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Birds of a feather

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Among the pleasures of reading a good book is reliving the pleasures of other wonderful texts it evokes.  Among the pleasures of reading The Age of Innocence was the breadth of references it summoned.  More than a hundred years -- and a gulf of sensibilities, aesthetics and styles of humor -- separate the two that resonate most deeply for me: Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, and Stephen Dobyns' "Spiritual Chickens." 

Wharton's novel owes so much (including its protagonist's last name) to James' Portrait that mentioning the debt borders on pedantry.  Wharton would likely be so appalled by Dobyns that the connection risks absurdity.  And yet the two references serve to reinforce the same idea: that our choices about how to engage with the multi-layered nature of reality (to perceive, to deny) define us.

In Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer takes the measure of unyielding reality in a scene when she sits thinking long into the night.  She has deluded herself into marrying the wrong man.  She sees through her illusions to the unpleasant substance of her husband Osmond's personality.  She realizes also an intimacy between Osmond and a family friend, Madame Merle, who introduced them.  The sleep-deprived and hermetic intensity of her thought succeeds in disturbing the surface of her reality and rearranges the relations between herself, Osmond and Merle.  Although Isabel is not ready to articulate her newfound understanding to herself, she comprehends that Merle and Osmond are collaborators in some manipulation against her.

The scene finds its parallel in The Age of Innocence when Newland Archer hosts the first formal dinner of his marriage to mark the occasion of the departure of the love his life, Madame Ellen Olenska.  Newland has been blindsided by Ellen's announcement of her return to Europe, and he is barely functional:

Archer, who seemed to be assisting at the scene in a state of odd imponderability, as if he floated where between chandelier and ceiling, wondered at nothing so much as his own share in the proceedings.  As his glance travelled from one placid well-fed face to another he saw all the harmless looking [dinner guests] . . . as a band of dumb conspirators, and himself and the pale woman on his right [Ellen] as the centre of their conspiracy.  And then it came over him, in a vast flash made up of many broken gleams, that to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers . . . . He guessed himself to have been, for months, the centre of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything . . . .
Like Isabel Archer, Newland Archer arrives at this moment of revelation after a process of delusion.  Unable to possess Ellen Olenska physically and share his intellectual and emotional intimacies with her in the course of quotidian living,

he had built up within himself a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret thoughts and longings.  Little by little it became the scene of his real life, of his only rational activities; thither he brought the books he read, the ideas and feelings which nourished him, his judgments and his visions.  Outside it, in the scene of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absentminded man goes on bumping into the furniture of his own room.  Absent -- that was what he was: so absent from everything most densely real and near to those about him that it sometimes startled him to find they still imagined he was there.
This habit of absenteeism reaches its apotheosis at book's end, when Newland Archer opts not to meet Ellen Olenska again, after 27 years.  "'It's more real to me here [on a bench outside her flat] than if I went up [to meet her]', he suddenly heard himself say."

In this behaviour, Newland Archer anticipates the unnamed protagonist of Stephen Dobyns' brilliant poem, "Spiritual Chickens."  Confronted by a chicken he has eaten seven years ago, a chicken returned to the earthly plain because of overcrowding on the spiritual one, a man "runs out of his house / flapping his arms and making peculiar hops."

Faced with the choice between something odd
in the world or something broken in his head,
he opts for the broken head.  Certainly,
this is safer than putting his opinions
in jeopardy.
. . . .
As it is he is constantly being squeezed
between the world and his idea of the world.
Better to have a broken head -- why surrender
his corner on truth? -- better to just go crazy.
Sadly for Newland Archer, he's not as interesting as Dobyns' protagonist.  He has opted to go AWOL instead of crazy, abandoned his life instead of cracking it.  But the fault runs along the same line: cowardice.

A little more than a hundred and thirty years ago, Henry James set out to tell the story of a woman colliding with her destiny; today we might describe her less grandiosely, as a woman "constantly being squeezed / between the world and [her] idea of the world."  Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose: however worded, the situation remains the crucible of our character, and the measure of our worth.  Embrace of the depths of reality yields the only guaranteed rewards of this existence ("the flower of life" in Wharton's words); avoidance reaps failure.      

And The Age of Innocence?  By providing the opportunity to draw a line between Isabel Archer's gloomy insomnia and Stephen Dobyns' delightful ghost chicken, the harvest has been sheer pleasure. 

Image of Edith Wharton from The New York Times website; image of Henry James from New York University website.

Beautiful and useful

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David Orr: a likeable critic in my book.  I've read him in The New York Times Book Review for years now, and I find him reliably worthwhile.  He supports his critiques clearly and logically.  His writing is impartial, light and entertaining.  When he says something's good, I understand why; and when calls a bad poem a bad poem, his judgment seems fair, not mean-spirited or ungenerous.

These wonderful qualities are present in abundance in Orr's book, Beautiful and Pointless.  It's a quick and lovely read, a kind of beach book for poetry lovers, and I mean that as a highest compliment.  The pleasures it affords have more in common with, say, badinage enjoyed at a lively, rejuvenating high tea, than with the rewards of solitary repose in the presence of depths of emotion and intellect.  Which is not to say those depths aren't there: just that their weight doesn't intrude on the fun.

DM_Thomas.jpgAll the same, I do have a complaint.  In Beautiful and Pointless, Orr does not say about poetry what I think is important about poetry.  And I want to have my own opinions reinforced by this delightful and knowledgeable public expert.  I really wish he would have accommodated me.   

What do I think is important about poetry?  I'm glad someone asked.  I read poetry for two reasons.  First, poetry enables access to irrational terrain.  Humans are hard-wired for rhythm, perhaps because of the heart, our fundamental drum.  Rhythm is our sixth sense: it enables us to absorb and process information from our surroundings in a manner similar to the other five senses.  And just as the taste of a madeleine sent Proust into the reverie of À la recherche du temps perdu, perception of a rhythm can guide us into the often-unnavigable regions of our irrational selves.  Music and poetry are our arts of rhythm, and they open us in ways that remain closed when our approach is strictly rational, verbal and logical. 

Second, the relationship between poetry and prose is one of mutual enrichment.  I recall Kay Ryan saying (where, I wish I could remember) that, after waking, she would return to bed with tea and toast and prose, and read until something sparked an impulse to write a poem.  Her description of her method struck me because, at the time, I was reading poems each day before sitting down to work on my second novel, The Swing of Beijing

Stephen_Dobyns2.jpgNor has it escaped my notice that my favorite contemporary writers are poet-novelists: DM Thomas and Stephyn Dobyns being two of the most prominent.  In The White Hotel, Thomas delivers in the long form narrative the visceral experience typically reserved for poetry.  In so doing, he affords modern readers the closest opportunity they're likely to have to know how ancient listeners of epic poems felt.  In Winter's Journey, Dobyns writes deceptive rambling monologues that seem like stream-of-consciousness portions of a novel, but in the aftermath resonate as if one's insides have been washed through a stream and sun dried in mountain air.  I don't know if reading poetry will make me a better novelist, but I'm willing to overdose on poetry in a quest to find out.

While I'm not surprised that Orr fails to list "will make Maya a better novelist" as a reason for reading poetry, poetry's capacities to support a richer and fuller experience of our own lives (through access to the irrational) and to augment our experience of literature (through its dialectic with prose) both strike me as core competencies deserving of mention. 

But Orr's focus is elsewhere.  A person who writes a book called Beautiful and Pointless is, logically enough, not so engaged with the functionality of his subject.  Also, notwithstanding the book's subtitle, "A Guide to Modern Poetry," the book might more accurately be termed, "A Guide to Modern Poets' Motivations."  Throughout his chapters on "The Personal," "The Political," "Ambition," and "The Fishbowl," Orr explains the conditions under which modern poets work and their mindsets and goals (to the extent they can be gleaned).  Orr's empathy for, and identification with, the poets is obvious and engaging. 

All the same, people have been writing, reading, reciting, and enjoying poetry for all of human history.  A medium capable of commanding that kind of attention is unlikely to be pointless.  David Orr is a great person to make that argument.  I wish he had.

Images of David Orr and Stephyn Dobyns from The Poetry Foundation.  Image of DM Thomas taken by Maya Alexandri.
Elspeth Huxley and Lewis S.B. Leakey were both born and raised in what is now Kenya in the early parts of the twentieth century (when the territory was British East Africa).  Both were keen observers, cogent critical thinkers, articulate voices, adventurous travelers and prolific in their works and writings.  They were also both sympathetic to black Africans and adopted balanced perspectives about colonization and its impacts on settlers and natives.

Despite these similarities, they come out on different sides of a question of pressing importance and, in light of my work at the UN Environment Programme, immediacy in my own daily life: environmental degradation.

Kenya currently is suffering a long-running and debilitating drought.  Electricity - much of which is generated by hydropower - has been rationed because the water levels are too low to produce sufficient supply.  Crops are failing, and people in Samburu are dying of starvation in the same horrifying manner (if not numbers) as their forerunners in Biafra and Ethiopia did.

In 2009, with our current knowledge of climate change, Kenya's condition looks like the effects of increasing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere - and maybe it is.  But drought and the attendant sufferings aren't new in Kenya, and people have long cultivated knowledge about water, its sources and the impacts human activity can have on its availability.

Writing in 1963 on the cusp of Kenyan independence, in the context of the the handover from white national forest administrators to their black successors, Huxley writes:

The Masai are no respecter of forests.  Trees, to them, are enemies which rob them of potential grazing, rather than allies which anchor soil and make of it a sponge to absorb rainfall and return it in the form of springs.  The Masai drive their herds up into the glades and start fires which destroy the vegetation.

Across the Rift [Valley], on the south-western slopes of the Mau escarpment, you can count at least a dozen fires every time you fly over the mountains.  You can see blackened patches and clearings hoed for crops (a lot of these Masai have Kikuyu wives who cultivate) and the gloomy spectacle of human predators colonizing and spoiling the forests.  Already springs are dwindling and soon rivers that have always flowed the year through will be turned into seasonal streams that come down in spate in wet seasons, and dry up altogether in between.  Then what will the Masai do for water?  When their streams turn into dry, sandy river-beds they will shrug their shoulders and say shauri ya Mungu: the affair of God.  Perhaps it is, for tolerating so much human stupidity.
Elspeth Huxley, Forks and Hope: An African Notebook, p. 20

The argument that water shortage in Kenya had a human - and specifically "native" - cause was not original in Huxley's day.  Almost thirty years earlier, in 1936 - and about sixty years before the term "climate change" had entered our daily discourse - Lewis Leakey debunked the "blame the natives" theory of water shortage in Kenya:

The soil erosion which is taking place so alarmingly in some parts of the country, and the destruction of so much forest by fires, are both commonly attributed to the natives and their carelessness.  I believe,  however, that the more important factor governing both these troubles is a purely climactic one, although it is probably true that excessive grazing by goats and sheep, and carelessness with fire in forest areas, is hastening the process of nature.

If dessication really goes on for the next two or three hundred years at the rate at which it has been at work in the past few hundred, it will not only be the European community in Kenya that will suffer but also the natives, and as they have less money at their disposal for water boring and for water conservation, the latter will probably suffer the worst.
Lewis S.B. Leakey, Kenya: Contrasts and Problems, p. 169

With the scientist's perspective of drought patterns over hundreds of years, Leakey was able to identify Kenya - as early as 1936 and perhaps earlier - as being in a pattern of "dessication" caused by "climactic" factors.  Leakey understood that the drying up had started centuries earlier; and, moreover, that this latest phase was not the first in a series of swings between lushland and desert that Kenya had experienced over millennia.

Certainly, greenhouse gas emissions may be responsible for a speeding-up of this dessication process; what Leakey thought might happen in two or three hundred years might be occurring in sixty to one hundred.  Still, the comparison between Leakey and Huxley is significant: even the sharpest eye is apt to misconstrue what it sees without the scope of other disciplines and perhaps hundreds of years.

On the other hand, consider the perspective of Stephen Dobyns in his poem, "Where We Are (after Bede)."  Dobyns doesn't have (so far as I'm aware) any exposure to Kenya, let alone opportunities for close analysis of its people, soil layers or climactic patterns.  Nonetheless, from his perch of severe distance (nay, ignorance), he sums up climate change in Kenya (and worldwide) better than either Leakey or Huxley could:

This is where we are in history - to think
the table will remain full; to think the forest will
remain where we have pushed it; to think our bubble of
good fortune will save us from the night - a bird flies in
from the dark, flits across a lighted hall and disappears.   

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