Shelf Life

Shelf Life

Merrill Gilfillan’s The Bark of the Dog and The Warbler Road; Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet.


In “Falling Folds,” a poem that comes early in The Bark of the Dog (Flood; $14.95), Merrill Gilfillan’s fourteenth volume of poetry, the opening lines sketch a pastoral scene:

From the knoll road we befriended
I tried to catch the pitch of osier
where it follows the stream, declines
in gentle falling folds—

The syllables ring out bright and sharp, as if they had been hammered on an anvil from the same molten core, and their rhythms coalesce into lines of quiet lyric beauty. An osier is a type of willow or dogwood, but its pitch—not just the angle at which it follows the stream but its color and sound—can’t be fixed with any permanence, as Gilfillan half-mockingly admits. “Tried the Mongol vermilion overset/with Prismacolor plum. Then sat down/and wondered who would ever notice.” Gilfillan takes on a big question—how can language accommodate a world of things?—without trafficking in oracular statements about the ambiguity of representation or the ineffability of the world. His poems are neither final statements about reality nor mystifications of it. They are quicksilver inquiries, attempts to meet the world on human terms, ever “so slightly.” In the book’s best poems, Gilfillan’s language is located and concrete, his diction crisp and precise. He notes not the dogwood but an “osier,” not the lull between waves but the “slatch,” not the fruit of the white baneberry but its “Doll’s eyes.”

Reading the twenty-six prose sketches about wood warblers gathered in The Warbler Road (Flood; $15.95), I couldn’t help wondering how much the precision of Gilfillan’s poetic diction owes to birding, which the poet has pursued for most of his sixty-five years. Birding demands attention to the details of earth and sky, one ear drift-feeding on the murmurings of a specific habitat, the other pitched for an outburst of song that the eyes trace to a flash of color alighting on a branch or a smudgy silhouette in underbrush shadows. Catching the pitch of the world in poems may not be identical to identifying a bird song, but the two undertakings are certainly apposite. Gilfillan writes in The Warbler Road that “the bird song one grew accustomed and attached to on home ground is merely one small rendition of a species’ vocal possibilities, rather than a magical archetypal pattern gracing one’s youthful ears and therefore the world at large. It is a deep paradigm eroded.” For Gilfillan, birding and writing poems are acts of casual grace, a sorting and weighing of the earth’s erosions and migrations, of the songs nesting on the air and in the ear.

* * *

When the historian Tony Judt died in August from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, he had not gone quietly into the void. For some months he had been living what he called a “cockroach-like existence,” unable to move a muscle, let alone lift a pencil. Yet he remained a lucid and limber writer, producing by dictation two books—Ill Fares the Land, an attack on the free market and a defense of social democracy, and a forthcoming intellectual history of twentieth-century Europe—as well as a series of bracing autobiographical essays, many of which appeared in The New York Review of Books, where Judt was a longtime contributor. He even sparred in the Review’s letters pages with readers who objected to his memory-portraits, and his jabs could still blacken an eye.

Those vignettes are now available in The Memory Chalet (Penguin Press; $25.95). The book’s title is the name given by Judt to the mnemonic device of the memory palace, which he used to store and organize memories recalled during his sleepless nights for use in his writing. For all their variety, the memories have some glancing, rich connections, as though Judt had sorted them into two rooms of his chalet. One room is devoted to movement: here are memories not only of public transport (London buses, the Channel ferry, railways) but also of regional foods, languages and other bits of culture that bear traces of migration or permit people to cross borders. The other room is devoted to memories of political and intellectual movements, most of them sclerotic. In the mid-1960s Judt embraced Labor Zionism, but the communitarian life of the kibbutz left him cold: “to the extent that it contributes to an extraordinary smugness of self-regard, it actually reinforces the worst kind of ethnic solipsism.” Heroic navel-gazing was also the avocation of Judt’s circle of academic Marxists at Cambridge. “We protested the things we didn’t like, and we were right to do so,” Judt explains. But about much else they were wrong: “What does it tell us of the delusions of May 1968 that I cannot recall a single allusion to the Prague Spring, much less the Polish student uprising, in all of our earnest radical debates?” Because of their historical grandstanding, Judt and his Marxist comrades “failed to notice…that Marxism ran itself into the ground.”

That isn’t the voice of a dyspeptic old man lamenting the heedlessness of his youth. Judt did not trade in self-pity. “To fall prey to a motor neuron disease is surely to have offended the Gods at some point, and there is nothing more to be said,” he writes in The Memory Chalet. Rather, it’s the view of a writer who had little patience with intellectual schools and political camps that peddle pieties and stifle dissent. There were many clubs from which Judt was happy to be excluded, and that he could coolly re-examine his younger self’s membership in a few was to his credit. Judt reminds me a bit of W.H. Auden, another Englishman who as an adult made New York City his home. Both were what Judt called “edge people,” men who preferred places where “allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another.” But even more, the example Judt set as a historian, not only in The Memory Chalet but in all his published work, rhymes with Auden’s definition of art: an unceasing effort to remain sensitive and intelligent.

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