August 27th, 2014

“Sociability of the Subconscious,” from The Pursuit of Happiness by Benjamin R. C. Low

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readinginwindow

Sociability of the Subconscious

Thought gives it rarely. It must happen so.
The perfect hour blooms up unheralded.
Perpend. “Let’s take our books with us, and go
Out to the cabin for a quiet read !” she said.
In lazy mood
I took my tome and followed after.
(The back way for adventure.) Soon
Across the warm, gold afternoon,
She led me, with light feet and laughter,
Into a wood.
A sabbath journey only, through the pines.
One cleft of sunlight caught it; good bark brown,
With easy roof and unassuming lines;
Door open; a play cabin. We sat down.

There was, I think, some virtue in the clothes we wore:
She, a stout skirt and simple sailor blouse,
No hat, and sneakers; I,
Old flannels, outlawed many years before,
A tennis shirt and shoes. (Comfort allows
The mood care’s quirks deny.)
We squandered little time on speech:
Each took a corner of the window; guided
Plump pillows to best use, and then subsided
Into a swoon of silence, each.

Books held the foreground. Books were of that hour
Pre-eminent, we thought.
(In winter’s footprints April hides her flower.)
We read; while fortune wrought,
Not romance, but a rarer thing, diviner.
I read John Milton; she, an Olive Schreiner.
Books held the foreground. Half-sensed, all the while,
Were soft intrusions, seas,
Far-heard when winds touch trees;
Sweet, distant laughter dwindled to a smile;
The Peter Piper of a motor-boat,
Throbbing beneath bright voices, then
A pool of silence, stirred a
By seagulls in falsetto, a harsh note.
But mostly — peace. One almost felt the sun
A-westering, while one small bee
Droned all the world indulgence, in his run
Round one small room: so still were we.
And all the while, I was aware of her;
Reading anew
L’ Allegro, Penseroso, Lycidas,
The Cyriack, and the Blindness
. Ghostlier
As, eyes drawn down, I watched the old friends pass,
That still room grew.

I was aware of her in a new way.
Milton absorbed me. I remember well
The joy of winging that proud upper air,
And, once, how scrannel keyed the seagulls. (They
Still own it.) Whence it came I cannot tell,
But we waked, somehow, and–I was aware.

An inroad ended it:
A megaphone
Called: “We are starting!” Books closed, out we ran,
The world of common-sense resumed. No plan.
Neither intended it.
The hour unknown.
But something wrought with us. I was aware. . . .
We waked in some eternity, it seems,
Brains are but barriers of, with their poor dreams.
Who runs may read; only–such hours are rare.


from The Pursuit of Happiness, and Other Poems, New York: John Lane Co., 1919

This is a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive (link).

From The Biographical Dictionary Of Contemporary Poets. The Who’s Who Of American Poets (1938), we learn that Benjamin Low was born in Massachussetts, earned his bachelor’s at Yale and a law degree from Harvard and practiced insurance law in New York City.

One wonders if he ever compared poetical notes with Wallace Stevens–though Low was no match the Hartford’s man. Of another of Low’s books of poetry, Saturday Review wrote, “there is ever and again the glitter of the true precious metal in this thin vein of ore.” This lovely vignette of an hour captured alone/together reading is certainly one.


 

August 24th, 2014

Left Bank of Desire, by R. V. Cassill (1955)

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leftbankofdesireDown to the last few of R. V. Cassill’s pulp novels, I started Left Bank of Desire curious if I could detect any significant differences in style or approach between this novel, which Cassill co-authored with Eric Protter, and the rest, which he wrote solo.

I did, quite quickly and easily. Most of Cassill’s pulps are at least interesting as literary experiments, texts in which he tried out narrative techniques or played around with subjects (e.g., wife-swapping in The Wound of Love, even if they’re not always successful as stories. To be honest, having started and failed to finish several of Cassill’s mainstream novels, I’d even say they’re better reads than the books he wanted us to take seriously.

In contrast, Left Bank of Desire is just crap. I don’t know if the fault lies with Cassill or with Protter or with a collaboration that simply proved less than the sum of its parts. Frankly, it’s not a matter worth investigating. But this is a book with an implausible premise, a meandering narrative, characters either flat or caricatured, incredible motivations, and undistinguished style.

The only distinctive element–which, sadly, I cannot now shake from memory–is the strange substance to which a number of the book’s characters are addicted: ether. This is a story set in France around 1947 or 1948. At least a half-dozen or more times, someone is tipping a bottle of ether into a handkerchief, taking a great whiff, and either flying off on a high or passing out. Several times the protagonist runs off to buy a bottle at the pharmacy so he can satisfy the cravings of his would-be girlfriend or other denizen.

“Aiaiiiiiieeeeeeee.”

It sounded like someone badly hurt. It sounded like the machinery of the Loch Ness monster starting up.

What I’d smelleed before–mixed in with the turpentine smell–was stronger now. I saw the two girls sitting on a bed with their legs stretched out and their backs against a rough wall. Each of them was holding something to her nose. They looked like there were afraid they would sneeze.

“Aiaiiiiiieeeeeeee.”

… The guy took the cotton pad she had been holding to her nose and slopped ether onto itt from a bottle. He passed it back to her. Again the girls started kicking the bed. The drumming sound they made was faster than any sound could be without turning into steady roar.

I was familiar with the fact that ether addiction became a widespread problem soon after its introduction as a medical anaesthetic around 1820–particularly among physicians–but I assumed it had died out a century ago. Its appearance in the book seemed the crowning bit of evidence of its absurd awfulness. A quick check with Wikipedia (article), however, revealed that it continued, with serious social costs, in Poland and–more relevantly–in France. The sniffing, kicking, and screaming described in the book seems to have been something Cassill and/or Protter saw while living in Paris in the early 1950s.

So there’s the one thing we learn from Left Bank of Desire: French bohemians were still sniffing ether when Camus and Sartre were becoming household names.

And now that we know that, no one else ever has to read the book.


Left Bank of Desire, by R. V. Cassill and Eric Protter
New York: Ace Books, 1955


 

August 21st, 2014

“The Rats in Council,” from Old Saws, Newly Set, by George Linley

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rats

The Rats in Council

A certain colony of rats,
Was ravaged by a chief of cats,
The foe his rounds so slily went,
No rat his skill could circumvent;
So that, as none from home dare stray,

Their rations dwindled day by day;
And visions of that demon gaunt
Grim Famine, ‘gan their hearts to daunt.
One noon (’twas after a good dinner,
Which made the rat race somewhat thinner,)
Grimalkin, with complacent air,
Went forth to court a neighb’ring fair.

The coast is clear, with hearts elate,
The chiefs in council hold debate.
A knowing Rat, grown grey with age,
By all his brethren deem’d a sage,
Describes a remedy most pat,
Which is — forthwith to bell the Cat;
So that, the tinkling larum may show,
The whereabouts of the prowling foe.

Th’ assembled multitude agree
No means could shorter, surer be;
And, as the orator speaks well,
Propose to him to hang the bell.
To this, however, he demurr’d;
I bell the Cat, the thing’s absurd!
Methinks, if I the plan devise,
Others the scheme should realize.”

From rat to rat the word goes round,
But not a volunteer is found,
With military pluck or zeal
To battle for the common weal.
Too oft we find that talkers fluent,
When call’d to action, play the truant.

From Old Saws, Newly Set: Fables in Verse, by George Linley the Younger
Available on the Internet Archive: Link

This is one of a series of neglected poems found on the Internet Archive.


 

August 19th, 2014

Complete Cheerful Cherub, by Rebecca McCann (1932)

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cheerfulcherubThe first time I saw a copy of a Cheerful Cherub book was in an enormous antique mall that seemed to have swallowed my wife, leaving me to seek some meager distraction in the tiny handful of books that could be found there. As hours dragged on and I found myself beginning to think, “Hmm … Taylor Caldwell. Maybe I should try one of hers,” I finally picked up what I had taken to be the world’s oldest and fattest “Love Is” book.

My mistake was understandable. There is a certain similarity between the cartoon style of Kim Casali (creator of “Love Is …”) and Rebecca McCann (creator of the Cheerful Cherub). Both feature nude but genital-free homonculi with infantile bodies but engaging in adult activities. Both refine cuteness to near-lethal intensity. Casali always shows a male and a female character (we can tell only by the hair and eyelashes). McCann always showed an infant neither male nor female and an adoring little puppy.

If you were me, you’d probably have stopped reading already.

But stay with me, people.

Because as I took more time to read through that Cheerful Cherub book, I began to realize that Rebecca McCann’s little cartoons operated on a level of sophistication and yes, even wisdom, far beyond that of the “Love Is …” pieces.

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Take “Masks” (above). “And yet sometimes I see/A prisoner behind their eyes.” That’s not “Love Is …” or “Family Circle”–that’s the existential attitude in four lines of iambic pentameter. Or “Innocence,” which could easily be read as a damning commentary on the detachment with which we view events going on in the world around us. “Oh, the dreadful business in Gaza. Well, nothing to do with me.”

Rebecca McCann began publishing Cheerful Cherub cartoons in the Chicago Evening Post around 1917, when she was just twenty, after editor Julian Mason took an interest in the little drawings and verses that dropped out of McCann’s portfolio as she tried to show him more serious work. The feature was soon picked up for syndication, and at its peak appeared in over 100 papers around the United States.

McCann also continued to work as an illustrator for magazine stories and wrote a childrens’ book, About Annabel (1922), about the fantastic adventures of a little girl–a slightly milder version of Windsor McCay’s “Little Nemo.” The first collection of Cheerful Cherub cartoons was published by Covici-McGee in 1923, and a second in 1927.

nb344

Meanwhile, McCann’s personal life was a series of disasters. She moved to New York City in late 1917, where she met, fell in love with and married Harold “Jimmie” Watson, an Army pilot, five days before he shipped out to France. Although he made it through the war, he died in an accident not long after. On the rebound, she married another officer, this time in the Naval Medical Corps, but the marriage soon ran into problems and the couple divorced. Around 1924, she met the novelist Harvey Fergusson (whose 1923 novel, Capitol Hill, was featured here back in 2006).
rebeccamccann
Fergusson was married at the time, but the two felt enough of a connection that Fergusson eventually divorced his wife and married McCann. Fergusson was working on perhaps his best-known book, Wolf Song (1927), and the couple spent happy weeks in the mountains outside Salt Lake City.

In December of 1927, Fergusson drove down to Albuquerque, where they planned to spend Christmas with his parents, while McCann took a quick shopping trip out to San Francisco. Never having a robust constitution, the trip and the winter weather brought on a cold. A few days after arriving in Albuquerque, it developed into pneumonia and McCann died soon after. She was just 32. Fergusson had her body cremated and scattered her ashes along the shore of Lake Michigan near Chicago.

Covici-Friede collected 1,001 Cheerful Cherub cartoons, along with a short memoir by McCann’s friend, Mary Graham Bonner, in Complete Cheerful Cherub, which was published in 1932. The book was a perennial favorite and was reprinted sixteen times between 1932 and 1945. They also posthumously published a collection of McCann’s poems, Bitter Sweet: Poems, in 1929.

“I’m not trying to reform the world or to make every one smile,” she once told Bonner. “I’m trying to make my little verses human; sometimes they’re sarcastic, sometimes they’re ‘flip.’ They’re cynical, too, and I like to make them about all subjects–including the frailties of the readers….” And of the author, too, as one quickly sees.

nb340


Complete Cheerful Cherub, by Rebecca McCann
New York: Covici-Friede Publishers, 1932


 

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