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From the Poet's Notebook

New writing by Howard Nelson

The Fable True: Stories from Thoreau’s The Maine Woods
Music & Narration by David Mallett
North Road Records, 2007

Sorry this review is a few years late. The Maine folksinger and guitarist David Mallett has had a long career which has earned him a devoted following. Like most people, I knew his song "Inch by Inch," ("Inch by inch, row by row, Gonna make this garden grow"), but until recently I hadn't known who the writer of that song was, nor that he has been creating music since the sixties. I only became aware of his name when a friend of mine, knowing my interest in Thoreau, gave me a copy of Mallett's 2007 CD The Fable True: Stories from Thoreau's The Maine Woods. A wonderful gift. I'm deeply grateful to my friend and Mallett both—not to mention Thoreau. I've long thought that The Maine Woods contains some of his most memorable writing, and Mallett's selection and performance made me feel that again. One thing that this CD does especially well is to bring out Thoreau's lyricism. Thoreau aspired to be a poet, and of course he was one, but the great poet in him broke forth in his prose, not his verse. This is not news, but I've never felt the poet in Thoreau more clearly and strongly than in listening to The Maine Woods. Mallett's resonant voice and his firm, calm enunciation are right for Thoreau's descriptions of the physical world, while his inflections and his guitar accompaniment bring out the freshness of Thoreau's perceptions, and his pleasure, which is profound, in being out in the Maine wilderness. Mallett's renditions sparkle. He hasn't tried to make songs out of The Maine Woods; The Fable True is spoken word, and what he is speaking was written as prose. Still, listening to it is like hearing a book of poems, beautifully read aloud.

Some of Mallett's selections give us Thoreau the methodical, physically grounded guy—a part of him that some people find boring for being a little too detailed, maybe a tad compulsive. But poetry has always included listing among its possibilities, and while a selection like "Supplies" may not be exactly Whitmanesque, it's still an engaging catalogue of 19th century camping gear, the poetry of the mundane: "Wear,-- a check shirt, stout old shoes, thick socks, a neck ribbon, thick waistcoat, thick pants, old Kossuth hat, a linen sack…." Another of this sort is "Camping": "I will describe, once for all, the routine of camping at this season…."—then going on to describe the selection of the campsite, looking for one with "a clear, hard, and flat beach to land on, free from mud, and from stones which would injure the canoe," hopefully an open an level space, and "at the same time a cool place, on account of insects." He goes on with similar attention to practical detail— making the fire, cooking the supper, choosing the sleeping area: "Commonly, by the time the bed is made, or within fifteen or twenty minutes, the water boils, the pork is fried, and supper is ready. We eat this sitting on the ground, or a stump, if there is any, around a large piece of birch-bark for a table, each holding a dipper in one hand and a piece of ship-bread or fried pork in the other, frequently making a pass with his hand, or thrusting his head into the smoke, to avoid the mosquitoes." Mallett's guitar gives this material a lilt—though it might be better to say that he sensed the lilt rather than added it, as it came from Thoreau's enjoyment of process and ordinary objects.

But more often these tracks are on a different level of emotion and inspiration, revealing the truth that Thoreau had a poetic soul in the same league with Gerard Manley Hopkins—which is my short-hand way of saying, he was an ecstatic, as well as a language slinger and crafter of high extravagance. When he gets going, he sees the world with that level of luminous, inscape-perceiving particularity and intensity. Mallett's guitar, and the instruments of his accompanying musicians Michael Burd and Susan Ramsey, both release and highlight the ecstasy. Another thing is happening: Thoreau is in two worlds, the physical and the mythological, simultaneously. (Perhaps this is the same thing as being firmly in the body and in ecstasy.) Probably the best example is "Fishing." Thoreau and his buddies are at the mouth of the Aboljacknagesic, a river whose name is itself a textured and flavorful mouthful of sound. They've been told that they would "here find trout enough," and they do. This is a description of a time when the fishing was great; it was amazing. The fish were biting, and through the filter of Thoreau's mind, fishing is itself and something else again. The fish are almost leaping out of the water. Is it a fish story? It's not the one that got away; it's fishing heaven. The fish are coming so fast that they're flopping and wriggling down into the water again, but one fisherman, apparently Thoreau, has lost his hook, and so he turns to grabbing them before they can escape. He stands on shore "to catch them as they fell in a perfect shower around him,--sometimes, wet and slippery, full in his face and bosom, as his arms were outstretched to receive them." This is not Thoreau the uptight, stoic New Englander; this is him in a state of openness to a dazzling abundance.

While yet alive, before their tints had faded, they glistened like the fairest flowers, the product of primitive rivers; and he could hardly trust his senses, as he stood over them, that these jewels should have swam away in that Aboljacknagesic water for so long, so many dark ages;--these bright fluviatile flowers, seen of Indians only, made beautiful, the Lord only knows why, to swim there!

Or, you might say, Glory be to God for dappled things.

Thoreau knows what territory he is in, and he adds: "I could understand better for this, the truth of mythology, the fables of Proteus, and all those beautiful sea-monsters,--how all history, indeed, put to a terrestrial use, is mere history; but put to a celestial use, is mythology always." When Mallett reads this passage, he reads with perfect poise and the right emphasis—as he consistently does. The words "celestial" and "mythology" never sounded better—they are the accurate, necessary words, not grandiose at all. The guitar rolls like a stream; the viola comes in beautifully. Just a little bit of heaven on earth.

Then Mallett skips ahead a little in the text—his editing is expert throughout the album—and picks up Thoreau at night, having dreamed of trout-fishing, and then wondering if the day's experience might not have been a dream too: "it seemed a fable that this painted fish swam there so near my couch, and rose to our hooks the last evening, and I doubted if I had not dreamed it all." To test the reality of his experience, he gets up in the pre-dawn and fishes again, and he finds "the dream to be real and The Maine Woods"—though truly this time it's hard to tell whether the fish are in the water or in the stars. Mallett made a good choice in using that phrase as the title for this album. The physical kind of reality, and the consciousness we sometimes call myth and sometimes imagination, meet in this passage and, again and again, in The Maine Woods. It's what a transcendentalist might call higher consciousness, and what someone who stays on an earthier plane might just call pleasure. There are two pauses that Mallett leaves in this second part of "Fishing" that are exquisitely right-on; maybe they mark the moments when Thoreau passes from one world to the other, and back again—one after he mentions that his companions are asleep, and the second when he notes that they have awakened and joined him. However that may be, they are small touches of perfect timing, wonderfully effective, typical of Mallett's right instincts in reading.

Many poets have tried to write poems about loons. For some people—Thoreau for one—they are the most poetic bird. A pleasure to watch them riding low in the water, and then disappear, keeping us guessing about where they will surface—a game Thoreau enjoyed playing at Walden. And then there is the thought of them swimming—or is it submarine flying?—in the light green or tannic dark water. But it is their sound above all that makes loons poetic. As Thoreau says, "I do not mean its laugh, but its looning." He's right—no other word is quite right. But he finds some good other words for their singing nonetheless: it is "a long-drawn call, as it were sometimes singularly human to my ear,--hoo-hoo-ooooo, like the hallooing of a man on a very high key, having thrown his voice into his head." He feels a great affinity with the loon, partly because he sometimes makes a similar song "when breathing heavily through my own nostrils, half awake at ten at night"—a nice specific detail, in case you've ever had the fantasy of going camping with Thoreau and sharing a tent with him. He praises the loon as the essential voice of the wilderness: "…when lying awake at midnight in those woods, I had listened to hear some words or syllables of their [wolves'] language, but it chanced that I listened in vain until I heard the cry of the loon." "It was the unfailing and characteristic sound of those lakes." Mallett's instrumental accompaniment is simple and evocative—spare contributions of guitar and bass, augmented by what must be a bit of actual loon cry. He handles all this loon-praise with understatement, down to the straightforwardness of, "I could lie awake for hours listening to it, it is so thrilling." So, we have the loon in "Brute Neighbors" in Walden, the chapter that comes in like a complement, almost an antidote, to "Higher Laws" which precedes it; and this encounter, which Thoreau likes even more: "I have heard [the loon's singing] occasionally on the ponds of my native town, but there its wildness is not enhanced by the surrounding scenery." He paid his homage to loons; I don't know who has done better. A couple of cuts later, Mallett shapes Thoreau's moose-hunting adventures and commentary into a moose prose poem as good as the one on loons.

The Maine Woods is much about water, with its descriptions of boating, boats (the batteaux: "There is something refreshing and wildly musical to my ears in the very name of the white man's canoe…. The batteau is a sort of mongrel between the canoe and the boat, a fur-trader's boat."), running rapids, rivers and deep lakes—it is "Well-watered Country." This last phrase is the title of the final selection, which makes a fine conclusion. Its opening sentence floats along on its w's: "It is wonderful how well watered this country is." Its last sentence is such quintessential praise of canoes that it is surprising that some canoe company hasn't used it in their advertising; maybe one has: "Wherever there is a channel for water, there is a road for the canoe." In between those sentences, Thoreau is once again dreaming, as in "Fishing," and comparing dream and actuality. Once again, he is pleased at the way they mysteriously overlap.

Probably the most frequently anthologized section of The Maine Woods is Thoreau's ascent to the wild upper reaches of the mountain, rendered here by Mallett as "Ktaadn," "A Deep and Narrow Ravine" and "Condensed Cloud." Sometimes Thoreau has been criticized for being an apostle of wildness ("In wildness is the preservation of the world.") whose credentials are not as strong as they should be, because he is essentially a town-guy, too close to home, and his sauntering is too easy. Then, when he gets to a place that truly deserves the word wild, up there on Ktaadn, he seems to clutch. So be it. Mallett has not included the passage where Thoreau loses his self-control, becomes slightly hysterical, expressed in a run of exclamation marks and italics: "What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature,--daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,--rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?" I would have loved to hear what Mallett, with his strong, mellow voice, would have done with that. What we do get is two terrific passages: Thoreau making his way across the tops of "ancient black spruce-trees, old as the flood," worn or beaten down by the wind so that they can only grow within ravines among the rocks, which contain the dens of bears, visible below—"certainly the most treacherous and porous country I ever traveled." It's wild enough. Thoreau's Yankee wryness survives, as he describes his climb ("I mean to lay some emphasis on this word up"), and his descriptive powers are at their sharpest. In "Condensed Cloud" he takes us into a place of rocks and clouds that are wet, powerful, and enveloping, and to a remarkable rendering of primordial nature, "the raw materials of a planet dropped from an unseen quarry." If channeling the voice of Mother Nature is not too anthropomorphic for you, Thoreau does about as well as anyone could ask, and it is moving, especially if you know him as the advocate for solitude in Walden, to hear him describe some part of him, "even some vital part," escaping through "the loose grating of his ribs," and to hear him say, so simply, that he is "more lone than you can imagine." I don't consider it a deficiency of wildness; I consider it honesty.

I hope I haven't seemed to overpraise The Maine Woods. It's just that I don't really see how it could be better. Obviously it cannot do justice to all of Thoreau. The social critic has mostly been left behind on these excursions, though not entirely. In "Pines" Thoreau not only praises the trees; he also scorns the human narrowness and voraciousness that only wants to cut them down. "A More Liberal Culture" is a concise expression of the insight that he and only a few of his contemporaries had: that nature was threatened; not so vast as to be virtually infinite, laid out for our own uses and expansion. He didn't live to see the advent of national parks, but he saw the need for them: to set off "forests…not for idle sport or food, but for inspiration and our own true recreation[….] or shall we, like the villains, grub them all up, poaching on our own national domains?"

What he did leave behind when he went to Maine was the cantankerous, annoying, didactic, superior-to-his-neighbors side of his personality. In Walden, he's living in the woods, by the pond, "in nature," but close enough to town to be constantly aware of what he doesn't approve of. Thoreau needed the town, and the town was lucky to have him. He was a non-conformist, a non-joiner, but also a citizen of a human community if there ever was one. He was not always likeable, in person or in writing. It was part of his job, or at least his personality, to be contrary. But in Maine he had more air to breath, bigger, simpler things to do, and so the man we encounter in The Maine Woods, and even more so in the selections of The Maine Woods, is a less abrasive, more relaxed fellow than the one we meet in Walden, not to mention "Civil Disobedience."

The word "stories" is right for some of the selections, but this is the poet in Thoreau as much as the storyteller—Thoreau set to music, and highlighted by music. There is just the right amount of instrumental enhancement, and a great sensitivity to the rhythms of the language, which flow from Thoreau's magnificent sense of syntax.

In one of the selections, "Salmon River," Thoreau recounts visiting the site of a settlement in its early, struggling stage of existence, just a few log-huts thrown up beside the river. But there are also, already, some graves, surrounded by a small fence. This sets Thoreau musing forward in time, imagining the graveyard in the distant future, when it looks more like the one in Gray's "Elegy." It will have more occupants then, and Thoreau quotes the poem: "Perchance in this wild spot there will be laid/ Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;/ Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed,/ Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre." That last line comes in beautifully, and it makes one think of Mallett's guitar—the drifting lovely rift to which that passage is set, its effect at that moment, and throughout the album as a whole.