This Thing Called Courage

Thursday, August 12, 2010



Okay so I finally scored this four volume set of books I've been lusting over for years. I would spend my last dollar on books, and candles, or something utterly, wonderfully foolish like aromatherapy bath salts for years-- A Treasury of Irish Myth, Legend, and Folklore, in four volumes, reissued in leather and 22 kt gold by the Easton Press (Norwalk, CT) and now out of print. It's wonderful when a book has beauty in it; the experience can only be heightened when the physical book itself is a testament to the love and craft of the (almost) lost art of book making. Crisp, sturdy pages, beveled edges, a sewed-in satin ribbon marker, silk moire endpapers, leather covers, raised hubs on the spine...the works. And the smell! And, is there anything more beautiful than candlelight on the printed page?

Anyway, this four volume set (lavishly illustrated-- see the picture of Cuchulain above) was written by seminal poet W.B. Yeats and his sometime collaborator, Lady Augusta Gregory (both of whom were among the founders of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, 'where modern drama began,' as one critic puts it) and it's just wonderful-- wry, thought-provoking, fascinating, and highly entertaining. There is some juicy stuff in here, including the realization that seeing/hearing fairies (that word has a different connotation in Ireland than in the US-- in the former they can range from the bagpipe playing 'Gentry' to the monstrous stuff of nightmares) and being endowed with 'second sight,' were not matters of art or arrangement, but occurrences of everyday life. Indeed, one of the authors cited in the foreword, speaking about these matters, and specifically the amused disdain that city people have often felt for the 'country folk,' avers that we are congenitally endowed to engage-- and be engaged by-- the great invisible world, but that these senses have been washed away by our urban lives and strident upbringings, where belief in the invisible is usually punctured by adolescence: "It is a commonplace to call primitive people 'children of nature,' and to apply the same term to youngsters unspoilt by city living. Surely this is the key to everything. Are we not all born clear-sighted, and is it not our artificial surroundings and upbringing which destroys this ability?" Yeats himself, we are told, appears to have been a believer, "with a mind too subtle to be a skeptic." And as Yeats went about the crofters and farmers and fisherman of the rural regions, collecting these tales ("which are full of the vast and vague magnificence of the Celtic heart," he said) he found belief in such things as ordinary and commonplace as our own modern acceptance of city traffic on our morning commutes.

In one instance Yeats enters a farmhouse and asks of the old man of the home if he believes in Fairies. "Amn't I annoyed at them now?" the old man answers matter-of-factly. In another episode the same question is answered by a different man with, "There is fairies in in surely. And didn't my own father see the furth (firth) beyond full of them, and he passing on a moonlit night, and a little piper among them, and he playing music that mortal man never heard the like?" And, again, he was told by another that he himself "would not speak agin the fairies," for it's often he heard their music playing from the old bush behind the house.

On one occasion Yeats took part in a seance, wherein a young woman known in her village as a medium summons the Queen of the Fairies for him; he asks, of course, quite analytical questions. Finally he is told: "Be careful. Do not seek to know too much about us." There is also much talk of Jung, Swedenborg, NeoPlatoists, and the like. And then, of course, the stories themselves...

The Perseid Meteor Showers peak this evening, though some could be seen last night and again Friday night. It's always a toss-up as to how brilliant, or busted, the show will be from year to year. We'll have a bit of cloud cover here tonight in New England, so they say, but I'll be out looking away in case we should experience a chance clearing. I've always felt that, beginning with the Perseids in mid-August, we enter a special time of the year-- there's a pregnant hush in the air, as if summer heard the approaching footsteps of fall-- nights are blessed with cricket chant, and the air seems saturated with the smell of sharpened pencils. Goldenrod is spouting everywhere, and a haze-- not the lurid, glaring haze of humid July, but a benign softness-- lingers in the mornings. Does anyone know what I'm talking about? Someone at Haworth, my old publisher, once did, and we decided August 15 to October 1 should be called Cricket Chant Goldenrod Harvest Moon time-- or something-- to denote its unique qualities.

Last Saturday, we celebrated the Eastern Massachusetts Rhythm Festival, and about 150 drummers gathered at River Bend State Park in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, for the affair. The day was sublime-- dry, sunny, and punctuated with castle-clouds. A very talented artist friend, Andrea Sweeney, painted one of my drums (with two of my favorite things-- a great blue heron, and Heavenly Blue Morning Glories) and then decided my face should be painted in the same manner. It's amazing what a little face paint will do to one's mood, and one's self-perception. Isn't there a need for costume, from time to time? I think so....I kept my 'face' on into the evening, and was met with astonishment, alarm, hostility, and questions as I encountered toll booth collectors, store clerks, and waitresses, each of whom was given a spontaneous, fictionalized reason for a grown man having Heavenly Blue Morning Glories twining around on his face. In some parts of the country, I'm sure Homeland Security, that wretchedly-named Orwellian vestige from the Bush National Nightmare, would have been summoned. In a world full of moths, it takes balls to be a butterfly!