June 18, 2015

The Terrain of Heaven and Hell: Marilynne Robinson

Since the publication of Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, I have had deep admiration for this fiction writer who I felt explored realms common to poetry.  What does she think of poetry?  Housekeeping engages readers with women characters in a mountain town in Idaho. Robinson skillfully, fully, beautifully uses the metaphor of water: fluidity, flood, lack of boundaries, and erosion and loss. Robinson connects her stories to myth or deep cultural (and Biblical) stories.

In 2014, Wyatt Mason interviewed Marilynne Robinson for the New York Times. This is an excerpt of his article:
All four of the novels are in conversation with — at times tacitly, at times explicitly — the stories of the Bible. Housekeeping is the story of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who, after their mother commits suicide, are abandoned to the care of their grandmother and, after she dies, are abandoned to the care of their grandmother’s two maiden sisters-in-law. They, in turn, overwhelmed by the burden of caring for children, abandon the girls to the care of the girls’ aunt. And she, the girls come to understand, is not a stable person herself. Without question, the novel is preoccupied with the generational, genealogical succession of suffering. But it also makes sustained allusions to the book of Genesis, particularly the flood narrative: God’s failed attempt to wipe the world clean of the very errors he could not eradicate from creation — his creations.
Robinson's female characters are adrift, most often by accident or by dangers posed by others. She places her characters in domestic situations, but they are not and never seem like they could be domesticated, for the characters reveal dimensions of the truly wild and uncivilized. I like that she places her stories on the margins of society and she uses these margins to explore being.  Her characters are wary but not fearful.  Yet Robinson is concerned about the pervasive fear in our culture today, and she feels it becomes a rationale for avoiding action.  Mason wrote:
And it was here that Robinson brought up fear: How it has come to keep us at bay from our best selves, the selves that could and should “do something.” In her case, that “something” has been writing. For Robinson, writing is not a craft; it is “testimony,” a bearing witness: an act that demands much of its maker, not least of which is the courage to reveal what one loves. 
“A lot of people who actually believe in the sacredness of life, they write things that are horrible, desolating things, ” Robinson said. “Because, for some reason, this deeper belief doesn’t turn the world. . . . It comes down to fear; the fear of making self-revelation of the seriousness of ‘I sense a sacredness in things.’ ”
In Housekeeping, Robinson opens the story with a tale of the grandfather and a train derailment:
The disaster took place midway through a moonless night. The train, which was black and sleek and elegant, and was called the Fireball, had pulled more than halfway across the bridge when the engine nosed over toward the lake and then the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock.   
 The sound of the language evokes poetry: the image is drawn with vivid strokes.  The alliteration: "midway through a moonless night." The m sound shift to l sounds: "black and sleek and elegant...called the Fireball, pulled..."  "into the water like a weasel sliding..."  Some vowel sounds also are particularly powerful:  through/moonless; nosed over; off a rock.  The midway-ness of the night and the train on the bridge underline the midway-ness of the lives interrupted by the event. It marks the town. It presages the suicide of the girls' mother who also takes her car and drives off a cliff.  It begins a cascade of loss: The train disappears, the mother disappears, followed by the grandmother, and the great aunts.

In Lila, Robinson opens the story with Doll mercifully removing the child Lila from the cold porch where she's been put. Her decision was an impulsive act, a kidnapping, but had she not taken her, the child probably would have died:
She hitched up her apron to cover the child's legs and carried her out past the clearing. The door might have opened, and woman might have called after them, Where you going with that child? and then, after a minute, closed the door again, as if she done all decency required. "Well," Doll whispered, "we'll just have to see."  
The road wasn't really much more than a path, but Doll had walked it so often in the dark that she stepped over the roots and around the potholes and never paused or stumbled. She could walk quickly when there was no light at all. And was strong enough that even an awkward burden like a leggy child could rest in her arms almost asleep.   
Again the spare and vivid images and the alliterative phrases create a powerful beginning.  This is an act of courage that saves Lila's life, and marks a fugitive existence. Doll must fight with her ready and finely honed knife--the members of Lila's family have followed in pursuit or in revenge--and Doll takes the life of a man. After Lila meets the Reverend, marries him, and waits her child's birth, the novel traces her haunting memories, secrets, and speculations about her origins. Her early life, in the company of Doll and the loose group of homeless, itinerant workers was a tenuous existence.

The knife is a significant metaphor of survival used to prepare food, defend, and even cut the girl's fine hair. It severs Lila from her past; it protects her, and finally it becomes a talisman of the woman who loved her.  This last remaining link to Doll Lila treasures.  In this marriage, Lila constantly thinks of departure; the thoughts are a metaphorical knife that threatens to cut her marital and community ties. She is welcomed in Gilead, but she finds it difficult to acclimate to a routine, safe life.  Trust is slow in coming. Her world doesn't feel quite real. She has been so damaged by neglect, mistrust, and abuse she can hardly relate to her new role as the wife of a pastor.

Lila's questions about her past are never answered, and her questions of why life is like it is are also left to linger, and slowly she and her husband, the elderly Reverend, find their way to a conversation, in their growing intimacy, that explores that question.

Poetry takes many forms; and I find it in the writing of Marilynne Robinson. In a review of Harold Bloom's American Religious Poems, Marilynne Robinson writes:
The threshold between the life we know and whatever follows is a mystery religion has always addressed, and for which it has tended to provide the imagination with language and imagery. Dante and Milton created grand visions of a cosmos ordered to serve the ends of divine justice. But there is strikingly little interest among American poets in mapping the terrain of heaven and hell. In place of mythopoesis, their attention is turned on the actual, the phenomenal. And it is turned on the universal, solitary, subjective experience of the transformation, or the end, of consciousness. If death is the mother of beauty, it is the mother also of the deepest self-awareness, the consciousness of the nerves and senses that translate experience as beauty, and as meaning.
The marriage of Lila and the Reverend is a good marriage, and yet it measures the distance between the two people with vastly different life experiences. They almost don't speak the same language.  Lila grew up illiterate and unschooled, except for one year.  She doesn't have words for things, but like many illiterate people, she makes like she understands. The one thing that she does read is the Bible, rich in poetry. Robinson's new book maps the terrain of heaven and hell with aching beauty.

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