That bookshop where the Longleys and I,
drifting among the levels and chambers
of its peristatic convolutions
on the last morning of the festival
were lured in different directions, sucked
and digested in the dreamy caverns,
until we lost sight of each other and
they disappeared — or, as it seemed to them,
I disappeared — (backtrack as we might
here was no reuniting under that roof),
but now itself, apart from its online
phantom, vanished. As they do. As they do.
— Fleur Adcock (one of my favorite modern women poets)
A friend is another self, a self far more than the self one is — my own play upon some Renaissance words on friendship,
Dear friends and readers,
We are told in some traditions this is Twelfth Night. Well, by way of observing this date, during these hard three weeks I came across this video of people in the streets of Connecticut somewhere:
I write though not because it’s the 6th of January, nor because it’s deeply frigid out there after a snow storm that did bring Caroline for a visit (she was stranded in non-moving traffic) while Yvette stayed home in the morning; nor because I found Adcock’s poem about the disappearance of wonderful used bookstores for people to get lost in, find friends and new experiences in the forms of unexpected books.
No, I feel impelled to write from an experience I had in reading today: I’m making my way through a frequently irritating and unconvincing book for professional review (which will go untitled — how I miss Jim’s voice making fun of its nonsense, its continual support of elitism and wealth in order to justify elite lesbians of the 18th century) and came upon a deeply moving section about elegies and mourning.
pain, pleasure and death are no more than a process for existence. The revolutionary struggle in this process is a doorway open to intelligence” ― Frida Kahlo, The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait
A number of critics and philosophers (from Cicero to Derrida to Jodie Greene, a female editor for an issue of GQL) writing about friendship have shown that elegies have been intensely important as genres for gay people and also anyone deeply in love with someone who has died –- for LGBT people because when the person dies, immediately the biological family takes over and they are often excluded from all recognition, all rites (rights too) after a lifetime of frequent hiding where there has been no ability to live the life you want in dignity, peace, ordinary daily fulfillments, and for anyone who loved deeply because most societies do what they can to demand something called “healthful consolation” after a relatively brief period. For me it was a moment of important insight to read that those who write mourning poems before the person died (and I translated 600+ poems of Vittoria Colonna, most mourning the death of her husband, and some 90 by Veronica Gambara, many doing the same thing) are expressing their intense attachment now and the fears it brings.
So many poems come clear: Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard perhaps only one of the more famous; his profound loss in his sonnet on the death of his friend, Richard West.
In vain to me the smiling mornings shine,
And redd’ning Phoebus lifts his golden fire:
The birds in vain their amorous descant join;
Or cheerful fields resume their green attire:
These ears, alas! for other notes repine,
A different object do these eyes require:
My lonely anguish melts no heart but mine;
And in my breast the imperfect joys expire.
Yet morning smiles the busy race to cheer,
And new-born pleasure brings to happier men:
The fields to all their wonted tribute bear;
To warm their little loves the birds complain:
I fruitless mourn to him that cannot hear,
And weep the more, because I weep in vain.
I thought of the film Yvette and I saw several years ago where Colin Firth played a homosexual man, professor left to solitude after his (male) beloved has died and he is cut off from all memories of him, A Single Man, and yes, he does kill himself.
These writers and the tradition of elegy suggest that what one is doing by memorializing is also not just keeping the person alive but attempting to speak to him (or her); that overcoming is not sought, but rather remembering all the friend was, what he wrote (or read) or thought, and this kind of recuperation is central to the experience of friendship and love too. Why we do all we can (those who love) to support the beloved’s inner life; and the terrible thing afterward is the inaccessible spirit and mind of the beloved –- we cannot reach them; the sources the author quotes (about men or by them) have it the person grieving wants the physical relationship back (certainly I hated cremating Jim), but it is more that they lived together and the relationship itself as well as the person’s mind/heart/character that it is so unendurable to lose and should not be forgotten -– all explains so many elegies and melancholy mourning poetry in general (famous and not famous).
So, for example, this week I was reading in Anthony Hecht’s Essays in Criticism, his final piece on landscape and great country houses: Jim read some of these and liked the poetry of Hecht very much. The essay is on the deeply ambiguous realities of the existence of these country houses, the poetry about them, how they have been portrayed as central symbols in all sorts of English genres: it seems to me to comment on the course I followed this summer on the Literature of Country Houses (of course that feeble thing did not know of Hecht’s essay nor were any poems but Jonson’s Penhurst quoted from it):
Surely among a rich man’s flowering lawns,
Amid the rustle of his planted hills,
Life overflows without ambitious pains;
And rains down life until the basin spills,
And mounts more dizzy high the more it rains
As though to choose whatever shape it wills
And never stoop to a mechanical
Or servile shape, at others’ beck and call.
Mere dreams, mere dreams ! Yet Homer had not sung
Had he not found it certain beyond dreams
That out of life’s own self-delight had sprung
The abounding glittering jet; though now it seems
As if some marvelous empty sea-shell flung
Out of the obscure dark of the rich streams,
And not a fountain, were the symbol which
Shadows the inherited glory of the rich.
Some violent bitter man, some powerful man
Called architect and artist in, that they,
Bitter and violent men, might rear in stone
The sweetness that all longed for night and day,
The gentleness none there had ever known;
But when the master’s buried mice can play,
And maybe the great-grandson of that house,
For all its bronze and marble, ‘s but a mouse.
O what if gardens where the peacock strays
With delicate feet upon old terraces,
Or else all Juno from an urn displays
Before the indifferent garden deities;
o what if levelled lawns and gravelled ways
Where slippered Contemplation finds his ease
And Childhood a delight for every sense,
But take our greatness with our violence?
What if the glory of escutcheoned doors,
And buildings that a haughtier age designed,
The pacing to and fro on polished floors
Amid great chambers and long galleries, lined
With famous portraits of our ancestors;
What if those things the greatest of mankind
Consider most to magnify, or to bless,
But take our greatness with our bitterness?
— William Butler Yeats
I’ve been continuing my reading of texts about widows too. Last night it was Doris Lessing’s masterpiece, “An old woman and her cat.” Unbearably moving — and great, one of the world’s many great short stories. Once Hetty’s husband dies and her four children marry and move far away, the two creatures, she and “poor Tibby” (her cat who wanders out-of-doors but comes home to sleep with her and eat with her, providing the occasional pigeon) are ignored by their society except continually to eject them, from wherever they are; they move into smaller and more derelict places, the old woman starves more; Hetty is rescuing her cat as from about the middle, as it’s clear if the authorities get their hands on him, they’ll kill Tibby. When she finally dies and is found two weeks later, the foolish cat (himself in a bad way) hoping they’ll help him, allows himself to be found. You know the ending. As my good friend (mirable dictu) wrote, it’s terrifying because it could happen to any woman or cat.
Lessing’s greatest writing is on cats.
As to eating, I eat what I can get myself to eat.