He Liked Ivy. We Are Not Surprised

Brooke here.  Zu recovered beautifully and without the need for surgery, although for some reason the entire house now smells like Bac-Os.  Go figure.

Randall Jarrell died in 1965 but his wife waited until 2000 to publish the memoir. It's a layer cake of oddities.

Last week, Mary and Elizabeth gave us a copy of Remembering Randall, the memoir of Randall Jarrell written by his wife, Mary von Schrader Jarrell.  There’s some serious weirdness in this book, especially for someone living in their house.  I don’t know if we would have liked them as people; I’m fairly positive they wouldn’t have liked us.  Admittedly, I’m out of the circles traveled by acclaimed scholars and Poet Laureates so perhaps it’s a matter of culture and perception, but von Schrader Jarrell’s fond memories of her husband make me cringe:

To be married to Randall was to be encapsulated with him. He wanted, and we had, a round-the-clock inseparability. We took three meals a day together, every day. I went to his classes and he went on my errands. I watched him play tennis; he picked out my clothes. Sometimes we were brother and sister ‘like Wordsworth and Dorothy’ and other times we were twins, Randall pretended. “The Bobbsey Twins at the Plaza,” he’d say up in our room at the Plaza (p. 135).

I … hmmm.  Well, I love Brown.  He loves me.  These are facts.  It is also a fact that one of us would have to find a place to dump a body if the other decided to adopt this lifestyle.

The book is a chronicle of subtle excess, as von Schrader Jarrell was a name-dropper and label-monger extraordinaire.  She talks, fondly, about the kind of cars they bought, the places they traveled, the people they knew, the products they purchased, their extensive educations, and their wealth, often all in the same paragraph: “Randall never had a savings account,” she wrote, “only a spending account where his royalties and honorariums and salaries were transubstantiated into opera, the house in Montecito, the antiques, and a hand-carved life-size swan we bought with his honorarium from Johns Hopkins” (p. 143).  Then she recalls, fondly, how Randall used to rip up his expensive handkerchiefs to wipe the grime off of his Jaguar.

There was a bearskin rug by their bed, which knocked me back when I read it as bears are large and that room is most definitely not, but perhaps they merged into a single Superpoet at night or something and didn’t need anything larger than a single.  She had fond memories of that rug.

It’s fond.  Everything is fond.  It’s almost two hundred pages of glorious recollection of good times and love, and there is nothing wrong with this except that Randall Jarrell was fighting with a deep personal depression and it’s not possible to casually cover his illness with a decades-long spending spree.  I’m perhaps more bitter about this than I should be, as I’ve wrestled with depression myself and I am aware there are really good days tucked in amongst the bad, but von Schrader Jarrell implies that these good days were the norm and Jarrell’s illness was just something that was, like his gift for writing poetry.

Oh, then there’s a casual mention of his black moods.

Oh, and he got on a new medication which worked wonders, and then they went shopping!

Oh, he had to spend some time away.  How long?  Oh, most of 1964.  No big deal.  When he returned, they bought cars.  Again.  To replace the custom-made ones (“a Jaguar sports car XK-120 in desert gold, with orange leather seats ‘the color of a new football,’ Randall said.”) they picked up in person at the Coventry factory in 1963.

That’s… that’s a very inaccurate picture of depression.

Oddly, while von Schrader Jarrell never fails to mention where they traveled or the names of the prominent hotels where they lodged (or the expensive dishes they ate while they were there, or how much she paid for a hat…), there is very, very little about this house.  And now I’m especially curious about its origins.  The story we’ve been told is that the Jarrells custom-built this house for their personal and entertaining needs in the late 1950s, and that seems to be the sort of thing that would make it into this book.  Building your own tailor-made house is a status symbol, and von Schrader Jarrell doesn’t seem to be the type of writer to leave a status symbol by the wayside.

You rabid ignorant sons of ...

There are mentions of their homes, true, but it’s never really clear which house von Schrader Jarrell is referencing at any given time.  They had so many different houses, you see!  “After our two years in Washington we bought a rustic house on a red clay road in a small forest in pines and hardwoods,” she wrote (p. 143), but this is of no help whatsoever. Was this particular house in Washington, or was it the accurate use of “after,” when they had returned to Greensboro?  Von Schrader Jarrell gives us no context and I can’t use the details to flesh out the location; I wouldn’t call our house “rustic,” but then again, it is set in a small forest of pines and hardwoods and I’ve never pretended I’m a Bobbsey at the Plaza.

It does, however, explain why there’s so much f!@&ing ivy everywhere:

It was his idea to surround the house with rooted ivy plants in hopes they would take the place as the neighbors warned, saying ‘The first year it sleeps. The second year it creeps. The third year it leaps.’ And yes, they were right. When ivy stayed across the window screens and, to Randall’s delight, sent tendrils indoors, the neighbors were horrified and triumphant and asked him what he was going to do now? Randal said, serenely, “Let ’em. They won’t harm me if I don’t harm them is this house’s motto” (p. 144).

If it was this house, our house, the motto has changed.

Fire.  And lots of it.

9 thoughts on “He Liked Ivy. We Are Not Surprised

  1. Hey Brooke,
    Very fun to hear your reflections on the book. Have to admit that I skimmed it mostly in an attempt to discover details about your house, but you are so correct in stating that it is very hard to figure out where they were living at any given time.

    Also, even in just skimming it I picked up on the name dropping and spending sprees. The part that was most alarming to me was when he went on a “new medication” and was just sooo freakin’ productive! She was treating this manic episode like it was just great fun. “I’m just so fond of Randall when he is bouncing off the walls. He wrote 24 poems today and shows no sign of stopping.”

    Does this book give you any insights about the locks on the outside of the bedroom doors? Maybe when someone was being a Bad Bobbsey?

  2. I must admit I never really enjoyed his poetry. The couple feels very Bashkirttsieff to me, but I have always held a supreme loathing for this sort of educated glitterati. (I leafed through the bio once. I cringed.) I can imagine you would like to read the book if you lived in the house, but I would probably not give them the time of day.

    Can’t the army get you some Agent Orange or something? 😉

  3. I’ve followed your comic for years. Can’t believe I missed this. You must not sleep to be able to take on so many projects at once.

    I read that book by Lady Randall: the fallout of me trying to join a book club in hopes it would strengthen my writing. Bad idea. It was like the unholy union of Marie Antoinette’s memoirs on what really matters in life and what you’d get if you told a Stepford wife to recount how deep a loving marriage can really be.

    So, I take it you don’t like ivy? We’ve done the entire yard in creeping jasmine. No weeds. No mowing. Smells heavenly at night. Pisses off the neighbors like you wouldn’t believe. Couldn’t be happier.

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