Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Guy Davenport (Stray Notes)

Stanley Spencer, “The Resurrection, Cookham,” 1924-7

Somewhere Guy Davenport notes: “What keeps our conversation going is writing itself, the art of arranging words on a page.” (And Herodotus, in the History: “As for the stories told by the Egyptians, let whoever finds them credible use them. Throughout the entire history it is my underlying principle that it is what people have said to me, and what I have heard, that I must write down.”) A conversation inevitably extending to the dead. “Vitalized by mortality itself.” I am thinking of Davenport’s sweet obsequies for deceased Imagist John Cournos, a piece that graced the pages of The National Review (XVIII: 40, 4 October 1966):
John Cournos, RIP

“The good healer, Time,” John Cournos wrote in one of his novels, “wears pain down to beauty.” But Time had gathered most of his friends before he became the wonderfully peppery old man, with more disarray to his patriarchal hair than Einstein, that his young friends will remember. Cournos wrote—novels, an autobiography, poetry, reviews, books about John Adams and Roger Williams for children. At 85, he was still rising before dawn to write. The times have paid no great heed to his writing, which was always sincere and diligent, always generated by an idealism that in our days seemed impossible and perhaps helplessly old fashioned. It was, however, a pure idealism; he kept his flame. Those of us who cherished his talk knew that he had introduced that brilliant and tragically slaughtered sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska to Ezra Pound, thereby germinating much of what will last of American art in our time. We knew that he had dined with Amy Lowell, Richard Aldington, John Gould Fletcher, F. S. Flint, Ford Madox Ford, Allen Upward. It was to him that Hilda Doolittle turned in her distress. As the literary biographies appear, we find John Cournos everywhere, always as a friend, always as a quiet but persistent force, helping, arranging, reviewing. He came to the United States from Russia when he was ten. At 35 he was in the thick of the London Vorticists, the Imagists, the New Poetry. He outlived the fame that he acquired in the Twenties and Thirties—he was too normal, healthy, and sane to figure in the essentially melodramatic account of belle-lettres maintained by the American press. Though he kept in the thick of things right to the last—reviewing for Philadelphia and New York papers, compiling anthologies, writing poems as out of date as a kerosene lamp—he was to most of us a spry gentleman known to have read every word published about Shakespeare, known to have moved in a world that is by now officially historical and a bit legendary, the world of H.D. and Yeats and Eliot and Wyndham Lewis. At 86, a few weeks before his death, he responded to an article in Time on the perils of middle age by dashing off a letter to say that he rose at four every morning and got ahead with his fifty-eighth book. Privately he sent word to his friends that he was a bit shaky but that the exhilaration of sitting down to a clean sheet of paper, pen in hand, was greater than he had ever known before.
“Poems as out of date as a kerosene lamp”—recalling Davenport’s own phantasmagoria and homage to English painter Stanley Spencer’s brash and enormous “The Resurrection, Cookham” (1924-7), “The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard.” Beginning (with an affable poke at Eliot?):
The Cookham dead began to rise
When God with April in his eyes
Ended in O its midst the night.
To dogwood flowered hard and white,
To rain and violets overhead,
Sharp music lifted up the dead,
In cuckoo song and silence born,
A silver brilliant hunting horn.
Through opened grass Sir Jonas Moore
Swims upward to the chapel door.
Broken earth in her ancient hands,
Here Sarah Tubb the prophet stands.
In pleated light and diamond bone
Comes Petronella Elphinstone.
Sir Edward Coke in rotten lace
Sits up with wonder on his face.
Michael Ventris surfaces near
The round and pious Edward Lear.
Thoda Pigbone with the stick-pin
Finery she was buried in,
All cackle, warts, and raddled gums,
From troubled earth triumphant comes.
Karl Marx so white, so rich of beard,
By Richard Porson stands upreared.
The drummers of Tobruk climb out,
The buglers at the Dunkirk rout . . .
War dead and classicists, seduced maid servants and jurists, surveyors and prophets, all assembled higgledy piggledy (though not without grace, the simplicity of the rhyme keeps a calm and gravid tenor to the proceedings ), summoned to the arrangement. (One thinks of Sherwood Anderson’s lines—talking of Gertrude Stein’s voracious and omnivorous assembling of words—how readily she accepted “the little housekeeping words, the swaggering bullying street-corner words, the honest working, money saving words and all the other forgotten and neglected citizens of the sacred and half forgotten city.”) Davenport’s Ruskin becomes a holy landscape—
From fiery mouth to spindle shins,
John Ruskin, resurrected, stood,
Resumed the gallop of his blood,
Resumed his stare, and all but spoke
When marigold and sifting smoke
His flesh became, and fell, and where
The vineyard of his ribs was bare
Sat Jerusalem in his breast
That seemed Siena from the west,
But Venice east and Sparta south,
And north, on Thames beyond Thame mouth,
O crystal fold of years and shires,
Grey Oxford with her silver spires . . .
Davenport’s Clare a Lennie Small: “John Clare and in his hand that friend, / The only one he could abide, / Who, in his waistcoat when he died, / Went with him to God’s splendid house, / His Inniskillin pocket mouse.” And if “time . . . wears pain down to beauty,” time, too, is for Davenport a kind of soul to space’s body, the two inextricably commingling in the resurrectionary fealty to work, that delivery, the whole signaled by an onslaught of “diligent audacious sound,” several musicks uproariously interspersing in the sweet burn of hosanna, end and upshot of the ordinary sun’s grand unending O:
Did not my Herakleitos say
Under the noon Cycladic sun
All is other and all is one?
Now finished time becomes a place.
Time, time was psyche unto space,
And space was time within my hand.
Move near. . . .
. . .
Now shall I, that your light abide,
Take mortality from your side.
And blare the trombones on a ground
Of diligent audacious sound
Both Persian dance and B flat prime
Presbyterian four four time,
Viola, harp, and Shaker hymn,
Te Deum from the Cherubim.
Gabriel’s shofar thunders out,
Dominions, thrones, and powers shout
Hosanna! Adoremus O
The silver C sharp trumpets blow.
Pertinent, serendipitous. In one of Davenport’s workbooks—one entry on the page is dated “27 XII 1990”—one reads (impeccably put down in Davenport’s crookedly gorgeous hand):
Time is the mind of space —Samuel Alexander

All living things have a mind.

Alexander tried to calculate the amount of passivity in a sense encounter / the activity in the object perceived, and to place perception as an event between the two. Had Rilke read Alexander?

‘Knowledge increases ignorance’ —Peter Russell.
All tidily writ next to a large capital A, half-serif’d, half sans . . .