Saturday, August 27, 2011


August 27, 2011:

It's one p.m., and all's quiet. It's been nonstop Irene on the airwaves, but where is she? We had all our supplies in here on High Street by yesterday afternoon. This morning we put the outdoor furniture in the shed, turned the teak table upside down, pushed the Weber against the back wall. The wind will come from the east, then the southeast, then the southwest, working its way around the compass. The back of the house faces south, so that broad expanse will take the brunt of it. I do wonder where the birds go--maybe into the hedges. We'll bring the bird feeders into the shed, too, late this afternoon. Our wind chimes are already in the house. We're ready. But where is she?

I find it hard to get any real work done, waiting for Irene. Lorraine is in her office, her door closed, chipping away at her book, a sculptress with her chisel. Me, I've only done the Saturday crossword puzzle, and I blanked on the southwest corner. Very bad. Then I inexplicably jumped to the conclusion that my nephew Ted was a new father, when he was only holding somebody else's baby (this on Facebook), and I saw Ted and his nonpregnant wife in person only a few weeks ago. My mind seems to be on Irene even when it isn't. But Irene doesn't come. Irene may be more of a media event than a weather event, people are panicking all over the East, but I'm not panicking. I just can't concentrate on anything. The calm before this storm is just too damned long.

While Hurricane Bob raged outside friends of ours were staying with us, shelter from the storm, and we drank martinis. But I don't want to do that now. I want Irene, I want to watch her wave her mighty hands at us and try to knock us over; I want to go for a walk downtown in the midst of it and see what's happening to the boats. I know I'm going to spend the night listening to her, listening for the sound of limbs falling and roof shingles blowing away and dripping somewhere in the house. But I'd like it to happen sooner rather than later. You are a tease, Irene. Shame on you.

OK, maybe I shouldn't scold such a wicked witch. Let's be nice to Mother Nature. Cross my fingers, knock on wood. But the air outside is clammy, heavy; it's like breathing through a wet sock. Forty-eight hours from now, it's going to be sunny, dry, and cool. So let's get on with it. "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! / You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout/ Till you have drenched our steeples!" That's King Lear. He knows the feeling. We can endure most things, but waiting is hard.

Monday, August 22, 2011


August 23, 2011:

The latest tomes came in the mail the other day, two volumes weighing in at just under seven pounds, each one a little over 870 pages long. What are they? THE LETTERS OF T. S. ELIOT, Vols. 1 and 2, the first covering his life from 1898 to 1922, the second from 1922 to 1925. Each volume contains 1,400 letters. Because they're so thick and heavy they present a problem to read beside the tedium of reading through somebody else's mail at such length, a problem that's sheerly physical: how do you hold them? would a reading stand be more comfortable than holding them in your lap? won't they be tiring to read? Small exercise weights come in this weight but not this size; the weights have handles, they're designed to be easily gripped. Books like this, not so much. You can manage them, but having big hands is a real help and even then it isn't easy, unless you read them at a table; and then it becomes a matter of finding a comfortable chair and figuring out how not to have to bend over the table, which is fatiguing. Books this size can be daunting, in short, in more ways than one.

But I am delighted to have them nevertheless. I'm not an Eliot scholar and will never read the entire text, but for dipping into in a relaxed frame of mind, other people's correspondence is as good as it gets. And Eliot: at Princeton in the 1950s he was our guru, chief critic, maker and breaker of reputations (Milton was never the same after Eliot had finished with him), not to mention the Modernist poet who led us all out of the wilderness of Edwardian sentimentalism with the kinds of imagery nobody had ever seen in poetry before--no American student, I should say, raised on Victorian gentility and "The Chambered Nautilus." Was it Eliot, or was it my late professor Russell Fraser, who pointed out the difference between Milton's line, "Sonorous metal blowing martial sounds," and Shakespeare's "silver snarling trumpets"? I first read John Donne under the tutelage, as it were, of Eliot's influence. And then to read Eliot himself: Prufrock's "Do I dare to eat a peach?" Or to see the evening laid out against the sky "like a patient etherized upon a table," or the great procession of the dead over London Bridge; or another line I love, "The salt is on the briar rose, the fog is in the fir trees," as good an evocation of the infiltration of the sea into the coast of northern Massachusetts, at Eastern Point, as it happens, a place I'm familiar with, as we'll ever get. It was Eliot, too, who gave us OLD POSSUM'S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS, and thereby the musical CATS, which was great fun.

And now here is my first find, a letter Eliot wrote to his cousin Eleanor Hinkley when he was living in France for a year, and it's all about fun, and amusing her; he has just spent two weeks in London and he describes his appetite for visiting places off the tourist route, ordinary city churches, for instance, as opposed to St. Paul's or Westminster Abbey, and he mentions a visit to Cricklewood, too. "'Where is Cricklewood?' said an austere Englishman at the hotel. I produced a map and pointed to the silent evidence that Cricklewood exists. He pondered. 'But why go to Cricklewood?' he flashed out at length. Here I was triumphant. 'There is no reason!' I said. He had no more to say. But he was relieved (I am sure) when he found that I was American. He felt no longer responsible. But Cricklewood is mine. I discovered it. No one will go there again. It is like the sunken town in the fairy story, that rose just every May-day eve, and lived for an hour, and only one man saw it." Later in this same letter he mentions that he "gave the apterix a bun," draws a picture of himself tossing a bun to what looks like a rabbit, and then comes this remark: "Perhaps it was not an apterix." When we refer to the annotations, which are at the bottom of the page, thank god, we find that Eliot wrote three book reviews for The Egoist in 1918 under the name "Apteryx" or "T. S. Apteryx." An apteryx is not at all like a rabbit, in fact; it is a New Zealand bird, a kind of flightless goose. But it's the word that's delightful more than the bird.

So who wouldn't want to have been T. S. Eliot's cousin, and get such letters?

I'm sure more such treasures will appear from this vast treasure house to lighten my burdens. But there's an elegiac note that comes with it, because how many more such collections will come our way? Few write letters any more, we write emails, we twitter, we make remarks on Facebook, we communicate instantly all over the world and it all vanishes as soon as it's read. Modern means of communication have made it more, not less difficult to keep track of other people's minds. I bridge this transition in my own life, having gone from writing letters, all too many of them, some better never sent, and writing emails that slip away into space somewhere, presumably never to be seen again. So I'm grateful for this splendid, overdone collection, which comes from Yale University Press, the best of the university presses. Having his correspondence will lead to other books about Eliot, numerous reevaluations, and the game will go on. The game ought to go on. Intellectual life has to be sustained on a great many levels, and continuously, for a culture to survive. Eliot's letters are like what he once called poetry itself: the highest form of entertainment.

Friday, August 12, 2011


August 12, 2011:

When my brother died I acquired various family papers, including a number of photographs. I already had a box of photographs that I had retrieved from my mother's house years ago when she was developing Alzheimer's. Before she got really bad we had gone over them together, and she had told me as well as she remembered who all the people were and how they were related to us. And now I'm going over them again. There are hundreds of them, strewn all over my little office, piled on the floor, on chairs, balanced on the corners of the plastic tub I keep most of them in, all those that will fit, anyway, and it's overwhelming. So many people, so long gone. Tintypes so dark I can barely make them out. Studio portraits. Infants. Snapshots. My mother and father when they were young. Wedding pictures. Relatives so distant even my mother didn't know who they were. Pictures of my brother taken at regular intervals when he was a child and carefully dated on the back by my father. On and on. Who is going to want these pictures when I die? My children? They haven't said they want them, and I doubt that they do. I am the lone survivor of a tribe, it would seem, the last elder, maintaining the tribal icons.

Something has happened to me, and I don't know quite what it is. While my agent has been trying to sell my proposal on the history of the American dream, even while I continued to work on it, preparing to write more of the book itself, I suddenly stopped everything and began to pour out this memoir, this tribute to my family and to the lost childhoods my brother and I lived in the mid-20th century, to a forgotten past, pour it out, I say, at the rate of a chapter a week. Some dam let go. Some door burst open. This is the sixth attempt at this book. And now, finally, it's working. Why now? I just don't know. But this happens to writers sometimes. Keats wrote most of the works he is remembered by in the course of a single year. Rilke wrote The Duino Elegies, or maybe it was the Sonnets to Orpheus, in a month. I'm not of that caliber but I'm a writer, too, and eruptions like this do sometimes occur. So here I sit, surrounded by the detritus of all those pasts, by the poses, the shyness, the beauty of aunts and great aunts long dead, uncles in their military uniforms, my grandfather looking very corporate, except for the moustache, my father grinning happily about something, maybe about having won the heart of my mother--I don't know. There's so much of it I can barely wade through it to my computer. The only reason I'm writing this blog is because I deliberately took a day off, to slow down, to give what I have to do here time to simmer.

So: the writers' life. It flows beneath the surface sometimes, like meaning itself. It can be ecstatic. It can be very emotional. More than once in the last weeks I've sat here with tears streaming down my face. It is loss, always loss, that we celebrate. Language itself is elegiac, it clutches at things that are already gone. Indeed, I look at pictures of myself in this collection, myself as an infant, as a boy, a teenager, a groom, a father holding his own children, and I barely recognize him. I too am one of these sad lost people. I was so thin once, my hair so black. It is as if I were already dead.