"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

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Like an Ant

The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon
by Sir Edward John Poynter (1836 - 1919)

"Learn how to live
a joyful and constructive life in this world,
like ants. . . . The secret of a meaningful life
is not in the long-gone throne of Solomon and the like."

Sa'eb Tabrizi (1601 - 77)

Sa'eb's reference to Solomon's "long-gone throne" reminds me of the statue of Ozymandias:
" . . . Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies . . .
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my words ye Mighty and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822)

The kingdoms of Solomon and Ozymandias did not endure, their vast achievements dwarfed by an ant and a grain of sand. Padgett Powell, author of The Interrogative Mood presents a series of existential questions concerning this same dilemma of time, size and perspective. His inquiries suggest that we may have placed ourselves too high above the ant, especially when it comes to grasping the secrets of the universe:

"Is the human individual more important
than the individual ant, and if so by a factor,
what would you say, of what?" (10)

"Will you sing with me now: Oh let us be heroes,
let us have emotions pure or not pure be men
or not men, let us buzz and rumble the hill and
dale of daily insignificance just as confidently,
just as threateningly, just as humbly in its
cute red velour as does the velvet ant?" (34)

"Is it really tenable that a person has a a soul,
whether he has a cell phone or not,
and a grasshopper does not?" (160)

[See my book blog for more insightful questions from
The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell (b 1952)]

I like the way the lines of this painting by Leonard Orr
can be seen to resemble the elaborate architecture
of an underground ant colony!

Plaster cast reconstruction of an ant nest,
as illustrated in Wikipedia

I turned to Orr's paintings, confident that I would find something to illustrate ant - ness (as in, ant colony, ant hill, ant nest, ant industriousness, and so forth). Len generously responded: "If my painting manages to convey antness (the quidditas of ant, as Stephen Dedalus perhaps said), I am pleased."
"Although not immediately obvious,
there are quite a few people hiding here it seems."
~ facebook comment to Leonard Orr from Andrea Livingston ~

I decided on this painting, in part because of the accompanying commentary. Livingston's remark fits right in with the question of how different, really, are humans from ants. When I mentioned that I also wanted to include the passage about termites from Samuel Beckett's novel Watt, Len was one step ahead of me:
"For the only way one can speak of nothing
is to speak of it as though it were something,
just as the only way one can speak of God is to
speak of him as though he were a man,
which to be sure he was, in a sense, for a time,
and as the only way one can speak of man,
even our anthropologists have realized that,
is to speak of him as though he were a termite."

Samuel Beckett (1906 - 89)

In the following poems, it is the family dog whose superior comprehension of the meaning of life edges out any knowledge that we mere humans might possess:

from Her Grave
Does the hummingbird think he himself invented his crimson throat?
He is wiser than that, I think. . . .

Do the cranes crying out in the high clouds
think it is all their own music?

A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house, but you
do not therefore own her as yo do not own the rain, or the
trees, or the laws which pertain to them.

Does the bear wandering in the autumn up the side of the hill
think all by herself she has imagined the refuge and the refreshment
of her long slumber?

A dog can never tell you what she knows from the
smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know
almost nothing.

Mary Oliver (b 1935)
from New and Selected Poems (14 - 16)

Trickle Up?
Does human evolution have a future?
Even our dog is troubled by the limited
significance of our presence. He whines
at the door wanting to get out.

Ernest Sandeen (1908 - 1997)
from the Collected Poems (278)

Does the bear wandering in the autumn up the side of the hill
think all by herself she has imagined the refuge and the refreshment
of her long slumber?
~ Mary Oliver ~
Beautiful watercolor evocation
of autumn and bear - ness

Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, December 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

There on the Edge of Autumn

"I am a leaf!"

All of today's connections are drawn from the writing and photography of my friend Jan Donley. References to her work have appeared several times on this blog (and The Quotidian Kit) right from the very beginning.* It was Jan who said, "September always smelled different from August. It just did." Likewise, October smells different from September; and November from October. As my son Sam said earlier today, "It smells good out here; it smells cold!" Yes -- it smells like November!

Excerpts from Jan's Journal

Gray / 21 November 2010

The bare trees covered the hillside, and from a distance, it looked as if the hill was covered in fur. Funny that way—how hard branches soften. . . .

The sun shone down from the western sky and pieces of light through the branches made stripes along the shaded ground.

[Out for a walk with her dog Gray] She could see her breath and Gray’s too as he panted along. They stopped at the edge of a drop, too steep to walk down. The sun disappeared behind a cloud, and the air turned colder. She grabbed Gray up into her arms and took in the warmth of his coat against her bare face. He squirmed to be set free. So she put him back down and squatted next to him—there on the edge of autumn looking out toward winter.

Alone / 21 October 2010

Opal looked out the window. A gray overcast filled the sky. Leaves hung on trees—orange, yellow, red. She watched one fall. It twirled and almost seemed to shine against the dark day.

She put on her red jacket and her brown shoes.

“I’m going outside!” she called, knowing that Aunt Frances may or may not hear her. Aunt Frances had her own worries, and sometimes Opal felt alone.

She opened the front door and ventured down the stoop steps and onto the grass, covered with leaves that rattled under her feet.

She made her way onto the sidewalk—also leaf-covered. She shuffled through the leaves and watched as their colors tumbled over her shoes. They crackled and popped. The sound made Opal laugh.

Some leaves fell from limbs and other swirled up from the ground.

It was just a fall day. Opal knew that. Days come and go, Opal thought.

But something in the swirling and the falling made her stop.

She twirled herself one, two, three times.

“I am a leaf,” she called to the sky, to the trees, to the day.

She ran along the sidewalk, her red coat glimmering on that gray day.

She chanted, “I am a leaf” down the block and across the wide street to the park with the pond and the ducks and the caw cawing crows.

It was enough for the moment, to be one of many swirling through the day.

(Look closely! See the bench?)

And now some excerpts from Jan's short story "Blind"
Not necessarily an autumnal story,
but a back - to - school story,
so it must be Fall!

Sometimes you look up at the sun and you get blinded. You put your hand up as a shield, and you have sight again, but it’s kind of awkward to keep your hand there like that. And sometimes, you meet someone who blinds you, and even when you try to really see that person, it’s awkward. So you put your head down or look the other way. That’s how it was with Caroline.

She blinded me. . . .

The narrator here is Franny, trying to understand the complicated feelings she has for her classmate Caroline. One of my favorite elements of the story is their homework session:

“You really get these poems, don’t you?” And the truth was, I did. I could read a poem and figure out the puzzle of it faster than my mom could do the Daily Jumble in the Gazette.

For homework, we had to read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot. Mr. Zellner, our English teacher, got all teary-eyed when he talked to us about it. He carried the book around the classroom and read parts aloud:

“For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.”

I looked around and most everyone, including Caroline, was yawning or staring out the window. Me, I was listening.

Mr. Zellner asked, “What do you think Eliot is trying to convey when he writes the line, ‘It is impossible to say just what I mean?’”

I raised my hand. . . .

“Well.” I looked down at the words in the poem. “He has all these memories bottled up. He wants them to mean something, but he’s not sure they mean anything at all.”
“You got all of that out of one line?” Caroline asked.

“It’s poetry,” Mr. Zellner said, as if that answered everything. He read some more of the poem:

“I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.”

"Mermaids . . . .” Caroline stared at the page, and then she looked up at me. “Why mermaids?”

“It’s a metaphor,” I said.

Mr. Zellner smiled really big. “Yes! Yes! That’s right. Did everyone hear Frances?”

I wished he would call me Franny; but for some reason, teachers liked to use full names.

Mr. Zellner continued, “Our poet, Mr. Eliot, is using the mermaid’s song as a metaphor for missed opportunities, for loss, for—” Mr. Zellner stopped. He looked around the room— “what we wish we had done. Haven’t you all had moments when you wished you had done something different? The poem is about regret.”

“Yeah,” Caroline said. “I think I get it. Thanks to Franny.”


I love the way Jan has incorporated literary analysis right into the body of the story. Everything she says here about "Prufrock" is exactly what I've tried to tell my students in the past and what I told Ben & Sam when (luckily!) they were each assigned to read this poem in high school. [Click to hear T. S. Eliot himself recite.]

I also like the way that when it comes to poetry, Franny just knows. I earned a similar credential when discussing Jane Hamilton's novel A Map of the World in one of my long ago book groups. There is a sad, sad scene in the book when Alice's family kind of accidentally (not maliciously but simply because they don't understand what it is or how important) throw away her map of the world. When I asked my fellow readers if they had reached that scene yet, they weren't sure, so I pointed it out to them, since to me it was such a crucial turning point, not to mention that it totally illuminates the title of the book. Upon a second reading, I had to admit that no where is it specifically stated: "No! Wait! Stop! The family is throwing her map away!" Yet, when the group asked me, how I knew -- well, I just know!

Playing on the theme of "Blind," Jan writes that even Mr. Zellner "squinted a little" not to mention that he gets "all teary-eyed" when reading "Prufrock!" Franny at first averts her eyes out of shyness but later "nodded into the bright sun" of Caroline; and Caroline takes a moment just to look at the sky, nothing more, nothing less. The story concludes with the two young women sitting on a park bench in the late afternoon autumn sun, discussing the difficulty of making direct eye contact, the varying degrees of vegetarianism, and their upcoming Emily Dickinson assignment. Then, as Emily would surely have it:

"We stayed on the bench till the sun dropped.

In the dark it was so much easier to see."

View from the Bench

A few more Connections:

1. Jan enjoyed it awhile back when I told her that Franny's literary expertise reminded me -- in a good way of course! -- of Velma in Scooby-Doo. You know, that episode in which Daphne asks her, "Velma, do you have a book for every occasion?" And Velma replies, "Actually, yes." Which, in turn, brings to mind the question I was asked in college when I worked on the literary magazine: "Do you have a poem for every poem?" And, like Velma, I just had to say, "Actually, yes." Jan wrote back to me: "I am especially happy about your Scooby-Doo Reference. Diane loves her Scooby-Doo, and it's so much fun to have that allusion in the midst of Eliot and Hamilton, etc."

Scooby and the Gang

2. In other popular culture, Jan's description of Franny and Caroline sitting at the park reminds me of the leafy, sunny scene in the movie Harriet the Spy when the best friends all roll down the hill in the park:

Harriet and Friends

3. Franny puzzles over a comment that Caroline makes about various boys in their class -- "He wants me" -- and asks her to explain, “What does that feel like?”
“What does what feel like?” Caroline asked.
“Being wanted. What does it feel like to be wanted?”
“You’re kidding me, right?” . . .
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m kidding.” But I wasn’t.

This exchange made me think of a "fun fact" about the casting of The Graduate: Robert Redford was considered for the role of Benjamin before Dustin Hoffman. But Redford disqualified himself when the directors told him that the character had to portray a sense of defeat -- like being turned down for a date on a Friday night. And Redford said something like, "Huh? What do you mean?"

Similarly in the musical Jersey Boys the three macho Seasons don't want to sing the song "Walk Like a Man," written by the fourth, more "emo" Season (Bob Gaudio, in real life). The three dudes are complaining that it makes no sense -- "What do you mean, like a man instead of a woman? Walk like a girl?" Gaudio says, "No, like a man instead of boy. It's about growing up, standing up for yourself, not being twisted around someone else's little finger." The others just gawk at him uncomprehending. What? Apparently they're just not the type to ever have been twisted around anyone's little finger. What does that feel like?

4. Additional Favorite Journal Entries that I would recommend:
Washington Street (see text below, in "Comments")
The rain fell on yellow leaves

* 5. Previous Jan Donley Posts on my blogs:
Lucky Rock
Lost & Found
9 / 11 Retrospective [also on Quotidian Kit]
Dagmar's Birthday [also on Quotidian Kit]
Everyone Loves Stories

Sleight of Hand
The Little Door
Savor September!
Happy Birthday Coyote!

6. A bit more "Prufrock"

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, November 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading