Blog

Centaur

I watched you plunge toward eternity
throbbing from my cold heaven to where you spanned
the hoteled beach’s centuries of sand
that edged, like history, into the sea.
You, shirtless on your animal & only
centaured by your bolted thighs, clung
to a horse embronzed by light, the milliontongued
light bent like dogs to your spine’s salt-scalped tree.

Desire with my own voice voiced how that night
…..I would become those tongues of light
plunging into the well of you, the down
of you that gravitates me. Night’s its own
eternity: the white-developed sheets like sky
& sand we’ll in our dark room simplify.

The Shingle Street Shell Line

After Lida Cardozo Kindersley & Els Bottema

From the few human
…………..dwellings it reaches
(like the light-starved

…………..tentacle of a blind
deep-sea creature)
…………..over the shingle

beach toward a sea that,
…………..wave after wave,
reaches relentlessly

…………..back. Decades ago,
Meg now explains
…………..as we all step across it,

two women, old friends
…………..who were living through cancer,
placed the bleached shells

…………..of twenty-some thousand
whelks in a line
…………..three hundred yards long…

And now, as we crunch
…………..north up the shore
on our afternoon walk,

…………..my wife and I pocket
white whelks by the dozen—
…………..each tide leaves a crop

in its wake like a tithe—
…………..so that soon, when we come
crunching back down,

…………..we too can add,
as others have done,
…………..as others will do,

our shells to the line.
…………..(In a time-lapse,
the tentacle quivers

…………..as it frays in the elements
and is tidied by hands:
…………..now blurry, now sharper,

as if moving beneath
…………..a sheet of dark water.)
Meanwhile, beside us,

…………..the dark sea is breathing
quite calmly, some seals
…………..loll on a sand bar,

and much farther out,
…………..making for Felixstowe,
a motionless row

…………..of container ships pins
the horizon briefly
…………..in place, in time…

Beyond them, you
…………..can just make out
(if you have better eyes

…………..than our son, who squints
through his glasses in vain
…………..before borrowing Paul’s

binoculars), the ghostly
…………..turbines that body
forth from the mist

…………..to proclaim themselves
the forests of our future,
…………..then sink back again

into the unseen,
…………..there to go on
farming the wind

…………..for power. The same
wind that’s now rising,
…………..blowing our daughter’s

hair into the air
…………..like a dark aura
as she swivels her phone

…………..away from the sea
toward an old pillbox
…………..still lodged in the dike

(click) and then (click)
…………..a centuries-old
Martello Tower—

…………..traces of different
wars, the same fears.
…………..The sea, of course,

is rising too,
…………..as it did when the place
called Doggerland—ancient

…………..plains that once stretched
between Holland and here—
…………..drowned in these waters.

(In a time-lapse,
…………..the plains turn to islands
that shrink and are gone,

…………..and the waters become
the Mare Germanicum,
…………..the Frisian the West the

North Sea, and we
…………..become and are captured
here for a frame—

…………..Ravi and Mira,
Padma and me…)
…………..Look at us looking,

eyes to our lenses,
…………..taking small keepsakes,
leaving small traces;

…………..blink and you’ll miss us.

Becoming an Instrument of the Poem: A Conversation with Paul Muldoon

Paul Muldoon’s most recent books are Howdie-Skelp, released in 2021, and Frolic and Detour, released in 2019, both published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. His new collection Joy in Service on Rue Tagore is forthcoming through Faber in the United Kingdom (April 2024) and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in the United States (September 2024). Praised by the Times Literary Supplement as “the most significant English-language poet born since the second World War,” Muldoon has published fourteen full-length poetry collections, in addition to opera libretti, children’s books, critical works, song lyrics, and scripts for television and radio. Among his many honors, Muldoon has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, the Griffin International Poetry Prize, and the T.S. Eliot Prize. He has served as Oxford Professor of Poetry, Poetry Editor at The New Yorker, and President of the Poetry Society (UK), and he currently holds the position of Ireland Professor of Poetry. I corresponded with Muldoon about a variety of subjects, including the role of voice in poetry, the influence of T.S. Eliot on his work, the problem of cultural determinism in the context of a writer’s national identity, the importance of not getting in a poem’s way, and more.

CD: In an interview with James S.F. Wilson in The Paris Review in 2004, when asked about discovering your voice in poetry, you said the following: “I don’t know if I’ve ever found a voice. In fact, I’m rather skeptical of that idea having any currency. Each poem demands its own voice.” What are your thoughts about the fact that “finding your voice” has become such a ubiquitous imperative in the education of young writers at the high school, undergraduate, and graduate levels? Related to that, how would you characterize the distinction between voice and style, and what are some of the challenges you encounter in arriving at the voice that each individual poem demands?

PM: Most members of the general reading public understand what the idea of having a “voice” means. We think of the distinctive “sound” of a poem made by T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, or John Ashbery, and we imagine that Eliot, Moore, and Ashbery must have spent years developing that unmistakable effect. There’s even some truth to it, because each did indeed spend years working under the influence of other writers before they became “themselves.” But the key element in all of this is point of view. From the point of view of the reader, we recognize the “voice” just as a forensic detective will recognize the fingerprints and DNA of Eliot, Moore, and Ashbery all over the scene of the crime that is their most recent poem. From the perspective of the three poets, though, it’s likely they believe that there’s no way they’ll ever be linked to the crime scene, and that they’ll walk away scot-free.

It’s also likely they think they’re doing something they’ve never quite done before, and in which they’ll never be implicated, because, in general, the last thing Eliot, Moore, or Ashbery want to do is to write a parody of themselves. They don’t want to be thought of as serial killers, even if that’s what they turn out to be. It’s for that reason I am skeptical about the idea of a writer developing a “voice” which they’ll somehow magically conjure and apply to the situation of having to write a poem. The fact is that almost nothing that might have been useful in the writing of Poem A is applicable to the writing of Poem B. Whatever might be applicable is what may be taught and, therefore, learned. But it’s an infinitesimally small amount compared to the enormity of what must be brought to each new circumstance. Writers learn on the job. To return to the crime analogy, they’re more inclined to leave no fingerprints. They want mostly to have an alibi. They go in fear of CCTV and voice recognition technology.

CD: Howdie-Skelp, your most recent full-length poetry collection, contains a long sequence titled “American Standard,” which explores contemporary life while gesturing toward the style and structure of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. In the poem, you use many of the words and phrases that appear in The Waste Land, while imbuing them with new nuances and double meanings. You’ve also talked in the past about Eliot’s role as a shaping force on your work during your early years as a poet. Would you elaborate for us on how The Waste Land impacted your crafting of “American Standard,” how you view the two poems functioning in conversation with each other, and how Eliot’s work has continued to influence your poetry over time?

PM: The poet whom I mimicked early on was Eliot. I spent roughly two years—between the ages of 15 and 17, say—writing only versions of Eliot. Then I must have figured out that Eliot was, in fact, less interesting than his main source, Donne, and I went back to him. I cut out the middleman. For “American Standard,” I was having a lot of fun with the template of The Waste Land, mostly because the centenary of its publication was in the offing. The reality is, of course, that there’s still a lot of mileage in Eliot’s “mythic method.” The mess and muck and muddle of the early years of the 20th century have, if anything, grown more pronounced in the early years of the 21st century, and the big, baggy, boisterous sequence still has a lot to offer anyone with a bit of nerve. That’s the thing I still admire most about Eliot. His sheer nerve.

CD: As a native of County Armagh in Northern Ireland, you spent the first thirty-five years of your life on Irish soil before moving to the United States. What are some similarities and/or differences that you’ve observed between the two countries in terms of poetry’s role in the larger culture, contemporary trends or tendencies in poets’ work, and the way that the literary world functions? Have you seen any notable commonalities or distinctions, as far as style, content, and literary influences, between poets working today in Ireland and the United States?

PM: The great change in both territories is that there’s a truly refreshing variousness. There’s no single orthodoxy that comes to the fore, or if it does, it doesn’t last more than ten minutes. I’m thinking of identity poetics, for example. Five minutes ago it was all the rage. It’s been and gone now. That’s very healthy, I’d say. We need poetic diversity just as we need planetary biodiversity. On top of that, the really interesting poets in both territories have always been open to learning from one another. Yeats learned a lot from Whitman. Heaney learned a lot from Lowell. Mahon learned a lot from Wilbur. Carson learned a lot from C.K. Williams. Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill learned a lot from Plath. And those are just influences in one direction!

CD: Related to the question above, when it comes to your own identity as a writer, do you ever feel that there’s a tension between readers and critics defining you as either an “Irish poet” or an “American poet”? If so, would you elaborate for us on that subject? What do you view as some of the assumptions and associations underpinning the reading public’s expectations of an “Irish poet” in comparison to an “American poet”?

PM: I’m not much interested in cultural determinism. So much of what we think of as comprising our identities is completely arbitrary. I happen to have been born in Ireland. So what. Most ideas of nationality tend to lead to setting up borders, borders tend to lead to territorial incursions, and territorial incursions tend to lead to world wars. I have a relationship to America along the lines of Eliot’s or Plath’s relationship to England. It’s easy to imagine a circumstance where Frost could have stayed on and become an “English” poet. I am less interested in whether Eliot, Plath, or even Frost is “American” than whether or not their poems are any good. I trust that’s the only question that might properly be asked of what I do. With regard to the matter of being Irish, it so happens I’m 1/16 Punjabi. Where does that leave us?

CD: In addition to your endeavors as an English-language poet, you’ve translated Gaelic poetry into English, including two books by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. In one of your most famous poems, titled “Anseo,” you mention that the titular word, which is a term used to indicate one’s presence during roll call at school, was the first word of Irish you spoke. Would you talk for us about your relationship to the Irish language?

PM: Apart from a few words I learned in primary school, I studied the Irish language and literature in Irish only when I went to secondary school. My main subjects at secondary school were Irish, English, French, and Latin. I always did best in Irish. I started translating while I was a teenager and, indeed, the first “original” poems that I published were in Irish. The impact of literature in Irish on my work is pretty substantial, I suspect. My grasp of spoken Irish is a lot weaker, I fear, than it was fifty years ago. I’m very out of practice. But it represents a larger component in what I do than most readers, including myself, will ever quite grasp. In that sense, the accident of my birthplace and my particular education do ramify. But they have no intrinsic merit.

CD: You’ve spent much of your life as devoted to the art of teaching as you have to the art of poetry. Drawing from your past experiences as a teacher, if you had an opportunity to design a program entirely from scratch, centered on the education of young poets, what are some of the approaches you might take in training them at their craft? I’m imagining this as a program located outside of traditional academia, with no need for the features typically associated with school settings, such as semesters, tests, and grades.

PM: Funnily enough, I’d be inclined to put translation at the heart of any such curriculum. One of the great things about translation is that it is the closest form of reading that exists. It falls, therefore, into a division of criticism. The practice of translation also fosters the selflessness and lack of ego—anonymity, one might go so far as to say—that I believe are key components in making interesting work. One must be at the service of the text in a way that seems largely overlooked these days. My own main ambition, which is a version of the ambition that drove St. Francis of Assisi, is to make myself an instrument of the poem.

CD: Over time, you’ve written increasingly lengthy poems, often arranged in numbered sections. Both Howdie-Skelp and Frolic and Detour, your two most recent poetry collections, contain long sectional poems on a broad range of topics. What does a longer format allow you to accomplish, in relation to your content, that you wouldn’t be able to do in shorter poems? How might you compare the challenges involved in composing longer poems to the those involved in writing shorter poems?

PM: I’m what you might call a “Sunday” painter, and one of the aspects of the visual arts that I find truly mysterious is the question of how and why an artist chooses the size and shape of a canvas. When it comes to the dimensions of Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, for example, I’m always shocked to realize it’s a mere nine and a half inches high and thirteen inches wide. There seems to be as much going on there as on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. I think of religious artists and their longstanding employment of the diptych and the triptych, and the narrative sequence of wall-length frescos and stained-glass windows. The longer format, which I used even in my first collection, allows for taking on even bigger subjects. “The Year of the Sloes” in New Weather was a poem that addressed the events of Bloody Sunday in January 1972 through the prism of the Lakota calendar. I was reared on the big poems of high modernism—Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Paterson, The Bridge—so I’m predisposed to their strategies. But the poem should only be as big as it needs to be, and I’m no less interested in one day writing a perfect little imagistic poem like “In a Station of the Metro.” I live in hope. 

CD: Your poems abound with the names of famous historical and literary figures, some recognizable to a general readership and some far more obscure, as well as the names of people from your own life. The profusion of names in your poetry brings to mind W.H. Auden’s assertion that “proper names are poetry in the raw.” What do you see as some of the effects created for readers through the presence of names in your poems, and how do you view those effects as varying in relation to different kinds of names?

PM: I use names the way Aristophanes uses, in his plays, the names of people in his audience. His Athens was a very small place. Our planet is also a very small place.

CD: You entered university during a time when Northern Irish Poetry centered on a generation of poets who became known as the “Belfast Group,” which included Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, and Seamus Heaney. As quoted in The Guardian, Michael Longley has said the following about you and other Northern Irish poets of your generation: “I feel they set about deconstructing everything that myself and Seamus and Derek Mahon had so patiently put together, and it’s great to remain on your toes, which this younger generation has forced me to do.” Do you think that you and other Northern Irish poets of your generation set about, whether consciously or unconsciously, deconstructing the work of the “Belfast Group”?

PM: I’m not at all sure what Longley, Mahon, and Heaney “had so patiently put together.” Michael Longley makes it sound as if they’d built a sandcastle on the beach in Bangor or Bundoran, and a bunch of rowdies came along and spoiled it. It’s more likely, however, that the tide came in and knocked it over. The decade or so that separates Longley, Mahon, and Heaney from Carson, McGuckian, and myself, say, was one in which there were huge shifts in two key areas—politics and popular culture. Take Heaney. Even though he began publishing in the 1960s, you’d be hard pressed to find the impact of the sixties on his work. Certainly not the swinging sixties! His immediate literary forbears are Larkin, Hughes, and Gunn. A little further back are Kavanagh and Carleton. One can read him without thinking of modernism. Yeats and Joyce barely figure at his table except as last-minute guests he realizes he should have invited. Carson and I tended to go back to high modernism, and Joyce was even more important for us than Yeats, as were other prose writers in the vein of Borges and Calvino. Surrealism. Magical realism. We were less immediately in conversation with Heaney, Mahon, and Longley because, in the way the young do, we thought we had bigger fish to fry. Another aspect of these literary to-ings and fro-ings that’s generally overlooked is that Longley, Mahon, and Heaney may have learned as much, or more, from us than we ever did from them.

CD: You grew up as a reader and writer before the internet existed, but your work certainly possesses a presence online, and you have spent much of your life teaching writing and literature to students whose interactions with the world are largely digital in nature. You’ve also raised two children of your own whose lives have unfolded, from their earliest years, in an internet-centered society. Have you noticed any significant changes over time in the way that people read literary works, especially in relation to the cultural shift from page to screen?

PM: I insist this is a great age for reading poetry, if only because one may not perforce languish in ignorance vis-à-vis a reference of the kind you mentioned earlier. One can find out almost immediately what an unfamiliar word or allusion might mean. Unlike many professors, I always have at least one student in my classroom connected to the wider world via the internet during our sessions.

CD: Among your most recent books is a volume titled Dislocations: The Selected Innovative Poems of Paul Muldoon, which was published in 2020 by Liverpool University Press. You have also published five previous selected editions, each containing work from poetry collections produced during various stages of your life. Would you elaborate for us on how you approached the process of choosing poems for your past selected editions, and how you went about deciding which poems to include in Dislocations: The Selected Innovative Poems of Paul Muldoon? What do you view as the role of selected editions in a poet’s oeuvre, particularly in relation to individual books of poetry and collected editions?

PM: I took next to no role in that Liverpool University Press project. It was the idea of the Australian poet John Kinsella. He wanted to present a particular route through my poems, and he persuaded Liverpool to let him do it in public. The last selection I made was Selected Poems 1968-2014, a book that presented five poems from twelve of my collections. It’s ten years old now, so it may be time for another version of the tasting menu. I might include four poems from my fifteen full-length collections, and perhaps quite different poems from the last round. It’s actually a form of quality control. If one hasn’t published sixty decent poems after a lifetime’s work, one should probably have been doing something else. Of course, it’s never too late to stop!

CD: A sestina of yours titled “The MRI” appeared in The New Yorker in May 2023. “MRI” contains stylistic elements that have long been noted in your work, including wit, enigma, juxtaposition, and formal innovation. I’ll quote the first four stanzas from the poem below. It would be illuminating to hear you talk about your process in composing “The MRI,” as far as your approach to navigating the tension between form and content. Did you start out with the sestina’s repeating end-words and their variations already selected, or did you just dive in and let the poem lead the way? Throughout the poem, you play with common colloquial phrases (such as “shoulder to the wheel,” “a little heart to heart” and “the straight and narrow”). How do you view those phrases functioning in relation to the poem’s larger exploration of human fallibility, MRI technology, and language itself?

The MRI

Again and again, we’ll put our shoulder to the wheel on which we’re broken. Stretched out at the heart of a replica of the stone sarcophagus we once believed to “eat flesh,” we still have a straight shot at the Strait of Gibraltar. Where we first found a shoulder to cry on. Long before the flash of an iron-rimmed wheel on a limestone pavement. Where we first had a little heart to heart. Where we first developed our sense of the straight and narrow. Threw the first stone. First rubbed shoulders with pigment traders. First made a color wheel. First thought to flush Caidyes through our own flesh, so as to map what lies within our hearts. First reinvented the wheel that will run straight only with a camber. First gave the cold shoulder to a pigment trader. First chipped away at limestone…

PM: The ideal situation is that the poem announces itself and, with any luck, writes itself. I now think my main job as a writer is simply to not get in the way of a poem that has offered itself as a distinct possibility. If I provide a bit of guidance, it’s the guidance a timber rafter gives a log jam on a fast-flowing river. All I have most of the time is that distinct possibility. I don’t even start poems that aren’t distinct possibilities because, let’s face it, life’s too short. I’m pretty sure I just embarked on writing “MRI” and the gods were with me. On the other hand, I may have had a trial run at an ending in which the possibility of certain words having a particular order was rehearsed, a bit like having the image of a pulp mill in mind. It’s very dicey, though, to anticipate the end of a poem before the body of it is written. There’s a chance that the revelation of the poem will not be commensurate with that distinct possibility. It’ll either be too big or too small. Those familiar phrases to which you refer—clichés, indeed—are meant to give a sense of the poem functioning in a matter-of-fact, unfussy way despite the fact that the sestina is essentially far-fetched and finicky. One of the discoveries in a poem like this is that those very clichés are far from redundant. Another discovery is that, despite its seeming artificiality, a poem like “The MRI” allows for a kind of aching humanity. That’s how it struck me as its first reader. It made me want to cry.

CD: You possess a remarkable range of talents and passions, and your energies as a poet, critic, translator, and teacher have been matched by your enthusiasms in the musical realm. You’ve written libretti for multiple operas, as well as rock lyrics for Warren Zevon and others, and you’ve also played rhythm guitar and composed lyrics in multiple Princeton-based rock groups. What are some of the projects on which you’re currently working, literary, musical, or otherwise? Are there any themes, cultural developments, or questions in which you find yourself particularly interested at present?

PM: I have a new book of poems coming out in April in the UK and September in the US. It’s called Joy in Service on Rue Tagore, and it contains “The MRI” along with other poems from the last three or four years. I know it’s a bit unseemly, but I’ve been able to work like crazy for the past while. There’s been little else to do, frankly, particularly in the Covid era. I’m also editing a new prose collection titled The Eternity of the Poem, which contains essays written over the past twenty years. I’m still hoping to write a few poems in Irish, though I’m not sure if I really have the chops for that. We’ll soon find out. On the musical front, I have written a short opera with music by Kamala Sankaram called Custom of the Coast, as well as a rock version of Frogs by our old friend Aristophanes. The music there is by Stew. Rogue Oliphant, the band for which I compose lyrics and perform spoken word, is in the process of recording a studio album with the great Tony Visconti as producer. In a word or two, I’m having a ball.

CD: The editorial staff here at Literary Matters is thrilled to learn of your forthcoming poetry book Joy in Service on Rue Tagore, and we also look forward to The Eternity of the Poem, the collection of essays that you’re currently editing, hitting the shelves in the not-too-distant future. We hope that you never stop having a ball as an artist, not least because it means that readers can anticipate the continued arrival of new work by Paul Muldoon. Thank you for taking the time to converse with Literary Matters.

 

Paul Muldoon was born in County Armagh in 1951. He now lives in New York. A former radio and television producer for the BBC in Belfast, he has taught at Princeton University for thirty-five years. He is the author of fifteen collections of poetry, including Moy Sand and Gravel, for which he won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, and Joy in Service on Rue Tagore, published by FSG and Faber and Faber in 2024. He serves as Ireland Professor of Poetry 2022-2025.

Cloverfield Friends

Why had Elsa lied?  Even as the words tumbled out of her mouth, she registered on the face of the young woman seated before her a flicker of disbelief, maybe even embarrassment, embarrassment for Elsa.  Elsa forced herself to swallow the bite of a spinach croissant she’d helped herself to from a cloth-lined basket at the homemade baked goods table.  She’d found the pastry dry.  Probably gluten-free.  Certainly no dairy.

Elsa felt a familiar shiver of rage and shame.  How, she wondered, would this placid, amiable parent, knitting at a table in the community hall of Cloverfield Friends School, a baby asleep in a covered car seat on the floor beside her, have reacted if Elsa had been a man?  Elsa knew for a fact that there were many fathers in their late 60s and 70s with young children in the upper and even lower schools at Cloverfield, aging hippies with young wives and hobby farms, wealthy financiers on their second or third families.  Members of a nearby commune.  Well, she thought, fighting the temptation to finger the flush that rose to her wrinkle-laced neck, she wouldn’t back down now.

“Yes,” Elsa forged on.  Some residual croissant was stuck to her tongue, forcing her to lisp slightly.  “He’s a rising eighth-grader.”

“Oh!” said the young woman brightly.  “Well, that’s lovely.  Who has your son got for Geography this year?  My Simon has Mr. Harberger.  Adores him.  Right now they’re studying Russia and Ukraine.  The Balkans.  I swear he knows more about that part of the world than I do, and we used to summer there.”

Elsa resisted rolling her eyes.  She dislodged the flake of pastry from her tongue with a pinky finger.  “Oh?” said, she said, wiping her hand in a paper napkin.  “Where?”

“It was at Stračinskain, you know, in Croatia.  When my father was in the diplomatic service.”   The woman smiled again and bent down to check on the infant sleeping in the car seat at her feet.  “Surprisingly lovely beaches there,” she said, turning her face back toward Elsa’s.  “We’d stay most of July and August.”

This woman!   Elsa lifted her chin and squinted into the distance.  What to do?  The young woman looked at her expectantly while the hands in her lap resumed knitting.

Elsa waved vigorously across the room at no one.  “Sorry,” she said, picking a piece of spinach out of her front teeth with a fingernail, brushing crumbs off her lips.  “Sorry, I’ve got to run.”  She dropped her partly eaten pastry, clenched inside the paper napkin, onto the nearest tabletop and began to make her way across the room to what she hoped was a door to the outside.

Why had she thought to step into the community room after fetching Jos’s twelfth-grade artwork from the secretary in the main office?  It had taken the earnest woman behind the counter a while to locate the file, and Elsa fidgeted, waiting, wandering around the cheery, yellow seating area looking at framed photos of all of the graduating classes since the school’s founding—Cloverfield was not a Friends school back then, that had been someone’s later idea, but rather an experimental school started by some teachers who’d gotten their start at one of the northern prep schools.  And there it was, of course, the black-and-white photograph of her ex-husband’s cohort, the class of 1974, mostly the sons and daughters of local shrinks, the girls and boys all with long hair or afros and flared jeans.  No more than ten of them.  Les wasn’t in the photo, though; family legend had it that he’d been off in a stretch of nearby woods, smoking pot.

Finally, with a pink face and some visible relief, the sweating office assistant handed a thick red, accordian style file folder over the counter.  It was sealed shut with a strip of silver duct tape.  Elsa took the file and thanked the woman, relieved not to know her nor to have run into anyone who might recognize Elsa in the now nearly fifteen years that had elapsed since Jos had taken that art class in the spring of his senior year.

Jos had more or less survived his, well, their—Elsa had trouble remembering to use the correct pronouns for Jos, especially now that Jos was dead—year at Cloverfield by hanging out in the basement art room, developing and printing rolls of film, making wood and linoleum block cuts.  He, they’d, been close with a young art teacher, a mister somebody, Elsa had sometimes wondered how close, and last spring, a year ago, the man had retired.  From a Cloverfield parent she vaguely recognized at the Farmer’s Market, Elsa had heard that the art instructor had been asked to leave the school.  Apparently there had been some funny business, something inappropriate.  Elsa didn’t know the woman she’d run into well enough to press for details.  She was reluctant to know, anyway, and hurried away with her net bag of zucchini.

Tidying up the basement art studio for the new teacher, a Cloverfield staff member had found a sealed folder marked with Jos’s name, had thoughtfully tracked down his year and contact information, and had called Elsa to see if she would like to come and fetch the folder, which the school had politely not opened.  Probably it contained some assignments and other art materials Mr. Romano had saved on Jos’s behalf? said the voice on the phone.  Maybe, thought Elsa, remembering the polaroid she’d found beneath Jos’s mattress while changing his bedsheets one day that spring term of his senior year.  She’d left the photo where she’d found it.

That call about the file had come in at the start of last summer.  It had taken Elsa nearly a year to get up the nerve to drop by the school and fetch it.  That’s what she was doing this morning.

The community hall of Cloverfield was a spacious, airy room adjacent to the school’s main lobby and office, and it was where parents traditionally gathered on Friday mornings to chat and nosh on handmade baked goods while drinking from earthenware mugs the contents of pots of herbal tea and urns of fair-trade coffee.  Blinking in the bright late May sunlight that streamed through the tall windows, Elsa was struck by how very little had changed since the last time she’d looked into this space, well over a decade ago.  Obviously more and smarter cell phones were visible, lit up in hands and laps, on tabletops or chair arms, or charging in wall outlets.  But the groups were familiar:  granola crunchers sporting Bible beards, floaty skirts, and Birkenstocks, a clutch of women in riding pants and mucky boots, their sleek hair uniformly tied back in a knot at tanned napes, a few men standing restlessly in blazers or suits, a cluster of lithe women in leggings, yoga pants, and neon running shoes, stretching and chatting in a corner.

Elsa appreciated that there were other Cloverfield parents, other sorts of parents, parents like herself, who didn’t fit into these stereotypes she’d defensively mapped onto the school’s parental population.  What had Les called it once, in marriage therapy?  Elsa’s “staggering pettiness”?   He’d pressed on, leaning back that afternoon into Dr. Choate’s kelim-strewn couch.  “These people you make fun of at the Club?” he’d said, “They’re the people you do things with.  They’re our friends.”   It was true that Les’s wealth had given her some purchase with folks like those gathered this morning in the community hall.  Elsa winced now, thinking of her gossipy lunches with the wife of a local plastic surgeon.  The Swedish heiress with the sculptor husband, whose daughter’s vast playroom contained an exact pink miniature replica of the mansion’s kitchen.  Jos would have loved it.  She was relieved when, after Les left, the pity calls from those acquaintances from her former life tapered off and then stopped coming in altogether, and she hunkered down, with a martyr’s self-righteousness, to balancing the exigencies of raising a child alone and holding down a job.

There was a rotation, a schedule, for these Friday gatherings; parents took turns providing the food and drink.  A couple of women kept busy re-filling the gleaming coffee urn from smaller pots.  A man with tongs was replenishing a tray of muffins.  Cloverfield was proud of its communal spirit.

The main building at Cloverfield had once been someone’s plantation house, and the community room had likely been either a grand drawing room or a library, with windows that almost reached from floor to ceiling and gleaming dark wood floors.  This morning the room was suffused with benign sunlight and the dapple of green shade from the many mature trees outside.   Tibetan prayer flags fluttered on lines strung across the high ceiling.  A large rainbow Pride banner hung on the wall behind the table of refreshments.  Elsa recalled how, years ago, after dropping Jos off for Silent Meeting at one of the campus’s two large yurts—one amethyst and one an emerald green, the Cloverfield colors—middle schoolers in one, upper in the other, it was usual for many parents on Friday mornings to park their SUVs, funky pick-up trucks, fashionably battered Saabs and sports cars wherever they could find a spot and mingle for an hour before heading to work, if they worked, or to yoga, Zumba, or Pilates, the golf course, tennis, Whole Foods, whatever their days might hold before it was time to come back and retrieve their students from classes or lacrosse practice or drama club.  After drop-off, though, Elsa had gunned off in her used VW Golf, always rushing to get across town and over to her lot by the stadium in time to catch her bus into the University, where she worked as a library assistant, not an academic job, but a staff position in cataloging that she’d been forced to get after the divorce.  She’d had no time for Friday loitering.

Jos’s father, the alum—an unlikely one, since, like Jos, he’d only attended Cloverfield for his senior year, having lived before that with his parents in various places in Europe and the Far East—had chosen the place after Jos had been expelled from the local public high school for selling weed by a back dumpster on school property.  No one reported the incident to the police, but Jos had not been invited to return for his last year of public high school. Les was footing the Cloverfield tuition bill.  Footing it from afar.  Elsa never really knew where he was.  Possibly still in Germany, which was where they had met, long ago, on a student exchange program.  She was there on a scholarship, her first trip anywhere.  Les had already lived in Europe; he had taken her  under his wing.

A person had to try hard not to fit in at Cloverfield.  Everyone was so accepting and open-minded.  So friendly.  Since its inception, a scholarship program set up by one of the school’s wealthy founders meant that many minority and underserved children could attend.  There were students of all races and income brackets, not just a token or two of this or that.  So it wasn’t that she and Jos weren’t welcome.  Quite the opposite.  It was Elsa who had balked, resisting invitations to meet-and-greets, avoiding activities.  Jos didn’t care that she kept her distance.   He was holed up in the art room, doing his time until graduation.   And Elsa had to admit that it was in the students themselves that Elsa could see the diversity of which the school was so proud.  By the time Jos was attending, some students had shaved heads and arms full of ink.  Others wore next to nothing under faded bib overalls and fuzzy bedroom slippers.  So what if some sported the popped polo shirt collars and khakis of their preppy parents?  There was the boy in the kilt—“there’s always a kilt boy,” Jos had said, “always a girl with dreds.”  Some children did Model UN and interned during the summer for state legislators; others raised chickens, built flat-bottomed boats, kept bees, and grew vegetables.  A friend of Jos’s worked for a local Indie newspaper, stopping people randomly around town and photographing the contents of their purse or backpack—tampons, Klonopin prescription bottles, paperback copies of Ayn Rand or of one of the many local famous writers, one of whom had children at Cloverfield and had provided funds for a new gymnasium.  Elsa had spotted it, a gleaming structure of cedar planks and steel and glass across the soccer field as she’d made her way up the long drive.

Elsa had read somewhere recently, maybe Vanity Fair, at the salon where she was guiltily having her hair dyed, her one attempt at youthfulness—how fervently she hoped no one would recognize her, holding the magazine up to her face—that this young woman who took the photographs, Tasha, Tash, was now making a name for herself as a fashion photographer.  Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that her father composed soundtracks for Hollywood films from his recently purchased plantation house on the James River, not far from Cloverfield, and knew a lot of people.  On the afternoon of their Cloverfield graduation, Tash and Jos had sat beside one other, wearing each other’s shoes and holding hands, bored expressions on their faces giving way occasionally to private smirks.   It had given Elsa a moment of hope, to think that Jos had such a creative friend.  Someone with whom he seemed close.

Elsa thought of the dark, shabby garage apartment outside of Nashville to which the police had summoned her two summers back.  Until that phone call, Elsa had never even heard of Fentanyl.

Elsa had a gauntlet to run—the door by which she had recently entered now felt too far behind her for an exit, made more so by the lie she’d just told and by the fact that she would have to re-encounter the knitter.  She had to reach the French doors across the room that opened onto the slate patio, the lawn, her car, escape.

Elsa blinked across the room’s hamlet of parents, tables, chairs.   She took a deep breath.  She forced herself not to hurry.  She would proceed gracefully, slowly, nodding this way and that, touching a shoulder here, gazing at a bit of student artwork pinned up there, merely someone’s gracious grandmother in town for a long weekend, dropping in to see the place, or perhaps an older tutor or social worker fetching some student materials.

She shifted her bag to the other shoulder.  Clutching Jos’s red folder to her chest, a kind of fortification (she threw the suddenly erupting word “fornication” to the back of her mind, remembering the polaroid),  she tried not to feel conspicuous, old, oddly stolid beneath her drab tunic as she inched her way.  Once she had been effortlessly slim, chiseled calves, a flat belly.  Now this pouch of, of something, swelled between her navel and her pubis.  As though she were four or five months pregnant again.  Diminishing estrogen scurried there, post-menopause, she’d read somewhere.  Gone, gone, her toned upper arms, her unlined face.  Someday, these women, if not the men, would experience this for themselves.  But would they, she thought, with everyone starting Botox and fillers and sunscreen in their twenties and thirties?   Again, sourness flooded Elsa’s mouth.  Unfair of her, she knew, not to wish them all well, an extended youth and middle age.  And yet.

She knew the constriction in her chest had everything to do with her own insecurities and not with these well-meaning people, who squeezed her hand in return as she threaded her way among them, who smiled, who offered a word or two when she nodded or said hello.  Even if they’d known her distantly, which she doubted, or had known Jos, or heard about the overdose, there would have been no overt ostracism.  Not here.  The school had always had its troubled students and the parents and teachers understood and accepted this.  Who knew what private travail any one of these pleasant parents might be enduring at this very moment?  Why couldn’t she overcome her dreadful judgment of what she allowed herself to see as their smugness?  “I do the very thing I hate.”  The phrase came back to her from church, where she’d dragged Jos for a few years as a child.  I am, she thought.  I am the very thing I hate.  Saint Paul, she remembered.  She’d loathed him too.

How much she had wanted a baby.  Back in the decade that elapsed between marrying Les—those roller coaster years of trying and not trying—and then the thrill of the secret of Jos growing inside her and the proud announcement of conception that her swelling belly made public, and, finally, Jos’s birth with a midwife’s help in a child’s wading pool in the spacious apartment that, until just a month before Jos’s birth, she’d shared with Les before he’d stunned her, one evening, by announcing that he was just not ready to be a parent and would be filing for divorce and leaving the country to work for an architecture firm in Konstanz.

A double French door to the outside distinguished itself from the file of windows and grew closer, brighter.  Elsa had one panicked moment when out of the corner of her eye she saw the head of school, Shawna Nichols, looking a bit grayer at the temples but otherwise untouched by age, talking animatedly with some parents off to her left.  Elsa ploughed ahead, already imagining the key in the slot, the slammed-shut car door, the familiar silent interior smelling of mold and cat and newspapers.

Elsa had forgotten about the farmer’s share table.  But there, assembled on two wide tables flanking the door, was a cornucopia of May vegetables and flowers that some parents who had grown extra produce made available to Cloverfield families for free.  A small portion of the produce came from the student garden as well.  The only stipulation was that you had to sign up for your share ahead of time, to make sure there was enough to go around.  First come, first served each week.  You signed up via an email roster set up by one of the class parents (each grade was assigned its own “father” and “mother”).  The bounty was always abundant and seasonal—honey, apples and apple butter, bosk pears, gourds, pecans, and winter greens in fall; spring scallions and sugarsnaps in earliest spring.  Today, a week before the end of classes, the tables offered up a verdant display of lettuces, ramps, crenellated fronds of young arugula, swiss chard with its gleaming purple spines.  The glossy, furrowed piles of emerald spinach leaves, bundles of purple alium, pale tender loppings of broccoli stalks.

No volunteers were tending the tables yet; that would happen soon, though, when the coffee hour ended.  As usual, a stack of paper grocery sacks lay on a chair beside the spread.

Elsa couldn’t stop herself.  With one hand, she briskly snapped open a bag and began to stuff it with fistfuls of cress, early dill, curly and bib lettuces, bulging Italian long  beans, garlic scapes so fragrant her eyes watered.

She sensed a small commotion behind her.  Concerned voices.  She was almost to the door, its gleaming handles, when a bespectacled man in a t-shirt that said “Cloverfield Dreamer” stepped up beside her and tapped her on the shoulder.  He was holding a clipboard, wielding a pen.

“Hello, hello,” he said.  “Hello, Miss?  Mrs?  Miss?”   Elsa wouldn’t look at him. She enjoyed his struggle to be calm.  “Would you mind,” he said, “just locating your name on this list and signing out your produce share?”

In the glaring reflection of the door glass, Elsa could see that he was not smiling.  Behind him, a cluster of murmuring, agitated parents was gathering.  She could see Headmistress Nichols making her way toward the produce tables from across the room.

Elsa reached out and grabbed two bundles of mint from a bowl of ice water.  Then she was out the door, sprung into the humid May sunlight.

Folder clutched in one hand, bag of greens in the other, her purse flapping at her hip, Elsa power-walked.   Behind her, Elsa heard the clipboard man, now also outside the community room, shouting something.  Elsa broke into a run.  Would they actually chase her down for a bag of glorified grass and weeds?

At her car, she fumbled.  The keys, the keys, where were they?  She checked her bag, no.  Her left pocket, no.  Her right, yes.  There.   Holding Jos’s folder under her chin, she got the car door opened, wedged in, slammed the door, and locked it behind her.  She threw Jos’s artwork to the passenger-side floor. She already knew what she’d find.  Naked photos, prints.  Never mind.  She started the Golf and tore away down the Cloverfield driveway, a small phalanx of parents in the rearview on the lawn behind her.  Smaller and smaller they grew as, from the paper sack, set sturdy as a toddler in the passenger seat, she began pulling out the raw flags and leafy banners of lettuces, chard, and onions, stuffing the greenery into her mouth with a voracious hunger she hadn’t felt since the years before Jos was born.

Lisa Russ Spaar has published thirteen books of poetry, fiction, and criticism, most recently Madrigalia:  New & Selected Poems (Persea, 2021) and a novel, Paradise Close (Persea, 2022).   Her honors include a Rona Jaffe Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Library of Virginia Prize for Poetry, a Pushcart Prize, and a Horace W. Goldsmith National Endowment for the Humanities Distinguished Professorship appointment.  Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of BooksVirginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere, and she was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.  She is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia, where she founded and directed the Area Program in Poetry Writing for twenty years and for many years directed the Creative Writing Program.

Dog Tags

The Italian medic served as unofficial platoon cook. At the end of the month, he’d put the men’s leftover C-rations together in a big steaming pot and cook it on an open fire. He had a bag of spices swung around his neck over his dog tags. He’d reach in with his left hand as he stirred the pot with his right, and toss in a handful of spices. This made the C-rations decent.

*

In winter, returned from maneuvers in the freezing dark, my father stretched his legs by the fire. When the blood came back it was like knocking a crowbar across your shins. They boiled water over the open fire and my father drank coffee for the first time, for warmth. He never stopped, even when in the scrag-grove of midlife his heart caught and struck offbeats and he was made to switch to decaf. By the open fire he also smoked cheap cigarettes for the first time, for warmth. He kept this practice, too, long into life, ameliorating his habit from the continual rise-and-fall of a cigarette, to the slow core roll of a cigar, to the deep lowset burn of a pipe, all the while fatal masses bloomed in his lungs, vital and full as flowering azaleas, white as bone, red as flame. At this time, in this strange land by the flickering halo of the fire, he fed scraps to loose wandering dogs straying in and out of camp. Most were jindos, wheat-blond or brindle, with wiry hair, and rail-thin, as if their bones would fall to dust if petted. They still had decent teeth.

*

Before the Army, my father worked in a textile mill, called Beaumont Mills, in the hill country of South Carolina. He unwaveringly insisted this was the worst job he ever held. On breaks, workers would go outside and cough out the lint from their lungs. Even the work of death, too distant and too close on the live battlefield in Korea, was not as shitty an endeavor as working for Beaumont Mills. Worked like dogs.

*

Down at Fort Rucker, Alabama, where my father was sent for basic training, the jukeboxes in the local joints were filled almost to capacity with the music of their native son from Mount Olive. Typically it’d be nothing but Hank Williams on the box, save maybe one slot for a gospel record by another singer. From this abundance would come, decades onward, the rising cadence of my father’s dress shoes each morning on the hardwood floors outside my bedroom door when I was a boy—him whistling and singing out old Saint Hank, waking with the sun and waking us children in the process. Being tone-deaf, my father did not carry the tune so much as drag it bumping emphatically behind him. His joy in the song outstripped dearth of talent. One of his favorites was “Move It On Over,” a song with lyrics featuring a wide array of dogs moving it on over to make room in the doghouse for poor Hank: little dog, big dog, skinny dog, fat dog, old dog, new dog, nice dog, mad dog, good dog, bad dog, cold dog, hot dog.

*

At Fort Rucker, they stuck my father in with a platoon from Utah—twenty-five Mormons, plus him. Of long-standing Scots Presbyterian stock, the Turners had recently slid over to Methodism. A long way from Mormonism still. There was a lot of in-groupness going on amongst the other twenty-five within the platoon.

Are you Christian?

Yes.

Are you sure you’re Christian?

I said yes.

This on the edge of knowing he was heading into active combat, highly active combat, in the very immediate future.

You’re absolutely certain you’re Christian?

You Goddam right, I’m Christian!

This response more or less curtailed their interest in my father’s particular salvation.

*

After Fort Rucker, my father, aged twenty four, was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in command of a tank platoon as part of the 45th Infantry, or Thunderbirds. He was thin, with a compact frame, but had broad shoulders and taut, worked muscles carrying a wiry strength. His hair rolled back in dark waves with auburn currents, a vestige of his Scots-Irish heritage. He seemed older than he was, his hairline already receding and high, sharp cheekbones shadowing sunken cheeks that held a five o’clock shadow by ten o’clock in the morning. He looked something like Humphrey Bogart, just with winking blue eyes and a crooked smile. He shipped out to Korea in December 1952, where he saw his lot of the brute untidiness of combat shock and death.

*

He was welcomed at the warfront by his jeep driver, a man named, oddly, Driver. Driver, who was African American, drove my father to base camp. A whistle tore the air. My father leapt from the jeep to the dirt. The sound passed. He looked puzzled. Driver pointed through the windshield: Outgoing. Rookie mistake. My father learned, quickly, to distinguish between incoming and outgoing shells. He appreciated Driver, battle-tested, not making much of this leap of fear. After that, my father got his feet under him. He wrote palimony letters home in support of Driver, attesting to good service. After the war, my father lost track of him, as he did almost everyone. Last he heard, Driver was back in Alabama, breeding Rottweilers.

*

For sleeping in the field, if they had time, Dad and his platoon would set up hoochies. They’d dig into the backside of the hill, collect the loose dirt into sandbags, then build a log hut using the dirt backside as one of the walls. Once done, they’d throw the sandbags on the outside, which would give them decent protection against incoming mortars. Some nights, they’d wake to North Korean military propaganda bristling over loudspeakers: Welcome, Thunderbirds! Enjoy your stay! Other nights, they woke to gunshots. There were so many rats, they’d rustle inside the hut. A soldier would rise with their service pistol, blow it in two. Sometimes it took two or three rounds. The rats were the size of small dogs.

*

The Army gave the men a brief introduction to the culture of the Korean people. Koreans had a five-thousand-year-old alphabet. Also, they were a freedom-loving people who believed in the open market. In a separate briefing, an Army general called enemy Koreans low-rate Chinese gangsters. He also called them dog-eaters.

*

My father said the South Korean soldiers would hang a silk stocking filled with rice around their neck. They’d live off that and water for a week.

*

Between battles, some men killed downtime with turkey shoots. They used the roaming, starving dogs for targets. They were decent shots and got a lot of dogs. My father told his platoon to stop: You’ll need the ammo for something real. The sound the dogs made yelping when they were hit but not killed was almost human.

*

In summers in the 1930s and 1940s, my father returned from his native Georgia to the family farm in the south Virginia mountains. The Old Ross Place had drawn down to a small place run by Uncle Guy, confirmed bachelor. When he got old enough, my father worked the farm. One time, he overfed the pigs—like goldfish, they just eat and eat and eat—until two or three bloated up and plunked over in the slop, dead. Uncle Guy arrived to the scene and was not happy. They were land rich and dirt poor, as the saying went. He had his two big farm dogs with him, two German shepherds. Normally stoic, they pawed wildly at the fence and made sounds like horses whinnying. Uncle Guy shook his head, It’ll do. It’ll have to. He told the dogs to settle down.

*

The place was beset by strings of raw Korean teenagers begging for food from military convoys, hovering near-starved by the train tracks like packs of wild dogs, the CO said. Once, a group of native boys got hold of an officer, a lieutenant like my father. They grabbed his money clip and were beating him. Other Americans, not officers, watched. My father jumped into the circle of Korean boys and swung wide, a sheathed combat knife in his fist. This drove them off. The U.S. Army considered this an event of meritorious service. What my father remembered from the scuffle with the Korean boys was how their arms were wiry, rail-thin. They felt like they were starving.

*

The CO, who came from Pennsylvania, told my father he was transferring a soldier to his platoon. The soldier was worthless, malingering. He’d been to see medics repeatedly with vague complaints. Recurring headaches, so forth. Being from the South, the CO said, my father would know how to handle this soldier, an African American. My father signed the transfer papers.

Hey, Looo-ten-ant, what’s black and yellow all over?

Silence.

All these cowardly Goddam niggers everywhere thinking they running the place.

Silence.

They gonna be red all over, too, next time I catch em loafing again.

The CO swung up a balled fist and shook it with threat. He accompanied himself with a laugh that wasn’t one.

*

As it turned out, the CO said Goddam nigger a lot. There was nothing wrong with the soldier in question in his conduct. As it turned out, the soldier in question had terminal brain cancer. He died on the floor of the tank on maneuvers.

*

When a solider under his command died, my father wrote the letter home. Inside the letter, he enclosed the dead soldier’s dog tags.

*

As it turned out, the CO said Goddam nigger one too many times, such that my father responded in kind: If that Goddam word comes out of your Goddam mouth one more time, your Goddam teeth will be coming out with it. Making it clear which word my father found objectionable. This had a sobering effect. The CO complained my father had said this in front of the men, including the African Americans.

*

One morning on the Old Ross Place a stray—one blue eye the color of the fall sky—came to the porch wagging happily. My father took him in, against Uncle Guy’s misgivings: There something aint right in im, Son. How he come to be here, and aint nobody askin for im.

Looks right friendly. Can I keep him?

For now. Till the wrong shows isself. 

It did. My father had taken in an egg-sucker. An untenable thing on a farm stocked with chickens. Uncle Guy knelt and put his arm on his nephew’s tender shoulder: Aint but one way cure a dog whose wont and will is egg-suckin. 

My father hoped silently. Uncle Guy finished the thought: Get a stick a dynimite—blow the head off. Aint but one way. 

He left my father kneeling, downhearted, in the rising dust, holding the dog tight. Uncle Guy returned with a shotgun and a shovel. He paused, not looking at my father with the dog, but staring to the skyline, across the slant fields and gullied woods: You comin?

Of course he was. He had to. There was a code for being in the world in that place and time, Appalachian Virginia haunting back the ages to a Scots grim acquaintance with the dark. If your dog was to be shot, you were the one there to do the shooting. And so he did. And dug for the dog a thin grave, topped with a rough cross of two sticks lashed with twining. And with our family pets, he was slow to have a dog put down, waiting until the creature’s last reserves were spent: the redouble of that guncrack among the old growth and tangled understory where my young father had come to grief.

*

It was a turkey shoot. The Thunderbirds’ Sherman tanks lined the hill, immobile. Firing, being fired on. Aftershocks rocked the tanks in the mud gently, incessantly. Smoke unrolled in the distance like gauze. Hunter, an African American soldier, opened the loader’s hatch, to my father’s left. Hunter’s body slumped, the head clean off. The shell carried off his dog tags.

*

He came back with others to see my father. I heard this in the night on fishing trips, half-sleeping in a creaky cot in a rented cabin on Lake Moultrie, no door to filter the sound.

*

The North Koreans had drawn back and the basin was clear, for the time being. Smoke lingered heavy in places as the tanks were ordered to roll out. They stopped once to survey what had been gained. Small fires flickered here and there like votives, and the earth had been gashed and rutted. Trees were uprooted or scorched to tar skeletons. My father stared into a burned out hutch, still wheezing gray wisps of smoke. A figure was seated there, as if he was about to have a cup of coffee. He was bolt upright, perfectly still, charred to the bone. There was nothing in the air but the sound of machines. All the dogs were gone.

*

A soldier from another platoon, a man named Frank, stopped by our house in upcountry South Carolina in 2002, almost fifty years later. He remembered my father, but my father didn’t remember him. Frank was on his way in his RV from Buffalo, New York to vacation in Florida. Frank told about my father telling his men not to hit at civilian gangs of starving boys with the butts of their M1 Garands and about him telling his men not to shoot at dogs and about his row with the CO.

You’re a war hero, Noel. You changed people’s lives.

The ones that didn’t come back are the heroes.

*

My father’s version of the row with the CO was two words: Desk jockey. He didn’t say it nicely. His loyalty tended to the horizontal axis, not the vertical. To the soldiers.

*

When the platoon was on maneuvers, they had to secure the perimeter. My father often ran the nightwatch himself. One time, far out on the Yalu, a black cloak flashed in the blacker night. My father drew his pistol reflexively and brought the butt hard down on the skull. My father, who had the aural equivalent of a photographic memory, never forgot: Awful sound.

It was a woman, robed in black, with a basket.

Did she die?

I don’t know. 

*

Late in life, late in the day, my father had a drink—liquor, clear or brown, always hard, on ice—as he walked the backyard, securing the perimeter, taking careful note of the trees and plants and how they were doing. He’d whistle for the dog to come with him.

*

I spent two decades researching and publishing scholarly articles and books and so on about trauma and PTSD, particularly combat trauma. Not once in that time did anyone ask me why. My academic colleagues presumed it was professional jibbing for position, intellectual dilettantism.

*

My father came back with a decoration for meritorious service, bronze in the shape of a star. Dependent from a red pentagonal ribbon, single blue stripe down the middle, both red and blue edged in white. He never wore it. As boys, we found the bronze star still in the box. We’d put it on my father’s Army Reserves uniform, requisite silver leaves on the shoulders, and play soldier around the yard. One time we pinned it on Beauregard, our black-and-white cocker spaniel. It hung there from his cream-colored flea collar, a fancy, weighted dog tag.

*

When he was dying, I asked my father what the war was for: To see how much shit a half-decent man can stand. Then: Some of us came back, but we didn’t come back all the way.

When he talked of other soldiers, ones he admired, that maybe he owed in some way, it seemed there was something beyond that. Something like dignity, but stronger. They used to call it honor.

*

My father’s been gone for over a decade. I’m married, with two sons. Sometimes our three rescue dogs bay, uselessly to our ears, in the dark. They wear their throats to rags with their howls, as if calling an old master, no more there. It’s probably coyotes. They’re overrunning everything now, resettling things.

The Weight of Robbie Robertson

“The Weight” came to me when I was sixteen in 1968, from a Sony transistor radio tuned to KMPC-AM and its top forties programming that reached throughout Greater Los Angeles.  From its first notes—Robbie Robertson’s haunting and funky, Japanese koto-like intro on acoustic guitar giving way to the deep thunk of Rick Danko’s bass and Levon Helm’s big bass drum locking together as the rhythm kicked in under the melody—I felt in my guts something this was something special, a song from the roots of humanity, a long, hectoring sadness plaintively expressed, and a simultaneous resolve to keep going through travail.  But, though I’d thought vaguely I wanted to become a writer, I didn’t have these kinds of words for it then.  I just knew there was the universe in it speaking to me through Levon’s country voice singing the lead, calling for me to concentrate, to learn devotion, to begin a journey.

I pulled in to Nazareth. I was feelin’ ‘bout half-past dead. I just need to find a place Where I can lay my head.

I was in Gardena, the South Bay suburb full of Japanese Americans living in tract homes, and it was midnight in the tiny bedroom I shared with my younger brother, himself already becoming a blues guitarist, and Robbie’s song and The Band’s performance of it made a chain of paper stars arching from the radio across the brown coverlet of my bed, crept up the dreary yellow wallpaper peppered with roses like treble clefs.  The very walls seemed to weep and the floor thunk like tin buckets of blood kicked by a tramp.  I was arrested by the sound.  And have been for fifty-five years.

It wasn’t long after that I got in my mother’s Chevy Nova II and drove to Torrance and the nearby retail palace of Wallich’s Music City where I could flip through the bins of new LPs and take a few to a listening booth at the back.  I think I gathered up Music From Big Pink, Blonde on Blonde, and The Association—a troika of funk to flirty reflective of my adolescent tastes.  Dylan’s cover was louche and rebellious, the Association’s clean-cut and commercial, but The Band’s was like a high school litmag’s—naïve and almost primitive, a child’s painting of a rock band in primary colors and big, blockish strokes, an elephant tossed in for charm.  Only later did I find out it was painted by Dylan himself, a mentor and neighbor to The Band while they all holed up in Woodstock, stewing up the complex roux of their music that constituted the initial trace of a genre that came to be known as “roots rock” or Americana.  Spinning the Band’s LP back in the glass-walled room of the store, I heard sounds that hit like no others, an aural tapestry reminding me of spirituals and hymns, country and English ballads, a square dance rondo, even a Japanese ondo with its herky calls-and-responses between the band and festival dancers, but not like any one of them either for the fat streak of rock and funk running through them all.  I bought Big Pink and took it with me off to college in Claremont out on I-10 toward San Bernadino.

Away my freshman year, in addition to my classes in German, English lit, and Botany, I made a quiet apprenticeship in my dorm room to the songs of Robbie Robertson and The Band.  Evenings, I found myself staring repeatedly at inner foldout of Big Pink’s gatefold cover.  It displayed a group photograph of country people (labeled “Next of Kin”) dressed in motley–everyday and Sunday best clothes–and my heart reached out to them as my own.  I re-peopled that photo with the Hawaiian plantation workers of my ancestry, men dressed in bib overalls or denim pants, women in gingham shifts, boys in short pants and girls in muumuus.  Robertson’s songs of Westward immigration, old folks dispensing wisdom, and pilgrims wandering the countryside resonated with the scant little I knew of my own family’s immigration and hard work in the sugarfields.

When The Band’s eponymous second album came out later that year, I twinned myself to the outsider, downtrodden ethos of their decidedly eclectic music, full of strange harmonies, startling stories of suffering and endurance, and the imagery of work, rejection, and desperate love.  I sang the songs to myself as I crossed campus mornings going out to my classes, calming my fustian soul with melodies and narratives, images of old rocking chairs, raucous lovers, elders dispensing proverbs and predictions.  I got a bounce in my step from the country and rockabilly rhythms, a pang in my heart from the blend of plangent voices.  I felt an historical ache for my own barely known ancestral past rooted in rugged, agrarian lives like The Band’s own kin.

In Mystery Train, Greil Marcus’s wonderful and penetrating book on Sixties rock ‘n’ roll, he celebrated Big Pink, reveling in its acknowledgment of the obscurities and oxbows of the Continental past—the perdition of slavery, the defeat and beat-down of the South, and the psychic liberation from regional and racial oppressions.  “There’s no need to slave. // The whip is in the grave,” he quoted—a brilliant couplet from “We Can Talk About It Now.”  Reading Marcus, though I fell into an agreement with his trajectory of praise, his reveling in The Band’s esoteric re-awakening of repressed histories absent from the mainstream naiveté of American consciousness, I had a tugging nag of disagreement too—that a unformed darkness still threatened.  This was the early Seventies and the war in Vietnam, though it had wound down, was still fresh in our minds.  My generation had grown deeply suspicious of government and, after the rock riot at Altamont and the Manson murders in the Hollywood Hills, we’d even become disillusioned with the excesses of counter-cultural rebellion.  Dread was as much a part of things as any joy.  So The Band’s whirling galaxies of music came at me like the circular dancing of Shiva, creating and destroying worlds with opposite hands, on the one Sweet Jemima and on the other Old Jawbone the village thief, recognizing a do-si-do between birth and its simultaneous destruction.

But the whole of The Band exceeded any critique, bending genres from country hymns to roadside blues, indulging in lyrics steeped in both comedy and tragedy, their artistic production full of cultural counterpoint.  The musical tapestry Robertson and his bandmates created was richer, fuller in thread-count, interwoven with both blood and gold, tramped upon by dirty boots and bare feet washed mercifully in a pewter bowl.  Instrumentally, they might seem a straightforward quintet of guitar, drums, bass, piano, and organ but, in the studio, augmented and layered upon these were mandolin, accordion, saxophones, clavinet and synthesizer, trumpet, tuba, and trombone, and the distinct timbres of three different singing voices—Helm’s biting country tenor, Danko’s high lonesome tenor-to-falsetto, and Richard Manuel’s mournful bari and plaintive countertenor.  And Bach and rockabilly backbeats all part of the mix.  Tocatta and funk.

Sophomore year or maybe it was the spring of my freshman, I convinced three classmates to join me to catch them in concert at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, in those days, about a thirty-minute drive from Claremont.  We sat in balcony seats and I took in the show like an acolyte studying his masters, concentrating on every note and mustachioed glance among them, how bassist Danko backed away from the mic-stand on the outro to “When You Awake,” how Helm’s face was in profile as he sang into a boom mike over his drum kit, how Robertson played guitars both acoustic and electric, how Manuel and Garth Hudson seemed to preside on keyboard daises to stage-left and center stage-rear above the other three.  Their performance was note-for-note almost identical to the albums but with the value-added apparitions of their bodies on stage imparting a recital of angelic images onto my memory as well.

I confess I was less enthusiastic about Stage Fright and Cahoots, the latter turning me off with its racist “Shootout in Chinatown” that indulged both in stereotyped images of Chinese people and a chiming, faux-Oriental theme interwoven through its melody.  For a couple of years, I put those records away deep to the rear of my collection and started listening to the Grateful Dead’s acoustic albums.  But I hadn’t completely lost confidence in The Band, though, and I stuck it out as a fanboy, brought back into the fold with Islands and Southern Cross/Northern Lights.  I was sitting in a rock kissa in Kyoto during my post-graduate year when I heard “Acadian Driftwood” piped through the choice stereo system of the café.  Its story, about the British expulsion of French-Acadians from their settled lands in colonial Canada, gripped me as I thought immediately of the forced evacuation of 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast during World War II.

They signed a treaty And our homes were taken, Loved ones forsaken [. . . .] Try to raise a family, End up an enemy.

The song was infused with an historical sadness–the long lonesomeness and regret of having been wronged and that wrong having been forgotten by most of society.  And the way that Robertson strummed and plucked his acoustic guitar mimicked the catch in the throat I got every time I thought of it, the brief duet between session man Byron Berline’s fiddle and Hudson’s screechy organ was like the silent cry I’d witnessed from my own elders when they recalled internment times in the deserts of America as, like Acadians, castaways of history.  “Make a man want to leave the only home he’s known….”  It was a song of remembrance and praise for a people wronged and hounded away to the outskirts and badlands by history.  But The Band did not forget them and their song perfected my own resolve that I would not either—neither their Acadians nor my own people.

Years later, I was in graduate school, just having passed exams for the M.F.A. in Creative Writing at UC Irvine under the guidance of my teacher, Tennessee poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Wright.  I wanted a celebration to mark the occasion and found in the local paper that The Last Waltz was playing in a late night revival show at the movie theater down the peninsula in Newport Beach where I was living.  I phoned my classmate, African American poet Yusef Komunyakaa, and invited him to join me.  We met outside the box office and bought two-dollar tickets to the show—a movie I’d missed as it came out when I was living in Japan a few years before.  It was a spectacular one—including not only The Band but a lineup of Sixties and Seventies rock icons from Joni Mitchell to Neil Young, Emmylou Harris to Bob Dylan himself.  I remember, near the film’s climax, how director Martin Scorcese’s camera took a long, close-up pan down from the peak and past the brim of a big pink cowboy hat.  Underneath it was the scruffily-bearded Dylan singing the opening verse to “Forever Young,” his valedictory and blessing that we each preserve our youthful ideals.  It seemed to share a sentiment with a poem I’d just written about for my exam—James Wright’s “Saint Judas,” telling a quick tale of a failed suicide’s desperation and horror, one devastated man running towards another struck down in the street for no reason.  Its last two lines were “Flayed without hope, // I held the man for nothing in my arms.”  It was about the sharing of human compassion—a thing of faith that might save us even in our worst despair.  Again, I felt it twinned with Dylan’s song and the whole damn flick I’d just taken in.  Robertson dueling Eric Clapton on a blues number, Mitchell’s soprano voice harmonizing and tailgating with Young on “Helpless,” Robertson playing the opening notes to “The Weight” on guitar just before the Staple Singers styled it into gospel.  My heart leaped up.

Just a couple nights before Robbie died, I had the strongest urge to listen to “Acadian Driftwood” and study its lyrics. I don’t know why.  And then to “Christmas Must be Tonight” from Islands.  I sang along as the LP spun on my ‘table as I’ve always been moved to, thinking it one of the most genuinely spiritual of tunes. I’m not Christian, but I love the verses, especially these that Rick Danko sings with such sombre devotion:

A shepherd on a hillside, where over my flock I abide, On a cold winter night, a band of angels sing.

At “sing,” the melody drops to a lower note and Danko and Levon lock bass and drums together on its root. So moving. The song had come to me late, while I was running a theater group in Seattle a few years after leaving Irvine. I was living in a three-room flat and had only a boom box for a stereo and the album was on cassette. But from then on I’ve felt I’ve been its apostle.

Even before poetry found me in my confused adolescence, the songs of Robbie Robertson were my inspiration to keep going, to have faith, to believe that mourning might be the start of redemption.  His lyrics and storytelling tutored me through the finer tone of their burnished recollections and rugged acts of homage.  He taught me that there were stories beyond their tellings, that a fine and considered harmony might capture our souls and fill them with a light that is the repossession and restoration of our common humanity.  Kumu mele…. Mahalo pumehana…

Saint Andrews, Saint Allmans

Sometimes you can have things to say, but you can find no words for them…or there’s a feeling inside you that there are no words to explain. You can say “heartbreak” or “jubilation,” but you can also set it up in music to make people actually feel it without ever saying anything about it. That’s the grace of music; that’s the blessing. You know, there’s a lot of different forms of communication, but that’s one of the absolute purest ones, man…. There’s nothing at all could ever be bad about music, about playing it. It’s a wonderful thing, man. It’s a grace. ~ Duane Allman, “Interview by Ed Shane on WPLO-FM Atlanta” (1970)

On a warm, clear day in June 2006, my wife and I sat down on a soft swath of grass to eat sandwiches we’d picked up at a local shop in town. We were in Scotland for an academic conference about the nature of sound. Our lightweight travel stroller was folded next to us on the grass. Above us towered the remains of Saint Andrews Cathedral, the eastern section. Its blank sanctuary windows opened to the blue sky. Through the vertebrae of the nave one could view the round sea, gray-blue with white strips of rollers. Still mostly intact and nearer the coastal edge loomed the square heft of Saint Rule’s Tower. Saint Rule (or Regulus), legend has it, brought relics of Saint Andrews from their original locus in Patras, Greece to this remote point on a coastal bluff in present-day Fife and built this tower to house them. The cathedral, great medieval masterwork, would undergo creation in 1158.

*

What, then, became of it? On March 1, 1546, Cardinal David Beaton, Archbishop of Saint Andrews, sentenced Protestant reformer George Wishart to death as an obstinate heretic. As the condemned man burned at the stake on the cathedral grounds, Cardinal Beaton, it was said, overlooked the scene from the tower’s stately windows, raising a chalice of blood-red wine in grim approval as flame-shadows echoed through the stained glass. Within three months, a band of Protestants would return to murder Cardinal Beaton in revenge. Beaton would have troublesome reformers thrown down the dark shaft of a deep sea-well at the back wall of the cathedral, where they would fall to their immediate death or else painfully starve to death in the dark. Per legend, the angry band tossed the cardinal’s body down the self-same sea-well. The cathedral would undergo uncreation in 1559. During the back-and-forth violence of the Reformation, a Protestant mob incited by John Knox made way for Saint Andrews Cathedral and started tearing it apart. They took the stones to town to use to build poorhouses.

*

Attributed to Abbot Suger in 1140, verses carved onto the gilded doors of the Basilica of Saint-Denis honor the power of art to raise the mind to better things:

The dull mind rises to the truth through material things,
And is resurrected from its former submersion when the light is seen.

Point made. Abbot Suger likened the transformative power of stained glass to that of the Holy Spirit—how it transfigures plain air into kaleidoscopic array, like the immense pied beauty unspooled daily through the earth’s sublime transformations. And yet, counterpoint made. When I think again of the image of our June day under that grand ruined form, I believe, like Wordworth’s Tintern Abbey, Saint Andrews is probably more lovely, more piquant, more transformative in its bare ruined state. It struck me as a perfect balance, spiritually: retaining some core structure, some basic practice and grounding ritual, but being mostly unwalled, mostly open to interpretation and freedom and play. Tear down the temple and build it back someday maybe, some poet said.

*

As part of his work as elder for our local Presbyterian church, located in the hill country of South Carolina in the shadow of the Blue Ridge, my father helped raise funds for a new giant stained glass window installment for the sanctuary. The artist took a postimpressionist approach to the scene. This abstract concept fit well with longstanding Presbyterian mistrust of Catholic iconography. But it also left some doubt over what precisely was depicted in the window. Many was the time, unable to sleep, I studied its odd images as a sermon droned on in the background. I only managed to parse out a big purple cross and a white descending dove that seemed to be belching out flames. There was something that looked like a Christmas tree in the upper left corner, encircled by black wolves, possibly. And then maybe a large golden dragon, with a red handlebar mustache, circling the sky in the center panel, talons rampant.

When the installment was first revealed for the minister and elders, my father, who had completed tours in both the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army and consequently cussed like a sailor and a soldier, chimed right out loud: Goddam! Hell of a thing.

The minister: Noel, please, we’re in the sanctuary. A sacred place.

Dad: Not with that thing hanging here.

*

In the play of sunlight and shadow beneath the standing ruins of Saint Andrews, our two-year-old son, giddy to be out and about from the stroller, busied himself tearing ass, to and fro, to and fro. He was dressed in a little Scots plaid tam we’d got him in town, his yellow knit topknot waving like a flag caught in crosswinds, as he wove in and out of the weather-stained gravestones. He laughed bravely and struck his arms out spread-eagle, proclaiming: Playground! And we smiled and thought he’ll do all right if he can make a graveyard a playground, with such good will. Much in this world is a question of will; much isn’t. But that day we possessed together the abundant undulations of the sea, of the light on the sea, of the birds wavering above the sea: You’re my blue sky, you’re my sunny day

*

In 1949, a young soldier, called Bill mostly, was stationed at Fort Story in Virginia Beach, where he’d just earned promotion to captain. He was thirty years old, with a wife and two young sons. He’d served as a gunnery sergeant and lieutenant in World War II and landed on the Normandy beaches on D-Day.

The day after Christmas—his wife had taken the boys down to North Carolina to see her family—Bill and a friend, a master sergeant at the base, rolled out in Bill’s new 1949 Ford to lose some steam, drink some beer, shoot some pool at a local bar they frequented. A stranger at the bar bought them drinks for their service, asked them to tell about the war. When the soldiers were leaving, the man asked for a ride home.

As the soldiers drove through the country in the night, the man pointed and said he lived down that dirt road cut through the middle of those cornfields. So the soldiers turned and drove until the corn stopped. The two soldiers turned around to see in the backseat their new acquaintance holding an Army-issued .45, pointing it at them.

They got out of the Ford. The men tried reasoning. Bill told the gunman to take the new car, take the little money they had on them. The master sergeant said: Listen, buddy, we don’t mean you no harm. The stranger recoiled: You know my name. Now, I have to kill you. The stranger’s name, as bad luck would have it, was Buddy—Buddy Green.

Bill glimpsed lights through the woods at back of the cornrows. A farmhouse. He signaled his friend silently, nodded for him to take off running. The stranger began firing the .45, missing the master sergeant but hitting Bill three times in the back, killing him.

*

There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, The Man said. Or, as my father would say—about the highest compliment he could give—Willis Turner “Bill” Allman was a hell of a soldier.

*

The gunman Buddy Green would receive for the murder of a serviceman a sentence of ninety nine years plus one, or 100 full years, in jail. Naturally, he died in prison. Before he did, he wrote mournful letters to one of Bill’s adult sons, the younger one, begging forgiveness. The son never wrote back, and did away with the letters. Which seems fair because that stranger’s thoughtless pull on the trigger long before had done away with all memory of the father for that younger son, who, in his sixties in 2011, would confess: I don’t have the slightest memory of my father, nothing (12). Nothing out of nothing comes.

*

Still and yet, if you carry one cross too long, it will start to rub you raw. Or, to take some advice from Howlin’ Wolf: I wore my .44 so long, I done made my shoulder sore. On one level, the .44 represents the weight of anger, the heavy desire for revenge, carried on too long, with post-traumatic overtones, leading to a loss of direction and hope: Well, I’m so mad this morning, I don’t know where in the world to go. Sometimes it’s time to unbuckle the holster straps, let the past drop.

It might be worth adding here that Howlin’ Wolf, like Bill Allman, served time in the U.S. Army, from 1940 until 1943, when he was discharged after spending two months in the psych ward at Camp Adair in Oregon. At age 30, Chester Arthur Burnett, scraping together a living playing blues in and around his native Mississippi, was enlisted in the Army against his will. No surprise to find he bucked against the military regimen. He had grown up unschooled, literally unlettered, and when the Army found out they ordered him into rigorous tutoring to learn to read and write. From the arbitrary, brutal discipline meted out by his reading instructor, which included beatings for misspelling a word, Burnett began experiencing shaking fits, dizzy spells, fainting, and confusion, culminating one day in total nervous collapse. Diagnosed by Army doctors as everything from a schizophrenic to a hysteric to a mental defective, his treatment included being lashed to a bed, drugs, and electro-shock, until he was deemed unfit for duty and discharged under the catch-all disability in November 1943. Maybe one of the things from which Burnett was ready to unbuckle was this traumatic holdover from his Army days, as Howlin’ Wolf would convert past trauma into commercial art: Pawned gun to have some gold.

*

In 1949, Bill Allman’s boys, Duane and Gregg, were three and two years old. And I want to believe their lives were transfigured by resistance, and what was taken was given back.  The family unit suffered violent compression, but a new sort of integrity was born out of this, a new kind of wholeness—of holiness, even. Gregg would write of this tight-bound trinity born of the fire: As far as I was concerned, it was always the three of us—my mom, Duane, and me (12).

I want to believe, from a vantage of moral symmetry, the father’s death got repaid in the extraordinary lifework of the two sons. That dark hour of the father relumed into the genius moiling joy of the Allman Brothers: a true godsend. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. They can steal your life, but not your soul, not your goodness. A soulless act down a dark road amid corn left standing in winter fields one day beyond Christmas kickstarted a wildfire and scattered it blazing across the known world. As his father before him, Duane Allman, in his younger brother’s words, was always the first to face the fire (6). And Gregg Allman, who witnessed such works, and still was always the next to face the fire. I want to believe the words of Saint Teresa of Avila: I myself hold that the measure for being able to bear a large or small cross is love (Way of Perfection chapter 32:7).

*

In high school, one of my older brother Noel’s friends was Alex Hopps. Alex was from England, relocated to the South Carolina Piedmont for his high school years. His father was a doctor and he had a younger sister. His mother had died several years earlier, when Alex was nine, in a one-car accident. The police said she’d fallen asleep at the wheel and run off the road. Alex’s family couldn’t believe that.

Alex looked and sounded to me like a young Roger Daltrey, lead singer of The Who with a voice full of napalm. Like Daltry, Alex had blond hair, piercing blue eyes, equally piercing wit. As a younger brother trying to hang out with my brother’s crowd, he’d regularly give me verbal hell, as was the proper role of an older brother’s true friend.

In 1991, Alex was working at the local movie theater to make money over Christmas break for college. He wasn’t working to make money for himself. He was giving the money he earned to a good friend, James. They’d run track together in high school and both were attending the University of South Carolina, and the money would help James get by while at school. One time I met Noel, Alex, and James down at the track after practice. They were all joking around when I walked up and I heard James, who was Black, laugh and say: Noel, you’re like the whitest guy ever! I remember thinking at that time: He doesn’t know me. A whiter shade of pale.

*

One night—Dancing with Wolves was playing—two former employees arrived at the movie theatre. They left the movie halfway through and met Alex walking down the hallway back to the lobby. They pulled a handgun on him, forced him out the side exit, pressed him against a siderail protecting the outside HVAC unit, and shot him to death in the left side of his head. They went into the lobby and forced the other employee on duty that night, James Todd Green, to open the safe in the ticket booth. They also took bags of money ready for deposit from Green’s car, and then made him get into their minivan with them. They drove for a few miles, then pulled over, forced Green out, and shot him to death execution style in a field.

Both killers were arrested the next day. My father served as an attorney barred in Spartanburg since the 1950s, and he had a strong reputation defending criminal cases. One of their initial lawyers asked Dad to represent the accused, not knowing our connection with Alex. I heard the response, before he slammed down the phone: Goddam cowards. God help them. Cause I aint.

Both killers would be sentenced to death and executed eventually by lethal injection. In an interview at the end of his time on deathrow, one confessed to his cowardice on that night. When the other was executed, he didn’t ask forgiveness from the families he’d damaged; he knew it wouldn’t be granted.

After college, James went to law school. He returned to the upstate, where he serves as an immigration attorney.

*

Among the dimmed lights of the Fillmore East on a March night in 1971, a voice proffered this opening: OK, the Allman Brothers Band… The intro was so understated, such a humble beginning, especially for what we now know was on its way. Something wondrous this way comes. Arguably the greatest live blues-based rock performance ever recorded.

As Gregg noted, the Allmans were never big talkers onstage. Brevity was the soul of wit: Just like me, my brother could play for a crowd, but talking to them just wasn’t part of it. He talked to them through his guitar. (171). Preaching a sacred text without words.

*

That opening OK resonates on a further level. There’s a loose strand of etymology for OK in military idiom. If, after a mission all personnel returned to base safely, the code was OK, denoting zero killed. Of course, this would not always be the case for the Allmans.

One late October day in 1971, lead guitarist Duane Allman, age 24, would go for a motorcycle ride in Macon and not return. A year later, in November 1972, bassist Berry Oakley, age 24, would go for a motorcycle ride in Macon—three blocks from where Duane wrecked—and not return.

*

I first came to love the Allman Brothers in about seventh grade, a hand-me-down from my older brother Noel. I’d already been introduced to other stalwarts of Classic Southern Rock, especially Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Marshall Tucker Band. That would be my hometown Spartanburg’s own Marshall Tucker Band.

I’d caught echoes of tunes off Eat a Peach (1972) before, of course, and liked what I heard: the lilting, longing ballad “Melissa” was a staple on the local classic rock FM channel, as was the bouncy countrified “Blue Sky,” and my favorite was “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” and the feeling for me was deepened by the backstory, that it was written by little brother Gregg Allman to honor his big brother Duane Allman, lost in a tragic motorcycle accident. In those times before facile internet searches, when it seemed only thick-bound encyclopedia volumes provided accurate fact-checking, I took for truth the legend that Duane had been struck dead by a peach delivery truck, thus the iconic album title and truck image on the album cover, in all its dark humor, the giant peach serving as some kind of weird memento mori. “Les Brers in A Minor” puzzled me, though I was drawn to it in some way, and I’d no idea what to make of “Mountain Jam,” which escaped me even as it entranced me.

*

At Fillmore East (1971) was recorded live, primarily over two nights on March 12 and 13, 1971, and the original double album, under the direction of renowned producer Tom Dowd, was released on July 6, 1971. In his August 19, 1971 review for Rolling Stone, Greg Kimball did not misapprehend the greatness set before him:

Any comparison to anybody is fatuous. In my opinion, the fact of the matter is that guitarists Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, organist-vocalist Gregg Allman, Berry Oakley on bass, and drummers J.J. Johanson and Butch Trucks comprise the best damn rock and roll band this country has produced in the past five years. And if you think I’m dog-shittin’ you, listen to this album.

Kimball concluded his review with this flourish: They’re one of the nicest things that ever happened to any of us.

When I heard At Fillmore East for real—not just a song here or there as background music, but straight through the first time whole—I felt confusion. I listened to it on my brother’s stereo with a pair of those old padded headphones plugged in. I felt disloyal, to Marshall Tucker, to Skynyrd. This, this sounded like it came from some other world. What I heard was religious experience. What they talk about in the Bible when they talk about consuming fire. I still believe this.

*

I’ve listened to At Fillmore East many, many times since, in various sonic incarnations, in many, many places. First came vinyl, then cassette, then CD, then iPod, then burned CD, then laptop, then iPhone, then YouTube. Everywhere I’ve lived, this has carried with me. It’s been a large part of me—a continuous, if changing, major facet of my identity across the myriad spaces and times of my lived experience.

And it’s never exactly the same, either. Listening to At Fillmore East, you never step into the same river twice. You’ve changed, but so has the river. Walk along the river, sweet lullaby / It just keeps on flowing, it don’t worry about where it’s going. The music keeps flowing. With the longer improvisations, such as “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” “You Don’t Love Me,” “Whipping Post,” and “Mountain Jam,” each song contains within it in essence several songs. Streams converging, diverging in complex riverine systems, looping into oxbows, cascading headlong into white-crested torrents. I pick up on something distinct each time I closely listen, some nuance I never had ears to hear before. Each time, there emerge new runs and eddies, new bars and backwaters, even startling new avulsions as the current climbs, suddenly breaks through the banks of what I had remembered. Each time, as the vinyl circles again like the rotating skies, new stars appear, aligning into new constellations.

*

In 2004, At Fillmore East was designated for preservation by the Library of Congress for its cultural, historical, and aesthetic importance. The Library of Congress, proxy of the United States government, showed the great good sense to gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost, thus giving kind admittance for multitudes to enjoy the fullness of the masterwork’s glory, at present, in future, to experience its astonishing sustaining power.

*

At Fillmore East is not perfect. Or, perhaps it’s perfect in its imperfection. For instance, Gregg Allman comes in at the wrong pitch on the line And I’ve got one more silver dollar—especially on one more—in an otherwise seamless “Midnight Rider.” I think of this as an aural instance of what Roland Barthes describes as the punctum in photographs: the pricking odd detail that stands out almost accidentally in a photograph and strikes the viewer in a curious, subjective manner. This slight vocal snafu amid a brilliant vocal performance overall by Gregg Allman, with his husky deadpan bluesy stark delivery, offers a purview into the physical work of the performance, the material difficulty and strain of producing this intense level of brilliance. We hear the hard labor of putting on this show, and the off-key moment reveals the live nature of the music all the more, striking us with its very aliveness. It offers a glimpse into the human work that opens in consonance, I believe, to the more-than-human workings at play in the exceptional performance recorded on At Fillmore EastAt Fillmore East is not perfect, but it is sublime.

*

Among my friends growing up, I’d contend for Duane Allman as a legit musical genius, a Dixie Mozart. I didn’t argue this about Jimi Hendrix, or Eric Clapton, though I loved them, too. Or even about Dickey Betts, for that matter. I don’t know what it was about Duane Allman that meant so much to me. His especial Southernness, maybe? Or maybe his fragility, too? In pictures, he always looked so thin, scraggly almost—about like a wandering stray skydog—like the weight of that Les Paul cherryburst was bearing hard down on him, as a cross.

*

If you told me tomorrow I could never hear the Allman Brothers in this life again, that’d be a tough swath to mow and a hard way to go. James Dickey once offered this high praise for fellow great Southern writer Robert Penn Warren: When he is good, often when he is bad, you had as soon read Warren as live (75). Obviously, this might defeat the purpose. Yet the Allmans reside in pretty much the same territory for me.

*

Per theologian Karl Barth, in his Church Dogmatics (1932), heaven is quite literally beyond compare; heaven is a place of utter sublimity and thus beyond real human description:

As the place of God heaven is, of course, a place which is inconceivable to us. It cannot be compared with any other real or imaginary place. It is inaccessible. It cannot be explored or described or even indicated. All that can be affirmed concerning it is that it is a created place like earth itself and the accessible reality of earth which we can explore and describe or at least indicate; and that it is the place of God (437).

In other words, and in others’ words, Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. From a human vantage, nothing comprehensible happens, but heaven is nevertheless a place, a happening point for divine presence and action. It’s hard to imagine that nothing at all could be so exciting, could be this much fun.

Even as heaven is a place inconceivable to us, this doesn’t stop us from imagining endless conceits to try to describe it. These are mainly drawn from places of comparison, both real and imaginary. Where, then, is paradise? Standard-issue pearly gates, soft white robes and wings, golden harps and haloes? Neither the golden underground, nor isle melodious, where spirits gat them home, nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm remote on heaven’s hill…, some poet noted.

*

Karl Barth’s claim notwithstanding, if we wish to play if and translate the untranslatable gates of heaven, perhaps a where and then for paradise, imagined out of the real, is the half-fallen cathedral by the sea at Saint Andrews. On the tower’s edges, the intact pinnacles point toward heaven still, while the rounded arches of the hollow high windows open freely to the endless rhythms of the wind and of the sea, offering wide passage through. A place where shadow from a tombstone flits across my son’s laugh in play with light sifting through the hazel leaves, spinning his hair gold. A place of God, then.

*

In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1965), Thomas Merton described the crucial point of nothingness at the center of our being, a spark which belongs entirely to God and cannot be corrupted, try as we might, by our individual human ego: It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. This point or spark of divine nothingness in us, this soulshine, can vanish all darkness and meanness of life and it is not cultivated, but only given. One word for this is grace. For Merton, the gate of heaven is everywhere.

*

And like the unwalled cathedral at Saint Andrews, with its opening unity, where play at once begets ruin, ruin at once lets in play, for me At Fillmore East embodies a gate of heaven, a hollow window for grace to pass. The album carries an infinite spiraling of imposing, impressive structure with astounding, proliferating improvisations. It features a collection of virtuoso performances, yet these coalesce into something well beyond the individual egos, into something that is only given, that reflects a collective soulshine, that at times seemingly belongs entirely to God. The soaring overarching dynamic of At Fillmore East—in its towering intricacies and driving tensions, in its open ranging and stray ends, blazes sonically with the invisible light of heaven.

*

To focus on one sublime element of At Fillmore East as a divine point of nothingness, a spark that shines a light on heaven’s gate, see—that is, hear—Duane Allman’s remarkable guitarwork, sliding within, between, without ritual forms. Most would categorize Duane Allman as a blues-based player primarily, but his play was vastly synthetic. Syncretic, really, meaning his style amalgamated elements of varied received forms—notably, blues, jazz, country, rock, even classical—but did so without especial concern with cohesion or logical unity. He adopted strands of these forms to strain them, to push them to their illogical extremes. He was, to me, the first true early master of what would come to be called fusion. And the religious underpinnings of syncretic also work; listening to Duane Allman invoking, then exceeding old settled forms into new unsettling, dissonant ones sparks a spiritual experience.

Throughout the songs collected on At Fillmore East, Duane Allman’s guitar sets the foundations only to upset these with his searing improvisations. With his incomparable slide, he is continuously building and breaking boundaries. He raises the cathedral stone by stone only to raze it, leaving behind the bare outlines of the base structure, the ghostlier demarcations. His guitar mushrooms into long wanderings, somehow at once exotic and homeward, simultaneously soaring and plaintive, abstract and visceral, ethereal and material, paradisal and earthbound. His slide play is somehow at once grinding and gliding, smooth and murky. His sound is deep and dark and rich and thick: the stuff of the blues. But Duane Allman is at the same time fluid, rolling, connective. He is not a clean player; in fact, he is brilliantly, beautifully unclean, gritty, in the tradition of the blues. His playing, then, is not particularly precise or clear, yet, for all the rough-hewn technics and heavy gain of his sound, his guitarwork is amazingly fluent, shifting freely, openly across scales, blooming into improvisations. Even as you can actually hear his slide pressing over the strings physically between notes, his slide flows effortlessly from earthy, murky note to earthy, murky note.

*

Around the time of At Fillmore East, in part due to the influence of Allman Brothers drummer Jai Johanny Johanson or Jaimoe, Duane Allman was listening to free jazz by John Coltrane. At times, Allman’s slide becomes so piercing, so thick with distortion that it sounds like a sax wailing. Like Coltrane, Duane Allman courts dissonance, creating and holding dissonant tones as he slides between notes. He makes a beautiful mess, simultaneously rough, yet smooth. Duane Allman’s slide is like melting sand into glass.

His slide solos carry resounding sustain, and he holds especially the outside or atonal notes. He’s continuously slightly skewing the camera angles, keeping us a little disoriented, off-center. He uses such dissonance and distortion to stir extreme tension: to scale dramatic heights and ultimately break to epic ends. His slide playing is like the ocean churning full of surfcut; the tide is of one overall motion and pulse, even as the surface water is whipped to rags. That is Duane Allman’s play: the strong pulling undertow of traditional forms—blues, jazz, rock—in tension with the dynamic roiling energy of the surf breakers—his wild solos and runs. Duane Allman’s style embodies openness, discovery, total creative power. It is endlessly experimental. His sound sounds like what darkness would look like if darkness could shine.

*

Duane Allman honed his slide style on a 1957 Les Paul goldtop, which he used on the Allman Brothers Band’s first two albums and on the famed Layla sessions with Derek and the Dominos. He then traded the goldtop out for a 1959 Les Paul cherryburst, while keeping the pickups from the goldtop to maintain something of the earlier sound, as a kind of inheritance or lasting influence. The cherryburst is the main guitar he wielded on stage during At Fillmore East, though he also made use of the red and black 1961 Les Paul Gibson SG—notably for the blazing opening slidework on “Statesboro Blues.” The SG was known as the From One Brother to Another guitar since Duane and Dickey Betts would trade it off during live shows so they wouldn’t have to waste time retuning between songs. Just after those shows, Duane adopted a 1958/1959 Les Paul darkburst, his main guitar for the duration of his time remaining in this world. These are all beautiful guitars in their way, and also powerful imagery: the bright goldtop shimmering immense potential, sign of the glowing future; the rich, organic tones of the cherryburst offering something of the natural flow and open-heartedness of his play; and finally the darkburst heralding an explosive end, equally dark and bright: a darkness that shines.

*

And so by the power invested in me—none to little, if we’re honest—I hereby canonize Howard Duane Allman as Saint Duane of the Infinite Slide, First-Called to the Fire, Wonderworker of the Glassy Bottleneck along the Goldtop, Master of the Darkburst. One who had his cross to bear, but also his bearings. While admitting that his big brother, being human, had his shit parts (199), baybrah Gregg asserts Duane also had his consummate code, for Duane Allman would Not cut and run, he’d just cut. He figured out in his soul that life was much too precious to waste worrying about bullshit (201). Allman Zen.

*

If you don’t believe me—and I don’t blame you if you don’t—perhaps you’ll listen to the meticulous, incredible Butch Trucks, the other half of the longtime Allman Brothers Band drumming section. Trucks, alongside Jaimoe, formed arguably the best drumming duo in rock history; they blend together seamlessly as they adapt to whatever improvisational roads the rest of the band might take, come what may. An avid reader of literature and philosophy in his spare time, Trucks was not happy with Roy Blount, Jr.’s recounting of the condescending account of the Allman Brothers Band put together by Grover Lewis in 1971 for Rolling Stone. Sure as the sunrise, Butch Trucks sat down and wrote a long letter, which was published on May 8, 2005 by the New York Times Book Review, and rightly so:

First, let me state unequivocally that Duane Allman was one of the most powerful, charismatic and trustworthy men I have ever known. I would use the word “messianic” to describe the impact he had on the people around him, and his influence on music today runs much deeper than all but a very few even begin to know. He was a man of the highest character and principles…

If Duane Allman did threaten to punch out Grover Lewis, most likely let’s say he had it coming, as those money-changers in the temple long before very likely earned their whipping.

*

Saint Duane preached the wordless gospel, ringing it out in glory all along his golden strings, through the glass bottle slide on his ring finger, fretting sublime rhythms, sacred feelings, against oblivion’s time signature. His sound was excessive, astounding, overwhelming and at once emptying, in the gnostic way, in the way centered on that point of divine nothingness within us all. Saint Duane’s gleaming, gleaning slide work, sounds bursting from his cherryburst, pinpricks holes in the void, little points to let God in, truly. His guitar is not unlike those old weathered headstones, slanted, half-sunk to earth, that dot the shadowed grounds encircling the towering ruins of Saint Andrews Cathedral. Like the stones, his tone, while towering, is earth-rooted and weathered and not fully precise or upright, but a bit slanted, off-kilter, and more beautiful for all that.

*

Seeking moments with God, I meditate. To leave behind, momentarily at least, concerns of the ego, I listen to music, and letting its ineffable rhythms flood through me, submerge my conscious mind. Music’s repetitions close the shades on my shiny racing thoughts, for the time being, and make a little time for God, a little place for God to enter in. My go-to meditation songs include Van Morrison’s soothing instrumental “Caledonia Soul Music” and a couple of peace-filled choral reggae chants: Bob Marley’s “Rastaman Chant” (One bright morning when my work is over I will fly away home) and Wingless Angels’ “No Dark There” (And we need no candlelight / On Mount Zion there is no dark there). For olden time’s sake, I add in Ingegneri’s (misattributed to Palestrina) immaculate double-choir setting of “O Bone Jesu,” on repeat (O good Jesus, have mercy upon us). These uplift me from my common space, to spaces rich and strange, Celtic and Caribbean. If I begin by attending to the lyrics, I soon, following the line of my breath, let loose of the words; as fire answers to flame within a ring, the sound of the words, not their sense, as part and parcel of the song and its absorbing rhythm, takes over, and I enter into the meditative state.

When I’m in a for a long-haul meditation, my song of choice is the live “Mountain Jam” from At Fillmore East. All 33 minutes, 39 seconds of ridge upon climbing ridge of improvisational scaling the towering mountain summit. The song arose as improvisation off Donovan’s 1967 folksy pop hit “There Is a Mountain.” Meditating to Donovan’s version would, I fear, induce vomiting. The Allman Brothers’ “Mountain Jam” is a whole nother world. It grew (and grew and grew) out of a jam one night at the Fillmore East with the Grateful Dead and guitarist Peter Green, then of Fleetwood Mac. The deeper I listen, the more intently my breathing takes on the rhythms of the song. In this way, I adopt the song; it becomes a part of me. And by absorbing myself, my ambling, rambling thoughts, my ego, into the song’s various variations as it rolls through organ (Gregg Alllman), guitar (Dickey Betts; Duane Allman), bass (Berry Oakley), and drum (Butch Trucks and Jaimoe) solos, I try to become a part of God. The song is immense, and immensely wide open, and it helps me to become empty and more open to God. By the time the song and my breath reach the return of the full band, around 22 minutes in, I feel immersed into the culmination, which includes some of the most beautiful, astonishing slide guitar ever by Duane Allman. And right near the close is an absolutely lovely flowing section citing the traditional hymn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” I admire the Renaissance conceit that humans honor God with honorable work. Likewise, “Mountain Jam” glorifies God in its glory. It helps me climb the mountain to get a little closer to God. I highly recommend it.

Legend has it that on the final closing night of the Fillmore East, the Allmans played an even more epic version of “Mountain Jam” than the one recorded on At Fillmore East. This unrecorded version, it was said, sprawled on for nearly two hours, but it is lost to all but memory.

*

At the close of the famed live version of “You Don’t Love Me” on At Fillmore East, Saint Duane even quotes sacred music in his closing improvisations. He’s busy immaculately sliding dyads up and down the full range of frets while the band rolls back and forth between A and D beneath his soaring play until they equally meet at a crescendo. Then, Duane Allman takes another seamless turn at breakneck speed, suddenly, brilliantly integrating a section of “Joy to the World” (1719), the traditional Christmas hymn composed by English minister Isaac Watts and based on Psalm 98. Much in the way of Mozart brilliantly integrating the traditional Welsh Christmas carol “Deck the Halls” into his 18th violin sonata (1778).

Perhaps it’s worth remembering that, early on, Christmas must have been a sad time for the young Allman brothers and their mother Geraldine, given their loss right at that time of year. This was, it seems, a form of reclamation, an act of balancing. Or, as Gregg would put it, with wry humor, in “Wasted Words” (1973): Well, I ain’t no saint and you sure as hell ain’t no savior / Every other Christmas I would practice good behavior.

*

Another salient, vibrant instance of Duane Allman’s preternatural virtuoso, his seemingly infinitely malleable imagination for reckless, daunting, dazzling, tough, delicate improvisation is recorded by Gregg when the brothers went to a New York City penthouse owned by their friend Deering Howe, which housed an old guitar, strung right-handed and left behind by Jimi Hendrix, dead in 1969, age 27:

When we got there, we all took off our coats, and my brother made a beeline for that damn guitar, plugged it in, turned this little Champ amp on, and started blowing this scathing molten lava line that went on for about twenty-five minutes. It was like nothing I ever heard him play onstage, and everybody was just in awe. There was a long silence afterwards, and Duane just said, “Nice guitar,” and put it down. (185-186).

*

And he was lost to us, in the flesh, at 24 years old, same age as prodigious English poet John Keats. One of my college professors one time listed John Keats’s major works when he died on the chalkboard next to William Shakespeare’s major works by the time he was 24 years old. Point being, had Shakespeare died at 24 years, he’d be remembered as a good poet and a burgeoning playwright, but really just getting going. Like young Keats, Saint Duane was just getting going when he was gone.

And let’s also spare a thought and prayer for that curly-headed brown-eyed handsome thick-spectacled glory-bound willowy young Texas guitar player Buddy Holly, gone at 22. Thank you not, as he said one time, and rightly so.

*

A salient, vibrant instance of Gregg’s mellow presentness is that he had no idea what official time signature he’d apparently composed the intro for “Whipping Post” in:

I didn’t know the intro was in 11/4 time. I just saw it as three sets of three, and then two to jump on the next three sets with: it was like 1, 2, 3— 1, 2, 3— 1 ,2, 3— 1, 2. I didn’t count it as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11. It was one beat short, but it didn’t feel one short, because to get back to the triad, you had two steps to go up. You’d really hit those two hard, to accent them, so that would separate the threes…. [Duane] said, “That’s good man, I didn’t know that you understood 11/4.” Of course I said something intelligent like, “What’s 11/4?” Duane just said, “Okay, dumbass, I’ll try to draw it up on paper for you.” (Poe 124-125)

Point being, like the lasting ruins of Saint Andrews Cathedral—those fragmented old good bones that once maybe housed the fragmented good old bones of Saint Andrews himself—with Gregg’s composing, the core structure’s there, if somewhat unrecognized, unlooked-for, and it allows for and encourages the layering on of improvisations. And his lyrics thrived on immaculate compression, on saying the most important things by leaving them unsaid or barely said. For one case in point, think of the refrain to “Whipping Post.”  After the repetitious momentous lyrical build-up of

Sometime I feel, sometimes I feel
Like I’ve been tied to the whippin’ post
Tied to the whippin’ post, tied to the whippin’ post

we close with the brilliantly compact, plain and plaintive, unrhyming, flat statement:

Lord, I feel like I’m dyin’

The rising chaos, musical and lyrical, ends abruptly; then we’re left with that final half-line hanging there over the void, to just think about that for a moment of silence, until the guitar and organ call us back and thrust us again into the dazzling resounding tumult.

*

Incidentally, it took the Hal Leonard Corporation forty-two pages to transcribe the sheet music denotations for the ineffable rollicking grandeur of the switchback solos from Duane Allman and Dickey Betts in the extended live “Whipping Post” from At Fillmore East. If you’re alive, this song thrums absolutely in the blood, buzzes in the heart like a hornet’s nest.

*

The Allman boys were sent away to military school by their mother Geraldine. She loved her sons dearly, but, as a single parent, in order to provide for them she had to go earn her CPA. As a cadet, Duane became an avid reader, repeatedly delving into J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Rings and into Kurt Vonnegut’s experimental novels. Naturally, the brothers hated it—being apart from their mom, being subjected to what seemed arbitrary discipline and punishment and bullying. But the brothers were there together, at least. And their lives grew luminous with resistance. They learned sadness and aloneness, but also strength and structure.

*

Both Allman brothers were born at the old Saint Thomas Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, a lovely brownstone building filled with history. Also, Duane nearly died there. Before a gig at Vanderbilt, Duane would almost OD, with half his body turning blue from bad blood flow; Dickey Betts grabbed him up and rushed across the road to Saint Thomas, where Duane survived after three days in the netherworld, much in the way of Jesus: God was looking down on us, man, and so were his Angels of Mercy…. The whole thing really scared my brother, man. He had the fear of God in his eyes after that… (172).

*

For my money, Gregg’s patron saint is Thomas, and Gregg carried forward Thomas’s way. Thomas was notably grounded, devoted to the present, his commitments were to this world. Yes, Thomas was a famous doubter, but surely one with a stout heart, with great courage. For it takes an immense love and hope to pour your efforts into this world alone. Sometimes just to get up in the morning. And, as Friedrich Nietzsche averred, in a quote often requoted admirably by Duane’s literary hero Kurt Vonnegut, Only a person of great faith can afford to be a skeptic.

We all know, wary of second-hand tales even from his apostolic brothers and sisters, Thomas insisted on seeing the risen Christ himself, to sticking his fingers up into the very cuts of Jesus. In the candle-bladed dark of the upper chamber, shut in with the others, breathing low together, stout Thomas touted his reality principle, probing old wounds, a stop-gap measure to stem the flood of sundered time, to be sure.

However, remember this: When Jesus insisted on returning to Jerusalem when the one he loved was ill—to save the beloved dead man, though this meant his own death—the other disciples were hit with mixed emotions. Not Thomas, who remarked: Let us also go and die with him.

Remember also that the risen Jesus didn’t shun Thomas to the outer dark, or at all, for his doubting. Maybe he could have a little more faith—to not see and still believe—but couldn’t we all? Maybe there’s a deeper plane. To have a passion for the impossible, as William Booth claimed. John and Mary Magdalene seemed to be there already, waiting. They had their feet under them, even at the foot of the cross. Nothing could shake them. For most of us, that’s hard to understand.

*

Saint Thomas, God love him, was not afraid to face the fire, despite or because of his doubts. In similar fashion, Gregory LeNoir Allman becomes Saint Gregg the Cross-Bearer, Second-Called to the Fire, Sure as the Sunrise. Like Thomas, Saint Gregg also is committed to presentness, to this world, to doubt as the soul of faith.

If you don’t believe me—and I don’t blame you—don’t take my word for it. Here’s Saint Gregg himself, acknowledging how things are with his abiding focus on presentness and process, in this case when it comes to songwriting: Writing throws your whole and complete attention into the process, and you get into it so deep, nothing distracts. Someone would have to inform you that your house was ablaze. (173)

*

In his classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Kurt Vonnegut describes how the protagonist Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time (28) in part as result of his traumatic memories from World War II, from which Vonnegut also suffered. Vonnegut offers an alternate perspective on time and the past—on the narrative construction of human identity, let’s say—one drawn from inhabitants of the distant planet Tralfamadore, who are able to see in four dimensions and believe that It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever (34), for When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments (34).

In light of this form of presentness, Duane’s untimely death becomes one particular unpleasant moment that his younger brother revisits, but Duane also becomes just fine in plenty of other moments. Per Saint Gregg, present time goes by like hurricanes, pouring rain, subway trains, and much faster things. With the help of God and true friends, he’s come to realize, he still has two strong legs, and even wings to fly. So no need for crying or looking like you’re dying, go step yourself outside, and look up at the stars above, and go on downtown, find somebody to love. You can’t get hung up on dreams you’ll never see, on a future that’ll never come, so pull yourself out of bed, put on your walking shoes. Live presently; see what you can see. Again, the morning’s come, and the road goes on forever, so pick up your gear and gypsy roll on, roll on.

Or, for the November 2, 1972 performance at Hofstra University, nationally televised on the late-night program ABC in Concert, Gregg altered the final lyric of “Whipping Post” to That I feel that there just ain’t no such thing as dying.

Or, as he put it in his autobiography, he ultimately learned how to grieve by recognizing the close, intact integration of death in life, life in death, not just in the abstract, but on the daily: Now I can talk to my brother in the morning, and he answers me at night (202). With such patience and understanding, there’s no such thing as dying.

*

Thus, Saint Allmans. Why, the Allman brothers even looked like they walked out of Bible days, with their long shaggy hair and beards. They looked like right apostles. Even as Duane never made his Jesus year. Again, can you imagine what more he would have left behind, if he had?

And Duane was buried with a manner of relics: a silver dollar in one pocket, a throwing-star knife in the other, and his favorite ring on his hand—a snake that coiled around his fingers with two eyes made of turquoise (196), along with a couple of joints in his shirt pocket and a mushroom lighter.

*

When the hospital called on that fall day in Macon in 1971, the woman’s voice said it had been a slight accident. Gregg knew with that very word that his brother was dead. Slight accident, slight lie sliding into what would become a sacrosanct sleight-of-hand, a karmic conversion of ruin to return, emptiness to fullness, where nothing is left unredeemed.

*

The one relic I’d value most in memory of Duane Allman: a Coricidin glass medicine bottle. When I heard that Duane used a Coricidin glass bottle for his slide, ringing out from this makeshift glassy sheath on his ring finger, this hit me with the capacity of revelation. Coricidin cold medicine was a major part of my life growing up. As a kid, I had bad seasonal allergies and whenever I started to get stuffy, out came Mom with the Coricidin bottle. The pills never did anything much to elide the symptoms, but they did conk me out wholesale. They put me down in a sleep that does not feel its sleep, almost. Even when I was technically awake, under the sign of Coricidin, I walked around in a torpid stupor. Coricidin for me equaled a blurred existence, living as through a glass darkly. Again, I want to believe there’s some universal compensation for things lost or at the least, for some time mislaid, held in abeyance. What for me for so long had been the source of a dense, will-less feeling now became transfigured into a figure of immaculate vitality and creative will through Duane Allman. With his bottleneck, he generated earthly and ephemeral and ethereal, aching and arching and arcing Skydog sounds (“Mountain Jam”) as well as excruciatingly sheer siren wails (“Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’”) as well as mournful, echoing moans (“Drunken-Hearted Boy”), and nearly anything, everything in-between. In the hands of Saint Duane, that tiny glass jar grew more beautiful and truthful than some old Grecian urn—wilder and louder, too, like nothing else in Tennessee. It took dominion everywhere.

*

Preparing for the to-be-recorded Fillmore East live shows, Gregg Allman acknowledged his doubts:

But I have to say that I was still the big doubting Thomas of the whole thing. It goes back to high school—I made the other guys wait to tour until I got my diploma, because, as I told my brother, “Man, we will never make enough money to pay rent doing this.” My brother would say, “Gregory, you need to get a little more faith.” Anytime I would get in a crisis, he would say something funny and bring me right out of it. (180)

If Gregg is Saint Thomas, Duane is Saint Peter, the rock of the Allman Brothers: headstrong, reckless, improvisational, rolling off-the-cuff, maybe a bit of a hothead, but full of courage, full of faith, with vision forward—a visionary, but grounded, as in the compact duality of Duane’s nickname, Skydog. Where Gregg is presentness, Duane is futurity.

*

Indeed, Duane’s futurity seems even to have been cast into a very figure of his likeness, another brother, if you will. Appropriately, the line runs through ABB drumming great Butch Trucks. His nephew, Derek Trucks, is generally recognized as one of the most talented blues-rock guitarists on earth at present. As Gregg himself testifies, Derek is the living icon of Duane:

I fully believe that there’s more to it than just this life here on earth, and I’ve believed it for a very long time. Do I believe in reincarnation? After seeing Derek Trucks, how could I not? People ask me about Derek and my brother all the time, and I usually give them a little generic answer, because it’s a pretty heavy question. But I have very good peripheral vision, and sometimes I’ll catch him out of the corner of my eye, and the way he stands looks just like my brother…. I know when [Derek’s] really trying and when he’s on automatic pilot. I know what he’s doing, because he does it in such a similar manner to someone else I knew. (202)

Though, assuredly, Derek is Derek (202), his amazing talent and presence link back to Duane Allman. And so in a sense, on one plane, Derek Trucks serves as earthly double or parallel, a living gateway to the brilliance that would not die with Duane. A second coming. Derek’s carrying the fire, consubstantial with Duane.

*

I’ve focused mainly on what I consider the masterpiece of At Fillmore East, but, as an aside, even ABB deeper cuts reveal the amazing depth of Duane’s play, including his prolific studio work. Give a close listen to the glorious backend of “Hey Jude,” which is what first caught Eric Clapton’s ear, woven in-between Wilson Pickett’s wolfish howl; or to the sweet, sad echo of Duane’s guitar on “Please Come Home”; or the crosshatched weavings of his wood-body dobro on “Please Be With Me.” For better known pieces, listen again to “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,” where his playing moves the song somewhere back-and-forth between slow-dragging blues and gospel, seeming almost to fall behind time at each turn, but catching up just at the last right moment. Or, hear again the immaculate “Dreams,” in which Duane’s and Dickey Betts’ swirling, spiraling guitars mushroom profusely atop Gregg’s smooth foundational organ; this term is overused, but in this case I think accurate: the overall effect produced comes near the surreal. Or, listen close once more to Saint Duane’s last in-studio solo that gives a soulful rhythmic bedrock to the wistful “Blue Sky.”

*

Anthropologists have suggested that ancient sun-worshipping rites began as a response to the primitive fear of nonrecurrence. Praying to a sun-god was a way to allay anxiety that the sun would not rise again in the morning after the night’s darkness. Such practitioners lived in an old chaos of the sun or old dependency of day and night, as some poet said. The later Roman empire, for instance, established an official religion devoted to Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, whose birth was celebrated right around the winter solstice—when fears over the sun’s disappearance waxed highest—on December 25, later looping in with the timing of Christian nativity celebrations.

Some implicit, half-submerged faith in the recurrence of day, in the continuity of the sun, courses through several Allman Brothers songs at key points. Three of my all-time favorite ABB lines center on the image of the sun in this way:

  • sure as the sunrise in “It’s Not My Cross to Bear”
  • Again, the morning’s come…a sunbeam’s shining through his hair in “Melissa”
  • the sunshine felt like rain in “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More”

The sure sun, the assurance that Again, the morning’s come, reflects the principle of the uniformity of nature, instilling faith that past order will predicate future structure. Another name for this might be God.

*

In January 1971, Duane Allman insisted all members of the Allman Brothers Band get a tattoo on the back of their calf. The tattooed image the Brothers shared was that of a mushroom. The mushroom has become a symbol of the band ever since.

Mushrooms are wild. I know someone who’s written a book devoted to them, called Mushroom, if you’re interested. The mushroom, that slippery bulb of nature, born of decay yet teeming with life, colorless to prismatic, strangely seeping underfoot, found alone or arrayed eerily in a fairy ring. That slimy, sliding, alien, liminal organism, blooming somewhere between plant and animal. Mushrooms have been root parts of folk medicine, of alchemy, of sorcery, of recreational drug use. Some evolutionary anthropologists believe eating mushrooms caused humans to become dream animals—that is, that consuming mushrooms caused our ancestors’ brains to grow, resulting in a huge jump in consciousness, in our exit from an eternal present and entrance into a heightened capacity for thinking about the past and the future, with lots of feelings like regret, dread, possibility, and hope ensuing and filling our heads and lives. All because of mushrooms, possibly.

What are they about, mushrooms? What Aristotle didn’t know what to do with in his classifications. What Francis Bacon termed imperfect plants, for lack of better terms. What Percy Shelley called the sensitive plantpale, fleshy, as if the decaying dead with a spirit of growth had been animated. What are they after? Little fibrous intricate trapdoors to mystery, even magic. Mushrooms, our current science says, are capable of forms of sentience, exchanging information as well as nutrients through their vast underground filament systems. Mushrooms bond; they network. They join together and they repent—in the root sense of metanoia: to change your mind, to put on a larger or higher mind. Mushrooms likewise affect and heighten the consciousness of other creatures, including of course humans. They offer a gateway to metanoia. The gate of heaven is everywhere, including even or especially mushrooms.

The opening gate to the Allman Brothers Big House Museum in Macon, Georgia is emblazoned with a big mushroom emblem surrounded by little mushrooms that opens up right in the middle to let you inside. As far as symbols go, for the Allmans, the mushroom was a good pick, much in the way of the cross for Christians.

*

One time at an Allmans show in the North Carolina mountains, a friend of mine brought a bag of mushrooms with him. Throughout the show, he just kept eating the mushrooms, like he was snacking, until he looked down and there was nothing but an empty bag. On our way driving back home down a state highway, he yelled for us to pull over. For some reason, the driver complied. Our friend leaped out, beelined across a frontyard, right up the steps and opened the front door. We ran in after him. He calmly walked past the old couple watching TV in their living room, informing them: Please, keep your seats. I’ll be right back. He went straight to the bathroom—he said he knew exactly where it was—and by the time he got back, we were all in the living room trying to explain the situation to the old people: We apologize, folks. It’s just he’s all messed up. A whole bag of mushrooms by himself…a whole bag!

Afterwards, that friend moved down to Athens, Georgia and started in on the music scene, making headway with a couple of CDs. Before that, we’d lived out west together in Wyoming, and I’d sometimes accompany him when he’d play acoustic sets at local restaurants and bars, singing for our supper. One of his standard covers, which he did well, was “Melissa.” At 27, he crossed the river, and hasn’t come back. Schizophrenic, off his meds, he sometimes comes by my old house, a place I haven’t lived in thirty years. Or will his spirit float away?

*

Duane Allman of course played lead and slide on eleven of the fourteen songs on the quintessential blues-rock album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970) by Derek and the Dominos, another masterpiece. That album maybe saved my life. I was a fifteen-year-old depressed kid. My vision went akimbo; I’d started seeing floaters and auras. I worried I was going blind, among other things. Our den walls were lined with planks of knotty pine paneling. We always had a row of shotguns in the rack on the wall. They were unloaded. I knew where the ammo was, in the top of the old wooden Snow White icebox my Dad’s family brought with them up from Georgia. I listened to that impossibly intense interplay of guitars—Clapton and Allman, lead and slide, Fender and Gibson, mournful and searing—again, again, again. They were immediate soulmates, brothers, two orphans together. Both recognized, in humility, that whatever was great in their playing arrived from an immensity beyond them. Eventually, the tape buckled under the weight of repetitions, unspooled. Something in the fullness of that music kept me from stepping off the side of the world at that time, let me feel somehow not unredeemed.

*

The Allman Brothers were big fans of Jimmy Carter. In 1975, when he was Georgia Governor, Carter invited ABB to come up from Macon and attend a reception at the Governor’s Mansion for Bob Dylan who was playing Atlanta on his tour. The band got held up at the studio and arrived to the reception late after the other guests had left, but Carter still asked them in. Gregg Allman recounts his first glimpse of the future U.S. President standing on the front porch of the Governor’s Mansion:

The moon must have been full, because it was real bright outside, and I could see the silhouette of this guy standing on the porch. He didn’t have on a shirt, he didn’t have any shoes on, and he had on this old pair of Levi’s, and they were seasoned down perfect, man—they were almost white. I was thinking, “I wonder who this damn hippie is, hanging out at the Governor’s Mansion?” Well, it was him—Jimmy Carter himself. (265)

Carter invited them in, and they shared stories and a bottle of J&B over a period of hours. The Allmans would agree to help sponsor Carter’s Presidential campaign, performing a benefit show in Providence, Rhode Island in November 1975. Jimmy Carter went down to Macon to hang out at the studio with the band, and they all talked about music and skeet shooting and fishing—he’s an avid fisherman (267). At one time, band members planned to become Georgia farm boys together, much in the way of Jimmy Carter, purchasing farmland outside Macon that they christened Idlewild South; they named their second album after their would-be farm, though over time they gave up the land and the notion of becoming farmers. According to Gregg Allman, Jimmy Carter’s mind was young and wide open, and it still is today (266).

*

Whenever somebody’d ask my father who he voted for for President, no matter what year it was, he’d respond: Jimmy Carter—I wrote him in. Like the Allmans, he was a big fan of Jimmy Carter, fellow Georgia boy, fellow farm boy.

*

One of my favorite pictures of Jimmy Carter has him donning an Allman Brothers Band tee under a workshirt back in 1976 while he was running for President of the United States of America. It’s a Win, Lose, or Draw shirt. This was not a particularly memorable album, and not a particularly memorable tour. But it’s a show of good loyalty, of past faith and future promise.

President Carter, 99 years young, illustrates a life and liveliness for others. Up until he entered hospice, he was still teaching Sunday school outside Plains, Georgia and helping build houses for Habitat for Humanity. If some days I wake up disheartened, it’s bracing to remember Jimmy Carter is still alive in this world.

*

I love Jimmy Carter additionally for inviting to serve as his Inaugural Poet James Dickey, a Georgia boy who relocated to South Carolina. I cross myself and spare a thought and prayer for Mr. Dickey each day on my way from my home in Murrells Inlet down to my work in Georgetown. Dickey lies eternally in the shade of a lofty spreading bearded oak within the venerable All Saints Cemetery in Pawleys Island. His stone, usually adorned with shells left in his honor, is visible from the roadway.

*

Another favorite picture is of Duane Allman at the famed Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama. He’s got big cushioned studio headphones on with the curly wire running out, his glorious 1957 Les Paul goldtop resting on his right knee, and he’s sitting relaxed sprawled out on the carpeted studio floor, leaned up next to a wood door. He’s wearing a 1960s patterned shirt, a black vest, and striped pants. Pretty standard rock guitarist fare for the time, like something Clapton would wear. I love the shine off the top of his right boot, and the scuff-marks on the bottom of his turned-up left boot-heel. This contrasting combination to me says much about the nature of Duane, of his ultra-capacity for contrasting combinations, commingling roughness-in-smoothness, chaos-in-order, ruin-in-play, play-in-ruin. He’s also sporting some gloriously full mutton-chops dovetailing seamlessly with his handlebar mustache, crowned with his down-the-middle-parted straight long hair. The photo is black-and-white, but you can feel the vibrant red sheen of his locks, the sharp metallic gleam of the Les Paul’s smooth curves. And, best of all, he’s got a marvelous half-smile on his face, eyebrows arched. Loose and disciplined, calm and focused. He knows what he’s about.

*

I’m happy to count as a friend the scholar Ernest Suarez. Ernie is a prolific, foundational expert on Southern literature, and especially on Southern poetry, which is near and dear to my heart. He wrote a book on James Dickey, whom he knew well and visited many times, often staying with him near my present home in Murrells Inlet at Dickey’s summer place at Litchfield on Pawleys Island. Ernie also is a preeminent scholar of rock and blues, treating these seriously as critical art forms. Dr. Suarez is a distinguished chaired professor at Catholic University of America and for years when the Allman Brothers Band toured in D.C., Ernie invited and hosted the band members in class with him. He would have 500 students enroll in these classes. He now does the same with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, featuring Duane’s doppelganger Derek.

Ernie visited me here on the South Carolina coast a couple of years ago. We went together to pay our respects to James Dickey’s grave in All Saints Cemetery. My second favorite graveyard in this world. Despite his achievements, Ernie is beautifully humble, but knowing my interests, he kept sharing stories about Dickey. Each time, I suffered a pleasant lag, waiting to decipher whether he was headed into a tale about James Dickey or Dickey Betts, since he has a storehouse of both. And both Dickeys come across as immensely talented, if untamed; they lived wild and unencumbered much of the time. And both were prone to emotional upheavals, a measure of their wide-ranging, glinting personalities. And, to be sure, strict sobriety does not figure highly into most tales concerning either Dickey.

And as I’ve given most weight to Duane’s guitar here, Dickey Betts, also one of the best of his generation, deserves his due, and got it recently from an old fellow musical traveler plus a recent Nobel Laureate in Literature: Play “Blue Sky,” play Dickey Betts

*

Gregg Allman ends his autobiography with a curious turn:

I must have said this a million times, but if I died today, I have had me a blast. I really mean that—if I fell over dead right now, I have led some kind of life. I wouldn’t trade it for nobody’s, but I don’t know if I’d do it again. If somebody offered me a second round, I think I’d have to pass on it. (378)

This is puzzling. If your life is gangbusters, why not rinse and repeat? I feel there’s a deeper wisdom here that surpasses my understanding. Maybe it’s a sense that your experience is your own, that it shouldn’t just keep on going. Sufficient unto the day is the evil (and joy) thereof. When day is done, it’s done, each in its ordered place. A reflection, then, of Saint Gregg’s ultimate presentness. Gregg Allman, the younger son, had his reasons. His day is done now. Somehow I think he meant this closing thought to remain unclear, cryptic, a bit vatic. Everyone figure it out for yourself.

Gregg Allman seems at the end to be naming a desire to disconnect, to end the cycles, laying down all his crosses to bear, piling them on the fire to burn away. For him, life is complete in itself—all presentness, no futurity, one way out. Me, I still long to only connect. I long for linkages, those winding, interlocking loops and circling overlaps forged in unlooked-for ways, and I feel I’ve found and experienced several and sundry through the Allman Brothers Band, and some of these have struck and uplifted my life with the power of revelation.

*

Such half-submerged connections are what Southern writer Daniel Wallace—also, my cousin through our old Virginia line—describes in This Isn’t Going to End Well (2023) as influence: the recipe that makes us the unique, bewildering, beautiful and sometime insane creatures we end up becoming (236). Wallace talks about how influence often occurs tacitly, by an invisible hand—like a contact high…a kind of mysterious osmosis (236). Influence is tacit, yet intense, powerful in its capacity to form identity: We’re unknowable even to ourselves because of the unknown influences that shape us, like underground rivers flowing through our souls, unseen (236). Influence describes the subtle, yet immense ways that Duane Allman impacted myriad minds and worlds, including mine, though he was dead before I was born.

*

There’s a faux Peanuts cartoon I see from time to time circulating on social media. It’s got Charlie Brown in one of his trademark dejected poses, shoulders slumped, head hanging, and the word balloon above him reads: I still miss Duane Allman. Brother, I know the feeling. Many must have it, some poet said.

I still miss Duane Allman. I still miss my friend, gone across the river. I still miss Jimmy Carter, not yet gone. I still miss my son brimming with youth and sunlight among the weather-soiled stones under the stark tumbledown lengths of ancient Saint Andrews Cathedral. I still miss so many things. But things keep coming, filling the gaps. The blazing sea through the hollow stainless windows of Saint Andrews keeps rolling, always forward, coming this way. I can’t complain, if I always do. With all due respect to Saint Gregg, I lean heavily into connectedness, into coming back for more, even into endless rounds.

*

The bright ruins of Saint Andrews, a stained glass window or lack thereof, young men shot dead for no good reason, a former U.S. President, magic mushrooms, James Dickey’s grave, Coricidin bottles. Such vague associations, esoteric and drifting, yet they all converge, in my mind, into one vast underground river of influence. For me, the sublime influence of the Allman Brothers music contains the power to link them all in good order. I see these disparate, luminous moments as blinking signal fires crossing black gorges and distant outcrops, seeking assurance. I like to believe these sundry things still connect to a core flame, some shared power of goodness, if scattered far and away over the seasons, all part of the same loose, wandering fire. And it shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not put it out.

*

 

Works Cited:

Allman, Gregg. My Cross to Bear. With Alan Light. New York: William Morrow, 2012.

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Creation. 3.3. London: T&T Clark, 2010.

Dickey, James. Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968.

Kimball, Greg. Review of At Fillmore East. Rolling Stone August 19, 1971. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/at-fillmore-east-188323/

Merton, Thomas. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. New York: Image, 1968.

Poe, Randy. Skydog: The Duane Allman Story. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2006.

Rich, Sara. Mushroom. New York: Bloomsbury, 2023.

Shane, Ed. “Duane Allman Radio Interview.” WPLO-FM Radio Atlanta, 1970. https://archive.org/details/duane-allman-show-1970-wplo-atlanta/10.+Conversation.flac

St. Clair, Jeffrey. “‘The Army Ain’t No Place for a Black Man’: How the Wolf Got Caged.” CounterPunch May 24, 2019. https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/05/24/the-army-aint-no-place-for-a-black-man-how-the-wolf-got-caged/

Trucks, Butch. “Whipping Post!” New York Times Book Review May 8, 2005. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/08/opinion/whipping-post-876720.html

Vonnegut, Jr., Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death. New York: Dial Press, 2009.

Wallace, Daniel. This Isn’t Going to End Well: The True Story of a Man I Thought I Knew. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2023.

“What is Workshop For?”: On Utopia and Critique in the Creative Writing Classroom

On utopia

There’s a moment in Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed that stopped me in my tracks the first time I read it. I know that’s a cliché, but ever since cramming for my comprehensive exams, I’ve stopped reading slowly, stopped pausing to reread a sentence, to turn it over in my mind. I skim now, something I never did before, even books I’m reading solely for pleasure. My mind is like a train, not a highspeed one gliding seamlessly through the landscape, but something clumsy and rusted, barreling, the engine coughing a thick dust, moving mostly by momentum. For my mind to stop is rare, and especially rare are those moments that do not cause cataclysm, when instead of skittering off the tracks, I am somehow lifted up into a pause, a sense of weightlessness, brief as it may be.

Le Guin’s novel’s subtitle is “an ambiguous utopia” and it follows Shevek, a physicist born on an anarchist moon, as he travels to and tries to reconnect with the culture, people, and science of his ancestral home. In the particular moment that stopped me, Shevek, is (attempting to) teach the students of an elite university in a capitalist state, students who, despite being the same species, are utterly alien to him.

The university demands that he give tests and grades, and he does so begrudgingly, telling the students that if he must grade, he will give everyone the highest mark. The students protest: if he did so, “how could the diligent students be distinguished from the dull ones? What was the good in working hard? If no competitive distinctions were to be made, one might as well do nothing” (Le Guin 128).

The physicist’s reply is striking: “‘Well, of course,’ Shevek said, troubled. ‘If you do not want to do the work, you should not do it’” (Le Guin 128).

Le Guin’s utopia is “ambiguous” in part because of the struggles and failures of her main character. Shevek is not presented as a savior or as a fool, but as a flawed being trying to reach across the gap between other beings. Her writing takes seriously the differences between people, the limits of communication, the ways in which culture shapes us, and how it can create—at times unbridgeable—divides. In his response to his students, Shevek is not being passive-aggressive or challenging, he is genuinely concerned. In his anarchist society, and more importantly, in his being, for one person to force another to do something is to commit the greatest crime. He fears he has unwittingly become an enforcer. He cannot comprehend the forces that shape his student’s situation, that remove certain choices from their privileged lives.

 

On students

In my undergraduate program, creative writing workshop courses were mandatory pass/fail. We would sometimes receive written comments on our work, more often verbal ones in the classroom. As we were encouraged to do, I often took other courses pass/fail, but, like most future professors, I was the typical “A student.” Though too shy and overwhelmed to grade-grub or ask for extra credit, I constantly sought validation, any sign that I deserved to be where I was, surrounded by the moneyed elite. Though I knew I wouldn’t be getting a grade, I craved and coveted the check-plusses professors would sometimes mark on my stories and poetry translations. I eagerly awaited the note that might accompany a final project of a pass/fail course, the note that said that if I had chosen the grade option for the course, I would have earned an “A.” In my creative writing MFA program, the grading of creative work was virtually non-existent. You often received your only grade at the end of the semester and, unless you had failed to turn any work in, it was nearly always an “A.” In creative writing courses, the real assessment was in workshop, where one’s potential shame or glory awaited.

In one of my first undergraduate workshops, in the days when teachers handed out printed syllabi, I remember being confronted with an image on the front page of the syllabus. A black and white photo, slightly pixelated, of a doorway overflowing with books. The books were not stacked neatly, but piled with disdain, their covers open, pages bent, tumbling from the shadows of the background into the crowded limen. Beneath the photo was a quote whose exact words I cannot remember, but whose sentiment terrorized me. The quote went something along these lines: it is not a question of there not being enough books, but too many. There are already too many books and too many writers.

Perhaps I misread the quote, perhaps it was meant humorously or flippantly or was just a moment of poor judgement by a beginning teacher, but the message to me at the time was clear: there are people who belong here and people who don’t. Prove that you belong, that you are the best, that your work is as good as the best, or you’ll be kicked to the curb like so much trash. I thought I might look up the actual quotation for this essay, but I don’t want to waste my time on that thankless task, those words have already taken so much time from me. Looking back on this moment, I remember that the instructor was a graduate student, in probably their first week of teaching their own class. What made this student writer need to guard the gates of their art so fervently? What did they fear? And what allowed them to set aside that fear, to be, after they handed out the syllabus, a wonderful teacher, someone I learned from, who in many ways started my own path as a writer?

 

On different models

For the first workshop I taught at the University of Maryland, in my first “real” teaching job after years of graduate school, I adapted a method from the writer Jesse Ball. The traditional and most popular creative writing workshop model is called the Iowa method, because it came to popularity at the famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I didn’t know quite why I wanted to do something different than Iowa, I only knew that I did. I think I would have been terrified that first day—first weeks, first year—no matter what, but I also felt that I was perhaps a little mad to be trying something so strange, to be deviating from almost every workshop I’d ever taken (which after three degrees was quite a few) right as I was starting a job I was terrified of losing.

In the Iowa method, the writer shares their work before class and then the work is discussed in class while the writer stays silent. Some teachers structure discussion—beginning with positive observations or summaries—some just preside (benignly or not) over a free-for-all of criticism. The writer’s silence is central to this method, the argument being that if the story or poem was in a reader’s or editor’s hands the writer would not have the chance to justify their choices or explain away concerns. The silence is meant to replicate the distance between the writer and reader in the “real world.” The criticism is meant to replicate the writer magically bridging that distance and sitting in a room while their work is torn to shreds. I exaggerate, a little. Workshop can be like that, but it isn’t always, so much depends on the students, and a great deal more on the teacher. Though the Iowa method was the primary method in undergraduate and graduate school, it wasn’t until late in my doctorate studies that I learned it even had a name, a specific history, or that there might be different ways to teach workshop.

Jesse Ball’s method, “The Asking,” that I was adapting for my first semester as a tenure-track professor, was much more complicated, with many steps and roles. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll say that it is structured in exactly the opposite way as the Iowa method. Students read the writer’s work and then, rather than bringing in prepared letters and arguments for and against the work, ask the author questions in class. Through a mediator, the author can decline any question or answer in any way they choose. Ball noted that one of the benefits of this method was that not all of the readers asking the questions even needed to have read the story; a good listener could read the room and ask a question whose process of answering would benefit both writer and other readers. The point of Ball’s conversation, based on Quaker dialogues, was not for the writer to defend her choices, but to make discoveries, make mistakes, “contradict herself” and “try out different positions relative to her work” (Ball 114). The role of the teacher was to ask questions alongside the students, to intervene only when “larger issues” demanded such (Ball 114). There were no suggestions given, no judgements of the works pronounced, either positive or negative. There were no line edits.

That first semester, I had adapted Ball’s method in a way that increased my role as a teacher (in addition to “the asking” there was a time for criticism at the end), yet even so I feared that I’d be pilloried for attempting this nonsense. But I needed to do it. I’d felt that there was something wrong about how I had been teaching workshop. As a graduate student teacher, I had kept asking myself, what is workshop for? The method of critiquing a silent writer, trying to improve through prescription stories that were usually written the night before, didn’t feel like an answer or even a path towards an answer. I don’t believe everyone who teaches the Iowa method is doing something wrong. I just knew, though I wasn’t yet able to articulate why, that this method did not work for me. It brought out a little tyrant in me, a need to grow tall by keeping others on their knees. Another part of me, that silent part of me that acts without worry or words, knew this tyrant well, and dragged her and the rest of me kicking and screaming along.

That first semester was a mixed bag. Some class sessions went wonderfully, some not so well. One of the biggest hindrances was my inability to actually follow through with the method I had created. In Ball’s method, the role of the teacher is less obvious and overt. I had just landed a tenure-track job and I felt like an impostor. The only path I could figure out to prove I wasn’t a fraud was to constantly perform how much I knew, give all the advice I had to offer, fix all the problems in my students’ stories. I often told my students not to carry the burden of fixing their peers’ work, yet I could not cast that burden off myself.

 

On the tyrant

I keep rereading The Dispossessed. I don’t quite know why. It’s far from a perfect book. Samuel Delany, among others, critique Le Guin for her narrowness of imagination regarding questions of gender, sexuality, and otherness. And it’s not an easy book: there’s violence, moral ambiguity, preaching. But I keep turning back to it, and reading it gives me great pleasure. I suppose, in this imagined utopia, I am looking for answers.

In one scene in the book, Shevek tours a historical museum of the capitalist nation state A-Io. In the museum is a “discolored, time-tattered rag:” it is the cloak of Queen Teaea, and it is made of the “tanned skins of rebels flayed alive” (Le Guin 217).

The sight makes Shevek sick, he leaves the museum, he confronts his guide, asking her: “Why do you cling to your shame?” (Le Guin 217). Later, his guide tells him: “I know that you’ve got a—a Queen Teaea inside you…And she orders you around just like the old tyrant did her serfs” (Le Guin 218).

‘“That’s where she belongs,”’ Shevek says, “Inside my head” (Le Guin 218).

 

On revision and redemption

One of the critiques of writing teachers, from students and others, is that we talk a great deal about revision, yet give so little space for it in the classroom. One reason for this is technical: the revision of a story can take months or years. Though it’s possible to work with graduate or honors students for an extended period of time, for most students the time needed for a story to knock around in the back of your head for a while until it figures out what it is simply doesn’t fit within the academic schedule. But I think there’s another reason for the lack of thoughtful and thorough instruction of revision in creative writing classes: that little tyrant, whether in the head and out. Peter Ho Davies writes that American writers (especially beginning writers) are perhaps uniquely against revision. I agree. Our society is built on punishment buttressed by a lie of scarcity. We do not believe there is enough justice or joy to go around. We do not believe in redemption, in real redemption, by which I mean when a crime is committed and the person changes afterwards, not the anti-hero, if-you-only-learn-his-side-of-the-story redemption that we are fed on prestige television. If you truly believe in redemption, you can’t execute anyone, you can’t put anyone in a prison built for torture, you can’t shoot to kill. In comparison to those instances, the revision of a story in a fiction workshop seems unimportant, but in adrienne maree brown’s fractal conception, we are each cells in the great human organism, each of our acts a microcosm of and connection to the whole. Plus, I believe in art, no matter what. I’ve come to believe that there’s a real cruelty, and perhaps more importantly, an ignorance, in tearing down students’ stories, even if they never hear the words you say about them. A narrow-minded judgement of students’ work precludes its potential—its ability to become more complex, more beautiful, more itself.

All of us who teach have had the experience of being shocked into delight by the changes a student has made in their work. Selfishly, the delight is heightened when I can track the words I said to a blossoming in the work, but more often, students come to places I couldn’t have imagined, make choices I couldn’t have prescribed. In addition to this delight, I know that there are there shifts that I don’t notice, but that exist, and aesthetic developments I don’t prefer, but that speak to the writer and will speak to other readers. I know there is everything that will happen after the class, all that I do not and cannot know. Writing is a long game, I tell my students, and you don’t age out. I’ve come to believe that the only thing that distinguishes writers is not any gift they come to the classroom with, but the choice or chance to continue writing. To continue the long, lonely process of building a relationship with language, of building worlds out of words. Though I can often see where a person is in a particular moment, I’m certainly in no position to judge what anyone will make next month, next year, next decade. It is this infinite possibility that allows me to keep teaching.

 

On practicalities

I have always been deeply uncomfortable grading my own courses, especially my students’ creative work. After years of agonizing, of rubrics I couldn’t make myself follow, of hours spent trying to justify a percentage point up or down, I have largely stopped grading creative writing. If you do the work—a thorough and honest endeavor—you get full credit. There’s some wiggle room and allowances, but, in short, though I read and comment on a great deal of students’ writing, I do not grade a great deal of their work. I believe in this choice, not as the only choice a teacher can make, but as the only one available to me, the only one in which I can stay true to myself and be the best mentor possible. The end results are clear: my students’ work has not in any way worsened, in fact, by all measures that I can notice, it has only improved, perhaps because not grading has allowed me to be a better teacher.

Since that first semester in 2017, many others have written about the limits and failures of the Iowa model, have proposed new methods, reimagined older ones. As I kept teaching and researching, I learned that I was not the only one that found something poisonous and violent in the traditional workshop. Reading this new writing was like having my own mind and experience whispered back to me, all the formless mess of my fear and anxiety articulated and clarified. When I started down this path I felt so alone, that what I was thinking must be wrong, that I was the only one hammering away at this boulder. Yet I was not alone, not in the least. Down the hall, even, my colleagues were hammering at the boulder as well, until slowly we created a tiny passage that allowed us to see each other, that let a little light in.

Over the years, I’ve worked out a dialogue-based workshop method that I believe works for me and my students: students share what is meaningful in the work, the author asks questions, the readers ask questions. I’ll keep adapting and changing it, but I’ve used the one I have now for several semesters and it feels both comfortable and elastic. I’ve found ways to adapt it to many different students’ different needs. To do so I drew on Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process and the pedagogy of June Jordon, bell hooks, and Felicia Rose Chavez. I adapted a cold workshop method from Noah Eli Gordon. I drew—less on the structure, that on the spirit—of a wonderful workshop taught by Reginald McKnight, where he read each story aloud in class and we discussed it after hearing it, never laying eyes on the printed page. I learned a great deal from a former graduate student, Maiasia Grimes, who argues for the importance of centering the writer in the workshop conversation. And another crucial piece of advice came from the writer and teacher Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn, who told me that she does away with criticism all together in workshop. In hearing Alysia first describe her method, by brain fluttered, and then I was reminded of something Nikki Giovanni said once in an interview: that she doesn’t tell students what is wrong with their work, just what is right with it. They already know what is wrong.

So essential is judgement and criticism to traditional creative writing workshops, that it took me years to be comfortable with these concepts. But once I realized I didn’t have to close with critiques, a dialogue-based model opened for me. I found that the workshops were just as helpful and engaging without the space for unbridled criticism. This method is not just a series of compliments, honest or otherwise, as I feared would be the result if I took Giovanni’s words seriously. Students have lively conversations about their work, are able to both celebrate and examine the work freely. I tell writers that the questions they ask can be broad (What’s working, what isn’t?) or narrow, focused on a specific aspect. If they want prescriptive comments, they can ask for them, but I’ve found that using this model, readers are less likely to give unasked-for prescriptions, or to feel that fixing the story is their job.

Most of my workshops are in peer-led small groups. Students break into groups, read each other’s work in class, then talk about it. Instead of only workshopping a few people a week, everyone’s story is workshopped each class. I feared at first that without my constant guidance nothing would be learned, or that I was somehow cheating by letting students do my job for me. But the result is that there are more stories, more conversations, more teachers in the room. The method is far from perfect, it’s chaotic, messy—one group always finishes first, the group with me in it always finishes last because I still can’t stop talking. Everyone has a voice as loud and as important as everyone else, including the author, and everyone is making art and making mistakes. I may be kidding myself, but the students often seem to be enjoying the work, they seem to want to do the work.

 

On what a workshop is for

I’ve asked myself this question for years. And after teaching and observing and learning from students and other writers, I keep returning to an answer I first encountered outside of the classroom. In 1980, artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña asked passersby in Bogota “What is poetry to you?” She received many answers, but her favorite was “Que prosiga,” which she translates as “That it may go on.” How simple. How true. In this answer, there exists a cosmology without hierarchy, without tearing-down, with only participants. The only goal to continue making art, to help as many people as possible make art. I’ve come to see workshop as a part of this practice of continuance, both the process and product of keeping on, of going on. What else could workshop be for?

 

 

 

Works Cited/Referenced:

Ball, Jesse. Notes from my Dunce Cap. Pioneer Works Press, 2016.

bell, hooks. Teaching to Transgress. Routledge, 1994.

brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy. AK Press, 2017.      

Chavez, Felicia Rose. The Anti-Racist Creative Writing Workshop. Haymarket, 2021.

Davies, Peter Ho. The Art of Revision. Graywolf, 2021.

Delany, Samuel. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. Wesleyan University Press, 2009.

Jordan, June. June Jordan’s Poetry for the People. Routledge, 1995.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. Harper Voyager, 1974.

Lerman, Liz. Critical Response Process. Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, 2003.

Vicuña, Cecilia. “Language is Migrant.” Poetry Foundation.

Punk

Pop splintered into a pileup of horses lead single file to the glue factory. Furious animal violence threading the needle, tranquilized by constant injustice, the immense minority rose, gassed out of the rubble, segregated and sedated worms after rain sucking air on the surface, built from broken promises and poisoned expectations, trisexual religion wrapped in barbed wire and safety pins, piles of concrete blocks, fragments made of germs, bones, and electric bacteria, digging graves while whistling through the cuts, bricks edged against dilapidated ghost town storefronts, borders that hold nothing inside, where Little Richard and Iggy Pop clasp hands, unleashing the transfer of dangerous energy, the blues raped by beach boys who ate speed until the heroin kicked in and then the distorted amps shot hardcore rooster chords out of their leather cases and fell down, smeared in peanut butter and razor blades, blurred acid mascara kicked out the jams, motherfucker, loud fast pigs gigged in bathroom stalls from Detroit to the Bowery and bashed their guitars on the railroad tracks, then threw the pieces into tar pits, cherry bombs jammed into slits, hepatitis prison tats, choke chains and padlocks were spit in gobs out of the maw with stamina, swaddled like a reggae zipper baby in fashionable destruction and filth, pandemonium laced with red leather, rhinestones, and CBGB jackets. Whose dog are you, anyway, with your bad brains and bated breath? If you don’t die from this, then you’re not doing it right.

The Ballad of Wendy O

Watching the WOW Concert, Live in London, 1985 with Wendy Orlean Williams in full pogo radical true soul feminist, environmental activist who knew the greenhouse effect was killing us in the 70’s who terrified Tom Snyder awake a veteran of 42nd Street sex shows annoyed by obscenity charges she made the first thrash album buried deep in a record volume of writhing maggots self-confessed exorcist, whose skunk mohawk repelled rapists and murderers exploder of used cars, mistress of the sledgehammer and the chainsaw, greatest destroyer of TV’s and electric guitars, sexual dervish massaging the enlarged prostate of the entire world relief and release pacifist, with an inability to turn the other cheek with spikes driven through her hands and feet she preached Maggots get down on your hands and knees and pledge allegiance to yourself whose duct-taped nipples conducted their own separate symphonies and destroyed televangelists with a wink bodies unmoored, adrift and flying always seek immersion, speed, sex, precision primal screams and maniacal cardio routines You are welcome to my entire empire of dirt & grease rock and roll is a chainsaw-wielding sprite in a leather bikini and bobby socks saying Fuck with me at your peril as all reluctant fundamentalism is obliterated Throw your body into the black Do not be blotted out by the night Hug the cactus and fight there are no mosquito nets no wall against the man-eating tiger drenched in power and unable to develop a happy ending Wendy spit, sat lotus in the Black Forest and positioned a bullet in her brain

The History of Punk

I am not a naturally formed fan of Punk rock music. I am from the school of The Allman Bros., Zep, and Steely Dan. Art Tatum, Bird, and Trane. Mozart, Stravinsky, and Bach. Being able to play and play well is the minimum requirement. Punk Rock spits a gob on that old chestnut. If you cannot throw your body into the fray, do not show up. Three chords and a fierce gallop gets you to the stage, the ability to push the accelerator to the floor and to not let up. The only posing allowed is when your look occupies significant space in the head of The Man. In the 60’s you had to take sides. There was you (Us) and there was The Man (Them). They ran things and told you what to do. In the 70’s there was only You. Fuck The Man. We own the Bricks now. And when The Man puts up a plate of glass, we throw one. When The Man screams Censorship, we laugh and count the profits. When The Man screams Respectability, we throw up a finger and hold up a mirror. Hippie Style was a gathering, an inevitability, assimilated by the Boomers who built it in the first place. Punk Style was a reaction and a release. Hippie Style got old and drank organic fair-trade coffee and bought electric cars. They religiously followed The Grateful Dead, who became the greatest money-making band on Earth. Punk Style never got old, or as Neil Young famously wrote of Sid Vicious, the bass player for The Sex Pistols, “better to burn out than fade away.” Kurt Cobain quoted the line in his suicide note.

But, of course, there are exceptions to every rule. The Godfather of Punk, Iggy Pop, is still alive, still making records and still shirtless. Now the Grandfather of Punk, he maintains that “he singlehandedly ended the 60’s.” Patti Smith has won the National Book Award for her Punk memoirs. Henry Rollins publishes his own books and gets paid handsomely to show up and tell road stories from his days fronting Black Flag. David Johansen, like David Bowie before him, turned silver haired crooner and adopted the pseudonym, Buster Poindexter, to satirically mimic lounge and swing and rockabilly for his own purposes and is interviewed and consulted on the history of rock music when he isn’t acting or playing DJ. Johnny Rotten remains the single best interview ever, the undisputed champ for truth-telling and outrageous quotes, such as “Early Seventies Britain was a very depressing place. It was completely run-down, there was trash on the streets, total unemployment—just about everybody was on strike. Everybody was brought up with an education system that told you point blank that if you came from the wrong side of the tracks…then you had no hope in hell and no career prospects at all. Out of that came pretentious moi and the Sex Pistols and then a whole bunch of copycat wankers after us.”

Some people think that Punk in Britain began when 19-year-old Rotten was spotted on King’s Road wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt with the words I Hate handwritten above the band’s name and holes scratched through the eyes. It was held together with safety pins, and the next day he was asked to be the lead singer for Michael McLarens’ Sex Pistols. Punk had already been roaring along in America for years, though no one knew it yet. MC5 was kicking out the jams in Detroit, motherfuckers, since at least 1963. Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry are some of rock and roll’s founding fathers, and all battled complacency in the public’s initial response to their work, but their rockabilly is a foundational aspect of the Punk ethos and a self-made, do it yourself attitude permeated the golden age of Punk. From the beginning, non-conformity and rebellion were two of the cornerstones of rock and roll. In the movie, The Wild Ones, Marlon Brando’s character is asked, “What are you rebelling against?” His reply, “What do you got?”

Throughout the 1960’s, bands like Question Mark and the Mysterions, the manic surf guitar of Dick Dale, The Standells, and The Blues Magoos all had Punk aspects to their music that would later become the gristle for some of the first Punk compositions. Lenny Kaye’s album compilations from 1965-68, called NUGGETS, featured garage bands which he believed were artifacts of the Psychedelic Era and his liner notes referred to these bands as “punk rock,” and an ideology began to crystallize. The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” was Punk, Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” was Punk, “Gloria” by Them was Punk. Then Andy Warhol’s Factory spawned The Velvet Underground, which wove hippie fashion, nihilism, literary themes, and a druggy sheen with straightforward memorable guitar riffs coming from the mind of Lou Reed to induce a unique feeling in their audience. Producer Brian Eno said that hardly anyone bought Velvet Underground records, but everyone who did started a band.

Out of these disparate elements The Stooges emerged, mixing primal beats and slabs of authentic guitar distortion with brutal and psychologically honest lyrics spit by Iggy Pop, who took The Doors, the Blues, and the Glam spirit and became one of the cornerstones of the eclectic and rapidly evolving Punk movement. Raw power in 2-or-3-minute bursts, perfected by The New York Dolls and the supersonic tight arrangements of The Ramones, birthed a seafaring monster that crawled upon the shore of England and The Sex Pistols caught it, killed it, cooked it, and ate it. The Vietnam War had lasted from 1965-1975 causing tectonic shifts in the youth culture, and the giant rock bands, The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Led Zeppellin, and the Prog Rock behemoths were starting to stagger under the weight of their own excesses. And then Disco appeared. The Punks hated all of this and sought to sweep these dinosaurs off the face of the Earth. The French Symbolists, like Rimbaud and Verlaine, along with the Beat heroes, Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac were influencing the aberrant philosophy of the scene and a subgenre of poets and writers like Patti Smith, Jim Carroll, Kathy Aker, and Luc Sante arrived with the same vitriolic spirit as the bands. William Gibson developed the idea of the cyberpunk in his seminal novel, Neuromancer. In New York, Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s became the greenhouses where all these aspects could bloom and grow.

The first of the two poems that accompany this essay, “PUNK,” was written with the same immediate need for speed and propulsion as the best Punk songs. I originally wanted the poem  to sprawl like a slash of graffiti across the white space of the page, but I was reminded that bands like The Ramones and Bad Brains were highly disciplined composers of their songs and they wanted them to punch the audience, to leave a bone bruise. Many of the early Punk compositions lacked a discernible chorus, or they were ALL chorus, repeatedly shouted over the guitars’ abrasive attacks. I settled on a middle ground, little to no punctuation, with short, abrupt line breaks, so that the poem tumbled headlong down the page, a piece of hungry momentum admitting no impediments to its rhythm, like punching a speed bag over and over, very quickly. The first time the poem slows is at the end when it looks in the mirror and asks “Whose / dog are you, anyway, with your bad / brains and bated breath?” As a consequence, the poem is essentially posing the question that most early Punks asked themselves and their audience. Whose side are you on? And the line echoes two Punk references, The Stooges’ song “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” and the mention of the DC band, Bad Brains, easily one of the most musically accomplished Punk outfits, whose sheer precision and musicianship stand in stark relief to many of their counterparts.

Bad Brains formed in DC in 1976, first as Mind Power, a jazz fusion group inspired by Chick Corea and Mahavishnu Orchestra, but eventually changed its name and vision after discovering The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, and The Damned. The band’s name is actually taken from The Ramone’s song, “Bad Brain.” Their original influences alone set the band apart and their longevity is also antithetical to the typical abbreviated life of most Punk bands. With a short break in the mid-90’s, and through many lineup changes, the band has continued to record and play live until the present day. Of course, their very existence is at odds with the poem’s last line: “If you don’t die / from this, then you’re not doing it right.” From the beginning, the term “punk” has always been in direct opposition to the virile, aggressive, take no prisoners ethos of the bands. In prison, “to be punked,” is to become somebody’s “bitch,” a sexual subordinate to a stronger, more powerful person. A “punk” was originally a term that was applied to prostitutes in the 1500’s. Shakespeare himself refers to a soiled dove as “a punk,” and the term later came to be associated with a hoodlum, or ruffian in the 20th century. Merriam-Webster describes punk rock as “marked by extreme and often deliberately offensive expressions of alienation and social discontent.” Which is just about right.

In my poem, I wanted the various aspects of Punk style to develop as the poem unfurls, and the hallmarks, torn T-shirts, duct tape, Mohawks, razor blades, padlocks, tattoos, piercings, and safety pins are now assimilated as part of the younger generation’s cultural fashion statements. Punk has now been homogenized for general consumption, though there is a long ugly trail of suicides, murders, and arrests dotting the history of the genre from its earliest days to the present. And some of the most dynamic and memorable performers in the history of music have fronted Punk bands, from Iggy to Johnny Rotten to Siouxsie Sioux to Glenn Danzig to Poly Styrene to H.R. to Jello Biafra to Debbie Harry to Joe Strummer to D. Boon to Kathleen Hanna, flamboyance, physicality, and irreverence have earmarked their stage personas. And the women fronting bands from The Slits to The Banshees to X-Ray Spex to Bikini Kill have had as much to say about what Punk stood for and against as the men. Which brings us to the nuclear dynamo that was known as Wendy O. Williams.

I first saw Wendy O. on the Tom Snyder Show in May, 1981. I was sitting up late at the dorm my freshman year, getting ready for the Final exams and had just turned on the TV when this manic little sprite with a skunk-colored Mohawk came bounding down the steps in the middle of the studio audience screaming “Headbangers, you know who you are!” And the band staggered into the song as Wendy ran onto the soundstage and grabbed a large bouquet of flowers, mostly gladiolas, and thrashed them to pieces against the drum kit, throwing what was left into the crowd. She was wearing what appeared to be a Scottish schoolgirl outfit, with a skirt that resembled a green and black Tartan kilt, which fully revealed her white panties, and a loosely knotted men’s tie in her white collar. She then proceeded to run nonstop stage left to stage right, singing all the while, pausing only to perch on the front hood of an orange Chevy Nova, parked suspiciously onstage, first time to spread her legs and show her crotch and the second time to stick out her bottom and shake it ferociously into the camera as it moved in to get the closeup and then she was off again, up the stairs, around the drum riser, circling cross-dressing guitar player Richie Stotts in his leather skirt and Travis Bickle blue Mohawk who towered at least a foot over her. Stotts then dives into the crowd, rolls down 4 or 5 aisles, and flops back onto the stage as Wendy begins stuffing broken glad pieces in her mouth and spitting them into the crowd. As the outro kicks in, the drummer goes to double time and Wendy starts jumping up and down with her arms raised in Olympic victory screaming, “You’re all headbangers! You’re all headbangers!” Then the downbeat and the band exits stage right, with the studio crowd going nuts. This all takes place in less than 3 minutes.

My mouth had dropped open like I was in shock. I could not believe what I had just seen. But that was just the warmup. After Snyder derided the band for blowing up a TV and sawing a guitar in half on their last appearance, Williams answered by saying, “In today’s society it seems normal to see rape and murder on the news, but if somebody blows up a TV it is viewed as crazy. Everything’s all out of whack. I am exorcising the evil in society when I’m smashing these things.” Snyder then says that maybe her audience might widen if she calmed down her stage act, while the audience screamed him down, saying “We love you, Wendy! WE love you!” Wendy reminds Snyder that they make money at what they do, and then says that “Materialism is rampant in our culture, and we don’t believe that money should rule our lives or our art. We are bound and determined to upend the status quo and this is the ultimate fuck you to this society.” Of course, the fuck you was bleeped out. She then slyly asks, “You don’t mind that I parked my car on stage, do you?” When Snyder asks her if she ever worries that her act will cause someone to possibly hurt her as the band gets bigger, she says, “You’re talking about the difference between Pluralism and Fascism and everybody has the same cosmic right to express their energy. And Fascism is when people want to beat you over the head to do what they want you to do. We are here to stomp that out, to have people pledge allegiance to themselves.” She says all this in an even tone, smiling adorably all the while, reminds Snyder that she is a pacifist and that smashing the TV and the guitar are a relief and a release for herself and her audience and that these items have no life force, that she is reminding people not to be dominated by materialism. She then gives Snyder a peck on the cheek, bounces back onto the stage, leads the band into a version of their new song, “Master Plan,” spray paints Fuck the Status Quo on the Nova, takes a sledgehammer and busts out the windshield, the headlights, and throws what looks like two sticks of dynamite through the window and blows the car up on live TV. The hood flies off, the wheels come off, and the band never stops rocking. Snyder looks like he swallowed a porcupine.

I’ve included the description of the Tom Snyder appearance here because it so succinctly shows what Wendy and the Plasmatics were capable of in their prime. And like the saying goes, you never forget your first time. While putting together a recent radio show on Punk music, I rewatched Wendy O. Williams, Live in London, 1985 and was blown away all over again at the tight arrangements and the absolute command of the stage that Williams exhibited just four years after the mayhem of the Snyder show. She was a better singer, band leader, and messenger than the previous incarnation, and I have rarely seen any rock show that could compare with the sold-out spectacle of the London concerts. Williams was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance for the album, WOW, in 1985, and she was at the height of her popularity and her power as a solo artist. WOW is the first solo album by Williams and was produced by Gene Simmons, who also co-wrote many of the songs and the music represents a true hard rock offering, with more metal influences than the straight loose Punk arrangements of the original Plasmatics, though Wes Beech and T. C. Oliver played on the sessions, on guitar and drums respectively, joined by Simmons on bass, Michael Ray on lead guitar, and a host of other guest artists, including Ace Frehley, Paul Stanley, and Eric Carr. The Plasmatics had opened for KISS on their 1982 tour and then lost their record deal with Capitol when it was finished. Simmons offered to produce and take Wendy to Passport Records, having no mention of The Plasmatics on the recording so as not to create a stir with Capitol. The album was recorded in 1983 and released in 1984. By then, the phenomenon that was Wendy O. was in full flower.

Wendy Orlean Williams was born in 1949 in Webster, NY. Named for Daniel Webster, the famous orator, Massachusetts senator, and statesman, Webster is more a village than a city. Daniel Webster, whose most famous legal declaration was “the power to tax is the power to destroy,” argued 223 cases before the US Supreme Court and was one of the authors of the Great Compromise of 1850, which included among its mandates the Fugitive Slave Act, legislation that made Henry Cabot Lodge declare that Webster “made war inevitable by encouraging slave-holders to believe that they could always obtain anything they wanted by a sufficient show of violence.” But let’s not saddle poor wee Webster with that heavy yoke, there are, after all, 27 other towns named for Webster scattered across the country, and the Senate did name Daniel Webster one of their “Five Greatest Senators” in 1959. Suffice it to say that some of his decisions will not age well.

Little 6-year-old Wendy Williams could not have known that when she was already tap dancing on The Howdy Doody Show and learning to play clarinet. The same child that was a Girl Scout as a freshman in high school was arrested for sunbathing nude by age 15 and dropped out soon after. Her parents were “cocktail zombies,” she claimed and tried to have her institutionalized. She hitchhiked to Colorado to escape, selling crochet bikinis for money along the way. She was 16 years old and determined to educate herself. She learned to scrap and survive. A lifeguard in Florida, a stripper in a travelling dance troupe, a seriously devoted vegetarian since 1966 who was hired as a macrobiotic cook in London and was later featured on the cover of Vegetarian Times. She bounced around, studied Far Eastern religions, took mescaline and LSD, then disavowed drugs and alcohol altogether.

Her partner from 1976 until her death in 1998, Rod Swenson, a Yale graduate and a fellow at the University of Connecticut’s Center for the Ecological Study of Perception and Action, has been published in several scientific journals for his research on the laws of evolution, thermodynamics, and entropy. He was also her manager and the operator of the notorious Captain Kink’s Theatre, an anti-establishment stage company that made a name for itself by staging live sex shows long before Times Square was Disneyfied. They met when Wendy landed down at the bus station in New York City in 1976 and found the show-business magazine ad for Rod Swenson’s Sex Fantasy Theater. She started performing live sex acts and went on to star in a porno movie entitled Candy Goes to Hollywood. One of her scenes was a parody of The Gong Show where she shot ping pong balls across the stage out of her vagina. Swenson claims he heard her singing in the back of a taxi one night on the way home and came up with the concept of The Plasmatics. “Wendy was a consummate professional,” Swenson said, “always working on her craft, working on the show. She would work out hours every day, she would run six miles a day. She was totally into health food. When we were on the road, she always made sure the band was well fed. No processed meats, no white bread.” She was known for refusing to wear makeup products manufactured by companies that used animals for laboratory experimentation and she was an outspoken advocate for animal rights.

What makes Wendy O compelling as a literary subject is that she is composed of a broad range of unexpected and disparate elements. She is capable of juggling a wide spectrum of opposing viewpoints at the same time, and yet despite her obvious love of chaos, she coheres like a jigsaw puzzle. All of her pieces fit. Especially when she aims the laser of her performance at an unsuspecting audience. She was arrested several times for indecent exposure, was almost always partially nude in her performances, notorious for wearing only X’s of electrical tape across her nipples and shooting a shotgun onstage, sawing guitars in half with a chainsaw, smashing TV’s with a sledgehammer, blowing up cars, and crowd surfing long before such a term was even applied to her theatrics. She was also an innovator, moving from punk to metal to thrash as seamlessly as a hawk riding a wind thermal. There was nothing else like her in rock music. And therein lies the rub as she became the hobgoblin of her era’s little minds. There was no place to put a Wendy O Williams in the landscape. The world that she represented did not exist. Her revolution was total and all-consuming. She didn’t care about money or material possessions. Her complete exhibitionism and sexual freedom was anathema to the national rise of the Moral Majority. She was an enlightened environmental feminist in an age that sought to tamp down individual freedom and a collective awareness of the harm that Capitalism was causing to our planet. She did not pander. She did not kneel. She did not capitulate. She didn’t have a chance. She was the high priestess of a church whose bell she could not unring. By 1988, she had given her last show. She was 38 years old.

The personal risk and the constant highwire act had reached its apotheosis in 1981, when Wendy resisted arrest on charges of indecency during a show in Milwaukee. Both she and Swenson were badly beaten by police, hospitalized, and jailed. It was the Reagan era. Artists were being repressed and freedom of expression came with a price. “Milwaukee wasn’t in itself a fatal blow,” Swenson said. “But we had mammoth legal bills. The police chief there was almost running his own government outside of the ordinary government, and they decided, ‘We’re gonna stop this woman, these people, here, right now.’ The legal expenses were more than our income for a year. We were in the middle of a maelstrom of our own creation.” The more popular that Wendy and The Plasmatics became there was always the need to up the ante, to push the envelope. “We knew The Ramones in their later years, it was kind of sad,” Swenson said. “I saw Johnny coming off the stage with an expression on his face, that this was a job that he hated. Wendy and I decided early on, that’s one of the things we would never do. We didn’t want to do things that sold, we wanted to do things that were interesting, new territory. After you’re blowing up cars onstage, which is a complicated and dangerous thing to do, when somebody writes in a review that ‘the obligatory car was onstage,’ you know you don’t need to do that anymore…What we didn’t want to be was the old prize fighter who kept coming back. We didn’t want to lower the quality. We didn’t want to do the thing Wendy was asked to do: ‘Can you just give us a radio song?’ When we got to a point like that, we decided we would stop. We said she was going on hiatus. But we knew she was going to stop.”

I wanted “The Ballad of Wendy O” to feel like a strange folk song that is inevitable. Traditional ballads are typically of unknown authorship, having been passed on orally from one generation to the next as part of the culture. But the most powerful ballads, about unrequited love, or murder, or alienation, have a twist, a trick ending, and tell a story. I wanted this poem to feel like a narrative, to tell the story of a warrior, a Wonder Woman, who is almost too real to be true, and as such, to be as trenchant and as tragic as Achilles. Poetry ballads are usually constructed with four-line stanzas and have a somewhat metric regularity, like “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allen Poe. That rhythmic consistency would not reward the reader when Wendy commits suicide unexpectedly at the end. I applied the same strategy to this poem as to its companion, “PUNK,” foregoing traditional punctuation, which builds internal stops and starts to the line breaks and wanted the poem to have a certain speed and majesty. “PUNK” counterpunches whereas “The Ballad of Wendy O” is more ethereal, with a regal command built into the lines with italics. I wanted this poem to stalk its opponent, trapping its adversary (which is the reader’s expectations) in the corner and imposing its strength and certainty with repeated declarations. Wendy is a bit of a dominatrix by her sheer will and her commandments are a way of entrenching her authority, to make her larger than life. And the real double entendre at the conclusion had to be the recognition that, although Wendy’s life was about to end, it was still her choice. She is not backed into a corner and gives up. She picks the moment of her demise at a time of her own choosing. That is real power.

Retirement was not really an option for someone who lived as intensely as Wendy O Williams, and she felt that the society was not adapting to the changes that would need to be made to save the planet. In so many ways, she felt ahead of her time. But she fell into a depression that she could not shake. She tried to take her life the first time in 1993 by stabbing herself in the chest, but the knife jammed in her sternum, and she had Swenson take her to the hospital. She tried again by taking an overdose of ephedrine in 1997. So, when Rod Swenson returned to their home in Connecticut on April 6, 1998, and saw her notes for him, he knew what had happened. It took him an hour to find her in the woods, near some nuts she had been feeding to the squirrels. She had placed a paper bag over her head so that her partner would not have to see her wounds. There was a pistol nearby. The suicide letters included a “living will” denying life support, a love letter to Swenson and various lists of things for him to do. This is part of the suicide note that Wendy left behind: I don’t believe that people should take their own lives without deep and thoughtful reflection over a considerable period of time. I do believe strongly, however, that the right to do so is one of the most fundamental rights that anyone in a free society should have. For me, much of the world makes no sense, but my feelings about what I am doing ring loud and clear to an inner ear and a place where there is no self, only calm.

Just as a cliff is merely a suggestion to the mountain goat, who heeds no known law of gravity, so was onstage propriety to Wendy. She stuck her toes into the crevices of certain death and bounced up the sheer face of the rock, rapidly, with the exuberance of an athlete whose body does exactly what it is asked to do. Wendy stood on the almost invisible cliff seam and screamed down at her audience to climb on up and join her. Her mastery of the stage did not come with pre-arranged cues and cunning choreography, though the Plasmatics worked hard on their songs’ tight unbroken flow in their sets, leaping from one narrative handhold to another. Wendy’s authenticity, her mind’s belief in the power of human decency and her need for unlimited freedom of expression constantly propelled her. When she no longer felt needed, she left, stepped off the thin rib of a rock and fell through the veil. With an almost delirious need to constantly feed her mind, Wendy’s curiosity came with a steep price in the public sphere of the Yuppies, the Moral Majority, and the Capitalist supremacy of the Reagan Eighties. There is no easy way down for the soul that refuses to be sold to the highest bidder. Wendy carved a path where none had existed before, and like the star that refuses to burn out, but explodes when its time has come, her light is still traveling through space, at a supersonic velocity, straight at us.

Bread Lines

Could it be we’re already dead? The thought revisits me whenever I pass the bakery of renown for its croissants and braided bread. It’s the yeasty scent that severs those of us no longer here—unseen

as heat—from where we were before. I catch myself in the plate glass of “La Dolce Vita.” We trade shared breaths, the ritual to restore our credo: “All sorrows are less with bread,” before we start to fade

reminding me each moment’s mortal and I’ve twice already shipwrecked here, attempting poems that launch this cargo. I guess it’s futile— translating bread’s rough dialect from hunk to verse would only staunch

a mother tongue, the lyrics we can sing to. I’m biographer of the Unknown. It fills my page— blank shore crisscrossed by inked bird tracks that mutely lift off, pair by pair, for the sky to hold their knowledge.

Back when, dark mornings, I’d unhook the shutters to wake my dreaming son, a tide of crustose dust alit whose source I never could hunt down. Starved, I forage that heavy book for manna, which means, “What is it?”

 

Meaning, Metaphor, and Multivalence: The Hermeneutical Journey in Gadamer, Ricoeur, and Keats

W.H. Auden, in his “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” remarks, “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives . . . / A way of happening, a mouth.”[1] This evocative image—poetry as a mouth—can be extended to encompass any artwork and perhaps best encapsulates the hermeneutical fields in which we live. Just as gravity curves the fabric of spacetime, leaving permanent marks in it—the so-called gravitational memory effects—so do Auden’s mouths from the past, which are best preserved in art and writing, impinge on our reality, creating fields of meaning. For these mouths not to descend into mere unintelligible grunts, they must use language, rendering the hermeneutical event a linguistic one. In Part III of Truth and Method, Hans-Georg Gadamer explores the intimate relationship between hermeneutics and language, arguing that the subject-matter, die Sache, is presented to us via language and places demands on us. For Gadamer, though, language not only discloses die Sache, but also conceals it. As Gadamer puts it, “every word, as the event of a moment, carries with it the unsaid, to which it is related by responding and summoning.”[2] “Responding and summoning” imply that an engagement with die Sache brings about a liminal space, whose fecundity does not yield absolute knowledge. A mysterious being confronts us in the hermeneutical event, one that takes us on a journey of infinite discovery.

Crucially, there is no reality and no meaning apart from language for Gadamer, no pre-linguistic or post-linguistic reality. Gadamer writes, “All understanding is interpretation, and all interpretation takes place in the medium of language that allows the object to come into words and yet is at the same time the interpreter’s own language.”[3] We are logos makers, creatures without access to a reality independent of language. Our world is a world that comes into focus through language. The subject-matter is made known through language; however, there is always an excess or unsaid that remains hidden in every linguistic disclosure. As Joshua Kates comments on Gadamer, “language as language always involves bringing forward something other than language. . . . language is . . . not a tool of any kind, but [is] what lets the matter at hand be at hand and appear.”[4] Rhetoric, then, is not an exercise in futility or in telling lies. In fact, those who use it that way reveal their vacuity and their misunderstanding of the subject-matter perhaps because they are a recalcitrant audience, one with hearts of stone, not flesh. The true logos makers employ rhetoric so as to foster a real encounter, a hermeneutical event in which language serves as the guide to the subject-matter. Moreover, Gadamer underscores that “all human speaking is finite in such a way that there is laid up within it an infinity of meaning to be explicated and laid out.”[5] Hence, the task of hermeneutics never ends because there is always more to discover about the being of die Sache.

Paradoxically, it is our limits that ensure the limitlessness of hermeneutics. As finite beings, we cannot comprehend everything there is to know. I cannot read William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, for instance, and walk away thinking I have grasped its entire meaning. What hermeneutics requires, then, is a radical openness and a willingness to listen to the voice of the other. As Lawrence K. Schmidt argues, “The encounter with the meaning of the text is like a dialogue between an I and a Thou.”[6] To approach the text as a “Thou” demands a willingness to relinquish mastery over die Sache, no matter how many times one reads the text. If language both presents and conceals the subject-matter, then a posture of attentive receptivity is paramount to the hermeneutical experience. Of course, Gadamer does not subsume every kind of writing under the rubric of tradition, but only that which Carolyn Culbertson identifies as “the kind of writing that appears to us, as we write, to be its own end.”[7] A hastily scribbled note to a spouse or a grocery store receipt does not constitute a hermeneutical event. For writing “to be its own end,” it must engage with a serious subject-matter, one that demands that we change our lives in response to it.

Just as Hegel and Heidegger do, Gadamer views poetry as the highest form that language can attain. Its “mouth” confronts us with a subject-matter that insists on throwing us off-kilter, on giving us—metaphorically speaking—a limp by dislocating our hip. Language of this type, then, is the proper locus of hermeneutics and the proper vehicle for understanding the world. Such a hermeneutical engagement cultivates hope: humans are not mere robots who can learn by rote the right ideas and then implement them as automatons, but creative beings with a capacity for profound depth—intellectual or otherwise. A musical performance of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 need not appeal solely to the musician who can read the score; similarly, a Shakespeare play or a Hopkins poem can affect someone who has never taken a rhetoric class or who does not have the faintest clue about sprung rhythm. However, because of our finitude and historicity, the possibility for going deeper, so to speak, is always present. Furthermore, since understanding and meaning are not absolute but always hospitable to new glosses, hermeneutics allows for each generation of humans to add its own unique interpretive note to the symphony of tradition, even though hindsight may reveal that note a dissonant one.

Hermeneutics does not undermine the existence of or the quest for truth. By insisting that “there is dialogue between tradition and its interpreter,”[8] Gadamer argues that hermeneutics brings about a genuine event, a real happening, one that profoundly changes the hermeneut. This phenomenon is possible only because “the word that has come down to us as tradition and to which we are to listen really encounters us and does so as if it addressed us and is concerned with us.”[9] Since the hermeneutical event creates the conditions in which tradition can question me and my presuppositions—in fact, it demands that I bring them to the hermeneutical table, as it were—it reveals the multifacetedness of truth. The subject-matter commands our attention so as to lay claim on our life. However, since this happens in language, it challenges the notion of absolute, once-and-for-all truth: “Language and thinking about things are so bound together that it is an abstraction to conceive of the system of truths as a pregiven system of possibilities of being for which the signifying subject selects corresponding signs.”[10] Reality is not mere correspondence between words used as signs and the objects to which we attach them (e.g., the word “lamb” for a young sheep). Such an idea misconstrues the fact that “a word has a mysterious connection with what it ‘images’; it belongs to its being.”[11] Because there is no world apart from language, language creates the world. For Gadamer, signs and signifiers become fused in a creative relationship that engenders meaning.

Paul Ricoeur’s reflections on translation echo Gadamer’s insight about language as a medium of ambiguity. In “The paradigm of translation,” Ricoeur begins from the empirical observation that translation happens all around us and has been happening for thousands of years. People have always sought to transcend linguistic boundaries for the sake of understanding. Whether motivated by commercial incentives or moved by a poem’s beauty, the desire to translate springs from deep within the human psyche. Hence, “the desire [itself] to translate” is, for Ricoeur, “more tenacious, more profound, more hidden” than any other reason for translating, such as usefulness or constraint.[12] Not to translate, then, is to experience a kind of amnesia that causes a succumbing to the inhuman, a rendering of the world to mere environment. But, as Gadamer puts it, “Whoever has language ‘has’ the world.”[13] For Gadamer, as for Ricoeur, language elevates nature to culture. No longer are we bound by mere biological and physical laws when we use language (although these are never eradicated), but we enter into the realm of art, poetry, and myth. Yet language is not simply a private affair, but also a public event. If language is to give one the world, one must exercise it in concert with others—hence, the need for translation in the first place.

Ricoeur insists on the non-existence of an objective, third text against which one can compare one’s translation; to have recourse to such a text would cause the enterprise of translation—and by extension, language—to become a stilted endeavor, a mere finding of equal terms. As Ricoeur puts it, “there is no absolute criterion for good translation. . . . a good translation [then] can aim only at a supposed equivalence that is not founded on a demonstrable identity of meaning. An equivalence without identity.”[14] Ricoeur’s thought, similar to Gadamer’s, protects the multivalence of truth and by extension averts the possibility of weaponizing truth. His insight, moreover, stems from his acceptance of human finitude, which by definition suggests the need for retranslation as generations succeed one another in a kind of linguistic Ferris wheel that requires a double movement of progress and regression. In other words, our human limits are the ones that ensure that translation never ends. Yet this project in which humans are engaged involves a process of mourning, of “renouncing the very ideal of perfect translation.”[15] Such an ideal reveals a nostalgia for an original language that never existed, an angelic desire to transcend human capacity in order to inhabit the realm of the intelligible. It is, to put it differently, an escapism from matter, a flight into an infinite of no limits. Ricoeur frowns upon such an endeavor since it refuses to acknowledge “the impassable difference between the peculiar and the foreign.”[16] It is the opposite of what he calls “linguistic hospitality,”[17] of accommodating the foreign into the familiar, which, paradoxically, allows for the familiar to regain its foreignness. To translate, then, becomes a labor of joy, of reacquainting ourselves with our own language. The sounds of the familiar regain their original strangeness, which calls us to a transformation of our capacity for hearing. Or, as Ricoeur rhetorically asks, “without the test of the foreign, would we be sensitive to the strangeness of our own language?”[18] It is the meeting of two worlds, hence, that takes place in the act of translation, worlds whose horizons become broadened by an encounter that does not threaten annihilation.

Ricoeur offers a new paradigm for translating, namely, that of faithfulness versus betrayal, which ensures the integrity of both language and translator. Ricoeur notes that “each of our words has more than one meaning, as we see in the dictionaries. We call that polysemy.”[19] A word’s connotations are just as important as, if not more than, a word’s denotations. Such ambiguities lead to the need for translation even within one’s own linguistic community, which requires “that we reformulate, that we explain, that we try to say the same thing in another way.”[20] Such need for reformulation reveals the obscurity inherent in language, its “propensity for the enigma, for artifice, for abstruseness, for the secret, in fact for non-communication.”[21] It is language’s revealing-only-to-hide proclivity that requires the faithfulness/betrayal paradigm, a possible way out of “[George] Steiner’s extremism.”[22] Language’s desire for obscurity need not paralyze us, even though there are certain words that will remain untranslatable (for example, dor and doină in Romanian). Similar to the universe’s makeup, which consists of 85% dark matter, we can understand if we approximate, if we look for relationships. Just as astrophysicists calculate that galaxies would behave differently if dark matter did not exist, so can we gravitate closer to the untranslatable by seeing how its neighbors, so to speak, behave and thus approach ever closer to the untranslatable’s event-horizon without being squished into its black hole. Or, as Scott Davidson puts it, “[T]he etymology of translation would suggest that it is analogous to the activity of trading, in which the translator is like a trader who transports ideas from one language to another one. . . . this crossing over or exchange does not occur without also bringing about a shift or transformation in what gets carried over.”[23] Translation is a sword that cuts both ways; in serving two masters—the foreign language and the native language—a translator both betrays and remains faithful. Traduttore, traditore, then, is the essence of every translator. Gadamer calls this phenomenon a “highlighting.”[24] To Ricoeur’s faithfulness/betrayal paradigm, Gadamer offers the concept of “constant renunciation”[25]—renunciation of our desire for perfection, for the ability to master. Only Lucifer futilely insists on bending the world to his will.[26] As bounded creatures—bounded by matter, by time, by history, by language—we do not have access to a kind of knowing that bypasses the finite. Our recourse is hermeneutics, a Gadamerian transcendence-within-immanence.

John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” offers a poetic image of performative hermeneutics-in-action, shedding light on how one ought to engage with the subject-matter. Even though the speaker does not engage with a written text, the final product, so to speak, is one. Thus, the poem mimetically displays the birth of the written tradition, at whose root is a real encounter with the subject-matter. The first stanza underscores the capacity of the object’s being, its otherness, its Ricoeurian foreignness, to decenter the subject.

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness, Thou foster-child of silence and slow time, Sylvan historian, who canst thus express A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme: What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape Of deities or mortals, or of both, In Tempe or the dales of Arcady? What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

The speaker’s encounter with the Greek vase stumps him; he can only address it as an “unravish’d bride,” a “foster-child,” and a “sylvan historian.” The epithets used—“unravish’d,” “foster,” “sylvan”—indicate the otherness of the object and only evoke unsettling questions. Why is Time, the ravisher of all mortal things, impotent when it comes to the urn? Why does it adopt the urn as its “foster-child”? Why do silence and time team up in an effort to protect the vulnerable urn from the ravages that both inexorably impose on the finite realm? And where are the woods of which the urn is presumably a historian? The urn is thus shrouded in mystery, yet one that impinges on the poet’s being—and in his openness, he grasps that the urn can “thus express / A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme.” The poet intuits that he is in the presence of a subject-matter that dwarfs his poetic faculties. This insight—of the superiority of the vase to express the inexpressible in its soundlessness compared to the speaker’s verse—shows that the vase has enlarged the poet’s world. The speaker apprehends the wholeness of the object in a moment of astonished self-forgetfulness. He forgets himself because he is confronted with something bigger than himself.

Almost as soon as this happens, however, reason catches up and begins asking the kinds of questions that signal the desire to present the experience of the urn to the mind as mere historical information that can be molded into a coherent, rational-only pattern. The frenzy of questions at the end of the first stanza points to the poet’s need for a specific kind of answer from the urn: “What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape / Of deities or mortals, or of both, / In Tempe or the dales of Arcady? / What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? / What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?” All of these “what” questions indicate a preoccupation with origins: the speaker wants historical answers to his queries. As Helen Vendler observes, “All of Keats’s early questions in the ode . . . could be given their ‘true’ answers, he thinks, if only he knew the lost legend that the dead sculptor presumably had in mind, and here illustrated.”[27] The speaker in this part of the poem, then, attempts to understand the totality of the subject-matter by turning to the past as his guide. This kind of inquiry, though it will yield some fruit, will not be entirely successful since the urn, while from a clearly specific historical period, now impinges on the poet’s world from a different realm. Furthermore, as Louise Cowan remarks, “we cannot be certain of our facts. . . . The rational mind cannot know certain essentials about the urn.”[28] Knowledge of origins and historical circumstances alone, therefore, never produces complete understanding since our factual knowledge will never be exhaustive. Or, as Gadamer puts it, “A written tradition is not a fragment of a past world, but has already raised itself beyond this into the sphere of the meaning that it expresses.”[29] The Greek vase is not calling to the speaker from an inaccessible, remote past, but from a linguistically-constituted hermeneutical event.

In the second and third stanzas of the poem, the speaker moves from historical questions to projecting his personal experience unto the urn; yet this kind of mapping, too, while essential in a person’s maturation, falls short of apprehending the totality of the urn.

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d, Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone: Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare; Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve; She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu; And, happy melodist, unwearied, For ever piping songs for ever new; More happy love! more happy, happy love! For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d, For ever panting, and for ever young; All breathing human passion far above, That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

The speaker notes melancholically that the “happy boughs” can never “shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu”; the “Bold Lover,” although thwarted in his attempt to kiss his beloved, should not despair since “She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” The “happy melodist” is always “unwearied / For ever piping songs for ever new.” The “happy, happy love” is “For ever warm. . . For ever panting. . . for ever young.” In other words, the muted paintings indirectly testify to time’s devastating effects on humans. The poet engages here in fantasizing about a world of immortality. The speaker can relate to what he sees on the urn precisely because he has interpolated his experience onto its plane. As Vendler explains, “He does not . . .  address the maiden as he does the male lover and the male piper; the two males are fantasy-figures for himself as bold lover and unwearied melodist, and his empathy joins them, not her.”[30] In an attempt to understand the urn’s mystery, the speaker relates to the two male characters on the urn, which can only yield partial knowledge since the speaker cannot identify with the “maidens loth” or with her who “cannot fade.” This approach, therefore, will not make the urn divulge its secrets; the urn is beyond the mere self-centered concerns of mortals, as these do not allow it to shine in all its splendor. The speaker’s fanciful notions here parallel the longing for a perfect translation that Ricoeur explores in his essay. If treated merely as a receptacle of projected fantasies, the subject-matter will remain hidden, and we will not find the hermeneutical key that allows us to translate it into language.

Even though these approaches—historical and personal—are limited, they provide crucial lessons to the hermeneutical neophyte, as they help delineate the limits of methodology. It is not that Gadamer opposes history or historical inquiry—on the contrary, he insists that ours is a “historically effected consciousness.”[31] What he does oppose, however, is an extreme form of historicism, which dictates that meaning must be sought only in the historical periods in which a piece of art or literature was produced. This type of stance hampers hermeneutics, ossifying into sterile methods. As Joel Weinsheimer writes, “What distinguishes method from hermeneutics . . . is that method responds to alienation with alienation. . . . Instead of homecoming from the condition of Fremdheit, method strives for dominion over the world. It aims not to understand the world but to change it.”[32] The method Weinsheimer refers to is that of the natural sciences, which Gadamer criticizes for infecting the humanities. The mode of knowledge the arts promote is fundamentally different than the one the scientific method champions. To dissect an object, to reduce experience to experimental repeatability, is the contrary of Gadamer’s emphasis on the multiple interpretative possibilities for any Sache of the human sciences. To stumble in the dark—away from mere repeatability—is the path on which a true subject-matter naturally sends the receptive subject. Elaine Scarry argues that beauty “ignites the desire for truth by giving us, with an electric brightness shared by almost no other uninvited, freely arriving perceptual event, the experience of conviction and the experience, as well, of error.”[33] Her insight applies to Gadamer’s understanding of die Sache of texts and works of art as well: in dialogue with them, one inevitably flounders. How one deals with error, with the limits of the finite, with one’s Ricoeurian betrayal, determines how much the subject-matter discloses of itself. The subject-matter, then, effects Weinsheimer’s homecoming via indirection, displacing the desire of the subject for domination.

Keats’s poem reveals yet another hermeneutical truth, namely, the tradition’s dynamic existence. It is no accident that Keats employs phrases he gleans from his favorite poet: the ‘mad pursuit’ of the first stanza echoes Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. As Culbertson remarks about Gadamer’s understanding of language, “When language infuses our understanding, which it always does, interpretive traditions infuse our understanding as well. . . . interpretation . . . proceed[s] through a language that is laden with tradition.”[34] Language does not have a beginning for us; we are born in medias res, so to speak. This fact ensures our dependability on the past to understand ourselves and the world, but it cannot remain there. Merely to parrot what tradition hands us down robs language of its lively character, sealing off the text’s or artwork’s ability to communicate in new ways. To put it differently, to be born means to inhabit a world not of our own making. To attempt to recreate the world in our own image, which amounts to a desire for marking the beginning, requires the kind of sovereignty that only a deity has. To become seduced by a quest for such total control belongs to someone other than the hermeneut, who submits himself or herself to the desire of an other whose nature is to be inconspicuous.

The fourth stanza of Keats’s poem depicts a subject who, when consistently presented with his linguistic inhospitality, discovers the kinds of questions reason must ask to move into the next phase. These questions highlight the kind of imagination that is hospitable to the subject-matter and that allow the hermeneut to discover, in Ricoeur’s words, his or her “own language and . . . its resources which have been left to lie fallow.”[35]

Who are these coming to the sacrifice? To what green altar, O mysterious priest, Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies, And all her silken flanks with garlands drest? What little town by river or sea shore, Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel, Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn? And, little town, thy streets for evermore Will silent be; and not a soul to tell Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

As the poet views yet another image painted on the urn, he wonders about the identity of the “mysterious priest” and the “little town” that “Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn.” Unlike earlier, however, he no longer tries to determine the exact location (“Tempe or the dales of Arcady”) of this “little town.” As Vendler comments, “the speaker has ceased to ask it those historical and extrapolatory questions which it is not equipped to answer. The urn is only a ‘silent form’ when the wrong kinds of truth are asked of it.”[36] It is at this point in the poem, then, that a new understanding dawns on the speaker: the urn is a thing unto itself. It is above mere methods—historical or otherwise—and the poet’s initial frantic search for geographical clues in hopes they will reveal the urn in its totality is misplaced. Meaning-making, the poem suggests, is circumscribed by questions. In Gadamer’s words, “interpretation is a circle closed by the dialectic of question and answer.”[37] Reality is dialogical. Only when we are open to the subject-matter is dialogue possible, which leads to our recognizing that it ultimately questions us—not the other way around. The hermeneutical experience, in this way, “has its own rigor: that of uninterrupted listening.”[38] We discover that the subject-matter brings about the “tradition’s addressing us,” which address demands that we change our lives.[39]

The final stanza of the poem portrays a speaker who, armed with this insight, reaches a point of relinquishing his hold, ready to let the urn become his teacher, molding him into the kind of poet who can achieve in language Gadamer’s transcendence-within-immanence.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede Of marble men and maidens overwrought, With forest branches and the trodden weed; Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral! When old age shall this generation waste, Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

The speaker finally addresses the urn as an “Attic shape,” a “Fair attitude,” and a “Cold Pastoral”— terms that make clear he has grasped the numinous nature of the Grecian urn. Although “Attic,” it is no longer simply defined by a past that is closed off to us; it has gone on to join Gadamer’s “public sphere of meaning” from where it can still speak to mortals with ears to hear. When it does speak, it does so in an antimetabolic utterance, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” an enfolding in on itself. As Vendler writes, “Keats’s choice of a circular frieze, rather than a linear one, confirms the urn’s self-enclosing and self-completing form.”[40] The urn, thus, is self-referential. Despite the seeming finality of the urn’s words (“all / Ye know . . . and all ye need to know”), its use of a circular rhetorical device bespeaks a different possibility: the urn hints at the hermeneutic circle itself. As Weinsheimer notes, “The hermeneutic circle is designed in part to replace the linear model of inductive understanding.”[41] The urn’s words, then, must be approached cautiously, not as delivering absolutes, but as encouraging reflection. After all, the poet does not go home satisfied he has heard the urn speak. Rather, he writes an entire ode about his experience. The act of writing itself, in this way, becomes part of the hermeneutical experience. Even though Gadamer shows preference for the spoken word, Nicholas Davey uses Gadamer’s own logic to include the process of writing as a tool in the hermeneutical shed. He writes,

It is this process of struggling to bring into expression the thought one is in quest of, which unwittingly draws one towards the revelation that the thought pursued has a universality greater than that which had been hitherto expected. The practice of writing subjects the writer to the hermeneutically real and external in exactly the same way as that the living voice is able to.[42]

To entrust something to writing, then, precludes the idea of absolutes. Writing does not capture entirely the thought one chases, if Davey is correct, which ensures the perpetuation of the hermeneutical journey. It is up to those who come after us to discover more of the thought we were pursuing.

Despite the fact that the urn cannot be fully understood until allowed to be itself, to speak on its own terms, it does not desire to be left alone. After all, the poet describes it as “a friend to man.” As Cowan concludes, “[The urn] has been looking for a poet. The wedding for which it has been intended takes place in the language of lyric.”[43] It is poetry that is the pinnacle of language, of the written word. Poetry in particular and writing in general allow die Sache to develop new meanings beyond its historical context. This is so because the “understanding of something written is not a repetition of something past but the sharing of a present meaning.”[44] The text or artwork may come to us from the past, just as the urn does, but hermeneutics allows it to become part of the present conversation in a way that it can still effect change. Metaphor, synecdoche, and obliquity become the proper vehicles for translating the subject-matter. As Gadamer writes, “the concern of hermeneutics . . . belongs traditionally to the sphere of grammar and rhetoric.”[45] Rhetoric and hermeneutics are properly interlinked not simply because understanding takes place in language, but also because— and this is perhaps more salient—one can always say something better. As Ricoeur observes, ‘[T]hese sequences of sentences . . . are textures which weave the discourse into longer or shorter sequences. Narrative is one of the most remarkable of these sequences, and is particularly interesting for our talk insofar as we learned that we can always tell a story in another way by changing the plot, the fable.”[46] If we can tell “a story in another way,” then hermeneutics becomes a never-ending process, expanding the familiar to include the foreign, and thus to broaden our horizon.

This type of repetition does not become the kind that scientists look for when they perform experiments in the laboratory in part because Gadamer insists that the being of the text or artwork is structured by Spiel, which can be translated as both “play” or “game” in English. He writes, “Language games exist where we . . . rise to the understanding of the world. . . . the game itself . . . plays, for it draws the players into itself and thus itself becomes the actual subjectum of the playing.”[47] Language is a game not in the sense that it is not serious (games tend to be taken seriously by all different sorts of players, anyway). Rather, language is a game in the sense that it is performative, and the subject-matter interacts differently with different players. As Cynthia R. Nielsen puts it, “Hermeneutic identity is characterized by an ongoing interplay of identity and difference owing to the artwork’s performative being. . . . Each new performance, enactment, or interpretation brings forth new and, consequently, different aspects of the work.”[48] Because language both hides and discloses, each retelling of a story, each new engagement with a poem, will yield new and oftentimes surprising insights. Scientific repeatability, then, is not open to the humanities.

It should perhaps come as no surprise that hermeneutics is a journey, as it takes its name from and occurs under the tutelage of Hermes. Hermes descends where no other god dares to go (i.e., Hades)—the river Styx, after all, served as a powerful curse for the gods, who never dared break oaths that invoked Styx’s name. Furthermore, Homer records that Hermes is the friendliest of gods to humans. As Zeus puts it, “Hermes, . . . to you beyond all other gods it is dearest / to be man’s companion, and you listen to whom you will” (Il. 24.334-35).[49] It is Hermes who brings together the two mortal enemies Achilles and Priam. He guides the old man through the enemy camp, a perilous journey, taking him to the hero’s tent in the middle of it, which has the greatest protection. Kissing the man-slaughtering hands of Achilles, Priam pitifully asks for his son’s corpse. The old king’s request is met by Achilles’s tears, as he is reminded of his own father. He agrees to release Hector’s body and give the Trojans time to mourn their best warrior. To give back the body of Hector reveals Achilles’s realization that the foreign is not the proper locus of one’s anger. It is a recognition of the humanity of the foreign. One of the greatest reconciliation scenes in imaginative literature takes place under the watchful eye of Hermes. And if Achilles and Priam can find common ground, can respect each other’s otherness, then there is hope that the Hermes-art, hermeneutics, can beget the same in those whose hearts and minds are open. Hermeneutics, then, brings disparate realms together, effecting an encounter that is at times fraught with danger but also that promises amity. We cannot forget, though, that Hermes is also the trickster in Greek mythology, which renders the hermeneutical terrain open to error, one that may not be corrected for generations.[50] This side of Hermes, however, is no cause for despair since it protects truth from our desire to master it, possess it, and weaponize it.

 

[1] W.H. Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” Collected Poems (New York: Vintage International, 1991), 249.

[2] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (London: Bloomsbury, 2021), 474.

[3] Gadamer, 407.

[4] Joshua Kates, A New Philosophy of Discourse: Language Unbound (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021), 156.

[5] Gadamer, 474.

[6] Lawrence K. Schmidt, “Experience,” The Gadamerian Mind, ed. Theodore George and Gert-Jan van der Heiden (London: Routledge, 2022), 108.

[7] Carolyn Culbertson, Words Underway: Continental Philosophy of Language (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 48.

[8] Gadamer, 477.

[9] Ibid., 477.

[10] Ibid., 434.

[11] Ibid, 434.

[12] Paul Ricoeur, “The paradigm of translation,” On Translation, trans. Eileen Brennan (London: Routledge, 2006), 21.

[13] Gadamer, 469.

[14] Ricoeur, 22, emphasis in the original.

[15] Ibid., 23, emphasis in the original.

[16] Ibid., 23.

[17] Ibid., 23.

[18] Ibid., 29.

[19] Ibid., 26, emphasis in the original.

[20] Ibid., 25, emphasis in the original.

[21] Ibid., 28.

[22] Ibid., 28.

[23] Scott Davidson, “Ricoeur’s later thought: From hermeneutics to translation and back again,” Philosophy Today, vol. 57, no. 1 (2013): 61-71, 65.

[24] Gadamer, 404.

[25] Ibid., 404.

[26] Ibid., 464. In Paradise Lost, John Milton’s Satan poetically embodies Gadamer’s insight when he questions his beginning:

That we were formed then say’st thou? . . . Strange point and new! Doctrine which we should know whence learnt: who saw When his Creation was? Remember’st thou Thy making while the Maker gave thee being? We know no time when we were not as now, Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised By our own quick’ning power. (5.853, 855-60)

By claiming to be “self-begot,” Satan essentially undermines not only the being of the Son, begotten of the Father, but he also rewrites creation. Put differently, Satan’s desire is to refashion the world in his own image. To refuse to accept that one has a beginning, then, is effectively to mark oneself as the beginning and therefore to expect the world to conform to one’s will.

[27] Helen Vendler, The Odes of John Keats (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 119.

[28] Louise Cowan, “Keats’ Pilgrimage: The Five Great Odes,” The Prospect of Lyric, ed. Bainard Cowan (Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 2012), 138.

[29] Gadamer, 408.

[30] Vendler, 138.

[31] Gadamer, 407.

[32] Joel Weinsheimer, Gadamer’s Hermeneutics: A Reading of Truth and Method (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 15.

[33] Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 52.

[34] Carolyn Culbertson, “Gadamer’s concept of language,” The Gadamerian Mind, 128.

[35] Ricoeur, 29.

[36] Vendler, 132-33.

[37] Gadamer, 407.

[38] Ibid., 408.

[39] Ibid., 479.

[40] Vendler, 133.

[41] Weinsheimer, 23.

[42] Nicholas Davey, “On the Other Side of Writing: Thoughts on Gadamer’s Notion of Schriftlichkeit,” Language and Linguisticality in Gadamer’s Hermeneutics, ed. Lawrence K. Schmidt (London: Lexington Books, 2000), 103.

[43] Cowan, 144.

[44] Gadamer, 410.

[45] Ibid., 402.

[46] Ricoeur, 27, emphasis in the original.

[47] Gadamer, 505, emphasis in the original.

[48] Cynthia R. Nielsen, “Gadamer on play and the play of art,” The Gadamerian Mind, 141-42.

[49] Homer, The Iliad, trans. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951).

[50] For a positive description of the trickster figure in world mythology, including Hermes, see Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998).

The White-Tailed Deer

for Anthony Hecht

He’s sitting in the dirt where no grass grows since the big ash tree fell, riddled with borers:             a buck, dull, fat, confused. He stands and turns and lies back down again, his gray the gray of chalk or sloughed off skin,       his regal choir of horns tuned to the cold edges of air after a storm.                   Poor, ruined king,

your sycophants and your soldiers are gone, the slant of your aristocratic stare             now fixed on foreign ground; no paths, no scrub, nowhere to bed. If there are images, like promises,       which well up in your mind, of woods embroidered by high streams and banks of cress,                   ebullient saxifrage,

their deepening purples in late-day shade carpeting the rolling forest floor,             they have no referent here. Here there are crumbling walls of local stone, high fences, asphalt tributaries, their       angry river gods flashing past, bright chrome satellites, each gleaming blur                   streaming out of sight.

There for an hour. Then one more after that— uncertain sharer. Now your size and your senses             are gaudy deficits, impostures, vain supposings, more aligned with dearth than with survival, wounds without       a gash. I hear a crash, and when I check the yard again there’s just the rusty                   stain of mud and it’s gone.

In the Turn of a Phrase

It always seemed to me you emerged from a haze, hid yourself in a thousand ways, revealed yourself in the turn of a phrase, those eyes of yours blue as grief and strangely ablaze. Ah,

Montana, Oh, Ma James. Brutally true and mountain made, you befriended me, one foot in the stirrup, one eyebrow raised, rooted in mercy and earthly complaint, perhaps the way a mantis

or minotaur would pray. I’m not surprised you left this place in much the same way— emerging from the smoke and haze, one foot in the grave, a shot of whiskey raised, grounded

in grit and deep in praise, the sister to the doe in the yard , the unknown poet with the broken heart, and all things born tender and hard. The shawl you depended on

around your frame, you’ve quietly stepped out of this maze, bewitched by beauty and hardly phased — just another star in the night, ablaze.

Oh Montana, Ah Ma James.

Autumn, 2015

I hold the young man’s warm left hand And hear his question, “Am I dying?” His father’s measured “Yes.”

The leaves cleave to their branches. From the south, light dazzles down And brandishes the shine of bleeding

Purples, reds and lucent yellow. A tendered beauty. When wind strips them from trees,

They scatter luster through the neighborhood, The very air suffused with gold. The young man shimmers in his suffering.

The Contest

And found and lost again—scanning the faintest Signal, immaterial in origin, A chance effect or glitch which graphed would look Like crosstalk from internal microphones Recorded by a fluke of circumstance. His balance seemed off. The contest went on. It was seasonably cold. A warship scanned The distance as pink cloud-bars cooled to ash High above. Not another ship in sight. He cleared his mind of the old flux and passed The road to the abandoned camp: no hope Of hospitality there, nor pent lair To keep the quester from his quest. In ruins, It lay. Like his own premises, it lay. The contest and the clock determined him, His freedom being to conduct close thoughts That marched in order through the drumming pass. A small redoubt of trees fired overhead: A shot of starlings whose dense patterns wove Black tapestries. The cruiser disappeared, Enveloped in night’s planetary arc. The birds froze. But a focus was unfolding— Eyes the color of ice sparked into fire. They meant to hold him subject to their state. Against this play of will and ripe to yield He stood. He stood between the sky and water. He stood in doubt, like time’s last silhouette. Then night sealed up all. The contest went on.

The Prophecy

“You shall leave everything you love most dearly: this is the arrow that the bow of exile shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste of others’ bread, how salt it is, and know how hard a path it is for one who goes descending and ascending others’ stairs.” —Paradiso, XVII, 55-60

For a man who weeps so much you amaze me. It takes courage to ask what the future holds and more courage to hear it, to look and see

what will become of you as you grow old. You can’t forget, once the words are spoken, though your knees may knock, your blood run cold.

Hope for a happy life will be broken as you listen to your luckless fate unfold. Your fortune-teller’s eloquence a token

of love for you, though his speech is bold. Compassion in his voice, but not pity. He sees your sorrow but will not withhold

the truth. And so before heaven’s Deity you graciously accept what you now know. Nothing can destroy your fealty.

You’ve come so far, and you have far to go. You’ll need God in your corner, by your side, and all the wisdom you’ve gained down below

before arriving in this paradise. You’re armored now, ready for the fight of your life, bullet-proofed against surprise. Darkness cannot overpower your light.

Tell You The Story

It was all over the news. My son’s friend stabbed a professor twenty-seven times with a painting knife in the school bathroom. His father, Doctor So-and-So, wouldn’t allow a shrink to testify in court, what would people think? The friend went to jail for being sane while stabbing.

…………………Years later, released, took a job moving gravel with heavy machinery, wound up crushed beneath two tons, losing both legs. In a wheelchair, began to project Satanic visions on the world outside, implicating those few friends left to him in a cosmic plot to drag him under.

He sent recorded messages threatening to take revenge on those traitors and rats who might expose him to the police for thinking evil thoughts. His mother a witch. My son’s, another. And the old lady next door –whom he watched from his immobile vantage– schemed against his life.

………………He wielded demonic power to protect himself from the medicine forced on him. Those who hadn’t quit caring desperately looked for ways to help him. The police refused to get involved till given evidence of homicidal tendencies.

……………………My son, who brings the Bible with him everywhere (Crazy, right?), stayed loyal. He refused to forward to the state police the texts his troubled friend kept sending him— threatening to bash his face in—to which he’d always respond.

Love you brother. You should trust your mother. Please accept the help you need. May God be with you. …………………Your friend,         . That brought in reply another screed growled in the devil’s voice.

At the old brick church in Saint Johnsbury, I knelt with my son, who struggled to keep himself physically still, questioning if he’d mistaken his own code of honor for the Lord’s will.

…………………………He left the building shaken when Mass ended, found where he parked his truck and saw the message on his phone. It read: “He’s in the psych ward.”

An answer of sorts.

Humdrumming

Sunlight cakes the earth like something thick, like something you could sink your fingers in, like something that could stain your cleanest shirt. Turkey vultures hang, waiting for the nick of time to plummet them. Flags snap at wind. Children lift their vulgar shouts and flirt with shade, chasing shrieks from pine to pine. Peeling back the unremarkable, I wet my hands in the plodding miracle of light and shade, of single file lines, of beer cans jangling down the empty street, of all the prosy things that make a world, and hear a humdrumming, a daily beat that measures us, trembling through the void.