Saturday, November 18, 2017

Detachment and Distancing

From my earliest memories until well into my forties I had moments of very marked detachment from my surroundings. Sometimes when I was tired I would find that the room in which I sat and the people with whom I was talking were receding, and as I got farther away it was as if I were watching them in a movie.  I had a certain amount of control in that I could allow this distancing to continue or I could choose to reenter the situation by speaking or otherwise focusing my attention so that I was projected back inward and arrived among them with a thump.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017


            A poem in Eavan Boland’s, Outside History, “On the Gift of The Birds of America by John James Audubon,” begins “What you have given me is, of course, elegy.”  When I read it I thought immediately of my wife Katharine’s telling me about her reading of old bird guides.  Even one published as recently as fifteen years ago is already a sad reminder of the past, she said, because it describes a world that no longer exists—the size of flocks, the range of birds, and even some individual species.  With Audubon’s Birds the world elegized is more than a century and a half in the past.  Elegy, writes Boland in this poem, is “the celebration of an element/which absence has revealed,” where “the pine siskin and the wren are an inference,” along with the hawk and the tern, of the rest of the past these colored drawings elegize. The attempt to record, describe, photograph, draw or otherwise memorialize is always "the celebration of an element which absence has revealed," is always elegy. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

"A Chance Conversation" Now Online

My essay, "A Chance Conversation" is now online in the October number of The Cumberland Review and can be viewed here:

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Full Mehitabel

            Until I spotted The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel (2006) on a bookstore shelf, I had thought that the omnibus edition of Don Marquis’s Evening Sun columns featuring the louche Mehitabel the cat and Archy, the vers libre poet reincarnated as a cockroach, was all there was of those two. The omnibus edition was called The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel and came out in 1940, combining the three previous Archy and Mehitabel collections Marquis had published; it was reissued in 1950 with a brilliant introduction by E. B. White. In fact, as I learned from Michael Sims’s introduction and notes to The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel, there were many more of Archy’s columns (supposedly all the columns were left in Marquis’s typewriter in the morning, having been written by Archy’s launching himself onto each key headfirst during the night) from their inception March 29, 1916 until the last column two days before Christmas in 1922.
            Sims presents the columns in the form and order in which they appeared, while Marquis had selected, rearranged, and sometimes altered them in the previous collections. He omits a few very short walk-ons where Archy makes a pitch for war bonds, including one of these so that we can see what they were like. Otherwise we have all of them, rather more of Archy than of Mehitabel. Archy comments on the war effort, goes to Washington, stows away on the ship carrying American diplomats to the peace conference in Paris, but characteristically spends most of his time there with a down-and-out Russian who claims to be the Czar. Archy talks about the influenza epidemic and the coming of Prohibition as well as many other current events and passing fads.  He has running contract negotiations and threatened strikes with his “boss” Marquis, hoping to get larger type for his column and food left in the newsroom. Most notable of the events omitted from the omnibus edition are Archy’s two deaths: Marquis kills him with a flyswatter, mistaking him for some other insect, early in the series, and later on Archy talks about practicing and mastering getting out of his body (spiritualism and related phenomena were big in the twenties); he returns to his body one day and finds it squashed. Each time, to his chagrin, he is reincarnated as a cockroach again.
            Mehitabel is her usual self, lamenting how she’s come down in the world (she was once, she says, Cleopatra), but always ready for a ramble on the roof tiles or romance with an itinerant tom; “life,” says Mehitabel, “is just one damn kitten after another,” but her motto is toujours gai, almost always with a “wotthehell” added.