What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Bishop's Wasps' Nest, McPhee's Caribou Antlers

I'm fascinated by bones, feathers, shells, fallen nests, and other natural remnants. Two writers who've shown a similar interest in such things are Elizabeth Bishop and John McPhee. Bishop, in her great poem, “Santarém” (The New Yorker, February 20, 1978; included in Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems), remembers traveling up the Amazon, stopping briefly in the town of Santarém, and while there, seeing an empty wasps’ nest on a drugstore shelf (“In the blue pharmacy the pharmacist / had hung an empty wasps’ nest from the shelf: / small, exquisite, clean matte white, / and hard as stucco”). She says, “I admired it / so much he gave it to me.” She takes it back to her ship:

Back on board, a fellow passenger, Mr. Swan,
Dutch, the retired head of Philips Electric,
really a very nice old man,
who wanted to see the Amazon before he died,
asked, “What’s that ugly thing?”

McPhee, in his wonderful piece “The Encircled River” (The New Yorker, May 2 & 9, 1977; Book I of his Coming into the Country), describes hiking with two companions in the central Brooks Range of Alaska and finding numerous caribou antlers protruding from the tundra:

Moving downhill and south across the tundra, we passed through groves of antlers. It was as if the long filing lines of the spring migration had for some reason paused here for shedding to occur. The antler, like the bear, implied the country. Most were white, gaunt, chalky. I picked up a younger one, though, that was recently shed and was dark, like polished brown marble. It was about four feet along the beam and perfect in form. Hession found one like it. We set them on our shoulders and moved on down the hill, intent to take them home.

I see myself in these passages. I, too, have lugged home found bones, horns, and skins from my Arctic travels. They are, in my eyes, the ultimate souvenirs. A mere glance at one is sufficient to trigger memories of the trip that resulted in its discovery. Others, looking at these irregular, organic oddments respond the way Mr. Swan does in “Santarém”: “What’s that ugly thing?”

After I’m gone, my mementos are likely headed for the trash. Their significance immediately disappears when the memories attached to them are snuffed out. What distinguishes Bishop’s wasps’ nest and McPhee’s caribou antlers is that, so long as there are eyes to read, they will endure.

Credit: The above artwork is Georgia O'Keeffe's Summer Days (1936).

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