20 November 2012

My Grave-dug Berth

Illinois is not quite the same as "red wheelbarrow."


so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white



March 19.  Heavy rain in the night and to-day, i.e. A. M.  This, as usual, rapidly settles the ways, for, taking the frost out, the water that stood on the surface is soaked up, so that it is even drier and better walking before this heavy rain is over than it was yesterday before it began.  It is April weather.  I observed yesterday a dead shiner by the riverside, and to-day the first sucker.

March 20.  Dine with Agassiz at R. W. E.’s. He thinks that the suckers die of asphyxia, having very large air-bladders and being in the habit of coming to the surface for air. But then, he is thinking of a different phenomenon from the one I speak of, which last is confined to the very earliest spring or winter. He says that the Emys picta does not copulate till seven years old, and then does not lay till four years after copulation, or when eleven years old. The Cistudo Blandingii (which he has heard of in Massachusetts only at Lancaster) copulates at eight or nine years of age. He says this is not a Cistudo but an Emys. He has eggs of the serpentina from which the young did not come forth till the next spring. He thinks that the Esquimau dog is the only indigenous one in the United States. He had not observed the silvery appearance and the dryness of the lycoperdon fungus in water which I showed. He had broken caterpillars and found the crystals of ice in them, but had not thawed them. When I began to tell him of my experiment on a frozen fish, he said that Pallas had shown that fishes were frozen and thawed again, but I affirmed the contrary, and then Agassiz agreed with me. Says Aristotle describes the care the pouts take of their young. I told him of Tanner’s account of it, the only one I had seen.

The river over the meadows again, nearly as high as in February, on account of rain of the 19th.

March 24. P. M. - Paddle up Assabet.

The water is fast going down. See a small waterbug. It is pretty still and warm. As I round the Island
rock, a striped squirrel that was out [on] the steep polypody rock scampered up with a chuckle . On looking close-1 see the crimson white maple stigmas here and there, and some early alder catkins are relaxed and extended and almost died pollen . I see many of those narrow four-winged insects (perla ? ) of the ice now fluttering on the water like ephemerae. They have two pairs of wings indistinctly spotted dark and light .

Humphrey Buttrick says he saw two or three fish hawks down the river by Carlisle Bridge yesterday; also shot three black ducks and two green-winged teal, --though the latter had no green on their wings, it was rather the color of his boat, but Wesson assured him that so they looked in the spring. Buttrick had a double-barrelled gun with him, which he said he bought of a broker in Boston for five dollars! Thought it had cost eighteen dollars. He had read Frank Forester and believed him, and accordingly sent to New York and got one of Mullin's guns for sixty dollars. It was the poorest gun he ever had. He sold it for forty. As for cheap or old-fashioned guns bursting, there was Melvin; he had used his long enough, and it had not burst yet. He had given thirty-five dollars for it, say thirty years ago. He had but one, or no other since.

If you are describing any occurrence, or a man, make two or more distinct reports at different times. Though you may think you have said all, you will to-morrow remember a whole new class of facts which perhaps interested most of all at the time, but did not present themselves to be reported.  If we have recently met and talked with a man, and would report our experience, we commonly make a very partial report at first, failing to seize the most significant, picturesque, and dramatic points; we describe only what we have had time to digest and dispose of in our minds, without being conscious that there were other things really more novel and interesting to us, which will not fail to recur to us and impress us suitably at last.  How little that occurs to us in any way are we prepared at once to appreciate!
We discriminate at first only a few features, and we need to reconsider our experience from many points of view and in various moods, to preserve the whole fruit of it .

Melvin's - and Minott's still more -is such a gun as Frank Forester says he would not fire for a hundred
dollars, and yet Melvin has grown gray with using it; i. e., he thinks that it would not be safe to fire a two-barrelled gun offered new for less than fifty dollars.

Thoreau's Journal, 1857.


"All applied science was repugnant to him." ("Louis Agassiz," by Guy Davenport)

Often, when folks excise words out of classic books, poems, essays, journals, novels (guilty of this act out of all of these instances am I), they falsify context.  Perhaps they create another text.  I should say "we."  Perhaps we create another text.  A favorite example of this is Douglas Crase's Amerifil.txt.  Also, Mark Strand's The Monument.  But surely this might be claimed for Moby Dick, as well as any and all other books not to mention that ephemeral quotation engine, the human voice (trumpet of the error-addled brain).

But there is a difference that matters when one quotes to make a point or, more likely, to argue a point poorly understood by using the words of another who you hope makes the point you think you are trying to make.  Lots of "founding father" quotes fall in this category, as does nearly every single word wrenched out of the sacred texts of any culture.

But words are words are words.  A rose is a rose and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

We are forever making starts and stops and starts again and always and forever feeling an urge to correct ourselves not to mention how others understand us (who or what is this "other" and who am "I" and what is "understand"?).


"...to go to my grave-dug berth." (Ahab, to himself, ch. 29)

Ideas of nature are moral ideas.  Darwin sat in black vastation, contemplating the god, or void, he could never decide which, that allowed to evolve from the innocent matter such horrors as the tapeworm, the syphilis spirochaete, the poliomyelitis virus.  Darwin's view was more macroscopic of course; he was spared viruses, though by the end of his days optics were disclosing the subtle murderers.  Darwin felt black enough about the way of a cat with a captured mouse.  ("Agassiz," Davenport)


HDT: 1856

June 2 . Carum, i. e., caraway, in garden . Saw most hummingbirds when cherries were in bloom, --on them .

P. M. --With R. W. E . to Perez Blood's auction .  Telescope sold for fifty-five dollars ; cost ninety-five
plus ten . See Camilla on rye, undulating light and shade ; not 19th of April.  Returned by bridle-road.
Myrica cerifera, possibly yesterday . Very few buds shed pollen yet ; more, probably, to-day . Leaves nearly an inch long, and shoot and all no more . English hawthorn will open apparently in two days.

Agassiz tells his class that the intestinal worms in the mouse a,re not developed except in the stomach of the cat.

5 P. M., --To Azalea nudiflora, which is in prime. Ranunculus recurvatus the same; how long?  White maple keys conspicuous.

In the first volume of Brewster's "Life of Newton" I read that with one of the early telescopes they could read the "Philosophical Transactions" at five hundred feet distance.

June 3. Tuesday. Surveying for John Hosmer beyond pail-factory.

Hosmer says that seedling white birches do not grow larger than your arm, but cut them down and they spring up again and grow larger.

While clearing a line through shrub oak, which put his eyes out, he asked, "What is shrub oak made for?"  R. Roar, I believe, bought that (formerly) pine lot of Loring's which is now coming up shrub oak. Hosmer says that he will not see any decent wood there as long as he lives . H. says he had a lot of pine in Sudbury, which being cut, shrub oak came up. He cut and burned and raised rye, and the next year (it being surrounded by pine woods on three sides) a dense growth of pine sprang up.

As I have said before, it seems to me that the squirrels, etc., disperse the acorns, etc., amid the pines, they being a covert for them to lurk in, and when the pines are cut the fuzzy shrub oaks, etc., have the start . If you cut the shrub oak soon, probably pines or birches, maples, or other trees which have light seeds will spring next, because squirrels, etc., will not be likely to carry acorns into open land. If the pine wood had been surrounded by white oak, probably that would have come up after the pine.


I have written a poem, shared elsewhere, stolen from Melville's chapter 14 of Moby Dick, "Nantucket."

Here it is.


Nothing after Nantucket.
Map it. A real world occupies it.
Off shore, more to
Look at without background.

Plant weeds there, import thistles
like bits of the true cross;
plant toadstools for shade
in time make an oasis,
inclose and utterly will Illinois.

Now, wondrous island red-men:
an eagle swooped upon new land
in his talons loud lament
borne out over wide waters;
empty wonder born on a beach.

Grow bolder,
capture a last great watery world.

In all seasons declare:
everlasting war!
(and survive the flood)
Portentous unconscious power panics,
and thus naked the ants overrun the world.

Parcel out oceans:
America Mexico Texas Cuba Canada,
overswarm India and own it as empire
(others but a right of way);
chant ships bridges forts and highways,
fragments of selves
withdraw from bottomless deeps.

Reside and riot in language:
to flood erupt overwhelm
the sea the prairie the waves the alps.
Know the land more strange:

Sunset, fold to sleep below
(out of sight)
and lay to rest
of walruses and whales.


What does "inclose and utterly will Illinois" mean?


"In your reading of the phrase, you find all sorts of meaning: it represents a narrative, not just the problem of epistemology."

From Zukofsky's Prepositions, the piece titled "An Objective,"

Presented with sincerity, the mind even tends to supply, in further suggestion, which does not attain rested totality, the totality not always found in sincerity and necessary only for perfect rest, complete appreciation.  This rested totality may be called objectification--the apprehension satisfied completely as to the appearance of the art form as an object.  That is: distinct from print which records action and existence and incites the mind to further suggestion, there exists, though it may not be harbored as solidity in the crook of an elbow, writing (audibility in two-dimensional print) which is an object or affects the mind as such.  The codifications of the rhetoric books may have something to do with an explanation of this attainment, but its character may be simply described as an arrangement, into one apprehended unit, of minor units of sincerity--in other words, the resolving of words and their ideation into structure.  Granted that the word combination 'minor unit of sincerity' is an ironic index of the degradation of the power of the individual word in a culture which seems hardly to know that each word in  itself is an arrangement, it may be said that each word possesses objectification to a powerful degree; but that the facts carried by combinations of words are, in view of the preponderance of facts carried by combinations of words, not sufficiently explicit to warrant a realization of rested totality such as might be designated an art form.  Yet the objectification which is a poem, or a unit of structural prose, may exist in a few lines....It is assumed that epistemological problems do not affect existence, that a personal structure of relations might be a definite object, or vice versa.

I'm not sure that epistemology is at issue unless we think in terms of the situational, the episteme of my "Illinois" or Melville's (and I have been in and about in Galena a time or two).  But "narrative" is interesting to call up here as I'm sure one of Melville's (conventional) cardinal sins is a purported lack of narrative flow (damming the Hudson of his pen), or rather, as you say below, a constant "disruption" of narrative.

But the Zukofsky forces the interpretation that the "object" is not "red wheelbarrow" (or "Illinois") as a material "thing" (that will rust, carries and rolls) but rather "red wheelbarrow" as a "minor unit of sincerity" that might perform ideationally as it does materially but also can seem to "push itself" as an image or "vehicle" as the one-time term for metaphor would have it;  Illinois is an abstraction of a different category I suppose as it is a "bordered geography," a "federally-sanctioned" legal corpus, as well as a "tribal genealogy" of a lost, eradicated people  (as perhaps might be further asserted by M. in the opening chapters of Pierre--spec. ch. 3).

But still it is a word.  It stops and holds and yet suggests the rest of the poem resides within it as well as expands out of it.

Plus, you've gotta love all those double letters: uTTerly wiLL ILLinois.  And on and on--"utter" as in a total expression of the willing identity; utter as an auditory cognate of "udder" as the teat of imagination; and on and on still further.


"You keep using that word.  I'm not sure it means what you think it means." Inigo Montoya


...the whole of the stanza was a kind of "willing" of the metaphorical geography (as Melville jokes in the chapter) and that all subsequent "history" and "geography" within the poem represented, well, the "willing" of a dominant American representation; there was nothing private (or "inside narrative") about the force of the national will to "make" Illinois (and the seas beyond and below) into the "America" represented by overrunning "naked ants."


   As Queequeg's Ramadan, or Fasting and Humiliation, was to continue all day, I did not choose to disturb him till towards night-fall; for I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody's religious obligations, never mind how comical, and could not find it in my heart to undervalue even a congregation of ants worshipping a toad-stool; or those other creatures in certain parts of our earth, who with a degree of footmanism quite unprecedented in other planets, bow down before the torso of a deceased landed proprietor merely on account of the inordinate possessions yet owned and rented in his name.  (MD, ch 17)


  1. When you put it that way, who can argue with Illinois.

    I laughed out loud when you jumped from Thoreau to Montoya.

  2. I believe it was Radar on MASH who drunkenly (? Radar?) made fun of Father Mulcahey's diction in a kind of julia childs voice..."jocularity, jocularity, jocularity."

    Or some such thing.

  3. I love the Inigo comment! Exactly!

  4. I will be honest with y'all. I think sometimes when I write something I want to have it read and "conjoined" with interpretations from outside of me.

    I can interpret for days and to me there is nothing better than doing this and I tend to wear out my welcome quickly among other willing exegetes.

    I only want the interpretation to be interesting.

    The Thoreau used here was intended to be more central to my point--that in the journal the observations of nature are precise and they often frame or are framed by the imprecision of human interpretation of language events.

    Melville, at least in Moby Dick, is all "gap" and so all interpretation events, "ever and anon," forcing the reader to, well, read in a tension of "unknowing" and to be subjected to the unraveling of conventional understanding.

    Note the chapter on "chowder" heads as concerns directions and interpretation.