When a publicist recently sent me a new book about weather, she probably didn’t know how strange her timing would be. The parcel reached my doorstep a couple of days after Hurricane Ida tore through Louisiana, capping a month in which weather talk had dominated the state.
But the editors of the book, curiously titled “Gigantic Cinema,” point out that people are always talking about the weather, regardless of the season or where they live. That endless conversation about heat and cold, wind and rain naturally ends up shaping the world’s literature, too.
In their colorful anthology, Alice Oswald and Paul Keegan, who both live in England, assemble some of the most memorable references to weather in poems and prose works from around the world. Not surprisingly, the book has a British emphasis, taking its title from Virginia Woolf’s description of weather as a “gigantic cinema.” She lived mostly in London, where the weather tends to change quickly.
We know a little bit about that challenge here in Louisiana, where Monday plans for a weekend barbecue can be derailed by a hurricane come Friday.
“Gigantic Cinema” is fairly silent on the matter of hurricanes, though an observation from the 11th-century Japanese writer Sei Shonagon on the aftermath of a typhoon will seem eerily familiar to anyone who’s had to dig out of a major storm.
“The day after a typhoon,” she writes, “is extremely moving, and full of interest. The lattice and open-weave fences around the garden have been left in a shambles; and the various garden plants are in a miserable state. Great trees have been blown over, and the branches ripped off; it gives you quite a shock to discover them lying there. …”
After a hurricane, as we look at the downed trunks and limbs, it can seem that trees are specially designed to attract the wrath of the sky. That’s the premise of an old folk poem from the English region of Sussex that’s in “Gigantic Cinema,” too: “Beware the oak; it draws the stroke. / Avoid the ash; it courts the flash. / Creep under a thorn; it may save you from harm.”
Elizabeth Bishop, one of America’s greatest poets of the 20th century, aptly captures the sense of menace as bad weather approaches in “Electrical Storm”: “Think of the storm roaming the sky uneasily / like a dog looking for a place to sleep in, / listen to it growling.”
When Woolf described weather as a gigantic cinema, she also made the point that its theater is largely ignored. Most of us are usually too busy living our lives, she argued, to give the weather much of a look.
That was her theory, anyway. After what Louisiana has been through this year in a hurricane season not yet over, ignoring the weather would feel like a great luxury.