Saturday, April 19, 2014

"The Gutenberg Elegies: the Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age" - Sven Birkets

I just read this book … it is hard to believe it was published twenty years ago … it could have been published last month and still would seem up-to-date. What foresight this guy had. Four or five times I came upon a sentence that made me question that Sven Birkerts would have known this in 1994 and I would go back to the copyright page and check to see if it really did say 1994 … and it did say it every time. 

Here's the last paragraph of the book:

"The devil no longer moves about on cloven hooves, reeking of brimstone He is an affable, efficient fellow. He claims to want to help us all along to a brighter, easier future, and his sales pitch is very smooth. I was, as the old song goes, almost persuaded. I saw what it could be like, our toil and misery replaced by a vivid, pleasant dream. Fingers tap keys, oceans of fact and sensation get downloaded, are dissolved through the nervous system. Bottomless wells of data are accessed and manipulated, everything flowing at circuit speed. Gone the rock in the field, the broken hoe, the grueling distances. 'History,' said Stephen Dedalus, 'is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.' This may be the awakening, but it feels curiously like the fantasies that circulate through our sleep. From deep in the heart I hear the voice that says, 'Refuse it.'"

I realize what excellent times I have had the privilege of living through; I do not lament not getting to live far into a future that I am convinced will be far less appealing than, say, 1940 to now has been. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

RIP: Clare Booth Luce - March 10, 1905 - Oct 4 1989

When visiting a brother in South Carolina a few years back we went to Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery, and a tourist attraction, northwest of Charleston. We had a picnic sort of lunch as we sat on a bench from which there was a fetching view of Cooper River. It was warm and sunny, a perfect day to eat outside and then walk around some of the 3000-plus acres of the abbey, land which in earlier days had been a plantation.
The famous publisher Henry R. Luce and his wife, Clare Boothe Luce, bought the property in 1936.
I remember reading her name in the news when I was young; she was a member of Congress, but, before that, she was also a famous playwright -- her most successful play, The Women, from 1936, had an all-female cast numbering nearly forty. She was also an admired fiction writer and journalist. She was beautiful and seductive ... her mother trained her in seductiveness, urging her to frequent places where she might find a rich husband ... and Clare succeeded twice in that endeavor.
Credited to Luce are many witty phrases, including: 'No good deed goes unpunished' and 'Widowhood is a fringe benefit of marriage' as well as smart observations such as 'Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say "She doesn't have what it takes." They will say, "Women don't have what it takes."'
Her stint as a foreign correspondent in Europe in the early forties did not impress another wit of the day, Dorothy Parker, who said that Luce's book about the early years of the war should have been called All Clare on the Western Front.

In her early years as a Republican Congresswoman, she had some wonderfully progressive ideas, but then, coming to despise Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, she moved further and further to the right. (Today she'd probably be a star of the Tea Party.) When Eisenhower assumed the Presidency he appointed Mrs. Luce as the Ambassador to Italy; she was the first woman to hold an important diplomatic post. Late in his Presidency, Eisenhower appointed her as Ambassador to Brazil. Four days after the appoiintment -- before she'd left for Brazil -- she remarked that Bolivia, where people were rioting, should be divided among its neighbors. This undiplomatic should-have-kept-your-mouth-shut resulted in a hasty resignation.
Though I wouldn't have known the word in my younger days, it seemed to me that the name Clare Boothe Luce was onomaipoeiac for snooty or uppity. This is not to say she was; I have no idea. She was probably, except in the political views of Democrats, charming as all get out. 
Luce Family Cemetery, Moncks Corner, South Carolina
Clare Boothe Luce had only one child, Ann, sired by her first husband. Ann was killed in a car crash at the age of twenty in 1944. Seeking consolation, Clare Boothe Luce found it in conversations with a Catholic priest, and she converted to that faith. One result of this was the donation of most of the Luce's South Carolina grounds to the Trappists in 1949.

Stone marking the graves of Henry and Claire Boothe Luce

Gravestone of Clare Boothe Luce's daughter, Ann Clark Brokaw.
The epitaph is Psalm 45:
Hearken O daughter
and consider \
and incline thine ear
forget also thine own people
and thy father's house
So shall the King
greatly desire thy beauty
for He is they Lord
worship thou him.

Gravestone of Nancy Bryan Luce, daughter-in-law
of Henry R. Luce

On another part of the grounds is the private graveyard
of the Laurens family; the plantation was owned by
the family for several generations.

Our Lady of Mepkin

Also on the Abbey grounds, a memorial to nine Charleston firemen
who perished while fighting a sofa store fire in 2007.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

RIP: Justin Kaplan - Sept. 5, 1925 - March 2, 2014

Justin Kaplan's obituary was published in The New York Times today. He was famous mostly for his biographies of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, and as the editor of two editions of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.

I especially liked reading in the obituary about Kaplan's sense of humor:

In the late 1980s, Mr. Kaplan was recruited as the general editor of Bartlett’s. The job entailed vast learning and wide reading, both of which he had, as well as an immense circle of associates willing to scare up quotations, which he also had.

It also entailed unremitting lobbying from those associates, and from friends, family and all manner of strangers, to include well-loved quotations and exclude less-well-loved ones.

Mr. Kaplan read all 25,000 quotations in the book’s previous edition and took his shears to many of them.

“I don’t care for withered flowers of poesy,” he told Smithsonian magazine in 1991. I’m not tolerant of platitudes, empty pieties, self-evident propositions, commencement oratory and anything that sounds as though it might have come from the insides of a fortune cookie.”

The new Bartlett’s, published in 1992, reflected Mr. Kaplan’s desire for a cultural ecumenicalism that older editions seemed to lack. Under his stewardship, the volume incorporated quotations from Woody Allen (“It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens”); Kermit the Frog (“It’s not that easy bein’ green”); and an Englishman born Archie Leach (“Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant”).

The edition drew the ire of conservatives. Several commentators, among them the actor Charlton Heston, complained that Mr. Kaplan, a self-described liberal, had advanced his political agenda by including, for instance, only a few quotations from President Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Kaplan countered that in so doing, he had done Mr. Reagan a great kindness.
That Cary Grant quote, which I'd not heard before, is great.  So is Kaplan's stinging observation about Reagan. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Happy Birthday to My Mother

Iris Luckenbill Fitzgerald
Born: February 8, 1907
Died: January 21, 1989

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best Reads of 2013 --

My bookshelves when I lived in South Yarmouth

1. Harvard Square - Andre Aciman

My favorite books are generally biography, autobiography, essays, or memoirs, but I start this list off with a novel.  Aciman is one of those writers who seem to have no imagination for fiction, so this book could just as well be a memoir of his time at Harvard University ... embellished perhaps, changed around perhaps ... but if presented as a memoir its truth would not likely be questioned. It's a great depiction of Khalid, a Tunisian cab driver whom the student-narrator meets in a cafe; Khalid's street-smarts and ability to seductively navigate Cambridge and Boston amaze the narrator, who seems to have no brilliant ideas such as Khalid can come up with in the blink of an eye; Khalid, who can figure a situation out quick as a flash, is as stunned by the narrator's naivete as the narrator is amazed by Khalid's cool. Harvard Square is a beautifully told story of a very unlikely friendship. The denouement, which involves a Green Card as the Holy Grail, is not happy,

Aciman is a beautiful stylist. His Eight White Nights of 2010 was also a great read. His 1995 Out of Egypt, a memoir, was a favorite. His 2007 Call Me by Your Name appeared, also flawlessly styled, and rather short, but also as a shock, for it seemed to have been written by a gay man; I would not have taken Aciman to be gay, but who knows? Call Me by Your Name has one of the most stunningly erotic scenes I've ever read in any novel ... easy enough, I suppose, for a straight man to achieve when you are as talented as Aciman.

I went to New York City in 2010 to attend a "discussion" with Aciman at the library on 42nd Street. He said from the stage that he wrote Call Me by Your Name during a summer break in Italy, a break from what was proving to be the arduous task of completing what turned into the 360 dense pages of Eight White Nights. He published Call Me by Your Name first in Italian ... "I immediately had something like four thousand friend requests on Facebook from gay Italian men!" he said.

(An aside: Aciman is also a devotee of Marcel Proust, and as he has read In Search of Lost Time in at least four languages I wondered what he thought of a statement made to me by a docent at the Proust Museum in Illiers-Combray ... i.e. that Proust's novel is more beautiful in English than in his native French. I so wanted him to smack down that smug Dutch docent's comment, but Aciman responded diplomatically, "I would say he is beautiful in every language!")

Andre Aciman

2. All Roads Lead to France - Matthew Hollis

Robert Frost was having little success in getting his poems published in this country so, in 1912, he moved his family to England.  He fell in with a good crowd, happening upon a little bookshop where poets liked to meet. His first two volumes of poetry were soon published in England.  One of the poets he met and loved -- surely above all the others -- was a man named Edward Thomas. This book is the story of their friendship, their struggles, and the success Thomas found as a poet after being inspired by Frost on the long walks they took in the English countryside. It documents their vastly different destinies: Frost, triumphant, returned to the United States; he would subsequently receive four Pulitzer prizes. One of the first poems he'd written after his return from England was "The Road Not Taken" -- he mailed a copy to his good friend; many believe it inspired Thomas to volunteer as a lieutenant in the British army; dispatched to France he was killed shortly after his arrival.

The biographer, Hollis, is also a poet, as well as an editor at Faber & Faber. I loved reading this story of Frost and Thomas and their families and friends.

Matthew Hollis

3. Joseph Anton - A Memoir - Salman Rushdie

This memoir of the years of Rushdie's living in hiding after a the fatwa was decreed was totally absorbing and fascinating.  He's a great writer, and was forced to live a totally twisted-every-which-way life, and it had plenty of agony and intrigue, but makes a great story. Not a boring sentence, not a cliche, and hundreds and hundreds of well-turned phrases. I want the next Nobel prize to go to him. I wanted the last one to go to him. I wanted the one before that one to go to him. Wanting turns out not to do me a hell of a lot of good.

Salman Rushdie

4. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story - D.T. Max

This is a biography of David Foster Wallace, an oddly intelligent man who, by his late twenties, had achieved amazing literary success, and his fame and fortune grew and grew; he was brilliant, original, and funny. I never read him but was curious about his life. He spent almost all his life on drugs in efforts to treat his mania and depression. An attempt in his forties to wean himself off drugs had disastrous effects: he hung himself in his garage on September 12, 2008, at the age of 46. D.T. Max has written an admiring and detailed story of a man who seemed to be loved by all who knew him.

D.T. Max

5. The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac -  Joyce Johnson

I saw this book on the "new" shelf at the Orleans Library. Johnson in 1983 won a National Book Award for a memoir, Minor Characters, which was about an affair she had with Kerouac. Although I was certain that I'd read all I needed to read about Jack Kerouac, and I supposed this was a re-hashing of her life and times with Kerouac and the other beats ... just another cashing in. But I opened pages here and there in The Voice is All and didn't want to stop reading. Turns out it's a marvelously researched study of the influences, particularly his Franco-American background, on Kerouac's writing; Johnson obviously pored over every paper in the Kerouac section of the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library. It is not a cashing-in; it is serious scholarship. I enjoyed it immensely.

Joyce Johnson

6. The Dinner - Herman Koch

Koch, a Nederlander, is a fine writer, and tells here a riveting story. I would rarely read a book based on a full-page ad I saw, but that is what I did in this case ... the blurbs sucked me right in, and it was a good place to have been sucked into. Great characters, great descriptions, and a great unsettling story; I hurried along because I could barely wait for the denouement.

Herman Koch

7. The Selected Letters of Willa Cather - edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout

I think you'd have to call yourself nosy if you were held rapt for something like two weeks of your reading time by over seven hundred pages of letters written by someone who, aside from great literary achievement, was really not especially interesting. She traveled, but usually only to places where one  or another of her companions wanted to go; she was sociable but rarely wrote about her friends. She was never intimate with her correspondents. I most definitely had no prurient interest in her lesbianism, but was amazed, despite the times she lived in, at how closeted she kept herself even in letters to close friends.

I wonder now what kept me holding that heavy book for all the time I did ... but I did, and I was never bored. Just nosiness I guess.

I visited Cather's grave in New Hampshire years ago. The small flat stone just to the right of Cather's marks the grave of her longtime companion, Edith Lewis. Since Lewis outlived Cather (by 25 years) I like to think that it was she who arranged such a beautiful gravesite for her lover; and then pre-arranged the modest marker for herself, putting herself near to Willa in death as she had been in life.

Old Burying Ground; Jaffrey, New Hampshire

8. Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture- Daniel Mendelsohn

After reading and liking several Mendelsohn essays in The New Yorker, I've generally kept up with the books he publishes. I guess you could say I stalk him. With his enviable grounding in Greek and Roman culture, though, he's often way above my head. I really liked one of his earlier books, The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity. And in this latest collection he has, amongst subject matter far and wide, an essay on what I think is one of the greatest novels I've read by anyone living in my own times, The Kindly Ones, a nearly thousand page story about the Eastern Front of World War II, published in 2009, written by Jonathan Littell. Mendelsohn goes to great lengths to connect the structure of the novel to ... I forget ... something Greek or Roman ... and it went right over my head, but I loved him for giving so much attention to a great book.

A British journalist, Christopher Bray, says of Mendelsohn, "He writes better movie criticism than most movie critics, better theatre criticism than most theatre critics, and better literary criticism than just about anyone." That's a bit hyperbolic ... I don't read much movie criticism or much theater criticism (just Hilton Als), but for literature I read Joan Acocella, Judith Thurman, and Louis Menard, to name a few ... Mendelsohn may be their equal, but he is not their better. (No one may be better than Joan Acocella's version of better ... she lays it all out and wraps it up in a pretty ball and you come to the last word in one of her essays and think how the hell did she compose that?)

Daniel Mendelsohn

9. Country Girl - Edna O'Brien

I've loved Edna O'Brien since back in the sixties when The New Yorker would have 2, 3, even 4 short stories in each issue, and sometimes one of them would be by this great Irish writer who was practically ran out of Ireland when her first novel, Country Girls, was published in 1960. "The book was banned, burned, and denounced from the pulpit," one commentator said. So now, in her mid-eighties now, here she is with her memoir. I loved every word, even when she was name-dropping.

Edna O'Brien

 10. (a) Looking for the Gulf Motel
       (b) Directions to the Beach of the Dead
       (c) City of a Hundred Fires -  Volumes of poetry by Richard Blanco

I've saved the best for the last. I was at the Inauguration and heard him read. He came to a nearby town and I went to see him. His poems are his autobiography. They are heart-warming and sometimes really funny. "I was made in Cuba, assembled in Spain and imported to the United States," he has said ... conceived in Cuba, born in Madrid, and then brought to Miami. He is funny. He is so sweet! He is so handsome! He read and talked for about an hour. Then I shook his hand! I said, "You're just great!" He said, "Thank you!" He smiled at me! I melted away into the night, wishing him every possible happiness.

Richard Blanco

Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Sandwich and an Autograph

The first order of business on any trip to Indiana, where I grew up, is a breaded pork tenderloin. A breaded pork tenderloin sandwich may be on lunch menus in any number of states -- I don't know -- but I've never seen it on a menu except in Indiana. I think of it as a regional oddity that commingles with other oddities of the region, such as green peppers being called mangos, corn-on-the-cob being called roasting ears, and where one might be served something called rivel soup.

A breaded pork tenderloin could be thought of, I suppose, as a poor relative of the weiner schnitzel.

On one trip in 1997 to attend the 40th reunion of my high school class, I picked up my rental car at the airport in Indianapolis and headed north on US Highway 31. It is close to a two hour drive to my hometown. On every trip home I expect to run across a place to find the sandwich along this highway. I always have. But on this trip I didn't notice any place that appealed to me, and I realized that this or that place I remembered stopping at was perhaps no longer in business. Finally, just south of Kokomo, I spotted a likely place, one of the places I now remembered having been around for a long time. I knew they'd have breaded tenderloin, but I was going too fast; I was almost past it before I saw it. I thought of turning around but, no, I was sure I'd find something just ahead as I drove through Kokomo on the bypass -- the bypass is now so built up with businesses that it no longer serves its original purpose; it must be the most congested part of Kokomo. But even amongst all these roadside restaurants I could find no place that seemed like a tenderloin place; everything was something that is everywhere else in the country -- I saw a Papa Gino's, an Olive Garden, a Ruby Tuesday. It's depressing. Finally I reached the town of Rochester. I was almost home, just fourteen more miles to go. There'd been a drive-in, The Streamliner, as you enter Rochester's south side since I was in high school. I knew I could count on it. I found the site, but it was different. It was now a nightclub called Rumors.

Shit, I thought. I headed for the town of Akron, a little out of the way, but I was getting mighty hungry and the bright sun was wearing out my eyes. I parked near the main corner downtown and went into a place called The Farmer's Daughter's Cafe.

There were six or eight others inside, all farmer types. I would have sat at the small counter but as I approached it I saw that it was used more as a desk or as a waiter station than as a place to sit for a meal, so I sat at a table in the middle of the room. I ordered a breaded tenderloin sandwich and a strawberry malt. I sat reading the collection of letters my classmates had written ten years earlier; they'd been typed up and arranged in a binder by one of our classmates and passed out to each of us at the 35th reunion. I was re-familiarizing myself with my classmates ... how many children, what were their hobbies, what was their religious affiliation? The devotional aspects of many of them daunted me, and I wondered if they were christians or Christians; did they subscribe to the teachings of Christ or to the strictures of some church?

I don't suppose anyone who knows me will be surprised by my saying that my contribution to that collection is by far, far, far, the longest. I don't want to go look now but I don't think anyone else wrote any sort of narrative; no one but me used more than one sheet -- just the facts, ma'am -- while mine ran to thirteen typewritten pages. Thirteen pages without any mention of religious affiliation.

After my food came I continued reading while eating. I soon sensed that the waitress was coming to my table an inordinate number of times, wiping it, rearranging the condiments in their holder, asking if everything was okay, and so on, and then I detected that she was trying to see what I was reading.

Simultaneously I noticed that the woman behind the counter seemed unable to take her eyes off me. Every time I looked up she was looking at me. I thought: well, I guess they rarely see a stranger in this place.

When I was finished and walked up to the counter to pay I could tell from her eager look that the cashier had been anticipating this encounter.

"So," she said, smiling, pleased, "Shakespeare and Company, huh?"

I looked down at my chest. I was wearing a t-shirt from my favorite bookstore in Manhattan. It doesn't say "bookstore" -- it just says, Shakespeare & Co. - New York City.

"Oh ... yes," I said. "It's a bookstore I like to go to in New York."

She might have heard but hadn't listened to what I said. She was evidently excited to have in her restaurant someone whom she suspected was some sort of celebrity.

"I want you to sign this," she said, handing me the guest check. "And write that under your name," she continued, drawing an imaginary line across my chest. "I'd like to give you your lunch free for your autograph but I just can't afford to do that today."

I felt a bit awkward, caught off-guard. I looked over and saw the waitress beaming, apparently at the fortune of Akron's being graced by my presence. I wondered who they thought I was. I finally didn't want to say, "Hey, I'm nobody famous!" for I didn't see any good reason to spoil what was clearly a special encounter for them. I just wanted to get out of there and on my way, leaving them perhaps with something to talk about later.

Nor was I looking for a free lunch -- it's said that there's no such thing, but this might have been if only she had been able to "afford to do that today."

"That's okay," I said. I signed George Fitzgerald, Keene, N.H.; Shakespeare & Co. NY, NY. (I lived in Keene at the time.) I supposed that once she examined the signature she would realize that I was not whomever she thought I was. Famous people live in New York City, not in Keene, New Hampshire.

But no.

"I'm gonna put that right up here," she said, and she thumb-tacked my autograph to the wall next to the cash register. She showed me the one other autograph she'd collected, the one next to which mine was now pinned. It was that of a young French man whose distinction, aside from being a foreigner, was that he had, while hitch-hiking across the country, passed through Akron, Indiana. My hostess laughingly remarked that the only words of English he knew were cheeseburger and french fries. I wondered if this young foreigner had been as dumbfounded as I was by this gratuitous attention.

Then the cashier asked that, on my way out, I take notice of a stack of books near the door which were for sale, as the author of the book was a regular in this very cafe! (She'd apparently over-looked getting his or her autograph.)

Glad to be headed for the door I stopped to look and saw that the book was about the area's round barns. Giving it a cursory examination I saw that it was not a good product -- poorly bound, hand-printed text that wasn't attractive, and containing illustrations that simply didn't fetch -- hardly drawn better than I could have done, and I am not advanced beyond the stick-man level of drawing.

Meanwhile the cashier brushed past me and headed out the door. I watched as she looked both ways for traffic, and then scurried across the street into the bank that stood on the corner. I noticed that in her hand was a twenty-dollar bill, presumably the one I'd just passed her to pay for my lunch, and I supposed that she must need to get it changed into smaller bills right away.

I took her absence as an opportunity to get out of there so I wouldn't have to stand half a minute longer pretending to be interested in that sad book about round barns. I exited and got into my small Cavalier rental.

As I pulled away I saw the cashier and another woman staring at me from a window in the bank. I could hear the cashier saying to the bank woman, "I know he's somebody but I just can't place him."

I wondered if the size of my car and my lack of a chauffeur were disappointments.

I finally arrived at my sister Joan's just as her son Mike was getting home from work. He lives on the same land overlooking a lake as his mother, and as now one of his daughters and her family does, so that I refer to the place as The Compound, as in The Kennedy Compound. Mike came into Joan's with me to visit. I told them about my autograph recently pinned to a wall in Akron. Mike is one of the most fun people ever, and Joan is also one of the most fun people ever. They both crack wisely. We got to laughing so hard we could hardly stop. Mike had recently turned fifty and, a few days earlier on the phone, had jokingly boasted to me about how well he's aged -- c'est vrai, he didn't look more than thirty -- but now I said to him, "Yes, I agree that, as you were bragging on the phone the other day, you have aged well, but until you can walk into a restaurant in a strange town and electrify it with your presence I won't be jealous of your youthful appearance."

Joan and she and my sister Sheila would have to meet for lunch sometime at The Farmer's Daughter's Cafe.  They would take note of that autograph and brag to the women there that they actually know me, are actually related to me.

They never got this done.

Ten years later I pulled into Akron for another breaded tenderloin and strawberry malt, wondering if I might still be famous, and if my and a young Frenchman's autographs were still pinned to the wall.

But the Farmer's Daughter's Cafe had died.

The building was vacant.

Not even the sign hanging out front remained.

I was back to being nobody in Akron as I am elsewhere.

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us -don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

                                                                                   -- Emily Dickinson

P.S. I googled the name; The Farmer's Daughter's Cafe seems to have risen from the dead. There is an up-to-date listing for it in Akron.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

I'm Heading Out the Door - Outer Cape Chorale!!!

P.S. on Jim Harrison of Previous Post

Not that I'm looking for anything but spiritual sustenance from any book, but several on my shelves are deemed valuable by booksellers.  It did surprise me that the most dollar-valuable book I own is Plain Song, Harrison's first book of poems, published by Norton in 1965.

I would have thought the most sought after would be his third book, Letters to Yesenin, because (according to what I read one time) Norton declined to publish it, so it was put out by a small press located near Harrison's northern Michigan home -- probably a press set up just to publish this book and owned or controlled by the poet himself.

His third book, Locations, also published by Norton, I have only in a paperback edition.  The poems within are equally as excellent as they are in the hardback edition.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Happy Birthday Jim Harrison; born Dec. 11, 1937

"The danger of civilization,  of course, is that you will piss
away your life on nonsense" -- Jim Harrison 

       I see Jim Harrison, my first real poet in the flesh, on Thursday, January 26th, 1977.

       I am living in New York City. I go to the auditorium of Donnell Public Library on 53rd Street. Six-thirty in the evening. I overhear one of the apparent organizers of this event low-voice to a woman sitting in front of me, "I heard they spent the last couple of days trying to keep him sober."

       The Michigan poet, author also of one of my favorite novels, Farmer, strides from stage-right to the lectern. The belt-line of his beige chinos takes a deep dip in front, a detour of sorts beneath the huge overhung belly. His blue shirt, western-cut, pearly buttons, looks absolutely new, too pressed in telling places, too creased from packaged folds. I imagine that late in the afternoon he'd decided suddenly that he had no decent shirt to wear to this event so he ran out and bought one.

       He quickly doffed a cream colored sports coat. "Let me put this somewhere," he says, laying it on a big speaker in a corner of the stage.

       From dust-jacket photographs I've always thought Jim Harrison looked strangely sexy, that he possesses some sort of wild beast brutishness -- a bull, I guessed -- and this look is appropriately accented by an eerily awry left eye. The eye had been damaged in an accident. "My left eye is blind and jogs like/a milky sparrow in its socket" he wrote in an early poem.

       His countenance in those photographs -- he captions himself "a white sports fop" beneath one book's picture -- plainly indicates to me unbridled lusts for sex, bourbon, forests, and words.

       On the stage at Donnell Library his demeanor is that of a little boy groomed and shined for Sunday school, not as haplessly put together as in the pictures of him I'd stared at on those dust-jackets.

       He has a nice full-moon shaped and ruddy-complexioned face. The smallness of his arms, attached to his huge barrel-chest, make them seem attached to the wrong body. Further, the winter whiteness of his arms does not match the ruddy coloring of his face.

       He speaks with a Midwestern accent, and is careful with certain words, such as interstice, as if these words were steep flights of stairs down which he might tumble. I'm disappointed because he does not say any of his poems, despite the POETRY READING heading on the flyer, but just reads passages from a prose piece he's working on.

       After the reading, I wait outside the auditorium in the cold, in a bitter wind, hoping to speak with him when he exits. I want to tell him that Farmer is a perfectly written novel, and that he's a wonderful true poet, and that my senses become extra-alive when I read his poems. But he comes out surrounded by groupies or friends or handlers. I am too shy to intrude. I'm afraid he’ll make me think my comments are common and stupid.

       I follow the group for only fifty paces or so, at which point I hear Jim Harrison say, "Here's a bar!" His group follows him into it. No-one, apparently, now that an audience had been faced and dealt with, is trying to keep him sober.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

RIP: Emily Dickinson - Dec. 10, 1830 - May 15, 1886

Photo: June 2010; Amherst, Massachusetts
Following Emily Dickinson's death, a cache of some 1800 poems was discovered in her home (a small number of these -- ten or twelve -- had been published in her lifetime).  Despite this vast number, and despite the vast number of them that I love, I can actually winnow out a favorite:

Because I could not stop for Death,

He kindly stopped for me;

The carriage held but just ourselves

And Immortality. 

We slowly drove, he knew no haste, 

And I had put away

My labor, and my leisure too,

For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove

At recess, in the ring;

We passed the fields of gazing grain,

We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;

The dews grew quivering and chill,

For only gossamer my gown,

My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed

A swelling of the ground;

The roof was scarcely visible,

The cornice but a mound.

Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each

Feels shorter than the day

I first surmised the horses' heads

Were toward eternity.

I love to say this poem aloud, and when I do I pronounce 'civility' civili-tay. And I must say too that I'm a little embarrassed that I prefer a version tinkered up by a couple of editors after the poet's death ... and in which version the third stanza reads:

We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

But totally leaves out what is Emily's lovely next stanza in the original:

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

(The paperback of Dickinson poems I bought in 1969 in Germany contains the tinkered version of this poem, and I never ran across or noticed the original version until a couple years back; I was sent by this newly discovered stanza to my dictionary:  "tippet - a long hanging end of cloth attached to a sleeve, cap, or hood.")
P.S. It seems somehow disloyal, too, to prefer one of the edited poems since it was probably edited by a woman named Mabel Todd Loomis -- a free-spirited woman who had a long affair with Emily's married brother, Austin, causing, along with the surprisingly adulterous Austin, much disapproval and smashed spirits within the Dickinson family; Emily was particularly fond of her beloved brother and particularly unfond of Mabel Todd Loomis .