Articulate Fly Fishiing

by Chuck Dodge

flyThe famous final sentences of A River Runs Through It form for me what is one of the most memorable passages in American literature. And truly, they deserve appreciation beyond the dreams of aspiring and infatuated fly fishermen.

“Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.”

(Norman Maclean)

rivercoverHave better words been chosen? I think Maclean writes in such a way that we are bombarded by truth, wonder, scenery, and depth both literary and tangible in one fell swoop. And this is what makes each phrase so memorable or each thought so valuable that easily distracted people like me find it tough to forget the words as we go about our daily lives.

Over the past summer I was haunted by the words (yes, like Maclean by waters) in the sense that they continued to flow through my head. Especially, that is, when I fished in the Rocky Mountains during the closing weeks of August. At one point I felt moved to hang the words above my bed, but eventually thought better of it to avoid appearing obsessed. Needless to say, I thought about them often and am lucky now with a space to discuss my findings.

To someone who has never stood in a cold Western river, I recommend this passage as the closest possible understanding of the phenomenon that a river is. For the rest of us, or at least for me, it describes the river in a way that makes the inexplicable all but tangible. It is one of those rare occasions when you ask someone how he would describe something like the color orange to a blind man and impossibly they manage to illustrate the concept to a pixel.

Maclean makes the river sacred in the passage, and that is exactly how it feels. The rocks beneath the surface are ancient. Old as time and shaped by the flow of endless water, they are historians through and through. Beneath them, Maclean says there are words, which I interpret to mean the stories of all time. Everything that has occurred in the presence of such stones is in some way transcribed to their memory. “And some of the words are theirs,” Maclean writes, likely as a reference to his brother and father, both passed away. Some of the history, in other words, belongs to the people in our lives. Walking through a river and sensing the various rock shapes press into the soles of your feet feels in some way profound, and having read the novella I finally understand why. Walking on the rocks is to walk through one of the world’s oldest museums, and maybe its greatest. Each step that you take, to extend the idea, is a step that will make its mark on history, imprinting itself on the given rocks forever.

There is the river, then, and there is everything else. Maclean writes, “all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.” He jams these items together with “and’s” which somehow unify them despite their obvious dissimilarity. In hindsight I always felt this way about the river, but subconsciously and not in a way that I claim I could describe. It takes on such a meaning given Maclean’s observations that in its presence, your thoughts, feelings and everything around you are subjugated into one object. It is you and the river. That isn’t to say that your life holds less weight. Not at all. Instead it illustrates the reverence that we have for the river, turning itself into a point of undivided attention. In some moments, our only conscious capacity is to marvel.

Norman Maclean was both a writer and a fisherman. As an interesting side note, I went to thinking about Maclean, and whether I could draw a reasonable correlation between writing and fly fishing: two hobbies that I enjoy as well.

First, I think, a thoughtful understanding of rivers such as Maclean’s makes fly fishing an awe-inspiring activity. The best way to understand anything, of course, is to be able to verbalize it in a way that perfectly strikes the way you truly feel about it. Good writers, then (or those who think they are), are good at understanding. And because understanding generates appreciation, it makes sense that writers can experience a unique connection to fishing.

But there are other connections as well, rhythm among them. The four-count rhythm of a fly cast is a motif that occurs throughout the novella. It even displays variations, as Maclean’s brother is said to create his own tempo. Good rod tempo is essential to successful fly fishing, especially as you tie more flies onto the line. A poor stroke can twist the tippet, the strand attached to the dry fly, into a hopeless mass of knots. Rhythm also lies at the core of writing, manifesting itself in everything from paragraph length and arrangement down to sentence structure and word flow. Every writer can develop their own tempo, so long as their message remains untangled. And the more ambitious a piece of writing is, the more critical it is that the writer executes an easily accessible form, just as the rod tempo becomes paramount when you have more than one fly on the line.

Good writing also hooks the reader by the gill. In fly-fishing, better-disguised or more obnoxious-colored flies tempt the most bites. I’m going to leave the truth of that analogy as a subject for consideration.

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I Used to Know John Wayne

by Caroline Sanders

WayneMy grandpa was John Wayne. He wore a big tan cowboy hat with a little colored feather on the side whenever he left the house. He was the tallest man I had ever seen, and when he picked me up “like a sack of potatoes” and swung me over his shoulder causing all the blood to rush to my head, I had never been that far off the ground. His real name was Billy, but due to my older brother’s infantile inability to pronounce words correctly, we called him “Bibby”—the greatest imaginable name for the cowboy that he was. He was old and wrinkly and I could never understand why his toenails were stained yellow, but that stuff didn’t really bother me. Cowboys didn’t have any time to devote to the maintenance of their personal beauty. Despite his rough appearance, however, he was friendly. I remember him driving through town, country western (the old kind with the fiddle and the slow drawing voices) droning lazily from dash, waving at everyone we’d pass. “Good to see ya,” he’d say to a car across from us at a four way stop. “How’s it going?” He’d ask to a young man walking his dog on the sidewalk. They couldn’t hear him, but it didn’t matter; he still just liked to say hello to everybody he saw. And when he’d come home and have nothing else to do, he’d lie on the couch in his undershirt with a can of Planter’s peanuts balanced on his round, old belly as he watched westerns on television. In fact, he liked the ideals and ways of life of the Old West in movies so much that for his last birthday, we gave him a life-size cardboard cutout of the Duke, signed on the back by all the children and grandchildren and placed in the corner of the den for him to look at any time he flipped on one of his movies.

But John Wayne died when I was four years old. All of these surface-skimming childhood images I possessed were all I had of Bibby since I was too young to remember who he actually was. As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that he wasn’t exactly the man I remember: he wasn’t anywhere near the tallest man I’ve encountered, but instead about five foot ten. He was no hardened cowboy: he had never shot a man in his life and to be honest, I don’t know if he’d ever even ridden a horse. He looked and acted almost nothing like John Wayne. As my memories were beginning to develop, however, those movies he loved, his old cowboy hat we keep in a glass case in my basement, and the cardboard cutout that now sits in my attic at home are the only concrete evidence I had of him. And thus, John Wayne was cast to play the part of my granddad in my memory.

This inability to fully remember and recreate a person who was such a huge part in my life and subsequent casting of celebrities and literary figures to play his part in my mind has manifested itself in other ways as well. Nana, my grandma on my father’s side, is still living; I sit by her every Sunday in church. She likes to tell me stories about her childhood in Norcross, Georgia, and although I know her well in the role she currently plays in my life, I do not know the little girl she used to be. She was a spirited, opinionated child growing up on a farm in the mid-twentieth century. Whenever I think about this far-off time and place (although only about seventy years and fifty miles away), I see her as a young Anne of Green Gables making friends, going to school, contradicting those who disagree with her, and getting through life by relying on her imagination. While Nana plays the part of “grandma” in my recent memories and thoughts, little Anne-with-an-e has been cast to play the part of my talkative, quirky grandmother in her youth.

DumbleAnyone who once played a large part in my early life but who I no longer interact with is likely to be cast in my mind by someone else a little like them, but perhaps a bit more famous. My whimsical and silly childhood babysitter is played by Amelia Bedelia. My elderly, well-respected grade school headmaster is played by Albus Dumbledore. These beloved characters come from light-hearted, childish fiction that does not attempt to dig deep into the human soul and reveal man’s shortcomings. Instead, the type of literature that I take these characters from is intended to lift up the human experience, glorify it, tease it, show a few minor faults and failures, but ultimately illustrate what a wonderful experience life can be. All these characters have faults, yet none are abhorrent. All—with the exception of Amelia Bedelia—deal with real-life situations and encounter evil in human nature, but none are scarred by it. Whatever character John Wayne plays will conquer all obstacles with his superior masculinity, dry wit and hardened exterior persona. Anne Shirley will persevere through the challenges of growing up because she has an imaginative and cheery perspective on the world. Amelia Bedelia, as silly as she is, will be loved and Dumbledore will forever be the symbol of goodness and a magnet for admiration.
I could never allow a loved one, no matter how distant, to be compared to a character like Captain Ahab from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Hester Prynne from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Meursault from Albert Camus’s The Stranger, or Sydney Carton from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Because I watch my memories like movies, seeing the characters only from the outside and only from my own perspective, I do not imagine their inevitable human struggles. No matter what Bibby or Nana or my babysitter or my headmaster might have done in their private lives or what demons they may have internally fought, to me they will never be a crazed fisherman, an adulteress, an existential murderer, or a pessimistic, self-sacrificing alcoholic lawyer. I’m 99.9% positive that my loved ones were none of these things, but even if they were, they remain idolized in my mind because of the light and cheerful actors and actresses I have assigned to them.
Perhaps this is a naïve perspective. I am running the risk of underestimating their humanity by only relying on light fiction like westerns and children’s literature to mentally paint their portrait. These great people, however, deserve to be memorialized in my mind the same way that John Wayne is memorialized in America’s memory. Although Bibby may not have drunk whiskey in dusty saloons, hunted down and shot outlaws on the run, wooed beautiful women and ridden his horse off into the sunset, he was a great man. Thanks to John Wayne, I can remember him that way.

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Is There an Antidote for the Anecdote Poem?

poetry manual

“Perhaps poetry in recent years has grown too weak to resist the attractive, familiar, conversational, seductive anecdote, too eyesore for trying to describe actions, too weary of meditation and contemplation, too jaded by trying to present deeper poems to a largely indifferent audience.”
– Ted Kooser in The Poetry Home Repair Manual (Nebraska, 2005)

While I value Kooser’s handbook and often use it with students, I’m troubled by his discussion, which occupies ten of the book’s 158 pages, of the anecdote-as-poem. My dismay even surprises me a little, because when he offers at the end of the “Writing from Memory” chapter his antidote to the anecdote poem (“Think about the speaker’s characteristic voice, the syntax, the rhythm, the form, the selection of details. The story itself is merely the material.)” I pretty much agree, but I would add something about the imagination and not allowing the sparking anecdote’s autobiographical facts to limit the poem’s options. And I don’t agree that the anecdote is “merely the material.” Can’t it also be the springboard, the seed, maybe the inspiration?

It’s possible that Kooser means that, too, but his ten pages don’t suggest that one anecdote or several may be at the necessary heart of many poems we call narratives. In fact, the poem he presents and praises highly as the anti-anecdote is Henry Taylor’s splendid “The Hayfork” (originally published in Shenandoah) a rumination about an anecdote about a brief event, whether imagined or recorded or some complex combination. Taylor’s poem shines from his lapidary attention to “characteristic voice,” “form” and “detail.” It is a seed carefully sown, nourished, sunlit, watered, its stalk, stem, leaf and fruit all tended to, a meticulous and crafty process that most anecdotes do require to transform them into poems. In fact, episodes or memories often require at least a little of that shaping before they can even become successful anecdotes, so probably what Kooser and I disagree about is the degree of likelihood that an anecdote can be cultivated into an intricate and artful poem. My position is that we shouldn’t blame anecdotes but get right to the culprit and call out the poets, who are not willing to work the original material the way Bill Monroe told a young Ricky Skaggs you can get a mandolin to render bluegrass music: “Son, you got to whip it like a mule.”


If I’m being hard on Kooser for his claim that 90 of 100 poems in literary journals are “mere material” recorded literally in raw form, it’s because I do have a dog in this fight. Plenty of my favorite narrative poems – whether personal or historical, ruminative or dramatic – are born of anecdotes. Not The Odyssey, of course, but Taylor’s poem, “Traveling through the Dark,” some of Kooser’s own poems and the poem of mine he reprints in another chapter to make a point about openings. (“Hardware Sparrows,” in fact, begins in what Kooser calls “anecdotal manner,” which has to be transcended, but also has a role to play). I do love narrative, so I’d argue that instead of warning writers away from anecdotes (which are often tame and amusing), I’d encourage poets to collect them and accept the challenge to discover which ones may render something richer and more ambitious, to give them the attention C. Bronte said went into her sister’s making Wuthering Heights, which was “hewn in a wild workshop.”

“Future readers,” Kooser speculates, “may likely conclude that most of our own poets were attempting to elevate the everyday personal anecdote to acceptability as a work of art,” and sometime when I see the one-page anecdote with flaccid cadence, hackneyed figures of speech, imprecise descriptions, mini wow at the end and so on, I fear that’s the case, that they’re trying to show that poetry is already inherent all things and that all utterances may be considered poems. Anybody can do it, almost by accident. But mostly I think some writers are lazy or unskilled, which is what my own failures (more frequent than I like to think about) often imply because I just didn’t bring, couldn’t access, my A game. I haven’t stared hard enough, dug deep enough, imagined fiercely enough, and the problem is not that I’ve produced an anecdote poem but that I’ve made a crappy poem, a result I can wind up with just as easily when anecdote isn’t part of the equation.

Kooser continues by suggesting that these anecdoters (or anecpos?) are “amusing each other with the warm and comfortable crossroads of the literary quarterly.” As if this were a team effort to dumb it all down so the ambitious and deft poets will have to yield ground (and pages in magazines, books, websites) to cheapjack, slipshod, unhoned, unhewn poems. Then our reading matter will be supplied by “poems in which some personal story has fleshed itself [?] out in the guise of a poem and demonstrates no aspiration to be anything greater.”

Instead of offering a real, live awful anecdote poem as an example, Kooser – maybe out of tact, maybe out of uncertainty how to acquire rights to reprint a poem just to say “bad dog” to it – creates a hypothetical that’s just a thin puppet non-poem. The one he makes is really (intentionally) skunky and closes, in an attempt at profundity, on the single word last line “ker-chunk!” meant to suggest a zinger which will resonate dramatically. When he makes a brisk 15-line chopped prose specimen to show what Taylor’s poem might have looked like in the hands of an anecpo, he uses that “ker-chunk!” at the end to signify a hayfork falling from its elevated track and stabbing the ground right in front of an unwary worker. Maybe Kooser isn’t being quite fair to the anecpos who are trying to tell a story but don’t know how to give it muscle and force. Taylor’s poem is sixty lines long, none of them as brief or tone-deaf as the puppet anecdote, so the comparison seems less instructive than it might have been. Compare Stafford’s encounter on the Wilson River road to a mere dead animal anecdote of about the same length and framework and the point might be clearer.

poetry lettersMaybe Kooser and I don’t disagree so much about the nature of these masquerading anecdotes as differ on what should be done with them. He suggests (though perhaps tongue-in-cheek) creating a new genre outside poetry for these anecritters, and he thinks that if creative non-fiction can become part of the canon, the anecdote can be canonized too, though he doesn’t nominate any particular examples or actual (not lined out like poems) anecdotes to sit beside, though in a separate box, other kinds of poems like “Upon Julia’s Clothes” or “The Woodpile,” a couple of real poems which a perverse wizard could quickly thin out, dessicate and anecdoodlize.

I’m not so concerned that our era will look like the era of the anecdote as that it will look like the era of poem as riddle, as political oath, sensitivity documentation, blur of impressions, far-fetched associational lyrics, critical theory exercise, or what Jahan Ramazani has called in a Norton anthology note “incongruous equations in metaphor,” as I often find in poems with names at the bottom like Ashbery, Graham, Carson, Brock-Broido, all of whom have, admittedly, written some moving and provocative poems.

Fred Chappell, who shared the 1985 Bollingen Prize with John Ashbery, often writes narrative poems – about cleaning a well, burning a church, plinking empty whisky bottles or receiving wisdom from an elder – fully leafed and flowered stories which readers can, if so inclined, whittle back and imagine – once the language is neutered, character sapped, description made ordinary – the anecdote that may have been the first flash of memory or imagination, which Chappell then had to put his mind and heart to, savoring the labor.

If a lot of the anecdoters were shown what might be done to breathe life into their limp (or even snappy or shocking) raw anecdotes, as writers like Rodney Jones, Kay Byer, Brendan Galvin, Rita Dove, Robert Penn Warren, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Wrigley do, they might give up at the prospect of so much toil before them, or they might start thinking about how to enrich the soil, stake the stalk, sucker the leaves. I catch myself using gardening terms while really thinking more about childrearing. The anecdotes need to be raised up with much attention and skill and not just sent as toddlers into the world to do the work of men and women.

I suppose I’ve come around to agreeing with Kooser about a particular serious deficiency in much contemporary poetry, but my take on how to treat it is a little different. And by the way, if writers bear much of the burden for this deficiency, editors must shoulder a significant portion as well. Shame on us. We need to hold out for more passion (as Merwin remembers Berryman telling him in “Berryman”), though that doesn’t mean it has to be explicit. Human heat and craft will help. If we need a mantra, maybe it’s as simple as this: “Son, you got to whip it like a mule.”

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Armed Journalists Could Save Themselves?

glockBecause I’ve written previously about American gun violence in an editor’s note on this site (Volume 62, No, 2: “Gun Culture and Gun Cult”), this blog seems an appropriate place to register a kind of addendum, a question I have about Donald Trump’s reaction to the on-air murder of two Roanoke journalists who lived and worked about an hour from my home. It’s a question I won’t ever be in a position to ask the candidate, and I have no expectation that any working journalist or producer will be willing or allowed to ask, so here goes.

I was astonished to hear Trump’s comment that, if the WDBJ employees Alison Parker and Adam Ward had been armed, the two journalists might have been able to protect themselves from this horrible ambush. My question is simply, “How?” I recognize that details are not Trump’s forte, but I’m trying to imagine the scenario for him. Suppose the journalists were both comfortable with handguns, trained marksmen, veterans of combat simulation courses who practiced on a regular basis. This is, after all, the most intelligent way to be “armed,” though not the practice of journalists, except in rare cases, even in war zones. But just suppose they were.

We’ve seen the footage. Alison Parker is holding a microphone, focused on her interview subject (and let’s even arm the interviewee, as well, though still oblivious to the assassin lurking behind her). Adam Ward is operating a video camera that requires both hands, concentrating on his craft, focusing, zooming, improving the angle, moving about. The interview is in a resort town, the subject uncontroversial, the circumstances unthreatening. Anyone but a trained and on-duty personal security guard would have been attending to the task at hand: get the story.

Then a Glock-wielding man emerges from the surrounding background blur of people, vehicles, buildings, ornamental vegetation. Without warning, he opens fire. Rapid fire. He’s motivated, fixated, and he evidently knows how to shoot. What I want to hear from the advocates of the “good man with a gun solution” is how the victims should have known to or could have been able to take preventive measures, evasive action, to return fire between the first shot and their last breaths. How many seconds are we talking about here? How does the self-defense scenario unfold?  Think of the armed policeman in Houston, the New York officers sitting in their car. . . all armed and trained, all now dead.

What Trump has done is to invent an alternative scenario that’s so unlikely – given timing, disposition of shooter vis-à-vis the positions of the victims, sheer common sense – that is less realistic than the gun fights of Roger Moore Bond films. And why would he do that, instead of perhaps recommending that interviews be done in secret or by and with only those in body armor and helmets?

I believe Trump has two agenda items here. First, he must be careful never say anything to make his 2nd amendment zealot supporters question his allegiance to them and (yes) their economic power, despite his claim that he needs no money from anyone, ever. Secondly, he tends to blame victims. People to whom unfortunate things happen are another caste, those who lack his charm, his likeability, his boldness and enterprise, his infallible managerial expertise. What he’s saying is that he (and people like him, if there are any) are just too shrewd, wise, alert, intelligent, beloved to get shot.

A follow-up question, if it’s allowed: does Donald Trump carry a pistol? Or does he just have armed security guards around him? If he doesn’t, does he have any notion how much is involved psychologically in the decision to carry a weapon and how much effort is required to be proficient enough with one to make a positive difference, in situations where the lethal scenario unfolds slowly and tactical knowledge becomes valuable?  America’s most successful military sniper was gunned down. Would he have been able to protect himself if he’d had a weapon . . . in his hand? When James Butler Hickok was shot, he carried two Colts, but Jack McCall came at him from behind, like Vester Flanagan. The famed gunfighter never had a chance.

I wonder if Trump has ever seen anyone shot to death or even been in the presence of a non-range, non-hunting discharge of a weapon, had the experience of hearing that first round crack and the shock that follows for anyone in the vicinity. To know what to do and have the reflexes and instinct to do it – that requires both training and a certain kind of temperament.  Ask any policeman about that.  Or ask a soldier.

When I was in college I witnessed a murder by handgun. Morning, outdoors, brisk beautiful day. Coming up a campus roadway, my friend and I saw two men silhouetted on a rise, maybe 75-100 feet away (some details are now faded, others indelible). One raised a gun and pointed it at the other’s head and fired. I have no idea exactly what my friend and I did physically at that instant; it’s gone from my mind. But if the shooter had chosen to go for us next, we’d have been easy prey. He shot himself instead, but I keep wondering if there’s any sign in the miles of Trump footage we’ve been exposed to that he would have reacted more effectively in the moments after that first shot on that windy campus morning or out at Smith Mountain lake this past week. Even if he’d had a sidearm and an excellent shooter’s eye and hand, even if he’d been spared the first round of the volley. No footage I’ve seen suggests he is qualified to judge what will or won’t save a victim from bullets.

If the journalists had been armed, they might have been able to save themselves. . .  .  That is not the position of a man who has brought imagination, experience, calculation or empathy to the question. It’s not the position of a man who “tells the truth” or “says what he really thinks.” It’s just the reaction of a man who talks.

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This Just In: Nation Not in Danger from PC Yet (though plain meanness and muck-raking run amok)

Po Lick Tickle Wreck Test?

“PC” came into my world as an acronym for “political correctness” about the same time it seeped into common usage for “personal computer.” For some reason, my resistance to the abbreviation in either case was immediate. Maybe too much like the British “wc” or our “RC,” to which I was partial on a July day. The latter term has now been eclipsed by brand names (HP, Apple – oops – Mac) and more design-specific terms like laptop, pad, tower. I suppose that eclipse is because the former term has so permeated our public dialogue that it hogs the field.

At first, I saw “politically correct,” especially in reference to speech, as a useful term, if employed precisely, a way to distinguish real correctness (right reasoning, manners, considerateness, civility, respect) from feigned correctness, the pretense of sensitivity or hypersensitivity. But it didn’t work out as I’d hoped. Almost anywhere I look up the term, it’s immediately identified as a pejorative (and combative) term deployed to assail anyone who is presumed (or imagined) to be speaking with a calculated desire to mollify and avoid offense to minorities and other groups, especially those with little income but significant ballot power. A kind of band wagon insincerity. It seems we have Dinesh D’Souza (with a little assistance from liberals who used it as an ironic in-joke) to thank for this, largely, and the result is that genuine empathy and fair-mindedness get conflated with the manipulative espousing of respect extended to a person or group whose favor one wishes to curry (a term, I should point out, I borrow from equestrian usage rather than the vocabulary of cuisine).

pogoHate speech, racial profiling, stereotyping – certainly these are public, and therefore political, issues. But first they’re personal. They’re rude, and it’s no surprise that a politician who would bloviate about having no time for political correctness would be quick to add that an entire nation has no time for PC. Maybe we’d better slow down, if that’s what it takes to become deliberative and gracious, to grant and display dignity. In political circles, I suppose this is called being diplomatic. Such pronouncements as the “no time” claim are always in a charged context and usually furnished by people whose diction, figures of speech and style of delivery all suggest that they would have little time for real correctness – compassion or politeness – so urgent is their agenda, so certain their mission.

Heaven knows, the excesses of what is called PC are invitations to satire, such as the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that “Baa Baa Black Sheep” is offensive, and in the fierce and divisive culture wars that have permeated this century so far, political correctness, moral correctness and even conventional rectitude have become weapons rather than tools of investigation. To call someone politically correct is tantamount to saying he or she is a panderer, insincere, a con artist.

As a teacher and writer, I have a dog in this fight. Maybe two dogs. I want my classes to feature both candid discourse and sensitivity (with diplomacy and accuracy). A hard balance to strike, if the participants have reasons to fear or despise common cause and mutual understanding. Fortunately, that doesn’t often happen. Students who take my courses in editing or the writing of poetry and fiction are usually attuned to the lovely and deadly possibilities of words. I give them early on this wisdom from Scott Russell Sanders: “The work of language deserves our greatest care, for the tongue’s fire may devour the world or light the way.” I vote for light. It’s important that we limit words’ use as weapons, for once the fire ignites, winds may blow, lightning snake and everyone may get singed.

My second dog in the fight has to do with the actual writing done in such classes. I don’t know how writers who wish to explore the human condition in a significant body of work with admirable range can do so without on occasion presenting characters whose language is sometimes coarse, objectionable, even despicable, but it’s up to the writer (no small charge here) to make it clear that the character may not be the narrator and that the narrator may not be the author. There’s no record of an audience stoning the actor who plays Iago particularly well, though we scorn the character, while being provoked and mystified by him, even learning from his speech and behavior. It’s a tricky business. Though Huck is Twain’s moral center, the boy’s language behavior is often no better than that of the ruthless scoundrels in the story (not to mention the well-meaning but misguided and naïve parrot-folk who haven’t come to Huck’s experience of brotherly love). How does Twain make certain the reader understands that the author trusts Huck’s heart more than his tongue? It’s powerful difficult, but Twain cannot persuade us that his story is 14 carat and not fool’s gold if Huck refers to slaves as “African Americans.” Twain crosses on the thin ice, as artists often must do. We keep our fingers crossed.

If it seems that I’m tiptoeing around here, being PC myself, I’m aware of it, and I hate it. In a classroom I will utter the offending syllables in quotations and direct conversation about them. In an imaginative text – a story or a poem in which the persona is at some remove from my vocabulary – I’ll seldom hesitate to go for the realistic, even (Cormac) McCarthyesque vernacular over the euphemism. It’s seldom a pleasure to do that, but often medicinal necessity, for the vitality and authenticity of the story. As the culture wars have progressed, I’ve spent more time contemplating how much offending speech my characters need to be allowed, and at what point it is akin to piling on. Lenny Bruce makes a cogent point when he writes about his obscenity trial for uttering a particularly coarse phrase in public. Over and over the prosecutor and judge repeat the offending phrases, and Bruce comes to understand that they like saying them, with impunity. That’s only natural, I suppose, but there’s no free lunch, and freedom of speech comes with responsibilities. We do indeed need to calculate about what we say, but not to curry favor or invite approval, not to camouflage enmity as righteousness. Certainly we owe something to the ideas we wish to express; we owe them precision, thoroughness and some deftness of expression, but we also owe our audience and our subjects common human decency. We owe that even to ourselves.

enemyIt’s moments like this I miss cartoonist Walt Kelly’s Pogo (Ponce de Leon) Possum, his ever-refreshing if oblique take on things, but maybe I should just remember his revision of Oliver Perry’s victory proclamation after the battle of Lake Erie: “We have met the enemy and they are ours. . . . ” Kelly’s version is: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” A hit, a palpable hit. Perry, by the way, is also remembered for his battle flag: “Don’t give up the ship.” Don’t know what Kelly would have said on that one, but it seems sound to me, so we sail on, trying to use language with fairness, thrift, precision, finesse, wisdom but without losing the human heat. Now there’s a thought. “Excelsior!” as Kelly’s Alfred Gator would say.

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Read This Book: Makkai

makkaiAround the end of the year I hope to run an assigned reviewer’s formal, adjudicated, long-ruminated assessment of Rebecca Makkai’s collection of short stories Music for Wartime (Viking, out right now). For the moment, however, I’m going to offer a brief, enthusiastic but personal response to the book by a woman who served as my student assistant at Shenandoah for three years and now has become, through no fault of mine, something of an indispensable writer for our current literary culture, or more importantly, for avid, artful readers.

Yeats told us that “things fall apart,” as Makkai’s stories attest, but she also recognizes, even invokes, a counterforce: things also converge. Needs, opportunities, capacities, chemistry – sometimes they rise and converge, not because the world has read O’Connor, but because the spirals of experience fluctuate. A person (or character) with a particular energy or ability meets someone with an appetite or unacknowledged defect or limitation. A healer, a teacher, a witness is about as likely as a nemesis.

A dying artist finds the partner he needs via the unlikely introduction of a punch in the nose (“Good Saint Anthony Come Around”). A scruffy male musician offers sanctuary to a beleaguered female violist struggling with a question of morality and tact (“Cross”). An old and damaged master violinist teachers a sensitive, even clairvoyant young boy the chance to see his frailties and potential, as friends find refuge in beauty from the history of atrocity. It all sounds pretty standard for short stories when I put it that way, but Makkai’s stories render these situations and people with great attention, resourcefulness and grace. She recognizes “the urgency of everything” but constructs her stories with great patience, precision. My favorite of the stories, “The Worst You Ever Feel” records the “magic of survival” tapped into by some of the Romanian emigre’s who gather in young Aaron’s parents’ house, but the whole collection seems woven around “the music of survival”: devotees of classical music are among the most riveting of the protagonists, and even Bach appears as a character in “Couple of Lovers on a Red Background.”

One of the beauties of Music for Wartime (which seems to be any time) is the dynamic between the contemporary domestic issues – lovers drawing apart, the AIDS epidemic’s impact on the art community, bombings, racial profiling and miscommunication – and the modes of the stories, which run from the naturalistic-realistic narrative to folk tale features (“I’ve lied and turned two women into three, because three is a fairy tale number.”), Kafkaesque mysteries and Borgesian twists of events. A fugitive from tyranny finds another man’s briefcase, then relocates to build a new life around the case owner’s identity until the burden of imposture overwhelms him. A boy is smitten by visions and also occupies himself with constructing stories, and who can say where the one leaves off and the other begins? A circus elephant dies in a town, and the wondrous events and afflictions that follow seem Biblical (“The Miracle Years of Little Fork,” available in the current issue of Ploughshares).

Tragedies and trifles abound, but Makkai’s carefully calibrated threshold of attention and her depth of sympathy, perhaps surprisingly balanced by her broad humor and sometimes wicked wit, make it impossible to anticipate her next move.

But her larger moves so far have been impressive. The Borrower, her first novel, is about flight from persecution, acceptance of difficulties and the role books play in the coming of age. The Hundred-Year House, her second novel, released last year, is a mystery and a tragedy, a comedy and a treasure hunt, a tail of twisted timelines and identity shifting to almost Ovidian degree. Love and the instability of identity run through her work, which is confident and risky. Makkai has a fearless imagination and a virtuoso’s range of tactics, but the heart is at the center of this collection, as she interrogates readers on the nature of reality, “reality shows,” masks and masques and mysteries, the necessity of preserving music. Anyone who has read several of the stories but not “The Miracle Years of Little Fork” will have no apparatus to deal with the dying pachyderm elephant, the assimilation of the circus people, the Biblical assaults of weather, the transformation of the pastor. But in the end, they will seem necessary and coherent.

The publication record of these stories is impressive, most notably the inclusion of four of them in four different volumes of The Best American Short Stories. It’s refreshing to discover that the sometimes crazy literary world, often smitten with fads or brands, has recognized Makkai boldness and her precision.

This testimony, remember, is not offered as an objective or even fairly subjective review. It’s a fan’s enthusiastic recommendation, one man’s unprofessional opinion. I’ve been reading these stories singly as they appeared over the past decade, and as much as I enjoy and appreciate her novels, I hope every day that Makkai is somewhere working on a new story, or that one’s about to appear in a journal. If you see that before I do, let me know.

[By the way, The mid-August issue of The New Yorker recommends this “ impressive collection,” but I’m sticking to my guns.]

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Trumpus Possumus

Excerpt from The Secret Lodge Notebooks of the obscure Mr. Mizzle, stork, storekeeper and Walt Kelly scion

[Trump.  I’ve been seeing and hearing this word on the wind lately, and I wasn’t sure if it was tramp , a trunk, a tromp or a reference to a temporarily designated powerful suit in some card games, maybe even an astonishing hair-do first seen in a Star Trek malefactor, or a realtor or a TV comedian who badmouths, browbeats then banishes masochistic minions with a wave of his wicked wand. As usual, when confounded by the mire of evidence before me, all further complexicated by my own native ignorance, I perambulate and bateau to the island to confab with my old mentor Pogo Possum of Okefenokee RFD and put the question to the nocturnal sage himself, who never fails to ponder powerful, muse mercilessly and shed substantial light, though he’s oft prone to hiss or drop off to dreamland if contradicted.

Pogo allowed as how a trump is a card that can whallop down or whup upon any other suit, though some using that name seem to be sporting suits which are not so suited to their configuration. And as a slang noun, it was once the word used to designate a fine fellow; as a verb, to excel or surpass. But these didn’t match up well with the palaver I’d been encountering, so Pogo pushed deeper into the swamp of my unknowing, saying that in Old High German it was trumba and meant a horn. Well, now we’re plowing a straight row, I thought. It also points to a kind of flower and a vine and a swan, all horn-shaped, excepting the swan, but I expect the old omnivore could guess by the dullness emanating from the windows to my soul that I still wasn’t able to line up my experience of the word with his information. So he sets in: Somehow trump’s an outlaw version of triumph, but a victory come by through other than gentlemaanly means. My eyes must of brightened up a bit, so he proceeded to add that the whole thing likely weasels around to us from the French.

Now I know how Mr. Twain felt about the French, but I decided to set that aside and take some heed anyway. “Do tell?” I said, encouraging like, “Dites moi.” “Tien,” says Pogo, in his best mud-Gallic accent, “eef vous go back to zee Meedle Engleach and Vieux Francais, you discover trompe, which eez meaning to deceive, hoodwink, dupe, hornswaggle. Vous have, sans doute, ecoutee of trumpery, weech eez twaddle, nonsense, zometheeng rubbishy. Zumwhere een zat word eez ‘rump,’ n’est-ce pas?”

I straightaway begged for mercy, merci, having had all the foreign lingo I could swallow for one season. “Shoot straight,” says I, and so Pogo reports the obvious. “Given le monde which we now find ourselves whiching in these days, trumpery is zee watchword of zee zeitgeist, ole buddy, zee flavor of zee decade, better than catfish and onions in a black moon iron skillet over a fire of cypress, cedar and driftwood.”

Pogo allowed as how in his Random House Webster’s trump is situated in a column between one column to the left with true in it (c’est vrai!) and a column to the right showing trust. Quelle fromage.

Sensing that my audience was likely at an end, as he produced a Ball jar of white squirrel-eye stockade from under one of his many stumps, I ventured a parting shot: “What about trumpet creeper? Isn’t that from China?” In betwixt swigs Pogo whispered, “Y’all got fooled on that one. It’s just a misspell. The old folks who dictionaried originally wrote trumpet creepier, like anthropaphagus, which is all I have to pronounce on the matter,” and then he was peregrinating off into the dark to canoodle with Miz Hepsibah, count his own spoondolicks or snout out some rare ripe deceased creature for a snack before Sarcophagus McArbre could spiral down on it. I could hear him humming through the ferns and ringlety mosses and the kent, kent of ghost ivory bills high on the dying trunks, “You get a line and I’ll get a poll, honey.” Bless his heart.

So I left that swamp a changed man, which is not to say a wiser one, but I got eat up by no see’ums and had to pick off ticks from first light to last – rowrbazzle! – so I’ve decided it’s useful if not vital for my self esteem if I reckon all this trinformation inextimably valuable, the tunnel at the end of the light. Thus self-persuaded, I felt compelled to share. Y’all come.

“We’ll go down to that écrevisse hole, honey oh baby mine.”]

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The Tennessee Waltz

tnsilThe Shadow Waltz

It’s hard to deny that Pee Wee King’s melody for “Tennessee Waltz” is haunting, mournful, not quite “Wayfaring Stranger,” but similar in its registration of heart-riving sorrow. It makes me lonesome just to listen to an instrumental version, and I’m not musicologist enough to offer a convincing explanation. I know it has darkness in it, a somber tempo and the nip of whiskey we like to imagine will temper loss but which often amplifies all the shivery yearning. The stately pace, repeated chords and weepy strings resist any attempt to buck dance, shag or hully-gully with that tune in the air.

TN authorsOther melodies have similar affects, but it’s Redd Stewart’s lyrics that really twist and wrench the listener, and not just for the narrative they unspool. The song offers an enigma as Mobius-like, trompe l’oeil and slight-of-hand as Wallace Stevens’s “I placed a jar in Tennessee.” Why is that?

Various artists have offered their renditions, most of them pretty similar (though I don’t really need Leonard Cohen’s spin on the story or Emmylou Harris’s more explicit version, especially the “it’s stronger than drink and deeper than sorrow”). It was written (partly on a matchbook, if Google has it right) in a limousine en route to Nashville in 1946 after the collaborators heard Monroe’s “Kentucky Waltz” on the radio, and you have to reckon timing and place played a substantial role. It was producer Fred Rose’s change from “O the Tennessee Waltz, O the Tennessee Waltz” to “I remember the night and the Tennessee Waltz” that intensified the nostalgia/regret theme and made the darkness explicit, and the song was recorded the next year by both King and Stewart’s Golden West Cowboys and Cowboy Copas (can you believe spellcheck doesn’t recognize “Copas”?). Both versions became C & W top 10 hits.

But it’s really with us and in us because Patti Page recorded it on the flip side of “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus” for Mercury near the close of 1950. Off and running. Page’s version ran for 30 weeks on Billboard’s pop chart and stayed at number 1 for 9 weeks. Legions of other musicians covered it and had hits (Kitty Wells, Pat Boone, Emmylou, James Brown, Elvis, college bands, African Ray Dylan on his album “Goeie Ou Country,” Tom Jones backed by the Chieftains!).

The standard version is Page’s, which follows, with two little changes [indicated by brackets] which we hear in Patsy Cline’s more desperate and achy (at least as I hear it) version. I recommend a visit to You Tube to listen to the exquisite pain.cline
Tennessee Waltz (note the lack of an article in the title)

I was dancing [waltzing] with my darling to the Tennessee Waltz
When an old friend I happened to see
I introduced her {or him} to my loved one
And while they were dancing
My friend stole my sweetheart from me

I remember the night and the Tennessee Waltz
Now I [Only you] know just how much [what] I have [‘ve] lost
Yes, I lost my little darling the night they were playing
The [That] beautiful Tennessee Waltz

I was dancing with my darling to the Tennessee Waltz
When an old friend I happened to see
I introduced her [him] to my loved one
And while they were dancing
My friend stole my sweetheart from me

I remember the night and the Tennessee Waltz
Now I [Only you] know just how much [what] I have lost
Yes, I lost my little darling the night they were playing
The beautiful Tennessee Waltz

A terrible beauty is born? Brevity is the soul of wit?
Some small change: * why, after “darling” and “sweetheart,” the demeaning or endearing “little darling,” back to “darling,” back to “sweetheart,” to end with “little darling”? Is this just the way that songwriters who say, “You decorated my life” or “You are the magnet; I am steel” differ from poets, who want to consider (some would say “micromanage”) ramifications and options, nuances and undertones? Call it “genre differences”; say musical accompaniment relaxes lexical responsibility; I can’t puzzle it out.
*Twice we’re told that the “old friend” (no comment) STOLE the sweetheart, but also twice we hear “I lost.” Sounds as if the narrator is torn between believing that the friend is a culprit, but four times there’s a suggestion of some blame for the narrator, two each in the four line stanzas. Ain’t that just the way of things? We can’t wholly resist the temptation to blame the victim, even if we’re the victim. Maybe especially.
* With Patsy’s preferred lyrics, we get implicated. “You” do. The “you” brings it all home, identifies the listener as a fellow sufferer, knowing and probably wounded kindred. It makes me feel buttonholed and drawn into the drama, a little like the wedding guest in Coleridge’s “Rime.” I mean, I’m just trying to get a beer here and rejoin my own sweetheart; why did you pick me to share this sad story? Which makes this song a cautionary tale, as well as a plaint. Maybe the “you know” is a little arch, faux-polite for “you’d better know, because those who don’t find out from hearing the story will have to live it.” Maybe we’re all really walking around in a country song and ought to remember what stuff happens in that free-fire zone.
*But my favorite aspect of the lyrics is that they name a song called “the Tennessee Waltz” which has no reality outside the song that names it. When I was younger, I was desperate to hear the song they were dancing to, because how could they be dancing to a song that already contains the narrative of the impending betrayal and torturous memories? But I’d never heard of Borges or seen a Renaissance painting of the artist painting that painting. Probably Pee Wee and Redd hadn’t either, but the air inside a limousine can have strange effects on people, pickers especially. Given the “you” in the Cline version, the singer’s not only in the song, but so am I. All makes me hear a lonesome whip-poor-will and feel I need to respond.TN sheet

But my responses are always somewhat tangled, and every thoughtful effort eventually overridden by a need to hum or sing the song, which dogs me like nothing else in Tennessee, Virginia, Carolina, Georgia, Alabama . . . Verona, Paris, the Forest of Arden.

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Is It a Sin to Kill a Watchman?

A question I’ve been hearing from students and acquaintances since winter is whether or not Nelle Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman ought to ever see the light of day. One source of the question seems to be an apprehension that the new book, which was Lee’s first attempt to write about the Finch family (sounds ornithological), would somehow tarnish the widely revered To Kill a Mockingbird. Although I haven’t yet seen the new (but older) book, I know a few things about it and read the first chapter in the Wall Street Journal last week. Adult Jean Louise’s narration is not so spellbinding as Scout’s, the background information is often mechanically wedged in, the impending drama forced, skids abound, though some gift is in evidence. Wise Blood’s train opening is better, though. Stylistically, Mockingbird displays an overall grace that Watchman might well lack, if the opening is representative. I don’t want to conclude too much from the sample, but it hasn’t altered my opinion about publication.


Though the recently discovered narrative is likely to be disappointing, of course it should be available for those who want it, since the author and publisher are willing to show it. Students of the process of fiction are certainly curious, and I’m assuming that the earlier fears that Lee was being manipulated by lawyers and false friends were mostly hogwash. Lots of other lawyers and companions have weighed in, the Sybil herself is sometimes lucid and has spoken. Harper Collins does not act injudiciously, which is not to say “without greed,” which is indigenous to the publication business, because it is a business. The critics will raise the banner of caveat lector (I recommend Natasha Trethewey’s prudent and carefully considered review in the Washington Post), and devotees of Mockingbird should be guided by their own needs and fears, calculate their own sensitivities, read it now or later or never, then revisit the book they love, whether for its virtues or its forays into the sentimental and the “back in the day” atmospherics. Alabama’s motto is “We dare defend our rights.” The home guard is already mustered and armed. Let the games begin.

Reviewers are likely to discuss the altered natures of the characters (a now-flawed and more realistic Atticus [“from Attica, or Athens”], especially), the point of view, the novels’ different tactics for configuring the question of civil rights, pace, humor, childhood, human compassion, guardian angels, mob mentalities and the rights of man (and woman and child). What I want to recommend, aspirant owner of a copy that I am, is that we take the occasion of this book’s full public birth to consider what and how we think about the first one and what this volume has to show us about the mysterious way books get written.

First cobweb to clear away: Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel or a prequel, no progression from the finding of the One Ring to its casting into the flames. It’s action occurs long after the events of Mockingbird have transpired, but the appearance of passages identical to those in Mockingbird, accompanied by complete reboots of some events in the earlier publication, make it clear that the pair of books is not a sequence, not a relay, but rather two separate heats, two very different encounters with some basic material concerning where and when and who and why. Watchman was written first, and an amazingly perceptive editor named Tay Hohoff said something akin to, “Not yet, ma’am, but keep trying,” but also made a major suggestion, to focus more on Scout, her mind and her involvement with the central public narrative in Maycomb. So Lee set aside the typescript and went back into the same woods by a different path and different phase of the moon, seeing things from an altered perspective, one that charmed out of her a song that was far more spellbinding than the one she’d found for Watchman. Maybe the books are like fraternal twins, one just developed smarter and more beautiful than the other, but a reader can’t start cross-referencing and try to mesh them into one plot. From my seat of high ignorance about most of the text, that looks like a fool’s errand. The people have not simply gotten older, they started older, and by the way, they’re not people at all.

Though based, sometimes loosely, sometimes precisely, on real people, who have been pulled apart and reconfigured by fictive imperatives and the prism of the imagination, Dill, Boo, Jem, Jean Louise and Atticus are constructs, fictional manifestations of a dream dreamed while waking and while working like a mule and a thoroughbred at once. This fact eludes many of the spellbound, who want to see the characters as subjects of a jigsaw biography of Monroeville. The Finches follow the rules of plot and character, rather than the rules of life and personality, and though those two fields are similar (else all fiction would be mere distraction and entertainment), they are not identical. I’d wager there’s a demographic who constitute almost a cult of devotees, not quite Trekkies (or Mockies), but people whose feelings about Atticus and his cadre are not primarily about an aesthetic appreciation of fine writing, the old verities, the whole question of how the narrative theater offers story as vicarious experience. They’ve left the “vicarious” behind and so admire Atticus that they might feel a hankering to sue or duel someone for defaming Galahad’s character. Maybe even sue his creator for meddling after the book became a public treasure.

I might have been one of those Mockies when I was young, but I was confused by something I suspect jangled quite a lot of Mockingbird fans from the start. I cannot now say whether I read the book before I saw the movie. The former is more about the coming of age story, human development and dignity; the latter is more about the trial and the civil rights conflict, the application of the concept of dignity to the explosive (then, now, let’s pray not forever or even much longer) question of race. And the movie has Gregory Peck, not to shortchange the exquisite performance of ten-year-old Mary Badham (who could not pass for the six-year-old prodigy of the novel, but who’s counting?). If I got the word imagery first, it was quickly complicated by the cinematic version, and I was more taken with picture shows back then than with books about serious moral dilemmas and atrocities. Even when I read the novel again about five years ago, the knot was too tight for me to untangle it – Gregory Finch. The novel and the film and what we know about Peck’s life and career have all created a strange piece of psychological architecture in a fashion that might resemble the Huckleberry Finn complex, except that the text in that example is so revolutionary and (even with is problematic ending) bold and brilliant that even Twain’s remarkable life doesn’t amplify or impede the text. Lee’s novel may be unique in the way it engages us, and the fact that she never wrote another book after Mockingbird feeds the speculative, myth-making crowd. We do love our intrigues.

While I don’t believe that Go Set a Watchman will very much alter the peculiar way American readers (we few, we happy few?) cherish (or chastise – see the opinions of writers like Francine Prose) To Kill a Mockingbird, I do believe that the conversations – about fiction, childhood, even race – will be refreshed in many healthy and useful ways, which is not to say that foolish things may be said, not even to guarantee that I haven’t just said some of them, but it’s too late, isn’t it, to post my own caveat lector sign? And yet: BEWARE OF BLOG.

n.b.  This morning I had a thought and prospected till I found my old Signet paperback of  Mockingbird.  Scout narrates the story of those early years from a distance: “When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.”  Readers of the novel know it was no accident that left Jem’s arm damaged, but Ewell’s vicious attack on the children, but besides the camouflaging rewrite of personal history, what Jean Louise reveals here, as the style of her narration does throughout Mockingbird, is that J. L. F.  is seeing these famous childhood events from an adult perspective, with the rhetorical powers of an adult.  She could be the same Jean Louise going home on the train at the beginning of Watchman.  The same, but more savvy and wise, as Lee probably was when she wrote the very good book, after she wrote the one that didn’t cut the mustard but which everyone’s wolfing down right now.

And the movie scene on the cover of my copy means the movie was out before I owned a copy.  But had I seen it yet?  I can’t afford the squad of shrinks needed to ferret that answer out.

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Ghost Cat

On a Christmas week in the early 70’s I solo hiked into Linville Gorge in the North Carolina mountains. Hatchet and knife, compass and tent, food and flint, mummy bag and canteens. I left my VW bug on the rough road that led to Wiseman’s view, where one could view the Brown Mountain Lights (spectral light from a servant’s lantern as he sought his lost master a century before – see the Tommy Faile song) and stars at night, the laurel-tangled wilderness and white Linville River by day. I wasn’t looking for ghosts but was on one of the many self-discovery treks and rides of the decade, the kind of “roughing it” that looks foolish and a little dangerous decades later. As I said, ghosts were not my pursuit, but I thought just for a spell that I “encountered” either a living eastern mountain lion or the ghost of one.


Panther, painter, catamount, puma (Quechua for “powerful”), cougar. We have many names for felis concolor, but when I was a young man the prevailing theory was that North America had given birth to two subspecies, one eastern and one western. The latter had thrived, and the former was vanishing due to diminishing food source (deer, coon, possum, squirrels, even grasshoppers) and shrinking territory, due to human encroachment. Although scores of residents of the far hollers, swales and peaks would swear on a Testament that they’d seen one, still photographs and film footage were rare and questionable, assigning the animal a legendary presence as much as a zoological one, much like the “Lord God bird,” or ivory-billed woodpecker of the swampland further south. In short, a ghost cat as much as a resident.

The cougar is a large and graceful “ambush predator” that can weigh 200 pounds and leap 20 feet, cover 25 miles in a night’s hunting and snap a neck with its mighty jaws. We still read of occasional attacks out west and see news clips of the effects – torn carcasses covered over with brush as caches for further feeding. The cats gravitate to high ground and love shadowed shelves, caves, crevices, Mostly solitary, they are born with blue eyes that turn green (legend says: at first kill; scientists say, if nope). They’re tawny as their African cousins but with white and bisque underside, black facial markings and a long, heavy, crow-tipped tail that drags and bounces on the ground, making their trail in snow more than the lobe-and-petal paw prints.

Besides their fierceness and near-invisibility (“rare” to “endangered,” and as of last month officially “extinct”), I believe the feature that keeps alive their presence or spirits hunting and haunting, feeding and filling the highland night in the minds of Appalachians and tourists is the scream. A panther’s vocal chords (closer to fiddle than bass) lack the range to roar , but it’s howl-scream is blood-chilling. You can’t hear it by extrapolating on what you know of house cats, and it’s generally claimed to sound something like a woman in labor just as she completes an excruciating birth. I’d heard it (or some facsimile) in movies and TV (often on the dependable Rawhide) since I was young, and it never fails to shiver through me and raise my neck hairs.


So there you have it, a putatively indigenous murderous night wanderer in the season of hibernation that puts some feasts out of reach, and an exhausted young man with substantial imagination and no firepower beyond sparking steels. I’d pitched my camp on the Linville’s shore by rugged rapids, collected wood and built a dry fire, eaten my beanie-weenies and apple, filled my canteen, read by flashlight from my beloved camp-rough copy of Treasure Island (young Jim’s pistol ball knocks Israel Hands from the crow’s nest again) and lay back against my branch-and-brush chairback to practice surveillance on the stars. It might have been nine or ten o’clock, and there was no moon. An hour or so later I heard it, but not the same as in the movies. The growl/yowl/scream/screech was the perfect chord of hunting. The three-part sound carried claws and fangs and the fetid breath of a big beast. Not just primal but primitive, and it carried a harsh note of absolute and immediate need. Upriver. A hundred yards away? Closer? I was terrified, and all I knew to do was hack away at the understory and feed the fire, let it do my roaring. Did I say it was cold? Must have been, given the way I was shaking. Flurries swirled off and on during the night, providing even more strangeness from which my eyes could conjure a cat from blurry foliage and adrenalin.

I passed a restless night, chopping, stirring the coals, sharpening a spear (futile but distracting) with my Gerber, seeing movement in shadows, green eyes in the night, always aware that the cougar is expert at stealth, with a sudden rush at the end. For a while I sat on a rock in mid-river because I knew the animal called by hill people the “catamount” did not much savor a swim, but I couldn’t stand the wet wind away from my fire, and I had to keep the flame high.

Before dawn I was so exhausted I crawled into the red tent with spear, sheath knife and hatchet all close at hand. I planned to feed the fire every half hour, but I soon fell asleep from effort and fear, and it was almost nine when I woke, the real snow having fallen late, maybe three inches. When I poked my blue-tobogganed head through the flap, three crows on a nearby limb seemed the remnant of night, everything else pristine, contoured, somehow comforting. I survived, through no art of my own. Maybe, I thought, I’ve just outlasted another fit of my imagination, a misinterpretation of wind honed on rock, but maybe the threat had been real, and dire.

I mustered my courage and began to scout upriver, spiraling, seeking signs. When I found the tracks about 150 yards away, I was double-punched, as I realized the animal had been there after the snowfall, while I was asleep. Talk about a chill running to the heart. But then I felt relief: by my reckoning the prints were too small, not deep enough, though the span of its leaps was too long for a cub. The answer had to be the bob-tailed common bobcat (Lynx rufus), a lesser critter, half the length of a panther, both more familiar to me (even these days, on winter nights, one will visit the stone wall around my property) and uninterested in as big a target as I present. The relief I felt was considerable, but not without a note of regret. A panther would have been of more consequence, both a more instructive memory and a better story.


When I did see a panther in the wild, it was 1988 in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and I was walking along a dry ridge at midday, a day pack and Winchester slung over my shoulder. To the north, across an arroyo maybe an eighth of a mile away I noted, scanning with my field glasses, something irregular along the buff-colored ledge. Kneel, strip off my gear, focus. An unmistakable cougar/ mountain lion/ puma (Guinness lists some 40 names) in profile, larger than my 180 pounds and staring right back, probably – given the wind direction – smelling my sweat, my deodorant, my whole soup of human scents. Its head was turned to the side to scout my ridge, but it soon swiveled and walked along its path, no hurry, no concern, mutual disinterest. My pulse had raced at first glimpse, but that passed quickly. I had at least seen a western mountain lion in its native habitat, but it actually didn’t quite match the swarm of rubythroats which later that day developed such a threatening, diving interest in my scarlet long john top that I had to strip it off.

These narratives and speculations matter to me because, after holding out long after other agencies, the Fish and Wildlife Service has finally declared the eastern panther, if there ever was such a separate subspecies, extinct. Case closed. But I don’t want to give up on the ghost cat. Survival against the odds, a clever predator lurking and bounding on the margins, both mischief and mayhem. A magical being who, like Faulkner’s bear Old Ben, you will only see in the Appalachian deep woods if you stray, if you become like the cat “a wanderer.” I’m getting too old and infirm to get out there and see for myself, but I cling to our beautiful monsters, especially the indigenous ones. And it’s hard to prove a negative, a nothing that’s there. I keep my field glasses close to hand, just in case, but I’m also ready (if rain, if snow, if any wet weather allow) to pile on the fuel and let the flames claw at the sky.
snow cougar


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