Friday, November 30, 2012

In the Footsteps of History

He was one of the first people I met in Sydney, and fate kept throwing us back together at random. At the movies, at the beach, at the bar. Finally we gave up, took the hint, and became good friends.

"My characters tell me so much and no more, with reference to their experience, their aspirations, their motives, their history. Between my lack of biographical data about them and the ambiguity of what they say lies a territory which is not only worthy of exploration but which it is compulsory to explore."
"The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, and anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its true place."
Harold Pinter, "Writing for the Theatre"

Among the more fascinating letters to editors are those from lawyers. Surely an editor somewhere must have a wall of framed threats from lawyers, which cause either considerable mirth or lots of pain. These are just two instances of bullying by lawyers, who hide behind ''instructions'' in making outlandish threats to people who seek to throw light on murky behaviour by corporates and politicians. Unfortunately, it is something editors experience on almost a daily basis. Matrit wolf in sheepskin clothing

In life and on the page I most enjoy the company of knowledgeable people, not trivial pursuers but those with a ready grab bag of bright shiny bits. I mean generalists, hunter-gatherers of fact, proudly messy non-specialists, foxes over hedgehogs. On the writing of one such:
“It is, in a beautiful sense, thinking aloud, at its most congenial, conversational, richly anecdotal, and always observant. He is the world’s best companion for looking at a Venetian building or Gothic carving. He can tell you that the stone flowers that seem to be mere decoration at the top of a cathedral column grow wild in the fields round about. He takes nothing for granted; his readers are children to be taught, to be beguiled into learning.”

`Not What We Are, But What We Have Never Been'
Coelacanth: the word held their attention longer than the big bronze-colored fish. When I caught up with them in the Houston Museum of Natural Science, my younger sons and a friend were arguing over proper pronunciation, and not one was even close, all pronouncing the first “c” as a “k.” It’s SEE-la-kanth, a sound nearly as exotic as the fish. My fourth-grade teacher, Miss Gertrude Martin, told us the story of a fisherman in 1938 netting a species thought to have been extinct for 65 million years. She would already have been a middle-aged woman when the “fossil-fish” was discovered, but Miss Martin told the story breathlessly, as though it were a fairy tale and she was a little girl. Ever since, I’ve paid attention to any mention of the coelacanth.

It isn’t notably pretty but its fate has been fortunate. Not only was it resurrected from extinction – it tastes bad and makes predators sick, which accounts for its rare but ongoing existence. One source reports: “Coelacanth flesh has high amounts of oil, urea, wax esters, and other compounds that are difficult to digest and can cause diarrhea. Where the coelacanth is more common, local fishermen avoid it because of its potential to sicken consumers.” Elizabeth Spires includes “Coelacanth” in The Wave-Maker: Poems (2008). It’s prefaced by fragments attributed to National Geographic:

“Once thought to be extinct…
lives at depths of up to 1500 feet…
dies of shock when brought to the surface…
almost nothing is known about it…”

“I saw you in a book: bubble-eyed and staring,
mouth spookily aglow with a sourceless yellow light.

“Extinct, you cruised among cold silences
until a hand roughly hauled you out of your element,

“and for a moment you lived, only to die again,
in shock at a world too bright, too dry, too thin.

“Mute, you speak volumes: the weight of water pressing
on you like an enormous question, your ancient saucer eyes

“peering, constantly peering, through ragged curtains of Time.
What, what do you see? O tell me, tell me, tell me.

“You and I, we live in depths profound and ceaseless,
we swim against cold currents until, netted,

“and gasping, we are shocked to find out
not what we are, but what we have never been.”

That is, I presume, not extinct, though dead, which reminds me of this.