Monday, October 31, 2016

N. Scott Momaday: The Ancient Child, a novel

N. Scott Momaday
The Ancient Child

As I began reading this work, I was reminded of Momaday's, The Way to Rainy Mountain, which I posted on several years ago.  That work had a three part structure.  Each section began with a Kiowa legend, myth, or story and this was followed by a bit of factual information which related to the myth or legend.  For example, Momaday related a story about a famous arrow maker and this was followed by factual information about arrow-making among the Kiowa. The third part was a personal reminiscence by Momaday.

The Ancient Child  has four interwoven narrative threads: one is a Kiowa legend; the second is a bit of Western lore, part true and part myth; the third the story of a Kiowa/Navajo medicine woman; and the fourth the story of a Kiowa who was orphaned at eight, adopted by whites, and grew up far from the reservation and his people.

It took a while, but gradually, most of the threads merged or I could see the possibility of a merging. However, there is still one narrative thread that I haven't quite been able to meld with the others, so I will have to reread it to see what I have missed.

Momaday begins with an epigraph that provides a clue as to the nature of the work:

 "For myth is at the beginning of literature, and also at the end."     -- Borges --

And the cast of characters provides more clues.


LOCKE SETMAN,  called Set, an artist
GREY, a young medicine woman, a dreamer

HENRY McCarty, Billy the Kid, a notorious outlaw
KOPE'MAH, an old medicine woman
BENT SANDRIDGE, Set's adoptive father, a retired man, humane and wise
LALA BOURNE, a beautiful, ambitious woman
SET-ANGYA,  an old Kiowa man, Chief of the Kaitsenko Society, a Lear-like man, a man who carries about the bones of his favorite son                

THE BEAR, himself,  the mythic embodiment of wilderness
OTHERS, as they appear

THE BEAR, one of the four threads

Eight children were there at play, seven sisters and their brother.  Suddenly the boy was stuck dumb; he trembled and began to run upon his hands and feet.  His fingers became claws, and his body was covered with fur.   Directly there was a bear where the boy had been.  The sisters were terrified; they ran, and the bear after them.  They came to the stump of a great tree, and the tree spoke to them.   It bade them climb upon it, and as they did so it began to rise into the air.  The bear came to kill them, but they were beyond its reach.  It reared against the trunk and scored the bark all around with its claws.  The seven sisters were borne into the sky, and they became the stars of the Big Dipper. 

                      Kiowa story of Tsoai (Kiowa for rock tree)

Tsoai, the great stump of the tree, stood against the sky.  There was nothing like it in the landscape.  The tallest pines were insignificant beside it; many hundreds of them together could not fill its shadow.  In time the stump turned to stone, and the wind sang at a high pitch as it ran across the great grooves that were set there long ago by the bear's claws.  Eagles came to hover above it, having caught sight of it across the world.  No one said so, but each man in his heart acknowledged Tsoai and the first thing he did upon waking was to cast his eyes upon it, thus to set his belief, to know that it was there and that the world remained whole, as it aught to remain.  And always Tsoai was there.

This must be a true story, for I have seen Tsoai.  It is as it is described: it sits all alone on the plains, and there is nothing like it anywhere near it.   I have camped out there and it is so.  And many others have seen it, even those who have never been there, as it was prominently featured in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  We call it Devils Tower and it is found in Wyoming.

Side Note:  The Sioux Nation has recently requested that the name be changed to Bear Lodge, saying that to associate it with the devil is misleading and insulting

Born Henry McCarty, he sometimes called himself William H. Bonnybut he is  best known as Billy the Kid. We are given both factual information and Grey's interactions with Billy the Kid.  Grey's interactions are actually dreams or visions in which she interacts with Billy, and at one time she helps Billy escape jail. 

He is a Kiowa whose parents died, and he was placed in an orphanage.  He was adopted by Bent Sandridge and grew up in San Francisco.  At the beginning of the novel, he had never returned to the reservation.  I wonder about the name of his adopted father and haven't been able to come up with anything significant.  As he is described in the Table of Contents, he is a wise and humane individual..

Set developed his talent for painting and became quite popular for his unique style and subject matter.  Unfortunately, as his popularity increased, he listened more and more to his agent, to art dealers, and to the buying public and gradually began doing less and less of what he wanted to paint.  Now he is depressed and lost, feeling that he has betrayed his talent and it is lost forever. 

She is a medicine woman and a dreamer  (these dreams are more like visions than dreams though).  Her father was a Kiowa and her mother Navajo.  Her basic language is English, but she knows some Kiowa and Navajo and knows much about both cultures, especially Kiowa lore and healing..  I bring her up last, not because she is the least important, but for the very opposite reason.  She is the most important human character in the novel for she is the central core that unites the novel. It is her visions of Billy the Kid and her knowledge of Kiowa medicine and lore that brings the three threads of Billy the Kid, the Bear, and Set together.

While she unites the three narratives in her, I still don't quite understand the relationship of her visions/dreams of Billy the Kid to the other two.  What I do know is that Momaday has a personal fondness for Billy the Kid.   I am now reading another work of his, In the Presence of the Sun, and it  contains a section called "The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid."  This section fills 30 of the 145 pages in the book, and it contains poems, some stories, and personal reminiscences about his interest in Billy the Kid. 

It Is Grey who is responsible for bringing Set to the reservation and connecting him with his Kiowa heritage. She does this for one simple reason.  She is a medicine woman and she knows she is the only one who can help Set face the problems that are coming to him.   And, those problems have to do with the Bear.

This is my first, but certainly not my last reading of this work.  The Ancient Child is not a simple, feelgood work.  There is evil here, as there always is in that other world we call real.  The best way to conclude this preliminary commentary is to end the way N. Scott Momaday began--with Borges' epigraph:

               "For myth is at the beginning of literature, and also at the end."  

Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Minute Meditation

Today is surely a significant day in English Literature, if not in World Literature.  On this day Oct. 30, 1811,  Sense and Sensibility was published By a Lady.  This was followed by five more novels, all of which are still in print.  In addition, numerous film versions have been made of all of them, and, no doubt, more will come.  Just this year, a film version of one of her juvenalia just appeared.

She was only 42 when she died.  What else might she have written had she lived another decade or two?

Thursday, October 27, 2016

A Minute Meditation

Being in a strange and perverse mood, I found this to resonate with today's headlines and stories about people in the news.     

                                                                       If you make
                                                                       yourself a dog
                                                                       make yourself
                                                                       a rich man's dog       
                                                                                        -- Anon --
                                                                      from Japanese Proverbs

Cynical?      Wise?     Practical?      

Monday, October 24, 2016

Robert Grudin: Weighed down by the future

No. III.22

The birth of our second child is one, maybe two weeks away.  The coming event looms over us, the way a big wave looms over a little boat; and our days are dimmed by its shadow.   The future can exert this force upon us, can totally suck the juice out of the present, turning it into something tense, dry, useless to memory.  How can we enjoy or profit from such a transitional state?  The practical answer is "Don't sit and wait; prepare."  The subtler answer is that no period in life is more or less transitional than any other, had we only the power to understand each.  

Robert Grudin
Time and the Art of Living 

I have experienced those times when some future event caused me considerable distress which distracted me and resulted in a blank period in which nothing seemed to happen until that event occurred and I was then able to take action.  

However, I have to disagree with him on one  point.  There are periods in which significant changes occur, and there are those periods that are quiet and life will go on as usual.  This isn't to say that  there are the unexpected occurrences that can happen during periods of change or during  relatively static periods which can bring about changes in a person's life.    

His statement regarding the "subtle answer" suggests that he is able to detect influences or trends which the rest of us are too dense to notice. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

More Autumn Poems


Sky full of autumn
earth like crystal
news arrives from a long way off following one wild goose.
The fragrance gone from the ten foot lotus
by the Heavenly Well.
Beech leaves
fall through the night onto the cold river,
fireflies drift by the bamboo fence.
Summer clothes are too thin.
Suddenly the distant flute stops
and I stand a long time waiting.
Where is Paradise
so that I can mount the phoenix and fly there?
          Ngo Chi Lan, Vietnamese, 15th Century
from Art and Nature.

Here's a cheerful view of autumnal themes by Emily Bronte

Fall, Leaves, Fall

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night's decay
Ushers in a drearier day.
                 -- Emily Bronte --
from Art and Nature:  An Illustrated Anthology of Nature Poetry



Now constantly there is the sound,
quieter than rain,
of the leaves falling.

Under their loosening bright  
gold, the sycamore limbs
bleach whiter.

Now the only flowers
are beeweed and aster, spray
of their white and lavender
over the brown leaves.

The calling of the crow sounds
loud--a landmark--now
that the life of summer falls
silent, and the nights grow.
-- Wendell Berry --
from A Year in Poetry
Thomas E. Foster & Elizabeth C. Guthrie, eds.

By the Open Window

     In the calm of the autumn night
     I sit by the open window
     For whole hours in perfect
     Delightful quietness.
     The light rain of leaves falls.
     The sigh of the corruptible world
     Echoes in my corruptible nature.
But it is a sweet sigh, it soars as a prayer.
     My window opens up a world
     Unknown.  A source of ineffable,
     Perfumed memories is offered me;
     Wings beat at my window--
Refreshing autumnal spirits
     Come unto me and encircle me
     And they speak with me in their innocence.
     I feel indistinct, far-reaching hopes
     And in the venerable silence
Of creation, my ears hear melodies,
     They hear crystalline, mystical
     Music from the chorus of the stars.

-- C. F. Cavafy--
from  Art & Nature:  An Illustrated Anthology of Nature Poetry    


I hope you find one of these to your liking. 


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Lawrence Durrell: "A Bowl of Roses"

A Bowl of Roses

'Spring' says your Alexandrian poet
'Means time of the remission of the rose.'

Now here at this tattered old cafe',
By the sea-wall, where so many like us
Have felt the revengeful power of life,
Are roses trapped in blue tin bowls.
I think of you somewhere among them -
Other roses - outworn by our literature,
Made tenants of calf-love or else
The poet's portion, a black black rose
Coughed into the helpless lap of love,
Or fallen from a lapel -  a night-club rose.

It would take more than this loving imagination
To claim them for you out of time,
To make them dense and fecund so that
Snow would never pocket them, nor would
They travel under glass to great sanatoria
And like a sibling of the sickness thrust
Flushed faces up beside a dead man's plate.

No, you should have picked one from a poem
Being written softly with a brush -
The deathless ideogram for love we writers hunt.
Now alas the writing and the roses, Melissa,
Are nearly over:  who will next remember
Their spring remission in kept promises,

Or even the true ground of their invention
In some dry heart or earthen inkwell.

-- Lawrence Durrell --

"Alexandrian poet"   Cavafy

"a night-club rose"    Melissa

"sanatoria"                Melissa ends up in a TB sanatorium

"Melissa"                  a night-club singer  and prostitute in Justine who loves


"A Bowl of  Roses" takes its inspiration from Durrell's Alexandria Quartet.   The "Alexandrian poet" is C. P. Cavafy, the 20th century Greek poet.  Durrell refers frequently to him throughout the Quartet and has written at least one poem celebrating Cavafy.  The title is "Cavafy" (of course) and the first stanza of the three stanza poem is as follows:


I like to see so much the old man's loves
Egregious if you like and often shabby
Protruding from the ass's skin of verse,
For better or for worse,
The bones of poems cultured by a thirst--
Dilapidated taverns, dark eyes washed
Now in the wry and loving brilliance
Of such barbaric memories
As held them when the dyes of passion ran.
No cant about the sottishness of man! 

-- Lawrence Durrell --

In one of his sonnets, Shakespeare claimed that his poem about her would make her immortal, long after everyone else would be forgotten.  Do you think the Poet/Narrator thinks the same way about Melissa?

It's been some time since I've last looked into any of Durrell's fiction.  Perhaps it's time to take another look.  

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Jane Austen: Lady Susan (Boo, Hiss)

Jane Austen
"Lady Susan"

"Lady Susan" is one of those works whose length makes it difficult to categorize it.  Is it a short novel or a novella?  I guess I will put it in the novella category.  It wasn't published until 1871, fifty-four years after she died in 1817.  Why it took the family so long to release it is beyond me.  I found it a thoroughly delightful story, featuring one of those villains we (at least I do anyway) love to hate.  If this was a Gaslight Theatre production, the audience would be expected to boo and hiss whenever she appeared.

To be honest, this is a one character tale.  This is Lady Susan's story. The supporting characters are just that, there to provide fodder for Lady Susan's manipulations.    They are well-drawn but are overshadowed by Lady Susan.   What contemporary readers may find disturbing is that it is an epistolary novel, so the plot is carried forward by a series of letters passing back and forth among the various characters.

The letters  that I find most fascinating are those from Lady Susan to her friend, Mrs. Johnson.  In those letters, she seems to be completely honest about what is going on, perhaps.  The letters remind me of that theater convention, the "aside," when characters directly address the audience to reveal their innermost thoughts and motives while the other characters are oblivious of  what is being said.  One gains a more or less true picture of  her and her actions  by comparing her letters to Mrs. Johnson with the other letters she writes, and, of course, the letters written by the others entangled in her
machinations give us a picture of her effect on them.

The first letter in the work provides an excellent example: 

From Lady Susan's letter to Charles Vernon, the brother of her recently deceased husband.

"My dear brother,
     I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profiting by your kind invitation when we last parted, of spending some weeks with you at Churchill,  and therefore  if quite convenient to you and Mrs. Vernon to receive me at present, I shall hope within a few days to be introduced to a sister whom I have so long desired to be acquainted with."

This is followed by Lady Susan's letter to her friend, Mrs. Johnson.

"I take town in my way to that insupportable spot, a country village, for I am really going to Churchill.  Forgive me my dear friend, it is my last resort.  Were there another place in England open to me, I would prefer it.  Charles Vernon is my aversion, and I am afraid of his wife.  At Churchill I must remain till I have something better in view."

Some background information here is necessary.    Prior to Lord Vernon's death, there had been little contact between Charles and Lady Susan since Charles's marriage.   At that time, Lady Susan had worked hard to prevent Charles's marriage to that "sister whom I have so long desired to be acquainted with."  This is why she is "afraid of his wife."   Moreover, upon her husband's death, Charles had attempted to buy the family estate, but she had prevented it because she "could not endure that (her) husband's dignity should be lessened by his younger brother's  having possession of the family estate."  She did sell it eventually to someone else.  We never do learn why she was opposed to Charles's marriage or to the purchase of her deceased husband's estate.  I would think she would be happy to keep it in the family.

In the same letter to the Vernons,  Lady Susan also explains why she must leave the Manwarings at Langford:  "My kind friends here are most affectionately urgent with me to prolong my stay, but their hospitable and cheerful dispositions lead them to much into society for my present situation and state of mind; and I impatiently look forward to the hour when I should be admitted into your delightful retirement."

However, once again in her first letter to Mrs. Johnson, we learn a different tale.  Lady Susan writes of her position at Langford, "At present nothing goes smoothly.  The females of the family are united against me."  Mrs. Manwaring is jealous and "enraged" because Lady Susan "admitted no one's attentions but Manwaring's" and he has become madly in love with her.

We also learn of the engagement between the Manwarings's daughter and Sir James Martin.  But, as Lady Susan notes in her letter, she "bestowed a little notice (on Sir James Martin) in order to detach him from Miss Manwaring."   She goes on to say that, if people were aware of her motive, instead of condemning her,  "they  would honor me."  That motive was  "the sacred impulse of maternal affection," for she interfered with their engagement only in order to secure him for her own daughter.

She has a genius for duplicity, manipulation, and rationalization.  Regardless of how poorly she treats people, she always manages to find herself the injured party when they become angry at discovering just how she has used them or injured them.  And, no matter how difficult or embarrassing the predicament she finds herself immersed in, she manages to charm her way out of it.

She is a most marvelous character and I strongly urge you to make her acquaintance, if you haven't already done so..

Friday, October 14, 2016

Joseph Wood Krutch: Some thoughts on autumn

Joseph Wood Krutch, prior to moving to Tucson, lived in New England,  and some of his finest writings about nature relate to that period. The excerpt below is from The Twelve Seasons.

     "One day the first prematurely senile leaf will quietly detach itself in a faint breeze and flutter silently to the ground. All through the summer an occasional unnoticed, unregretted leaf has fallen from time to time. But not as this one falls. There is something quietly ominous about the way in which it gives up the ghost, without a struggle, almost with an air of relief. Others will follow, faster, and faster. Soon the ground will be covered, though many of the stubborner trees are still clothed. Then one night a wind, a little harder than usual, and carrying perhaps the drops of a cold rain, will come. We shall awake in the morning to see that the show is over. The trees are naked; bare, ruined choirs, stark against the sky."  (See Shakespeare, Sonnet 73)


(What follows is an expression of Krutch's attitude towards those who admire autumn. I must admit I'm one of those whom Krutch considers a bit perverse in my thinking.)

     "To me there always seems to be something perverse about those country dwellers who like the autumn best. Their hearts, I feel, are not in the right place. They must be among those who see Nature merely as a spectacle or a picture, not among those who share her own own moods. Spring is the time for exuberance, autumn for melancholy and regret. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness? Yes, of course, it is that too. But promise, not fulfillment, is what lifts the heart. Autumn is no less fulfillment than it is also the beginning of the inevitable end.

     No doubt the colors of autumn are as gorgeous in their own way as any of spring. Looked at merely as color, looked with the eye of that kind of painter to whom only color and design are important, I suppose they are beautiful and nothing more. But looked at as outward and visible signs, as an expression of what is going on in the world of living things, they produce another effect.

     'No spring, nor summer beauty hath such grace, as I have seen in one autumnal face'--so wrote John Donne in compliment to an old lady. But Donne was enamored of death. Send not to know for whom the leaf falls, it falls for thee."  (See John Donne, "Meditation 17:  Devotions upon Emergent Occasions")

What Krutch doesn't mention is that the appreciation of the fall colors is also frequently tinged with sadness or melancholy.  In addition, autumn is the harvest season, the culmination of the farmer's efforts for the past six or seven months.   I think autumn is the most complex of the seasons, joy at the colors and the fullness of the harvest and also sadness at the end of the cycle,  or at the inescapable sign of the end of the cycle. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

Short ones, but. . .

Must be in a strange mood this morning as I read these short poems and found that they brought a smile, not a laugh, but just a gentle smile. I hope they do the same for you.

Caged Birds

The young finch asked the old one why he wept:
"There's comfort in this cage where we are kept."
"You who were born here may well think that's so
But I knew freedom once, and weep to know."

-- Ignacy Krasicki --
from World Poetry,  trans. Jerszy Peterkiewicz and
Burns Singer

Rival  Beauties

Slanting their parasols against the blaze,
They smiled politely, went their separate ways. . .

-- Rskuten --
from A Chime of Windbells, Harold Stewart, ed.

Hunger for Beauty

Beside the road a pink hibicus flowered,
Which my discriminating horse devoured!

-- Basho --
from A Chime of Windbells, Harold Stewart, ed.

The Master and the Dog

Because of thieves, a dog barked all night through.
The master, sleepless, beat him black and blue.
On the next night the dog slept; and thieves came.
The silent dog was beaten all the same.

-- Ignacy Krasicki --
from World Poetry,  trans. Jerszy Peterkiewicz and
Burns Singer

I hope the above bring a smile this Monday morn.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LXXII

This quatrain continues the theme of the nature of the afterlife, or at least the Poet's thoughts on what it is.  The theme, therefore, ties this quatrain to the previous quatrain's last line: " . . .Behold, Myself am Heav'n and Hell:".   Moreover, the last line of the previous quatrain ends with a colon, not a period, and thus this quatrain serves grammatically to amplify or extend or explain the previous one.

Second Edition:  Quatrain LXXII

Heav'n but the Vision of fulfill'd Desire,
And Hell the Shadow of a Soul on fire,
    Cast on the Darkness into which Ourselves,
So late emerged from, shall so soon expire. 

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LXVII

Heav'n but the Vision of fulfill'd Desire,
And Hell the Shadow of a Soul on fire,
    Cast on the Darkness into which Ourselves,
So late emerged from, shall so soon expire.  

The quatrain is identical in the two editions.

As I mentioned above, this quatrain follows the colon of the previous quatrain

Quatrain LXXI. . ..Behold, Myself am Heav'n and Hell:"

Quatrain LXXII     Heav'n but the Vision of fulfill'd Desire,
                                 And Hell the Shadow of a Soul on fire,
                                      Cast on the Darkness into which Ourselves,
                                 So late emerged from, shall so soon expire.

and explains the nature of that  Heav'n and Hell.   The two states are portrayed as a Vision and a Shadow, and not, seemingly, a location.   This would conflict with the views of Heaven and Hell as actual places in for both Islamic and Christian traditions.   Furthermore, the Poet has consistently held that nobody knows if there is an afterlife and what it would be if it exists, and that those who describe Heaven and Hell are talking about their own present psychological states of mind: they are a Vision and a Shadow.  Heaven is where we will get everything we want and Hell a state of guilt for our sins.

This Vision and this Shadow then are put forth onto the Void or Darkness from we have just emerged at birth and will return to shortly.  The Void signifies the unknown, from which we emerged and to which we will return, a constant theme in previous quatrains.  As the Poet has expressed it earlier: we don't know where we came from and we are equally ignorant of our destination.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

A Minute Meditation


There's a gleam of green in an old bottle,
There's a stir of red in the quiet stove,
There's a feeling of snow in the dusk outside--
What about a cup of wine inside?
                             -- Po Chu-yi --
from The Jade Mountain
trans.  Witter Bynner

Don't know about you, but it works for me.