I had always thought that the only relationship between the weather and the cinema was that a rainy day was a good time to see a film. Then I read an excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill,” in which she looks up at the sky while bedridden and sees:
. . . this incessant making up of shapes and casting them down, this buffeting of clouds together, and drawing vast trains of ships and wagons together, this incessant ringing up and down of curtains of light and shade, this interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows, with veiling the sun and unveiling it, with making rock ramparts and wafting them away . . . One should not let this gigantic cinema play perpetually to an empty house.
Woolf’s passage not only supplies the title of Gigantic Cinema: A Weather Anthology, edited by acclaimed British poet Alice Oswald and poetry editor Paul Keegan, but also illustrates the type of “visceral” language about the weather, from ancient to modern, that the editors selected for their book.
To “expose” us to the weather graphically, the editors have relegated the entries’ titles to the back of the book and authors to the bottom of the page, so, as Oswald puts it, the reader is “encountering each voice abruptly, as an exclamation brought on by the weather.” What’s more, there are no signposts indicating that we’re reading poetry or prose, fiction or “report,” and there are almost no dates. Another innovation of the anthology is framing the 300 highly varied entries within one “omniform day,” organized from morning to night yet spanning centuries. This approach is similar to the one Osborne used in her book-length poem Sleepwalking on the Severn, in which she records images and voices at night along the Severn River, in England, during five phases of the moon. The more wide-ranging Gigantic Cinema opens with an owl hooting to announce the dawn and then moves on unpredictably to such phenomena as the “proper names” for “faces of the sky,” climate’s effects on people, the weather in hell (according to Dante’s Inferno), wind in all its varieties, the “Chinese Dragon” linked to clouds, a stone as a diary of the weather, mists, Africans who love rain, a dream of earth losing the sun and the solar eclipse of 1921. Pity the poor evening news broadcaster who would have to report the weather on this “omniform” day!
Yet the most original aspect of Gigantic Cinema is the writing’s relation to the weather. As Oswald says in her preface, she and Keegan aimed “to dispense with writing ‘about’ weather” and instead to find “writing that is ‘like’ weather, that has the sovereignty of sheer event . . . that ‘buffets’ us, indicating an outdoor world moving behind the language.” The passage from Woolf above is so apt that Oswald calls it “the voice-over for this anthology.” And in other extracts, we find that there are as many ways to be buffeted as there are types of weather.
Seeing isn’t the only way to perceive a weather event. Author John Hull, who is blind, tracks the subtleties of a rainstorm with concentrated hearing. When an early morning rain wakes him up, he presses his forehead against a window pane in his quiet house and discerns that the sounds of rainfall differ in just where it lands on the house, how fast it is falling, its intensity, and its pitch. “The more I listened,” Hull writes “the more I found I could discriminate, building block upon block of sound, noticing regularities and irregularities, dimension upon dimension.”
One way to achieve writing that’s “like the weather” is to create your own weather in a poem. That’s just what Wassily Kandinsky, better known for his paintings, did in his abstract poem “Bassoon.” In a nameless town, changes in the weather and their effects are caused not by meteorologic forces but by colors and sounds. “A fat hard egg-shaped orange-cloud” radiates “violet.” When a storm eventually beaks out, thick-walled buildings collapse yet the “quivering long branches” of a “naked tree” are stilled. When the orange cloud disappears, the sky turns “piercing blue” and the town becomes “yellow enough to make you cry.” The notes of a bassoon turn everything — including people — a color green that becomes “brighter . . . colder . . . more poisonous.”
By including the unreal imagery of “Bassoon” in Gigantic Cinema, the editors have made the other factual yet dramatic entries seem a bit magical, too.
When Oswald stated that she and Keegan looked for writing that is “like weather,” she added: “As if the weather were to write itself (as it does in Apollinaire’s calligramme of rain).” It’s a visual poem that pops out even if you’re just flipping through Gigantic Cinema.
Apollinaire was an avant-garde poet of the early 20th century who wrote in French. His trademark calligrammes were graphically designed to present language and image simultaneously. In the calligramme “The Tie and the Watch,” for instance, the text is arranged to outline these two objects while expressing Apollinaire’s idiosyncratic take on them. His calligramme “It’s Raining” is more kinetic. The five lines of varying lengths are printed vertically and slanted from left to right, suggesting rain being blown by the wind. What’s more, the very small typeface makes the French text look like raindrops.
Roger Shattuck’s English translation (provided in the index) tells us the fantasies that Apollinaire reaped from the rain, such as: “It’s raining women’s voices”; “Those rearing clouds begin to neigh a whole universe of auricular cities”; “Listen to the bonds fall off which hold you above and below.” If this example of weather writing by itself doesn’t immediately inspire visions like Apollinaire’s, next time it rains you may be encouraged to grab your umbrella and rev up your imagination.
This writing that’s “like weather” is similar to what contemporary composer John Luther Adams is doing in his music. “My music is going inexorably from being about place to becoming place,” Adams has said, and that includes the place’s weather. Obviously, the composer has more tools for mimicking weather than a writer does. Adams has spent a good part of his life in Alaska, and his piece about the state is Earth and the Great Weather, “much of which,” as music critic Alex Ross has described it, “is given over to the chanting of place names and descriptive phrases from the native Iñupiaq and Gwich’in languages, both in the original and in translation,” and varies from “ethereal sonorities for strings” to viscerally pummeling movements for quartets for drums.”
Not all of the anthology’s extracts mimic the weather to the same degree. But readers will discover a trove of meteorological gems throughout the book.
A poem by Derek Mahon recounts the 17th-century Japanese poet Basho’s attendance at a “snow party,” where:
There is a tinkling of china
And tea into china;
There are introductions.
Crowds to the window
To watch the falling snow.
Gerard Manley Hopkins scrutinizes the variations in sunsets: “Four colors, in particular, have been noticeable in these after-glows, and in a fixed order . . . orange, lowest and nearest the sundown; above this, and broader, green; above this, broader still, a variable red, ending in being crimson; above this a faint lilac.” A short poem by John Clare beginning “The thunder mutters” succinctly sketches what happens to the “hay folks” who “ply the rake” in a sudden thunderstorm. At first “ . . . all the gang a bigger haycock make/to sit beneath . . . ,” and then after an hour:
A tiney flood runs down the leaning rake
In the sweet hay yet dry the hay folks cower
& some beneath the waggon shun the shower.
Amidst the entries comprised of several paragraphs or even pages, we come across an occasional radiant detail that serves as a break in the weather, like this one in its entirety from a Yuma Deer Dance: “The waterbug is drawing the shadows of the evening/toward him on the water.”
I was surprised that of the 300 entries in Gigantic Cinema, only three of them registered complaints about the weather. Yet all three are sweeping condemnations. One of them is an entry in Gustave Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas: “WEATHER. Eternal topic of conversation. Cause of all illnesses. Must always be complained of.” The title of Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Spleen IV” warns us that it won’t be a paean to the elements, but nothing could prepare the reader for lines like: “When the low heavy sky weighs like a lid on the spirit as it groans”; “When the rain, dragging out its immense, oblique lines, mimics the bars of a vast prison”; “And long, funereal processions, without drums or music, file slowly past in my soul.” Wyndham Lewis uses large, boldface type. all caps and underlining— a graphic style found in his journal BLAST— to kvetch about the lack of snow and ice in London one winter: “CURSE the flabby sky that can produce no snow . . . .” And, angry that a lake in Hyde Park is not frozen: “CURSE the flabby air that cannot stiffen the back of the Serpentine . . . ”
Frankly, I missed seeing my favorite weather-complaint poem, a parody of the anonymous folk song “Cuckoo Song” welcoming summer. It’s the cathartic “Ancient Music,” one of Ezra Pounds few light verses, which begins:
Winter is icummen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
I think of that poem every year here in Wisconsin, where we often don’t see signs of spring until April. In other words, “Winter is ilingeren on.”
It’s only fitting that the author of the most famous quote about the weather (“Everyone talks about the weather, but….”) should have the last word. The excerpt from Mark Twain’s novel The American Claimant in Giant Cinema confirms that he actually did do something about the weather: he moved it to the back of the book. He writes that he did so for the sake of the reader:
“Many a reader who wanted to read a tale through was not able to do it because of delays on account of the weather. Nothing breaks up an author’s progress like having to stop every few pages to fuss up the weather.”
Twain didn’t delete the weather entirely because it’s “necessary to any narrative of human experience.” So he not only moved the weather, but also thought it best to “borrow” these descriptions of it from authors who were better at writing them than he was (“giving credit, of course”).
If only it were as easy to move our daily weather from one place to another and to choose the best available conditions for our own fair town! •