"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Burnt Sienna

ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUS

Here I am sitting atop my first car, a 1979 Dodge Omni that I purchased while in grad school. It was a stupid little car, probably not very safe, though trustworthy enough. It really didn't have any special qualities to recommend it, but one thing that I grew to appreciate was the paint job--that goofy two-tone, bronze on the top brown on the bottom, that Dodge used for several years on some of its models.

A few weeks after getting the car, I happened to see the terrific movie Heartburn, starring the ever eloquent Meryl Streep and that old coot Jack Nicholson. In an early scene from the happier days, they discuss interior design, color schemes, and childhood crayon choices with some friends. Here's the same passage as it appears in the book (hilarious reading). When asked about the color taupe, Arthur shakes his head:

"I've always been terrible at colors," he said. "It comes from having grown up with the single-row box of crayons instead of the big box. If I'd had the big box, I would now know taupe and cerise and ecru. Instead, all I know is burnt sienna. And what good does it do me? Never once have I heard anything described as burnt sienna. Never once have I heard anyone say, 'Follow that burnt sienna car.'"

"I think there's a column in this," said Mark (135).


Of course, anyone who ever colored anything knows that a box of 8 crayons would never include burnt sienna. In order to get that color, you would need a box of at least 16, maybe even 24! Still, I found the conversation amusing and right then and there decided to be the woman in the burnt sienna Omni. I figured it was a fairly accurate description since the brown and the bronze averaged together might have produced something along the lines of burnt sienna. So that's how I answered anyone who asked about my new car, what I wrote on insurance forms and parking permits that requested the color of the car. It was a fun little private joke while it lasted. I was proud to drive a car that embodied the droll humor of Heartburn, and if you had ever wanted to track me down, you could have been the one to say, "Follow that burnt sienna car."

Yes, I had that car (and now I have the column)!

I still owned the Omni when I met Gerry, but I don't think it was the dual-toned burnt sienna that won him over . . . no, it was my irresistible bread pudding recipe, taken straight from the pages of Nora Ephron's novel. She refers to it as "caramelized mush" (133). Yummy!

Try watching Heartburn if you've never seen it (dated but not hopelessly). The theme song, "Coming Around Again" by Carly Simon is lovely. If you have an hour, read the book. It will make you laugh. You'll find Rachel's recipe for Potatoes Anna easier than you might think and absolutely delicious!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Hope of a Nation

ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUS

The Hope of a Nation
Painted by James Haines in the 1920s

When I was a small girl, this picture, "The Hope of a Nation," hung on the wall in my grandparents' living room. I would stand before it mesmerized by mystery. Where was this place? Where was the river flowing? Where did it end? Then one day, I heard the grown-ups singing the equally (to me) mysterious final stanza of "Battle Hymn of the Republic": "In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me." Ah ha -- that was it! This was the "beauty of the lilies," the place "across the sea." Perhaps it was even the same place that we little kids sometimes sang about:

My body lies over the ocean,
my body lies over the sea;
my body lies over the ocean,
so bring back my body to me.

[see related post]

At the time, of course, I didn't know that the word was Bonnie; I knew nothing of British history or Scottish folksongs; but the transmigration of souls -- now there was something I could get a handle on.



Here's the picture,

hanging in my hallway,

Thanksgiving 2004






"We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel." This sad, beautiful, ironic sentence is one of my favorite in all the New Testament (click for an excellent sermon). It is spoken a few days after the crucifixion when two minor followers of Jesus are walking along the road to a town called Emmaus (even the sound of this place name seems so sadly poetic). They are joined by a stranger who asks them "Why so sad?" In answer, they recount the recent arrest and execution of Jesus, concluding in despair, "But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel." What they don't yet realize is that this stranger is the risen Christ.

That's how the story goes, but for me, this sentence has always seemed so appropriate to any number of our once and future leaders of whom we expected so much and who left us too soon -- King Arthur, Princess Diana, and those four American guys in the song:

"Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
I thought I saw him walkin' up over the hill,
With Abraham, Martin and John."


~ written by Dick Holler
~ sung by Dion
The Beauty of the Lilies

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Missouri Poets

A HOUSE WHERE ALL'S ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUS
"Fair Easter, Queen of all the days, of seasons, best, divinest!"
~ John of Damascus, 8th C ~

Yet another uncanny literary coincidence played itself out last month when I was looking through my old notebooks to see what inspiration I might find there. I came across a letter I had saved from my undergrad (1975 - 1979) professor Jim Barnes (who is now Poet Laureate of Oklahoma). In this note from 2003, he mentions the retirement of Jim Thomas, another professor and poet from those years at Northeast Missouri State (now called Truman State) University. I had not remained in contact with Jim T. as I had with Jim B. However, seeing this reference to him prompted me to google his name for current information, something I could have done--but had not--anytime during the past decade. I entered "Jim Thomas American Poet Missouri," and surprisingly / coincidentally, the first entry to appear was "Native American Authors: Jim Barnes" -- the other Jim!

So I omitted "American" and tried again with "Jim Thomas Poet Missouri." This search yielded a recent article (January 2009) by Missouri Poet Laureate Walter Bargen, commenting on the work of writers from around the state and featuring a poem by Jim Thomas entitled "Three - Dollar Bill." It was a delight to read, but even as I was savoring the exuberance of Jim's poetry and the rush of re-connection with my days in his classroom, my eye caught the lone reader comment, informing of Jim's death in late February, just a month after the article had been written, just 6 days previous to my taking the time to look him up on the internet.

First, I felt dismay at the irony of rediscovering his work only to find him gone from this world. Then I realized, No, it's because he died that I thought of him; that's how this Universe works sometimes.

"Three - Dollar Bill" is vintage Jim Thomas, a portrait of the artist as a second - grader, in which he recalls one of those early moments when it was revealed to him that his way of being in the world might not be quite the same as his classmates. My favorite, however, has always been the "The Quilt": " . . . new with recent patches / and old with originals . . . it doesn't look like much till you / Stand off to one side and squint."

POEMS

THE QUILT
by Jim Thomas

I spread it out again, noticing
the dominant pattern of killing
black, the warm juicy reds,
and all those other shades that tend
to trail off into gray:
hawks view of fields.

The ladies stitch the blocks together,
quilting away, their murmuring
filling the back porch
or church basement, biting thread
and tying off tufts.

My quilt is new with recent patches
and old with originals; it keeps
me warm, except where the holes are;
it doesn't look like much till you
stand off to one side and squint."


CHOCTAW CEMETERY
by Jim Barnes

Stones,
hand-hewn symbols
touching four winds.

Familiar glyphs:
ushi holitopa.*
The dates:
short years.

Pollen settles
down on quickened stones,

and from the east
a distant roll of thunder.

*Beloved son


Beloved Sons ~ World War I War Memorial
Little Crosby Church, Merseyside, England