Seeing Things and then “Seeing Things”

IMG_0117

“Fish” by jpbohannon, 2017

One of Seamus Heaney’s later collections of poetry was entitled Seeing Things, and indeed the Irish poet was a master of detailed observation.  His career was built on seeing and noticing things.

Seeing Things

Andrew Barker, in his on-line lecture on Heaney’s early poem “Digging,”  comments on the phrase “seeing things,” saying that we usually mean one of two things when we say it.

The first is what he is emphasizing in Heaney’s poems, the art of closely observing detail: in the case of “Digging,” the sound of a spade sliding through gravel, the squelch of the turf being sliced from the bog, the coolness of potatoes fresh from the ground.

But, Barker points out, there is also another meaning of someone “seeing things”– where it does not refer to someone with keenness of perception, but to someone who sees things that are not there. “He’s seeing things” quite often means that someone is seeing things that are not visible to others, someone who is delusional or fantasizing.

And then Barker names the poet William Butler Yeats as one who sees things that are not there.

I’ve let that percolate in my mind for a while.  And then I thought of Yeats’ poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” perhaps my favorite poem of all and one that I can recite at will.

The poem goes like this:

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread.
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
  
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name.
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
  
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Apart from the subtle rhymes (“wand” and “wood” or “moon” and “sun”) or the beautiful images of “moth like stars” and “a glimmering girl/with apple blossom in her hair,” the poem is notable because Yeats is seeing things that are not necessarily visible.

(Do I need to mention that a silver trout transforms into a human female as the speaker turns to “blow the fire a-flame.”)

And yet there is a larger truth sitting on that cottage floor and running out the door. A larger truth that has the speaker spending his lifetime chasing that vision–and believing that he will catch it.

I used the word “vision” purposefully,  for it is in that unseen vision that Yeats reveals a truth, a truth about passion, aspiration, dreams and goals. It is the dream of what one wants and the dedication of following that dream, of chasing that dream “till time and times are done.”  For it is in chasing the dream–not in catching it– that a full life resides.

Yeats saw that truth…and saw it in a way not visible to most. (Never mind, that Yeats actually spent much of his life chasing after his “glimmering girl,” Maude Gonne.  That’s beside the point!)

Certainly, we are all not going to fully realize our dreams; we will not all achieve what we set out to do. And often times not attaining what we thought we wanted may be the best thing to happens to us.  But the chase must continue –and it defines our lives.  If we are not looking forward–through “hollow lands and hilly lands”–if we have given up on that “glimmering girl,” then we are merely alive.

As I have said, this is one of my favorite poems–and it has often been put to music. If you search YouTube for “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” you will find scores of versions done by everyone from Christy Moore or The Waterboys to Dave Van Ronk and Judy Collins. Donovan did a version, as did Don MacLean on banjo.

Anyway, below is my favorite version, by Christy Moore.  Give it a listen…

“I’m Baaaaack”: lists, reading, blogging, and Halloween

I'm Back

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

It’s been 10 months tomorrow since I last posted on this blog, though it seems much longer than that. These are trying times, indeed.

I came back to this web site partly because of a column I read in the New York Times’ Book Review last Sunday.  In it,  the writer “reviewed” the web pages of the authors whose books currently sit on the fiction best seller list.

The first, Mitch Albom’s, dealt with lists… the 15 best movies, the 10 best songs, etc. This was a bit coincidental as I was to begin teaching Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity the very next day, which is a novel founded on the idea of “best of…” lists.  Hornby’s lists are amusing and fun, from the 5 best Dustin Hoffman movies to the 5 best songs to play on a rainy Monday (depending on whether you want to lift your spirits or wallow in the gloom.)

And speaking of coincidences, one the last pieces I had posted last year was a piece on Jess Kidd’s wonderful novel Himself,  which I have just finished teaching a week earlier. (Perhaps the pile of 60-plus essays that I am carrying around to grade is really what’s driving me back to the blog. Procrastination is a great inspiration for doing things other than the tasks at hand. As one writer once said, “My house is never cleaner than when I am working on a novel.”)

Himself book cover

Himself by Jess Kidd

Anyway, let me reach out to any and all readers to find a copy of Himself. (It came out in paperback this summer.) It is a wonderful, magical, and darkly comic read.

But back to the NYT Book Review, the number two best seller’s blog tracked the number of profanities in his novels (compiled by his son) and number three’s blog focuses on houses–both real and fictional–and their architecture. The deal is that most publishers want their authors to have some on-line presence and this is what is presented.

And so I re-examined my own blog. At one time I was posting four times a week: a post on books, one on movies, one on music and one of commentary. But I can’t promise that anymore. Either, I am too disorganized or there are less hours in a day these days.  But, I am, once again, going to take working on my postings as a serious venture.

And so it is that after 10 months I decide to post again and on Halloween no less which is why I featured the frightening picture of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining.

Halloween is undoubtedly the greatest holiday in my neighborhood for both young and old. For example, last year between 5:30 p.m. and 7:15 p.m., we gave out over 800 pieces of candy. Four and five of our neighbors sit together on the sidewalk, sharing wine and

IMG_5588

My treat for this night of tricks and treats.

beer and catering to a constant stream of children that parade by. (I have two bottles of Witching Hour red blend and my wife has a six-pack of pumpkin beer for the occasion.)

Some of the costumes are wonderful and clever and imaginative, and some are pretty lame, but everyone is happy.

After we run out of candy—although there are still many people walking by and many people handing out treats—we head up the street to another neighbor’s who is hosting his annual Halloween party. His own costume is often the talk of the neighborhood for the next few days. (i.e. Walter White in his briefs with a pistol in the waist band, Jack Torrance himself with a full door framed around his head, a priest dressed as Elvis.)

The party—and the entire night—is festive, but more importantly it is communal.

And god knows we certainly need that these days.

Book Review: Life Interrupted: An Unfinished Monologue by Spalding Gray

A friend of mine, who had read my post on worrying about too much fiction in my reading diet, met me for coffee the other day with a bag full of books.  Some he gave to me. Others he lent.  I started the first one yesterday around 5:00 and finished it before finally turning the lights out on the day.

Cover of Life Interrupted/i>

Cover of Life Interrupted/i>

(By the way, my worries were groundless: Out of the last seventeen books I read, 7 were fiction, 6 were non-fiction, 3 were collections of poetry and 1 was a play.)

Anyway, Life Interrupted is a wonderful collection that includes the title monologue plus two small companion pieces by Spalding Gray.  These were the last pieces Gray was working on, still writing and ironing out, before ending his life in 2004. Filling out the volume is a series of remembrances given at two separate memorials to Gray, remembrances by fellow actors and writers, agents, producers, friends, and family. These are sincere, warm, and humorous reflections on a man who himself was sincere, warm and humorous.

The centerpiece, “Life Interrupted” recounts the horrible car accident and subsequent hospital stay that Gray experienced in Ireland in the summer of 2001. His account of the events before the accident seem to presage (at least to him) that death was everywhere: they were in the town of Mort in County Offaly, next to a monastery where gravediggers were stopping for a cigarette break, in the home of a host who himself had died two weeks earlier and from which, on his walk that morning through the surrounding countryside, Gray had encountered a dying calf.

He had tempted fate, he felt, because he told people he was content–happily married and enjoying fatherhood.  His work had always revolved around anxieties, fears, conflicts, disasters. Now, he told someone  that morning, he’d have nothing to write about. He was simply too happy.

Boy was he wrong about having nothing to write about.

His stay in the hospital, his transference to another, and then to another is close to slapstick. His detailed observations of his Irish fellow-patients, of his care-givers (a large transvestite with emerald green fingernails comes through the wards offering tea and toast), of the facilities themselves is wickedly funny, especially if you are not yourself experiencing it.

But the injuries were quite debilitating.  A smashed hip caused him transference to one hospital. A large dent in his head sent him to another. There it was discovered he had a shattered orbital bone which was  allowing open passage to his brain. A plate needed to be inserted and the bone fragments removed from his brain.  He chose to fly back to New York for that procedure.

If all this sounds morbid, it is not. Like Gray’s more famous monologues, Swimming to Cambodia, Gray’s Anatomy, The Terrors of Pleasure, it is trenchant in its observation of life and life’s quirks. And extraordinarily funny.

The other two pieces, “The Anniversary” and ” DearNew York City” are much shorter. The first typical of his rambling, tangential style. The second a sweet paean to New York City in the aftermath of the attacks on the twin towers.

Spalding Gray and his entire stage setting

Spalding Gray and his entire stage setting

But by then, Spalding was in intractable pain–psychically and emotionally. He had returned from the accident in Ireland a changed man, and the demons he once tempered through his art were getting the better of him.  On January 10, 2004 he was reported missing. In March, his body was found in the East River.

But again, this is never a morbid book. Gray’s pieces are funny and clever, and every reader will find him or herself nodding in agreement at the outrageous details that Gray observes.

And even the memorial speeches that finish the book are more upbeat than not. They recount Gray’s generosity, his curiosity, his love of fatherhood, and his kindness. Each speaker genuinely feels that he or she has been blessed to be considered Spalding Gray’s friend, to have spent time with this gregarious and wonderful man.

In a way, reading the book, one gets to experience the same.

In 2010, six years after Spalding Gray’s death, the director Steven Soderbergh put together a documentary on Gray and his art entitled And Everything is Going Fine. It is a wonderful introduction to the man who was a consummate storyteller, an entertaining man to spend an evening with.  Here is the trailer:

Northern California and Ireland, sea lions and selkies, and a powerful poem

I am not the first to make the comparison between the Pacific Coast Highway in Northern California and Ireland. But that doesn’t make it any less true. It is a magnificent landscape, full of crashing surf and rock-strewn fields, dramatic cliffs and rolling mountains. The hills are more “golden” than green, and the roadways have much fewer sheep and doubledecker tour buses, but yes, it very much reminds me of the west coast of Ireland. Every turn in the corkscrewing highway offers another extraordinary vista.

But it is Goat Beach which is perhaps the most memorable. Goat Beach sits where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean. In July the river flow is feeble, but it is then–between March and July–that the area is a breeding ground for sea lions.

By July the sea lions have already pupped and the adult ones seemed quite tired. At first, it is a bit jolting to see twenty to thirty adult sea lions asleep by the rivers edge. It looks as if they have all been slaughtered. But then a fin rises to slap a companion or another waddles to find a more comfortable position. They are just resting–and continue to do so for the rest of the morning.

But the seal pups are another story. Frisky and active, they plunge into the crashing surf of the Pacific or slide into the muddy waters of the Russian River. There is something fascinating about these creatures: their sleekness, their eyes, their movement.

A stamp from the Faroe Islands featuring a selkie emerging from her skin.

Seals and sea lions have long played a part in Norse and Celtic myth.  The legend of the selkie is perhaps one of the most famous and there are a wide variety of stories about them.  These creatures are seals when in the water but humans when they go upon land and emerge from their sealskin. And while there are numerous variants on the stories, there are basically two version of the selkie myth: one female, one male.  The female selkie is often a beautiful woman who is  “captured” by the man who finds her, unable to return to the water because the man has taken possession of her discarded skin.  The male selkie is also renowned  for its beauty and charm when it comes upon land and sheds its skin, and he is often noted for his ability to satisfy the unhappy and dissatisfied women of the area.  Fairly often, these women bear his children, usually children with some sort of “deformity” or oddity about them. These women too are in possession of the creature’s skin.

I can immediately think of two wonderful movies that deal with this myth.  One, is a 2009 film, Ondine, featuring Colin Farrell (and my personal favorite actress Dervla Kirwan from Ballykissangel)  and the other is an older film from 1994 called The Secret of Roan Inish.  Both are well worth finding, however you find your movies these days. And both deal with the female version of the story.

Anyway, so I am reading The Guardian online this winter and I come a cross a video of the Scottish poet Robin Robertson reading his poem “At Roane Head.” It is a powerful poem, and perhaps the most powerful reading I have ever witnessed. In it a woman cares for her four children. Her drunken husband has disowned them–for they have seal-like characteristics as well as human. At the tragic end, the woman returns the seal skin to her lover.

Here is the video.  Give it a view–I find it very powerful.