Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Literary Locavore 2: The Trouble with Beauty

One of the paradoxes of this summer's forest fires was how much beauty they brought to southern Saskatchewan, to areas not directly affected by thick smoke and the desolate landscapes that fire leaves behind it.  Sometimes the smoke simply turned the landscape into ever paler distance.  One night I drove through Wascana Park on the west side, parallel to Broad, to see the prairie version of Claude Monet's painting, "An Impression," which gave Impressionism its name:  hazy trees, clouds, and houses irradiated by a gold-red sun whose rays glinted on the choppy lake.  I felt vaguely guilty about my reaction, as if in some weird way I was benefiting from other peoples' misfortune, displacement, and loss.  Yet Hannah Arendt says that it's ethical to turn away from history's tragedies if you know that's what you're doing; she seems to realize that we all need a break from bad news and disasters, particularly if we don't know what we can do about them.  Perhaps she'd give me permission, for a moment, to be suffused by breathtaking beauty if I also think, a moment later, about the paradox, about people who are struggling with the fires, people whose lives have been put on hold, people whose homes may be gone.

In Connie Gault's A Beauty, I couldn't decide what makes Elena Huhtala get out of Bill Longman's car to walk toward Gilroy without any money or belongings, in impractical shoes.  Was it simple impulse?  A sense that her trip with Bill was nearing its logical end?  Or was it the fact that Gilroy, at that moments, had been irradiated by a different kind of glistening light caused by the alkali dust from Old Wives' Lake in the atmosphere?  Was she in search of beauty--a beauty that can  be harmful over the long term?  Bruce Rice, in his award-winning book of poems, The Trouble with Beauty, seems to ask a similar question.  In the title poem, "The Trouble with Beauty," beauty becomes something we need to leave our mark on, like graffiti on trees and Parisian monuments beaten into beauty by bombardment.  Beauty may be embodied in the patina of old rifles, mountains leveled and, yes, the smoke from fires, but it's a troubling beauty.  Bruce's book seems to belong what has been called the "recent ethical turn" in literature.  At the end of this poem, the speaker strikes the ethical note when he observes that "Someday we'll pay, but for now, / see how beautiful it is."   

The very phrase "the recent ethical turn in literature" suggests that until recently literature had nothing to do with ethics.  While it's true that a group of British writers at the end of the nineteenth century that included Walter Pater, John Addington Symonds, and Oscar Wilde thought that it was the duty of art to be beautiful, and that modernist formalism (and a whole lot of other issues of practice and politics) seemed to move away from posing and exploring ethical questions, literature has always had its ethical edge.  If all the writer does is to create a word-window on other lives, other cultures, other places, then the writer is committing ethics.  For what is more ethical than to help readers imagine what they do not know, and to keep that act of imagining, wondering, and questioning  resonating through readers' lives?

In the section he titles "Questions for an Overcast Sky," Bruce brings ethical questions to the fore.  In "Mobile Homes," the nothingness of a trailer park is juxtaposed to the crucifixion, the bomb on Bikini Atoll is said by the speaker's mother to have infused prairie milk and air, a man who survived Hiroshima asks the  24-year-old speaker for a job, Martin Luther King marches, "Indian kids were starving," Nina Simone sings, Israel shells Beirut.  Here, amongst militarism, messy politics, and failures to extend basic human rights we find two other sides of beauty.  In "Dialogue 2:  Regina Prairie Dog Interviews Photographer Robert Adams," the photographer tells a perhaps apocryphal story of a Vietnamese girl who is photographed asleep in a box on the sidewalk.  The photo goes "viral," (whatever that means in 1973), and the girl is rescued and brought to the U.S. for surgery to cure her heart murmur.  Adams tells the interviewer "I wouldn't begin to pretend that my own work has saved anything, not in that way.  But no matter how battered it is, beauty survives in the worst possible places.  The pictures are proof and that's what saves me."  The very next poem, "Askew," puts this another way as it describes an old building any observant prairie dweller has seen, leaning away from the prevailing winds:  "If we could hear like that / all the whispers in the world would tremble."  The poet and photographer do their jobs, calling attention to moments in the world; it's our task to observe and listen.

But just as often as Bruce "commits ethics," he "commits beauty."   I found two ways in which he wrote of the beauty of the prairie.  One was to put his speaker squarely in the middle of the landscape.  A good example of this is "Poem for Looking Up," that is exactly what it advertises.  Here the speaker lies in "last year's grasses" and considers the meaning (and the beauty) of what he sees and hears.  There are some lovely images in this poem, my favourite being his description of "the edges of clouds / glowing like heated wires."  His second approach to prairie is to leave it empty of everything human except, perhaps consciousness.  Let me quote from the conclusion of the opening poem, "Glossary of Hills," though I won't get the spacing exactly right:

There would be no apostrophes
                                in the Book of Hills, no possessive form.
                      To open the cover would be like looking

                                                 into the mirror
of our own faith, all the lost translations
                           the songs at the end of the wind.

Of these two approaches, speaker in the midst of landscape, or speaker as mere consciousness, I preferred the latter, though this says as much about me as a reader as it does about Bruce as a poet.  It was occasionally awkward for Bruce to logistically plant his speaker in centre stage; I wanted to get through the stage directions so I could get to the meditations.  It seems fitting to me, and somehow ethical, to simply find a way to let the prairie be itself, to imagine its immensity without us.

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