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· Pointed Takes on Style Delineated ·

· Wing to Wing and Oar to Oar ·

Today's title comes from Robert Frost's "The Master Speed," the final lines of which are inscribed on his and his wife Elinor's gravestone:

Two such as you with such a master speed
Cannot be parted nor be swept away
From one another once you are agreed
That life is only life forevermore
Together wing to wing and oar to oar.


Frost's three lead sentences are rather the real reason, however, for my marking the lovely phrase:

No speed of wind or water rushing by
But you have speed far greater. You can climb
Back up a stream of radiance to the sky,
And back through history up the steam of time.
And you were given this swiftness, not for haste
Nor chiefly that you may go where you will,
But in the rush of everything to waste,
That you may have the power of standing still —
Off any still or moving thing you say. Robert Frost, 'The Master Speed,' The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. Edward Connery Lathem, New York, Holt, 1969, 300.


I say this because we are "Oar to Oar and Wing to Wing" with wedding preparations here. Just in case you've missed a word or two recently, the true radiance of my week's work can now best be seen off-line.

If "proper words in proper places" defines style, some words are best left unsaid.

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· Suspended Sentences ·

I read today that three-hundred-and-fifteen prisoners have been released from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. With the aim of saving America's good name, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has of course engineered the event, perhaps also saving his own job. A clever move, it clearly suggests Rumsfeld's rising to do George W. Bush's political chores, trying also to save the President's own political life.

The news reminds me of a passage from Frank O'Connor's short story "Guests of the Nation." Set in Ireland during the First World War, the story deals with the fate of two British prisoners (Belcher and Hawkins) who are sacrificed to a sadly fateful political necessity. They are eliminated because, following word of the execution of Irish prisoners elsewhere, their captors can't excuse them from the terrible, bloody consequences of war. Despite their good efforts, they must go.

The particular passage that interests me is this:

It was a treat to see how Belcher got off with the Old woman of the house where we were staying. She was a great warrant to scold, and cranky even with us, but before ever she had a chance of giving our guests, as I may call them, a lick of her tongue, Belcher had made her his friend for life. She was breaking sticks, and Belcher, who hadn't been more than ten minutes in the house, jumped up from his seat and went over to her.

"Allow me, madam," he says, smiling his queer little smile, "please allow me"; and he takes the bloody hatchet. She was struck too paralytic to speak, and after that, Belcher would be at her heels, carrying a bucket, a basket, or a load of turf, as the case might be. As Noble said, he got into looking before she leapt, and hot water, or any little thing she wanted, Belcher would have it ready for her.

Now I don't mean to trivialize his story, but O'Connor's stylistic finesse is breathtaking. His larger intent notwithstanding, he has shifted — or so it seems to me — from objects initially listed in his fine penultimate sentence ("a bucket, a basket, or a load of turf") to the objective, substantive weight of "hot water" marked in his last. Reread and you'll maybe see his move!

What I ask is this: does anyone know the correct stylistic name for it — or perhaps, too, the political?

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· Our Real Mother's Day ·

At the end of this shameful week in American history, it's good to recall on this Mother's Day its historic beginnings. Linked chiefly with three names — Julia Ward Howe, Anna Reese Jarvis, and Woodrow Wilson — Mother's Day is inseparable from the sad recognition of the bloody cruelties of war. Ours in Iraq today yields images not only of injuries endured but, more worrisome, of those inflicted too. Maybe we owe it to ourselves to ask if it might have been otherwise.

Consider Julia Ward Howe's original "Mother's Day Proclamation" (1870):  · Julia Ward Howe ·

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise all women who have hearts! Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears!

Say firmly:
We will not have questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.

 · Anna Reese Jarvis · Consider, too, the purpose of the first Mother's Day in 1908. Primarily organized to honor the extraordinary memory of Anna Reese Jarvis — an Appalachian mother who organized women to work for better sanitary conditions in the Civil War and to reconcile Union and Confederate neighbors — the day was meant to prompt women to call for peace in the world as well. Indeed, its aim was an echo of Howe's call: "Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God."*

But consider Woodrow Wilson's 1914 order setting aside Mother's Day officially. In flowery, presidential language about the role mothers play exclusively in American domestic life, Wilson said nothing — nothing — about mothers' promoting peace in the world, much to the disappointment of Anna Jarvis and the admirers of Julia Ward Howe. As Mother's Day became commercialized, Anna Jarvis's own daughter — who never herself became a mother — spent her own energies trying to refocus the day on peacemaking, but it wasn't to happen. By the end of her life she was so saddened that she claimed she was sorry she had ever gotten Mother's Day started.

"Arise, then, women of this day!" Perhaps today there's time to suggest a still more peaceful Sunday.

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· Standing Firm on Ceremony ·

We've been into wedding work recently and realized, two nights ago, we had rehearsal-dinner invitations left to do. Though no big deal (they can of course be delivered verbally: "Hey, folks, let's all run over to The Greatgood Place for a brew"), maybe for prudence' sake — or propriety's — we decided, rightly, I think, to stand firm on ceremony.

A conservative decision but one fit well to the liberal tradition, too. Indeed, as we're having a Lutheran wedding presided over by a Dr. (a cell biologist happily into her second Rev. career), and by a lay Catholic deacon blessing the day a bit more sacramentally, we reasoned, quite naturally: "Yes, the ceremony demands the right balancing of two traditions, yet maybe without full deference to either." So who should pop up here to confirm our choice but the sagey Russell Kirk, whose The Conservative Mind (1953) includes this paradoxical word happily fit to our circumstances:

A man should be governed in his necessary decisions by a decent respect for the customs of mankind; and he should apply [Kirk claims] that custom or principle to his particular circumstances by a cautious expediency. . . . Even the most intelligent of men cannot hope to understand all the secrets of traditional morals and social arrangements; but we may be sure that Providence, acting through the medium of human trial and error, has developed every hoary habit for some important purpose. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, from Burke to Eliot, 7th Rev. Ed., Washington, D. C.: Regnery, 1985, 37, 38.

So how did Kirk shape our invitations? Simply by reminding us to apply custom or principle "expediently" to particular circumstances. For as we employed trial and error on our own, we considered them quite serially: two real folks asking real guests on a real day to a real place in real time for some real food — beer, wine, salad, bread, lasagna, spumoni (plus toasts, talk, jokes, and gifts) — and then we thought, "Hey, we have some real Stylechoices here (left-to-right, say), a fine couple (Suave and Savvy), and some good writing to do! Let's go for it!"

But then our headaches began. Should we be Mr. and Mrs. Styles Stylechoice, or just Styles and Stylish Stylechoice, and with, or without, the two lovely Gracearts (Holy and Grail), whose soon-to-be Dr. Savvy daughter — her seldom-used first name is Nordicsmart — is, well . . . "betrothed" hardly seemed the word for her, much less "fiancée." Stylistically, we were simply overwhelmed!

Then matters temporal intervened ("'Half after' or 'half past' what?" I asked. "Let dinner do the talkin'," my wife suggested, rightly objecting to "o'clock."), plus attendant spatial matters: "Do we want a map, Styles?" Stylish asked me. "Ask Suave, maybe Savvy," I smartly replied.

Well, we finally settled on an invitation — not "right" or "left" — but "down the middle":

Styles and Stylish Stylechoice
request the pleasure of your company
at the wedding rehearsal dinner honoring


Suave & Savvy


Friday the twenty-eighth of May
Two thousand and four
Six-thirty


The Greatgood Place
111 Middlebrow Avenue
Ourfinetown, Washington

We trust even if you're uninvited you might also enjoy our food for thought.

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