Quicksilver Droplets

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My reading for the last week or so–continually interrupted, like a picnic upstaged by intermittent splashes of rainfall–has been The Last September, by Elizabeth Bowen. As I live in the Pacific Northwest, where rain can feel like an ever-present inundation, there is a familiar fascination in Bowen’s well-crafted, liberally moistened atmosphere. I find in her use of the rain and all its manifestations, scene to scene, almost a tone poem, both dreamy and dreary, that underpins this Anglo-Irish novel. 

The WP photo challenge for the week was to capture H2O in various interpretations. I love to take photos of water droplets, poised and quivering….to capture that one moment of translucent shimmer.

Elizabeth Bowen, in masterful prose, creates some ethereal moments throughout the novel by the use of water in shaping atmosphere. Rain is used as a character, a mood setter, a scene stealer, and often, in the dappled, shifting light when sun changes to racing clouds, a subtle harbinger of coming despair.

‘Down the walk, brightening air slipped like gauze round the beech trunks; great pewter limbs went turning, straining up with the sheen of muscles. Drops, infrequent and startling, loudly fell on his hat-brim, icily on her shoulders through the mesh of her dress. The path’s perspective was a tunnel of glass…’

In a scene that is, perhaps, more about climate than climactic, we have the eager soldier, vigorous in love, bestowing his first display of affection on a young, confused Lois. And in this scene, of course…there is rain.

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‘He stepped…to the drawing room door. The five tall windows stood open on rain and the sound of leaves, rain stuttered along the sills, the grey of the mirrors shivered. Polished tables were cold little lakes of light.’

Then he stepped forward, and kissed her, his hands on her wet shoulders.
“Oh, but look here—“ cried Lois.
She was his lovely woman: kissed. He shone at her, she helpless. She looked out at the hopeless rain.
“I love—“
“Oh but look here—“
“But I love—“
“What are you doing in the drawing room?”
“I’ve come to lunch.”

She walked away from him, around the room…So that was being kissed; just an impact, with inside blankness….’

Did I mention this was a coming of age novel? More of this enigmatic story, and spurts of abbreviated dialogue… coming soon.

H2O

A Quest for Gossamer

‘Nothing [proves] a writer’s greatness more than his capacity to consolidate his scene by the use of what, until he touched them, seemed wisps of cloud and threads of gossamer.’  — Virginia Woolf

Gossamer is fascinating both to writers and to naturalists. And even the pictures we see of the vast, sparkling heavens appear to stretch out like dewy gossamer; banners of gauze that bedeck the halls of a mountain king.

This time of year I am always on a quest to capture gossamer; it fascinates me…I have yet to take the picture I crave. But it is a miniature world come to life in dew and morning light.

A curious kingdom, indeed. It did not exist the day before, but with tireless spinning from our unseen weavers, a fabric of dazzling geometry appears before our eyes.

(Read more of my enthusiasm for gossamer and its links with ephemeral poetry and literature in this post: Gossamer Abundant.)

‘We Will Know Where We Have Gone’

“…When we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations…”  — Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice

H.E. Bates describes this time of year so beautifully, as the sap is ebbing:

“So… in September, the life is flowing again—back now, really ebbing, like the sap itself. In the woods, especially, life and sap are synonymous. It is that uprising of sap in April and May, and even March, that gives woods their beautiful and stimulating sense of life. It is the flowing back, the slow return to death and the bottom of the pit, that gives them in autumn that peculiar air of soft melancholy, the infusion of sad odors and the sweet death of countable leaves.

In late September the full fruition of things has come.”

It is this bittersweet feeling of autumn, this full fruition, that causes us to pause, think, and ‘recollect what we have seen‘.


Pictures taken at Columbia River Gorge; for ‘Edge‘ photo challenge…

Further reading and delightful essays on Jane Austen and her love of the natural world:

Sarah Emsley blog

Jane Austen’s World

My post on Jane, also here

For my other posts on H.E. Bates, see sidebar tags

Mirror Flower, Water Moon

Mirror flower, Water moon…”

An evocative, poetic phrase from the ancient Orient that softly sings to our consciousness of things that cannot be grasped, like a flower reflected in a mirror or the moon reflected on the water’s surface.

You can see them, they appear to live, they may even move you, but you cannot touch them. It is not real.

It is beautiful but unattainable. Perhaps it could also apply to a sculpted iconic motif that suggests a myth no one has seen, and the reflection of this illusion still captures our imaginations.

Framed In Shadow

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Conversations framed
Time in capture
Kept forever

Words tumble out
Bathed in summer light
warmed in sighs

Life is here
But grief was strong
and came unwanted

Boundaries of time
Surmounted with ease
(for we were young then, too)

Still the nameless thing
Goes unanswered 
The frame awaits

Eagerly we listen
With every breath we listen
Each pause is scoured

As we listen
For those distant sounds
Of heart to heart


A response to the WP Photo Challenge; as I went through my photos I realized (not being a professional photographer) that I hardly ever frame pictures in a linear way. This shot was an attempt to frame (my style) the subject with shadows, and use the shadows as part of the subject.

(It also reflects the fact that I am preparing for a special reunion of friends this weekend.)

Rare Bird of a Different Feather

“I see wonderful things.” — Howard Carter

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The concept of rare applies to so many things in a book lover’s world.

These days it is less about finding a rare edition (the internet makes it so easy), a rare illustrator, a rare signed copy, than it is finding that other vanishing gem—the shop that sells the used books.

The crusty old proprietor who hides behind the antique cash register is another vanishing gem. A rare bird, if there ever was one. A rather hobbit-esque gentleman who looks, in demeanor and hygiene, as though he hasn’t stirred from behind the counter in days.

Why would he? He has what he wants right there. An old coffee pot begrimed with blackened arabica patina has pride of place at his elbow, transforming what was once a hearty brew into something that smells like charred wood, next to it sits a jar of coffee mate—it doubles as a fly trap; stacks of books encircle the counter like a Roman army’s palisade, and you find yourself being examined from behind this fortification of ancient knowledge by a suspicious glare. (There is strange music coming from a dusty radio. It might be classical but it’s not like any classical music you’ve ever heard. It sounds like Wagner on a spinet having a light-hearted go at Hayashi’s national anthem)

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I like the faint suggestion of exercise here

The crumbs of lunch still cling to his stubble as he reluctantly puts aside his tattered copy of Ginsburg—hard to believe he has the fire of poetry in his soul—and sums you up.

You’re not quite sure what your shoes have to do with it, but, after wrenching his gaze away from the offending footwear, it is apparent this Ben Jonson of retail has found you wanting. He waits, in resignation, for the lady apparition wearing Nikes made in China to ask if he has any cookbooks ‘in stock’? Or, innocently inquiring, “Do you have any copies of Diary of an Edwardian Lady? It’s written by a lady who lived and wrote in the Victorian era…?”

I love that book, but I already possess a copy and know better than to ask the question. So after discreetly disappearing for a time into the dark tunneled bowels of the shop — tip: make very little noise to distract him from his reading and remember to cough occasionally so he can keep track of you without having to put down his book — finally, gather up your newfound treasures in a stack as high as you can carry, and approach the counter again.

Beyond the tower of books in your arms, your shoes are all he can see. So far they have not served you well.

Tired, hungry, euphoric at finding a British first edition Thirkell with dust jacket design by Anna Zinkeisen, unquestionably you have breathed far too much mildew effluvium, and now you’re afraid to ask ‘is there a restroom?’

Because there might be, and you won’t want to use it. (Trust me on this one.)

You could venture to ask, “do you take Visa?” and be met with another snarl of disdain. What follows is a lecture on the evils of the modern age and how all that’s wrong with the world can be traced back to the invention of Molded Plastic.

But it’s all very interesting  and actually…incredibly…the two of you begin to bond. Pretty soon we’re all Helene Hanff and Frank Doel, eager politeness on one side and surly enthusiasm and opinion on the other.

‘I require a book of love poems with spring coming on. No Keats or Shelley, send me poets who can make love without slobbering—Wyatt or Johnson or somebody, use your own judgement. Just a nice book preferably small enough to stick in a slacks pocket and take to Central Park. 

Well, don’t just sit there! Go find it! I swear I don’t know how that shop keeps going.’                  — 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff

This marvelous guy who speaks with medieval-laced diction and rolling vowels has begun to recognize you as a book enthusiast. You recognize him as A Man Who Knows Everything About Books. For all his misanthropic air, he loves to talk with a fellow librophile and ‘wax expansive’ on all he knows. The conversation begins, coalesces with light speed and he is soon regaling you with tidbits regarding everything from Hemingway’s favorite typewriter to the real story behind Gertrude Bell’s death. Why the Arkwright translation of Memoirs of the Duke de Saint-Simon is particularly good. Milton’s Paradise Lost was a riff right off ol’ cowherd Caedmon’s Paraphrase. What makes the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica so collectible. Who the first far-seeing publisher was to print John Donne’s works as a collection and change the history of poetry. Why you should study seventeenth century French literature and where you should start. (…confession…I never did follow his advice) Why Anthony Trollope fell so hard from public opinion.

Irascible, opinionated, and unapologetic.

If you ask the right questions or are looking for a serious edition he approves of and happens to have—which, sometimes, serendipitously, happens—then this man becomes your new ally.

‘Gentlemen:
The books arrived safely, the Stevenson is so fine it embarrasses my orange-crate bookshelves; I’m almost afraid to handle such soft vellum and heavy cream-colored pages. Being used to the dead-white paper and stiff cardboard covers of American books, I never knew a book could be such a joy to the touch.’ — Helene Hanff  — [84 Charing Cross Road]

I remember one such bookseller, in particular…the wine would come out, the dusty armchairs would beckon, and oh I learned ‘wonderful things’ about books, printing, publishing, lore of lost authors and so much that I wish I could remember now…none of it, of course, being relevant to modern life…but isn’t that, in essence, the secret to its fascination? When something can be memorable, without needing to be remembered? We may not recall everything that was said, but we’ll remember how the experience made us feel. Such memories stay with us, not as lifeless data, but as emotional seed sown, or like powerful, insistent tides that continue to reshape our settled paths.

That bookstore, and the living, breathing story-telling human encyclopedia behind the counter? Long gone. The influences remain.

One day I walked in on the death-in-progress of one of my favorite book haunts. This time the old proprietor gave me a sheepish, sorrowful look, and the suspicious gaze came from two strange men who were boxing up precious—and by that time familiar to me—contents. Everything from seventeenth century parchment documents, leather bound collections of Carlyle, Essays of Elia, to maps, first editions of Faulkner, eccentric but fabulous 1960’s art and art magazines…it was all coming down from dusty wooden shelves and being hurriedly stuffed into boxes.

Proprietor looked at me, and I asked the obvious question.

“They bought me out,” he said simply. “It’s all going on the internet. I can finally travel to Asia like I always wanted.”

Rare birds still fly.