“Postscript” (Seamus Heaney)

Dipping into Seamus Heaney today, I discovered the poem “Postscript,” from The Spirit Level (1996). Entirely perfect I think, a jewel.

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

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a passage from “Another Country,” by James Baldwin

This is the end of Chapter 1. Rufus Scott, a young black jazz musician, is meandering through Manhattan – from Times Square down to the Village, then by subway up to 125th Street. Revisiting scenes from his life, meeting with some of his friends for the last time. He has given up. Despair has finally beaten him.

…Suddenly he knew that he was never going home anymore.

The train began to move, half-empty now; and with each stop it became lighter; soon the white people who were left looked at him oddly. He felt their stares but he felt far away from them. You took the best. So why not take the rest? He got off at the station named for the bridge built to honor the father of his country.

And walked up the steps, into the streets, which were empty. Tall apartment buildings, lightless, loomed against the dark sky and seemed to be watching him, seemed to be pressing down on him. The bridge was nearly over his head, intolerably high; but he did not yet see the water. He felt it, he smelled it. He thought how he had never before understood how an animal could smell water. But it was over there, past the highway, where he could see the speeding cars.

Then he stood on the bridge, looking over, looking down. Now the lights of the cars on the highway seemed to be writing an endless message, writing with awful speed in a fine, unreadable script. There were muted lights on the Jersey shore and here and there a neon flame advertising something somebody had for sale. He began to walk slowly to the center of the bridge, observing that, from this height, the city which had been so dark as he walked through it seemed to be on fire.

He stood at the center of the bridge and it was freezing cold. He raised his eyes to heaven. He thought, You bastard, you motherfucking bastard. Ain’t I your baby, too? He began to cry. Something in Rufus which could not break shook him like a rag doll and splashed salt water all over his face and filled his throat and his nostrils with anguish. He knew the pain would never stop. He could never go down into the city again. He dropped his head as though someone had struck him and looked down at the water. It was cold and the water would be cold.

He was black and the water was black.

He lifted himself by his hands on the rail, lifted himself as high as he could, and leaned far out. The wind tore at him, at his head and shoulders, while something in him screamed, Why? Why? He thought of Eric. His straining arms threatened to break. I can’t make it this way. He thought of Ida. He whispered, I’m sorry, Leona, and then the wind took him, he felt himself going over, head down, the wind, the stars, the lights, the water, all rolled together, all right. He felt a shoe fly off behind him, there was nothing around him, only the wind, all right, you motherfucking Godalmighty bastard, I’m coming to you.

thinking of James Baldwin tonight

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Baldwin17©2012 Mark B. Anstendig

Growing up, I read his book of two longer pieces on race in America, The Fire Next Time, and then the novel Another Country. I was seized by his intelligence, integrity, and passion. The essays sizzled and sparked with the energy of prophetic rage; the novel was unlike anything I’d ever read. I went on to appreciate other essays and other novels – Another Country remains my favorite of the latter.

He will pop into my head when I find myself contemplating the display of moral courage in tumultuous times. No one in the ’60s was more eloquent on the subject of racialism in the US, yet his open bisexuality also exposed him to attack by black political allies – the Panthers of course being famously as unsupportive of alternative masculinities as of feminism.

Searching for photos of him to add to this post I came across an interesting interview with the photographer Sedat Pakay who was a close friend of Baldwin’s in the ’60s. Pakay had met him in Turkey just out of high school (Baldwin spent a lot of time abroad, especially in Istanbul and France). There are a few of Pakay’s photos of Baldwin in Turkey there, and a lot more here.

Having begun publishing in the mid-’50s, by the mid-’60s Baldwin had become a famous public literary and activist figure, in constant demand as speaker and debater – one of the reasons for his frequent sojourns in Europe was simply to enable him to write sustainedly. It’s still startling to realize that Another Country, with its panoply of biracial and bisexual relationships, was published in 1962.

Today his reputation remains strong and there are continual appreciations of him, for example a lovely recent one in the New York Review of Books by Darryl Pinckney (whose partner is the English poet James Fenton, great friend of the late Christopher Hitchens). At the same time he seems rather less well-known today than ten or fifteen years ago – hence this modest mini-appreciation of my own.

BaldwinInIstanbul

BaldwinOutsideTurkishSodaShop

1964PortraitOfBaldwinThese three photos copyright Sedat Pakay.

vocation

… He felt changed, growing; he felt new tensions and new harmonies between himself and the world. There were times, now, in music, Latin, and mathematics, when he could master tasks that were still beyond his age and the scope of his schoolmates. Sometimes he felt capable of any achievements. At other times he might forget everything and daydream with a new softness and surrender, listen to the wind or the rain, gaze into the chalice of a flower or the moving waters of the river, understanding nothing, divining everything, lost in sympathy, curiosity, the craving to comprehend, carried away from his own self toward another, toward the world, toward the mystery and sacrament, the at once painful and lovely disporting of the world of appearances.

from Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game, translated by Richard and Clara Winston

Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet

The New Republic has a wonderful appreciation, by Peter Green, of Paul Scott and his Raj Quartet (available in two handsome volumes in the Everyman’s Library here and here).

Green met and became friends with Scott during the war, in Calcutta, then later, back in London and interviewing for a literary agent in the ’50s, he found himself, purely coincidentally, seated across a desk from him. Scott served him as agent for six years, at which point – in 1960 – he became a full-time novelist. Several years later Green moved with his family to Greece for eight years, and then took up an academic post in the US (he is an esteemed classical scholar). So for the most part their contact during the last 15 years of Scott’s life was limited to letters.

The essay well captures what is so monumental an achievement in the novels:

What has always astonished me about The Raj Quartet is its sense of sophisticated and total control of its gigantic scenario and highly varied characters. The four volumes constitute perfectly interlocking movements of a grand overall design. The politics are handled with an expertise that intrigues and never bores, and are always seen in terms of individuals. Though Paul always saw the inevitability, and the necessity, of an end to the British occupation, and exploitation, of India, he still could see, and sympathize with, the odd virtues that the Raj bred in its officers. No one—certainly not E. M. Forster—has ever produced a subtler, more nuanced, picture of the Raj in action during its last fraught years, or of the seething, complex, and wildly disparate nationalist forces arrayed against it.

Evidently the ten-year process of completing the book took a shattering toll on Scott’s health; terribly sadly he didn’t live long enough to receive the full appreciation that would eventually come his way. Green’s essay spends some time pondering the mystery of the Quartet’s origins. In particular, he wonders how so great an achievement suddenly appeared, fully formed, out of the author’s previous corpus of work, which he describes as “good, but not in any way really exceptional.”

The Quartet remains a tour de force virtually without rivals. The question is, how? How did this middle-class suburbanite—who left school at fourteen, had no experience of diplomacy or the civil service, in India or anywhere else, and never set foot inside a British university in his life—suddenly, after a solid but hitherto no more than middling literary career, acquire the vision that brought the world of the fading Raj to unforgettable life, in a quartet of novels that for range and power have been compared to Tolstoy? Suggestions have not been wanting, most notably that his experience on the wrong side of the rigid social divisions operating in pre-war London suburbia gave him a sharpened insight into both native caste distinctions and the even more absolute British color-bar that he found in India. Others have pointed to his sexual ambiguity… There may be some truth in both of these theories, but since both stem from Paul’s early life, why did they not have the same transforming effect on his early fiction as they are alleged to have done on The Raj Quartet? The difference is as total, and as extraordinary, as the still not fully understood process by which a chrysalis becomes a butterfly.

“Futility” – Wilfred Owen

Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds, –
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?