Issue 58 — Bureau de Change
Gigantic Cinema, edited by Alice Oswald & Paul Keegan
“Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” It sure hath. I hope you’ve been making the most of it. Did you see the supermoon? Have you gotten a lot of bug bites?
Here in New England we have a severe drought, and the folks at NOAA who write the Forecast Discussion on weather.gov know there is one big thing on our minds: RAIN.
So much for the multi-day stratiform rain event we were hoping for in Eastern Massachusetts. Spare a thought for the farmers. As weather is top of mind, here’s a book that celebrates it.
Thanks for your patience with this slower Summer pace for the Chariot.
Gigantic Cinema: A Weather Anthology
Alice Oswald & Paul Keegan, editors
W. W. Norton, 2021
Sailors have a saying: there’s the forecast, and then there’s the weather. For this reason, the person steering the boat must make it a practice to consult the sky regularly. As benign puffballs bob overhead, an anvil cloud with its slate-gray base may be gathering behind, carrying a squall packing knockdown gusts of 40 knots or more. The pop-up storm may not have been in the forecast, but there it is, advancing on the horizon. Time to get the sails down, fast.
Our atmosphere is a site of constant and perpetual exchanges—one sort of light, cloud, or air for another—all the day long. We humans either pay attention to this parade or we don’t. In order to reduce the need to pay attention and the risk of suffering, we gather technologies around our bodies: walls and roofs, heating and cooling, enclosed and motorized transport, entertainment displays. But then again, we adapt those technologies so that we can pay attention if we need to or want to: bay windows, screen doors, moon roofs, radar displays. We seek safety, comfort, and pleasure, generally in that order. The weather can be friend or foe to this trio, and we can mix and match. We might be cold and even at risk of frostbite while we gawp at the spectral glamor of the northern lights.
Enter language. We exchange our sensory impressions for words so that we can share them with others. As a subject, weather can occasion the most generic of remarks to grease the everyday workings of society (“Nice day, isn’t it?”). It can also provoke the poetry that expresses our sorest, softest feelings (“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,/And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”).
Enter a poet and an editor. Alice Oswald, author of Memorial and Dart among her many landmark collections, and Paul Keegan, former poetry editor at Faber & Faber, have gathered together a fascinating collection of writings on weather, encompassing everything from the Book of Job to the Beaufort Scale. Gigantic Cinema catalogues weather’s potential for “non-stop interruption”—in what William Hazlitt called “the commotion of the elements.” Taking the form of a notional “omniform” (per Samuel Taylor Coleridge) day, this anthology offers a parade of voices documenting meteorological occurrences and impressions, from dawn to dark. In order to provide a “hatless” experience of this flux, the editors have juxtaposed texts from wildly different years and places, dispensed with headings, and pushed all explanatory material to the back of the book. Authors' names trail along discreetly at the bottom of each page.
There is a “jam session” quality to any good anthology, and it’s good fun deciding whose eclipse or storm you like best. Pindar’s or Shakespeare’s? H.D.’s or Leonidas of Tarentum’s? The juxtapositions can be wildly enjoyable. For example, the section on rain includes Rszyard Kapuściński’s account from The Emperor of the fall of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia:
. . . His Majesty’s voice breaks, and I can see how tears stream down his venerable face. And then yes, for the first time, I thought to myself that everything was really coming to an end. That on this rainy day all life is seeping away, we are covered with cold, clinging fog, and the moon and Jupiter have stopped in the seventh and the twelfth houses to form a square.
Imagine the leap in this GenX reader’s heart to have Kapuściński followed immediately by:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate.
All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.
Time to die.
This soliloquy, delivered by Rutger Hauer near the end of the original Blade Runner, with tears and rain streaming down his hunky face, conjures its own weather of summer thunderstorms and the aroma of Cool Ranch®️ Doritos®️ on hot nights in my parents’ living room. What a joy to encounter a new-to-me writer (Kapuściński) chiming so slyly, with words so embedded in my personal history and consciousness.
Anyone familiar with Alice Oswald’s work will not be surprised to hear that Gigantic Cinema’s five-page Preface is brilliantly crafted and dense with ideas. I’ve probably read it ten times, and ideas like weather as “undated Time” continue to roll around in my head like marbles. I also love the way the editors make claims for what they’re trying to do: (“to dispense with writing about the weather” in favor of writing that is “like weather, that has the sovereignty of sheer event”)—and then immediately modify those claims. In the face of the intricate relationship between perception and thought, “You can no more prevent thought than you can prevent rain, and the words we think in are part of this squallishness.”
The Preface may also be trying to inoculate itself against criticism of what I see as a significant flaw of this collection: the lack of diversity in its voices. Oswald and Keegan write that “it’s important that a reader should construe this whole endeavour as absurd, fragmentary, unfinishable. There is a great storm of writings pushing at the edges of the book.” Indeed, and I can’t help wishing that more could have found their way in. After encountering Emily Dickinson in entry #17, the reader must wait until entry #72 to hear from another woman. In a book with 300 entries, around 15 women get to speak. That is absurd. There are a handful of texts from indigenous people. And from what I could make out, there is exactly one Black voice. The vast majority of the selections are by white men representing the traditional Western canon, and that can give Gigantic Cinema the musty aftertaste of plums allowed to ripen too close together.
One final point in the Preface lingers: “This anthology will not add to the image of Nature as a suffering solid . . . Even so, this weather constantly frames the human figure as tiny, besieged, exposed. The height of the weather is a measure of man . . . If the Anthropocene is us, and is upon us, we are being orphaned by it on a scale that has no measure. One way of saying this is that weather is what we stand to lose.” In creating a collection that does not directly address itself to climate change, Oswald and Keegan have nonetheless amply demonstrated the stakes. The carbon we burned to make us indifferent to the weather is now making us infinitely more vulnerable to it.
It’s rarely a bad idea to give Virginia Woolf the last word. Her essay “On Being Ill” supplies this book with its title. She notes that most of us rarely look up at the sky when we are going about our business, and that being sick in bed has afforded her that opportunity.
This then has been going on all the time without our knowing it! — this incessant making of shapes and casting them down, this buffeting of clouds together and drawing vast trains of ships and waggons from North to South, this incessant ringing up an down of curtains of light and shade, this interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows, with veiling the sun and unveiling it, with making rock ramparts and wafting them away — this endless activity, with the waste of Heaven knows how many million horse power. One should not let this gigantic cinema play perpetually to an empty house. But watch a little longer . . . Divinely beautiful it is also divinely heartless. Immeasurable resources are used for some purpose which has nothing to do with human pleasure or human profit. If we were all laid prone, stiff, still the sky would be experimenting with its blues and golds.
Other Voices, Other Forms
You can ask for no finer (or furrier) meteorologist than Grover.
Poem of the Week
With thanks to The Academy of American Poets’ website poets.org . . .
by Paul Lawrence Dunbar
The night is dewy as a maiden’s mouth,
The skies are bright as are a maiden’s eyes,
Soft as a maiden’s breath the wind that flies
Up from the perfumed bosom of the South.
Like sentinels, the pines stand in the park;
And hither hastening, like rakes that roam,
With lamps to light their wayward footsteps home,
The fireflies come stagg’ring down the dark.
For Your Reading Radar
Monique Roffey’s sixth novel The Mermaid of Black Conch is just being published in the United States. This tale of a woman’s transformation into a mermaid and back again has won praise from writers like Bernardine Evaristo, C Pam Zhang, and Maggie O’Farrell, who calls it “a modern myth about belonging . . . single-handedly bringing magic realism up-to-date.”
For Your Calendar
The Edinburgh International Book Festival is ongoing, and many of the events can be viewed online. You can search on the website for sessions on Nature/Environment. I am especially excited for a session with two of Scotland’s finest living writers, Kathleen Jamie and Don Paterson. Paterson has recently published The Arctic, a new collection addressing themes of climate change. Their conversation, entitled “Memories and Meltwater,” will take place on Saturday, August 20 at 1730 GMT.
Bookshop of the Week
Alice Oswald lives in Devon, so here’s a beauty: the Harbour Bookshop, in the South Hams. This is the successor to the shop owned and run for decades by Christopher Robin Milne and his wife Lesley, in nearby Dartmouth. Further history is here.
That’s it for this week. I had a super-exciting series of animal observations in the Maine woods earlier this month, and hope to share more via my Bird on the Wing section for paid subscribers. In the meantime, please enjoy this adolescent moose, who was checking out my pickup truck Louise. xo Nicie