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T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and My Garden

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The glories of spicy jatropha contrast with T. S. Eliot's cruelest April.

I’ve had cause the past days and weeks to think a lot about life and death and resurrection. My little old cat marshals on, happy at the same time that she is not perfectly healthy. It’s been a lot of work getting her through her recent crisis, and we don’t know whether she has lymphoma, which will kill her in a matter of weeks, or inflammatory bowel disease, with which she could live on for quite some time. All we can know right now is that for the time being she jumps up on my lap for a cuddle and she rolls around on the patio bricks in the sunshine.

Early spring sunshine in Florida is incomparable. This is the time of year to be here.

With the help of a couple of wonderful gardeners last week, Bruce and I also finally took steps to make the yard beautiful—we replaced the dead grass in the front with shade-loving camellias, crepe myrtle, impatiens, and lorapetalum. We (or rather Lois and Allan) ripped out and relocated (some of) the overgrown ligustrum, put an herb garden in the side yard, and filled in our formerly sunken area by the patio with a butterfly- and hummingbird-friendly rim of firebushes, spicy jatropha (seen above), plumbago, shrimp plants, and tea olives. The confederate jasmine I planted last year is in full, fragrant bloom, and the gardenia that Pat gave us for our wedding three years ago is budding. I have been reveling in it.

And so it is that I was reminded of T. S. Eliot’s most famous line, “April is the cruelest month.” I think that April has this reputation for cruelty for many reasons. I used to always think about it during Pennsylvania Aprils—the alternation of snow and new green plants trying to poke through the muddy ground, the ice that would so often fall from the sky and kill those new green shoots—those were cruel weather days indeed, and days that could easily remind a person of the vicissitudes and unpredictability and fragility of life.

Here in Florida, we don’t really have that kind of cruelty, though, of course, we have the threat of hurricanes half the year (and their occasional massive actual destruction), and we have the suffocating heat and humidity all summer long that create our own upside-down indoor season. The way the flowers blossom so riotously all year round, however, often gives us the delusion down here that life is never-ending.

But we have to remember that the resurrection that so many celebrate at Easter entails death. A former student sent me a message asking if I would like to adopt a stray cat she found. The answer is “not right now,” but the timing points out to me that eventually my old kitties will all be gone, and they will make way for new kitties. The same is true of all of us, even for the Nobel Prize winners such as Eliot, and lately I have been experiencing this fact more concretely than usual. Not because I’m near death, but because I have been enjoying life so much and letting go of my desire to be immortal.

So much of our usual human endeavor (but perhaps especially if we are writers, artists, or intellectuals of some kind) is an attempt to be immortal. This comes in different forms, from having children to making ourselves important or indispensable at work somehow. Sometimes it comes in the form of grasping for fame or notoriety. Sometimes people even see beyond the surface fame to a desire to create something lasting in the way of art. Sometimes we have a desire to change things beyond ourselves, to have a positive effect on a culture that seems unhinged. These efforts sometimes result in good work, and I don’t mean to castigate anyone for making them. Certainly I haven’t entirely stopped myself. I’m just in a different place, at least mentally, right now.

I am finding it enough just to be. I know, cluck, cluck, this should be too simple.

Last night I heard Cameo the cat chirping and mewling low in the dining room. At first I thought this was a symptom—she might be in pain or distress of some sort or about to throw up—and I leapt up to go see what was wrong, as I have so many times in the past few weeks. But as I stood, she came running into the living room and put a small dark object on the rug in front of me. I bent down and poked it, the largest dead spider I had seen in years.

Cameo the cat had been hunting. I couldn’t believe it. She’s never been a big hunter to begin with, and I certainly wouldn’t expect it in her current state of health. But she had made the most of some accidental opportunity, and she’d brought me the proverbial cat gift. I praised her and petted her and apologized for taking the spider away (I certainly didn’t want her to eat it).

I feel silly and trivial for the small, domestic frame of my life these days. I feel retrograde and haus frau–like. Yet it is not that I have forgotten about the larger world or the social, political, and intellectual issues of our day. In fact, when I got out Eliot’s famous poem because of its first line, one of the things that struck me was how prophetic it is. If Eliot thought that the first decades of the twentieth century were fragmented and confusing and grim and showing signs of cultural decline, what would he think of the first decades of the twenty-first century?

What would he think of the strength of our anti-intellectualism, the put-downs of the “reality-based community” that Bruce mentioned in his guest post last week? What would he think of the dominance of the short-short form of fiction and nonfiction (which I adore like everyone else), or the impatience with reading that even writers show so often (which I despair of)? What would he make of the fact that, though I love poetry, I hesitated before taking the time to read his entire long, allusion-filled, complex, five-part poem?

I paused, but I then took the time to read it. Then I listened to it on a compilation of YouTube videos (all of these feature T. S. Eliot reading, except part IV, which is the voice of Ted Hughes). And I don’t mean to blame anyone else who doesn’t take the time. I’m on sabbatical, after all, and taking the time is what it’s for. But even a short dip into listening is a good thing.

I. The Burial of the Dead (with the overall epigram) 5:07 minutes
II. A Game of Chess 5:29 minutes
III. The Fire Sermon 8:05 minutes
IV. Death by Water (read by Ted Hughes) 48 seconds
V. What the Thunder Said 6:30 minutes

Art, I believe, takes time, and that has to be okay. I wish it were as easy to make that claim for politics—that it could get beyond the sound-bite, beyond the knee-jerk, beyond the name-calling, beyond the superficial answers that answer nothing. However, the mass scale of politics is a challenge to any slow unfurling or contemplation. Would that it were not so and that “The Waste Land” were not indeed still so relevant. Would that the call to peace in its last line were more optimistic and less wishful thinking.

Eliot’s poem builds to that end with a reference to Dante’s Arnaut—“I … who weep and go singing; contrite I see my past folly, and joyful I see before me the day I hope for.” Though interpretations of Eliot’s poem vary widely in terms of the lack or presence of hope, I believe it leaves us with the inevitability of both. A grim outlook does not disavow hope. And at least sometimes the greatest activity can be disguised by a quiet and self-contained demeanor, the greatest complexity in paying attention to the smallest things.

In other words, spring will happen with all its implications. I like feeling my eyes open to it as well as my mind. I like hearing T. S. Eliot’s nasal and weary voice—and Ted Hughes’s more gravelly and pleasant one—marching out the syllables. I like observing how unflawed their delivery is—how neither ever trips over a word. You can tell that they have spent a lot of time memorizing and reciting poems. They did that instead of playing Scrabble on the iPhone, no doubt.

Ah, these choices about how we spend our short time.

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