Sunday, October 23, 2011

in process | Ruskinian erotica

The 750 Words stairmaster has had good effects; for the past week & a half, I've turned out well over 750 words a day. Now whether those words are useful words is another matter; it's clear that this isn't the ideal tool for scholarly writing, with its constant recursiveness. When I write essays, papers, or books, at least two-thirds of the time I'm ostensibly writing I'm actually paging back thru what I've written before, revising and tinkering with it, or turning over books, looking for quotes or thinking about precisely what I'm meaning to say. That doesn't work well with 750 Words's ahead-and-damn-the-torpedoes format, where you can't revise what you've already written, and indeed can't easily look at it while you're writing the next day's entry. Solution of course is to download my daily work into a Word file and tinker with it there; but then if I get carried away & start writing new stuff, it doesn't count towards the daily tally. Oh well. I'll work it out. At least I'm writing.

What I'm writing is, as I say, something else altogether. I began writing bits of the next scholarly book; then I ran out of things to say (for the moment) and spent a few days putting down autobiographical fragments (not that anybody will ever want to read that – I'm just laying in some stuff that I can read when my memory starts to go). At the moment, however, I'm more or less on fire, doing some big conceptual stuff paired with some close textual analysis. It feels good, whether or not it really is; I know it'll fit in the big jigsaw puzzle of the next book somewhere.
The letter carrier delivered a new biography of Effie Ruskin the other day, Suzanne Fagence Cooper's sublimely potboilerly-titled Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais. By my count, this is the sixth or seventh book I've accumulated on Ruskin's ill-fated marriage. My own brief take on the disastrous wedding night – or at least some of the speculation thereupon – is here. (Cooper has her own theory, which I won't spoil by revealing.

Unsurprisingly, while Ruskin is capable of incredibly sexy language – the so-called "purple" passages of the early books especially, which make word-lovers like me positively swoon – there isn't much in the way of actual erotica in his massive (9 million words, I read somewhere) corpus. But then, reading thru The Cestus of Aglaia (1865-6) the other day, I came upon (re-read, really) this often discussed passage, where Ruskin recalls
the image of an Italian child, lying, she also, upon a hill of sand, by Eridanus' side; a vision which has never quite left me since I saw it. A girl of ten or twelve, it might be; one of the children to whom there has never been anyother lesson taught than that of patience: – patience of famine and thirst; patience of heat and cold; patience of fierce word and sullen blow; patience of changeless fate and giftless time. She was lying with her arms thrown back over her head, all languid and lax, on an earth-heap by the river side (the softness of the dust being the only softness she had ever known), in the southern suburb of Turin, one golden afternoon in August, years ago. She had been at play, in her fashion, with other patient children, and had thrown herself down to rest, full in the sun, like a lizard. The sand was mixed with the draggled locks of her black hair, and some of it sprinkled over her face and body, in an "ashes to ashes" kind of way; a few black rags about her loins, but her limbs nearly bare, and her little breasts, scarce dimpled yet, – white, – marble-like – but, as wasted marble, thin with the scorching and the rains of Time. So she lay, motionless; black and white by the shore in the sun; the yellow light flickering back upon her from the passing eddies of the river, and burning down on her from the west. So she lay, like a dead Niobid: it seemed as if the Sun-God, as he sank towards grey Viso (who stood play in the south-west, and pyramidal as a tomb), had been wroth with Italy for numbering her children too carefully, and slain this little one. Black and white she lay, all breathless, in a sufficiently pictorial manner: the gardens of the Villa Regina gleamed beyond, graceful with laurel-grove and labyrinthine terrace; and folds of purple mountain were drawn afar, for curtains round her little dusty bed.
Par for the course in overall ickiness, I guess. Not merely is the erotic energy of his prose directed at a prepubescent girl (as his emotional energies were at the time directed at Rose La Touche, who was 9 when Ruskin met her, 16 or 17 at the time of this writing), but she, the incarnation for the nonce of "patience," will jump to serpentine life at her playmate's approach – "she rose with a single spring, like a snake" – & scream at her in Alecto's own shrill shriek. Ruskin, I fear, keeps pushing me towards what I've been resisting for years: a systematic reading of Freud.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Like everyone else, I've been reading Jeff Nunokawa's "notes" – brief essays, really – on Facebook, & with much enjoyment. It's cool, so many years on, to see that someone I remember as one of the nicest people around Campus on the Hill remains as nice as ever. And such a good writer. One of the articles on him, dwelling much on how ridiculously in-shape the man is, quotes a student claiming that Jeff "does an hour on the StairMaster every day at a level that’s just ridiculous." Dunno, he certainly looks buff enough in the FB photos.

Me, I'm still struggling thru the early weeks of the 100 Pushups regimen; I'm a long way from looking like Fabio (or Jeff Nunokawa, for that matter), but making progress. More importantly, perhaps, Undine of Not of General Interest has put me onto what she calls her Stairmaster for writing: 750 Words, a stripped-down, no-frills website whose whole goal is to get you putting those goddamned words down in order. I've only been using it a few days, but it's been working wonders towards disciplining me – getting me to put down the books and write down my thoughts. Give it a shot; looks as tho it works as well for fiction writers as for academic scribblers.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

too much?

I'm in the process – have been for a year or so now, I guess – of extending/expanding my "scholarly base," of stretching out from being a modernist/20th-century person to having more than a nodding familiarity with Victorian literature & culture. This year alone I've probably read about 30 books this year in the field, bunches of articles, etc. I've done a couple of related conference papers now; I wrote a review of a new Ruskin book a few months ago.

So when do I start actually writing this big book? My own inclination is to keep reading until I know enough to do it right, but there's always something more to read. I suspect that if I wait until I feel totally ready to tackle the next thing, that I'll die of old age before I ever put fingers to keyboard.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Dan Beachy-Quick: Mulberry and This Nest, Swift Passerine

Mulberry (Tupelo P, 2006) and This Nest, Swift Passerine (Tupelo P, 2009), Dan Beachy-Quick

The silkworm, the larval form of Bombyx mori, feeds on mulberry leaves almost exclusively, transmuting them into the 1000 to 3000 feet of silken thread that forms its cocoon – and which later, boiled, unraveled, cleaned, woven, & dyed, make scarves tunics & Wall Street traders' shirts. In Dan Beachy-Quick's Mulberry, the worm's process becomes a figure for the poet's transmutation of his own reading & his experience from the wild disorderly to the woven texture of the poem. Lordy, you say, another poem about poem-making! Haven't the centuries of makars inflicted the tortuous accounts of their own compositional processes on us long enough?

But Mulberry, like Wordworth's Prelude, is only in part a poem about the formation of the poet's mind – or rather, the formation of the poet's mind, the movement of his restless sensibility as he devours texts & experience, is synechdoche for the formation of the human mind in general. Mulberry exemplifies how the poet takes in the outside – books, nature, the lived life – and transmutes it into intricately woven iridescence; but it also exemplifies the constant interchange of outside & inside & outside again that is the human life, however buried those processes may be.

Beachy-Quick's extraordinary lyricism was evident from his first book, North True South Bright (Alice James Books, 2003); if anything his ear has grown more delicate in Mulberry and This Nest, Swift Passerine. "Passerine" is a bird – the name derives from Latin passer, sparrow – a "perching" bird, a "songbird." Where Mulberry figures the poet as humble caterpillar, munching leaves and metamorphosing them into silk, This Nest – a far bolder, wide-ranging, book – melds the traditional figure of the poet as transient songbird with an eco-centric conception of the poet's task as the building of a variegated and beautiful – not to mention liveable – nest, a nest formed out of the bits & pieces of experience, of previous texts, of philosophies & traditional wisdoms.

I hear a great deal of Ronald Johnson in This Nest; at times, indeed, the book reads like a 21st-century version of Johnson's The Book of the Green Man (1967). Johnson & Beachy-Quick share many points of reference: Thoreau, William & Dorothy Wordsworth, the general milieu of British nature-romanticism. But the ambition of This Nest pushes well beyond the careful naturalism and (sometimes 2nd-hand) nature mysticism of Green Man: Beachy-Quick is out to weave an encompassing tapesterial picture of the sparrow-poet in nature, something more akin to the mind-blowing cosmological stew of Johnson's ARK (which Beachy-Quick indeed cites). This Nest enfolds not merely the naturalism and Naturphilosophie of Thoreau & the Wordsworths, but swatches of Martin Buber, bits of Heidegger, Emerson, Weil, Traherne, usw. All is a kind of beautiful winding-together of fragments, bound & woven with Beachy-Quick's own precise verbal music, to form a lyrical, musical dwelling-place.

Ovid's Echo & Narcissus, the disembodied voice & the self-enraptured observer, play constant counterpoint, a Wordsworth-like questioning of whether our enraptured staring into nature is anything more than a self-obsession. As Wordsworth & Johnson would answer, & as Beachy-Quick assents, we do indeed see ourselves when we look into nature – but we see ourselves precisely as part and parcel of the nature's interlinked processes. Yes, natura naturata, LZ would say (echoing his blessed Spinoza), but natura naturans at the same time.

[116, 117]