Archive

Summer 2018

from The Spell of the Sensuous

by David Abram

 

“He asks for the language of magic spells that pays as much attention to sound and suggestiveness and the power to conjure spirits as it does to meaning.”—THE

 

Clearly I love this book! I used it to start the new year, and now I’ve returned to it near the year’s midpoint.  It is a wonderful discussion about language and our relationship to the planet.  Grounded in the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty who argued that human language is only one of many “styles” of expression on the planet, David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous urges us to revitalize our language by returning to the power of its source in the oral tradition.

 

David Abram is an essayist, American philosophercultural ecologist, and magician best known for his work bridging the philosophical tradition of phenomenology with environmental and ecological issues.  You can learn more about Abram and his work at the Center for Humans & Nature.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

For those of us who care for an earth not encompassed by machines, a world of textures, tastes, and sounds other than those that we have engineered, there can be no question of simply abandoning literacy, of turning away from all writing. Our task, rather, is that of taking up the written word, with all of its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land. Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of the things themselves—to the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have the rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit these coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valleys and swamps. Finding phrases that place us in contact with the trembling neck-muscles of a deer holding its antlers high as it swims toward the mainland, or with the ant dragging a scavenged rice-grain through the grasses. Planting words, like seeds, under rocks and fallen logs—letting language take root, once again, in the earthen silence of shadow and bone and leaf.

—David Abram

Commentary

 

In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram blames written language for severing the tie that binds human beings to the natural world. The phonetic alphabet transformed the words of the oral tradition into abstractions that have “little in common with the sounds and signals of other animals, or with the rippling speech of the river.”  Armed with the written word we, could deny “that birds and other animals have their own styles of speech, by insisting that the river has no real voice and that the ground itself is mute” and, in the process, we lost “the deep meanings of many of our words.”  Abram does not ask us to “abandon literacy” but to resuscitate it, and in this paragraph he shows the way.  He asks that we return to the literal roots of words that emerge on human lips as gifts from the earth.  He wants those words to be in conversation with nature’s many styles of expression, each an “uttering-forth” as palpable as a leaf bud opening.  He asks for imagery that is fresh and fully embodied in sensuous experience, to make genuine “contact” with life on the planet, offering examples: “the trembling neck-muscles of a deer holding its antlers high as it swims toward the mainland” or “the ant dragging a scavenged rice-grain through the grasses.”  He asks for the language of magic spells that pays as much attention to sound and suggestiveness and the power to conjure spirits as it does to meaning.  He wants words like seeds that grow in the dark underground.  In short he asks for poetry, as long as we remember that the ancient root for the word poem is “one stone piled upon another.”  He wants word made flesh, yes, but also word made “shadow and bone and leaf.”

—THE

The End of Nature Series

 

from The Last Panda

by George B. Schaller

 

“The phrase ‘perfect ecological integration’ is a bit of a mouthful, but it is an important idea elegantly defined in this essay about the endangered pandas.”—THE

In The End of Nature, published in 1989, Bill McKibben redefined the challenge for the environmental movement.  He argued that nature as a wilderness beyond the touch of humans was no longer conceivable.  A cataract may be beautiful, but if it is loaded with “a mix of chemicals we’ve injected into the atmosphere,” it has changed its meaning to us.  It leads to the realization that nature is “not another world, and there is nothing except us alone.”

 

As a way to explore this idea, THE created “The End of Nature Series.”  This week we feature a paragraph from The Last Panda by George B. Schaller, the acclaimed naturalist who spent four years in the forests of the Wolong and Tangjiahe panda preserves writing careful observations about the plight of these elusive creatures dependent on shrinking bamboo forests.  It is part of a selection that appeared in the anthology American Earth edited by McKibben.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

In the stillness, leaves suddenly rustled and a stem cracked like breaking glass. Shrouded in bamboo was a giant panda, a female, slumped softly in the snow, her back propped against a shrub. Leaning to one side, she reached out and hooked a bamboo stem with the ivory claws of a forepaw, bent in the stem, and with a fluid movement bit it off near the base. Stem firmly grasped, she sniffed it to verify that it was indeed palatable, and then ate it end-first like a stalk of celery. While her powerful molars sectioned and crushed the stem, she glanced around for another, her movements placid and skillful, a perfect ecological integration between panda and bamboo…From below, near where forest gave way to field, came the sound of an ax. The bamboo around her like armor against intruders, she listened and then moved away, shunning any possible confrontation. She traveled on a private path along the slope, insinuating herself from thicket to thicket, moving like a cloud shadow, navigating with precision through the sea of stems, with only her tracks a record of her silent passing.

—George B. Schaller

Commentary

 

The phrase “perfect ecological integration” is a bit of a mouthful, but it is an important idea elegantly defined in this essay about the endangered pandas.  There is damage done in this integration—a stem cracking “like breaking glass”—but it is incidental, caused merely by the slumping of the large animal in the snow. There is also some careful inspection of the bamboo—a sniff to be sure it is “palatable”—before devouring it “like a stalk of celery.”  Molars crafted by millennia of natural selection make the business of crushing the tough bamboo easy, and despite her size the panda’s coordinated movements of taking up new stems while muching and searching out the next shoot are “placid and skillful.”  The one animal that is imperfectly integrated into the ecology is the human being who chops the bamboo forest down.  But notice, the bamboo provides “armor against intruders” as well as sustenance, for the panda and to escape unseen she can slip away in it, “insinuating herself from thicket to thicker, like an apparition, “a cloud shadow,” leaving nothing but tracks behind in a “sea of stems.”

—THE

 
 

from “Draft No. 4”

in Draft No. 4:  On the Writing Process

by John McPhee

 

“Suppose you sense an opportunity...”

                                                                               —John McPhee

 

“Draft No. 4” from John McPhee’s collection of essays on the writing process offers much good advice, but this Paragraph of the Week and Commentary about using the dictionary and thesaurus to arrive at the right word gives practical insight into ways writers use these tools to keep their language precise and fresh.

 

McPhee is a staff writer at The New Yorker.  He is the author of thirty-two books, all published by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux and lives in Princeton, New Jersey.  The Paragraph of the Week and the Commentary both come from McPhee.  His subject is the “search for the mot juste.”

The Paragraph of the Week

 

This, for example, came up while I was writing about the Atchafalaya, the huge river swamp in southern Louisiana, and how it looked from a small plane in the air. Land is growing there as silt arrives from the north. Parts of the swamp are filling in. From the airplane, you could discern where these places were because, seen through the trees, there would be an interruption of the reflection of sunlight on water. What word or phrase was I going to use for that reflection? I looked up “sparkle” in my old Webster's Collegiate. It said: “See ‘flash.’” I looked up “flash.” The definitions were followed by a presentation of synonyms: “flash, gleam, glance, glint, sparkle, glitter, scintillate, coruscate, glimmer, shimmer mean to shoot forth light.” I liked that last part, so I changed the manuscript to say, “The reflection of the sun races through the trees and shoots forth light from the water.”

 

—John McPhee

Commentary

 

In the search for words, thesauruses are useful things, but they don't talk about the words they list. They are also dangerous. They can lead you to choose a polysyllabic and fuzzy word when a simple and clear one is better. The value of a thesaurus is not to make a writer seem to have a vast vocabulary of recondite words. The value of a thesaurus is in the assistance it can give you in finding the best possible word for the mission that the word is supposed to fulfill. Writing teachers and journalism courses have been known to compare them to crutches and to imply that no writer of any character or competence would use them. At best, thesauruses are mere rest stops in the search for the mot juste. Your destination is the dictionary. Suppose you sense an opportunity beyond the word “intention.” You read the dictionary's thesaurian list of synonyms: “intention, intent, purpose, design, aim, end, object, objective, goal:”  But the dictionary doesn't let it go at that. It goes on to tell you the differences all the way down the line—how each listed word differs from all the others. Some dictionaries keep themselves trim by just listing synonyms and not going on to make distinctions. You want the first kind, in which you are not just getting a list of words; you are being told the differences in their hues, as if you were looking at the stripes in an awning, each of a subtly different green. Look up “vertical.” It tells you—believe it or not—that “vertical” “perpendicular” and “plumb” differ each from the two others. Ditto “plastic, pliable, pliant, ductile, malleable, adaptable.” Ditto “fidelity, allegiance, fealty, loyalty, devotion, piety.”

 

—John McPhee

 
 

from “Economy”

in Walden

by Henry David Thoreau

 

“Description like this is a kind of listening, attending with all the senses as the world whispers its secrets.”—THE 

On the Fourth of July this year The Humble Essayist will celebrate its fourth anniversary and as usual we will, as we did on July 4, 2014, feature a Paragraph of the Week from Henry David Thoreau who began building his cabin on Walden Pond in March of 1845, but moved in on July 4, initiating his own project in independence that became the masterpiece Walden.  Check out the archives to see all of the July 4 entries on Thoreau, and find an online version of Walden here.

 

In the spirit of summer-time leisure we will leave this entry up for two weeks while THE kicks back for some relaxing time with his family.  We will be back on  July 6 with our annual summertime entry from “Once More to the Lake” by E. B. White.—THE

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it. It was a pleasant hillside where I worked, covered with pine woods, through which I looked out on the pond, and a small open field in the woods where pines and hickories were springing up. The ice in the pond was not yet dissolved, though there were some open spaces, and it was all dark-colored and saturated with water. There were some slight flurries of snow during the days that I worked there; but for the most part when I came out on to the railroad, on my way home, its yellow sand heap stretched away gleaming in the hazy atmosphere, and the rails shone in the spring sun, and I heard the lark and pewee and other birds already come to commence another year with us. They were pleasant spring days, in which the winter of man's discontent was thawing as well as the earth, and the life that had lain torpid began to stretch itself. One day, when my axe had come off and I had cut a green hickory for a wedge, driving it with a stone, and had placed the whole to soak in a pond-hole in order to swell the wood, I saw a striped snake run into the water, and he lay on the bottom, apparently without inconvenience, as long as I stayed there, or more than a quarter of an hour; perhaps because he had not yet fairly come out of the torpid state. It appeared to me that for a like reason men remain in their present low and primitive condition; but if they should feel the influence of the spring of springs arousing them, they would of necessity rise to a higher and more ethereal life. I had previously seen the snakes in frosty mornings in my path with portions of their bodies still numb and inflexible, waiting for the sun to thaw them. On the 1st of April it rained and melted the ice, and in the early part of the day, which was very foggy, I heard a stray goose groping about over the pond and cackling as if lost, or like the spirit of the fog.

—Henry David Thoreau

Commentary

 

As a young reader of Thoreau, I was much taken by his wry comments on the human condition.  In this paragraph the clever idea of being generous by allowing others to contribute to your projects is an example.  The taunt that most of us sleep through life “in a torpid state”  is another.  But now when I read Walden his jabs against conventional thought wear less well over time, and I am won over instead by the patient descriptions of the natural world:  the “small open field in the woods where pines and hickories were springing up” at the edge of the pond, the ice on the pond that “was not yet dissolved, though there were some open spaces, and it was all dark-colored and saturated with water,” even the railroad embankment where the  “yellow sand heap stretched away gleaming in the hazy atmosphere, and the rails shone in the spring sun.”  I like the bit about cutting a new axe handle and setting the entire axe “to soak in a pond-hole in order to swell the wood” and the snakes on “frosty mornings…portions of their bodies still numb and inflexible, waiting for the sun to thaw them.”  Description like this is a kind of listening, attending with all the senses as the world whispers its secrets.  The words, coming from the observed world as much as from the writer, partake of the “spring of springs” that he claims arouses the best in us, and retain the taste of the earth they capture—or, better, release—letting “the words slip off the lettered page,” as David Abram puts it, so that language can “take root, once again, in the earthen silence of shadow and bone and leaf.”  In this way, a sentence about “a stray goose groping about over the pond, cackling as if lost” in the morning fog “becomes the spirit of the fog,” and we hear the hacking sound as if we had come upon the goose ourselves, and feel it and know it.

—THE

 

from “Once More to the Lake”

in One Man’s Meat

by E. B. White

“‘I knew it,’ White writes, ‘hearing the boy sneak quietly out’ and head off in a boat along the shore of a lake that does not seem to change over time.”—THE 

 

Each summer we dedicate a week to a paragraph from my favorite essay, “Once More to the Lake” by E. B. White.  White was a legendary editor and writer for The New Yorker during the magazine’s heyday and this essay is his masterpiece.  The four past paragraphs of the week from White are in the archives, and you can find White’s essay on line here.

So, once more to the lake once more.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

I took along my son, who had never had any fresh water up his nose and who had seen lily pads only from train windows. On the journey over to the lake I began to wonder what it would be like. I wondered how time would have marred this unique, this holy spot—the coves and streams, the hills that the sun set behind, the camps and the paths behind the camps. I was sure that the tarred road would have found it out, and I wondered in what other ways it would be desolated. It is strange how much you can remember about places like that once you allow your mind to return into the grooves that lead back. You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing. I guess I remembered clearest of all the early mornings, when the lake was cool and motionless, remembered how the bedroom smelled of the lumber it was made of and of the wet woods whose scent entered through the screen. The partitions in the camp were thin and did not extend clear to the top of the rooms, and as I was always the first up I would dress softly so as not to wake the others, and sneak out into the sweet outdoors and start out in the canoe, keeping close along the shore in the long shadows of the pines. I remembered being very careful never to rub my paddle against the gunwale for fear of disturbing the stillness of the cathedral.

—E. B. White

Commentary

 

The surprise here is the word “cathedral,” even though it is implied in all that leads up to it.  Early on in “Once More to the Lake” E. B. White establishes his reverence for the place.  He calls it a “holy spot” and describes the landscape of “coves and streams” in terms of its echoing depths: “the hills that the sun set behind, the camps and the paths behind the camps.” As a child he was careful not to disturb the morning silence of the lake by rubbing his “paddle against the gunwale.”  This sacred place is backdrop to the human drama of a boy waking in the early morning when the lake “was cool and motionless” in a room that “smelled of the lumber it was made of” and the “wet scent” of the woods.  He dresses quietly in rooms with thin partitions in order to escape the cabin undetected and ride a canoe “in the long shadows of pines.”  It is also the drama of his son who does the same thing years later on the next page.  “I knew it,” White writes, “hearing the boy sneak quietly out” and head off in a boat along the shore of a lake that does not seem to change over time.  It is these two stories of father and son—and the illusion that they are one story—that drives this essay to its inevitable insight into the mystery of mortality, “disturbing the stillness of the cathedral” without creating a ripple.

—THE

 

from “Solving for X”

by Pam Durban

in Brevity

 

“The writer Pam Durban tells us in ‘Solving for X’ that she has ‘never been good at word problems.’”—THE

Pam Durban is the author of two collections of short stories, Soon and All Set About with Fever Trees, and three novels, The Laughing PlaceSo Far Back, and The Tree of Forgetfulness. Her stories and essays has been published in many magazines and anthologies including The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike, and The Pushcart Prize, Best of the Small Presses. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship and a Whiting Writer’s Award as well as the 2001 Lillian Smith Award for Fiction for her novel, So Far Back. She lives in Chapel Hill, NC, and teaches at the University of North Carolina.  Her Paragraph of the Week is from “Solving for X” which is in the current issue of Brevity and can be read in full here.

Paragraph of the Week

 

Other calculations are riskier. The word problems of life, she calls them. If a seventy-year-old woman owns two boxes of five-thousand staples and her stapler holds 210 staples per strip, how many staples must she use every day in order to empty both boxes before she dies? How long will it take her to write the pages she’ll staple, because even though she’s sometimes over-tired of the great harvest that she herself desired, she keeps harvesting, but slowly, so slowly, as if she still has all the time in the world?

—Pam Durban

Commentary

 

The writer Pam Durban tells us in “Solving for X” that she has “never been good at word problems.”  She remembers “hours of agony at the kitchen table,” as a girl, “her father trying to help her wrench the variables of time, speed, and distance into manageable equations.”  Over time the math has gotten simpler and at 70 she knows she won’t need “to replace the thirty-year roof she’s just put on her house” or get “a dental implant that lasts fifty years.”  But when it comes to “the word problems of life” which have been her life’s work, she is still uncertain about how many boxes of five-thousand staples she will need to buy before she dies, knowing that “despite the great harvest” of pages she has written, she “keeps harvesting” more that need to be stapled “but slowly, so slowly as if she still has all the time in the world.”  The problem is further complicated by unexpected scares such as a bout with Transient Global Amnesia, a subtraction of time that threw off her calculations.  Looking for a way to “stop breaking her heart with problems that can’t be solved” she thinks back to the unexpected happiness she felt in the simple act of splashing water out of the sagging corners of the blue tent at her father’s funeral, four of them, she mentions, still counting but no longer calculating, uncertain why it “made her happy to spill the water that morning or why it makes her happy to remember it now, in spite of the grave.”

—THE

 

from “Refugium”

in Stirring the Mud

by Barbara Hurd

 

A refuge “is a way of achieving the Buddhist ideal of living in the present moment.  But it is also a trap.”—THE

 

Barbara Hurd is the author of Stirring the Mud, Entering the Stone, Walking the Wrack Line, and a collection of poetry, The Singer's Temple. Her work has appeared in Best American Essays, the Yale Review, the Georgia Review, Orion, and Audubon. She is the recipient of an NEA Fellowship for Creative Nonfiction, winner of the Sierra Club's National Nature Writing Award, five Pushcart Prizes, five Maryland State Arts Council Awards, and a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship. She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Does creation begin or end in  the refuge of the fringed world? Did God start in a swamp somewhere, making mossy tendrils first, moving on to the mink's eyelashes, clumsy at first with this medium of land and water and then growing more proficient? Did he learn eventually to step out into the world, turning the brush and sweeping it just so, so that by the end of the semester, the broad Pacific was smooth, the prairies even and lush, the South drooping and luxuriant? Or did he begin with the broad strokes? Did he practice first with an airbrush on the vastness of ocean, high sweeps of the Himalayas, the way beginning art students do, stepping back from the easel, trying to get the broad outlines of their subjects, the feel of paint swiped across a mural? And did he then, as he grew more skilled, hunch over the canvas, end up with a miniature brush for the detailed work of wetlands, the fine scrim of sedges around a burnished lily-padded pool he must make appear and disappear with the seasons?

—Barbara Hurd

Comment

 

In her essay “Refugium” Barbara Hurd wonders about the role of refuges in the fully human and creative life.  She writes about the Cranesville Swamp, a refugium on the  Maryland-West Virginia line where her hermit-like friend Michael resides.  He wants “to live like an animal, close to the earth, self-sufficient, doing as little harm as possible.”  A refugium is “a particular ecosystem that cannot survive in surrounding areas,” so it is a perfect retreat for him.  “Certainly there is no better place than a swamp or bog to learn about uncertainty,” Hurd realizes.  It is a way of achieving the Buddhist ideal of living in the present moment.  But it is also a trap.  She thinks about the pitcher plant that grows in the swamp, luring insects into tubular shaped blooms lined with tiny hairs that imprison the intruder in a fringed enclosure until it dies.  A refuge, she realizes, is a temptation for the artist because it is a benevolent and protective place for restoration and fulfillment away from the distractions of life, but it is also a place of restrictions, causing Hurd to wonder, in our paragraph of the week, how God goes about creating and whether swamps and other refuges are the end or the beginning of creation.

—THE

from “Borges and I”

in Labyrinths

by Jorge Luis Borges

 

“Little by little, I am giving over everything to him…”  Jorge Luis Borges

 

What is the relationship between the writer and the person who writes? The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges used the brief prose piece “Borges and I” to explore the relationship trying to understand the way writers in the end cede so much of who they are to their writing personae.  It is a charmingly written piece that stays with you, I think.  The Paragraph of the Week and the Commentary—with a single sentence lagniappe—make up the complete essay and come from Borges in a translation by James E. Irby.  The essay originally appeared in English in the book Labyrinths published by New Directions in 1962.  You can read the original—without my Humble Essayist format—here.

 

Next week we will look at Frank Bidart’s take on the same subject.

The Paragraph of the Week 

 

The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.

—Jorge Luis Borges

Commentary

 

Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

     I do not know which of us has written this page.

—Jorge Luis Borges

 

from “Borges and I”

in Desire

by Frank Bidart

There is “no other way” to make a self than by doing and creating which is the cracked mirror through which we discover who we are.—THE

The Paragraph of the Week comes from the prose poem, “Borges and I,” in which Frank Bidart mulls over the relationship between the writer and the person who writes as they face off across the page wondering if they really are as distinct as the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges believes.  The result is a rich mix of argument, imagery, and examples compressed into three pages.  Last week we looked at Borges’ essay;  this week we take in Bidart’s response.  To see the Borges piece click on our archives here, and to read Bidart’s complete prose poem, click on The Floating Library here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Frank had the illusion, when he talked to himself in the cliches he used when he talked to himself, that when he made his poems he was changed in making them, that arriving at the order the poem suddenly arrived at out of the chaos of the materials the poem let enter itself out of the chaos of life, consciousness then, only then, could know itself, Sherlock Holmes was somebody or something before cracking its first case but not Sherlock Holmes, act is the cracked mirror not only of motive but self, no other way, tiny mirror that fails to focus in small the whole of the great room.

 

—Frank Bidart

Commentary

 

“Borges and I” by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges offers, according to Frank Bidart, the seductive view that the “self who makes literature” is Borges who “falsifies and exaggerates,” while the essential self, the “I,” “must go on living so that Borges may continue to fashion literature.” Frank Bidart, who calls himself Frank in this prose poem, rejects this stark dichotomy of self and artist, though he winks at us by adding that the opposite of all assertions “beneath the moon” are true.  Frank says that he is changing his essential self—the “I”—as he writes, just as Sherlock Holmes becomes not a different self but his essential self as he solves cases. There is “no other way” to make a self than by doing and creating which is the cracked mirror through which we discover who we are.  He admits that art and life are not the same—sometimes that mirror gets pretty cracked as the life and art veer away from each other, and we are pulled from our essential selves by the tug of pre-existing forms of art and the influence of other artists, but as we fill them we change both them and our essential selves.  Frank’s metaphor for the escape route of the self through the artifice of poetry is “prose with much blank white space” which is the form his prose poem takes, and really the form that all writing takes.

 

—THE

 

from “, Even”

in Zone 3

by Dan Beachy-Quick

 

“Dan Beachy-Quick walks through the Philadelphia Museum of Art—past paintings of shepherds and Christ, past images of babies falling through a cave and past a drawing of Achilles’ shield—to his ‘own favorite hell.’”—THE

 

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even is a notoriously mysterious art installation, but  Dan Beachy-Quick takes on the challenge of writing about it in his personal essay “, Even” published by Zone 3 magazine.   Zone 3 is a home for experimental nonfiction that “prizes range.”  As Amy Wright, the nonfiction editor, explains, the magazine seeks nonfiction that is “a conversation between a number of disparate voices—directly, as in interviews with artists and writers, and indirectly, in subtexts that arise in juxtaposition.”  She imagines her journal as a vehicle with “wide rectangular windows through which readers can glimpse African track teams running drills, Salt Lake City film goers on their way to a festival, an outdoor quilt exhibition in Pennsylvania, an opossum rooting for worms in a compost heap.”

 

Certainly the Paragraph of the Week written by  Dan Beachy-Quick and taken from the essay ", Even" fits the bill drawing on various writers and artists to create a version of eternal torment.  Beachy-Quick is the author of six books of poetry, North True South Bright (2003), Spell (2004), Mulberry (2006), This Nest, Swift Passerine (2009), Circle's Apprentice (2011), and Of Silence and Song.  He is also the author of a book of interlinked meditations on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, titled A Whaler’s Dictionary (2008), and a collection of essays, meditations, and fairy tales, Wonderful Investigations (2012).You can read the complete ", Even" at Zone 3 and see an image of the Duchamp artwork here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Not every hell is a dismal hole. You can visit other versions more easily. Just walk up the museum steps. You need no Virgil, just the gallery map. Go past the shepherds in the green fields. Past each Christ on the walls. Past the babies tumbling down a grotto like a river made of birth itself. Past Achilles’ shield made of crayon and oil and pencil marks. There you will find my favorite hell, made of glass, so shyly reflective, you look through yourself as you look through it, a bride hovering in the air, and below her, the bachelors who after her lust, hovering in nothing, too.

—Dan Beachy-Quick

Commentary

 

Dan Beachy-Quick walks through the Philadelphia Museum of Art—past paintings of shepherds and Christ, past images of babies falling through a cave and past a drawing of Achilles’ shield—to his “own favorite hell.” It is a nine-foot installation on the subject of lust by Marcel Duchamp called The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. It consists of oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust on two glass panels. The top panel is the bride’s domain where an insect-like body dangles from a cloud forming along the top.  Below is the bachelors’ apparatus with nine earth-tone suits suspended by an elaborate machine above a chocolate grinder. Beachy-Quick  describes it as a “delay in glass,” the two worlds separated so that the bride hangs above as the men below grind away forever in their lust. The dust that “gathered on it for many months” has overtones of death, as well, and Duchamp himself called it a “cemetery.” The artwork—separated from the viewer by cracked glass—disengages all but the sense of sight: “Then you see yourself seeing in ways in which you never hear yourself hear,”  writes Beachy-Quick. Any sound you hear “echoes in the art cave” of the mind. As a viewer you are implicated in this hell because when you approach the glass “so shyly reflective” you “look through yourself as you look through it.” Above all, it is a sterile trap. The bride “rejects the amorous overtures…warmly, not chastely,” the distance between her and her lovers made more agonizing by the awareness that she is desirous as well. The bachelors have been “enveloped, alongside their regrets,” Duchamp explained, in a mirrored world to “the point of their being hallucinated rather onanistically.” As he pondered the mysterious images Beachy-Quick himself became aroused, but remains unsatisfied because he could not fathom the bride’s desires: “her dream, her stars, her milky way—I wasn’t able to understand.” It is the hell of unconsummated desire.

—THE

 
 

from Walking Home Ground:

In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth

by Robert Root

 

“It's a bit like having Virgil leading us humbly but firmly along patiently showing us how to make the places where we live a home ground too.”—THE

 

Robert Root has written a new book—his twentieth!—on his attempt to make his new home in Waukesha Wisconsin his home ground.  Walking Home Ground:  In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth is the work of a writer who has mastered the craft of nonfiction prose in general and writing about place in particular, and I would like to devote five weeks of The Humble Essayist to it  For this week’s feature, I chose a paragraph from the prologue and wrote a commentary about it as usual.  During the next three weeks I plan to pair a paragraph from each of Bob’s fellow walkers—Muir, Leopold, and Derleth—with a paragraph of commentary from Bob, and finally I will end with a parting commentary of my own from the second half of his book.  A month of Root—with a lagniappe!

 

We did something similar with David Gessner’s All the Wild that Remains in which I devoted a paragraph to Gessner and then for three more weeks ran paragraphs by Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, and Wallace Stegner with my commentaries.  In many ways Gessner's pursuit of writers in the West is a companion piece to Bob's attempt to follow in the footsteps of Midwestern authors, and you can see the similarities by going to Fall 2015 Archives.

 

In the end, Bob’s book is an exploration of the meaning of place—of making it a home by peeling back the layers of significance that over time the land acquires.  So I would like for the next month at The Humble Essayist to follow Bob Root as he follows these writers deep into home ground watching those layers of meaning reveal themselves, and, of course, I hope you will follow along, too.—THE

 

The Paragraph of the Week

 

The bottomlands along the river and the ridges and hollows of the forest have made me alert to similar terrain wherever we drive in Wisconsin. In the middle of an unfamiliar subdivision, a dip in the road will open up into a long patch of wetlands; a sharp rise will make the steep slope of a moraine apparent; oaks will loom above the shoulders. These brief echoes of my local terrain remind me that, for all my walking in the park, I haven't left the path enough, reached the river across the wetlands, descended slopes into kettles where no trails lead, climbed pathless slopes where the summit is obscured by trees. I haven't paid enough attention; I haven't applied what I've learned about adapting and connecting to the land.

—Robert Root

Commentary

In this paragraph from Walking Home Ground Robert Root scolds himself for not paying enough attention to his new home ground in Wisconsin.  Having left behind Michigan and Colorado, both places he had written about before, he has returned closer to where he grew up, planning to settle into his “final home.”  What he realizes is that he cannot settle in and be at home until gets off the path of the trail near his condo and “ventures forth”  exploring the wetlands, rivers, and pathless slopes of his new state.  As usual he will explore, notebook at the ready, getting first-hand experience of the Wisconsin landscape.  Along the way he will, as he has done in the past, be accompanied by other authors who explored and wrote about the same terrain—John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and August Derleth—and he concludes the journey by exploring the Ice Age Trail and Fox River enriching his understanding of the place where he lives.   What I admire in the book is the sureness of the prose, the amount of knowledge about nature that Bob has fully made his own after a lifetime of writing about place, and, above all, his willingness to admit what he doesn’t know (about the subtle differences between fens and bogs for instance) as a way of letting us learn with him.  It is a comfort, as well, to hear him chide himself for not living up to his own expectations.  It's a bit like having Virgil leading us humbly but firmly along patiently showing us how to make the places where we live a home ground too.

—THE

from The Story of My Boyhood and Youth

by John Muir

in Walking Home Ground: In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth

by Robert Root

 

“Of all the great singers that sweeten Wisconsin one of the best known and best loved is the brown thrush or thrasher, strong and able without being familiar, and easily seen and heard.”—John Muir

 

This is the second installment from Robert Root’s new book Walking Home Ground:  In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth.  Bob’s book is an exploration of the meaning of place—of making it a home by peeling back the layers of significance that over time the land acquires, and Bob's place is is home in Wisconsin.  Last week I chose a paragraph from the prologue and wrote a commentary about it as usual.  This week I choose a paragraph from John Muir’s childhood chronicle, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth that is quoted in Bob’s book.  For the next two weeks I plan to pair Bob’s commentary with a paragraph from two other writers of place—Aldo Leopold, and August Derleth--who led Bob to a deeper understanding of his home ground.  Finally I will end with a parting commentary of my own about a paragraph from the second section of Bob’s book in which he walks The Ice Age Trail and Fox River.  As Bob follows his guides, we can tag along.

 

In this week's feature Muir writes about my state bird, the brown thrasher, and Bob uses that as an excuse to bring in some of the wonderful ways Muir tried to capture bird sounds in other books during his journeys.  Muir does have a gift for describing these sounds in fresh language and, as Bob puts it, transporting himself to the natural world and taking us with him.—THE

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Of all the great singers that sweeten Wisconsin one of the best known and best loved is the brown thrush or thrasher, strong and able without being familiar, and easily seen and heard. Rosy purple evenings after thunder-showers are the favorite song-times, when the winds have died away and the steaming ground and the leaves and flowers fill the air with fragrance. Then the male makes haste to the topmost spray of an oak tree and sings loud and clear with delightful enthusiasm until sundown, mostly I suppose for his mate sitting on the precious eggs in a brush heap.

—John Muir

Commentary

 

In that brief passage Muir celebrates the bird while simultaneously teaching us something distinctive about it, capturing the youthful excitement of discovery his boyhood study of it must have invoked. In most of the passages on individual birds we find not only information on the habits and behavior of the birds—the prairie chickens "strutted about with queer gestures something like turkey gobblers, uttering strange loud, rounded, drumming calls,—boom! boom! boom! interrupted by choking sounds"; "the lonely cry of the loon" sounded as "one of the wildest and most striking of all wilderness sounds, a strange, sad, mournful, unearthly cry, half laughing, half wailing"—but also anecdotes about his own memories of them. He tells of wounding a loon and taking it home where it has a memorable encounter with the housecat, of his brother Daniel catching a prairie chicken as she sat on her nest, of Indians hunting ducks and gathering wild rice in the marshes. In this way he transports himself back into his youthful witnessing of the natural world and, in the process, transports the reader there as well.

—Robert Root

 

© 2014 The Humble Essayist

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