Poetic Notions: Martha Cooley’s The Archivist

- | 1

I 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.

I 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

Holden and Middlemarch in Windhoek

- | 7

“Ask her if she still keeps all her kings in the back row.” When I was sixteen, I think I would have been completely and sublimely happy if that were what a boy loved about me. After J.D. Salinger died a few months ago, I thought about this line from Catcher in the Rye, and began to feel the spectre of Holden Caulfield wandering through my life here in Windhoek, Namibia.

At the risk of sounding like a clueless college sophomore trying to piece together a pathetic seminar thesis, I saw an unlikely connection between Catcher in the Rye and a book I recently finished: George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Complete with phonies, small things that men love about women, and the mid-1800s equivalent of bathroom graffiti, Middlemarch is a book that I think Holden would have grudgingly found acceptable. The book is about people who get it and people who don’t; about the tiny, grey decisions that become vast, dark parts of a person; and about people who do and do not fill out the image they have of themselves.

I loved the Brooke sisters: the naïve and lovely Dorothea, who dreams of building affordable housing for serfs and marrying a dour clergyman, along with the practical and pretty Celia, who doesn’t mind asking for her mother’s jewels and marrying her sister’s rejected suitor, Sir James Chettam. I am a sucker for sisters in classics: the Schlegels in Howard’s End, the Brangwens in Women in Love, Delphine and Anastasie in Le Père Goriot, and of course the Bennetts in Pride and Prejudice. But I digress.

Middlemarch bled in to my next book: A Trip to the Stars by Nicholas Christopher. These two books got me through an expat funk that was inevitable as the glow of being abroad has begun to fade. A crop of NGO workers have come and gone, I no longer marvel at the baboons playing with my house alarm, my clients don’t always tell me the truth, and I think I’m getting a beer gut. It’s times like this when books can twist me, turn me, hit me– even more than usual. I feel them deep inside and when I finish the last words on the last page, it feels tragic. I can’t get away from that terrible sadness of finishing a book.

“…sadness of domesticated birds; sadness of finishing a book; sadness of remembering…” — list of sadnesses (Jonathan Safran Foer)

In A Trip to the Stars, all the characters are striking. They are knowledgeable in grand subjects like Latin, spiders, horticulture, constellations, and Atlantis. Mala Revell, the heroine, is lost for years to her lover, Geza Cassiel, while she travels on quiet islands, performs as a telepath, and searches for her lost boy-nephew. Her journey begins when she is working for a New Orleans arachnologist who collects rare spiders. Mala entices one of the spiders to bite her finger after the arachnologist tells her its venom has the effect of “reducing the human soul to its rarest elements, stripping away all that is false, illusory, or fearful.” It is a sometimes corny, mostly lovely book that inspires a desire to be tall, honorable, and fearless.

Especially in Africa, I often long for just such a spider bite, to prompt those of us who don’t belong to engage in an occasional Holden-esque inquiry. To ask why we are here, to strip away all that is false, illusory, or fearful. What am I doing? Why did I come? What happens when I leave?

Rumored Seasons: John Crowley’s Little, Big

- | 12

I left New York for Windhoek in early October, exchanging the end of an Indian summer for the beginning of an African summer. Around January, I began to despair of my lost winter, and I experienced that peculiar disorder in which the current season obliterates the memory – indeed, the existence – of all other seasons. Maybe John Crowley felt the same way when he wrote: “Love is a myth, like summer. In winter, summer is a myth. A report, a rumor. Not to be believed in.”

I bought Crowley’s Little, Big shortly before I came to Windhoek. After special-ordering it from my local bookstore, I waited patiently for it to arrive, sustained by Harold Bloom’s assurance that it was a book he “regularly reread[s].” The family tree in the introductory pages, the flowery miniature work throughout, and the headings (“Sylvie and Destiny,” “Some Notes About Them,” “Lady with the Alligator Purse,” and “Still Unstolen,” among others) within chapters within books immediately won my heart. But Little, Big was not such an easy conquest, especially for a reader like me who loves devouring books whole and quick. For the first hundred pages or so, I felt the way I feel when I eat a hardboiled egg too fast and I have to stand still, sipping water until the thickness passes through my gullet. I foundered, starting and stopping the book numerous times over the course of three months. Its extended, reproachful presence on the windowsill next to my bed began to undermine my vision of myself as a diligent and avid reader.

Finally, I cut the nonsense and undertook one of my approximately bi-monthly, epic reading nights, in which I stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning finishing a book, then stay awake another hour thinking about the book. (George Eliot’s Middlemarch inspired the last such night.) Little, Big squeezed the sides of my brain and fought me for each page. In one story line, Sophie Drinkwater, a probable descendant of fairies, unknowingly goes for years without sleeping, only to have her sleep finally returned by the child who was once stolen from her and replaced with an ancient baby-like creature who eats coals. That’s a fair interpretation of what it felt like to read and finish the book.

The book truly is little and big at the same time: relationships fated for a hundred years last for one month; the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa is resurrected as a New York-based political leader who fights for a kingdom the size of a thumb; Smoky Barnable is instructed to travel by foot, not by bus or train, from New York City to Edgewood – a house that swallows people up in its architectural mishmash – in order to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater, another fairy descendant; their son, Auberon, meets a girl with a Destiny in New York, while he writes the story of his fairy-sprinkled family into the plotline of a soap opera. They are all part of a tale that is foretold in a stack of cards. I was often lost in the book’s epic relationships and murky details, in the same way that visitors to Edgewood become lost within its endless corridors and transient doorways. I don’t think I could say what the Tale exactly was, what fairies are, or who won the final battle. This thin veil between knowing and not knowing seemed natural, deliberate, and inevitable with a book whose subtle magic lies in leaving patterns half-obscured and cataclysms unrealized.

Harold Bloom is right. It is a tale that requires multiple readings, whose story lines will alternately disappear, expand, and fluctuate with each return. But I think I will wait to come home from dusty Windhoek, where I first met this book, until I can sit down in the enclosure of a deep American winter to return, by foot, to Little, Big. By then, my endless summer will be a myth. A report, a rumor. Not to be believed in.

Bonus Link: Celebrating the anniversary of Little, Big