The Threshold of Imagination

The old City Hotel ~ Freetown, Sierra Leone

Reading Graham Greene on the veranda of Freetown’s City Hotel was an opportunity not to be missed. What better place to take up a battered, second-hand copy of The Heart of the Matter and indulge in a bit of literary romanticism?

Greene spent time in Freetown during World War II, both as a traveler and as a British intelligence officer; he socialized at the City on a regular basis. In Journey Without Maps, an account of his month-long foot trek through Liberia in 1935, he described a place and a way of life still recognizable forty years later.

I wanted to do a pub crawl. But one can’t crawl very far in Freetown. All one can do is to have a drink at the Grand and then go and have a drink at the City. The City is usually more crowded and noisy because there’s a billiard table; people are rather more dashing, get a little drunk and tell indecent stories — but not if there’s a woman present.
I had never found myself in a place which was more protective to women; it might have been inhabited by rowing Blues with Buchman consciences and secret troubles. Everyone either had a wife at Hill Station and drank a bit and bought chocolates at the weekend and showed photographs of their children at home (“I’m afraid I don’t care much for children.” “O, you’d like mine”), or they had wives in England, had only two drinks because they’d promised their wives to be temperate, and played Kuhn-Khan for very small stakes.

By the time I reached Freetown, tracking Greene’s path in the opposite direction and passing through towns not yet overrun by violence and civil war, I was ready to transact my business, then lose myself in the heart of what sometimes is called Greeneland: a fictional yet familiar, just slightly seedy world that includes Greene’s reimagining of the City Hotel as the Bedford.

Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork. It was Sunday, and the cathedral bell clanged for Matins. On the other side of Bond Street, in the windows of the High School, sat the young negresses in dark blue gym smocks, engaged on the interminable task of trying to wave their wirespring hair. Wilson stroked his very young moustache and dreamed, waiting for his gin and bitters.

As I slouched deeper into the story, a shadow fell over the page. A fellow I judged to be European was bending nearly in half, peering at the cover of my book. “Lovely,” he said. “Quite appropriate, actually. But there’s better, you know. May I?” Not waiting for a reply, he pulled another chair closer, then sat and began to dig into the raffia bag he carried.

“I’m looking for Durrell,” he said. “Do you know his work? Have you read him?” When I admitted that I didn’t know and hadn’t read, he dismissed my sin of omission with a wave of his hand and continued to dig, piling notebooks, pens, and bits of folded paper onto the ground. Finally, he pulled out a slender volume. “This is part of it. You see? This one’s called  Mountolive. It’s part of Durrell’s Quartet. It’s four books, actually. The Quartet, that is. The Alexandria Quartet. You’ll like it ever so much more than Greene. You’ll not find the books here in Freetown, I suppose, but do keep them in mind, won’t you?” 

Bemused, I assured him that I would keep them in mind — whatever they were — and with that, he tucked Mountolive back into his bag, replaced his chair, offered a slight bow, and was gone.

Even in a world awash with strange happenings, the encounter stood out. As I told the story one night, friends suggested we do digging of our own in a crate of paperbacks left by co-workers who’d returned to the States. Ravaged over the years by heat, humidity, and insects, they were a conservator’s nightmare, filled with crumbling pages and half-eaten spines. As we searched, we didn’t find Mountolive, but we came across Balthazar, the second volume of Durrell’s Quartet. The cover was missing and most of the pages were unattached, but it was there, and it was mine.

I intended only to keep the book as a souvenir of my Freetown visit, but once back in Liberia, I decided to glance through it. Since the first pages were missing, I began at page twenty, but it wasn’t long before I realized the fellow I’d affectionately dubbed The Freetown Professor had been right. I did like it, and I liked it more than Greene.

Back in the States, I purchased The Alexandria Quartet as a complete set and read the four volumes in order. Then, I read them again, and yet again. No book had captured my imagination as fully as Durrell’s masterpiece.

Against a backdrop of Alexandrian society — her customs and her Corniche, her brothels and souks — Durrell had set himself an unusual and difficult task: examining the complexity of human relationships in the context of the space-time continuum.

At times, the first three volumes — Justine, Balthazar, and Mountolive — are described as siblings. Elsewhere, the character Pursewarden imagines them as a series of ‘sliding panels’ that open and close at will, revealing fragmentary glimpses of reality in the process. Balthazar suggests they could be understood as a palimpsest: pages where “different sorts of truth are thrown down one upon the other, each one obliterating, or perhaps supplementing, another.”

Whichever metaphor the reader prefers, events in the first three volumes overlap and interweave, “crawling over one another like wet crabs in a basket,” as Durrell puts it. Only the final volume, Clea, serves as a true sequel, introducing the aspect of time into the narrative.


Durrell’s dialogue occasionally creaks and groans like a recalcitrant ox-cart, but his descriptive powers are unrivaled. Whether tracing the outlines of Alexandrian society, plumbing the depths of traditional Egyptian culture, or attempting to capture the harsh beauty of Mediterranean sea and sky, his language is variously lush, languid, and spare. 

As Justine opens, the insistent force of natural processes animates the storyline. The narrator, a schoolteacher whose identity remains temporarily hidden, lives on an island with a companion we know only as “the child.”

In the great quietness of these winter evenings there is one clock: the sea. Its dim momentum in the mind is the fugue upon which this writing is made. Empty cadences of seawater, licking its own wounds, sulking along the mouths of the delta, boiling upon those deserted beaches – empty, forever empty under the gulls: white scribble on the grey, munched by clouds. 
If ever there are sails here they die before the land shadows them.  Wreckage washed up on the pediments of islands, the last crust, eroded by the weather, stuck in the blue maw of water…gone!

Beyond the complex structure of Durrell’s story and the extravagant beauty of his language, there is another reason for artists of every sort to plumb the depths of his narrative; few writers provide more clues to their own artistic process or their personal convictions about the nature of art. Painter or poet, novelist, sculptor, or photographer — all can find guidance for their craft and wisdom for their art in this section from Justine that has become as well-known as its author.

I spoke of the uselessness of art, but added nothing truthful about its consolations.  The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies with this — that only there, in the silence of the painter or writer can reality be re-ordered: re-worked and made to show its significant side.
Our common actions in reality are simply the sackcloth covering which hides the cloth-of-gold — the meaning of the pattern. For us artists, there waits the joyous compromise through art with all that wounded or defeated us in daily life: in this way, not to evade destiny, as the ordinary people try to do, but to fulfill it in its true potential — the imagination.

Sitting in silence at my desk, awash in words and overcome by memories, I sort and sift, heap up and tear down, learning that process of re-ordering and re-working Durrell so rightly prized.

Like a painter selecting a favorite brush or a photographer choosing and framing a bit of landscape, I pick and choose my words purposefully, seeking to capture both emotional depth and temporal significance from my personal basket of crabs. Where words are right, Durrell implies, memory lives; where memory remains alive and accessible, the past itself still lives, linked to an unimaginable future.

These are moments which possess the writer, not the lover, and which live on perpetually. One can return to them time and time again in memory, or use them as a fund upon which to build the part of one’s life that is writing. One can debauch them with words, but one can never spoil them.
In this context too, I recover another such moment, lying beside a sleeping woman in a cheap room near the mosque.  In that early spring dawn, with its dense dew, sketched upon the silence which engulfs a whole city before the birds awaken it, I caught the sweet voice of the blind muezzin from the mosque reciting the ebed – a voice hanging like a hair in the palm cooled airs of Alexandria…
The great prayer wound its way into my sleepy consciousness like a serpent, coil after shining coil of words, the voice of the muezzin sinking from register to register of gravity ~ until the whole world seemed dense with its marvelous healing powers, the intimations of a grace undeserved and unexpected, impregnating that shabby room where Melissa lay, breathing lightly as  a gull, rocked upon the oceanic splendors of a language she would never know.

The last of Durrell’s four volumes concludes with a letter written by Clea to the narrator, the schoolteacher whose name we now know: Darley. Filled with news and gossip about mutual friends, her letter includes a few details about her own development as a painter. Then, she adds this:

As for you, wise one, I have a feeling that you, too, perhaps have stepped across the threshold into the kingdom of your imagination, to take possession of it once and for all.

Her words evoke the beginning of the tale: the house at the edge of the sea; the child; the first, halting attempts to unravel perplexities of time and space that have dogged Darley’s every effort as a writer.

Reading Darley’s response, I imagine Durrell himself pushing back from his writing desk, overcome with laughter and filled with delight at the marvelous trick he has played upon his readers. Despite his structural tour de force, despite the complexity of his characters’ relationships and the marvelous, implacable unwinding of those great, coiled words, Durrell ends his saga with a joke.

The key to reworking reality, the key which Darley sought so passionately and with such difficulty, is far simpler than he could have imagined: so simple the child herself could have told him, had he only asked. Standing on the threshold of imagination, Darley has the last word in this saga, and the first words in the next.

Yes, one day I found myself writing down with trembling fingers the four words (four letters! four faces!) with which every story-teller since the world began has staked his slender claim to the attention of  his fellow men. Words which presage simply the old story of an artist coming of age. I wrote: “Once upon a time…”
And I felt as if the whole universe had given me a nudge!

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

Transition

 

Spring’s
rising
waves now wash
o’er winter’s shore,
laving away loose
cold and broken remnants:
ice-limned rock; skeletons of
shell; dune-weary grasses torn and
tossed to float amid the spume; frothy
intimations of summer’s vibrant blooms.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem that in its basic form contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here.

 

Grandma’s New Year’s Toss

Because they never owned a car and never learned to drive, someone made a special effort to bring Grandma and Grandpa – my father’s parents – to the celebration of my third birthday.

Generally, we traveled the thirty-five miles to their home for Sunday dinners or holiday celebrations. Why the routine was broken for this occasion I can’t say, but I cherish the snapshot: my only image of this improbable couple.

Born in Sweden, they traveled to America as strangers on the same ship in the early 1900s. After meeting and marrying in Minneapolis, they moved to Iowa, struggled through the Depression, raised six children, and delighted in their grand-children. Then, they were gone.

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A Song For an On-Going Season

Christmas Island ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ postage stamps

By day’s end on December 26, undressed Christmas trees were piling up  around dumpsters and burn piles, while assorted store employees began stripping shelves of Christmas tchotchkes to make room for Valentine’s Day candy.

That said, and despite a tinge of relief among some that “Christmas is over,” seasonal celebrations are continuing. Beginning on December 25th — Christmas Day — and continuing until Epiphany on January 6th, the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ continue to delight, rich in traditions both religious and secular.

Emerging from early Norse and Germanic cultures, each of the twelve days of the earliest Yule celebrations were meant to correspond to one of the twelve months in the upcoming year. It was believed that events of each day could be read as omens or signs: a way to divine what the new year might bring.

In time, Christians assigned different meanings to the days. For example, December 26th is designated as a day to celebrate St. Stephen: perhaps the first Christian martyr. December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, is dedicated to children killed by King Herod. On the twelfth day, Epiphany commemorates the arrival of Wise Men bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the infant Jesus. Even though Epiphany concludes the formal Christmas season, in Louisiana elaborate King cakes, sugared in traditional Mardi Gras colors of green, purple, and gold, continue to be served from Twelfth Night through Fat Tuesday and the beginning of Lent.

Eventually, various objects became associated with each of the twelve days, and the song we know as “The Twelve Days of Christmas” became popular. Its repetitiveness means it gets very little airplay, but most people at least recognize its first line’s reference to ‘a partridge in a pear tree.’ But lords and ladies are in short supply these days — not to mention milkmaids — so parodies began to showcase more familiar ‘gifts.’

One of my favorites — “The Cajun 12 Days of Christmas” — was created by Jules d’Hemecourt: a well-known Louisiana journalist, lawyer, and radio personality who taught journalism at Louisiana State University for thirty years.

When d’Hemecourt was only three years old, his mother suggested that he recite “The Night Before Christmas” for his grandparents. His recitation was well-received, and it wasn’t long before ‘Tee Jules’ was born. His “Cajun Night Before Christmas” and “Cajun Twelve Days of Christmas” became classics on the bayous, providing south Louisiana children with their own version of the traditional song.

Some of the items mentioned in Tee Jules’s version — cypress knees, fleurs-de-lis, oysters, duck decoys, and shotgun shells — aren’t particularly mysterious. Other gifts are less well known, or described with delightful poetic license. For example the crawfish Tee Jules substituted for the partridge doesn’t live in a fig tree, and the romantic crawfish at the end of the video is improbable, however sweet.

Crawfish, not in a fig tree

Both Voodoo and Santería are a part of Louisiana life. Despite different roots, they share similarities; serious practitioners and casual story-tellers know many of the characters in the pantheon.  Eleguá, represented either as a child or as an old man, represents life’s beginning and ending, as well as the opening and closing of life paths. A bit of a trickster, he enjoys playing jokes on people, and his love of a good party makes him well suited for a twelve-day holiday.

Eleguá contemplating his next trick

The shrimp in Tee Jules’s story clearly are ‘stuffed’ in the way of people who dined upon large holiday meals; perhaps the shrimp dined on others of their kind, stuffed with crawfish in the Cajun way.

The Pousse-Cafés come next, with the odd name that means ‘push coffee.’ Developed as digestifs —  after-dinner and after-coffee drinks meant to aid digestion — they can be difficult to build. Since every liquid has a specific gravity, Pousse-cafés are made by layering; the heaviest liquor is added first, with the lightest at the top. The trick is to pour the different liquids so gently that the surface tension of the previous layer remains intact.

It’s pretty, but one usually is enough

The five Poules d’eau mentioned in the song are the common American Coot. Some online sites translate their name as ‘Moorhen’ or ‘Gallinule, but in Cajun country, the ‘water hens’ are Coots. The name is apt; both the Audubon and Cornell birding sites describe the birds as ‘chicken-like.’

You might see a few Poules d’eau if you were collecting crabs for your boiling pot…

or poling or paddling your flat-bottomed pirogue down the bayou.

This much is certain.  If you’re willing to sing along with Tee Jules, you’ll be well on your way toward passing a good time on the bayou. Père Noël will approve!

 

Comments always are welcome.

Capturing Christmas

 

Of all the gifts I enjoyed each Christmas, new books were among the best. Over the years, they changed: childhood’s Little Golden Books turning into The Bobbsey Twins, and then into Cherry Ames. In time, I began receiving ‘big girl books,’ and one of the first was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith.

It quickly became a favorite: so much so that the next year, during our annual read-aloud time on Christmas night, I chose one of the passages from the book as my selection. This year, I happened upon this fine reading by accident, and enjoyed it so much I thought it worth sharing here. Granted, the reading is nearly seven minutes long, but those seven minutes will be well spent. I hope you enjoy it, too.

 

Comments always are welcome.