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Monday, September 29, 2014

Airchair Travel, Time Travel, From Main to Nebraska

There are two books in today’s post. The more recent title is Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps, by Ted Kooser, familiar to me as a poet (poet laureate of the U.S., 2004-2006) and more particularly, since I live in Leelanau County, Michigan, as a poet who collaborated with former county resident and poet Jim Harrison in a book called Braided Creek. The other title today is One Man’s Meat, by the iconic E. B. White, first published in 1942. For the story of this book becoming an American classic, follow the link.

The author of Charlotte’s Web (to name only one other among his many other writings) lived in Maine during the time he wrote the essays contained in One Man’s Meat, some of which were published originally in Harper’s and the New Yorker. Kooser, born and raised in Iowa, writes these days from Nebraska. Separated as their authors are by decades, the works of these two poetic essayists dovetail beautifully. Both write of memory and books, country living, farm neighbors, the natural world around them, and the larger social and political reality of nearby villages and the world beyond.

Kooser can’t help writing poetry even when he’s writing prose (thank heaven!), and so we get descriptions (these are of winter) like the following:
A maple, bare now but which all summer bent heavily over its leafy shadow, can scarcely hold itself back from human happiness under the least touch of the breeze. 

A dozen sparrows burst from a bush by the road, like somebody’s name remembered after fifty years.
White is by turns reflective, practical, curmudgeonly, and downright funny, and sometimes he’s a couple of those at once. Here he is on the subject of his experience of the 1939 World’s Fair:
The voice of Mr. Kaltenborn in the City of Man says, “They come with joyous song,” but the truth is there is very little joyous song in the Fair grounds. There is a great deal of electrically transmitted joy, but very little spontaneous joy. Tomorrow’s music, I noticed, came mostly from Yesterday’s singer....
Maine’s land and sea figures largely in many of the journalistic essays in One Man’s Meat. Here’s how January 1939 begins:
A seacoast farm, such as this, extends far beyond the boundaries mentioned in the deed. My domain is arable many miles offshore, in the restless fields of protein. Cultivation begins close to the house with a rhubarb patch, but it ends down the bay beyond the outer islands, hand-lining for cod and haddock, with gulls like gnats around your eyes, and the threat of fog always in the pit of your stomach.
But you see? He can’t help writing like a poet, either. I breathe deeply of the salty sea breeze and then turn back to landlocked Nebraska, of which Kooser writes,
People who depend on good weather for a good life – farmers, their families, and field hands – in country where the sky has pressed the dirt flat and pushed the great forests back under the grass, show us how much the weather weighs. Bent-backed under the leaden skies of winter, round-shouldered under the steel blue skies of summer, in their old age shrunken in height and walking with canes, they show us. And their buildings, put up like props to hold up their part of the sky, show it as well. The barns lean to one side and collapse, the porch roofs hang from the eaves and fall, the outbuildings crumple and drop out of sight in the brush at the edge of the ironed-out fields.
Rhubarb patch? Check. Collapsing barn? Check. As a friend of mine likes to say, stoutly, forestalling any criticism of her way of dress or housekeeping, “I live in the country!” From Maine in the 1930s and ‘40s and Nebraska far from the Great Lakes, I recognize in the essays of White and Kooser the life around me today in northern Michigan, and I feel they are both my neighbors.

Postscript Monday morning: Having finished both books now, I want to read them again immediately, out loud to David. I did read aloud to David and a friend who stopped by the bookshop on Sunday afternoon (we were there for less than an hour) White’s thoughts on poetry, and I’ve bookmarked one of Kooser’s passages about his old dog.

Sometimes I hear idle browsers (not serious browsers, who are quiet until they suddenly shriek with joy) muttering that they “already have too many books.” Here’s what Ted Kooser has to say about that:
I spend lots of winter days with books. I probably have the largest private library in Seward County, thousands of books. I can’t resist them. ... If I were to read two of three books every week, I couldn’t live long enough to read through the ones I buy....
White's book reminds me that it doesn’t matter how old the book is when one first reads it: the discovery for the first-time reader is always new. And having other worlds on the shelf, inviting future exploration, adds a feeling of wealth to a modest country home.

Ted Kooser was born in the spring of 1939, while the first entry in the collection by E. B. White (another Teddy when young?) begins in July 1938, when he moved with his family from New York City to rural Maine. It is highly unlikely, therefore, that White and Kooser ever crossed paths, much less sat in the same room together. Yet Kooser must have read some of White’s books (surely The Elements of Style, co-authored with William Strunk, Jr.!), and there’s no doubt in my mind that White would have appreciated Kooser’s poetry, as well as his sometimes-wry poetic prose. I’m thinking here of Kooser comparing Harold Stassen to a leaf-footed bug that appeared in his house one year after two or three hard frosts:
Occasionally, when suddenly agitated by some mysterious force, he would fly for a short distance, awkwardly whirring down the air of a room, to smack head-on into a wall on the other side. When the house was quiet, there would be a little click. The leaf-footed bug would fall to the floor, slowly to gather itself as if brushing off its coat, and slowly move on. I was reminded of Harold Stassen, campaigning for president again and again. It was encoded behavior, I suspect, deeply imprinted in his genes, a complete disregard for failure.
That passage makes me smile, even though I greatly admired Harold Stassen and everything he stood for, including his unwillingness to admit defeat. I suspect that Kooser admired that too and also admired the little bug he came to look for around his house every day, having once noticed it, and I’m sure White would have appreciated and admired the candidate, the bug, and the poet’s description and the analogy.

In the couple of pages of E. B. White that I read aloud to David and Ed on Sunday, there appeared these two sentences, in parentheses in the original:
...(I sound as if I were contemptuous of poets; the fact is, I am jealous of them. I would rather be one than anything.)
This comes from a writer who had put down the following sentences only a page before:
There are many types of poetical obscurity. There is the obscurity which results from the poet’s being mad. This is rare. Madness in poets is as uncommon as madness in dogs. A discouraging number of reputable poets are sane beyond recall. There is also the obscurity which is the result of the poet’s wishing to appear mad, even if only a little mad. This is rather common and rather dreadful. I know of nothing more distasteful than the work of a poet who has taken leave of his reason deliberately, as a commuter might of his wife.
Don’t you sense that Mr. White’s prose is clearly in the service of poetry? That he is touched not by madness but by poetry himself? Had their lives not been separated by time and space, surely White and Kooser would have been great friends!

Well, now they have met, in my life, in my private library, and they will share shelf space for as long as my books and I continue life together. Like Kooser, I have books yet unopened (e.g., those paperbound Louis Lavelles I bought in Paris years ago), and as White notes, there is always more work in a country life than there is time in a day to get it done (he became, in his country life, the farmer I long to be), but there is always room and time for more books in my life, if they are rich enough, as these are, to bear re-reading. Reading them makes me happy. Introducing other readers to their charm and wisdom will be another kind of happiness. I do lead a charmed life!

Both books are still in print and will be available by Saturday, as new paperbacks, at Dog Ears Books.

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