Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Hand in the Air

for my daughter, CEL, born 7/22/2003

Were you born with the answers
To the questions we all ask?
Holding up your hand like you were
In your first grade class
Were you covering your mouth
To hide your grin?
Or were you waving at the world
As you came in?

Pretty little girl with the fuzzy brown hair
Came into the world with your hand in the air

The little girl lies sleeping
With one hand above her head
While a gathering of angels
Assembles 'round her bed
She's got a millions sights to see
And things to do
Teaching me the things
I never knew

Pretty little girl with the fuzzy light hair
You came into the world with your hand in the air

Will you smile like your mother
So that everyone can tell
You're spreading love to others like
Your mother does so well?
When I look at you
I do not have to ask
I know my purpose in this life
I know my task

Pretty little girl with your curly light hair
You came into the world with your hand in the air

Will I die with the answer
To the question that I've had?
Wondering if I was good -
Enough to be your Dad
Will you remember that I loved you
In every way?
And hear my voice inside your heart
Down all the days?

Pretty little girl with your fuzzy brown hair
You came into the world with your hand in the air

My pretty little girl, when I am not there
Keep your father in your heart
And your hand in the air....

(c) Jude Joseph Lovell, 2003

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In awe of the gift...

Behold, readers, I give you a great mystery... a miracle of sorts, really. I stand in awe of the gift that so very few people have, to take ordinary everyday experience and somehow filter it through their own tools of imagination, language and cadence to create something... transcendent, sublime. Very concrete and specific in its details, but universal in its meanings and resonances.

Seamus Heaney is, without question, one of those rare masters. Look what he does here with a simple childhood memory. I heard him read this brief poem in an audio interview recently, and was just amazed by it... how he could take something so simple and transform it into something so beautiful and profound. He explained before reading it that his childhood home (in County Derry, Northern Ireland) was very near to a train track which were lined with telegraph wires. As kids they would climb up the grassy hills and look at the wires following down the tracks, towards the horizon. They thought the messages moving through the lines were carried within the raindrops they'd see attached to those wires. That is all you need to know.

The Railway Children

When we climbed the slopes of the cutting
We were eye-level with the white cups
Of the telegraph poles and the sizzling wires.

Like lovely freehand they curved for miles
East and miles west beyond us, sagging
Under their burden of swallows.

We were small and thought we knew nothing
Worth knowing. We thought words travelled the wires
In the shiny pouches of raindrops,

Each one seeded full with the light
Of the sky, the gleam of the lines, and ourselves
So infinitesmally scaled

We could stream through the eye of a needle.

That ending literally gave me goosebumps when I heard it - especially since it evokes, as anyone raised in a Catholic or Christian household will recognize, thoughts of the Kingdom that lies on the other side of that "eye" according to some very famous words from a very famous man... and with that one little hint, Heaney opens up a portal to another plane. He takes us to "the spirit level." To be able to do that with mere words is simply a marvel. I have no idea how it works, but when I hear something like that and feel its impact in the heart like some kind of pointed shaft, I'm just grateful to know that it does.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Reflections on Typee

The Melville, Pennsylvania Project - Book X

Herman Melville’s first novel, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, was published in 1846 to modest acclaim and fairly robust sales, for an adventure yarn by an unknown literary commodity. It was based on real-life experiences Melville acquired four years earlier, during his travels in the South Pacific seas. He took the challenges he encountered and overcame, first as a young sailor, then, later, as a deserter living in the wild among Polynesian natives, and he ficitionalized them in such a way as to compel, educate, shock, and entertain readers.

It if sounds as though the novel that landed Melville on the literary map was ready-made – that all he had to do was simply write down what he witnessed and presto! a best-seller – I can tell you even from my own personal experience that this is an illusion. Just because Typee flows smoothly and makes a rollicking entertainment doesn’t mean it was easy. I tried to pull off the same thing with my own early experiences as a soldier – not once, but twice. I first wrote a complete nonfiction account called Mech Soldier, about my first year as a mechanized infantry platoon leader; years later, as my graduate school thesis, I’m ashamed to admit, I worked for over a year on a foundering “novel” based on the same material. Both of these writings today are consigned to the loamy literary graveyard known as my basement, where they have earned their plots.

The point: it ain’t as easy as it appears. Melville’s novel, though not the mature and penetrating work his reputation rests on today, is an impressive, remarkably entertaining book. It has exotic backdrops, adventurous journeys, chases, tribal rituals, drug use (in the form of smoking strange weeds), humor, violence, inferences of sex (evidently edited down from earlier drafts, for fear of scandal), and, if all that’s not wild enough for you, an appetizing dollop of cannibalism. These disparate elements are blended together skillfully by the young Melville, who was obviously uncovering a gift for narrative structure, and knew how to present the material in digestible chapters that made readers hunger for more. He was not very advanced in years (he was about 25 when he wrote the novel), nor was he very long in the tooth in terms of literary experience. Prior to publishing this book, he had only written a few pieces for a newspaper called the Democratic Press in upstate New York, the most notable of which were two parts of a longer story called “Fragments from a Writing Desk” – a dark tale that testifies most convincingly to the long influence of Edgar Allan Poe.

So how did Melville bring off Typee? He did it the only way writers can: he recognized his talent and pushed it to its limits. In other words: hard work. A segment of a great volume I read earlier this year called Tales, Poems and Other Writings examines in detail an earlier version of Typee’s 14th chapter, the manuscript of which has fortunately been preserved. It clearly reveals the revisions and re-writing Melville put in to just this one section, toning down certain places, embellishing others, sometimes simply going through three or four individual words before settling on the correct choice. The result is impressive. Typee rolls right along, as though Melville himself were telling you the tale around a hearth – which, by all biographical accounts, was more or less the original method of delivery.

The story itself is about a young sailor on a whaling vessel (what else?) in the South Pacific who decides that the brutal conditions aboard the ship are not for him, and determines to make an escape. According to critic Andrew Delbanco, “something like two-thirds” of all whaling crew members deserted “at one stop-over or another”. At the last moment, the sailor enlists a comrade who is of a similar mind, by the name of Toby. Together they successfully desert when the ship comes to port on an exotic island near the Marquesas, populated by two native tribes – the Happar and the Typee. Their information, acquired from other sailors, is that the former of these tribes is receptive and kind to visitors, whereas the Typee are vicious and belligerent cannibals. So the two adventurous men set out to cross the untamed island, dangerously straddling the line between getting caught and brought back by their own crew to face justice, or running smack into the Typee people. What they hope they will find first, of course, is a Happar settlement.

Melville writes of their initial escape and treacherous journey across the island convincingly. It’s no leisurely stroll through sparkling waterfalls and lush valleys:

The most annoying hindrance we encountered was from a multitude of crooked boughs, which, shooting out and almost horizontally from the side of the chasm, twisted themselves together in fantastic masses almost to the surface of the stream, affording us no passage except under the low arches which they formed. Under these we were obliged to crawl on our hands and feet, sliding along the oozy surface of the rocks, or slipping into the deep pools, and with scarce light enough to guide us. Occasionally we would strike our heads against some projecting hub of a tree; and while imprudently engaged in rubbing the injured part, would fall sprawling amongst filthy fragments, cutting and bruising ourselves, whilst the unpitying waters flower over our prostrate bodies.

I quote the above passage at such length because I appreciated the sheer earthiness of the writing, and I think it is illustrative of one of the most impressive features of Typee. It is written vividly enough to make you feel as though you are right there with the two fugitives, and honestly enough so that you don’t get the sense that they traveled with ease over totally unknown, rugged land. I think audiences responded to Typee for its particularly strong delivery of a “you are there” experience for a readership that would, in the greatest likelihood, never experience anything of the kind.

The two sailors – “Tommo”, as the protagonist comes to be known, and Toby, eventually run into a pair of ragged native children, reminiscent of Dickens – one boy and one girl, who lead them tentatively into the settlement of their tribe. But which tribe is it? Melville creates tension by presenting the village and its inhabitants from the perspective of the visitors, who have no idea if they’ve reached paradise, or a sadistic dinner party in which they themselves are the main course. Quickly they learn the truth, which is that they have landed among the Typees. But luckily for Tommo and Toby, what they have told by others about the nature of the tribe does not correspond to their experiences among the people.

Another of the great strengths of Typee is its debunking of expectations and stereoptypes, and its compassionate, sometimes philosophical reflections on the differences and the similarities between “civilized” 19th century society and communities built and perpetuated by “savages”. Nothing is quite as it would seem within the world of the Typee, Tommo learns. He and Toby are treated humanely, even to the point of being pampered with large meals, entertainments, rudimentary medical treatments, even luxuries like tobacco and massages. Tommo is continually impressed with the natives’ treatment of not only himself and Toby, but of one another:

Entering their valley, as I did, under the most erroneous impressions of their character, I was soon led to exclaim in amazement, “Are these the ferocious savages, the blood-thirsty cannibals of whom I have heard such frightful tales! They deal more kindly with each other, and are more humane than many who study essays on virtue and benevolence.” I will frankly declare, that after passing a few weeks in this valley … I formed a higher estimate of human nature than I had ever before entertained.

Toby and Tommo, against expectations, are taken in and treated as venerated guests. Tommo is even allowed a kind of valet or personal assistant, by the name of Kory-Kory, who attends to him every waking moment. But eventually this begins to smother Tommo; he can’t help but wonder why the fawning and preening. It dawns on him that he is never left alone at any moment. His other problem is that he sustained an injury to one leg on the trek to the village that appears to be festering. When news reaches them that a ship from the “advanced” world has arrived on one of the coasts, the natives allow Toby to set out for it in the hopes of finding medical assistance for Tommo. Toby swears he will return, but is not heard from again, leaving Tommo to wonder if he was betrayed, or if Toby suffered some kind of unspeakable misfortune along the way.

While his leg eventually heals, Tommo grows more accustomed to the natives’ way of life, even exploring a semi-romantic relationship with a beautiful island woman named Fayaway. But it soon becomes crystal clear: the native don’t intend to let him leave. Have the Typee grown too attached to him? Do they want their “secrets” preserved? Or is it more sinister than that? One day Tommo strolls into a hut where he is clearly not expected, and sees some of the women and the men hastily wrapping up packages that appear to contain human heads. Understandably, from this point forward, Tommo wants out. Has he been pampered all along for a specific, horrific reason? Not particularly wanting to find out, he begins to actively seek a means of escape. This provides the set-up for the book’s gripping final quarter.

There are many reasons why Typee works, and has endured as one of Melville’s most venerated books, if any of his books outside of Moby-Dick are venerated. It frightened, provoked, even titillated readers. But Typee also asks larger questions about the nature of mankind and its relationship to both the natural world and to one another. Who is “civilized”? Who is a “savage”? Has the western way of life acquired a greater degree of moral solvency than others? Melville himself, in his novelistic inquiry, seems to uncover a convincing case in favor of the island society over our own:

There were none of those thousand sources of irritation that the ingenuity of civilized man has created to mar his own felicity. There were no foreclosures of mortgages, no protested notes, no bills payable, no debt in honor of Typee, no unreasonable tailors and shoemakers, perversely bent on being paid; no duns of any description … no beggars, no debtors’ prisons, no proud and hard-hearted nabobs in Typee; or to sum it up all in one word – no Money. The “root of all evil” was not to be found in the valley.

There’s an indispensible anthology of short fiction out there called You’ve Got To Read This, edited by two writers I admire greatly, Jim Shepard and Ron Hansen. The angle of this collection is that contemporary writers were asked to introduce short works of fiction that “held them in awe”. In this book, there is a wonderful piece by the novelist Mary Gordon in which she introduces James Joyce’s justifiably classic short story “The Dead”. Gordon closes her narrative hilariously with these lines, which I now borrow to conclude my own thoughts about Herman Melville’s impressive debut novel:

And he did it all when he was twenty-five. The bastard.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Reflections on Omoo

The Melville, Pennsylvania Project, Book IX

Anyone with a working man’s knowledge of Herman Melville’s life and his work knows that his first novel, Typee, was his most successful, and that it was based heavily on his experiences in French Polynesia after deserting from a whaling vessel. There in the South Pacific, on the island of Nuku Hiva, Melville spent a period of one month living in the wilds with a companion, a fellow deserter, among the indigenous population. The bulk of his first novel was a somewhat fictionalized rendition of this gritty and no doubt challenging real-life adventure.

The book appeared in 1846 and thrilled audiences and critics on both sides of the Atlantic, so Melville was encouraged by his publishers to embark almost immediately on a sequel. Omoo, released in 1847, is that second installment, and so there is a natural tendency to group the two novels together. But the one thing I was surprised about after finishing Omoo, which means “rover” in the Tahitian tongue, was the differences between the two books. I am re-reading Typee now to help further distinguish the two, but I could tell as I was reading Omoo that from a tonal point of view, and in terms of pacing, it is a different experience altogether from its predecessor. And, it almost has to be said, a plodding, less accomplished novel.

Indeed, I do think the problem is one of tone or general feel of the second book. The atmosphere in Omoo is far more relaxed than the conditions Melville worked to establish in Typee. Omoo contains by far the least memorable or even likable of any of the ships' crews from Melville’s other novels. That includes not only Moby-Dick’s Pequod under Captain Ahab, but also the Neversink under the watch of Captain Claret in the novel White Jacket, as well as the rowdy crew of the villainous Captain Riga of the Highlander in Redburn.

The crew of the whaling vessel known as the Julia in Omoo, upon which the protagonist has just found passage as the novel opens, is by contrast a lazy, inharmonious, and incompetent bunch, under the ineffective watch of a sickly and weak captain who makes my own stint as an Infantry Platoon Leader in the U.S. Army circa 1993-1995 seem like the work of John Wayne. And that’s really saying a mouthful.

The novel opens, as I mentioned, with the same protagonist from Typee, after escaping from his “captors” in the Typee Valley, securing a place on the Julia. When he gets on the ship, however, he immediately notes the discord and overall dysfunction of the crew. In fact, things are so out of control aboard the Julia that the narrator has reason to fear for his own life:

The mere circumstance, therefore, of a ship like ours penetrating into these regions, was sufficient to cause any reflecting mind to feel at least a little uneasy….The many stories I had heard of ships striking at midnight upon unknown rocks, with all sail set, and a slumbering crew, often recurred to me, especially, as from the absence of discipline, the watches in the night were careless in the extreme.

Incidentally, one of the indicators that Omoo is not the same kind of story as the earlier book is the fact that the young narrator goes by the moniker of “Tommo” in Typee, but here is not named at all until late, and then his companion calls him “Paul”. Melville would fashion a whole career out of nameless and/or featureless narrators who happen to bear witness to the events his fictions depict. Everyone knows that Melville’s most famous narrator did, in fact, have a name: “Call me Ishmael.” But you never really learn a whole lot about him, and the same phenomenon takes place in most of Melville’s other novels – going back to Typee and Omoo. Why Melville created story-telling narrators but disliked fleshing them out into real, compelling, well-rounded characters themselves is something I am interested in learning more about.

After what does not seem like much time, the crew of the Julia grows tired of wandering around the South Pacific without a clue of their destination (“Where we were, exactly, no one but the mate seemed to know, nor whither we were going”). So they make a decision, while the captain lies ailing in his quarters, to stage a mutiny in order to bring the ship into port on the island of Tahiti, which according to the narrator, is “magnificent….one mass of shaded tints of green, from beach to mountaintop; endlessly diversified with valleys, ridges, glens, and cascades.” There they send the mate, named Jermin, ashore to seek medical assistance. But Jermin betrays them in the process, bringing back the English consul, Wilson, and a small band of Tahitian “authorities”, who take the “rebellious” crew into custody.

Potential criminals, take note: if you ever want to commit an act that will result in your incarceration, you may want to travel to Tahiti first. For, at least in the 19th century, a Tahitian prison is the easiest place in the world to do hard time, if Herman Melville’s account in Omoo has any basis in reality. A lighter fictional account of time spent in the slammer I have yet to come across anywhere else in literature. I sincerely hope writers like Alexander Solzhenitsyn or that Irish guy that wrote Borstal Boy managed to miss this novel entirely. In any event, the “prisoners” loaf around, sometimes in "darbies" (to borrow a Melville-ism), sometimes not; they go on walks through the verdant landscape; they chat amiably with guards and curious natives; they visit with a well-meaning priest who comes to offer rather inept ministry; they gawk at a young English woman, the lovely spouse to an English official, who strolls around the island in search of distractions.

All of this while the men await prosecution, which finally arrives in the form of a ramshackle legal procedure before a panel of local officials meant to intimidate. But the event simply musters up more chaos, with the crew shouting defiance at their captors. Eventually they are released without consequence, and little worse for the wear. In this segment of the book Melville affords himself ample opportunity to wax, sometimes hilariously, on native customs, British sanctimoniousness and imperialism, French Jesuits, and various other subjects.

After getting out of the brig, the men separate and find different means of employment on the island. The narrator and his steady companion, the Julia’s physician who goes by the curious moniker of Doctor Long Ghost, eventually try their hands in some actual work at a potato farm on the island; an endeavor that seems ludicrous, because of the island’s unsuitable conditions for this kind of crop and the abundance of other food, fruits, vegetables, and wild game. Finally, news that an American whaling vessel has landed upon the island reaches the two former mariners, so they once again set out across the island in the hopes of securing a passage on the ship. To do so requires many visits to native islander’s homes, descriptions of dances, naps, a large dinner party, and various encounters with tobacco. Melville describes all of these encounters vividly, but with a strong sense of leisure, for lack of a better term. Nothing in Omoo feels tense or even particularly substantive; it’s hardly more than series of strung-together anecdotes related in an agreeable and colorful manner.

“Paul” and Doctor Long Ghost finally make their way into the court of one Queen Pomaree Vahanee I, with the intention to seek permission to leave on the American ship. Pomaree is the local “monarch”, descended from a line of Tahitian royalty who act out of tradition as figurehead representatives of the English realm. Queen Victoria even condescends to deliver an actual crown to Pomaree as a measure of good faith, which is taken on the island as a badge of her legitimacy. There is an interesting description of the Queen’s inner courtyard, crammed with statues, small devices, machines, and other doodads that arrived as gifts from “civilized” society but have absolutely no value in an island setting. It’s the one visual metaphor in the entire novel that speaks the clearest and the loudest.

Once they are in the Queen’s court, however, Paul and Long Ghost find a way to unintentionally insult the monarch, and are both exiled from her presence. So they go to the ship anyway: only to be informed that there is room for only one. Our humble narrator departs for Cape Horn and then home (or straight into the 1850 novel White Jacket), but only after Long Ghost decides, somewhat inexplicably, that he intends to stay on the island longer. Cue the LOST title card!!

There is plenty to fascinate and ruminate over in the experience of reading Omoo. I also found that the book provided numerous occasions for Melville to deploy his sense of humor, nowhere more so than in this uproarious smack-talk about a French warship:

There is a good deal of French flummery about her – brass plates and other gew-gaws, stuck on all over, like baubles on a handsome woman …. To behold the rich hangings and mirrors, and mahogany within, one is almost prepared to see a bevy of ladies trip back and forth on the balcony for an airing.

Yet for all the enjoyment, the wonderful prose, and the general pleasure of this novel, it is hard to think of it as much more than a light volley among Melville’s other thunderous blasts. It may be because it was written to capitalize on the commercial promise of the first book he wrote, which is only reasonable; or, it could be because it was based more on his imagination than on his actual experiences. But it’s indisputable that Omoo lacks the tension and danger, and indeed, some of the guts, of its riveting and eager predecessor. To use a film analogy, Omoo is not Blair Witch 2 or anything, but it is Halloween 2 – slightly altered setting in the same overall locale, somewhat less gripping, and a good measure less convincing.

Melville would step forward from this novel into Mardi – a long, rambling, far more ambitious work that was summarily rejected by audiences and critics. But it’s notable for its sheer bravery and massive scope. And it helped pave the way for Melville to write the greatest of all his books, the indisputable masterpiece Moby-Dick. In Omoo, one can find only brief instances of the power and the struggle that Melville would go on to harness so completely. Yet the flashes are there, below the surface, glimmering through occasionally, for those who would care enough to look – as in this foreboding, prophetic, and deeply melancholy closing note:

Behold the fate of a sailor! They give him the last toss, and no one asks whose child he was.