Poetic Notions: Martha Cooley’s The Archivist

November 5, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 1 3 min read

coverI have been reading restlessly all day today.  In bed, on the couch, at the restaurant, at the dining table.  I woke up and I finished the last twenty pages of the first movement of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.  Without once resorting to poetics or philosophizing, these three volumes managed to touch on so many true things about humans, through upturned sugar bowls, motor car accidents, and comical overcoats.  It was magnificent to go to Mrs. Andriadis’s party, which I had to hurriedly leave before I was connected to the agitated Mr. Deacon, who dropped his armload of “War Never Pays!” pamphlets as he pursued Max Pilgrim down the stairs.  But as that first movement came to a close, I felt some relief that I was temporarily cut off from Jenkins, Widmerpool, Templer, and Stringham – delicious, Britishy-British names, all of them – until I would be able to get the second movement.  I needed a break from so thoroughly living other people’s lives.

coverI turned to The Archivist, by Martha Cooley.  I bought it used at Kultura’s Books, near Dupont Circle, and I did not have high expectations because I had seen the book before, disliking the cover and for some unclear reason, the title.  But it was the only book on my bookshelf that seemed an antidote to the hectic pace of the pre-WWII British society that had absorbed me for so many weeks.  The Archivist was elegant and it shot me through with poetry.

No light under my fingers.

Where the grey light meets the green air.

Humility is endless.

The memory throws up high and dry

A crowd of twisted things

Most of the poetry Cooley quotes is T.S. Eliot, with sprinklings of LeRoi Jones (or as I know him: Amiri Baraka) and others.  I read the book as I walked from lunch to another Washington, DC bookstore, “Second Story Books,” in order to buy a copy of Eliot’s “Four Quartets.”  A friend once characterized his relationship with poetry as infrequent, intense, and somewhat involuntary; my relationship is the same.  Its ignition is unexpected and, once commenced, frenetic – like the way my dog runs at top speed in tiny circles when I sometimes manage to sneak up on him and poke him in his haunches.  This ignition occurs at odd moments: I might be sitting in an office or standing at a party, when I am seized with this need for words in sentences that I don’t have to analyze or fully understand.  Cooley describes this feeling better:

For me, reading Eliot’s work is like trying to intercept a butterfly.  It comes so close you can see its markings, the luminous wings, and then as you extend a hand it’s gone – hidden among other flickering objects of consciousness.  There’s a pleasure in this approximation, I suppose, and even in the failure to apprehend.  I don’t mind the obscurity of Eliot’s verse.  (What good, after all, is an insect pinned on velvet, gorgeous but dead?)

Although a critic on the back cover calls it a “literary detective story,” the story of archivist Matthias, his relationship to a wife he has to commit to a mental institution, and his safeguarding of a collection of not-yet-public Eliot letters is more a poetic love story.   The way Matthias describes meeting his wife, Judith, is irresistible to any romantic who loves words and fancies intellectuals.  He meets her in a jazz bar, where she is reading a book of Auden poems.  He asks her which poem she is reading and she hands him the open book to read where her finger points.  I love this scene for its uncute meet-cute quality, for its spare but punchy dialogue.

At times the book, through Ondaatje-esque short sentences and heavy pauses, is too weighed down by Judith’s depression and Matthias’s detachment.  They struggle to maintain their marriage as she becomes violent and obsessed with events following World War II.  I grew fidgety in the middle, where the book became the diary that Judith kept while at the mental institution.  Matthias and his post-Judith dealings, along with his narration, were more compelling to me.  Still, each character is intelligent and lean enough that I forgave them for exploiting my weakness for those Ondaatje-esque short sentences and heavy pauses.

But the real value of the book is its ardent advocacy of poetry, and T.S. Eliot’s poetry in particular.  If you were ever forced to read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in high school and you fell in love with those words, then The Archivist will compel you to read them again.

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

And after the all-absorbing society of Powell, after his truths distilled in teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor, I found a different kind of pleasure in Eliot’s painful, beautiful questions and contradictions.  I end my day full, in quiet.

We must be still and still moving

Into another intensity

is an attorney who recently moved to Washington, D.C., from Windhoek, Namibia.  You can reach her at [email protected].

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