AFTER THE ALPHABETS
I am trying to decipher the language of insects
they are the tongues of the future
their vocabularies describe buildings as food
they can depict dark water and the veins of trees
they can convey what they do not know
and what is known at a distance
and what nobody knows
they have terms for making music with the legs
they can recount changing in a sleep like death
they can sing with wings
the speakers are their own meaning in a grammar without horizons
they are wholly articulate
they are never important they are everything
— W.S. Merwin, from his 1988 book The Rain in the Trees. Copyright © 1988 by W. S. Merwin.
Merwin died this month at the age of 91.
The joy of research means discovering new things, like a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who seems virtually unknown today. Julia Peterkin’s Scarlet Sister Mary, the fictionalized story of the Gullah community on Peterkin’s plantation in South Carolina, won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1929. A Devil and a Good Woman, Too by Susan Millar Williams, is the only biography written about her. Thomas Landess’s book, pictured here, offers some biographical information, but it concentrates mainly on Peterkin’s oeuvre, including Roll, Jordan, Roll, the collaboration between Peterkin and photographer, Doris Ulmann. This is the first, published collaboration between a woman photographer and a woman writer. Appearing in 1933, it predates similar, collaborations, like Cabins in the Laurel, featuring a collage-like memoir by Muriel Earley Sheppard and the photographs of Bayard Wooten. Roll, Jordan, Roll also predates more famous collaborations like Walker Evans’s and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
More rain to quench a thirsty land.
As we turn the corner into a new year, I’m looking for that joy that cometh in the morning.