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)


Saturday, August 15, 2020

The age of actors and characters

In 1999, at 10, Daniel Radcliffe played David Copperfield as a child in a BBC production of the Dickens novel, with Ciarán McMenamin taking over the adult role. When Radcliffe became Harry Potter in 2001, though, he grew older with his character as eight films were made in ten years – which had to be finished before he and his co-stars were too old to play teenagers. With adult characters, this isn't a problem – but it could eventually be one for "The Old Guard", if the sequels are made that are teased at the end of the movie: the performers will age, but the characters are immortals who always look the same. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 15 August)

Friday, August 14, 2020

Praying for transformation in Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" and "Sula"

In Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Pecola Breedlove, who knows that everyone thinks she is ugly, wishes for one change that she thinks would transform her appearance: "[...] if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different. [...] Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes." This desire for miraculous transformation brought about by prayer reappears with Nel Wright early in Morrison's Sula: "Oh, Jesus, make me wonderful." Unlike Pecola, who imagines that she is transformed to escape the trauma of incestuous pregnancy, Nel is later "made wonderful" – not by Jesus, but by the transformative effect of her friendship with Sula Peace. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 14 August)

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Hugh Hewitt and the case for not re-electing President Trump

Hugh Hewitt's recent argument for President Trump's re-election makes clear why he must be defeated. Every "accomplishment" Hewitt lists is abhorrent. For example, he celebrates Trump's nomination of judges – the scale of which is only possible because hearings weren't held on President Obama's nominations. Or he praises Trump's withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear treaty, which appalled the world, and from the Paris climate accords, which endangers the survival of the human race. Or he mentions Trump's response to the pandemic merely to blame the coronavirus on China. If you feel unenthusiastic about Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, read Hewitt's hymn to Trump as a reminder of what voting for them means. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 13 August)


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Charlotta Bass: The first woman of color to run for Vice President

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post are careful and correct in their headlines about Joe Biden's choice of Kamala Harris as a candidate for Vice President: she is "first woman of color on major ticket" or "major party's ticket". The "major" qualifier is necessary, as the first woman of color to run for Vice President was Charlotta Bass of the Progressive Party in 1952 (which I learned from a tweet by historian Martha S. Jones). Her acceptance speech is full of points that sadly still need to be made today, including the problem of police brutality: "I will continue to cry out against police brutality against any people." (Andrew Shields, #111words, 12 August)

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

"A threnody of nostalgia about pain" in Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye"

When Cholly Breedlove's Aunt Jimmy in Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" seems to be recovering from an illness after the midwife M'Dear has treated her, Aunt Jimmy and her friends Miss Alice and Mrs. Gaines talk about "miseries they had had": "Their voices blended into a threnody of nostalgia about pain. Rising and falling, complex in harmony, uncertain in pitch, but constant in the recitative of pain." Out of their "fond remembrance of pains they had endured", these women create a veritable celebration of their lives. The harmony of their voices is a figure for Morrison's writing; the multiple perspectives "blend together" into a "threnody" made out of her characters' experiences. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 11 August)

Monday, August 10, 2020

"I hurt just like them white women": Black maternity in "The Bluest Eye"

When Pauline in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye is pregnant with her second child, a doctor discusses her with residents: "[...] now these here women you don't have any trouble with. They deliver right away and with no pain. Just like horses." In this medical myth, Black people are treated like animals who don't feel pain like whites do. In labor, Pauline challenges that myth: "The pains wasn't as bad as I let on, but I had to let them people know [...] I hurt just like them white women." Morrison's 1970 novel thus depicts private resistance to discrimination around 1930. The history of oppression is always a history of resistance. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 10 August)

Sunday, August 09, 2020

"It was odd how soon one got used to cars without horses"

In the 1914 chapter of Virginia Woolf's 1937 novel "The Years", Martin Pargiter walks across London with his niece Sara. Between the Law Courts and Charing Cross, they cannot hear each other because of "the roar of the traffic", and Martin looks closely at an automobile: "It was odd how soon one got used to cars without horses, he thought. They used to look ridiculous." By the time Woolf wrote the novel in the 1930s, cars would have been a natural part of the landscape to most Londoners. But Martin, like Woolf herself, lived through the automobile's invention, and in 1914, he still remembers how unnatural the "horseless carriage" once looked. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 9 August)

Saturday, August 08, 2020

"None of us feel anything at all, she thought; we're all pretending": Delia Pargiter in Virginia Woolf's "The Years"

In Virginia Woolf's "The Years", the teenage Delia Pargiter can't feel what she's supposed to feel at her mother's funeral: "None of us feel anything at all, she thought; we're all pretending." And at the grave, she's still at a loss: "She hesitated – she did not know what she ought to do next." This might be shock, as with Septimus Smith in Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway", but given Delia's previous longing for her mother to finally die of her long illness, her uncertainty about feelings and appropriate behavior is less about that experience and more a matter of characterization – with Delia perhaps being on the autism spectrum before that terminology was coined. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 8 August)

Friday, August 07, 2020

The closed coffin in Toni Morrison and Patricia Smith

Like Emmett Till's, Chicken Little's body in Toni Morrison's Sula is found three days after his death, "unrecognizable to almost everybody who once knew him," but at his funeral, "the coffin [is] closed." As Patricia Smith notes in one of her "Emmett Till: Choose Your Own Adventure" poems, "Mamie Till insisted on an open casket so that the world could see her son's mutilated body." In Smith's poem, though, Emmett's coffin is closed, so people imagine his body with only "perhaps a scrape or two / beneath his laundered shirt." In Smith and Morrison, the black child's "unrecognizable" body is hidden, so the imagination can deny the violence done to it. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 7 August)


The Smith poem is quoted in this review of her book Incendiary Art.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

"Something else to be" for Sula and Nel in Toni Morrison's "Sula"

As children, Sula Peace and Nel Wright in Toni Morrison's Sula find common ground in their self-knowledge: "Because [...] they were neither white nor male, and [...] all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be." White and male individuality may enable the positive goals of "freedom and triumph", but the generic conventionality of such stories limits such individuality. In turn, the social conventions preventing black women in Morrison from realizing conventional individuality force them to "create something else" that, in its namelessness, makes them more singular than those otherwise enabled by the white and male privilege created by structural racism and misogyny. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 6 August)

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

"Because we have more tests, we have more cases": President Trump's absurd touchstone

"Because we have more tests, we have more cases": it runs like a touchstone through Jonathan Swan's interview with President Donald Trump. As so many already have, I could point out the absurdity of the statement: the cases are there whether or not one tests for them; testing for them is a way to determine how serious the situation is; more cases means that the situation is more serious and that further measures need to be taken to bring it under control. But none of that seems to matter as for as President Trump is concerned; he'll just keep repeating his touchstone: "Because we have more tests, we have more cases." (Andrew Shields, #111words, 5 August)


Tuesday, August 04, 2020

More points of contact between "The Old Guard" and "Harry Potter"

The other day I wrote about the image of two opponents falling from on high together that appears in both "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" and in "The Old Guard". The Harry Potter series also shares at least one actor with "The Old Guard": Harry Melling, who plays Dudley Dursley in the Potter films and Merrick in "The Old Guard" – which puts him in the Voldemort position in the latter film as he falls from the window. Voldemort wishes for immortality – and so does Merrick, who seeks a kind of "philosopher's stone" in the immortal bodies of Andy (Charlize Theron) and the other members of "The Old Guard". (Andrew Shields, #111words, 4 August)

Monday, August 03, 2020

Suitcases and toiletry bags

When I stayed in hotels when I was younger, I'd live out of my suitcase, rummaging through my clothes to find what I needed, with everything gradually more and more disorderly, and a pile of dirty stuff on the floor. Now I unpack my suitcase and put the clothes into the closet, arranged on the shelves, with the dirty pile on the floor of the closet. And I used to keep all my toiletries in the bag, getting them out and putting them back again when I was done with them, but now as I get them out to use them, I put them in a neat line beside the bag. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 3 August)

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Train trip with mask

I get off the crowded double-decker train, where everyone was wearing a mask as required, and cross the platform to wait thirteen minutes for my connection. All smiles, frowns, and resting faces are hidden – a constant reminder of the times. The waiting trains on the other tracks are vibrating, the loud and steady snore of a sleep that only ends when they pull out of the station and uncover the silence that was waiting its turn. A child chatters and laughs as he pulls the mask from his mother’s face. “Again!” he cries as she pulls it back on again just as the arrival of my day’s last train is announced. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 2 August)

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Falling from on high in "Harry Potter" and "The Old Guard"

During the climactic duel in David Yates's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2", Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) pulls Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) from a high tower into a free fall. Similarly, in Gina Prince-Bythewood's "The Old Guard", when Merrick (Harry Melling) shoots Nile (Kiki Layne) as she tries to protect Andy (Charlize Theron), Nile tackles him, and they fall out a high window together. But unlike Merrick, the immortal Nile will recover from her bullet wounds and impact injuries. While Nile isn't sacrificing herself to kill Merrick, Harry accepts that possibility: he could be committing suicide in order to kill Voldemort (whose failed attempts to become immortal drive the story). (Andrew Shields, #111words, 1 August)