Mar. 25, 2006

Making Things Clean

by Wesley McNair

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Poem: "Making Things Clean" by Wesley McNair from The Town of No & My Brother Running © David R. Godine. Reprinted with permission.

Making Things Clean

One would hardly recognize him like this,
the high-school shop teacher, glasses off,
bent over the kitchen sink. Nearby,
house dresses and underpants flutter
in the window of the Maytag he bought
for his mother. Its groaning is the only
sound while she washes his hair,
lifting the trembling water in her hands
as she has always done, working foam up
from his gray locks like the lightest
batter she ever made. Soon enough,
glasses back on. He will stand
before students who mock his dullness;
soon, putting up clothes, she'll feel
the ache of a body surrendering to age,
A little longer let him close his eyes
against soap by her apron, let her move
her fingers slowly, slowly, in this way
the two of them have found to be together,
this transfiguring moment in the world's
old work of making things clean.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist and short-story writer Flannery O'Connor, born in Savannah, Georgia (1925). As a young girl she was terribly shy and prone to temper tantrums. She became famous in her hometown when she was five years old by teaching one of her chickens to walk backward. A New York City reporter came and filmed the chicken for a newsreel.

She wanted either to be a writer or a cartoonist. During college, she submitted her cartoons to The New Yorker, but she was rejected, so she began to focus on her writing. She applied to one of the only creative writing programs in the country at the time, the Iowa Writer's Workshop, and she was almost rejected because the admissions interviewer couldn't understand her southern accent.

Once she got into the Iowa Writer's Workshop, people there didn't know what to make of her. She never read James Joyce or Franz Kafka, or any of the other fashionable writers of the era. She was more interested in Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. During class, she almost never spoke, and her classmates only knew she was listening by the way she occasionally smiled when she thought something was funny.

But even though O'Connor was an outsider, her fiction impressed everybody, and she won an award that got her a contract to publish her first novel. She was still working on that novel when she began to notice a heaviness in her arms while she typed. Traveling home to Georgia for Christmas that year, she grew so sick on the train that she had to be hospitalized when she arrived. It turned out that she had inherited lupus, the same disease that had killed her father.

She moved in with her mother and began receiving steroid treatments, which made it difficult to walk without crutches. She said at the time, "I walk like I have one foot in the gutter but it's not an inconvenience and I get out of doing a great many things I don't want to do." Even though the disease made her extremely tired, she forced herself to write for three hours every day on the screened in porch of her mother's house. She wrote to her friend Robert Lowell, "I have enough energy to write with and as that is all I have business doing anyhow, I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing. What you have to measure out, you come to observe closer, (or so I tell myself)."

O'Connor's first novel Wise Blood came out in 1952. Three years later, she published the story collection that made her name A Good Man Is Hard To Find (1955). It contains her two most famous short stories: "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," about a silly, annoying old woman whose entire family gets murdered by a man called The Misfit, and "Good Country People" about a pretentious young woman whose wooden leg is stolen by a Bible salesman.

O'Connor filled her stories with crazy preachers, murderers, the deformed, the disabled, freaks and outcasts. An uncle once asked her why she didn't write about nice folks. O'Connor focused on the grotesque because she said, "To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures." She died a little more than a week shy of her fortieth birthday.

Flannery O'Connor said, "Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them."

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




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