Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Horace, Athill & Wedde

The world wags on, despite my cares and concerns. I exist in the body of the senses with the limits of my language. Other people enrich that existence, some by their presence but most through the images they create and the words they use.

Amongst the books I’m reading is an old favourite, Ian Wedde’s poems ‘The Commonplace Odes'. Ian had done what poets often do, take an old form and adapt it. The Latin poet Horace was some sort of Treasury official but his love was his farm in the Sabine hills, 35 miles northeast of Rome. Horace is lauded for his ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary and vice versa. Augustus in power, it was a time when Rome’s power seemed endless. Horace said long after his words had ceased to be the Vestal Virgins would remain. The damsels have long departed; institution and the empire long gone, his words live on.

Ian explores the same territory as that old master. One line in particular from Ian's introductory piece struck me. ‘The nibbled winter ejects itself like birdsong’ The arrival of spring. It’s all around me at present – bursting flowers, courting birds, lengthening sunlight .

I’ve just finished a memoir about the opposite season, late autumn. It’s Diana Athill’s ‘Somewhere Near the End’. I quote: ‘Book after book has been written about being young , and even more of them about the elaborate and testing experiences that cluster around procreation, [that puts love in an unusual perspective, HMcQ], but there is not much on record about our falling away.’ 

It is a timely book for me. I’d read at some stage Athill’s ‘Stet’ her memoir about her career working as an editor for English publisher Andre DeutschLtd. Her prose was excellent, indeed memorable. It was an excellent book There was a touching honesty about it. This later book is in the same class. ‘What filled him [her brother] as death approached was not fear of what physical battering he would have to endure (in fact there weas not, at the end, any of that). but grief at having to say good-bye to what he never could have enough of.’ She describes the last time the pair went sailing together in which they experienced that empathy without words which just occasionally happens between two human beings and is treasured in memory.

In the 19th century sex was the taboo subject. Today, death, and to a lesser extent old age, takes on that status. Athill faces both squarely. Death’s a fact, it’s there unavoidable and unmistakable. As I stagger around with my walker it looms increasingly as friend rather than foe. Athill faces the issue of old age with integrity without remorse, indeed there are elements of satisfaction in her present circumstances. Athill’s strength is that she doesn’t give us well-intentioned homilies, instead it’s an accurate account of circumstances.

‘My own belief – that we on our short[-lived planet, are part of a simultaneously … ordinary … and incalculably mysterious … does not feel like believing in nothing and would never make me recruit anyone for slaughter. It feels like a state of infinite possibility, stimulating and enjoyable – not exactly comforting but acceptable because true.’ Precisely! A timely perspective! I will perish. My species will perish. Creation will continue. My puny will is but a speck on the galaxy so small it does not register Except to me. And those for whom I care.

As her physical vigour waned she cultivated other pursuits – gardening was one. There was the gradual giving up of things – the realisation that she shouldn’t have another dog. I found the book useful, thought-provoking and encouraging. Grief, regret, loss, sadness have their place. The senses do weaken.  In my case, taste is the one that has surprisingly gone. This not only affects appetite. It is part of a larger decline,  the inability to cook not just for myself but for others, for one of the great arts of humanity is hospitality.

I’ll let Ian have the last word
‘And then they are gone again, Quintus Horatius,

The green young dogs* from the house, the fragrant rice
From its green pepper womb, what I wanted to say
From this ode, the world from words that burst
Open, and this awful sadness spilling
Even so from the rapture that contains everything. .

*Previously he’d described these half-grown large puppies

Rarely is the last word the last word:
Postscript 1
An unanticipated bonus. Looking up Athill on Wiki.I found a short video of her and Alice Munro being interviewed. [Munro is one of my favourite authors]. That site led me to more Munro and then Atwood. Two great Canadians. Riches galore. Its better being old and frail if one has access to world-wide technology. Millions still haven’t.
Postscript 2
A final two sentences from Atill. ‘I have heard people bewailing man’s landing on the moon, as though before it was touched by an astronaut’s foot it was made of silver or mother-of-pearl, and that footprint turned it into gray dust. But the moon was never made of mother-of-pearl, and it still shines as if so made.

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