My nature, interests, and ambitions incline me to the solitary pursuits of reading, study, and literary endeavors, the poetry work, blog projects. Urban wandering is a complement to the time put in at the desk with pen and paper. Running is an aspect of identity as integral as that dream of being a poet.
These pursuits are not without social components and coloring of their own. Books and ideas are fodder for pleasurable conversation in coffee shops and over dinner and wine with friends. Poems are shared and with good fortune find publication. While I typically run alone, running with a group is fun when I have the opportunity. Solitary runs are enlivened when I fall into stride with another runner and find a companion of the moment.
Over the past few weeks I have been struck by the sense that there is a qualitative difference between indulging in solitary pursuits as a matter of choice or inclination and doing so of necessity. That necessity chafes. Coffee shops and dining at India Oven are out of the question. It is no longer an option to break up the afternoon by taking the bus downtown to make the rounds of the public library, the art museum, and Park Avenue Café for an espresso and journal session. We still have social media, the blog, email, and phone, better than not having them but to my mind lesser pleasures.
These constraints have led me in a fashion somewhat counterintuitive to be more attentive about how I pass the day and less easily drawn to frivolous distractions such as dumb computer games and neurotically checking news websites. As a consequence, I have gone some way toward reestablishing good routines I had over the past year or so fallen away from for no good reason. It is as if time has become more precious, not less, now that I have fewer options for filling it.
Thursday evening I knocked out Maynard Mack's biography of Alexander Pope at long last. More than a biography, the book is an exhaustive account of English literary and cultural history in the first half of the eighteenth century. Mack covers in considerable detail Pope and seemingly every figure in his orbit, friends, associates and adversaries, many of them prominent literary, artistic, and political figures of that era. Keeping the cast of characters straight is a formidable challenge. They blur together no matter how interesting, accomplished, eccentric, and distinctive more than a few of them are. There is much to absorb and without question much that was missed. Even so I got a sense of Pope as man and poet and of the period when he lived. It was a pleasurable experience.
Friday morning I read the chapter on Pope and his friends Jonathan Swift and John Gay in Michael Schmidt's Lives of the Poets and began Samuel Johnson's brief biography of Pope in his Lives of the Poets. Then there are the poems, Essay on Criticism, The Rape of the Lock, and in progress The Dunciad. Of the Pope adventure, more anon.
I discovered cinema fifty years ago when I wandered into the campus theater as a college freshman. There an unsophistcated boy from the Dutch Fork area of South Carolina encountered Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Truffaut, Godard, and many more. It was a consciousness-expanding experience. Today I am concerned about what the future holds for NW Film Center, Portland's wonderful independent theaters, and their kin around the country. I look forward to a time when I can walk through those doors again.
In the meantime, a friend informed me about Kanopy, a website that partners with public libraries and universities to provide free access to a limited number of films each month. Last week I watched Fellini's La Strada with Giulietta Masina and Anthony Quinn (recommended with the maximum number of stars) and Pasolini, a fictional account of the Italian writer and filmmaker's life featuring Willem Dafoe. Dafoe as always is good, the film only so-so, with more explicit and gratuitous sex than was needed to make whatever point was being made. No, it is not comparable to watching film in a large, darkened room, sharing the experience with an audience of strangers, but to paraphrase Faulkner, between streaming on the computer and nothing, I'll take the computer. Yesterday brought Lena Wertmuller's magnificent Seven Beauties with the incomparable Giancarlo Giannini, whose eyes can look like they might pop out of his skull and pinball around the room, as Pasqualino Seven Beauties, a puffed-up, strutting, second-rate hoodlum bound to defend the honor of his mother and seven sisters. Then World War II happen. Oh, yeah.
Kanopy also offers unlimited access to a variety of online language, history, and other courses. Yesterday I completed Leçon 3 of a French class. With 30 episodes, this will occupy me for a while. The first lessons proved to be useful review. Vocabulary is always the big issue for me. I have a fair grasp of basic grammar but just don't know enough words for more than the most rudimentary stabs at reading. Speaking is something else altogether.
Going to my desk regularly and staring at the blank page for extended periods is as much part of the poetry work as any other. So is submitting poems to little magazines and journals read mostly by other poets looking for places to submit their own poems. Now I need to somehow hack out new and better poems. These are part of the daily routine that makes life worth living.
The advent of spring brings warm afternoons that invite running in tee shirt and shorts, a pleasure after a winter of layers and tights, stocking hats and gloves. Urban wandering while maintaining social distance is another pastime still available, although restricted by the not inconsequential matter of where a restroom might be found should need arise.
I bear that in mind as I set out with the camera for a loop through Laurelhurst Park or the residential neighborhood east of Belmont Library between Belmont and Hawthorne.
While strolling at leisure along SE Main between 40th and 41st, I was greeted by a woman who, having spied my camera, called down from an upstairs window with an invitation to take a picture of her cat. "Her name is Bella," she said. "She was right there a moment ago. If she's gone, come back. She's well known in the neighborhood." Bella was indeed gone. I thanked the woman and wished her a good day. At the next corner I made note of the streets so I can find way back to look for Bella.
All in all my days are amazingly full for time when so much is ill-advised or outright forbidden.
This matter of how we will occupy our days is a luxury not extended to health care workers and others who go to hospitals, offices, and other places of work to perform essential functions. They are referred to as heroes, and rightly so, but I like this perspective on the idea of heroism in a time of epidemic found in a passage from The Plague by Albert Camus, quoted by Alain de Botton in a NYTimes column titled Camus on the Coronovirus that is worth reading in full:
At the height of the contagion, when 500 people a week are dying, a Catholic priest called Paneloux gives a sermon that explains the plague as God’s punishment for depravity. But Dr. Rieux has watched a child die and knows better: Suffering is randomly distributed, it makes no sense, it is simply absurd, and that is the kindest thing one can say of it.
The doctor works tirelessly to lessen the suffering of those around him. But he is no hero. “This whole thing is not about heroism,” Dr. Rieux says. “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.” Another character asks what decency is. “Doing my job,” the doctor replies.
Decency is a notion that may not come readily to mind when we contemplate the public life and affairs of our time. Perhaps we can resurrect it as a value and a way of comporting ourselves in the days ahead. Maybe we can even carry it on to whatever lies beyond.
Keep the faith.