Tuesday

Jul. 8, 2014

Reunion

by Robert Kinsley

Here past the edge of town,
this one as well as any other
in the Adirondacks, the trees lock arms
and lean into each other like
relatives at a family reunion.
This is some history; listen to the names,
Sugar Maple, Black Spruce, Wild Cherry,
Sweet Birch, the old White Oaks. On and
on into the hillsides until my tongue rolls
and I whisper Ohio, imagining this is what it was
one hundred years ago, imagining this is what
whispered in the ear of Tecumseh, who fought for it
for twenty years, knowing when he started he couldn't
win, but who fought and lost anyway, imagining
this is what whispered to my great grandfather
Marvin Peabody, when he dropped down out of the
Northeast. Who left when he heard his neighbors
unfolding the arms of trees with axes and bucksaws
and headed west, rubbing the fine dust from his eyes.
But came back when he saw that like Ohio, that too
was lost. He came back I suppose because he had
nowhere else to go. Or maybe he just liked the name
Ohio. And why not. Whisper it now, whisper
Ohio, Ohio, Ohio, and amid the miles of concrete,
under the culverts dumping waste, around the smokestacks
over by the river, a breeze picks up
sending a ripple, like a litany
through the family of tree.

"Reunion" by Robert Kinsley, from Endangered Species. © Orchises Press, 1989. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the poet Jean de La Fontaine (books by this author), born in Château-Thierry, in the Champagne region of France (1621). Originally intended for the clergy, he soon found that religion bored him, and he was much more interested in the Parisian social scene. For a while, he took over his father's post as an inspector of forests and waterways. But he had a knack for charming people, especially rich patrons who supported him while he wrote his famous Fables (1668-1693), several volumes of poems that tell familiar stories such as "The Tortoise and the Hare," "The City Mouse and the Country Mouse," and "The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs." They are still popular in France today, where they are memorized by schoolchildren and studied by scholars.

It was on this day in 1918 that Ernest Hemingway was wounded while serving as a Red Cross ambulance driver in World War I (books by this author). The following January, Hemingway traveled back to his parents' home, still recuperating from his injury. He walked around with a cane, read everything he could get his hands on, and taught his sisters Italian swear words. He was a small-town war hero and often spoke at schools and social clubs about his experience in the war. He always passed around his bloodstained, shrapnel-torn trousers.

The wound he received would go on to become the central event of his novel A Farewell to Arms (1929), which he considered his best book, and his experiences in Italy appeared in many short stories as well. He later said, "In Italy, when I was at the war there ... my own small experiences gave me a touchstone by which I could tell whether stories were true or false and being wounded was a password."

It's the birthday of the writer who said, "God doesn't like crap in art." That's J.F. Powers (books by this author), born in Jacksonville, Illinois (1917). He grew up Roman Catholic in a town of Protestants. He was religious, but, he said, "I never wanted to be a priest. Although part of it was the celibacy, it was more the matter of being on call to the public.'' In 1943, he joined a retreat for priests at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota — the only layperson in the group. Not long after, he wrote a story called "Lions, Harts, Leaping Does," which was published in Accent magazine and launched his literary career.

He married Betty Wahl, a star English student at the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota. Betty had started working on a novel, and her teacher — a critic and editor — sent the manuscript to Powers for his feedback. He came to campus to meet Wahl in person, and proposed to her two days later. He warned her that he did not want a regular job. His father had been a piano prodigy who gave up his artistic dreams for an office job, and Powers was determined never to do the same. He wrote to Betty: "I don't intend to sell insurance or work in a bank [...] I am worried about making a living, as I confessed to you again and again, because I won't go about it in the ordinary way — eight hours out of my life daily so that the system may prosper and the crapshooters running it. But I don't think you want me to do that." In another letter, he wrote: "The jobs I had, in bookstores and the rest, were never honest. Not for me. Should a giraffe have to dig dandelions or a worm fly a kite?" She was supportive, and hoped to be a writer herself. They went together to Yaddo, the writers' colony in New York. She published a short story in The New Yorker, and he published his first collection, Prince of Darkness (1947), which became the second-best-selling short-story collection of the year. That same year, they gave birth to a daughter, and four more children followed, spaced every two years. Powers struggled to support his family. When his friend Robert Lowell was expecting a child, Powers wrote to him: "When Betty read of your coming blessed event, she said, 'Poor Lowell.' [...] I guess we think of our contemporaries — those who are writers — who are childless as gods, sporting about the world and going out for dinner with no thoughts of babysitters. We go nowhere." He wrote in his journal: "I feel completely out of touch with sources of possible income, and very close to sources of expense: car, rent, food, and so on." He refused to get a day job, even a long-term teaching gig — he said he was not much interested in teaching besides the chance to use the university's library. The family was usually broke, and they moved more than 20 times, always on the lookout for a better situation, for cheap or even free housing. Often they lived with various members of Betty's family. In 1962, Powers published a novel, Morte d'Urban, and it won the National Book Award, beating out works by Vladimir Nabokov, Katherine Anne Porter, and John Updike. He was adored by critics and fellow writers, and received awards and honors. But his books were never a commercial success, and he published just two novels and three collections of stories. He wrote to a friend: "The truth is I'm lazy, and after that, a family man [...] and finally I don't care to get a book out just to get a book out; I'd rather make each one count — and in order to do that, the way I nuts around, it takes time." By the time of his death in 1999, his books were out of print.

His books include Wheat that Springeth Green (1988), The Presence of Grace (1955) and Look How the Fish Live (1975).

He said: "I think it's possible to write something, for me to write something, that even God might like. [...] Not as a soul seeking salvation, but just as entertainment for God. This may be blasphemous to say, but I believe it."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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