I know, I know. I suck. I’m doing a big push to get the downstairs of the house completed so they can hopefully put the floors in later this week, which means I’m spending every waking moment that I’m not at the studio at the house renovating. I am, frankly, exhausted and overwhelmed, but it’s helping keep me busy and not thinking too much about all the sad shit in the world. That being said, I totally forgot to post Mondays with Muddy yesterday. My apologies. Here is the next excerpt from Beatrice Allen Page’s unpublished manuscript, Landscape with Figures:
“A letter from C. today, the first I’ve heard from her since she’s been in Paris. In spite of her fascination with the city she confesses to bouts of homesickness ‘occasionally so acute I can hardly resist the temptation to pack up and head back to the States.’ But then she goes on to say her music is going quite well, that she has ‘temporarily laid aside my ‘heavy opus’ and am working on a shorter piece which has trout streams in it, if you know what I mean.’ I suppose she means she’s composing something meant to sound clear and flowing, but her metaphor of trout streams makes me suspect the piece was unconsciously triggered by her pining for northern Michigan where she was born and brought up, just as the work of many writers is apparently motivated by a yearning for their native environment.
I recall once reading an interview with Robert Frost in which he said he composed poetry about New England out of longing and homesickness when he was away from there, and doing it better than if he’d been on the spot. Alan Paton tells somewhere that he wrote Cry, the Beloved Country in Norway and California when homesick for Africa. Isak Dinesen is another who wrote yearningly of Africa after returning to Denmark. And didn’t Thomas Wolfe make a similar remark about his intense homesickness and his writing when he was living in Europe?
I think of Katherine Mansfield longing for her native New Zealand when she was living in London, and how in the opinion of some critics, most of her best stories were given a New Zealand setting. There was Mary Webb, also living in London, and writing Precious Bane and her other novels when pining for Shropshire. The list could go on and on.
For novelists it seems the homesickness becomes most poignant when linked up with their youth and coming of age, unlike the poets who, I have the impression, tend to associate memory of place with very early years. Roethke immediately comes to mind, writing poem after poem about his father’s greenhouse which was so much a part of his childhood. It could be interpreted, of course, as a regression, a ‘return to the womb’ in the jargon that has become so banal. And on one level no doubt it was – an attempted retreat from his adult self which he sometimes looked upon with laothing: ‘I hate my epidermal dress/ The savage blood’s obscenity/ The rags of my anatomy.’
But it was more than a retreat. It was a source of renewed life, not only in carnations with ‘leaves curled back in elaborate Corinthian scrolls/ And the air cool, as if drifting down from wet hemlocks,’ not just in the sweet and lovely things, in short. It was in the coarse growth of ‘Roots ripe as old bait/ pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,’ ‘a congress of stinks;’ in ‘Vines tougher than wrists/ And rubbery shoots/ Scums, mildew…’
With all its fecundity and redolence, all the colors and shapes and textures and movement of growing plants, the greenhouse was a microcosm of the natural universe he so passionately loved or at least felt akin to, and that included not only birds and flowers and soft September days, but snails and spiders and worms and ‘lice tethered to long limp subterranean weeds.’
‘Everything that lives is holy,’ he said, echoing Blake. It was life, no matter how lowly or disguised, that he cherished: ‘Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.’ And it was as if he hoped that by going deep enough, accepting the unlovely as well as the exquisite, he would get back to the very root of himself and transmute it into a new being, his true self. As if he hoped to retrieve in his poems not only the freshness and sensuous perceptiveness which inevitably fades under the pressure of adult life, but also something of the wordless joy he was afraid he’d lost forever, and the almost mystical sense of union with the earth and all that therein is, which he had once known and occasionally still glimpsed. As he himself once said, ‘I believe that to go forward as a spiritual man, it is necessary first to go back.’
Sometimes I get the impression he was striving to go even farther back, to go through the greenhouse, so to speak, all the way back to the Garden of Eden before innocence was lost. Perhaps that’s what all of us, strangers and pilgrims, long for in the depths of our being, hoping that the angels will put down their flaming swords and let us in again.
For Roethke it was a long struggle out of darkness into light – a darkness that included alcoholism and recurring bouts of mental illness. But the heart-lifting thing is that he followed through; ‘I learn by going where I have to go,’ and in the end he overcame the pain and humiliation in transcendent poetry.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of first-rate artists who don’t have the stamina to hang on that long. Life becomes just too weary, stale, flat and unprofitable to be endured. And so they choose death, either directly as suicide or indirectly via drink, drugs, automobile accidents or other self-destructive behavior.
Dylan Thomas, for instance, comes to mind immediately. You read Fern Hill and marvel that he could sustain that lyrical, impassioned, re-creation of his childhood all the way to the end of that long poem. And then comes the inevitable question: Why did such a genius destroy himself with liquor at an early age? Did he drink because he could no longer write? OR could he no longer write because he drank? The first explanation seems more likely when you look at the lives of so many writers who have suffered from ‘writer’s block.’
I was surprised when reading Colette’s letters recently to find that she, too, has suffered from the malady. Her novels give the impression the words just flowed off the pen effortlessly. In her letters, however, she complains again and again of the difficulties of getting a story on paper. ‘It’s terrible to think, as I do every time I begin a book, that I no longer have any talent, that in fact I never had any.’
Artists are supposed to be more sensitive than workers in other fields, but ‘sensitive’ has come to have a derogatory connotation of ‘touchy,’ given to ‘moods.’ ‘Impressionable’ or ‘vulnerable’ are less offensive words. But the word I think is most apt is ‘porous.’ Being permeable, so to speak, artists are perhaps more at the mercy of, not only influences and pressures from without, both good and bad, but also to all impulses and feelings within, both creative and destructive.”