Monday, December 18, 2017

Dec 18: Michael Martone, The Blue Dew

The Blue Dew
on James Agee's "Knoxville: Summer, 1915"

Michael Martone

We are talking now of talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in a time James Agee lived there so successfully disguised to himself as a child. The time of that summer was 1915 and the time of the writing about that summer was 1935 (after the Great War and before the next), so the nostalgia soaked miniature memoir steeped for a score of years, was born with its oxygenated patina applied, that desirable rust.


The setting is the recently invented suburban lawn, its front and back yard varieties, the green grouting between the dream of the detached single family dwelling, though the essay does suggest two families occupied the house, the mention of the aunt and uncle in an ordinary roll call of occupants, not that all unusual (it seems) even then. The essay’s internal duration is an evening’s gloaming, the stage lighting liminal and on its own timer. The sun sets. Carbon street lamps are invisibly lit. It’s that sweet spot were time itself seems to yawn and stretch. Time takes its time. It is a naptime before bedtime. Gravity recalibrates too, and everything seems to fall with the night falling, first the darkness, then and then the double darkness of the closing fluttering scrim of skin, the lashed lids, closing sheered curtains, masking the mask.


I remember reading this essay in such a twilight on the little cement pad porch attached to the Cape Cod on Clover Lane in the North Highlands neighborhood of Fort Wayne. Losing the light. When you read in that kind of light it becomes liquid. It spills. It runs. It rains. This was thirty years after the writing of the essay, fifty years after the essay’s subject’s inception. Across the street, Mr. Mensing, every evening read the evening paper (there were still evening papers then) the News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne and Knoxville both had papers named News-Sentinel), sitting in a lawn chair inside his front doorway his back to the storm door, the dying light spilling over his shoulder on to the broadsheets. By this time porches, so ubiquitous in Knoxville of 1915 as to be barely mentioned, were disappearing rapidly to be replaced by stoops and steps and transformed, at the back of the house, into patios and decks. I like, even now 100 years later, to read the essay in natural light, the page dimming as the day goes on into night, the letters themselves it seems sometimes casting their own infinitesimal and inaccurate gnomonic shadows.


You can’t tell me that Joni Mitchell, sixty years later, hadn’t stumbled upon Agee’s brooding night music of suburban somnambulism and disguise when she composed “The Hissing of Summer Lawns.” Agee’s essay, famously written in under 90 minutes (all riff and improvisation), makes the shadow of his subconscious memories available to the available light of the past and the kintsugi repair of his own fractured memory:
That, and the intense hiss with the intense stream; that, and that intensity not growing less but growing more quiet and delicate with the turn of the nozzle, up to the extreme tender whisper when the water was just a wide of film…
Another house. Another night. Another POV. Another temperature inversion. Inside now looking out into the falling darkness, Mitchell’s take is all boketto, combining with Agee’s pastoral, a gothic contrapuntal from the neighborhoods of Amherst, Mass., a century before that evening in the smoking mountains:
Looking through a double glass
Looking at too much pride and too much shame
There’s a black fly buzzing
There’s a heat wave burning in her master’s voice
Hissing summer lawns
The “master’s voice” (for all the kids out there in the digital landscape) is a nod toward the wax record and its static hiss, the tattooing needle vortexing through the grooves of darkness, spiraling into the black spindle hole. RCA Records logo: the black-eared terrier, head cocked listening to the sound emanating from the Victrola’s trumpet, hearing his master’s voice. What is lost to us now was that the original graphic placed the record player on top of a coffin, the master re-mastered, a boxed set. All this loss, lost and forgotten music, rides the rails, riding a black ice cube of its own melting.


We are talking now of metal. The essay speaks through the brass metallic mouths of the chorus of sibilant nozzled hoses, tuned and tuning. Listen to the tuned steel: the horse breaking his hollow iron music. Agee is talking about the shoes, the tap-dancing clip-clop where the rubber meets the road (so to speak) except that rubber is forged out of ore and ferried onto equine feet, the spikey kiss of ferric frets with parabolic knuckled keratin. There is no plastic. In 1955 (the year of Agee’s death, heart attack, in a taxi cab in New York City, on the way to a doctor’s appointment), I was born into the world of plastic, the Plastic Age, have lived my life (an expression of carbon chains after all) now cocooned in elaborated extensions of other such chains (polymers of polyesters, acrylics, silicones, polyurethanes and all the other polys). The essay subliminally suggests this slow synthetic replacement by the synthetic, the substitution of one material world by the material of the other, and the longing to belong (to be-long) in one world before it is long gone. The essay reminds us too that the writer does not create something new so much as rearrange the mundane, reorder the ordinary in order to see it once again as new. The hose nozzles become the brass section of some sympathetic symphony. Whitman’s grass and the loafing thereupon (the hair of the dead!) keep growing, reanimated here by the same old chorus of amphibians and insects, the beating heart and pleated breath, tended and watered. But now we are talking about another womb of metal (and leather, yes, and the other the organic plastics of cotton and wool and silk, but mainly metal). We are talking about a Roomette, within a Sleeping Car, attached to the consist of The Broadway Limited, plying through the snowed-over fields of Ohio, Winter, 1978. Amtrak is seven years old and runs, limping, a shell of the old American passenger rail system on its last legs. The company consists of consists made up of inherited cars they call The Heritage Fleet. I am riding in one now, a prewar Pullman, streamlined in fluted aluminum but already feeling like history’s idea of the future, a future where no one imagined plastic. Gunmetal metal everywhere (steel, nickel, brass, copper, quilted steel, iron, aluminum, alloys of all kinds) but for the wool blanket, the cotton sheets, the glass glass lenses over the extinguished reading lamp, the leather straps and pocket for the eyeglasses. I am reading Agee’s essay by the light transmitted through the cold to the touch picture window. Stretched out in the converted convertible bed (the chairs articulated by the music of snake-coiled and pinging steel springs and stabilized by that solid metal thunk of redundant and chipped-enamel locking mechanisms), I am ensconced in a metallic environment, another mental state. Steely steel walls and grid tread plate floor. There is a little closet where, long ago, a passenger, such as myself, could store shoes. It still has an outside metal-hinged metal-knobbed door that opens to the hallway where once the night porter had access to take the shoes down for a shine. The steel sink folds out of the steel wall. The steel-framed mirror opens to a steel-shelved cabinet that has, at its back, a slot where passengers in the prewar-past might discard their steel safety razor’s steel double-edged blades safely. The sun-rising light from the big window (a kind of smear of light that bounces on the pages of the essay in the book called Reading for Rhetoric) illuminates the gloaming of Knoxville, 1915, the letters dancing in the rhythm of the ancient steel wheels, traversing the jointed rails (the no-other-way-to-say-it-but the metallic click and clack), and as we lean into the radius of the this curve, the squeal as the steel flange of the wheel grinds the rust and polishes the steel track just at the moment that the ancient essay, set in a trolley suburb, calls up:
A street car raising its iron moan; stopping, belling and starting; stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks; the iron whine rises on rising speed; still risen, faints; halts, the faint stinging bell; rises again, still fainter, fainting, lifting, lifts, faints forgone: forgotten.


This chamber music of the heart is powered not so much by breath (though you might connect the length of the sentence to the Ginsburg-ian howl, an exhalation of the single depression of bellows lung) as by hydraulics. The extended core paragraph portrays the atonal tuning and nightly spontaneous jamming of a band of nozzled hoses. And it does go without saying that the “we” doing all the thinking in “Knoxville: Summer, 1915,” does not give it a second thought, a second of thought, that there is pressure at the bib that powers the hissing syncopated sonata. While so many ordinary things are made strange in this set piece, the fact that water pulses under pressure into the new suburban home (“city” water that doesn’t “well” up but is pressed down upon us through the plumbing of metal pipes) is still glossed, taken for granted. My neighbor Mr. Mensing, besides being a coupon cutter of daylight, (reading the news of the day as the night came on) was also a Fire Department chief in charge, not of a battalion of Engines and Ladders (more hoses and nozzles), but of Safety and Prevention. He would visit my elementary school for fire drills; conduct the annual citywide one, all the children of Fort Wayne (public and parochial), spilling out on the sidewalks surrounding the fantastic fantasy of (though highly wished for) academic conflagration. But in Fort Wayne winters, Chief Mensing would scale the neighborhood water tower, inflate a dinghy in the darkness of the tank, and float out over that inland sea (the splat of his paddle echoing on the dark dome of the metal heaven), churning its stagnant (but soon to be slushy) water in order to keep it from freezing. Had it frozen all that propelling weight of water would have levitated (a float) only to then sink and plug up the standpipe, preventing the weight of all the suspended fluid to dynamically express itself forcefully at the hundreds of domestic faucets and public hydrants. Backstage in Knoxville, the omnipresent water towers, huge metallic clouds, float overhead, make it rain a tamed and channeled kind of rain. In Tuscaloosa, they are (the water towers) painted blue to blend (a camouflage, I guess) even more so with the severely clear surrounding sky, invisible but for the text that hovers there (TUSCALOOSA), a brooding comic thought balloon over the city, as if it is a place we forget to remember.


We are thinking we must mention the cicada. Agee after describing the songs of what he calls the locust files it away (the sound of cicada like the sound of a metal file on metal) into the category of noises one doesn’t notice (the sea and what he wonderfully calls the ocean’s “precocious grandchild,” the blood) until “you catch yourself listening.” Catch yourself. That is what always happens when prose becomes patina by poetry. When it rusts. We forget that oxidation describes both a fire and a rust. Narrative prose plays with fire while the lyric rusts, I think. Sand paper and steel wool. Poetry wears down prose, worries the surface of words (making us attentive to the possibilities) like the long languishing day is being tarnished (second by second) by the moisture-saturated shadow blackness of the new night. The playful enjoyment of the misreading of a graying page of paling appealing letters in the dark. We take our time to take takes of all the readings of each word. We catch ourselves listening. We catch ourselves reading. But I was talking about the cicada and their summery ambient ear-ringing toll, the ratchet of the cogs and gears, the wincing winch of the understated boom of night’s nightly curtain. Etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera. There is your lyric in play, see-sawing (sea-sawing?) words up and down and around until… Go ahead and Google (now there’s a word) “cicada.” The computer called back to me 2,810,000 results in .41 seconds (google Google you get 3,220,000,000 results in .64 seconds). The act of googling reminds me of cicada, the massive emergence of millions of the bugs in a buried brood (13 years, 17 years underground) years before any singing gets started. Then the transitions. Of darkness into light, the below into the above. And the cicada itself embodies that (a transition, a transgression), leaving their husked papery shells scaling the trees, a kind of blooming into song. Google “cicada haiku” and there is another brood. Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki bubble up to the surface, sing cicada, these lozenges of time-released time, these winged capsules that dissolve the scored corporeal into ambient supersonic song.
a cicada shell
it sang itself
utterly away –Basho


We can’t not talk about “blue dew.”
Now is the night one blue dew.
The blue dew is the essay’s hinge. The action moves from the front yard to the back. The litany of sounds and images are put to bed. Quilts spread and hoses coiled. All eyes lift up, up from the unglossed glossy lawn to, up into the night sky and the stars that have always been there but invisible in the light of day. Dew appears to appear magically out of the invisible air (out of the air) when the fluctuations of temperature and elemental states and specific gravities recalibrate over time. Dew is condensed. Condensation. Dew is distilled. Distilled as is this lyric essay itself. Concentrating on the weight of the dew tinctured blue and beaded, the silvered metallic mercurial drops tinctured by the absence of light. And while the grass grows heavy the light grows light, goes light, gravity escapes, evaporates, and the family through the eyes of the grub of the boyhood Agee and the adult Agee the boy had become looking back begin to lift, float, become locust-like, incorporeal, utterly nothing, nothing but a song already and always sung singing.


Michael Martone’s new books, Brooding: Essays and The Moon Over Wapakoneta: Fictions and Science Fictions from Indiana and Beyond, will be published in 2018. He lives and works in Tuscaloosa.

1 comment:

  1. Marvelous piece, much like a Miles Davis solo, say "I Loves You Porgy."

    Here's my "This Shining Night," about the same Agee piece.

    Thomas Larson