My Last Class

I guess it’s apt that I taught Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest for my very last class.  It was Wilde, of course, who claimed “life imitates art,” and in my case it was true, in a way, as I chose Hemingway’s Jake Barnes and Humphrey Bogart as my public masks, assuming the persona of a hard-drinking cynic, eschewing public tears as a failure of, if not character, at least temperament.  I didn’t weep at my parents’ funerals or at Judy Birdsong’s memorial service.[1]

So I was somewhat surprised to find myself yesterday in that last class on the verge of tears.  My friend and colleague Bill Slayton, a hell of a teacher, who is also retiring, asked if he could sit in, and I was happy he was there. The class had just finished Heart of Darkness, which was serialized in 1899, four years after the debut of The Importance of Being Earnest. I postulated that Marlow could be sitting on the deck of the Nellie in the River Thames telling his dark tale of jungle boogie, starring Kurtz and featuring severed human heads, while at the same time across town Wilde’s Algernon might be “tickling the ivories” and ordering his manservant Laine to fetch some cucumber sandwiches.

I suggested they were in the same town at the same time but in different centuries.

Bill talked of Tennyson and Browning and their raging against the decline of culture.  He quoted the last lines of Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Wilde, he said, instead of tilting against the windmills of civilization’s decline, went with the flow, enjoyed the farce, embraced the titillation of sense organs and the idea that art existed merely for its own sake. [2]

The kids politely listened as Bill and I more or less had an adult conversation about art and civilization as the classroom clock wound down to dismissal.  As I wrapped up, I told them how much I had enjoyed teaching them.  Bill rose from his chair and said he’d done some calculating and over my career at Porter-Gaud that I’d taught over 30,000 classes and didn’t they feel privileged to be sitting in on the last one.  The kids were standing and clapping, and I was about to lose it until I managed to growl Yeats’ epitaph, “Cast a cold eye/, On life, on death/Horseman, pass by.”

I shook hands with them as they left.  A couple of the girls were teary eyed, but by then, my Bogie mask was back securely in place.

[1]Though behind closed doors for Judy I’ve done more than my share of sobbing.

[2]Until, of course, he found himself on his hands and knees scrubbing the latrines of Reading Gaol.

Commiseration Via Poetry


Antidepressant by Mirjana-Veljovic

In college, back in the fall of 1972, my sophomore poetry teacher assigned our class the task to compile an anthology of contemporary poems that revolved around a common theme.  I chose despair because I reckoned that depression might be a common theme for poets, a notoriously withdrawn and navel-gazing lot.  I figured poems of despair, unlike, say, political poems or poems dealing with domestic bliss, would make for easier harvesting because they would exist in greater abundance.

So, I checked out anthologies and skimmed poem titles and promising poems hoping to amass thirty or so specimens to satisfy the minimum requirement. In 1972, Auden and MacLeish were alive, Sylvia Plath less than a decade dead, Anne Sexton about to kill herself in a couple of years, so many of the poems I looked at had been written mid-century.

Of course, I have lost my anthology, which was hand written and received a B (likely the lowest grade given), but I do remember two of the poems I included.  One was Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening,” whose rhymes and rhythms I liked and whose rather childish message was right up my cynical alley:

I walked out one evening,

Walking down Bristol Street,

The crowds upon the pavement

Were fields of harvest wheat.


And down by the brimming river

I heard a lover sing

Under an arch of the railway:

‘Love has no ending.


‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you

Till China and Africa meet,

And the river jumps over the mountain

And the salmon sing in the street,


‘I’ll love you till the ocean

Is folded and hung up to dry

And the seven stars go squawking

Like geese about the sky.


‘The years shall run like rabbits,

For in my arms I hold

The Flower of the Ages,

And the first love of the world.’


But all the clocks in the city

Began to whirr and chime:

‘O let not Time deceive you,

You cannot conquer Time.


‘In the burrows of the Nightmare

Where Justice naked is,

Time watches from the shadow

And coughs when you would kiss.


‘In headaches and in worry

Vaguely life leaks away,

And Time will have his fancy

To-morrow or to-day.


‘Into many a green valley

Drifts the appalling snow;

Time breaks the threaded dances

And the diver’s brilliant bow.


‘O plunge your hands in water,

Plunge them in up to the wrist;

Stare, stare in the basin

And wonder what you’ve missed.


‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,

The desert sighs in the bed,

And the crack in the tea-cup opens

A lane to the land of the dead.


‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes

And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,

And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,

And Jill goes down on her back.


‘O look, look in the mirror,

O look in your distress:

Life remains a blessing

Although you cannot bless.


‘O stand, stand at the window

As the tears scald and start;

You shall love your crooked neighbour

With your crooked heart.’


It was late, late in the evening,

The lovers they were gone;

The clocks had ceased their chiming,

And the deep river ran on.




WH Auden

The other poem I remember including, a much better poem, is Archibald McLeish’s, “You, Andrew Marvell.”  As it turned out, the very next year I would hear MacLeish read the poem in person, he who was born the year that Tennyson died.

You, Andrew Marvell

And here face down beneath the sun

And here upon earth’s noonward height

To feel the always coming on

The always rising of the night:


To feel creep up the curving east

The earthy chill of dusk and slow

Upon those under lands the vast

And ever climbing shadow grow


And strange at Ecbatan the trees

Take leaf by leaf the evening strange

The flooding dark about their knees

The mountains over Persia change


And now at Kermanshah the gate

Dark empty and the withered grass

And through the twilight now the late

Few travelers in the westward pass


And Baghdad darken and the bridge

Across the silent river gone

And through Arabia the edge

Of evening widen and steal on


And deepen on Palmyra’s street

The wheel rut in the ruined stone

And Lebanon fade out and Crete

High through the clouds and overblown


And over Sicily the air

Still flashing with the landward gulls

And loom and slowly disappear

The sails above the shadowy hulls


And Spain go under and the shore

Of Africa the gilded sand

And evening vanish and no more

The low pale light across that land


Nor now the long light on the sea:

And here face downward in the sun

To feel how swift how secretly

The shadow of the night comes on …



Archibald MacLeish

Sometimes, like this morning, when sleep has stood me up and I don’t feel so hot mentally, I seek a dark poem with which I’m not familiar as a way to commiserate with a stranger who might have it worse than I-and-I.

And lo and behold I discovered this poem by Jane Kenyon a couple of hours ago. Jane Kenyon, who died of leukemia, was the subject of the superb book-length elegy Without by her husband Donald Hall.  I read the poem in the New Yorker in the mid-Nineties right after I had recovered from a serious case of clinical depression. You can read one of the poems from the collection here, but I would love to share with you Jane’s poem, which I find profound and beautiful:



When I was born, you waited
behind a pile of linen in the nursery,
and when we were alone, you lay down
on top of me, pressing
the bile of desolation into every pore.

And from that day on
everything under the sun and moon
made me sad — even the yellow
wooden beads that slid and spun
along a spindle on my crib.

You taught me to exist without gratitude.
You ruined my manners toward God:
“We’re here simply to wait for death;
the pleasures of earth are overrated.”

I only appeared to belong to my mother,
to live among blocks and cotton undershirts
with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes
and report cards in ugly brown slipcases.
I was already yours — the anti-urge,
the mutilator of souls.


Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin,
Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax,
Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft.
The coated ones smell sweet or have
no smell; the powdery ones smell
like the chemistry lab at school
that made me hold my breath.


You wouldn’t be so depressed
if you really believed in God.

  1. OFTEN

Often I go to bed as soon after dinner
as seems adult
(I mean I try to wait for dark)
in order to push away
from the massive pain in sleep’s
frail wicker coracle.


Once, in my early thirties, I saw
that I was a speck of light in the great
river of light that undulates through time

I was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colors — those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born. For a few
moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist

Like a crow who smells hot blood
you came flying to pull me out
of the glowing stream.
“I’ll hold you up. I never let my dear
ones drown!” After that, I wept for days.


The dog searches until he finds me
upstairs, lies down with a clatter
of elbows, puts his head on my foot.

Sometimes the sound of his breathing
saves my life — in and out, in
and out; a pause, a long sigh. . . .


A piece of burned meat
wears my clothes, speaks
in my voice, dispatches obligations
haltingly, or not at all.
It is tired of trying
to be stouthearted, tired
beyond measure.

We move on to the monoamine
oxidase inhibitors. Day and night
I feel as if I had drunk six cups
of coffee, but the pain stops
abruptly. With the wonder
and bitterness of someone pardoned
for a crime she did not commit
I come back to marriage and friends,
to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back
to my desk, books, and chair.

  1. CREDO

Pharmaceutical wonders are at work
but I believe only in this moment
of well-being. Unholy ghost,
you are certain to come again.

Coarse, mean, you’ll put your feet
on the coffee table, lean back,
and turn me into someone who can’t
take the trouble to speak; someone
who can’t sleep, or who does nothing
but sleep; can’t read, or call
for an appointment for help.

There is nothing I can do
against your coming.
When I awake, I am still with thee.


High on Nardil and June light
I wake at four,
waiting greedily for the first
note of the wood thrush. Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome

by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.


Jane Kenyon

Happy Hump Day!




A Mother Day’s Message

Lisbon, Portugal

I’ve never been one to celebrate what I call Hallmark Card holidays, i.e., money producing scams concocted by our Capitalist non-tax-paying overlords to cash in on sentimentality.

“Shit, I forgot it was tomorrow’s First Ex-spouse Day!  I better overnight Brandi a comical tee shirt.”

Once my late wife Judy Birdsong became a mother and the boys were old enough, a mock tradition arose in which we designated Mother’s as a day when Judy would work extra hard to make us happy.

Mother’s Day would begin with undesired sex, followed by her producing a delectable brunch of eggs benedict, cheese grits, buttered toast.

Don’t get me wrong, it was tongue-in-cheek; I cleaned up the kitchen mess, washed, and put up dishes. However, at some point we quit exchanging gifts for Mother’s and Father’s Day.  Late in both my mother’s and Judy’s life, we took MeMaw to a jazz alfresco Mother’s Day brunch underneath majestic live oaks in a little place in Summerville.  So we did end up celebrating in a way.

On Mother Day’s Eve two years ago, Judy announced it’s time “to get this show [of dying] on the road,” and, sure enough, at four something o’clock the next day she was gone.

I am very grateful for a few things: she walked to her death bed was never incontinent and gave up the ghost peacefully with her eyes closed.  She was absolutely unafraid to die, which helped the boys and me enormously.

Judy was a stellar mother: loving, non-nagging, even-tempered, sanely un-overprotective, considerate.  Her dying on Mother’s Day has managed to make the day a hallmark in the lives of Harrison, Ned, and me.

Now Mother’s Day is our day to celebrate her life.  It’s real now.


“My Lonely Room” by Jerry Cordeiro

My mother’s family has produced an uncanny number of recluses.  For example, my Aunt Virginia spent three-quarters of her youth holed up in her room in a rocking chair listening to the same Barbara Streisand albums over and over and over again.  Eventually, she transitioned into a halfway house for mentally ill, which required her to coexist with others, but she later was liberated to a subsidized apartment where she resumed her Emily Dickinson like existence. Three people besides her immediate family attended her funeral. [1]

Virginia at a New Years Eve party in 1964

Her father, whom we called Kiki, also retreated almost full-time to his bedroom.  There he listened to the radio (Paul Harvey, baseball games) or played the ukulele while crooning Hawaiian songs and/or yodeling. In his later years, he took his meals in that room where he stacked dirty plates on the floor next to the door for my grandmother to retrieve and wash after he had consumed the country meals she prepared and delivered.

In his sixties, Kiki began acting oddly, putting his alarm clock upside down on his bedside table, mowing the lawn at five a.m.  Eventually he was placed in a home in Columbia called Crafts-Farrow.  I was in college in Columbia at the time, so I borrowed my girlfriend’s car to visit him.  I met him in a large room where other patients and family members milled around.

He immediately recognized me and started relating hard-to-believe tales of the abuse he was suffering.  He said, “Rusty, help me escape. Ask them if we can go for a walk; then we can ride away.  Just let me out on the side of the road.  You’ll never have to see me again.”

I explained that he’d get better if he stayed there. As I was leaving, I asked a fat lady at a desk near the door to keep an eye on him, explained that he was planning to escape, and she let out a maniacal, unhinged laugh.  Ends up she was a patient herself.

The good news is that he did get better and returned to Summerville and the house and [mocking cough] enjoyed a much better attended memorial service.

His son, my Uncle Jerry, worked on a spy ship tracking Soviet missile launches and had purchased the house where they lived.  When he retired, he also spent the majority of his time alone in his room, which was more like a suite, on the opposite end of the house from his father.  My grandmother had her own room, so essentially, you had this nuclear family who had little to do with each another living together in their separate cells.

My grandmother was the exception.  She spent her days in the living area watching television from dawn until the Indian test pattern shut things down after The Tonight Show starring Jack Paar and later Johnny Carson. One spring when I was in grad school, I visited and was almost blown out of the door by the hotness blasting from a gas heater even though the temperature outside was in the seventies.  Obviously, though not ensconced in her room, she didn’t get outdoors very often.

My mother, on the other hand, was extroverted and vivacious. She was the only sibling to have children. In the summers, she took us to the Curve In Pool or the beach and loved yard work.

Although I’m not geared for extended periods of solitude, I can appreciate its appeal. In my case, I’d opt for a darkened room with no radio and no Streisand, just a grandfather clock and a never-ending supply of camphor-soaked handkerchiefs in honor of Faulkner’s Mrs. Caroline Compson. I’d lay the handkerchiefs upon my furrowed forehead as the clock audibly ticked away seconds and marked with chimes the quarter hours and knelled away the hours — one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve — while the planet rotated and revolved its way into my oblivion.

“Hey, Wes, have any plans for retirement?”

“Yeah, I plan to take it easy.  Hey, know where I might be able to cop some camphor?”

[1]You can read about how he disposed of her ashes here.