Saturday, August 22, 2020

"It's Snowdon!": The instant in Denise Levertov's "The Instant"

In Denise Levertov's "The Instant", the speaker and her mother go out mushrooming in the morning mist, which hides the sun and their surroundings: "clouds about our knees, tendrils / of clouds in our hair." But then comes the instant when the mist "suddenly" lifts, and the mother exclaims: "It's Snowdon, fifty / miles away!" The sudden visionary moment is a standard moment in poetry, but this instant does not leave the speaker with metaphysical insight but with the physical image and the experience of seeing both in the instant and in unforgettable memory: "Light / graces the mountainhead / for a lifetime's look, before the mist / draws in again." (Andrew Shields, #111words, 22 August)

The Instant

Denise Levertov, Overland to the Islands


'We'll go out before breakfast, and get

some mushrooms,' says my mother.

Early, early: the sun

risen, but hidden in mist


the square house left behind

sleeping, filled with sleepers;


up the dewy hill, quietly, with baskets.


Mushrooms firm, cold;

            tussocks of dark grass, gleam of webs,

turf soft and cropped. Quiet and early. And no valley,


no hills: clouds about our knees, tendrils

of cloud in our hair. Wet scrags

of wool caught in barbed wire, gorse

looming, without scent.

                                    Then ah! suddenly

the lifting of it, the mist rolls

            quickly away, and far, far –


'Look!' she grips me, 'It is


                                    It's Snowdon, fifty

            miles away!' – the voice

a wave rising to Eryri,


            Snowdon, home

of eagles, resting place of

Merlin, core of Wales.



graces the mountainhead

for a lifetime's look, before the mist

            draws in again.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Angela Davis, Gerda Lerner, Toni Morrison, and the myths of the Black rapist and the bad Black woman

In her 1981 book Women, Race & Class, Angela Davis quotes Gerda Lerner's Black Women in White America: "The myth of the black rapist of white women is the twin of the myth of the bad black woman." Toni Morrison edited Davis's 1974 autobiography, and the title character of Morrison's 1973 novel Sula – whose promiscuity leads her to be seen as a "bad woman" – confronts her friend Nel's husband Jude with her own ferocious spin on those myths: "They [white women] think rape soon’s they see you [Black men], and if they don’t get the rape they looking for, they scream it anyway just so the search won’t be in vain."  (Andrew Shields, #111words, 21 August)

Thursday, August 20, 2020

AAVE and Standard English in dialogue in Toni Morrison's "Sula"

Lying alone on her deathbed, Sula Peace in Toni Morrison's Sula ponders the conversation she's just had with her childhood friend Nel Wright: "I didn't mean anything. I never meant anything." Here, she's commenting on the affair she had with Nel's husband Jude, which meant nothing to her, though it meant a lot to Nel, especially after Jude left her. But this also echoes Sula's mother Hannah's earlier comment to her grandmother Eva: "I didn't mean nothing by it, Mamma." Hannah uses AAVE grammar (with negative concord), while in this echo of her mother, Sula, who had once left her hometown for college, speaks standard English to herself when she's alone. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 20 August)

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

"Beauty shops always had curtains or shades up. Barbershops didn’t": Hair and gender in Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon"

In Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, twelve-year-old Milkman Dead identifies and interprets a gendered difference: "Beauty shops always had curtains or shades up. Barbershops didn’t. The women didn’t want anybody on the street to be able to see them getting their hair done. They were ashamed." If, as Milkman thinks, such concealment reveals women's shame about their appearance, women, as the objects of male gazes, also don't want the production of their appearance to be visible. But the beauty shop with its curtains down also offers women something else: a space of their own beyond the male gaze that they will be subject to as soon as they go outside again. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 19 August)

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

"I didn't mean nothing by it, Mamma": Contesting an unstated implication in Toni Morrison's "Sula"

In Toni Morrison's Sula, Hannah Peace asks her mother Eva how she feels about her, her sister Pearl, and her brother Plum: "Mamma, did you ever love us?" After Eva responds testily, Hannah tries to downplay the question: "I didn't mean nothing by it, Mamma." This does not console Eva, who wonders how a question can mean nothing: "How you gone not mean something by it?" But the meaning that they are contesting is not the question's straightforward sense. If Hannah "means nothing", then the question has no further purpose than its sense, but for Eva, the question must have some further purpose, and she takes offense at its unstated implications. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 18 August)

Monday, August 17, 2020

The six-year-old critic and "The Famous Five"

When my son Miles was about six, we read the entire original series of Enid Blyton's "The Famous Five" out loud to him – and then reread many of the books because he loved them so much. Yet he was also already a critic: he remarked frequently on the books' formulaic quality, especially on how many of them involved going underground. And when he wanted to reread any book, he would ask to skip to the ninth or tenth chapter. When I asked him why, he said that the setup of the stories was always the same, with the kids somehow needing to be separated from their parents and other responsible adults. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 17 August)

Sunday, August 16, 2020

"A bunch of con men": Hannah Arendt on the Nixon administration in 1975

In May 1975, Senator Joe Biden wrote to Hannah Arendt to ask for a copy of a talk she had recently given. Whether or not he received a copy from her, the text was published a month later in the New York Review of Books. As an article on the post-Watergate and post-Vietnam crisis of the United States, it would behoove Vice President Biden to read it now in the current crisis. Here's one of the moments that speaks to 2020 as much as it did to 1975: "[...] it is as though a bunch of con men, rather untalented mafiosi, had succeeded in appropriating to themselves the [American] government [...]." (Andrew Shields, #111words, 16 August)