ACCIDENT AND ELOQUENCE IN THE ICEBOX MEDIUM

 

(This is a piece written years ago that I made extensive and unsuccessful efforts to sell.)

I was introduced to the splendor of accidental poetry years ago, when I scrounged a box for packing from the back of a stationery store. At home I discovered, written on a flap in magic marker, a lyric that began

Across the miles

Secret pal

I call your name

It went on in that aphoristic way, getting more nebulous as it went. I felt a need to call a halt to my packing and think for a moment. Who would scrawl a poem of such tenderness on a discarded box? More to the point, I thought of secret pals I’ve known, how many times in anguish and yearning I’ve called their names, across the miles.

I didn’t encounter such lyrics again until my brother the Southern California surrealist poet gave me a set of refrigerator poetry magnets. They come in flat rubber blocks of words, which adhere to the metal of your fridge as invitations to serendipitous inspiration. You separate out the words or fragments of them (s, ing), which are inscribed in stark black on white, lower case except for the imperious I. The juxtapositions arriving on the blocks already give you ideas:

goddess blue who say

whispers one preformed line. More arresting are the accidental artifacts, blocks stripped of most of their words to leave the hint of a story, breathlessly told, reminiscent of e e cummings:

no

I if

I he

Another artifact is a teenager’s conversation:

like like like

Another ascends from speculation to being:

if

if

if

is

And what could beat the heroic randiness of

apparatus raw but bed

In a block next to the freezer handle we find ourselves in the middle of a word and of an evocative, somehow disturbing scene that’s left the speaker stuttering in dismay:

ing a a chain

Magnetic poetry is something to pursue late at night or in odd moments when there’s nothing else to do but have a bowl of cereal and contemplate eternity and the refrigerator. It’s swell for parties, too. Have contests! Entertain your friends! (And writing about refrigerator poetry can help provide an answer to a question that applies to a lot of one’s private enthusiasms: Everybody thinks their own stuff is fabulous, but does anybody else think so? Or are they more apt to find other people’s, for example, dreams, aspirations, refrigerator poetry just stupid? A writer friend of mine insists sternly that nobody else is interested in your dreams or your refrigerator poetry.)

On my fridge the mine of raw words spreads across the top of the freezer door. From there poetry drips down in clots, strings, random profusions. There’s a simple but sternly enforced set of rules: Anybody can make a poem, but woe to any who, in selfish pursuit of their own mot juste, strips a word from somebody else’s poem, or is so barbaric as to edit others’ work without permission. The job is to take words from what’s left and let inspiration bubble up from happenstance–the conjunction of imagination and serendipity being, after all, one definition of the creative process.

Below the mine of words on my freezer door, the trail of poems begin tentatively, prosaically:

boil meat

From there the expressive ambitions mount:

frantic repulsive eternity

   shot from bare feet

I don’t understand that one. But the next one hits home, like a rhythmic summary of my emotional life:

I heave my enormous essential lust void

From there on across the white quasi-porcelain material of the refrigerator door, verse runs amok. There’s a curse directed to a beloved:

may you sit in shadow

         honey

Every time I look at that I want to flip it to an ironic but sunnier version,

may you sit in honey

shadow

But that would be against the rules.

I rarely remember who pasted what, but I know this guy, the one who has to be naughty:

tiny finger up moaning woman

In wielding the sex motif, our kitchen poets get fresher and grittier:

sordid tongue worship

Also more concretely steamy:

   lick

with finger

after

The meatier stuff turns to the cosmic, here to the sullying of nature herself by our little angsts:

languid scream power will urge spring away

Nature turns up a lot, partly because the mine of words supplied by the poetry-magnet company is lush in natural imagery.

from behind the rain

purple summer

Renewal springs eternal on the fridge as in life, metaphors turning to ripe and fruitful–

delirious chocolate

dream       luscious

peach goddess

There’s something Borgesian about this genre of poetry. Jorge Luis Borges was into the offbeat profound, the cosmic fortuity. In one of his stories a philosopher of an imaginary country declares that the entire visible universe is a handwriting devised by a subordinate angel to communicate with a demon. Like my refrigerator, Borges plays the border between the outlandish and the wise, the random and the revelatory.

So our kitchen poets veer into philosophy, at first with high irony in the form of lines to be chanted by phalanxes of existential fashionistas, their challenge to the absurdity of life:

iron the blow

     live like show

But at the end of existentialism a horror of reality:

stop the true

Just below, a frail plea for higher Meaning:

need place like eternity

Maybe in answer to both, a childlike evocation of the grace of small pleasures. The lines themselves are tilted jauntily up, blowing in the breeze.

wind play

         some shot

Come to think of it, that might evoke an atrocity on a summer afternoon. This interpretation sits badly with the flanking poem, where emotion reflected in tranquility becomes lapping music–

lazy beat felt still

Below, the aesthetics get more urgent:

bare moon whispers frantic raw beauty

Beside that one we find a cynical but spot-on evocation of modern politics–

repulsively we manipulate gorgeous

smear apparatus

In this profusion of mini-lyrics, every time I look at the refrigerator my attention is drawn to the shivery, X-Files implications of these lines:

our egg but

their woman

Strange as it sounds, for my part I’m sorry to report that refrigerator poetry isn’t my medium. Most of the good stuff is by friends and partygoers. By way of example, here’s my latest–

rock love ache road

     rip sky petal

Oy. It’s purple, pretentious, and as Borges would not fail to observe, the second line lapses into facile surrealist drivel. I suppose it has some of my trademark musicality, but the sentiment is vague, dithering, probably sadistic, even actionable. Forget I said it. But as for the refrigerator: Once it’s there, it stays there. That’s another rule.

I’ll take solace in the works of my betters, who give us more wisdom for this our brief sojourn: the rueful

sleep bitter blood

and the meditative

most take from moment though it must incubate

I jotted these reflections at a late hour, standing groggy before the icebox munching a bowl of my favorite British cereal, Weetabix. I’ve enjoyed it for years. What I like about Weetabix, in contrast to American cereals, is that it doesn’t even attempt to stay crunchy. The biscuits come out of the box crisp enough, but as soon as milk touches Weetabix, it turns into gelatinous goo. It’s the most existential breakfast cereal I know. Virginia Woolf wrote: “To see life as it is and love it.” This was in her suicide note (in the movie version, anyway), when her life had become unbearable. But Woolf still, in the movie, loved life as it is. Loving Weetabix as it is amounts to my answer to the superficial darkness-rebuking of iron the blow/ live like show.

But I don’t know, some people don’t like Weetabix. I’ve had heated discussions on the subject, and the affectionate resolution of such discussions is also adumbrated on my refrigerator:

was you mad

         fluff juice

I suppose the moral here is the wisdom of accepting life as it is, Weetabix as it sogs, poetry where you find it. By the way, only some time later did I realize what was going on with the poem I found scrawled on the box: “Across the miles/ Secret pal/ I call your name.” It had been a boxed selection of greeting cards, noted on the lid by the first line of each card. It was an accidental poem.

Of course poetry’s best when it comes at you from unexpected angles. Best when it’s succinct too, usually. And the best magic is the unanticipated kind. That’s when something stops you in your tracks, cereal in hand, and adheres once and for all to your mind. Adheres like like like, O secret pal, like magnetic poetry on icebox door.

PROSPECTUS FOR A BIOGRAPHY NEVER TO BE WRITTEN

 

We biographers tend to write about people who are famous, who are powerful, who may be little-known but are still extraordinary. Here I propose to tour an imaginary biography of somebody who in the usual understanding of the word was entirely ordinary. But I have opinions about that.

Some background. On the whole, biographers are professional coattail-riders. We write about famous or important or unusual people because they’re the ones readers are most likely to be interested in. Having written biographies of Brahms and Beethoven, I’m familiar with this syndrome. My own opinion, though, is that if it’s done well, a biography of anybody at all would be just as interesting as one about somebody famous or important. It’s in that context that I want to talk about the biography I won’t be writing. Its subject would be my mother’s brother, my uncle Larry.

First a couple of convictions concerning my craft. I suppose most people look at biography as a literary interpretation of somebody’s life. That’s not how I see it. Given that we can never really understand anybody else, and for that matter don’t necessarily understand ourselves all that well, it seems to me unrealistic and morally dubious to interpret somebody else’s life at a distance, for our own benefit, when they’re not around to defend themselves. I think biographers need to respect the ultimate mystery of every human being. To me a biography is a narrative of a life, not an interpretation of it. The bits of interpretation I indulge in are things that in the course of a project become to me more or less obvious. If I want to interpret somebody I’ll write an essay, not a biography–to limit the damage to my subject.

In the same way, I don’t consider biography to be a literary form. I don’t think a person’s life has a literary structure, so I don’t try to cut and shape the details of my subjects’ life into a piece of literature. Life is not like a book. It’s more like a stumble in the dark, looking for the light switch. Life is a matter of rambling themes and variations rather than of logical structure. I want my biographies to be like that, which is to say, more like life and less like a book.

I also believe that each book should in its form, its style, its tone, be in harmony with the person it’s talking about. My first biography, of American composer Charles Ives, I hope encompasses some of his wildness and eccentricity, not just in its information but in its essence. Ives was involved in music and business and politics and philosophy and baseball, all in an inimitable way. So my bio of him had three different kinds of chapters; its voluminous endnotes include an illustrative and hilarious story about my high school band and a troubling anecdote I ran across—in an old Danbury newspaper–concerning Cotton Mather.

When I came to Johannes Brahms, I found a quite different kind of person, private and guarded, a relentless craftsman who spent most of his life simply writing and performing music, frequenting brothels, and fighting with his friends. An exemplary musician’s life, really. Brahms only experienced major drama during his early 20s, when as an unknown music student he was proclaimed the coming savior of German music by Robert Schumann, after which Schumann went round the bend and was institutionalized, Brahms fell in love with his pregnant wife Clara, and so forth and so on. In other words, a mess. After that it was apparent to me that Brahms wanted no more drama in his life, and he largely managed to avoid it. That biography was straightforward. When I got to Beethoven I was extensively concerned with the craftsmanship in his music, because that craftsmanship was profound and profoundly influential on the music that followed him. There the narrative inevitably involved the daily discipline of his art in contrast to the misery and incompetence of the rest of his life.

In these terms I’ll lay out here some of my never-to-be biography of Uncle Larry, concerning its points of interest and its (non-literary) structure. For starters, then, in this one I would naturally be more intimate and interpretive than usual for me, for the reason that I knew this man as part of my family, he lived in my neighborhood in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (If I had watched Brahms or Beethoven walk down the street and talked to them for five minutes, I would have written different books about them.) But again: if Larry was what is called an ordinary person, I believe that when you truly know someone, nobody is ordinary. The style would be engaged but in the middle distance, the way I experienced Larry all my life: even though he lived a mile away, we didn’t spend all that much time with him. After mother threw my alcoholic father out Larry made some efforts to mentor to my brother and me, but nothing much came of it.

Larry and my mother Lucille Swafford were born to a lower-middle-class family in the town of Riceville, Tennessee, population around 300. This was red-dirt, mostly redneck South, featuring decades-long feuds, casual racism, snake-handling churches out in the woods, and buggys and dusty hoarse motorcars and hand-crank phones of 1920s vintage and my grandmother’s daily eavesdropping on the party line.

Mother and Larry’s parents were more or less middle class, with a bit of let’s call it cultural ambition. In her teens in the 1920s my mother played Mozart and Debussy on the piano along with ragtime and boogie-woogie. My maternal grandfather Lawrence, whom we called Grampie, was in his youth a whiz at math and had been offered a college scholarship. But his betrothed, my grandmother Beulah, wept nonstop for two months until he capitulated: he would not go to college, he would marry her, he would work for the post office.

Grampie held the job of rural mail deliverer for some fifty years, making his rounds first in a horse and buggy, then in a Ford Model T, then in 1947 and 1954 Fords. He gave candy to the kids on his route and was admired around town as a good and decent man. I remember that Model T, sitting in a barn for years until some hunters bought it after making sure it would hold the dogs. Grampie was a deacon in the First Baptist Church for I don’t know how long. I remember his tremulous tenor in the choir. He had an unabridged Oxford Dictionary on a special stand in the living room, and when the preacher mispronounced a word in the sermon, Grampie let him know about it. Some preachers appreciated that, some didn’t. At least one sermon was preached against his meddling. Grampie survived to see the moon landing on TV.

The family dynamic with the children was this: My mother reigned as my grandfather’s favorite. Larry was the cutup, the one who got in trouble, who started smoking at 10. None of it amounted to anything wildly rebellious. Their mother, my grandmother Beulah, the daughter of an MD who became the town drunk, was the ultimate mom, cooking half the day, raising flowers, making costumes for her children’s theatrical productions on the columned front porch, and so on. (The Swafford house looked like a miniature Tara.)

Beulah was what you’d call a piece of work. In her youth she had wanted to be an opera singer. In her 50s she quit the church choir in a huff when they told her she was singing too loud, and she rarely went to church again. To maintain her complexion, for fifty years she kept her face covered in Vaseline. When you visited, she’d come running shrieking endearments like a madwoman and cover you with greasy kisses. Mother told me that in her coffin, she had beautiful skin. When Grampie was in his 70s and succumbing to Alzheimer’s, Beulah accused him of running around with hussies and locked him in the house. The day she reached for a cereal box on the shelf and dropped dead at 84, a widow living alone, she had been making Easter eggs that nobody but her would see. Except for Larry all the Swaffords have died at 84, as I expect to.

That is what Larry came from. One story he told me says a lot about him and Grampie. When Larry was young he and Grampie used to take baths together, because in those days you had to heat a lot of water on the woodstove. One day, I figure as a joke, Grampie decreed that they would begin their bath with a bucket of cold well water poured over their bodies. In the tub, Larry stuck it out when Grampie poured the water over him. When it was his turn, Larry poured and after the first splash Grampie vaulted out of the tub and took off running naked through the house, Larry sprinting after him lugging the water. When Grampie reached the front door, his hand on the knob, Larry caught up and gave him the whole bucket. They laughed about it for the rest of their lives.

Another story Larry told me: As a teenager he took to driving to nearby Athens, another small town but big enough to have a pool hall. When Grampie found out Larry was shooting pool he said, “I’m not going to forbid you from doing it. But I want you to take a drive with me.” Grampie drove Larry to the pool hall and they stood in the back, watching the rowdy, obscene proceedings from a distance. Finally Grampie said, “Do you want to be that kind of person?” Larry didn’t. He never went back.

Above all what marked Larry’s youth was that he was marvelously and kind of strangely handsome. He looked unlike anybody else in the family. As a biographer I know that how you look can have a considerable influence on your life. In his youth Brahms was strikingly good-looking, blonde and blue-eyed, and that had something to do with the way people responded to him. Beethoven was homely and solipsistic and chronically ill, and that played its part in his life and his inability to find a wife. In later years one woman Beethoven had courted recalled simply: “He was ugly and half crazy.”

In his teens Larry played halfback on the Charleston High football team and reigned as the school heartthrob. My mother told me he averaged six calls a night from girls. (In her teens my mother Lucille was pudgy, Daddy’s girl, played violin, did not get in trouble, did not get calls from boys. Her one piece of rebellion was her marriage, and that didn’t work out so well.) But Larry’s looks were odd. He had curly black hair, big lips, an olive complexion. In my book, his singular attractiveness would begin an arc of story that has to do with the South in midcentury, and with race. This arc is not a literary construction. It played out that way.

The other thing about Larry was that he was a born tinkerer with an instinctive understanding of gadgets under his hands. Like a certain number of curious kids he would take apart the family radio. Unlike most kids, he put it back together and it still worked, and he knew why. That gift created his career as an engineer, with jobs verging on big time if never quite. My grandmother taught piano; I remember Larry pulling out her keyboard and taking it home to fix it. Piano repair was nothing he had studied. He just looked over the mechanism and figured it out.

Grampie was determined that his children would go to college. In his years at a small Methodist school Larry was not much of a student, but inevitably he was popular and became head cheerleader. When he first caught sight of Doris the homecoming queen he said to a friend, “I could fall in love with that girl like that,” and he snapped his fingers. He did fall in love with her, and she with him.

In old photos from the tennis court they are a gorgeous couple, like movie stars. After college and the Army, Larry married Doris. He had spent the war working on planes in the Pacific. One day, he told me, the Enola Gay landed at his field. They knew it was doing something big, but they didn’t know what it was until they heard about Hiroshima.

After the war Larry and Doris came back to Chattanooga and he got the first of a string of good engineering jobs. They fell into what appeared to be the 1950s American dream of respectability and prosperity. I remember their living room full of matching blonde furniture and a distinctive smell of warmth and contentment. Everybody we knew in the 50s wanted to get married and have kids, to make a nice living and live in a nice house, to look good in church: to be normal.

Larry and Doris had two girls, Jeanne and Terry, who got pretty dresses and dancing and music lessons and lots of stuff. Since my home was that of a divorced schoolteacher struggling to get by, every Christmas I was painfully aware of how many more presents my cousins had under the tree than my brother and I did. Also how much nicer Larry and Doris’s house was, how much longer their driveway, how they had a big garage and a grand lawn. Every birthday I heard from my mother: “You’ll get your birthday present at Christmas.” After the opening of the Christmas presents, Larry taking photos with his fancy camera, the generations always had a big dinner in our house, presided over by Grampie. I remember Larry year after year, playing with his kids’ Christmas toys with intricate delight.

In my memory Larry in his prime is always brash, busy with his hands, building a putting green in his yard and tinkering in his garage workshop, shirtless in summer, proud of his physique. In middle age he was as handsome as in his youth, with the same grand smile. He laughed a lot, played golf (in youth he was good enough to think about going pro), told racy jokes at holiday dinners, grilled steaks every summer on the patio he built. In his later career he had a good job in a factory that made boilers for nuclear submarines. One day he showed me a part he had machined and compared it to the same part made by somebody else, explaining to me how his showed more skill, more attention to detail, more pride. That was the most enduring thing he ever said to me. He made no secret of his prejudices. When I told him I’d gotten new roommates in college his first words were, “Are they white?” One of them isn’t, I said. “I’m disappointed in you,” he said. “Don’t tell your Uncle John.” His point was that John, who in childhood was called Sweet Jan and after whom I’m named, was a bigger racist than he was.

My family was mostly racist, in the casual and unthinking way of that time in the South. But in the way of middle-class Southerners they were perfectly polite to black people. One day that politeness got Larry in trouble, as he saw it. He had told some black co-workers about his home putting green; they wanted to see it and piled in his car. I remember him knocking on the door and my Mother opening it to Larry crying, “Lucille, I’ve got six niggers in my car! What am I going to do?” I don’t remember what the solution was to this crisis of humiliation before the neighbors. A lot of how you behaved in those days concerned what the neighbors might think.

I have to skip forward now. My book would at last reach the point when it became manifest to all of us that everything to do with Larry was a crumbling wall of deception. In those days in Wasp families in the South, such things were not spoken of until they had to be. The answer to distress was generally to sweep it under the rug. Larry’s wife would have realized it first, then the kids, then my mother, then his coworkers.

I think that deception says something about the delusions of normality and respectability that marked the 50s, how superficial and hypocritical they so often were. To mention one thing, in the South of the 50s they were still lynching black people with impunity. In the seventh grade in 1958 I watched the president of the ninth grade class pulling chains out of his locker to go downtown and beat up black kids during the race riots. Meanwhile the industrial pollution in Chattanooga was so bad that on sunny days downtown in summer women’s’ stockings were known to dissolve. A friend and I used to sit on a bridge over Chickamauga Creek and watch raw sewage float downstream.

There are secrets and there are secrets. Some are harmless, some harmful only to their owner, some harmful to the people you love the most. In short, through all Larry’s respectable, laughing, family-sitting-together-in-church-on-Sunday life, there was a secret that I suspect was not spoken of until it became unavoidable: Larry was a secret and serious drinker. My cousins Jeanne and Terry told me later that neither of them could remember anything in their lives before high school. They had blanked it out because of Daddy.

In our family alcohol was anathema, not to be countenanced or anyway admitted. Larry was sly about it. He drank vodka out of the bottle, so it wouldn’t show so much on his breath. He stashed bottles all over the house and in his workshop. I remember he always smelled somehow medicinal; at night his face was red and he moved and spoke slowly. He still had the smile, for a time. His employers liked and respected Larry and kept him on as long as they could. Eventually they had to let him go.

Finally it all hit the fan. Larry crashed the car in his driveway and fractured his skull. Doris refused to deal with it, so it fell to my mother to take him to the hospital. There she watched her brother go through DTs. She thought back to their childhood, Larry the brash talented teen heartthrob. All the hope, all the fun. She told me it was the worst night of her life. And she had divorced my father mainly because he was alcoholic. I remember how Larry looked in the next years, gaunt and withdrawn, not meeting your eyes. My brother said to me once: “For all our family’s teeth-gritting attempts at respectability, we turned out quite a pack of loonies.” There was an underlying strain of fundamental decency, which mainly flowed from Grampie. Yet the family floated on a tide of lies and half-truths.

To make the long sad story short, Larry got on the wagon, fell off, in the end managed to stay sober. He never admitted he’d been alcoholic. But in his last years the big smile, the joie de vivre, the brashness and confidence were gone. He sat in his workshop making little stained glass pieces and rebuilding an old Model T. His wife and my cousins became fanatically religious. Mother said: “I feel so sorry for Larry stuck in that house full of women praying all the time.”

Then he died. Lung cancer, from the smoking. But that’s not the end of the biography. In my book the climax would come after he died.

One day not long after Larry was buried my brother and I were visiting our cousins when out of the blue Terry said to me, “Did you know that when both Jeanne and I were born, Daddy was terrified that we’d come out black?” My brother and I were thunderstruck. His widow had just walked in and I blurted, “Aunt Doris, is that true?” “Yes,” she said. “Isn’t that funny?” And she walked out.

I’ll leave it there, with the unanswered questions that moment raises. Did Larry know something about Grandmother Beulah the rest of us don’t? In childhood had he been teased about his dark complexion and big lips and curly black hair? What does all this add up to, in the relentlessly respectable, conformist, indelibly racist world of the South in the 1950s?

Which brings me to my final point. A person is made in part by his or her surroundings, so a biography is not only a portrait of a person but of a time, a place, an era, an ethos, all of them working for well and for ill on everybody. So my portrait of Larry would also be a portrait of white Anglo-Saxon America from the 1930s to the 1970s, from country to city, from lynching to marching, from horse and buggy to moon landing.

I think Larry’s story could make a nice book, a biography of a fascinating ordinary man who was felled by ordinary tragedies and by the webs his time and place snared him in. But nobody in it is famous or important, nobody would read it, and I don’t intend to write it.

MEMORY ON THE THEME OF AN OLD SAW, “AN IDLE MIND IS THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND”

 

As best I recall it was a Friday near noon in midsummer, a work day (important point), when the wooden hand-cranked telephone jangled in my grandparents’ hall. Grandmother handed me the earpiece with a sour look and stalked back to the kitchen. It was Bobby calling to say, You gotta come down here. He wouldn’t tell me what the deal was, but it had to be something. I could hear it in his voice. You won’t believe it, he said, and momma and daddy aren’t home.

He had phoned three or four of us. We set out on bikes down the street, rounding up strays on the way. Nearly everybody we knew lived on a half mile of ramshackle houses along the railroad that constituted the right side of the tracks in Riceville, Tennessee, Pop. 401. Across the railroad ditch were low dark houses presided over by a kid who ran up and down the tracks all day shaking his hands and foaming at the mouth. I was a city boy, in Riceville on visits to my grandparents.

Bobby was thirteen and a friend of my older brother’s since Bobby beaned my brother on the head with a sledge hammer. It was a famous incident. Mostly Bobby hung out with younger kids, so he could lord it a little. He was stringy with a big adam’s apple and a crew cut. We all had crew cuts, except for the boys with the flat fuzz called a burr, and in summer we wore t-shirts and rolled-up bluejeans. Bobby’s father was my grandfather’s best friend. My Grandmother considered Bobby’s family ignorant and uppity and had ranted about them for as long as I could remember.

We dropped our bikes in Bobby’s front yard and ran around back of the house. Sure enough, you could hardly believe the sight. It was a pile of new lumber, gleaming gold and smelling sweet in the sun. Next to the lumber sat a bucket of nails. Bobby was posing in the yard with a proud grin, brandishing a hammer.

The wood was intended for repairs to the barn, I guess. We never found out. It had been delivered by a truck that morning, to Bobby’s amazement and jubilation. To us it was a summons to glory. What are we going to do all with this stuff? Bobby asked. We gazed at the lumber, cloudy endeavors forming in our minds.

Oh man, let’s build us a tank, Jimmy said. The conception dazzled us. A tank! It was a natural. A damn tank as big as, as—as a tank!

Hot-O-Molly, said JR, that’s what we’re gonna do. This was way better than shooting snakes down to the creek, possibly even more fun than blowing up dead cats with cherry bombs in the railroad ditch. And here was the brilliant part: We’d paint our tank to look like iron or whatever they make tanks out of, and we’d mount it on bicycles! On six bicycles! With awe, each in our secret hearts, we imagined the great weapon floating down the street, transcending the crumbling houses, all of us invisible inside, some of us pedaling, others aiming the turret with the big gun. It would be the wonder of Riceville.

Bobby disappeared into the screened back porch and after some crashing around started pitching tools into the yard. We swarmed onto the stack of lumber, grabbing whatever we conceived to be part of the plan–ten-foot pine planks, slats, two-by-fours, fat sheets of plywood–and threw everything down onto the grass.

A fury of hammering and sawing broke out in the noonday sun. From the barn door a cow watched us, eyes big with bovine alarm. Frantically we nailed boards to boards, slats to plywood, expecting everything would coalesce into the great design. Now and then a scream would arise, somebody’d go jumping and cussing around the yard clutching his thumb. Whaling at a plank next to me, his tongue protruding in concentration, was a big kid–stumbly, thick eyeglasses, drooled some, always last to be picked for a team. We called him Useless. He didn’t mind, as long as he was in the game. Just now Useless appeared baffled by the problem of finding a nail with a hammer, but he gave it everything he had.

In the middle of pounding stuff into a frame for the bicycles, or something, I looked up to see Bobby toting an eight-foot four-by-four across the yard. This’ll be the gun, he said. He kneeled and began sawing at it viciously. For a moment I wondered about the verisimilitude of a square gunbarrel.

After a while Bobby stood up and declared, We’ve got to get organized. Nobody paid him any attention. We kept hammering and sawing. The wood pile was getting smaller, flowing across the lawn in wildcat configurations. Bobby said again, We’ve got to get organized. Stopping to wipe the sweat from our brows we agreed, in principle, but we were too busy to think about it. After that Bobby kept quiet, and we minded our work.

Maybe an hour passed industriously. Another quarter hour, less so. It was a boiling midsummer day in the South and weapons building is hot work. The cow had disappeared into the barn for a while but now she was back at the door, watching. Finally the bam-bam-plink of missed nails and the hoarse rasping of saws petered out and we stood up, sweaty and speckled with sawdust. Around the yard half the lumber had been manhandled into crazy angles, hammer-pocked wood banged together with bent nails.

We were tired, and dimly into our heads had entered the conception that maybe it wouldn’t be so good to be around when Bobby’s daddy got home. We decided to call it a day. We agreed that we’d made a fine start on our tank, and would convene again soon to finish it up. All right, Bobby said. It’s gonna be a really great tank, said Useless. Bobby didn’t say anything else. He was looking kind of sick all of a sudden.

We edged around to the front of the house and picked up our bikes and departed, hastily. From the distance the cow gave a long lonely moo. We waited all next week for Bobby to call us to come down and finish the tank. He didn’t call, and nobody saw him for a while. We never found out what his parents did when they got home. Somebody said they thought they heard Bobby in the back yard, pulling nails out of boards and crying.

Then, 45 years. We went our ways. Names and faces have drifted apart, but I seem to recall Bobby is a lawyer, the next town over. Useless runs a feed store and for a while was mayor of Riceville. Jimmy and JR went to Vietnam. Jimmy came back. And I sit all day at pianos and computers, my mind full of forests and mountains, peregrine falcons, Vienna, the Rhine. I think about that day a long time ago, and the nature of creative ambition. I might ask of a given endeavor, Is this a wooden tank on bicycles?

My generation grew up with a mythology that ran, You wish hard enough for anything to happen, and, Lo, it will happen. In the course of years you learn that, for most of us, most of the time, Lo, it will not. So you have to work to remember what children understand by nature, as a matter of divine inspiration: no matter what, to sustain our bit of briefly mobile earth, dreams are worth dreaming.

WORDS AND GLANCES, ETHNOLOGY DEPT.

I was delighted recently to hear from a distant Swafford relative about some of her forebears, to whom I’m even more distantly related: “Stingy Jim” Swafford of Sequatchie Valley, Tennessee, and his wife Mary Polly Nail. The latter is a splendid moniker. In her childhood I can hear her mother crying, “Mary Polly Nail, you come down outen that tree this instant or you’re lookin for a whoopin! You hear me, Mary Polly?” According to my relative, one day as Stingy Jim lay on his deathbed Mary Polly was in the kitchen making coffee. He hollered to her, “Go there easy on the coffee!” Those were Stingy Jim’s last words.

Except how he would have said that would have been roughly: “Go thar aisy awn the cawfee.” That brings up some thoughts about the accent I grew up with in various Tennessee towns of my childhood, mainly Chattanooga and Riceville, the latter where my mother was born and my grandparents lived, a red-dirt village of some 400 souls and maybe 200 cattle and swine. I’m thinking about how to spell the way we actually talked. For example, the mammalian head. “Head” in Southern is usually represented on the page as “haid,” but that’s misleading—it reads as “hayd.” What that spelling is trying and failing to convey is how it’s actually pronounced, which is “hayid,” a classic Southern diphthong. So misleading is the usual spelling that when we did the musical Oklahoma in my Chattanooga high school we pronounced the word haid in the script as “hayd,” even though a lot of us in real life said “hayid.”

That brings up the pronunciation of a familiar Southern phrase. In Standard English it would be, “I am going to knock your head off.” Where I grew up, that was properly pronounced, “Ahm’o knock yore hayid awf.” Which I submit is a more vivid and efficient way of threatening somebody with decapitation. “Ahm’o” is my favorite of all contractions: “I am going to” squashed into two syllables. That’s Southern genius, such as it is. “Ahm’o go downtown. Yawngo?” My best friend in Riceville was named Morrow, which was pronounced Marr.

One whole summer in Riceville my friends and I were at any opportunity exclaiming “Hot-O-Molly!”, which was our version of Hot Tamale. On blazing hot days—which was most days in the summer– we frequented a swimming hole in the creek that my grandfather had dug out for the kids in the 1920s. At the hole you could do two fun things: splash around in the shallow water, or shoot cottonmouths with a .22. If you wanted to swim it was a good idea to chase the snakes away first. We’d throw rocks, or a couple of us would do a cannonball into the creek. (Boys in Riceville got a .bb gun at eight, a .22 at ten, a shotgun at fourteen. I was a visiting city kid so didn’t get guns, but I used to go out with my friends hunting. I still remember the gamy smell of rabbit blood.)

Also comes to mind my Chattanooga schooldays friend Kevin, who was tall. He grew up in Manhattan, so had a Yankee accent and thought Southerners talked funny. His little-kid neighbor used to play a game in which he would climb up Kevin’s body. He called his game, “Peter Spider climbing up a tree.” Kevin reported that in the kid’s pronunciation it came out, “Peter Spahder climbin hup a tray.” The kid’s father was Superintendent of Schools for Chattanooga.

When my mother used to call me in college and my roommates answered they’d crack up at her accent. I’d remind them that she had a Master’s in Speech from the University of Chattanooga. Every year in my Jr. High school the principal would announce over the intercom the annual Kiwanis Club Oratorical Contest. With him it came out, “The Ky-wanis Club Artarcal Contest.” Could he have won an Artarcal Contest in Chattanooga?

The next linguistic item is a little racy, so be warned. I learned many of my best cusswords at that swimming hole in Riceville. One of the terms I learned was “cock,” meaning the female genitalia. You heard right. Every kid I knew used that term for lady parts. For me this persisted until eighth grade, when I happened to use the locution in front of Kevin, the New York import noted above. “A cock isn’t a pussy, you idiot!” he sputtered. “A cock is a dick!” I stood corrected. Kevin later attended Columbia in English and he was already concerned with the proper use of language. Many years later I mentioned all this, for some reason, to my writer cousin John Bowers, who grew up in Johnson City, Tennessee. I told him I assumed it was some incomprehensible mixup by local kids where I grew up. Not at all, John said. Cock is a common term for women’s junk in the lower South; that’s the way he used it in childhood. As to why it was common usage, I’d like to know. It may be one of many indications of characteristic Southern intelligence and connection to reality. I could cite more.

When I was a senior in high school I took lessons with the principal trombonist of the Atlanta Symphony. That involved getting up at 5AM and driving there from Chattanooga (on two-lane roads, pre-interstate) for a 9:30 lesson on Saturday morning. (That year I was first-chair trombone in the Tennessee All-State Band, one of the leading distinctions of my life.) As I drove I would keep myself awake reciting vowels, trying to lose the diphthongs: learning to say aee eee eye oh you instead of aiee eee ah owh yiu. I wanted to get rid of my Southern accent because I was intending to become not only a famous composer and conductor like Leonard Bernstein, but a famous actor too. And famous actors didn’t have hick accents like mine. (In high school I was named Best Actor in the yearbook Senior Superlatives for my hearty performance as Mr. Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth.) In practice my Southern accent withered away at college in the East. I miss it. It had some character as compared to how I speak now, which doesn’t sound like anyplace in particular.

I was born in Chattanooga, but for about three years before I was four we lived in my father’s natal house in Etowah, Tennessee, a smallish town straddling the railroad. A while back I was contacted by my father’s niece, Peggy, who grew up in Etowah. Talking to her on the phone, I suddenly realized that she didn’t have a Southern accent. I asked her why. “Etowahans mostly didn’t have the accent,” she said. “That’s because it started as a railroad town, and a lot of the population were imported there by the company from out of the region.” From that I realized that there were other abiding effects of the town’s founding: the streets were wide and well laid out, many of the houses relatively elegant, and there was a certain sophistication in the town temperament that to say the least doesn’t usually mark smallish Southern towns. My mother taught highschool English in Etowah and had stories about her students from the sticks. One of them was obsessed with Napoleon Bonaparte. Once he arrived in class full of enthusiasm and declared to her: “You know, Miz Johnson, they ain’t no flies on that Napoleon.”

(I just looked up “natal” to see if I used it correctly above and was startled to learn that, according to my computer thesaurus, the adjective can mean either “of birth” or “of buttocks.” You’ve got to be careful with that one.)

Two final accounts of Southern volubility. Some years back my brother and I were visiting Chattanooga and having lunch at a BBQ place. A family sat down behind us. After a heavy silence, the grandmother spoke: “You know, if thar’s one thang ah don’t lahk, it’s apple pie.” Thoughtful silence. “Ah just don’t lahk it.” More contemplation. “Seems lahk everbody lahks it, but ah don’t. Mah husband likes it. Mah brother Frank likes it. But ah don’t lahk it.” The family were clearing their throats. “Some people put a piece ‘o cheese on it. Covers up the whooole top! But Ah. Don’t. Lahk it.” This went on, but you get the idea.

I told this story to my soprano friend Wanda, who used to work in Louisiana, and she responded with a story from a master class she gave at, I think, LSU. A girl got up to sing and Wanda asked her what the song was about. Crooned the girl: “Ah’m fixin to sing a song about a swan that’s fixin to die.” Wanda made the suggestion that perhaps she could phrase her introduction more elegantly. The aspiring soprano looked puzzled. “Okay,” she said, “I’m gonna sing a song about a swan that’s fixin to die.”

Back to Etowah. My paternal grandfather left his prosperous lumber business on the railroad to my father rather than to his brother. It turned out a poor decision. As my mother learned only some time later, good old dad lost the lumber business playing poker. This I think influenced her decision to throw him the hell out. On the other hand, as my brother once observed, if dad had not perpetrated that, my brother and I might have ended our days sitting in the office beside the railroad in Etowah growling to each other on the order of, “There’s another load ‘o two-by-fours comin’ in and don’t overpay it this time, you son of a bitch.”

I digress. About 25 years ago I went with my brother and mother and cousin John Bowers and his wife to the Edgemon Family Reunion in Tullahoma, Tennessee. It was held in the old and extensive family graveyard, which as I remember was landscaped mostly in red dirt. This was my grandfather’s family on his mother’s side—she was Kizzy Edgemon, if I remember right. (There’s an Edgemon Ave. in Tullahoma.)

At the cemetery we found a tent under which sat a large woman before a large book. They were the Edgemon family archive and archivist. I introduced myself. “So you’re Jan, Lucille’s son and Lawrence’s grandson and Kizzy’s great-grandson. Let’s see.” She licked her thumb and turned to my page. “All righty,” she said, “last thing it says here is you went to Harvard. What have you been doing since then?” The school information would have come from Lawrence. She noted down my later history. Cousin John’s wife, who was of Russian-Jewish extraction, told us this was all exotic to her. She had no idea of her genealogy beyond two generations back, in the old country.

My ancestors, in other words, were pretty much rednecks. The only distinguished person I know of in my family to date was my maternal grandmother Beulah’s father, Gray by name, who was a medical doctor and a dentist. At the height of his career he invested every penny he had building a new office in Riceville. Beulah said he supplied it with twelve sheets of gold to use for fillings. The office burned to the ground the day before it opened. In the next years great-grandfather Gray gave up medicine for a position as town drunk. It’s easier and the hours are good.

Accents. One of the things I appreciate about William Faulkner is that he conveys a range of Mississippi dialects, from poor whites and blacks to tradesmen and the middle class, and he does it more with rhythm and phrasing than with the convoluted spellings that some (like me and Mark Twain) resort to. He can also add resonances with a representation of a phrase. In one novel a woman keeps saying about her hapless and penniless husband: “He aint got no more despair.” (Hmmm. I recall Faulkner saying in an interview that in his early years the best employment offer he ever had was to be manager of a whorehouse. He said it’s a pretty soft job. You just have to keep track of what the ladies are up to, get the trash out, and pay off the police now and then. It leaves your mornings free, which is the best time for writing, and in the evenings you don’t have to go out to enjoy a social life. He may have been exaggerating. On another occasion Faulkner told an interviewer he was the offspring of a negro slave and an alligator, both of them named Gladys Rock. I’m not making this up.)

I digress again. Besides redneck, my family are also mongrels—English, Scottish, and I don’t know what-all. But the Edgemon part is Dutch, a corruption of Egmont. This is, of course, a legendary family in Holland. As I tell people, I’m related to a play by Goethe and an overture and incidental music by Beethoven.

An erratic mixture of redneck and educated I think marks my family and me too, in my way. My mother Lucille and her brother Larry both went to college, small denominational ones in Tennessee, she majoring as I remember in English and Psychology, Larry majoring mainly in girls. Mother became a highschool English teacher noted for her vigorous promotion of literature, her histrionic poetry readings, her teaching of grammar by having students write poems and short stories. As she said, she was teaching not just grammar but creativity. I was probably foreordained–maybe doomed is the better word–to some sort of creative endeavor. Mother was not happy about my going into music because she had some idea of what a lousy job it is, but she supported me in it all the way. Trying to be helpful, she advised me to compose disco on the side. When I started writing prose she urged me to produce a naughty novel, under a pseudonym of course.

For all her devotion to literature on the job, at home we never knew Mother to read a book. Meanwhile she could stand in the middle of a museum gallery and name most of the famous painters at a distance. At home she had in the living room two prints, one Las Meninas by Velasquez, sometimes called the greatest of all paintings, and the other a tacky tourist rendering of a barn in a field. She didn’t really know the difference between the two. Mother was a Southern Baptist Republican who in my childhood would kneel down every night by the bed and pray. With her highschool literary magazine staff she would dress up in fancy pajamas, burn incense, and read them Beat poetry. Her heroes were Alan Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, though she regretted their use of dirty words. Many of her students thought she herself was a Beatnik, but she was generally appreciated and a bit marveled at. She was a star of the faculty. I like to think that I’ve reached a more sophisticated stage in the arts and letters and career and so on. But I think I’ve still got traces of the family mix of sophistication here and cluelessness there. Ask my ex-bosses, my ex-spouses, etc.

As soon as I can get to it I’m going to post a memoir about my mother’s brother, my Uncle Larry, one of those orphan stretches of prose I don’t have much to do with but put in the blog. Also a memoir about my Southern boyhood, which in Chattanooga was largely boring and barely middle class, in Riceville more peculiar and interesting.

P.S. Actually I’ve had some ideas about the naughty novel Mother wanted me to write. It would be structured in a sort of algebraic logic. The four characters I call A B C and D. The outer ones are male, the inner ones female. The couplings, as well as the tensions in the plot and denouement, would proceed logically: A + B; B + C; C + D; A + B + C; B + C + D; and for a grand final whizbang, A through D inclusively. Haven’t gotten around to it, but you never know.

 

 

About this thing

I’ve always said I’ll never write a blog because I lack the requisite self-involvement, which is to say that I don’t consider my merest thoughts to be worth the world’s attention. Really, we don’t come up every day with things worth sharing. But I’ve got a number of bits and pieces piling up on my computer that I find worthwhile, which for one reason or another I can’t seem to sell to anybody. Mainly, then, this blog is a repository of my orphans. Its title originated in my Boston Symphony note on Charles Ives’s Ragtime Dances. It’s come to represent my own odd bits, my thoughts and fantasies and feuilletons on assorted subjects.

A suggestion: try reading selections from the bottom up, because that’s the way they were posted.