Monday, September 28, 2009

Reading Together

On Saturday I saw my reading group. We first started reading together twenty or so years ago, took a break for a while, and now meet once a month. We're friends, most of us writers. This last time we read "High Wind in Jamaica," which S. loves.

The group was divided. L. said Hughes was a dandy, interested only in style, and had no moral compass. A. disagreed; he was sure Hughes had a point of view about the treatment of blacks in Jamaica. I was interested in the shocks Hughes delivers without comment: the earthquake, the cat leaping through the fanlight, the death of John, etc. In the end we agreed that the novel went back and forth between the narrator's love for effects and a coherent point of view.

We all really came together when L. read passages of wonderful writing:

It was a hot night, even for those latitudes: and no moon. The suffused brilliance of the stars lit up everything close quite plainly, but showed nothing in the distance. The black masts towered up, clear against the jewelry, which seemed to swing slowly a little to one side, a little to the other, of their tapering points.


When swimming under water, it is a very sobering thing suddenly to look a large octopus in the face. One never forgets it: one's respect, yet one's feeling of the hopelessness of any real intellectual sympathy. One is soon reduced to mere physical admiration, like any silly painter, of the cow-like tenderness of the eye, of the beautiful and infinitesimal mobility of that large and toothless mouth, which accepts as a matter of course that very water against which you, for your life's sake, must be holding your breath. There he reposes in a fold of rock, apparently weightless in the clear green medium but very large, his long arms, suppler than silk, coiled in repose, or stirring in recognition of your presence. Far above, everything is bounded by the surface of the air, like a bright window of glass. Contact with a small baby can conjure at least an echo of that feeling in those who are no obscured by an uprush of maternity to the brain.

Having myself had "an uprush of maternity to the brain," I feel that Hughes's comparison--contact with an octopus like contact with a baby--has momentarily cleared out that uprush. I remember how strange the newborn seemed, fresh out of the little ocean of the womb, the disproportion of the large head with its soft spot, the bare pink gums. It's a good thing there is a maternal instinct, or else we might like Hughes's narrator keep separate from our octopus-like babies.

On Saturday as we were getting ready to leave, L. told us about the new man in her life. The right man! She was happy. I could see it in her face and hear it in her voice. It is a fine thing to have someone you love and who loves you on the horizon. The children in "High Wind in Jamaica" do not.

Friday, September 25, 2009


This week I've been thinking of the time when we owned very little. Years ago our only appliance was a toaster that ran on DC current, which supplied our apartment in the South End. We had no TV and no phone. Friends would drop by. We now own a house, a refrigerator, stove, toaster, washing machine, dryer, TV, phone, CD player, computers, electric teapot, microwave, furnace, radios, and a lawn mower. Friends usually call before they visit.

Recently our old washing machine began to leak from the bottom. We replaced it. Yesterday the man from the oil company came to clean the burner and discovered a leak in the oil line. We had to replace the burner.

I know I can't go back in time but I find myself thinking about how little it really takes to live and wishing I had fewer things, though I don't want to get rid of the furnace, not in this climate. What about you? Do you feel you have more than you want? Do you live out of a suitcase when you travel and do very nicely?

Then there's Picasso (See photo of his chateau below.) For a period in his life he would fill up apartments and houses, then lock them up with all their contents and move on. Most of us can't do that, but we are accumulators who need many things to adapt ourselves to the world. A writer friend K. includes the toaster among our evolutionary adaptations, along with shoes, canes, etc. My friend A. loves to sail. There's no crossing the water without a boat. So you see I've written my way out of nostalgia.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Some of us can drink safely; others can't. I've been thinking about low-bottom drinkers ever since a friend recently wrote about her alcoholic father who would sleep in the bathtub and turn on the hot water when he got cold. I remember a student of mine writing about her father passed out on a picnic table in the rain, his mouth open. She described the rain falling on his face and into his mouth. I myself was mightily addicted to sugar. I made myself sick with food. While addicts stun themselves into oblivion, the people who care about them worry themselves into a feverish state that does no good to anyone.

It's a marvel to see a person stop drinking and come back to life, perhaps contented to become an "Inebriate of air" or a "debauchee of dew"--Emily's Dickinson's phrases.

I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!

Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.

When the landlord turns the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove's door,
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more!

Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun!

Yet Dickinson on air and we on booze, or whatever it is that lifts us out of ordinary life, want to get high, want to fly. Better to do it on air or dew.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Getting What You Want

It's amazing how some people emerge from the most unlikely, tepid, tame backgrounds and get what they want: an erotic life. F. Holland Day--the F standing for Fred, the name he dropped--was born in 1864 in quiet provincial Fred Land, Norwood Massachusetts, to well-to-do middle class parents who didn't know much about art and less about men who love men. At the beginning of the twentieth century he was famous for his photography; earlier he had been an important book publisher.

While it's uncertain if Holland Day ever had a lover, he succeeded in getting beautiful men to take off their clothes and pose for him. He was in love with Thomas Langryl Harris, the subject of a photograph Stieglitz labeled, "Study for the Crucifixion," which Day did not exhibit. I don't know the name of the man with the wreathed head.

Day also made portraits. His subjects seem engaged with the photographer. What did he say to elicit such expressions? It's clear that he reached the fashionable woman, the black child, the young man wearing a cravat. While the homoerotic shots are nakedly sensuous, the subjects of the clothed portraits are more present, more alive--in their eyes, in their faces.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Masters of Description: Colette & Farrer

Though I have no plans to teach, I've been putting together readings for a course I'd call "Description," in which students would merely describe. I shouldn't use the word "merely," a word hardly applicable to writers like Colette and Reginald Farrer, the great British plantsman I learned about in Mark Doty's blog. To write as Colette and Farrer do takes a complete self-forgetfulness--never mind if Colette's hip is aching or Farrer is combing his moustache over his repaired hare lip--and at the same time the power to gather the must acute attention and fix it on the object to be described.

In China he discovered the wild tree peony:

Here in the brushwood it grew up tall and slender and straight, in two or three unbranching shoots, each one of which carried at the top, elegantly balancing, that single enormous blossom, waved and crimped into the boldest grace of line, of absolutely pure white, with featherings of deepest maroon radiating at the base of the petals from the boss of golden fluff at the flower's heart. Above the sere and thorny scrub the snowy beauties poise and hover, and the breath of them went out upon the twilight as sweet as any rose.

Though Farrer's ode to the peony is justly well known, my favorite is his description of Primula secundiflora:

The outside of the bell is of a waxen dulled flesh-colour, filmed with a strange powdery bloom, and suffused with lines and nerves and flushings of claret and deep rose, with blue mysteriously suggested over the whole, omnipresent as the faintest of tints, like the whiff of onion in a good salad.

Unlike Farrer, Colette writes about food and plants to flavor food:

For the pickle jar, and in the earthenware keg where the mysterious mere of the vinegar slumbers and swells . . . . Late in the season, when the nasturtium sheds its flowers and puffs up its seeds, I would pack it off to join the button capers filched from Segonzac's caper bush, the plump stalks of sea fennel the aborted little melons, the puny carrots, a few stringy green beans, the verjuice grapes--a whole season's surplus stock which, giving up the idea of growing rich in sugar, would release its pale properties into the vinegar, in hopes of later brightening up the melancholy of cold veal and breaking down the last resistance of a big salt beef.

The sea fennel Colette writes about is "samphire," a plant of rocky seasides and marshes.

Though the photo of Colette is obviously a publicity shot, I like to think she is studying some marvelous thing to which to devote herself so she may describe it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Not too long ago the downtown streets were bleak and colorless; now hairdressers, restaurants, real estate offices, and bars are swaddled and bunted with flowers. Why did businesses decide to put out plants? To increase business? To celebrate beauty? Perhaps a bit of both. Burgeoning pots appeared during the flush days before the recession, and I'm glad to see they have not disappeared with the downturn.

Before the current fashion, a gardener in East Arlington delighted us with his dahlias, which are easy to grow if you have full sun but not easy to grow on for the next season. In cold New England they must be dug up before frost, making sure each stalk has at least one "eye," the incipient bud that will sprout the next year. The clumps must be allowed to dry, then separated and stored in a cool, dry place, in sand or vermiculite. Forty degrees fahrenheit is the ideal temperature for storage, not an easy climate to find in a suburban house.

Every spring for years the dahlia gardener puts out his wintered-over plants. They're in full bloom now. He maintains his place with ferocious order, but beyond the black asphalt driveway, tight lawn, and straight-edged beds close to the house, he lets the dahlias luxuriate against the chain link fence separating his property from the sidewalk. The flowers break through and reach us. I've never seen him.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Magnificent Ambersons

The plot of Orson Welles's "The Magnificent Ambersons" is earthly: the fall of a wealthy family and the ruin of its spoiled scion, Georgie Amberson Minifer. But the look of the film is unearthly. It seems to take place in the afterlife, not heaven or hell, but a place extraterrestrial, the characters dead but in motion in black and white. They all experience a sexual death: Isabel Amberson in marriage to the weak Minifer; Eugene, the bold lover she refused, in resignation; her son Georgie sickeningly in thrall to his mother and she to him.

Welles's cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, created what I call the "afterlife look" by using deep focus--foreground, middle ground, and background all sharply in focus--great slashing shadows, and reverse cuts, the camera shooting from the left and right of the subject. All the while we hear Welles's voice, the narrating angel; he doesn't appear in the film.

We've heard so much about the living quality of art, the flood of green in Van Gogh, for instance, but art also gives us living death. Welles's ghosts shine, their blacks dark as graphite.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991)

Last night I read Natalia Ginzburg again. I admire her essays, remarkable for their thoughtful, wise and honest voice, a counterweight to my romanticism. I'm as honest as she but tend toward the ecstatic, what she would call the desire to "perform an aria." Pleasure-loving addict that I am, I like to be carried away; she likes to plant her feet on firm ground and fix her sensitive eyes on the subject.

In many of her later essays Ginzburg uses the universalizing first person plural: "we" instead of "I." This choice lends authority to her writing and creates a tone at once wry, objective, and inclusive. In "Fantasy Life," an essay about the differences between youth age, she writes:

In childhood and youth, we loved to arouse pity, both in ourselves and in others: it yielded rich voluptuous feelings. Feeling sorry for ourselves and having others feel sorry for us made us feel loved. We would murmur sympathetic words to ourselves at great length. In old age, our compassion for ourselves is barren, a strange mixture of gratitude and repulsion. Even the gratitude is arid and absentminded. The repulsion is stronger. When others feel sorry for us, we turn away.

Ginzburg describes the craft of writing:

We are continually menaced by grave dangers in the very act of confronting the page. There is the danger of suddenly starting to tease or perform an aria. I always have a mad longing to start performing, and have to be very careful not to do so. And there is the danger of cheating with words that don't really come from within, that we have fished up from outside at random and skillfully pieced together, for we do become somewhat cunning. There is a danger in becoming cunning, in cheating. It is a very difficult craft, as you can see, but the most wonderful in the world. The daily ups and downs of our life, the daily ups and downs we witness in others' lives, all that we read and see and think and discuss feeds its hunger, and it grows within us. It is a craft that thrives on terrible things too; it feeds on the best and the worst in our life, our evil feelings and our good feelings course through its blood. It feeds on us, and it thrives.

In 1944, in Rome, Ginzburg's husband, Leone Ginzburg was murdered by the Gestapo. Politically active, she was a member of the Italian Communist Party, and was elected to the Italian Parliament in 1983 as an independent.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Irish Soda Bread

Today the temperature is in the sixties, the wind easterly with a touch of damp sea chill. I had been making myself sick with nostalgia, humming "Autumn Leaves." The falling leaves drift by the window/ The autumn leaves of red and gold/ I see your lips, the summer kisses/ The sun-burned hands I used to hold. Nothing for it but to light the oven and bake; in this case I mean "light" not turn on. The Chambers stove is gas-fired; the pilot light is turned off. I strike a large kitchen match and hold it to the gas jet in the oven. The flame catches with a chuff, then a whoosh that settles to a hum. I set the gauge at 375 degrees.

This is the easiest bread to make. There are only four necessary ingredients: flour, baking soda, salt, buttermilk. (I add caraway seeds.) As you can see, I shopped at my ordinary supermarket, though sometimes I get bulk organic flour from Whole Foods.

3 cups flour (I like 1 cup of whole wheat and 2 cups of white all-purpose flour.)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/1 cups low fat buttermilk

Mix the dry ingredients throughly. Make a well in the center of the mixed dry ingredients. Add one cup of the buttermilk. Mix. Add the remaining buttermilk, mix, and turn the dough out onto a floured board. Gently knead for a minute. Pat into a circle about two inches thick. Place in an oiled pan and slash the top of the loaf, making a deep X. (I use a cast iron frying pan.) Bake for about 35-45 minutes. The bread will be golden and have doubled in size. And your house will be warm. Let the bread cool for at least a half an hour before eating.

I think of Irish soda bread as poor farmer's bread. There are no eggs, sugar, yeast or butter. The Irish in America made the bread richer by adding butter, currents, raisins, candied fruit, carraway seeds. I prefer the plain loaf. (If you have questions about the recipe, please let me know.)

Monday, September 7, 2009


A few days ago I heard from someone I knew years ago. M. asked me whether I remembered her. Of course, I remember her! Every day I see the gift she made for me. Inscribed on the bottom of the leather box with the hinged cover:

1976 May

The sturdy gift has worn very well--hasn't worn at all, though I use it a few times a week, fishing out paper clips. Not one of the stitches or rivets has popped. As far as I can tell from her e-mail, M. is doing well. She was so young when I knew her: I remember her young face.

On the mantel is a blue and white glass vase from J. We were the best of friends; now we are seldom in touch, but when I put flowers in the vase I think of the best of times we had. The vase reminds me of cool spring nights, our tender youth, days in Italy, whimsy.

C. made this pitcher and creamer. C. is infinitely cultured, but the pottery is primitive. He and his creations are vividly alive--orange, green, black-slashed, rough-knobbed.

John gave me the radio. I love to listen to it when I'm cooking or painting. Press a button and the little screen glows an intense blue. Sunday mornings I listen to "The Blues Hangover" on WHRB. That's where I first heard Ma Rainey sing:

I got a big black cat
who sits in my back door
He catches every rat run across my floor
Now everybody wants to buy my kitty.

When I see these presents do I think of the people who gave them to me? Sometimes, sometimes not, yet these things have become part of my daily life. Not one of these things would I have bought for myself, yet they delight me.

The word "present," meaning gift, and the word "present," meaning to be present, come from the same root: the Latin present participle, praeesse, to be before, to be in view. Thinking of these gifts from friends, looking at them more closely today, letting them appear freshly present, I see my friends again.

Friday, September 4, 2009


My neighbor Rick could have planted large flowers in his front garden--mallows, peonies--but he put in small plants, quilting in tightly under the yellow-flowered trumpet vine twining up to the roof. The garden is in its glory; the quilt has burst its stitches. Plants burgeon just before frost, which cuts them down when they are at their fullest. Emily Dickinson called frost "the blonde assassin." At Thanksgiving we should celebrate the wild glut as we fork up our food, and mourn because the the hot days are over.

After I saw Rick's garden I moused around my neighborhood, looking for small things, and found this clematis virginiana topping Gretchen and Fred's iron fence. There's an infinite number of tiny white flowers. I like the frothing lace better than the frisbee-sized blossoms of clematis hybrids.

Someone's built a play farmstand. Where are the children? Inside with their computers?

When I was small I loved "The Little People" comic strip that would appear in the Sunday paper. There were so many of them crammed into the comic-strip 'windows.' And they were so busy, so cunning. Here's a gang of them fishing from a teapot.

PS: Before "The Little People" I was entranced by "The Teenie Weenies."

There used to be a doll shop in Boston, on Charles Street. It was well known for its miniature doll-house pies, the artificial fruit fitted into crimped bottle tops.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


When I went out yesterday morning I didn't expect to find a philosophic saying on the back of a truck, but there it was: "Nothing is forever." Thank you, John Boy! My neck has been red and itchy. The rash begs me to scratch. It throbs with pain shot through with a cold shivery pleasure, as if I were being tickled by the devil. My scalp prickles. I'm slathered with calamine lotion the fleshy color of the doll I had years ago. It's time for more lotion. Then I'll fan my neck until the lotion dries and think again of John the Painter.

PS: It turns out I probably had an allergic reaction to the made-in-China shampoo I used at the guesthouse in Provincetown. The nurse practitioner has fixed me up fine with three medicines, and the tormenting itch has quieted down. Bless steroids, antihistamine, and cortisone. I was ready to wait it out, swabbing myself day and night with Calamine.