This Morning the Writing Cafe is Serving…

Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton’s wonderful autumnal poem, Her Kind. The recommended menu while reading this poem? Pumpkin bread and hot apple cider. (Tea is an acceptable substitute for the apple cider.)

If you’d like to assume the persona of the writer, then you’ll have to put on a slash of lipstick. Your menu would then be a cigarette and a glass of scotch. Don’t be Sexton for too long, though. It was a lot of work being her and it did not end well. But while she was able, she managed to transform the nightmare of mental illness into art. And that is something to be celebrated this autumn morning.

If you’d like to hear Sexton read this poem, you can do that at the Academy of American Poets website. And if you’d like to know more about Sexton, Diane Middlebrook’s excellent biography is a good place to start. The biography made a little bit of a splash when it first came out because it’s based in part on tapes Sexton’s analyst made of their sessions. It’s a compulsively readable book. And Her Kind is a wonderful, accessible poem made to be read out loud.

Her Kind, Anne Sexton

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

(Without question, because of its chill factor and wildness, this poem is on my list of 100 favorite poems. I’m now up to 5 of 100. Maybe getting up to 25 or so would be a good winter project.)

Would YOU Pay $192.50 For This Post?

I read this morning in the Sunday New York Times that people (make that students who have taken leave of their senses) will actually pay over one hundred dollars for a really badly written essay on, say, James Joyce’s great short story The Dead. Well, I’m writing something about The Dead this afternoon, so how about it?

Trouble is, I can’t remember exactly how you go about writing one of those essays, it’s been that long since I’ve done it. In fact, before I arrived at college, I’d never actually written an essay over two pages. Faced with The Iliad, I decided to look up every passage about Odysseus and string them together and write little transitional sentences between them until I got to five pages and, hopefully, that would be considered an essay.

It was not. I got a B and was terribly sad, having never actually received a grade that low in English, a subject I’d been told I was good at. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the professor’s comments on this, or the next ten B papers I wrote using exactly the same method, because I was so horrified that I couldn’t do better. One of my regrets in life, and something I’m teaching my children not to do, is that I didn’t listen to his efforts to help me.

Two years later, an even longer string of bemused B’s behind me (these are apparently English sentences, but I have no idea what you’re saying, I can’t possibly read another one of these and, anyway, who let YOU in?), a frustrated T.A. (I still remember him, his name was Drew Clark and he was a dear. I hope he got a terrific job at some beautiful small New England college and has tenure and is treated really well by everyone) said to me after I’d asked for a six year extension on my paper about Twelfth Night: it would help if you begin by asking yourself a question like, Why is there so much sadness in this comedy? The essay is the answer to your question. There is a lot more to it than that, and not all essays are about explicating an inquiry, but this was the prodding I needed to turn an essay into an act of critical thinking rather than continue to simply retype the great writing of people other than myself.

I eventually began to get better grades, although I never did figure out how to talk about books in seminars. Entire 90 minute periods would go by and all I’d accomplish was a page of doodled made-up names and backstories for my classmates (Sartre was sleeping with Garbo: he ignored her when they were in public)– or a complex series of marks intended to tabulate my fellow students’ idiocy or sexiness or how many times they’d worn that shirt to the seminar before.

With that bit of background, which should dissuade you from buying an essay from me, I’d like to begin by saying that I don’t actually have any questions to ask about The Dead. Instead, I just want to talk a little bit about how much Joyce’s story reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s work, and how surprised I was by that because I thought she didn’t like Joyce very much. Still, she apparently liked him enough to imitate him. Come to think of it, this might be one of those compare and contrast essays, the kind people do shell out good money for. (I wouldn’t try to plagiarize it, because BikeProf will surely catch you and you will be in a lot of trouble which wouldn’t be worth it because it’s unlikely to get you much more than a B- and it will also not be the required five pages, and you’re not allowed to do the meta-essay thing at the beginning like I did.)

I begin with Woolf, who wrote in her diary (in August, 1922 to be exact) that she liked the first 200 pages of Ulysses. She describe herself as “amused, stimulated, charmed.” But, not long after that, she declares herself “puzzled, bored, irritated, disillusioned.” In the end, she decided that Joyce’s masterpiece was “an illiterate, underbred book . . . of a self taught working man.” Take that modernist master, you are UNDERBRED. (I’m sorry that won’t work here in the U.S. of A., where everyone is underbred.)

The Dead, which Joyce wrote when he was still in his twenties and had not yet struck out in quite the wild modernist direction he’d go in Ulysses, is a story that reminded me very much of To the Lighthouse, so much so that I had to keep reminding myself I was reading the illiterate underbred Joyce, rather than the elegant, upper class Woolf. It’s true that the social milieu of The Dead is quite different from that you find in Woolf: Joyce’s people being Irish and mainly Catholic, a mixed lot of genteel and not quite; Woolf’s being much more socially and intellectually aristocratic. But at the heart of both The Dead and To the Lighthouse are parties and then nature — and a meditation on one of the essential mysteries of being human which is that as much as we wish to be connected, we are separate, or maybe not.

In To the Lighthouse, there is the beautiful moment with the beef en daube, which follows an extended meditation on the many ways in which Mrs. Ramsey’s dinner guests are not at all connected. But then something happens:

“Everything seemed possible. Everything seemed right. Just now (but this cannot last, she thought, dissociating herself from the moment while they were all talking about boots) just now she had reached security; she hovered like a hawk suspended; like a flag floated in an element of joy which filled every nerve of her body fully and sweetly, not noisily, solemnly rather, for it arose, she thought, looking at them all eating there, from husband and children and friends; all of which rising in this profound stillness (she was helping William Bankes to one very small piece more, and peered into the depths of the earthenware pot) seemed now for no special reason to stay there like a smoke, like a fume rising upwards, holding them safe together. Nothing need be said; nothing could be said. There it was, all round them. It partook, she felt, carefully helping Mr Bankes to a specially tender piece, of eternity; as she had already felt about something different once before that afternoon; there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glanced at the window with its ripple of reflected lights) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures.”

“Yes,” she assured William Bankes, “there is plenty for everybody.”

Several pages later, Mrs. Ramsey, her daughter Prue, and her son Andrew all die in heartbreakingly casual asides. Time passes in that great second book of To The Lighthouse (the one so many people hate), and the forces of time (the wind, the rain, heat, small animals) begin to take apart Mrs. Ramsey’s world.

In The Dead, the party is seen mostly through the eyes of Gabriel, a professor, the favorite nephew of his two elderly, musical aunts who are the hostesses of the party. What I liked most about the party was how generous and amiable it is, just the party you’d expect would be given by two women who “though their life was modest they believed in eating well; the best of everything: diamond bone sirloins, three-shilling tea and the best bottled stout.” I don’t know what three-shilling tea is, but I liked the sound of it.

Despite how amiable the party is, Gabriel is seen as at odds with himself, uneasy with other people. As he prepares to give his toast, something he does every year at this party, Gabriel leans against the table, his fingers trembling (he’s a little nervous). “Meeting a row of upturned faces he raised his eyes to the chandelier. The piano was playing a waltz tune and he could hear the skirts sweeping against the drawing-room door. People, perhaps were standing in the snow on the quay outside, gazing up at the lighted windows and listening to the waltz music. The air was pure there. In the distance lay the park where the trees were weighted with snow. The Wellington Monument wore a gleaming cap of snow that flashed westward over the white field of Fifteen Acres. He began….” At this moment of connection, we see him moving away from the people in the room, something he’s been doing all night.

And then, later, as he readies himself to leave, Gabriel looks up the staircase and sees his wife. “She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. . . . He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.”

The rest of the story then goes on to explore the gulf between Gabriel and his wife — the ordinary enough distance between all people — that we have loved others, that we do not always want the same thing.

But, in the end, there is a vision of what unifies all of us. It’s not beef en daube, or civilization. It’s death.  The passage is so beautiful that I end with it. I’m not in college anymore, and I don’t have to say anything else, although I would like to say that if you compare and contrast James Joyce and Virginia Woolf you will discover that it’s quite likely, from how lovely the passages about eating and parties are, that both of them got to go to a lot of dinner parties where they actually had a pretty good time, and quite a few where they wished they could be outside, walking in the snow or looking out across the water at the lighthouse or, at least, writing about it.

And here is the end of The Dead, in case you’ve never read it:

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Up in Smoke, Up in the Air

Tonight, when I went online to find the first of five spooky stories to read, my power cord burst into flames.  Honestly.  That’s certainly never happened before.  (And yes, it’s an iMac G4, and yes, I just got an email yesterday saying the battery needs to be replaced because of a spontaneous combustion issue, but I must say there was no mention of the power cord.  It’s probably my own fault.  I had been noticing that the power cord didn’t always seem to deliver power to the computer unless you yanked on it a little.  How that became a fire, though, is beyond me.) 

This was all a little unnerving, if  pretty exciting, because we’ve never had a fire in our house before, other than the kind you make in the fireplace.  Several people were disappointed that the fire went out the instant I stepped on my power cord, fortunately using my shoe to extinguish it rather than my bare foot.  They wanted to watch some stuff  burn, I guess. 

Eventually, everyone settled down, having carefully examined the cord and made jokes about their smokin’ mom.  And then, the children in bed, I snuck downstairs to their computer, my own obviously now out of commission until I can get myself to the apple store for a new power cord and a new battery.  And I got right back to it.  It will take more than a little fire to keep me away from a good story. 

I dialed up the Project Gutenberg version of Guy de Maupassant’s The Trip of Le Horla.  Okay, first I ate a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone to calm my nerves.  I’ll tell you I was delighted to learn that the medium for this particular story is air and sea and land and not fire, unless you count a few references to forges which I have to admit freaked me out a little.  I guess I must have been more unnerved than I knew, because well after I read the story and wrote this post, I realized the actual story litlove recommended was La Horla, probably truly scary and horrific, since it’s written from the point of view of a syphilitic.  Still, I loved what I read and it’s far too late to write a second post and, anyway, the story I did read, while not scary in the least, was pretty terrific.  So, I’m  beginning the spooky project with a little conflagration, a failure to follow directions, but at least I’m posting.  And shouldn’t that count for something?

Anyway:  Le Horla is a balloon, a stylish nautical French balloon, piloted by a fanatic balloonist.  And the story is the tale of a balloon voyage.  A little shaken from my fire experience, and because I was under the impression the entire time I read the story that there was something scary about it, I paid a lot of attention to what that balloon was voyaging over.  A forge isn’t something you want to descend into.  I will tell you now, that doesn’t happen.

What I will tell you, though, is that I am in love with Guy de Maupassant.  Let’s get that right out there, shall we?  I want to live in his Paris, and I want to read everything he’s ever written.  It is, tonight, the greatest tragedy of my life that I don’t read French and will have to see him through the veil of someone’s translation.  But I’ll take it.  He is that good.  Here’s why:

  • I realized that although any copyright on de Maupassant’s work has long expired, the same is probably not true of translations and, thus, the one I was reading on Project Gutenberg seemed very rough, most interested in the literal sense of the story and less in the smoothness of the writing.  Possibly because it was the yeoman-like work of a Project Gutenberg volunteer, bless him or her.  It took me several paragraphs to get used to the translation, but then it receded into the background.
  • And then I realized the entire story was being told in the present tense by the unnamed narrator.  Although I don’t like this technique when it’s used in contemporary fiction, it worked beautifully here because it brought me right into the story.
  • Having pretty quickly gotten past the two things I thought might ruin everything, I realized that the story I was reading is a marvelous, breathtaking, transcendent description of a balloon trip across France and I didn’t want it to end.  I can’t quote examples, but I’m guessing in the French or in a good translation it’s remarkably beautiful because even in the text I read I was transported, as it were.
  • The narration really takes off when the balloon takes off, and the narrator somehow manages to give us a sense of how extraordinary it is to be above the earth:  so otherworldly that ordinary rules give way, as though the balloon and its occupants had entered into another dimension.  My favorite thing about the journey was how the men in the balloon could hear the sounds of the world far below them, and it was children’s’ voices that were the clearest.
  • There is very little human interaction.  The narrator seems to spend most of the trip looking around him and telling us what he sees.  The arc of the story is, almost entirely, the ascent, the ride (up, down, over France, its cities, twisting rivers, forges, farms, and then somehow the balloon and the moon are the only two things in the sky) and the descent.  The balloonists are in the background:  the captain loves what he is doing.  The narrator hangs over the basket.
  • Toward the end of the story, you’re suddenly terribly aware of the balloon’s rush toward the earth and you get some idea that there’s something down there the balloonists aren’t aware of — something as vast as the air, but not as welcoming — possibly the sea.  But then, the balloon lands in a field, and all is well.
  • Until you read the final few lines and you realize all was not, maybe, well for the captain of this balloon.  And I’ll leave it to you to find out what that was. 

Not scary.  Transporting, out of  body, beautiful, memorable.  A trip I’d be happy to take again.  Did I mention I’m in love with Guy de Maupassant?  Yes, well, I am.  I will not use a fire metaphor to tell you how that works, but I am going to the internet now to find out which translation I should be reading of everything he’s written, including the scary story I was supposed to read.  And the power cord had better hold up while I’m doing it.