|Evan S. Connell|
The death of Evan S. Connell hasn’t received much comment. The obituaries I’ve read (such as here, here and here) all seem to be drawn from an ur-version of obscure provenance. It’s easy to recite the outward details of a writer’s life, of course—birth and death dates, years of publication, special successes and awards. But at the center of all the facts stands the work, as rich as any produced in the past 60 years, and a man who never cared to write a tell-all or even comment much on his work.
Connell was one of those rare writers who was not a careerist. He gave few interviews. He did not appear on Oprah. He wrote no memoir, although it’s hard not to believe that he gives us a sketch of himself in the character of Douglas, only son of Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. In the end, Connell strikes me as sharing at least one quality with Shakespeare: he chooses not to sacrifice his secrets on the altar of the Image. I mean “image” in the modern sense, the public relations sense. (See Daniel J. Boorstin’s insightful book on the subject.) Connell is content to survive in works, which range from novels and historical essays to portraits of George Armstrong Custer and Francisco Goya to a most unusual kind of poetry.
To characterize his two book-length poems, Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel and Points for a Compass Rose, I would have to summon the ghost of Lucretius, of whom the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says: “The stress and tumult of his times stands in the background of his work and partly explains his personal attraction and commitment to Epicureanism, with its elevation of intellectual pleasure and tranquility of mind and its dim view of the world of social strife and political violence.” This description could easily apply to Connell’s verse. In Notes from a Bottle, the author of the notes wanders from thought to thought, following a thread he knows may need precisely nowhere:
I have just this instant waked up.
The ship is rolling across heavy seas.
From the porthole I discern nothing but interminable fog
and spray that flings itself against the gelid glass.
There are no voices, nothing
save the creak of timber. God knows
where we are bound.
When Columbus landed among the Antilles
he could not have been aware that to the north of him
like a tapestry the last Viking colony of the New World
was fading coldly out of sight. I must meditate
further on this.
It was the figurehead which gave should to Norse
longboats—carved of soft wood
in the form of prodigious serpents whose burning gaze
streamed outward from the bow. Truly
we are lost. Pater noster, qui es in coelis …
Mankind yearns for annihilation.
The earth shall revert to worms and the rolling sea
Lat. 28.40 N.; Long. 60.10 W.
I reflect on the second Bishop of Yucatán, by whose zeal
we have lost all knowledge of the Mayan glyphs.
Of thousands of illuminated manuscripts on sized-agave
paper, only three were saved from this vandal cleric.
It is said that Almagro climbed the Andes, losing
one hundred and fifty Spaniards and ten thousand Indians
to the snow. Six months later, upon his return,
he found them standing where they had been left,
singly, and in groups, tightly holding the bridles
of their ice-bound horses. Tell me, who has computed
their share of Paradise?
Listen. I transcribe
reality for you.
Of course, the Lucretian cast of mind infuses his prose as well. Here’s an example from his excellent first novel, Mrs. Bridge. Like all the chapters in that book, it has a title—”Dummy in the Attic”—and it follows a chapter describing how Mrs. Bridge takes her children with her to deliver a food basket to a needy family at Christmas (an obligatory outing that makes her son Douglas painfully aware of his own privileged existence):
On a winter morning not long after one of these excursions Mrs. Bridge happened to come upon Douglas in the sewing room; he was standing quietly with his hands clasped behind his back and his head bent slightly to one side. So adult did he look in the depth of his meditation that she could not resist smiling. Then she saw that he was staring at the dummy of her figure. She had kept the dummy there near the sewing machine for a long time and had supposed that no one in the family paid any attention to it, but after this particularly day—unless she was using it to make herself a dress—the dummy stood behind an up-ended trunk in the attic.
That’s the entire chapter—as luminous as any fine piece of flash fiction. Mrs. Bridge is a kind of collage of such chapters—restrained, undramatic, all but plotless: a shimmering portrait, that is, of real life.