The Blue Dew
on James Agee's "Knoxville: Summer, 1915"
&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 glassThe “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.
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
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.
&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
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.