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Monday, October 11, 2004

I'll Be in Touch

Every morning on my way to work, as I make my way up from the platform to the world outside Atlanta's Five Points MARTA station, I do my best to go through the same turnstile every morning. This started on my first day back on this job (after a year-and-one-half interregnum), almost seven months ago. And I'll bet that in all those days (excluding the occasional time I've gotten off at a different station in search of the wild donut) that I've only missed that turnstile two or three times.

The first time that this happened--I think because the turnstile was closed for some reason--I had a mild panic attack. I didn't want push my way through the next one over, but as I forced myself to, I thought, "What a strange reaction." Why in the world should it matter?

But then that's when I realized that that is how we make our ways through a very complex world. We look for touchstones. We fashion routines. As we make our way through the chaos of the average day, we look for anchors anywhere we can find them.

On my lunch half-hours, I'm currently reading a novel called "Old School" by Tobias Wolff. It's what the Germans would call a Bildungsroman, a novel of education. Set in a boys prep school in the school year of 1960-61, it's the first person narrative of a young man who is trying to understand himself as both an individual and as a writer. In the part of the book I was reading today, the unnamed narrator examines several of the short stories of Ernest Hemingway. And in the portion of the discussion concerning "Big Two-Hearted River," I found this:

You saw everything Nick did, in precise, almost fussy descriptions that most writers would've left out. How he drives the pegs of his tent until the rope loops are buried, and hold his pants and shoes in his hand when leaving the tent at sunup. How he dampens his fishing leaders. Exactly how much flour and water he uses to make his pancakes--a cup of each. I'd liked being in on all these rough solemnities but I had missed the fact that Nick observes them so carefully--religiously is not too strong a word--because they keep him from falling apart.

It's just funny that I had been thinking about these touchstones this weekend and then come across this passage today. And just for the record, I went through the wrong turnstile this morning.


Robert G. Margolis said...


That's a lovely passage you found, precise in its own way, a concentrated nugget of attention. I love most those writers who can sustain the act of attention, give us a (relatively) clear-eyed view of the so-called 'little things' inseparable from the 'big things', though, I think, the very act of close, patient, loving attention effaces such a conceptual distinction and difference, makes superfluous any need to make such a distinction. I love that writing which 'hears' the voices of things, the 'how they are' as they are, not necessarily the utilitarian 'how' or 'reason why', but things, gestures, and so on, as they are an integral part of the rites and patterns of a life lived, as familiar, so the Zen saying goes, as "reaching for one's pillow" in the night.

I'm afraid, these days, when it comes to reading, fiction, poetry, I've been going through the same turnstile for a long time; that is, I mostly re-read what I've read many times before, a poem here, a story there, maybe some of Jim Harrison's writings, the 'Watson trilogy'--"Killing Mr. Watson," "Lost Man's River," "Bone by Bone," by Peter Matthiessen (to me one of the most astonishing sustained acts of invention, imagination, and attention there is in the English language). I think I may be suffering from a kind of inner 'hearing' loss, because I just can't 'hear'--and the analogy with music is quite deliberate, I just can't 'hear' what, if anything is being said in so much of what is contemporarily written. Obviously, that's just me, and not a statement about the totality of contemporary writing, most of which I'm completely ignorant about. My wife, for example, reads in ten directions at once, and is always finding something worthy of her seasoned reader's attention. With Bob's book, too, I'm skipping around, not reading sequentially; there are a lot of turnstiles one can choose to go through in that book. I've found a few I want to go through repeatedly before moving on.

I'll just mention here, in case it should ever coincide or intersect with any reading interest of yours, the poet Hayden Carruth, a living national treasure, in my unhumble opinion, who has, again sayeth I, one of the most profound, accomplished ears for our language, and especially for people's speech and conversation, and, too, for the meaning of things as they appear. For a writer, striving to marry craft with attention, he is one of those whom we can study, not to imitate, but to learn what he's learned.

This is also apropos our other thread of discussion, about Bob Dylan's "Chronicles", because the folk songs, the ones he calls his "prayer book and lexicon", are, lyrically, such beautiful, close acts of attention in language. The quality of attention, like mercy, is not strained. In those old, gone, or nearly gone songs is a whole apprenticeship in storytelling, in how to sequence scenes, how to chose images, what to leave out, what to say explicitly, what to leave unsaid but everywhere implied. Do you know Bob's song "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" (on the album "Desire")? I find it to be a small masterwork or storytelling.

"Touchstones" is an excellent choice of word for it. I let your choice of word have the last word, as it should.

Len said...

This is interesting. I also have the tendency to delve back into my personal treasure trove of books, while my wife (former English major and soon-to-be grad student that she is) reads" in 10 directions at once. I'm starting to edge a bit out of my self-made cave, rubbing my eyes in the unaccustomed sunlight. Reading "Old School" is part of that effort for me, an attempt I'm making to see if living authors can actually stack up against the dead ones.

Of course, outside of "Old School" and "Chronicles, Vol. 1," I've got bookmarks in several volumes (unusual for me--I'm usually a one-at-a-time man), all of which are works by the honored dead. Two are by Hesse, "Demian" and "Steppenwolf." Apparently times of crisis and transformation call books on the same theme.

I, however, cannot skip around in books. I often wish I could. However, I am to books what Alvy Singer in "Annie Hall" is to movies. I have to go methodically from the beginning to the end. If there's an introduction, I'll read it. If there's a preface, I'll read it. If there's a dedication, I'll read it. Printing history, acid-free paper statement, permission to quote from, it all goes into what I try to pass off as a mind. However, as Felix said on the old "Odd Couple" TV show, "We are what we are."