Hunting Class

Poet Robert Adamson

“Hunting in Maine is not obviously riven with centuries of class and privilege” writes Helen Macdonald in H Is for Hawk, a book that, though recommended with high praise by Robert Adamson almost two years ago, I’ve just gotten around to reading. I could plead “lack of time,” but the truth is I have a habit of resisting books that get a lot of attention in the press. It’s a perversion, but one I can’t seem to shake. Though many such books peak and then fade into oblivion, there are probably some (there must be!) that are “for the ages.” I can’t say for certain that Macdonald’s book will take its place alongside such great bird-of-prey literary masterpieces as “The Windhover,” “My Mother Would Be a Falconress,” and The Peregrine, but it is quite good.

Macdonald’s goshawk Mabel

For me the book held two big surprises: the first was that, while largely reviewed as a book about Macdonald’s grief for her father, it is more accurately described as a book about her relationship to a dead author: the emotionally complex Arthurian, T. H. White. The second surprise was that late in the narrative Macdonald travels to Maine to visit an American hawking friend. “There are no vast pheasant shoots [in Maine] where bankers vie for the largest bags, no elite grouse moors or exclusive salmon rivers. All the land can be hunted over by virtue of common law, and locals are very proud of this egalitarian tradition,” writes Macdonald. This trans-Atlantic cultural difference concerning hunting, though easily apparent, had never occurred to me. Perhaps because I neither hawk nor hunt.

Yet one can’t live in Maine and stay completely ignorant of hunting culture. Steve and I had only been here a few months when our then neighbor, a teacup-sized woman in her sixties with a neat hairdo, proudly told us that she’d secured a coveted moose-hunting permit that year and thus had a freezer filled with moose sausage, ribs, steaks, and other tasty bits. In ensuing years, I learned about the traditions of Maine hunting from stories students wrote. Their personal narrative assignments often included hunting anecdotes, especially when it came to writing about Thanksgiving, which is a hunting holiday in Maine. When families, food, drinking, and guns gather, the inevitability of eventfulness augments. I remember one story a student shared in which her wheel-chair bound Vietnam vet uncle shot a deer through a bathroom window while sitting on the john. I was so stunned by the image I neglected to ask: why on earth had he brought his rifle into the bathroom?

This particular kill was no doubt illegal, because there are laws about how near to inhabited homes you can hunt. Before we moved, the real estate agent who tried hard to undermine my dreams of a “cozy cottage” by driving us around to a series of dark, shabby capes, shared a fait divers that had recently shaken the region: a beloved local had mistaken a woman out hanging laundry for a deer and shot her to death. She had been wearing white gloves. I was so stunned by the image I neglected to ask: if it was cold enough to wear gloves, why was she hanging laundry outside?*

In describing the differences between British and American hunting, Macdonald quotes a hunter from a 1942 article published in Outdoor Life: “One of my grandfathers came from northern Europe [to the US] for the single reason that he wanted to live in a country where he could try to catch a fish without sneaking onto some nobleman’s property where the common people were excluded.” I think of the chauffeur-communist’s discomfort in those hunting scenes in Downton Abbey, or that scene from Renoir’s send up of the aristocracy, The Rules of the Game, in which the servants walk ahead of the nobles acting as “beaters,” hitting trees with sticks in order to rouse the prey. Guns, horses, riding kits, all very elegant, and stately. And very old world. When the privileged hunt in America, it’s embarrassing. Dick Cheney misfires and shoots Harry Whittington. Quail are released a few feet in front of him and he misses. A dentist goes to Africa and kills the lion everyone loves. It’s tacky and unappealing, and culturally inexplicable.

While hunting in the United States may not be “riven with centuries of class and privilege,” it might be—insofar as it has become connected to the debate over the second Amendment—be riven with something else: distrust of giving working, poor, and underclass rural people access to “free” food—the kind of unprocessed food privileged people like myself now pay dearly for in fancy restaurants serving delicacies such as “locally sourced” moose prosciutto and elk jerky. Doubtless there are rich people in the United States who own guns and hunt—especially in Texas or out west—yet I imagine they do so for sport, not food. I’ll admit, however, that when the issue of gun rights comes up—and I know hunters are always cited as “good” gun owners—the “poster child” that arises in my mind’s eye is a white, working class Mainer. The kind of person with a freezer full of deer or moose meat, the very same who would have either worked on or been chased off the estate of a nobleman in centuries past. But sometimes I also see a teacup-sized woman in her sixties with her small L. L. Bean-booted foot atop a downed 800-pound moose.

 

 

 

 

 

 

*this part of the story turned out to be apocryphal

 

John Donne, Dodie Bellamy, and the fear of Ayre and Vapours

As the bizarre statements about giving more “choice” to the sick come floating in from the anti-choice party hell bent on destroying Obamacare, I just happen to find myself easing out my evenings by reading two works about sickness: John Donne’s twenty-three meditations titled Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and severall steps in my Sicknes and Dodie Bellamy’s When the Sick Rule the World. They are speaking to each other in fascinating ways.

Enthralled by the Renaissance trope of the body as a microcosmic copy of the larger world, Donne’s Devotions often draw parallels between the sick body and the sick polis. His brilliant record of the perspective-altering powers of illness transforms his fever and spots into a faith emergency, an alchemy Frank O’Hara would later translate into “Meditations in an Emergency,” in which the threat is the “sicknes” called heterosexuality. Donne is greatly consternated by his state. When the physician comes to apply dead pigeons to his feet to “draw the vapors” from his head, he threads his fume to Virgil’s rumor: “That which is fume in us, is in a State, Rumor, and these vapours in us, which wee consider here pestilent and infectious fumes, are in a State infectious rumors, detracting and dishonourable Calumnies, Libels.” In empathy I feel a weight of dry grey feathers scratching at my tender arches. As Donne’s vapors drain he dutifully exercises an incredulous self-rebuke: “did I drinke in Melancholly into my selfe? It is my thoughtfulnesse; was I not made to thinke?” Donne believes he is the cause of his own suffering for not having dumbed it down.

We “assist the sicknes” and “make the sickness the more irremediable” not by bad habits, but by “sad apprehensions.” Sinfulness, melancholy, too much thinking, a triumvirate missing from those who are suffering in “When the Sick Rule the World.” “There is no such thing as a hypochondriac;” writes Bellamy, “there are only doctors who cannot figure out what is wrong with you.”

The narrator of her sly satire is just sympathetic enough with the weird world of the “sick” she portrays that we aren’t quite convinced that she’d be altogether unhappy that “perfume will be outlawed” when the sick rule the world. “When a student comes to class wearing perfume,” she writes, “my nose runs, my eyes tear, I start sneezing; there’s nowhere to move to and I don’t know what to do.” What do you mean there’s nowhere to move? Aren’t you free? Just move to another state! Or so says the congressman to those who cannot get coverage for pre-existing medical conditions in their home states.

My disbelief at the callousness of “right to be sick and go without insurance” arguments notwithstanding, as I dip into the world of Bellamy’s allergen-beset bourgeois I feel a kind of petulant libertarianism, my human empathy replaced by a Miss Piggy-like insistence on my need to wear perfume. I’m naked without it. It is true that I, a “well” person, blithely defy the oddly verbose sign outside of a certain building where I work: PLEASE BE ADVISED THAT THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO WORK IN THIS BUILDING THAT ARE ADVERSELY AFFECTED BY FRAGRANCE AND REFRAIN FROM WEARING PERFUMES. Who are these people? Why don’t they come forward and identify themselves? Am I the reason they are sick?

Pre-modern medicine’s apprehension about vapors, foul air, and effluvium was responsible for years of blindness to other channels for the spread of illness. The so-called “miasma theory” that 19th-century British physician John Snow contested, proving that polluted water not foul air was spreading cholera in the Broad Street neighborhood of London. The sick in Bellamy’s story have a pre-modern aversion to vapors and air. Their scripture might be the Talking Heads’ “Air,” with its repeated line, “Air can hurt you too.” They cannot abide smells of any kind. Preparing to attend a meeting of the sick, the narrator spends $30 on fragrance-free products, but her ritual cleansing fails. A TSA-style sniffing by the gate-keepers of the sick community reveals an odor that gives one of them “brain fog” and the narrator is forced to swathe her head in comic bandanas. “What will not kill a man if a vapor will?” writes Donne, “so neere nothing is that that reduces us to nothing.” He fears that it is “halfe Atheisme to murmure against Nature, who is Gods immediate commissioner,” yet he marvels that the “Ayre that nourishes us, should destroy us.”

As someone who grew up in a region that had “smog days” instead of “snow days”—a free day off from school, but don’t leave the house!—I understand the fear of poisonous air. Yet a world cleansed of all smells would flatten time and destroy Eros. The nose is the organ of memory and curiosity and hunger. “With what deep thirst / we quicken our desires / to that rank odor of a passing springtime!” exclaims William Carlos Williams in his Rabelaisian paean to his boney nose, “Smell!”  What would such a “tactless” ass of acquisitive greediness do when the sick rule the world and “roses, gardenias, freesias, and other fragrant flowers will no longer be grown,” and the “sick will travel in packs commandeering porcelain-lined fragrance-free buses.” Despite their myriad aversions and sensitivities the “sick” in Bellamy’s story are a surprisingly vigorous, social bunch. None of them have actual diagnoses, they bear no resemblance to people who are, by conventional definition, sick. Rather, they have an identity based around the things in the world that they must avoid. Sickness as a vocation.

Bellamy’s community of the sick seems unfamiliar with the extreme isolation Donne’s fever creates. “No man is an island,” the Devotions most famous assertion, was written by a man islanded by illness. “As Sicknes is the greatest misery, so the greatest misery of sickness, is solitude; when the infectiousness of the disease deters them who should assist, from coming; even the Phisician dares scarse come.” I think of those stories we all read about Ebola victims being denied company even in death. Their corpses were toxic.

Sickbed literature tends to be a literature of solitude. The Death and Letters of Alice James, Keats’s Letters, or Ernst Pawel’s beautiful meditation on Heinrich Heine’s wretched last years, The Poet Dying. The communality and mobility of the sick in Bellamy’s story marks the phenomenon she’s satirizing as something new: her sick no longer must hide in the shadows like sexual deviants, or be locked away in sanitariums. They have been liberated. They have their own community, and when they rule the world “[p]retending to be sick will be a capital offense.”

Because Donne’s illness occasioned his meditations, I am thankful to it, and to the fact that he defied the physician’s orders not to read or write. Though penned in solitude, Donne’s metaphorical parallels between the human body and the body of the state populate his sickbed. Man is a little world with “inough in himself, not only to destroy, and execute himself, but to presage that execution upon himself.” I think of Bellamy’s sick bonding over the dangers of cellphone towers and electromagnetic fields. Yet for Donne “home bred” vapours—those we conjure with our “sad apprehensions”—are far worse than any foreign poison: “What Fugitive, what Almes-man of any forraine State, can doe so much harme as a Detracter, a Libeller, a scornfull Jester at home?” How very prescient and wise are the poets.

 

 

Diabolical Mimicry, Plagiarism by Anticipation, and a Simply Divine Convergence

 

On our last trip to New York, to see L’Amour de loin, Steve and I made our customary visit to The Strand. Fantastic things can happen in this stiflingly over-heated survivor from the golden age of bookstores. This visit was no different. Adjacent poetry we ran into New York School scholar Andrew Epstein and his family, visiting from Florida, only seconds after Steve had bumped into Alan Gilbert, an old acquaintance from the 1990s poetry world, back when arguments over the value of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, or whether you studied at Brown or Buffalo, seemed tantamount to the mid-century literary brawls of Manhattan’s mandarin set. It’s amazing how a big city can become quite small when you edit yourself into a rarefied field of interest. Social serendipities discharged, Steve and I carted our armloads of books to the check out, paid, and left them to be shipped home, already anticipating that gorgeous moment when, having nearly forgotten our excesses, a big box arrives on our Maine doorstep. Included in this recent parcel was The Collected Verse of Noel Coward. Not Coward’s song lyrics (I already own that volume), but his poems. Yes, apparently all throughout his long life Mr. Coward “derived a considerable amount of private pleasure from writing verse.” I shelved the bright red hardcover and didn’t give it another thought.

Until last week. An epic home renovation coming to an end, we had the opportunity to move some books. Always a pleasure. I took Mr. Coward’s verse off the shelf and began dipping in. Though he is decidedly a much better lyricist than poet, I did find pleasures in his mostly light verse thanks to the usual tonic of his strong, arch, and “irretrievably ‘period’’’[1] style, the same that comes through much of his writing, but especially through his memoirs, Present Indicative (1934) and Future Indefinite (1954). Many years ago these books saved me from some rather baroque prose habits I had fallen into while writing my memoir, The Middle Room. Stuck around chapter ten, my sentences becoming longer and longer, I found I had lost the ability to ignore any detail or event, no matter how trivial. A compulsive read-through of Coward’s memoirs schooled me in just how delightful it might be for a reader, bogged down in the minutiae of my narcissistic reveries, to come upon a sentence as simple as: “The days and weeks went by.” And thus Noel Coward, already a lifestyle icon, become an icon of literary finesse.

You can imagine my delight, therefore, when deep into my reading of Coward’s verses, my eye fell upon a poem titled “Convalescence” which just happened to bear an uncanny resemblance to my own poem, written decades afterwards, “Dividend of the Social Opt Out.” In shape, structure, and sentiment, the two poems share an identity, down even, in some cases, to word choice! Knowing that I had never before set eyes on Coward’s “Convalescence,” I had no other recourse but to label this simply divine convergence as an exemplary case of “Plagiarism by Anticipation.”

A term playfully embraced by Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), “Plagiarism by Anticipation” is the idea that a writer from the past can anticipate, and therefore plagiarize, the literary works of the future. As Jacques Roubaud put it, “authors that predate the founding of the Oulipo who, drawing on Oulipian matter, reveal themselves to be copiers of the Oulipo.” So, for example, when ancient Greek writers wrote lipograms (avoiding certain letters), these writers were said to have plagiarized the popular Oulipoean constraint by anticipation.

Yet this formula of the past copying the future actually predates Oulipo. It refers to a theory certain early Christian apologists supposedly used to better explain the many overlaps between paganism and the gospels. The overlaps (baptism, virgin birth, resurrection, etc.) were explained as “tricks” demons played to test our faith, thus “Plagiarism by Anticipation” was also referred to by the more dashing term of “diabolical mimicry.” These terms were used in the nineteenth century by Theosophists Madame Blavatsky and G. R. S. Mead in support of their creation of a syncretic Gnosticism. However, a quick web search of “plagiarism by anticipation” or “diabolical mimicry” will lead you instead to The Jesus Mysteries, a popular 1999 book in which the writers confer upon the “desperate claim” that “the devil” plagiarized Jesus the distinction of being “one of the most absurd arguments ever advanced.”

I disagree. I think “diabolical mimicry” is an ingenious and charming claim, that is if you take it lightly. And there is little evidence that it was ever advanced in the way the gleeful “debunkers” would have us believe. None of the early apologists cited—Irenaeus, Tertullian, Justin Martyr—ever used the terms “plagiarism by anticipation” or “diabolical mimicry.”[2] Their ideas were more in keeping with the Testament of Orpheus. I refer here not to the wonderful Cocteau film of the same name, but to a third century document in which the first poet bears witness to “the single and eternal pattern of the universe.” The Testament supports a popular Hellenistic legend that when a young man Orpheus traveled to Egypt to study with Moses, after which he rejected polytheism in favor of a single god: “He is the one” Orpheus writes, “self-begotten, and all things are brought to pass by Him.”[3] This chapter proved far less enduring in the poet’s mythic biography than his infamous backward glance.

From Christian apologists to Noël Coward. An unusual journey indeed. And yet, in another divine convergence, during the writing of these musing I have been felled by a very nasty cold. Thus it is from my bed, in a quiet, empty house, cat beside me, that I seek my “hyperlinks” and final turn of phrase. This ghastly illness has, as Coward put it, given me “time / to invent a little rhyme.” I post “Convalescence” below, with a link to my “Dividend of the Social Opt Out.” Judge for yourself whether Noël devilishly hid his poem in the archives that the future may discredit the “virgin birth” of my little homage to the secret pleasures of the introvert.

Convalescence

To have been a little ill
To relax
To have Glucose and Bemax

To be still.

To feel definitely weak
On a diet
To be ordered to be quiet

Not to speak.

To skim through the morning news,
To have leisure,
The ineffable, warm pleasure

Of a snooze.

To have cooling things to drink,
Fresh Spring Flowers,
To have hours and hours and hours

Just to think.

To have been a little ill
To have time
To invent a little rhyme

To be still.

To have no one that you miss

This is bliss!

—Noël Coward

[1] In After Babel George Steiner, using Private Lives as his example, makes a very compelling case for what he calls the “irretrievably ‘period’’’ style of Coward’s dialogue. Thus I chalk up my attraction to Coward as one of my long list of nostalgic passions, a term I use throughout The Middle Room.

[2] For a helpful and measured look at this issue, click here.

[3] Friedman, John Block. Orpheus in the Middle Ages. Harvard UP, 1970. 13-15.

Poems of Christmas

Unicef-inspired ornaments from my childhood (see "Mother Night")
Unicef-inspired ornaments from my childhood

George Oppen sent me to Thomas Hardy. It was these lines, from “Of Being Numerous”:

. . . But who escapes
Death

Among these riders
Of the subway,

They know
By now as I know

Failure and the guilt
Of failure.
As in Hardy’s poem of Christmas . . .

“As in Hardy’s poem of Christmas.” Oppen’s casual reference punctuates a none-too-casual confession: We all know, the “they” and the “I,” both “failure” and the guilt of it. Crushing. I heard and read these lines many times before I sought out Hardy’s “poem of Christmas.” But the thing is, Hardy wrote many poems of Christmas, all little masterpieces of failure and its guilt. Hardy’s failure lies in his inability to have faith without doubt. His Spinner of the Years—as he calls that nameless, indifferent force that determines all in “The Convergence of the Twain”—is indeed sinister. Yet Hardy is no nihilist. Otherwise, there’s no accounting for the enormous work he put into telling stories of the impoverished and ill-fated. If, as Tess says, “all is vanity,” then why bother caring about another’s misery?

The Hardy Christmas poem Oppen refers to is, of course, “The Oxen.” Here’s Oppen’s retelling of it [Read more…]

Backyard Carmen

Not long ago, Steve and I were invited to join a taskforce charged with growing the audience for the Metropolitan Live in HD opera broadcasts at the Collins Center for the Arts, UMaine’s largest performing arts venue. We are, sadly, the youngest members of this taskforce by some years. In addition to being primarily drawn from the senior set, the typical audience for the Met Live in HD amounts to about a hundred people, which not only looks scant in an auditorium of 1,500 seats, but has the director threatening to cancel the broadcasts altogether—a worrisome prospect to those of us who regularly attend. The largest audience was 270, for a broadcast of Carmen with Elīna Garanča in 2010.

Callas_CarmenSaturday November first the Met is broadcasting Carmen again, this time with the Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili. Steve, in hopes of interesting the students taking his course on the Lover’s Discourse, spent some time finding alluring YouTube clips from Carmen, including a wonderful Muppet’s sound-poem version of the Habenera. From his report, few students seemed moved to interrupt nursing Halloween hangovers with initiation into this alien art form. All this Carmen talk reminded of my own history with Georges Bizet’s classic, which was my first exposure to opera, enhanced by a Maria Callas recording given to me by my mother. As I wrote in The Middle Room: [Read more…]