August, 2009 Archive

The World Without Us

Friday, August 7th, 2009

Waking up at dawn under an orange full moon above Savary in pure silence. Since we arrived, day before yesterday, smoke from the fires on Vancouver Island has hidden the mountains that normally create the beautiful horizon line.

Before the children and grandchildren arrive, there is time to read and a wealth of comfortable chairs and couches at Knoll House for the purpose. I’m halfway through a book that I bought on impulse at Powell’s in Portland on the way up here because I’d heard about it from several quarters: The World Without Us.  It places many of the events that cause me anxiety in a framework that both magnifies their horror and reduces their pain by turning them into enthralling catastrophe narratives. If humans were gone from New York and the pumps that keep the underground city from flooding stopped working, the water would fill the subways and rust the foundation piers of the skyscrapers.  Within a few decades the whole thing would have collapsed into a landscape of rubble covered with forest. Elephant herds would multiply in Africa, restoring jungle to grassland. Untended corrosion in the chemical plants along the Texas Louisiana coast would cause explosions and toxic spills that  eventually would be cleaned up by bacteria evolved to do the job.

Its good to be reading this in B.C. where keeping back the bush requires continuing human effort without which cars and homes and cleared land can be seen succumbing to the engulfing monster of natural reclamation—as heartless and inexorable in its way as loggers and bulldozers chewing up the woods.  Where Joe and I felled a dozen fifty-foot jackpines threatening the house last summer, the opening is now filled with brambles and dandelion-like weeds I started cutting yesterday. I can hardly wait to fire up the chainsaw to clear windfalls blocking the trails I’ve carved over the years.  Imagining the relatively short interval required to neutralize the growing impacts of humans on mother earth serves as an antidote to my fear that what Bill McKibben predicted 20 years ago as the End of Nature will soon be upon us.

Aesthetique du Mal

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

A review of To Speak, To Tell You, Sabine Sicaud 1913-1928
by Odile Ayral-Clause

Natives of poverty, children of malheur,
The gaiety of language is our seigneur.

Wallace Stevens

Odile Ayral-Clause is an emissary from the land of beauty in anguish.  With a voice both urgent and composed, she leads the reader to the lives and works of individuals who have extruded art from tragedy and pain. In her previous book, Camille Claudel, (Abrams 1990) Ayral-Clause delivered a definitive biographical and critical study of the person famous as the pupil and mistress of Auguste Rodin, but less known as a brilliant sculptor herself, one whose free spirit and talent were crushed by the ravages of mental illness and forcible incarceration in an insane asylum for thirty years by members of her own family.

In a new book, To speak, To Tell You, Ayral-Clause introduces Sabine Sicaud, a child-poet recognized during her own brief lifetime from1913-28 but largely forgotten since.  While Claudel lived to age 89 having spent many decades in joyless and unproductive isolation, Sicaud died at the age of 15 after a year of excruciating suffering brought on by a rare untreatable disease under the care of loving parents who fostered her creativity but couldn’t alleviate her torment.

To Speak, To Tell You? includes 50 of Sabine’s poems, in the original French and in face-en-face English  translation by Norman R. Shapiro, a distinguished scholar and translator, along with a 40 page introduction, explanatory notes, and annotated bibliography by Ayral-Clause.  The volume also contains numerous antique photographs of Sabine and of the family estate, La Solitude, that many of her poems make familiar.

The title Ayral-Clause chose for the book is part of a first line which concludes, “No I cant.” The line exemplifies the oscillations between extreme emotions shaping each poem and the collection as a whole. The poet reaches out to the reader to establish a connection, to beg for rescue, then senses the inexpressibility of her pain and takes some comfort from resentment and self-pity, which is itself undermined by self-irony, leading to another kind of relief in humor, detachment and equanimity.  On the way she shifts her appeal to a bird on a branch and a leaf on a tree, finding in the mute existence of other living beings some companionship and promise. (more…)