In Praise of Camus at the End of His Century
Paper comes from trees, wine comes from the grape,
I love my country. Today came in two distinct parts
instead of one vat of moments. In the first part
I read without interruption of any kind, & in the second
I had time to think through some things. Like you,
all the writers in America have been looking for their fathers.
You’d like this view: pearl mist over the Adirondacks.
Fly fishermen wade the dark blue Ausable,
first day of season. Beginnings: the idea we stay in love with.
I looked at the ‘‘new urbanism’’ photos down in the city; impossible
to know if the streets are dead or living; Eugene Smith is better, so
is Stieglitz, a kind of old American Socrates. And the small retrospective
of Souza-Cordosa, exiled in ’44, whose masked fantasy-rabbit leaps
through sci-fi foliage & monstrous pools: nature weds technology
and survives, forever camouflaged. Now there are a lot of things
that artistically speaking I know I could make work. But this no longer
means anything to me. There’s war in Algiers again,
kids & their mothers are pulled through doors and slaughtered.
I wish I knew the small inn you visited up here in the North Country
in 1946; I would take flowers . . . the simplicity of the room, the remoteness
of everything, make me decide to stay here permanently, to cut all ties with what
had been my life and to send no news of myself to anyone. I like working
in this cabin along the river, writing near water: plenty
& lack, Earth’s greatest mystery. Hiking this morning I wanted to
lie down in the Ausable and turn into a blue-green plant,
turning out the Mes. I brought your journals—one new, the other my old
undergrad copy, ink-stained & scratched with my embarrassing
margin notes: ‘‘the advance of art & empowerment of women
would end all war.’’ My brutal country grows more isolate & frenzied;
we have these demons: 1) cannot connect to social transformation
because money is oxygen; 2) oxygen supply visibly controlled by top 3 percent.
In ’46 you were little more than half my age now,
though you’ve always seemed—forgive me—
like my slightly older brother: moody like me, in love with the sea,
& wandering in a mildly delirious loneliness. As you’ve noted,
in America we tend to wear anticipated tragedy like a badge.
Some are drowning, some are sleeping. Enraged mirror-portraits
of our own kids keep showing up in faces of the young
all over Earth. This big country, calm and slow. One feels that it has been
completely unaware of the war. You were exhausted, touring,
happiest shipboard, dark & serene staring out over the water.
I’ve mastered two or three things in myself. The rock shapes out my window
make good company; the spruce winds are astringent.
I’m sitting by a fire and finally, who I am, another question not worth
answering. It has rained all evening. My cabin smells of balsam.
The wine carries a deep ruby color and is delicious.
The quotations are from Camus’s American Journals.
Judith Vollmer lives in Pittsburgh and directs the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Greenburg. Her newest collection of poems, Reactor, is forthcoming from the University of Wisconsin Press in 2004. Her other books include The Door Open to the Fire (Cleveland State University Press), Black Butterfly (Center for the Book Arts), and Level Green (University of Wisconsin Press).
“In Praise of Camus at the End of His Century” appears in our Summer 2004 issue.