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Inspired Descriptions for Writers and Readers A Handbook for the Soul
By Donald Newlove
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1993 Donald Newlove
All rights reserved.
One starry night I walked home from the movies, an agony gnawing at me.
Twenty and just freed from the Marines after World War II, I carried at my side Thomas Wolfe's heavy, endless Of Time and the River. My family lived on elm-lined Lakeview Avenue in my small New York hometown of Jamestown. I'd just seen The Blue Dahlia, a listless, unbelievable murder mystery with Alan Ladd. Poor though I thought the film, its theme of veterans returning to their native streets pierced me. A kind of postwar blues or chewing on the hearts of young servicemen suddenly back home had been cast onto the screen. I longed to write about the real feelings at work in me, untouched by Hollywood glamour or Ladd's pompadour and Veronica Lake's falsely perfect peekaboo wave.
Could I put these starry deeps and lamplighted elms into words that sang like the nightwind now rinsing my senses and shivering the spring leaves?
My yearnings about The Blue Dahlia were not simply to recreate my own postwar mood by working up the signs of the times, the songs and cigarette packages, the bleakness or promise of the streets and stores, the look of houses and the postwar light on people's faces. Painting these things, or a rock, a door, or an alley that is not as lived in as Van Gogh's painting of his beaten-up shoes (which could be Christ's were Christ alive in Holland), is not personal — they could be painted by any writer with a gift for realism. But when Hemingway tells us:
A girl came into the cafe and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair was black as a crow's wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek.
— A Moveable Feast (1964)
and, on the next page,
As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.
we enjoy a gift not merely for words and stuff learned from books, but much more: a style inspired by a man's grip on life. In the rhythms of the lean, long sentences we feel the whole man breathing. Hemingway wrote about that girl's black crow's wing and those sea-tasting oysters and that white wine that took away his empty feeling and made him happy and full of plans forty years after he experienced them! At first we fear that newly-minted-coin cliché, until he smiles lightly and frames her new-minted shine with the unforgettable black crow's wing cutting sharply and diagonally across her cheek of smooth flesh and rain-freshened skin. (Don't ignore his smile, which sets us up to accept the full sensuality of her skin.) Then the food passage, which might easily fall into banality, turns out to be not simply about the sensations of eating, marvelously rendered though they are, but about a change in spirit in which the food is only the taxi which takes him from an empty feeling to upwelling happiness and a bloom of plans. Surely these two passages set the morning stars singing for Hemingway, who rose daily at dawn and wrote with his senses at their coolest and freshest under the real morning stars. "As soon after first light as possible," he said.
We also sense moral force, and that Hemingway gives us absolutely the way things were, in words untainted by any thought other than to enrich us. The life in these passages arises from our delight in his ice-clear freshness of vision, which has focused on a grain of sand and secreted around it a pearl that has been gathering painfully in his spirit for forty years. This ball of luster must be spoken, given away with a piece of his heart, and lodged where it will never be lost to memory: in other people. He will never own that pearl until he gives it away and ensures its immortal life. The moral genius gives his heart away, not his skill with words, though his phrases be heady as crushed mint. Any ad writer can crush mint or paint a rose.
Here is how God writes description, using the nameless storyteller who wrote the Book of Job:
Why are you using your ignorance to deny my providence? Now get ready to fight, for I am going to demand some answers from you, and you must reply.
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much. Do you know how its dimensions were determined, and who did the surveying? What supports its foundations, and who laid its cornerstone, as the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?
Who decreed the boundaries of the seas when they gushed from the womb? Who clothed them with clouds and thick darkness, and barred them by limiting their shores, and said, "Thus far and no farther shall you come, and here shall your proud waves stop!"
— Job 38:1–11
Why is God so high-and-mighty with Job, such a Big Mouth? He's in pain! He's got to lay it out for Job, verse by verse, show him just how he commanded the morning to appear and caused the dawn to rise in the east, then picked up the corners of the night and shook the wicked out of it.
"Have you explored the springs from which the seas come, or walked in the sources of their depths?" he asks Job. "Has the location of the gates of Death been revealed to you? Do you realize the extent of the earth? Tell me about it if you know!"
Job doesn't know, though if he were a poet he'd not fail for answers. The Hebrew poet who wrote the Book of Job trades in part on his people's eagerness to know the mystic heart of landscape. A few verses later the poet/God asks Job, "Who dug the gullies for the torrents of rain, or made a path for the thunderbolts?" He shoves Job's eyes down into his homeland's gullies, excites him with torrents of rain, all familiar stuff, then zings him with making "a path for the thunderbolts," raising Job's mind to the mystical, and then hits him with some Big Bolts:
Can you hold back the stars? Can you restrain Orion or Pleiades? Can you ensure the proper sequence of the seasons, or guide the constellation of the Bear with her satellites across the heavens? Do you know the laws of the universe and how the heavens influence the earth? Can you shout to the clouds and make it rain? Can you make lightning appear and cause it to strike as you direct it?
— Job 38:31–35
Why does the Hebrew poet put himself into God's shoes and bloody Job with all this? Because he's mysticizing him as a member of the tribe and making sure that no common disaster will part Job from the faith. He shrinks Job to an atom, a thing weak and willful when no God fills his mind. Only the imagination of this poet and his genius for moral landscape can awaken Job at depths never before known by the sufferer. And at last Job says, "Now mine eye seeth thee," and he is moved to self-loathing and repentance in dust and ashes.
Tribal life under huge bending skies, be it Sioux or Hebrew tribe, may empower description with great spiritual force. Here John Edgar Wideman tells us of a tree out front of his mother's house in Homewood, the black section of Pittsburgh:
A massive tree centuries old holds out against the odds here across from my mother's house, one of the biggest trees in Pittsburgh, anchored in a green tangle of weeds and bushes, trunk thick as a Buick, black as night after rain soaks its striated hide. Huge spread of its branches canopies the foot of the hill where the streets come together. Certain times of day in summer it shades my mother's front porch. If it ever tore loose from its moorings, it would crush her house like a sledgehammer. As big as it is, its roots must run under her cellar. The sound of it drinking, lapping nourishment deep underground is part of the quiet when her house is empty. How the tree survived a city growing around it is a mystery. For years no more than a twig, a sapling, a switch someone could have snapped off to beat a balky animal, swat a child's behind. I see a dark fist exploding through the asphalt, thrusting to the sky, the fingers opening, multiplying, fanning outward to form a vast umbrella of foliage. The arm behind it petrifies, other thick limbs burst from knots of hardened flesh, each one duplicating the fan of leaves, the delicate network of branches, thinning, twisting as they climb higher and farther from the source. Full-blown in a matter of seconds, ready to stand there across from my mother's house forever, till its time to be undone in the twinkling of an eye, just the way it arrived.
— "All Stories Are True" (1991), The Stories of John Edgar Wideman
Later in this story a second tree is described, in a prison yard, which Wideman's brother hopes someday to climb, when it's high enough, to escape over the forty-foot wall. Both trees might be called tribal trees. They tell us thrillingly about the first encounter of blacks with Pittsburgh, the mystery of a sapling that becomes a dark fist exploding upward, fingers multiplying, fanning outward, the trunk turning to stone as other thick limbs burst from its hardened knots of "flesh" still fanning outward, while the roots go running and drinking under the cellar — the house empty, they can even be heard lapping. All the detail in this description, from the tree being anchored in a green tangle of weeds and bushes, where the streets come together, to the solemn humor of the trunk being thick as a Buick (a big gas-eater once favored by blacks as being just next to a Cadillac), has a folk echo that makes the tree ("black as night after rain soaks its striated hide") a vivid picture of black life in Iron City, as Pittsburgh is called. The tree in the prison yard is a frail thing to pin one's hope on, but Wideman's brother has turned himself into the tree back home, through body-building:
My brother's arms are prison arms. The kind you see in the street that clue you where a young brother's been spending his time. Bulging biceps, the rippled look of ropy sinews and cords of muscle snaking around the bones. Skinned. Excess flesh boiled away in this cauldron. Must be noisy as a construction site where the weightlifters hang out in the prison yard. Metal clanking. Grunts and groans. Iron pumped till shoulders and chests swell to the bursting point. Men fashioning arms thick enough to wrestle fate, hold off the pressure of walls and bars always bearing down. Large. Big. Nothing else to do all day. Size one measure of time served. Serious time. Bodies honed to stop-time perfection, beyond vulnerability and pain. I see them in their sun-scoured playground sprawled like dazed children.
The largeness of Wideman's power — the "thick limbs burst from knots of hardened flesh" in the trees are the bodybuilders' bulging biceps and "the rippled look of ropy sinews and cords of muscle snaking around the bones" — emerges in part from his muting these likenesses between the prisoners and the great tree of black life in Pittsburgh. He lets the tree's thick limbs and the men's bulging biceps come together in our unconscious with a sense of bitter song rising from the heart of his people. He is as much the poet bonding his people into a common faith as is the Hebrew poet of Job — and in Wideman's stories Job's disasters are no worse than those known to blacks. Remember, though, that the power comes from exactly seen facts, which then glow and take force from moral purpose. A less purposeful writer, drugged by words, might have carried the bodybuilding too far and pushed too hard on the tree for the jangle of anguish, but Wideman brings off his inner meaning with no strain or sense of twisting iron pokers into muscle-bound knots of argument. Each picture comes from what John Donne calls a naked thinking heart.
Walt Whitman, too, gains energy from moral purpose in description so original that he was damned for writing it, although he is as strong in scope as the poet of Job. All of "I Sing the Body Electric" is a highwatermark of outspokenness in the English tongue. In the ninth and last section Whitman makes a statement that would leave the nineteenth century flabber-gasted:
O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you,
I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the soul, (and that they are the soul,)
I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poem, and that they are my poems,
Man's, woman's, child's, youth's, wife's, husband's, mother's, father's, young man's, young woman's poems,
Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears,
Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eyebrows, and the waking or sleeping of the lids,
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the jaw-hinges,
Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition,
Cheeks, temples, forehead, chin, throat, back of the neck, neck-slue,
Strong shoulders, manly beard, scapula, hind-shoulders, and the ample side-round of the chest,
Upper-arm, armpit, elbow-socket, lower-arm, arm-sinews, arm-bones,
Wrist and wrist-joints, hand, palm, knuckles, thumb, forefinger, finger-joints, finger-nails,
Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side,
Ribs, belly, backbone, joints of the backbone,
Hips, hip-sockets, hip-strength, inward and outward round, man-balls, man-root,
Strong set of thighs, well carrying the trunk above,
Leg-fibres, knee, knee-pan, upper-leg, under-leg,
Ankles, instep, foot-ball, toes, toe-joints, the heel;
All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings of my or your body or of any one's body, male or female,
The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean,
The brain in its folds inside the skull-frame,
Sympathies, heart-valves, palate-valves, sexuality, maternity,
Womanhood, and all that is a woman, and the man that comes from woman,
The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping, love-looks, love-perturbations and risings,
The voice, articulation, language, whispering, shouting aloud,
Food, drink, pulse, digestion, sweat, sleep, walking, swimming,
Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening,
The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes,
The skin, the sunburnt shade, freckles, hair,
The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,
The circling rivers the breath, and breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!
— "I Sing the Body Electric" (1855), Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
This fearless triumph stunned readers back in 1855 and is still a poem that would put any poet on the map, had he the wit to think of it. Its anatomical inventory at first looks quite dense but is really a light skim of the body's parts whose names set forth powerfully Whitman's great argument that the body is the soul and should not be surrendered to anyone any more than you'd surrender your soul, and further that these parts of himself are the likes of the soul in other human bodies. He thinks he heralds a new American folk poetry with frank verses like these. What ambition!
Excerpted from Painted Paragraphs by Donald Newlove. Copyright © 1993 Donald Newlove. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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