redux: “Female punctuation forbids me to say more.”

Yesterday John finished reading the mss. of a novella I recently completed. He had many helpful things to say and was generous beyond words. I knew that some of the things he didn’t say had to do with punctuation — I’d told him I wanted him to concentrate on what worked and what didn’t but not to mention the word “comma”. This morning, thinking about meaning and punctuation, I remembered this post from a few years ago and how I mused that the fermata, a symbol of musical notation indicating a hold or pause, could work in literary notation too…

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Last night, as  part of a two-day birthday treat, we went to the Blackbird Theatre Company’s production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play, The Rivals, a comedy of manners in five acts, first performed in London in 1775. It was wildly funny. Mrs Malaprop made us laugh every time she opened her mouth. I hoped I wouldn’t forget any of her best lines — she describes her young niece’s suitor as “the very pineapple of politeness,” and later, realizing she (and others) have been duped, she takes the high road, saying,”We will not anticipate the past, our retrospection will now be all to the future”. I think my favourite malapropism was “Female punctuation forbids me to say more.”

Apart from the humour of that line, do you think there is such a thing as “female punctuation”? I am married to a poet who taught college English for more than 30 years. He has very strong opinions about the use of commas. “When in doubt, leave it out,” he always says. Or “less is more.” Recently he copyedited a manuscript for me and he lamented my over-use of commas. I can defend each and every one of them and I don’t believe I use them incorrectly but I’ve begun to try to come up with reasons for the way I use them. They’re not there simply to separate clauses or items in a list but also for timing. And is it really acceptable to use a comma for timing?

An online site, Oxford Dictionaries, suggests not. Here’s what the site has to say about the comma:

A comma marks a slight break between different parts of a sentence. Used properly, commas make the meaning of sentences clear by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses. Many people are uncertain about the use of commas, though, and often sprinkle them throughout their writing without knowing the basic rules.

While I’ve been sitting here thinking about this, I’ve also been listening to my favourite singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing a duet from Handel’s opera, Guilio Cesare, with another ravishing singer, the countertenor, Drew Minter. The duet is “Son nata a lagrimar” and it’s one of the last pieces I tried to learn when I took voice lessons. Handel is a singer’s dream composer. He showcases the voice, giving it a place to shine — without the pyrotechnics of, say, Mozart. Pyrotechnics are all very well for those who have quick-silver agility: a coloratura like Cecilia Bartoli, for example. But Handel’s settings are burnished, like fine gold, with a warm patina. Anyway, as I listen to this and remember how I began to understand the use of the fermata when trying to sing Handel, I think, Oh, now there’s something that ought to find its way from musical notation to the literary text. The fermata, says my Shorter Oxford Dictionary (the one in two volumes, with tiny tiny type), is “A sign indicating an unspecified prolongation of a note or rest.” If you look at these bars of that duet, you can see it right at the end of that last bar, over “piu”.

fermataHow long does one hold that? It’s a matter of discretion — the singer’s as well as the conductor’s. The note is coloured by so many things and this particular duet is heart-rendingly sad. “I was born to weep”, sings Cornelia, as she contemplates what will happen to her stepson Sesto after she refuses to marry a general who is responsible for the death of her husband Pompey. So lingering on that “piu” (it means “more”) wrings every last bit of sorrow out of it.

Learning to sing taught me something about how words sound in the head as well as the mouth, in the heart as well as the throat. I’m thinking that it might be time to introduce the fermata into textual punctuation. Imagine it. A note from writer to reader — read this aloud, linger over the line, draw out this word, this phrase, allow yourself to take it into your heart, longer than a comma, a semi-colon. Take your time. Breath a little. Forget the grammars and the stylesheets. Mrs. Malaprop, impatient with her niece Lydia Languish, says of her, “She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” I can imagine a fermata over the “allegory”, a very feminine form of punctuation whose time has perhaps come.

“Female punctuation forbids me to say more.”

Last night, as  part of a two-day birthday treat, we went to the Blackbird Theatre Company’s production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play, The Rivals, a comedy of manners in five acts, first performed in London in 1775. It was wildly funny. Mrs Malaprop made us laugh every time she opened her mouth. I hoped I wouldn’t forget any of her best lines — she describes her young niece’s suitor as “the very pineapple of politeness,” and later, realizing she (and others) have been duped, she takes the high road, saying,”We will not anticipate the past, our retrospection will now be all to the future”. I think my favourite malapropism was “Female punctuation forbids me to say more.”

Apart from the humour of that line, do you think there is such a thing as “female punctuation”? I am married to a poet who taught college English for more than 30 years. He has very strong opinions about the use of commas. “When in doubt, leave it out,” he always says. Or “less is more.” Recently he copyedited a manuscript for me and he lamented my over-use of commas. I can defend each and every one of them and I don’t believe I use them incorrectly but I’ve begun to try to come up with reasons for the way I use them. They’re not there simply to separate clauses or items in a list but also for timing. And is it really acceptable to use a comma for timing?

An online site, Oxford Dictionaries, suggests not. Here’s what the site has to say about the comma:

A comma marks a slight break between different parts of a sentence. Used properly, commas make the meaning of sentences clear by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses. Many people are uncertain about the use of commas, though, and often sprinkle them throughout their writing without knowing the basic rules.

While I’ve been sitting here thinking about this, I’ve also been listening to my favourite singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing a duet from Handel’s opera, Guilio Cesare, with another ravishing singer, the countertenor, Drew Minter. The duet is “Son nata a lagrimar” and it’s one of the last pieces I tried to learn when I took voice lessons. Handel is a singer’s dream composer. He showcases the voice, giving it a place to shine — without the pyrotechnics of, say, Mozart. Pyrotechnics are all very well for those who have quick-silver agility: a coloratura like Cecilia Bartoli, for example. But Handel’s settings are burnished, like fine gold, with a warm patina. Anyway, as I listen to this and remember how I began to understand the use of the fermata when trying to sing Handel, I think, Oh, now there’s something that ought to find its way from musical notation to the literary text. The fermata, says my Shorter Oxford Dictionary (the one in two volumes, with tiny tiny type), is “A sign indicating an unspecified prolongation of a note or rest.” If you look at these bars of that duet, you can see it right at the end of that last bar, over “piu”.

fermataHow long does one hold that? It’s a matter of discretion — the singer’s as well as the conductor’s. The note is coloured by so many things and this particular duet is heart-rendingly sad. “I was born to weep”, sings Cornelia, as she contemplates what will happen to her stepson Sesto after she refuses to marry a general who is responsible for the death of her husband Pompey. So lingering on that “piu” (it means “more”) wrings every last bit of sorrow out of it.

Learning to sing taught me something about how words sound in the head as well as the mouth, in the heart as well as the throat. I’m thinking that it might be time to introduce the fermata into textual punctuation. Imagine it. A note from writer to reader — read this aloud, linger over the line, draw out this word, this phrase, allow yourself to take it into your heart, longer than a comma, a semi-colon. Take your time. Breath a little. Forget the grammars and the stylesheets. Mrs. Malaprop, impatient with her niece Lydia Languish, says of her, “She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” I can imagine a fermata over the “allegory”, a very feminine form of punctuation whose time has perhaps come.

“neatly chiseled”

I’ve been rereading my favourite novellas lately, trying to fix in my mind what it is that makes the form so attractive. (Someone, somewhere, wrote that a novella is a bit like a recit in opera but I’d argue against that, I think. Some of them are full of arias, lyrical and serving exactly the same function as, say, an aria in a Handel opera: to balance and contrast the narrative work of the recit.) This afternoon I was reading Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel and came to this beautiful passage:

The sound of the cranes’ silver music approaching in all that silence would take her at once out of a cabin with her broom, and into the open, to look up, to listen, and when they had passed over, to recapture the sight and the silver sound which moved on over other lakes and hills. She would walk up the long overgrown trail to the far end of the lake and, in the evening, approach softly, and stand, waiting to see the heads and backs of beaver in the water, leaving their lodge and returning again. She would hear the gunshot sound of the beaver’s tail upon the water as, startled, he dived. She would examine the stumps of the birches, neatly chiseled to clean points by the sharp teeth…

Swamp Angel is set mostly on Three Loon Lake which I believe is a fictional stand-in for Lac Le Jeune, near Kamloops. We often take the Lac Le Jeune Road when we’re in that area, an old route leading past the Jocko Creek Ranch and past small lakes and the larger Lac Le Jeune. Years ago I camped there with Forrest while on a research trip on the Thompson Plateau and we watched a wood duck hen lead her ducklings down from their nest hole in a tree by the marshy end of the lake. And south of Lac Le Jeune, near Nicola Lake, I once heard the sandhill cranes before I saw them, their singing like creaking wooden wheels across the sky. But what I loved about this passage of Swamp Angel is the bit about the beavers. In a marsh on our route from home to the mailboxes, there’s a small marsh where we hear red-winged blackbirds every spring and occasionally ducks in the more watery areas. But there are two alders on the edge of the marsh and a beaver has been chiseling them for the past week. Every day we say, “It won’t be long now!” and today I asked John to take a photograph when he went alone for the mail. (I was busy getting things ready for a birthday party for him tomorrow!) The photographs are blurry because it’s raining and because, well, it was nearly sunset (just before 4). But it won’t be long!

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September aria

For the past week or so, this Pacific treefrog (Hyla regilla, though there’s some debate about this name now and it’s been suggested that these are more properly Pseudacris regilla. It’s a bit like nit-picking* to me. All my field guides call them Hyla regilla!) has been in residence in and around a pot of chives on the deck. In this photograph, it’s on a honeysuckle leaf (pot of chives behind it) and those little holes in the leaf are evidence of sawfly larvae, I think. And there are ants around too. The other day I saw this little frog stick out its tongue and capture an ant which it seemed to relish.

There’s another larger treefrog on the upper deck. And another, the tiny one shown in my post of August 25, as well as one we hear but don’t see in the ferns by the patio. What’s interesting to me right now is their voices. In the spring, you can stand outside at night and all you hear is a huge loud chorus of treefrogs calling to one another in the great mating hullabulloo in the nearby water sources. Such large voices for such tiny creatures! Deep baritones, rich tenors, even the odd mezzo-soprano. Right now, though, the treefrogs close to the house are singing individual arias. It’s not about mating. Wrong season. So what is it about? Yesterday I watered the potted herbs on the deck and as soon as I’d finished, the little frog in the photograph was singing loudly. Was it joy? Irritation? Field guides talk about the “rain song”, the premonition of changing weather. But it’s been lovely here for the past week and we’re promised good weather for the rest of September, and still the treefrogs sing. And who knows, maybe we’re hearing arias from Handel’s Hercules: There in myrtle shades reclined/By streams that thro’ Elysium wind,/In sweetest union we shall prove…”

*i.e., it doesn’t change the essential qualities of the treefrog…

Ombra mai fu

Readers of Mnemonic: A Book of Trees might remember my adventures in learning — in trying to learn — to sing, inspired by the beautiful aria, “Ombra mai fu”, from Handel’s Serses, or Xerxes, in which the Persian king Xerxes I sings of his love for a plane tree.

Ombra mai fu
di vegetabile,
cara ed amabile,
soave più.

A shade there never was,
of any plant,
dearer and more lovely,
or more sweet.

The opera was a failure but this particular aria lives on. And I’ve been humming it these days as I move about my day, watering, turning on fans, thinking about cool things to make for our dinners. Exactly a week ago, friends came for dinner and we sat on the deck for our apertif, shivering a bit in the unseasonal weather, and John and I decided it might be time to have the tall firs to the west of our house limbed and maybe one or two of them taken down. For years it was too hot in summer to eat on that deck — we tended to have our dinners on the patio which faces northeast… We built a pergola over it and planted wisteria and grapes which didn’t do much for four or five years. Then they took off, filling in between the beams of the pergola, providing green shade. And was it too much shade, combined with the firs which have also grown substantially since we moved here 30 years ago? Last week it seemed that it was.

Now we have true summer heat. That deck is a welcome haven from it. Tonight we sat with a glass of Portuguese gazela, a light bright wine with a bit of animation, and ate tarragon chicken with tiny roast potatoes, dusted with La Chinata bittersweet paprika, prepared first thing this morning before the sun was up, and a favourite summer salad of watermelon, feta, fresh mint, dressed with lemon and Greek olive oil:

“Let’s leave the firs,” I said. And John agreed. Their shade so welcome, so beloved. I thought of Herodotus, who commented on Xerxes’ adoration of the plane tree in The Histories: “While [he] was traveling along this road he discovered a plane tree that so impressed him with its beauty that he endowed it with golden ornaments and entrusted it to one of the Immortals…” For the past few weeks, these firs have been the training trees for the young sapsuckers, a family of western tanagers, robins, and even a pileated woodpecker with its vivid head.  A shade there never was…more lovely, or more sweet.

 

Under Giotto’s ceiling

June 14, 2011

Ever since I saw Giotto’s beautiful ceiling in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua a few years ago, I’ve wanted something of that beauty in my daily life. To sit under a lapis sky studded with golden stars, angels and Madonnas looking down to bless those below.

Last winter I went to the hardware store with a book about Giotto in hand. The woman at the paint counter helped me match the blue (something called “Electric Storm”) and I brought home enough to paint the ceiling of my small study – it’s perhaps 9 x11, with a big window looking out to a covered porch. Right now the wisteria climbing the porch’s post is in full bloom and I love looking up from my desk to watch hummingbirds at work in the flowers.

The paint sat in the workshop for more than a year. I couldn’t bring myself to begin to paint. So much was happening in my life and there never seemed to be time to drape old sheets over the shelves and furniture and actually bring this particular project to life.

A few weeks ago, I finally applied three coats of “Electric Storm” to the white ceiling of my study. To say that John helped is an understatement. My style is careless and his is meticulous. He followed me, repairing my mistakes.

Then we spent a week or so trying to figure out the best way to paint on the stars. Would we use gold leaf? A stencil? Freehand? At one point, I desperately considered stickers.

I decided on a particular eight-sided star, partly influenced by Giotto and partly by the painted monasteries of Bukovina (you will be able to read about these in my forthcoming book, in a chapter where I try to find traces of my paternal grandfather who came from Bukovina). John cut a careful template and plotted the best way to arrange the pattern on my ceiling. There would be ten stars altogether, in four rows, two of two stars and two of three.

He measured and marked the placement with green painters tape. He held the template and I traced the stars with a white pencil crayon. I waited a day and then mixed some paint from those little containers you can buy in a craft shop – I have many of them for painting flower pots and cloth. (Forrest made me a floor cloth using these, featuring a saint on horseback inspired by the painted monasteries of Bukovina!) I used a matte dark yellow mixed with metallic gold for the first coat and followed that with a second coat of straight metallic gold. I just did the second coat this morning.

So right now I’m sitting at my desk, listening to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing “Cease, ruler of the day, to rise” from Handel’s opera Hercules, under a ravishing blue sky lit by stars. It’s not the Scrovegni Chapel with frescoes on the walls narrating the Annunciation, the Passion of Christ, the Resurrection;  but it’s beautiful and the stories surrounding me — pictures drawn by my children, an elk skull, birds nests, our wonderful dog Lily’s pelvis, books that have taught me how to live — amount to a life. My life, under Giotto’s ceiling.