Cento: Retirement


P Alvatos



Glad I was when I reached the other bank,

a love of freedom rarely felt.


Man to be poor, man to be prodigal,

the half-man searching for an ever-fleeing other half,


and the countryside not caring,

a shadow of cloud on the stream.

A cento, sometimes referred to as a “collage poem,” consists of lines from other poems cut out and reassembled.

Poems sampled Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,”  Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” Michael Field’s “O Eros of the mountains, of the earth,” AK Ramanujan’s, “Elements of Composition,” Philip Larkin’s “MCMVI,” Yeats’s “Easter 1916”

Note: Michael Field was the pseudonym of Katharine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper, pictured below.



Partying During the Pandemic: Hubba, Hubba, Hubba, Hack, Hack


red death

Of course, whenever there’s a celebration on Folly Beach, I shed the fedora and don my pith helmet to study the folkways of the island’s men and women, whether they be our ancient, reptilian residents who seem to make up the majority of the population[1]; the younger year-round renters who often work in the food and beverage industry; the bourgeois house-renting vacationers; or the daytrippers, which include surfer dudes and dudettes, but mostly consist of young people eager to ditch their sobriety.  The question arose: what type of person (besides intrepid anthropologists) seeks out crowds during a pandemic?

I began my foray early, keeping at least six feet away from those as foolhardy to brave the great outdoors as I walked to Center Street via the beach. The strand itself was wind-swept, and the few cloud-bathers who braved the beach had placed their chairs and blankets on the leeward side of the concrete groins where they huddled and shivered. Most of the other beach strollers consisted of dog worshipers, who barely outnumber the host of young females who have chosen The Edge of America as the destination for their bachelorette parties.

Over the course of the day, I counted six different groups engaged in celebrating the waning days of some betrothed female’s singledom. Depending on the socio-economic situation, the attire of the ladies ranges from civvies to tee-shirts printed for the occasion. Although anthropologists are not supposed to let ethnocentric emotions like pity come into play, I felt sort of sorry for these chilly, less-than-festive seeming young women in short sleeves hugging themselves.  Who can blame them, having planned the events months ago not knowing it was going to be a Masque-of-the-Red Death weekend?


Indeed, the numbers of revelers who decided to come out was scant. It was like, as Caroline noted, living in Charleston thirty years ago when parking spaces were plentiful and sidewalks easily traversed. I began and ended my fieldwork at Chico Feo with brief stops at the rooftop of Snapper Jack’s, St. James Island Pub, and the Sand Dollar Social Club (cash only).  Here’s a virtual visit for my social-distancing readers.

On a typical St Patrick’s Saturday on Folly, these venues would have been packed to, as they say, the gills.

[1] The overall median age of Folly residents is 49.7 years, 43.7 years for males, and 58.4 years for females.


Old Habits Die Hard


Triumph of Death Wall Painting, ca. 1448, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo (Photo Rob Cook, 2012)


“Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.”
― Albert Camus, The Plague

Although avoiding skin-to-skin human contact makes a lot of sense during a pandemic, old habits die hard. Yesterday, for example, I attended a funeral. An old, dear friend invited me to share her pew, and as I leaned over to kiss her, she shied away — a not-infrequent occurrence of my youth, but one I hadn’t experienced in a while. After the service, as we entered the reception hall, two bottles of hand-sanitizer stood next to the guest register. Although I had never used a hand-sanitizer outside a cancer ward, I confess I did a couple of dollops.[1]

UnknownAt a funeral reception, you don’t want repulse people who need a hug. As we embraced, one of my former students said, “Corona Virus be damned.”  For a young person who most likely will face what amounts to a bad cold if infected, this attitude seems reasonable to me. For a woman in her eighties, not so much so. Anyway, at the reception, I let whoever was making eye contact make the first move, whether it be the awkward fumbling of an elbow bump, a handshake, or hug.

Of course, on the way out, I forgot to reapply the hand sanitizer, scratched my beard, tugged at my ear, covered my mouth as I burped, and headed straight to Chico Feo for a couple of beers.  Earlier in the day, I had checked out a bit of Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and ran across this horror-inducing sentence:

‘That disorderly tippling in taverns, ale-houses, coffee-houses, and cellars be severely looked unto, as the common sin of this time and greatest occasion of dispersing the plague. And that no company or person be suffered to remain or come into any tavern, ale-house, or coffee-house to drink after nine of the clock in the evening, according to the ancient law and custom of this city, upon the penalties ordained in that behalf.

Being of an advanced age, I would rather hazard death than be reduced to drinking at home alone. My sparkling wit might very well wither and die. “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light,” Dylan Thomas wrote sometime prior to bragging about having downed eighteen straight whiskeys, lapsing into a comma, and going ungently into that good night.[2]


As far as sporting events go, the timing couldn’t be worse. Spring training and the NBA have been suspended, March Madness cancelled outright, and the Masters golf tournament postponed, which echoes precautions enacted in Defoe’s day:

‘That all plays, bear-baitings, games, singing of ballads, buckler-play, or such-like causes of assemblies of people be utterly prohibited, and the parties offending severely punished by every alderman in his ward.

Even Donald Trump, a Corona-Virus optimist, “out of an abundance of caution” has postponed “the Catholics for Trump” event scheduled for 19 March in Milwaukee.  Sources say that Trump has shaken hands with a Brazilian who has tested positive for the virus, but the President himself doesn’t plan to be tested. On the other hand, Court Jester/sycophant Lindsay Graham is in self-quarantine, no doubt binge-watching Lady Di’s wedding while enjoying a hot toddy or two or four or eighteen.

Me, I’m sequestered in my drafty garret skimming Camus’s The Plague and Boccaccio’s The Decameron for quotable quotes, puzzling about how bear-baitings and Macbeth could attract the same audiences, and touching my forehead every five minutes to see if I’m running a fever.

So far, so good.

[1] Thirty-four years of classroom teaching has produced in me a robust immune system. The last time I took a sick day was in 2003.

[2] According to eyewitnesses, he only had, alas, four straight whiskeys. If you’re going to die, you might as well go whole hog, as they say in Wales.

In Memory of Erica Lesesne


Erica Lesesne 1945-2020

I first met Erica in August of 1985 at a school leadership conference; she immediately impressed me with her eloquence and presence. Although “from off,” Erica came to Charleston as a pilgrim, embracing the city’s Otherness rather than criticizing its eccentricity. I dare say that few scholars anywhere know as much about Charleston writers such as Beatrice Ravenel, Josephine Pinckney, and DuBose Heyward as Erica did. A few years ago, we collaborated on creating a course for adults on the literary movement known as “The Charleston Renaissance,” and although our efforts came to naught, I learned so much about Charleston’s literary legacy from working with her on the project. She was forever a teacher.

Although it’s sometimes easier for a teacher to pretend that she just doesn’t see, whenever Erica encountered bullying, student backbiting, or the twisting of truth for personal advantage, she directly confronted the offender, expressing her displeasure rationally, calmly (and with serious eye contact). On the other hand, Erica championed talented students who had acquired the reputation of being troublemakers. As I put it in the speech I delivered upon her retirement, “Erica possesses that admirable talent of being able to discern whatever diamonds may be lurking somewhere beneath the layers of mud adolescents sometimes coat themselves with. She inspired these rebels to consider the world at large as she cultivated their creativity, channeling their anger and angst into art.”  How life affirming to have a wise woman as an advocate, someone who understands your youthful dissatisfaction with a wounded world. It can be life-changing.

Drama was Erica’s favorite genre, and over the years she orchestrated a number of superb student-directed productions, plays in which actors performed without microphones, having to project their voices throughout the acoustically challenged spaces of Gwenette Auditorium.  She carefully chose each play according to the abilities of the senior class who performed them, on one occasion writing a script herself. More often, however, she selected plays of high literary merit, exposing students and adults to the joys of commedia de arte or the absurdities of Pirandello. I remember Jeannie Faircloth Green, the superb math teacher, leaning over to me during an intermission and remarking that “after five minutes, you forget it’s a student production.”

Erica play

Ultimately, however, teachers earn their pay in the classroom. As our mentor Sue Chanson has said, an excellent English teacher can teach at any level. Throughout her career, Erica taught sixth graders, and seniors, and grades in between, introducing them to Pip and Estella via Dickens, touring the Lake District with Wordsworth and Coleridge, guiding well-to-do eighteen-year-olds through the impoverished, labyrinthian streets of Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg. She taught impressionable souls how language functions, how it can sing  — or screech — and how to manipulate words to convey melody or cacophony according to the writer’s purpose. Being able to string sweet sounds together to embody devotion is a valuable skill, but being able to rat-a-tat Anglo-Saxon plosives that spit like machine gun fire can also come in handy. Porter-Gaud’s reputation as a school that produces superb writers owes an enormous debt to Erica Lesesne, who had a hand in creating the English Department’s curriculum. And, oh, the hours she spent carefully assessing writing, circling misplaced modifiers, bracketing fragments, praising deft phraseology and clear thinking. Each student, handled with care. Taken seriously.

Erica Lesesne lived a good life and has left a legacy that will live on, not only in the memory of her devoted family —  Dan, Emma, and Daniel, their spouses, and their children —  but also in the memories of a generation of students who were so very lucky to have her as a teacher. For the sake of our own children, let’s hope the cliché  “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” isn’t true.

Good night, sweet Erica.


Questions Concerning Vultures


Mars Ethel

Mars Ethel: Vultures

In the midst of a burgeoning global pandemic, on the eve of South Carolina ‘s Democratic Primary, and in the aftermath of the stock market’s 3500-point one-week freefall, it appears that the turkey vulture perched on a dying tree outside our living room window is ill and also dying. He or she – I think of it as a she – has been there all day long hunkered into herself.



Natural deaths of animals in the wild I’ve managed not to think about all that often.[1]

Exceptions: Once I saw a Nature episode about the deathly decline of a disease-ridden chimpanzee and his ultimate abandonment by his troop, the unfortunate creature left to shuffle off his mortal coil all alone, though one of his companions did linger a while before abandoning him.

Also, about a decade ago, the marsh behind our house was littered with bloated carcasses of raccoons felled by some parvo virus that had the parents of our diseased vulture circling overhead in narrowing gyres.

Thirty years before that, yet another ill vulture stood forlornly on a path in the woods near our house in Rantowles. We saw him so many times we gave him a name, Nigel. He lasted almost a week.[2]

Our cat, Dusty, after insistently clawing at the glass door leading to the porch, has been let out, has pawed open the screen door, and her outdoor presence has prompted the vulture to flee the limb of the dying tree and perch on our roof.  Dusty crouches on the railing of the deck, hunched into herself, staring up and over un-benignly at what now I’m convinced is an unwell scavenger.

dusty predator

Questions arise: Do vultures eat the carcasses of their own kind?

The consensus is not often, only during food scarcity.

Do other animals eat vultures?

No, an eagle will occasionally snatch an infant vulture from a nest, but vultures [understatement alert] smell bad, have ingested perhaps diseased organisms, so they have very few natural predators.

By the way, they’re family oriented. They feed their young for as long as eight months, though via regurgitation, which I guess is good training for the life ahead. If something is harassing them, they’ll vomit on the offending party as a defense mechanism.[3]

They’re gregarious, hang in large groups, and can live to be twenty-five.

Nevertheless, would Dusty kill a sick vulture for sport?

“You betcha,” as people from Utah are prone to say.

Do vultures help prevent the spread of diseases?


Does the company called Bird Busters think highly of vultures?

No. From their website:

Turkey Vultures cause problems by attacking rooftops, caulking and other exterior surfaces. The bird droppings from turkey vultures are large as well, creating extra cleanup costs and concern over slip and fall liability from turkey vulture dropping buildup, plus an unclean, dirty company image. The bacteria, fungal agents and parasites found in turkey vulture droppings and nests can carry a host of serious diseases, including histoplasmosis, encephalitis, salmonella, meningitis, toxoplasmosis, and more. As an unpleasant bonus, turkey vultures often leave bones and carcasses to feed on around their roosting areas. They’re also known to be noisy problem birds, especially in a large group fighting over food.

What does the poet Richard Wilbur have to say in response to Bird Busters’ negativity concerning turkey vultures?

Still, citizen sparrow, this vulture which you call

Unnatural, let him but lumber again to air

Over the rotten office, let him bear

The carrion ballast up, and at the tall


Tip of the sky lie cruising. Then you’ll see

That no more beautiful bird is in heaven’s height,

No wider more placid wings, no watchfuller flight;

He shoulders nature there, the frightfully free,


The naked-headed one. Pardon him, you

Who dart in the orchard aisles, for it is he

Devours death, mocks mutability,

Has heart to make an end, keeps nature new.


Vultures, no doubt, give almost everyone outside ornithology the heebie-jeebies. No one likes to be reminded of his or her own mortality, especially in the midst of a burgeoning global pandemic, on the eve of South Carolina ‘s Democratic Primary, and in the aftermath of the stock market’s 3500-point one-week freefall. However, we need vultures. Without them, those dead raccoons in the marsh a decade ago would have been appreciably more horrible.

So I’m with Richard Wilbur.  Here’s the rest of the poem quoted above:

Thinking of Noah, childheart, try to forget

How for so many bedlam hours his saw

Soured the song of birds with its wheezy gnaw,

And the slam of his hammer all the day beset


The people’s ears. Forget that he could bear

To see the towns like coral under the keel,

And the fields so dismal deep. Try rather to feel

How high and weary it was, on the waters where


He rocked his only world, and everyone’s.

Forgive the hero, you who would have died

Gladly with all you knew; he rode that tide

To Ararat; all men are Noah’s sons.

[1] Most editors would disapprove of syntax here, but I like the way it stumbles into a confession of repression.

[2] I was in full hospice mode. Nursing him back to life didn’t seem like a good idea.

[3] Until I did that bit of research, I had very successfully avoided wondering what being puked on by a vulture would be like.

noah's ark

Gustave Dore








Buster Keaton Meets Kafka


Me in 1973 (or at least my head in 1973)

Back, in ’73, it still got cold in early October.

In August of that year, I had on a whim enrolled in a tennis course mistakenly thinking it would count as an elective. Given my busy schedule of sometimes going to class, washing dishes at Capstone Cafeteria, and making the rounds of various pubs each evening, I had put off to the afternoon of the last day to drop a course without penalty to go through the rigamarole necessary to avoid further tarnishing my transcript.   To successfully do so, I needed to accumulate certain signatures.

After visiting the registrar’s office and securing the drop form, I trekked over to the far distant PE department and copped the john henry of the so-called instructor, the most difficult task in what seemed to me at the time as a Herculean quest – I had never been to class; I didn’t know his or her name.

After a bit of a runaround, somebody signed the form, so now all I had to do is to get my advisor to sign on the dotted line – something she no doubt would be delighted to do – but this rather severe woman gave me the heebie-jeebies. I sensed she held me in contempt -maybe because I was red-headed? or betrayed a contemptuous smirk when I dealt with her? or perhaps because I reeked of cannabis?  – I had no idea why she disapproved of me, but I imagined her animus was as palatable as dandruff-sprinkled wool.

Of course, she signed it – probably not even really knowing exactly who I was.

With the two signatures secured, I rode the elevator down to the lobby of the Humanities Building with a half-hour to spare before the Registrar’s Office closed.  As the elevator door opened and as I stepped out, the form somehow fluttered from my hand – and I swear I’m not making this up – it disappeared cartwheeling through the gap between elevator and lobby into the dark underworld of that hideous structure.

I could have tried a thousand times to flip the form through that gap and probably not been successful even once.  I stood there astonished, frozen, unbelieving.

elevator gap

I literally ran back to the registrar’s office, grabbed another form.  With the clock reading ten till five, my only recourse was to forge signatures, and in the case of my tennis instructor, to make up a name because I had already forgotten it.*

*Although I doubted it at the time, this strategy of forging and making up names worked.  In a pre-digital university with 20,000 students, what functionary is going to check to see if the the signatures are legit?

I shared that year an apartment with a bassist named Stan Gibbons who worked at the Record Bar at Richland Mall and who possessed a record collection extraordinare.  It was an upstairs apartment in a ramshackle house built in the Twenties on Henderson Street, a house long ago purchased by USC and transformed into a parking lot.

After the traumatic experience of having some malevolent spirit snatch the form from my hand and deposit it sideways through the one inch slot of the elevator shaft, I trudged up the steep hill to my house and up the steep stairs to the shithole I called home (my bed was in the kitchen) to watch the NL playoff game between the Mets and Reds on Stan’s black and white portable TV.

As the sun set and a cold front passed through, it started getting very chilly in the apartment. Need I mention that the apartment was unairconditioned and every window frozen into an open position? I managed to ram two windows down, but a third, one of two facing the front of the house, wouldn’t budge.  However, summoning every ounce of my 140 or so pounds, in a Samsonlike shouting concentration of force, I slammed the window down with such violence that the glass shattered.

What else, I inwardly whined, could go wrong today?  Now ice cold wind was streaming through the broken glass. I had no recourse but to light the heater, a gas fueled relic from the 1950’s.  This action required igniting a pilot light, something, again, I had never attempted, yet after maybe twenty or so attempts, whoosh, success.  I turned up the heat to a nice toasty temperature.

So I leaned back in a threadbare chair to watch the game.  In a minute or two, however, I smelled something burning, and turned around to see flames leaping from the stove upon which Stan’s record collection rested.  How could I have not noticed them sitting there in their cardboard boxes?  After all, I played them all the time.

I snatched the records off the stove, sickened by the stench of melted vinyl.  Every single LP was severely warped, unplayable.  Desperate ideas darkened my mind.  Hitchhiking to Nome, Alaska, never to return.  Telling Stan an outrageous lie: “Hey, Stan, someone must really hate you.  They broke in to the apartment through that window and set your records on fire.”

But I did neither.  When I heard his dreaded tread upon the stairs, I confronted him there and told him I had accidentally ruined his record collection.

He smiled broadly.  “Ha ha! you’re kidding,” he said.


Dan Scott:  Increasing Confusion

It didn’t take long for the truth to register with the smell and my unchanging woebegone expression. He said he might have to move out but stuck with me until the end of our lease; then on amiable terms we went our separate ways.





Unmaternal Republicans


Rush Limbaugh’s reemergence in the news as cancer victim/Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient reminded me of an incident about a decade ago when some of his usually supportive listeners turned on him for a minute or two. Rush had chided then First Lady Michelle Obama for being overweight. His typically trollish Yahoo commentators (sprawled on beanbag chairs in their darkened rooms), chided Rush, not because of the Rabelaisian hypocrisy of the equivalent of Fatty Arbuckle wagging his sausage-like forefinger at, say, Mae West. No, because the vast majority of Rush’s female listening audience considered themselves to be overweight and body-shaming uncalled for.

Meanwhile, the Far Right’s own Michelle Bachmann was inveighing against First Lady Michelle’s push to raise awareness of the benefits of breast feeding. “To think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump … You want to talk about nanny state, I think we just got a new definition,” she screeched.

Not, your breast pump, Miss Narcissist, an impoverished mother’s breast pump (perhaps one of those weak-willed abstinence-trained adolescents).

Leave it to the Radical Right to turn nanny into a dirty word. Next thing you know maternal will be a vile insult, like liberal. A maternal state that would like to see all its babies well-cared for is a pernicious place where the pocket of the patriarchal super rich is picked to redistribute their largesse among the issue of the lazy, the unwed, the unfit.

The fellow below has earned – well, actually, inherited –  his money; still, no matter how he got it, it’s unfair to skim a portion of that pile to fund the filling of  the cavities of impoverished children. Even the lightest redistribution of wealth, 5% say, would bring the economy crashing down around us like walls of Jericho. Wealth is a Calvinistic litmus test that determines who is blessed and who is not. Let the marketplace decide. We’re a patriarchy for Christ’s sake!

Capitalist Oligarchy

Suffer the children indeed.

This Orwellian manipulation of language is incredibly effective: if you repeatedly make good things sound bad, they become bad in the minds of the listeners. For example, when I taught high school, each year I’d ask my students if anyone in the class identified as a feminist.  The girls would cast their eyes floorward and mutter “no” or “not really.”  “What?” I’d ask, feigning incredulity, “so you believe that you should earn less money than men working at the same job?  You believe your husbands should be able to tell you how to dress? You’re against maternity leave?” To them, a feminist is not someone who believes in gender equality but, rather, Rush Limbaugh’s Jungian shadow: the late Andrea Dworkin: unattractive, militant, butch. Repeat the word feminist and flash Dworkin’s image often enough, and she becomes the incarnation of feminism.


Andrea Dworkin

Alas, a deep acidic strain of misogyny, perhaps Bible-based, infects the worldview of the Radical Right. Otherwise, explain the visceral hatred that Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi evoke. What gives?  What is it about these women that can generate enough animus to spawn millions of dollars in bumper sticker sales? Name a male Democratic politician who has stoked as much animus as Hillary and Nancy. Certainly, would think self-proclaimed Socialist Bernie Sanders would be an unrelenting target of their scorn, but thus far he hasn’t.


All that I can come up with is that for some strange, perverse psychological reason (I have my unscientific but intuitively rich guesses), members of the Radical Right resent their mothers and have projected their archetypal negative farrow-eating images on womankind in general.  Paradoxically, they’ll allow masculine models like Margaret Thatcher and Ayn Rand into their political and intellectual men’s clubs but banish more maternal women to domestic or secretarial duties. The females who carry the banner of the Radical Right – Ann Coulter, Laura Ingle, Katherine Harris – project hardness; sport inorganic, breakable hair; force their feet into corset-like stilettos; stomp toward the dais; spew sarcasm. They’re about as maternal as a backhand to the mouth.