Month: July 2014

The fire burns as the novel taught it how…

A great but nearly unknown poem by Wallace Stevens, see below. I’m reminded of its beginning because I was reading Eliot’s Little Gidding, with its (to me) unforgettable description of certain very bright days in mid-winter, which ends with “Where is the summer, the unimaginable / Zero summer?” The Stevens poem is called “The Novel” and it can be found in his collection, Auroras of Autumn (1950).

The Novel

The crows are flying above the foyer of summer.
The winds batter it. The water curls. The leaves
Return to their original illusion.

The sun stands like a Spaniard as he departs,
Stepping from the foyer of summer into that
Of the past, the rodomontadean emptiness.

Mother was afraid I should freeze in the Parisian hotels.
She had heard of the fate of an Argentine writer.         At night,
He would go to bed, cover himself with blankets –

Protruding from the pile of wool, a hand,
In a black glove, holds a novel by Camus. She begged
That I stay away.             These are the words of Jose….

He is sitting by the fidgets of a fire,
The first red winter, winter-red,
The late, least foyer in a qualm of cold.

How tranquil it was at vividest Varadero,
While the water kept running through the mouth of the speaker,
Saying: Olalla blanca en el blanco,

Lol-lolling the endlessness of poetry.
But here tranquility is what one thinks.
The fire burns as the novel taught it how.

The mirror melts and moulds itself and moves
And catches from nowhere brightly-burning breath.
It blows a glassy brightness on the fire

And makes flame flame and makes it bite the wood
And bite the hard-bite, barking as it bites.
The arrangement of the chairs is so and so,

Not as one would have arranged them for oneself,
But in the style of the novel, its tracing
Of an unfamiliar in the familiar room,

A retrato that is strong because it is like,
A second that grows first, a black unreal
In which a real lies hidden and alive.

Day’s arches are crumbling into the autumn night.
The fire falls a little and the book is done.
The stillness is the stillness of the mind.

Slowly the room grows dark.   It is odd about
That Argentine.      Only the real can be
Unreal today, be hidden and alive.

It is odd, too, how that Argentine is oneself,
Feeling the fear that creeps beneath the wool,
Lies on the breast and pierces into the heart,

Straight from the Arcadian imagination,
Its being beating heavily in the veins,
Its knowledge cold within one as one’s own;

And one trembles to be so understood and, at last,
To understand, as if to know became
The fatality of seeing things too well.


[A note on copyright: if justice prevailed the copyright to this poem, this book, would be expired by now; but US copyright law over the last thirty years has been written, re-written, revised and re-revised by The Disney Co., in order that no copyright of Disney’s — eg, Mickey Mouse — can ever expire. So this poem by the quite-long-dead Wallace Stevens is no doubt copyrighted by someone, somewhere. Likely a corporate entity. Therefore, let it be known: The Novel by Wallace Stevens has been used and reprinted here with great admiration and love, but without a shred of permission.]

Sleeping Girl Found in Empty House

The scene is a typical working bear’s house. Standing in it between dining room and living room, a distraught bear family, and three cops moving about the space slowly, looking at the many objects and arrangements once so familiar to the owners but now altered by these intrusions. The cops’ walkie-talkies issue various blasts and beeps.  There’s a mess including bowls of food on the dining table. One of the cops picks up a bowl between two fingers, looks at it, puts it down again.  At the far end of the space in the living room a  TV is on but silent, the remote on the floor in front of it.  The cop who appears to be in charge lifts his walkie-talkie, calls in.

Dispatch this is 17, over, he says

Go ahead 17, over.

Yeah, uh, dispatch we seem to have a father bear mother bear baby bear situation at 42 elmont, over, says the cop.

Roger 17, please stand by…..

Long pause.

Dispatch comes back: 17, do you have any information about a blond female in that area, over?

Cop looks at the father and mother bear. They shake their heads.

That’s negative dispatch, over.

Dispatch: Is it a two storey house, over?

That’s affirmative, over.

Dispatch: Sergeant recommends you search bedrooms, over.

Roger dispatch. Will do. Over.

Two cops go upstairs and come back in short order behind a handcuffed naked blond woman, small, tousled, defiant.  She’s a real blond, all notice.  The cops confer briefly with the lead cop, then push the blond woman out the front door. The mother bear has her hand over her mouth. The baby bear is staring intently at the lead cop’s gun, which is dangling near the baby bear’s face.  The father bear speaks briefly to the lead cop.

Where was she? he says.

She was in the kid’s room, the cop says. You’ll want to clean up in there. Change the sheets.

Sure, the father says. Sure. He’s trying to pull himself together and process what’s happened.

The cop says, she, uh, she was at some point in all three beds up there.  His and the two in your room.

The father bear looks alarmed.

Nothing was damaged, the cop says.

Well thank god for that, the father bear says.

You and your wife, the cop says in a low voice. You sleep in separate beds?

The father bear looks down, back up, says nothing.

Never mind, the cop says. None of my business. He turns toward the door.

We’ll be in touch, he says.

Thank you, the mother bear says. The father bear repeats it. The cop steps away, but the baby bear’s hand has gotten hold of the top of his gun. The cop takes baby bear’s hand off his weapon.

Don’t touch that kid, he says. Never touch that.


Handprints on the cave wall…

On June 29 (I think), this portrait appeared on Humans of New York  ( ), featuring a former Southern Baptist turned mainline Protestant turned ordained pastor, essentially renouncing his faith because of all the terrible things that happen on the planet — plane crashes, hurricanes and the like — and the inherent cruelty of a God who could allow or author such events. (Props: I saw it because Margo Morrison posted it on Facebook. Thanks Margo.)

As I commented on Margo’s “share”, this argument, which a five year old’s sense of justice is sufficient to uphold, is like chalk on a blackboard to anyone trained in Roman Catholic theology.  Like many Protestants, this dude, in his theology and his counter-theology both, doesn’t understand or even allow for the function of human agency, the action of free will. And free will too from the atomic and molecular levels on up — which sperm, hitting the outer walls, does the egg allow to penetrate? which way does the typhoon turn? It is difficult to grasp intellectually the necessity — in the workings of the physical universe — of what a mathematician or a physicist or even a logician would call randomness. If you do not believe in an omniscient and omnipotent creative force behind the existence of the universe, behind the riddle of time and the vast mathematical precision and simultaneous chaos of things, there are plenty of rationales: primary among them that throughout human history we know of no definitive, proved sighting of or communication with this figure (though we have the testimony of thousands who claim such contact). But people dying in plane crashes and in natural disasters are not, collectively, a reason to conclude such a creator doesn’t (or, in this pastor’s view, more like ‘shouldn’t’) exist. Air — and who even understands air? — swirls about the planet, its only true manager being time: in our scope of understanding, where the air has been it cannot be again, not the same arrangement of the same molecules at the same moment they were there the first time. Thus weather is the function of random movement. There cannot reasonably be a god pushing the tropical storm centers around the planet aiming them at certain swaths of the population.  So too with tectonic plates, and brains that go haywire. These things occur in time and randomly: any creator of the universe must exist outside of time, purposefully.  But there is no reason to create a universe (or series of universes) already knowing and having executed, as it were, the universe’s entire history. This would be like writing a novel you’ve already read. We have been written, and so are known: but we weren’t known until we were written, and as any creative writer worth her salt will testify, characters tend to do what they will, not what you plan for them.  If a creator such as is perceived in the Abrahamic tradition actually exists, we understand him/her/it only by virtue of imitation. Thus we make things. What doesn’t exist we make exist. We make an ink from the red clay and place the print of our hands and images of ourselves on the flickering torch-lit walls of all the caves we occupy: nowhere we go does this not happen. Just as the child imitates the parent, with but the slimmest understanding of the parent’s psychology or designs, humans imitate some higher, more purposeful, more metaphorical, more therapeutic and more powerful being, or state of being.  How else could there be mathematics? Or irony? Or love? We didn’t invent these things, we discovered them, diving, diving, diving to the bottom of the sea. And all the while, “Our gaze is submarine, our eyes look upward/ And see the light that fractures through unquiet water./ We see the light but see not whence it comes.”**


**(This quotation is from T. S. Eliot’s “Choruses from The Rock” — The Rock being, if I remember correctly, a never completed verse play prepared for some kind of medieval church fair. You can check it out on this site: )