Monday, March 10, 2014

In the Mind: Southern Fiction has Brushed against Snow-Country Art

In literature most widely cherished as art--some novels, short stories and plays--action or a course of development, narrated in deliberate detail, is woven through still portraits constructed of the most perfect language, whether portraits of people, indoor or outdoor space. The portraits would never mean so much as they do when the story line or action has culminated in that exact truthfully-wrought, exquisitely-developed scene. For me, enlivening these late winter days have been two works by Carson McCullers, a 20th-century writer of the southern U.S.-- just this morning her short novel The Member of the Wedding. The unnamed little southern town in the years of World War II reaches out to me like a setting I may have come up against at some time though not had a chance to live in or visit except in glimpses.

The last portrait which is the book's concluding scene reports on the death of a child character whose lingering image, in the mind of the main character Frances, is 'solemn, hovering, and ghost-gray.' He was a little boy of six years, presented by the author all during the story as inward-looking, with his own secret fascinations that help to set him over on the edge of society more than most boys. On at least two occasions he's drawn to the girlish belongings of his older cousin Frances--a doll given her as a gift, which he names Lily Belle in the shadow of Frances' disinterest, and her plumed hat and high-heeled shoes. More than once in her characterizations Carson McCullers revealed the frustrations of non-heterosexual people in a time when their affinities were treated much more than they are now as a form of emotional disturbance. The little boy John Henry West for all his childish manners and early youth comes across as a package of complex inclinations never to be defined, with evidence of bisexuality presented as here-again but gone again due to unanticipated death.

On this March Sunday with the clocks set ahead for the summer season and a melt commencing in trickles and drips from all the trees after this showcase boreal winter, I felt as if time had come unfixed a little and we were free to push not just forward on the calendar but in all directions, any period we chose to visit or revisit. That closing scene of The Member of the Wedding was full of a sense of flight out of desperation, between regrets, into the hope of a new and broadening era in the lives of both leading female characters, the white teen-ager and the black matron who has done her best to set the girl examples from out of her own striving. Stories, like our solitary and shared conversations, move backward and forward and sideways in time.

In a vision of the deep South, here's a passage from the third- and second-to-last page of my library copy:
     "It was the time of the Fair and a big banner arched the main street and for six days and nights the Fair went on down at the fairground. Frances went twice, both times with Mary, and they rode on nearly everything, but did not enter the Freak Pavilion, as Mrs. Littlejohn said it was morbid to gaze at Freaks. Frances bought John Henry a walking stick and sent him the rug she had won at Lotto. But Berenice remarked that he was beyond all this, and the words were eerie and unreal. As the bright days followed one upon the other, the words of Berenice became so terrible that she would listen in a spell of horror, but a part of her could  not believe. John Henry had been screaming for three days and his eyeballs were walled up in a corner stuck and blind. He lay there finally with his head drawn back in a buckled way, and he had lost the strength to scream. He died the Tuesday after the Fair was gone, a golden morning of the most butterflies, the clearest sky.
     'Meanwhile Berenice had got a lawyer and had seen Honey at the jail. "I don't know what I've done," she kept saying. "Honey in this fix and now John Henry." Still there was some part of Frances that did not even yet believe. ... He came to her twice in nightmare dreams, like an escaped child dummy from the window of a department store, the wax legs moving stiffly only at joints, and the wax face wizened and faintly painted, coming toward her until terror snatched her awake."

Pathos followed me into the spruce, fir and cedar forest this afternoon as I slogged like Indians before the mechanized age that's fattening us now, scooping heavy, liquefying snow on the front ends of my snowshoes while I broke a pathway, then found a spot to sit below a cedar that bore the spiky dead lower branches I wanted for my painting of the spruce grouse. There isn't much more work to do on it by now--just a whole lot more bristling deadwood. I sat sinking ever lower, due to the effect of body heat on snow below me, on my spread-out parka behind the snowshoes, which I kept strapped onto my moccasins while I detailed my art piece and looked out in the nearly still shadows all beset with dead and living wood at all angles, and lichens formed like hair or encrustations, snow slumping off of boughs where it had held on all these past frigid weeks in great globules, and the wind like a vocalization of thaw and coming leafburst.

Pathos is normally described with the onset of fall but I felt it for the approach of spring with all its overt busyness. The spruce grouse painting still sends me on a few more footpaths in search of certain rocks and latticed fallen branches without full satisfaction yet, since the painting is for me an ultimate showing of what's found year to year under the tree tops near the U.S.-Canadian border and increasingly north of it, down at the grey-green ground level. Here is one precious occasionally-seen bird, relative of the ptarmigan that lives to the north of the tree line. This I've come to know and cherish, with a sense that it won't stay with us forever, long though the time has seemed.


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