Categories
poetry publication writing

Transitions

Transitions: Early Poems
Cover of the paperback version of Transitions ($12.95 through Amazon).

In my efforts to promote a first book of poetry just published, I drafted a press release and sent it off to a couple of arts groups. Without blowing my own horn or strumming my own lute too much, I have to say that this analytic exercise was illuminating for me.

The collection is called Transitions: Early Poems, 1979–1989, and is available at Amazon in both paperback and epub formats. With a name like Transitions, long the working title for poems I wrote in the 1980s, it shouldn’t be surprising that the poems deal with passages or rites of passage in one’s life. But readers and reviewers have readily discerned the theme of growing up or awakening in these poems.

To quote myself (sorry) in the press release:

As several readers have pointed out … the collection is a coming of age series. The struggles to find a voice are enacted against the background of conforming institutions — church, family, marriage, and academe. “I failed to get tenure at the college where I was teaching,” Zeck says, “and began through the 1980s, when I was in my thirties, a struggle to find out just who I was, unmoored from institutional supports or detaching from them. There were the night sweats, and the day sweats, as John Berryman might have said, and the constant if unconscious need to make something of myself and to make it on my own.”

There’s nothing particularly novel about such a theme. We all struggle, in one way or another, to come of age, to mature, to grow into our own skin. What makes my struggle different, could be, is the confluence of these particular pressures: the church, family, marriage, and academe coming together to produce a collection of particular utterances about the struggle, which results in or enacts a voice and an identity, finally, of my own.

The poems testify to the Catholic puritanism of my upbringing, a streak that runs through my dad’s Polish-American family like a toxic vein. He himself was very reticent about sex, and his father guiltily mourned his bastardy to the end of his life. This kind of childhood was not Blake’s Garden, where the happy childhood is succeeded by “Thou shalt not writ over the door.” The childhood itself was marked by fears and doubts of ever being worthy, of ever escaping the all-seeing eye.

One poem, “Something for My Cousin,” testifies to the complacencies of faith purveyed by the church. At the funeral of a first cousin who died by her own hand,

… the goateed priest, half through the mass,
capered to the lectern. Ours, he said, comfortably,
not to question why this dread thing happened
but to know the Lord works in mysterious ways.
Capon! Mumbling of resurrection and eternal life,
he got on with the job, hoisted the chalice, wiped
his dribbling chops, handed out communion, leading
the faithful up faith’s candy-coated mountain.

In “Suburban Sacraments,” an elegy for a youthful friend,

Machinegun-style, our alcoholic pastor spat out the Latin
of the Mass: “Introibo ad altare Dei.” And, hands folded,
Mark and I fired back: “Ad Dei qui laetificat juventutem
meam.” It was not the ideal preparation for life the cataclysm.

But the church and family were not all dregs and disappointments. Humor leavens this bitter loaf, often in things sexual. In “Physical,” the examining Catholic family doctor intones, writing on his chart, “No signs of impurity,” and the kid wonders how the doctor has not seen or suspected his masturbatory habits.

Had I been suspect? How could
he know? Would it show?
Crossing myself, I crossed
the good physician’s threshold,

sped out into the suburban dusk,
and made bold to think several
impure thoughts about his twin
blonde pubescent daughters.

And in “Transitional,” part of “Onan Suite,” the longest poem in the collection, the narrator wonders about the futility of the sacrament of penance. He confesses his lusts, his impurities, and is forgiven, but knows he will once more be “beating off” when he sees the girls in the neighborhood:

I could go on and
on counting the ways,
telling the beads
of my onanistic rosary,

a sly and unrepentant
teenage Catholic boy
who could never quite
make it across.

It’s not only the content, of course, but the form of the poem that gets it across, that makes a bridge, or a transition, for the poet and, he would hope, his readers. In my case, the Latin of the mass and sacraments instilled in me a love of language, a love of form, that became transmuted into a secular but still, in a way, hieratic voice, if only the voice of the fallen priest or angel — and then professor — and then one who had to come up with his own words entirely to profess and convince, without institutional support of any kind.

The large question here is how do any of us make it across, wherever it is we end up going? What kind of transitions can we make, if we’re left largely on our own, the mysteries and terrors of institutions like church and state and family pushing us away not embracing us?

Poems themselves, or other art objects, may become “transitional objects,” in the terms of W. D. Winnicott. They stand for mother and family, of comfort, of home, and at the same time are the means of moving away into one’s own sphere of being and accomplishing. They are home and not home, mother and not mother, finally altogether, if the bearer of these objects is lucky, an other.

I pushed through a difficult boyhood, did well in Catholic school and then at the university (I was too afraid not to), where I earned a B.A. in English and German and a Ph.D. in American literature. Such an education naturally immersed me in language, especially poetry, which proved as rich as, no, richer than, the Latin of the mass and the sacraments. But when I began to teach college, in Detroit, in the 1970s, academe became for me, a reiteration of the authority of church, family, marriage.

No, I didn’t get tenure at Wayne State University, where I taught from 1972 to 1979 (tenure: meaning the ability or capacity to hold on, as for dear life). I was too young, too immature. I didn’t write enough, or enough of the right kind of thing, using the right “methodology” (the totem of the English Department, which yearned for the power and responsibility not to mention salary of the sciences). I didn’t make connections, or pretend friendships, with those in the department who had the power to confer tenure. I did, however, get immersed in the alchemy of language, anxiety, identity, so that when I would try out an academic paper on my colleagues I’d hear back I didn’t know what I was talking about … but sure could write. By the time I was ejected from Wayne, and then after a Fulbright year teaching in Serbia, trying to make a living through freelance business writing, I was ready to remember and record the occasions, and gifts, that led to my being me, including, if I may conclude thus, this love poem to my wife and apologia for the poetic vocation too.

Poem on the Beautiful Hands of Jennifer

In the half-light of the marriage bed
you take from under the sheets and show me
your incredibly beautiful hands —
small, slim, tapering into flame —
and hold me then to the heat of your breast,
your heart which is choiring in this milky
light, and tell me with your erotically
articulate fingers how close we can be.
As I unfurl from doubt’s tight fist,
from the fetal dark, it dawns on me
how wholly unclenched and open you are —
your fingers which know so well how to sew
and cook and tease a balky piano into music
and stroke a lover ecstatically, a wand
of subtle light and heat that binds me gently
to you, this early hour of the morning,
in the half-light of the marriage bed.

Categories
poetry politics writing

History & Nostalgia

F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald, the oracle of the Jazz Age and our age too.

There’s a wonderful Sarah Churchwell essay in the New York Review of Books called “The Oracle of Our Unease” about F. Scott Fitzgerald, local boy made good from St. Paul, Minnesota (where my wife and I lived 16 years). The essay explores a facet of Fitzgerald’s work on the so-called “Jazz Age” (a sobriquet he took credit for) that is not much remarked on, the connection between the horrors of WW I, just completed, and the ebullience and drunkenness of the ’20s.

The essay ends in a summary warning at this political and cultural junction:

Fitzgerald became America’s poet laureate of nostalgia because he understood its perils as well as its allure: nostalgia wants to falsify the past, whereas history tries to clarify it. Gatsby, the emblematic American, is destroyed by nostalgia, his dreams of reclaiming paradise shattered by the “hard malice” of Tom Buchanan’s plutocratic power. Gatsby’s incurable faith in the false promise of renewal—“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”—is America’s. Like Gatsby, we want to recover some idea of ourselves that we’ve lost, to return to the past and find there, intact, our own innocence. Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope” is our own—and ensures we keep willfully forgetting that his great aspirations ended dead in the water.

We’ve all read The Great Gatsby, haven’t we? And I hope we continue to read it in high schools and colleges through the nation. Now, almost 100 years after its publication, it sounds the same alarm about plutocracy and democracy. Do we fight, in wars, in elections, merely to keep the rich in place, atop the pile, piling on, adding to their advantage? Or do we demand a little room to breathe for fellow citizens (like George Floyd) and ourselves?

The air may be rare up there, where even the toilets are gold plated, but down here on the ground, in the trenches, “the mud of Gallipoli,” as T. S. Eliot put it, remembering a friend’s death in WW I, we need to sweat and bleed in the common way to make any progress at all.

Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen, British poet and soldier. He died at age 25 one week before the signing of the Armistice.

Or course, conservatives constantly prattle about “the city on the hill,” “American exceptionalism,” “Make America Great Again,” and, most facile of all, “patriotism” — the patriotism of the great dead white men and of course the live ones, most of whom didn’t and wouldn’t go to war themselves (can anyone say “bone spurs”?) but would be glad to send the deplorables and the inexorables to the mud for the sake of the country, sure, and the munitions manufacturers.

They haven’t read (what’s reading?) or haven’t heeded the warning of Wilfred Owen’s poem (what’s poetry?) about the Great War, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which ends in exhortation of those who have not been to war:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Patriotic bullshit. Toxic nostalgia. It’s not sweet, nor is it just, to die for the country. Don’t let ’em tell you that it is. Don’t let ’em wave their flag in your face. Read your history, fight your own fights, and the hell with filial or final piety.

(For an analysis of a more recent misadventure in patriotism and American arms, see Frederic Wehrey’s “This Soldier’s Witness to the Iraq War Lie,” also in the Review of Books.)

Categories
friendship

Connections, electrical and other

Helping a friend, who had a bad traffic accident a few months ago, wire his deck. He promised to be my assistant, sitting in his wheelchair, and I could do the work.

Turns out he’s quite the tyrant, even in his sedentary position. While I clamber from one ladder to another, putting up PVC conduit and pulling wire, he tells me just what to do. Make that quite the martinet. Without barking, he barks out orders: do this, do that, do the other, as if I have no idea what I’m doing.

(Well, I’ve been doing this sort of basic electrical for years without having much idea what I’m doing. But have yet to shock or kill anyone. And have saved a lot of money, and learned a bit, by not calling in an electrician.)

How To Choose A Ladder | Werner EUWhen I show a bit of impatience with my friend, he tells me a story about how he had a plumber in a few years ago. Evidently he hovered over the guy and told him just what to do, or suggested how he do it, till finally the plumber stood up, clearly peeved, and said, “Look, I’m a master plumber. If you want to tell someone what to do, why don’t you hire a $5 an hour handyman?”

My rates, for this special friend, are $0 an hour, but they do not include, I suggested to him, too much verbal abuse. I know how to make the basic connections: white to white, black to black, ground to the green screw; in-wall box, box extension, cover; PVC connector, conduit, glue, straps, and like that.

(I should admit that the friend is aching to get back to physical connections. He’s a great putterer in his big garage, where he works on several old sports cars at a time; where he invents parts if he doesn’t have ’em; where his restless hands get a full work-out. And he’s aching too to get back to walking, hiking, and biking.)

In the end, basic electricity is not rocket science, nor is basic friendship. One connection is made, and then another. Disruptions occur, ground faults, shorts. But the friendship survives because of shared feeling and interests. In the case of my injured friend, these interests include hiking, biking, joking, laughing, and drinking dark beer, if not artistic matters (he worked in a technical field). I brush off his bossiness and go on with the work. He can’t rise from the chair or rise to the occasion, so I must. I ascend the ladder, I screw in a box, I twist in a length of conduit and screw in a few straps. The air is cleaner up here, could be, and the higher I ascend the purer it becomes. All of this is helped by my hearing difficulties. The higher this old guy goes, the more serene it becomes.

Say what, earthling? I don’t care. Way up in the air I am now making angelic connections.

Categories
poetry politics writing

Politics

William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats in his later years.

The poet William Butler Yeats wrote “Politics” in 1938, on the eve of WW II. It’s a short poem and a provocation, seems to me, in times like these.

“In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms.” — Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

Yeats wrote this ditty in May 1938 and died the following January. So, yes, the world was on the verge of WW II and Yeats was on the verge of dying. A no longer young man’s thoughts turn to spring, or the springtime of Eros, as signified by the girl he sees on the street.

But is Hitler going to slow down for a girl? Is Donald Trump?

Well, let me rephrase that. Hitler had Eva Braun and his world of hate. Trump has his hatred if minorities and immigrants — and as many women as he can molest and get away with.

We understand why old folks regret their dying, their passing into eternity. In “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928), Yeats wrote, “An aged man is but a paltry thing” unless he invests in soul or sails to Byzantium:

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Without exaggerating the state of the planet at this time, and gods know it’s bad enough, with floods and hurricanes in one place, fires in another, man the consuming and exploiting animal dominating nature, as if he would gladly wipe it out entirely, I would suggest not sex or politics as the answer to our problem but poetry.

Poetry is the most speculative of the arts. It can range hither and thither, up into the celestial regions, down into hell, searching for the answers to the eternal questions: who are we and what in the devil are we doing on this planet?

Politics is the art of the city (polis), of living together in cities and communities and trying to make a go of it. Sex is, well, you know what sex is, the conjunction of bodies and sometimes minds with them, in celestial and/or diabolical alignment.

So while we decide here in the USA on Trump vs. Biden, this autumn of the Year of Our Lord (if any) 2020, let’s not forget the offices of poetry: why are we here? to what end? and how do we explain this miracle of being?

(But of course poetry is an aspect of Byzantium. The poem that Yeats created praising and parsing politics and Eros is an aspect of the “artifice of eternity.”)

Categories
narration story writing

More on Homer and Henry James

No, I don’t believe the two gents knew each other, though both were masterful story tellers. (They lived 3,000 years apart.)

In my last entry I broached the subject of finding a story, citing Daniel Mendelsohn’s essay about his troubles moving from a narrative of events to a genuine story. I mentioned his teaching of Homer’s Odyssey, and I brought up Henry James, who wrote many novels and critical essays collected under the title The Art of Fiction. 

In his essay Mendelsohn mentions good advice from a mentor, which was actually contained in and demonstrated by the Odyssey. Homer does not stick to a straightforward chronology at every point, but darts back into the past (flashback) and anticipates the future (flashforward). This in fact, then, was what Mendelsohn did with his bloated and listless manuscript of some 600 pages: made the class he taught on the Odyssey the central narrative and tucked into it temporal dislocations on caring for his dying father and taking a cruise that retraced Odysseus’s voyage.

The story emerged out of the bushels of facts. It was a kind of metastory, in fact, a story about being lost and finding one’s way. Just as Odysseus voyaged for years to return home from the Trojan War, so Mendelsohn scrambled to find a home in the heart of his materials.

You might find something of the same struggle going on in Henry James’s fiction, though he covers his tracks pretty well. I’m thinking here of the care he lavishes on his female characters, especially the protagonists, in novels like The Portrait of a Lady, where Isabel Archer moves from America to Europe and is seduced into a loveless marriage by a man interested only in her money.

I’ve suggested that James’s interest in female characters is characteristic of his large moral imagination. But it’s also founded, I think, on self-interest.

It’s long been know that James, who never married, had homoerotic proclivities. He was so refined, so domesticated, in fact, that he could have passed, without too much trouble, as a woman. Mark Twain famously, or infamously, called him “Henrietta James.” T. S. Eliot, more accurately and charitably, opined that James “had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it,” no ideology or stereotype disturb it. When he created characters, he went deep, plunged into hearts and minds, and emerged with characters that enlarge our appreciation of life’s moral puzzles and quandaries.

Portrait of a Lady cover
Penguin’s rendition of James’s Isabel Archer of The Portrait of a Lady (1881).

One of the central leitmotifs of James’s fiction is renunciation. The characters only want what they cannot have, though their desires are not the outsize or outrageous stuff of popular fiction. Isabel Archer wants only a happy marriage … and then happiness for her husband’s illegitimate daughter, Pansy. When she discovers the incorrigible evil in her husband, there is no going back. She renounces herself, or her own chance at happiness, in order to serve others, especially the younger, more innocent self, the daughter.

An article by Colm Tóibín details how “Henry James’s Family Tried to Keep Him in the Closet.” Yes, he had written many “ardent” letters to young men, stuff that would scandalize eminent and obscure Victorians alike. James’s heirs squelched these letters, but the same impulses shown in the letters appear also in the fiction, though in disguised form: his admiration for the fine minds and individual moralities of many female characters, the capacities of men like Lambert Strether, the title character of The Ambassadors, to learn and grow. (Strether is sent to fetch home to New England a wayward son, with a French mistress, but he comes to see that it’s puritan New England and the New World which is corrupt, not the Old World.)

James could not express his ardent desires directly, but he found in writing, both private letters and public letters (that is, literature), a way to announce and renounce who he was and who, under different circumstances, he might have been.

For fiction writers, facts are one thing, finally. But the story, the overarching idea and meaning behind all facts and events, is something else entirely, something grander and more enduring.

 

Categories
narration story writing

Finding a story

If you’re telling stories, you have a fund of experience to draw on. Don’t we all? Nearly all of us tell stories, and jokes, in daily life. We regale and assail each other with such stories. We while away the time, which otherwise might bore us out of our minds. We stake an advantage. We perform.

But what to do with these stories if we would tell them in print?

I should say rather than stories, it’s narratives we all have, sequences of events that happen to us and around us and sometimes way out there in the family of man. And we may have sequelae, also: outcomes whether healthy or not that are moral, physical, psychological. They may be punch-lines in a joke or a sad or hilarious coda to a story. But how do we get these narratives to add up and make sense and march on in print?

There’s a very good hint provided in a recent essay by Daniel Mendelsohn in The New York Review of Books. He talks about the long research journey he undertook to write about how the Holocaust wiped out the Jews in a town once in Poland, now Ukraine, in which his ancestors lived. And how, once he published that book, he was depressed and paralyzed and floundered for another project.

Mendelsohn is a writer of factual accounts and analyses. After a hiatus of several years he was able to reach out past the Holocaust back into ancient Greek history and find a subject in Homer’s Odyssey. He wrote hundreds of pages of narrative in three parts, based on a classroom (in which he had taught the Odyssey), a ship which recreated Odysseus’s route home, and a hospital in which his father, who’d taken Mendelsohn’s course in the Odyssey, lay dying.

He gave the script to an old friend and mentor, and got this reaction:

The first part, the account of the seminar, was interesting, he observed—after a small silence during which I absorbed his criticism—but, in his opinion, the problem was that once you reach the end of that part, once you come to the end of the Odyssey course, you didn’t want to keep reading. You don’t want to get through the whole semester and then have to go on a cruise, he said, at which I weakly protested, But that’s how it happened. I don’t care how it happened, he returned; this isn’t about fact, this is about a story. You need to find a way to plant the cruise and the hospital within the narrative of the seminar. Use flashbacks, use flash-forwards, don’t worry about chronology. Make it up, if you have to! You just have to find a way.

When he said the word way, I couldn’t repress an embarrassed start of recognition. The phrase “find a way” allowed me, first of all, to understand retroactively the nature of the creative and spiritual crisis I had undergone after finishing my previous book. I was suffering from what the Greeks called aporia: a helpless, immobilized confusion, a lack of resources to find one’s way out of a problem. The literal meaning of aporia is “a lack of a path,” or “no-way.” I hadn’t been able to leave my apartment; I couldn’t think of a new project. I was, in the Greek way of thinking, pathless—the adjective, as it happens, that in the Odyssey is used to describe the sea, the terrifying blank nothingness from which Odysseus must extricate himself, literally and figuratively, in order to reclaim his identity and find his way home.

Now you or I may not be writing a book. But whether we’re rendering a narrative orally or writing it out, we have to concern ourselves at some point with the central, essential story: where are we going with all these details? what do we want our audience to feel and understand?

If we don’t know these matters well at some level, we may well mess up a joke — or a written essay, article, or book. You know how that works? You go through the details of a joke, and then realize you’re leaving something out or putting something in that shouldn’t be there — you’re messing it up (again), aren’t you?

Henry James
Henry James, The Master, as painted by John Singer Sargent in 1913, three years before James’s death.

Some people, of course, are inveterate and practiced jokers. They know how to tell a joke or perhaps play a trick, and everyone is convinced. Most of us, however, have to work on our capers and find out, however we can, what is the essential story. There’s a struggle between our conscious and unconscious faculties. We want to control the narrative, but must let the chthonic powers play.

This sort of struggle may have underlain Henry James’s idea of the story “germ.” He writes in his notebooks about how he would overhear a story told at dinner and take its essence, the germ, home with him, only the germ, the central point, as he saw it, and then work it up on his own into his own story.

Once he had his suggestion … he hastened to close his ears to the rest of the story lest clumsy Life should take his seminal idea away. When the artist is too close to the reality he wants to describe, his imagination is no longer stimulated and therefore ceases to work. — “James on Art and the Novel”

James’s MO may or may not work for you, but the gist of this story of the Master is that he let his imagination play, have free rein, roam beyond the confines of the tale he had heard. Of course, James like his brother, the philosopher William James, had a great moral imagination. He was able to create characters and tell their stories with a profound human empathy. Many of the stories, like The Portrait of a Lady and Washington Square and The Aspern Papers, have to do with cold-hearted, amoral men who cheat women out of love, or money, or full personal development. After a while, I would think, such a concern, or motif, a central part of his own character, would be part of the germ, naturally, of many of his tales.

So how do you find a story, telling the facts, such as they are, and developing the meaning of the facts — the solid, essential story which experience, the gift horse, has presented you? Surely, you can’t spend too long looking it in the mouth? Giddyup, you gotta ride experience’s suggestions.