Monday, November 12, 2007

Work in progress (II)


The first time he turned to look back towards the harbor, ten minutes later, he could make out nothing of the town except a water tower and a couple of derricks; a few minutes more and these were gone as well. A stiff wind and cold spray were blowing across the deck, and the ferry was rolling in the swells. He stayed out as long as he could; then, when the chill became too much, he went below decks and found the lounge. A scattering of passengers were sitting on the benches by the windows: couples, lone men, a family with two small, excited boys, and the woman in the yellow slicker, who was reading a newspaper. The snack bar smelled of grease and had limited offerings, but he was beginning to feel hungry and bought a sandwich and fries and sat down.

They were soon out of sight of land. The two boys had fallen asleep, one on his mother's lap, the other sprawled on the bench beside. Two men played checkers quietly in a corner, observed by a third who stood over them until he grew bored and went to sit by himself, nursing a cardboard container of coffee. The woman in the slicker had finished her paper and now sat motionless, her hands folded in her lap, sunglasses on.

He stepped outside to the rail and found the air warmer in the afternoon sun. He went around to the stern, where two of the crewmen were killing time. They nodded as he approached, then resumed their conversation. He climbed the stairs to the upper deck and back to the wheel-house again. The captain, standing at the controls and talking into the radio mike in his hand, gave him a friendly wave but kept an eye on him, as if deciding if he looked like a jumper. He sat down on a bench and began to feel drowsy; he had drifted asleep when he heard tapping on the window and looked up. The captain pointed off to starboard. At first he didn't see the pilot whales, then he spotted them, a dozen or more, swimming parallel, black and sleek, their heads breaching the water at every trough. They kept up with the boat for twenty minutes, then veered away.

As the afternoon waned they came by land in the distance on the port side, and the first fishing boats appeared. The ferry skirted the coast for another hour, then turned as night fell. He saw lights alongshore, and the blinking of beacons, as it slowed. There were hotels and homes on both sides of the dock, and people out walking, even in the off season. The captain reversed the engines and the ferry inched up to the landing and came to rest, rocking gently with the waves beneath. The crew secured it fast, then dropped the chains to let the cars go through. He saw the couple with the little boys pull away in a dented blue sedan, the boys jumping up and down in the back seats and peering out at the sights. The woman in the yellow slicker went ahead of him into the waiting room and was greeted, rather coolly he thought, by an older woman in a drab wool overcoat. They stepped out to the street, got into a waiting car whose driver he couldn't see, and drove off.

He found a bed and breakfast a few blocks from the water, a narrow three-storey brownstone with chrysanthemums in windowboxes. One wall of the lobby was occupied by a cage full of tiny finches; they hopped restlessly from perch to perch twittering while he registered with the white-haired man at the desk — the owner he supposed, retired from some other life. Most of the rooms were vacant, and he asked for one on the top floor in front so he could look out at the town. He took the key, climbed the stairs, and went in. The room was small and bare, but adequate. The mattress on the four-poster was a bit high up but not too soft, and the single cast-iron radiator under the front window appeared up to the task. As he stood by the window he suspected he would be hearing traffic noises through the night, but this seemed more likely to ease his sleep than to disturb it. The streetlights would be more of a problem, as the curtains were pale and barely met, but he would manage.

He locked up again and went out to the street in search of a meal. There was a dark bar with a neon sign and a dining room, and a fish and chips, but he kept going, walking the main drag until he came to an Italian place that looked tiny from the street but opened out into an ample room, now largely deserted, once inside. He was shown to a table looking out on the water by a black-vested waiter in his thirties who spoke gently and with barely a trace of a foreign accent. He ordered bread and soup and a plate of clams with spaghetti on the side, and a glass of wine, and ate slowly, in silence, finishing it all as he watched the few boats that were still moving at that hour and season tie up along the docks and unload. When he had paid the bill and exchanged an amicable buona sera with the waiter he stepped into the street again. There was live music coming out of a basement storefront a few doors down but he wasn't in the mood. He found a bench in a little park by the water, under an aspen, and sat for a while until the last of the stragglers from the waterfront had moved on and the chill was starting to invade his bones, then he retraced his steps, bid the man at the registration desk goodnight, and went up to his room. He undressed and lay down, turning his back to the window, and was asleep the moment he shut his eyes.

(Never completed.)

Friday, November 09, 2007

Work in progress (I)


He stood alone. The treeless plain stretched out around him in all directions, cold and dry and monochrome. The brown earth was stoneless, windswept, dotted with dead grass long beyond its season. Whatever blew onto the plain — grains of sand and rust, bits of leaf, splinters of bone — would whistle along for miles until it was caught in a patch of turf and held fast, there to remain until the next rain, months off, caked it in with the soil forever. To the north, a few miles off, the ground rose sharply to a broad plateau, as barren as the plain beneath. He thought it might have been the stranded coast of a sea whose waters had long ago drawn back, but he didn't know.

The mid-morning sun, its glare muted by a high, thin haze, had driven off the chill of night, but the air was still cool and flicked with breezes. A few dark birds wheeled above the horizon, very far off, but never approached.

He began to walk. He walked at a steady pace, without hurry, bearing south. As he travelled the exertion warmed him, and he soon shook out the last of the cold air from his coat. The mist on his breath grew lighter, then disappeared for good. He never looked back. After a few miles his boot struck a stone, just a milky white pebble the size of a knucklebone, and sent it skipping away; it was the only one he encountered. A kestrel crossed above, not hunting but moving quickly to the west. He watched its shadow pass in front of him, a perfect dark reflection of the silent bird, speeding towards an unseen convergence.

It was near evening when he sighted the flock. He heard the bellwether first, before they came in sight, a muffled low chunking that arrived and dimmed with the wind, the direction of its source undeterminable. When he came upon them at last, immense and eerily white in the twilight, they paid no attention to his passing and only shied at the last moment, when he reached out a hand to graze their backs. Silent but for the bell, they drifted around him in clusters of six or eight or a dozen, nosing at the turf. He thought they seemed like ghosts, and looked for the ghostly shepherd sure to be nearby, whistling for his spectre hound, but there was none.

The terrain began to slope down, in fits and starts, over little dips and rises, runnels trickling here and there in the gaps. Lacking a staff, he stepped carefully across the slick, broken ground, planting the lower foot first, bending his knees. In a while he smelled the first peat fire, borne for miles perhaps in the damp night air. He found a stream and a well-trod path and turned to follow it.

At the first settlement they gave him shelter in the barn, a loaf and a steaming bowl of mutton broth. There were three men, soft-spoken and remote, the one he supposed the father of the other pair. The woman, slight and leathery — she might have been the mother but he thought her too young — seemed glad of his company, though she spoke little and retired at the end of the meal. When he rose in the morning she was the only one about; she gave him bread and a blessing for the journey and he departed. He took the wagon-path along the rim of a narrow, fog-shrouded gorge until he reached the paved road. He read the name of the village on the sign at the turnoff and made a note of it.

It was drizzling and still when he caught a ride. The driver of the van smelled of tobacco and wool; he chattered over the radio, pointing out what sights of interest lay along the way without waiting to be prompted. They passed a little clapboard church, a convenience store, and miles and miles of grazed-over fields, dotted with little ponds, dilapidated sheds, and mothballed machinery. At the first intersection there was a traffic light but not a soul in view; the driver breezed through without slowing.

As the neared the coast the drizzle became fog, then drifted away suddenly, revealing the shoreline and the freighters in the offing. As soon as they had skirted a little point the port came into view. Its buildings were sullen and anonymous: silos and storehouses, processing plants and canneries, pipelines and cranes. A scattering of mud-daubed cars, nearly all of them white or black, were parked in the lanes and lots between, and a few gaunt men, in caps and white coats, stood outside smoking on their break.

The driver left him off near the ferry dock and drove on. He found the station, which was nearly deserted, and bought a one-way passage from the woman at the window, and a soda and crackers from a vending machine. He glanced at the newspaper someone had left open on the bench, but didn't know the language. When he had warmed sufficiently he went outside and watched the gulls and the splashing of the waves on the pilings of the pier alongside. The ferry took nearly a half-hour to reach its berth, from the time he first spied it; its wake, even at low speed, drove up under the dock and shook it to its foundations. With the clanging of bells and the shuddering of machinery it bumped to a halt and lowered its gate, discharging a fuel truck, a score of cars, a pair of motorcycles, and a handful of shivering pedestrians. The crew came ashore for a few minutes, entered the station to get back their land legs and chat up the ticket-agent, then went back onboard.

When they dropped the chains and began to board the lined-up cars he stepped up to the deck. The crewman took his ticket affably and said something to him, but he couldn't make it out. A woman in a yellow slicker, her head swaddled tightly in a scarf, was the only other traveller by foot. She stepped away from him, not meeting his eye, and quickly made for the warmth of the cabin. He instead climbed the iron stairs to the upper deck, just outside the wheel-house, and found a seat on a bench where he could overlook the harbor, hands in his pockets, the collar of his coat turned up, as the ferry began to pull away from shore.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Notes & Queries (Gabriel García Márquez)


A brief but evocative passage from Gabriel García Márquez's Cien Años de Soledad is missing from Gregory Rabassa's US translation, One Hundred Years of Solitude. The affected passage, which can be found on p. 282 of the 2003 Contemporanea / De Bosillo edition of the original novel, and would have appeared on p. 240 of the Harper & Row hardcover had it been there, is set during the period when the first Yankee banana plantation has been established in the vicinity of Macondo, and concerns the unearthly young woman García Márquez calls Remedios the Beauty, whose extravagant charms — and disinclination to wear much in the way of clothing — are suspected by the inhabitants of Macondo of having potentially lethal effects on the men in the community. The original reads:
La ocasión de comprobarlo se presentó meses después una tarde en que Remedios, la bella, fue con un grupo de amigas a conocer las nuevas plantaciones. Para la gente de Macondo era una distracción reciente recorrer las húmedas e interminables avenidas bordeadas de bananos, donde el silencio parecía llevado de otra parte, todavía sin usar, y era por eso tan torpe para transmitir la voz. A veces no se entendía muy bien lo dicho a medio metro de distancia, y, sin embargo, resultaba perfectamente comprensible al otro extremo de la plantación. Para las muchachas de Macondo aquel juego novedoso era motivo de risas y sobresaltos, de sustos y burlas, y por las noches se hablaba del paseo como de una experiencia de sueño. Era tal el prestigio de aquel silencio, que Úrsula no tuvo corazón para privar de la diversión a Remedios, la bella, y le permitió ir una tarde, siempre que se pusiera un sombrero y un traje adecuado.
The US text reads as follows:
The occasion for the proof of it came some months later on one afternoon when Remedios the Beauty went with a group of girl friends to look at the new plantings. For the girls of Macondo that novel game was reason for laughter and surprises, frights and jokes, and at night they would talk about their walk as if it had been an experience in a dream. Such was the prestige of that silence that Úrsula did not have the heart to take the fun away from Remedios the Beauty, and she let her go one afternoon, providing that she wore a hat and a decent dress.
On a close reading, the translation does not quite make sense: what novel game? what silence? The problem is that the second and third sentences of the Spanish original have been skipped, an easy mistake to make because, as one reads along the page, the beginning of the fourth sentence is so similar to the beginning of the second. With those sentences restored, the English text would read (loosely) like this:
The occasion for the proof of it came some months later on one afternoon when Remedios the Beauty went with a group of girl friends to look at the new plantings. For the people of Macondo it was a recent amusement to wander the humid and interminable avenues lined with banana groves, where the silence seemed to have been carried from somewhere else, still unused, and was for that reason less reluctant to transmit the voice. At times you couldn't hear something that was said from half a meter away, which was, nevertheless, perfectly comprehensible on the far side of the plantation. For the girls of Macondo that novel game was reason for laughter and surprises, frights and jokes, and at night they would talk about their walk as if it had been an experience in a dream. Such was the prestige of that silence that Úrsula did not have the heart to take the fun away from Remedios the Beauty, and she let her go one afternoon, providing that she wore a hat and a decent dress.
Since the passage does not fully make sense except in its complete form, the longer version is almost certainly not the result of authorial second thoughts after the book's original publication; since it contains nothing controversial or obscure, the omission in the translation must have been unintentional. The two sentences had to have been present in their entirety in the original manuscript or in a version prior to publication. I have not been able to examine an early edition of the original text to see if the error began there and was subsequently corrected in later Spanish-language editions such as the one I have at hand, or whether it was overlooked by the American translator or compositor. The omission was carried over into the Avon paperback edition (which is differently paginated) and is retained in what I believe is a QPB paperback edition, bearing the Harper & Row imprint and apparently directly reproduced from the original plates.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Graham Parker in Japan



I bought Graham Parker's Live Alone! Discovering Japan a few years back mostly because I wanted one song (“Watch the Moon Come Down”), listened to the record once or twice, decided I wasn't really all that wild about Graham Parker, and stuck it in a box. There it stayed until I started hearing the same song in my head again and disinterred the CD from its resting place in my basement. I figured I'd copy that one cut to my hard drive and be done with it, but just out of curiosity I played the whole thing once through. Now I've been listening to it repeatedly for a couple of weeks, and enjoying it a great deal. I don't think the record has changed much, so it must be me.

Parker has made a lot of records, most of which I've never heard, and is probably better known for working with a band than as a solo act. He gets lumped together with Elvis Costello as one of the Angry Young Men of 1970s British rock. The similarities are there — they're both gifted melodic songwriters with a sardonic sense of humor — but Parker has stayed closer to his musical roots; you can't really imagine him crooning Burt Bacharach tunes. That may be part of the reason why Elvis Costello is more or less a household name, at least to anyone under sixty, and why Graham Parker isn't.

This CD was recorded in Tokyo sometime in the early '90s. The crowd — mostly male from the sound of it — is rowdy and responsive, and evidently familiar with his songbook. Although there were reportedly some technical problems with the recording, the end result sounds quite good (better than the rather tinny Live! Alone in America from a few years earlier, which also has a weaker song selection.) Accompanied only by his own guitar and harmonica, Parker sounds as merry as the crowd, if not as inebriated. During one interval between songs someone yells something in Japanese and he quips “Yes, I understand. I woke up this morning understanding Japanese perfectly — without any studying.” He sings two songs with Japanese themes (“Discovering Japan” and the throwaway “Disposable Chopsticks”), as well as one song “Mercury Poisoning," which in spite of its title isn't an allusion to the notorious Minamata disaster but rather a vicious kiss-off directed at his former record label.

Parker is excellent at crafting taut pop melodies; his lyrics are clever and biting but also a bit trashy. He doesn't brood too much over details; if a song has a throwaway line or two that's fine with him, as long as it holds your attention for three minutes. His attitudes can be a bit trashy too; the sneering pose of “That's What They All Say” and ”Platinum Blonde” is a bit of a tic, and yet both of those songs are gems, crafty and unabashedly below the belt. Being tender isn't really something he's interested in; even when when he comes closest, as in “Long Stemmed Rose,” which compares his lover to a solitary blossom, he ends with these lines:
Wonder where you are who knows
in another bed I suppose
lying like a long stem rose
Still, it's not all nastiness; “Just Like Herman Hesse,” which alludes to Steppenwolf, is deft and intriguing; there's a fine antiwar number (“Short Memories”); and then there's the song that caught my attention in the first place:
In this dirty town there's nothing going for me
No shows going down that I would want to see
Nothing but the midnight train

In this shady street on a top floor flat
Women take their sheets down to the laundromat
And as the night falls on this town
I'm going to watch the moon come down
Watch the moon come down
I'm gonna watch the moon come down
Watch it come down
There's another verse or so, but that's about all there is to the lyrics; the hook is in the repeated descending lines of the refrain. Parker's singing is particularly vigorous and soulful on this track, and the record preserves a great moment, a one-on-one of a songwriter-performer and his audience.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Roughing it


Passing overland through Guatemala in 1839, the American explorer John L. Stephens and his travelling companion, the British artist Frederick Catherwood, spend a night in a rustic homestead, where they bravely bear up in the face of unfamiliar customs.

"Our host was a don; and when we presented our letter he received us with great dignity in a single garment, loose, white, and very laconic, not quite reaching his knees. The dress of his wife was no less easy; somewhat in the style of the oldfashioned shortgown and petticoat, only the shortgown and whatever else is usually worn under it were wanting, and their place supplied by a string of beads, with a large cross at the end. A dozen men and half-grown boys, naked except the small covering formed by rolling the trousers up and down in the manner I have mentioned, were lounging about the house; and women and girls in such extremes of undress, that a string of beads seemed quite a covering for modesty.

"Mr. C. and I were in a rather awkward predicament for the night. The general reception-room contained three beds, made of strips of cowhide interlaced. The don occupied one; he had not much undressing to do, but what little he had, he did by pulling off his shirt. Another bed was at the foot of my hammock. I was dozing, when I opened my eyes, and saw a girl about seventeen sitting sideway upon it, smoking a cigar. She had a piece of striped cotton cloth tied around her waist, and falling below her knees; the rest of her dress was the same which Nature bestows alike upon the belle of fashionable life and the poorest girl; in other words, it was the same as that of the don's wife, with the exception of the string of beads. At first I thought it was something I had conjured up in a dream; and as I waked up perhaps I raised my head, for she gave a few puffs of her cigar, drew a cotton sheet over her head and shoulders, and lay down to sleep. I endeavored to do the same. I called to mind the proverb, that 'travelling makes strange bedfellows.' I had slept pellmell with Greeks, Turks, and Arabs. I was beginning a journey in a new country; it was my duty to conform to the customs of the people; to be prepared for the worst, and submit with resignation to whatever might befall me."

Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sweet As the Showers of Rain



I picked up a copy of this book by the blues historian and poet Samuel Charters in the Strand Bookstore in the 1970s, at a time when I was living in New York City. I had never heard of it, or him, at the time, but the book has stayed with me ever since. My urge to hear the records of the old blues musicians of the '20s and '30s comes and goes; there have been periods when I've hardly felt like listening to the blues at all, as well as times when I listened to little else. Whenever I do get the urge, though, I dig out my battered old paperback copy, and I've never really found anything that comes close to this book in capturing the spirit of the music and of the men and women who made it.

Charters, who's now well into his eighties, has written a number of books on the subject, and this is almost certainly not the best known (that would likely be his first, The Country Blues, which was published in 1959), but I have a special fondness for it. It's actually Volume II of an aborted series, one that was projected to survey a variety of regional blues styles through chapter-length profiles of the most interesting or most significant players. Volume I, which was published as The Bluesmen, covers many of the now well-known bluesmen of Mississippi, including Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and Bukka White (the last of whom, however, mysteriously appears on the cover of Volume II, in which he is barely mentioned). It also encompasses the musicians of Alabama and Texas. Sweet As the Showers of Rain, published in 1977, focuses on the Memphis area as well as Georgia and the Carolinas, and includes profiles of the Memphis Jug Band, Willie McTell, Blind Blake, and a number of less familiar figures. Both books have been in and out of print several times, at one point in an omnibus volume called The Bluesmakers.

Though the two regional volumes are similar in approach I think it's in Sweet As the Showers of Rain that Charters really hit his stride. A number of the players covered in its pages were still around when he began his researches, and he got to know several of them pretty well. (Regrettably, he just missed meeting McTell, who died in obscurity in 1959 just as The Country Blues was being published.) Charters may have been a blues enthusiast and a musicologist, but he never let his interest in the music blind himself to the fact that his subjects were people — even when they didn't have a guitar in hand. In his pages, bluesmen like Gus Cannon, Will Shade, and Furry Lewis — all of whom Charters knew — come through with their flinty dignity intact, as they look back on more than their share of hardships but also some good times spent carousing, travelling, and music-making. Some of the stories are grimmer than others; here's part of Charters's sobering encounter with the great Tennessee singer John Adam “Sleepy John” Estes:
Winfield Lane was a rutted, unpaved farm road running through the red-brown clay earth outside of Brownsville, Tennessee. Most of the farms had been abandoned and there was only a scattering of houses along the road, some of them deserted cabins with fallen-in roofs and peeling tar paper. There were small stretches of cotton, some grazing land, but most of the land was overgrown with brush and trees. The cabin John lived in was about a mile and a half from the turn into Brownsville, a sagging wood shack that had been painted red. The ground in front of it was bare of grass, an open mud space with a refuse of dirty dishes, old clothes, a chair that had gotten broken and left outside the door. It had only two rooms, one of them empty except for a bundle of rags on the filth of the floor, the other room with a chair, a rusted wood stove, and two beds piled with the same rags that were on the floor of the other room. A metal plate with bits of food stuck to it had been left on the chair, and flies clustered around the rest of the dishes left in a bucket on the floor. There was no electricity or water. In the daytime most of the light came in through the cracks between the cabin's warped planks. It looked like any of the abandoned cabins left in the fields, but John Estes was living in it, with his wife and five small children.

Many of the old bluesmen who were found still living in the 1950s and 1960s were living in ghetto buildings, or in shabby houses in small towns in the South, but Estes's poverty had a desperateness to it. He'd long been troubled with his eyes, and he'd finally become completely blind. Even knowing that he was in poor health, blind, and living in a poor shack, I still wasn't prepared for the sight of him, a gaunt, tall figure in dirty farm clothes, a shapeless straw hat on his head, sitting alone on a bare wooden chair in front of the cabin of a neighbor. Because he'd been told someone wanted to see him, he had an old guitar across his lap, the strings rusted, a pencil tied around the neck as a kind of capo. One of his sons, who was about nine years old, led him back and forth from his house to the Meaux house, and it was painful to watch him stumbling along, holding his guitar, his feet scuffling with uncertainty over the dirt and the stones.

A few months later John was able to move into Brownsville, and with the earnings that came in from concerts and recordings he was able to add to the welfare check he received from the state of Tennessee, but the years of darkness and poverty on the country road left their marks on both his health and spirit. The man across the road, a sharecropper with a family of his own to feed, had tried to do what he could for John, but he felt that it was John's blindness that had left him so helpless. “People cheats him, you know, when he goes and buys things. If he gets some butter they makes him pay four times what it says on the counter; then they don't give him his right change.” He had grown blind when he was older, and he hadn't developed any of the ways to deal with his blindness that someone younger learns. He was only fifty-eight years old, that afternoon at the cabin on Winfield Lane — but he looked and moved like a man in his seventies.
After his “rediscovery,” Estes began performing again, this time for the new audiences of the folk and blues revival, and he went on to record several LPs before his death in 1977. But passages like this bring to mind exactly what the stakes were for a poor black man in the rural South, in the American century.

Update (2015): Samuel Charters died in Sweden on March 18, 2015. The New York Times has an obituary.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Soehnée



Charles-Frédéric Soehnée was born on November 3, 1789 in Landau in the Rhineland, to a respectable family who several years later relocated to Paris, where the young Charles-Frédéric studied art. During 1818 and 1819 he painted a series of curious watercolors, filling the pages of three notebooks with scenes set in a mostly barren landscape peopled by human figures whose faces are often obscured or turned away from the viewer and by a bestiary of fantastic creatures. In 1822 he published a volume of researches into the painting techniques of antiquity, specifically the employment of encaustic and varnish. He developed and marketed a varnish formula of his own, which was subsequently adopted by a number of artists, including Delacroix, and which made him a wealthy man. He lived to a great age, dying in Paris, in 1879. As far as is known, he never painted again.

The image above is captioned première halte (“first stop”). The shaggy beast of burden, which appears to be nursing one of its dismounted riders, has a vaguely insectivorous snout. There are other variations. In one painting the animal has an elongated trunk like an elephant's; in another it appears to be breathing fire. There is also an elongated slug-like creature, bearing at least a score of riders on its back, as well as outsized pink crustaceans and beasts whose living bodies are nothing but skeletons. In most of the more developed images there is a single bat, or occasionally more than one, soaring somewhere above. In one tableau a bat, its enormous wings outspread, gapes forward from its perch in the prow of a boat crowded with passengers, some of whom appear to be fishing using some kind of rodent-like mammal as bait.

I don't know much about the sources and traditions Soehnée may have drawn from when he created these paintings. In what appears to be the only volume devoted to his work, a catalogue issued (in French only) by the Galerie Jean-Marie Le Fell, several antecedents are mentioned, notably Goya. He may have had a grand design in mind, or perhaps he was just playing around, amusing himself as young doodlers often do. A number of Soehnée's pages are collections of figure studies, often not colored in, but whether finished or unfinished there is a unity to everything by his hand that has survived, a like desolation, a whimsy undercut by an unwavering emotional remoteness. Like the enigmas of the Voynich Manuscript and the Codex Serafinianus, Soehnée's paintings are fragments of an alien world that will never really quite be ours to enter.

(I am indebted to mr. h's blog, Giornale Nuovo, for my introduction to Soehnée's work.)

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Open road



The title of Peter Case's new CD brings to mind, of course, the Walker Evans / James Agee Depression-era collaboration, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, itself taken from Ecclesiasticus. Not being much of a Bible reader I haven't a clue how the author of Ecclesiasticus intended the phrase, but the Evans / Agee appropriation of it was clearly ironic, the idea being, more or less, how can you sing the praises of the mighty when human beings are living in the way this book documents?

I think it's safe to say that Case, on the other hand, intends his praise sincerely. The “Sleepy John” of the title is John Adam Estes, the great Tennessee blues singer whose heyday, at least as far as his recorded output goes, was in the 1930s, though he was eventually “rediscovered,” as they say, by blues fans and made some more records before he died in 1977. Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John is not, however, a Sleepy John Estes tribute record. In fact, there's only one blues cover here and, strictly speaking, no Sleepy John songs on it at all, though that's not quite the whole story either (but I'll get to that). It's more of a tip of the hat, or the discharging of a debt, an acknowledgment, I imagine, of the late bluesman's role as an influence and as a model, perhaps, an example of how to make music with integrity and originality and by using the material of your own life and the things you see around you instead of hand-me-down notions about how you're supposed to live and think and pursue your craft.

Case has performed and recorded Sleepy John's material in the past, but I think the real kinship between them is less direct. Estes, after all, is the guy who made up a blues song about the local attorney (“Lawyer Clark Blues”), about a car mechanic (“Vassar Williams”), about the day he nearly drowned (“Floating Bridge”). It wasn't that he didn't draw from the common repertoire of Southern black (and white) music. Whatever our latter-day romantic notions about blues musicians as oracular folk poets, like every working musician of his era he had to keep an audience happy, and that would have meant playing lots of jug band tunes, novelty numbers, and above all plenty of music you could dance to. But Sleepy John found a way to carve out a space for something more personal too. What's more amazing is that somehow he managed to get a good chunk of it on record, which must have been quite an accomplishment given that record companies in the 1930s were not exactly staffed by altruists and the amount of creative control exercised by the musicians was basically nil. As hard as it may be in retrospect to understand, there had to have been an audience back then that appreciated the uniqueness of what Estes was doing, that dug the fact that he was singing about the particular, about people who resembled the people they knew and whose lives resembled the way they were living. (But hell, the guy could just flat out sing.)

Peter Case has had a lot of different lives as a musician, fronting a rock band, busking for change, making records as a singer-songwriter, but his music has always had a similar, unpretentious connection to the lives of people who won't ever make the cover of People magazine. There's probably a reason for that. As chronicled in As Far As You Can Go Without a Passport, the excerpt from his memoir-in-progress that was published earlier this year, Case left home in his teens, headed West, and wound up living rough in the streets of San Francisco in the early 1970s. He slept in flophouses and abandoned cars, battled addiction, spent mornings hanging around outside of liquor stores waiting for the doors to open. Since those days he's cleaned up and moved on, but many of his best songs, from Blue Guitar's “Entella Hotel” and “Poor Old Tom” to “Green Blanket, Part I” from Full Service, No Waiting, have roots in that part of his life. Never afraid of getting his hands dirty, or of encountering the unwashed (not to mention unhinged) he stands squarely in the same great, messy, democratic tradition that produced those restless spirits and bards of the common man, Walter Whitman and Woodrow Wilson Guthrie.

Rough and ragged at times but always vigorous and direct, Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John is the record he says he's always wanted to make; recorded largely solo (but with a few well-chosen collaborations) it's an unflinching, high-stakes, one-on-one with life. It's not a “live” album, in that it was recorded in a studio rather than before an audience, but with only minimal overlaying of tracks the record winds up being all the more intimate for that. There's no cheering audience here to remind you that, after all, you're not really there; it feels instead as if Case is sitting in your living room, or, more likely, playing in a small club (as he often does). That feeling is heightened by the homemade feel of the packaging (which uses hand lettering and Case's own drawings) and by the little quirks and bumps in the performance, things like hearing a fleeting chuckle in the singer's voice at something he must have seen in the studio, or the way Carlos Guitarlos's earthy background vocal, at the end of “Underneath the Stars,” lingers for a priceless second after Case stops singing.

The album's opening cut, “Every 24 Hours,” is a splendid guitar and vocal duet with the veteran British songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson, now, like Case, a transplanted Californian. Both musicians have strong, and long established, musical personalities that wouldn't, at first glance, appear to have a heck of a lot in common, but the truth is the combination works amazingly well. Case provides the sturdy rhythmic backbone, and Thompson contributes 4 1/2 minutes of characteristically inventive acoustic guitar work that never gets in the way of the song's momentum. In form, “Every 24 Hours” is a road song, narrating incidents of a journey between gigs, or maybe on the way home.
Drivin' twelve hours after the show
Hit the border at dawn and kept goin'
As the moon hit my path I was doin' the math
Will I make it? There's no way of knowin'
Being out in the world, whether that means on the road or on the street, is one of the strands that hold these songs together. Other strands are faith, fate, justice, being away from the ones you love, and that troublesome pursuit that most of us past a certain age can't seem to avoid, of looking back at the years of your own life and seeing how (or if) the pieces fit together. The rest of the songs pick up the threads, one or two at a time: “Million Dollars Bail” is about the special kind of justice this country makes available to those with the money or the clout to afford it; “Underneath the Stars” is about the last hours of a homeless woman; “The Open Road Song” looks back to a childhood encounter with a bum that left Case aching to follow in his footsteps. “Just Hangin' On,” which dates from 1970 and is said to be the first song Case wrote, gives a glimpse into how it all started; and then there's “Ain't Gonna Worry No More,” which begins with a typically vivid Peter Case word-picture:
Bare feet poppin' on a pinewood floor
A tumble-rush of desert flowers 'side the door
Music boxes pretty with the piebald stripes
Dust mote diamonds in a shaft of light
Come on down
I ain't gonna worry no more
Come on down
I ain't gonna worry no more

Everybody's laughin' now, it won't be long
We seen a lot of troubles, now the ghost is gone
Come on down
I ain't gonna worry no more
I ain't gonna worry no more
According to the press material from Yep Roc Records, the recorded take contained here is distilled from a 20-minute performance of the piece. The refrain — but little else, least of all the mood — is borrowed from an Estes tune, recorded in 1935 as “Ain't Gonna Be Worried No More.” It's not one of Sleepy John's more typical, personal songs, in fact I wouldn't be surprised if it was just a traditional Memphis night club staple, something you could have heard any night of the week on Beale Street in its heyday. The 1935 recording, which features several accompanying instruments including a kazoo, is ragged and carefree, the kind of thing that would appeal to people who wanted to let off steam after working all day for little money and less dignity — assuming there was work at all, that is.

Case's song, on the other hand, which he performs with just his own acoustic guitar, is intimate and wistful; it's one man's recollections, looking back at his ups and downs and reflecting on the state of the world around him. The lyrics range widely over events in his life, from trying to buy a bottle of schnapps at the age of fourteen to taking in a Lightnin' Hopkins concert to walking with the woman he loves on Mission Street in San Francisco. The song also touches on the Vietnam War and the price of bananas — and remember, this is just the short version. Some of the verses are as as polished and inspired as anything Case has written, others less so, but that's only to be expected, as the song feels like a work in progress, in parallel to a life in progress, the kind of thing that by definition can never really be finished. It's quite unlike anything he's ever recorded, and it's likely to leave you craving more.

There are other gems here. “I'm Gonna Change My Ways,” which is the only cut on the album to feature anything close to a rock arrangement, nods at Sleepy John's “Everybody Oughta Make a Change,” though, once again, Case takes the barest suggestion from the original and takes it somewhere else entirely. Finally, “That Soul Twist” closes the record where it began, on the road, with “another night, another show”:
Pressure's on
Money's tight
Everything will be all right
Stay awake
Stay alert
Do the things you know will work
The only strength is the strength to live
The only life is the life we give
We live to give
That's the word
And all the wisdom that I heard
But perhaps an even more apt summing-up can be found in these lines, from “The Open Road Song”:
I seek my fortune in the wide world
Take my chances in the cold
Come what may I'll be okay
If I could only find a stretch of open road.

Friday, February 16, 2007

John Craxton covers




John Craxton is a British painter of some note, but I doubt I would know his name at all were it not for the splendid book jackets he has created over the years for the works of his compatriot, the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.
These first covers are for the two books in which, many years after the fact, Leigh Fermor recollected the initial stages of the journey he had made, as a very young man in the 1930s, from Holland to Istanbul, largely on foot. Craxton's informal approach seems very apt for the story of a young, talented, largely self-taught Englishman vagabonding across Europe, encountering remnants of old ways that were soon to be lost forever. I'm guessing that the river depicted is the Danube.

The next two images illustrate a briefer book narrating a later trip to South America, and Leigh Fermor's only novel, which I still have never got around to reading.



A Time to Keep Silence is another shorter work, one that recounts Leigh Fermor's visits to monasteries in France and Cappadocia.


Finally, the paperback cover of A Time of Gifts below has a slightly different color palette than the John Murray hardcover. As I remember, the Viking hardcover edition in the US didn't use Craxton's art at all.


I don't have copies of the Penguin editions of Leigh Fermor's two books on Greece, Mani and Roumeli, or his book on the Caribbean, The Traveller's Tree, but I think at least some printings of those books had Craxton art as well. The Harper hardcover editions I own don't, although Roumeli has a map of Greece drawn in his hand on the endpapers.

The preponderance of blue in these covers is likely no accident; both Craxton and Leigh Fermor have lived in Greece for much of their lives. They are very old men now, and I don't know how likely it is that the concluding volume of Leigh Fermor's account of his journey to Constantinople will ever be published. If it is, though, I hope John Craxton will still be around to do the cover.

Postcript (2013): John Craxton died in 2009, Patrick Leigh Fermor on June 10, 2011. The narrative of the last leg of the journey was never completed, but portions left among Leigh Fermor's papers are being published, by John Murray in the UK this year, and by New York Review Books in the US in 2014, as The Broken Road. The Murray cover keeps to the spirit of Craxton's work.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Souvenir of the Ancient World


Thirty years ago, Dr. Generosity's was a bar on Manhattan's Upper East Side. New York City had Irish bars, punk bars, biker bars, gay bars, sports bars, even a bluegrass bar. Dr. Generosity's was a poetry bar. That fact aside, I don't remember anything particularly distinctive about it, not that I was ever in there more than once or twice. A fairly wide room, when you first walked in, tables spread around, and then the bar itself in the middle towards the back. I don't remember sawdust on the floor or an odor of peanuts, like there was at McSorley's, the long running establishment in the East Village. Were there framed, autographed glossies of famous poets on the walls, smiling in their Oxford shirts and fedoras, suit jackets slung over their shoulders? Probably not.

A guy named Ray Freed, a poet and a waiter, ran a series of poetry readings at the bar for a number of years. He also published some chapbooks under the Doctor Generosity Press imprint; I have one, Spencer Holst's On Demons, with drawings by Beate Wheeler, which was published in 1970. But I didn't buy it at the bar, and I didn't know who Ray Freed was at the time. The only reason I ever knew anything about the place was because a group of friends and I once went there to hear Mark Strand read.

Strand's name first came to my attention when I read a poem of his in an anthology I found on the shelves of my high school library. It was the early '70s, and high school libraries didn't really know how to react to all this youth culture that was suddenly popping up all over, and so they were buying some very strange things with titles like Killing Time: A Guide to Life in the Happy Valley that the librarians probably couldn't make heads or tails of but that sounded like they might have something to do with all these changes that they were hearing about, and it was in that anthology or a similar one that I found Strand's poem “Eating Poetry,” which amused me sufficiently that I went to our local public library, which had a better than average poetry section, and found Strand's collections Reasons for Moving and Darker, both of which I came to know almost verbatim for a while.

I don't remember anymore whether I bought Strand's slender paperback volume of translations from the Brazilian modernist poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade after the reading at Generosity's or before. A little before, I think, but in any case it was around the same time. Souvenir of the Ancient World was published, in an edition of 500 copies printed letterpress by Samuel Antupit, by Antaeus Editions, an imprint briefly used by Daniel Halpern, the publisher of Ecco Press and Antaeus magazine, which, at least in its heyday in the '70s, was about as interesting a literary quarterly as any you could find. I bought it at the Gotham for five dollars; the pencilled price is still on the first page.

So when Strand stepped to the podium to read, on the heels of the much less interesting Howard Moss, a fellow poet who is now long dead, I was probably already familiar with his translations of Drummond, poems like “The Elephant” and “The Phantom Girl of Belo Horizonte,” both of which I'm fairly sure he read that day, or “Quadrille,” which is brief enough to quote in its entirety:
John loved Teresa who loved Raymond
who loved Mary who loved Jack who loved Lily
who didn't love anybody.
John went to the United States, Teresa to a convent
Raymond died in an accident, Mary became an old maid,
Jack committed suicide and Lily married J. Pinto Fernandez
who didn't figure into the story.
Strand was, and most likely still is, a mesmerizing reader: he spoke to the hushed saloon in a sonorous, measured voice, with a delivery that was dramatic without ever being hokey. It didn't hurt that he was tall and good looking and assured; the women must have been lining up for him, maybe some of the men as well. He must have read some of his own work on that particular day, but if so I have no recollection of it; it's the translations he read that have stayed with me when I think back on that day.

Regarded as one of the foremost poets Brazil has produced, Carlos Drummond de Andrade was born in Itabira in 1902 and died in Rio de Janeiro in 1987. In addition to Strand's versions, several other English-language translations have been made of selections of his work, with mixed results. There is much that remains untranslated. From what I've been told a good deal of his early work is “proletarian” in nature, not surprising for a lifelong socialist who was raised in a mining town. Though he never abandoned his political affiliation, in later works he turned to more universal matters as well, notably love, longing, and the inevitable approach of oblivion, and it was poems along those lines that Strand picked out to adapt.

Drummond could be very funny, in a sweet, dapper sort of way, and he could be wistful and haunting; frequently he is both at once. At his best, he perfectly captures both the lightness and the weight of being, as in this poem called “Your Shoulders Hold Up the World”:
A time comes when you can no longer say: my God.
A time of total cleaning up.
A time when we no longer can say: my love.
Because love proved useless.
And the eyes don't cry.
And the hands do only rough work.
And the heart is dry.

Women knock at your door in vain, you won't open.
You remain alone, the light turned off,
and your enormous eyes shine in the dark.
It is obvious you no longer know how to suffer.
And you want nothing from your friends.

Who cares if old age comes, what is old age?
Your shoulders are holding up the world
and it's lighter than a child's hand.
Wars, famine, family fights inside buildings
prove only that life goes on
and nobody will ever be free.
Some (the delicate ones) judging the spectacle cruel
will prefer to die.
A time comes when death doesn't help.
A time comes when life is an order.
Just life, without any escapes.
The interesting thing about that one is that Strand apparently had second thoughts about how he translated it. The problem was that the line “and nobody will ever be free” isn't really what the original (e nem todos se libertaram ainda) means, and when Strand's translations of Drummond de Andrade were reprinted in a later collection (Looking for Poetry, 2002), it was revised to the more accurate, less fatalistic, and infinitely less memorable “and not everybody has freed himself yet,” proving that, in poetry at least, when a translator finds himself caught between sense and sound, he should come down firmly on the side of the latter.

One of my favorite Strand renditions of Drummond is the poem called “Residue.” It's too long to include in full here, at least under any reasonable interpretation of “fair use,” but basically it's an enumeration of things that are left over, in a variety of contexts, along with the poet's rather desperate wish that, when he is gone, something of himself might remain as well. The poem begins with these two stanzas:
From everything a little remained.
From my fear. From your disgust.
From stifled cries. From the rose
a little remained.

A little remained of light
caught inside the hat.
In the eyes of the pimp
a little remained of tenderness, very little.
And so forth. My favorite bits may be this one:
A little remains dangling
in the mouths of rivers,
just a little, and the fish
don't avoid it, which is very unusual.
and of course the final stanza:
Still, horribly, from everything a little remains,
under the rhythmic waves
under the clouds and the wind
under the bridges and under the tunnels
under the flames and under the sarcasm
under the phlegm and under the vomit
under the cry from the dungeon, the guy they forgot
under the spectacle and under the scarlet death
under the libraries, asylums, victorious churches
under yourself and under your feet already hard
under the ties of family, the ties of class,
from everything a little always remains.
Sometimes a button. Sometimes a rat.
Those last two lines, I think, pretty much say all there is to say.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

As Far As You Can Get Without a Passport



This chapbook by songwriter Peter Case is the first installment of a promised book-length memoir, a few additional sections of which have been appearing of late on Case's blog.

After an opening chapter that narrates his premature departure from high school in Buffalo in 1970, a departure that may have been precipitated in part by drug-induced hallucinations, Case skips ahead to 1973, when he took a train west, toting a duffel bag and a Gibson guitar, and arrived in San Francisco. With no particular prospects or plan except to make music in the holy city of the psychedelic era, he is soon sleeping in flophouses, hanging out on the street with an assortment of winos, hippies, and buskers, and playing for coins. A black man he never meets again gives him some tips on playing the blues and helps him exchange his Gibson for something more useful on the streets. Case moves into a junkyard along the waterside, spending the nights in an abandoned school bus. Drink is his constant companion. He wakes up one morning, hungover, a bottle 151 proof rum cradled in his arms, and immediately takes a swig. Some days he hangs outside at dive at six AM, waiting for its doors to open so that he can begin his day's drinking.

These pages will seem very familiar to anyone who knows Case's music. Nick the Cop strolls in from the lyrics of “Entella Hotel,” and the whole book could be suitably read to the accompaniment of “Green Blanket (Part One),” from Full Service, No Waiting:
you know I can't tell you
I promised it's secret
besides you don't really care
but the place that I sleep
it's the size of a quarter
it's down 'neath the top of the stairs
& where do you think you're goin' with that?
your little girl's waitin' for sure
I'm numb and I'm cold and I'm so goddamn old
& it's too late tonight for a miracle cure
if this rain keeps on falling it'll wash me away
down through the gutter & out to the bay
where the red & the gold & the silver fish play
that's someplace where no one will find me
someplace where no one will find me
Eventually Case leaves San Francisco for a ragged sojourn into Mexico in the company of his ostensible manager, who at one point barters the singer's sunglasses for a couple of watermelons to slake their thirst. They wind up sleeping on a beach, out of money and almost out of gas, but the book ends on an upbeat note, with Case heading out to the streets of a Mexican town, guitar in hand, feeling that, in spite of their dire straits, something is bound to come along.

John Doe, in his introduction, has it right when he says that As Far As You Can Get Without a Passport displays “simplicity of style and purposeful avoidance of artifice.” He could have added that those qualities can be surprisingly difficult to achieve, and are almost impossible to fake. But it would also be a mistake to underestimate the writing. What could easily have been, in other hands, an awkward, disjointed, self-justifying exercise in nostalgia instead turns out to be a clear-eyed, unsentimental, closely observed recreation of how life on the streets looked and felt to a young man in a crazy time. Not much is said about anything else; family and girlfriends are mentioned only in passing; even what must have been Case's own deeper or darker reflections at the time are mostly left unspoken. We see the world through the eyes of someone who, for all his rough living, was still essentially an innocent, and Case wisely leaves that young man to face the world as he was, without benefit of hindsight.

A lot of people jumped down the rabbit hole in those days, and a good number of them never made it back. Peter Case climbed out. He had the benefit of talent, as well as a bit of luck, but in the end I suspect that what got him through was the one thing that seems to have been constant in his life: a burning need to make music, whether that meant playing blues covers on streetcorners or bashing out rock 'n' roll in a crowded club or traveling the US and beyond playing his own songs. Though it lies outside the scope of these initial chapters, three years after arriving in California he became part of an important if short-lived West Coast punk band, the Nerves. When that broke up he formed his own renowned band, the Plimsouls, then embarked on a successful solo career that continues to this day. He beat the bottle, got religion, had kids, made records, spoke his mind. To his credit, though, he doesn't seem inclined to deplore who he was when he was sleeping rough, drinking hard, and busking for small change.

As Far As You Can Get Without a Passport is published by everthemore books under the For Now imprint, and can be obtained from A Capella Books in Atlanta.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Notebook


We drove along the edge of the reservoir. I looked out across the open water, frozen only here and there in patches along the shore, at the monochrome bare woods on the other side. We passed the abandoned steel trestle of a railway that no longer exists. A few dozen small waterbirds, in uniform black and white, rested in the shallows, heads aligned in the same direction.

We turned off the main road and into a grove of pines, then turned again, ascending against the flow of a small stream that snaked through the woods. A mile or so on I saw the dark hawk rise from the ground and settle on a branch, and, instantly, its pure white companion, an albino redtail, which came to rest on another tree nearby, both just a few yards in from the road.

We pulled over and watched. The white hawk clutched a kill with its talons, bent down to tear off a piece. One of the pair — I couldn't tell which — let out a high-pitched screech, and the other answered with a deeper, more raucous note. We watched them for five minutes or so, until our presence seemed to spook them and they flew off together, but not far, just up the hill a bit on the other side of the road.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Among the Ainu



In his preface to Ainu: Creed and Cult, B. Z. Seligman has this to say about the author:
Neil Gordon Munro was born in Edinburgh in 1863, where he was educated and eventually studied medicine. Soon after qualifying he began to travel in the Far East, first in India and later in Japan. In 1893 he became director of the General Hospital in Yokohama, and, although he returned to Europe occasionally, from that time until his death he made Japan his home. He became interested in Japanese prehistory, and it was during his many visits to Hokkaido towards the end of last century and in the first two decades of this century that he met the Ainu.
The eventual posthumous publication of Munro's work on the Ainu is a bit of a tale in itself. The notes, specimens and photographs he had compiled during his researches were destroyed in the earthquake of 1923. Nine years later, after Munro had resettled more or less permanently to Nibutani in Hokkaido, has house burned down, again destroying all his materials except, this time, his notes on the Ainu, which he was able to rescue. His health and financial situation declined, though he was able to obtain grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Royal Society, and other institutions to continue his work.

Munro compiled a brief documentary film about the Ainu Bear Ceremony, which survives though I have not seen it; much other footage is said to be lost. In 1938 he mailed to Seligman the partial manuscript of a work he planned to eventually publish under the title of Ainu Past and Present. When World War II began Munro remained in Japan, where he died in 1942. Subsequent contact with his Japanese widow after the war led to a few more papers, but not enough to encompass the work as Munro had envisioned it. The surviving manuscript material was published with the assistance of Seligman and of the anthropologist Hitoshi Watanabe, in 1963 by Columbia University Press in the US and Routledge and Kegan Paul in the UK. Its revised title indicates its narrower scope.

Most of the book as published is devoted to the rich religious and ceremonial life of the Ainu. The Ainu were animists in the fullest sense; everything, every plant, animal, every pebble, was possessed by some kind of power or spirit. One class of these were the kamui, a word that apparently is similar in meaning to the kami of Japanese Shinto though whether the words are cognate I don't know. These were deities both great and small; Munro classifies them as follows:
1. Remote and traditional kamui.
2. Familiar or accessible and trustworthy kamui.
3. Subsidiary kamui.
4. Theriomorphic kamui.
5. Spirit helpers and personal kamui.
6. Mischievous and malicious kamui.
7. Kamui of pestilence.
8. Things of unutterable horror.
Notable among this last, ominous sounding class, according to Munro, was a certain caterpillar, known in the Ainu language as ashtoma ikombap. Though evidently harmless, this insect was regarded by the Ainu, young and old, with pathological dread; Munro surmises, for reasons that I don't quite follow, that they associated it with their traditional enemies and conquerors the Japanese.

Ainu: Creed and Cult is illustrated with numerous photographs as well as several drawings. Many of the photos present what was one of the more interesting aspects of Ainu religion, the effigies or offerings know as inau. These were carved sticks, figurative only in a very schematic way but fashioned according to a rigorous symbolism depending on the particular deity they were supposed to represent or to propitiate. Their classification is highly complex. Their meaning might depend on the kind and number of curled shavings that were left dangling by the carver; the shavings themselves, detached, bore their own significance.

The Ainu had no written language of their own, though they apparently had a rich oral literature, some of which has been preserved. Their language, which is an isolate not related to Japanese, now hovers on the verge of extinction, and much of their traditional culture has been lost. To Munro, and a handful of other early anthropologists, we owe an enormous debt for documenting something of the fullness of that unique and ancient culture before it gave way to the modern world.

Notebook


Twice a day I pass the tiny pond. It can't be more than fifteen yards long and less than that across. There's an island in the middle, just a clump of dirt and grass with a little wooden shelter on top. The two white domesticated ducks are either in the water or on the island or just resting in the bit of lawn between the pond and the fence on the other side. Sometimes they're out of sight when I come by, but even now, in the middle of winter, they're always there again the next day.

The pond hasn't frozen and maybe it won't this year. I don't know what happens if it does, or if a snowstorm comes; will the people from the house at the top of the lawn come down and take the pair inside, or shut them up in an outbuilding somewhere out of sight until the weather improves? I guess I'll find out when it happens. For now the ducks seem content enough with the situation.

Sometimes there are visitors on the pond, a pair of mallards or even three or four. I don't know if ducks have a pecking order like chickens do, but I've never seen any sign that these visits are unwelcome; in fact the mallards rest on the water right alongside their hosts and everyone seems quite calm about it. I suppose that after a while the wild ducks, obeying their own reasons, fly off elsewhere.