Sunday, August 30, 2009

Available Surfaces VII: In the Palm of the Poet's Hand

Ron and Ruth were talking about Thomas Aquinas. As soon as we walked through the door, after Ron introduced Ruth and me very briefly, Ron had said, “Ruth, there’s a question about Aquinas I’ve been wanting to ask; let me ask before I forget.” And then the two of them were off and running into a theological thicket where I could not follow and frankly did not want to.

Nothing against the Heavenly Doctor, mind you: I’ve read a pound or two of Aquinas in my time, though I’ve never found him terribly appealing (Augustine and Duns Scotus are more my speed, not that it’s a horse race). But Ron’s question was something very specific about a particular passage in the Summa Theologica. I was lost before the question was out of his mouth. Ruth, on the other hand, rode it like a surfer rides curl; she could quote chapter and verse, and pursued the problem Ron raised as adeptly as a trained theologian. As we sat down, the small room filled with the intensity of their talk. Ignored for the moment—for about twenty minutes in fact—I looked around.

Out the casement window several ragged-looking palm trees were visible. Beyond them there was a brightening of the air, a sort of aura, that indicated water that I could not see from here; we were not far from the shore. This description might indicate we were in a balmy sub-tropical region, but in fact it was Weymouth in the United Kingdom; the water just out of sight below the window frame was the English Channel. As Ron and I had driven into Weymouth, I had noted the presence of palm trees along the beach with surprise: this hardly seemed the place for them; and indeed they hardly seemed to be prospering. Yet there they were—and they were just one among many surprising things about this place, and this day.

We were in the living room of a modest flat, what in the UK is known as a “bedsit”: an apartment consisting of a living area/kitchen, a bedroom, and a bath. It was sparsely but comfortably furnished, and completely anonymous, except for the fact that the rectangular area in which we sat was completely lined with built-in bookshelves: cabinets below, and shelves to the ceiling, all filled with well-used books. I naturally began to scan titles. There was a heavy preponderance of theological books and related philosophical titles (one shelf sagged under thick Aquinas tomes). There was also an extensive and eclectic, but poetry heavy, collection of literary titles; Gerard Manley Hopkins was especially well represented.

As Ron and Ruth talked on—he in his quiet Oxbridge/Irish accent, she in her working class London one—I fell into a sort of fugue state. It had been a fascinating day. I was near the end of an eleven-month residency in Devon, where I’d been teaching at the University of Exeter; Ron Tamplin was my colleague there, a poet who taught literature. He was an erudite man of great personal sweetness and charm, and we’d become fast friends; today, as a farewell gesture, he was taking me on a tour of places he thought I ought not to miss.


We’d driven first from Exeter to East Coker, and paid a visit to T.S. Eliot where his ashes are interred in the austere St. Michael’s, commemorated by a plaque on the wall (“In my beginning is my end, in my end is my beginning”). From there we made our way to Stinsford to pay homage to some of the remains of Thomas Hardy. As is well known, only his heart is buried there, in his first wife Emma’s grave and in the soil of the Dorset he loved, while the rest of him is in Poet’s Corner in London. Emma lies under a dignified white monument, on the end of which the presence of Hardy’s heart is indicated by an inscription which begins “Here lies the heart of Thomas Hardy” and ends “His ashes rest in Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey.”
As this was the second churchyard we’d visited within an hour or so, neither Ron nor I was anxious to linger once we’re looked over the stone and the grounds a bit.

As we walked back toward his car, Ron said, “Local legend has it that Hardy’s heart is not buried there at all.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, they say that, after Hardy’s heart was brought down from London, it was placed in a pan on the kitchen table at his home nearby, and a dog ate it.”

“You’re joking.”

“I’m not saying it’s true, but it’s what people say.”

“So, what did they do?”

“The legend says they killed a sheep and buried its heart there instead.”

I paused, considering this. Then I said, “You’ve just revealed a vital difference between Americans and the English, Ron.”

“How so?”

“An American would have killed the dog that ate the heart, and buried the dog; that way the heart would actually be there.”

Ron nodded solemnly. “You’re right. And an Englishman would never kill a dog. For any reason.”

Years later, I ran across this legend again, in somewhat different form. This time it was a cat that ate the heart, and a pig was killed to replace it. I reject this variant on aesthetic as well as pragmatic grounds, but the other story I fully embrace, even though it is probably altogether a fabrication.

After we left Hardy, Ron drove me to see Maiden’s Castle outside Dorchester. Maiden’s Castle is a bewilderingly huge and complex Iron Age earthwork fort, complete with a maze; the only way in and out of the fort is through the maze. The highest ramparts are over twenty feet high, and the fort is built on a hill; there would have been wooden walls on top of the ramparts, so that defenders within, high above the maze entrance, could have attacked enemies easily as they stalled in the twisty passages below. Overall, in its magnitude and complexity, the forbidding strategy of its construction, Maiden’s Castle was a perfect objective correlative for Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.


The library in the Weymouth bedsit was not enormous, as the room was not very large, but it was splendid in its way. It contained many titles I would not, myself, have collected, but every book there was clearly weighty of content, carefully selected; furthermore, there was not a book on any shelf that did not show signs, even from where I sat, from long and careful use. This was not a casual collection, nor was anything present for show: this was a workroom, and the books were respected tools, well maintained but nonetheless worn with the work they had done. It was, in short, my favorite kind of library, one in which function—and hence thought and knowledge, not to say actual wisdom—is the only principal.

Charles Spurgeon, Sören Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, T.F. Powys—Powys! I’d read a couple of his weird, occult novels, but here were his theological works—and D.H. Lawrence: lots of Lawrence. And yes, here was the local copy of the Summa Theologica: a leather-bound set in five volumes, running I suppose to over three thousand pages, the spine of each creased with repeated opening and closing, the gold leaf titles worn by the touch of hands. The effect was vastly more pleasing than the look of brand new unread volumes. Suddenly seized with an unnatural desire to read every word of Aquinas’s masterwork, I was on the verge of jumping up from my chair and making a beginning.

But just then Ruth exclaimed, in her broad London accent, “But oh my, Ron, how rude we’re being! There’s Terry sitting, bored to tears with us, and we’ve forgotten why he’s come!” She leapt to her feet, stepped over to me, and took my hand. “Terry, now it’s time you met Jack!”

She turned me a bit in my chair by the force of her energetic enthusiasm, and suddenly I became aware that, sitting in the corner was a tiny man. “Tiny” is perhaps an overstatement, but his posture was so imploded by—what? inanition, or just gravity?—that he seemed to take up no space at all, and I had completely failed to notice he was there. He was neatly dressed in corduroys and a brown cotton shirt; he wore a corduroy cap. His hands were folded in his lap, and his head was inclined toward them. For all the notice he gave anyone or anything in the room, he might have been asleep.

“Ron!” Ruth exclaimed. Her voice was loud, with a Cockney edge that made it hard to ignore, but the main in the chair did not move a muscle nor turn a hair. “Ron, will you say hello to Jack?”

“Oh, Ruth, no,” Ron said, “I couldn’t. I’m no good at it.”

That response struck me as odd, but before I had time to inquire, Ruth said to me, “What about you, Terry? Will you say hello?”

“Of course I will,” I said. “But how do you do it?"

“It’s simple,” she said. She stepped across to the man and took his right hand in hers, holding it palm up. He allowed this gesture, which might to some have seemed an abrupt indignity, without protest or even visible awareness of it; he might as well have been a mannequin. “You take his hand like this, and then you take your finger and write whatever you want to say to him in big block letters, like so.”
Holding his hand, she wrote in his palm, saying slowly and loudly, for our benefit, the words she was writing: “J-A-C-K,” she said. “R-O-N A-N-D T-E-R-R-Y A-R-E H-E-R-E.”

Jack inclined his head slightly. Ron said, “Ruth, please tell him I say hello.”

“R-O-N S-A-Y-S H-E-L-L-O,” Ruth wrote and intoned. Jack again inclined his head; he fluttered his right hand weakly toward the room in general, a wave to Ron.

Ruth looked at me. “That's it,” she said, “easy-peasy. Fancy a try?”

And so I took Jack Clemo’s hand.


Jack Clemo is virtually unknown in the USA; I can’t recall speaking to anyone who has known his name. In the UK, he is not exactly famous, but he has a devoted following among poets and poetry lovers, perhaps chief among them my friend Ron Tamplin, who idolized him and loved him. It was Ron who—having first gauged my interest in and passion for such poets as Gerard Manley Hopkins and Eliot--had introduced me to Jack Clemo’s work, and as I had warmed to it, he promised me a trip to meet the poet.

In Clemo’s poems I discovered a gnarly, spiritual, formal sensibility akin to Hopkins in some ways and alien to it in others. Clemo’s life in no way resembled Hopkins’s; indeed it in no way resembled the life of anyone I could think of. And while Clemo’s poems are not “confessional”—indeed he often wrote dramatic monologues from the points of view of saints and others—his life, like the life of any poet, is richly implicated in his work.

Born in 1916 to working class Cornish parents, Clemo lost his father early on; his parents’ marriage was not a happy one, and Clemo’s father enlisted in
1917, never to be seen again. Reared among tin miners and clay-kiln workers (his father had been one), Clemo lived in the shadow of his mother’s rage toward his vanished father, and of her religious zeal. She was a “dogmatic Nonconformist,” a designation that, in early twentiety-century Cornwall, basically meant a strict fundamentalist Protestant, a Puritan of sorts, refusing to conform to the aegis of the Church of England.

Clemo was a brilliant boy, but sickly. At some point in his childhood—the few biographical accounts are at variance in dating these matters—he became ill with a disease that the Cornish doctors found mysterious. He had, at this stage, bouts of blindness, of deafness, and of paralysis which came and went unpredictably and, evidently, untreatably. At the age of 13 he was taken out of the public schools, being deemed too sickly to remain; what became of his education beyond that point is hard to say, but my assumption is that he was from that point forward self educated; he never attended university. Somewhere along the way he read D.H. Lawrence, and found validation both in Lawrence’s genius and in his background. Like Lawrence, he set out to write both fiction and poetry; he published a novel, Wilding Graft, in 1948, and in 1949 a memoir, Confession of a Rebel.

In the meanwhile, when he was twenty, the deafness that had sporadically plagued his boyhood became permanent. Blindness continued to come and go, but in the mid-1950s it came and stayed, so that by the age of 40 Clemo was both deaf and blind. From then on, though he published more prose, his output was primarily poetry; his bibliography lists ten volumes.

For me, Clemo’s work is remarkable—beyond the fact that he was able to write it at all—for the incisiveness of its spiritual quest, for its closeness to the weird Cornish landscape and Cornwall’s working class, and for its formal beauty. Like many blind poets (think of Borges in his old age), Clemo gravitated to traditional versification and fixed forms, though likely even had he kept his sight he would have written that way: it suited him (copyright issues make it impossible to quote Clemo poems online; I refer the reader to his or her own resources to discover his powerful and fascinating corpus, but in the US it’s hard to find; my university library contains not a word of Clemo).


At 72, when I met him, Jack Clemo had small, even delicate hands that showed little sign of his working class background. I don’t know to what extent the young Clemo was able to engage in manual labor; if he’d been able to do it, he’s have done it, but his illness may have kept him from it. Photos of Clemo from various times in his life, paradoxically, show a robust, even elegant-looking man, but the Jack Clemo I met was neither. What the state of his health was then I don’t know, but he had only six more years to live, and seemed older and more frail than his age.

Ruth said to Jack: “T-E-R-R-Y W-A-N-T-S T-O S-A-Y H-E-L-L-O.” Clemo gave his small quick nod.

In the palm of his right hand, I wrote, more slowly and deliberately than Ruth had done, “Mr. Clemo: I admire your work very much, and I’m very glad to meet you.” Clemo closed his hand, took it from me, and placed it in his lap again; otherwise, he didn’t react.

I said to Ruth, “I’m not certain I did that right.”

“Let me see,” Ruth said. She was utterly cavalier about her handling of Clemo; she snatched his hand up again and said “T-E-R-R-Y S-A-Y-S H-E A-D-M-I . . . .”

Before she’d finished, Clemo snatched his hand away again. In a firm, resonant, somewhat too loud voice, he declared, “I know what Terry said!”

Of course, of course, of course: he could speak perfectly well. Up until that moment, he had simply chosen not to do so.


From that point until Ron and I departed a couple of hours later, the conversation became general, as they say in old novels, and animated. Clemo was a very eloquent man. Ruth pulled a chair beside him, held his hand in his, and translated at breakneck speed whatever any one of us said; likely she and Clemo had evolved a shorthand of some kind over the many decades of their marriage. Ron and I had a good many things to ask, and it was not long before I felt, as Ron so clearly had for a long time before, that I had met one of my Maestros.

I had questions about his process: how he wrote. He wrote on an old manual typewriter that he’d had for ages; he pointed to where it sat on a small typing table in the corner. He didn’t want a new one; he knew the touch of this one too well for that. Did he revise? Of course! Did Ruth read drafts of his poems back to him? No, he remembered them. “He remembers them all,” Ruth said. “He can go back six drafts and pick up a variation on a line.” Did Ruth proofread his work for him? Yes, but it was hardly necessary. “He never makes a mistake,” Ruth said.

His was a prodigious memory. Ron, being encyclopedically familiar with Clemo’s poems, at one point said, “Ruth, there’s a poem of Jack’s that I saw years ago in a magazine, but I don’t think it’s ever been in one of his books; I wonder if you have a copy,” and he told her the title. “I don’t know,” Ruth said, “but Jack will.” She wrote quickly in his palm, and he lit up. “Ah!” he exclaimed. “You remember that orphan, do you! I like that one as well. Yes, I have it. Just a second.”

For the first time, he rose from his chair. He walked directly across the room. Beneath the bookshelves on that side, there were four double-doored cabinets, eight doors in all. He opened the fifth door from the left. The whole cabinet was filled with boxes of the sort that reams of typing paper come in, all exactly alike. He knelt down and counted, feeling as he went: three rows over, five boxes down: this one! He opened the box, which was filled with what might have been a ream of typing paper, except every sheet had a poem on it. He pulled out the ream and quickly counted his way into it. Aha! There you are; this is the one you want.

“Yes,” Ron said, “that’s it.” It was like a magician’s card trick, except that for Clemo, it was just the way he was in the world. There ensued a lengthy conversation about the poem, which was about, yes, Thomas Aquinas.

Hearing that name again, I looked up again at the five volumes, the three thousand pages, of the Summa, and suddenly a lightning bolt hit me. How did Ruth Clemo know so much about Thomas Aquinas? Ron had told me that Ruth was just what she seemed: a working-class Cockney woman from inner-city London. Arguably the most intelligent person in the room, Ruth had no doubt been denied, like Clemo, access to higher education; she and Clemo had married in 1968, long after the doors of Clemo’s perception had shut down for good. I have no idea what the course of their reading was like, before that date or after it, but the evidence of that edition of the Summa seemed clear enough: someone’s hands had worn that gold leaf away; and the freshness of both Jack’s and Ruth’s acquaintance with the material made it clear that the last reading of it was not so very long ago.

If you write every word of every page of the three thousand pages of Aquinas’s Summa into the palm of someone’s hand, by the time you are done, you are an expert. Whether or not Jack Clemo would be able to leap up and leaf instantly to a given argument of Aquinas’s on page 2,356 of that work, I don’t know, but I’d bet my life that Ruth could.

Jack and Ruth Clemo had whole libraries, whole lives, written in their hands.

Here was the great lesson of this journey, the beautiful gift Ron Tamplin wanted me to take away. What Jack and Ruth held in their hands was what every poet ought to have: the world’s poetry, and—whatever you may mean by the word—God’s, written letter by letter in the skin: thus earned.


At a certain point, it became clear that Jack was restless. “Ah, it’s time for Jack’s walk,” Ruth said; “he has to have it every afternoon.”

And as it was getting late, Ron and I agreed we would walk the Clemo’s out, then return to the car for the drive home.

It was a beautiful late spring day, and the sun was low in the sky. We walked alongside the Clemos; Ruth was tucked snugly against Jack, protectively I thought, but it hardly seemed necessary; Jack clearly knew exactly where he was and where he was going. We were chatting about nothing as we walked; Jack alone was silent. Suddenly he shook himself loose from Ruth, turned at a smart right angle, and walked off the sidewalk out onto a lawn. He took four steps, paused, and then held out both hands, forming a circle with his thumbs and his middle fingers. It was for all the world as if he were about to put an invisible crown on the head of an invisible king who knelt before him.

I said, “What’s he doing, Ruth?”

“Ah,” she said. “There was a storm a couple of weeks ago. His favorite palm tree was right there where he’s standing. He’s saying farewell to it.”

Looking down, I could see the remnant of the tree, sawed off flush with the ground. The placement of his hands was exact: if the tree were still where it once stood, his hands would encircle it perfectly.

 Jack Clemo: photo by Tricia Porter

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Available Surfaces VI: Writ in Water

The place I spent my boyhood was landlocked; we were far from the ocean, and from any other kind of major body of water, whether significant lake or river. There were not even streams in that terrain: the water table was deep and did not break through the deep and fertile layers of soil laid down there millennia ago when our region was a shallow sea. Once those waters departed, there was nothing to replace them except what fell from the sky. The rich soil was not colonized by farmers until deep well technology made it possible to drill through thick layers of limestone to tap the aquifer there.

In the absence of natural standing water, our countryside was dotted with artificial ponds; these had started as watering places for livestock and fulfilled that function, but the landscape rapidly adopted them as part of the ecology. Unlike in drier and less arable regions, our little lakes did not sit uneasily or anomalously where they were constructed; they did not look like constructs at all, but quickly settled in and became necessary not only for cattle but also for a large array of flora and fauna that arrived with amazing speed from sources that were not immediately apparent. They were appropriated and integrated in such a way that one could hardly imagine the area without them. From the air, one could see that they speckled the landscape like scattered flecks of mica.

A quarter mile from our house, on the other side of a gradual upward slope (at the top of which my father had built his barn), there was one such pond. About five acres in extent, it was of medium size by the standards of that place, and well located, with an enormous oak tree just behind the dam providing both stability and, at the right time of day, shade. That was clearly by design, as the oak was older than the pond. Other, smaller trees—willows, mostly—had sprung up in the meanwhile, but not so many as to make any area impassable or inaccessible. The water was deepest by the dam; on the other side, there were extensive shallows where our cattle came to wade out, cool themselves, and drink. This they did on a very regular schedule, in the early morning and near sunset. They were often accompanied by their bird familiars, cattle egrets, which during the summer followed the herd continually, eating insects flushed out of the grass by the movements of the cattle; sometimes they rode on cows’ backs, picking bugs off the coats of the black angus my father favored and bred.
Other times of day the pond was less obviously populated, though always populous nonetheless. During a certain period of my life—when I was between nine and fifteen years old, more or less—I spent huge hunks of my summers at the pond. One didn’t swim there: the water was clear enough, but the pond produced huge crops of algae and other water plants, the bottom was the very sticky mud our Black Prairie soil became when wet, and there were certainly snakes, water moccasins in particular, to worry about. There were also enormous snapping turtles.

Ostensibly I went there to fish. I took my spinning rod and tackle box of artificial lures; I also took a short-handled net, which I had modified into a long-handled one. This I used not for fish but to catch baby turtles in the pond’s shallows, where they went to sun. I spent more time catching turtles than fishing, in fact. Fishing interested me vaguely, and I did catch a good many large-mouth bass, small-mouth trout, and bream from that pond over the years. Mostly, though, it was the pond itself that attracted me; as I collected its inhabitants, insofar as I did collect them, the pond collected me.

At this point, we might segue into recollections of a certain kind of bucolic childhood—boyhood in particular, as in that place and time the fishing rod was one of the archetypes of rural boyhood. Most of the time I left that item in the shade of the oak tree. I was after something larger even than the ten-pound bass my father had once pulled out of that water.

The movements of the surface of the water were for me a source of endless fascination. There was no room in that pond for large-scale turbulence. Had I grown up near an ocean, I would have absorbed a completely different dynamic. The surface of the pond was subtle. It was responsive to even the slightest movement of the air; but when the day was still, as it often enough was at noon in July, the water assumed a near-perfect pellucidity. There were rhythms of clarity and opacity, of reflection and refraction—of, you might say, opening and closing—that I never tired of observing. Those rhythms obeyed laws, obviously, but they were nevertheless thoroughly unpredictable, syncopated in ways that I understood deep in my body, but which defeated my mind’s ability to comprehend. Along the fixed margin of the dam, there was one kind of clarity; along the mutable ragged edge of the shallows there was another. I could glimpse the life beneath the water: turtle, crawfish, bream, snake; I could also witness the life of the sky, both through reflections and through the visitation of the sky’s representatives, particularly the tall herons I often surprised (as they surprised me) wading the shallows, hunting. Simultaneously a mirror and a lens, the water revealed its own world, and the world outside itself. It was infinitely various, but its scale was, for me, manageable. I fit there; I belonged.

I am convinced that every poet carries within him or herself a cluster of process models which govern the nature and rhythm of how poems are created and why. In myself, I can recognize three. One comes from the life of the farm where I spent my childhood: in that model, one prepares the soil, one scatters the seed, and then one waits, dependent on the vagaries of the weather to make things happen. The second is musical (and obvious): the improvisatory lessons learned from years of delving into performance within the flexible but endlessly instructive parameters of the cluster of American musical forms that have been a lifelong passion for me. The third model—and I have only recently recognized its much more subtle operation in my psyche and in my poetic practice—comes from the life of that small pond: its fixed margin, its flexible ragged right, its simultaneous revelation of a life within and a life without, its subtle alteration of the spectrum of the clear and the opaque, reflection and refraction, opening and closing.

Once I caught a smallish bream. I ran my stringer through its gill and tossed it back into the water, tethering it to the bank. Then I lost it: half forgot about it, and couldn’t locate where I’d affixed it to the ground. Distracted by my own meditations, I left it there. Six months later, in the height of winter, I found it again. It had died, of course, and so had the big snake that had swallowed it. When I pulled my stringer in from the water, I found the two skeletons attached, one inside the other, an elaborate sculpture, perfectly familiar and yet completely strange, a natural supernaturalism, or, as Stevens called it, the motive for metaphor,
the sharp flash,
The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Available Surfaces V: Can Teaching be Written?

“I hear and sometimes share some fundamental objections. Creative-writing programs and workshops are a commodification of the art. They attempt to express or enact something that is finally and importantly solitary. They water down our sensibilities, as they corrupt the notion of individual style. You simply can’t teach vision, so you can’t teach creative writing.
Well, can you?
What happens in a creative writing classroom?”
 --David Baker,

I stand before a new class, Introduction to Poetry Writing. There are, believe it or not, 55 students present. Where I teach, the introductory courses are big, with breakout sections led by TAs. My responsibility is, theoretically, to orient and inform the students about matters of craft, and to begin to give them a road map to the wilderness that is the past and present—not to mention the future—of poetry. I also am responsible for supervising and mentoring the TAs, who, while still doing time in the salt mines of teaching composition, are about to take the wheel of their first writing workshop.

If the workshop model for teaching creative writing is often questioned and even reviled, what about this approach? I am lecturing about creative writing. What possible good can that do?

For years I resisted this kind of pedagogy, not only in the teaching of writing but also in literary studies. Small must be better, always, I thought. And I still think small group study is absolutely essential, in creative writing and elsewhere. But my recent experiences with large group study convinces me that there is a place in the curriculum for this approach as well. Call me old fashioned (all together now. . .), but the suspicion has grown increasingly strong in me that undergraduates suffer from a lack of broad survey literary courses: not that such courses must be taught as lecture courses, but they generally used to be taught that way, and their disappearance coincides with the decline in lecture-style teaching. Student knowledge has deepened in certain areas, but is spotty: they don’t have an aerial view, or a good topographical map of the territory. In creative writing as in other fields, such a vision can be indispensible.

Furthermore, teaching in this context has revealed to me a certain vocation: I enjoy working with these large groups partly because I have discovered that I can do it. I have certain valuable nuggets to impart to students that, it appears, can best be communicated in this kind of forum. I have uncovered a vein of something like eloquence that is rarely called forth in small group discussion but which is laid bare before the large group, a dimension of my own character that my students allow me to explore, and seem to enjoy observing from a relatively safe distance, also not permitted in the seminar room or workshop where everything is up close and personal all the time. Perspective is important; distance can be useful. Every artist knows this; teachers may know it too.


Any actor of broad experience will tell you that, from the point of view of craft, the big difference between working in theater and working in front of a camera is one of scale. Camera work is intimate; a whisper can resonate. On film, Brando mumbles, and his mumbling is devastating. On stage, you cannot mumble, even if your character is a mumbler; there you must project, even while projecting the illusion that you are mumbling, if that is what is called for. In the theater everything is writ large: voice and gesture, and ultimately character. On stage, you play a different game—not a better or a worse one, but one that has different parameters.

The craft of seminar teaching is more like working with a camera: everything is close; silences, whispers, mumbles are part of the game. One makes an observation or asks a question and waits, observing the lift of an eyebrow here, a shifted gaze there, a sigh, a sudden gleam in someone’s eyes. The moment can’t be pushed; however much you may, by constitution, like or dislike those dead spots in seminar discourse (the Pregnant Silence) when everyone is digesting something, when responses are taking form, you have to ride them, wait them out, step aside like a bullfighter executing a veronica (alas poor Veronica: how many times has she died for our sins?). In the big classroom, the dynamic is different, and so is the expectation. And yet the issue of relatedness is still the center: all of this is for the audience, not for you.

In either case, we teachers are there to present and to represent. In Heidegger-speak, we are there to bring something out of concealment into the realm of unconcealment and allow it to linger. We present the subject matter and it becomes present; we are its representative.

The “de-centered” pedagogy of the seminar or the small class, regardless of its strengths and weaknesses (which ought, it seems to me, to be debated in a more balanced way from time to time), has become the desired academic norm, and has even attained a certain aura of political correctness, as though any other way of teaching is inadequate, mechanical, or—worst of all—a theater for the parading of the ego. All these things may sometimes be true; I note in particular the rise of the PowerPoint lecture as particularly insidious: some professors used to let their decades-old notes lecture to their students; now those notes have been automated. But the fact that a method can be misused does not mean that it has to be.

It’s possible, in a small seminar setting, for the reticence of the instructor to be overdone as well. I have seen teachers, in the interest of “de-centering,” spend a whole term allowing students to go round and round in circles, unable to break the Möbius strip of their own limited knowledge. I have seen lazy teachers dump their workload onto the students, fading into the woodwork and doing essentially nothing, leaving the students responsible for finding their own way out of the wilderness. These abuses are at least as insidious as those that can insinuate their way into the lecture hall.

When, years ago at a writers conference, I saw a famous poet, having sat silent through ten minutes of students’ discussion of a student poem, suddenly arouse himself and intone “I believe this poem should be divided into two halves”—suddenly ripping the page in half—“and both halves should be deposited in the garbage," I knew I was in the presence of a bully. The oldest style of creative writing pedagogy, in fact, seems to have involved a good deal of this kind of behavior, and I am certain that it still happens. That kind of bullying, and ego mongering, is more possible and more dangerous in small classrooms than in large. One can place one’s ego on display in front of a large room full of people, but to actually use it as a weapon is arguably more difficult. “Conscience is a thousand witnesses,” says Hobbes, meaning something negative by his remark, but I take it as a positive: light dissolves the vampire.


What I have learned about large group teaching is that there one balances what one presents and what one represents on a different scale than in the small class. One’s role at the seminar table is to be one more guest at the feast, yes, but in a properly hostly way, which means a balancing of courtesy with leadership. In the large class, it’s more a matter of dealing with baskets of loaves and fishes; the multitude is hungry for sustenance, table manners be damned. Miracles of multiplication are called for, and in that equation there is no room for ego: the one who holds the basket represents a higher power.

This is not Alcoholics Anonymous, friends: nothing mystical is involved. The “higher power” is simply the subject that the group has convened around. In the small group, one tends at best to present and then get out of the way; in the large group, one must present and then immediately represent. By which I mean simply this: if I am talking about poetry in the theater of the large classroom I must become poetry. When I speak to my students about a poem, I must speak to them as the poem would speak if it could hold forth not about its content but about its Being. I must allow the poem to be written, quite completely, in and on me: I become the medium of the poem’s presence. The poem walks into the room and delivers itself to students as it would if it were capable of getting up off the page, embodying itself in three dimensions (or four or five) and revealing itself in that incarnation. For the poem this is not difficult, since poems live and move and have their being in receptive readers everywhere; for the teacher, though, it is rather a challenge. There is not room in me for both my ego and the poem. If my ego pushes the poem out, then the moment fails, just as if an actor insists on playing himself and not the character, the play fails.

Admittedly, there is a certain amount of smoke and mirrors in this contract. There is also an illusory dimension to small seminar teaching—to pretend otherwise is to be disingenuous. There is always a role to play, a costume to wear, a dialect to assume. That’s not a bad thing; it’s part of the territory. And territory is really the issue: one presents a map, so to say, to a country of which the student knows little; the student is preparing for an expedition, and there is much he or she needs to know in advance. The teacher presents the map, and then acts as a representative of the territory: having been there, the teacher knows the way in, the way around, and the way out again. But if this transaction becomes at any point territorial—if I am determined to defend my little hunk of knowledge, my seminar table or my lectern, from the student rather than make it available to the student, then I commit malpractice.

Teaching small groups is a joy and a privilege; so is teaching large groups. A few decades of practice in the small class setting has taught me an enormous amount about human and textual dynamics on a small scale, and I would not exchange that knowledge for anything; I still happily teach seminars and small workshops and am rewarded by doing so.

But walking out into the large theater has been a revealing and liberating experience for me these past few years—as if one had spent decades in small, though lovely, rooms and suddenly found a doorway that led out into an enormous panorama, a sublime landscape, its map already written in my mind and on my body, and that somehow, miraculously, speaks when I speak.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Available Surfaces IV: Earth Angel

". . . .for beauty is God's handwriting." --Ralph Waldo Emerson

The first time I flew to England, I woke up from a troubled airplane sleep and looked out the plane’s porthole. We were over Ireland, the pilot announced, still pretty high but beginning to descend. I was struck immediately by the clarity of definition of the fields below. I don’t mean that they were in some way better focused then what I was accustomed to seeing from the air in the USA; I mean that their edges were sharp and definite. Ireland—and England too, once we reached it—was a mosaic, or an opaque green stained glass window, its leading starkly apparent from the air. I realized that what I could see was a long history of ownership, of human occupancy. The outlines of a narrative were deeply incised, and long maintained, on this earth. Later, when I walked there, I could see the details of it, but not the underlying form, the skeleton. All of it was symptomatic of a social and a physical history, one that had been written and rewritten time out of mind, so many times it would be an archeologist’s lifework to resurrect even a fragment of the rough drafts.

An aerial view of a typical landscape in the USA—no matter how complex the natural features may be—has softer margins; parts of the midwest and south appear almost Impressionistic when seen from the sky. This is partly because we, the fence-building Anglos, have occupied these surfaces for a far shorter time than our ancestors across the pond have lived on theirs. We have fought plenty of battles over ownership, but have had less time to build stark monuments to what we have won, or stolen, and held onto. Stone fences may or may not make good neighbors, but in any case we employ them less than our counterparts in the UK. Our technologies of demarcation are more fluid than theirs; we expect, I suppose, to live on our land for a shorter time, generationally speaking. A barbed wire fence is effective, but impermanent, as any rancher will testify. And a barbed wire fence is almost invisible from the air.

Nevertheless, we have written, and are writing, our story on the landscape too. The perception that our story is newer than England’s or Ireland’s is an illusion precisely to the extent that it is an extension of theirs, a continuation of it, and so it continues to occlude and deny other narratives that American earth has recorded from millennia of the stories of societies, technologies, demarcations that were here long before us. But the story that we read from the air is undeniable: field, rangeland, circular track of a wheeled irrigation system, yes; but also mounded earth of another people’s epos.

In the agricultural region where I grew up, there were farms whose fields had of necessity to accommodate remnants of so-called “Mound Builder” culture: mysterious hillocks on flat floodplains where no such hillocks should be. From the air, these mounds appear as nodes around which the poem of the plow divides itself. The effort to bulldoze them away would be great, but I never heard anyone even speculate about that possibility. Though the mounds were not burial barrows, they were monuments to the dead. We were capable of razing monuments to the dead: our history is full of such razing. But why go out of your way to do it? Better to plow around it. The history that is written in the earth belongs more to the dead than it belongs to us.

About a mile from our house, on the adjoining farm, there was a knoll in the middle of a large field; an ancient pine grew from its center, and that tree was surrounded by a dense grove of smaller trees and brush. The explorer brave enough to penetrate that hedge would find, at the foot of the pine, an old graveyard; long untended, its stones were in every possible stage of disorder and decay, but it remained untouched by generations of farmers who doubtless “needed” the land. When I was in my teens, I hiked there two or three times a year. There was an atmosphere of sacred places there, which presented itself even to the firm agnostic I was in the process of becoming. That aura did not belong to the gravestones, or not to them only: it arose from the whole conjunction of the human and natural alphabets that collided there: eroded stone, decaying pine, plowed field with furrows that swerved around the place where I stood. It would, I suppose, have made an orderly and beautiful effect from the air, a juxtaposition of textures what would draw a hawk’s eye immediately toward the grove’s central tree. I was often greeted by red-tailed hawks as I approached the graveyard; they roosted in the ancient pine, and would rise up at my approach resentfully, drawing their hawk mandalas in the sky around me as I plunged into the grove.

In Ohio I once visited an effigy mound made in the shape of a hawk, broadcasting its imperious form skyward. There are many such mounds in the Ohio Valley, including an enormous effigy mound in the shape of a snake, holding an egg in its mouth. The mound builders, whoever they were, had intentions of which we know nothing, but the earth retains the stories they wrote. Hawk, snake, alligator: these characters inhabited a people’s spirit—their minds, their wishes, their dreams, their nightmares. Were they writing messages to their gods, or to aliens in fiery spaceships circling in the sky? Nobody knows. I prefer to think that the story they wrote in earth is simply that: their story, incised in the most permanent medium they knew, written for no sky tourists but for themselves and for the generations to come.

Mostly what we write on the earth we write by accident, by which I mean that, intent on a mundane task we contribute something without thinking about it to the narrative: the script of a plowed field, the tracery of a highway system, hole dug in the back field for a septic tank. No matter: the story is written, intended or not. The future will read it, and will judge it for what it is. All the circles I made decades ago, riding my uncle’s old John Deere, dragging a harrow behind me, are still there in the earth I moved, however occluded by the circles made before and after me by others. The mark remains, like a giant fingerprint. And everywhere we turn, the earth is marked, its poem still being written.

[*Reposted from The Best American Poetry Blog]

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Available Surfaces III: Mrs. Quack and Miss Cuckoo

Lay on, Macduff,/ And damn'd be him that first cries, "Hold, enough!" --William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5 scene 8

Mrs. Quack sat at her desk in front of the class, striking a classic Quack pose of cynical boredom. From a perspective of many decades on, I realize that she was a relatively unusual specimen: a country cynic. Real cynicism is rare among country people, who generally can’t afford the luxury of denial.

But Mrs. Quack had, so to say, come in from the cold. She still lived in the country, but she did not work on the farm where she lived; every day she got in her old Ford and drove to town to teach sixth graders. How she came to such a pass I haven’t a clue, but the situation was unfortunate for everyone involved.

Any sixth grader in her class could have quickly told you one thing about Mrs. Quack: she did not care, at all, for sixth graders. Sixth graders, to her, were ridiculous creatures, too close to childhood to be taken seriously, but too close to puberty to be idealized and adored.

To be fair, we were, like all captive groups of eleven year olds, a tough room. Adolescence has its horrors, and those are well known; in the coming years we would all turn into monsters of one kind or another. Preadolescence is less obvious, but it has its profound discomforts. At eleven, one is an adolescent of adolescence. An adolescent ignorantly desires to die and be reborn as an adult; a preadolescent abysmally wants to die and be reborn as an adolescent. O to be thirteen! To attend a prom! To have real pimples!

Mrs. Quack observed all that, daily, for many years. By the time I came to her class, her hair was white (pinkish rather than bluish white, an important distinction in those days) and her soul darkened from overexposure to the peculiar hormone-scented sixth grade classroom. Whether her cynicism was natural to her or had been adopted as the only defense mechanism she could muster in her circumstances I can’t say. I can see, though, that to have been a failure for so long at a job that would never call your hand could lead to a cynical outlook. Her failure had begun on the first day she stepped into a sixth grade classroom, for teaching sixth graders is hard, and Mrs. Quack was deeply, even fundamentally lazy.
Later on, in junior high and high school, I had teachers who, under similar conditions, had turned vicious. Mrs. Quack was too indolent to muster meanness; instead, she cultivated an amused mien that ill concealed the fact that, really, she couldn’t be bothered to give a good goddamn about much of anything.


Our backwater little school had, in an effort to innovate, decided that from fifth grade on, students should work with more than one teacher, to prepare the way for junior high, wherein one had one teacher for each subject. Accustoming students to moving from room to room, from aegis to aegis, would toughen us up for what was to come.

Our school had two classrooms for every grade. My class was comprised of about 40 students, like most other classes before and after, so this system worked reasonably well. For the first four grades, then, I was installed with 19 of my peers in one room with one teacher (Mrs. Honey, first grade; Mrs. Bright, second grade; Mrs. Dim, third grade; Mrs. Nobody, fourth grade) but in fifth grade, I had two teachers, Mrs. Goodcop and Mrs. Badcop. Likewise in sixth grade, my time was divided between Mrs. Quack and Miss Cuckoo.

Like Mrs. Quack, Miss Cuckoo had white hair, but it was neither pinkish nor bluish: it was simply white, and straight, cut in a sort of pageboy style. Mrs. Quack clearly enjoyed the blandishments of the beauty parlor, and came forth clipped and curled and colored. Miss Cuckoo’s style was more au natural. She verged, in fact, on the unkempt, and likely it was only peer pressure (intense in our little community with regard to matters of personal appearance and hygiene) that kept her from a witchy disreputability.

Where Mrs. Quack was completely transparent, Miss Cuckoo was a mystery. I find nothing at all in my memory banks about her background or her circumstances, beyond the fact that, unlike every other teacher in my elementary school, all of whom were female, her title was “Miss,” not “Mrs.” That alone was suggestive of many gradients of difference, but what it meant none of us were capable, at the age of eleven, of penetrating; nor, frankly, did we try. We were not being schooled in empathy, and therefore we possessed none. All we knew about Miss Cuckoo was that she was crazy, and that seemed to be all we needed to know.


Miss Cuckoo’s insanity, if that is what it was, took so benevolent a form that she expended an entire adulthood as a public school teacher. If her professional superiors or peers ever discussed her strangeness with her, I am not aware of it, though of course I wouldn’t be. When I started first grade, Miss Cuckoo’s assignment was as a teacher of first graders, but I landed in the classroom of the kindly Mrs. Honey, and so did not encounter Miss Cuckoo at close range except on the playground, where from time to time she exhibited forms of exuberance that later on might have seemed peculiar, but to a first grader was simply part of the scenery.

By the time I entered sixth grade—why I do not know--Miss Cuckoo had been reassigned. She and Mrs. Quack shared responsibility for the sixth graders. Mrs. Quack was in charge of reading and math, Miss Cuckoo of social studies and anything that fell into the category of the arts.

Had Miss Cuckoo been my own age, she would have grown, I think, into a very happy hippie girl, smoking weed, listening to forbidden music, and dancing naked in meadows at rock concerts. Had she been born in late nineteenth-century England, she would have been a free spirit and consorted with Pre-Raphaelites, Decadents, and Symbolists; she would have inhaled opium, sipped laudanum and absinthe, and posed in the nude for Rossetti, who would have rendered her as a medieval maiden garlanded in wildflowers.

Unfortunately for Miss Cuckoo, she had been born in the wrong place and time. She had an affinity with Duse and Isadora Duncan, I believe, but she was stuck in remote small town America, and by now, as she was beginning to fade, in the 1950s and early 1960s. To us she, like Mrs. Quack, seemed impossibly old—both of them were in their sixties, as old as our grandparents!—and yet she also seemed the youngest child in the room. Most of the time, in fact, she gave every appearance of being terrified of us, as if a five year old had been put in charge of a group of children six years older. Sometimes all that fell away, and then, as she became more manic, she became eccentric and incomprehensible, like a child on a sugar high.

Of the general run of her pedagogy, I have absolutely no memory. This is remarkable, since I can remember, for better or worse, particulars of both style and substance from every other elementary school teacher I studied under. Mrs. Cuckoo, however, has left no trace in my recollection in those terms, and I can only conclude that this is true because she had absolutely nothing to impart. Some alcoholics are maintenance drinkers; Mrs. Cuckoo was a maintenance teacher. She spoke to us, read to us, lectured at us, to pass the time merely. This was done not in a spirit of boredom but under the lash of fear: she must pass the day in order to escape us.

On the other hand, I well remember that from time to time she would suddenly, and for no discernible reason, burst into song. Her voice was that of an aging woman, but it was not unbeautiful for that. The songs she sang she made up, to all appearances, on the spot. Sometimes they would come from some chance phrase encountered in a book, or uttered by her, or (horror of horrors to the child so afflicted) by one of us, but her song would quickly lose its relation to any external thing. She would dance up and down the aisles of the classroom singing, an expression of ecstasy transfiguring her otherwise tortured face; if she happened to be wearing a scarf, as she was prone to do, she would unwind it from her neck and wave it gracefully around her head in an expressionist dance that I now understand had its origin in the 1920s.

She also had a few set pieces, one of which quickly became famous, or notorious, among all the children of the school. She would have us clear the center of the room of desks, forming a circle around the edges of the room; she would drag out of some closet a tall wooden folding ladder. Then she would perform a musical skit of her own devising. Based on the old gospel song “Jacob’s Ladder,” it consisted of twelve verses, one for each year of our school experience, and a chorus. Her ladder had twelve steps, and for each verse she would ascend one step.

I have forgotten the substance of the verses, but the chorus is burned into my memory, as we children were required to sing along. It went

We are climbing the educational ladder
We are climbing the educational ladder
We are climbing the educational ladder
Every day of our lives

I did learn lessons in prosody from this composition. “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” flows along quite well, but substituting “the educational” for “Jacob’s” causes an elocutionary train wreck—six syllables where two should go--that even Miss Cuckoo negotiated very poorly. And by the twelfth verse, Miss Cuckoo would be perched at the very top of the ladder, doing her best simultaneously to stay balanced there, to maintain some semblance of modesty (she was, thank goodness, enamored of long skirts), and to sing at the top of her lungs. By this time we children would be exhausted with laughing at her, and would simply hum along with her in a kind of comatose disgust, for this performance was repeated erratically but regularly every two weeks or so.
The Educational Ladder was the blueprint of our education; we were on rung six of twelve, and we were so sick of it already that we thought jumping off a bridge might be preferable.

And so we passed our year, shuttled back and forth daily between the Country of Cuckoo and the Queendom of Quack.


Fox, my “best friend,” was vigilant. I put “best friend” in quotes here, because we were not really so much best friends as a pair of drowning people thrown together in a maelstrom and trying to survive. He was without a doubt the most intelligent person in the room, but he was also the most tortured; he was the victim of an atrocious family, abused by a drunken violent father. His response to that abuse was to embrace it as an excuse for every kind of failure, but it made his senses keen. He gravitated to me because I was also intelligent, and because he envied me the relative stability of my family life. In return he tortured me, psychologically, in every way he could devise, which, as he was very bright, were many. He was determined, for one thing, to cure me of my innocence, especially where grownups were concerned.

“Psst,” he said, “hey, Turtle,” meaning me: “Watch. She’s about to do it again.”

We were supposed to be working on a writing exercise. Fox and I had already finished; we were both quick studies. Most of the other students were still struggling on, gripping their pencils white-knuckled, and sweating. I was, as usual, using my spare time daydreaming. Fox, as usual, spent his keeping watch.

“Do what?” I said.

“Just look.”

Mrs. Quack was grading our arithmetic homework. We had handed in our papers folded once vertically, as she required, with our names written on the outside. She had her grade book out, and was checking off names, consulting each paper by glancing at it without opening it. From time to time she looked out at us, smirking. “Not done yet, Kitten?” she’d say to one slow girl. “Christmas is coming.” Once she got up and crept over to a child who had his head down on her desk; she gave the boy a light tap with her ruler. “Sleep on, Macbeth,” she said to him when he looked up, confused. “That’s Shakespeare, you know. Have you read Shakespeare? No? Then finish your work.” Years later, when I read Macbeth and found the line she was misquoting, I just shook my head and thought: typical.

“I first caught her doing it last week,” Fox said, as Mrs. Quack sat back down and resumed her marking.
“I’ve watched her every day since. She does it every time. Every time.

“Does what?” I said. Fox irritated the hell out of me most of the time, but very often if I paid attention to him I learned something important beyond the garbage he tended to spew. And just then I saw what he meant.
Having finished tallying who had turned in a homework paper—but without ever having opened a single one to check the work—Mrs. Quack tossed the bundle of assignments into the waste can.

“Does that,” Fox said. He was on the verge of exploding with laughter; he hissed like a manic teakettle.
“You saw what she did? You saw?”

I had seen. Her act felt like a blow to the side of the head. It was a gross, flagrant act of malpractice, but worse, it was a betrayal. I had spent perhaps an hour on my math homework, getting it right, recopying it neatly. All that had counted was my name on the outside of the paper.

Fox was jubilant. “You see what this means?”

I saw it meant Mrs. Quack was a terrible teacher, perhaps even evil in her own stunted way. But that’s not all Fox understood.

“Look here, Turtle. Check my writing assignment.”

I looked over his shoulder. His paper was blank: he had done nothing. He pulled the blank paper out of his notebook, folded it, and wrote his name on it.

“She’ll be taking up the papers any minute,” he said. “This is all she gets from me.”

I looked down at my own notebook. I was, that year, favoring a certain brand of notebook paper. It was lined in green instead of the standard blue, and it was also edged in emerald green; I liked it because I was going through a phase of obsession with Frank Baum’s Oz books. I had read every one of them, and was heartbroken that there were no more, so every afternoon when I got home from school, I got the notebook down and added a few pages to my own addition to the series. I loved my notebook, I loved its Emerald City edges. I even liked doing my homework, because it meant I got to write. It didn’t matter to me so much what I wrote. Words, numbers, it didn’t matter: I loved the work I did, and I took pride in it.

But now something had changed. A contract was broken. The notebook was compromised, the act of writing betrayed. I had written a page of proper sentences, as assigned. Now I turned that page; I pulled out a blank one; I folded it over and signed it. Never again, that school year, would I do it any other way, nor would Fox, and our delinquency would never once be detected.

Across the hall, Miss Cuckoo was singing: We are climbing the Educational ladder. We were up to the sixth rung of the ladder. Miss Cuckoo’s voice danced over the prosodic error that was the word “educational.” Mrs. Quack sighed at her desk in her boredom.

I sat in my chair, all that day, in stunned and sullen disillusionment. In some ways, I am sitting there still. Sleep on, Macbeth. Your sentence is written, but your page is blank. Sleep on.

[*Reposted from The Best American Poetry Blog]

Monday, August 24, 2009

Available Surfaces II: The Gravitas of Paper

"Another damned, thick, square book. Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon?" --William Henry, First Duke of Gloucester

In the late spring of 2001, the boxes began arriving. Buoyant gentlemen in brown uniforms brought them four afternoons in a row, stacking them on the old wooden porch in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, where I then lived, though I would not be living there for long. Inside the house, other boxes were accruing, because we were preparing to move.

In particular, I had just finished packing up all my books. In the dining room, there was a virtual levee of boxes identical to the ones that were arriving on the porch: one hundred (more or less) cartons bought at the U-Haul store full of the tools of my vocation. It would have been easy, if I’d had the corpse of an author on hand, to make a funeral cairn of books, to contain the body of a poet entirely within a tomb of boxes marked Poetry in appropriately black Sharpie to prevent confusion; likely I had enough Fiction boxes to encompass a trio of novelists; and the Criticism could have stashed the cremains of a panel of deconstructionists in a tidy mausoleum.

I was, in short, myself entombed inside my own collection of books. And yet, on the front porch, more boxes were arriving. And, perverse as it may appear, as I packed box after box with household goods, the incoming boxes were unpacked, their contents scrutinized.
Writers are apt to be all too well acquainted with the weight of paper. Those sheets that flutter so lightly in the wind when we don’t want them to, that crumble so easily into balls under the force of our writerly frustration, have a way of accruing into groupings—packets, bundles, parcels, walls, mountains—of enormous density. I was told a story once that the library at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale got around a cut in their book acquisition budget by claiming—and in fact proving—that books are an efficient insulating material. That slim volume of poems that almost levitates off your desk can, when joined with sufficient others of its ilk, crush the child who tries to climb a freestanding bookshelf. The cousins of those buoyant gentlemen and -women of UPS--I mean professional movers—quickly lose their cheerfulness when confronted by a personal library, especially one packed in cartons deemed by the movers “too big,” i.e. too heavy. Weight has consequences. Mass accrues. A spine, not to say a heart, can only bear so much. I could, as easily as that clambering monkey-child alluded to above, be killed by my books. So could a mover. So could a moving van.
That copy of Ulysses you use for a doorstop is one thing, literally; multiply it by a few thousand and you have my personal library; multiply it by millions and you have the unsupportable weight of your university’s research facility. How much do the books at the Library of Congress weigh? At some point we approach the density of a dwarf star.
The old house where we lived in Richmond—built in 1885—had the original oak flooring. As I piled my boxes of books in the downstairs dining room, I imagined the effect of the weight. Was the floor sagging there? (Who could tell? In that lovely old house, nothing was plumb, level, or square.) Then again, maybe the trees from which the flooring came were relatives of the trees from which the paper in the books were made: maybe there was a reunion going on from which I was excluded.

All these things passed through my mind, but I was perhaps a tad unhinged. I was not at a crossroad, but I was just beyond a myriad of them, in the sense that a lot of complex decisions had recently been made and many consequences were beginning to appear.

That was the spring of my fiftieth year, and yet, upstairs resting (as she should), my wife of two years was pregnant, and we were about to set off to parts unknown, more or less, because I had taken a new job. It was mid-April; on July 1 I would become the editor of one of America’s best literary quarterlies, The Georgia Review. I was doing almost all of the things that psychologists list as the most stressful human activities, and I was doing them all at once.

The boxes that were arriving on my porch were, in fact, arriving from Athens, Georgia. Their contents: the first 15 years of The Georgia Review. I was not yet in the employ of The University of Georgia, but I was already beginning the work, because I had taken on a task that needed all the time I could give it. I would be editing the magazine, yes; but I had also agreed to take on a larger than normal hunk of editorial work, suggested to me by the magazine’s staff: I would spearhead the completion of a special anthology issue, Best Essays from The Georgia Review.

This task was, I began quickly to realize, Herculean in several senses. The Georgia Review had been chugging along since 1948, always publishing a hefty percentage of nonfiction material. My predecessor, the late Stanley W. Lindberg, had, along with the staff, done Best Poetry and Best Fiction issues of the Review ten years earlier; a Best Essays had always been part of the plan, but it was never brought to completion. Exactly why this was the case I have never been sure. Partly it was the consequence of a long illness that in the end was fatal for Stan; partly it was the consequence of having many other things to do. But it was also, I think, partly the more or less inchoate nature of the task. Poetry and fiction have rather precise borders; nonfiction, including the essay, rather less so. Stan had made notes about his plans for the essay issue, including responses to his reading of the early issues, edited (of course) by his own predecessors. Reading these, it seemed to me, with all due respect, that Stan was dithering. And I could see why: the earliest issues of The Georgia Review were particularly Augean Stable-ish. The task was huge, the terrain very messy, and the stakes high.

What were the stakes? I had the distinct impression that I was being tested. The Georgia Review is a proud old institution; one doesn’t just walk through the door to be the editor without having to run the gantlet. I was being tested; indeed, I was being hazed; and I was determined to pass with flying colors.
If writers know the weight of paper well, editors not only know that weight, they are one with it. I was not walking into an editorship without understanding what I was getting into; I had already been editor-in-chief of Quarterly West, of The Kenyon Review, of The New England Review, and poetry editor of The Cimarron Review. I had done, then, more or less equivalent jobs before, and understood that I would be breathing, eating, and excreting paper. Day by day it would arrive and demand attention; it would be carried about and handled; it would be read; decisions would be made; most of it would be returned to its sender, but not without having first thrown its weight around.

There is hardly a literary quarterly anywhere that has office space as commodious as The Georgia Review; and that space is crammed, every nook and cranny and available surface of it, with paper. Some of it is more or less permanently installed on bookshelves; much of it circulates like turgid blood in a peculiar alien circulatory system. The editors are its custodians, and also its tenants. I would come to live in the offices of The Georgia Review, as I had other places, as a kind of symbiote, simultaneously responsible for and dependent on a body of paper, and not a lean fit body either: the body would be bloated, slow of metabolism, and gassy. This is not a description of The Georgia Review per se but of all such publications, maybe of all publications period. A journal of the traditional kind is made of paper, and it eats paper: too much paper enters it, and so—like an obese person living in a donut shop—it grows.
In Virginia—it was a lovely spring; flowers of many kinds were blooming, and the weather was luminous and perfect—I opened my boxes and began to examine their contents.

I discovered a minor mass of apparently identical objects, all the same shape and size, and all alas the same color, a species of khaki, or, as you might say, something on the pale end of a spectrum of shit brown. They arrived from an era in the history of literary magazines when publications were visually Spartan, to put it nicely. It was as though editors—and not only the editors of this publication, but virtually all editors of all similar publications—made a virtue of ugliness, as if to say: this is serious business, friends, like cod liver oil. To do them justice, color, in those days, was expensive; and furthermore, these editors, virtually to a man (and they were virtually all men) were, in the best sense, amateurs of publication. They dealt with content, and put forward content as content, rather the way a cereal company concerned entirely with matters of nutritional virtue might put forward oatmeal as oatmeal, in a thoroughly unappetizing oatmeal colored box. This was all well and good for the mission, and for the bottom line, but did not go far toward making the children want to eat.

I ate it. I ate it all. I read every word of every nonfiction piece (essays and otherwise, for there are distinctions to be made here) ever published in The Georgia Review. Beyond a certain point, the material was wonderful, and the choices difficult only because they were to be made between better and best. From the early years, however, there was not much nutrition in an acre of pine trees. And, of necessity, I read chronologically, from start to finish, so that, there in my dining room in Richmond, my meals were heavy, friends, and joyless: pieces on peach farming in Georgia, and how the “Negro” might be “improved” (for, yes, the Review began as Agrarian and Fugitive outreach, and adopted a “genteel” segregationism grounded in “The Briar Patch”).

Upstairs, my wife grew, as we say, heavy with child. Downstairs, I grew heavy with paper. Furthermore, I became clogged with dust. These issues were oddly new—most of them, like most issues of most literary magazines everywhere, had never been opened—and at the same time old. They had spent decades untouched by human hands but moldering in a Georgia storeroom, and they harbored peculiar allergens, to which I proved susceptible. They wicked all the moisture from the skin of my hands as I held them, and as I sneezed, my skin cracked; I went through a small swimming pool full of hand lotion.

Ah, friends, the act of reading is, for all we might say about the readerly imagination, thoroughly physical, and editors are the weightlifters of readers. There are joys in the profession, moments of electric discovery, illumination; but there are perils too, hernias and ruptured discs of readership, cracked hands and blurred vision, and susceptibility to whatever dusty invisibles cling to the page and plan their insidious invasions.

I read my old issues, I made my notes, and when I was done, I packed them all back in their boxes and piled them up with my other books. When the time came, I saw them off in a moving van; they were going home, and I was following, sucked along behind them by an irresistible if not altogether appealing field of gravity.
There is something to be said for the internet.

I have heard out the grouchy purists, those in love with paper. I am even one of them; I love paper too. I love books, and would never want to see them go away. I love literary magazines, broadsides, chapbooks, pamphlets. I love beautiful type, thick rich pages, the marvels wrought by ink. By and large, by now I am largely made of paper. You are what you eat, and I have eaten my oatmeal. My loyalty here is real.

But I also love the library inside my computer. I love the brilliance of the screen, its pure luminosity. Light! I love lightness! It’s not for nothing that I’m a poet: the lyric lifts, it floats, it flies.

Let there be beautiful books forever. Let them be read forever in bathtubs, a place where computers should never go. But let there also be digitization, let there be hard drives containing, almost weightlessly, libraries dwarfing Alexandria. And let all ugly back issues of literary magazines, bound in shit-colored cheap cover stock, be turned into electrons that never make us sneeze.

Along with the excellent staff at The Georgia Review, I finished editing the special essay issue, and a fine strong issue it is too, not because of me but because of the editorial excellence of my predecessors there.

It is, however, an especially thick, weighty issue, and that is mostly my doing. And in some future, a new editor-to-be will, at the Review’s two hundredth anniversary, have to edit a mega-meta-Best-Of issue. I imagine the boxes arriving on his or her futuristic porch. I imagine that unfortunate—attenuated into noodle-like physical wimphood by another hundred and forty years of machine-aided human evolution—struggling to lift them. I imagine his or her dining room floor—made of polymer-uranium reinforced Styrofoam materials—collapsing under the weight, the whole structure of the house imploding, the editor and all back issues vanishing down a robotically engineered safety sinkhole put there precisely in case of such an eventuality.

I will look down, or up, from whatever afterlife I then inhabit, and I will say to myself: there is my legacy.

[*Reposted from The Best American Poetry Blog]

Available Surfaces I: Uncle Ernest’s Tattoos*

character c.1315, from O.Fr. caractere, from L. character, from Gk. kharakter "engraved mark," from kharassein "to engrave," from kharax "pointed stake." Meaning extended by metaphor to "a defining quality."    

I grew up in a place and time wherein the art of tattooing was virtually unknown—or, to be more accurate, was beyond the pale. A map of local businesses would not have included a tattoo parlor, any more than a list of the local houses of worship (and that would have been a lengthy list) would have included a Church of Elvis, however many Elvis worshipers might actually have lurked among us.
The only member of my family who had tattoos was my Uncle Ernest, who we rarely saw, because he lived Elsewhere. Furthermore, he came from Elsewhere, as he was “only” an uncle by marriage anyway, having courted and won Aunt Eunice after the Great War; and Aunt Eunice was not “really” an aunt in any case, as she was adopted (though she was in fact Family, being the daughter of another aunt and uncle, both of whom perished in the Great Train Wreck, but that, children, is another story).
As if that weren’t enough, Uncle Ernest obtained his tattoos in an even more distant Elsewhere. During the Great War he had been a marine, serving in the Pacific Theater, where, I gather, he saw a good deal of combat on islands whose names, when I was a child, were utterly strange to me. I remember hearing him tell a story about lying on his belly firing his rifle (from under a jeep? Or have I imagined that detail?) while the bullets of an unseen enemy inscribed furrows in the sand to the left and right of him.  From there, I understood, it was somehow a natural step to the tattoo parlor.

Uncle Ernest had an anchor on his shoulder and a naked woman on his forearm. Both were tattoos of the crudest kind available from a professional--utterly stereotypical hack work executed in one color: mimeograph blue. Uncle Ernest was deeply ashamed of them, and always wore long-sleeved shirts. He would display them only rarely, under a combination of duress and the influence of a drink or three.   My connection to my Uncle (actually Cousin-By-Marriage) Ernest, therefore, was both complicated and distant. 
When I was a small boy, he was, in my mind, indistinguishable from his tattoos, though the tattoos were almost always hidden. From my point of view, they were the secret inscriptions that defined him, and by virtue of their existence—and beyond them, the marks in the sand written there by the guns of an invisible enemy, which were somehow both the cause and the underlying meaning of those crude pictures he carried on his skin—made Uncle Ernest “Interesting.”  

I feel reasonably certain that this assessment would surprise Uncle Ernest to no end, if he knew of it. His life was, I suspect, reasonably ordinary, full of the usual difficulty and quiet desperation, and generally devoid of adventure. He had three children, and spent his life providing for his family by working at the usual sort of job: he did something or other (sales, I think) for Kraft Foods (they of the utterly bland cheeses). 

His tattoos were hidden away under the long sleeves of his closet full of shirts—hidden from his employers, from his customers, from his friends, and mostly from his family, except during such moments as we children importuned him into compliance and he revealed them. When he did, a momentous history, fraught with enormous possibility and full of danger, came into view. Somewhere there was another kind of life; somewhere there were tattooists and jeeps and sand; somewhere there were people who would shoot you.     


I was a very small boy when it became obvious to me that I was a writer. As soon as I understood that books were not facts of nature like trees, dogs, and cabbages, but were made by people, I also understood that I wanted to be one of those people who made books. I came to this knowledge before I even knew how to write (though I had begun to know how to read). 

Concerning what it actually meant to be a writer, of course, I was clueless, and untroubled by being clueless because I was ignorant even of my own ignorance. I carried this sense of vocation lightly, and denied it often when someone would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up: when adults asked this question it always seemed unserious to me, and so I gave frivolous answers (cowboy, spaceman, doctor, fox). My writer-self I kept close by but hidden away, like a smooth stone in my pocket.  

When I was five and not yet in school (this was before the invention of kindergarten, gentle reader, for I grew up before not one but several floods) my brother, four years older and hardwired for levels of practicality forever unavailable to me, asked me that archetypal question, but when he asked it, I took it as a serious thing. What will you do when you are grown? I will be a writer, I said. Oh, no, he said, you mustn’t do that. Why? What if no one wants to read what you write? How will you make a living?  

Tattooists, I suppose, have an advantage over writers, especially poets: they have shops, in front of which they put out signs; people see the signs, go inside, and buy tattoos. If a poet put out a sign, who would turn up? Who would buy? Perhaps I should have told my brother I wanted to be a tattooist when I grew up, but it would never have occurred to me to say that, any more than it occurred to me to say I would be a poet.  

I didn’t say “poet” to my brother; I said “writer.” I doubt whether the word poet was included in my vocabulary when I was five. The vocation of poetry would arrive, for me, much later. In the meanwhile it was necessary for me to learn to hold a pencil; it was necessary for me to form a certain relationship with paper, which in those days seemed to me an exotic commodity, and for my purposes looked different from the paper in books, which never had blue lines to keep the writing straight, or holes punched in the margin. I had, in short, a very long way to go.  

But: there were stories, and in the stories were characters; and there were books, which were filled with ranked rows of characters. The work of learning lay in the seam between character and character: between the alphabet and the cast of actors who could be invoked by the proper marshalling of marks on a page. The extent to which the act of writing was a balancing of character against character within character was as yet unknown to me; and how it became extended—by metaphor, as the dictionary tells us—to central facts about myself, I had not even the glimmering of a hint.  

Nowhere could a determined seeker have found a less likely literary paradigm than my Uncle Ernest, and yet to me he was a walking book. He had a cover, and inside there were surprising things fraught with meaning.  

It was typical of him, in this sense, that on the day of my grandmother’s ninetieth birthday—the same grandmother who had adopted the infant Aunt Eunice out of the Great Train Wreck—as the family was gathering for a gigantic celebration-cum-reunion, Uncle Ernest died. As he journeyed to Here from the Elsewhere he so insistently and perversely inhabited, driving the car with his family in it toward our distant point of reunion—his heart exploded. Or perhaps it imploded—my uncle had become massively obese in his middle age, generating more and more personal gravity; I can easily imagine that his heart collapsed like a dying star, into a black hole through which he vanished, taking his tattoos and the deepest secrets of his existence with him.  

In any case—though his dying transformed our celebration into a funeral—I never saw him again. I never even saw his grave; as he had lived Elsewhere and died Elsewhere, so he was buried in an Elsewhere I have never to this day visited. Rest in peace, Old Soldier; hail and farewell. The end.  


But not quite. I never saw his grave, but I did see a photograph of it: a typical piece of granite, almost but not quite white, inscribed by the unswerving hand of a journeyman carver holding his imperious chisel: Ernest McCollum. Kharakter, kharassein, kharax: In those letters everything was present, even through the grainy scalloped black and white snapshot Aunt Eunice sent. Here was a complex regression that felt to me as weighty as The Wasteland would one day feel: the photo revealing the carved stone revealing the name revealing the life that hid the images of a hidden world that was his and his alone, but that through him was also mine.

[*Reposted from The Best American Poetry Blog]