Where’s Archie?

ammonscoverWhen A. R. Ammons died in 2001 he was widely considered (by Bloom, Vendler, Lieberman and other heavy-hitting critics) one of the half dozen most significant and original poets writing in English. By turns unflappable, faux naïve, authoritarian, wry, oracular, jocular and naughty, he was a master of melding vernacular speech with scientific jargon and even better at finding colloquial and seemingly inevitable phrases to clarify the intricate natural and technical world while making the invisible seem tactile and visual. His poems might span half a dozen words or cover the length of a collection. He was shifty, adroit, eccentric and humane. He was an experimentalist escaped from the lab.

For the excellence of his work, Ammons received the National Book Critics Award, the Bollingen Prize, two National Book Awards and a MacArthur Fellowship. An explorer of the natural world, he was the ultimate peripatetic; not even Wordsworth would have gone so far as to declare and argue (even tongue in cheek) that “A Poem Is a Walk,” as Ammons’ essay of that title does. No one could make sentences more sinuous, organic, surprising but coherent than Archie. He was also an accomplished pianist and water colorist who could construct an elaborate a joke or write a botanical manual . . . in a poem.

In person he could be quick, erudite, acerbic, cracker barrel punny, mercurial, owlish or foxy. When he died at seventy-five, he was still writing poems nearly every poetry lover would want to read for the puzzlement, the wit or the exhilaration. But after he passed his reputation began to fade, his work ceased to be essential to any conversation about American poetry. Or so it has seemed to me. James Dickey, another of my favorites, died four years before Ammons, but his work still appears in anthologies that declare themselves “contemporary.” Is his work more alive than Archie’s? What I hope to do here is to awaken the curiosity of younger readers and provide older ones with a reason to look again at the spiraling, elegant, jittery, rattletrapping, challenging and rewarding poems of A. R. Ammons. First, I’d like to indulge in a touch of personal reminiscence, then to offer one of his poems I keep returning to, not because it’s typical of his work – what would be? – but because it’s irascible and indelible, daring me to be offended or bewildered, but never allowing either to happen.

Almost forty years ago I was one of twenty poets invited to a two-week retreat at the Reynolds family’s historic homestead near Critz, Virginia. I was still green, next-to-youngest in the cadre, which included Kathryn Stripling Byer, Ann Deagon, James Applewhite and other poets who had published books, won prizes, made a name. And Archie. The rest of us stayed in a one-room barracks bisected by a long curtain for gender segregation. Mosquitoes, noise, involuntary proximity – when the sponsoring foundation decided to pull together an anthology of participant work, they called it The Gritloaf Anthology. Archie stayed in a cottage with his family, and twice a day we sat in a circle and talked of poetry. It was the closest to a workshop I’d ever be in, but when most of the participants have creative writing degrees and are poetry teachers, the ante goes up, the games and dynamics become byzantine. Nuance and innuendo occupy every pause in the talk. I was way out of my depth.

Two moments from one particular afternoon provide me with the benchmarks of what I would come to know of Archie in our correspondence and few encounters over the next thirty years. First: on my way out to meet the other the merry campers for volleyball, I walked by Archie, who was sitting at the piano staring at his hands. When he asked me where I was going, I responded, “Out to create a sequel to Sphere.” (One of Archie’s award-winning and very demanding books was Sphere: The Form of a Motion). He scowled and said, “Not in this life.” He was in a raspy mood, and I felt, well, scolded but not quite scalded.

Later that afternoon we were sitting alone discussing one of my poems. I was discussing; he was listening. When I realized I was wasting a great opportunity and shut up, he began to anatomize in detail the opening stanzas, in which the narrator sitting on a diving board high above a lake at night marvels at the stars, both above and reflected in the water. I had written something like, “I can watch constellations twice, once in natural sky, once caught false,” and Archie raised his eyebrows and said, “What if you said ‘truly caught false’? How would does that mesh with the overall project of this poem?” The proverbial light bulb came on, and after a couple of other comments he winked and said the rest was up to me.

A dozen years later he was (unknown to me) judging an annual contest for the best poetry collection by a North Carolina writer. When I learned he had chosen my From the High Dive for the prize, I wrote him expressing my gratitude but also said that I thought that an eligible book by another of the Critz Gritloafers was probably better. He responded that he’d made mistakes in his life, but that prize wasn’t one of them. I could imagine his grin and his gentle Eastern N.C. voice, as well as a twist of ironic mirth.archie

More importantly, though, I remember his poems, which were often daring and introspective but also alert to the nuances and wonders of the natural world. Here’s a keeper with a tasty pun in the title and a periodic sentence even John Lyly would envy:

The City Limits

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider

that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue

bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider

that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the

leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breath of such calmly turns to praise.

[from Briefings: Norton, 1971]

Try that slight-of-hand anaphora, diagram that sentence, say that paragraph with quiet precision and feeling, feel “the dark work of the deepest cells,” see how much light will accept you and “consider that radiance.” Reading him will reward a wide audience, for despite Yeats’ claim that things fall apart, Ammons as Puck, Caliban and Prospero could make poems that hold in any wind.


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Farewell, Our Lovely

farewellDiann Blakely (1957-2014) was for twenty years a steady and valuable supporter of and contributor to Shenandoah. When she passed in August, her loss was no less shocking for the fact that she had been ill for some time. Although we had met only twice, Diann and I had carried on a considerable correspondence since I accepted four of her early poems for Southern Humanities Review about two dozen years ago. Those poems appeared in Hurricane Walk (BOA Editions, 1992), which was followed by Farewell, My Lovelies (Story Line, 2000). When I moved to Shenandoah, she began sending me new work, and our ties were further strengthened when my wife Sarah Kennedy selected Diann’s third book, Cities of Flesh and the Dead, as winner of the 2008 Elixir Press Prize.

Her early work was always delicate but bold, highly aware of the body’s blessings and citiescurses. About the quietly intense lyrical pieces of her debut collection William Matthews wrote, “[Blakely] knows everything she knows all at once, word by word, line by line, poem by poem. These sly poems are spare and ample both. They’re cool and passionate, frank and opaque, artful and true.”

In Farewell. . . Diann moved to a more narrative mode, telling her life and our lives, going public with her bewilderment, understanding and affection for the culture of the American South. A new density and commitment to realistic, historical details emerged, and she began to perform diagnoses and autopsies on the dying and dead aspects of the South which refuse to lie down and often find their manifestations in oppression, negligence or cruelty. It’s no accident that many of these poems carry a kind of Dixie Noir undertone, and Carol Muske Dukes wrote of them, “These poems are side-of-the-mouth Chandleresque . . . truly lovely, musical, steeped in a farewell eloquence, making transitory but persuasive order of the chaos of the heart.” Mark Doty’s take was: Blakely’s noir style has the urbane, anxious glamour of jazz, but there’s nothing cool about these fevered poems . . . a poet of dark and bracing powers.”

A poem from that collection appearing first in Shenandoah, “Hound Dog,” considered “the perilous erotics of flux” and cast Elvis as a new world Orpheus who “drove those country housewives mad” until they wanted to “tear him to bloody bits.” The poem is rife with humor, but the tragic mode eclipses the light and shows Diann at her adroit, observant and imaginative best.

Music, especially the blues, was becoming very important to Diann, and she began sending me poems based on Robert Johnson’s songs and life. In fact, I was surprised to discover the poems of Cities of Flesh . . . when I first saw the manuscript. I’d been fascinated with the Johnson poems and didn’t even know she had another entire, equally mighty, river running in her simultaneously. Sarah Kennedy wrote in her introduction that Diann “always promises entrance to a tragic, beautiful world . . . render[ing] the gritty details of Southern girlhood.” In-progress, the ms. of Cities of Flesh . . . had received the Alice Fay deCastagnola Award, and judge Baron Wormser’s citation called her “a master of evoking the beauties of loss while embracing the wayward joys of what is unaccountably found.”

Many poets, notably the late Lynda Hull and Eleanor Ross Taylor, have lost a passionate advocate in Diann, as she was a tireless critic and literary journalist, a gadfly and a fan at once, a poetry editor at Antioch Review, a fierce and hungry heart. The one thing I may miss more than her unpredictable, challenging and spirited e-mails will likely be the fully finished and polished sequences of blues poems she had been working on for years: Rain at Our Door: Duets with Robert Johnson. I hope there are enough of them in complete enough form that someone will see them into print as a unit. What follows is one of the four published in Shenandoah as the opening selections in our Traditional Music Issue in 2006. I could not get enough of them then and still can’t. She knew how to hammer the blues to silver, and my only solace is that the pain of the process is over. What’s left is to celebrate her words and live our own blues.


Just one kiss, post-belles know, can linger sorghum sweet
Or curdle men’s cafes-au-lait with blood and spit,
       Thus we listen to rain charm our screen doors,

Whose rusty hiinges leak the blues each humid dawn,
And watch for uncoiled snakes.  O don’t redo the kitchen
       Because there’s gonna be rain at our door

Like the last century’s flood, where moss-wreathed cemeteries
Released their dead while bluesmen tortured guitar strings
       To dissolve thoughts of ragged, last-drawn breaths

And rambling loves, or those fled to the half-breached levees
Who’d stay past tomorrow.  Like those eye-lined Pharoahs
       In pleated nighties, spices on their breath,

I’m a believer-o, burning dried sweet moss to cleanse
This house of kisses fouled.  Come on in my kitchen
       Although the radio nailed to the high shelf

Growls low at night to warn me, sounds buried deep as bones.
Or as deep as your voice denouncing God?  You knelt
       To bark, they say, against the juke-joint shelf

Of bodies that surrounded you, crazed by the poison
Curdled in your whiskey.  Come on in my kitchen . . .
       Should we release the ragged dead with kisses

And stir love’s bones among my perfume-pots?  If not,
There’s gonna be rain at my door long past second thoughts,
       Past levees, screen doors, rusted empires’ kisses.

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Salem-WGN-America-s1-2014-poster-1 Historical fiction seems to have become as much a staple of contemporary television as it has contemporary reading, and many of these shows try to correct the look of previous Hollywood-prettified versions of the past with grittier sets, costumes, and dialogue.  Henry VIII certainly never looked like Jonathan Rhys Meyers (except for that one adolescent portrait), but The Tudors did try to represent the very real machinations and misbehavior in Renaissance England, even among the clergy.  Vikings has so far given us authentically tattooed and made-up men going about their aggressive business, though the writers seem to have misunderstood the role that women played in Viking culture.  Deadwood may have overdone it with the dialogue, but it broke ground for other shows by showing the American West through characters who are dirty, lustful, and regularly violent.  Hell on Wheels also unflinchingly depicted the West, focusing on the greed and corruption of American industrialists as the country expanded.  For the most part, I enjoyed these, and other series like them, primarily because they seemed more adult, more real, than what television often serves up.


More recently, shows like Turn have taken on specific historical events, and in a Wicked or Maleficent move, have tried to show viewers another side of the received story.  Sadly, I couldn’t keep track of the turns on the show enough to stay engaged and so, though I applauded the effort, I turned off Turn after a few episodes.  Then there’s Penny Dreadful, which has a certain ghoulish appeal.  This one seems to pride itself on humanizing Frankenstein’s monster (though Mary Shelley did that, too) and demonizing its sexy Dorian Gray (but didn’t Oscar Wilde already do that, as well?).  This show, however, becomes so allusively chaotic that it’s hard not to laugh, even when Vanessa Ives puts on her most low-browed scowl.  I wonder sometimes if the writers are a bunch of English majors who get together for a party every week and throw any characters they can recall from their nineteenth-century surveys into the script.

1000323_1_0_prm-evavid_1024x640What Penny Dreadful offers, in addition to its refresher course in Victorian monster lit, is the paranormal aspect that still draws viewers (and readers).  Despite the controversy surrounding the YA author John Green, whose success has led some critics to say that the Harry Potter/Twilight phenomenon is passing in favor of a return to psychological realism, the paranormal still seems to sell.  Game of Thrones has capitalized on this, and the imagined world it creates (which looks, still, quite a lot like medieval Europe) allows for dragon-taming waifs and big baddies with super-powers alongside its more pedestrian castles and monarchs.

And now along comes SalemsalemhomeI looked forward to this show, because it seemed to feature strong female characters and a re-examination of a touchstone event in American history.  The Salem witch trials, as many students of the past know, came at the tail end of a long period of debate about demonic powers in Europe, in which thousands of people were summarily tortured, hanged, or burned.  Or all three.  Even at the beginning of the witchcraft prosecutions in medieval Europe, scholars and skeptics expressed horror at the anti-intellectualism of belief in witches and at the use of Christianity to justify the gruesome murders that witchcraft judges ordered.  The Salem trials, historically speaking, were a footnote to centuries of panic, hatred, fear—and revulsion at that very panic.  But the women and men who died there would have been little comforted by that knowledge.

In the first episode, I saw, to my own horror, that the show actually promotes the notion that the witches were real, that women stalk and creep around Salem in their gothy costumes seeking out converts and colleagues in their demonic business.  George Selby is a cretin, to be sure, but when Mary shoves a live—and rather large—toad down his throat to bewitch him, she’s become the villain.  Or has she?  The witches are attractive and seem to get away with wearing dresses that no woman in the historic Salem would have ever been allowed out of the house in.  Mary Selby carries a torch for John Alden, who glowers handsomely and yearns from afar.  Gorgeous Mary is, of course, the witch ring-leader, and when a truly abhorrent Increase Mather hits the scene, viewers will no doubt root for her.

Salem 01 01 79What bothers me about this show is that, in this version, Mather is right.  In this Salem, there are witches (along with open pits for dumping bodies to provide a nice gruesome spot for organ-munching), and these witches have real paranormal powers.  George Selby is disgusting, but pity the poor nice man who marries a witch and angers her—he’ll probably get the toad-down-the-gullet treatment, too.  And now we discover that being a witch might even be genetic, passed down from parent to child, like brown eyes or crooked teeth.

Salem-TV-Series-image-salem-tv-series-36800019-1417-1890It’s not the super-powers per se that bother me, though I confess that I regard contemporary ghosts and spooky things and super-heroes as easy, light entertainment to pass a summer afternoon when it’s too hot to weed the garden.  They’re what I watch when there’s no serious history or historical fiction on.  And they’re fine, for what they are.  What bothers me about Salem is the fact that real women and men were charged with the acts that the TV show presents as “normal,” and they were killed under those charges, either by starvation or illness in stinking, hellish jails or on the scaffold.  And there was Giles Cory, who expired under a pile of stones.

The show purports to be an analysis of “otherness,” and that’s a laudable goal.  But why use a very real, and literal, witch hunt in our history to do it?  Even as metaphor, these characters are too convoluted in their aspirations and too gruesome in their means to achieve the rank of social commentators.  For me, it has finally gotten to be too much.  Witches are not oppressed minorities, and they are not marginalized subgroups.  They’re not real.  So I’m turning off Salem, in protest against this sort of exploitative, silly pseudo-history and out of respect for the very human women and men who were killed in that sad, isolated Massachusetts town.


A History of the Craft (An Introduction)
from A Witch’s Dictionary by Sarah Kennedy (Elixir Press 2008)

Salem’s a blip at the tail end (sorry
to say) of the burning times, and now we
host pagans and pirate fans, devotees

of Hawthorne.  But these days we’re exorcised—
the park’s stone benches are flanked with flowers
and visitors can sit at their leisure

right on top of the victims’ last words. You’d
never know from the black hats, capes, and brooms
displayed in the sidewalk sales that thousands

were flogged or burned or hanged across Europe.
Some say fifty thousand, a hundred.  Some say
twice or three times that.  You have surely heard

the beliefs, the crazy scholarship: all
those thick demonologies prescribing
suspicion or torture of anyone

who questioned authority.  The sure signs?—
there’s nocturnal flight, of course, on sticks
or dogs or goats, there’s attendance at feasts

and unsanctioned dances (i.e. “sabbats”).
There’s always disagreement with a church
or king or court.  So the world went, and so

it goes: racking, stripping, beating, terror-
izing.  Have you seen the reproduction
relics?  Take this little gem, for instance—

this is  Joan of Arc’s immaculate heart,
left whole beneath the smoldering remains
of her famous fire!  Did you guess?  You know

the story, you might call her an early
political prisoner (the English
soldiers didn’t really think she conjured

the devil, she just seemed a little weird,
a little touched, you know, disposable).
Let’s see: there’s the Witch of Berkeley, Witches

of Stedlingerland, of Lombardy, of
North Berwick, of Chelmsford, of Lancashire
(1612), of Lancashire one more time

(1633), of Brescia . . . oh, I
can’t keep track.  *sigh*  Does anyone here still
smoke?  Those New England jurors recanted,

but the dead are still dead and now families,
maps and ice-creams in hand, gaze, enchanted,
at the shiny windows of the judge’s

house, making scary faces at themselves.
During the “Enlightenment,” the witch turned
into a ghost.  The poltergeist “Bell Witch”

of Tennessee chatted by the family fire
with Andrew Jackson, the “Blair Witch”
is mostly a jiggly camera.  Wiccans

own many of the souvenir shops here
in Salem, you’ll know them by their flowing
robes.  I’m sure you’ll want a look.  The children

help out, though they’re skittish of strangers.  Look,
there’s one now, sweeping up receipts and trash!
It must be closing time.  You’d better run.



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Shall We Gather at the River?: The Chatter around Charles Wright and His New Laurels

Part the First:
My wife has been keeping me up to speed on the Farcebook chatter concerning the appointment of Charles Wright to become our new poet laureate starting in the September now rushing our way on heat waves, and I notice that many commentators and wags — mostly poets, werepoets, poetasters, ranters, humblebraggers and poetry lickers — are both taking the announcement quite personally and responding quite cagily.  As a longtime reader of Wright’s elegant wrestlings with ultimate questions and immediate circumstances, his pilgrimages in words and his evasions, confessions, explorations and cautious approaches to ecstasy, I take it all personal, too.  If there’s any one poet who can address the ineffable in lively concrete terms and tease a response out of it in ways I yearn for but can never manage myself, it’s Charles Wright.

I take for my title a phrase from the cover of one of James  Wright’s books, but the New Wright (like “The New Poem”) seems as much consumed by the problems of “we” and “gather” and “river” as vexed questions as the late James Wright was.  Charles said many years ago of the “new poem” that it will not be able to save us, but he can’t get shed of the question “what will?” and the hope that there’s an answer and, like the hymn the title also refers to, involves matters of the spirit.

In the first part of this improvisation, I want to say something on the record about Charles Wright’s history.  In the second, more focused post I want to try to find words for what has transfixed me about his themes, methods and hypnotic, you-can’t-not-listen voice for over three decades.  I hope you won’t hold it against me that, even thirty years ago, I was late to the dance of Wright’s music.  I’m still reeling and jigging, trying to catch up.

charles wright 2This is Charles before I encountered his work.  I’m guessing it’s a photo from his Irvine days or before but not an official U. S. Army photograph from his Italian period.  It might be the image of the character behind The Grave of the Right Hand, but by the time he’d written “Dog Creek Mainline” and then Black Zodiac this stance has faded, only to be revived as self mockery.  I think.

charles wright 1This photo is the update I enjoy looking at as I consider the paperwork on why Charles Wright is a natural choice, the natural choice, to stand for us poetry addicts in such a fraught, conflicted and tangled (emotionally, spiritually, aesthetically) era as we have conjured in our desperation to do and think and feel something of consequence (without missing a single tweet, text, post, tag, like, rant, reality series scuffle, foodie swoon or sniffle.)

It would be foolish to make book on who the next poet laureate will be or the one after that because the mist-covered (“shrouded” wouldn’t be right) committee who make the selection seems, even as new invisible voices replace old ones, to favor two or three sets of criteria.  Think of Dove, Hass, Trethewey — all at the time of their election young, energetic, newly arrived at the center of the poetic conversation, recently tapped for a major prize.  Then think of Levine, Merwin, Wright — veterans of many decades, oft-laureled, widely anthologized poets whose published books fill whole shelves.  A third category might be popularity — Billy Collins, who is, like the others above, an original, which I hope is an important consideration.  He is also widely read and imitated.  I have no suspicion that the laureate search anyone’s idea of a process for declaring someone “the best American poet this morning.”  And this scheme I posit makes good sense to me, though one can never be certain that the younger laureate will bring more energy to the vaguely-described “job” or that the older campaigner will bring more dignity to it.  Some of the honorees over the years have written poems that now live deep in my heart’s core, and others have not, but if this distribution according to weathering and career stage is in operation, I trust it in the long run, which is not to say I wouldn’t volunteer right now to be on next year’s version of the committee.  And I’m pleased that (as best I can recollect) none of the poets who aim their poems at people with no interest in deep study of the art of poetry have been appointed to the post.

What criteria dictate that this poet should be tapped and knighted or crowned or burdened with this responsibility, which is “high profile” only in the poetry world (which can occasionally resemble Wayne’s World), but small potatoes to the NASCAR crowd, J Lo’s fans, Honey Boo Boo’s followers, the Freemason Brotherhood or the Episcopal Church?  We civilians will never know, but we can say some things about the poet’s work and impact.

black zodSo suppose Charles Wright is a selection from the senior crowd (my generation) who somehow escaped election back when he was the Next New Thing.  The critical community reaches consensus on almost no one, but evidence and testimony accumulate, and Wright has written about a score of poetry collections and enough public-fare journals and articles (counting interviews) to fill two U. of Michigan Press books in the Poets on Poetry series.  He’s received the Pulitzer (and been “bridesmaid” multiple times — 4?), the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Griffin International Prize, a couple of Library of Virginia annual prizes and their Lifetime Achievement Award.  Chancellor of this, archon of that.  He’s been written about by enthusiastic admirers like Helen Vendler, Peter Stitt, James Longenbach, Henry Hart, J. D.  McClatchy, Mark Jarman, Willard Spiegelman and Lee Upton.  Joe Moffett has written a book for the University of South Carolina’s Understanding Contemporary American Literature series called, pro forma, Understanding Charles Wright (though that’s a boast few would make, or want to, as “grappling with” is more to the point).  Robert Denham has published a two-volume companion to Wright which explores the poems one-by-one up to 2007; it’s a project seemingly dedicated to the idea of drawing the reader closer to the poems with background information, but again, “understanding” would seem simplistic and somehow misplaced.  Perhaps the best companion to Wright’s work is High Lonesome: On the Poetry of Charles Wright, edited by Adam Gianelli, dedicated to his “undisputed importance” and filled with reprints and news essays and reviews.  There are others, plenty of exhibits in the evidence locker, and they’re worth perusing.

This is a quick sketch of the public record for those who have posted their disapproval or a cunning “interesting” or “well, well” upon the announcement of Wright’s appointment and who would want to know why it’s only natural to consider him, has been for years.

In my next post, I’ll make a more personal statement about why I’d be willing to buy a bumper sticker that reads “Honk if Charles Wright’s Poetry Rocks You.”  I promise not to say he always writes the best poem ever or that I never turn away from a Wright poem wondering what has just happened or not happened on the page.  I’ll try to articulate what he’s serving that I have an abiding appetite for, though I cannot rustle such dishes up myself.

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2014 Library of Virginia Literary Finalists

Barbara Perry, Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch
Elizabeth Varon, Appomattox: Victory, Defeat and Freedom at the End of the Civil War
Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and the War in Virginia, 1772-1832

Lee Smith, Guests on Earth
Virginia Pye, River of Dust
Carrie Brown, The Last First Day
(Honorable Mention: Kathryn Estes, Seeing Red)

Bob Hicok, Elegy Owed
Margaret Mackinnon, The Invented Child
R. T. Smith, The Red Wolf: A Dream of Flannery O’Connor

Winners will be announced October 18.


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The Importance of Sitting Still . . .

The Importance of Sitting Still, and Other Obvious Realizations about Literature and Life

smartphoI currently am in New Haven to conduct archival work for my senior honors thesis on Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), whose correspondence, manuscripts, drafts, and all other related, original material is stored at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript library. As I attempted to explain my thesis to Jane, the Boarding House owner, I felt a surge of excitement and another swell of responsibility. But I tainted this feeling when I picked up my phone from the counter top and began to text. I noticed Jane watching me and gave the knee-jerk response of “Oh, just being a typical millennial right now, on my phone….”

This comment launched Jane into a near tirade against cell phones. She lambasted the disrespect that younger colleagues show her at meetings as they scroll through their phones (“just scrolling, not even doing anything, just passing the time!”) as she tries to give tourism presentations. I make a point to never text during class. But I had never given much thought about how much my peers and I struggle with this same type of disengagement outside of school. Yes, when I find a spare moment during the day, I do check my phone. It can be hard to sit still, to look up, to not clutch that little device in my hand at all times. After my chat with Jane, I made a mental note to check my phone less.new haven pic

The next day, I found the library and completed my registration. I was guided past the security guard and into the reading room and opened my first folder from my first box of material. I will spare you the pages that I could write about the feeling of holding something H.D. held, her handwriting, the markings and corrections she made, and the way that this has already gotten my head racing with thoughts and ideas. To summarize: I feel like I’ve been more productive and in many more ways than I expected.

I found this magic through focus. Researchers are permitted to use cell phones in the reading room, but after mine lit up a few times, distracting me, I wanted nothing to do with it. I realized early on that when I sat still and focused on the papers I went back in time. I thought I had felt mature as I completed normal adult tasks of navigating a big city, but the real feeling of maturity has hit me there, in the reading room, as I was humbled by the ancient documents in front of me, as I traced H.D.’s thoughts with my eyes and hands.

anniemsI want to take that sense of wonder stillness with me in my pocket wherever I go. I might have to start turning off my cell phone when I read outside of a high security room. I don’t wish to underwrite the huge, positive impact that technology has had on the world, including the literary world. But there’s so much room for beauty and connection and genuine feeling outside of my smartphone. And this odd combination of stillness and awakening and human connection is, after all, the same feeling that I get from a good poem. Is it possible that the more sucked into our phones we become, the less we will be able to understand and experience poetry? What, dear reader, do you think?

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Scratching the Surface of Place and Space

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Shakespeare’s birthplace

For my spring term class at Washington and Lee, I was lucky enough to attend an English class in England. The class was called “Shakespeare in Performance,” which, as you can probably guess, entailed mainly plays and site seeing. While I learned a great deal from the sites—particularly in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare’s birthplace is located, I was surprised to find that I felt more awe at simply being in the same physical space as the bard. It wasn’t the plaques or the preserved walls of the Shakespeare sites that struck me; rather, I felt an idealistic sort of second hand inspiration from soaking up the air he breathed, the views he saw from his window, the ripples on the river across from the Globe theater. I began to think that literary place and space are more important to literature than I had once thought.

This notion grew stronger when, while in London, I walked through Bloomsbury square, the meeting place of The Bloomsbury Group. There aren’t any markers or signs designating this lovely but unremarkable park as the hub of literary inspiration (or even just gossip among literary figures), but the knowledge that I was in the same small space that these writers congregated in had more of an impact on me. I imagined I could hear their voices in the trees.

I did, however, find a meaningful plaque in an unexpected place: one day, I made a solo journey to the flat of Hilda Doolittle, or H.D., one of the first poets that I fell in love with, who lived in London for significant periods of her life. I sat shamelessly on her former stoop for thirty minutes before the flat’s current resident walked up and gave me a (deserved) odd look. I am slightly ashamed to say that I asked her to take my picture in front of the flat. As meaningful as the experience was, I walked away wondering if, had there been a plaque on any of the given flats in that area, would I have felt differently? Would I have felt less magic sitting on the stoop of a random strange but thinking it had once held H.D.’s erratic and genius brain?

A large part of our class consisted of this same question: what difference in understanding the original text does seeing Shakespeare in his original context make? I did feel lucky to join the same throng of famous writers and anonymous individuals who have made a pilgrimage to carve their names into the window of Shakespeare’s birthplace, to soak up that same weird presence.Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 11.59.44 AM

Here’s how I answer the question: even if it was all a hoax, there is something wonderful about knowing that, even if you don’t know for sure, you are in the presence—the same space—as a writer that you admire. It’s sharing the same real world as someone whose textual worlds you have become a part of, and it allowed me to experience those textual worlds in richer detail. I can’t help but think that, ultimately, place does matter when it comes to understanding an author. What do you think?

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Summer Reading

annaSummer Reading. The dreaded assignment of elementary to high school students. The last day of school celebrations were halted as the teachers handed each of us our summer reading list. We scoffed at the reading requirements, sticking our tongues out at the teachers and singing the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” as the bus pulled out of the school parking lot. The reading list ranged from three to four required books, none of which sounded particularly interesting to any student but contained a hidden element of “educational value” that our young minds desperately needed. A bit of brain stimuli, if you will, amongst the hours of television, video games, and neighborhood debauchery we partook in during the holiday months. And did any of us read the required books in a timely manner, spreading the novels out evenly over the summer months? Of course not. We neglected the reading until about two weeks before school started when our parents realized that we had not yet started our assignments, and the authority figures took away our outdoor privileges until we finished our reading list.

Every summer I asked myself, why did the teachers pick such boring books? In elementary school we read short chapter books about foreign cultures or American history that strengthened our reading skills. Moving to middle and high school, we read more specific books, meddling in categories that ranged from history to science to foreign affairs. I remember struggling through Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, failing to connect with the historical plot about the Civil War. The teachers chose the books as mechanisms to prepare us for the year ahead and to broaden our outlook on the world at large. Some of killerthe required books did just that, but the fact that they were summer reading books turned all of us off and, being the rebellious teenagers that we were, neglected the books and chose to spend our free time doing other activities. When we returned to school in the fall and the summer reading quizzes and projects were assigned, we panicked and turned to SparkNotes for help. We each had read bits and pieces of the books and from group discussions knew the general plot, so we pulled our resources together to study for the summer reading quizzes and to create a creative project for our teachers. My senior year I struggled to create a soundtrack that coincided with the plot of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, gathering information about the dense text from class discussions and online synopses to develop the subpar playlist that failed to describe the novel.

My attitude towards summer reading has changed completely since being in college. During the school year, I have no time to read books of my personal choice. My summer reading list expands throughout the year as I discover new, exciting books that capture my attention, promising to read each one over the summer months. As an English major, I read all the time—sometimes more than I would like. Reading for literature classes consumes my time, and by the time I have finished my required reading I find that my eyes are too tired to read my personal books when I return home from the library each night. I get through one or two pages before falling asleep with my book on my chest, getting through a chapter a month—if I’m lucky.prince

Some books on my current list are ones that were assigned in my English classes but that I did not get the chance to finish because of timing and workload. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy earned its spot during my Cowboys and Indians class this winter. I am eager for summer to start so I can finally pick up the book collecting dust on my bedside table that I began reading over spring break but have not gotten the chance to finish since school resumed. I am excited for summer to read a book solely of my choosing without conducting a literary analysis on its plot or rhetorical elements—just to enjoy the book for what it is.

Looking back I wished I paid more attention to the books I was supposed to read in high school for summer reading. I did not know it at the time, but they were actually good books of substantial quality. I remember rebelling against the summer reading list, refusing to read the assigned novels and only selecting books of my choosing, ones that I knew I would enjoy until the last page.

The required summer reading of elementary, middle, and high school worked in reverse. The list I once dreaded so much now gives me great excitement as I turn to my list and decide which book to select first. My list includes a variety of books, ranging from Pat Conroy to William Faulkner. Whether I’m on a beach or snuggled in my bed, I am excited to dive into a new great story. Perhaps it is because instead of reading for form and theme, I am reading for that personal connection with the text, playing more attention to the way the book makes me feel rather than technical elements that comprise it.

So, what’s on your summer reading list?

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Maxine Kumin, Poet

kumin. . . the poet wrote:
life will do anything
for a living.
– “Discrete Activities” from And Short the Season

When I read back in the winter that Maxine Kumin had died, time-sensitive tasks diverted me. There was snow to shovel, wood to tote, as well as submissions to read, students to tutor, a new issue of Shenandoah to proof, but I knew I wanted to find a day to read, reflect on and celebrate her work, which I have followed enthusiastically since I discovered “Woodchucks” in graduate school and began trying to write for myself poems of consequence that questioned my actions as much as others’.

This week, with finals marked and recorded and the new issue of Shenandoah up for the web world to explore or ignore, I saw my window of opportunity and Xed a day on the calendar. Looking over my shelves, however, I was disappointed to see that my various winnowings of books for shelf space had left me fewer of Maxine’s books than I’d expected. I still have Up Country and Nurture, two selecteds, Connecting the Dots and To Make a Prairie, a collection of essays, reviews and interviews, but that’s hardly ample evidence of her industry excellence. Then a new collection, And Short the Season, arrived from Norton with jacket copy that spoke of her in the present tense, as if still among us, which I believe is essentially true.

My intention here is not to praise this new work (which will likely be done by someone else in a forthcoming review on this site) so much as to say what kind of poet she was and to mourn her loss, as well as the loss of her brand of liberal activism among her colleagues and within myself, for Kumin had as many opinions as most poets, but more what I’d call “beliefs,” though not always orthodox or predictable.  Maybe she took selfies and wrote blogs on recipes, but I’m skeptical.  It has been easy for poets in this age of the academic sub-guild of MFA faculties to let matters of conscience go lax, if not lapse. After all, we work for institutions, entities which tend to have, eventually, as their prime directive their own survival, which confers a streak of conservatism perhaps counter to the exploratory enterprises of education and art. We get caught up in status and materialism – whether they be manifested in new accommodations and cutting edge technology, good scotches and fancy restaurants at conferences, man caves or glamorous travel. Nothing really new there, but the dual obsessions of self-promotion and reporting all manner of effluvia on social media further complicate matters. They are distractions, and they come at a cost.

It’s tempting to just start in here and praise Kumin for right reason and right attention. She was a meticulous gardener, mushroom hunter, equestrian, friend of the winged and the four-legged. After all, she was sometimes saddled with terms like “Roberta Frost” and dismissed or diminished because her querencia was rural, fecund, elemental, and not (in the popular mind) so nuanced nor cerebral as the domestic and social lives of academics and literary gadabouts. But when Kumin turned her attention to the fundamental human drama, even as manifested in the news headlines – war, famine, gender politics – she retained her curatorial instincts for precision, order and freshness of phrase. She honored her “calling, [which] needs constancy,/ the deep woods drumming of the grouse ….”

I think back to some of the poems we always need but which our current world would be without if we hadn’t had Kumin to say, “Now look here”:
her moose poems, her bear poems (Cherish/ your wilderness”), her hermit poems and Henry Manley poems, “How It Goes On” (O lambs! The whole wolf-world sits down to eat/ And cleans its muzzle after.), the swimming poems, the many horse poems, the political poems (whether about Bosnia, capital punishment, torture, fracking or driving birds to extinction), her elegies for her friend Anne Sexton (especially “How It Is,” with its final transformation: “leaning my ribs against this durable cloth/to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death”), and of course “Woodchucks” with its weighing of various “humane” actions, its self-indictment and respect for adversaries, guilt and confession amid the recognition of necessities and its moment of lovely elegy and regret – “He died down in the everbearing roses.” She knew that love and death are the two great subjects, but also that they subsume all.

longmarriage But I do Kumin a disservice to imply for a moment that the subjects and attitudes of the poems are the marks of her “gift” (too light a term, but “genius” is worn out; maybe I should just say “of her light”). She was a formidable wit and a poet of form who understood that, as Sexton once said, “Craft is a trick you make up to let you write the poem.” A necessary trick. And her absolutely focused threshold of attention and verbal resource (or call it “damn good sense and the knowledge to keep working the tune”) kept her interesting and surprising.  She knew, with Milton, that “purity comes through trial, and trial is by what is contrary.”

When Kumin read the poems of others (say Frost’s “Provide, Provide”) she brought both ingenuity and conscience to the task, continuing to pursue her responsibilities as witness, and some of her essays about her art, especially the “Three Lectures on Poetry” in To Make a Prairie, are rife with ore. I’m really happy to have whole books on topics like tone by the erudite Ellen Bryant Voigt, but I wish there were corresponding books by Kumin to set beside them on the shelf. She had, however, other promises to keep and wrote fiction and children’s books instead of abundant essays.

I did meet her once and spent a couple of evenings in her company, along with my wife and others.  It was less than a decade back, and she was still suffering from neck injuries incurred in a buggy accident.  She was not performing the glib celebrity reel many writers cultivate but seemed a genuinely serious person who believed in her calling and took others seriously, but she was also a good yarner and a wit who didn’t pause for applause.  I thought she was tough and generous and saw that the poems I knew as written by her were her as fully as any poet I’ve met.  Right up with Heaney, Warren, Merwin, Wilbur.  Grit and patience were stitched into her nature.  She seemed, as Henry James recommended, “one upon whom nothing is lost.”

I find myself wishing I were more like her in determination and steady practice, not so prone to inertia and frequently profitless reflection, but I want to think Kumin would have approved of my delays in writing this, try to imagine her saying, “Chores are not diversions. First clear a path, split the kindling, feed the creatures and read the student papers. Do it all with sensitive enthusiasm and a skeptic’s squint, the keen attention that amounts to prayer. Then find the words you need and put them to work.” As she showed us again and again, poems get made that way, and meaningful life.

[Anyone looking for a quick and spirited summary of Kumin's career should consider reading her essay "Metamorphosis: From Light Verse to the Poetry of Witness" in the Winter 2012 (Vol. LXVI, No. 4) in The Georgia Review.  It's more personal/thematic than aesthetic, but it's a marvel of candor and a valuable counterweight to the histories of poets who remained in university settings and whose work evolved as a result of critical fashion and the demands of tenure and vitaphilia.]

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Holy Ghost Horrors

snakeThrough the brief interval between grading papers and judging a contest with 1000 entries, I find myself flinchy and belligerent, unable to relax, despite the mild weather, DVDs of the first season of “Maverick” and just a taste of excellent scotch every time midnight rolls around. My newest irritation involves a movie that should never have been made because it renews old prejudices, distorts an already beleaguered and willfully misunderstood group of marginalized people and substitutes cheap B-movie conventions for much more intricate and interesting actual information. It also hijacks the title of an underappreciated documentary from half a century ago. Given all this fidgetation and flusterment, what could I do but share?


In the five-dollar bin of my local Wal-Mart, heaped up with all the Wayne westerns and Sandler travesties, the zombies and X-Men and adorable lost pet odysseys, I saw a startling DVD entitled “Holy Ghost People,” its cover displaying a raised hand gripping a rifle, the crucifix-tattooed forearm wrapped by what might be a rattlesnake. Pit-viper head and hooked fangs protruded from the reptile’s open jaw, however unrealistic, testifying to the creature’s lethal nature without arousing any real alarm.

I had to do a double-take because I’ve long been familiar with Peter Adair’s documentary “The Holy Ghost People,” shot in Scrabble Creek, WV and released almost fifty years ago. That film, now in the public domain, is a valuable resource in the on-going efforts to understand the Signs Following believers who speak in tongues, drink toxic liquids, heal by the laying on of hands, cast out demons and handle serpents. These feats the members of small congregations concentrated in the southern Appalachians believe they can achieve when the spirit is on them, which is a matter of faith, though there is no scriptural guarantee they will heal anyone instantly or that the deadly snakes, usually native pit vipers, won’t bite them. The worshipers take their lead from a passage in The Gospel of Mark and have long been reviled, persecuted and even celebrated as fascinatingly mad.

Weston La Barre explored the history and psychology of these believers in his They Shall Take Up Serpents, which treats them as a crisis cult like the Plains Indians’ ghost dance. The handlers have been studied and analyzed sympathetically by Dennis Covington in Salvation on Sand Mountain, by Tom Burton’s Serpent-Handling Believers, by Robert Schenkkan in a stage play. Photographed by Shelby Lee Adams, they’ve been brought to fiction by many, including Lee Smith in Saving Grace. You can even find them in a tent with Pastor Billy in the first season of “Justified” and in many dozens of poems by witnesses (like Charles Wright) and fantasists alike. Some of the churches have recently constructed websites to combat misinformation, and the National Geographic Channel in 2013 followed the lives of Pastors Coots and Hamblin in their reality series “Snake Salvation,” declaring a break when Jamie Coots died from a rattlesnake bite.


In our current century the practice, still illegal or marginal anywhere but eastern Kentucky, continues but is not on the rise. Tired of being maligned, the Signs Following people have come out of the shadows to offer interviews in order to help us understand their fervor and strange courage, and although I find their services and favored Biblical texts unsettlingly selective, I still find it impossible to dismiss Christians whose sincerity is not superficial and who are not seduced by flashy media presentations, mega-churches and cutesy piety. I know they’re tired of being ridiculed as idiots and hicks, and I sympathize, which does not mean I’d like to join or even visit any of the churches again, but they are not jokes or idiots and follow a long tributary of unorthodoxy that often replenishes the mainstream of American religion.

This new movie, which claims to be “partly inspired by” the Adair documentary, looks to me like an attempt to take some steps backwards, to accent the spectacle and novelty while returning the dirty glamour to the stereotyped “hillbillies” as they torture themselves and one another on behalf of purity and the old ways (the practice is, in fact, just over a century old). Or maybe it’s just an attempt to make a quick profit from passing counterfeit bills.

The company which made this 2013 film, which has little of the documentary about it, is Macabre, and one promo blurb, quoted from a Heather Wixson of Dread Central (no subscription suggested), touted “A mesmerizing, intoxicating southern gothic thriller” in letters as red as the title and the caption along the bottom edge, appropriated from the beloved hymn: “There is power in the blood.”

This film is, however, a cold-blooded production, placing the snake-handling cult in a compound akin to Waco where thirsty seekers are dominated by a vicious Brother Billy who abuses and intimidates his captive audience with rhetoric and volume, as well as firearms and a whip. It’s directed by Michael Altieri and aims to be a hostage thriller, a torture horror tale and a serious lost girl quest tale in which a self-destructive vet morphs to an action hero. What it omits is any semblance of theology, though a Bible is used as both prop and weapon. The most interesting aspects of this production (which features decent music, some respectable acting and plenty of gore, including snakebite, for all comers) are the parasitic adoption of a title nearly identical to the documentary (which it excerpts from to add a few moments of credibility) and the deletion of a crucial scene, which can be viewed on the DVD Extras.

In the deleted scene, we watch one of blessed Billy’s henchmen/apostles at the Church of One Accord read the passage from Mark that enumerates the five signs such Holiness believers follow. This is real information and crucial to any view of the movie in which interest in the real sub-culture even competes with the shock and aw-shucks awe. It’s the most revealing and provocative moment the camera caught, as the lake baptisms, marriage, prayers and other services are thin and unconvincing. But they left it on the cutting room floor, serpentine, I suppose.


The script was written by Altieri and a committee, and the whole carnival is rated R for language and some drug use, but the flagellation, gunfights, titillation and smirking evidently weren’t of much interest to the rating board. Likely they just saw all that as mainstream, or necessary for a film whose DVD case text begins with “BURIED DEEP IN THE APPALACHIAN MOUNTAINS, mysterious preacher man . . . snake-handling misfits. . . Billy’s dangerous game . . . face her own dark past. . . .”

OK, I’ve made my point, and then some, whether it amounts to righteous indignation or just secular irritation. The result is kitsch worse than any proposed Beverly Hillbillies (or “Hollywood Hillbillies”) reality show. And I’m not so naïve as to believe that a fictional story must be true or that “entertainment” is required to be authentic. But here was a director/writer/entrepreneur whose knowledge of the original film could have inspired him to explore and reveal something important about passion and action, belief and bedevilment. Too bad either the artistic staff or the financial backers weren’t going for that.

Now on to the contest, where I expect to find more gravity, levity and maturity at every turn.

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