The Slant of Memory

A good poem can bequeath you one or two lines: such as these from Maxine Kumin’s Feeding Time:
                Time which blows on the kettle’s rim
                  Waits to carry us off.                 (Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief, 1992)

I stand alone in the kitchen on dark winter mornings, as the teapot’s steam marks this warning in the cold air. I say the lines to myself. They come at the end of her poem about feeding animals and loved ones at this coldest time of the year when the ancient knowledge of starvation waits just beyond the glass

Premonition and death also rise through the plot of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Like all his novels I’ve read, this one circles back to reverberate its initial scene. A master of headlong plotting, Dickens is also a master of infusing a scene with motion. Thoughts flowing through the bars of a prison: It is the French Revolution. The novel’s denouement depends on that all-important first scene.And a recurring prison.

Now with the holidays I have time to read magazines several months old. A New Yorker writer, Anthony Lane offers Henry James as the greatest of all novelists, with his Portrait of an Artist. I flinch from this judgment, (and remember a BBC enactment I heard maybe five months ago). To my taste, James is deficient in chiaroscuro, the lights and darks of which Dickens is a master. Not to mention the ability to call characters out of the sod, the brick, the furnace. Dickens’ scenes–from counting house to hovel, from rain-driven clod to cozy fire, from prison bars to sumptuous feast–create a full-bodied, cantankerous, ultimately satisfying world of invention.  

Another set of lines recurs: A certain slant of light
                                             on winter afternoons 
                                              oppresses like the weight
                                              of cathedral tunes.

There is such sharply slanting light as I walk at the end of these short days. It carries terror with it. Emily Dickinson knew of what she spoke–that oppressive music.

We read to be carried out of ourselves, but also brought back: So lines from poems wend their way through odd moments, and the experience of novels so huge and insistent they envelope my life. I think I still know the difference between Dickens’ Paris and mine own, though mine is now shaded, tortured by his. My London remains entirely his, since I’ve never been in it. But it is full of extraordinary characters and encounters. In Henry James’ world, fine perceptions are spun into immense subtlety. That’s that I remember: shading going from half sun to darker and darker grey until we stand in ultimate penumbra. .

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