Here you can see at top above the cover art and back cover (with blurb by the stupendous and kind Katy Naylor, of Postcards from Ragnarok and the voidspace) followed in the second image by the internal frontispiece of the book, which is being published by the equally magnificent and kind Alien Buddha Press. Look for me on Amazon, and acquire a copy for yourself! Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)
Tag Archives: literary ancestors
Arthur L. Wood’s “Scarlet Land”–A Poet’s Development from Being Mainly a Love Poet to Being a Diagnostician of the Poet’s Landscape and Condition
Copyright 2021, Arthur L. Wood, Cover design, Hugh Rochfort
Having read Arthur L. Wood’s first collection of poetry, Poems for Susan, with its tender strains of love poetry and its far-reaching set of influences, one might be at least partially prepared for his second collection, Scarlet Land. Here also, there is sometimes tenderness of language, and the influences, both submerged and spoken of directly, are equally far-flung. But the tenderness here is more tempered with a certain cynicism, an acquired knowledge of more of the world in the tone, a certain sated weariness from time to time in the language, which yet does not make the poetry dull-witted with rancor or wearisome to read.
In Scarlet Land, the poet as a figure has not only the topic of love to contend with; he is also embattled in that same sensation of love, embattled in society, in poetic invention, in many things. And of course, in the background lurks always the awareness, like Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire, of being a poet in a condition or time of disease: just as in 2020, Covid appeared in Poems for Susan overtly, here it appears more insidiously, in the background as one is aware of the unhealthy influence. There are songs of dismay at modern conditions:
I cannot find my England. Does she lie in dust I sweep, Does she hide away in sunshine, in darkness does she creep, Does she hum a pagan melody and converse with the stars, Is she frightened by the madness and the music from the bars? I cannot find my England.
There are poems investigating or betraying to view a poet’s states and choices:
What more can I do? I've channelled the poets, I've died so many times, Yet so few are listening; I've written ten thousand Miraculous rhymes-- What more can I do? ************************** So many great poems! What more can I do? Tell me, would you please tell me, Because I haven't a clue-- I get up each morning, I shower and dress, Then die many times; Another call centre Awaits me, I guess. ************************* Or, taking a line through Milton, more affirmatively: ************************* Let my body starve! Let my soul rejoice! I cannot fail my task, I must be precise! I'll reinvent the songs With the trumpet of my voice, And pave the path of poesy That leads to paradise!
Raymond Keene, OBE, comments in his Foreword to the book that this is “fraught territory,” and indeed, in this book, the poet allows himself to be used nearly as the canary in the coal mines is used, who is the barometer (if he lives or if he dies) of whether or not there are unseen and dangerous substances being breathed by those around him. It is certainly in Scarlet Land a more “fraught” mental and moral landscape than in the previous book.
As to the structure of the poetry, Wood has always been good at achieving a sense of closure of the poetic material, regardless of whether the poem ends on a refrain, on a variation of a previous statement, or even if the contained sentiment diverges from the poetic shape by not being conclusive. He has also not disappointed in continuing his genius with metering and rhyming, though there are herein a bit more of poems in blank verse.
Sprinkled throughout, though not devoted to any one individual love by name as was the case in the previous book, there are still some hopes given out for the persistence of human love. The characteristic love poem here now occurs in spite of negative conditions, not so much in the absence of them as was the case in Poems for Susan:
While We Love
The world of raging fire, The cold and dark abyss, The fluctuating chasm, Are nothing while we kiss. The lake of burning sinners, The acid in the sky, The hole within the middle, Are nothing while we sigh. The steel-whitened seaweed, The limping one-eyed dove, The corpse upon the mountain, Are nothing while we love.
All in all, though the poetic voice is often strained here, the poet frustrated in the extreme to the point of sketching it all out for the reader, we see here a more complicated and mature poetic schema than before. Poems for Susan was an astounding and magnificent book, but it was the poet’s courtship of his subject and his talent; Scarlet Land is the beginning of his alchemical marriage to the same.
Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)
A.S. Byatt and Professor Jeffers–My Essay on Their “Big Historical Books” That Can’t Seem to Find a Publisher (Here It Is)
Some time back, I revised an essay on A.S. Byatt which I had written some years ago because at last I had found another book which I find equal and commensurate to it in stature and able not only to carry on the tradition Byatt established but to ring such changes on it as need to be rung for a different society and such disparate traditions in this country as need urgently to be united. On the basis of having read about 100 pages of Professor Jeffers’ book The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois, I presumed to decide that this was the proper “inheritor” of the tradition Byatt had written in. There may possibly have been some inequity in the fact that I had not finished Professor Jeffers’ book, but I am continuing to read and will naturally do a full review on it when I have been able to finish, as I do with every book of stature which I have an opportunity to read. In my own defense, I would offer such personal facts as that I have also been reviewing other works recently, some of which I took up before Professor Jeffers’ book, others of which were easier to proceed with due to the simple fact that, whether prose or poetry, they were shorter. Also, I am almost certainly going to be forced to move before Christmas or shortly thereafter, and I have been getting ready and packed for that, and have been looking for Senior Housing. Perhaps I should have waited, but I was so eager to share the insight that I went ahead and revised the essay to include the prediction, no, the insistence, that the United States now has a book (there may somewhere be another, but this one is truthful about so many things, and it is a book of our contemporary centuries, too).
This book seems to me, at least, to be not only as enjoyable as Byatt’s book (all mysteries to end soon, I promise), but to be as informative if not more so, and as representative of a people’s culture, whether one is discussing that of the African-American citizens of this country or of our country as a whole, because it doesn’t leave the country alone and hanging, but speaks well for our culture as a cultural artefact. We should be just as proud of it as the British are of Byatt’s book (here it is), The Children’s Book, which only has as much to do with children as any historical book does, as it is a great deal more about the history and mores of the time. I have peeked ahead into Professor Jeffers’ book, but I didn’t want to do this too much before I wrote my final article to come in the future, because I didn’t want to take the risk of possibly issuing a spoiler and ruining it for the many readers who are still reading around me, as I don’t want to hear ahead of time either. And, this book also has a group of children as main characters. I say this in a certain amount of bewilderment as to why I haven’t been able to publish this article, aside from whatever my own skill with words may or may not be, which I leave to my readers. It may only be one of a host of other essays about the new book from a better variety of writers, or perhaps the difficulty has to do with simple editorial lack of space in previously committed journals. I don’t know. But I feel I don’t want to wait longer to cast my vote for the new book, always bearing in mind that I will review it again at better length later on.
It has occurred to me, that even in the two or three revisions this essay has gone through, I may be guilty of some oversight or intellectual injustice. If so, I am willing to hear the fault, from whomever feels they are qualified to tell me what it is. I want to know if I am in the wrong, because these are important issues: the societal issues raised about the status and well-being of a young black citizen and her family and associates in the United States are just as important as the looming issue of WW II was in Byatt’s book, and in my reading judgment are as well and interestingly handled. So, here is the essay: I invite comment, as always. [Thanks to D. L. Keur of the now defunct online journal thedeepening.com for printing the first version of the original Byatt essay, and for original permission to reprint.] Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)
The Taut Exactitudes of a Lyric Welsh Poetry–Matthew M.C. Smith’s “Origin: 21 Poems” and a Study in Poetic Opposites
Matthew M. C. Smith, the editor of Black Bough Poetry in Swansea, Wales, has reissued his 2018 book of poetry, the modestly entitled Origin: 21 Poems. It is his first collection of poetry in a long life of working on poetry and studying poetics. One of his first contributions to the body of work on literature is his doctorate at the University of Wales, a thesis on the poetry of Robert Graves. Currently, Matthew divides his time amongst a career in work on anti-poverty, education and welfare work; an editorship at Black Bough Poetry/Barddoniaeth Y Gangen Ddu, and a new volume of poetry, all of which makes him truly a Renaissance man.
When I had finished reading Origin: 21 Poems, my first thought was that if I weren’t talking about poetry, I’d say that each of these poems is clinically exact, except that I am talking about poetry, and “clinically” is the wrong word; these are poems rich in feeling, fellow-feeling, and emotional wealth, and here the poetical indirections are made in short, minimalist code of metaphor and description, which perhaps has confused my own non-minimalist poetic practice.
This poetry is definitely something to learn, and to know how to do, for the beauty of the sometimes staccato revelations is extreme, the phrasing a sort of condensed shorthand on the road to perfect portraiture, to individual epiphanies, to separate visions.
The book Origin: 21 Poems is entirely situated around family situations, cultural ones, and natural/mythological/religious ones (all those things in life that are so much bigger than we are), sketching a line from belief and belief systems through the societal structures and remnants of ritual our civilization has left us with to family and celebrations of family and faith, the most personal of all.
There are careful pairings of poems back and forth, weaving, knitting a net to catch us in, with the warp in one poem being a salute to air travel, to being a soldier, either modern or ancient, and the woof of the next poem following being a loving meditation dedicated to a child’s birth or to play with children, or, one of the most moving poems, a poem on the death of the poet’s father, containing some of the implications of his life. There are poems on prophets and guardians and “prodigal” women, nature poems filled with the beauty of winter or the symbolic natural growths of the seasons, and the book ends in a tribute poem to another Welsh poet, Alun Lewis, who died in WW II. There is no accident here in these weavings of opposites, because they not only thus form Smith’s dedication to being a participating witness in all the doings of life, but they also invite the reader to select favorite and most resonant phrases, to read aloud, and then willy-nilly, to be led into a different experience, just as life itself would demand. Here are some of my favorite lines and their topical sources:
the birth of a child: “You belong to the world/to rose-red rivers dipped by the sun/to the white path of light in darkest night/ to frosts of fire beyond our dawn”
the death of a father: “No cry, nor whisper, a cross shape/near crested roar and the people you love/carried you from the shore”
“After Man”: “The fern, the ivy/the circle of oaks/were fast losing names given…our time was terribly mocked”
the modern soldier; “Men of arms…frame-ache, sting of sweat/body-rack past forest tracks/where whippet-lads lead/and bigger lads wane”
“The Moment”; “cycles of sun and/nights of stone//Picasso/his sorrow of shadow/is cast across/a frieze of terror”
the poet’s homage to another poet: “your words grow old/but dare not fade/I heard they took you/in feathers as light as snow/and in that whirling flight/as words exhaled/they kissed your fading glow”
Here, the taut exactitudes I have spoken of in my title are from line to line, but blossoming forth in between are the pictures, the images, bodied forth in and contained by the lines themselves. The overall effect? Almost a contradiction in terms, the lyricism of the burgeoning phrases, held firmly in the short precision of the actual words. Thus, it should be no guess that the preference at Black Bough Poetry is for short, imagistic poems of 1-10 lines, and that the devotion to the human equation has produced a sense of community for poets of every stripe, who are regularly invited to participate every Tuesday online through Twitter, tweeting to Black Bough Poetry, in #Top#Tweet#Tuesday, a rollicking, fun-filled poetic experiment in exposing poets from all areas of the globe to the work of other poets of all kinds and schools. As well, there are occasionally special seasonal contests and participations, such as the recently closed one for Hallowe’en 2021.
As a final and defining note about this poet’s, Matthew M. C. Smith’s, contribution to the world poetic community, I would like to call attention to his election this month (November 2021) to be Broken Spine’s #Writer of the Month. Already, he has participated in more than one poetic activity in this position, all of which information is available to the interested follower on Twitter. If you are not yet familiar with Smith, his book is available on Amazon, and for all the many poets the world over who are already friends, admirers, and poetic colleagues of him and his welcoming, modest and self-deprecating humor, let’s give him another round of applause, and keep reminding him we are eagerly and a bit impatiently waiting to read his next book. I mean, for a man who has so little else to do! Seriously, though, be watching for Matthew M. C. Smith’s next volume of poetry; to judge based on this one, it’ll be another wonderful poetic experience.
Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)
Rabindranath Tagore and His “Gitanjali XXXV” (“Where the Mind Is Without Fear”)–A Prayer for Our Modern Country
Though I have often heard the name, Rabindranath Tagore (born Rabindranath Thakur), I have only read a smattering of his works, barely one or two. But this one I wanted to write upon today (and quote in full, as it is short and in the public domain), because it is a universal prayer for any country at any time, and especially for our country, the U.S., right now.
First, a brief biographical note, for anyone who may not be acquainted with this figure of world literature. Tagore was born in Calcutta, India, in 1861, and died in 1941. He was born into a wealthy Bengali family of scholars, religious reformers, writers, and musicians. Though he never took a full university degree, he started an experimental school in 1901 called Shantiniketan (“the abode of peace”) which was based on the ancient schools of India, conducted in the open air, because he did not find the British system of education sufficiently acceptable for his countrymen and countrywomen. It became later Visva-Bharati, an international concern stressing world peace and societal reform. He published his first poem in 1875, when he was 14, and wrote in many different genres, not only the creative (though all genres of writing are in some manner so), and provided by focusing on traditional philosophical thought a bridge between the past and the present.
For his book Gitanjali, which he wrote in Bengali but translated into English himself, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. Though the British knighted him in 1915, in 1919 he renounced the title due to the British massacre of many hundreds of people in Amritsar. He is the person who gave the title “Mahatma” (“great soul”) to Mohandas Gandhi. In 1940, he wrote Crisis in Civilization, which had an international humanitarian focus, and centered on racial equality. Both India and Bangladesh have since adopted poems of his as their national anthems. It is customary and frequent to find him quoted in world literatures, where all of his humanistic qualities are thus in the foreground of other countries.
Now, here is the poem, Song XXXV from Gitanjali:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; Where words come out from the depth of truth; Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action-- Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
While I do think that this poem is universal in its applications, for every country in every time, I cannot help but think that Americans in this time in especial, with all of our particular distresses and tensions and quarrels and discord in general, may find it uplifting and inspiring.
(My biographical data is drawn from a large compendium text of world literature which I have had occasion to mention before on this site: Modern Literatures of the Non-Western World: Where the Waters Are Born, edited and compiled by Jayana Clerk and Ruth Siegel, with study questions and suggestions for further research. It was published by HarperCollins College Publishers in 1995, and is still valuable today.)
A month or so ago, I wrote a post on William Trevor’s book of short stories “After Rain,” and referenced in relation to it the fine scholar Frank Kermode’s critical work first published in 1967, The Sense of an Ending. You may imagine my perplexity when I discovered on my library website a fairly new book, published in 2011, by Julian Barnes, a novel of sorts also called The Sense of an Ending. My perplexity was mainly because at no point in the opening pages of the book and nowhere within is Frank Kermode given a nod for his work, except in the overall sense that it becomes overwhelmingly obvious by the end of the book that it is a sort of case study of, answer to, tribute to, or meditation upon Kermode’s work. Perhaps it is all of these. At any event, Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker prize and was nominated for other awards for this work, so Wikipedia’s confidence that the book is at least a “meditation” upon Kermode’s thesis seems well-founded, because the publicity attendant upon such fame would make it unlikely that the book could be seen otherwise.
To reiterate Frank Kermode’s notion, that humans, being uncomfortable with their short life span, have to imagine themselves as part of a historical curve of a sort of golden age in the past, to which their own lives are the present leading to an important future, is to deal with many imponderables, and yet it certainly makes sense in the way Barnes envisions it. Barnes is in fact doing in a work which isn’t entirely novel-like what Kermode says critics must do: whereas poets help to make sense of the way we see our lives, critics must help make sense of the ways in which we try to make sense of our lives.
The main character, the narrator, Tony Webster, tells a story in two parts in which he is engaged in the first part in telling about his younger years with his friends Alex, Colin, and Adrian, and his failed romance with Veronica (Mary), whose mother also comes into the story. Later, Adrian writes to tell Tony that he and Veronica are now together, and Tony responds. Then, Adrian commits suicide not long after another apparently less vital and virile classmate has done the same thing. The remaining three friends engage in the same sort of philosophical speculation about why Adrian did it that they had shared as intellectually gifted students. In the second part, we see Tony much later, as a retired man who has since been married to someone else, produced offspring, and been cordially divorced. He is now reevaluating the earlier years because Veronica’s mother dies and leaves him a diary of Adrian’s; Veronica, however, is in between Tony and the bequest, and prevents him from a complete reading of the diary. It is in dealing with her as someone who still parallels him in age that he questions himself and thinks about his past in a radically different way than he traditionally has.
“You get towards the end of life–no, not life itself, but of something else; the end of any likelihood of change in that life. You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong?” This is the almost casually stated thesis of Barnes’s work, not casual in the sense of its eventual importance, but in the way he slips it into the woof and weave of many other questions and ponderings about history and in particular personal histories. For example, from his boyhood days, come memories of hilarity in the classroom at a dullard who, when asked what happened in a historical period of complexity, answers: “There was unrest,” and when prodded to comment further, goes on to say, “There was great unrest, sir.” Yet, this comment comes back with some significance to haunt Tony as an older man. In the last paragraph of the book, he states, “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.”
That Barnes has pointed out time as one of his avowed subjects is clear from the first, when he says, “We live in time–It holds us and moulds us–but I’ve never felt I understood it very well.” He elaborates, “ordinary everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.” What is as malleable as time, apparently, or as a result of time, is memory, which lives in and changes with time, for Tony is suddenly shocked by a picture of his younger self in a letter which Veronica does return to him with a few of the diary pages before burning the rest.
And yet there is further shock to come–I will not ruin the surprise near the end of the book, for though this is a serious literary endeavor and not a suspense novel, there is a twist near the end which underlines many of the points that Tony gradually becomes aware of as he re-thinks his earlier history. Suffice it to say that the novel is a very good book in this reader’s opinion, and one well worth the Man Booker Prize. And I like to think that Frank Kermode might find it a fitting tribute (case study? answer? meditation?) as well.
Intemperance, Cruelty, Perversity–How Negative Traits Combine to Produce a Haunting Halloween Tale: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat”
I was six years old. I was spending a weekend with one of my role models, a twelve-year-old girl, a former neighbor who had moved to another town. She was reading me a spooky story before light’s out one night. The story was Edgar Allan Poe’s very chilling tale “The Black Cat.” I don’t think I slept a wink that night, not only because the story itself was so haunting, but because she herself possessed a large cat, an affectionate creature to her, a distant and shy creature with me, though at this reach of time I can no longer remember if it was black or not. Suffice it to say, every time I drowsed off and the cat settled in the huge king-size bed between the two of us, I felt I had to reach out and touch it, try to reassure it that I wasn’t going to hurt it, while also ascertaining that it didn’t mean to hurt me. I have always loved cats, but that weekend was a severe test of my affection for the species. How could it be otherwise, when a master wordsmith like Edgar Allan Poe had been working on my psyche?
Though in some ways Poe seems to be ascribing supernatural effects to people or animals, quite often eerie results are the products of overtaxed and strained imaginations, results brought on by the combination of character flaws and chance circumstances. Yet the deeper his characters sink into the “bog” of their own making, the more they struggle with inadequate aids to help them, the wrong tools, in fact; the more they struggle, the faster they sink into the morass, as one might expect.
In the case of “The Black Cat,” the narrator starts out as an excessively affectionate man to animals and a good companion to his wife, but as he records from the jail cell where he is being kept awaiting execution, it was “through the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance” that he began to be cruel where before he had been kind, both to his many animal pets and to his wife. A modern psychologist might look for a deeper cause, such as some basic personality flaw that produced a tendency to rely on such crutches as alcohol, but to the people of Poe’s time, alcohol was a chancy friend, and a labile personality with a tendency toward addiction was not the chosen explanation: instead, there was something devilish and mysterious about the way alcohol could simultaneously aid or hinder.
The link between his “Intemperance” and a secondary quality is cruelty, and what his drunkenness is linked to is another quality which he calls “Perverseness,” or perversity. He says of this quality: “Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primary impulses of the human heart–one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which gives direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or stupid action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?” In the grips of this sentiment, the speaker has already committed one act against the cat, and proceeds to commit a second, more final one. But this brings him no relief. Instead, he becomes even more hateful to his wife, and more obsessed with the second cat he encounters, which is very like the first, except for a white blaze upon its chest, which he later realizes with premonitory horror resembles the gallows.
Though this is a very well-known tale, I’m not going to spoil it for you by revealing the outcome, except to say that while there is a horrible ending, the actual supernatural effects are all in the speaker’s mind, as he feels that he has been haunted and driven and diabolized into what he has done. In actual fact, the horror derives from the way in which he is slowly but relentlessly pulled down by a combination of chance events (ones he regards as uncanny) and his own personality traits under the influence of alcohol, which have the force of Fate. It is in fact a sort of fated ghastly fear of death which impels him to betray himself to others who are trying to find out what he has done, a kind of self-fulfilling prophetic knowledge of what is going to happen to him that draws him forward into ruin and punishes him for what he has done.
What exactly has he done? Ah, if you have never read the story, then you’ll have to read it to find out–and if you have, Halloween night after the Damnéd Dinner* is the perfect opportunity to chill the blood of your favorite group of guests as you read them the story aloud. I predict that everyone will be both “grossed out” and appropriately horrified.
*The Damnéd Dinner is a Halloween festivity in which each participant prepares one food which feels to the touch like something repellent or vile. The other diners are asked to close their eyes, on their honor not to peek, and then they are served and asked to put their hands in their individual served dishes of the food as the server tells them a dreadful (made-up) story about what they are to eat. They have to eat some of it with their hands or simple implements, and of course after all have eaten it and gotten a relieved chuckle (one hopes) about what it actually is, they are allowed to open their eyes and verify their impressions. Individual after individual takes a turn as server, until everyone has told a Halloween story and (again, one hopes) everyone has had a full repast. Some popular items are peeled grapes or mozzarella balls (which feel like eyeballs if you’re told that’s what they are), strings of long pasta in sauce (brains, of course), or chopped-up jello, which has passed as more than one item in my experience.
Yes, there are pirates and sea adventures. Yes, there are crossed love affairs and duels. And yes, there are shivery moments of speculation upon death and the devil, abundantly so. Well, what else would you expect from a book by Robert Louis Stevenson? Nevertheless, in this book, The Master of Ballantrae, what is in the forefront of the book for more of its length than anything else is a psychological case study of a family, its woes, its inner politics, its relationship to the outer world, and what brings it to grief. Again, this highly reputed examination of the family of the Duries in Scotland during the time of the Scottish-English wars and the years thereafter not only takes place in a reality that was romantic for many by its very nature, but also makes real what would seem an otherwise romantic situation, rendering it thus susceptible to the dictates of reason.
Briefly, the situation is this: Lord Durrisdeer has two sons between whom has grown up a fierce rivalry: his elder son, James the Master of Ballantrae, and his younger son, Henry. From the very first, there is a bitter feud going between them, though initially not in a sustained way. But it is the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the opposing English King George, and the family is split down the middle. This is not only due to where their allegiances and basic personality tendencies lie, but is also due to Lord Durrisdeer’s odd wisdom, of sending one son to fight for Bonnie Prince Charlie while the other son, Henry, the second in line to the tltle, stays at home and helps represent the family as loyal to King George. Funnily enough, though this arrangement may seem like a highly fictionalized one, it is in fact an old tried and true method in the real world as we know it, even to the present day, for families in territories at war. It enables at least half of the family fortunes to be saved, along with (possibly) one future heir.
One of the less political things at issue between the two brothers is their mutual love and rivalry over Miss Alison Graeme, a cousin, whom it is more or less assumed will marry Jamie (James), not only because she loves him and is ready and willing, but also because her fortune could help restore the family’s finances, which are in a sad state. James puts on that he loves her, but he loves himself more, gads about among the women of the district, and even has a bastard child with one woman. When he goes to battle with the Prince, Alison sews the revolutionary cockade upon his cap; she continues to bear allegiance to him even when he’s away. Henry loves her too, but hopelessly and at a distance. Not only does James have all the romance to which a young woman might be susceptible behind his role, but Henry is a practical young man not given to moonshine and daydreams, too pragmatic a figure to cut a dash in the world.
The rivalry and finally actual hatred between the two brothers creeps in further when, due to the apparent death of James, Alison agrees to marry Henry to improve the family’s monetary situation. She continues to grieve and moan over Jamie’s loss, as does his father, Lord Durrisdeer, for whom he was the favorite son, and even after she has a child by Henry, and the title passes to him, they seem to shut Henry out from their fond recollections and reminiscences. But the real problem arises when James returns “from the dead,” and continues to taunt and bait Henry in secret and make nice to him in front of the others, all the while courting Alison, his wife, in spite of the fact that he has no real intention to win her away from Henry, but only acts in order to make trouble for Henry.
There is, to be sure, more than one perspective to this book, even though James seems like the very devil himself and acts fiendishly throughout. That he has abundant charm, a fine intellect, and a strong personality is shown as well. As Mackellar, the land steward who is Henry’s friend and confidant even more than he is his employee, says to James, it’s not so much that he is evil, but that he has the capacity to be so very right-mannered and good a person that is discouraging to his approval of him. Like Satan in Paradise Lost, however, James would “rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Mackellar’s perspective on the two brothers is the main narration device for most of the novel, though (as in other books using varying points of view) there are other narrators whose memoirs or editorial comments add sidelights to the narrative, which of course allows us to see that Henry too is flawed in his own particular way. After a certain point in the story, even Mackellar, loyal as he is to the family and Henry in particular, must realize that in Henry as well there are negative traits which bite deeply. Take the novel as a whole, the adventures and roamings, the war and sea tales and travels to India and the state of New York and the Adirondacks–the latter where Stevenson wrote some of the novel–are perhaps romantic, but at the same time, they provide the background and opportunity for the exhibition of the psychology of the two brothers’ interactions and mutual attempts to overreach each other.
Thus, a conflict which starts out in youth as a minor thing is gradually aggravated by opportunity for mischief on James’s part and stern and unforgiving resilience on Henry’s, and because of circumstances and chances, swells to fill the whole canvas of the changing locales in the novel. Though I’ve enjoyed Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I don’t think I’ve been as spellbound from start to finish with such a fine psychological study as I found in this book. I hope you will read its short number of pages and find it gripping likewise.
A gifted novel about a Wyndham Lewis-like painter visiting Canada from his native Britain during WW II, Damian Tarnopolsky’s Goya’s Dog was a nominee for the 2009 Amazon.ca First Novel Award, formerly Books in Canada First Novel Award. The book transitions from an initial state of what my mother used to call “cross questions and silly answers,” a state in which people are talking at usually unintentionally comic cross-purposes, through a series of vignettes in which the main character, the artist Edward Dacres, gradually realizes that he is a guest artist because he has been mistaken for someone else, to a finally quasi-tragic, quasi-uplifting ending.
From the first moment when I encountered the angry, frustrated, almost savage eye turned on Canadians and Canadian society by the main character Edward Dacres, as he repeatedly tries to make the best of his situation through amusing himself at their expense if nothing else, I was struck with his resemblance to another comic character of the early part of the twentieth century. Though I cannot claim that Tarnopolsky in fact had P.G. Wodehouse in mind when he wrote Dacres, Dacres reads very like an avatar, sadder, more cynical, more anarchic and down-at-heels, of the Bertie Wooster “man-about-town” comic creation. I say this with the proviso that I am not considering Edward Dacres’s indifference to the WW II effort as similar by design to P. G. Wodehouse’s own suspected collaboration with the Germans while in a European internment camp (a charge which was later fully investigated by MI5 in 1999 or 2000 and found to be baseless except for Wodehouse’s basic naïveté). Tarnopolsky’s farcical characters (farcical as seen by the main character, that is) jump into and out of relation with each other with nearly the same alacrity as Wodehouse’s, but with a deeper seriousness lurking beneath their interactions: for, Bertie Wooster’s pockets are well-lined; Edward Dacres’s are moth-eaten. It is only their desperation, their comic clutching at weak straws, which for a time makes them alike. We cannot imagine Tarnopolsky repeating his comic creation from book to book in different characters (as Wodehouse did, like a vaudeville performer with a “sure thing” of an act), or being called “a performing flea” as Wodehouse once was, though certainly unfairly. This is to say that while the satirical lyricism flows with the same easy pace as did the elder author’s, with his background in the libretti of musicals, the stakes and consequences are those tied to far more serious issues, such as the real issues of cowardice (Bertie Wooster only “funks it” in a humorous way), misanthropy, and the role of art in wartime. If forced to account for my sense of the elder comic genius lurking, I would have to say that the early sections dealing with women in general or one in particular (the main current romantic interest of the book, Darly Burner) have “comic turns” particularly situated around these relationships which are reminiscent of the earlier writer’s work. Dacres finds a woman attractive, with the woman playing the role (as in Wodehouse) of “straight man” who also finds him desirable, while Edward Dacres is the desperate eiron who is deceiving her or himself about something to do with his state, his prospects, his intentions, etc. The difference is that Dacres has a genuine tragedy in his background, the death of his own young wife of their happy mésalliance years before, in a car crash which he caused. This is the “problem” which I would liken to some neurosis that might emerge in psychoanalysis, like a squid from its sea of ink, only slowly. Though I have spent a lot of time on this authorial comparison, I don’t mean to overemphasize it, for this masterly and serious novel does not move as quickly as Wodehouse’s do almost from punchline to punchline. But the manner in which Tarnopolsky deals with the women’s other claimants, such as fathers, suitors, relatives, and social acquaintances, smacks of the older author quite strenuously.
I’ve said this is a serious novel, and part of the source of the sombreness and the sense of tragedy which looms over Goya’s Dog, instituting from the frenetic pace rather a tense agony mimetically on the reader’s part, is the forced wait to find out if the artist will ever be able to make himself paint again. There is the fact, for Dacres, that he simply cannot repeat the past, recreating one muse with another, and so the bittersweet ending is as much a victory and vindication as it might initially seem a defeat. There is the sense, at the end, that he will be able to return to work, though when and how exactly is left undecided. It does seem, however, that he is finally on his own tick, and will not be playing any more fool’s games with fate.
The sources of this novel are in fact far more complicated than I have given my reader to believe, up to this point, but I have emphasized the particular comic influence (which may or may not have been intentional) because it is what I am myself most familiar with. To quote from Tarnopolsky’s own words in his “Acknowledgments” (the whole of which I call to the reader’s attention), “The painter and writer Wyndham Lewis spent an unhappy wartime exile in Toronto, and his novel Self-Condemned, along with his letters and the comments of his biographers, suggested much of what happens to Dacres in the first half of Goya’s Dog–together with the Polish writer Winold Gombrowicz’s simultaneous, similar experiences in Buenos Aires, recorded in his amazing Diary. Dacres shares some attitudes with these men and uses some of their expressions, but he is not a portrait of either of them. I should note that the “suicide” scene comes from Chamfort, and I think it was Fr. Rolfe who was ferried out of his hotel room in bed; Ovid grumbled definitively about the natives in his letters from Pontus. And so on–“. Thus, I have named only one possible influence, which moreover is not one named by Tarnopolsky, for the quite excellent and humorous portions of his important novel, and have had to quote from his own words to explain that and the other parts, which makes me perhaps a less adept reviewer, but certainly makes him no less a creative genius on this, his first novel. There is in fact a great deal more to say, but I leave it to you, his other potential readers, to help bring about the conversation: this is such a fine novel that to call it a “fine first novel” is already to be reductive of its worth and importance in the related worlds of fiction and painting. Do give it a read soon: you will be amused by a character’s dilemmas, confronted by his demons, and finally, in reluctant agreement with what he does to save his own soul.
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?