Home and the rain has been falling hard off and on for days, with some sucker holes of blue sky sweeping through. There are a few leaves on the cherry tree and there is only one red plastic chair out on the point but it blew over days ago. I’m still using the outdoor shower in the morning and it is wonderful standing in the widening cone of warm water surrounded by the sky of rain falling through the grey-green world.
I have been home reading crime novels I picked up on my travels. I have loved learning about the dark world of crime in southern Italy in Black Souls, and the wonderfully comic and mysterious world of Laos in Don’t Eat Me. I also bought an unabridged Leaves of Grass which was illustrated by Rockwell Kent which is lovely. Now I’m reading Commonwealth by Ann Patchett for a book club that I’ve been invited to in California at Thanksgiving, the Patchett is a nice change of place after Black Souls and I have to admit for the first few pages of her novel I was waiting for a vendetta beheading… that never came. So I just relaxed into a brilliant and civilized story.
During the days looking out on the water I’ve been thinking about how much I love Rockwell Kent’s art, particularly his illustrations he supplies to literature. He always seems to raise up the text and never just makes a cartoon of it. Kent was an artist who came to Alaska in 1918 and seemed to be infected by wilderness. Like Melville he had a very light hand on the thread of wonder. He never tried to truss up the subject of “wilderness” and and throw it in his luggage to take home. He knew the thread would break. Kent became famous for among, other things the art work he supplied for several portfolio editions of Moby Dick , also his book put together from his diary of his year living on Fox Island at the mouth of Resurrection Bay with his young son. The book was entitled Wilderness and he also put together a classic Christmas story of their only Christmas together there on the island. That book is almost as resonant as A Child’s Christmas in Wales for most Alaskans. It’s a beautiful book that truly evokes life living rough in maritime Alaska.
Kent is sometimes compared to Whitman and Melville for their experience of a kind of spiritual and sensual ecstasy while confronting the wild forces of nature. I read an essay once by Robert Bly talking about the two poles of American poetry being represented by Walt Whitman’s vigor and Emily Dickinson’s reticence, something between the ecstatic “Yawp” of Whitman and the “gnomic scholarship” of Dickinson, as Emily Dickinson signed all her personal letters in later years as “Your Gnome,” or “Your Scholar.”
There is a world of sensuality that lies between these two poles. In his own work, Kent threw himself into the storm. He lavished himself in the wild and the sensual, like Melville, like Whitman, but when he applied his work to these other artists work, he did not illustrate, he simply alluded to their own passions for to illustrate would have been too much. Think of Whitman’s Song of Myself where he reaches near ecstasy as he celebrates the human body, or Melville where he describes the whalemen flensing then bucketing the spermaceti from melon of the great Sperm Whale. These are sensual declarations. Then take a look on the end papers of Rockwell Kent’s edition of Wilderness. See the figure of the naked man flying above the sea as the compass rose, and notice his shadow emerging from the shore. He most likely drew this image a hundred years ago as men died by the thousands in muddy trenches in France. Here was the dawning of the age that gave birth to existentialism and the death of hope… but to Rockwell Kent here it was, the man in ecstasy, to add any more would have run afoul of the law, surely in 1922 when the book was published. The free man, in perfect living ecstasy.
American art has always had a tug of war going between the head and the heart; between the mind and the body. Which one directs us, and where does the compass swing true? I suppose this is what keeps the artist busy.
As winter comes, I have chores ahead. I will need to do my editor’s revisions on What Is Time To A Pig. I have been waiting for those, and I am beginning to write the next Cecil book. I have been thinking a lot about how to balance out my head and my heart.
I remember sitting on a bed in a hotel once talking to a friend during a writers conference, I remember saying that writing well should be both as easy and as hard as maintaining a close friendship. There needs to be a rock steady commitment to the principle of the friendship and at the same time there needs to be restraint… a freedom for the friends to grow and change. In writing it is a commitment to the story and a light touch to let the story change and grow.
In America… some stories break your heart. Colonialism. Slavery. Industrial Capitalism, Numbing materialism, Some of these plot twists have no good outcomes. Some stories just break your heart and cause us to go back, and back and back to old ones that overwork old tropes so that old friends start to disappoint. Some old stories are just too sad. And some new stories are built on things yet unfounded in these tentative times.
This is why we must keep looking for the new and the hopeful… or stop trying. This is why courage remains the most important tool in a writer’s kit. Courage to look unflinchingly. Melville clearly had it to write his masterpiece that went unappreciated his entire life: a long complex story where the allegory goes unexplained. No one ever explains what the White Whale really represents. That’s what makes that book so perfect. It is something that is emotionally so true, and intellectually so illusive. Rockwell Kent had courage as well not to give in to the plain or the literal. Figures floated above the landscape like magic, just as I imagine his heart must have felt.
As the rain continues to fall, I keep making notes. I miss my old friends, but I can’t ask too much of them. The rain continues to fall and I look for the new under the old slick leaves and in the new books that pile up on my bedside, and the old books that I can always read more carefully.
Love, and friendship… must replenish the spirit. But so too…I must have faith that in the dark night that seems completely empty of stars, or of rescue, there must be that next new idea which must surely come.
and dance on the yellow grass
while I kiss your neck
at the sink.