Friday, January 29, 2010


Palms, Logan

I just flew in from Abu Dhabi, and boy, my arms are tired. Before Abu Dhabi it was Mumbai, where the long list of forbidden weaponry on the plane included not only bazookas and hand grenades but pickles and pickling spices. Before Mumbai it was a resort on the Arabian Sea. As we approached the resort in a rented car, the terrain grew more and more tropical, and the road itself reverted to loose gravel, then dirt. The vegetation was thick but much of it seemed desiccated and drooping--strange, since there had been no drought. I saw, for the first time, somebody using a small elephant as a domestic animal, to move what looked like construction supplies. We approached a low wall of cinder blocks. Beyond it, we assumed, would be a South Indian Club Med. But no, beyond the wall was the exact same vegetation, and a row of bamboo bungalows, in one of which we watched Robocop later that night, as the rain pattered on our bamboo roof and the movie was interrupted by numerous commercials for skin-lightening compounds.

The next morning, in the hazy sunlight, I studied the ferns, the low deciduous trees I couldn't identify, and especially the palms. Despite the rain last night, they looked thirsty, in need of assistance--they brought to mind Bellow's famous line in Humboldt's Gift, where "the very bushes might have been on welfare." Yet in some odd way, they compelled your respect. And just the other day, I came across a perfect, metaphor-mad description of them by Henry James, who was discussing the Florida variety in The American Scene. Buckle your seatbelts, folks:
I found myself loving, quite fraternally, the palms, which had struck me at first, for all their human-headed gravity, as merely dry and taciturn, but which became finally as sympathetic as so many rows of puzzled philosophers, dishevelled, shock-pated, with the riddle of the universe.
Human-headed gravity--exactly what I have been aiming for all these years. Now, I cannot tell a lie: I didn't encounter that Henry James quote in The American Scene itself. It occurs in "The State with the Prettiest Name," from William Logan's latest, Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue. I know what you're thinking: more critical mayhem. But what struck me, as I read through the tongue-lashing assessments of our wittiest critic, is that many of Logan's best lines are directed at poets who have earned his exasperated admiration.

Take John Ashbery. Logan has sometimes grumbled about Ashbery, whose playful convolutions of the American language have poured out, with hardly a pause for station identification, since the appearance of Turandot and Other Poems in 1953. It's like one long, sad, waking dream; it's like a game of tiddlywinks that goes on for fifty years. But in a single paragraph, Logan nails his signal strength (his absolute mastery of the American idiom, which he plays like a pipe organ) and his weakness (he can't stop playing, like E. Power Biggs with a stash of pep pills). I will now yield the floor to Logan:
John Ashbery was born when Pola Negri was still box office, yet his poems are more in touch with the American demotic--the tongue most of us speak and few of us write--than any near-octogenarian has the right to be. He has published more than a thousand pages in the last fifteen years, almost twice as many as Wallace Stevens wrote in half a century--and Stevens was no slouch. Ashbery's poems are like widgets manufactured to the most peculiar specifications and in such great numbers the whole world widget market has collapsed.
It's that final sentence that kills me: perfect. I will quote just one more, on Frederick Seidel, whose elegant, icky verse would sooner die than beguile the reader. Writes Logan: "It's hard to get the radical sympathy and aristo loathing in focus--Seidel's an original, but you're glad there aren't more like him."

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James: Your lovely writing, tasty observations, and nimble wit are always a pleasure to read. But I must ask, What took you to Abu Dhabi?
Hi Charles, always great to hear from you, and I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Abu Dhabi was actually a stopover en route to (and from) India. Extremely nice airport. One of these days I'd like to see the rest of the place.
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