Up on St Juan Island, Washington state, on a farm (more later). Just opened Robert Lowell’s Letters, which I am very much looking forward to reading, having already, years ago, read the lively correspondence he and Elizabeth Bishop had. But I stop because the Introduction, which deals with his typing skills or lack of them, takes me back to my high school days, when my mother insisted that typing—and eventually, shorthand—were necessary skills for a young woman, in case she had to earn a living between graduation from university with a degree is some femininity-enhancing field (just not engineering, law or medicine) and marriage. So I spent one soulless summer learning to type. Nowadays, of course, everyone can type. I can still do it, with all ten fingers. I also know how to iron a man’s shirt, make a bed with hospital corners—well, you get the picture.
I even have a poem in my new book (whenever) about sewing machines and how every home should have one. (Eventually I gave mine to my household help, and it very quickly ended up in the Philippines.)
My Apples poem, first published in the New Yorker this spring has been posted on Cynthia Haven’s Stanford book lover’s blog, the Bookhaven.
We ran into each other, as she says, outside Green Library, her on her way in, me coming out, both of us on our bikes and heading for the gym, though not the same gym. I hadn’t seen Cynthia since before we went to Paris in January so we spent a while catching up on our own news and that of mutual friends.
Cynthia is a biographer, most recently of René Girard, but also of Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky in her ‘Conversations With…” series. When we first came to Stanford and were renting on campus we used to see Girard, who lived not too far away, walking past our windows on his way to his office, a frail-looking figure with a small backpack. Once or twice I heard him speak in seminars, fascinated, and humbled by the way he made—without any flashiness—wide-ranging connections between vast fields of knowledge. I look forward to reading Cynthia’s new book.
I reread Austen’s Persuasion this week, couldn’t put it down, even though I knew the plot, as even a first reader would, it’s so predictable. But marvelous, nonetheless. A great airplane book and great literature.
I read it after reading Virginia Woolf’s essay on Austen in her First Common Reader, a collection of essays for bookworms, written and published in the 1920s, more or less contemporaneously with Mrs Dalloway, still, now, my favourite Woolf novel, though we had a good argument about this at the Berkeley poetry group a week or two ago, some preferring To the Lighthouse or The Waves.
And now to get out of the house for a couple of hours, and some exercise.
I’d long read about but never experience the high that comes with exercise until I started biking. What got me started was a stay at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire a few years ago. There the studios are scattered about the woods, and for some of them a bike is useful. Mine was a good hike from the main lodge, so I adopted one of the colony’s bikes, and when I got back to Palo Alto I got (a gift from the family) a campus bike. Just a couple weeks ago I bought a good road bike which makes climbing much easier.
Yesterday I reached the top of Alpine Road (‘the green gate’) without stopping and much faster than I used to do on my clunky campus bike. The best part is after the Portola Valley turnoff, when the little road twists and turns along a gorge with a creek in the bottom. It’s wonderful when the commuter traffic quiets and you can hear the wind and the birds and especially the sound of the water bubbling down the creek over stones and moss and fallen tree trunks. It’s shady at the end of the day when I go, usually with my husband, and the banks of the creek are littered with yellow leaves and green ferns; and I’m keeping my eyes off the road, just getting up inch by inch, until the road stops.
One of the pleasures of city life? Surely connected to being able to do most everything on foot. In the western suburbs of Paris, where we used to live, every neighbourhood had a grocery story, a bakery and a pharmacy. No need for a car, no need to plan meals a week ahead, so you didn’t find you were missing some essential ingredient at the last minute. Living in the centre of Paris is the same, only more so: more pastries and bakeries (of a quality undreamed of even in upmarket Palo Alto, more markets, butchers, fresh vegetables and fruit.
Why was I thinking about this? It’s because I had to pick something up at a ‘pharmacy’ and so dropped into CVS on my way home from campus. A big, bland supermarket of stuff from notions to toothpaste, virtually no staff in the aisles, no life, just products. Sure, it’s efficient, but is efficiency what I want? Well, maybe, if I have a job and three kids to look after: my time is rationed and I try to do all the shopping in one 2-hour spree, or maybe, these days, online. I don’t have time to be waited on, to chat with other customers or the, say, pharmacist.
But there is a lot to be said for the small shop: the sense of neighbourhood for one, the civility, the give and take.
I have a new bike, carbon-fibre frame, blue with orange accents, brand new unlike my campus bike which was pre-owned, as the car ads now say. Two gears in front, lots more in back. I got it a week ago and have been up Alpine to the green gate, where the road stops, three times now, once without stopping. Like the best hikes and rides, the green gate is downhill all the way home. Takes me now an hour and a quarter up and maybe half an hour back, though I wasn’t keeping close track, because mainly I’m happy just to reach the top (though actually there is a hiking trail further up, to Skyline from the green gate. I think, however, that I’ve shaved about ten minutes off my campus-bike time. I do feel sleeker, with my thinner tires and no bike basket jingling.
The bottom part of the ride is on a commuter road up (down) the Sandhill of the venture capitalists, Stanford campus and shopping centre with its not-quite plastic plantings and fancy shops. The top part of the ride is beautiful, along a gorge with a creek bubbling in the bottom, madrone, redwoods, oak, bay laurels, deer…the top part is the reward.
I sent my Baudelaire translation, Invitation to the Voyage, to the publisher yesterday. Sorry to see it go, I could tinker forever and never arrive at perfection. It is scheduled to be out mid-November. It will be followed, also from Seagull, by a translation of Hélène Cixous’s wonderful book We Defy Augury, of which PN Review has just published a chapter.
I am tinkering with a poem this morning, one that I wrote a couple years ago, and have been tinkering with off and on. It helps to forget about it for a while. It’s coming along, but still needs work.
I’m looking at the first line (‘Madame L. is selling the house’) right now, and wondering if there’s a better word than ‘house.’ ‘Farmhouse’ maybe?
This leads me to think that a ‘farmhouse’ in North America and maybe in the UK and Ireland (I’m not sure about this) suggests a house that is outside the village, in the middle of the farmer’s land. But in France, at least in the South, though there are farms surround by land, most farmers, or peasants live in villages where the houses are pressed together, perhaps for safety and sociability. Farm implements and machines, say tractors, are kept in a ‘remise’ (no real word for this in English; ‘barn’ and ‘garage’ don’t really fit) in the village too.
Madame L’s house is such a village house; but a big one, with some land attached. It sits on the side of a hill leading up the castle; once it was the schoolhouse. We went to visit it when it was for sale, because my husband’s family house was losing its view to new construction. But her house was too big and needed too much work for us.
So I guess, to stay close to the truth, ‘farmhouse’ won’t do. In French it’s a ‘maison de village’ with all that suggests, of village life after the day’s work on the farm, which can be and often is, land without a house, or only a one-room stone hut, without a door, to keep the horse in, if necessary, maybe a place to shelter from the weather, if necessary.