The Felicity of Being Found

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Saturday morning I couldn’t get out of bed. The week had been so endless, so stressful that I couldn’t let go of this early, unobligated moment. I thought about prolonging pajamas as long as possible. I gave myself license to drift between sleep and daylight without stricture. Soon enough, two warm little bodies found me in my pile of blankets and snuggled in alongside. I could be any mammal mother in winter, burrowing with warm little bodies, full.

Things come to me in multiples. The twins are only one emanation of a lifelong trend that manifests in diverse ways. I have learned to attend to these revelations with a sort of supplicant’s ear, which is to say I’ve learned to receive them (if I have any mystical tendencies, this is their sole direction). So when, two weeks apart, two children’s books presented themselves to my attention without being sought, I attended.

The first encountered me totally out of context—it was mis-shelved in the bookstore—and was one I didn’t know existed. It is a children’s book by Gertrude Stein, illustrated by Clement Hurd (of Goodnight, Moon fame), and called The World is Round. The protagonist of the book is named Rose. A reader familiar with Stein might find this predictable, but the character is inspired by an actual young girl named Rose Lucy Renée Anne d’Aiguy, a neighbor of the author’s in Bilignin, France. The book is dedicated to her.

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excerpt from The World is Round, by Gertrude Stein

It had never occurred to me that Stein might be appropriate for children, but as soon as I saw the book I wondered why it hadn’t. Stein’s unfettered manipulations of language, her ability to see language as material, seems like an ideal introduction to the creative possibilities of language for kids. I think resistance to Stein has been lodged in a misunderstanding similar to the one that continues to face the work of artist Jackson Pollock. No imitator, especially one intending ridicule, has ever managed to replicate in any degree what Stein or Pollock did with the materials of their art.

Stein’s way with language aside, the narrative in The World is Round is progressive in its content and tone. In this book, as New York Times Book Review writer Ellen Lewis Buell wrote rather beautifully on December 12, 1939, “—Ms. Stein has caught within this architectural structure of words which rhyme and rhyme again the essence of certain moods of childhood: the first exploration of one’s own personality, the feeling of lostness in a world of night skies and mountain peaks, sudden unreasoning emotions and impulses, the preoccupation with vagrant impression [sic] of little things filtering through the mind.” This book is written directly to its child audience. It seeks to speak to the child’s world-experience, needs and desires. According to Margaret Thacher Hurd, who writes an excellent afterword for the book, this was new and radical ground in children’s publishing at that time. I feel fortunate to have grown up in an era that benefits from such pioneering work, and I recognize the battles still being fought.

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excerpt from The World is Round, by Gertrude Stein

The book itself is also irresistible. This edition, published in 1988 by North Point Press, San Francisco, replicates the 1986 Arion Press Edition in which Clement Hurd revised his illustrations, re-cutting them in wood and linoleum blocks. They are stunning: spare and masterfully composed. They remind me of certain Matisse cut-outs, vibrant and deceptively simple. The pages of the book are rose-colored, and the typeface and illustrations are blue according to Stein’s vision (blue was apparently the true Rose’s favorite color). Upon seeing the original edition in 1939, Stein wrote Hurd that “the rose is very lovely particularly at its palest and the blue of the rabbit sky is quite wonderful, in short we are terribly pleased and hope that everybody will like it almost as much.” There were even hand-hooked rugs featuring some of the illustrations made to accompany the release of the book, as well as some wallpaper!

The second book found me by chance when prohibitive traffic drove me away from my initial bookstore destination to a smaller store. On the shelf of holiday books sat one lone, used copy of E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker illustrated by Maurice Sendak, published in 1984 by Crown Publishers. The Nutcracker is the only full-length ballet I have ever seen, and since I saw it as a child around the same age as the story’s protagonist, it retains a special sort of power over my imagination. Sendak’s work too, though it had never occurred to me before, activates that same recess of my mind wherein the struggle to confront and assimilate the unknown engenders impulses that feel both potent and somewhat sinister.

Sendak was approached to create the designs for the stage production by Kent Stowell, then the artistic director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, Washington in early 1981, when I was just a newborn. Of this meeting Stowell says, “I flew to New York, and we sat down and started talking about it. And I said, ‘Well, I want to do a Nutcracker,’ and [Sendak] says, ‘Well, I don’t even like ballet.'” At first Sendak resisted the idea, as he admits himself in the introduction to the book, because he thought the story lacked depth. But when Sendak read the original text by E.T.A. Hoffman, written in German in 1816, he saw fresh possibilities in the story’s “weird, dark qualities” that appealed to his sensibilities. Sendak learned that the prevailing stage version was a hybrid of a Russian Imperial Theater scenario from 1891 that was based on a French version of the story by Alexandre Dumas! Once again my mind boggles over the many interconnections just below the surface of books, like an immense root system providing relation, nourishment and exchange.

What finally ensured Sendak’s participation in the project was his affection for Tchaikovsky: “His music, bristling with implied action, has a subtext alive with wild child cries and belly noises. It is rare and genuine and does justice to the private world of children. One can, after all, count on the instincts of a genius.”

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excerpt from title page of The Nutcracker, by ETA Hoffman, illustrated by Maurice Sendak

The book itself is an accomplice to the ballet production. Inside are many of the costume and set designs, some illustrations made exclusively for the book, some meant to “animate the original stage designs,” and others Sendak simply wanted to create. Because of its various purposes, the artwork seems to illuminate rather than illustrate the story. This seems somehow appropriate, in a way, to a one-sided collaboration such as this in which the artist is responding to the story rather than working with the author directly. An interesting tension between the text and Sendak’s seductive visual representations arises, adding to the spell of the book as a whole. Are we outsiders, or can we approach the mystery at the work’s heart?

With the two books on the desk in front of me, I see their formal similarities: both are similar in dimension and sumptuously printed, both are illustrated by great artists in their own right, and both are written by authors who exuded a kind of expansive spirit in their many interests and abilities. Both works have renderings in theater, dance and music (see an article about a Stein adaptation here).

Each story has a young, female protagonist in a moment of crisis over her identity. Both stories have ambiguous resolutions. Both authors treat the complex inner lives of children with due gravity and attention. The difficulty in deciphering the intimations of their simultaneous appearance in my life lies in the question of mental direction, or thought path. Are they cautioning me to be more appreciative and respectful of the burgeoning individualities of my children? Or are they reminding me, at a time of year when memories of childhood are particularly powerful, to access more often the reserves of intensity set by during those years?

Interpretations aside, I note with pleasure the peculiar propensity of books to present themselves to our attention, without being sought, when they feel most relevant, and also the pleasure of using one’s body as a mode of connectivity between distinct works. I note the pleasure of being found.

Brief Bibliography:
D’Avila, Florangela. “In Seattle, Maurice Sendak’s ‘Wild’ ‘Nutcracker’ Reaches Its Final Act.” NPR.org. Dance. KPLU. Updated Dec 23, 2014. Link to article. Dec 14, 2015.
Hoffman, ETA. Introduction. Nutcracker. By Maurice Sendak. New York. Crown Publishers, 1984. ix-xiv. Print.
Stein, Gertrude. Afterword, “The World is Flat.” The World is Round. By Margaret Thacher Hurd.
Tran, Diep. “A Rose Is a Rose Is a Song Is a Song: Gertrude Stein’s ‘The World is Round’ Becomes a Musical.” NYTimes.com. Theater. Apr 16, 2014. Link to article. Dec.15, 2015.

Afterword, or a Little Blog Business

I have noticed lately that posting by Friday has proven difficult. As a remedy, I’m going to try moving Stackology’s publication day to Sunday. I’m devoted to producing quality work, as befitting my subject, and I hope this change will be conducive my efforts. Thanks for your participation as readers!

Unwriting the Review

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Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Odilon Redon, c. 1907

Consuming book culture by reading reviews gives me, at the very least, a sense of participation. I might not be demonstrably part of the dialogue, but I can claim to know what the dialogue is concerning itself with. I can see that the dialogue is stratified, and that the strata that appear most vital are working in spite of other risk-averse strata to reconfigure the suspect value systems that have dominated it’s contours in the past.

I can also feel a rise in the demand for heretofore peripheral authors and poets (in America this seems to mean non-english writers and anyone other than white-male-middle-class-heterosexuals), and this is absolutely something to rejoice, loudly, but I resist the implication that this requires a simultaneous disavowal of our human literary heritage. I’d really just prefer every worthy voice to have a place at the literary table, like a Camelot of books. When I read reviews, what I want is to feel the depth and breadth of literature surging just beneath its surface, totally and incredibly unencompassable. This would require some possibly uncomfortable repositioning of the reviewer.

Presumably, to review a book is first to read it, and then to look back through it in order to come to some conclusions about it. This is not unlike what a reader does. The moment the reader undertakes to write about the work the issue of motive arises, and motive is complex and slippery. All that the reader/reviewer as an individual brings to the reading performance that is review writing makes it fresh and intriguing, but it also troubles its legitimacy. This ambiguity is not necessarily negative, and might indeed be a sort of speculative and dynamic space when embraced or acknowledged.

When I approach a literary review, I have needs. It is usually clear within the first few paragraphs whether or not they will be met. The review needs to expose me to things that I had not already encountered, like another book whose content might enrich the book in review, or another author whose work keeps some company with the author in review, or an element within the author’s biography that might provide entry into the work in review, or an insight that deepens my experience of the work in review, etc. These are legitimate, readerly desires. The problem is that, after awhile, the phrase “in review” starts to invoke the same things the antiquated surgical phrase “in theater” used to invoke. Is this the way to treat the offering a writer makes of a work?

What I do not need from a review are terminal value pronouncements or the sense that the reviewer is jockeying for some kind of dominion over the work. The problem may be that these two things are intrinsic to the review form. A review is already juridical. It keeps authority to itself in its act of “speaking over” a text. It seeks a kind of closure. Is this closure necessary? If our consumption of a text means that it becomes, for good or ill, part of us, do we need to package it tidily, or can we let it stew?

Readers ought to reserve the right to exercise their critical faculties and wrestle with a work accordingly. There is so much pleasure in that wrestling! And there is pleasure in witnessing the wrestling of others. The essay form offers a rich if unoriginal alternative to the review form. An essay is an attempt, a striving, a weighing, an examination. An essay can move within a text tenderly or violently, because it has a responsibility to its search. The essay offers an alternative, yes, but what more could be done in the way of readerly response? What if we approach each work individually, seeking the response-form proper to the work? What might this look like? Like bodies repositioning in order to optimize contact? Like wrestling? Like embrace?