Theodore Roethke has long been one of my favorite poets. "Dolor," "The Minimal," "My Papa's Waltz," and "The Waking" are foundational pieces in my appreciation of poetry, but I realized recently that I knew very little about the poet or his full body of work. I didn't know, for instance, that he spent much of his childhood in his family's 25-acre greenhouse. I didn't know that so much of his early work dealt with the natural, physical world of roots and stems and soil. I didn't know that 3 of my aforementioned favorite poems and much of his best known work comes from the small collection The Lost Son.
Published in 1949, The Lost Son is divided into 4 sections. The first is the longest and comprises his "floral" collection. The second is my favorite, not only because it includes "My Papa's Waltz" and "Dolor." The third returns to the natural world but takes a wider view; it includes "The Minimal." Finally, the fourth section, holding only four longer poems (including the title poem), feels much more mature, more ambitious in scope and subject.
"The Lost Son" either anticipates or reveals the mental depression Roethke would suffer from during his lifetime. The opening line refers to Woodlawn, the cemetery where Roethke's father was buried. The struggle of the "lost son" to determine his identity in the body of his loss is definitely seen, although through a cloudy lens, in this poem. I love this passage from the first stanza of section 1, "The Flight":
I shook the softening chalk of my bones,
Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time. (6-11)
The poem is deliberately fragmented, lacking in cohesion of form or subject, but the questioning and questing feeling is consistent. There is a heaviness in each line, except perhaps the last few from the untitled section 5:
Was it light within light?
Stillness becoming alive,
A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you.
It will come again.
Another interesting side-note from this collection is that section 3 includes a poem called "The Waking," but it is not the one that Roethke is well-known for. In fact, it is not a very good poem at all. A few of the poems that were new to me that I liked particularly were "Judge Not" from section 2 and "Flower-Dump" and "Old Florist" and "Root Cellar" from section 1. Though I don't love the whole poem, I do like the opening lines of "Last Words" from section 2:
Solace of kisses and cookies and cabbage,
That fine fuming stink of particular kettles,
Muttony tears falling on figured linoleum,
Frigidaires snoring the sleep of plenty (1-4).
The revelation of those everyday impressions is something I always appreciate, something I often strive for in my own work, albeit without regular satisfaction.
Once again, a poetry collection has given me a few quiet moments to dwell in a different world. I am so thankful for those moments and for Roethke and for all those who try to capture their words under glass and watch them begin to bead up, to sweat, to breathe.
In times like these, you have to grow big enough inside to hold both the loss and the hope. (356-357)A few weeks ago, the Southeast suffered mightily from a series of tornadoes. Hundreds of people were killed. Trees and homes were destroyed. Communities were shaken by the distance between familiar befores and alien afters. It was and still is a big deal to the people in my town, in neighboring towns across the region. I was fortunate in that no one in my immediate circle was deeply affected by the storms. There was some damage, some inconvenient days without electricity, but I have not suffered the personal hurts that others have. So, what I'm about to say could easily be disregarded, chalked up to an insensitive position of relative comfort and ease. Unpopular as it may be, I'm going to go ahead and say it:
What happened in the Southeast a few weeks ago is no more tragic than what is happening - everyday - in the coalfields of Appalachia. It was simply more sudden.
When I ran a cross-country event at a former strip mine site in 1996, I was confused. When I read Denise Giardina's Storming Heaven, I was angry. When I took Appalachian Political Economy in college, I was incensed. When I assisted Earl Dotter in hanging his stunning photographs of miners in the region, I was burdened with a quiet sadness. Now, as I sit with images of mountaintop removal mine sites in front of me, as I remember the explosion at Upper Big Branch, as I read about the House Subcommittee on Water Resources hearing titled "EPA Mining Policies: Assault on Appalachian Jobs," I struggle against a tide of helplessness, a feeling that there is nothing I can do to stop or even slow the destruction of the mountains of Appalachia. I could just as easily face down a tornado and convince it to be still.
Reading Ann Pancake's Strange as this Weather Has Been has been a watershed experience for me. There are books that change you, that assert a presence in you that will not recede - no matter how long or how far you go from them. This book has been that for me. Strange as this Weather Has Been tells the story of a family living with the reality of mountaintop removal mining in Southern West Virginia, a few counties over from where my husband grew up. More than anything else, it is about loss. Almost all the stunners of phrase that I recorded in my notebook (yup, another library book that Must. Be. Bought.) deal in one way or another with losing: youth, love, identity, land, home, family, self. But somehow, it is also, miraculously, about hope. This hope persisted, a burning certainty as I read, so those closing thoughts (quoted at the start of this post) were just right, as Goldilocks would declare. It makes current and real and true and fresh all that Giardina started in Storming Heaven. And it does it with such pitch-perfect prose that I was often breathless at reading it. Here's one:
Stunned golden inside with the dream and the crave and the new of that boy. (8)In that one fragment of a sentence, Pancake displays a unique and chewy-good way with words. She puts them to such provocative use, and once they enter your consciousness, you won't easily forget. Here's another:
A dead terraced the whole width of the frame. Hacked gray stumps where mountain peaks had been, and flung all over, skinless white snakes. Roads. A gigantic funnel, sloppy and dark, running down off it, funnel big as the mountain itself. Is the mountain itself, then fill, it made a dry place in my mouth. (58)You have to understand something about MTR (mountaintop removal) mining to fully understand this passage, but it is stunning once you know. If you don't know much or at all, please visit ilovemountains.org to learn more. Or watch this video:
And if you want to try to understand more the atrocity this destruction is for the people of Appalachia, read this:
now I know people not from here probably don't understand our feeling for these hills. Our love for land not spectacular. Our mountains are not like Western ones, those jagged awesome ones, your eyes always pulled to their tops. But that is the difference, I decided. In the West, the mountains are mostly horizon. We live in our mountains. It's not just the tops, but the sides that hold us. (173)And then, go read the rest of Ann Pancake's heartwrenching, activating, inspiring, and beautiful book, Strange as this Weather Has Been. And don't even try to deny the hope hidden inside that loss.
In Tuscaloosa, in Ringgold, in Glade Spring, and elsewhere, people are still reeling from those destructive winds a few weeks ago. The difference between the tornadoes and mountain top removal mining is not the degree of tragedy but the reality of blame. A tornado is called an "act of God." What is happening in Appalachia is most decidedly not. And that distinction is everything.
And We Shall Clap Our Hands
Sylvia Poggioli’s morning-deep
Announced the Easter death of
Madame Nhu, the Dragon Lady,
Tight sheaths and soup bowls.
He is risen this morning and always,
But she, no longer able to anticipate
Omnipotence in her next life,
Is dead in her diamond-studded crucifix,
Talisman against her particular judgment.
Her remembrances must include those
Immolated monks, still protesting the
Police-brutal clatter, an unbalanced
Answer to their robe-quiet grace.
At her conversion, she cast off the Buddha
And wed herself to the gleeful violence of
The Roman Catholic Church, cheered its
Legacy of force, of reverential knees and
Epiphanic proclamations of power.
On the first morning of November,
The Times of Vietnam spoke its last.
That afternoon, the coup began, and
Rioters burned the paper’s offices,
Celebrating the assassination of
Diem and the exile of his First Lady.
The words of his regime, her words, fired
Fitfully, and they stood in small groups,
Not talking, still fearing the unwritten.
The heat pushed back, they had to turn,
One mumbled, uncertainly: Let them burn.
This Rock by Robert Morgan was published in 2001, and somehow I missed it. I have most of Morgan's novels and story collections based in Appalachia: The Blue Valleys, The Mountains Won't Remember Us, The Truest Pleasure, Gap Creek, so when my husband bought this one for me at Christmas, I was certain I had already read it and neighbored it up on the shelf with its cousins. Upon closer examination, I realized I had neither read it nor owned it, so the husband was a winner. I happened to be reading it during the recent Conference on Southern Literature and got Morgan to sign my copy (funny story there - he asked how to spell my first name, I politely insisted on the absence of an -h at the end, he promptly wrote the following):
But it was like Muir never had a chance that day. When he was flustered, when he got mad, it was like he couldn't decide what to do with hisself. He never could remember nothing when he got excited. He'd rush on ahead of hisself and then forget where he was, forget what he was saying. I thought my heart was going to stop or tear out of my chest as I watched him fumble in the pulpit. (25)And when somebody busts up the foundation of the church Muir has been building, and everyone thinks it was Moody, she says:
Moody was my son and I loved him, but he just seemed to get angrier. I thought I had seen signs in him of softening. I knowed there was good in him, if he'd just let it come out. But if he had ruined Muir's work, he was worser, not better. It was like he was trying to get revenge for what he thought the world had done him. (259)Though they experience difficulties and tragedies, Muir and Ginny persevere, and I suppose that dedication to the next step is the biggest portion of what this story, and life in Appalachia, is all about. There are small hopes, but they can be so easily dampened. There is a constancy in the land, the mountains, the homeplaces that keep people from despair, and there is, of course, family. The two intertwine most beautifully at the end, when Ginny and Muir have to face an impossible task, and Muir says:
My grief and my determination made things sharp and the colors firm. The day had a long slow curve to it which I was going to follow. It was the shape of what I had to do. It was the shape of what there was to do.
"Put the grave in the row with Tom and Pa and Jewel," Mama said, "But leave a space for me." (304)Isn't that as much as any of us can hope for? That someone makes room for us in their lives and in our deaths? This book was slow and quiet. The voices were even and the characters consistent (although at times, a bit too consistent for my liking). And if it felt bleak at times, it also felt true most of the time. Although it wasn't my favorite Morgan, I'm glad to have read it and to place it in the space left for it on my shelves.
You may remember me gushing over Jess Walter's The Zero some days ago. In case you don't recall every magnificent keystroke I commit to the world at large, feel free to click here to read it again. That book was deliciously good (and troubling and funny and . . . ). You might also recall that I emerged from that experience feeling I had made a significant discovery. I had missed the Jess Walter train on its first go-round, but now I was fully on board. I was a full-fledged, ticket-holding, destination-bound fan. And I proved it by emailing Jess Walter himself. No, really. His website has one of those ubiquitous "email me" buttons on it, and I did - never expecting a response. I just wanted to tell him I loved the book . . . and ask him to do an interview. I laughed self-deprecatingly as I sent the thing off. I mean, who was I to send personal emails to famous people? But here's the thing: he wrote back. And he agreed to answer some questions. So read on to find an interview with Jess Walter, one hilariously bright and intelligently funny guy. And if you're still not convinced, read this from the Huffington Post. Yep. Stamp my ticket twice. I am a fan.
Before I sent Walter the questions, I got my hands on a copy of his latest, The Financial Lives of the Poets. I inhaled it and then let it sit for way too long before finally getting the interview pulled together. Flipping back through it for this post, I was reminded of the uncanny humor, the insightful analysis, the very real balance between collapse and recovery that Walter infuses his work with. The Financial Lives of the Poets is about Matt Prior, a former newspaper reporter watching his financial world (and that of his colleagues and friends) disintegrate while also experiencing a downturn in his marriage and family. Oh, and he smokes a lot of pot.
It all starts with a fairly innocent, late-night trek to the 7-11 for some milk. "The milk is like nine dollars a gallon." If that line doesn't strike you as funny right now, it will after you read the book. Somehow, from this moment, Matt is transformed into Slippers, drug dealer to upper-middle-class suburbia. There is, of course, more to the story, and there is a lot of humor here. But what I appreciated most about this book is way it deals with the heartbreaks of life right in the midst of that humor. In particular, I loved the sections where Matt was dealing with his aging father, who has come to live with Matt and his family after losing everything to a stripper. There is so much truth in their relationship, so many funny moments ("You know what I miss?") that are undeniably tinged with loss. Here's my favorite passage:
I look up blearily. Dad has picked up his remote control again, and is staring back out the black window. He takes a deep breath, then lifts the pizza to his mouth and chews. He looks over at me like a stranger, this good man who spent forty years losing the people he loved, and then, in only a few months, managed to lose himself. (We live like water . . .)
My gaping sons no longer gape at their grandfather, but at me. I guess they've never seen their dad cry before. I wipe my eyes, smile. I don't know what to tell them: Boys, pay attention to your mother; mothers have a million things to teach you. But fathers? We only have two lessons, but these two things are everything you need to know: (1) What to do and (2) What not to do. I look from the boys down to the dark watch, jutting from my wrist like a tumor. And my bleary eyes drift up to Dad's black window and my own faint reflection in it. (242)I don't want to reduce myself to a drooling fan girl, incapable of objectivity, so let me offer one complaint. I didn't really love the ending of this book. It was too tidy. Yes, sometimes, many times in fact (especially for the white, upper-middle-class types), things work out pretty much alright. But for me, this story (the novel and the real one we've been living in) should not be reduced to a neat package. It should have remained a bit messier somehow. In fact, Walter's comments on the Huffington Post say much the same thing. I wish I'd thought to ask him about the ending. Alas.
And now . . . the interview (I've inserted two responses to Walter's responses - they are italicized.):
SC: I just read a comment about the poet James Tate, who wrote some bitingly funny stuff. He says that he never thought about humor when he was writing – it always just came out that way. As a writer known for his humor, how do you feel about the “funny” in your work. Do you set out to make people laugh, or does it just come out that way?
JW: I love James Tate. He's a genius. I would agree that writing that strikes other people as "funny" is often due more to the author's outlook or personality than some technical consideration. I often think that something I'm writing is funny, but I try to make sure it isn't JUST funny, that the humor is in service of something deeper; otherwise it's like a stereo with only a treble knob. The only time I set out to "be funny" was in The Financial Lives of the Poets--partly because writing The Zero left me so drained and wrung out that I wanted to do something lighter, something voice-driven, something that--selfishly--made me laugh.
SC: It would be foolish to ask you a question like "How does writing non-fiction differ from fiction?” So I won’t do that; however, your first book, Every Knee Shall Bow: The Truth and Tragedy of the Randy Weaver Family tells the true story of the Ruby Ridge incident in Idaho. How do you compare this work, which is considered your first major publication, to the fiction you’ve been so lauded for lately?
JW: Not a foolish question at all. One of the big surprises for an author is how different each writing experience is; you're inventing the whole world all over each time out. So I would say that the experience itself is no different than the difference between my first novel and my last. Technically, the big difference is probably obvious: one relies on research, framing, finding a structure for actual events; the other relies on invention, immersion, even a kind of self-deluded alchemy to give imagined events the feel of reality. I'm an old-fashioned purist, I think if you label something as nonfiction, it's as close to factually truthful as you can get. As for my progression as a writer, I couldn't keep doing it if I didn't think I was getting better, but the last time I read Every Knee Shall Bow, I was a little intimidated by the strength of its research. I hope I could still do that.
SC: The Zero is highly touted as a thought-provoking examination of the aftermath of America’s most prominent contemporary tragedy: 9/11. Did you ever feel, as you were writing, that you shouldn’t be telling this story? Or that the timing was not right for it?
JW: Most of the time when I'm writing I don't think at all about the reception of a book; if I paused to consider that, it would stop me cold. Everything you need is on the page. When it's going well, I really don't think about anything except the piece itself. Writing The Zero, especially, was sort of hypnotic and all-consuming. I just thought the world had gone crazy and that a surreal irreverence was the only proper response. I did become a little bit anxious just before it came out, but that was more about the fear that I had just appropriated the tragedy in some other way. But a week before it came out, I read it again and I thought: yes this is right. This feels right.
SC: I agree. This book does it just right.
SC: My students and I recently finished Sherman Alexie’s Flight. After reading The Zero, I was struck with some of the similarities between these two books: the disassociation of self, especially as it pertains to violence; the fragmentation; and the sense of forgiveness necessary to move on. Alexie uses a quote from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five for the epigraph of Flight, and I can’t help but feel all three are post-war novels in a sense. Do you see Vonnegut in your work? How do you relate The Zero with either or both of these novels?
JW: Vonnegut was the first author I idolized and he continues to be an influence for me, and, I think, a whole generation of writers. For me, his prose was so transparent, so inviting, and he was so funny, and inclusive of genres like sci-fi, and most of all, he had a humanistic morality to his work--he expected better of people. But it becomes important, I think, to carve out your own voice as a writer; in my early 20s, I think I aped writers that I liked--including Vonnegut--before I put in enough sentences to find my own rhythm and style, to find my own aesthetic. I think a writer's influences make themselves known across the breadth of his work, The Zero reflecting my continued reading of everyone from Heller and Vonnegut to Kafka and Cervantes to Zadie Smith and David Mitchell.
SC: My students want me to ask if you and Alexie hang out. If so, they’d like you to tell him they unabashedly admired and enjoyed Flight. They’d also like to know: what is your favorite Alexie work?
JW: Ha! We usually see each other three or four times a year and we email a lot. We're both basketball junkies and so that tends to be what we talk about, that and our kids. Writing is such a solitary pursuit and sometimes we'll exchange little bits--poems or stories--but we mostly just say: great job. I'm a fan of all of Sherman's books, but I'd say The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is my favorite book, along with his latest, War Dances. My favorite single story of his, though, might be "What You Pawn I Will Redeem." Gorgeous sad sweet.
SC: Do you consider yourself a writer first or a reader? What are you reading these days?
JW: That's a tough one. I don't think you can be a writer without being a reader. I've gobbled up books my whole life and even now, I usually have three books going at once. But I guess I think of myself first as a writer. I write in a journal every day and I spend a few hours, sometimes six or more, at my computer every single day. You have to get your chops in, like a piano player. It's taken years of putting myself in the chair day after day, but it feels empty and wrong when I don't write now.
SC: Normally, I loathe the “stuff” that publishers are adding to books, usually stodgy book group questions. In The Financial Lives of the Poets, however, I really enjoyed reading the excellent article by Luke Baumgarten that talked some about your writing space and practices. Would you consider sharing with my readers how you approach your job?
JW: There's not much to it. I wake up really early, without an alarm clock, at 5:30 or so, and I grab a chocolate chip-oat-nut bar that my wife bakes and a big latte an the writing journal I've been jotting ideas in, and I trudge out to my office, above our garage, and--without answering emails or phone calls or going on line or indulging any other distractions--I write. I go until I run out of gas, then I often get some exercise and read what I've done. I tend to work a section over and over, rewriting it dozens of times, and I can't move on until I feel like it's just right. I work on two or three different things at once, just in case I get stuck, so that I don't suffer writer's block (if a story isn't working, I switch over to a novel and vice versa) and when I'm done for the day, I grab my journal and a book and venture off to have lunch, read and jot more ideas in my writing journal (I tend to "see" solutions and great character bits and writing inspiration AFTER I'm done working for the day.) Then the next morning, I take my cookie and my coffee and my writing journal and do it all again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
SC: The Financial Lives of the Poets sort of tackles the economic decline and housing crisis that we’ve all been surviving (or not) these last few years. Impossibly, it does so in a completely irreverent and jocular manner. The back of the book quotes Nick Hornby saying this book “made me laugh more than any other book published this year,” and it is funny. But it also deals with some terribly real and difficult truths about aging parents, struggling marriages, irrepressible dreams, a father’s responsibility to provide for his children, and drugs. How do you manage to strike such an impressive balance?
JW: Hmm. I might be the worst one to ask that. That balance is just how life looks to me, I think ... these achingly funny things occurring alongside real struggles that would be funny if they weren't so sad. If anything, I may have turned up the comic elements just a bit--again, just because I felt so drained emotionally after The Zero (I often think I write one book to get the taste of the last one out of my mouth.) But that intersection of sad and funny is what I'm interested in. A comic novel with no emotional grounding or edge of danger or something ... would be to me ... pointless, a sitcom.
SC: Why poetry? Although there were a few aspects of the story that asked the reader to suspend a little disbelief, the only one that caused me to seriously pause was Matt’s dream of poetfolio.com, an online financial poetry site. I just couldn’t imagine anyone thinking it would work. Am I being too short-sighted? Is this idea about to take the internet by storm?
JW: Ha! Humor often relies on exaggeration, and it's often the thing I second-guess--did that go too far? I wanted him to have a very very bad idea, but something connected to some younger version of himself (he liked poetry in college, though he never really wrote it; he became a business writer.) And I wanted to parody the sort of web-site free-for-all that led to online grocery stores and pet-therapy. But as unlikely as it sounds, I've now met dozens of people who write financial poetry, including a financial limerick writer who has a regular gig on a public radio station.
SC: As a poet, I am intrigued by your willingness to create these poetic pieces in your novel. They are, ostensibly, the work of Matt Prior. They are also undeniably yours. How did you feel about including these poems? Did you experience any insecurity about that aspect of the book?
JW: The only way I could write Matt's poetry was to decide he was an even sloppier poet than I am. Only two of the poems existed at all before I started writing the book--A Brief Political Manifesto (mothers-in-thongs) and a poem about Matt's father called Dry Falls (which is, of course, about my father.) I imagined Matt wrote fragments of verse, but the meter and line always gave way to prose--since that was his real training. I experience all sorts of insecurities about every aspect of writing, and the poetry was no exception, but humility is good for a writer, or anyone. But I always apologize to "real" poets (... an apology I extend to you, Sara) for the intended silliness of some of Matt's (and yes, of course, my) work.
SC: "Dry Falls" was the most impressive piece to me. It was the only one I returned to again, and I still feel it is a worthy poem, distinct from the book. It is also what is referenced in the passage I quoted when it says "we live like water."
SC: What are you working on now? Or, put another way: how long will I have to wait for the next Jess Walter book?
JW: Well, I'm just revising a novel called The Beautiful Ruins which is about an actress in Italy in 1962 who meets a young hotelier and then disappears from his life for fifty years, until, as a widower, he decides to find out whatever happened to her. It's about what happened to her in those fifty years, and to her son, and to Richard Burton, and to Hollywood, and to the Donner Party, and to live theater in Seattle, and to punk music and ...
Thanks to Jess Walter for this fantastic interview. I'll look forward to getting a copy of the next one, but while I wait, I will tackle the Ruby Ridge piece. I am a fan, after all.