Guy Davenport’s stories seamlessly illuminate his vast knowledge of theology, philosophy, botany, and art, in his singular style of finding harmony in the juxtaposition of different themes. Whether critiquing the politics of socialist realist art in “We Often Think of Lenin at the Clothespin Factory,” revisiting biblical tales in “Jonah,” or depicting an ancient Greek philosopher in “The Meadow,” Davenport demonstrates his talent for blending high-minded ideas with literary wit.
Davenport’s writing is at its most confident when the author weaves between time periods and ideas, such as when he revisits Descartes through the eyes of an ancient Greek skeptic in “Pyrrhon of Elis,” wherein a doubting philosopher declares, “I may not be, I think”; or in “The Bicycle Rider,” in which a doctoral student studying imagery of demons in the Gospels is visited by angelic spirits and attempts to save the life of a nihilistic prostitute. In these stories and the others collected in The Jules Verne Steam Balloon, Davenport’s signature approach to culture and humanity is on bold display.
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The Jules Verne Steam Balloon
By Guy Davenport
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Guy Davenport
All rights reserved.
Here, said Gerrit, making an iks with the toe of his hiking boot where the meadow thinned out into the alluvial gravel of the shingle spit, jo? We'll be across the wind, with the landtong and inlet to see from the front of the tent, meadow and wood from the back. What quiet! was Petra's observation. She saw bee balm, and the grandmother of all thistles. Nello, easing his shoulders from under the straps of his tall pack, sighed, sagged, rolled his arms, and stomped.
Brainy steelrim specs, Garibaldi cap, Padvinster shirt with patches for woodcraft, swimming, hiking, botany, sewing, geography. Blue seven in a yellow oval on her shirt pocket. In boy's white short pants, big shoes and thick socks, Petra was straight up and down boy except for the flossy snick along the keel and the sliding look she gives you when she doesn't believe a word you're saying. Raised on Kropotkin and Montessori, she was great buddies with her folks, anarchists of some kidney. Quiet, said her brother Nello, hundreds of cubic meters of solid silence. Spiffing, our blue tent, nickelbright frame and yellow rigging. You can, Petra said, hear mevrouw and mijnheer Vole messing about, it's that quiet. Smell the meadow: clover, mint, grass, river.
Beyond the spinney there, back of the rocks, was where we camped, Gerrit pointed. Promised myself, I did, that if I came again I'd camp on this spit, with the meadow. Erasmus, said Petra, is nice but spooky. That jiggle in his turned-in eye, the flop of hair all over his forehead, shapely meat all over, but he's strange. Because, Nello asked, he lives with Strodekker, Nils, and Tobias? Of course not, Petra said, with one of her looks. I mean the way he talks bright and then runs out of something to say, fighting sleep. He blushes pretty. Nobody should be that good-looking. He's OK, Gerrit said, when you get to know him. Hans had told me that, and it's hard to fool Hans. It was his idea to winkle Erasmus loose from his tribe, his buddy Jan off to Italy, talk about a funny family. It was Rasmus's scheme that we not wash. Strodekker holds to a germfree nursery, peroxiding the depths of ears, crusading against dirt under fingernails and crud between toes. The whole house floats with shampoo bubbles and splashes with the gushing water of showers. Also, he'd had it with sex, said he was being kissed to death. Tell all, Petra said, but later. Rocks in a ring for the fire, the spit, pots and pans.
Everything's off somewhere else, Petra said, giving her hair a toss. We're here. The meadow's here, the river, the woods over there. Gerrit's wrinkling his nubble nose. Cornelius has the tent as shipshape and trim as a bandbox. Whistling The Red Flag Shall Overcome, she studied the page of the Boy Scout Manual that shows how to lay out a campfire. Dinky aluminum pots, she muttered, nests of cups. Water from the spring in the spinney. A sprig of clover in her teeth, eyes calmly honest, Petra edged her panties down. Pink butt, Cornelius said, soon to be tawny goldeny bronze. Gerrit, swallowing hard, politely stared. Prude, Petra said. Let's see what the river's like. And Gerrit in the fetching altogether. The river shines this time of afternoon.
Petra drawing plants in her sketchbook, saying the names of parts to herself, bract, umbel, petiole, said to Gerrit who came to watch, they're alive. They're out here on their own, as independent as Frisians. They were here before we were, I mean before people were, at all, them and the insects, so it's their world we're visiting, intruding on. Time is so grandly slow. No, said Gerrit, it's just that there's so much of it. What I like, Petra said, is a thing minding its own business, like this little goldbutton here. Greeny white roots, a hard stalk, its flowers eight to the line here at the bottom, five on the next level up, three, two, one. It's just tall enough to live in with the grass and still eat lots of light, and get enough water through its toes. Axial, but not strictly: you can't lay a ruler along any of its lines. The orangey yellow of the flower matches the dandelion green of its leaves: they go together.
Mitochondria, Petra said, cytoblasts. Everything may be a symbiosis of the two. Every once in a while, Cornelius said, my weewee goes weightless, floating. Because we're britchesless, I suppose. The earth, Petra said, was deep in bacteria once upon a time, making the oxygen for our atmosphere. Erasmus last summer, Gerrit said, called Hans an elemental sprite, or djinn, a hybrid of whacky Toby and serious Nils. The weeds out here, Petra said, are not weeds. This is their place, their meadow. Erasmus said his predicament was that his hormones turned on early, with the help of a camp counsellor, a buttermilk-fed weightlifter who believed in flying saucers and extrasensory perception, and told his charges that it was good for their souls to whack off until their brains were sodden. Showed them how, and lectured on the hygiene of it all. Some people, Cornelius said, have all the luck. Nello, Petra said, wants you to believe that we're afflicted with stuffy parents when we're not. Why then, Nello said, am I so shy? Look, Petra said, how plants make colonies, like islands, and don't mix in with each other.
Happy dimples and merry eyes, Nello said, is what Gerrit has all over his face, and Petra can't kiss for laughing. Don't niggle, Petra said, we're doing our best. Straight face, puckered lips. Close your eyes, Nello said. I'm pretty certain you're supposed to close your eyes. A squint will do, like that. Side by side, prone, Gerrit's feet riding up and down in a swinging kick, Petra's toes dug into clover, they kissed again, rocking their lips, Nello counting to sixty, one and abra, two cadabra. Nello hummed. Sixty abracadabra. A whole minute. Peppermint, Petra said, rolling onto her back and stretching. Gerrit walked his elbows closer, grazed Petra's lips with his, and mashed into another kiss. Both heels rose. He ventured a hand over a breast. Nello kicked into a headstand and watched upside down. If you like it, you like it. If you don't, what are you doing it for? Sixty and five, sixty and six. Two minutes and one, two minutes and two. Blood's rushing to my head and I'm going to croak in a fit. Three minutes. Gerrit lifted, but Petra pulled his head back, and kept her hand in his hair.
The feldspar and quartz pebbles derive from precambrian gneisses or granites and the small fragments of tourmaline and garnets from crystalline schists. The general inference, therefore, from the pebbles is that the beds in which they occur were uncomformably related to certain precambrian gneisses and certain slates, limestones, and quartzites of Cambrian or Lower Silurian age.
The Jules Verne stood tethered in the spinney beyond the meadow, its yellow drag tied to a boulder, valves leaking steam. Its girdling panels of zodiac, polychrome asterisks, and Laplander embroidery were as benign an intrusion among the trees of the grove as a circus wagon on the street of a Baltic town, a flourish of band music into the domestic sounds of a village. Quark in a Danish student cap, American jeans, Lord Byron shirt with ample sleeves, was picking blueberries in a school of butterflies. Tumble and Buckeye had climbed into a sycamore, walking its limbs as easily as cats. Tumble sat, hooked his knees on a horizontal branch, and hung upside down. Well, he said, there's the begetted eightness of unique nuclearity. Sure, said Tumble, noneness or nineness, or there's no dance to the frequency of the wave. Quark, overhearing in the blueberries, shouted that numbers are numbers. Zero one way, zero the other, scattering butterflies by drawing a goose egg in the air. The zero in ten is a nine pretending it's under one to be beside it and generate a progression of nine again. Tumble, parking his Norwegian forager's cap over a spray of sycamore leaves, said two four six, three six nine is what you get in a multiplication by threes along the one-to-niner line, but by four gives four eight three seven two six one five nine before you get to four again. He pried off his sneakers, tied the laces together, and hung them from a stout twig. Into each sneaker he stuffed a sock, white, striped blue and red at the top. By five, said Buckeye, gets you five one six two seven three eight four nine, which leaves a space between numbers for landing in when you leapfrog back from four to one. Quark, down among the blueberries, had sailed his cap to the boulder with nonchalant accuracy, and pulled off his shirt, which he made into a ball, tossing it over his head to land behind him in a patch of goldenrod and rabbit tobacco. By six, he shouted, six three nine, six three nine, over and over, out to infinity. Tumble upside down, squirmed out of his sweater, like a bat peeling itself, as Buckeye remarked, and let it drop far below. Bet you can't shuck your jeans, Quark dared him, while hanging upside down by your knees. Bet I can, said Tumble, watch. Unbuckling and zipping down, he sang, or zipping up, considering, I lift my left leg off the limb, so. And slide my left leg out, ha. And latch on again, squeezing good, with left knee while easing right leg out, and what was the bet, Quark old boy? He did it! Buckeye said. But your face is red as a tomato. Feel lightheaded, too, Tumble said, lifting his arms to the limb and scrambling onto it, astride. Woof! By seven, he said, seven five three one eight six four two nine. You lose two every step except from one to eight and two to nine, where you add seven. That's the best yet, Buckeye said, and with a bet won to boot. Think of something good and nasty. By eight, Quark said, eight seven six. Changing the subject! said Tumble. As for the bet, I was thinking. Eight seven six, Quark shouted him down, five four three. I was thinking that. Two! One! Nine! That, said Buckeye, has its tail in its mouth. The eight's on one end, the nine on the other, and the in-between's reversed. I was thinking, Tumble dogged on, that as long as my jeans are fifteen feet down, where, as soon as they're off, my underpants will follow, there, have followed, whee! right on top. By nine, Quark sang, nine nine nine nine nine nine nine nine nine.
Wild tansy, Petra said, Roman wormwood. Ambrosia Artemisiaefolia. Not, I think, Theophrastos' apsinthion, which is Artemisia, genus and species swapping places as in a dance. This is a New World weed with pinnatifid leaves, very Greek, very acanthus. The flowers go on and on up the stem, shishkabob of yellow ruffles, tight little green balls when they begin. She leaned over the wild tansy, spraddle-legged, hands on knees, Gerrit's longbilled red cap on the back of her head. Carrotweed, said Gerrit, finding it in the book. Stammerwort tasselweed ragweed tall ambrosia. Ambrosia is what the Greek gods ate, and at our house it's orange slices bananas grapes pineapple and coconut wish I had some now. Nectar's what they drank and now bees drink it. I like being naked, I think. Artemisleaf, said Petra. Of course. Because it has a leaf like Artemisia, toothy lobes in a nineteenth-century neoclassical spray. You look good naked, long brown legs and big square toes. Botanists are nice people, gentle, with queer names. Sereno Watson. Blue-eyed grass, said Cornelius. Artemis was the Greek goddess of hunting and women and young animals. Women when they're young animals, said Petra.
DOUBLE FLOWER OF BRISTOW, OR NONESUCH
This glorious flower being as rare as it is beautiful, is for roots being stringy, for leaves and stalks being hairy and high, and for the flowers growing in tufts, altogether like the single nonesuch: but that this bears a larger umbel of flowers at the stalk's top, every flower having three or four rows of petals, of a deeper orange, adding more grace, but blossoms without making seed, like other double flowers, but overcomes this defect by propagating from the root.
What I like, Petra said in the sleeping bag, is a dark sleety winter afternoon when I can go from school clothes to flannel pyjamas and wool dressing gown and get snug in the big chair with a blanket and something good to read, and can see outside. You've got so many worlds at once: memory both recent and far, the house with supper coming along and talk and Papa coming in, and your book. You know where you are. A cat's view of life, Cornelius said. Thanks, said Petra. Where we are here, Gerrit said, is the backside of nowhere, under all the stars, at the edge of a meadow, near a river, all three in two sleeping bags zipped into one, Petra in the middle. Straight down is New Zealand. Did you see the mouse on a stem of broomsedge, holding on with four fists? Petra did, but Nello missed him.
A STRING OF SPANISH ONIONS
Candlelight in our tent, and every sound an event to itself, spoon's clink on a cup, and our voices. Hansje was happiest that we weren't going to wash, and kept saying we'd stink. Erasmus was cool about it. Take off socks, briefs, a shirt, he said, and into the laundry basket it goes. It's good to wear dust and mud, pollen and leaftrash. Hansje pointed out that we didn't know what dirty was. And, besides, naked and dirty was different from wearing dirty clothes. Places, Erasmus said. The meadow can't be dirty. I said that it could. Dump city trash on it, atomic waste, industrial crud. Understood, Erasmus said. But we, sweaty and dusty and with oniony armpits, are clean in the same way the meadow is clean. We're natural. What if we hadn't brought toilet paper? Well, Erasmus said, we have a river, and even dust. We could powder, like birds. Every culture has its own sense of clean and dirty. Every part of a city. Every family. But the day your socks are yours, comfortable and friendly, is the day parents snatch them away from you. Then Erasmus made a speech on dirt: which he said was anything out of place, like seas and in the carpet, dust on shelves, egg on a necktie. But it was Erasmus who rolled in dust when he was sweaty. Petra didn't need to say a word. Her eyes said it all.
RISE AND SET, AUTUMNAL STARS
So, Petra said, Hiroshige. What's happening at a place. A tree, and it's there through the seasons. It has its life, from seedling to ax or lightning bolt. But it's there. And then, all of a minute, when Hiroshige chooses to have us look, a peasant carrying two bundles of firewood on a yoke across his shoulders passes the tree. At the same moment, a monk, a lady on a horse, they are also passing. Our meadow here was under snow last winter, and hares made tracks across it, and the mice burrowed deeper and all the grass and flowers were dead. And now we're here with our blue tent and each other. And last summer, Gerrit said, Erasmus doing a hundred push-ups at a time, counting in Latin, betting Hansje he couldn't do a hundred and five. And unmentionable things, Petra said. No, said Gerrit, that was part of the game. Pure thoughts all the way, like us.
The sleeping bags zipped together, as with Hans, Erasmus, and Gerrit before, Gerrit's plan, one less sleeping bag to tote, and, as Petra explained to her folks back in Amsterdam, proof of their freedom. Me in the middle, Petra said. Liberal parents are the stuffiest. If ours were a Calvinist enclave where sex is never mentioned except to deny its existence, not an eyebrow would raise at three innocent teenagers camping in a meadow, two of them brother and sister, the other a friend from the playpen forward. Liberals are the new Calvinists. Those Danes, Nello said, in Jugoslavia. I'm still trying to figure out what they were doing. Four girls and one boy in the tent back of the textileless beach. Squealed all night, that lot.
PARNASSIA PALUSTRIS LINNAEUS
Flowers, fragrant as honey, are interesting in that five of the original stamens transform into staminodes split into narrow gland-tipped segments, which attract insects. The five fertile stamens alternate with the petals and mature before the stigmas, but in a remarkable way. The anthers face outwards and ripen in succession, each in turn lying on top of the ovary with the pollen side facing upwards. After several days, when the anthers are all empty of pollen, the apical stigmas become receptive and occupy the former position of the anthers. Knuth's Handbook of Flower Pollination says that the stalked glands of the staminodes attract insects by their glistening color, as if they had abundant nectar. Intelligent insects are not deceived, but flies and beetles are, and effect cross-pollination. Many smaller flies are also attracted. They lick the nectar but are ineffective in transferring pollen.
Excerpted from The Jules Verne Steam Balloon by Guy Davenport. Copyright © 1987 Guy Davenport. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Pyrrhon of Elis,
We Often Think of Lenin at the Clothespin Factory,
Bronze Leaves and Red,
The Bicycle Rider,
Les Exploits de Nat Pinkerton de Jour en Jour,
The Jules Verne Steam Balloon,
The Ringdove Sign,
About the Author,