Peonies in the rain: flowers on campus are beautiful, even on the dreariest of days.
“In Summer Time,” Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906)
When summer time has come, and all
The world is in the magic thrall
Of perfumed airs that lull each sense
To fits of drowsy indolence;
When skies are deepest blue above,
And flow’rs aflush,—then most I love
To start, while early dews are damp,
And wend my way in woodland tramp
Where forests rustle, tree on tree,
And sing their silent songs to me;
Where pathways meet and pathways part,—
To walk with Nature heart by heart,
Till wearied out at last I lie
Where some sweet stream steals singing by
A mossy bank; where violets vie
In color with the summer sky,—
Or take my rod and line and hook,
And wander to some darkling brook,
Where all day long the willows dream,
And idly droop to kiss the stream,
And there to loll from morn till night—
Unheeding nibble, run, or bite—
Just for the joy of being there
And drinking in the summer air,
The summer sounds, and summer sights,
That set a restless mind to rights
When grief and pain and raging doubt
Of men and creeds have worn it out;
The birds’ song and the water’s drone,
The humming bee’s low monotone,
The murmur of the passing breeze,
And all the sounds akin to these,
That make a man in summer time
Feel only fit for rest and rhyme.
Joy springs all radiant in my breast;
Though pauper poor, than king more blest,
The tide beats in my soul so strong
That happiness breaks forth in song,
And rings aloud the welkin blue
With all the songs I ever knew.
O time of rapture! time of song!
How swiftly glide thy days along
Adown the current of the years,
Above the rocks of grief and tears!
‘Tis wealth enough of joy for me
In summer time to simply be.
My favorite lines in this poem are when the speaker is talking about why nature seems so beautiful to him right now–The summer sounds, and summer sights that set a restless mind to rights when grief and pain and raging doubt of men and creeds have worn it out– he retreats from civilization–he just glances off the pain of the memory– because it is too brutal to bear.
Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the author of this poem, was the eldest son of a woman freed from slavery in Kentucky. Although he died when he was just thirty-three, he is remembered as one of the first nationally acclaimed African American poets. Interesting fact: the title of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is from the first line of Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”: I know why the caged bird sings, ah me, / When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, / When he beats his bars and would be free; / It is not a carol of joy or glee, / But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core, / But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –/ I know why the caged bird sings.
The rest and relaxation of Dunbar’s summer is set in unstated contrast to his usual state. The conclusion of the poem invokes the image of time as a stream and the speaker as a compliant passenger–tis wealth enough of joy for me in summer time to simply be. But even as he enjoys the temporary pause in striving in the world–with the “raging doubt of men and creeds”–he suggests his intention to return. The joy he feels is as dependent upon the conclusion of rest, the fact that summertime is a concluding period of time, as upon that rest itself.
There is a sense of extended adolescence that accompanies academia–few adults get months of vacation at a time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty great. I’m not complaining. But one of the things that makes it wonderful is that I know in two months I’ll be getting back to work.
But for the mean time, I’ll simply be.
O Love, be fed with apples while you may,
And feel the sun and go in royal array,
A smiling innocent on the heavenly causeway,
Though in what listening horror for the cry
That soars in outer blackness dismally,
The dumb blind beast, the paranoiac fury:
This morning I’m thinking about the character of Harper Pitt in Angels in America. I’m trying to locate an opinion about a marginalized group in a play about marginalized groups. Is Kushner re-enforcing the trope of the silenced woman, who exists as a prop for male sexuality, or revealing it? Investigating or relying on the preconception of the female as mad? In this post-everything age of gender politics, is focusing specifically on the female role in a play about AIDS and gay identity somehow repressive or restrictive? Am I missing the point? Or does this play just rewrite a binary of male subjectivity and female secondary positions in a more fabulous key?
“By writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display–the ailing or dead figure, which so often turns out to be the nasty companion, the cause and location of inhibitions. Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard.”
–Helene Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa
Today I’m returning to Cornwall, but with Susan Cooper instead of Daphne du Maurier. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series is one of my favorites: it has kept its place on my bookshelves through multiple library purges and I reread it frequently. I’ve recently been skimming through Greenwitch, the third novel in the series.
Greenwitch brings together the characters from the first novel, Over Sea, Under Stone, (Paul, Simon and Jane Drew) and the second, The Dark is Rising, (Will Stanton) in order to… well, you know, defeat Evil and stuff. (Evil with a capital “E”, of course.) Throughout the entire series Evil and Good collide in a series of escalating conflicts… lots of showdowns, lots of crises, Merlin shows up, it’s all quite enjoyable.
My favorite in the series is the second: The Dark is Rising. Will Stanton turns eleven on a snow-muffled day in late November, and learns his responsibilities as the seventh son of a seventh son. Cooper does such a wonderful job of describing the deep and awe-inspiring silence of a heavy snowfall and linking that silence to a sense of the immense age of the English countryside. A perfect November read, and one I return to on a near-annual basis.
Anyway, the third novel in the series, Greenwitch is the only which features a female protagonist. By virtue of her gender, Jane Drew is allowed to attend the strictly female ritual of the making of the Greenwitch. The Greenwitch is a straw figure that is built and imbued with a sort of Cornish cultural magic during a ceremony, then thrown into the sea as an offering. Jane later dreams of a conscious Greenwitch, mournful in the face of the inexorable pull of the sea as the structure is drawn out into the deeps.
Of course, Jane saves the day by performing to gender type: she empathetically just “knows” the emotions of the Greenwitch, she becomes the caretaker and takes responsibility for those emotions… but even though she is acting through those stereotypical tropes, she still is allowed to be an actor in the drama rather than an adoring onlooker.
That dream is the pivotal point in the book: the primary action occurs while Jane is asleep, safely ensconced in her bedroom.
At the beginning of the book, Jane’s uncle takes her to the bedroom that she is to occupy while they’re in Cornwall, saying that the room is “very small, but the view’s good.”
“Oh!” said Jane in delight. The room was painted white, with gay yellow curtains, and a yellow quilt on the bed. The ceiling sloped down so that the wall on one side was only half the height of the wall on the other, and there was a space only for a bed, a dressing-table and a chair. But the little room seemed full of sunshine, even though the sky outside the curtains was grey. Jane stood looking out, while her great uncle went on to show the boys their room, and she thought that the picture she could see from the window was the best thing of all.
She was high up on the side of the harbour, overlooking the boats and jetties, the wharf piled with boxes and lobster-pots, and the little canning factory. All the life of the busy harbour was thrumming there below her, and out to the left, beyond the harbour wall and the dark arm of land called Kemare Head, lay the sea It was a grey sea now, speckled with white. Jane’s gaze moved in again from the flat ocean horizon, and she looked straight across to the sloping road on the opposite side of the harbour, and saw the tall narrow house in which they had stayed the summer before. The Grey House. Everything had begun there.
Simon tapped on the door and put his head round. “Hey, that’s a super view you’ve got. Ours hasn’t any, but it’s a nice room…
Greenwitch is a “girl’s book”, just as The Dark is Rising is a “boy’s book.” (Please note the campy quotes. I’m not painting the world blue and pink here, I’m reporting the colors.) The Dark is Rising goes into beautiful and exquisite detail to describe the old roads and the forest–all of the out-of-doors adventures that Will gets into while his family is sleeping that enchanted, deep sleep. Greenwitch does the same… for the bedroom. And the view, oddly enough. When Jane is actually outside in that beautiful scenery, it isn’t as gorgeous. The rocks are menacing, the cliffs too steep… but from within her bedroom, looking out onto the scenery, safely sequestered, all is lovely.
It isn’t just Susan Cooper who is at fault here–I love her books and I’m not really aiming at her. Re-read Nancy Drew, or Francis Hodges Burnett, any L. M. Montgomery’s novels, or even (gasp) Louisa May Alcott. The amount of meticulous and loving detail that goes into describing the bedrooms–and that which can be seen from the bedroom–is truly astounding.
(The above pictures are from a special exhibit at the Met that is running through July 4 entitled Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century.)
Full disclosure: I spent the evening crocheting and watching The Last Holiday. I know, you didn’t think I was such a party animal. Truthfully, although the movie is somewhat horrible, I heartily enjoy the sentiment—the “why am I waiting and what am I waiting for” sentiment, when the things you are putting off in life (travel, family, free time) seem ever so much more important than the reasons you are postponing them (education, career).
Last weekend, I seriously considered selling my somewhat meager belongings and moving to Italy. (I was reading Frances Mayes. I’m susceptible.) I still wish I could move, and the fact that I backed down seems less a triumph of common sense over recklessness than a cowardly taking of the safe track. I need a safety net and a five year plan- I hate it, but that is, apparently, who I am.
All of that goes to establishing mindset. This is why I was watching Last Holiday, a movie I’ve seen before and judged really crappy somewhat substandard then, LL Cool J notwithstanding. In case you don’t remember (and why would you?) Queen Latifah is a hardworking employee/drone, trying to protect her future by postponing all joy: terrible job? not important, it pays. cute boy? not right now, must work. And so on and so forth. Then she gets a terminal diagnosis and moves to a fancy hotel in Europe to blow through her savings and live it up while there’s time. I feel like there are a few other movies out there with a similar plot, but can’t think of them right now.
Ok, the movie is kind of terrible. I don’t remember the rest– I think LL Cool J (the aforementioned love interest) shows up in Europe to sweep her off her feet, the diagnosis was wrong, and I guess she doesn’t regret her wasted savings. Whatever. As I said, not a great cinematic masterpiece.
And honestly, I’m not interested in it because of some abstract (whatever that is) value. but I’m fascinated by the burn down the world, grab it all freedom– the impulsivity that is officially allowed (by whom? I’m not sure…society at large? community? common sense? the last, of course, is just the internalization of the former’s judgments… they- the ever-threatening “they”-catch us coming and going) when the longevity question- the planning for tomorrow bit- is taken off the table. (I’m reminded, as I so frequently am, of Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: who would I be, what would my life look like, if I weren’t so pre-occupied with my own futurity? )
In the elimination of the idea of the future in Last Holiday– and in The Blue Castle, which is what I actually want to talk about– the protagonists are given the freedom to travel, to speak their minds, to quit crap jobs, to be—truly be—in the moment.
God, that sounds hokey, but it seems to resonate, at least with me. I live so much of my life in anticipation: when my education is done, when I get a job I like, when I… whatever, that the present seems to escape me. My mother is right (gasp!)–I’m wishing my life away.
Those are problems for another time. What I am reading, however, is a reflection of those fat bubbles of unrest that are rolling to the top of my psyche. The Blue Castle has long been my favorite of L. M. Montgomery’s books; it’s just so absolutely flat-out romantic. Its premise is actually quite a bit like Last Holiday, which is why I began with the confession of my late-night TV watching: incredibly repressed woman gets a negative heath report, and decides (poster-type quote ahead) “to live before she dies.” Queen Latifah goes to some skiing resort;Valancy Stirling meets a mountain man and asks him to marry her.
Valancy Stirling is a skinny, sallow spinster who lives the most depressing life imaginable with her overbearing mother, sniffling aunt, and interfering, patronizing extended family. (Think Bette Davis in Now, Voyager.) After suffering a worse-than-usual chest pain, Valancy secretly goes to a specialist, who tells her that she has a serious heart condition and will die within the year. Valancy rebels at the idea of “dying before she’s lived,” and starts speaking her mind at family gatherings, leading the elderly patriarchs of the family to murmur, aghast, while her mother has hysterics.
She eventually tells her story to the town ruffian, a “sparkly-eyed backwoods man” (direct quote) who smokes a foul smelling pipe and drives the oldest car imaginable. She then proposes to, marries, and moves in with this backwoods man, the euphoniously named Barney Snaith. After several months of the most perfect health and glorious happiness, she begins to wonder about the doctor’s diagnosis–and what that might mean to her marriage.
This has been my favorite L. M. Montgomery since I was about 16–I think I identified much too strongly with that crazy family! But I’ve always thought of this as kind of a fairytale; an uncomplicated trajectory from misery to happy ending. (I realize that all those who have studied fairy tales in any depth just gasped. Shush.) I still think the story is a little simplistic, but this time I noticed (was looking for) something else kind of nonfairytaley: Valancy saves herself. She doesn’t wait for a prince to rescue her–she leaves home, she throws off convention, she proposes to Barney, she essentially creates her own Eden–or at least her own entry into Eden. She isn’t an all round strong female character–she begins quite weak and then nobly returns home “with the grey face…of a creature that has been struck a mortal blow” when she fears that Barney will feel tricked when it looks like he will get a life of marriage instead of the originally planned year. In that, I suppose, Lucy Maud has Barney play the ever-loving hero, as of course, he comes to retrieve her. (And in such a frustrating way! These books that have the male lead tenderly swearing at the blockhead who won’t believe herself loved… the “Dear little fool!” exchanges…make me a bit tired.) But still, I do appreciate that Valancy didn’t gaze out the parlor window until Prince Charming rode up. In fact, she becomes weak again when she imagines herself to have a future. Wouldn’t it be interesting to examine someone as, dare I say it, staid as Lucy Maud in light of ideas of queer temporality? Lucy Maud, meet Jack.