Friday, January 30, 2009

Death-white realms


Ethan Frome cover:
Figures in the Snow by Pamela Scott Wilkie (2005)

'The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations...'

Thus begins Ethan Frome (1911), a novel in which the snowy winter landscape plays a central role both in the framing narrative and the tragic story itself. I was listening to it recently in a good reading by Elizabeth Klett for LibriVox.org. It was a strange thing walking along to work and hearing descriptions of freezing weather while feeling pretty cold myself. The iPod allows you to overlay your own sensory experiences with those described in the book. And of course in theory it offers the opportunity to listen to stories in situ, experiencing Ethan Frome for example whilst literally walking through the snowy New England landscape (rather than, in my case, plodding through the cold streets of North London).

Still, the ideal is probably to read books like Ethan Frome whilst sitting snug and warm inside (and as I write this it is freezing out there...) Which reminds me of another classic novel Elizabeth Klett has read for LibriVox, Jane Eyre, in which Jane journeys in imagination to the cold seas of the far north:

'Folds of scarlet drapery shut in my view to the right hand; to the left were the clear panes of glass, protecting, but not separating me from the drear November day. At intervals, while turning over the leaves of my book, I studied the aspect of that winter afternoon. Afar, it offered a pale blank of mist and cloud; near, a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.

I returned to my book—Bewick's “History of British Birds:” the letter-press thereof I cared little for, generally speaking; and yet there were certain introductory pages that, child as I was, I could not pass quite as a blank. They were those which treat of the haunts of sea-fowl; of “the solitary rocks and promontories” by them only inhabited; of the coast of Norway, studded with isles from its southern extremity, the Lindeness, or Naze, to the North Cape—

“Where the Northern Ocean, in vast whirls,
Boils round the naked, melancholy isles
Of farthest Thule; and the Atlantic surge
Pours in among the stormy Hebrides,”

Nor could I pass unnoticed the suggestion of the bleak shores of Lapland, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland, with “the vast sweep of the Arctic Zone, and those forlorn regions of dreary space—that reservoir of frost and snow, where firm fields of ice, the accumulations, of centuries of winters, glazed in Alpine heights above heights, surround the pole, and concenter the multiplied rigors of extreme cold.” Of these death-white realms I formed an idea of my own; shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children's brains, but strangely impressive.'

The original passages from Thomas Bewick can be read at the Brontë Sources site. The lines of verse are from Thomson's The Seasons (the enjoyment of which will demonstrate how it is possible to enjoy that long poem in small doses, pace Michael Schmidt). Jenny Uglow, biographer of Thomas Bewick, has described Charlotte Brontës enthusiasm for Bewick. When he died in 1828 (long before Jane Eyre), she wrote a poem 'imagining his traveller on the dreary moor and his chill picture of the surf crashing at sea:

There rises some lone rock all wet with surge
And dashing billows glimmering in the light
Of a wan moon, whose silent rays emerge
From clouds that veil their lustre, cold and bright.'

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Scenery and a Music Box

'I am prepared to meet my death / In this excessively lucid landscape' wrote Kenji Miyazawa in his poem 'Scenery and a Music Box.' In the notes to his translation of this poem, Roger Pulvers suggests that it beautifully illustrates Kenji's vision. Dated 16 September 1923, the poem describes a walk along the Toyosawa River to cut down trees in the early evening. Kenji ends up imploring the hill to be still, expecting nature to take from him something in return for the trees he has felled.

The poem has landscape motifs that Kenji used repeatedly: the river, the wind, clouds, stars. There is the figure of a farmer fused with the landscape set alongside signs of modernity like the electric wires which whistle in the wind and become a 'music box'. As this wind dies down into a gentle breeze, Kenji sees it as a symbol of eternity (he uses the Buddhist term kalpa). The focus of the poem sometimes zooms in on luminous detail, like the raindrops on the bridge, and includes striking images drawn from science and geology, like the clouds that are 'crystal-rimmed' and then 'chalcedonic'.

Kenji's 'active engagement with nature, and his seeing himself as its faithful chronicler and recorder, was sufficient to set him apart from virtually all other Japanese poets, who tended to use nature as a springboard for their own musings and lamentations.' Roger Pulvers talks about the way Japan's industrialisation overwrote its traditional love of nature. In a passage that reminds me of remarks by Alex Kerr I discussed in an earlier posting here, he says 'most of Kenji's contemporaries would have believed - as Japanese still tend to believe today - that the Japanese love nature virtually more than do the people of any other nation. This belief is held despite the fact that preservation of nature is a very low priority for those people in Japan who hold the future of the country in their hands. Nature itself has become nothing more than a figment of nostalgia to most Japanese people.' In 'Scenery and a Music Box' the poet observes that the bridge over the river provides a view 'seething with nostalgia'. Kenji wanted nature cherished, but he also wanted to promote the science of modern agriculture and reduce rural poverty. Kenji's ideal life is described in his last and best known poem, 'Strong in the Rain': a strong man, free from desire, living in 'a little thatched-roof hut / In a field in the shadows of a pine tree grove.'

It may just be coincidence, because I've been reading both writers recently, but Miyazawa seems to me to share much in common with Henry David Thoreau. They both rejected convention (and their own fathers' lives) in favour of a life lived according to their own beliefs. They shared a poetic vision of nature alongside a practical interest in the process of farming. Miyazawa's desire to live 'Strong in the Rain' reminds me of the kind of life aspired to by Thoreau at Walden Pond. Neither of them married and their asceticism was seen by others as extreme. Neither was as physically robust as they would like to have been: Thoreau died of tuberculosis at the age of 44, Miyazawa of pneumonia at the age of 37 - his last request was for a thousand copies of the Lotus Sutra to be printed and distributed among his friends and acquaintances.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

South Cove

I've been a bit busy lately, but here's a quick link to the Monumental Land Art site, which in turn gives links 'to satellite and topographic imagery of the best known large earthworks, both old and new, still extant in the continental United States, as well as a few significant smaller scale pieces. The images provide a sense of comparative scale; the topographic views provide a sense of the terrain; and the geophysical coordinates provide a sense of their proximal relationship.' I like their gif images for each site (created by Don Seeley/Daring Designs), like the representation here of South Cove, which Mary Miss created in 1988 for Battery Park, New York City.

Monday, January 12, 2009

D'autres auront nos champs

Landscape is a central theme of Graham Robb's fascinating book The Discovery of France (2007). He is continually overturning the reader's expectations, for example in this passage on the impact of modernity on the French landscape.

'Until the late nineteenth century, there are few equivalents in French literature of the sentiment expressed by William Wordsworth: 'wheresoe'er the traveller turns his steps, / He sees the barren wilderness erased, / Or disappearing' (1814). 'Is then no nook of English ground secure / From rash assault?' (1844). The best-known French elegy on the theme of changing landscape is Victor Hugo's 'Tristesse d'Olympio' (1837). It refers to the gatekeeper's cottage near Bièvres, eight miles south-west of Pairs, in which Hugo rented a room for his mistress. To an English poet, the changes described by Hugo would have seemed barely worth a mention. The steep and sandy road where the beloved left her footprint has been paved, and the milestone on which she sat and waited for her lover has been scuffed by cart wheels. A wall has been built around a spring. But other parts are returning to the wild: 'Here, the forest is missing, and there, it has grown.' 'Our leafy chambers now are thickets.' There is no sign that Bièvres would one day be the home of an industrial bakery, the Burospace technology park, the 'RAID' division of the riot police and the Victor Hugo car park.

D'autres auront nos champs, nos sentiers, nos retraites ;
Ton bois, ma bien-aimée, est à des inconnus.

(Others shall have our fields, our paths and hiding places. /
Your wood, y beloved, now belongs to strangers.)'

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Frequently the woods are pink

There was much excitement in our house when we heard that Tate Modern is going to do a Roni Horn exhibition this year. I have tickets for the talk on 25 February so should be able to report on any interesting landscape-related discussion. One of the first series of hers that caught my imagination was the 'Key and Cue' works, like I'm Nobody! Who Are You? (1994). These each use just the first line from one of Emily Dickinson's 1,775 short poems. Some other examples from the series which have a landscape connection are:

THE MOUNTAINS - GROW UNNOTICED

AIR HAS NO RESIDENCE, NO NEIGHBOR.

TO MAKE A PRAIRIE IT TAKES A CLOVER AND ONE BEE

FREQUENTLY THE WOODS ARE PINK -

These fragments have a sense of containment but retain a quality of openness and complexity. When you read the whole Emily Dickinson poem it can seem a slight anticlimax...

FREQUENTLY the woods are pink,
Frequently are brown;
Frequently the hills undress
Behind my native town.

Oft a head is crested
I was wont to see,
And as oft a cranny
Where it used to be.

And the earth, they tell me,
On its axis turned,—
Wonderful rotation
By but twelve performed!

But I wouldn't say this about many of them - few of us would prefer the fragment to this famous poem...

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, -
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.

To end, here are a few more Emily Dickinson first lines, which I've extracted from the index to her collected poems, each suggestive of a landscape:

THE MOUNTAINS STOOD IN HAZE
THE CLOUDS THEIR BACKS TOGETHER LAID
A LANE OF YELLOW LED THE EYE,
A FIELD OF STUBBLE LYING SERE,
A WILD BLUE SKY ABREAST OF WINDS
FOUR TREES UPON A SOLITARY ACRE
THE HILLS IN PURPLE SYLLABLES
HOW THE OLD MOUNTAINS DRIP WITH SUNSET
MY GARDEN LIKE THE BEACH

Friday, January 02, 2009

The season of rainy winter

Hesiod's Works and Days is one of the earliest Greek poems we have, which makes it a bit of a shame that the author can come over on first reading as a bit of a bore. As Dorothea Schmidt Wender puts it in the Penguin translation - 'many of us find his conservatism, pessimism, didacticism, misogyny and lack of fun quite uncongenial.' However, she also points out moments of genuine artistry in the poem, as in the contrast he draws between the lives of those who have to work in the harsh North Wind and 'the soft-skinned girl who stays / Indoors at home', able to go 'to an inner room at home' and 'take a nap upon a winter day.' The description of this wind, like other parts of the poem, give a sense of the landscape of Boeotia: 'He blows through Thrace, where horses graze; he blows / On the broad sea and whips it up: the earth / and forest mutter; in the mountain pass / He falls on high-leafed oaks and thick-branched pines / And brings them to the fruitful earth; while all the boundless forests cry...'

Here is another short extract concerned with ploughing from one of the translations available online: 'Mark, when you hear the voice of the crane who cries year by year from the clouds above, for she gives the signal for ploughing and shows the season of rainy winter; but she vexes the heart of the man who has no oxen. Then is the time to feed up your horned oxen in the byre; for it is easy to say: “Give me a yoke of oxen and a wagon,” and it is easy to refuse: “I have work for my oxen.” The man who is rich in fancy thinks his wagon as good as built already--the fool! he does not know that there are a hundred timbers to a wagon. Take care to lay these up beforehand at home. So soon as the time for ploughing is proclaimed to men, then make haste, you and your slaves alike, in wet and in dry, to plough in the season for ploughing, and bestir yourself early in the morning so that your fields may be full.'

A small bronze sculpture of a plough is one of several works by Georges Braque inspired by Hesiod that was showing at the Royal Academy's exhibition Behind the Mirror: Aimé Maeght and His Artists. The show included Braque's late landscapes which I had seen before but not previously thought of in connection with Works and Days. At the RA they were juxtaposed with Braque's works based on Hesiod and they seem to convey a sense of archaic poetry and reduce the landscape down to its fundamental elements of earth and sky. A couple of them include a plough in the foreground.

The last time I saw paintings like Landscape - Fields with Overcast Sky (1956-7) and Plain I (1955-56) was at the late RA's late Braque show in 1997. A review article by Robert Rosenblum made the comparison with Van Gogh, who 'looms large in a startlingly direct series of Normandy landscapes begun in 1955, a response, perhaps, to the exhibition "Van Gogh et les peintres d'Auvers-sur-Oise," held at the Orangerie in the winter of 1954-55. One of these poignantly simple paintings, Landscape with Dark Sky, is virtually a re-creation of the Dutch master's Wheatfield with Crows, not only in theme and format but in its heavy impasto, a bit of pictorial therapy whose outdoor air and expansive horizon offer a temporary respite from the sequestered visual and emotional intricacies of the studio paintings.'

Back in 1982 John Russell described one of these late landscapes as having 'precisely the pondered look, the rich encrusted texture, and the mingling of real and unreal, poetical and matter-of-fact, that we treasure in late Braque.' These are the qualities we can still read in Hesiod's Works and Days.