Willa Cather: The exemplary sentence

I reread A Lost Lady this week. Inhaled it really. The characters are so vivid, as is the portrait of the farm towns of the prairies at the turn of the century. The great rail roads were built, and the settlers had come, but soon the chiselers and cheapskates would take the place of the larger than life figures who had created the original settlements. One of the characters is the Forrester homestead itself:

“Just at the foot of the hill on which the house sat, one crossed a second creek by the stout wooden road-bridge. This stream traced artless loops and curves through the broad meadows that were half pasture land, half marsh.”

“Any one but Captain Forrester would have drained the bottom land and made it into highly productive fields. But he had selected this place long ago because it looked beautiful to him, and he happened to like the way the creek wound through his pasture, with mint and joint-grass and twinkling willows along its bank. He was well off for those times, and he had no children. He could afford to humor his fancies.”

Mrs. Forrester, the lost lady of the title, is a winsome, engaging woman, the essence of grace and good taste. The story is told through the eyes of a young boy who looks up to her, finds in her the emblem of all that is elegant and delightful, and who grows up under her spell. He is present as Forrester loses his fortune by personally bankrolling a failed bank, the only one of the directors to come forward and save the depositors.

Later, he must rent the pasture land to an unscrupulous character, Ivy Peters: “Neil and Ivy had disliked each other from childhood, blindly, instinctively, recognizing each other through antipathy, as hostile insects do. By draining the marsh Ivy had obliterated a few acres of something he hated, though he could not name it, and had asserted his power over the people who had loved those unproductive meadows for their idleness and silvery beauty…

“The Old West had been settled by dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were unpractical to the point of magnificence… Now all the vast territory they had won was to be at the mercy of men like Ivy Peters, who had never dared anything, never risk anything. They would drink up the mirage, dispel the morning freshness, root out the great brooding spirit of freedom, the generous, easy life of the great land-holders. The space, the colour, the princely carelessness of the pioneer they would destroy and cut up into profitable mats, as the match factory splinters the primeval forest.”

The lost lady of the title is not just Mrs. Forrester, but the west itself, described beautifully. Of course, the native population might feel the same about the”great-hearted adventurers,” but that’s a different book. This one is a gem of a portrait of a lost time.

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Monday poem

This is from an anthology I received as a Christmas gift, American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time. This is my favorite so far from it:

Mercy

Like two wrestlers etched
around some ancient urn

we’d lace our hands,
then wrench

each other’s wrists back
until the muscles ached

and the tendons burned,
and one brother

or the other grunted Mercy —
a game we played

so many times
I finally taught my sons,

not knowing what it was,
until too late, I’d done:

when the oldest rose
like my brother’s ghost,

grappling the little
ghost I was at ten —

who cried out Mercy!
in my own voice Mercy!

as I watched from deep
inside my father’s skin.

Patrick Phillips

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Diversity or Meritocracy?

Hard to believe that this ad is from 1965, but of course, the assumptions it makes are part of what the rebellion of the 1960’s was about.

The world I grew up in, the world of the 50s and 60s, was a white man’s world. Every position of power, doctor, lawyer, judge, politician, was held by allegedly straight white men.

There were a few exceptions, of course, but everywhere you looked, there were often mediocre white men in charge, despite the fact that there were smart

women and minorities around who could have done a better job. So it makes perfect sense that women and minorities protested. The feminist movement, the black power movement, the LGBT movement all rose out of that sense of unfair disenfranchisement.

But now it seems to me we have a reverse problem: to satisfy diversity requirements, those hiring might chose a mediocre person of color or with a disability or a non-mainstream gender orientation over a more qualified straight caucasian.

I totally get the importance of role models, of disparate voices, of the way networking and connections influence who you know and suggest for a position. But shouldn’t the best human available for a given job be our goal?

Sports teams seem to have representation based on pure ability. Surely this is a model that would benefit us all in the long run.

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Mary Oliver 1935-2019

Thanks to Gina for sending me this:

Marengo

Out of the sump rise the marigolds.
From the rim of the marsh, muslin with mosquitoes,
rises the egret, in his cloud-cloth.
Through the soft rain, like mist, and mica,
the withered acres of moss begin again.

When I have to die, I would like to die
on a day of rain–
long rain, slow rain, the kind you think will never end.

And I would like to have whatever little ceremony there might be
take place while the rain is shoveled and shoveled out of the sky,

and anyone who comes must travel, slowly and with thought,
as around the edges of the great swamp.

Mary Oliver

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Rainy Day Poem

Rain in Northern California, where we always seem to be needing it, can be as delicious as this poem, which sounds contemporary though written a century ago.

Summer Rain

All night our room was outer-walled with rain.
Drops fell and flattened on the tin roof,
And rang like little disks of metal.
Ping!—Ping!—and there was not a pin-point of silence between
    them.
The rain rattled and clashed,
And the slats of the shutters danced and glittered.
But to me the darkness was red-gold and crocus-colored
With your brightness,
And the words you whispered to me
Sprang up and flamed—orange torches against the rain.
Torches against the wall of cool, silver rain!

Amy Lowell

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Winter Break

I took some time off over the holidays, but here I am, back with your Monday vitamin. I read a poem I liked in the NY Times Sunday Magazine, and found another by this poet:

A Childhood

The horse had been beaten and flies
crawled excited on the beat marks.
He held still in the sunblazed pasture.
For some minutes I stood at the wire fence. Continue reading

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Feeling a bit Grinchy

But here is a holiday poem–may it bring you a glee too fine to hear.

Holly

The hollybush flowers
small whites (become of
course berries)
four tiny petals
turned
back and four
anthers stuck out:
the pistil low &
honey-high:
wasp-bees (those small
wasps or
bees) come around
with a glee too
fine to hear: when Continue reading

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Brief history lesson

I remember Frost’s fumbling at Kennedy’s inauguration–an old man then, and the first poet to be asked to read at such an event–such a different time. When asked to recite a poem, this was Frost’s response:

“If you can bear at your age the honor of being made president of the United States, I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration. I may not be equal to it but I can accept it for my cause — the arts, poetry — now for the first time taken into the affairs of statesmen. … I am glad the invitation pleases your family. It will please my family to the fourth generation and my family of friends and, were they living, it would have pleased inordinately the kind of Grover Cleveland Democrats I had for parents.” Continue reading

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Something about writing

I have been reading Randall Jarrell’s “Fifty Years of American Poetry,” an impressive essay, but it made me somehow wonder if all the books–those hours and years of work–won’t someday be winnowed down to a few kept in the basement of the cybrary, with its lightspeed wifi. A few first editions the way we now have illuminated manuscripts. Who even reads most of these people now?

The essay contained a gorgeous quote from Isaac Babel “A phrase is born into the world good and bad at the same time. The secret lies in a slight, almost invisible twist. The lever should rest in your hand, getting warm, and you can turn it once, not twice.”

 

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The exemplary sentence

One of the few fears that can really grab hold of me, especially before a long plane ride or (as was currently the case) a time of enforced inactivity, is that I’ve read all the really good books. A book that is well-written, thought provoking, and can immerse you in its reality is so rare. During this recent period, I had very little that fit this description. So I opened a book I hadn’t read in 25 years, Particle and Luck, by Louis B. Jones. Would it hold up? It does, and has snared me in the life of Mark Perdue, the archetypal absentminded physicist and his quirky journey around the Marin and the Berkeley campus.  Here are a few excerpts. Continue reading

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