Monday, August 13, 2007

Fates of the Pastoral, Case #3783

Paul and Virginia
(For My Brother's Children)

By John Wheelwright

Nephews and Nieces, — love your leaden statues.
Call them by name; call him "Paul." She is "Virginia."
He leans on his spade. Virginia fondles a leaden
fledgling in its nest. Paul fondles with his Eyes.
You need no cast in words. You know the Statues,
but not their Lawns; nor words to plant again
the shade trees, felled; ponds, filled, and built over.
Your Garden is destroyed, but there are other Gardens
yet to spare from the destroying Spoor
unseen, save in destructful Acts. Unseen
a hungered Octopus crawls under ground
as Fungus; eats the air as Orchids on all trees;
and on all waters spreads translucent Slime.
Nephews and Nieces, who would breathe sweet Air
and till rich Ground, spy out against its suction;
wither these spreading tentacles, these roots
and radicles of cancerous Greed.

Let us put Paul and Virginia back in the Garden's
warmth of wet Box and Arbor Vitae. The Bell-Tree
a silver shrub from Japan, is grown up Big
like a willow whose Branches nose the ground. They root
and eat the Earth. They drink deep water springs
while finger twigs fill neighboring winds with silent
tinkles of Petals, blowing on Lilies-of-the-Valley
on Larches, on copper Beeches, urn-like Elms
on Lilies, Iris, Roses walled with Hedges
mirrored on dark waters and, light with fruit trees,
on Peonies abiding in quiet pomp with leaden
Statues in a Garden, alive with Bugs and Toads.
This Garden, sad as a ripe joy is sad (dead Garden)
sheds no perfume of Soil, over a soil-less land.
This dead Garden's seeds take root in children
like the Cherry a young girl swallowed, — Stem,
Meat, and Stone; to bud, to bloom, to fruit
and to house twittering Birds.

In your Mother and Father, much you love is memory;
and much they love in you is memory transplanted
from Gardens of Love, which speak to Love from a dead
world to another, and from Death, which speaks to life
through love remembered. Nephews and Nieces, — love
your Statues, love their names.

I think part of the reason I like this poem so much because I spent a lot of time as a kid in Central Park looking at statues (as a matter of fact, my father wrote an unpublished children's book in which they all come to life and become my friends). Therefore, the arguably mawkish device of direct address to children really gets me. Also, I like how the use of capital first letters for all the nouns strongly evokes an English verse tradition (Marvell, for one, and Pope) even older than the one the speaker is trying to get the kids to admire, lending a formal elegance which is more than a little upset by Wheelwright's weird run-on syntax and images of "Slime" and "cancerous Greed."

(The value of blogging: I didn't even know until doing a Google search for the image given above that Paul et Virginie was a French pastoral novel published in 1788; it was a favorite of Balzac, Flaubert, and Napoleon, and its main characters were apparently a popular subject for painters, sculptors and photographers throughout the nineteenth century. It also eventually inspired The Blue Lagoon, which I'm suddenly realizing has a complicated intertextual history of its own. All roads lead to Milla Jovovich.)