It is probably one of the things servers in restaurants dislike most. It is something that those involved dislike. Arguing about who should receive and pay the bill is obnoxious behavior. This week, a friend and I both told the waiter to prepare and to present the check. “I’ll bring separate checks,” he said. I am late inn learning that the matter of who pays should be settled before entering the restaurant.
Notes on Reading. Fiction. Steven Millhauser, Dangerous Laughter. Vintage Contemporaries, 2009.
There are thirteen short stories, divided into four sections: “Opening Cartoon,” “Vanishing Acts,” “Impossible Architectures,” and “Heretical Histories.” “Cat ‘n Mouse” is a cartoon in prose with vivid colors, special effects, and typical cartoon actions. It’s clever and enjoyable. The stories in “Impossible Architectures” remind the reader of work of Borges. Stories in the other section often show influence of Poe and Hawthorne in atmosphere and effect.
One of my favorite things about the writing of Millhauser is his imagery. Examples:
“…a sky so blue it seemed to have weight.”
“…the first breath-clouds forming in the brisk autumn air…”
“…prickly lines of lightning burst forth with troubling brightness….the lightning flashes looked like textbooks diagrams of the circulation of the blood.”
I enjoy his celebration of the ordinary:
“…after-dinner strolls along the maple-lined streets of our town…”
“The sun glinting on a piece of cellophane lying in a patch of roadside weeds speaks more eloquently than the history of Rome.”
Notes on Reading. Poetry. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The Seaside and the Fireside (1849). In The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1883.
I enjoyed spending several hours with these twenty-one poems. All are easy to read and understand. All are well-crafted, rhymed lyrics. The edition is enhanced by period illustrations, which add to the charm of dated works.
There is no great poem in the group, but a poem does not have to be great to provide enjoyment, encouragement, inspiration, insight, or education.
Longfellow was the first professor of languages at Harvard. He brings to his poems, especially in this group, characters and references from other cultures: from Greek mythology (Chrysaor and Callerrhoe in “Chrysaor”), from Anglo-Saxon times (King Witlaf and St. Guthlac in “King Witlaf’s Drinking Horn”), from the Middle East (“Sand of the Desert in an Hour-Glass”), from Nordic literature (Balder, Holder, Thor and the contemporary poet Tegner in “Tegner’s Drapa”), from Spanish literature and art (Count Arnoldo in “The Secret of the Sea” and Gaspar Becerra in the poem of his name), and from English Renaissance (in “Sir Humphrey Gilbert.”).
Two of the poems are sentimental, as popular nineteenth century poetry tends to be: “Resignation,” and “The Open Window,” about the deaths of children.
Three have moralistic, didactic elements, trait of nineteenth century popular poetry: “The Building of the Ship,” “The Lighthouse,” and “The Builders.”
Other topics include the effect of poetry on its readers (“Birds of Passage,” “Pegasus in Pound,” and “The Singers”), and the practice of art (“Gaspar Becerra,” “Tegner’s Drapa,” and “Sonnet, On Mrs. Kemble’s Readings from Shakespeare).
Five of the poems are first-rate. “Chrysaor” describes a magnificent star over the sea in terms from Greek mythology. “The Fire of Driftwood” compares fleeting thoughts and recognition of the transience of life with out-flamings of burning driftwood. “Twilight” imagines the lives of a young child and his mother in a fisherman’s cottage during “night-wind, bleak and wild.” “Suspiria” is an effective lament. The final poem, “Hymn, for My Brother’s Ordination” speaks with allusions to the New Testament the blessings of a life dedicated to Christ, blessings for the minister and blessings for those the minister serves. It is beautiful, a new favorite poem.
These poems sent me to the dictionary and to the web for research for further information. One could do worse than spend an evening and morning with Longfellow.