Thursday, July 30, 2009

In Praise of Limestone

The end of July is almost here, and we haven't quite managed any unscheduled days yet. It hasn't been good enough weather for swimming on the afternoons we might have been free to go, and already next week my daughter starts high school band practice and my son starts high school soccer practice.

This week is still mostly free of school-related activities because it's the week of the county fair, which is a big deal around here. We haven't yet made time to go out there and admire the percherons and llamas, eat corn dogs and fried oreos, and try to resist the toss-a-ball-in-a-fishbowl-and-win-a-goldfish game. We really should go by and at least smile at the courageous people volunteering at the local gay-straight alliance information booth.

I'm contemplating why I think it's not a good idea for me to read fiction that describes how awful people can be to each other. Yes, it's good to be aware that sexual trafficking and repressive theocracies exist in the world, but I don't think that reading extended descriptions of the degradations women suffer in either of these situations, as in Levin's The Blue Notebook or Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns, is good for me. I don't think that the danger for me, personally, is what one blogger recently described as Moral Tourism, but more the moral paralysis you feel when you don't think you can possibly make a difference. Maybe, like Blanche Dubois, I want to hang onto a few of my illusions, to believe that people are basically good.

And so I'm already in between seasons, in between chauffeuring duties and riding with my daughter as she learns to drive. I am moving forward without moral certainty. I'm contemplating W.H. Auden's poem In Praise of Limestone:

If it form the one landscape that we the inconstant ones
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and beneath
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear these springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard; examine this region
Of short distances and definite places:
What could be more like Mother or a fitter background
For her son, for the nude young male who lounges
Against a rock displaying his dildo, never doubting
That for all his faults he is loved, whose works are but
Extensions of his power to charm? From weathered outcrop
To hill-top temple, from appearing waters to
Conspicuous fountains, from a wild to a formal vineyard,
Are ingenious but short steps that a child's wish
To receive more attention than his brothers, whether
By pleasing or teasing, can easily take.

Watch, then, the band of rivals as they climb up and down
Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, sometimes
Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step; or engaged
On the shady side of a square at midday in
Voluble discourse, knowing each other too well to think
There are any important secrets, unable
To conceive a god whose temper-tantrums are moral
And not to be pacified by a clever line
Or a good lay: for, accustomed to a stone that reponds,
They have never had to veil their faces in awe
Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed;
Adjusted to the local needs of valleys
Where everything can be touched or reached by walking,
Their eyes have never looked into infinite space
Through the lattice-work of a nomad's comb; born lucky,
Their legs have never encountered the fungi
And insects of the jungle, the monstrous forms and lives
With which we have nothing, we like to hope, in common.
So, when one of them goes to the bad, the way his mind works
Remains comprehensible: to become a pimp
Or deal in fake jewelry or ruin a fine tenor voice
For effects that bring down the house could happen to all
But the best and the worst of us...
That is why, I suppose,
The best and worst never stayed here long but sought
Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external,
Something more than a mad camp. "Come!"cried the granite wastes,
"How evasive is your humor, how accidental
Your kindest kiss, how permanent is death." (Saints-to-be
Slipped away sighing.) "Come!" purred the clays and gravels,
"On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers
Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb
In the grand manner: soft as the earth is mankind and both
Need to be altered." (Intendant Caesars rose and
Left, slamming the door." But the really reckless were fetched
By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper:
"I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;
That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;
There are only the various envies, all of them sad."

They were right, my dear, all those voices were right
And still are; this land is not the sweet home that it looks,
Nor its peace the historical calm of a site
Where something was settled once and for all: A backward
And dilapidated province, connected
To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain
Seedy appeal, is that all it is now? Not quite:
It has a worldly duty which in spite of itself
It does not neglect, but calls into question
All the Great Powers assume; it disturbs our rights. The poet,
Admired for his earnest habit of calling
The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle, is made uneasy
By these solid statues which so obviously doubt
His antimythological myth; and these gamins,
Pursuing the scientist down the tiled colonnade
With such lively offers, rebuke his concern for Nature's
Remotest aspects: I, too, am reproached, for what
And how much you know. Not to lose time, not to get caught,
Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these
Are our Common Prayer, whose greatest comfort is music
Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,
And does not smell. In so far as we have to look forward
To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

Can you pick out a line or two that speaks to you in this poem? Mine is "the monstrous forms and lives/With which we have nothing, we like to hope, in common."

I would like to open my eyes on a summer morning and have the strength to seek out new landscapes, undeterred by dreams of monsters. And also schedules of children.


Karen said...

Hosseini to the Golden Girls in one paragraph. Fabulous.

lemming said...

Limestone landscapes should speak to me of Victorian Cathedrals, but at the moment it simply evokes "Breaking Away"