Despite Death’s Persistence

Poor old dead Daddy with his poor old dead brother David outside their poor old dead grandaddy Ackerman’s drug store on Spring Street circa 1937

It’s not surprising that Thanksgiving would be somewhat death-haunted. After all, I was driving Judy’s car to see Judy’s sister and her family.

Once I arrived, I found myself staring at sister Becky because she reminds me so much of Judy. It’s as if they share/d identical metabolisms. Both move/d slowly, deliberately; their eyes blink/ed slowly.[1] Anyway, I warned Becky that if I seemed to be staring at her a lot, sisterly likeness was the reason. She smiled a slow sweet that’s-okay smile.

We enjoyed a beautiful five days weatherwise, the setting Reynolds Preserve, a residential golf resort with autumnal foliage ablaze. Companionshipwise, a beautiful five days as well, son Ned was there and brother-in-law Big Dave and my nephew Scott and his wife Jessie and their daughters, the grandnieces, Emily and Annie, six and four, lovely and smart and honest. I overheard Emily say, “[. . .] Aunt Judy, who’s already dead.”

Here’s a mandala Emily drew celebrating the gathering.

artist Emily Hudson, who calls her grandmother Becky “Beppy”

Saturday, on the way back, I stopped in Aiken for an hour and had dinner with my Aunt Maria and cousins Pamela and Scarlet and their brood: spouses, in-laws, children, and children’s children. It seems I only see these kin when someone is dying or dead — Uncle David, Daddy, Mama, Judy — so I wanted to make a point of talking with Aunt Maria, a spry, car-driving eighty-three, while she was upright and smiling. A war bride, she has been living in Aiken County going on 70 years. I especially enjoy hearing what’s left of her now Southern-smothered German accent. Her elongated vowels have unclipped the Teutonic cadences. Yet German lies underneath, like a sonic archeological lower layer.

Aunt Maria’s parents’ gravestone

I could only stay an hour because I wanted to pick up Ms L. Muldoon from the Charleston airport. She had seen the night before a production of James Joyce’s “The Dead” at the New York Irish Historical Society. She texted about the “heaviness” at the end “with the snow and all.”

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. [Gabriel] watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

So when I left Pamela’s, headed back to Charleston, I listened to Donal Donnelly’s reading Episode 6 of Ulysses, the Hades episode, when Bloom rides in a carriage to Dignam’s funeral and burial. I was on back roads, taking Highway 4 through Springfield and Neeses, (dare I say) dying Orangeburg County towns, and it seemed like every four miles I passed a cemetery in some podunk country churchyard with a chain-linked fence surrounding the graves.

Meanwhile, in his carriage Bloom reads from the obituary page of the morning paper the names of the deceased, “[i]nked characters fast fading on the frayed breaking paper.”

Through the carriage window:

White horses with white frontlet plumes came round the Rotunda corner, galloping. A tiny coffin flashed by. In a hurry to bury. A mourning coach. Unmarried. Black for the married. Piebald for bachelors. Dun for a nun.

— Sad, Martin Cunningham said. A child.

Highway 4 is a lovely road that rises and falls through horse country before flattening out near Orangeburg. I usually listen to AM gospel radio stations when passing through Orangeburg County – I dig the vocal groups, the church announcements, and especially, the high-octane iambic admonitions of preacher men– but Joyce and his medium Donnelly had me hypnotized.

Mr Bloom came last, folding his paper again into his pocket. He gazed gravely at the ground till the coffincart wheeled off to the left. The metal wheels ground the gravel with a sharp grating cry and the pack of blunt boots followed the barrow along a lane of sepulchres.

Bloom, who has lost a father to suicide and his young son Rudy to disease, sees death for what it is, inevitable and commonplace:

A pump after all, pumping thousands of gallons of blood every day. One fine day it gets bunged up and there you are. Lots of them lying around here: lungs, hearts, livers. Old rusty pumps: damn the thing else.

I was already in the town of Orangeburg by the time Dingam’s

gravediggers put on their caps and carried their earthy spades towards the barrow. Then knocked the blades lightly on the turf: clean. One bent to pluck from the haft a long tuft of grass. One, leaving his mates, walked slowly on with shouldered weapon, its blade blueglancing.

Dingam was six-feet under, and Episode 6 had run its course, so I reached over for some early Stones.

“Come On” came blasting from the speakers. I had turned the Joyce, as Lucinda Williams would say, “way up high.”

But I didn’t turn it down. I was on the Interstate doing 75 airport bound.


[1] Becky was a 10/10 match for the marrow transplant never to be.

Invisible Friendships: Voices

Over the years, my friend (and one-time collaborator) Dr. Paul O’Brien has guest-lectured for my classes in various capacities, e.g., to introduce Beowulf or Hamlet or the genre of poetry. In the poetry intro, he begins by reciting “Who Goes with Fergus” in his rich baritone but then admits he doesn’t exactly know what it means:

 Who will go drive with Fergus now,

And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,

And dance upon the level shore?

Young man, lift up your russet brow,

And lift your tender eyelids, maid,

And brood on hopes and fear no more.

 

And no more turn aside and brood

Upon love’s bitter mystery;

For Fergus rules the brazen cars,

And rules the shadows of the wood,

And the white breast of the dim sea

And all disheveled wandering stars.

But he does know that he loves the way it sounds, its imagery.

He goes on to tell the students that poetry can be “your companion, your friend.”

In this context, I’ve found Yeats’ “To a Friend’s Whose Work Has Come to Nothing” a comfort on days like today when I’m down:

 Now all the truth is out,

Be secret and take defeat

From any brazen throat,

For how can you compete,

Being honor bred, with one

Who were it proved he lies

Were neither shamed in his own

Nor in his neighbors’ eyes;

Bred to a harder thing

Than Triumph, turn away

And like a laughing string

Whereon mad fingers play

Amid a place of stone,

Be secret and exult,

Because of all things known

That is most difficult.

However, this phenomenon of literary friendship is not only limited to poetry; I count Frank Bascombe, the narrator of Richard Ford’s trilogy, a pal, and every time I finish one of the Bascombe novels it’s like saying good-bye to someone I’ll miss hanging out with. I’ll miss Frank’s voice. (Though rumor has it Frank survived Hurricane Sandy and will tell us about it in a new short story).

I’ve recently run across a new companion, J.I.M. Stewart, whose Eight Modern Writers is the final volume of The Oxford History of English Literature, published in 1963.   Now you might expect – or should I say one might expect – a critical volume sporting such a title to be as dry as unbuttered melba toast; however, reading Stewart is like listening to an erudite uncle with a whiskey in his hand and a barb in his throat.

Here he is one Yeats, the featured poet above:

Yeats has too vigorous a dramatic sense to make any kind of grateful stroll out of old age’s necessary descent from Helicon to the Academy, or to accompany it with pleasant murmuring of years that bring the philosophic mind. Rather he is going to be carried down kicking, and his masters are going to find a rebellious pupil:

I mock Plotinus’ thought

And cry in Plato’s teeth

And here is Stewart chiding the master:

 [In “Under Ben Bulben”] there are no such things, we want to tell him, as “Base-born products of base beds.”

And one more on reading the first part of Joyce’s Ulysses:

Indeed, it’s as if we’re locked inside of Dedalus’s mind, and although an interesting place, we sometimes find ourselves beating our fists wishing to get out.

As it turns out, Stewart (1906- 1994) was a novelist himself, and in a less serious pursuit wrote over 50 detective novels under the pseudonym Michael Innes.

At any rate, I’m very happy to be spending this week in his company.

 

James Innes Michael Stewart

James Innes Michael Stewart