Monday, August 31, 2009
A BIRD, A POEM, A BOOK
One morning a few days ago, as I stepped out to water the plant on my front stoop, I found a small bird lying dead at my feet. It looked like one of the smaller Eastern flycatchers, perhaps a Willow or a Least. The color in the photo isn’t very accurate; the bird was much more olive and yellow on its back and breast. Holding its lifeless body, I thought of the opening lines from a poem from one of my favorite pieces of literature, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, for this surely was the flycatcher’s fate:
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the window pane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff - and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky
For those who may not know the book, Pale Fire is a slim novel by Vladimir Nabokov, consisting of the ‘final poem’ of a fictional poet, John Shade, the annotations to that poem by another character in the story, and the interweaving the two. But that’s just the barest of descriptions. There’s so much more to it. And searching online I found another layer that deepens my enjoyment and appreciation of Pale Fire: the essay, "Shades of Frost: A Hidden source for Nabokov’s Pale Fire" by Abraham P. Socher. This essay brought to light both Nabokov’s and Pale Fire’s connection to my long-time favorite poet, Robert Frost. Socher traces this connection (and sometimes the competition) between the two contemporary giants, and offers fascinating insights into the inner workings of Pale Fire’s construction. Nabokov heavily salted all his works with sophisticated clues, puns and puzzles, playful oblique references, and half-buried linguistic treasures. Some of his gems were probably designed for his own enjoyment alone, to satisfy some private inner sense of creative rightness, but many lie less hidden, like Easter eggs partially tucked away in a garden, to challenge and reward readers and critics alike.
The essay holds Pale Fire along side Frost’s poem, Questioning Faces (or Of a Winter Evening, its original title), about an owl that flies at a windowpane, only to veer off in time to save itself. Socher delves into the creative process, the cross-pollination of literary art, and even gives a bit of delightful trivia —Nabokov once lived in Frost’s house. I would recommend this ESSAY to anyone with an interest in the English language, novels, poetry, Nabokov, Frost, and to anyone who reads this and may feel the tug of wanting to know more.
In addition to a copy of Pale Fire, I have two small volumes of Frost’s poems—one inexpensive paperback I bought as a cash-strapped student, so old now that the pages are darkly yellowed, the glued spine is cracked, with the loose pages falling out. The other is in better shape, but slimmer. Neither includes the poem about the owl. I carried the fallen flycatcher around to the lake side of the house, and placed it on the juniper bush beside the Buddha statue, then went back to the computer and ordered myself a brand new hardcover book of Frost’s Complete Poems, a purchase long overdue.