tale is told in consecutive chapters, with each girl’s story told in turn, as a separate kind of “short story” which, however, probably could not stand alone.  The story goes back and forth between them, in third-person narration largely, though Yoyo’s sections predominate in number and length by a bit, and some of hers are in first-person narration.The very end of the novel itself is thus the farthest back in time, when Yoyo, the writer-poet daughter of the family, recalls finding a tiny baby kitten, not knowing what to do with it or how to justify adopting it from its mother before it has been weaned, only in a fit of childish behavior to hurl it from an upstairs window.  The story ends with her remark that often in her adulthood, waking up from her “bad dreams and insomnia,” she sees the mother cat, “wailing over some violation that lies at the center of my art.”  The story is so completely imagined and detailed that I didn’t feel this needed a “spoiler alert,” as in this book one reads for the whole substance and not just for the “whodunit” or final outcome, moving and well-imagined as it is.

To “lose one’s accent” is shown throughout the book to be a double-edged sword:  it allows one to defend oneself more readily from outright harassment by those of one’s adopted country who are mean or cruel, and even helps ease one’s way through the shoals of well-meaning condescension by more kindly disposed (if ignorant) Americans.  On the other hand, there is a lot more lost with the accent itself as one adapts to a new culture, a whole missing part of oneself which can cut to the quick with its absence.  Altogether, this book is a very meaningful and well-considered picture of both privilege and loss, of both development and possible retrogression, which should be on every library bookshelf and which well repays a thorough read-through.


Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews

“Tomas Takes Charge” and Cinnamon Sticks–A Childhood Memory

Back in the day, when I was in primary school (known otherwise as “grade school”) and was doing lots and lots of reading, I got a book as a gift.  Though I had received many books as gifts, other than “baby books” they were mostly soft cover; this one was my first “collector-grown-up book,” as I thought of it, because it was hard cover and yet still had illustrations to please my youthful taste.  The short novel is called Tomás Takes Charge.  It is by Charlene Joy Talbot, with illustrations by Reisie Lonette.  My twelve-year-old nephew gave me a new copy of the same book for Christmas last year, and though I have to say it has certain drawbacks to my adult taste, I still remember it being one of my first childhood exposures to those growing up in a different culture.  First of all, I came from a small town, and this book is set in the area of Washington Market in NYC.  As well, it is about a young Puerto Rican boy, Tomás Lorca, and his sister Fernanda.  To my adult perceptions, there is something not quite right in the almost stereotypical portrait of their favorite neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Malloy, and also in the fact that all of the people who help them out the most are Anglos.  But to a child, these matters are different, and I didn’t have as keen a view of such things then as I hope to have developed since.  Another part of this bookish memory is of course chewing on cinnamon toothpicks while reading the book, over and over, to such an extent that my tongue often burned and the places where I had marked my page with a cinnamon toothpick reeked of the spice to the extent that it is an indivisible part of the original memory.

The toothpicks were the province of the grade school girls, who, back in the days when grocery stores and pharmacies still sold one-ounce bottles of clear (top-strength) cinnamon oil, would make “cinnamon sticks,” so called because the boxes of toothpicks were soaked in a strong cinnamon oil-water mixture until they absorbed all the moisture, then dried and exchanged for favors and treats from other children at school.  I made my own like most other girls, but I always kept the strongest and most pungent for my private “stash.”  But enough of that:  suffice it to say that cinnamon sticks, so made, were my version of the madeleines made famous in Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust.

In Tomás Takes Charge, Tomás and his slightly older sister, who suffers from agoraphobia, are left alone in their apartment when their father, their only living relative, is suddenly and unpredictably absent.  Mr. and Mrs. Malloy attempt to make sure that the two youngsters go to their “godmother’s,” a concocted story which Tomás produces in his fear of being sent to Welfare, but Tomás’s ingenuity is too much for the older couple.  He finds a way of housing himself and his sister in an abandoned top-floor apartment a few streets away.  The rest of the novel is largely taken up with showing the many and various ways that Tomás employs to feed them and keep them clothed and happy, even to the extent of finding an old discarded portrait of George Washington and a map of the United States to hang on the walls.  Though his sister is abnormally afraid to go outside, she coaxes a mother cat and kitten into their hideaway to help keep away rats, and she does the cooking and cleaning, leaving Tomás to play the conventional “man’s” role.  Tomás accidentally trespasses on an artist’s loft apartment, where he meets Barbara Ransome, who by his very luck happens to be a children’s book illustrator in need of a model.  This gives Tomás even more money to contribute to his little household, and all in all things seem set to prosper.  Nevertheless, the summer is drawing to a close, and Tomás and Fernanda are uncomfortably aware that they have no heat in their hiding spot; and then Tomás takes a tumble on the fire escape while crossing the roofs, and sprains his ankle, concerning the illustrator because she is expecting him to come the next day for work and he doesn’t show up.

Luck plays a large part in the children’s fortunes, but as it is a children’s story, this is perhaps appropriate.  On the same day that Barbara Ransome goes out looking for her little male model, having previously believed his tale of living with an aunt, she meets up with the Malloys.  When they compare stories, they feel sure (of course) that Tomás and Fernanda are hiding in an abandoned building somewhere in the area.  They go out to look; at the same time, Fernanda remembers what her brother has told her about Barbara Ransome’s skylight apartment and starts a smoking fire in the grate in theirs, hoping that Barbara will see it and come to their rescue.  Luckily, of course, Barbara’s brother is a psychiatrist, and as a doctor he goes with the firemen who are summoned (because others not connected with the story have seen the smoke as well).  There is just the matter of “setting the record straight” about Welfare, which happens when Tomás speaks with a representative and finds him nothing like the monster he had feared (this too seems like an apologia for the system, given all the abuses in children’s services which have been exposed in recent years, but this book is full of best-case scenarios, so one has to accept it for what it is).  The ending is the best it could be, under the circumstances:  they find out that the reason the children’s father has not returned is that he was killed in a car accident.  That is, he didn’t just desert them.  The Malloys knock down a shared wall between their apartment and the next adjoining empty room in order to make more space, and adopt the waifs.  And that is the basic story line.  I haven’t hesitated to give the full story without a “spoiler alert” because it is a children’s book, one a parent might have an interest in for a child, though as I have remarked, being written in 1966, and carefully slanted toward praising the system while also carefully attempting not to insult immigrant industry, ingenuity, and pride, the book would perhaps need a stream of ad libbing by an adult reader to bring it up to date (and children do get impatient with extraneous material, as I recall from trying to read The Secret Garden to a child a few years back, all the while giving a brief explanation of the British empire and class system).  Whatever may be the case now, when I was in grade school in the 1960’s, the book was progressive for its time and given its intended audience, though not as progressive as most adult liberal literature of the same time span.  And it is part of childhood memory for me, as I set sail upon the waters of fiction to a better understanding of others with different ways than mine.


Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

In Favor of Wool-gathering: A Crocheter’s Meditations Upon Both the Craft and Life

Though I begin by entitling this post “In favor of,” in actual fact it might more accurately be termed “for and against,” or “pro and con” due to the fact that nothing in life is perfect and all things have their down sides.  But beginning that way would lack the literary resonance of “in favor of,” which precedes other essays on life of more worth and importance than my modest effort, so I lay what claims for it I can, to belong to that fellowship.  Also, I am taking poetic license by calling it “wool-gathering,” because while this is a noteworthy pun in the case, in actual fact for a lot of people including me, it’s more like “acrylic-gathering,” since I often work in the less soft and more resilient acrylic yarns which are cheaper and bulkier both.  These caveats aside, I can justifiably refer to myself by the crafter’s jolly appellation “a happy hooker” (a bit of a hokey punning cognomen in use since the madam Xaviera Hollander’s bestseller came out in the 1970’s, a name supposedly adding more dash to crochet’s use of a single hook as opposed to the milder knitter’s pun of “knit-wit” for the use of two needles).

And now to begin, actually.  Crochet, like knitting, is a craft which abounds in opportunities for error, because in order to render even the simplest pattern, one must count stitches, so that I can see it being excellent homeopathic therapy for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Or maybe it would be more accurate to say it is probably a good way to acquire a roaring case of said disorder.  One thing’s for sure, unless one has crocheted a good long while and is only doing a simple single crochet or double crochet pattern (two of the basic stitches), it is nearly impossible to carry on an intelligent conversation or watch an exciting television program at the same time.  Such frivolity of approach brings on dropped stitches (missed stitches) and other unintentional and erroneous embellishments of one’s work.  The down side is that one is often working merrily along on a complicated and repetitive pattern, sure that because the repetition has become second nature that one is “sitting pretty” in one’s rocker or easy chair, so to speak, when suddenly two rows from where one made the original error, one discovers a flaw that necessitates the intervening work being pulled out and reworked, with more humility this time.  Probably the best secondary activity is to listen to music of a non-controversial or balmy nature, which is better than Muzak but doesn’t require singing along while muttering to oneself over and over again “one, two, three, four, five, three stitches in that one, one, two, three, four, five, skip two, one, two, three, four, five, three stitches,” etc.  Even classical music could become too disruptive, especially if it is a stirring piece that one feels compelled to hum or utter “ta-da-da” along with.  Many things in life, occupation-wise, call for tedious and unwavering attention to a specific thing, but crocheters (and knitters too) are among the crafters who most needlessly and relentlessly punish themselves with this form of self-abuse as a hobby.

One is also given a lesson about memory.  For example, try to repeat an afghan or piece of clothing that you have done before, and without a written set of instructions with exact stitches recorded (and books of patterns are surprisingly expensive for what they are), you are doomed to hours of frustration.  I have recently learned even more about the faults of memory, the necessity for patience, and the occasional failings of expert advice.  Taking down an afghan that I wanted to repeat but no longer have a pattern for, I looked at the pattern intently and tried to remember just what I’d done.  But memory could only take me so far:  I kept making things that just didn’t resemble what I was looking at.  So, I had to keep trying (patience, jackass, patience).  Then, to my great joy and regret (joy because I found a store pattern which was like part of what I was trying to accomplish, regret that I had to pay so much for it), I noticed after putting in the first row that the pattern writers weren’t perfect either (the limits of experts).  True, they were only a stitch off, but it left me trying to think up clever ways of coming up with the extra needed stitch at the end of the row.  I fudged it, and am proud to say that the gods sometimes aid the diligent and well-intentioned (and sheerly stubborn, or as a British friend of mine used to say, “bloody-minded”–so much more poetic!)

And now, I’m well on my way to accomplishing my goal of figuring out the (as it turns out) quite complicated pattern I once did blithely  in my foolish youth, when success was only a few stitches away, and I had plenty of time and patience, excellent memory and ingenuity.  Creativity, it turns out, can take many forms, and is often made up of these things almost exclusively.  What one realizes with this craft at least is that time is finite, patience and memory often decrease with age, and ingenuity is called upon more frequently to make up for the shortages of the other three.  As one of my favorite refrigerator magnets has it, “Age and guile always overcome youth and skill.”  So now you have it, my completed post.  Last but not least:  this post was inspired by the reflection which visited me this morning that I have obligations willingly incurred to my readers and blogging buddies as well, and it was high time I produced another post.  As to those of you who are waiting for me to respond to their posts, take it as read that i will do so very soon.  Right now, I’m still wool-gathering, and have to finish a bit more in order to be satisfied!


Filed under A prose flourish, Other than literary days....

The Close-Up and Personal View: “In the Heart of the Valley of Love” (A Dystopia by Cynthia Kadohata)

Normally (a word to be used advisedly when speaking of dystopias, which are all individual and unique and different from each other, but still!) when I think of dystopias, I think of large-scale pictures of societies in turmoil and decay, or turmoil and wrong-headed development, or sometimes just turmoil taken to the nth degree itself.  And I think secondly of science fiction/fantasy, because that is the “category” to which most dystopias necessarily belong, as visions of the future (I refuse to use the word “genre,” because “genre” means a quite different and specific thing in literary analysis; it does not really mean “the difference between a mystery novel and a romance novel.”  If I’ve ever used it incorrectly, may the literary gods that be have mercy on me).  But I digress.

The book I am reviewing today, Cynthia Kadohata’s novel In the Heart of the Valley of Love, is indeed set in the future (around the year 2052 or so), and it is unquestionably a dystopia, because it features many and varied negative societal outcomes that are worse than what we currently experience.  But there are two main ways in which it is different from all the others that have come my way.  Those ways are 1) that the bad incidents and happenings in this world are directly connected to things which have already happened, such as water and gas rationing being a problem, bug spraying over a large area of a city or town, things going mysteriously missing in the mails, government conspiracies and cover-ups, and so on and so forth, and 2) the extremely myopic or tunnel vision view of all these events and many more as experienced by the main character Francie and her boyfriend Mark.

I am more used to characters who are involved directly in fighting the dystopic elements, who come into direct contact regularly and usually (and eventually) tragically or with loss with “those in charge.”  But in Kadohata’s world (Los Angeles and Chicago and the environs of the near future), the main characters go around largely as many of us do today, more or less accepting the limits set on them, or at least avoiding an outright conflict over their “rights.”  They seem to be living their lives by rumors about how things are rather than with any exact certainty that such and such a thing is true.  This is what I mean by seeing with tunnel vision or myopically.  They understand what the safe limits are by the experiences of others they know or have heard of, and except for trying to get their friend Jewel to leave her abusive boyfriend (a situation as old as society itself), or trying to decide whether the character Matt, a man whom their college newspaper has defended, has actually committed murder or not, they are not political firebrands.  No government body is obviously oppressing them in particular, and what oppression there is is accepted by them as simply part of their way of life, however much they might deplore it.

The novel is narrated in first-person by Francie, and she contemplates her society at large in various comments and asides, but she clearly takes the small view of large things and events:  she is living her life the best way she can, and having experiences more or less similar to what any young woman of average intelligence and sensibility might have, barring a certain sort of superstitious nature, apparently a function of having lost her parents early, and having lost along with the aunt she lives with their male protector, her Aunt Annie’s boyfriend Rohn (he is mysteriously arrested and disappears).  Forces loom largely over the protagonists, but–to echo religious Scripture vaguely–no one exactly knows the time of his or her going or the manner.

Such subtleties prevail that the novel progresses more like a young woman’s diary entries than like a novel, though the “diary” is broken up into titled chapters instead of dated entries.  It is only at the very end, when Francie is contemplating her habit of “seeing” dead or missing people in the sky, that she utters the chilling flash forward comment:   “In the months to come, the sky would get even more crowded, but I would take my inspiration from right here.”  “Right here” is as we finally realize “the heart of the valley of love”:  it turns out to be a valley that a friend’s father and grandfather had spoken of, where they had buried a time capsule box of sorts, and which other people are quickly turning into a junkyard and dumping ground.  And there is the aura of hope:  with Francie is still Mark, her boyfriend, who stands beside her there, and she is capable of still finding inspiration, even in the middle of a wasted landscape.  And that’s the end of the novel.  Rather, perhaps it is the beginning of a new kind of dystopia, one focusing less on gigantic, large-scale plots, stratagems, and catastrophes, and one which takes these things for granted but looks instead at what can be achieved modestly and in small by Everywoman and Everyman.  It’s certainly a thought!


Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

The Perennial Appeal and Vision of Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears”

Though I was planning to post in a few days on another work entirely, today I happened to read Caroline’s post at BeautyIsASleepingCat , and was struck with an exchange she and I had about the material of a book she was reviewing, and which she is currently receiving comments on (for those who have read it or are interested in reading it, as am I).  Her review topic was J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, and I’ll just repeat the part of our discussion that is pertinent to my own topic today:  in effect, we talked about the way that sometimes, happy memories from the past can make us unhappy in the present because they are no longer a part of our current experience.  This is part of the character’s experience in the book she is discussing, and for some reason–and it turns out to be a fairly good one–I was unable to dismiss my own faint memory of some other work, at some other time, which had been on the same general subject.

As it so happens, it was one of my favorite of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poems, short and to the point though it is, in contrast with his several lengthier poems which have won worldwide acclaim.  The poem is “Tears, Idle Tears,” and I am able to give it here in complete form, because it is available elsewhere on the Internet as well:

“Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,/Tears from the depth of some divine despair/Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,/In looking on the happy autumn-fields,/And thinking of the days that are no more./”  “Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,/That brings our friends up from the underworld,/Sad as the last which reddens over one/That sinks with all we love below the verge;/So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more./”  “Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns/The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds/To dying ears, when unto dying eyes/The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;/So sad, so strange, the days that are no more./”  “Dear as remembered kisses after death,/And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned/On lips that are for others; deep as love,/Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;/O Death in Life, the days that are no more!/”

I’ve always said that no one can milk an emotion like Tennyson!  But how does the poem actually work?  It seems to work by an intricate set of connecting words and phrases which rely on experiences everyone has either had or has imagined having, so that its universal appeal can easily be understood.  In the first stanza, Tennyson begins with the rhetorical trope of paralipsis, or denying something that he is in fact going to affirm, when he first says, “I know not what they mean,” and then goes on to tell us exactly what they mean.  The tears are “idle” only in the same sense that they are “vain,” not as in “vain’ equalling “empty” or “egotistical,” but “vain” as in “useless,” “hopeless,” “having no worthwhile issue.”  The present “autumn-fields” are “happy,” but the speaker is sunk in recollection by what they call up to memory.  There have been other autumn days and fields which were happier still.

In the second stanza, it’s not just the memories that are said to be past, but also what would be a rather eerie visitation by friends “up from the underworld,” were it not a welcome visitation.  The beam of sunlight which the speaker can imagine “glittering” on the underworld sail as it rises is challenged in its “fresh” quality by the nearly concurrent “sad” quality (a word reiterated throughout the poem) which “sinks with all we love below the verge,” so that “the days that are no more,” the phrase repeated in the end of each stanza, has a focus on the distant horizon, whether in the rise of memories or their return to the underworld which apparently stores them, the horizon often being a symbol of life’s bourne, limits, and of death.

The subject of death having been well-introduced by now, the speaker makes a tie between an experience everyone has perhaps had, that of “dark summer dawns” and hearing “the earliest pipe of half-awakened birds,” and links it with an experience that awaits everyone but which only those who are already gone could actually have, “the dying ears” hearing the sounds, and the “dying eyes” which see the casement “slowly grow[] a glimmering square.”  This stanza uses the word “sad” as well to describe this imagined experience, but whereas in the second stanza it was  living persons watching those from the underworld approach and leave, at least in imagination, so here it is the imagined dying people who have the “strange” experience of watching the dawn of a day which they possibly will not live to see the end of.  In this respect, the poem reminds me a little of Emily Dickinson’s poem “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died,” which also discusses a moment when “I could not see to see,” and purports to be talking from a time after that moment, to judge by its past tense.

Lost causes seem to be the subject of the fourth stanza, whether that of kisses that are no longer accessible, or fantasies about love and lovers that did not bear fruit, and the word “hopeless” emphasizes the whole tenor of the poem, which acknowledges happiness only to grieve its short tenure.  The days that are no more are “deep as love,/Deep as first love,” which is another repetition emphasizing what is missing from the present that was available in the past, love itself, since the speaker seems not to anticipate any further happiness from the current moment or day.  And then, of course, “wild with all regret,” whether of things not done at all or things that can be no longer done, we get the strongest statement yet of the speaker’s dilemma, “O Death in Life, the days that are no more!”  Here, the grieving requires emphatic punctuation at the end of the line, and Tennyson caps off his line with an exclamation point, to emphasize that death is a main concern to the speaker, whether actual deaths that he is mourning or the loss of happier times which he cannot conceive will come again or be followed by more happy times.

Now, having written about this poem and having lived with it again for a short space, I can say that there is a sort of catharsis one experiences when reading a poem such as this one, so that as well as turning out an inspired bit of work, Tennyson has provided a vision with a workaday or utilitarian use.  My older teachers in grade school and even in high school were excessively fond of poems with this quality, which in Samuel Johnson’s words could “point a moral” and “adorn a tale.”  Their own confreres amongst the more exalted academic circles at the time of their own youth must have surely pooh-poohed this approach to literature, and it has its limits.  But I do have to say that having re-read the poem after a long time of not seeing it in front of me, I do feel not only admiration and reverence for its aesthetic qualities, but appreciation as well for the cathartic release it engenders.  I think it likely that the book Caroline is reviewing, A Month in the Country, may well have similar cathartic capabilities.  Why not visit her site and see?


Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

Agony and a Painter’s Eye: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Woodspurge”

Today’s post is about one of the most frequently taught poems of the early Victorian era, one which has perplexed many an undergraduate (including me, at the time) and even more seasoned readers, I think primarily because they are waiting for it to tell a story, or give an explanation, of however attenuated a kind.  And it does both of these things in its own way, except that its own way is not that of the usual lyric poem; rather, it is an encapsulation of a lyric moment caught by the “eye” of a painter who was also a poet.  This multi-talented individual was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists and writers.

The poem is “The Woodspurge,” a modest title in line with the mostly restrained and simple words used.  The overall effect, however, is anything but simple.  Here is the poem in its entirety, all four four-line stanzas, which have been quoted elsewhere on the Internet previously as well:

“The wind flapped loose, the wind was still,/Shaken out dead from tree and hill;/I had walked on at the wind’s will–/I sat now, for the wind was still./Between my knees my forehead was–/My lips, drawn in, said not Alas!/My hair was over in the grass,/My naked ears heard the day pass./My eyes, wide open, had the run/Of some ten weeds to fix upon;/Among those few, out of the sun,/The woodspurge flowered, three cups in one./From perfect grief there need not be/Wisdom or even memory;/One thing then learned remains to me–/The woodspurge has a cup of three.”

Now to embark upon an interpretation, which is of course only one among many possible, but which I believe has some points to recommend it, such as its close reliance upon the items found in the poem, without adding possibly spurious additional material.

The first stanza begins by stressing that even when the speaker is in motion, as when walking, he is passively affected in the main:  when the wind pushes him along, he walks; when the wind ceases, he sits.  The wind is said to be “shaken out dead,” and indeed he is deathlike and still, or at least motionless, when the wind dies down.

Though many people think that the arcania of rhetorical figuration is mainly limited to such figures as similes, metaphors, apostrophes, and other such figures more common to poetry, it is a fact that in this poem Rossetti uses both paralipsis and litotes (in the second and third stanzas respectively), which perhaps occur less often in poetic circumstances.  Here in the second stanza, the speaker “paints a picture” of himself with head hanging low, and says that his lips did not say “alas.”  Well, why should they?  We don’t know, but by saying that he did not say something he is in fact saying, the poet is using the figure of paralipsis, which is denying that one is making a statement while in fact making it.  He speaks of his naked ears, and here the word “naked” is like the word “dead” in the first stanza, in that it is a powerful and evocative word that stands out as unusual; there is a sense that he is unprotected; there is a sense of vulnerability.

In the third stanza, this same sense of vulnerability occurs when we are told that his eyes are “wide open,” and therefore exposed.  At first we think that they are not exposed to much, it is true, as his head is hanging between his knees, but this seems to be a case of much from little.  Using the figure of litotes, or understatement, he says that he can see “ten weeds,” which is surely not all he can see even given his restricted field of vision.  Weeds and grass grow thickly, after all.  This figure of understatement produces a sense of lowness (as does his crouch), and depression.  Among these weeds, he focuses on the woodspurge because is it different and isolated, as he the speaker too is isolated, even among natural things and nature, though in poetry these are very often seen as potentially sympathetic, even sometimes to the extreme of using the “pathetic fallacy,” in which a speaker’s or character’s emotions are said to be experienced by a natural force or being.  The woodspurge is “out of the sun” literally because it is overshadowed by the speaker’s limbs and head hanging; the speaker himself is “out” of a sort of shining grace, of happiness.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker brings up “perfect grief,” and suggests that there is no wisdom which comes from it or memory which can resolve it.  Though the reader may experience a sense of shock at this sudden introduction of intense emotion as a subject, yet there is something about it which shows fittingness as well.  Even though it “ups the ante” in a sudden way, it’s appropriate because we know that all this so far has been adding up to something, some climax.  The last two lines contain a living crystallization of a moment of pain and suffering, the sense of “perfect grief” as embodied in the totally a-historical symbol of the woodspurge.  That is, before Rossetti wrote his poem, there was no necessary connection between the tiny weed/flower and sorrow; since his poem, I doubt that anyone aware of the poem, either seeing the poem and/or seeing the woodspurge knowingly, could help but think of the emotional connection.

This poem “The Woodspurge” is an excellent introduction to the Pre-Raphaelite notion that a poem (or a painting) can be about a moment of intense emotion without a history in words of the cause (though of course many of the paintings were of characters from literature or myth).  As well, to anyone themselves subject to the feelings recorded in the poem, “The Woodspurge” itself is a woodspurge-in-words which can capture their own emotions, again without an actual historical rehearsing of the cause of the emotions.  Thus the vagueness of the “backstory,” as it’s called now, makes the poem itself more universal and accessible to more people.  The statement that “One thing then learned remains to me–/The woodspurge has a cup of three” betrays the lastingness of the grief and the simultaneous poverty and wealth of sorrow:  sorrow is full and overflowing, so full that the speaker cannot say more than he does, yet it leaves him empty of all but the final awareness of the association between his emotion and what he sees at the extreme moment of its intensity.

At the risk myself of having made much of a little thing, I have written this analysis of one of Rossetti’s most famous poems, maybe the most well-known, because it is so perfect of its kind.  I hope that you too will find it answers to your notion of a fine work of art, and will remember its beauty at any time when you feel that the world’s beauty has deserted you:  the woodspurge may be a simple flower, but it is a deceptively simple poem, and one which has much to offer to those who would notice.


Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

China Mieville’s “Perdido Street Station”–Reading the first item in a trilogy as a prequel

After waiting for a considerable while for China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station to become available at my local library, long after I’d already read his loosely (very loosely) connected second and third books pertaining to the same world (The Scar and Iron Council), I was ready to write a post.  Nevertheless, it was the middle of the Christmas-New Year’s holiday break, and so I gave myself a few weeks off to do what people do during the holidays, at least partially due to the grim nature of the first book, which since I read it last functioned as a sort of prequel, willy-nilly.  Somehow, it was so masterful that I wanted to comment upon it, but so dour and again “grim” that I couldn’t bring myself to put a blight on the holidays by focusing on it.

Now, however, the New Year has begun, and it’s time to face realities, so since my New Year’s resolution, such as it is, is to get back to a more regular posting schedule, it’s time to face Perdido Street Station head-on.  First let me say that the book begins at the beginning in the sense of building the world of New Crobuzon, a city which reminds me very much of a world-class city like London (the city of which Miéville is a citizen).  It’s in the first book thus that we get hints of themes and types of characters developed in all three of the books.  For example, the government and the militia are overwhelmingly strong and overbearing, putting their fingers not only in every legal “pie” going, but also in most of the illegal ones, whatever will turn a profit for the individuals in power.  As well, there are drugs and illicit activities abounding in the society at large, which the government polices on the one hand and attempts to regulate for their own use on the other.  Challenging the nature of this corruption are such bodies as the outlawed rebel presses, one of which publishes the forbidden newspaper Runagate Rampant, and folk heroes such as Jack Half-a-Prayer, a rebel who helps from the shadows to set things right in whatever way he can.  Caught in between are natives of many races, like the khepri (semi-human semi-beetles) and the vodyanoi (frog-like characters capable of controlling water power), and cactacae (cactus people), who must choose sides and duck prejudice and unfairness.

The main character of this book is a scientist-cum-renegade named Isaac Grimnebulin, who is approached by a member of a humanoid bird race from the desert, called a garuda.  This garuda asks him to rebuild or restore his wings, which have been removed as a punishment for a crime against another garuda.  The garuda claims that he is unable to explain the crime in the language that a human would comprehend, but it involved depriving another garuda of choice in one of his/her life decisions.  They become friends, and in the process of trying to study flying things in order to know how to use aerodynamics and his special study of crisis technology, Isaac unintentionally becomes involved in a massive plot which brings danger to the whole city, and which he and his friends must correct.

At the center of the conspiracy is a costly drug known as “dreamshit,” a substance which not only the government but also any number of criminals are trying to control the distribution of.  This substance comes from a phenomenally powerful and dangerous creature known as a slake-moth, a huge flying being whose larvae are fed on the dreamshit which humans steal and take as a drug.  When Isaac unknowingly raises a caterpillar that becomes a slake-moth and breaks free, freeing as well its brothers and sisters from a laboratory where they are kept, all hell breaks loose, to put it mildly.  The government is hunting Isaac and his friends for even ever having had the slake-moth, and for interfering in their plans to sell them to a gangster.  And in ignorance of this conspiracy between the government and the gangster, Mr. Motley, Isaac’s khepri lover Lin accepts a job from the gangster which she thinks is simple because it seems only to involve making a statue of him.

The book is involved, painful, and full of incident; it is as full of harsh events and no-way-out circumstances as any realistic novel.  There is no way that this book could bear the typical label of science fiction/fantasy, “escape literature,” because the creatures, characters, events, and symbols of everyday life are all paralleled by what is actually in our world, regardless of how unrealistic they at first seem.  Note, however, that I am not calling it a bad book; on the contrary, it’s a real gem of a book to read and think about, and I’m even glad that I read it last, because I think it’s no less substantial than the other two books and even surpasses them in the sense that it initiates the reader into a new kind of fiction which while fantastic in specifics is full of humanism and moral pointedness in its generalities and themes.  Don’t go here if you are looking for an escape; but go here if you are in search of a finely-crafted, highly artistic literary experience that fulfills most reasonable expectations of surprising you and rewarding you and confirming your experiences and intuitions of how living beings should and should not treat each other.  You will certainly find what you seek in this book by China Miéville.


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All ready for Christmas, and in the eye of the storm….

What, my readers may ask, has possessed me to go two weeks without posting a single word on my WordPress.com blog?  Why do I think that people will just wait around and tolerate being neglected?  Have I been sitting around twiddling my thumbs, picking my nose, staring at nothing?  Well, no.  Truth to tell, I’ve been getting ready for Christmas.  And I’ve been getting ready for Christmas for several weeks now, and now have only two gifts left to buy, a huge bone (4 1/2 foot long) for my brother’s hound and something more potable for my brother (shhhh!  don’t anyone tell them–they don’t read my blog).  It has just seemed that every time I think I’m done, I get another great gift idea, and I persuade myself that I can spare the money, and so I do, and there we go.

My adventure started near the end of October, when the first catalogs advertising Christmas items came out.  Forewarned is forearmed, and I had been told that ordering either online or on the phone was going to be drastically slowed this year, and so I looked up interesting gifts in the catalogs in October.  But I didn’t actually buy many gifts in October, because the catalogs hadn’t got the lower or lowest prices yet.  I ordered a few things that might take till forever to come in, and then I waited for the next catalogs to come out, so that I could order from them in November.  Of course, I had some independent ideas which I researched on Amazon.com, and a very few items that I waited until this past week to pick up at the stores in person.  But the predominance of my gifts I was able to order online or on the phone, and I had that done well within the month of November.  Then all I had to do was wait for stuff to come in.

By the first of December, I was ready to wrap, and so I started wrapping.  We put up our tree, and now all of my gifts except the two I mentioned are under the tree, awaiting their inevitable unveiling on Christmas morning.  But there were still cards to do, and I always bake for some people here where I live, and that still needed to be done.  Of course, the cards went by in a flash in one blitz of an evening, and I started doing my bread baking yesterday and stayed up all night finishing it last night (when I get motivated, I get motivated!).  It was made easier (and cheaper) this year because so many people had told me they didn’t want cookies this year.  Usually, I make four kinds, about 24 dozen cookies in all, but this year I settled on loaves of sourdough bread.  This was convenient, as I was already planning to wake up my sourdough starter from its sleep in the fridge in order to take it up to my brother’s for Christmas so that we could make sourdough English muffins.

Since yesterday, I have finished the main part of my baking.  The only people I have still to bake for are the ladies at the local charity shop, for whom we usually do a cookie tray.  I think this year I will do a tray of sourdough bites with cheeses for them, by way of a change for the both of us.  So now, I’m sitting looking at dirty dishes, feeling like I need a good nap after my all-nighter up baking, but still too wired to sleep.  And of course starting last night late or early this morning really, we began to have a nor’easter (a storm off the ocean, full of rain and high winds, with some threats of flooding).  The storm is going to last probably until tomorrow noon, so I have to be ready with towels and things to dry out the windows and sop up water, which is a fortune most people who are anywhere near a coast are familiar with.  But I’m not really complaining; I’m done with so many things, and now I’m just very excited and can’t wait for Christmas to come.

That’s really the way of it, isn’t it?  When you’re young, you generally think of Christmas as a time when you get things from indulgent family members and friends, and it’s a rare child who appreciates the sheer fun of giving.  But once you get to be an adult, the fun is in surprising someone else with something bought or made that they will enjoy or profit from.  So, here I sit, two weeks and two days before Christmas, waiting and waiting and waiting for the big day to come, so that I can celebrate with people I care about.  And all this fooferall of my post is just to assure my readers that they are people I care about too, toward whom I feel I have a responsibility to post regularly and as interestingly as possible, even if I don’t know their names and they never comment.  I hope this posting finds you well and deep in your own plans for whatever winter or December holiday you observe, and waiting eagerly for the next real literary post to come along.  I promise to do one soon, as soon as I have recuperated from my own holiday efforts and have a chance to sit down and read again.  Until then, cheers!


Filed under A prose flourish, Other than literary days....

Anatomy of a Revolution–China Mieville’s “Iron Council”

I’ve reviewed two or three of China Miéville’s books before, and it’s important to say that each one, even those taking place in the same imaginative world, are all unique from each other.  Perdido Street Station, the first of three books about New Crobuzon, a world-class city state of Bas-Lag, was not available from the library when I first started, so I picked up with the second book, The Scar, read and reviewed it, and now I’ve finished the third book, Iron Council, and have some remarks which I hope are pertinent to make about it.  By the time I get to the original book, Perdido Street Station, I should be able to read it as a sort of prequel, and I’m sure I will still enjoy it.  But on with Iron Council.

Whereas The Scar took place on the sea and was in a sort of middle-time, with its emphasis on New Crobuzon as a world sea power, Iron Council shows the city many years later torn apart from without and within by a war with the powerful Tesh sea-lords and thaumaturges, and by the anarchy and rebellion of its disadvantaged and dissenting citizens.  The so-called Iron Council is a group of rebels who have taken over a train which was supposed to cross the continent to the “greater glory” of New Crobuzon.  But instead of building a railway from the East to the West, as was the mission of the man in charge, a mad visionary named Weather Wrightby, the Iron Councillors–composed of the free people, the enslaved “Remade” peoples (who have been physically altered with animal and machine parts by the government of New Crobuzon to punish them for offenses), and the peoples of other kinds of life forms who have been maltreated by the government–have taken off with the train across continent by laying down tracks and then taking them up behind as the train passes.  They then re-use the ties and rails in front of the train again, and continue repeating the process, making it difficult for the government militia to follow them.

Meanwhile, back in New Crobuzon, the many different factions in rebellion who are loosely loyal to a central Caucus of rebels, yet often can’t agree among themselves about goals and resources, take inspiration from the tales they hear at a distance about the Iron Council, and sporadically there are citizens going back and forth from one group to the other, carrying messages and forming alliances.  Each group has its difficulties and trials, and the book shows these in detail:  for the Iron Councillors and their followers, it’s a matter of staying alive through a rough journey across an unknown continent with dangers such as smokestone (smoke which rises unpredictably from the earth like a geyser and creates a stone figure from whatever it touches) and the cacotopic stain, a portion of the land wherein everything flows and slides, including the landscape and the strange beasts that emerge from it.  The travellers themselves are sometimes suddenly made to shift shape and die horrible deaths in the peculiar effluvia of the terrain, and yet they manage to emerge and sow in their path villages and homesteads by the train’s road.

But as dreadful visitations from the magicians of Tesh act upon the city of New Crobuzon, so at the same time the government sees an opportunity to crack the whip again over its escapees; the militia has circled the continent by water, and approached from the West to get at the Iron Councillors, hoping to end their ability to inspire revolution amongst the Caucus and revolutionaries at home in the city.  The book is bifurcated, with some chapters telling the tale of Ori, a young revolutionary in the city, and the friends and cohorts he finds, and other chapters telling the tale of Cutter and Judah Low (a golem-maker of rare quality) and their friends and associates.  As the book works toward its close, representatives of the two groups come together in the city and try to fight the government as one, yet the many factions, the uncertain information, and the massive effort aimed against them keep them constantly off-balance.  This picture that Miéville paints is fantastic in some of its specifics, such as the otherworldly monsters and thaumaturgy that invest the story with its horrific aspects, yet the picture is highly true-to-life in its portrait of the interactions of people fighting and trying to win through together.  It is everyman’s story of a revolution, and in the middle of it is the tender and frustrated love of Cutter for Judah Low, an inner story which takes place almost certainly in every revolt where people are close and must trust each other with their lives.

As I have said, the verisimilitude of the book when it comes to the interactions that guide peoples’ allegiances and loyalties in a revolution is spot-on; even those who have never as much as read a factual book about mutiny or rebellion will recognize the players in the drama in the book as they attempt to forge bonds or break ties or achieve their goals.  After all, these faces are those of the real-life heroes and villains we see every day as we listen to the news, gossip about celebrities and political figures, and vote someone into or out of office.  Granted, the book is fiction and is about an extreme season in a country’s history; yet I believe you too will begin to feel that the characters in this book remind you of someone you have heard about from the daily news, some rebel or warlord or senator.  In China Miéville’s fantasy/science fiction, we constantly deal with the real, and see the shadows of a past, present, and perhaps of a future familiar to us.  I won’t give away the book’s ending, but I will say that it is “lyrical,” as the blurb writer on the cover says, and is in some ways the only possible ending which could walk evenly between euphoria and despair; give the book a read sometime soon, and I predict that you too will be impressed with this author’s outstanding ability to provoke, entertain, and teach with a new voice.


Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

When is a cicatrix a metaphor, and when is it actual?–China Mieville’s “The Scar”

A scar, or a cicatrix, or a series of scars, appears pertinently in three or four places in the book The Scar by China Miéville.  It is the second of his three books about the world of New Crobuzon and its denizens, the first being Perdido Street Station and the third being Iron Council.  The books are loosely connected and feature a world of cityscapes, seascapes, hard laws, and maritime justice.  This book, The Scar, happens to be the one I picked up first, and so I’m making my post on it first, not having read Perdido Street Station yet.  The Scar itself embodies a scar across the face of New Crobuzon, taking place mostly on the imaginary world of Bas-Lag’s oceans and seas in a piratical kingdom known as Armada, one opposed to New Crobuzon’s rule of the easily known parts of the world’s waters, and subsisting on what it can steal and rob from others.

But I should start at the beginning.  The main protagonist, a woman named Bellis Coldwine, is fleeing her beloved New Crobuzon in a ship bound for colonies in Nova Esperium because she is afraid of being questioned by authorities for her possible connections with a scientist known as Isaac, a man having something to do with a contagion in New Crobuzon.  She has done nothing, but has a strong feeling that this will not help her to maintain her own rights and freedom from imprisonment.  In fact, she uses her abilities as a translator of arcane languages to win her a berth aboard the Terpsichoria, a ship which also contains in its hull a number of prisoners with their own kinds of actual scars.  Their scars are the physical ones of the “Remade,” people whose bodies have been fitted with odd and outlandish limbs and gadgets to punish them for some infraction or other.  Her logic that outlaws are more comfortable in the colonies is fine, as far as it goes; that is, until the New Crobuzoner ship reaches the land of some of its allies, the cray people, only to find that one of its own three drilling towers maintained on the cray people’s harbor is missing!

At this point, things begin to destabilize around Bellis, and because of decisions taken by others, over which she has no control, she finds herself prisoner in a casual way aboard a pirate vessel which absorbs the ship she is on and adds it to a floating pirate city farther away in the waters, a city made up not only of its own native citizens, but far more of a community of freed Remade (or fRemade) peoples, people who have accepted a change in allegiance in exchange for their lives, and odd people from here and there across the face of the world who have lost their homes to the pirates or to chance.

Bellis never gives up hope of getting back home to New Crubuzon, where she hopes she will be able to return when she is no longer being sought.  But before this can happen, she goes through a scarring and self-changing life experience in the pirate city.  The city is divided into ridings ruled by powerful sea-lords, not excluding one called the Brucolac (a vampir), who has a “cadre” of vampirs working with him.  Another riding, or city section, is ruled by a man and woman called “the Lovers,” who have a strange history which Bellis Coldwine gradually susses out with the mysteriously inclined help of their henchman, one Uther Doul, a mercenary fighter who controls a mysterious Possible Sword, which makes several different possibilities happen at once when he fights.  Bellis is appalled by the way the lovers join, by making mirror image cuts on themselves and the other as an act of twisted love; they, of course, have scars, but more scarring still is the experience they foist upon the city, the experience of seeking a mysterious rift in the world called “The Scar,” where all things and all possibilities exist at once.

When Bellis and a man whom she thinks of as a sort of ally, one New Crobuzon spy named Silas Fennec (or Simon Fench) plot to sneak a message back to New Crobuzon about a supposedly eager-to-invade people named the grindylows, and involve a loyal fRemade man named Tanner Sack in their plot, Bellis finds out too late that she has been played by Silas Fennec, as has Tanner Sack, and there is actually much more than meets the eye to this spy who supposedly had only escape at heart.  She and Tanner Sack both are punished with lashes on the back, and thus she painfully and in agony acquires her own scars in this world, where the scars are both physical and psychic, but seemingly in equal measure hurtful.  But Silas Fennec has much more to suffer than they, not only from the pirate’s sense of justice, but also from the grindylows, who skulk along the bottom of the oceans until their time to strike comes.

There is a lot of wounding in this book, many weeping cuts and hacks and numerous psychological and physical bruises, and a lot of blood.  Throughout the book, Bellis is writing a letter to a friend at home, which is interspersed with the narrative sections written in third person about her, as well as sections told in first person from several others’ points of view.  Both Bellis’s letter and her narrative sections as well as those of the others startle and shock with their grisly details; this is not a book for someone with a weak stomach.

Still, this book is consistent in several major ways with other books I’ve read by Miéville:  it is full of unexpected twists and turns; alliances change and merge as the book progresses; the book is an intellectual delight at the same time as it is a visceral nightmare; and one makes it through the nightmare by following the patterns of thought traced by a main figure who thinks and feels his or her way through the bloody images and happenings, to a resolution that strikes one as being a sort of “settling” for the best that can happen, under adverse circumstances.  This resolution pattern is what gives the books a strong sense of reality which makes the fantasy/science fiction elements more believable.  And Miéville never once condescends to his readers, in fact he imposes stresses and strains on his readers’ ability to understand by insisting on not offering translations and explanations of terminology, but by instead merely presenting items of lexicon and interpretation simply and making the reader progress ahead with an imperfect sense of what exactly is meant, which of course is mimetic of the experience the characters are going through.  Above all, no one character knows everything:  there’s no final sense of authority to appeal to.  All rules are conditioned by circumstances of conjecture and hypothesis, until the truth, at least the probable truth, becomes clear to main characters and thus to the reader.  Most things, by the end, are simply a matter of personal choice, but not free choice unconditioned by life’s circumstances, rather by acceptance that there are limited moves available left on the chess board, and one must take oneself in hand and choose one’s own outcome.  And this is what makes Miéville’s work so exciting–the combination of outrageous fantasy with hard choices and realistic character traits.  But don’t take my word for it–read one of his works soon, and see for yourself.  Chances are, he will leave a creative cicatrix on your imagination, he will leave his mark on you.  One thing is certain, whether you like what you are able to visualize from his word pictures or not, you will certainly “see” them, in all their vivid (and sometimes gory) vitality, and my prediction is that you will be eager to read him again and again.


Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?