“Love rose in my heart like a sun and beauty blossomed in my life like a star. ”
e. e. cummings — a poet whose verse my Admiral liked very very much
He’s the blood that runs through my heart — how I used to express what the Admiral was for me
Helen Allington (1848-1926), Gathering Woodfire, autumn in Sussex (or Suffolk).
Dear friends and readers,
Here am I keeping up poetry Sunday again with a poet whose work Jim read and liked ever so much: Clive James.
Sentenced to Life
Sentenced to life, I sleep face-up as though
Ice-bound, lest I should cough the night away,
And when I walk the mile to town, I show
The right technique for wading through deep clay.
A sad man, sorrier than he can say.
But surely not so guilty he should die
Each day from knowing that his race is run:
My sin was to be faithless. I would lie
As ifI could be true to everyone
At once, and all the damage that was done
Was in the name of love, or so I thought.
I might have met my death believing this,
But no, there was a lesson to be taught.
Now, not just old, but ill, with much amiss,
I see things with a whole new emphasis.
My daughter’s garden has a goldfish pool
With six fish, each a little finger long.
I stand and watch them following their rule
Of never touching, never going wrong:
Trajectories as perfect as plain song.
Once, I would not have noticed; nor have known
The name for Japanese anemones,
So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone
Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees
Without my seeing them. I count the bees.
Even my memories are clearly seen:
Whence comes the answer if I’m told I must
Be aching for my homeland. Had I been
Dulled in the brain to match my lungs of dust
There’d be no recollection I could trust.
Yet I, despite my guilt, despite my grief,
Watch the Pacific sunset, heaven sent,
In glowing colours and in sharp relief,
Painting the white clouds when the day is spent,
As if it were my will and testament –
As if my first impressions were my last,
And time had only made them more defined,
Now I am weak. The sky is overcast
Here in the English autumn, but my mind
Basks in the light I never left behind.
TLS MAY 2 2014
Claude Monet (1840-1926), Autumn on the Seine at Argenteuil — the Admiral and I went to many exhibitions and museums featuring Monets we’d stand in front of.
I know, I know it’s not an English autumn sky. That’s why I have the Helen Allingham with the lone woman at the top of this page. And why I have the Downton Abbey, with its pulsing train and telegraph machine — like a heart beating, just below.
“Sentenced to life” seems to me unusual for James or not like the sort of thing James used to write: James used to write satiric verses, often rhymed, ironic, somewhat in the spirit of Pope’s Dunciad. Here he is aging, finding himself having to live with a daughter to survive. Is he sorry he wrote all those cutting poems? I doubt it. He’s still writing formal verse, stanzas with rhymes which reinforce and undercut his tones. Since my Admiral died I too notice many things I didn’t before, feel very differently about what observe going on around me, the lessons of affliction I call them. “Sentenced to life” all right. I’ve slept face-up for years: I dare not sleep on my stomach because my back needs firm support. There are some consolations, left overs from what was, the light in the sky in autumn is one of them.
My admiral bought four books by James either while we were in England or from the US (two were acquired when we lived in NYC so he managed it without the Internet). I have them here with me in this house and took them down from the shelf to look at: aging, one yellowed: The Fate of Felicity Fark; The Improved Version of Pererine Prykke’s Pilgrimage through the London Literary World; Britannia Bright’s Bewilderment, and Charles Charming’s Challenges. I remember that he knew a lot of the references. He would read Clive James’s poems to me aloud when he’d come across them in periodicals like TLS and explain the references to me.
Many times over the days I think to myself, had he (the Admiral, Jim) been willing to go to Boston that May and see that fancy specialist and then done the intense chemotherapy, he might be alive today. Were he alive and well reading this one he might remark that James was older than us and nearer death; were he alive and was enduring the pitilessness of cancer, he might see a parallel between himself and James and remark that he, Jim, was after all dying first.
Yesterday morning I remembered a saying I had when the Admiral was alive: he’s the blood that runs through my heart. Last night watching (yet again, I carry on with this) three more episodes of Breaking Bad (2:8-10) as with Downton Abbey I found myself forgetting Jim was dead. I get so involved with the characters in both series, so utterly absorbed somehow or other, that I turn round to say talk to him. When I watched Walter White fixing his house though I realized Jim will never be here to fix this house and it is rotting in spots. And then I recalled Lear’s sentence: never, never, never, never never, he’ll never be here again, forever this relentless blank. This sky with nothing there but the sky, this vast emptiness — maybe I should be losing myself deep into that light.
I went to the grief support group at the Haven yesterday and all but one person was there, and the talk (I thought) was good, comforting as well strengthening because the people feel and voice what I feel — versions close and different enough too. People talked of how badly they feel when they hear of others talking of coming summer vacations when these others are going here or there with a spouse or partner. Me too. Left out. How they too — women and men — can’t do all sorts of things their partner used to do and so leave them undo or go through many hours of nervous exhaustion getting them down or failing to. So I felt better about how doing bills is such an endurance contest and told myself if I couldn’t make the printer/scanner/copier scan or copy, it was all right.
I talked for the first time of my father’s death — in response to someone else talking of his still living father — and how with Jim there’s this problem of sometimes not quite taking in that he’s dead and then having to endure this total absence, no sense of him as a presence, this blankness, and how I wish I were like Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights, haunted by him, with him in me. (The people there include two women who appear to be readers but no one but the guy who drives me home seems to have read anything beyond ephemeral modern books — he has read Trollope, and now parts of my book, Trollope on the ‘Net but that’s another story.)
But with my father I had such a strong psychological projection, probably partly of guilt, I used to be afraid to go into the kitchen at night lest I see his ghost, or some wisp of his ghost and he reproach me. I told of how I told someone who is also at teacher at OLLI at AU (doing Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and North and South), just suddenly as she was talking of her aging parents and her relationship to them (playing piano with her mother, trying to please her mother) how while I genuinely grieved for my father’s death, for months couldn’t get his having died off my mind, resented the continuance of other people who seemed to me so much less worthy than he, one of my strong emotions at the funeral was relief (another desperation). I was relieved I’d never have to look at his face looking at me so sad, disappointed, but so sad for me, that I had not come up to whatever he thought I should have. (Once he reproached me for leaving the clerical job in the federal gov’t — I couldn’t get over that; to me it was an escape from a death-in-life five days a week. I said as much but all he said was something to the effect you’d have Sundays. Another time I wasn’t wholesome like a cousin, didn’t look like I was in such a healthy state of mind or body, finally it was not attractive to him.) This is what I had come to. But this is not where my regret should lay. I do have nothing to feel guilty about when it comes to the way I lived with Jim all those years and what I did those last 5 months. Whatever he may have said to me in those weeks of dying, I know I gave my all.
The week before I told the group of these unexpected triggers. This time I didn’t tell a stranger something, but I suddenly found myself beginning to cry as I read aloud from Elizabeth Inchbald’s Lovers Vows, the scene that we are to imagine Austen’s Mary Crawford and Edmund Bertram reading aloud in front of Fanny Price in her fireless, chilled East Room, about which one of my students said for her to listen to that must have been like someone taking a knife and twisting it into her heart: Amelia, the heroine, is being instructed on what makes a good marriage from Anhalt, her tutor, who she is in love with and who loves her:
Amelia. … I beg first to be acquainted with the good.
Anhalt. When two sympathetic hearts meet in the marriage state, matrimony may be called a happy life. When such a wedded pair find thorns in their path, each will be eager, for the sake of the other, to tear them from the root. Where they have to mount hills, or wind a labyrinth, the most experienced will lead the way, and be a guide to his companion. Patience and love will accompany them in their journey, while melancholy and discord they leave far behind.—Hand in hand they pass on from morning till evening, through their summer’s day, till the night of age draws on, and the sleep of death overtakes the one. The other, weeping and mourning, yet looks forward to the bright region where he shall meet his still surviving partner, among trees and flowers which themselves have planted, in fields of eternal verdure.
Amelia. You may tell my father—I’ll marry. [Rises.]
Anhalt. [rising]. This picture is pleasing; but I must beg you not to forget that there is another on the same subject.—When convenience, and fair appearance joined to folly and ill-humour, forge the fetters of matrimony, they gall with their weight the married pair. Discontented with each other—at variance in opinions—their mutual aversion increases with the years they live together. They contend most, where they should most unite; torment, where they should most soothe. In this rugged way, choaked with the weeds of suspicion, jealousy, anger, and hatred, they take their daily journey, till one of these also sleep in death. The other then lifts up his dejected head, and calls out in acclamations of joy—Oh, liberty! dear liberty!
Amelia. I will not marry.
1983: Fanny listening to Mary and Edmund acting out Amelia and Anhalt (MP)
It was when I got to “the sleep of death overtakes the one,” I lost again and my voice broke. I skipped down to the “aversion” couple but again “one of these also sleep in death” was too much and I didn’t carry off Amelia-Mary’s quip in the style I should have. I did learn that Inchbald does convey depths of feeling in this pandering translated play with its clichéd language.
I’ve had a card and present and a letter from one student telling me of how much she enjoyed the Jane Austen course I gave, especially my playing 3 clips of S&S films, and 4 clips each of P&P and MP films. She said I had introduced her to a body of films she could look forward to enjoying all summer long. She had in fact begun by watching the 1971 S&S (with Robin Ellis, Patricia Routledge, Joanna David) and was now 4/5s through Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan. I told her I had worried that bringing in the films in the way I did would distract and yet not add to the course. OLLI does not itself appear to have the kind of equipment needed (they’d really have to be in some space in the university probably), or (as a substitute) I don’t have the knowhow and technical ability and equipment to present precisely the kind of clips and stills to demonstrate arguments about film studies. That I’m a lonely soul and even before my Jim died I kept myself company by studying these film adaptations of great books. I have about 6 chapters towards a book. That I felt after some sessions where the students and I talked as equals reading together and said what they felt about the books I went back to them seeing them anew and asking different kinds of questions. And it provided a needed bright spot of face-to-face people companionship for my week.
As does this grief support group, which will have its last meeting next week. I had the same Uber cab driver I had the first time I went — he remembered me and taking me to a place called The Haven.
At the grief support group were told of a tour group I can conceive of myself as enjoying and when I told Yvette about these, she said she can see it might be fun for us, Road Scholars. I’ve sent away for a brochure. A long summer of alone-ness lies ahead. I have thought that if my drivers’ license is not returned to me by mid-June if I go to wherever the central DMV office is and have the guts to burn myself alive like one of these protesters, would it attract any attention to the extraordinary capricious use of punitive and destructive power this group wreaks in a country bereft of adequate public transportation? Or would they sneer the way they do on the phone. I would be teaching this summer, I would join a film club once a month, I’d look into joining the N. Va. Jewish community center: I can do none of this. I am not the only person they are destroying in this way.
I tell myself I have to remember that life is little to be enjoyed and much to be endured and I have less to endure than most and enjoy quite a number of things. I have quite a list of projects to do over the summer — reviews & blogs promised, possible papers, my book, my film studies and readings and discussions with list-serv groups. What I shall have to get myself to do (and am not doing it this morning by writing this blog spontaneously) is make a schedule and keep to it. Make an effort, stick to it. If you cannot, how will you not end up not losing all self-respect?
Call it Pavane for a Dead Prince:
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