Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Captain Lavender

In threes, I find mentions of lavender lately. Closest I come to it's a laundry cachet from Trader Joe's. Even with my poor sense of smell, it reminds me of our one trip up past Tacoma to Port Angeles, far up the Strait of Juan de Fuca, across Puget Sound. Two years ago, in drizzle alternated with rainbows, my wife and I took her dad's ashes-- the half we hadn't slipped out of a baggie off Seattle's Space Needle-- to the hardscrabble town where he grew up with his relatives in the Depression. A failed hotel or boardinghouse nobody's left to point us to, found his family as desperate as he would be, eating blackberries that grew wild around Seattle then and scarfing whatever he could sneak from a fortuitous job as a grocery delivery boy. He'd regale me with the same anecdotes over and over-- as I already tell these now of where his ashes wound up, the only ending I can add to his own story.

We drove past Sequim, the last stop before Port Angeles. We stopped for Layne to use the restroom I suppose and grab one of her diet sodas she craves so desperately. The place had the fake-Western facades in its humble downtown "historic" district but the big-box stores threatened in an under-construction sign in a lot across the street, and the other side of the highway a massive subdivision filled a meadow. Did the Microsoft-fueled boom echo this far? However, "The Lavender Capital of America" if not the world (not sure how the French felt about that boast) managed to convince us that, a season earlier than the late autumn when we travelled the Cascades together, some fields filled not with stucco but with that purplish barb.

This morning, I'll teach a story by a longtime fellow son of the Port, Raymond Carver, who may not have been born there but in Yakima, but who with his wife, a local, Tess Gallagher, managed despite his teaching creative writing at Syracuse to remain close to the Northwestern shore. Tess in her introduction to the 1990 tribute "Carver Country" speaks of the "sense of removal and wildness on the forested Olympic Peninsula with the snow-covered Olympic Mountains, bordered by the moody waters of the Strait between Canada and America" that encouraged Ray to find solitude in "the stories and poems that would enlarge his work."

The book she co-edited has b/w photos of the landscape and people inhabiting Ray's work: from Yakima down to Arcata, up from Sacramento to Port Angeles, you see the everyday folks that lived in his fiction and verse. "Cathedral" I first read under my wife's tutelage, for Carver's one of her favorite writers. Despite my long march through English Lit (and I admit American contemporary fiction's not my specialty), I'd never read Carver before-- she'd used his stories for her adult ESL classes.

My college students, many not much advanced beyond ESL, love "Cathedral"; luckily despite my lack of choice of the anthology I use for my one course remaining (when it's not cancelled for lack of enrollment) that's an intro to lit, that story keeps appearing in the new textbook. In two hours, after Joyce's "The Boarding House," we will enter Carver Country. Bob Adelman's photo of Jerry Carriveau I cannot reproduce here, but this blind man became the inspiration for "Robert" in this tale told by a resentful, insular man whose wife brings her old male blind friend home for dinner. Carver opens up the silences of the average Joe, as my students hear those they know.

In her introduction, Ray's wife Tess tells of Sequim, "fifteen minutes away from Port Angeles." She's in a fine shot, gracing a poem "In A Marine Light Near Sequim, Washington." I like her picture better than his verse, but Ray does evoke the setting well as it begins: "The green fields were beginning,. And the tall, white/ farmhouses after the tidal flats and those little sand crabs/ that were ready to run, or else turn and square off, if/ we moved the rock they lived under. The languor/ of that subdued afternoon. The beauty of driving/ that country road [. . .]

Tess crouches for Adelman's camera down in the middle of a field there that may be lavender. Behind her stretches fields and foliage that remind me of Ireland, a place where twenty years after this book appeared after her husband's death, she spends part of her time living into the old age Ray never found, with a spry seanachie. To me, monochrome, Sequim's flora looks like chaparral gone to thistle that tries to grow on my own native city's hills, unless shorn for mandated brush clearance to avoid the fires that nature demands-- as we saw two weeks ago with the blazes that consumed a quarter of the immense Angeles National Forest above Los Angeles-- but that man and stucco forbid.

An ex-urban refugee who fled concrete for up North told me of lavender's calming effect. We arrived in its "pacific" heartland too late: the signs told of the nurseries open from spring 'til midsummer. Earlier, it surrounds many places in the Cascades. I suppose it stretches far across the latitude of cooler climes nearer Arctic winds and maritime breezes. An air we never sniff down here in smoggy heat.

Paul Muldoon in a poem that I cannot forget despite my marked inability to keep lines of poetry in mind, penned the powerfully political poem "Meeting the British" (1987). I taught this in a different literature class, as a doctoral student at UCLA, to a different cadre of students:

We met the British in the dead of winter.
The sky was lavender

and the snow lavender-blue.
I could hear, far below,

the sound of two streams coming together
(both were frozen over)

and, no less strange,
myself calling out in French

across that forest-
clearing. Neither General Jeffrey Amherst

nor Colonel Henry Bouquet
could stomach our willow-tobacco.

As for the unusual
scent when the Colonel shook out his hand-

kerchief: C'est la lavande,
une fleur mauve comme le ciel.

They gave us six fishhooks
and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.

"A mauve flower like the sky"-- a flower as heaven. Innocent beauty, natural doom. Hidden in nature, both wonder and threat always lurk. A foretaste of death, a harbinger of release.

While this claim that the British gave the Indians blankets intentionally larded with infection has been debated, for a Northern Irish poet, this claim does not surprise those of us, like Tess and myself I'd reckon, who with our mother's milk imbibe such race memories in our own combative, resentful DNA no matter how far away from Ireland we may have been born on the Left Coast of America the other side of French calls and British responses. Unlike Paul Muldoon and this next poet, we may not have grown up under the British, but ancestral patterns groove deep. So do the reveries in our primal olfactory-memory match as urged on by flowers, thankfully.

Another Northern (the adjective is necessary) Irish poet, Belfast-born Medbh McGuckian, in the title poem in her 1994 collection, published her short verse "Captain Lavender":

Night-hours. The edge of a fuller moon
waits among the interlocking patterns
of a flier's sky.

Sperm names, ovum names, push inside
each other. We are half-taught
our real names, from other lives.

Emphasise your eyes. Be my flare-
path, my uncold begetter,
my air-minded bird-sense.

Today lavender may revive not dim gloom but bright vigor. We lavish its scent into our laundry. No matter how chemical or manufactured, we want our blankets too freed of dangerous smells and nasty odors. For Muldoon, the captain's handkerchief must be scoured as soft as the sky above him and the Indians, who struggle in the speaker's voice to understand the invader Colonel Henry Bouquet--nice surname-- as they try to unlock the mystery of the fragrance that transcends language. But the lavender symbolizes and furthers their encounter, native against militia, fated to be fatal.

For McGuckian, Muldoon's contemporary, in this entry as part of a poem cycle after her father's death (and later the year that Tess posed in the field, her Ray would die of cancer and be buried in Port Angeles), the sperm name enters the woman to jostle along the ovum name, the Captain joining Lavender. Deep beyond what can be stained which demands a washing by hand or machine. Beyond Muldoon's gulled tribesman, fumbling phrases that cannot comprehend the truth of the skin trade, McGuckian reconciles the clash between peoples, the war between the sexes. By reclaiming "real names" we might claw back humanity from "an uncold begetter." We may free human bonds from snares and traps. Beyond the field of blooms, we may soar in sex and aesthetics into "air-bound bird-sense." In the "sound of two streams coming together," deep inside, invigorated by what surrounds us, we restore a purity simple as a Sequim field after soiling our garments in fire-ashen dust far south.

(P.S. I wrote more about Tess Gallagher and the Trip Up There in two 2007 posts, one "Samhain" November 1, the other October 10 "Space Needle" on this blog.) Photo by Tom Dempsey: "Purple Haze Farm, Sequim, WA."

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