The Foghorn

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Friday evening I was reading and enjoying the gorgeous view of Boston Harbor at the Piers Park in East Boston.  Some event was going on at the end of the next pier: there was a party tent hung with lights and people inside were clapping.  Mostly this pier seems to be used by pleasure boats and small yachts, but there are also water taxis and big ferries I can only guess are refueling.  Friday night a Nantucket lightship (there were many) was moored at the end next to the tent.  The lightships have been replaced now by buoys; I thought maybe this was a group involved with the boat’s preservation, or perhaps they just rented it for fun.  The party seemed to culminate when they turned on the lights and blasted the foghorn.  It was extremely loud, of course.  The whole park turned as one.  The low, resonant note descended at the end to a rumbling, blatting, obscene pedal tone that was funny but also disconcerting.  There was an answering chorus from boats all around the harbor, but nothing came close.

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Then I remembered W. S. Merwin’s poem, “The Foghorn”, from The Drunk in the Furnace.  The poem asks, “Who wounded that beast/ Incurably, or from whose pasture/ Was it lost, full grown, and time closed round it/ With no way back? … What does it bespeak in us, repeating/  And repeating, insisting on something/ That we never meant?”  The voice of the foghorn is our creation, yet somehow it is alive.  It has escaped us and become something we cannot see and would rather not hear, but the alternative is drowning, “always nearer than we had remembered”.  The poem may be about facing death, but it suggests that there is something culpable as well in our attempts to deal with it.  In light (light?) of Jude, verse 13, “They are raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame”, the sea is the abode of the damned.

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It’s one of a number of sea poems that Merwin wrote early on, poems with titles like “The Eyes of the Drowned Watch Keels Going Over”, “The “Portland” Going Out” and “The Sea Monster”.  The Portland was a steamer that went down in a blizzard off of Massachusetts in 1898.  No one even knows how many people were on board; there were probably more than one hundred, and none survived.  The poem takes the point of view of the last people to see the doomed ship, the crew of a little fishing boat heading home safely with no warning of the storm to come.  These poems are sometimes so gothic that I think critics have a hard time deciding how seriously to take them.  Nicholson Baker, who I think of whenever I write something like “blatting, obscene pedal tone”, seems to think that Merwin wrote all of his good stuff later in life, after he gave up punctuation and capital letters.  Or maybe only his strange alter ego, Paul Chowder, thinks that.

Photos are, top, by Elmschrat Coaching38, CC attribution/share alike via wikimedia commons, middle, author’s photo, bottom, public domain via wikimedia commons and Nantucket Historical Association.

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Area Family not Suckered by Barbecue Dream

BOSTON, MA – A majority of the Walsh family celebrated the breakdown in talks aiming to bring a large barbecue to the area family’s suburban residence.  The “massive end of summer bash” was deep sixed when father Matt Walsh recognized his overriding responsibility to protect his family from undue expense or inconvenience. 

Clearly ambivalent, Walsh Sr. explained that he admired the family pride and ambition that wife Shirley and youngest daugher Emily brought to planning the get together.  “Obviously a big cookout is a great thing to bring family and friends together.  We even talked about inviting some of the neighbors.  We’d have a reason to put our volleyball net up in the side yard, and there’s the patio out back.  With the grill going and a couple of coolers of beer and soft drinks, something like this could be a real catylst for bringing the neighborhood together.”  Shirley Walsh brought up the possibility that most of the food arrangements would be covered by a “pot luck” system, and that it would be easy to open up space in the fridge and make the oven available for guests with hot dishes. 

However, oldest daugher Sara and twins Mike and Jack put up a surprisingly early, well organized, and persistant resistance to the idea of a “big do” on Spruce Street.  “Everyone knows,” Sara said patiently, “That these things never work out in favor of the hosts.  People blow off their RSVPs; people mooch shamelessly.  You can forget about them bringing good beer.  I just know that even if we shell out for microbrew we’re going to end up with a cooler of Budweisers floating in tepid water.  Dad says he’ll take care of all the shopping beforehand, but he’ll have to send me out at the last second to buy more steak or something.  Yeah I could save the receipt, but what guarantee do I have that he won’t forget to pay me back?”  Shirley Walsh reluctantly conceded that if friends didn’t take their leftovers right back with them that night, they’d be sure to leave only their ugliest, most awkwardly shaped tupperware behind.  “I’d probably take it to work in the trunk of my car, forget it for three months, and then guiltily try to return it, only to find that they didn’t want it back.” Her husband furrowed his brows and appeared to ponder this statement, but not before an expression of neurotic anger flashed across his face.

Emily Walsh was looking forward to finally inviting her friends to swim in the Walsh’s above ground pool, which has been covered all summer, only to see her most powerful argument turned against her by her brothers.  Said Mike Walsh, “If opening the pool is such a big priority for Emily, she should just open the pool.  She probably hasn’t priced out pool cleaning and chemicals for a while.”  Added Jack, with a significant look, “We know whose shoulders this is going to fall on: clearing off the patio, digging everything out of the basement… and when’s the last time you saw Dad pushing the lawn mower?  Then the cleanup.  All for leftover bean salad?”  Sensing an irretrievable disarray in the pro-parties party’s party-planning, Sara Walsh pushed hard on the question of infrastructure.  “I distinctly heard that there was going to be volleyball in the side yard, but now Mom’s offering to sacrifice her hydrangea to allow cars to get in there.  We can’t do both.”  Mom insisted that talks with the Hatchers for next door parking rights were “progressing”.

Several times during the fraught family meeting, the Walsh paterfamilias offered to put matters to a vote, but the no partisans saw the advantage of letting things drift into a stalemate.  With rational decisionmaking off the table, they began needling their father  with the concession that they would support any family activity he wished as long as he offered them blanket immunity from any personal sacrifices or alterations of their routine of any kind.  Finally Walsh snapped, “We probably just aren’t the kind of family that has parties.”  Emily Walsh later sniffed, “Now that we’re not doing it, our friends will probably go party with that redneck Johnson family that likes to set off illegal fireworks and always starts a brawl.  Or even with the Smiths; you can’t leave your car in their neighborhood.”

Alienation at the Boston Book Festival

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Spoiled by living in Boston, I almost forgot the Book Festival.  I arrived around noon yesterday and found the tents along Copley Square packed.  I snagged copies of the Times Literary Supplement and the disagreeably earnest Boston Review.  I really want to give that magazine a chance.  Met with various inducements, I left my email address with several vendors.  A couple of salesmen took a flattering interest in my Traverse City baseball cap; at least one struck me as someone I might have had a good talk with under different circumstances.  I took a coaster from MIT Press and a nice looking bookmark from some literary magazine or other.  I had my most enjoyable conversation with two women from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners who listened tolerantly to my cranky theories on the disproportionate funding of libraries versus public schools.  No, I’m afraid book fairs aren’t what they were when De revolutionibus orbium coelestium was making the rounds of Frankfurt and Leipzig.  Next year I’ll have to make sure I pick an interesting panel or speaker.

The Best Place in the World

The other night I logged on to my library account to see whether I had anything coming due, and up popped a survey.  I answered the questions as well as I could, but was left feeling that I could have said a lot more.

I submit that the best buildings in the world are public libraries.  A library serves humanity at its essential best.  Being open and not prescriptive, it does so more broadly than a school or theater or museum, and is prior to these.  While I am no impartial judge, and can think of many great libraries, I think that mine, in Boston, may be the greatest.

THE PUBLIC LIBRARY OF THE CITY OF BOSTON BUILT BY THE PEOPLE AND DEDICATED TO THE ADVANCEMENT OF LEARNING

That monumental inscription runs high along the entire length of the neoclassical main building on Copley Square.  I couldn’t say it any better.  I believe in the power of public things to make our lives better and gladly contribute my share.  I wish that weren’t such a controversial position these days.  When I go in this way, I always read the inscription, and then I glance at the hundreds of names of famous authors and scientists carved in smaller letters underneath the windows.  I know most of them, but Goldoni? Massinger?  Which Ford is that?  Someday I’ll have to make a study of them.

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Once I’ve passed the iron and bronze entryway and the marble floored and tile vaulted lobby, I generally head for the circulating collection in the adjoining building, but I have a choice:  I can stay on the first floor and skirt the fountained courtyard, a route that drops me off in front of new nonfiction, where I’m sure to spend a few minutes.  Or I can head up the stairs, between the lions (older than New York’s I read somewhere) memorializing Civil War infantry units and the towering Chavannes murals.

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Though it’s out of my way, I’ll stop in the dark and usually empty room where Edwin A. Abbey’s dreamlike series of grail murals decorates the higher portions of the walls.

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This upper route leads to the second floor of the new building where the reference and circulating nonfiction books normally reside.

So what do I actually use the library for?  My notes tell me that I’ve read more than forty books from the library in the two and a half years that I’ve been here, over a third of the books I’ve read in that time.  I remember checking out Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, Laxness’ Independent People, volumes of Livy, Plutarch, and Sallust, and of course Shakespeare.  A pretty good mix, I think.

I’ve checked out other books repeatedly without reading them, and I don’t feel guilty about that.  Chaucer and a book on backgammon shared that fate.  On the last trip I agonized over whether it was time to tackle the last volume of Livy, but I finally decided I had enough to read already.  I feel like I could make better use of the library.  There’s a lot besides circulating books.  I’ve requested books from delivery, but only rarely.  I’ve barely glanced over the list of available databases.  On the other hand, there’s no sense worrying about having a lack of books to read or pretending to have given the ones I have the attention they deserve.

For someone who believes he’s in the greatest place on earth, I could really stand to pay more attention to what goes on here.  Right now the library is in the midst of a major renovation, and for all I know they could be getting rid of all the books and replacing them with video games.  That’s a worst case scenario, obviously.  I duly filled out my survey, expressing my opinion of the importance of buying books and maintaining the collection.  My sense is that it’s reasonably up to date and investments are being made in the right places.  When I read about a hot new title in The New York Review, I can usually find it.

The last question on the survey was an open ended ‘what would you like to tell us?’  Well.  The trouble is, I hesitate to share my most outlandish fantasies about what a great library could be.  With apologies to my many friends in primary and secondary education, I often find myself contrasting the current state of public schools with my dreams of what a library could be.  I don’t mean this to reflect badly on teachers; I think it says more about our ideas of education as a society.

A large city might spend billions of dollars on public schools.  What do we get?  The bitter struggle with which children are forced to attend school is matched by the bitterness of the controversy over who should teach them and what.  The solution, so far, has been more testing.  Those who voluntarily continue their education fork over at a rate that increases far beyond inflation.

Now I would never, ever suggest that it would be a good thing to actually defund the public schools and invest the money in libraries.  But just imagine what we could do with that money.  Or with the money we might save if we decided that we didn’t need to invade two countries on the other side of the earth at once, or secretly keep track of every electronic message.  That’s what I’d like to see.  I picture a colossal open stack library accommodating every collection of works ever dreamed up, open twenty four hours.  It’s a possibility: it is high time that America saw another architectural and engineering milestone, a wonder of the world.  It would be the kind of place people would go willingly, as they already do, in droves, to our underfunded and vanishing libraries, but worthy of their most admirable self improving impulses.  Add a Roman bath and I would go homeless for such a place.  At the very least, the true public spiritedness and endless possibility embodied in our libraries should be the model for all of our public endeavors.

First photo is by Fcb981 (Eric Baetscher?) via Wikimedia Commons, CC Attribution Share Alike, the rest are the author’s own.