This is a made-up life in all meridians. Made up of dirt, moved by water and air, refined in fire, per ignem. Scattered about, and everythingâ€™s cominâ€™ up roses.
In the print edition of Times Literary Supplement (May 1, 2009), Kelly Grovier writes about Cy Twomblyâ€™s paintings currently on display at Gagosianâ€™s Gallery in London. (Unfortunately, the article is not accessible online.) Five paintings, each with four wood panels, three with full bloom roses, and one with scrawled fragments from â€œLes Rosesâ€ by German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Probably most recognized for his â€œblackboardâ€ paintings, which look like, well, blackboards, filled with student cursive handwriting exercises, Twombly has a gallery dedicated to him at the Menil Collection in Houston. I have wandered through it twice. It is an exquisite building, each room devoted to a different period of the artistâ€™s work, many of the paintings including poetry integrated in the image, in what Grovier describes as a â€œblurring of boundaries between the visually unrefined and the verbally incoherent.â€ The effect is remarkable; Iâ€™ve wept in joyful melancholy thinking about them. The untitled â€œGreenâ€ paintings that fill one room are to my mind Pacific Northwest landscapes; or, rather, small west slope Cascades streamscapes.
Painting is reading is gardening. Weeds everywhere.
My favorite professor called it â€œthe study of litter – ah – tour,â€ to rhyme with manure. He also told one of the best literary anecdotes Iâ€™ve heard. Teaching one evening class a week at the University of Minnesota, he had the habit of stoping for a drink after in a near-campus bar. Chatting with the new bartender one night, a Persian pre-med student, he said, â€œBy the way, Iâ€™m Bill Lemons,â€ to which the bar-keep replied, â€œCall me Ishmael.â€
â€œJust outside of town, I pulled the rental car to a stop at the railroad crossing and watched a fully loaded Burlington Northern and Santa Fe coal train rumble over the dark, shiny rails that gleamed like mercury in the twilight. My mind matched the pace of the train, each thought snagging the next and hauling it in tow.â€
– Craig Johnson, The Dark Horse
Unrefined and incoherent. The makings for mix metaphor, the stirrings of organic relations. Read or mow? Is that the question? Physicality is a diversion, delightful at times, but wearing. Wearing out and renewing, cycles of seasons and imaginations. Cultivation sweeps things in and of the earth and the refined, other-earthly life of mind â€“ composed, compacted, com-posted â€“ raw material itself an idea. Is anything more non-representational than dirt? Where I grew up we gardened on Memorial Day, bore flowers to the graves of war-lost uncles and vets whoâ€™d passed. This long weekend of scattered pleasures I mowed and rooted around in the yard, bumped against neighbors, layered a thin film of UVB between my skin and the sun, and attended Durufleâ€™s requiem mass. Seeds planted to be loosed from seeming death (â€œfor if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the deadâ€). The while my mind worked other fields, plowing one thought: This statement, my credo, my resilience in the notion of the life ideally lived in earth as it is in metaphor, not as it is in my backyard:
â€œAnd to earth we shall return. . . . It cost me considerable effort to discover that: to earth we shall return. The discovery caused me no sadness, it was exciting. Just thinking about it made me feel myself surrounded by the earthâ€™s silence. . . . Somehow everything is made of earthy. A precious substance. Its abundance does not make it any less strange to feel â€“ for it is difficult to feel that everything is really made of earth. Such unity. And why not the soul as well? My soul is woven from the finest earth. . . . And since everything is made of earth â€“ what a wondrous, inexhaustible future we possess. An impersonal future which surpasses us. . . . Earth showed her bounty by separating us into persons â€“ we have repaid her by being nothing other than earth.â€
Thatâ€™s from â€œEarthâ€™s Sweetness,â€ by Clarice Lispector (from Selected Cronicas, New Directions). Lispector was born in the Ukraine in 1925, but was only two months old when her parents moved her to Brazil. She studied law and journalism, published her first novel when she was seventeen, married a diplomat, and lived for almost two decades in Europe and Washington before returning to Brazil. I suppose sheâ€™s what is called a minor writer, but still truly original in the way she tells a story. Two volumes of her stories, The Stations of the Body and Where You Were at Night are collected in Soulstorm (also published by New Directions). Those titles suggest a lot. Amy Hempel in America reaches for some of these same odd corners of the heart, but sheâ€™s perennially hip â€“ Lispector is not. Grace Paley used â€œlongingâ€ and â€œalonenessâ€ to describe Lispectorâ€™s characters, and said that some of them try desperately to get out of Lispectorâ€™s stories. Lispector denies she penetrates at all: â€œIâ€™ve tried to look closely into someone elseâ€™s face â€“ a cashier at the movies. In order to learn the secret of her life. Useless. The other person is an enigma. And with eyes that are those of a statue: blind.â€
For a long period Lispector wrote a Saturday newspaper column on anything that came to mind â€“ stories, reminiscences, diary-like musings, folklore, travel notes and speculative reveries such as â€œEarthâ€™s Sweetness.â€ She was not particularly earth conscious in a â€œgreenâ€ sense, although she did write a column about Thoreau, but to emphasize the imperative to live now rather than hoarding for the future, material or spiritual â€“ â€œbecause we only exist from one now to the next.â€ Dozens of these pieces are collected in the Cronicas volume. Verve and openness, darkness and cunning â€“ Lipsector knew it all deeply in the soil of her soul.
â€œThey are offered to fuel that process of transformation which is reading.â€
– Steven Weisenburger, A Gravityâ€™s Rainbow Companion
J. Robert Lennonâ€™s novel Castle is getting good reviews. Thereâ€™s a lot of dirt and woodsy goings-on, enough to make you itch. It is also a gripping psychological thriller, told retrospectively from the point of view of an American vet, one Eric Loesch, who mines his own broad garden, and whose narrative is so suspect you keep wondering why he doesnâ€™t catch on. (I kept thinking of Martin Sheenâ€™s Kit in Malickâ€™s 1973 movie Badlands. Caught after a murder spree, a trooper tells him heâ€™s â€œquite an individual,â€ and Kit asks, â€œThink theyâ€™ll take that into consideration?â€) Despite a rather trite plot, Castle has a strange contemporary creepiness that will keep you up until you finish it. Vets die in many ways before they die.
And donâ€™t miss Lennonâ€™s Pieces for the Left Hand, one hundred very short stories purporting to be the offhand musings and anecdotes of a professional of some sort, now unemployed, walking the streets and fields of his small New England community, telling himself stories. Some of them are true. Some â€œhave been embellished, or fabricated entirely,â€ he claims. They are all brilliant, and strike me as an American version of what Lispector was about with her chronicas. Funny, shocking, sentimental â€“ each with a moral (Lennon would probably wince at that word, but . . .) as hard and crystalline as the haiku in â€œBrevity,â€ the last story in the book, all thatâ€™s left of the local novelistâ€™s thousand page manuscript after it is chopped and whittled to satisfy the publisher.
This is the dirt that gathers in corners, settles on the porch swing and penetrates the pores.
Where were we? Oh yes, back on the farm:
whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them
And the dirt
just to make clear
where they came from
– Charles Olson, â€œThese Daysâ€