The Ones with Difficult Names

wrote an afterward to my forthcoming book from Kelsay Press–

Afterward

One of many reasons to admire W. B. Yeats is that his publishing history kept good pace with his writing, so that the reader might follow the development of his technique and ideas from youth into considerable old age. Perhaps that’s not the way things work now; at least it’s not the way things worked for me, so a book, when it sees the light of day, is likely to be a crazy quilt of different times and dispensations, gathered together at some late moment with the hope that there might be, at least, thematic unity. Some of these poems were written thirty years ago, others after the book was accepted for publication and certain pieces needed replacement or reworking. Things that seem like contradictions might just be one authentic voice speaking at widely divided points in time. That’s my plea, anyway. Hale Chatfield was a professor at Hiram College who was the first professional ever to look at my work, which he did with kindness, forbearance, and acuity whose voice I still hear in the hours of revision.

From “The Nurseryman’s Wedding.” In honor of Halloween . . .

Working on a couple of projects at once is my way. This is from THE NURSERYMAN’S WEDDING. Sam-sam is a high school kid; Jessup is his abusive dad; Larry is Jessup’s lover, and Faye is Jessup’s new female lover, who had just joined the melange and has made Sam-sam a grilled cheese sandwich while he watches TV. Excerpt choice is to honor Halloween.

Sam was watching Bewitched on TV. Samantha had done magic to help Darrin’s career and was trying to hide it. The old story. If Sam-sam had a friend who could do magic, he’d let her. Faye came from the kitchen and set a plate with a grilled cheese sandwich on the wide chair arm where he sat. They’d already had dinner, so Sam wondered about the grilled cheese even while lifting it to his mouth. Buttery, not too well done. Perfect. Maybe Larry had told her how he liked it.
She pointed to the TV screen.
“That woman’s a witch, isn’t she?”
“Yes.”
“Pretty.”
“Yep.”
Faye made the little chime sound Samantha made when casting a spell. “Samantha and. . . uh. . .”
“Darrin.”
“Darrin. You like this show?”

Sam shrugged. If he didn’t like it why would he be watching it? It was one of those episodes where you could pretty much predict the end, so Sam allowed his attention to drift onto Faye. Her eyes looked tired. Half her face smiled, but the other half faced into the dark of the room. Without knowing he was going to do so, Sam said, “You sick of Jessup yet?”
Faye laughed. “Every son at some point has nothing good to say about his father.”
Sam was about to ask, “What good would you say about my father?” when she said, unexpectedly,
“There were witches when I was growing up.”
“What?”
“When I was growing up, there was a place by the tracks where witches came and. . . I don’t know how to describe it–”
“They had cauldrons and stuff?”

“No, not that. They’d get into a circle in the shadow of one of the railroad cars so nobody could see them. Nobody from the road. They’d build little fires. It’d be sunset and they’d build little fires out of sticks and grass like they wanted to take over the light when the sun was gone. They’d let you sit with them if you came over. They liked girls better than boys. . . or as good anyway. That was the first place I ever saw that.”
“Did they turn people into cats and that?”
“No, no. I never saw that. But they’d hold up shapes they made out of cloth and give the names of people they knew, people who were sick or. . . or troubled. . . and they’d say the names and say they were holding them in the light. ‘This is John and I’m holding him in the light,’ because John had cancer or something like that. Youngstown lay a little to the west and as the sun went down everything went golden, even the steam from the smokestacks. They chose that place–the witches did– because it was the one place that was beautiful where people would leave them alone. Maybe they do the same here and I just don’t know where to look.”

“I know some railroad tracks. Maybe we could–” Sam stopped short. He took a bite of grilled cheese.“You ever hold anybody to the light?”
“I never became one of them. I went there only a couple of times. It was hard to get away. . . especially if you were a girl. But I hold people to the light now and then. On my own. Plenty of times, in fact.”
“You hold my daddy to the light?”
She laughed, deep, a little wicked. “I’m here ain’t I?”
Sam had to smile at that one.
“Your dad calls you Sam-sam.”
“Everybody used to call me that. Mom started it. We were reading a book of bible stories one time and my favorite was Samson, but I couldn’t say it right, and it all went from there. Sam-sam. I sort of grew out of it.”
“I was called Cissy until I made everyone call me Faye, which is my name. Sometimes you have to put up a fight.”
“Yeah,” Sam agreed.
Faye took a deep breath, like she was inhaling from a cigarette: “He loves you, you know.”
“Jessup?”
“Your dad, yes.”
“I don’t see it.”
“You think he has to prove it to you?”

“I sort of think he does. Now.”
Faye was quiet for a moment. She said, “Try holding him to the light. You might feel different afterward.”
Faye had cut the grilled cheese diagonally, which was exactly right. Sam pushed the half he hadn’t bitten across the plate toward her. She lifted the half sandwich and took a bite.
Sam said, “You got any kids?”
“I got a daughter who can’t stand me. So I kind of understand. . . all this.”
“You hold Larry to the light?”
“Sam–”
“Larry was happy. Whatever was wrong with my dad, Larry was happy with him. Then you came. You ever hold him to the light?”
“I don’t know how to. He’s. . . well, you know he’s friendly and all that. Like a sister. But there’s a door closed there and it’s not going to open for me.”
“Larry and dad are–”
“I know.”
“What would your witches say about that?”
“They were pretty accepting of. . . all that sort of thing.”
Sam almost finished his half of sandwich before he said, “They ever hold anyone up to the dark?”
Faye hesitated before she said, “Sure. Once that I heard. You have to be pretty far gone for them to give up on you.”
Who? Who’d they hold up to the dark?”
“Husband of one of them. He beat her. Then he beat their child and he–”
Faye’s voice stopped. Sam finished the sentence inside his head. After a while he said, “Who would you hold up to the darkness?”
“Oh, Castro or somebody. I don’t know.”
Sam realized he made noise while he chewed and Faye did not. He wondered how she did that. Samantha Stevens had just winked them into a commercial. Sam set the crust knob of his sandwich down onto the plate. It was bad luck to finish every crumb.



Pie Excerpt from JASON OF THE APES

He eased himself down from the tree and followed a line of shadow to his back door. He opened it. It had not been locked. What was there to steal, except Clayton’s delicacies? There would always be more of those. He padded into the bathroom, turned on the shower, waited for it to be warm. The luxury of being warm at night, the luxury of warm clean water almost made his knees buckle. Clayton had been busy, and there were white towels and tooth paste and a razor and a white rug on the floor and even a little elephant-shaped vase with a fake flower in it. Jason stood in the shower rubbing himself until he thought the hot water must surely run out, but it didn’t. Clayton had provided big white soap with a white smell, so he didn’t even have to turn on the lights to find it. His toes dug into the floor. He liked being wet. He draped a towel over his shoulders and went to the kitchen. Inside the fridge his faithful friend had stored the uneaten Specials of several nights at High Table. Jason pulled one of the boxes out and set it on the table. A smell came from it like– pie. It was pie. Pecan pie with two inches of mocha whipped cream on top. Jason’s body began to cry, it was that hungry, and the pie that far beyond adequate. Jason wanted to scold his body for showing such weakness, but, finally, he understood. He looked in the cupboards for plates, and there they were. Flatware, Napkins. A cup in case he wanted something hot to drink. A tea kettle. He knew if Clayton were left alone he would provide everything. Night was right that he didn’t deserve such friends, but he had them, so there was nothing left but to use what they had brought.
The kitchen window had a good view of the forest. Only his bedroom had a better one. Night wore the wobbly moon in the middle of himself like a great pendant. Night boiled at the edges with breezes and the tribulation of stems under the burden of their dark flowers. Night moved and stood still at once. Night looked like he was over among the trees, but he was there, too, against the kitchen window, waiting for his friend to come and play. Night was a child and a god. The First before all. Jason said holy and the night bowed a little, acknowledging. Jason said, Holy and beautiful night, be my cover, be my friend, be my lover. There is nothing like you. Bid me enter. Bid me hide in you, and be safe.
Night’s silence was assent.
He turned from the window and, led by smell alone, returned to the pie. He let his face fall into it, mouth open, gobbling like a beast. It was not possible to get enough inside at once.

The Summer

COVID summer can be productive to solitary artists like a writer. I have written two new plays since this time last year– one a ghostly COVID love story and the other a historical masque about the time of Woodrow Wilson and the Great War. Also whipped a couple of novels into shape. I think JASON OF THE APES and The NURSERYMAN’S WEDDING are finally ready for the trial of the market. The Asheville School produces my play WASHINGTON PLACE later this month, with a cast of about the ages of the actual people in the story.

June 6, 2021

It gives me joy to announce the publication of my play Washington Place through the good offices of Sublime Theater Publications, and that most excellent of editors, Steven Samuels. Washington Place was featured at the Great Plains Theater Conference in Omaha, and given a flawless production by Asheville’s Magnetic Theater. The story involves the last hours of the workers–mostly female, mostly Italian or Jewish immigrants–whose lives were destroyed in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911. Overwhelmingly female roles, for those for whom that is a concern. Copies may be obtained from Amazon and Barnes & Noble and from your local independent bookseller.

I’ve been telling people this is my first published play, but that is not strictly true. The first play I ever wrote, Timothy Liberty, was published by the Playwrights’ Fund of North Carolina (long now defunct). Somehow the cartons that contained the printed playscript “disappeared” from a Greenville, NC basement. So far as I know, I have the one copy in the world. Maybe somebody will read this and tell me different.

The Dead Shall Live, the Living Die

Read in Poets& Writers about a contest for a long work the features music. I already had a novella about a kid who discovers (quite accidentally) that he’s a musical prodigy. The contest deadline is January 31, so I gave myself the month of January to turn it into a full-length novel. This was accomplished late last night. Still have time to tinker before the deadline. The title is The Dead Shall Live, the Living Die, taken from “A Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day,” words by Dryden and music by Handel, which features in the narrative.

Excerpt:

One day mother pulled her old record player into his room, the one she bought when she was working and had plenty of money. “Old” did not do the object justice. It looked like the grill of an ancient car. Within the body of the machine variously shaped bulbs glowed orange/red, and it was always hot to the touch. The heat made the dust inside smell like fire. He could get up to change the records, but not much more than that. The records were black clay, heavy, 78 RPMs left over from a faded era, and mother warned him he should burden the turntable with only one or two at a time. The music was old, too, ancient–Big Band and songs from movies of the 40’s, for the most part. Farrell didn’t like the music that much, but he had his favorites. His mother told him which had been her favorites, and those he played again and again, trying to learn something about his mother that everyday acquaintance had not revealed. Had she desired these records for herself, bought them, cherished them, or had they been given to her just as they had been to him? Why did she choose this and not that? Were his tastes the same as hers, and if not, why not? Some of the people sang in regular singing voices, while those on the opera records sang in a different way, thicker somehow, as though the argument of the songs would be impossible to convey unless you were loud and complex. Decca London Mercury Capitol Columbia Victor. He tried to figure out as much as he could without asking. Did everybody in his mother’s time play those records? What happened to that music that you never heard it on the radio now? Did the recording companies get to choose the colors on the labels, or were they assigned by some central power?Farrell had more leisure to think up questions than other people had to answer them. This disparity allowed him to imagine whole worlds. Narratives changed while he lay spinning them out. He listened to the ancient music and tried to figure what it meant. It never crossed his mind that it might mean nothing at all, just someone singing to make a few bucks in a world so different almost nothing remained of it.

In the Garden of the Bears

Working on a new book! What do you think? A guy has a boating accident and recovers, discovering he has acquired the gift of prophecy.

I

I remember because the bears started coming to the garden then. It was a blessing. I told people they were forests gods in the shape of bears, because my mind works that way. Even if they were just bears, I was happy. I pursued them from window to window to see what they would do. I went out on the terrace when the garbage tub was empty, to tell them they needn’t bother. These were wild, wild bears without the collars around their necks that the tame bears have. I pitied the tame bears, the city dump bears. I didn’t pity my bears, the wild gods passing through my fences like ghosts. I tried to imagine what they would sniff this time and what they would pass by. They said “whuff” sometimes. I think they said “whuff” when I’d say “Wow!” or “Watch out!” They sank down into the pond to let the cool around them. You wondered what the fish thought. They nibbled the water lilies. They didn’t like the water lilies very much. You think they’re going to be oafish and comical, but they glide like shadows, absolutely soundless unless they whuff or dig into something. I was planting in the garden when I looked up saw a bear staring at me, seven or eight feet away. I smiled and said, “Hi, bear. I’m working in the garden,” in case he wondered what I was doing. I went back to the planting, but I followed the bear’s thoughts for a while. He was wondering if humans had put all the plants into the ground, or only certain ones. Did humans plant the forest at the beginning of all things? It didn’t seem likely there were enough people right at the beginning to do all that work. I was going to stop and explain but when I raised my head the bear had gone. I figured he would. There’s really nothing to eat until the fruits ripen.
I think of the poetry the bears might have composed, the dances they might have danced were they not thinking of food all the time.


This is before I crossed over.

An Age of Silver

Another Quarantine project has been to finish off a book begun long ago, An Age of Silver. It was not publishable, I think, so long as I was employed as a professor. Anyway, the basic plot is that the main character, CD, goes looking for his lover, named Davie Jax, who had been one of the greatest ballet dancers in the world until fate changed for him. This part of the journey takes CD to New Orleans:

From AN AGE of SILVER

I take the window seat whenever possible, liking the idea of a thin film between me and freezing space. It’s the expression of the death wish in me, otherwise well suppressed. Plus Davie, nervous on planes and hungry for the direct attention of the stewardesses, took the aisle. I always knew which way to lay my head.

In the Delta be monsters. At the sound of the faltering airplanes they raise their manes and crests, anticipating. You get hungry lying in wait. Swamps float waist-deep in flowers. Waterlilies meditate in the gloom of cypresses. Alligators stab through shield of flowers. Egrets stab like famished orchids.


I watched light shoot from ditches, creeks, bayous, dazzling as gunfire we passed over. The Mississippi was a snake of light, the Delta a maze, a material ambiguity, neither water nor land, a shifting amalgam. There was turbulence on the Gulf. Toward shore its waters rumpled and flattened like the shaking of an enormous veil. The plane bucked, falling. I laughed, not at anything in the plane, but at the white Davie’s knuckles would have taken on at that moment, digging through my arm into the armrest. The blue-haired lady across the aisle glared as though my laughter were the cause of the turbulence. The plane shivers, smooths, descends for real, a thunder-ibis spread-winged over Ponchatraine. Then the airport, the din of terminals. I picked up a habit in Grand Central long ago of hovering and hesitating. Like a wounded animal thrashing, uncertainty draws the predators, who are wise enough not to prey without giving something in return. What they give interests me. Will they promise love? Salvation? Riches? Ostentatiously I peruse a map of the wrong city. I want a stranger to watch hungrily. I want somebody to help me whether I need help or not. But nobody watches. Krishnas circle a middle-aged woman who does, in fact, have a look of spiritual hunger in her eyes. Her body hurries forward. Take me, her eyes say. Saffron closes in. I gather my bags. I step from the airport limousine into the blue light of Ursuline Street.

I take a room at the Ursuline Guest House, which is arrayed like a villa around a walled garden, sweetened by blossoms sweeter to me because they have no history, violet and magenta and wax-white that one had never seen before, which no dying god nor picnic on the grass has given a name. I lie in the clatter of the air-conditioner and sleep. I do not dream of the Dancer, though I wish I might. I dream of a full moon over a river, the banks of the river jagged with the silhouettes of birds.

I wake to light turned purple and nighthawks buzzing the space above the courtyard. Nighthawks are the heraldic bird of hustlers, whistling lonesome above the roofs at twilight and through the dark, settling at dawn when the children of the night grow weary. Trumpets blow in Jackson Square, vibrating the walls of the mist-colored Cathedral. Breeze backs from the Gulf, touching open spots, turned aside by walls and fronds to leave others sultry and evocative. Voodoo ladies bend double on Decatur with the weight of river air. Women lean from balconies shaped like flowers and festooned with flowers, their iron swirled and twisty as though melted by the narcotic heat. Heat. Scent. Strangeness. Strangeness not a function of unfamiliarity, but strangeness absolute. Heat there like a room where there have been dancers

Poem for a Tuesday

I will wait for you like that blue shirt
you can wear three days without its looking bad.
I will wait for you like the shoes under your bed,
prepared, but without real purpose
without that you come walking, running
with your arms in their blue shirt open.

Autumn is come. I let you go 
a whole day with crumbs in your stubble,
that unshaven, slovenly nonchalance
so beautiful to me I thought it might add
curved, raw, final beauty to the wide world.
Shave if you want. Come forth shining. All the same.

Oh, take away the expensive appetizers,
the white cloth with its fence of forks.
I’m going to sit under a sycamore tree
and eat these two apples, fatal, allegorical,
that rode in your pocket all the day.
One is Time and one is Always.

I eat of each with equal, hungry bites,
waiting for you as lips for the lifted glass.
Take your time. Commit that atrocity of twisted silk
you think is tying a tie. Slob angels hover,
raining crumbs of frankincense and manna.
Take, as I say, your time. I am filled with watching.