A friend reintroduced me to [a:Theodore Roethke|7531|Theodore Roethke|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1238753648p2/7531.jpg] a few weeks ago. His poems have a raw, fiercely unintellectualized emotion, as here in the poem "In a Dark Time":Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
I admire the artistry and I can tell that it is powerful; but it is often difficult for me to grasp or understand or conceptualize his ideas. Even the syntax hints at the problem -- it is meant to be felt, not thought about. And I can't always do that. So it remains a bit beyond me.
A Death in the Family has these same qualities. It is steeped in beautiful language and aching nostalgia for Agee's own remembrances of this place as both Knoxville, Tennessee and his childhood. His ability to inhabit the minds of children and various adults is remarkable. But the bulk of the story is the examination--no, the experience, of the emotional journey and impact of losing a loved one unexpectedly. And like with Roethke, I can tell it is artful. And I can see the characters developed fully and responding in ways that I recognize. But something just beyond me is there, which is an openness of feeling.
I wanted to love this book. I began it expecting to do so, almost prematurely praising its magnificence. And I liked it greatly. However, I wanted to love it a little more than I actually did. I hope to one day return to it and find myself awash in the feelings Agee bares. For now, though, I still admire his prose poetry. Like this:"How still we see thee lie. Yes, and between the treetops; the pale scrolls and porches and dark windows of the homes drifting past their slow walking, and not a light in any home, and so for miles, in every street of home and business; above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.
He helped his mother from the curb; this slow and irregular rattling of their little feet.
The stars are tired by now. Night’s nearly over.
He helped her to the opposite curb.
Upon their faces the air was so marvelously pure, aloof and tender; and the silence of the late night in the city, and the stars, were secret and majestic beyond the wonder of the deepest country. Little houses, bigger ones, scrolled and capacious porches, dark windows, leaves of trees already rich with May, homes of rooms which chambered sleep as honey is cherished, drifted past their slow walking and were left behind, and not a light in any home. Along Laurel Avenue it was still darker. The lamp behind them no longer cast their shadows; in the light of the lamp ahead, a small and distant bit of pavement looked scalded with emptiness, a few leaves were touched to acid flame, the spindles and turned posts of one porch were rigidly white. Helping his mother along through the darkness, Andrew was walking much more slowly than he was used to walking, and all these things entered him calmly and thoroughly. Full as his heart was, he found that he was involved at least as deeply in the loveliness and unconcern of the spring night, as in the death. It’s as if I didn’t even care, he reflected, but he didn’t mind. He knew he cared; he felt gratitude towards the night and towards the city he ordinarily cared little for. How still we see thee lie, he heard his mind say. He said the words over, drily within himself, and heard the melody; a child’s voice, his own, sang it in his mind."
I appreciate that even in a book about the grief that overwhelms those bereft at the loss of their companion, a character as numb as I can be is still given such beautiful words in treatment. It's a lovely book. Read it and be better for it.