Walden: From “The Pond in Winter” to “Spring”

In Samuel Beckett’s chapter of Our Exagmination Round His Factification For Incamination of Work in Progress, twelve essays looking at Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (reissued New Directions Paperbook 331, 1972), titled “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce,” Beckett says, “Words have their progressions as well as social phases. ‘Forest-cabin-village-city-academy’ is one rough progression…And every word expands with psychological inevitability.” Thus the Latin word “Lex,” originally, Beckett says, “Crop of acorns,” progresses to “Lles = Tree that produces acorns,” to “Legere = To gather,” to “Aquilex = He that gathers waters,” to “Lex” = Gathering together of peoples, public assembly,” to “Lex = Law,” to “Legere = To gather together letters into a word, to read” (10-11).

“It is the child’s mind over again,” Beckett says. “The child extends the names of the first familiar objects to other strange objects in which he is conscious of some analogy.” It is this idea of analogy that helps inform a reading of Thoreau’s Walden.

Walden seems to move quickly toward the end when Thoreau takes us from “The Pond in Winter” chapter directly into the “Spring” chapter. But this sense of quickness evaporates in his detail of observation, for we glimpse both the speed of change, as one day he wakes up and suddenly it’s spring, and the slowness of the process revealed in the close reading he gives nature.

This close reading is found, for example, in his etymological study of leaf, which progresses in the same way of Beckett’s Lex, but with Thoreau is added an extended analogy in which man is found in and of nature, finding his voice, his language, words he needs to describe his predicament:

“The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype. Internally, whether in the globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe, a word especially applicable to the liver and lungs and the leaves of fat (γεἱβω, labor, lapsus, to flow or slip downward, a lapsing; λοβὁς, globus, lobe, globe; also lap, flap, and many other words); externally a dry thin leaf, even as the f and v are a pressed and dried b. The radicals of lobe are lb, the soft mass of the b (single lobed, or B, double lobed), with the liquid l behind it pressing it forward. In globe, glb, the guttural g adds to the meaning the capacity of the throat. The feathers and wings of birds are still drier and thinner leaves. Thus, also, you pass from the lumpish grub in the earth to the airy and fluttering butterfly. The very globe continually transcends and translates itself, and becomes winged in its orbit. Even ice begins with delicate crystal leaves, as if it had flowed into moulds which the fronds of waterplants have impressed on the watery mirror. The whole tree itself is but one leaf, and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth, and towns and cities are the ova of insects in their axils” (286-287).

One feels the ice melting in Thoreau’s “Spring” as an analogy for the learning of language, human language, but also the language of nature, from a frozen state of the tongue, where speech is all body language, to the cacophony of the awakened spring day, the naturalist writing it all down. Beckett says, “In its first dumb form, language was gesture. If a man wanted to say ‘sea,’ he pointed to the sea…The root of any word whatsoever can be traced back to some pre-lingual symbol” (10-11). Thus Thoreau, wanting to say spring, or nature, points to Walden.

The reading reveals much of Thoreau’s general method of explicating nature, through metaphor, analogy, personification, pun: “Is not the hand [of man] a spreading palm leaf with its lobes and veins?” (287). And the function of Thoreau’s method, its purpose, is to show interconnections, not man removed from nature, but not even man in nature, but man of nature, which allows for the view that “our human life but dies down to its root, and still puts forth its green blade to eternity” (291). This is why “There is nothing inorganic” (288), and why “We can never have enough of Nature” (297). Thoreau can trace everything back to nature because everything is nature, everything comes from nature: “The root of any word….” Recall McKibben’s questions in his introduction: “How much is enough? And How do I know what I want?” (xi). The ambiguity, if any remains, is nature’s, not Thoreau’s.

Related:

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

Solstice Sestina: Whiteout on the Whiteboard in Winter

Whiteout on the Whiteboard in Winter

The shadowless man in the center of winter
drew nine snowmen leaving no shadow
on the boardroom wall size whiteboard
and sketched one goal as cold as snow
nine snowmen into one who would wander.
The snowmen started to wonder

who in the whiteboard world would wonder
such opportunity in win win winter.
The shadowless man began to wander
here on the whiteboard without shadow
as quiet as a field of snow
empty save the snowmen on the whiteboard.

Whiteout conditions on the whiteboard
showed a winterland of snowy wonder
how in the wonderland of snow
in a whirling passage of winter
with zero shadow
one will wield wander.

The shadowless man wandered
solo across the clear whiteboard
concealing all shadow
not even a digress to address the wonder
soulful worship of winter
leaving no metric in the snow.

Around and around in the field of snow
the shadowless man wandered
silent on the stage of winter
in a whiteout on a whiteboard
with no edges no wonder
across the field fell no shadow.

Lost with no mere mirror shadow
the shadowless man fell in the snow
wandering he fell wondering
why worry about wandering
in fields of whiteboards
in the silence of winter

no shadow with which to wander
in the snow of the whiteboard
wondering where the nine 8’s went in winter.

Winter is icummen in, Lhude sing Line 15

“Winter is icummen in, / Lhude sing Goddamn,” sang the irascible Ezra Pound, and while, as far as I know, he never had to ride local Tri-Met’s Line 15, he seems to have had some experience with public transportation, for he continues, in his poem “Ancient Music”: “Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us, / An ague hath my ham. / Freezeth river, turneth liver, / Damn you, sing: Goddamm.”

The bus in winter when full is still a hungry beast galumphing to the curb at every stop to pick up riders in galoshes. The riders squeeze aboard like polyps into the beast’s belly, back-packed and wool-hatted, jacketed wet and sinewy, noses running out of the cold and into the heat, leaky faucets leaking pus, umbrellas furling and unfurling, colorful flags popping the beast’s flatulence as it pulls up to the curb and politely lowers its door.

I climb aboard and peristaltic pressure pushes me all the way to the back of the bus where I stick to the back wall, a fresh polyp, and through the wall I hear the engine moaning in its uneasy sleep. The bus dreams it could be an 18 wheeler, no passengers, a single driver in a penthouse cab, rolling smoothly but solidly through serene mountain passes. I could sleep too, in the warmth of the beast’s belly, but I have to make a transfer, so I ring the bell and work my way up to the back door.

I get off the bus at Southeast 12th and Morrison. Winter seems worse here, and I unfurl my umbrella and wait at the intersection to cross, the wind and cold rain lapping at my legs. Off the bus though I’m feeling better about winter. I get on my next bus for the short ride up 12th to Benson High School. I hop off amid students breaking for lunch, a few with cell phones on hold as they hail the bus to wait, others crisscrossing the lawn at random like snowflakes. I cross NE Irving, once again longing for the old Sweet Tibbie Dunbar’s, where the juicy prime rib with roasted potatoes, soup, and a Christmas ale surely cured whatever ailed as winter might have been coming in.

“Use your head, can’t you, use your head, you’re on earth, there’s no cure for that!” Beckett’s Hamm says in “Endgame.” Ah, yes, but there is a cure, ancient music, but go not as Pound “’gainst the winter’s balm,” but let the cold wind up your legs, around your waist, and wrap your soul in cold, for it’s then you’ll feel liveliest.