Friday, August 30, 2013

Spelling in 19th Century Indiana

One of my great grandfathers learned to spell from an old Indiana State Series Spelling Book from 1891. It presented spelling words in matrices based on phonetics. Matrices of words fascinate me with the unexpected meanings they generate. On one page:

herd     person    sir    chirp
nerve    hermit    dirt    circle
serve    fertile    first    kirtle
terse    fervent    shirt    girdle
verse    mermaid    verse    irksome

curd    blurt    surloin     turban
furl    churn    murder    turbid
lurk    curse    murmer    world
slur    nurse    furnish    worst
turf    purse    purport    worth

corpse    morsel    true    rural
forty    normal    prude    gruel
order    sordid    fruit    truant
corner    gorgeous    cruise    abstruse
border    torpid    cruet    extrude

"Surloin" appears to have been an accepted spelling in those days, as was "murmer"

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney
(public domain image)
We learn this morning that Seamus Heaney has died.

Heaney's poems inspired by the discovery of Iron Age bodies preserved in Irish bogs were among those included in the Norton Anthology of English Literature when I was a pup English major in college. They made a huge impression on me. Later, as my interest in literature grew, so did my appreciation of Heaney's work.

He gave a talk at the University of Iowa in which he told us stories. One of them was about his youth and his lunch breaks sitting by the bogs where he worked cutting peat. After his talk he took questions. The comments he made about Yeats that day inspired the title for this blog.

I was much cheekier in those days than I am today. An apprentice confronting the sorcerer, I asked him to instantly deliver the secrets of his spells. "I really enjoy your bog poems and how you are able to braid the present and the past together to tightly in your language. I think many people here would also like to be able to write poems like that. How did you do it?"

His reply: "When I was a boy I worked cutting peat. And during lunch we sat by the bogs...." Yes, he repeated what he had already told us. A cheeky answer for a cheeky question. But he delivered the correct answer, the best answer anyone can generally give to a writer. What you write, how you write, how authentic it is, depends upon its relationship to your life as you have lived it.

And now there is one less of these writers' lives. We pay attention to the moment.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Raymond Carver Comic

If I could draw, I'd do more comics. This is a page I sketched for Raymond Carver's story "Chef's Place."

I found a previous page that is slightly better.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Hemingway, With Cat

photo from John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
At the gift shop of the Hemingway House
I buy that photo of him. My uncle frowns.
"I guess he was a good author, but why
did he have to kill all those animals?"
It's true. That house is full of gazelle horns
and portraits of him and strung-up marlins.
"I can't think of a single reason,"
I say. Then there are the portraits of wives
like trophies as well, the women in books,
the badly portrayed nurse in Farewell
"I'm not even sure I like his novels,"
I say, "I just like this picture."
Uncle Lew frowns, says, "It's good. Looks like him."
I think of Hemingway, flawed every way,
but loving cats, the ceramic Picasso
cat overlooking his bedroom, its heart
a glazed sloppy valentine on its chest.
I think of the ceramic urinal
Papa salvaged one night from Sloppy Joe's
laid out and redecorated, converted
into a drinking fountain for all those
cared-for twelve-toed cats and their descendants.

Back home Lew feeds his many neutered cats.
"I've got Hemingway beat. How many'd he have?
Twenty?" And across the street Joan says,
"Those aren't Hemingway's cats. And why do they
make such a big deal about Hemingway
drinking at Sloppy Joe's? Hell, I drank
a lot right here." Lew says, "Everyone
who knew him says he hated the cats,
that people threw them into his yard
just to torment him." I start feeling sick.
Picasso's gift sculpture was a cruel joke
on his rival jerk at Gertrude Stein's house.
The urinal was a cruel joke on cats.
I imaged what Papa imagined the cats were drinking.
"I feel like a fool for buying that picture,"
I say. Lew and Joan look satisfied.
"It's okay," Lew says. "Now you know the story."

Monday, August 5, 2013

Journal Entry: July 3, 1995

Outside: the deep echoes of fireworks. An occasional whistle and crack. There is technique in fireworks, the mixing of explosives with the right metals for the particular color. They etch the sky.... One thing about fireworks, at least the ones I've seen: they never reach an ideal, never seem to go off fast enough. The crowd watches appreciatively as the pyrotechnicians try to time the teases between blasts: the double spangles, the flowers punctuated by a yellow dot and a boom. The climax is never as full as the one in our imaginations, where they sky cannot rest and our faces all are lit forever. Perhaps the low budget fireworks of my life have helped me appreciate more what perfection is, and [to know] there can be no sense of it without frustration. I wonder if the fireworks crew members, running from mortar to mortar with flares in their hands, have this sense of the underachieved, or if, when the show is over, they are simply exhausted with their labor, pick up the charred refuse, and are glad it's over.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Graphic for Richard Hugo

This is a graphic I made a few years ago. The quote is from "The Freaks at Spurgin Road Field."

Friday, August 2, 2013

Memories of Lucy Grealy

I did not know Lucy Grealy well, but she was not the type of person you met without getting an impression, although in my case it may have been a more difficult process. I will say that it was a measure of her strong personality, rather than of my own self-absorbed obliviousness, that someone actually had to point out to me that her face was disfigured.

We attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for poetry at overlapping times together, and there probably wasn’t a semester she was not in the same workshop or seminar with me. It was mostly through these occasions, as well as other random ones, that I got to know her. My first memory of her I was sitting in a classroom-building hallway when she noticed a bandage on my arm. “Oh, I just had a blood test.” “Are you sick?” “A little sick,” I said. “I hope you get better soon.” She was very sweet on that occasion, her small, wiry body animated. It was only later that the wilted jaw, sometimes with drainage tubes in it, became a part of my mental picture of her. Her bearing was simply not that of a victim.

The poems she submitted for review in workshop tended to be sere. Her poetic talent, especially her penchant for written clarity, always came through. Often I try to remember one of her poems, which she may have published later in another form, that seemed a blend between Grimm’s tales, Kafka and what could only have been the spiritual austerity she must have learned through her ordeals with bone cancer and reconstructive surgery on her jaw. The poem involved mice, doorways and a tremendous sense of gray. As the months went on, she, herself, seemed increasingly dour, yet I also remember her laughing with her girlfriends, talking about the summer romance that she wished she to have.

I never recall her talking specifically about her ordeals with childhood cancer and recent cosmetic surgery, but she did speak once about narcotics. As a child it appeared she was becoming depended on the drugs that had controlled her pain. Lucy said her mother simply cut off the supply, and she lost the dependency through cold turkey. She told this story with a smile, and yet it was the moment I was most impressed personally with the pain that had shaped her life.

The last poem of hers I remember workshopping was very different, one recounting a personal encounter on a telephone, one that ended badly. We all liked the poem very much, but Lucy became contrite and surly, not so much in reaction to our positive evaluation, but, it seemed, to the fact that she had brought such a personal poem to the workshop at all. It was a personal embarrassment.

Years later I began looking up people I knew from the workshop days. The internet is a helpful and scary facilitator of that process. I was shocked and saddened to learn of Stephen McNally’s death and wrote a more than one elegy for him. Jane Mead and others had continued working in poetry, teaching or not teaching. Lucy, though, had a very popular memoir, Autobiography of a Face, that I could buy at my local bookstore, and occasionally I could find an article by her online. If someone had made it big that I knew, it was she. Only recently have I seen her interview with Charlie Rose, and there she is, looking very tall in her chair, unflappable, mistress of her own domain that seems to be wherever she is, whoever she’s with.

It was not long after I had read Autobiography of a Face that I became involved in Buddhism in a real way, and on a whim I went to that same bookstore where I bought her memoir and purchased for the very first time one of those slick, nationally-distributed dharma magazines. In that issue was a section about dharma and death. And in that section was an article about Lucy dying of an overdose of the drugs she had become addicted to over the course of a life dealing with pain from repeated corrective surgeries, though I’d guess the pain came from many other sources. It was another shock of loss. I didn’t know her well, but there had been something larger than life about Lucy. Also, I had to wonder what we poets had signed up for in life, if the fate of a poet was more doomed than another's.

I was also impressed at the facades we put up, the smiles and bearing that say we are okay; everything is fine. Sometimes they even ask: How could they not be fine with you? Toughness, something I’ve worshiped all my life, showed another one of its sharp-edged limits. It was less and less a worthy fetish.

But when it’s said and done, I didn’t know her that well. There is only this need to say what I can.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Journal Entry: December 12, 1994

Words are so heavy. They come out of this fabric of language, which is, inescapably, the fabric of time. Words not only record time and bring the past into the present, but they also measure the past by how they change over the years, and they measure the present by their beat into the future. And they reach forward, as well, just as we do: blindly.