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Posts Tagged ‘death’

Writ in Water

February 23, 2016 | by

The enduring mystery of Keats’s last words.

Keats’s grave at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.

Yet do I sometimes feel a languishment
For skies Italian ...

—John Keats, “Happy is England! I Could Be Content,” 1817

Among the dozens of fountains in Rome, the Trevi may be the most famous, but the Barcaccia in the Piazza di Spagna arguably has a lock on the most poignant. Commissioned in 1629, it sits at the foot of the Scalinata, or Spanish Steps, swarmed by hordes of tourists in high season. Boat shaped to commemorate the spot where, in the historic flood of 1598, the Tiber River reached its highest level and improbably deposited a river barque in the square, the Barcaccia now seems a light-hearted way station, an oasis on a hot Latin day.

But nearly two centuries ago, the fountain played a far different role for one particular admirer, a transplant from England who roomed in an apartment above the steps and listened incessantly to the murmurings of its waters. To this visitor, the Barcaccia was a temporary lifeline during a few dark winter months at the turn of 1821, as he coughed and spluttered his way to a tragically early death. That doomed young man, as devotees of English Romantic poetry know, was John Keats, and the apartment where the poet, barely twenty-five, breathed his last from tuberculosis, on February 23, 1821, is now the Keats-Shelley House, a meticulously kept museum and scholarly library founded in 1909. It’s there, in the room where Keats died, that you will find the key to a misapprehension—one could almost say a lie—about his life and death that has been promulgated, literally written in stone, since 1823. Read More »

My Harper Lee SparkNotes

February 22, 2016 | by

Writing the SparkNotes for Go Set a Watchman. 

From the cover of Go Set a Watchman.


Context

The summer when I was eight, I read two books: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and To Kill a Mockingbird. My copy of Mockingbird was a cheap lilac paperback. Its cover featured the knot of a tree with a pocket watch and a ball of yarn inside, a mockingbird stamped in silhouette. In the corner, a crescent moon as thin as a tea-stain rose above a clot of green trees.

I lived inside that book. I read it, reread it, and reread it again, sitting in an attic bedroom of my grandparents’ house, hunched on the green shag carpet. I remember the book in discrete images: Dill’s duckweed-like tufts of hair. Slimy Mr. Ewell leering at his daughter. Miss Maudie’s house going up in flames, like a pumpkin, and her prized azaleas frozen and charred in the aftermath. Crotchety, liver-spotted Mrs. Dubose with her perfect camellias, ivory and globular against the glossy leaves. The day when Jem, in a sudden rampage, snatches Scout’s baton and shears off all the buds and flowers on the camellia bushes. And then, when Mrs. Dubose dies, the white box that her servant gives to Jem with one pristine, waxy camellia resting inside. To Kill a Mockingbird showed me how to create a fully realized, sensory world. Read More »

The Looming Dark: An Interview with Linda Pastan

January 6, 2016 | by

Photo: Carina Romano

There’s a popular story about Linda Pastan: she won her first poetry prize as a senior at Radcliffe in the fifties, and the runner-up was one Sylvia Plath. It was an auspicious start for Pastan, even if she had never heard of Plath at the time. She’s gone on to publish fourteen books, amassing a host of accolades along the way. Her latest collection, Insomnia, appeared last fall. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review since 1987; the most recent, “The Collected Poems,” was in the Fall 2015 issue.

“There is no self-pity,” May Sarton wrote of Pastan’s Five Stages of Grief: “she has reached down to a deeper layer and is letting the darkness in. These poems are full of foreboding and acceptance, a wry unsentimental acceptance of hard truth.” The same could be said of Insomnia, in which Pastan, who is eighty-three now, reckons with old age in lines that are variously restless and serene, spirited and subdued. “Why are these old, gnarled trees so beautiful,” she writes, “while I am merely old and gnarled?” In these poems, the bucolic and the morbid are never far apart. In “Root Ball,” she likens an asteroid that lands in her garden to “a giant brain, ripped from its skull.” I spoke to Pastan, who lives in Potomac, Maryland, about sleep, dreams, and manure.

Did a lot of the poems in this collection emerge from sleeplessness?

I do suffer from insomnia myself, and on more than one occasion, while I’m lying in the dark, the solution to a problem I’ve been struggling with in a poem actually, and magically, comes to me. But more usually I try to put myself to sleep by thinking about the plot of a book I’m reading or a movie I just saw. Many people my age seem to have trouble sleeping, and I suppose it may be because that long and final sleep is just ahead, and even if we don’t acknowledge it, we want to be awake and aware as long as possible. I was warned early not to give a book a title that would make it easy for a reviewer to slam you. Such as, If you have insomnia, try reading this book and it will put you right to sleep. And it has occurred to me that one or more people might buy the book thinking it will help them with their own sleep problems. But more seriously, I chose Insomnia as my title because the word conjures for me a struggle with consciousness itself as well as a struggle with the looming dark, just outside the window. Read More »

I Tried Always to Do My Best

November 30, 2015 | by

Lucy Maud Montgomery. Photo: KindredSpiritMichael

Should you visit Google today, you’ll find that the daily “doodle” commemorates the birthday of Lucy Maud Montgomery, born November 30, 1874. The animation portrays Montgomery’s most famous creation, the red-haired Anne-with-an-e Shirley, turning green as she cuts into a piece of adulterated cake. (Herein lies my acknowledgment of Cyber Monday—and understand it is not intended as an ad.)

Like so much of Montgomery’s writing, this moment in Anne of Green Gables is heartwarming and gently funny, part of the long journey toward love and acceptance by Anne’s strict guardian, Marilla Cuthbert. These early books—before Anne becomes overly ethereal and perfect and beset with dozens of clamoring suitors—are the best loved, and certainly my favorites. But in her day, all Montgomery’s novels sold well, even less-inspired fare like Kilmeny of the Orchard or the mopey Emily series. By the time of her death the author was a bona fide celebrity, and Mark Twain called Anne “the dearest and most moving and delightful child since the immortal Alice.” Read More »

Letter from Mitla

November 10, 2015 | by

Visiting the altars for Dia de los Muertos.

Muertos7

All photographs by Shona Sanzgiri.

Thirty miles from the city of Oaxaca is San Pablo Villa de Mitla, where, according to Mesoamerican lore, the dead go to rest. It’s a small town surrounded by mountains and distinguished by an arid climate, which has preserved relics up to ten thousand years old and attracted archaeologists from all over the world. During the days around Dia de los Muertos, Mitla transforms into a gateway for the deceased lured by the town’s many altars, built by their loved ones, still living here in this world.

The ornate displays are abundant with ofrendas, offerings of food and drink. Pyramids of fruit, bursting marigolds, packs of Marlboros—or Camels or Chesterfields, depending on one’s preference—ripe plantains, candles of all sizes, meticulously decorated loaves of pan de muertos, and clay gourds of mescal and water (even the dead suffer from hangovers) comprise most offerings. Pictures of the deceased, typically unsmiling, feature in the center of the room, encircled by votives and depictions of different Catholic saints and apostates. The room often smells of woodsy black and white copal, an incense made from tree resin. Read More »

Ghosts Stay Near Home

November 3, 2015 | by

In the third of three excerpts from The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas Laqueur looks at the life and afterlife of the churchyard in literature.

John Constable, The Church Porch, East Bergholt, 1810.

In 1806, England’s greatest landscape painter, John Constable, began a series of drawings and oil sketches of the church and churchyard of East Bergholt in the Stour Valley of Sussex, the village in which he had been born. In one of these, a man and two women gather around a tomb and look intently at an inscription that we cannot quite read. Those who saw the final painting would have known the allusion. An engraving published as the frontispiece to a collection of epitaphs the same year makes it explicit: the girl with her back to us blocks most of the text, but we can make out “Here rest / A Youth.” Anyone in the early nineteenth century would have been able to fill in the missing words:

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth,
A Youth, to fortune and to fame unknown

from Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751). They would not have needed the words; any picture of a churchyard evoked Gray. The “Elegy” was an immediate success when it was published and remained resonant for at least two centuries. “Poem of Poems,” Edmund Gosse, the late nineteenth-century man of letters called it in his English Men of Letters book about Gray. Line for line, it has given more words to the English language, according to the attributions in the Oxford English Dictionary, than any other source; it was probably recited by more schoolchildren in the nineteenth century than any other; it was continually translated—thirty-three times into Italian alone by 1850. It was endlessly reprinted and anthologized in English. Read More »