essays

Pleasures and Landscapes by Sybille Bedford

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The Secret Poetry of Sybille Bedford as seen  in her book Pleasures and Landscapes

By Ray Greenblatt

During a long life (1911-2006) author Sybille Bedford wrote in various genres such as: novel (The Legacy) and biography (Aldous Huxley); she also explored a more unusual category: legal systems (The Faces of Justice). But her writing career began with a travel book The Sudden View and ended with a travel book Pleasures and Landscapes. It is in this latter book that I discovered her poetic tendencies.

Most of these travel essays were written in the 1960’s; that is when I, too, began to travel to Europe. Although I did not have the wherewithal to indulge in high-end food and drink, I can certainly attest to what Ms Bedford writes about the various cultures at that time: Switzerland, Denmark, Yugoslavia, Portugal, France and Italy.

THE QUALITY OF TRAVEL

Bedford’s style is unusual in that she writes in broad swathes of painterly words as if she is composing a living picture.  Let us examine an early chapter as she observes how travel has developed over time. “A part, a large part, of travelling is an engagement of the ego v. the world. The world is transport, the roads, the clerks behind the counters who deal out tickets, mail, messy money, keys; it is the porters, the waiters, the tourist industry, the natives, the weather. The world is hydra-headed, as old as the rocks and as changing as the sea, enmeshed inextricably in its ways.

“The ego wants to arrive at places safely and on time. It wants to be provided with entertainment, color, quiet, strong coffee, strong drink, matches it can strike, and change for a large paper note. It wants to find a room ready, warmth, cool, hangers, the right voltage, an ashtray, and enough clean towels.” (13) Notice the catalogue of elements that attempt to give a full overview to so much that constitutes travel. Nouns and adjectives jostle together with semi-colons loosely joining them. Bedford will use this device again in different ways.

Hotels were often a mixed blessing.” The hotels (where there were hotels) were well built, the bedrooms were larger, the wardrobes deeper, a door shut stayed shut. The Victorian plumbing across the corridor was first rate, but in the room itself there was likely to be a stand with a pitcher and basin, slop pail, and carafe. Horror of present horrors: no running water.” (19) You can often catch a whimsical twinkle in her eye.

Then automobiles came at the turn of the century. “The car took him into market towns, to the waterfronts, to the rock pool in the next bay, to the village where they’d found the fresco, into the mountain woods to the inn by the stream.” (22)

But there was the pain of new airports. “It would not have been a long, traffic-bound drive to the airport . . . There would have been no herding, channeling, queuing, standing, waiting, hanging about . . . You didn’t have to live through the takeoff; you didn’t have to think about the landing. Wind and weather, except in the extremes of blizzard, were none of your concern.” (18)

English airports were the worst. “My fellow travelers at the airport (English side) looked short-sleeved and disheveled. Tea slopped in the saucers, ashtrays overflowed, the counters stayed unwiped.  The food displayed was predominantly shredded processed cheese on margarine and white. There were also on sale some of those dead-meat pies, the full soggy weight of which has to be eaten to be felt.” (28)

SWITZERLAND

In Berne Bedford encounters a fountain that is almost too perfect. “This person in armor and pink gloves on the fountain is a bear. And here, on another, is a belted lion in azure, gold-laced boots, and his cloak piped with scarlet, sword in paw, lifting a trusting muzzle to the plumed Good Duke, and on this emerald-and-crimson pillar sits a man in splendid wooden clothes playing bagpipes to a goose, and everything is spouting water and geraniums, and the clock faces are painted too and as large as cartwheels, and there are doves and hares and princes to strike out the hours, and everything is picked out in gold and scarlet.” (62) Bedford overuses “and” on purpose to underscore how overdone this statuary is, a kind of European Disneyland.

DENMARK

The author is often able to catch a cultural trait that typifies the country. We just saw the saccharine quality of Swiss art. Here is something about a Danish couple that is more satisfying. “His face was placid and honest, the face of an honest fellow, with that look one finds in the North, in any North, on hardworking people of good stock, on peasants, on sailors, and also on laboring and contented beasts. Her face was goodness incarnate. We all have become used to the ease with which we can convey nastiness and horror; their opposites have no such ready currencies. I can only try to put down what in fact I saw. This woman’s face, then, shone with pure, sheer, golden goodness, with gentleness and innocence and patience and a kind of grave alertness; it was an open face, water-clear, and one could watch the movement of the slow, good thoughts across it.” (88)

YUGOSLAVIA

When Sybille Bedford visited in the 1960’s, the Yugoslavs were working through Communism. “Lava tides of people both receding homewards and seeping in, sluggish and determined, a dark, compact mass oozing over the pavements, stagnating at corners, filling up the squares. Their overall aspect is one of sallowness, burdens, and poor clothes—raincoats and exiguous suits in muddy colors, mustard, gritty gray, off-brown. It is the all pervading drabness of one’s image of the streets of Moscow.” (121) The negative words too numerous to repeat dominate this passage.

And yet nature in Yugoslavia is untouched and teeming. Here is a partial description of the famous Sixteen Lakes. You will be dizzied by the flow of water as well as words. “The dominant, the all-pervading, element is water, live water in every phase—water on the move, on the roll, foaming, whirling, swishing water, rapid water toppling over cliffs in suicidal dash, still water, majestic water, horizons of water, tinkling water splashing in elegant quicksilver rays, hissing water spouting from stone and earth, thunderous vertical water roaring skyward in strong jets, folds of creamy water descending in soft cascades.” (131) You feel as if you have been body-surfing after that passage.

PORTUGAL

This country has its special beauty also. “The lifting of a barrier brightly painted like a lozenge at a fair, and we were in a river valley shining with new leaves—there were magnolia and oleander, fig and eucalyptus, water chestnut and spring maize, haystacks pressed like sugar cones hung from the boughs, and along the roadside the young birch trees were garlanded with vines. Lyre-horned oxen, under painted yokes, advanced hoof before slow hoof; women moved by with forests on their heads . . . we had entered into an Arcadian dream.” (103)

The challenge for tourists in this country was the language, says Bedford playfully. “Change any consonant into one easier to say, replace all s’s with a double shsh, aim at a nasal twang (a blend of Cockney with Meridional French will do), sing the whole like Welsh, explode it to sound like Polish, and do not forget a hint of Dutch.” (106)

FRANCE

France, where she had lived on and off for years, Bedford considered a quality country more conducive to human comforts than most. “The French are both soft and stoic. They are above all resilient.  Their losses in the 1914 war were on such a tragic scale that it left them with a private and a national sense of irreversible bereavement. If they managed to keep a glow on life it was because of their sensuous vitality, their readiness to enjoy what life had to offer, or what they made it offer; their cultivated and articulate capacity for taking life physically: their passion for food, their due regard for bed, that perennial saving streak that is also an undoing.” (24)

What could be more French than a vineyard. “We are shown around the chai (storeroom), the sheds, the cellars, slowly, talkatively. What strikes is the order, the sacred immaculateness, the quiet. The steel vats gleam; the long, straight lines of barrels look as if they have been waxed; the bungs are glass. The whole has the aesthetic appeal of geometry plus spit and polish raised to an nth degree.” (151)

And then there is the all-important tasting.  “We look, we inhale, we draw in our mouthful: we chew, we think. It is a slow process (one is standing, if not always standing still), utterly absorbing and near an ordeal—the raw tannin puckers the inside of the cheeks, rasps the throat like claws, while at the kernel one finds a notion of . . . what? texture, structure, multiplicities of scents, analogous tastes; divines staying power, future harmonies. How? It’s a mysterious process, essentially private, individual—who can ever get inside someone else’s palate?” (151)

ITALY

Bedford seems to think that the twentieth century Italian male has adopted the car as his symbol. “The automobile must be God’s special gift to the Italians. He even created it noisy. The Fiat, the Lancia, the Alfa are the young man’s fine feathers; at the wheel, he is a bird of paradise displaying a dance of courtship—love my car, love me. Courtship in the animal kingdom is competition. So it’s a battlefield. On narrow roads. Plenty of blind corners. And precipices. Tanks, too: double-decker buses, oil trucks triple-linked.” (42)

All of this leads to excessive noise. “In Italy when the weather is right it is joy it- self; when it fails the single wet day is dismal and dead; just so, existence in this unique country is at times Elysian and at others like a sojourn inside a power-driven mincing machine. Like other travelers, we were alternately floating along in elated bliss or reeling off the streets felled by combat fatigue . . . The noise! There are no two ways about it, either you are Italian or Italian-built and don’t hear it, or you are not and you do and it is unbearable.” (47) Clever wording here!

It is Venice that truly bewitches Bedford. Moving through the maze of streets can highly stimulate.  “Come from the sumptuous shop-lined street into a dramatic square, plunge under an archway, follow the boy with the trolley of tangerines, emerge into a triangular piazetta, cross the bridge, pass the colonnaded church, over the next bridge, up more steps, through a long street where cabinetmakers are chipping at their trade. “ (168) Can you feel the dynamic movements?

She revels in the Venetian food barges. “And for whose eyes? The shopkeepers’ and the greengrocers’ and the restaurant keepers’ who come morning after morning to buy their day’s supply—surely we have here one of the purest examples of art for art’s sake? Perhaps there is in the people of Venice still something of the human sprit that conceived of the tour de force of building a city in the sea and then, far from contenting itself with a primitive dwelling or a Spartan fortress, went on to create a place of incomparable fantasy and splendor.” (172)

MARTHA GELLHORN

While in Italy, Sybille Bedford met Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998), a world-famous journalist and third wife of Ernest Hemingway. The women became fast friends for the rest of their lives, and Bedford aspired to be just a bit like Martha. “Meeting Martha Gellhorn, being addressed, being taken notice of by her, was like being exposed to a fifteen-hundred-watt chandelier: she radiated vitality, certainty, total courage. Add to this the voltage of her talk—galloping, relentlessly slangy, wry, dry, self-deprecatory, often funny . . .” (5)

She looked like an animated statue. “I saw her as the (very feminine) image of the Pierro delle Francesca Archangel in the National Gallery, the presented sword, the heroic yet angelic look, the slender foot poised on the dragon’s head: a shining defender of the just, the oppressed, the poor.” (6)

But Gellhorn was restless. “Before the week was out, Martha said that Rome had had it. (I was yet to learn about those barbarous spurts of restlessness).” (6)

And yet on the island of Capri in their hotel Gellhorn retuned to her inspirational self. “Owing to the peculiar topography of Capri back streets, the windows were near ceiling high: to get to them and undo those shutters one had to climb onto a pair of wooden stools. This we did and reached the small squares of open window-–and there were Mauresque rooftops, stars, night air.

‘Isn’t this delectable?’ Martha said. It was. Jasmine, citrus, oleander, warm stone, a hint of sea . . . We drew it in, leaning into the night, our elbows on the windowsill, our toes on the wobbly stools.

‘We must stay up here,’ Martha said. ‘We don’t have to go to bed yet in those stuffy rooms. Let’s stay up here by the window. Let’s watch the dawn come up. I want to talk.’ We did talk. Martha talked. I can still feel us as we stood balanced on those stools, heads out in the air, like two characters in a surrealist stage production.” (9)

Sybille Bedford began her writing career rather late, at 43 years old. I had my first poem published at age 37, my first book at 45. So Sybille Bedford shows us it is never too late to begin to write–provided we live to be ancient. I can’t think of an apter ending for this article on Sybille Bedford’s poetic writing by quoting from the first page of her book: “Left at dawn, driving south chanting poetry to myself in the car.” (3)

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Pleasures-Landscapes-Travellers-Tales-Europe/dp/1582431701

Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).

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North of Oxford – Open for Submissions

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North of Oxford is always open for submissions of reviews/essays and poetry. Please follow the guidelines located here: https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/about/

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Open for Submissions

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North of Oxford is open for submissions of poetry, book reviews and essays. We are currently reading for 2023. Please feel free to send for consideration of publication. Follow the guidelines on our about page: https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/about/

Regular Submissions are Always Open

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Submissions to our regular monthly schedule are always open. Please view the guidelines on the about page here relating to poetry, book reviews, essays etc. https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/about/

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On Autumn Lake – Collected Essays by Douglas Crase

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In this wide ranging; cohesive collection of essays Douglas Crase presents four decades of critical writing and lectures in an intense poetic prose style that is also conversational. Crase brings his subjects to life on the page. Ashbery; O’Hara; Schuyler and Niedecker are but a few. He restores Emerson to the forefront of American writing as well as the commonwealth of creating prose and poetry.

Crase provides detailed accounts of the artistic/literary landscape that became the New York School as well as the Tibor de Nagy Gallery that was the hub and inspiration of the movement. He traces its history to Jean Connoly and its benefactor Dwight Ripley.

Honest writing is the key to an ongoing democracy and thanks go to writers of truth such as Douglas Crase and the documentation of the past. The future awaits us and Crase has set the bar high for all of us. May we live up to his example.

You can find the book here: https://nightboat.org/book/on-autumn-lake-collected-essays/

g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories and on occasion literary criticism. He can be found at: https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/

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Cuban Health Care – The Ongoing Revolution by Don Fitz

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By g emil reutter

I am not a fan of the oppressive government of Cuba where there is no vote, no guarantee of freedoms we here in the United States take for granted. As with all the revolutions in the last century based on Marxist philosophy the Cuban revolution devolved into a cult of personality. Unlike the others, Russian elitism and Chinese embrace of corporate identity to support the establishment as opposed to utopia, Cuba did establish two elements foreign to other Marxist revolutions. Cuba established an outreach of medical care for the poor and rural and a literacy campaign to educate the population.

The United States began to assert care for the elderly and unemployed with Social Security and Unemployment Insurance under Roosevelt, morphed into Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid and finally the Affordable Care Act under O’Bama. Yet health care remains out of reach for millions of Americans. For profit health care seems to dominate the nation as drug companies charge outrageous prices for medicine although most all appear to be produced overseas at cheap rates. Health insurance rates remain high. Political attacks on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid continue even as the programs continue to assist millions and for those who have forgotten we do pay our share for these programs through taxes.

Fitz provides a fascinating read of the history of Cuban health care and its outreach to the poor and needy. It is one of only two bright lights of Marxism in Cuba and coupled with the literacy program should be deemed replicable in other nations throughout the world and yes here in the United States. Health care and literacy are basic human rights.

Through a series of essays, Don Fitz lays out the amazing story of Cuban health care from its infancy, elimination of disease on the island to the export of health care to poor nations around the globe. In this time of corporate and university medical systems control of health care in the United States; the lack of basic health care and hospitals in rural areas, unaffordable care in urban areas, Fitz’s essays are timely and an essential read.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Cuban-Health-Care-Ongoing-Revolution/dp/1583678603

g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. He can be found at: https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/

Submissions Are Open

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Submissions are open at North of Oxford. Please follow the guidelines and send your best.

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The Pink House of Purple Yam Preserves & Other Poems by Aileen I. Cassinetto

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By Lynette G. Esposito

The poems in The Pink House of Purple Yam Preserves & Other Poems by Aileen I. Cassinetto published by Little Dove Books are skillfully presented in a plain language that suggests complex visuals and contexts.

For example, in the poem from “The Enormous River Encircling the World” on page 15, the reader is drawn into visual language that not only makes the ocean smaller but the concept larger
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                          In ocean- speak
                          learn the art of camouflage
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The title changes the concept of ocean to river, from big to small to encircling the world. The visual is massive.  The reader looks and looks again to see the context of water linguistically defined. What a marvelous poetic skill Cassinetto has in this 102 page soft cover tome.
In The Promise on page 34, Cassinetto (dedicated to Carol and Erik) speaks in clear terms of the beginning pledge on one’s wedding day in two-line stanzas and well-placed punctuation.  The form and punctuation control the poem.
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                           Take these symbols of love.
                           to be perfect and unbroken,
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                           all ends joining
                           and curved, as though
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                            yielding, for love
                           is unconditional, and marriage.
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                           a compromise:
                           Golden-spun rings
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                           to wear from this day forward,
                          morsels of cake
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The two- line form is suggestive of the marriage coupling and of vows taken.

Included in this collection is a section of unfinished prose and a section of selected essays.  Cassinetto brings her amazing control of language to both theses sections..

In the unfinished prose section, there is just one article and it is full of description as the narrator travels to a wedding. Many suggestions are made about the quality of a woman’s life. After describing the lavish wedding and the sacrifices of both rich and poor, Cassinetto comments.
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                                This is also a country where one in every 400 women
                                worked as a prostitute. Most will never live to be a bride.
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Cassinetto has used her skill to draw both large and small experiences with referential contexts successfully.  The rich have weddings; the poor sell their blood.
In the selected essays section, Cassinetto provides several essays intermixed with poetry.   In the essay, The Color of Kalamunding, she starts with THERE IS NO GENTLENESS in the way I pick a fruit. The discussion becomes of lemonade, grandmothers and perfection. The essay is interesting and makes a strong point at the end of how we judge ourselves as she addresses the reader.
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                               You must have surmised who I am by now. Not quite
                                lime, not quite orange.  In the world of fruits, and flowers,
                                I am excessively flawed.  Such is my myth.
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I ask myself do I like this mixture of poetry, prose and essays in one book.  I find it a little unfocused and fragmented while at the same time enjoying the high quality of the writing.
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Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University,  Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.  Her articles have appeared in the national publication, Teaching for Success; regionally in South Jersey Magazine, SJ Magazine. Delaware Valley Magazine, and her essays have appeared in Reader’s Digest and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her poetry has appeared in US1, SRN Review, The Fox Chase Review, Bindweed Magazine, Poetry Quarterly, That Literary Review, The Remembered Arts Journal, and other literary magazines. She has critiqued poetry for local and regional writer’s conferences and served as a panelist and speaker at local and national writer’s conferences.  She lives with her husband, Attilio, in Mount Laurel, NJ.
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