Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Curtain Falls: Mutt Ploughman on "Dickensfest V", Part II

"But I am thinking like a lover, or like an ass: which I suppose is pretty nearly the same." - Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens

Having just knocked off this year's installment of my annual Dickensfest, I now take the time to post my second and concluding commentary on the novel Nicholas Nickleby and to reaffirm my faith in the worthiness and great aesthetic pleasures to be found in reading the work of the master novelist of the English language, Charles Dickens.

The above quote is a fine example of the humorous tone and recognizable insights into human folly that Charles Dickens laced throughout most of his novels, and certainly in Nickleby. This is one of the many qualities of his work that makes it a great joy to read. The comment above may have been written some time in the 1830s, but does anyone not recognize that it applies today, tomorrow, and to any other time in history? One of the great things about reading Dickens' great novels is to see how much does not change over the course of history or across the boundaries between different countries. I suppose one could get a greater sense of this by reading the literature of nations which are not as closely linked to our own as England was and still is, but there is no one who illuminates these things in quite the same way Dickens did in his novels, which is why they have always been popular throughout the world since they were written and published.

This novel was stronger than I thought it would be. As I mentioned before, there was something that made me slightly reluctant to try Nickleby because of the reference to its 'theatrical' qualities and the fact that it seemed to be a little more light-hearted than his later novels. For some reason, the older, darker and more cynical Dickens novels, written later in his career, have more appeal to me on the surface than some of his earlier and breezier works. And I would say that there is little in this novel which is very dark or even all that serious. Nonetheless, this did nothing to diminish my enthusiasm for the story and the characters once I got into the novel. Dickens remains unmatched for drawing long, complex, and stimulating plots and throwing in multiple twists and turns to keep the reader interested in all events. This novel was no exception. In fact, as I proceeded towards the end of the story, I got the sense that with this novel, Dickens' third, he must have been just coming into his own as a storyteller. You can almost feel his confidence as a novelist expanding as this long story unfolds. I wonder if that sense would be any less refined if I read, for example, his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. Time will tell as I will get to that one too, one of these years.

The story more or less carries us through the adventures of the title character and his lovely sister and his mother as they try to make their fortunes in the world up against the negative forces of poverty, injustice and their ruthless and cold relative, Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas' uncle. Early in the novel Ralph ships off the young Nicholas to a boarding school run by the cruel Wackford Squeers in order to be rid of him, and sets up his sister and mother in an empty, run-down building he owns just to keep him out of his hair as well. Nicholas is miserable at the horrid school, where Squeers physically abuses the young boys and ridicules everyone else. After Nicholas witnesses a horrid act of violence against a slow-minded youth named Smike, he cracks, beats Squeers to within an inch of his life, and escapes from the school with Smike to pursue another future any way he can. This sets up the central conflict of the novel, which contrasts the youthful Nicholas' determination to make his way on his own terms and care for his new companion, Smike, no matter what happens, against the calculating, self-indulgent business practices of his older relative, whose only interest is making money for himself at the expense and neglect of all others.

Along the way, Nicholas works in an acting troupe, for a politician (briefly), and finally establishes himself as a clerk in the offices of two twin brothers who are also business partners, and who are kind-hearted and generous with Nicholas and his relations. Meanwhile, his sister Kate attempts to care for herself and her mother while working in a dress-maker's shop and fending off the unwanted attentions of higher-class gentlemen who she comes in contact with through her job and who think they can have their way with her because of her lower position in life. Both Nicholas and his sister suffer through numerous indignities and injustices as they attempt to preserve their dignity and protect those who are important to them in a world where they have been given very little. We see as the novel progresses the strength and determination of both characters, Kate through her quiet pride and physical and inner beauty, and Nicholas with his refusal to back down against seemingly more powerful men who try to push him around because of who he is and who he is not. Nicholas uses his brain and his fists in various episodes, but remains a kind-hearted soul, which is most clearly revealed in his life-long devotion to his doomed friend, Smike, who he saved from the boarding school, and through his love for his sister and his mother.

Dickens' side characters are numerous and multi-colored, and the subplots range from the hilarious to the intensely dramatic: one involves a man living next door to Nicholas and Kate's mother who develops an inexplicable fancy for her, and expresses this by chucking vegetables from his garden over the wall of his yard into theirs as his way of literally showering her with gifts; while another relates a bitter rivalry between two buffoonish upper-class lords who end up settling their dispute with pistols in an open field. Here we find hilarious and ridiculous dinner parties, colorful depictions of stage performances, dramatic death scenes, a terrible and dismal suicide, descriptions of urban squalor and lush country scenes, and warm, feel-good family reunions. And, of course, by the end of the novel, more than one wedding.

To illustrate Dickens' descriptive powers, I offer these two passages as examples. The first depicts the teeming, pre-electric streets of downtown London circa 1838:

"They rattled on through the noisy, bustling, crowded streets of London, now displaying long double-rows of brightly burning lamps, dotted here and there with the chemists' glaring lights, and illuminated besides with the brilliant flood that streamed through the windows of the shops, where sparkling jewelry, silks and velvets of the richest colors, the most inviting delicacies, and the most sumptuous articles of luxurious ornament, succeeded each other in rich and glittering profusion. Streams of people apparently without end poured on and on, jostling each other in the crowd and then hurrying forward, scarcely seeming to notice the riches that surrounded them on every side."

The second, here, is a very different tone, and describes a graveyard:

"He had to pass a poor, mean burial ground - a dismal place, raised a few feet above the level of the street, and parted from it by a low parapet-wall and an iron railing; a rank, unwholesome, rotten spot, where the very grass and weeds seemed, in their frowsy growth, to tell that they had sprung from paupers' bodies, and had struck their roots in the graves of men, sodden, while alive, in streaming courts and hungry drunken dens. And here, in truth, they lay, parted from the living by a little earth and a board or two - lay thick and close - corrupting in body as they had in mind - a dense and squalid crowd. Here they lay, cheek by jowl with life: no deeper down than the feet of the throng that passed there, every day, and piled high as their throats."

The hope here is that between these vivid descriptions and the account of the plot summarized above, anyone who reads this will be compelled to pay attention to the works of Charles Dickens, whose novels provide one of the high points of my reading year in and year out, and who will always remain important to readers and to novelists, both novice and veteran, as long as the English language stays alive and well on this Earth.

See you next year for Dickenfest VI!!!!!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #46

This installment of the POTW feature is dedicated to a special family member of the blog founders, who is celebrating a big birthday today. She's hitting the double digits -- the big 1-0!

The poem itself, from Billy Collins, is kind of bleak (though interesting too), but that's not the point... it's meant to be humorous anyway... we just want to acknowledge the special day, that's the main thing!

So to J.T., happy birthday and much love from your uncles!


On Turning Ten

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I'm coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light--
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.B
ut now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Inner Limits

Mutt Ploughman Reviews Philip K. Dick's novel "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" (1965)

AFTER DECADES OF GRASS-ROOTS DEVOTION, and beatification by a gradually expanding college of periodicals and arts organizations, the literary canonization of the science fiction master Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) has finally come to pass. This summer the Library of America, whose function is to preserve the work of this nation’s greatest writers, is publishing a volume of four of Dick’s best science fiction novels, one of which is 1965’s brilliant and fascinating The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

In Palmer Eldritch, Dick warns of an overcrowded earth (he also prophesies on global warming convincingly) in which human beings are ‘drafted’ by the government to mine other planets for resources. Life both on the slowly baking Earth and on these colonies has become increasingly pointless and empty for most people, which accounts for the tremendous popularity of a substance called Can-D, a hallucinatory drug.

In a Dickian splash of creativity and weirdness, the users of this drug, instead of floating off into some nameless void, inhabit tiny dolls that are placed inside miniature models with buildings, towns, and natural features called ‘layouts’. Can-D users gather around one of these layouts (like the board in a board game), ingest the drug through the mouth, and play out alternate-world adventures while their corporeal bodies remain in a semi-conscious trance.

Dick’s hero is the hapless Barney Mayerson, a low-level salesman of these layouts who suffers from a predisposition towards fundamentally theological questions. He is dispatched by his employer to investigate a rumor that a once-famous explorer, Palmer Eldritch, has returned from a decade-long venture to the outer reaches of space, and that he has brought something extraordinary back with him.

Palmer Eldritch – or something greater – has indeed returned, Mayerson learns, and his booty is a new substance, the hallucinatory effects of which make Can-D seem like mere titillation. As Eldritch himself explains to the existentially strung-out Mayerson, ‘God promises eternal life. I can do better. I can deliver it.’ Is redemption actually possible?

What follows is the sort of bleak, thrilling, and incisive tale that made Philip K. Dick a sui generis fantast, a kind of literary Palmer Eldritch. Like Barney Mayerson, however, the spoils for Dick’s trouble and his courage were few, and came too late.

What distinguishes Dicks’ novels from his contemporaries’ work is an insatiable appetite for the ultimate Reality, the Truth behind the lie of the modern world, and the brutally honest accounting of the disappointments and pitfalls man can encounter in the pursuit of same. ‘Isn’t a miserable reality better than the most interesting illusion?’ asks Mayerson. If that question had a clear answer, we might all be better off, but there would be no Philip K. Dick novels to trip through.

Orhan Pamuk on Writing

If ever there was material suitable for this blog, Orhan Pamuk's wonderful speech in acceptance of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature is it. The speech is an inspiring paean to the gift of literature -- both the reading and the writing of it -- and ought to be widely read and savored for its warmth, wit and wisdom.

I have yet to read Pamuk and Mutt has only recently dipped into his work with My Name is Red, but I can guarantee our readers that this is not the last time his name will appear in these pages.

Here is an excerpt that is representative of the exuberance and deep insight of Pamuk's extraordinary speech. Enjoy.


For me, to be a writer is to acknowledge the secret wounds that we carry inside us, wounds so secret that we ourselves are barely aware of them, and to patiently explore them, know them, illuminate them, own them, and make them a conscious part of our spirit and our writing...

All writers who have devoted their lives to their work know this reality: whatever our original purpose, the world that we create after years and years of hopeful writing will, in the end, take us to other, very different places. It will take us far from the table at which we have worked in sadness or in anger; it will take us to the other side of that sadness and anger, into another world.

The question we writers are asked most often, the favorite question, is: Why do you write? I write because I have an innate need to write. I write because I can’t do normal work as other people do. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can partake of real life only by changing it. I write because I want others, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all life’s beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but—as in a dream—can’t quite get to. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Report from London: Mutt Ploughman on "Dickensfest V"

In what is quickly becoming an annual feature of The Secret Thread (well, ok, I started it last year), and in lieu of the fact that there's not much to report on the novel-writing front (I'm in a writing hiatus, for numerous complicated reasons, but I hasten to add that I am still conducting research in the interim), I now devote some time to a mid-novel report from my yearly endeavor to read one major work from the canon of the great, great English novelist Charles Dickens. This is my fifth annual "Dickensfest" venture (technically, the sixth in the last seven years). For posterity, here are the previous installments in the history of Mutt Ploughman's "Dickensfest":

2000 - A Tale of Two Cities
2001 - (year of ignorance/terror)
2002 - Our Mutual Friend
2003 - Bleak House
2004 - Dombey and Son
2005 - Martin Chuzzlewit

And now, as you can see on the right, I am immersed in the third novel in Dickens' catalogue, Nicholas Nickelby.

Right now, I am about 1/2 of the way through the novel. A little less, technically, but close enough. The first thing I'd say about this novel is that I confess to not really having had a great desire to read it, at least compared to other Dickens novels. I chose to, however, because I wanted to see if my gut was wrong (so far, it is!), because I have committed to reading all of his works anyway, and because, the most practical reason, I happened to have a copy of the novel on hand. I did have other Dickens works on hand too, but in the end I chose to see what it is that was making me less than compelled to explore this work, and whether those feelings were unfounded.

It may be that I felt this way about the novel beforehand because of the way it's described on the back of the Bantam version I have: the synopsis touts it as 'the most gorgeously theatrical' of Dickens' novels. I didn't know what the heck that meant, and I don't really know who would, since it sounds like one of those high literary-critic catch phrases that mean more or less nothing except demonstrate how creative the critic can be with his or her words. But it did indicate that the novel concerned itself more with the stage/theater world more than other Dickens novels, and that isn't a particular interest of mine. I enjoy the theater as much as anyone else but that is a world I have never been involved with nor cared a whole lot about. But I knew, as is fairly common knowledge about Dickens, that the theater was a tremendous source of inspiration and joy for Dickens, so it was not surprising that he would write about that world. It's not surprising either that he felt this way about it either; it was more or less the motion picture industry of Dickens' time (and all ages before then), and one can see why he felt so strongly about it as a form of entertainment. But I've never been that interested in the theater myself.

Furthermore, the story of a down-on-his-luck young man making his way in the world certainly seems to be rather commonplace in Dickens' work, and I guess I wondered how much different of an experience this novel would be than some of his others. Dombey and Son had a similar vein running through it, and Martin Chuzzlewit also contained plot lines with young, ambitious, but disadvantaged men, and women, with firm moral qualities, trying to make headway in a society that disdains them in favor of people with more 'advantages'.

All this being said, I know enough about Dickens now to know that his novels are always worthwhile, and although they all do contain similar elements, they are by no means all the same. Each Dickens story is different, each cast of characters particularly striking and memorable. But those casts are always remarkable, always finely drawn, and always most impressive in their scope and variety. In Nickelby, so far I have run into the virtuous title character and his beautiful and good-hearted sister; their woebegone, constantly lamenting mother; their miserly, cold uncle; a colorful manager of a theater troupe; a chattery and warm female painter; a number of buffoon-ish young men with high social positions but little else to recommend them; a scheming, whiny young woman who sees herself as entitled to become Nicholas' wife and becomes devilish when rejected by him; and a cruel, tyrannical, abusive boarding school master who gives new meaning to the term 'child abuse'. (Dickens was always a stong voice for disadvantaged, poor children - he experienced poverty in his youth, and always remembered it and preserved his experience of it in his novels and in his public life.)

With Dickens the enjoyment is always found in the accurate, humorous, and insightful exhibition of human nature, with all of its foibles, as embodied in these wide casts of characters. What was true of men and women in all casts of society in London in the early to mid-19th century is in many ways still true. Thus in Nicholas Nickelby, we recognize the ways men & women jostle and parry for social positioning, and although the constraints for women were far more prevalent at that time, their ends, and those of men, seemed to be nonetheless the same. We recognize how ridiculous humans can act when we concern ourselves with how we look to others, how to get ourselves 'ahead' in society, and what the consequences are of placing our priorities on things that are transitory. Ralph Nickelby, Nicholas' distant and self-concerned uncle, is more than willing to place his niece and nephew into unhappy circumstances simply in order to maintain business relationships that benefit his own financial well-being. Many of those same contacts consider themselves entitled to the hand and attentions of Kate Nickelby, Nicholas' sister, simply because of their titles and her lower position in life. The reader sees how preposterous this is, but also witnesses the devastating consequences for the virtuous character of Kate, who ends up suffering despite her constant effort to have her voice be heard and her own individual rights respected.

Nicholas, meanwhile, makes his way to the nearby town of Portsmouth on his own force of will and ingenuity, and at this point in the novel has found himself in an acting troupe there, where he discovers he has an immense amount of natural talent. He has not disclosed to his mother and sister yet how he is making his fortune, but when he is paid for his increasingly lauded performances on the stage, he sends his money to his mother and sister back in London. He vows that, after having been shipped off by his uncaring uncle to the dungeon-like boarding school to wither away under the cruel Wackford Squeers early in the story, he will make his own fortune in the world, and when he does he will return to care permanently for his mother and sister. No one else in the world will.

Dickens was not a subtle writer, and every character is an exaggerated version of what we encounter in life. The good are noble, true, and eternally kind-hearted; the evil are eternally scheming and devising ways to defeat their enemies with the blackest of hearts. But his characterizations bring out the truths and folly of humanity, and probably do so better than any novelist has done again or will do. Add that to the tremendous descriptive ability Dickens possessed, a man who used to wander the streets of London for hours at night taking note of every detail, every dirty corner, vagabond outcast, noisy tavern, windswept sky and cold rainy landscape, his penchant for humor, and his unmatched ability to craft long, twisted plots that always coalesce in the end into something satisfying and good for the soul, and you have the Charles Dickens experience. It will never go out of style. His novels will stand forever as the gift of a superb writer to the world of literature.

See the second installment for my commentary on the second half of Nicholas Nickelby.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory": An Appreciation

Recently I was greatly rewarded by reading Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" on the enthusiastic recommendation of a friend of mine. We're just past the official Christmas season so I guess my timing is a bit off; nevertheless I wanted to share a few comments about it because I found it to be a beautiful, heartbreaking piece that I heartily recommend to all who enjoy good reading (and good writing!).

By sheer coincidence, I received in the mail via NetFlix (the greatest thing going since sliced bread) the film Capote just after I finished reading this famous short story/memoir, so as of late I've had Truman Capote haunting my mind... which is something unusual for me, having only read In Cold Blood a few years back and knowing hardly anything about him or his life. At some point I will write up a brief review of the film for the side column over there, since I definitely want to make a point of recommending that as well.

As I just said, Capote's "nonfiction novel" was my only previous experience with his writing, so I really didn't have much by way of expectations for reading "A Christmas Memory." All I knew about it was that it was some kind of reminiscence about his childhood, that people have tended to like it, and that my friend, who is an avid reader and film-watcher like me, was deeply moved by it. As a matter of fact, he told me that he and his wife re-read the story every year around Christmastime, which intrigued me on a number of levels, not the least of which that he doesn't believe in nor celebrate the tradition Christmas holiday (i.e., the birth of Jesus)... so I wondered what it was about this particular story that gave it enough weight and value to be read anew each year.

I can't speak for my friend, so I can't answer that question here. There are more than likely deeply personal reasons for why the story moves him as much as he does. He holds some things in common with Capote in terms of upbringing (raised in a "country" state, mostly by women, father out of the picture, etc.), so I can only guess that has something to do with his opinion of the story.

As for me, I found it to be a masterful piece of writing. I think I say that primarily because of the power of the prose: the power to immerse you into a specific time and place, but also the power to make you feel some of the heartbreak, the loneliness, and the pain of lost innocence that Capote is expressing in the story. "Lost innocence" is a very common theme for a writer to pick up on, especially in a memoir or piece remembering one's childhood; however, I've read very few things that express it as perfectly and as beautifully as this. But the story doesn't only make you feel a very real pain for the loss of that all-important quality -- it also reinforces how utterly important and valuable it is, how it is a source of genuine wisdom. For although Capote is lamenting its loss in his own life, he's also recalling and celebrating its central presence in the life of someone very dear to him, someone who taught him the meaning of real love and friendship. Someone whom he can now only reach out to in his memory.

The story itself is simple: just a memory of one particular Christmas season from Capote's childhood, and the sights, smells, sensations, etc. that accompanied it. It's quite short, and related in a straightforward style, with just enough author commentary to know that he's looking back on it from a distance of both time and space. Like most childhood memories, it is elegiac in mood, but somehow this one achieves a perfect mixture of wonder and melancholy. It's hard to put into words, but what really makes this little memory remarkable is the way it is written: it is just so vivid and heartfelt that anyone with a pulse can't help but feel some of Capote's joy for the small graces of his childhood, as well as the pain for the absences and misunderstandings.

Imagine a morning in late November, it begins. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is it main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.

A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched, Her face is remarkable -- not unlike Lincoln's; craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. "Oh my," she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, "it's fruitcake weather!"

The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together -- well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other's best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880's, when she was still a child. She is still a child.

Something about those opening paragraphs of this remarkable reminiscence set the tone beautifully for the rest of the piece. They almost contain all that you need to know about the whole story. Capote had a famously difficult childhood; his parents divorced bitterly and engaged themselves in a long, hard custody battle over him. And then, when his mother, a real Southern belle apparently, gained custody of Truman, she promptly abandoned him, leaving him with relatives in the Middle of Nowhere, Alabama, while she went off to seek brighter, shinier things in New York. (Later he went to live with her and her second husband, Joe Capote, there, which gave him a pen name to use, if nothing else.) Yet he seems to have lived some of the happiest years of his life in that Alabama country town, thanks primarily to the love of his misfit spinster cousin, Miss Sook Faulk, who he calls his "best friend" or simply "my friend" in this story -- almost as if she were the one and only true friend he ever had. In some ways, that may have been the case... for she apparently loved him unconditionally, for who he was, his child's mind and hers seeing understanding the world in more or less the same innocent way.

Miss Sook had an annual ritual during the Christmas season, and that was to bake as many of her famous fruitcakes as possible and give them away as gifts to family and friends and total strangers. "Buddy" would help her in this annual task, and it seems that throughout his life, when he holidays would roll around again, his mind would always return to these memories of baking fruitcakes with her, with their devilish secret ingredient: homemade moonshine from the owner of the town's "fish fry and dancing cafe," Mr. Haha Jones. "They call him Haha because he's so gloomy, a man who never laughs," Capote remembers through a child's eyes. The way he relates how they would go about getting this "sinful" concoction, and their use of (and occasional partaking in) the spirit, is both hilarious and poignant. The whole tale puts a laugh in your throat in one line, and then replaces it with a big ol' lump in the next.

I know well that these scattered comments and thoughts can't possibly do justice to such a poetic and moving account. But I hope some of my enthusiasm for Capote's memoir, and admiration for the art of the thing, is somehow getting through. Trust me when I say that this is a profoundly moving meditation on how simple acts of kindness, compassion and companionship can stay with a soul for a lifetime -- and not just stay with one, but inform and inspire one as well. Truman Capote led a confused and difficult life, that's well known; yet one wonders what it might have been had his "best friend" Miss Sook not taken up the responsibilities his parents discarded, and given him the TLC every child deserves and yearns for. (Every adult too, for that matter.) One thing's certain: his name probably wouldn't be showing up on literary blogs, in films, and on the pages of great works of literature... a boat can't get anywhere without a little helpful breeze filling up its sails.

People found Miss Sook to be simpleminded, eccentric and slow... yet her wisdom has endured, not just for Capote, but for millions of grateful readers besides, thanks to his beautiful and expressive love-letter to her. So to conclude, here she is, channeled through the inspired pen of a great writer, Truman Capote:

The wind is blowing, and nothing will do till we've run to a pasture below the house where Queenie has scooted to bury her bone (and where, a winter hence, Queenie will be buried, too). There, plunging through the healthy waist-high grass, we unreel our kites, feel them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind...

"How foolish I am!" my friend cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven. "You know what I've always thought?" she asks in a tone of discovery, and not smiling at me but at a point beyond. "I've always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when He came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don't know it's getting dark. And it's been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away the spooky feeling. But I'll wager it never happens. I'll wager at the very end a body realizes that the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are" -- her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone -- "just what they've always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes."

Here's hoping that we all leave the world with the beauty of the present moment in our own eyes... and with the wisdom we sometimes call innocence returning, when we need it most, to our hearts.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #45

What better way to ring in a new year of poetry (among many other things) here at The Secret Thread than with this classic by one of my all-time favorite poets, R. S. Thomas.


Song at the Year's Turning

Shelley dreamed it. Now the dream decays.
The props crumble; the familiar ways
Are stale with tears trodden underfoot.
The heart's flower withers at the root.
Bury it then, in history's sterile dust.
The slow years shall tame your tawny lust.

Love deceived him; what is there to say
The mind brought you by a better way
To this despair? Lost in the world's wood
You cannot stanch the bright menstrual blood.
The earth sickens; under naked boughs
The frost comes to barb your broken vows.

Is there blessing? Light's peculiar grace
In cold splendour robes this tortured place
For strange marriage. Voices in the wind
Weave a garland where a mortal sinned.
Winter rots you; who is there to blame?
The new grass shall purge you in its flame.