ray greenblatt

The Outermost House by Henry Beston

outer

By Ray Greenblatt

The Outermost House is one of my favorite books. I have read many Nature works , but this one is unique. I have read about the ocean, its types of fishes, and the underwater geology, but this book is light on science. It focuses on the beach; that is partly why I came to live by the waters of the Chesapeake. This book speaks to me and for me because it uses poetic language. Beston is able to probe the vastness of the sea and the heavens.

Henry Beston (1888-1868) decided to live close to nature as Thoreau did at Walden. In 1928 he built a house right on the beach of Cape Cod. The Walden cabin was 10 X 16; Beston’s structure named the Fo’castle was 20 X 16.  He lived there for a year, recording the change of seasons. In 1929 he married the poet Elizabeth Coatsworth, to whom he was married for forty years. They then went on with their lives living on a farm in Maine.

The Beach

Since Beston writes in such an orderly manner, we shall simply follow his Table of Contents commenting on the richness of his observations. His first chapter truly focuses on the beach. “The flux and reflux of ocean, the incomings of waves, the gatherings of birds, the pilgrimages of the peoples of the sea, winter and storm, the splendour of autumn and the holiness of spring—all these were part of the great beach.”

Beston was especially aware of the light of the beach and the colors it revealed. “It has many colours: old ivory here, peat here, and here old ivory darkened and enriched with rust. At twilight, its rim lifted to the splendour in the west, the face of the wall becomes a substance of shadow and dark descending to the eternal unquiet of the sea; at dawn the sun rising out of the ocean gilds it with a level silence of light which thins and rises and vanishes into day.”  He is also apt to point out miniscule things as well.  “There is always something poetic and mysterious to me about these tracks in the pits of the dunes; they begin at nowhere, sometimes with the faint impression of an alighting wing, and vanish as suddenly into the trackless nowhere of the sky.”

Autumn, Ocean, and Birds

This chapter is dedicated to his observation of birds. He is fascinated by the migrations. “Now comes the sea fowl and the wild fowl to the beach from the lonely and darkening north, from the Arctic Ocean and the advancing pack, from the continental fragments and great empty islands that lie between the continents and the pole, from the tundra and the barrens, from the forests, from the bright lakes, from the nest-strewn crevices and ledges of Atlantic rocks no man has ever named or scaled.”

“Standing on the beach, fresh claw marks at my feet, I watch the lovely sight of the group instantly turned into a constellation of birds, into a fugitive Pleiades whose living stars keep their chance positions; I watch the spiraling flight, the momentary tilt of the white bellies, the alternate shows of the clustered, grayish backs.” He is even in awe of individual birds. “I wonder where it was that she forsook her familiar earth for the grey ocean, an ocean she perhaps had never seen. What a gesture of ancient faith and present courage such a flight is, what a defiance of circumstance and death—land wing and hostile sea, the fading land behind, the unknown and the distant articulate and imperious in the bright, aerial blood.”

“For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

The Headlong Wave

In this chapter Beston tries to interpret the sound of waves, something only a poet would attempt. “Hollow boomings and heavy roarings, great watery tumblings and tramplings, long hissing seethes, sharp, rifle-shot reports, splashes, whispers, the grinding undertone of stones, and sometimes vocal sounds that might be the half-heard talk of people in the sea. And not only is the great sound varied in the manner of its making, it is also constantly changing its tempo, its pitch, its accent, and its rhythm, being now loud and thundering, now almost placid, now furious, now grave and solemn-slow, now a simple measure, now a rhythm monstrous with a sense of purpose and elemental will.”

Midwinter

During midwinter Beston observes a variety of things. “To share in it, one must have a knowledge of the pilgrimage of the sun, and something of that natural sense of him and feeling for him which made even the most primitive people mark the summer limits of his advance and the last December ebb of his decline . . . We lose a great deal, I think, when we lose this sense and feeling for the sun. When all has been said, the adventure of the sun is the great natural drama by which we live, and not to have joy in it and awe of it, not to share in it, is to close a dull door on nature’s sustaining and poetic spirit.”

The sun is obscured by a storm.  “With the turn of the tide came fury unbelievable. The great rhythm of its waters now at one with the rhythm of the wind, the ocean rose out of the night to attack the ancient rivalry of earth, hurling breaker after thundering breaker against the long bulwark of the sands. The Fo’castle, being low and strongly built, stood solid as a rock, but its walls thrummed in the gale. I could feel the vibration in the bricks of the chimney, and the dune beneath the house trembled incessantly with the onslaught of the surf.”

Strange sights were to greet him after the storm was over. “There crumbled out the blackened skeleton of an ancient wreck which the dunes had buried long ago. As the tide rose this ghost floated and lifted itself free, and then washed south close along the dunes. There was something inconceivably spectral in the sight of this dead hulk thus stirring from its grave and yielding its bones again to the fury of the gale.”

Winter Visitors

In an earlier chapter “Headlong Wave” Henry Beston attempted to capture the sounds of the surf. In this chapter he speaks of bird sounds. “Sometimes wings whistle by in the darkness. The sound of a pair of ‘whistler’ ducks on the wing is a lovely, mysterious sound at such a time. It is a sound made with wings, a clear, sibilant note which increases as the birds draw near, and dies away in the distance like a faint and whistling sigh.” “Turning toward the marsh, I saw a flock of geese flying over the meadows along the rift of dying, golden light, their great wings beating with a slow and solemn beauty, their musical, bell-like cry filling the lonely levels and the dark.”

However, this chapter excels in word landscapes as vivid as any painting. “There are patches of snow on the hay fields and the marshes, and, on the dunes, nests of snow held up off the ground by wiry spears of beach grass bent over and tangled into a cup.  Such little pictures as this last are often to be seen on the winter dunes; I pause to enjoy them, for they have the quality and delicacy of Japanese painting. There is a blueness in the air, a blue coldness on the moors, and across the sky to the south, a pale streamer of cloud smoking from its upper edge.”

Then he expands his vision. “There was the ocean in all weathers and at all tides, now grey and lonely and veiled in winter rain, now sun-bright, coldly green, and marbled with dissolving foam; there was the marsh with its great congresses, its little companies, its wandering groups, and little family gatherings of winter birds; there was the glory of the winter sky rolling out of the ocean over and across the dunes, constellation by constellation, lonely star by star.”

Lanterns on the Beach

The author describes the wrecks that occur every year off Cape Cod. One has to remember that in the 1920’s many sailing ships were still used for transport. “Rigging freezes, sails freeze and tear—of a sudden the long booming undertone of the surf sounds under the lee bow—a moment’s drift, the feel of surf twisting the keel of the vessel, then a jarring, thundering crash and the upward drive of the bar . . . Stranded vessels soon begin to break up. Wrecks drag and pound on the shoals, the waves thunder inboard, decks splinter and crack like wooden glass , timbers part, and the iron rods bend over like candles in a heat.”

Despite their urgency, flares even have their aesthetic qualities. “The signal burns and sputters, the smoke is blown away almost ere it is born; the glassy bellies of the advancing breakers turn to volutes of rosy black, the seething foam to a strange vermilion-pink. In the night and rain beyond the hole of light an answering bellow sounds, ship lights dim as the vessel changes her course, the red flare dies to a sizzling, empty cartridge, the great dark of the beach returns to the solitary dunes.”

The men who prevent many wrecks and try to save those in peril are the local surfmen. “Winter and summer they pass and repass, now through the midnight sleet and fury of a great northeaster, now through August quiet and the reddish-golden radiance of an old moon rising after midnight from the sea, now through a world of  rain shaken with heavy thunder and stabbed through and through with lightning.”

An Inland Stroll in Spring

Beston began to live on Cape Cod in the autumn. Now that winter is over, he remarks on the ever-returning fecundity of spring. “I began to reflect on Nature’s eagerness to sow life everywhere, to fill the planet with it, to crowd with it the earth, the air, and the sea. Into every empty corner, into all forgotten things and nooks, Nature struggles to pour life, pouring life into the dead, life into life itself. That immense, overwhelming, relentless, burning ardency of Nature for the stir of life! And all these her creatures, even as these thwarted lives, what travail, what hunger and cold, what bruising and slow-killing struggle will they not endure to accomplish the earth’s purpose?”

Night on the Great Beach

Different aspects of darkness are considered. “For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars—pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time. Fugitive though the instant be, the spirit of man is, during it, ennobled by a genuine moment of emotional dignity, and poetry makes its own both the human spirit and experience.”

A mystery occurs on the night beach. “Every spatter was a crumb of phosphorescence; I walked in a dust of stars. Behind me, in my footprints, luminous patches burned. With the double-ebb moonlight and tide, the deepening brims of the pools took shape in smouldering, wet fire. So strangely did the luminous speckles smoulder and die and glow that it seemed as if some wind were passing, by whose breath they were kindled and extinguished. Occasional whole breakers of phosphorescence rolled in out of the vague sea—the whole wave one ghostly motion, one creamy light—and, breaking against the bar, flung up pale sprays of fire.”

The savior in the night is the lighthouse. “A star of light which waxes and wanes three mathematical times, now as a lovely pale of light behind the rounded   summits of the dunes. The changes in the atmosphere change the colour of the beam; it is now whitish, now flame golden, now golden red; it changes its form as well, from a star to a blare of light, from a blare of light to a cone of radiance sweeping a circumference of fog.”

The Year at High Tide

What stands out most in this chapter is the author’s sense of smell. “I like a good smell—the smell of a freshly ploughed field on a warm morning after a night of April rain, the clovelike aroma of our wild Cape Cod pinks, the morning perfume of lilacs showery with dew, the good reek of hot salt grass and low tide blowing from these meadows late on summer afternoons.”

Orion Rises on the Dunes

A very apt final statement made by Henry Beston is found in this concluding chapter. “The creation is still going on, that the creative forces are as great and as active today as they have ever been, and that tomorrow’s morning will be as heroic as any of the world. Creation is here and now. So near is man to the creative pageant, so much a part is he of the endless and incredible experiment, that any glimpse he may have will  be but the revelation of a moment, a solitary note heard in a symphony thundering through debatable existences of time. Poetry is as necessary to comprehension as science. It is as impossible to live without reverence as it is without joy.”

There were and always will be Nature writers—a most obvious statement that could be made about poets as well. They tell us about the state of the natural world that we are often unaware of or too busy to notice. Henry Beston’s book has a cosmic feeling—the sea and sky, the major characters, cannot be larger. That factor provides an energy that makes its reading so stimulating. Beston’s prose style is full of imagery that gives pungency and further aids in making the book mystically fly!.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Outermost-House-Year-Great-Beach/dp/080507368X

.

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.

Flow by Beth Kephart

flow
.
By Ray Greenblatt
.
  This is a little book (109 pages): the typical length of a poetry collection. 79 short prose pieces capture the history of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River. However, the author’s powerful poetics reveal themselves on every page. Following the rough chronological order, let us observe the river’s interaction with man.

.

      PRELUDE. This section gives an overview of the river’s history. “It bent the reflection of the moon, then held it still. A man looked in, a woman did, then held it still.”
 “It will course many miles more and take a turn through Philadelphia before it yields to the Delaware River, which will empty into a long-nosed bay before yielding to the sea.”
 “The river is cumulative. It harbors the floating oddments of towns like Auburn, Reading, Birdsboro, and Valley Forge.”
 “There is dust in its waters, the churn of bones.”
 “You might find the cross-frame of a kite in its silt, or the last page of a diary, or the buckle of a soldier’s shoe, or the chunky afterthought of anthracite.”
“That’s the thing about this river. You have to imagine to see.” (9)
          After industrialization things changed. “The river had turned the color of mud, the color of the noise on city streets. But a river stands for something even after the silence is gone.”
“There are other stories, big as myths. A river still begins at covert springs, and it still flows out to sea. It still floats the moon on its back at night, still stares out at the faces staring in, still dreams.” (11)
.
          RISING. Instead of the author speaking, Kephart personifies the river so that it thinks and feels.  “Blueback herring and eel, alewife and shad muscle in to my wide blue heart, and through.”
“Were there language, I’d be my own lone letter.” (16)
.
         BEAR. “He is besieged by smells. The curls inside leaves. The green cracking the earth. The beginning of berries.”
“The moon is high, it is afloat—yellow and generous as fruit.” (17)

.

GANSHOWAHANNA. That is the Lenape name for the Schuylkill, which means falling waters. “The sky is theirs: The hunter after the bear, the Thunderers and Horned Serpent of last night’s storm, and the souls on the long, white trail—rising.” (18)

          FLIGHT. The Lenape fish for the sturgeon, which seem to have the ability to fly. “Turning my surface the color of purpose—of fish backs and of the floating, painted man whose spear points down from the sky.”
“His hair swims away from him like so many black minnows.” (20)

 

          SWARM.  The wildlife was so abundant. “Pompous pheasants, the swans were absurdly full of themselves. Had you asked me, I would have called for an interregnum of birds.” (22)

          TEMPTATION. “I was another country then. I was temptation. And what precisely lay to my west? What lay beyond my falls?” (23)

          ICE STORM. “You want to blame me for how we together broke apart, abandoned the little rules we each lived by. You want me implicated in the fracture of time, in my viscous letting loose, my rising.”
“That moan you heard was my soul in repeated shatters. That cleaving apart was my remorse.” (24) This passage takes on a mythic quality that American writers have used like Barry Lopez and Joy Harjo.
.
          COMET. “If I am envious of anything, it is of those who might ascend and watch as the stars settle in upon my scrim. To see myself from above myself, in the iris black on night.”
“The night sliding forward and the sky antique, and suddenly (though it must have been there before) a comet. Ice for its head. Dust and ions in the seeming whoosh of its aftermath. The smell of methane and ammonia and burn.” (26)
.
         SKATING PARTY. Notice how Kephart employs word repetition and a series of phrases not only to suggest gliding over the ice but also to intensify the continuous flow of the river. “Imagine taking a needle to the point of blood on your palm. Imagine drawing that needle around and around, leaning in on it, forcing an edge, tearing at the creases and the lifelines, the ridges and slightest hills that forecast your happiness. Imagine the skin giving way. That’s skating.” (32)
.
          FORT MIFFLIN. Here is a dead Revolutionary War soldier. “He is lying on his back in the mud and seeing every star that hangs above me as a hole in the sky, a piercing. His lungs are smoke. His arms are emptied and hollow.”
This is an impression of General Washington. “But already his pockets are bloodied with the talismans of lost men, with the buttons from their uniforms, with letters written home. Already his lungs are vapors.” (36)
.
          INDEPENDENCE. What it might feel like when the Revolutionary War is over. “It was one of those effulgent days. Everything seemed touched by the intimation of precious metal—platinum on the limbs of trees, silver in the tips of flowers, gold glinting.”
“Wind rush and weather. Eyes that actually see. A body attuned to
 the physics of life and weight, thrust and drag.” (37)

 .

         FOLLY. Over the years drownings occurred in the river. “Many years, a drowning. A body dashed into my white spit. Bones sunk down with the calculus of catfish and of beaver, with turtle shells and the bright gold ring that marks the unmade promise.” (39)

.          SOUL How the death of Benjamin Franklin affected the river.  “The difference between a man’s soul and a cumulus cloud is that the cloud rubs out of its own accord and a man’s soul never does. Yesterday, Benjamin Franklin died after a year of suffering, and his soul has already risen, its color the color of sun through leaf. There’s an eccentric quiver in the air, a strange disruption, and the idle talk along my banks is of him.” (43)

          UNPLUGGED. The river begins to be channeled by builders into pipes. “When they gush me on, when they yank me off. I am slivered into tears. I die of boredom in their buckets.”
“A young girl named Annie, who, tending a garden, chooses me. Pours me into a long-spouted can, carries me over her arm, and transports me out to the birds of paradise, the violet petals and sweet peas, the bath that has been drawn up for the swallows. Where I am let free. Where the sun is familiar and I transcend my usefulness.” (47)

.

          NAVIGATION. “I was a fist, a scourge, a seductress—pulling stones and sludge through their grinding gears, making sounds they couldn’t account for, flooding them out where veins were cut.” (54)

          HAVEN. Some people as this one woman are attuned to the river. “She is keen to the hidden craving in all things: the yearning tucked inside the songs of birds, the unconfessed regrets of men, the permanent rage of an unfinished fire.” (55)

          ASYLUM. Disabled seamen are comforted by the river. “He’ll smell more like smoke than good breeding, and his lips will be pale and chewed into; his nose will have been burnished by the sun. The songs will come out the barrel of his chest. His stories will be for nobody but me.” (62)

          WASTE. The following sentence imitates a flood, with even a hint of rhyme to keep the flow. “Nothing would stay in its place; nothing was fixed. The bulbs of the trees, the piers, the docks, the locks, and the canal masters’ houses, the soft hats and vests of the masters, their dinner plates and tablecloths, the barges, the names of the barges, the Conshohocken Bridge and the Flat Rock Bridge, the keys that opened the doors to the mills, the mills, the equipment in the mills, the columns of smoke that puffed out of the mills.” (68)

          RESPECTS. The river commemorates Abraham Lincoln’s death. “The bells had pealed so long they’d become the weather, and the horses that had passed—with riders in their saddles or carriages dragged behind them—had been keeping their heads low.  The wharves had been blackened, and also the boats, and there were bolts of black unfurled from the windows in the buildings all up and down my banks. Above the dam, where spring had already set in, the bushes and the birds were somber. The machines, for the most part, had stopped—the ambush of noise from factories.” (70)

          STEAM. A locomotive is described. “At this hour the night seems intoxicated, the tinted lanterns swinging in some late-shift tune and the men passing through the bilious smoke above the tracks—passing through and disappearing. They’ve left on the eyes of the locomotives. They’ve left them breathing there—each so much bigger than a bear, so much blacker than the panther whose footprints are sunk in deep beneath those tracks, whose eyes needed only the moon for ignition. I can no longer tell you where the owls have gone. I can’t explain what a night alone is.” (76) The reader begins to feel the burden put upon the river, that once pure flowing water.

          ZOOLOGICAL GARDENS. Philadelphia had the first zoo in the country but at what cost. “The noise is killing—the hysterical chatter and proximate screams of animals slowly being robbed of their opinion. Last night lightning seared the underbelly of the sky and thunder moved in loud and fast. It would go from dark to a sick, pale green, then flame straight back to nothingness, and all I could think of were the cinnamon bears at the dancing poles, so far from wherever it was that they had come from. Suddenly I knew what is worse than having needs you cannot speak, and that is this: having no faith in being answered.” (78)

          KATHERINE ROWS. The first rowing club, eventually for women too, was formed in Philadelphia. “She favors the idea of the continuous. The continuous glide. The unobstructed move through time. The going on of my own self and soul—strong as a man, she says to me, and fluid as a mother’s song.” (80)
“Pulls the oars through the chokes, fastens the gates, and settles her heart. She plants her feet in the stretchers and oars her way out, her back facing forward. Shoulders to the sky, Katherine. Knees at an angle. Catch and drive and always finish. Feather the blades so you’ll fly. She leaves her hair loose, a dark burst about her face. She lets the breeze into her blouse. She listens to me and what I have to say, and she goes and she goes and she goes.” (81) Again, the author is very effective making the reader feel movement on the river.

 

          SUPPURATING. Historically by the nineteenth into the twentieth century the river is severely polluted. “It is the worst of you sloughed off into me—your refuse and oddments, your savage toxins and dross, your slicks that do not sink, your dirty yeast, your wrong-colored wools and the dyes that wronged them. How is it that I became the quickest route to your confession—the door you close to those parts of your self that you hope no one will see? Call me what you’ve made me, which is a grave. Plant me a tombstone.” (89)

          ABIDING. Poetry can forcefully vivify the ugliness as well as the beauty around us. “You wouldn’t call it survival. All that time living with what became my own stench, my insufferable loneliness. All that time, forsaken. You turned your backs on me. You robbed me of my dignity and birdsong, of fat-fisted flowers and azalea springs. Mostly you robbed me of the idea of myself as a river, for what is a river but a conduit between spring and sea, a womb for underwater things, a chance of transcendence, and what did you make of me but a trough of shame, a festering disease you would not cure?  So that even the moon avoided me and my stories went dry as a bone and I was too clotted to see.” (92)

          LOVE. And yet in the twenty-first century there is hope. The return of the otter signifies the beginning of a return of wildlife to the river. “He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, with his dark pelt and his well-groomed ears, the sterling glimmer of his whiskers. He was audacious, bold, spectacularly witty, and when he looked at me he was looking into me, he was knowing my heart and all the places it has been to. He was not afraid of my complicated language, not afraid of my needs, not afraid of all that sinks or floats or ends with me. The bones in me, which are also seeds. The dust of distant life. The stories I carry, the color of my dreams, the weight of my confessions.” (108)

Beth Kephart is a published poet and prose writer; in this book FLOW she has finely balanced her skills. It must have taken much reading and research to immerse herself in the history of the Schuylkill River. By using many poetic devices, especially imagery, she has been able to magically don the persona of the river itself and bring it truly to life.

 You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Flow-Times-Philadelphias-Schuylkill-River-ebook/dp/B00ECK9XF2

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.

 

 

Pages From the Concourt Journal

Pages-from-the-Goncourt-Journal-Oxford-pape-by

By Ray Greenblatt

Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, brothers and collaborating novelists, decided in 1851 to begin a journal that would truthfully observe their friends and events. Although younger Jules died in 1870, Edmond continued the journal until 1896, when he died, totaling nine volumes. This 1962 edition is one of the few English translations.

Here is why they collaborated so well: “Edmond can see himself perfectly well as a soldier in another age, with his Lorraine blood, no distaste for fighting, and a love of daydreaming. I for my part see myself involved in chapter-house negotiations, in monastic diplomacy, taking a vainglorious delight in tricking men and women for my own pleasure and the irony of it all . . . The strange thing is that although we are absolutely different in temperament, taste , and character, we are absolutely identical in our ideas, our judgments, our likes and dislikes as regards other people, and our intellectual perspective. Our minds see alike and see with the same eyes.” (108)

This was their intention: “But I assure you on my honour—and those who know me can testify that they have never heard me tell a lie—that the conversations I have quoted in the four volumes which have so far appeared are as it were shorthand transcripts, reproducing not only the speakers’ ideas but more often than not their actual expressions. And I feel certain that every disinterested and perceptive reader will recognize that my desire and ambition have been to depict exactly the men I was portraying, and that not for anything in the world would I have wished to attribute remarks to them which they did not make.” (358)

                                                                     Novelists

          And the Goncourts were truly at the center not only of literature in Paris but also of art, music and the theater. Since they were fiction writers, let us first look at their novelist friends. Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary and leader in the school of Realism, was a long-time friend. “He started looking at our portfolios, our books, our bric-a-brac, like an inquisitive, excited child. He looks extraordinarily like portraits of the actor Frederick Lemaitre as a young man, very big, very powerfully built, with large protuberant eyes under puffy lids, full cheeks, heavy drooping moustaches, and a complexion speckled with red patches.” (40)

Flaubert’s home was elegant. “The vast Seine along which the masts of boats which are hidden from sight pass as if at the back of a stage; the tall, splendid trees twisted into tortured forms by the sea breezes; the espalier-shaped park, the long terrace-walk facing due south, the peripatetic path, all make a real writer’s home.” (254)

Emile Zola , who defended Alfred Dreyfus in the press, was another friend: “A waxy, anaemic complexion, a strapping young fellow with something of the delicate modeling of fine porcelain in his features, in the line of his eyes, in the angry planes of his nose, and in his hands . . .The dominant side of him, the sickly, suffering, hyper-sensitive side, occasionally gives you the impression of being in the company of a gentle victim of some heart disease. In a word, an incomprehensible, deep, complex, character; unhappy, worried, evasive, and disquieting.” (144)

Alphonse Daudet took fiction a step further with his Naturalism: “And to make up the deficiency, he promptly poured himself a succession of glasses of liqueur. His hand, of an extraordinary whiteness, kept going up to stroke his Ninevite beard and his long hair, which seemed damp with all that he had drunk and fell in tearful locks over his forehead; and a rakish beauty came to his face, which bent lovingly over his waistcoat as if over a woman’s body.” (221)

Victor Hugo, author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables: “And there, his arms folded across his chest, his body thrown back a little in his buttoned frock-coat, and a white scarf round his neck, Hugo started talking again. He spoke in a soft, slow voice, slightly muffled yet still clear, a voice which played with words and uttered them caressingly; he spoke with his eyes half-closed and with all sorts of feline expressions passing across that face of his which was shamming death, that flesh which had taken on the fine, warm coloring of the flesh of a Rembrandt syndic; and when he grew excited, there was a strange rising and falling of the line formed by his white hair along his forehead.” (223)

Known for The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas: “At the Princess’s, resplendent in white tie and white waistcoat, huge of breath, and as happy as a Negro’s fortune, Dumas pere made his appearance. He had just got back from Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia. He spoke about Pesth, where they had staged his plays in Hungarian; about Vienna, where the Emperor had lent him a room in his palace in which to give a lecture.” (116)

Anatole France won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921: “Extremely talkative, he speaks with the eloquence of an academician—which he has yet to become—appreciated by society, but with an admixture of paradoxical, anti-bourgeois ideas, somewhat reminiscent of Renan, which make his conversation amusing. And then he no longer has the foolish face he had when he was young: somewhat thickened features give him a thoroughly masculine head, which has shed the silly fatuity of his adolescence.” (396)

George Sand is one of the few women novelists in the Goncourts’ group. “When we got up to go, she rose, gave us her hand and showed us to the door. At that point we were able to catch a glimpse of her face, which is sweet, gentle, and serene; the color has gone out of it but the features are still delicately defined in a pallid, matt complexion of a pale amber hue. There is a serenity and a subtlety in these features which her latest portrait, coarsening her and over-emphasizing the line of her nose, entirely fails to reveal.” (72)

“Guy de Maupassant,” famous for short stories like The Necklace, “told me that Cannes is a wonderful source of information for him. There the Luyns, the Orleans and the Princesses de Sagan spend the winter; and there life is much more easy-going and people talk more freely and more readily than in Paris. And he gave me to understand that, understandably and intelligently, he goes there to find his male and female characters for the novels he is planning to write about life and love in Parisian society.” (300)

Even a Russian who lived a number of years in France, Ivan Turgenev noted for the novel Fathers and Sons, was part of the Goncourt coterie: “Turgenev, that gentle giant, that lovable barbarian, with his white hair falling into his eyes, with a deep line crossing his forehead from one temple to the other like a furrow, and with his childish language, enchanted us from the soup-course on, wreathed us, as the Russians put it, with his combination of innocence and shrewdness—the great charm of the Slav race, heightened in him by the originality of a superior intelligence and by an immense, cosmopolitan fund of knowledge.” (197)

                                                          Poets & Philosophers

          Theophile Gautier, a Romantic poet, was another one of the Goncourts’ oldest   friends. The energy in his prime: “I never think about what I’m going to write. I pick up my pen and I write. I’m a man of letters and I’m supposed to know my job. So there I am in front of my paper, like an acrobat in front of his springboard. And then, I’ve got my syntax very tidily arranged in my head. I throw my sentences into the air, like so many cats, and I know that they’ll fall on their feet. It’s all very simple: all you need is a good grasp of syntax.” (23)

Toward the end of his life: “And his head fell forward, his great, heavy, wrinkled eyelids dropped down over his eyes, his hands dangled limply, and sleep, bending him forward, seemed to be pushing him towards one of those deaths which are found with their faces on the floor. We were seized with gloomy forebodings about the man, laden with honors at the moment and standing on the threshold of academic immortality, a threshold on which it seemed to us that the cruel irony of life’s compensations was already nailing together his coffin.” (143)

Stephane Mallarme, a Symbolist poet, “whom Alphonse Daudet asked with every circumspection whether he was not trying at the moment to be more obscure and abstruse than in his first works, in that slightly wheedling voice which someone once said occasionally goes flat with irony, after a great many strange phrases such as: ‘One cannot write in white,’ finished his nebulous amplifications by confessing that at present he regarded a poem as a mystery to which the reader had to find the key.” (383)

Two poets known as Decadents were Verlaine and Baudelaire. Paul Verlaine: “Mother and son lived in a wine-dealer’s house: the son downstairs, unable to leave his bed on account of something wrong with his legs, the other upstairs, watched over after her death by friends of Verlaine’s who were dead-drunk all the time. Friends and undertaker’s mutes, each as tight as the other, had enormous difficulty in maneuvering the coffin down the narrow staircase: a descent in the course of which the son’s door was opened for a moment and an aspergillum handed to him so that he could sprinkle holy water on the coffin from his bed.” (315)

Charles Baudelaire, known for his Flowers of Evil, “had supper at the next table to ours. He was without a cravat, his shirt open at the neck and his head shaved, just as if he were going to be guillotined. A single affectation: his little hands washed and cared for, the nails kept scrupulously clean. The face of a maniac, a voice that cuts like a knife, and a precise elocution that tries to copy Saint-Just and succeeds. He denies, with some obstinacy and a certain harsh anger, that he has offended morality with his verse.” (30)

Three men were known for their expertise in literary criticism, history and also philosophy: Sainte-Beuve, Taine, and Renan.  “Sainte-Beuve, who had written to ask if he might come to see us, came here at two o’clock. He is a short, tubby little man, stockily built with a peasant’s neck and shoulders, dressed in a simple country manner, rather like Beranger, without any stylish touches. He has a high forehead, a bald white head, large eyes, a long, inquisitive, sensual nose, a wide, crudely shaped mouth, a broad smile which reveals a set of white teeth, prominent cheekbones like a pair of wens: altogether a somewhat batrachian face with a pink, well-fed complexion.” (63)

One of the Goncourt’s oldest friends, they described him just before his death: “Sitting at the head of the table, Sainte-Beuve looked like a butler. It was a gloomy meal, and anybody might have thought it was the host’s funeral feast. He looked broken, old, and doddering, complaining of the agony of living with those senile grimaces of old men, that closing of the eyes that seem to say: ‘There, I can feel it again,’ those gestures of miserable compunction and those empty words of self-pity. He ate nothing, got up two or three times during dinner, asking us to pay no attention to him, and came back like the ghost in his house, like the shade of an old man anxious not to disturb anybody.” (131)

Hippolyte “Taine dined with us this evening, with his pleasant, friendly glance under his spectacles, his almost affectionate consideration for others, his rather puny but distinguished appearance, his smooth, flowing, picturesque conversation, full of historical and scientific ideas, and the overall impression he creates of a young, intelligent, even witty professor, in deadly fear of being pedantic.” (83)

Ernest “Renan looked up from his plate.

‘In all the subjects I have studied, I have always been struck by the authority of the German mind and German workmanship. It is not surprising that in the art of war, which is an art after all, inferior but complicated, they should have achieved the superiority which, I repeat, I have observed in all the subjects I have studied and with which I m familiar . . . Yes, gentlemen, the Germans are a superior race!’” (170)

                                                                            Conclusion

        Various famous people passed by on the fringes of the Goncourt circle: the playwright Ernest Feydeau and the actress Sarah Bernhardt; sculptor Auguste Rodin and Impressionist painter Edgar Degas; Prosper Merimee who wrote Carmen and the wife of Georges Bizet who transposed it into an opera; even Georges Clemenceau the politician before he became Prime Minister. They all were x-rayed in the Goncourt Journals in their good and bad moods for posterity.

In all my readings about British and American writers, I have never come across extended times where they came together socially.  The Nineteenth Century French camaraderie of like-minded artists is a rare one to be savored. Yes, the rivalry must have been strong and arguments fierce; but it was worth it for the opportunity to trade ideas and obtain valuable criticism. Can you imagine casual statements often made in the Journal like this: “Dinner at the Café Riche with Flaubert, Zola, Turgenev, and Alphonse Daudet. A dinner of men of talent who have a high opinion of each other’s work, and one which we hope to make a monthly occasion in the winters to come.” (207) I wish I could have been an eavesdropping waiter. Fortunately, the Goncourts were there to transcribe and prove that this world existed!

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0140570144?tag=picclick0f-20&linkCode=osi&th=1&psc=1

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.

.

.

.

 

Venusberg by Anthony Powell

venus

By Ray Greenblatt

Anthony Powell (1905-2000) is primarily known for his 12-volume series of novels A Dance to the Music of Time. It took him some twenty-five years  (1951-1975) to develop this massive work covering fifty years in the lives of his many characters. From its publication came fame, riches, and a BBC series. After reading this accomplishment, I grew curious to know what he had first written in the 1930’s.

I chose to read Venusberg (1932) to see if Powell’s style had changed over the years. Indeed it had: before the high seriousness of the Dance series, he had used comedy as his major device.

I –Characters

Since people are the mainstays of any novel, let us meet them first. Powell sometimes tosses a number of characters at the reader; however, his acuity in  defining them helps make each person memorable. Lushington, a journalist, is our protagonist. “He was a serious young man with a pink and white face who believed implicitly in eventual progress on a scientific basis although he had had Anglo-Catholic leanings in his City days.” (5) Powell sees religion as just one of the many interchangeable traits that make up a twentieth century person. “An almost absolute business inability and perhaps some hereditary flaw in his character had led him to journalism and being ambitious he hoped one of these days to become dramatic critic on a paper with a decent circulation.” (5) People seem to stumble into jobs pretty much by chance.

Lushington’s friend Da Costa, working in the Venusberg embassy, was the man Lushington was going to visit. “A dark young man with a greenish, horse-shaped face, stood beside him, also watching the sea, his mouth a little open as if at any moment he were going to laugh.” (37)”Da Costa like Lushington was shy. But whereas Lushington’s shyness took the form of creeping about rooms pretending that he was really not there at all, Da Costa’s manifested itself in shouting loud and laughing and upsetting things to counteract this feeling of personal inadequacy.” (5)

Pope, Da Costa’s butler, nearly steals the novel for his eccentricities. “Pope had an unhealthy complexion, strangely discoloured, mineral rather than flesh, and hair so fair that it was nearly white.” (38) “Pope always found difficulty in leaving a room expeditiously. Undisciplined, he gave out vitality in such wrong directions as Da Costa with enormous force.” (67) In a moment of extreme tension, “at the other end of the line Pope gobbled in a kind of ecstasy of fright and refinement, at intervals making a sort of clucking noise as he poured strings of unconnected, ingratiating words into the transmitter.” (136)

Many of the minor characters are also intriguing. Waldemar is a captain in the army and friend of Da Costa: “Waldemar, regarding him as a typical Englishman and as such prepared for the worst, was a little afraid of him. Waldemar himself was a quiet, studious young man whom circumstances rather than taste seemed to have brought to the high calling of arms. He was shy and his tunic was a great deal too tight and whenever Da Costa asked him whether or not he would eat a certain dish he always said ‘Perhaps’ as a polite method of throwing the onus on Da Costa.” (44)

Powell can also depict the nature of children well. Little Panteleimon is a five- year-old:  “Little P’s face was large and round and he stood there, leaning, with all his weight on one leg, gazing in front of him with an expression of convinced and dogged cynicism. “ (93) Then Powell goes more deeply as the mother confronts him: “Little P fixed her with his fishy wide eyes and moved away slightly, crossing one leg behind the other and pointing his toe in the First Position. He was an elderly, world-weary child dressed in the travesty of a sailor suit.” (93)

II – Humor

Already we have been getting hints of humor in the way Powell expresses himself. Some of the humor borders on pathetic often with a comic double punch line. Da Costa was going to take a job with a relative but “his relative, as it happened, retired soon after his arrival but this was due to a personal whim and was unconnected with Da Costa’s shortcomings.” (7) “He had never been in love before, except slightly with one of his first cousins, who was already engaged to a man in the Treasury.” (6) “But she was a girl who felt that life should be full of meaning and she broke with her second husband, a film producer, because he adapted one of the minor classics too freely.” (10)

Many of the people are just downright silly. The French minister’s wife: “She came from Rennes and almost all the fun she got out of life was being rude to the German minister whose surname happened to be of some international significance.” (64) Lushington has been having an affair with a German woman:

“’I do not know,’ she said. ‘Perhaps you will remember me when you see your English girl again.’

‘But you are coming back with me to England.’

‘Oh yes. I forgot.’”

Play on words is another device Powell uses effectively:

“’Woman has become her own master.’

‘And very often someone else’s mistress.’”(118)

At an embassy dinner the American minister says:” ‘Isn’t this party great? It takes you back somehow. The pictures, the armour, the old paneling. Even the dresses and the uniforms. Why we might be at the court of Catherine the Great or the Roi Soleil. Don’t you get me, Lushington? See how I mean?’

‘This sandwich takes me back further than the armour.’”(130)

And there are physical moments: “Da Costa, all legs and arms, sitting in an armchair, as if his limbs had been thrown there without arrangement.” (56) “His wife, whose immense proportions seemed as if they might at any moment evade the neo-classic creation she was wearing.” (125) “His overcoat hung on him quite loosely as if it were suspended from a hook somewhere beneath his neck.” (75) “There were two doors at the entrance, one of them so heavy that only very strong people could get into the hotel at all without help and even those who managed to push it open, unassisted by the hall porter, were often swept back into the street at the very moment when they had seemed on the point of gaining admittance.” (35) “

Other moments of humor are more sarcastic, ironic: “Her father, a captain retired from the Marines, who had lost his wife’s money by judicious investments, lived in a bungalow on the south coast with his eight children and this used sometimes to make him appear a discontented man.” (10) “The girls at the next table were not interested in Waldemar either as they and the manager were equally familiar with the rates of army pay.” (47) “The American minister, who with the help of the German leading-lady was energetically lowering his country’s prestige at the far end of the room.” (49) “Baroness Puckler, who said that in the days before the war when anarchists were an adjunct to any public function of any importance, no royalty would have dreamed of taking so much trouble to remain alive.” (87) Even a couple deaths at the end of the novel did not suppress the humor.

III – Style

Anthony Powell’s novel is only 152 pages long with 37 chapters, which averages four pages per chapter; some of those chapters are one paragraph.  These techniques blend to make the plot move quickly.  Strangely enough, the title Venusberg is never used in the book; we must conjecture that that foreign city is where men and women are searching for love.

He employs vivid participles to good effect: “A group of cavalrymen stood behind him, leaning romantically on their sabers, mopping and mowing at their friends in other parts of the hall and assisting the room’s chiaroscuro with a solid background of red breeches.” (124) He often juxtaposes opposites in one sentence to subtly demonstrate the vagaries of life: “The boat was small. It smelt of cocoanut oil and was to call at Copenhagen on the voyage.” (24) Sometimes he totally omits details, as we do in life: “’To speak of morals,’ said the host, ‘have you heard the latest story about Madame Gomez?’

It was a good one.” (71)

And Powell’s run-on sentences capture life’s awkwardnesses: “Art and letters exhausted, Pope began to roam among the litter of his personal reminiscence, exploring the cramped furtive lanes of memory, winding this way and that through the tinsel by-ways of his past, petting and cosseting his ego, warming it at the glow of innumerable self-congratulatory episodes that had, it seemed, lighted the road.” (74)

But for me metaphors are his most powerful stylistic tool, assisting to convey his humor. Regarding people, “His presence, slowly getting to work like the warming up of an engine.” (41) Lushington gets a job: “But there was a circumstance that gave to the appointment some of the tang of a stale joke, a flavour used-up but at the same time forceful and disturbing like a tune running tiresomely in his head.” (5) “She looked at Lushington under her heavy lashes and he became aware of contact with her. She dropped her eyes suddenly, like pulling down a blind with a snap.” (20) Sometimes the image becomes an abstract artistic one: “The younger one turned and looked at him too and in profile her cheek bones and long, blacked eyelashes made an angular pattern against the varnished walls of the dining room.” (18)

Things and places also come into three-dimensional focus. “This last person carried a heavy instrument as for jacking up a lorry. With this contrivance, which proved to be a survival from the early days of printing, he stamped all the passports which he considered to be in order.” (34) “The food and wine in the restaurant were like the decorations, heavy and pretentious.” (45) “Ortrud and Baroness Puckler were there wearing all their coats and scarves and standing beside a cairn of suitcases.” (33) The start of a day: “Shrill voices that jarred against the thin atmosphere of morning.” (134) The cleaning of a room: “The atmosphere, the fumes of sweat and disinfectant, was midway between an operating theatre and a corner of the monkey house.” (139) A newspaper office: “Lushington went down the stairs which were of stone like those of a prison or lunatic asylum and were, in effect, used to some considerable extent by persons of a criminal tendency or mentally deranged.” (4) “The North Sea, an engrailed tract of sheet iron, heaved a little.” (14) Whether it be metaphor or simile, the image is unique and forceful.

IV – Philosophy

Through his characters Powell has little positive to say about ocean voyages: “The sea was calm and the hard clearness of the night limited the illusion of space and accentuated the claustrophobia of sea-travel. The sea seemed shut in closely by the waves and the bright wastes of stars.” (26) “What’s she like? Well I imagine you know more about her than I do. You were almost alone with her in an open boat for several days. For all the privacy there is on those boats coming out here one might as well be on a raft.” (49)

Embassy life is constricting too: “I met one of their secretaries the other day at a tea party. We were both lodged in a corner and he thought I was an American engineer on his way out to some mines in Russia and I thought he was a French author on his way back. They have invented an entirely new form of boredom, like the worst moments of being in the boy scouts at one’s preparatory school.” (40)  “All around him was the used-up atmosphere of the end of a party.” (132)

Powell has a chance to highlight some American traits: “Lushington shook hands with Cortney who said with a conversational burr as sweet and low as the vox humana of some mighty cinema organ . . .”(43) “They give their best diplomatic posts to business men who need a rest or lawyers who have flown a bit near the wind in their own country. They send publishers to the more important capitals but the people here have to put up with smaller fry.” (41)

The view of policemen is also jaundiced: “There were two gendarmes at the entrance to the block of flats. These, stage policemen out of a knock-about farce, stopped him shaking their heads. They stood in front of the door, grunting and intransigent, making signs that he could not go in, their expressions that of highland cattle.” (137) However, death is feared and respected: “Here then was that rather astonishing mystery about which so much had been said that when the fact itself was there no further comment was possible. For the moment no near at hand formula seemed at all adequate. This was something well-defined and at the same time not easy to believe in.” (138)

Anthony Powell opened his novel with a mystical view of the city where ships somehow meld with the houses: “There were streets and houses among the docks and looking between these it seemed that ships were moored in the thoroughfares of the town itself.” (34) And he concludes: “This was the last outpost of the unreal city and, prodigally dramatic, a soldier was standing on one of the bastions of the central tower leaning on his rifle, humped out by his helmet and pack into a gargoyle against the snowy castellations and pale stars.” (146)

Anthony Powell’ A Dance to the Music of Time considers so many major areas of life: politics, the military, history, business, the arts, etc. All of this is done in a very somber manner which does not detract from its power. The earlier writings were after something else: the comic adventures of a young man. Our author succeeded in this venue as well, joining the ranks of P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, and the also young Aldous Huxley.

You can find the book here:  https://www.fantasticfiction.com/p/anthony-powell/venusberg.htm

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.

 

 

The Trajectory of Sharon Olds – a look at five poems

Sharon-Olds-PortraitcBret-768x511
.
By Ray Greenblatt
.
         Leafing through the most popular poems by Sharon Olds, I discerned the development of a mid-twentieth century woman. I am not interested in whether this is the poet’s actual life revealed; what I did see was the representative life of many American women, vivified by these highly emotional and uniquely rendered poems.

 

          The poems I will be investigating are: her parents in The Victims; dating in After Making Love in Winter; marriage in The Wedding Vow; her daughter in The Month of June: 13 ½; and finally divorce in Unspeakable.

                                                               I – THE VICTIMS

          This poem opens with rather prosaic lines explaining how the mother and her children battled against what must have been the abusive treatment perpetrated by the alcoholic father.

          We don’t begin to know the essence of the father until we encounter striking imagery. His suits were “those dark carcasses hung in your closet.” “Carcasses” were once living things that the father no longer is figuratively, having lost his living as well as being kicked out of his home.

          Likewise, that image is intensified by “the black noses of your shoes with their large pores.” Even the shoes were alive, if leather, especially if they had “noses.” “Their large pores” added a distasteful element to the human comparison that will be touched on later with the use of several other images.

          It seems as though the mother, with her own limitations, had to teach the children to hate, because love for parents can be a powerful, instinctive quality without the leaven of reason. So “we pricked with her for your annihilation” employs a strange verb in that context; the children had to be pushed. The excessive word “annihilation” underscores how their hate had reached extremes.

          Then the poem serves to view down-and-out street people. They are strongly described in ugly terms: “The white slugs of their bodies gleaming through slits in their suits of compressed silt” and “stained flippers of their hands.” It is as if these people inhabit an aqueous lower world.

          The final telling image continues the sea reference: “The underwater fire of their eyes, ships gone down with the lanterns lit.” These people are still alive—“fire of their eyes” and “lanterns lit” and we are led to wonder if the woman who has spoken throughout this poem has come to feel pity for people who have lost everything– including her father.

                                        II – AFTER MAKING LOVE IN WINTER

          This is a very sensual, passionate poem. After making love the woman feels “a plate of iron laid down on my nerves” and “our bodies touch like blooms of fire.”

          This experience has intensified all of her senses so that she sees “the light from the hall burns in straight lines and casts up narrow beams on the ceiling, a figure throwing up its arms for joy.” “The angle itself is blessed, and the dark globes of the chandeliers.”

          A very unique comparison is “the silvery bulbs” cause her to “feel my ovaries deep in my body.” The intensity of this sexual experience reverberates throughout her body to its very core.

          For her, intercourse has made her a complete human being; before, she was a child. “Like God putting the finishing touches on, before sending me down to be born.”

          And with the line “we have come to the end of questions” the woman and man no longer wonder if they can relate fully; they now feel that they have formed a deep indissoluble union.

                                                     III – THE WEDDING VOW

          The couple legalizes their relationship in a simple church, not an ornate high church. Although they have already made a laypersons’ pact between them, they desire a religious benediction.

          And religious imagery is significantly used. “God’s stable perfectly cleaned” while outside is “a moat of mud.” This stresses the plainness of the church, even employing a reference to where Jesus was born.
.
          The poet uses what I may call a unique “delay technique.” For instance:
          In truth, we had married
          that first night, in bed, we had been
          married by our bodies, but now we stood
          in history—what our bodies had said,
          mouth to mouth, we now said publicly,
          gathered together, death.
.
The word “death” holds considerable power coming at the very end of the sentence. It sums up a total relationship between two people that inevitably ends in old age and death.
.
          Again: “We stood
          holding each other by the hand, yet I also
          stood as if alone, for a moment,
          just before the vow, though taken
          years before, took.
.
“Took” shows that it involved a long time to develop a relationship before the woman personally could feel secure in it.
          Finally, early in the poem “flies” are wiped off the Bible the minister holds. Later in the poem they appear again to refer to the woman’s parents in a comparison of the two marriages:
.
           I felt
           the silent, dry, crying ghost of my
           parents’ marriage there, somewhere
          in the bright space—perhaps one of the
          plummeting flies, bouncing silently
          as it hit forsaking all others
          then was brushed away.
.

                                                  IV – THE MONTH OF JUNE: 13 ½

          Years later the couple now has a teenage daughter. They love her very much and applaud each of her growing stages. The poet capsulizes each stage by using school years. Kindergarten is defined as “a strip of thumb-suck blanket.” 1st grade is “a dim cocoon . . . back there somewhere on the path.” 4th grade was a “hard jacket . . . when she had so much pain.”  This reference is cleverly slurred over, as many youngsters encounter difficult times for myriad reasons. “Magenta rind of 5th grade” could mean the daughter graduated from one school, shedding one for another.

          And now 8th grade is “a chrysalis cracking”; she is outgrowing another school, but also as a person she is growing up. “The whole school is coming off her shoulders like a cloak unclasped.” “Her jerky sexy child joke dance is self, self.”  She can “jazz out her hands” and “chant I’m great! I’m great!”  She is not conceited, only realizing her worth.
.
          The parents are watching:
          Like a good mother and a
          good father who looked down and
          love everything their baby does, the way she
          lives their love.
.

The parents take joy in their daughter maturing into a feeling, expressive adult; so far they have succeeded in raising their child.

                                                           V – UNSPEAKABLE

          After thirty years of marriage the wife is involved in divorce. It is “unspeakable” because it is a tragedy to her; it might also be that she has not come to terms with it using reason. Her mate is “my almost-no-longer husband.”
.
          She is still full of questions:  “What was it like, to love me—when you looked at me, what did you see?”
         She muses sadly: “When he loved me, I looked out at the world as if from inside a profound dwelling.”
          She thought:
          We were joined not just for breath’s time,
          but for the long continuance,
          the hard candies of femur and stone,
          the fastnesses.
.

          She tries to show no anger, sometimes employs even humor. “All is courtesy and horror.”

          We don’t know the complete story. Is someone to blame? We don’t know his side—except hints of another woman—and never will. In life we often don’t learn all sides of a situation. A poem can explore just so much.  The ending is an enigma: “When I say, is this about her, and he says, No, it’s about you, we do not speak of her.”

I see these five poems as a five-act play about a woman’s life. A woman lives through a difficult childhood. She falls in love. She marries. She and her husband have a child who fulfills them. However, after considerable time their marriage bonds do not hold. The woman cannot say she is reliving her parents’ marriage; hers is different. Also, her child has received a firm foundation to live a healthy life. As all adults, the woman must meet new challenges and continue her life. With power, humanity, and keen poetic skills, Sharon Olds allows us to view all of these vicissitudes in life.
.
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.
.
.

Contributor Profile: Ray Greenblatt

Greenblatt

Ray Greenblatt has lived in New England, the West Indies, and along the Eastern Shore. He is a regular review contributor to North of Oxford. Ray is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. He was also the editor of the magazine ”General Eclectic.” He has written short stories, essays, and poetry published across the U.S. 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. Greenblatt was a long time teacher and mentor at The Church Farm School and currently teaches a poetry course at Temple University. Greenblatt has taught writing at the Philadelphia Writers Conference as well as spoken at the John Steinbeck Festival in Salinas, California.

Greenblatt’s poetry has been published around the world, translated into Gallic, Polish and Japanese, as well as set to music at the University of Siena in Italy. He was awarded the Anthony Bryne Prize for Poetry. His poetry has most recently been published at: Subsynchronous Press, Pangolin Review, Clarion, Mediterranean Poetry, Poetry Pacific, Painters and Poets, Shot Glass Journal and The Plum Tree Tavern.

Greenblatt at North of Oxford

You can read Ray Greenblatt’s reviews and poems at North of Oxford:
https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/tag/ray-greenblatt/

ray 1

Poems On Line by Ray Greenblatt

Pangolin Review: https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/e869c8_a3cbfdb22d934b85b32932d419633a17.pdf
Clarion: http://www.bu.edu/clarion/18/ray-greenblatt.htm
Mediterranean Poetry: https://www.odyssey.pm/contributors/ray-greenblatt-15/
Poetry Pacific: http://poetrypacific.blogspot.com/2019/05/1-poem-by-ray-greenblatt.html
Painters & Poets: http://www.paintersandpoets.com/2013/08/poet-ray-greenblatt-giotto-and-joseph.html
Shot Glass Journal: http://www.musepiepress.com/shotglass/issue12/ray_greenblatt1.html
The Plum Tree Tavern: https://theplumtreetavern.blogspot.com/search/label/Ray%20Greenblatt

Books by Ray Greenblatt

Greenblatt on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/s?i=stripbooks&rh=p_27%3ARay+Greenblatt&s=relevancerank&text=Ray+Greenblatt&ref=dp_byline_sr_book_1
Greenblatt at Foothills: http://foothillspublishing.com/2010/id64.htm
Greenblatt at Incline: https://www.inclinepress.com/shop/sunspots

.

Review of the Richard Scaife Exhibit at The Brandywine River Museum of Art

                                BRANDYWINE

https://www.brandywine.org/museum/exhibitions/past

Exhibit ran from March 9th to May 27th

By Ray Greenblatt

Practically all artists at least sometime in their career paint landscapes. It is as natural to do as poets writing Nature poetry. Many artists are highly skilled in this genre. However, not as a painter nor even as an Art Major, I most appreciate some element that leaps out at me from that landscape.

Two painters from the Hudson River School work magic with the element of clouds. In John Kensett’s “Hudson River View” he puts in a very low row of distinctively puffy clouds, which dominate the sky and highlight the country village below. Martin Heade in “New Jersey Salt Marsh” also uses low clouds but they are a burning red reflected by the twilight sun.

George Innes’ “Moonrise, Alexandria Bay” creates a foggy landscape and features a dominant orange moon. And there is no other way—even though it seems simplistic—to define Henry Smith’s “Landscape on Pond” than as a cozy feeling  where you just want to nestle in the cottage partially hidden by lush groves beside a languorous pond.

Two landscapes are rendered in an Impressionistic style. In Granville Redmond’s “Wildflowers, Poppies and Lupines” we observe a hazy background of sky and hills, but the foreground is accentuated by brilliant yellow flowers. Chauncey Ryder in his “Hillside Farm” employs daubs of paint, but you recognize what they represent: house or tree or even shadow. The tones of pastel green and off-whites of snow identify the cold season.

Seascapes are also a popular venue for artists. For me the reality of the sea is foremost. An anonymous painter’s canvas titled “Niagara Falls” offers the look of real water and spume, although it is not ocean but a powerful river. However, Alfred Bricher’s “View Near Point Judith” creates real waves, curls and crests. Again, Bricher in “Maine Coast” capitalizes on a sharpened waterline because of the shadow of a looming promontory cast on the sea to contrast against the brighter sky.

In addition to Nature, houses are also important to human beings. I was struck by the delicacy of Samuel Griggs’ “Stevens House” in which you seem to view its fine bones.  Abbott Graves in “New England Doorway” focuses light on the front door of the house. The light is intense, similar to late afternoon light on boats in a harbor whitening their sails and hulls. William Merritt Chase takes us inside a home in “Interior, Oak Manor” : the room is mostly dark, some shadows highlight the large open space, but at the far end appear two lighted windows in contrast.

Some paintings offer a personal if not sensual beauty. In William Chaddick’s “The Cherry Tree” the rosy blossoms are at their fullest, their ripest, filling the 2’ by 3’ frame with an explosion of color. In “The Goldfish” Charles Curran offers a sensual woman. She is feeding the fish but her diaphanous gown with light filtering through it and her gracefulness as she leans toward the bowl is the highlight of the work.

I could fault some of the paintings in this exhibit. I could say that in Julian Weir’s “Misty Landscape” too many vertical lines of trees obscure his scene. Or I could complain that in “Garden of the Girls” Edward Redfield applies paint too heavily to his objects like flowers, buildings, or trees, giving them the appearance of kohl around a houri’s eyes. However, there is so much to enjoy about this exhibit that I will stop and state that Richard Scaife has collected a remarkable array of fine art!

.

.

The Imaginative Prose of Peter Fleming

news

By Ray Greenblatt

–NEWS FROM TARTARY–

Peter Fleming’s younger brother was Ian Fleming—of James Bond fame—who idolized his older brother. Peter was a journalist for the London Times who had been assigned to investigate events in China in 1936. Information about encroachments by Russia and Japan as well as Communists vs Nationalists in China itself was not forthcoming in the world at large. These world powers would contribute to the explosion in a few scant years that would become Word War Two.

Peter had originally traveled from Moscow to Beijing; covered by his book One’s Company. Now he would continue from Beijing, over the Himalayas, to India in seven months at a distance of three thousand miles. This second book would be called Travels in Tartary; both books were combined under one cover titled News from Tartary. On this second adventure Peter would go with Kini Maillart, a Swiss Olympic ice hockey player, sailor, and skier, who worked for a French newspaper.

Landscape

If you consult a map of China, roughly drawing a diagonal line from Beijing  across the Himalayas to Lahore India, you will realize that Peter Fleming traveled the entire breadth of China.  Terrain, including parts of the Gobi Desert, were difficult, to say the least. “The sun was well up now; the heat seemed to us terrific and was in fact considerable. The world around us jigged liquidly in a haze.” (455) “The valley narrowed, and we found ourselves marching down a gully whose walls were pock-marked with smooth caves like the flanks of a Gruyere cheese.” (452) “A yellow country, streaked here and there with red. Everywhere startlingly terraced hills of loess, grotesquer than the most outlandish ant-hills.” (282) Yet some relief existed: “Everything was deathly still; only a little bird from time to time uttered a short and plaintive song whose sweet notes echoed anomalously under those frowning cliffs.” (453) “The melodramatic mountains and the lake which glittered with a vulgar, picture-postcard blue.” (432)

Night held different fascinations: “Smoke rose with great deliberation in the sparkling air. At night footsteps fell with a curious and sullen emphasis upon the frosty ground.” (266) “The sand was silver, and the dust we breathed hung like an emanation, as of steam, around the caravan.” (370) Then the environment could quickly alter: “The wind was the curse of our life; ubiquitous and inescapable, it played the same part on the Tibetan plateau as insects do in the tropical jungle.” (359) “A dun, vaporous, impalpable wall marched up across the sky and bore slowly down on us from the west. From the dunes pale writhing snakes of sand licked out across the dark grey desert, and almost before we realized what was happening the sand storm was upon us.” (413)

Some man-made creations grounded the travelers. Their tent “looked like an abstruse practical joke.” (332) “We walked behind the lorries over a precarious bridge whose architecture seemed to be an affair of mud and mass-hypnotism.” (291) A monastery: “The maze of buildings whose small trapezoid windows, wider at the top than at the bottom, seemed to frown down on us from under lowering brows.” (325) Some villages functioned: “From behind the mud walls of a farm unseen winnowers threw up a lovely rhythmic series of golden jets which spread into fine golden clouds, then settled slowly.” (257) Others not so: “As we arrived at the inn, the building next to it—an eating-house where we had breakfasted—quietly and rather sadly collapsed, crumbling into rubble in a cloud of dust.” (294) Another town: “An unsightly, unexpected cluster of walls and roofs which grew like a wart in the middle of a vast bare plain. “ (372)

Animals played an important part in their lives. “In our empty world the animals that served us, revealing their characters by tricks of temperament or gait, bulked almost as large as human beings.” (434) “If camels can appear Byronic. Detached and skeptical, he seemed always to be something more than a camel: perhaps a prince unluckily metamorphosed.” (440) “Shining like seals, with thick necks arched heraldically, they towered over us, two splendid Badakshani chargers from Afghanistan.” (460) “There is something about a donkey which keeps your mind and spirits earth-bound. On a horse, on a camel, even on a yak, your imagination soars without much difficulty.” (504) They even meet “ Marmots, their red coats very gay in the sunshine, whistled defiance and perplexity, then scampered into their burrows with a curious flouncing gait.” (441)

Personalities

Fleming learned many Chinese character traits: “I knew how swiftly the beanstalk of procrastination grows in the soil of Asia, and how easily another day, or two or three more days, could lose themselves in the intricate Chinese labyrinth of delay.” (290) “Harrows were being dragged along with a man standing on them like a chariot-driver.” (310) “The women hobble round the puddles on bound feet, their sleek heads shining like the shards of beetles.” (301) On public conveyances: “It had struck me as odd that a large crowd had gathered to see us off. I now realized that they were not seeing us off; they were coming too.” (296) “Making one cubic foot into two and turning the Black Hole of Calcutta into an only slightly over-crowded debating hall. Sixty-eight of the seventy-two people present were impervious to the lack of elbow-room, and except in our corner the intricate pattern of humanity had a surface as smooth and harmonious as a completed jigsaw puzzle.” (283)

Our journalist observes individuals in unique ways: “One was an oldish man with a fierce dignity and an abstracted manner which cloaked, at first, his ineffectualness.” (430)  “He wore a black three-cornered hat and a rusty bottle-green coat tied round the waist with a scarf which might have been a dirty tricolour; thus clad, he looked, as he slouched along, like a minor and unsympathetic character in a play about the French Revolution.” (492) “A crude young man with a pock-marked face, whose ungovernable passion for song found expression in a deplorably limited repertoire.” (494) “He used to eke out his meaning by closing his eyes, thrusting forward his face, and waving it blindly to and fro, like a snake in a glass case. It was impossible not to like the gawkish and pathetic dolt.” (521)

People came from faraway places:  “The assistant was a raffish but charming Afghan who, with his Homburg hat tilted wildly, his defiantly folded arms, and his over-truculent stance, looked exactly like a wag in a house-party snapshot.” (508) “A Russian ‘adviser’–-dressed for the backblocks but not in uniform, admirably mounted-–trotted down the street; the bulge in his pocket, his penetrating but evasive stare, his air of furtive consequence conformed splendidly to the standards of discreet melodrama.” (543)

Tibetans were especially interesting to Fleming. “Both races dressed in the Tibetan style. Huge sheepskin robes, worn with the wool inside, were gathered round the waist by a sash, above which, and concealing it, capacious folds overhung , making  a kind of pocket in which all personal possessions, from the inevitable wooden bowl to a litter of mastiff puppies were carried.” (316) “The women’s plaits of hair were burdened with superfluous silverware like a Victorian sideboard.” (368) Two priests: “The chief lama was a fat, merry man; he had rolling eyes and a little moustache and looked exactly like a Frenchman in a farce.  The other was much thinner—a jerky cadaverous creature who hooded himself with his robe against the sun and corresponded very closely to my idea of a Martian.” (387)

“We crawled down that endless valley, a string of small, jaded automata under  the dwarfing hills.” (444) “Presently the caravan arrived, long and deliberate, eating up distance as a caterpillar eats a leaf.” (367) The people who aided Fleming and Maillart the most were Christian missionaries from all over Europe. ”The Catholic Fathers gave us a riotous reception. They were nine enormous Spaniards, of whom the younger ones looked, in their large new beards and medieval habit, like supers in a Shakespeare production. They gave us cakes and chocolate and roared with laughter at everything we said.” (295)

Style

Peter Fleming recounts quite an adventure, but his vivid style brings all elements to life. We have been witness to a number of his writing techniques; now we shall try to define them. Word choice is often striking: “He had with him a white and equally venerable pony, and on its back, wrapped in a tattered greatcoat, he rode hunched in a coma, protecting us.” (323) Describing an ancient man in an ancient region, you would never expect a relatively modern psychological word like ‘coma.’ It also stresses the irony that this feeble man could protect them? Here is a more direct look at irony. As the group of travelers was descending a dangerously steep ‘S’ turn, the Chinese road sign was unusual: “As we hurtled downwards the recurrent ‘!’ atoned for its inadequacy as a warning by its charming aptness as a comment.” (297) Understatement is closely linked to irony: “Sitting in a small ornate room containing no fewer than eight far from unanimous clocks.” (329)

Fleming’s imagery is strong. Here is a reference to chickens not generally known but true: “Sinkiang seemed much farther away even than it had in Peking, and we had already become like a hen with its beak to a chalk line, hypnotized by the next step, blind to all beyond it.”  (288) A more direct use of simile: “The flames licked through the camp as swiftly as a striking snake.” (364) The author has used a snake comparison in different ways throughout the book. Sometimes an entire scene becomes a symbol:  “ A carter who was taking a very elaborately decorated coffin up the road, and for part of the afternoon we travelled behind this gaudy and impressive object, in company with a little boy riding on a donkey and carrying a white rabbit in his arms. It was all like some sort of fable.” (310)

The author’s beginning to a chapter is often powerful: “June opened with a villain’s smile.” (433) His closing is as striking: “It was a good moment: the last of its kind for a long time.” (313) Sounds: “Bugles brayed thinly.” (313) Not only is alliteration strong tying the bugle to its sound; but bugles are often played on the back of donkey or mule. Repetition: “We were sick of suspense, sick of unprofitably collating rumours, sick of the jungle of bureaucracy in which we were benighted.” (322) ‘Sick’ reinforces how difficulties had piled upon them.  And yet, through all these travails Fleming is not without humor.  His traveling clothes are filthy, but he has saved some clothes for visiting. However, the box containing them has fallen into green gutter water: “I had now to decide whether to enter Kashgar disguised as a lettuce, or looking like something that had escaped from Devil’s Island.” (534)

Philosophy

For a young man in mid-twenties, Peter Fleming was not only courageous to take on this assignment but wise beyond his years. Here are some observations he made on a wide variety of topics in his unique manner:

“Here everything that was not of local manufacture had a history behind it, a long itinerary and an outlandish pedigree of owners.” (489)

“We were always hungry all the time.” (367)

“We were on our own; the odds against us had lengthened fantastically, but from now on, every stage, every ruse, every guess that helped us towards the west would be a very personal triumph.” (309)

“A hard journey makes you curiously tender to even your most maddening companions.” (392)

“There had been a long prelude to this comic expedition, but it had yielded a sufficiency of far-fetched generalizations couched in three-pile, fire-proof, Printing House Square prose.” (258)

“To pose rigidly before a faded, tattered, manorial back-cloth on which segments of unimaginable architecture framed startling gouts of boskage.” (318)

“A large crowd, most of whom had for us—I liked to think—the ephemerally proprietorial fondness which menagerie elephants inspire.” (332)

“There are times when this base craft, this pushing of a pencil across a piece of paper, stands suddenly justified.” (336)

“You fell sometimes into a meditation which blotted out a segment of the march, so that when you returned from the far-off things and places that had filled your mind you remembered the country you had passed through hazily.” (360)

“Just outside, our horses munched their barley, making as charming and soporific as the sound of running water or of waves upon a beach.” (363)

“We were both adaptable and fairly phlegmatic; and we were both fatalists, as all travelers, and especially travelers in Asia, ought to be.” (398)

“You knew by now the technique of enduring long marches—how helpful is a train of thought, how it pays to have a half-remembered quotation, a half-worked-out idea, as iron rations for the intellect: something on which the mind can dwell, ignoring the body.” (447)

“They stood for freedom and backblocks; they stood for the luck which had always dogged me while I wore them. And it is not, after all, every pair of boots in which you can travel, sockless, for several months without discomfort.” (589)

“Anglo-India, starched and glossy, stared at us with horror and disgust.” (594)

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/News-Tartary-Journey-Across-Central/dp/1838600345

Peter Fleming (1907-1971) wrote a book, Brazilian Adventure, about exploring Brazil in 1933. He then wrote two books about traversing China in 1936. He went on to fight bravely in World War II as a captain receiving an OBE. In the 1950’s he wrote articles for the Spectator Magazine, collected into four books of essays. All of his writing offers poetic insights into the world at large. Ironically, he died of a heart attack at age sixty-four while hunting in Scotland.

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.

.

.

 

 

 

The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene

law

By Ray Greenblatt

Graham Greene did not have much time to be poetic when writing his novels; he knew that a fast-moving plot was what held the reader. However, in his book reviews, essays, travel books, other elements could be expanded. In THE LAWLESS ROADS Greene explores the dynamics of Mexico in 1938, wandering many byways where he had the space to be descriptive as well as contemplative.

                                                       The Shadow of Hemingway

          Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway both began to write in the 1920’s. As the years evolved, Greene developed a philosophical, psychological style; while Hemingway’s remained essentially the same—basic word usage, spare sentences—growing stylized over time. But Hemingway’s almost immediate and worldwide effect on writing was a phenomenon. The writers especially of detective fiction employ his style to this very day. Greene’s “Entertainments,” his name for the six thrillers he wrote, were influenced by Hemingway; even to a degree this early travel book about Mexico. This style was apt for expressing what Greene experienced.

Greene uses a series of nouns loosely joined by “and.”  “In the market flowers and flies and ordure and sleep.” (90) “They were full of scent and sunlight and quiet and desertion.” (200) “This was real—the high empty rooms and the tiled and swarming floor and the heat and the sour river smell.” (126) Notice the high number of negatively charged nouns.

Perhaps with further nod to Hemingway, Graham Greene also uses strings of simple sentences. “The hammocks creaked and something fluttered in the roof and a child wailed.” (135) “This small place wedged in among the mountains round its locked decaying church, and time just going by and the aeroplane always coming tomorrow. “ (157) Sometimes that all-purpose “and” joins adjectives, even sentence fragments: “No one could resent it: he was so pink and old and he had so many introductions. And a police badge under his lapel. “ (32)

The tone of his writing can be blase: “He was like the tough case of something labeled fragile.” (105) Or the author himself steps into the scene: “I had taken him already and made a character of him and I had got him entirely wrong.” (33) Also the use of ironic humor: “A few bright blue birds mocked one with other people’s happiness.” (185) Selectively, the Hemingway style can be liberating and focus the reader on each word: “He hated Mexico with a little refined adder-like hatred.” (42) Not only is “hatred” repeated for emphasis; unique adjectives—“refined” and “adder-like”—can be more easily observed and enjoyed.

                                                            Meet The People

          The 1930’s, with a worldwide depression, were a sad time for the people of Mexico. Graham Greene shows us some happy folk. At a cockfight: “They had plump mild operatic faces.” (43) In a cantina: “Nothing one could say failed to feed that enormous flame of mirth: it roared like a draught in a chimney, sucking up words like scraps of paper.” (96)

But for the most part life was serious if not tragic. A rebel general: “One gold tooth like a flaw in character.” (50) “Many people had a kind of affection for him—an affection for an animal whose cage you enter with caution.” (51) Even the soldiers had a hard life: “I passed the poor huts of the soldiers—just twig and mud, like birds’ nests, on the bank.” (205)

The educated suffered similarly to the poor. A philosopher: “The old professor had thin white hair, a long white moustache, and blanched and bony hands. He had an air of melancholy breeding; he was very clean and very worn; he was like an old-fashioned vase standing among the junk at the end of an auction.” (47) A school- teacher: “He was benevolent and patronizing, he knew everybody, but unlike the priest he knew nothing at all. He sat there like a poster advertising something of no value to anyone at all.” (204)

An ancient peasant: “His hands were like last year’s leaves.” (161) Beggars at a railroad station: “They came up around the train on both sides of the track like mangy animals in a neglected zoo.” (58) Even children were afflicted: “Two small boys boarded the train at San Marco with guitars and played in the middle of the coach for centavos—sweet melancholy voices and large brown actors’ eyes.” (88) “A little blonde girl of two lay wearily asleep in her nurse’s arms. Washed out and fragile as a shell, with her tiny ears already drilled for rings and a gold bangle round the little bony wrist.” (95)

During this Mexican persecution priests were not spared: “In the mortuary, lids not quite closed and the obstinate mouth dropping open to show the big stony teeth, and the vacant face like a mask taken off and ready for any wearer.” (75) Greene gives most of his time to describing men; women were usually involved with the church, as we will later see. However, here is one tragic woman: “Through an open door in one of the little houses I came suddenly on a tall tragic woman with hollow handsome features and a strange twisted mouth—like an expression of agony.” (147)

                                                     Mexican Flora and Fauna

          Graham Greene is skilled in depicting people. Let us now see poetically how he brings the landscape to life: “The rough, friendly, complex hills.”(49) “An oriental flat-roofed town under the leonine wrinkled hills.” (192) Mountains from the air: “The mountains came nearer—heavy black bars one behind the other—and a silver horizontal gleam upon the ground was a waterfall.” (128) “The mountains crouched all round like large and friendly dogs.” (169) “The volcanoes were there, moving half submerged like icebergs along the horizon.”

The land ran the gamut from aridity to fecundity. “This was the dry season: you could see the hollows—like thumb-marks—waiting for the rains.” (128) “All the vegetation died out into a black and hopeless soil.” (94) “It was like the grave, the earth taking over before its day.” (152)  “You can’t open a book without some tiny scrap of life scuttling across the page.” (120) The ancient temples in the jungle: “You can see them on the point of being swallowed again by the forest; they have looked out for a minute, old wrinkled faces, and will soon withdraw.” (137)

The villages and towns were often run down. “It was like a place besieged by scavengers—sharks in the river and vultures in the street.”(103) “ In the yard a whirlwind, small and domestic, raised a pillar of dust.” (50) “The turkeys—those hideous Dali heads, with the mauve surrealist flaps of skin they had to toss aside to uncover the beak or eyes.” (142) “The cocks crowing for miles around, an odd Biblical rhapsody at dawn.” (35) And in the local river  “the carcasses of old stranded steamers held up the banks.” (102)

Yet the natural beauty could be stunning: “The sun dropped out of sight, the forests became black below their gilded tips. The world was all steel and gold, like war.” (160) “Only sunset cast some kind of gentle humanizing spell over this rocky cactus desolation—a faint gold, a subjective pity, as if one were looking at the world for a moment through a god’s anatomical and pitying eye.” (38) “The last pale golden light welling across the plain, dropping down over the ridge which ended it as if over the world’s edge, so that you thought of the light going on and on through quiet peaceful uninhabited space.” (166)

Greene traveled by local train: “We were like an overgrown fossil as we bumped at seven in the morning along the hideously familiar way to Istapa.” (189)  Also by train: “It moves in great loops to summer, the seasons change as you watch, the air thickens, and exhilaration stirs in the flaccid lungs.” (89) Here is an overview of the landscape: “At the top of the ridge above the Mexican plain one emerged far above the sunset, which poured out between the mountains—a pale green under-water light shading into gold across the Mexican plain towards the volcanic snows, over more churches than you could count of fake pink stone, over haciendas like broken toys, and the wrinkled hills, a hundred luminous miles.” (205)

                                                           The Greene Theology

          Graham Greene, a Catholic himself, was commissioned to evaluate how Mexico was surviving. For a decade the dictator President Calles tried to eradicate Catholicism from the country; many churches had been closed and priests killed. However, the people’s faith would not be stamped out. “The cathedral sails like an old rambling Spanish galleon.” (61) “The churches still stand, great white shells like the skulls you find bleached beside the forest paths.” (141) “Everywhere churches lift up their bruised and antique heads above the walls and trees.” (75)

It is mostly women who sustain the faith. “With their cave-dwellers’ faces and their long staffs they might have been Stone Age people emerging from forgotten caverns to pay their tribute to the Redeemer on Resurrection morning.” (185) If a church was unavailable, they would go to private homes: “All day you could see women hurrying with ostrich secrecy towards the house in the side street where the body and blood of Christ was reserved in the little room off the balcony.” (178)

Some might not take the faith seriously: “Three girls doing the Stations of the Cross, giggling and chattering from agony to agony.” (35) But an innate feeling abided: “During the Calles persecution God had lain in radio cabinets, behind bookshelves. He had been carried in a small boy’s pocket into prisons; he had been consumed in drawingrooms and in garages. “ (36) “A great bare pulled-about church hummed gently and continuously with the prayers of the people.” (36)  “They were like relays of labourers making a road up Calvary.” (36)

“Perhaps this is the population of heaven—these aged, painful, and ignorant faces: they are human goodness.” (40) “You would say that life itself for these was mortification enough.” (40) “Even if it were all untrue and there were no God, surely life was happier with the enormous supernatural promise than with the petty social fulfillment, the tiny pension and the machine-made furniture.” (45)

To conclude, let us have Graham Greene poetically offer some of his wisdom:

“Death dictates certain rites. Men make rules and hope in that way to tame death.” (44)

“Guns on their hips, the holsters and the cartridge belts beautifully worked, a decorative death.” (49)

Dictators “under their pretence of freedom have left so many chains.” (58)

Socialism “like an electric train gone wild, sparkling and jabbing down the Embankment.” (87)

“That Mexican façade of bonhomie—the embrace, the spar, the joke—with which they hide from themselves the cruelty and the treachery of their life.” (163)

“Despair has its own humour as well as its own courage.” (42)

“The little villages go up on the wounded clay with garages like tombs.” (46)

“It is before you cross a frontier that you experience fear.” (100)

“There is always something exhilarating about moving inward from the sea into an unknown country.” (104)

“It was like being forgotten in a maze when the ticket man had gone home.” (47)

“Man has a dreadful adaptability.” (137)

“Human kindness withering out like a flower in a vacuum flask.” (93)

“I suppose the love of life which periodically deserts most men was returning: like sexual desire, it moves in cycles.” (144)

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Lawless-Roads-Penguin-Classics/dp/0143039733

This review will be published by The Graham Greene Newsletter in print August 2019.

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.

.