Of John Brown, the Onion, Woodpeckers and Peckerwoods: McBride’s novel THE GOOD LORD BIRD

I delight in reading about the ivory bill woodpecker and pine to see one in flight or hammering away.  Unfortunately, they’re evidently extinct, according to all but the most optimistic lost-cause birders.  Fortunately, however, a pair of pileated woodpeckers – similar in silhouette but smaller, less musical and different in coloring from their vanished cousins – haunt the woods I live in.  I keep my eye peeled for them and discovered last year that two juveniles were foraging in the area as well. When I want to inquire deeper into matters ornithological, I go to a source like The Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Phillip Hoose, Tim Gallagher’s The Grail Bird or Michael K. Steinberg’s Stalking the Ghost Bird.  There’s a good but desperately hopeful documentary film about possible Arkansas survivors, too.  (And I wonder why my bookshelves runneth over. . . .)

JohnBThat rarum avis (and zealot and rebel, liberator, charismatic terrorist) John Brown has long fascinated me, as well, and about two decades ago I served for two months as the first (maybe only, as it turns out) writer-in-residence at the Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park.  I read Robert Penn Warren’s John Brown: The Making of a Martyr while I was there, along with Stephen B. Oates’s hagiographic To Purge this Land with Blood (which is more admiring of Brown than I can be) and was on hand to examine (with gloves) a newly-loaned artifact for display, the Sharps carbine Brown probably carried during his quixotic (but in some ways right-minded) raid on the Federal arsenal as HF.  I studied the landscape, the maps, the artifacts, the various accounts in books and on park videos.  I spent afternoons at the Kennedy Farm (nearby lurk headquarters) across the river in MD and even made a cobbler from fruit (both dark purple and white) off the mulberry trees there.  I had already read Russell Banks’ brilliant (and again, admiring of the subject) Cloudsplitter, as powerful a historical novel as I know, and followed the fictional account that presented Brown as a hybrid bred from Moses, Ahab, one dupe and maybe three demons, while still painting him as a real and inevitable, if infuriating, man.  Needless to say, I hated to leave that haunted corner of W. VA. when my time there expired, and I left with all my senses and inquiries sharpened..

Where is this headed?  Oh ye of little faith. . . .

When I saw in 2013 that James McBride had written a novel entitled The Good Lord Bird and that it was about John Brown, I couldn’t believe my luck.  Salt-cured ham and sweet potato on the same plate!  So I ordered a copy and, true to form, swiftly misplaced it.  Well, as Frostian way leads on to way, I followed the distraction trail to dabble in and read other things, while the book received kudos and McBride collected his National Book Award.  My memory serves no master, so the book’s existence melted like ice in July.  But then, serendipity, I stumbled upon another reference to the book and recovered my resolve to read it, despite my commitment to a summer of Patricia Highsmith novels and stories.  And luck was with me: for some reason – probably that NBA – our college library had a copy, which was available.

The timing was right.  Just three years since the acclaimed film of Twelve Years a Slave threw the spotlight on the original (if ghostwritten) book, a year since Tom Piazza’s challenging novel A Free State explored ante-bellum identity through a mixed race runaway eluding capture while masquerading as a very dark African while playing exhilarating banjo in a minstrel show.  And this summer we have a new Roots miniseries.  Add these to Banks’ established and provocative Cloudsplitter and William Styron’s much-debated Confessions of Nat Turner, and you have an exciting and controversial literary landscape of historical novels on similar subjects, many of them thriving under the vast canopy of Huckleberry Finn.  But none of them have the ivory bill.

ibory billNor does McBride’s book very much have the bird, though feathers materialize and are brandished on occasion.  And it’s not likely to become a movie, because it’s a novel about narrative voice as much as anything else, and MacBride gallops in where angels fear to tread on the matter of whether or not to use language that is authentically offensive or offensively authentic.  In the current political/rhetorical climate in which book banners are sour because book BURNING has been given such a bad name, McBride weighs in on the side of offensive language but with a tactical mind.  He out-offends anything Twain’s wife would let him write, but he does it with high and low, outrageous mischief, The Good Lord Bird being a rollicking, twisted discourse on obscenity, grittiness, ultra-violence and insanity, all wrapped in a historical blanket.  I won’t say it makes David Milch’s HBO Deadwood look tame, but that series appears less radical in juxtaposition to McBride’s Brown/bird/cross-dressing (yes, Caitlin’s transformation is almost anticipated) gallimaufry.

So the stage is set, but do I recommend McBride’s novel, which is presented as a long-lost document narrated or written by a former slave who lives to be a hundred (shades of Berger’s Jack Crabbe)?  It’s certainly an ambitious book with pleasures and frustrations to offer, but for my conflicted and enigmatic scorecard will have to wait for the next post.  I’ll try not to be away too long.  Stay tuned.

[P.S. If you want something to do in the meantime, I recommend The Life and Letters of Captain John Brown, edited by Richard Webb and published in London in 1861.  The book was re-issued by Negro Universities Press in 1972, and there’s a copy of the original edition in the Duke University Library.]

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Here a Quack, There a Quack (a whimsy)

The current media blitzkrieg reminds me of a time when the American icon called Donald was a duck.  A Disney character often scolding or combating his cricket-capped nephews Huey, Dewy and Louie or some other zoomorphic nemesis, that Donald wore a sailor suit (though he never seemed to claim a nautical background, even in his romantic life) and seemed pretty middle class.  He was not the best or the greatest at anything, was in fact, a simple enough bird, though one who enjoyed his creature comforts and feathering his nest. He did not savor opposition.  DD was amusing and sometimes admirable, not excessively addicted to the truth.  He is also the most widely broadcast comic character outside the superhero genre.

What I most miss about that Donald is not his huge bill nor his inclination to belittle those not like him or those opposed to him.  Though he didn’t seem to have huge hands, I don’t miss his big feet or his greed.  And this is the moment I experience some passing regrets about copyright protection.  I would love to post right HERE an image of DD displaying the mode which, as a kid, I most enjoyed: the ghost-white duck in mid-tantrum.  Such a posting might be reckless, though.  [I should mention that DD was most famously drawn by the trio of Taliaferro, Banks and Rose.]  I loved those renderings of our hero in full hissy fit, leaping and stomping, spit and pin feathers flying, as if he were scrapping with some invisible force.  His bill might sprout fangs, he might spit lightning, he would squawk and stammer, with squiggles in the air around him to signal that he was employing transgressive and downright unprintable language as he wheezed and yammered like Rumpelstiltskin in full fury or a Celtic war poet screaming his scorn song against an enemy fortification.  He was impressive, and I was enchanted.  Even the other animals like Mickey and DD’s own moneybags-rich Uncle Scrooge McDuck might recoil in awe, though they did not seem smitten by his persona, all that ire and twisted inconsistency, all that verbal shrapnel and dragonfire.  They indulged him or gave him space till the fits passed, the feathers settled, and soon the Peaceable Kingdom would be, for a spell, restored.  He was, after all, a decent fowl at heart and perhaps the founder of Ducks Unlimited.

Much as I delighted in the whirlwind of the Tasmanian devil or the stormy outbursts of Elmer Fudd, it is Donald Duck with that orange-ish broad bill that I wish the satellite TV networks would resurrect more often.  Entertaining as he was, he remained somewhat marginal, as he lacked the good heart of Steamboat Willie (the inevitable M. Mouse), the ingenuity of Tweety-bird, the enterprise of the coyote, the wit and percussion of the woodpecker.  Plunging into my morning Cheerios, I keep wishing he were not disrespected, ignored, short shrifted, wondering if it’s not time for a movement, as the general atmosphere we now swim in suggests that Donald Duck’s hour has come round at last to slouch toward Hollywood or the Beltway to be reborn.  That bat signal good old Commissioner Gordon used to summon his nocturnal hero to Gothem — somebody needs to get to work on a Duck call right away.

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I’m Nobody

frogJune already, moon and croon, the peepers singing their tune in the trees, the understory, the pond, ubiquitous and to my untrained ear, only slightly melodic, but my iota of biological understanding insinuates they’re saying their names, or some version of “me, here, now, wow!”  June, so the miniscule amphibians put me in mind of Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody” poem:

I’m Nobody!  Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s just the pair of us!
Don’t tell!  They’d advertise – you know.

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
(J # 260)

Context aside, sounds to me like she’s warning us about the perils of Facebook posting – maybe she means “admiring Brag” – though I admit to seeing the advantages of social media if you’re trying to sell something, plan a big party, cast a glamour over your readers (“friends” and fiends alike) or overthrow a country.  Her first stanza seems whispered, conspiratorial, and even paranoid.  Or mock-paranoid.  The children’s secret game under the draped dining table, and a search for some small society to select before shutting the door.  Comfort in numbers, if the number is two.  If the anonymous They gets wind of the secret emptiness of being Somebody (as in: “that loud guy with the weird hair, red cap and flashy suit, surely he’s Somebody!) they’ll be eager to handle mad subversives with a chain (and off to the brig).  It’s divine sense to keep such secrets, herkos odonton, as the Greeks put it, figuratively “behind the teeth.”  Silence is golden (but the duct tape is silver).emily


But perhaps worse than being found out to be Nobody is the sentence to be Somebody.  Be and say and yammer-yammer-yellowhammer night and day screaming for attention like the kid doing wheelies in the driveway.  But what’s the penalty for celebrity?  Celebrity.  Pretty (midnight) dreary business, likely to lead to delusion and hubris.  The croaking frogs of Aristophanes find anonymity in their surge, become one entity, the Borg, the Balrog, if not the Bog (or the morphing green being from Steve McQueen’s early film The Blob).  Now I’m aware that Dickinson is usually above naked sarcasm, but that admiring (which might seem the cousin of the advertising in stanza one) bog (or even blog!) is probably sneering and smirking behind the parlor flirt’s lace fan, if only because the grenouille chorus is competing with all the myriad choruses of the other self-namers.  The result is a cacophony of selfies, a clustercroak of memes and memoirs and “je suis-je suis.”  And, admittedly, I have an account (however dormant) and am not qualified to cast the first stone, though I’m not disassembling my cairn, just in case.

Perhaps E.D. has foreheard Steinbeck over half a century later saying, “Writers should be read, not heard.”  Or even herd, I suspect.

KeatsOr perhaps she’s suggesting that she’s not anybody finite and specific, in concord with a practice (and feat) Keats explained in a letter to Ben Bailey (which E.D. could not have read, as it was, well, confidential for decades).  It’s that negative capability business: “. . . if a sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.”  Not just projection or imagination, but something more magical, maybe Kafkaesque.  I’m sure a few have the gift of such radical identification in which moments of transformation occur.  Keats and Dickinson seem candidates who make their art not quite by liking or sharing but by committing a fervent attention to the Other so consuming that those two poets are safe from falling in with the mobile vulgus.  Better a singular startling sparrow fully occupied in survival than a host of frogs at their revival hymning their “come hither” and credentials.

Exhausting, all this psycho-musical analysis and mischief, but fortunately we’re approaching not livelong but liveshort June (just 30 twilights), and by the way, where I live there’s a great shoal of cicadas due to celebrate another seventeenth this year, beginning some night soon.  That should drown out the public frogs, but where does that leave Nobody?  Maybe hidden among the nothing that isn’t there.

[Nota bene: C. Manson also quoted D.’s opening to this poem.  So, the Devil can cite . . . .]




There, I’ve once again said more than I know.

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peregrine book

November 30th. . Two kills by the river: kingfisher and snipe.  The snipe lay half submerged in flooded grass, cryptic even in death.  The kingfisher shone even in mud at the river’s edge, like a brilliant eye.


When Kirk Follo asked me if I’d read J. A. Baker’s book The Peregrine, I first wondered if it was kin to The Maltese Falcon, and my curiosity was piqued.  After five minutes of Kirk’s enthusiastic recommendation, I was sold on the book, but soon learned I was unable to buy it in Tiny Town.  The college library, however, rescued me, as the book was a New York Review classic paperback in ’67, long before I knew what peregrine meant.  And the library had it.  Kirk is a demanding and discerning reader and critic, but I still doubted I’d have the same life-enhancing experience I’d had with Jonathan Maslow’s The Owl Papers on Cumberland Island, GA over two decades ago, one of my two most exciting nature book reads (the other? Barry Lopez’s Of Men and Wolves).  Maybe I was wrong about that.


John Alec Baker has been something of a mystery man, the author of only two books, putatively a longtime librarian (but now Wiki says an auto company employee) born in 1926 and deceased, well, the literary world was unsure about that when the paperback was issued.  His life span dates in the book are listed as (1926-?), which is pretty unusual, since he was still alive and writing in 1967, though his hawk book suggests he had recently received a dire personal prognosis.  Turns out – rheumatoid arthritis, eventually followed by cancer from the arthritis drugs.  But I stray.


For a decade Baker was possessed by the shrinking population of English peregrines, and for almost a year (October to March, a kind of “peregrine year”) Baker traipsed about the fields, marshes and woodlands of a small coastal region in East Anglia, where he “hunted” (with field glasses and a notebook) and documented the local peregrines, a small population likely destined to follow their cousins to the undiscovered country via agricultural chemicals.  The slender volume he left detailing the flights and feedings, matings and general peregrinations [from L for wandering or foreign; I couldn’t resist] of the birds, which are paragons of hunting efficiency and beauty, their in-flight kills elegant, their mantling, plucking and feeding nearly ritualistic, their life force exciting and inspiring.  They have running (soaring) scrimmages with crows, who like to mob them, and seem prone to gambol and play, as well as simply to observe the comings and goings of other avians with British names like godwit, knot, fieldfare, the many plovers, gulls and other fishers that haunt estuarial territories.  Their primary provender is the woodpigeon, and almost without exception these hawks take their prey in flight, often by a steep vertical stoop at about a hundred miles an hour.


Look them up in Sibley or the Audubon guide, and you’ll find some specimen images a gray slate with black highlights, others the colors of a light-phase copperhead, but not until you read Baker describing them will you think that many writers have ever done justice to describing a bird, tweedy in pattern or arrowhead-schemed, moustached, hook-beaked, lethal-taloned.


So who needs to know so much about a bird?  Well, the subject is fascinating, the matter, but that’s almost collateral.  What truly matters is manner, the manner of observation and of rendering.  Both Pound and Stevens insisted that the test of sincerity is craft, Pound adding that absolute attention is prayer.  But Baker is not a snazzy or mandarin stylist, he’s not even aiming for the kind of magical flair Lopez brings to “nature writing.”  He just observes with such a quiet ferocity of spirit and mastery of material that the sentences, which often contain subtle incremental repetitions, spiel out as if they are the beautiful presences, instead of descriptions of those presences.  He’s not particularly clever or ornate, but he observes, describes, juxtaposes and reveals his discoveries in a manner that seldom approaches embellishment.


And he’s not there.  He’s the ghost voice, the transparent eyeball that delivers the is.  Except, perhaps, in the matter of color, all the nuances and overtones, undertones.  His writing has a kind of painter’s pentimento that mixes the colors of marshweeds, mudflats, the chill air across which the tierce (male) or falcon (female) etches its signature and swoops down to snatch the life from its prey.  Reading the descriptions of the raptors’ acts are near rapture, as if this book were the casebook meant to prove the truth of James Dickey’s “The Heaven of Animals,” in which he imagines the predator’s “descent/ Upon the bright backs of their prey// . . . In a sovereign floating of joy.”


Four or five hours’ reading, a penitential act for anyone who suspects he or she has loved and looked too glibly or pretended to master a body of knowledge never truly penetrated to its heartbeat.  But a providential exercise, as well.  The intricate stitchery by which the world has made itself, without flourish or boast, no vita to flaunt, but just the turning ceremony of each successive day seen by the most ravenous eye imaginable and delivered with one of the most earnest and unself-righteous hands conceivable.


There’s not much plot to this story, as Baker resists the temptation to anthropomorphize the creatures that spellbind him (but which he never claims to “love”), but reading it I feel that I have requested, echoing Robert Penn Warren, “Tell me a story of deep delight,” and that I’ve been heard by someone or something actually able to deliver the goods.  Owls, pileateds, and the red kites of Wales have long been my favorite birds, but Baker has offered a new candidate, and I’m all Zeissed-up, wide-eyed and ready to see for myself.  All I need is a map.

peregrine book 2

Here’s the beginning of Baker’s October 39 entry:

The wind-shred banner of the autumn sky spanned the green headland between the two estuaries.   The east wind drove drenching grey and silver showers through the frozen cider sky.  Birds rose from ploughland as a merlin flew above them, small and brown and swift, lifting dark against the sky, dipping and swerving down along the furrows.  All brown or stubbled fields shivered and glittered with larks; all green were plied with plover.  Quiet lanes brindled with drifting leaves.

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Red River: Texas, Massachusetts and Home Again (Part two of a rubicund blog)

(for Part 1, scroll down past part the second))

Stanza the Second

red riverI have not forgotten.  Rubicon.  Here’s the rub.  The Red River, which is also a Texas border and part of the legendary geography of Old West cattle drives, for those trying to follow my digressions as if . . .  never mind.  Red River is a designated cinema treasure, as Robert Osborne tells us, and it’s about betrayal, vengeance, private enterprise and violence, all with requisite dust, livestock and rubes.  Women appear and speak, even dispute.  They do matter, in a Hawksish way, but it’s a man’s man’s movie, a hawks’, not much on the “then the letting go” front.  Caesar deciding to take the reins from the self-satisfied and corrupt magistrates, to trump them, by hook or pilum.  Tough steer magnate Tom (big John) Dunson (do I hear a “dunce” in there?) determined to drive the 10,000 head to Missouri for the big lollapalooza bonanza, instead of the safer, closer Abilene payoff.  Like Austin and Mabel willing to risk all domestic harmony for a whole gaggle of folks (though A. D.’s wife Susan Gilbert Dickinson was already low-dosing on arsenic for some “mysterious illness”) for the pleasures of wrestling out of all that Victorian millinery and making the two-backed beast.  (I remember, much later than these simple discoveries, reading one of Mabel’s letters in which she mentioned the need in Japan for a western lady always to be armed with a button hook, as it was always necessary to remove one’s shoes-of-many-fasteners to visit a temple.  This is before Velcro.  Old fashioned Cupid was a harsh taskmaster, as was Baedeker.)  Hard not to mention in such flights of fancy that A and M called their attempts  to procreate “the experiment.”  Shades of Dr. Frankenstein.

But: Rubicon.  The ancients did have a romantic side.  Maybe the solicitor/accountant/untrustworthy trustee of Amherst College Austin had other powers and resembled more Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Whatsit.  On 9/11, 1882, A escorted M through rain and dusk to the Evergreens, his very own home and hearth, for a perhaps spirited game of whist.  En route, they paused, spoke.  That night he wrote in his diary the players’ names (including “Ms. Todd,” which is right neigh the German for “death”), weather conditions and some cursive scribble that I can only guess is “stranger lights & hound,” but I must be mistaken and wish someone with better eyes would transcribe it.  This I can read: early in the brief entry “not much going on,” but after naming the card party participants, Mabel’s last on the list, a line skipped, and then the single word: Rubicon.  Polly Longsworth, in her books Austin and Mabel and The World of Emily Dickinson interprets this trisyllabic ejaculation to mean that A confessed his dark desires to Mabel.  (Like to ask her about that possible hound, though.)

But there’s a little more, then a lot more.  Mabel also kept a journal, half a page for that day – the weather, the party, a formal reference to Mr. Muttonchops, and then, at the very bottom of the September 11 (-yes-) page, separate, penciled in (probably at a later date, according to Polly, who has seen the genuine article), the word, the red river, the cast die and irreversible decision, if such heart-smitten moments resemble decisions.  Added later to perhaps correct a semantic asymmetry between them.  The couple also created a charm, the code Amuasbteiln.  His name having swallowed hers.  They were busy as May bees and seemed to take to deceit.  THIS was the love that dare not whisper its name.  They were not adequately sly, however, nor could they manage to spring an offspring.austin rubicon

The “lot more” is Longsworth’s excellent 1984 Farrar, Straus, Giroux book Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd, plus the later illustrated biography The World of Emily Dickinson, the latter in this matter especially valuable for the images of AD and MLT, especially those which show her eyes, which are mad as a rabid fox’s, and her parlors, which are more museums than spaces for work or sloth.  She was a natural-born curator, bless her heart.  His story does not end well, by the way, nor does hers.  If you want to know why, visit any cemetery; we all end up pretty much the same.

[Some notes:
*Emily D. was called among the neighbors “the myth.”
*She wrote in a letter, I think to Higginson, that her eyes were the color of sherry.
*Whist is bridge without bidding.  Nothing ventured . . . no dice.
*First name of the previous owner of my second-or-so-hand-copy of Longworth’s study of the correspondence was – and I hope is – Sherry.]

emilyBut there’s yet a brighter side, at least for me, at least for now.  I had made some of these discoveries about the Dickinson family scandal, particularly Longworth’s reprint and discussion of the letters, some time ago, before 1996.  I know this simply because, when I first met my wife (it was September, 1996), I had (Eureka!) been prepped by my adventures in reading: one word hammered its dactyl permanently into my spirit, and neither Marion Montgomery (John Wayne’s real moniker), Jeep products nor Julius Caesar could have been further from my fevered mind.  What I thought was Rubicon.

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Red River (Before the HowardHawksJohnWayne western) in Two Inpertinent Parts


Stanza the First. [rub icon?]

jeep rub

I have discovered that “Rubicon” now names a style of semi-compact faux-rugged soft-top Jeep and yet another failed TV series about espionage, but not many people in my neighborhood still use the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” to designate an irreversible and risky decision.  “The die is cast” is also fading from the popular vocabulary, and alea jacta est is more a ghost phrase than the conversation spice it once was among baby boomers who were herded into Latin classes.  Romans didn’t really use the “J” anyway.  In fact, the River Rubicon in northeastern Italy was never itself important as more than a border, a no trespassing sign, but it did play a major role in Roman law and the limitations placed on Roman generals flushed with victory.  The law forbade commanders to cross that stream at the head of an army, which might in unsteady times resemble a threat.  Their right to command, their imperium, stopped at the border, where the power of the magistrates activated.  To cross and proceed toward the place where all roads lead in full martial strength was a capital offense.  Maybe this kind of tension the historical moment when Truman and McArthur fell into irreversible conflict.  Mac tried to cross it the border, Caesar did.  Maybe the Romans should have built a wall.

Rubicon riverThe stream flowing south of Ravenna is called Rubicon because, as with ruby, the word’s root designates something red, like the clay which forms much of the river’s bed and stains the water reddish (but not radish, not even quite a crimson tide).  Once Julius Caesar defied the Senate and crossed with his soldiers on that cold day in 49 B.C.– with only a legion of three or four thousand, but symbolically a horde – war with Pompey and his cronies was inevitable, and much more than that minor river would run red . . . for three years, very red.

You have to wonder what the Jeep marketing wizards (are they still “Willis”?) were thinking when they chose the name.  It looks like an unsafe rugged vehicle, but overpriced and prone to rolling.  But then we’ve already had the Cressida and the Saturn, so the sky’s the limit.  Name away.  (I want an Orion, for winter driving).  And I guess if I had a Rubicon I might feel more decisive and hardened by frontier campaigns sleeping beside my gladius under the stars and facing the war axe and battle cry of the menacing Gauls.  I’d want my 4-wheel drive Rubicon to be red as a fox.

caesarBut there must be more to the flight of associations than all this fiddle, and there is.  The idea of crossing into dangerous territory, rolling the dice and making a monumental decision will always be part of our lives, and the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” once carried significant gravity and the weight of historical association.  It was useful.  It was cultural and worldly and a pleasure to pronounce.  It could be employed inappropriately by a Woody Allen as self-satire, but it could also suggest the havoc and suffering Caesar’s domestic conquest carried.  Maybe the convenience of that Siri voice can reverse the loss of such pertinent words.

Once upon a time, straying from some rambling research on Emily Dickinson (no stranger to the irrevocable, heart-scouring decisions – the soul selects its own society – then shuts the door), I found myself reading her brother Austin’s letters and some of his journal entries.  And there it was, without the “crossing,” just the simple signature pronouncement rubicon.  Here’s a code to wrinkle the forehead and throw the brain’s electro-chemical switch.  Not to be left behind by the youthful and beautiful, I thought simply “WTF?” (a favorite FM radio station).

old austinI won’t play coy.  Though it was an unopened door for me, I already knew there is an invisible but not completely clandestine portal in the Dickinson family’s Homestead that reads “Her Brother’s Disgraceful Affair.”  I knew this skeleton-not-really-in- the-closet involved Mabel Loomis Todd, editor marquee, illustrator, promoter who played a role (of debatable value, for editorial and litigious reasons) in bringing to light the work of the genius spinster mystery foremother of American poetry.  I also knew that Mabel (whom I can’t stop associating with pancakes or Black Label beer) was married to an Amherst College astronomer, who perhaps should have looked about him through a magnifying glass or his own specs instead of a telescope, but that’s another story.  The outlaw couple conducted their trysts during the period of their “white as the fresh driven snow” (sere and austere Austin’s words, not mine) affaire de coeur in the downstairs parlor under Emily’s chambers – this I didn’t know.  Though Maple and Emily never actually met, the poet admired the future editor’s deftness on the eighty-eights, requested that the tunes continue and on occasion left sherry and even a poem at the bottom of the stairs for the musician and the mutton-chopped Victorian whose 1890 image reminds me of (a)Lizzie Borden’s father, (b)Lawrence Talbot in half-wolf mode and (c)David Selby (who has published two volumes of poetry himself!) as Quentin Collins in TV’s Dark Shadows, and he never looks in those later pictures as if he’s a dormant volcano ready to spew embers like Krakatoa.  In 1854, however, he had the look of a neutered Heathcliff.  SO . . .  hanky-panky, coded rendezvous in the crepuscular world where poems and love are made.

Part two coming soon

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5 Years of Shenandoah Online

Screenshot 2016-04-07 23.37.58


One of the projects I started working on more than five years ago was bringing the Shenandoah Literary Magazine online. I got the gig thanks to the late and very great Claudia Emerson, who I had been working with on a literary journals class at UMW. Many smarter than me can speak to Claudia’s legacy as a poet, but I can and will testify to what an awesome teacher and person she was. I miss her regularly.

Claudia Emerson

Claudia Emerson

In the Summer of 2010 I started working with Rod Smith, the editor of Shenandoah, and he agreed to move the journal to a WordPress multisite instance that Martha Burtis and I designed. Screenshot 2016-04-07 23.15.43

Five years later it’s still going strong, in fact it has steadily been picking up traffic since 2011 when it first took the plunge online. What’s more, I have a very agreeable relationship with Rod. We work pretty well together, and I think we’ve made a fairly good team. I enjoy managing the site so that he can introduce a new cadre of Washington & Lee University students to the journal each semester. These students help bring some excellent writers  to the open web gratis. It also keeps me connected to the work I did with Claudia for the literary journals course. That was the most praxis-oriented course I’d ever been a part of, and I loved it. We had four or five groups of students per class that were tasked with both conceptualizing and creating a full blown literary journal in less than 15 weeks.

My own teaching was greatly influenced by Claudia’s willingness to experiment and explore, and after we ran the Literary Journals course together for a couple of semesters I got the offer to teach CPSC 106 (what would soon after forever be known as ds106!). In a strange convergence, at the same time I was working on Shenandoah’s first online issue, a bunch of us got the idea to bring ds106 to the open web as well. And while my work with ds106 and Shenandoah has been very different, in my mind they are deeply connected. So early this week we pulled the trigger on the tenth online issue signaling the fifth year of Shenandoah online. Time flies when you are populating the internet with both high (Shenandoah) and low (ds106) CULTURE!!!

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Revisiting Gatsby’s Greatness

by Caroline Todd

Generally, it’s hard for me to pick favorites. If I’m asked, my “favorite” movie or TV show is bound to be the one I’ve seen most recently. Books, though, are easy: hands down, my favorite is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The quintessential English major answer, I know, but it’s well-loved for a reason – it’s so, so good. Artistically speaking, it’s one of the most gorgeous books I’ll ever read and I come back to it again and again for its language alone. I’ve read it several times now, all in different seasons of my life, and I find more in it to unpack every time I open it. Like Edith Wharton writes in The Age of Innocence, Gatsby never fails to “happen to me all over again.” I lose myself in Fitzgerald’s delicious prose, to be sure, but that’s only half the fun. The most important part is discovering something new, and the purity of feeling I experience in the process, every time I reread it.

GreatGatsbyCover1I received Gatsby as a Christmas present from my grandmother when I was in ninth grade and I read it for the first time on a plane to New York a few days later. Of course, fifteen-year-old me didn’t really understand what went on in the novel. It went pretty far over my head, as it tends to do. It took another try my junior year of high school to begin to grasp the major themes Fitzgerald presents. But looking back on it, I kept some distance from the narrative for a whole host of reasons – it’s certainly not as simplistic as some high school teachers present it to be. Gatsby is so much more than color symbolism of whites, golds, yellows, and the ever-infamous greens, and that’s difficult to convey to the average sixteen-year-old.

This time around, though, was special. Re-reading the novel in a college classroom this term has enriched my understanding of Gatsby like nothing else could. On the first day of class my professor acknowledged that our reading list included classics like The Sun Also Rises and The Sound and the Fury, which many of us had read before. The important thing to realize, he told us, was that we approach works differently when we re-read them. Obviously that differs with age and the intellectual exposure to literature at a deeper level, but it’s also dependent on what we’re going through at certain points in our lives. After a breakup or a family trauma, for example, the anxiety that marks modernist works like Gatsby feels even more despairing.

Take, for example, what just might be my favorite paragraph I’ve ever read:

When they met again two days later it was Gatsby who was breathless, who was somehow betrayed. Her porch was bright with the bought luxury of star-shine; the wicker of the settee squeaked fashionably as she turned toward him and he kissed her curious and lovely mouth. She had caught a cold and it made her voice huskier and more charming than ever and Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and the mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.

It’s beautiful, sure, but there’s an underlying sadness to it that sends my heart plummeting all the way to my stomach. Nick Carraway narrates this passage to us after Gatsby realizes Daisy’s voice, one of her most charming features, is “full of money.” The language used to describe their encounter in this passage, ripe with objectification, contrasts wildly from the idealistic terms he uses to describe Gatsby’s love earlier in the novel. I can’t help but think that maybe it’s not Daisy Gatsby loves so much after all, but the idea of the lifestyle, “bright with the bought luxury of star-shine,” she leads, and Nick’s language suggests that that’s what he feels to be the case as well. But ever the tragic hero, Gatsby makes Daisy his “grail” anyway, and he follows his quixotic mission to the grave. And Gatsby’s untimely death suggests that a figure with his level of idealism can’t survive in the twentieth century no matter how hard he tries.



Though that’s certainly not a cheerful thought, the best literature is supposed to open us up to the highs and lows of human experience. It makes you think even if it tells you something you don’t want to hear. And Gatsby, all about the inability of Jay Gatsby’s “extraordinary capacity for hope” to survive in a postwar social order, is a 189-page sucker-punch to the gut. I’ve hung my head and ugly-cried over it too many times to count. Sometimes the beauty of Fitzgerald’s language is what gets me. Other times it’s the sheer desperation of Gatsby’s futile quest for Daisy that leaves my chest feeling hollow. Or maybe those first signals of their relationship’s end hit a little too close to home.

No matter where we come from, we bring our own lives to a text similar to the way authors do. The richer our own experiences, the more potential we have to connect with the slice of an author’s life we’re presented with in a text. Reading is more rewarding when we bring something to the table, too. Though I’ve got a year and a half until my college graduation and I’m not in a position to wax philosophical about days gone by, I have been around the block a few more times than the high school version of myself who read The Great Gatsby in AP Language class. Regardless, at a fundamental level, our experiences have just as much to do with the way we read as authors’ intended effects do. And that’s what makes reading so fulfilling. Books like The Great Gatsby stick around because they force us to confront what it means to be human. Because the best literature gets personal.

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National Poetry Month: From Bedtime Stories to Pubs

by Rachel Baker

“I hate poetry.”


“It’s too abstract, I don’t know where to start. I feel like need to read it 100 times before I understand what they’re trying to tell me.”

This interaction with my friend got me thinking about how many times I’ve heard some variation of the phrase, “I hate poetry.” And it’s kind of a lot.

People have given poetry and poets an elusive stigma that is far from reality. Although I enjoy poetry, I too am guilty of this. Poetry is the friend I’ve been afraid to make. Maybe she’s too cool, too smart, too aloof for me, but something has stopped me, a creative writing minor, from ever seriously writing a poem.

The general population does not want to put a lot of effort into a leisure activity like reading. And most poetry does not qualify as a “beach read” discussed in the previous post. However, I do not think poetry is a like a new language that you have to learn in order to appreciate a work.

12201Before I saw quatrains and iambic tetrameter, I heard a childhood lullaby. A small body curled up in a too big bed, I would ask my dad to tell me a story. He would rattle off fictional encounters with alligators in the sewers beneath the city, stories of his crazy yellow lab who made my grandma’s hair grey, but when all imagination ran out, he would recite rhymes that had somehow been filed into his memory. “Whose Woods These Are” became my favorite request, but most people know the poem as, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I don’t know if I even processed the fact that it rhymed, because to me it was a bedtime story, a sweet melody out of my hero’s mouth. As I drifted off to sleep I was captivated by the images of trees billowing with snow and a small pony stomping its hoof with anticipation. Maybe it was because a snow-filled wood was a rare sight to eyes that had only seen five North Carolina winters. Maybe it was the way my dad spoke, his voice putting on a show, questioning, pausing, low and slow. Maybe it was the alluring quality of isolation, dark and deep woods that knew no bounds. But regardless of the reason, I was enchanted. Robert Frost’s famous repeated lines became the last thing I heard before I entered my dreams.

My love for “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” has little to do with craft and a lot do to with its link to my dad and a time in my life to which I can never return. There is no doubt that the poem is good in a literary sense, but craft does not make the hairs on my arms stand up, or chills trickle down my legs. Poetry is a lot more accessible than most think, and although a lot of great poems contain layered metaphors and require a second reading, not all great poems have to be complicated. It is often the emotional quality that leaves a lasting impression.

IMG_3758 I attended my first poetry reading during the Féile na Bealtaine Music & Arts Festival when I was in Dingle, Ireland. A man standing on the bar welcomed us into “the noble church of the spoken word,” better known as Dick Mack’s Pub. People spilled out the door, and I stood squished between a classmate and a weathered man without any shoes. Suddenly I was five again, in awe of the beautiful words that filled the room. Some poems were read in Irish and some were in English, some gave me chills, and some made me laugh, some took place thousands of years ago, and some took place on a modern day soccer field. I like poetry, because it invites reader or listener interpretation. Standing in that pub I realized that each poem meant something different to the poet.

This April is the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, which was inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996 as a way to increase awareness and appreciation for poetry. I would encourage everyone to push their poetic bounds this month, read the Poem of the Week or dive into Shenandoah’s archives. Maybe I’ll even write a poem.

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Spring Break: Sun, Surf and David Foster Wallace

by Mansie Hough

Spring Break is rapidly approaching at W&L, which means that booklovers are hunting for the perfect, easygoing vacation novel. One of the most classic ways to relax in that precious week off for so many is to slide into a bathing suit, blend a margarita, and head to the beach or the pool with a book in hand. Blogs and publications try to capitalize on this phenomenon every spring season with a new list of the top 10 “beach reads” from that year. But what exactly constitutes a beach read? It’s one of those amorphous subgenres, like slipstream or absurdism, which you can’t exactly define, but you know them when you see them. Most of the world seems to agree that a beach read is a trashy, throwaway novel that you can easily digest in a few poolside sittings, and has little to no intellectual or artistic value. Like a trip to the beach, these books are supposed to be as entertaining and non-taxing for the reader as possible.

But do summer reads have to be easy? Is there such thing as a “literary beach read,” or does the presence of any literary merit automatically disqualify a book from being considered a beach read? Many of Jane Austen’s works were, during her lifetime, considered tacky romance novels meant for rich housewives to read on the couch. And, as we all know, they are now considered literary classics, and are being taught in the majority of higher educational institutions. So what exactly is a beach read? What are its criteria, and is there a perfectly executed, exemplary beach read out there? Of course, much of this is all relative to your perspective on what “easy” means, and what you are looking to get out of your “relaxing” reading experience. There might be someone out there who takes Finnegans Wake or Infinite Jest to a carefree weekend getaway in The Keys, for all I know. Google “smart beach reads,” and you’ll come up with hundreds of lists basically titled “Summer Beach Reads! But DON’T WORRY, they’re highbrow and not embarrassing.” To get a better idea, let’s take a look at what types of books have been classified as beach reads throughout the past.

  • Nicholas Sparks

    Nicholas Sparks

    Romance, preferably something involving travel or set in an airy seaside town like Cinque Terra. Based on no research, I would probably say this is the most popular type of “beach read,” and where the category cross references with “chick lit.” Popular novels here span across many centuries, and include the aforementioned Jane Austen crew, Wuthering Heights, Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Delirium, Something Borrowed, and anything by Nicholas Sparks, John Green or Sarah Dessen.

  • Mysteries and suspense, another popular tote cohabitant with towels and sunglasses. These mysteries usually feature a female protagonist in her 20s or 30s with a dark or depressing past. Other popular elements include visiting the POV of the killer and a sexy detective love interest. A long list of contenders includes Gone Girl, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, Jennifer DuBois’ Cartwheel, Tana French’s In the Woods, and Tom Savage’s A Penny for the Hangman. One could also look into genre celebrities like Dan Brown and James Patterson.
  • Stories that warn against upper class frivolity and failure. Nothing like sipping on a daiquiri by the pool and watching drama unfold in the Upper East Side, or listening to the Lost Generation lament the deterioration of the American Dream. Novels here include Anna Karenina, This Side of Paradise, Gossip Girl, Kimberly McCreight’s Reconstructing Amelia, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and, of course, The Great Gatsby.
  • This is, personally, my favorite kind of book to unwind with on vacation: collections of whimsical short stories and memoirs. In her second memoir, Why Not Me?, Mindy Kaling jokes with the reader that he or she found the book in the “Stress-Free Summer Beach Reads” section of the store. Of course, there are certainly short stories and memoirs that don’t fit into the beach read category; a lavish Spring Break vacation probably isn’t the most fitting place to read Elie Wiesel’s Night. But you can gleefully dip in and out of David Sedaris’ Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, BJ Novak’s One More Thing, Aimee Bender’s Willful Creatures, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and celebrity memoirs such as Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants and Stephen Colbert’s satirical I Am America and So Can You! This Spring Break and summer, I’m hoping to delve deeper into works by Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers, and Kelly Link.

This is where my confusion about what constitutes a beach read begins. I know people who would consider Egan’s work literary—Goon Squad did win a Pulitzer, after all—and yet she is included in some recommended summer reading lists I’ve seen. I’m not saying this means it should be taught in college literature classes, but there is something to be said for a collection that you can enjoy for entertainment value in a more relaxed setting, and then sink your teeth into upon a more devoted rereading. I’d like to see, for example, where a Joyce Carol Oates or Raymond Carver might fall on this spectrum, as I think their stories are entertaining both superficially and on a deeper level. The economical quality of writing that short stories and memoirs require allows for this cross section of literary and popular fiction. So, to answer my own question, I say yes, there is such a thing as a “literary beach read.” Now, I say this hesitantly and at the mercy of those who are more well read and educated on literary fiction than I am, and I can see reasons why someone might disagree with me.

What do you think? Whether you think I’m crazy or you agree, I hope you can find the perfect story to dive into (or bask in) this coming Spring Break.

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