Trump-era reading: I find it hard to read and cry at the same time.
I finished reading David Brooks’ The Road to Character and had David Fischer’s 900-page Albion’s Seed ready as my next read. I’ve been interested to see how the areas of our country where our English ancestors settled has shaped the differing cultures in those areas, including political attitudes. This seemed like a good follow-up to Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.
But then, it felt as if I had all the political thinking I could handle, just watching and reading the news.
I picked up Marianne Boruch’s new book of poems, Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing. Good title, don’t you think? I have been reading those poems off and on, but this couldn’t hold me.
So, I thought, something earthy, comforting. I started The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben. It’s a breathtaking trip through interconnectedness. A forest is a single organism, essentially. As all things can be said to be a single organism. What happens to one happens to all. But the painful loss of forests, the pain of the trees. No, I’ve put this aside for now. I have too many tears already.
So I started a Maisie Dobbs mystery (by Jacquelyn Winspear)—you might remember I said I read mysteries these days as palate cleansers. I love her old-fashioned British stories. But as fate would have it, in this one, Masie goes to Nazi Germany to try to rescue a publisher from Hitler’s clutches. Her sense of foreboding as Germany closes down, the people’s fear, the tension in the air, well, you can see that my palate hasn’t been all that cleansed.
A quotation: “The Fuhrer had come to power on a tide of public emotion based upon want and fear, and his promises to give the people their due.”
Another: “She suspected they were a people with a profound sense of honor torn between loyalty to their country and feeling that something was deeply amiss.”
Damn. I don’t know how to approach either my work or my reading these days. I can’t go on with the same poems I’ve been reading and writing. Not that grandmothers and pileated woodpeckers and buds on trees aren’t the stuff of life. It’s just that, for God’s sake, Rome is burning. The the volcano’s rumbling, words are breaking into syllables.
Why am I bothering with this blog at all? Aren’t you overwhelmed already with reading about much more crucial things? I’m circling like a hawk, restless, tearful. I’m sending endless messages to our representatives, sure. Yes, but.
I have opinions, of course, but I see how they float in the mind. I know I don’t know the “real” truth of things and probably will never know, if there is a real truth, exactly.
Small example: The image of Melania Trump at the inauguration. During the prayer, Trump turned around and appeared to say something to her. Her face lit up. She beamed a smile. But as soon as he turned back around, her face fell. She looked utterly devastated. So the Internet stories—don’t ask me how or why I was looking at this stuff. It’s a slippery slope from the New York Times to other sites. The internet comments were that he had to have said something to her that crushed her. She’s an abused woman, etc., etc. Then another commentator saw the video from a different angle. Trump was looking right past Melania to Ivanka. His smile was for her, not his wife. That’s probably why Melania looked so sad. But who knows? All I know is that she looks very sad. And I am sad.
It isn’t surprising that those of us who don’t usually troll the Internet are at it right now. We’re trying to find clues as to who this man is, who doesn’t himself have the answer to that question. We’re looking for some solid ground.
There is no solid ground and never has been. We are made of flux. That’s all well and good, but when the containers, the institutions, we’ve depended upon to even maintain our practices are trembling and shaking, beginning to develop hairline cracks. . . .
I turn to Yeats. Thank God for Yeats.
“Lapis Lazuli.” I read it like medicine. I read it slowly. I read it again. Then I’m smiling.
If you’re not used to reading poetry, I’ll give you the skeleton: The women are hysterical! Look what’s happening in the world! Yes, but we all have our parts in this play, and when actors play a sad part, they don’t stop their lines to weep. Everything—art, civilizations—fall apart, and those who build them back are glad to get to do that!
And meanwhile, the Chinamen on the carved piece of lapis lazuli—they’re imagined to be drinking tea, looking at the tragic scene, listening to mournful melodies, and “their eyes, their ancient, glittering eyes are gay.”
But the summary isn’t the poem, for heaven’s sake. Here it is:
(for Harry Clifton)
I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out,
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.
All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.
On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again
And those that build them again are gay.
Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in Lapis Lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.
Every discolouration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.