Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Closest, Realest Face

Yesterday, I was writing about Quinton Duval and his poem "Day After Day," from which the above blog epigram is taken:

"The big ideas huddle
in the jar together. You spread them
over the black bread of day after day
and swallow them."

Not only has this poem been one of my favorites for the past thirty-five years, and served as an inspiration for "The Quotidian Kit," but it also brings to mind one of my favorite novels, My Ántonia, Willa Cather's early twentieth-century classic which features one of closest, realest faces in all of American literature: Ántonia Shimerda.

Ántonia embodies both "the big ideas" and "the black bread of day after day." When her childhood friend, Jim Burden, comes to visit, he observes that "All the strong things of her heart came out in her body . . . She was a rich mine of life" (353).

Proudly, Ántonia introduces her family to Jim and shows him around her flourishing fields and orchards, explaining to him the working of her farm and the feeding of her many children. As the little ones excitedly show Jim the preserves in the cellar -- strawberries, cherries, crabappless, spiced plums -- Ántonia describes the baking of the bread: " 'You wouldn't believe, Jim what it takes to feed them all! . . . You ought to see the bread we bake on Wednesdays and Saturdays. . . . We have our own wheat ground for flour' "(337 - 38).

Jim admires Ántonia's tireless persistence, the "planting and tending and harvesting at last," i.e., the black bread. At the same time, he also recognizes the the big ideas that inform her life: "She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken . . . she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things" (353).

Common things, quotidian, day after day . . . See what I mean?

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A few more "big ideas" and favorite lines from My Ántonia:

Earlier in the novel, Jim visits Ántonia after a five-year separation (from age 18 - 23). He is gratified that "She wanted to know about my friends, and my way of living, and my dearest hopes. . . . 'Do you know, Antonia, since I have been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. . . . The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times, when I don't realize it. You really are a part of me.' "

" 'And I guess everybody thinks about old times, even the happiest people,' " responds Ántonia. (320-21)

"I had to look hard to see her face, which I meant always to carry with me; the closest, realest face, under all the shadows of women's faces, at the very bottom of my memory.

'I'll come back,' I said earnestly . . .

'Perhaps you will. . . . But even if you don't, you're here' " (322-223).


Many more chapters and another twenty years go by before Jim comes back to his home town: "Perhaps it was cowardice that kept me away so long. . . . Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again" (327 - 28).

"Before I could sit down in the chair she offered me, the miracle happened; one of those quiet moments that clutch the heart, and take more courage than the noisy excited passages in life. Ántonia came in and stood before me . . . We stood looking at each other. The eyes that peered anxiously at me were -- simply Ántonia's eyes. I had seen no others like them since I looked into them last, though I had looked at so many thousands of human faces. As I confronted her, the changes grew less apparent, her identity stronger" (331).


All passages above from the novel My Ántonia
by Willa Sibert Cather, 7 December 1873 – 24 April 1947,
eminent American author from Nebraska, best known for her depictions of frontier life on the Great Plains in novels such as
O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and The Song of the Lark.
In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, inspired by reading the wartime letters of her cousin G.P. Cather,
the first officer from Nebraska to be killed in World War I.

Willa Cather's Birthplace & Early Childhood Home
Gore, Virginia

Willa Cather's Later Childhood Home
Red Cloud, Nebraska
"There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years."
~Willa Cather, from O Pioneers (Part II, Ch. 4)

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