Monday, August 26, 2019


The larger the scale, the more predictable the world is. The planets and stars move on determined courses, the earth revolves, day becomes night, the seasons change, all obeying established patterns. The closer you focus, the murkier it becomes. Will it rain tomorrow? Will it be a harsh winter? Will the breeze blow down the last leaf this morning, or the next?

And then there are phenomena — things appearing to view. We can predict comets — some of them, at least — but not every flash of a meteor shower. We can't be sure of the consequences of all of our own actions, though with some the baneful results are easy enough to foresee. And why does a bird appear one evening, and not the next? They obey their own unknowable laws, and cross through our vision only by accident.

And yet that's too facile. We ourselves are on unpredictable courses, and our fellow beings are inextricably mixed up in ours, for better or worse. The bird at top is no wild thing but someone's racing pigeon, and bears a band of human possession. I saw it two days in a row at the same location on the summit of a nearby dam. It showed no fear of me, and perhaps was lost, or maybe it was just resting before heading home. On the third day it was gone.

As for the last creature, I found it on its back, not far from the dove, and set it aright, for someone else to ponder.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Gulley Jimson & Co.

Because summer means going to the beach, and going to the beach means gulls.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Collection internationale

Until relatively recently, the availability of foreign-language reading material in the US was a bit hit-or-miss, unless you happened to live in a major city. What student editions existed of texts in French and other languages tended to be heavily (and often annoyingly) annotated, and they were often abridged or censored to remove passages that might corrupt the youth of America. This series from the early 1960s was an interesting attempt to remedy the situation, at least for French, which was the prestige language of the day. They were published by Doubleday under the direction of an academic named Bert Leefmans, and the publisher promised that "no English, except the Doubleday copyright line, will appear in any of the books." Below is a two-page advertisement that ran in the French Review in 1961.

The books were comparable in price to Doubleday's Anchor series, and bore a simple cover design created by the noted artist and graphic designer Leonard Baskin. The selection of titles wasn't particularly edgy, but at least the edition of Candide was presumably better than the one I used, which had all the naughty bits removed. The line doesn't seem to have lasted very long, and I've only come across used copies once or twice.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

A Certain Necessary Something (Charles Simmons)

The writer Charles Simmons, who died two years ago, wrote a half-dozen novels, of which I've read only two. As far as I know he never published a volume of poetry, but this strangely affecting bit of verse is embedded in his 1998 novel Salt Water (a kind of retelling of Turgenev's First Love, set on the coast of New England). It's purportedly written by one of the characters, a teenage girl, and presented to a boy she's smitten with a bit more than he is with her.
Thoughts for a Beach Party

We're all alone—at least the others are
asleep. We touch and smile. No words, just thoughts,
of which a chance one sparkles, and we laugh.
There'll come a day, I fear, when you are out
of reach and memory is all of you
I have; and then another day when that
is gone. That morning I'll awake and rise
and eat an ordinary breakfast, dress
and go to leave—to find that I forgot
a certain necessary something, just
my comb, my keys, a paper, or a book—
a light makes darkness clearly black: a part
of me is lost. And then I'll wonder what
you were and where you were and try to reason
out an emptiness and hunt for non-
existent strings to pull you back in view.
What then? These words I've understood and truths
I've known because of you, these lonely fires
that add a little light and comfort on
the mind's black stretching beach of night,
the shifting tide forgetfulness will rise
and snuff them out, when it has carried you,
who lit them off to sea. What fumbling hand
and wet will kindle up the blazes then?
It must be difficult to write a poem in character, especially in the character of someone who's supposed to be young and awkward. Even if you have the technical chops to write passable verse, you can't make it sound too accomplished. But I like the straightforwardness of the piece, which is polished but has only a few gaudy passages ("the mind's black stretching beach of night") that sound like the work of a self-conscious poet. Does the elegiac tone make her sound a bit too wise beyond her years? Perhaps, but it also gives her a bit of depth that, as a relatively minor character in a quite short book, she might not otherwise have had.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

The Folks Back Home

It's very difficult, at least for me, to make out the long inscription on this Real Photo postcard, but the language is apparently German, and it may be from Switzerland. It shows three women, two men, a boy holding a gun, and a dog, posing in a group in front of a vine-covered cottage. There's a flourishing garden in the foreground, possibly including poppies, and a whole social history in the hats the figures wear, no two of which are alike.

The very few bits I can make out in the inscription on the reverse of the card include the names Meinhof and Dietrich and a reference to an address of (I think) Kapellenstr[asse] 31, which might be in Bern or Basel. The most intriguing is a reference to America, including the name of the state of Kansas in parentheses. Perhaps some of the family members were now living in the New World.

Just a few scratch-marks in ink now, but they were presumably perfectly legible to the recipients, whoever they may have been.

Postscript: When I came up with a title for this post perhaps I had in mind these lyrics by Peter Blegvad:
I sent a card to the folks back home
a picture of a burning aerodrome
it came back stamped: address unknown
I was alone
in the meantime